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My Month in Books: September 2021

This month it's vampires and classicists - two groups I don't usually mix with! - with Nicole Jarvis's exciting historical fantasy The Lights of Prague, and Mary Beard's autobiographical enquiry, The Invention of Jane Ellen Harrison.

The Lights of Prague, Nicole Jarvis (Titan Books, 2021)

Vampire books are not one of my usual genres – the only other one I’ve read is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I was drawn to The Lights of Prague because – well – it’s got Prague in the title. I visited the city a few years ago and was very taken with it. It seemed an intriguing place for a story about ghosts and monsters. I liked the cover, I thought the story sounded interesting, and it’s fun to try something new.

A night-time Prague only partially lit by gas lamps is a fantastic setting, and when you add in the underground city you couldn’t wish for anything darker, more shadowy, and more menacing. For the first few chapters I thought it was a brilliant idea to imagine a city below the city where the monsters lurk; it all sounded so real. So real, in fact, I looked it up – and found out that it actually does exist! So that’s something to add to the itinerary the next time I visit Prague.

 


I loved the idea of the lamplighters, who come out every evening to light the streets, but whose real job is to combat the monsters that lurk in the shadows preying on unsuspecting humans. We first meet the main characters at night: lamplighter Domek, in a fight with a vampire – or as they are known in the book, pijavica – above ground, and pijavica Ora below ground. Before long, we’re adding to the great setting some great set ups: what’s in the clay jar Domek finds on the pijavica he’s killed, who’s after it, and why? Added to that are the attraction between Domek and Ora, a pijavica plot to make themselves invincible and finally defeat humankind, secretive government officials, and pijavica power struggles. A few satisfying betrayals, battles and beddings later it all comes together in an exciting finale.

Domek is an attractive character, brave, honest and dedicated to protecting the weak. Ora is more complicated, which I suppose if you’ve lived for centuries as a pijavica is inevitable, especially when your loyalties are divided. My favourite character, however, is a cloud of lights called Kaja, a former witch who after his death has become a will o’the wisp, and who you attempt to control at your peril.

With so much going for it, it was a shame to find myself distracted by the amount of repetition in the book. I lost count of the number of times I was told that the monsters killed “innocent” people, or that Ora had grown soft because of her affluent lifestyle. Then too there was the way individual words were repeated. For example “type” appears twice in four lines (“the pijavice were the type of men who…” followed by “knew the type”); “lush” appears twice in consecutive descriptions on the same page (“a lush green gown”; “a lush moustache”).

More noticeable, however, was the repetition of ideas with a slight change of wording. “I know you’re not on the right side of the law” Domek says to Bazil; a few lines later he tells him he knows he is “on the wrong side of the law”. A “discordant piano note echoed around the room”; a couple of pages later the piano makes a “dissonant noise [that] rang across the room”. Over the course of a few pages the temporary nature of the Provisional Theatre is brought home to us in a number of variations. It is “simply a stopgap to the next” building; it “is simply a placeholder”; it is “so blatantly called the Provisional Theater”; it is “a building designed to become redundant”.

But these distractions were not enough to stop me enjoying this atmospheric and action-packed historical fantasy. Though I thought the resolution of the relationship between Domek and Ora was a bit too neat, I could see it as a perfect set up for another story involving this fascinating pair. There was enough of a hint of future trouble to suggest another book may be in contemplation, and if it is I’ll be reading it – though I’ll be hoping that the repetition has been edited out.

The Invention of Jane Harrison, Mary Beard (Harvard University Press, 2000)

In The Invention of Jane Harrison, Mary Beard pursues a fascinating investigation into the nature of biography. Through an examination of an important but overlooked relationship in Jane Harrison’s early career, the book explores who gets left in and who gets left out of biographical narrative, how those narratives are formed, the arbitrary nature of literary and academic fame, how archives are made, and how the selection of archival material directs the researcher’s understanding. The woman who has been written out is Eugénie Strong (née Sellers), who was a close friend of Harrison’s until they had a falling out, and who is arguably as deserving of recognition as Harrison.

