Context: The Mermaid and the Bear

Self picked up a copy of The Mermaid and the Bear when she was in Oxford (UK). She started reading it while visiting friends in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania.

Her progress is rather slow, because — well, because the prose demands close reading. The writing is very evocative.

She knew it was a historical novel so, a few minutes ago, she decided to peruse the Historical Notes at the back of the book. Omg. Gut-wrenching.

If you know nothing about the 16th century witch trials, this is a SPOILER ALERT!

  • Isobell Manteith, Bessie Thom and Christen Mitchell were real women, all accused of witchcraft in 1597.

To tell you the truth, her favorite character is the motherly cook, Bessie Thom. Self did hope she would meet a better end than the others.

Story # 3, The Faerie Thorn and Other Stories

Self was reading Story # 3, The Merrow of Murlough Bay, when big fat tears started rolling down her cheeks!

This is crazy! She hasn’t cried about a fairy tale since The Little Mermaid!

Each of the stories in this book, at least the three she has read so far, follow the same pattern: Goodness is terrifying, therefore it is spurned. And Talbot is a genius at showing suffering. Maybe it’s the mermaid thing — self doesn’t know. All she knows is that the suffering of the merrow Bright Blue, his “all-on-my-ownness,” his fear, was so real. There was a little bit of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go in there, if you must know.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Alfred Doblin, author of Berlin Alexanderplatz

Doblin had fled Germany during the war. Now, at 68, he was asked by the French to start a literary magazine to revive “a democratic intellectual life.” The name he chose for the magazine was The Golden Gate. On its front was “a stylised version of the eponymous Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.” This magazine, to Doblin’s dismay, was received with little enthusiasm by Doblin’s former writing colleagues. They regarded themselves as victims and Doblin as an outsider, even though he had become a literary star after the publication of Berlin Alexanderplatz.

In 1947, Doblin was invited to deliver a lecture at Berlin’s Charlottenburg Palace. When he arrived, wearing “a smart French uniform,” he was greeted with a freezing silence “and he soon left.”

Hardly a single audience member knew that Doblin’s 25-year-old son, Wolfgang, whom Doblin and his wife had had to leave in France when they fled to America, had killed himself in just such a French uniform. Cut off from his French military unit, Wolfgang Doblin, a prodigiously gifted mathematician, had shot himself in a barn near the village of Housseras in the Vosges, shortly before German troops could take him prisoner.

Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945 – 1955, p. 255

This Wicked Game 2

She misses Arvid, who is in Washington, DC, on official business for the Ministry of Economics. Every American official Arvid meets in the State Department believes he’s a devout Nazi. The man he pretends to be is a horrible, horrible lie.

Lies spill out of Mildred too.

All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, p. 258

The Diary of Brig. Arthur Varley

Arthur Varley, a commander of the 22nd Australian Infantry Brigade, was one of those unfortunates who, almost at the tail end of the war, was loaded on a prison transport ship to be taken who-knows-where, a ship that was, tragically, sunk by a US submarine (The Japanese refused to mark their prisoner transport ships)

Fortunately, he had kept a meticulous diary during his internment and his forced labor on the Burma-Siam railroad and buried it near his camp in Thanbyuzayat, its whereaouts known only to a trusted few. After the war, during the War Crimes trials of the officers who ran the POW camps in Burma, the diary was located and the words of the “welcome speeches” given by certain officers, and in particular the words and actions of a sadistic officer who headed 80-kilo, 100-kilo, 105-kilo and 114-kilo camps, Lt. Colonel Yoshitada Nagatomo, came back to haunt them. Nagatomo, was hung in the jail in Chiangi, the same jail where so many POWS had been kept in isolation and tortured, on Sept. 16, 1947.

The Last Act of These Men’s Lives

Still on Birdie’s section. It has been a hard, unrelenting slog: nothing but ice, and trying to keep going, and the sunless dark, for sixteen days straight. What’s amazing is how Beryl Bainbridge recreates it all. The human spirit is simply unfathomable, the way it just keeps going. All gratitude to Bainbridge for writing such a brutal, honest, and unflinching narrative!

  • We rose at three the next morning, into moonlight misty with fog. It’s at Cape Evans that the barrier, that great wall of ice which extends 400 miles south and east, meets the land, and we could just make out the tumultuous shapes of the pressure fields jostling the smudged edge of the frozen sea. On Bill’s reckoning it was four miles to the cliffs, and he wanted to get there by midday so as to have the benefit of the twilight hour. Blubber for the stove was now a more urgent priority than Emperor eggs; we were a quarter of the way through the fifth of those six precious tins of oil the Owner had so begrudged our taking.

So yes, dear blog readers, it looks like this is going to be a dreadful slog through to the bitter end, we are going to have to struggle along with these men until they take their last breaths. Self did not much care for Robert Falcon Scott’s section, but Birdie’s, now! There’s a point of view to get lost in.

The horror is unrelenting: they come across a colony of Emperor penguins and start slaughtering like mad! For the penguins’ blubber. And those penguins are too stupid to try and evade the knife. They just stand there, waiting. The men save five eggs to take back to camp, and drop two on the way. God, this is super-depressing. If they ever make a movie about this expedition, self will not watch it.

