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Literary challenge - November 2010

It's been a while since we did one of these. The task is to put these in order of 'literariness' and of personal preference, though I think it's more interesting reading people's comments and seeing if they can guess the authors correctly. If you would like, please try putting them in chronological order too.

I'd be surprised if nobody recognises any of these. They include some passages which, read once, are difficult to forget. I have not altered proper names in the text. If you know who wrote them, please do not tell. Please refrain from googling. I will post results after a decent interval.

Let the game commence!

In Melton Mowbray in 1875 at an auction of articles of 'curiosity and worth', my great-grandfather,
in the company of M his friend, bid for the penis of Captain Nicholls who died in Horsemonger jail
in 1873. It was bottled in a glass twelve inches long, and, noted my great-grandfather in his diary
that night, 'in a beautiful state of preservation'. Also for auction was 'the unnamed portion of the
late Lady Barrymore. It went to Sam Israels for fifty guineas.' My great-grandfather was keen on
the idea of having the two items as a pair, and M dissuaded him. This illustrates perfectly their
friendship. My great-grandfather the excitable theorist, M the man of action who knew when to
bid at auctions. My great-grandfather lived for sixty-nine years. For forty-five of them, at the end
of every day, he sat down before going to bed and wrote his thoughts in a diary. These diaries
are on my table now, forty-five volumes bound in calf leather, and to the left sits Capt. Nicholls
in the glass jar. My great-grandfather lived on the income derived from the patent of an invention
of his father, a handy fastener used by corset-makers right up till the outbreak of the First World
War. My great-grandfather liked gossip, numbers and theories. He also liked tobacco, good port,
jugged hare and, very occasionally, opium. He liked to think of himself as a mathematician,
though he never had a job, and never published a book. Nor did he ever travel or get his name in
The Times, even when he died. In 1869 he married Alice, only daughter of the Rev. Toby
Shadwell, co-author of a not highly regarded book on English wild flowers. I believe my great-
grandfather to have been a very fine diarist, and when I have finished editing the diaries and they
are published I am certain he will receive the recognition due to him. When my work is over I will
take a long holiday, travel somewhere cold and clean and treeless, Iceland or the Russian
Steppes. I used to think that at the end of it all I would try, if it was possible, to divorce my wife
Maisie, but now there is no need at all.

Huddled up in a cope of gold wrought silk he peered around. Society had rallied in force. A
christening -- and not a child's.

Rarely had he witnessed, before the font, so many brilliant people. Were it an heir to the
DunEden acres (instead of what it was) the ceremony could hardly have drawn together a
more distinguished throng.

Monsignor Silex moved a finger from forehead to chin, and from ear to ear. The Duquesa
DunEden's escapades, if continued, would certainly cost the Cardinal his hat.

    'And ease my heart by splashing fountains.'

From the choir-loft a boy's young voice was evoking Heaven.

'His hat!' Monsignor Silex exclaimed aloud, blinking a little at the immemorial font of black
Macael marble that had provoked the screams of pale numberless babies.

Here Saints and Kings had been baptised, and royal Infantas, and sweet Poets, whose high
names thrilled the heart.

Monsignor Silex crossed his breast. He must gather force to look about him. Frame a close
report. The Pontiff, in far-off Italy, would expect precision.

There were no street lamps, no lights at all. It was a narrow street in the Port Richmond section
of Philadelphia. From the nearby Delaware a cold wind came lancing in, telling all alley cats
they'd better find a heated cellar. The late November gusts rattled against midnight-darkened
windows, and stabbed at the eyes of the fallen man in the street.

The man was kneeling near the curb, breathing hard and spitting blood and wondering seriously
if his skull was fractured. He'd been running blindly, his head down, so of course he hadn't seen
the telephone pole. He'd crashed into it face first, bounced away and hit the cobblestones and
wanted to call it a night.

But you can't do that, he told himself. You gotta get up and keep running.

He got up slowly, dizzily. There was a big lump on the left side of his head, his left eye and
cheekbone were somewhat swollen, and the inside of his cheek was bleeding where he'd bitten
it when he'd hit the pole. He thought of what his face must look like, and he managed to grin,
saying to himself, You're doing fine, jim. You're really in great shape. But I think you'll make it,
he decided, and then he was running again, suddenly running very fast as the headlights
rounded a corner, the car picking up speed, the engine noise closing in on him.