The book is part of the series “Revealing Antiquity” which, series editor G W Bowersock informs us in the foreword, is aimed both at “general readers and…professional scholars”. As a “general reader”, that is someone with no knowledge or expertise in classical studies, I found this reassuring. In fact, I wouldn’t have bought the book if it hadn’t made that promise. 


It turns out we have different ideas of who a “general reader” is. The book “is designed to be traversed in one or two sittings”. Assuming that by “traversed” the editor means “read”, this seems to me to be quite a feat. The book (excluding bibliography and index) is over 200 pages long. Obviously academics are quick and clever enough to manage it in two settings, but this general reader, tackling an unfamiliar subject, needed a bit longer.

Luckily, Beard herself does not have such lofty expectations, though even she slips once or twice: “You would not have needed an immense knowledge of Greek to spot the reference here”, she remarks. I have no knowledge of Greek, immense or otherwise, and reading any of it looks pretty clever to me. I did also struggle at times to understand the significance of the academic disputes, such as the “Greek theatre controversy” which revolved around whether or not there was a raised stage in classical Greek theatre. I admired the way Beard managed to keep a reasonably straight face while she described the row. It was all “a storm in a teacup”, she concludes, which was putting it mildly I thought, wondering what I had missed.

Beard’s style, though, is very approachable. Reading the book was, I imagined, very much like sitting in one of her lectures (“I shall turn later…”, “As we shall see…”, “But now, we shall watch them together…”; “as I shall shortly argue”, “We have already glimpsed…”). It is as if she is purposely echoing what she calls the “ghost of [the] lecture” behind Harrison’s books Introductory Studies in Greek Art and Myths of the Odyssey in Art and Literature: the consistent use of the first person plural, the lecturing tropes (“To continue”; “Next let us turn to…”)”.

However, reading rather than listening did mean the intrusion of a stylistic element I found incredibly irritating. What were all the parentheses about? Most of them seemed unnecessary and became quite irksome. Why, for example, “she found the ideal way of supplementing her (not quite sufficient) private income” and not simply “not quite sufficient private income”?

And I didn’t like the trick played on the reader in the discussion of the identification of people in three photographs amongst the Sellers papers. Beard takes us through comparisons, likenesses and hints to propose an identification, noting on the way “how easily such archival material can be overlooked”. All well and good, but having led us to her conclusion she declares, “I have not come quite clean. The full text of what is written on the photographs absolutely contradicts the identification I have proposed”. So what, I wondered, as we launched into another sequence of comparisons, likenesses and hints, was the point of making it? Perhaps it would have worked well in a lecture, where we could all have had a good laugh at the little joke at our expense.  

Nevertheless, it was only very occasionally that I felt the style didn’t quite come off, and in fact its idiosyncrasies were part of its attraction. It was certainly not your academic-dry-as-dust: there’s a great deal of wit, humour and forthrightness in it. I love a good debunk, and there are some fine ones here, such as the deflation of autobiographical self-puffery – Harrison’s claim that she was so popular at Oxford High School the girls booked appointments to saunter with her on the playground is met with “or so her story was”; or the non-existence of the “Cambridge Ritualists” as a distinct scholarly group or club.

There are some brilliant discussions: of the nature of intimate relationships between women and the competing definitions of them by the women themselves (if indeed these are discoverable) and by later commentators; of the creation and authority of archives; of the construction of the biographical subject; of biographical rivalries and competing claims to authority. Big themes, but wrapped up in gossipy stories of squabbles, relationships, rivalry and mysteries (why did Harrison and Strong fall out?), they make for a gripping read. And why not? After all, if you ask me there’s not much to choose between what Beard calls “scholarly curiosity” and “biographical prurience”.

 

Eros, Pompe and Dionysus on a 4th-century BC terracotta jug 





 

 

Picture Credit:

Terracotta oinochoe (jug) mid-4th century BC, Greek, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain


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