What makes an author absolutely want to push the reader’s face in it, self wonders. Is it the feeling of being almost god-like, manipulating the reader’s emotions at will? Does she want to show that a woman is just as capable of imagining horror as a man? Ugh, will Bainbridge just HURRY UP AND GET IT OVER WITH.

The last part of Birdie’s section is dreams, dreams, dreams. Snow keeps falling on them, ugh ugh ugh. Self describes it all for dear blog readers so that they can decide for themselves if the beauty of Bainbridge’s prose is worth suffering through such pointless dying. It’s like Joyce Carol Oates, only historical.

The last section is Oates’s. Of course we have to see every inch of his gangrenous foot.

Today’s weather was vastly different from yesterday’s. Yesterday was glorious! Today was cold. Thank goodness self discovered the chocolate shop next to Dick’s Place (bar). What does chocolate have to do with anything? She got three truffles this afternoon and they were really yum, and the weather seemed far less cold after.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Headlands Coffeehouse, Fort Bragg

Well, hellooooo, old friend. There’s another coffeeshop just around the corner from Mendocino Hotel, but as she was headed there, a car pulled up and a woman stuck her head out and said, “Do you know any place that you can get breakfast in, around here?” Self told her, “Lansing Street” and she said, “We’ve just been, and all they have is outdoor seating, and it’s too cold!” So self said, “Fort Bragg,” and then self decided that she would head to Fort Bragg, herself.

Whoa, the drive there. This is what she remembers: IMPATIENT TRUCKS. And it was spitting rain. She passed the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden, and Nit’s Café, and the Depot, but everything seemed closed. Then she made a right on Laurel and saw: YAY! People going in and out of Headlands Coffeehouse! She found a parking spot and went in and ordered a cappucino.

Not 10 minutes later, she heard someone saying, “Oh, hi!” and she looked up. It was the same woman who had spoken to her in Mendocino! And she said, “We just followed you here!” The woman and her husband had driven up from Santa Rosa and were staying at Little River Inn. For some reason, the woman thought self was a local, but self told her she was just visiting. “I used to teach at Mendocino Art Center,” though, self said. The woman asked if self was an artist, and rather than get into it, self said yes.

Anyhoo, that is not the real point of this post. The real point is: as she sat in Headlands, sipping her cappucino, she got to a part of The Birthday Boys (p. 138) that made her say: Holy Cow, I am so glad I persevered through all the earlier chapters. Because it’s Lt. Bowers’s chapter (Birdie) and here’s where the real suffering unfolds.

It’s all very well for Robert Falcon Scott to lament his sad fate (being beaten to the South Pole by Amundsen), but he is not the one hauling ass. He is not the one getting frostbite. It is Birdie and Dr. Wilson and the young whippersnapper Cherry-Garard who have to trek the frozen, sunless wasteland, to perform an experiment on DIET that Robert Falcon Scott ordered them to execute. This Robert Falcon Scott was definitely crazes, while the three men have spent six nights in a howling desert of ice.

Finally, the three debate whether or not to continue.

Birdie (p. 139):

“I happen to believe we can stick it.” I was speaking no more than the truth, having always found that willpower overcomes all adversities. One just has to believe that it’s within one’s spiritual domain to conquer difficulties. That is not to say that I don’t recognise there has to be a time to submit, possibly a time to die, merely that I’ve never yet been taken to the brink.

Bill (Wilson) cheered up after this and waxed on about the penguins. I must say they lead terrible lives, in that their undoubted maternal instinct leads more to infanticide than nurturing.

Self ordered squash soup for take-out, so she could enjoy it in the privacy of her room. Holy Smokes, the car was filled with such a delicious smell, she literally floored it from Fort Bragg to Mendocino, she just couldn’t wait to have this soup!

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Epitaph for an Explorer

“I’ve been five times round the world, and Bill quite as far in his mind, yet we still thought this an awfully big adventure.”

  • Lt. Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers, The Birthday Boys, p. 135. Bowers died with the other members of Robert Scott Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, 1911

Self Just Can’t Seem to Quit This Book

Self returns to the slowest read in forever. This morning, she’s on p. 106 (about halfway), Robert Falcon Scott’s meditation on the futility of his quest to the South Pole (He already knows Amundsen, with his “one hundred dogs,” has beaten him, but the Englishman in him tells him to stiff-upper-lip it and continue):

  • It’s to be regretted that the best part of me, the part that recognises both the horror and beauty of destiny, remains submerged. When things go wrong — and God knows they do that with unfailing regularity — while outwardly I exhibit all the signs of a man in the grip of a bad temper, underneath I’m actually going through a healing, if melancholy, acceptance of forces beyond my control. However, the process is so debilitating that I’m forced to assume a reserve I’m far from feeling, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to function.

Captain Robert Falcon (Con) Scott, Leader of the Expedition

Inactivity always leads to introspection, and I’m simply no good when I’m not doing something. It will be splendid to fall asleep utterly exhausted from a long, strenuous slog.

The Birthday Boys, p. 91

Self is surprised that Bainbridge chose to make Scott only the third chapter (aren’t there two more to go?). She thought that Bainbridge would give the leader of the expedition, Scott, the place of honor, usually the end. Apparently not!

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