Mr Asterias perlustrated the sea-coast for several days, and reaped disappointment, but not
despair. One night, shortly after his arrival, he was sitting in one of the windows of the library,
looking towards the sea, when his attention was attracted by a figure which was moving near the
edge of the surf, and which was dimly visible through the moonless summer night. Its motions
were irregular, like those of a person in a state of indecision. It had extremely long hair, which
floated in the wind. Whatever else it might be, it certainly was not a fisherman. It might be a lady;
but it was neither Mrs Hilary nor Miss O'Carroll, for they were both in the library. It might be one
of the female servants; but it had too much grace, and too striking an air of habitual liberty, to
render it probable. Besides, what should one of the female servants be doing there at this hour,
moving to and fro, as it seemed, without any visible purpose? It could scarcely be a stranger; for
Claydyke, the nearest village, was ten miles distant; and what female would come ten miles
across the fens, for no purpose but to hover over the surf under the walls of the Abbey? Might it
not be a mermaid? It was possibly a mermaid. It was probably a mermaid. It was very probably
a mermaid. Nay, what else could it be but a mermaid? It certainly was a mermaid. Mr Asterias
stole out of the library on tiptoe, with his finger on his lips, having beckoned Aquarius to follow

The rest of the party was in great surprise at Mr Asterias's movement, and some of them
approached the window to see if the locality would tend to elucidate the mystery. Presently they
saw him and Aquarius cautiously stealing along on the other side of the moat, but they saw
nothing more; and Mr Asterias returning, told them, with accents of great disappointment, that
he had had a glimpse of a mermaid, but she had eluded him in the darkness, and was gone, he
presumed, to sup with some enamoured triton, in a submarine grotto.

I'm not ignoring these honestly - it is just that I am still thinking about them.

That's fine! I was wondering if I ought to have asked people if they were interested in one of these. No rush, anyway Smile

I enjoy these, but forgot it was here till this morning.  I will print them off and consider them today.  Thanks, Gareth.

Cheers, Caro.

It's too late at night now, and I'm going to pour myself a drink & put a good old film on. I'll get back to this tomorrow.

I don't think I have anything very sensible to say at length about these excerpts, but apart perhaps from C they all attract me as pieces of writing and I would be quite keen to read on.  

I struggled to work out when they were written; most of them read as if they could be older pieces but I suspect they are more likely to be pastiches or modern writing in an old style.  Not sure why exactly, though.  C I feel is perhaps somewhere between 1940 and 1970, possibly a little later, but I feel if it were the 90s onwards the language would have included some four-letter words.  American, but I don't know who.  Chandler? or maybe someone like that.  I didn't like it as much as the others.

A has to have been written after the second world war and I suspect after the 60s at least.  I just feel the subject matter of the auction of a penis is modern and not what would have been written about in the 50s.  I loved this passage - the family history of it and the humorous style appealed a lot.

B I had great trouble dating and categorising generally.  The short sentences sound modern, but some of the phrasing 'were it an heir', 'numberless' strike me as older, but that could be deliberate, as could be the capital letters.  

D  How lovely 'perlustrated' is; I don't know what it means, but it doesn't matter.  This piece, like C, bothers me for timing.  Everything about it indicates the 19th century - the semi-colons, words like "Nay" and phrases like "was in great surprise".  But the last sentence seems so over-the-top old-fashioned that I am doubtful.  And the slight irony of the style sounds modern too.

As regards literary: they all read well to me, though the subject matter of C is not of great interest to me, feeling a little too much like gritty American masculine crime for my liking.  In order I would put them:  D, B, A, C.

In order of preference:  A, D, B , C.  I did like A and D a lot.  But I have no idea of the authors of these pieces, not even to hazard a guess for any of them.  I've peered some more, but no one really comes to mind.  John Fowles? AS Byatt?

I hope someone manages these better than I have, Gareth, but thanks for the choices - I am really keen to know who and what they are, so I can read more sometime.

Cheers, Caro.

I wasn't able to resist, now that I have written about them, checking one of them, and found that I would already have read it, though many many moons ago!  Would obviously be worth reading again.

Well, I poured myself a drink last night (a Society bottling of Laphroaig), and watched a film (Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde - not, admittedly, one of Hammer's best), went to bed late and had a lovely lie in this morning. Now, I should be ready to tackle this:

A is fairly modern, I think (and for me, anything in teh last 30 years or so counts as modern!) as the subject - the auction of sexual parts - is unlikely to have been written about until fairly recently. It seems to be an extract from a comic novel, with the humour decidedly dry.  Much of the humour comes from sentencest taking unlikely turns  - e.g. the very first sentence delays mentioning the penis until towards the end: the point of the humour would have been lost if the sentence had started "My great grandfather bid for the penis of Captain Nicholls...." Much of the humour also comes from the divulging of irrelevant details, without distinguishing them from the more relevant points. So, once again in the first sentence, the details of where and when Captain Nicholls died is given the same emphasis as the fact that his penis was being sold at auction. That these details are expanded upon when the more obvious points to discuss (e.g. why on earth were the sexual organs of these persons preserved and put up for sale?) are suppressed lends to the tone: it is the tone of a narrator sitting in a leather armchair by the fire, brandy in hand, telling his eccentric tale in a leisurely manner.

