Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Re-reading old favourites

My holiday in Turkey was enjoyable in almost every way. One small flaw, however, was that none of the books I took with me as holiday reading fully satisfied. When I came back, then, I was desperate to read a book I knew I was going to love, and this took me to the realm of re-reading. Even this approach isn't foolproof. My latest reading of The Lord of the Rings may very well be the last, so much has the book changed. But of the course, the book is the same as ever, so what's changed is me.

Nonetheless I felt I was on a pretty safe bet when I picked up Jack Vance's Suldrun's Garden, the first in his Lyonesse fantasy trilogy. This is a book I have read and loved for over twenty years, and from the first paragraph the rhythm of Vance's prose sucked me in again.

On a dreary winter’s day, with rain sweeping across Lyonesse Town, Queen Sollace went into labor. She was taken to the lying-in room and attended by two midwives, four maids, Balhamel the physician and the crone named Dyldra, who was profound in the lore of herbs, and by some considered a witch. Dyldra was present by the wish of Queen Sollace, who found more comfort in faith than logic.

King Casmir made an appearance. Sollace’s whimpers became moans and she clawed at her thick blonde hair with clenched fingers. Casmir watched from across the room. He wore a simple scarlet robe with a purple sash; a gold coronet confined his ruddy blond hair. He spoke to Balhamel. “What are the signs?”

“Sire, there are none as yet.”

“There is no way to divine the sex?”

“To my knowledge, none.”

Standing in the doorway, legs somewhat apart, hands behind his back, Casmir seemed the very embodiment of stern and kingly majesty, and indeed, this was an attitude which accompanied him everywhere, so that kitchen-maids, tittering and giggling, often wondered if Casmir wore his crown to the nuptial bed. He inspected Sollace from under frowning eyebrows. “It would seem that she feels pain.”

If I had to pick a single favourite book, this would be it: a compelling multi-layered narrative which comprehends both mediaeval-style realpolitik and whimsical fairy-tale, all retailed behind the straightest of faces. He even manages to slip in a retelling of Hansel and Gretel. The emotional range Vance displays in this series makes the work all but inexhaustible. Every time I read the book I discover fresh delights. This exchange between Aillas, the nominal protagonist, and Persilian, the magic mirror who must answer three questions, and fourth earn his freedom, is a tiny slice of perfection:

On the way back to the village Glymwode he turned aside and approached a half-decayed stump. From the wrapping he took Persilian and propped it upright on the stump. For an instant he saw himself in the glass, comely despite the harsh structure of jaw, chin and cheekbone, with eyes bright as blue lights. Then Persilian, from perversity, altered the image, and Aillas found himself looking into the face of a hedgehog.

Aillas spoke: “Persilian, I need your help.”

“Do you wish to put a question?”


“It will be your third.”

“I know. Therefore, I want to describe the sense of my question, so that you will not return a glib evasion. I am seeking my son Dhrun, who was taken by the fairies of Thripsey Shee. I will ask you: ‘How may I bring my son alive and well into my own custody?’ I want to know exactly how to locate my son, release him from Thripsey Shee in possession of his health, youth and mental faculties, without incurring penalty. I want to locate and free my son now and not in a program involving weeks, months or years, nor do I want to be fooled or frustrated in some way I haven’t considered. Therefore, Persilian—”

“Has it occurred to you,” asked Persilian, “that your manner is most arrogant? That you demand my help as if it were a duty I owed you, and you, like all the others, jealously refuse to free me by asking a fourth question? Do you wonder that I regard your problems with detachment? Have you reflected an instant upon my yearnings? No, you exploit me and my power as you might use a horse to draw a load; you chide and domineer as if by some heroic deed you had earned the right to command me, when in fact, you stole me in the most furtive manner from King Casmir; do you still choose to hector me?”

After a confused moment Aillas spoke in a subdued voice: “Your complaints for the most part are fair. Still, at this moment, I am driven to find my son to the exclusion of all else.

“Therefore, Persilian, I must repeat my charge: give me in full detail a response to this question: ‘How may I bring my son into my care and custody?’”

Persilian spoke in a heavy voice: “Ask Murgen.”

Aillas jumped back from the stump in a fury. With great effort he kept his voice even: “That is not a proper response.”

“It is good enough,” said Persilian airily. “Our urgencies drive us in different directions. Should you choose to ask another question, by all means, do so.”

Whenever I need cheering up--or, more exactly, when I need mental refreshment of a particular kind--I reach Suldrun's Garden down from the shelf. Does anyone else have a "tonic book" like this?


David Isaak said...

There isn't a single book that does it all for me.

I reread "Gatsby" when I want to experience something with luxuriant prose but with no wasted moments. (Though his adverb-laden dialogue tags now seem badly dated.)

I reread the O'Brian books when I'm in the mood for sheer audacity. He does so many things so well simultaneously, it's like watching someone do magic tricks.

I reread Philip Caputo's "Horn of Africa" when I want to be reminded it is still possible to write a deeply philosophical novel as a gripping adventure story (the spirit of Conrad and Melville lives on).

"Lolita" to watch a master keep me absorbed in something distressing by sheer technical perfection.

Zelazny's "Lord of Light" for its sheer playfulness--telling a story while undercutting itself.

Tolkein I read partly to escape to my childhood, but mostly for the awesome scope of his imagination. If there's any earlier work of the imagination on that scale, I can't think of it.

There's other books I reread, too. I invariably learn something from every pass.

Tim Stretton said...

There's plenty of books I go back and re-read (Austen soothes, delights and awes every time); but there is no book that so perfectly encapsulates what I look for in a story and what I admire in a writer than Suldrun's Garden.

I ration myself to reading it every couple of years or so...

Akasha Savage. said...

I go back to my favourite books time and time again. I am actually in the middle of rereading The Talisman by Stephen King & Peter Straub for what must be at least the sixth time. And I have to read Great Expectations annually, it's by far my favourite Dickens book.

Swainson said...

I’ve been thinking about the “Comfort Reading” phenomena recently.

Personally I like:-
David Gemmell for his sheer belief in mankind.
Stephen Donaldson’s Gap series for being totally immersed into a story.
David Weber’s Honorverse for swashbuckling.
All of Zelazney just because he is Zelazney.

That’s what I have read in the last couple of months to help me centre myself.

I now feel I should be reading new stuff and regardless of reviews, I will be making a Stretton purchase in the near future.

Tim Stretton said...

It is always good to expand your range--particularly in the direction you are going, swainson...

Akasha, Great Expectations is certainly a book that rewards re-reading--perhaps the most of all the Dickens novels (although Bleak House has many treasures buried deep).

David Isaak said...

btw, I see that you've reached "Out of Stock" status on the PanMac page. (Will once explained that "out" doens't really mean "out" but means they've shipped all but some number of reserve copies.)

That doesn't mean none will fly home to roost, but still--it seems like quite a good sign to me! Web Admin said...

Hi, Tim

I'm not sure I comfort read much; there's too many books out there I haven't read and too little time to read them, but there are a couple I go back to. With me it's usually Clive Barker's Weaveworld. If I want to be motivated, I read passages from Gates of Fire (Stephen Pressfield) or I pluck a short story from somewhere (Lovecraft, King, Poe, DH Lawrence etc) as a match if the ignition isn't working that day.