As I read on, it seemed increasingly that this passage had been conceived as a spoken monologue. Is it, I wonfder, a novel by someone who is better known as a stand-up comedian? Take for tinstance these four consecutive sentences:

My great-grandfather was keen on the idea of having the two items as a pair, and M dissuaded him. This illustrates perfectly their friendship. My great-grandfather the excitable theorist, M the man of action who knew when to bid at auctions. My great-grandfather lived for sixty-nine years.

Three out of four consecutive sentences start with "My great-grandfather". Normally, this would count as poor style, but if you imagine it as a comic monologue, with a pause at the end of each sentence awaiting a laugh, then it would work.

So I guess it's a fairly novel written by someone with a dry wit, whose timing is that of the speaker rather than that of the writer.

B: The Catholic themes would seem to suggest a Catholic author - Graham Greene, perhaps, or Evelyn Waugh, or Muriel Spark I think Muriel Spark would be the likeliest candidate of the three, as I don'tthink either Waugh or Greene would have gone in for such short sentences, and such short paragraphs. But it's the kind of thing Spark (stylistically the most adventurous of the three) might have gone in for - although it's not, perhaps, her usual style. Certain turns of phrases, such as "sweet poets", or "the boys young voice was evoking heaven", suggest once again a dry sense of humour.

Muriel Spark would be my tentative guess on this one, but I could be very wrong. No - n second thoughts, it's not Muriel Spark. But I am at a loss here to think what it can be.

C seems to me a case of an author trying too hard. All that stuff about the November gusts rattling the "midnihght-darkened" windows, and "stab[bing] the eyes" of the fallen man ... It all reeks of "Look Ma! I'm a writer!" And, despite all of these phrases that the writer appears to think so impressive, he comes up with something as banal as the cold wind " telling all alley cats they'd better find a heated cellar. "

This is obviously American (the place names give it away, as well as the "gotta"), but it seems pretty poor to me.

You're probably going to tell me now it is Faulkner or someone similar, but if it is, he probably wrote this when drunk and was too embarrassed to read it over when sober again. A D minus, I think.

I wondered to begin with whether D was a ghost story. Mention of teh Fens sugegsted MR James, who set many of his stories in that area, but James' prose is much plainer than this. And the last few sentences of this excerpt suggested a comic rather than aghostly story.

I'd guess it's a modern writer trying to evoke the tone of writing from a bygone age: the "Nay" seems too deliberately placed, and, while "perlustrated" is a word sufficiently unusual to make thereadertake notice, nothing else in the passage suggests a recondite vocabulary: the word seems to have been placed there for effect, and doesn't appear to be part of the author's everyday usage. But for all that, this was the excerpt that I enjoyed most, and, judging admittedly from passages taken out of context, this is the one I'd most like to read.

So, in order of preference, D, A, B C.

In terms of literary merit, I can't quite make up my mind about B. As for the rest, D, A, C.

I rather liked 'midnight-darkened windows', Himadri.  But then I tend to have a penchant for those double-barreled phrases a la Gerald Hopkins.  (Wonder why I didn't like his poetry at varsity, then. I think I should try it again.)

Cheers, Caro.

I may be wrong (and it certainly won't be the first time!) ut it does give the impression of an author trying too hard.  nd also the fact that it's in such close proximity to asome phrases that are banal .. It reminds me of teh sort of thing I encountered in The Shadow of the Wind, where the imagery (which to my mind was less than inspired) seemed sprinkled in afterwards, rather than being an integral part of the writing.

But I'm sure Gareth will tell me this is the work of a universally acknowledged author, and I'll end up looking a fool!

Or perhaps not. Perceptive responses so far, I must say. Keep them coming Smile

They haven't kept them coming so far.  Come on people - join the fun.  Why shouldn't you all have to feel foolish too when Gareth reveals all?
Green Jay

This had me puzzled. I think A is vaguely familiar, but if so , from a long time ago. I too think it is a modern(ish) attempt at an old rendering - but I liked it best: the humour, the dryness, the subject, too! I usually hate anything where a character is rendered only by an initial.

D struck me as over fussy, and again pastiche, but not so good. I read it again and liked it a bit better, but not much. I didn't know if Aquarius was a person or a dog, and it didn't go well with the name Mr Asterias.  But I thought the idea of it (the person outside) not being a servant woman as it showed too much habitual a liberty was very perceptive - maybe this is written by a woman?, though it doesn't sound like a female writer to me. In fact, none of them does. It's a bit strained in literariness, to my mind.

C seems least literary. B is odd, the short sentences and short paragrpahs too. Very modern, I'd think.  And yet I also wondered about Ronald Firbank?? No. It almost seems like a pastiche of  Gormenghast, along those lines in subject matter too.

For preference: A, B & D equal, C

For literariness: A, B, D, C too - now that I can't seem to scroll back and re-read them!!!

Excellent! I shall reveal all before too long, but it would be nice to have a couple more responses if possible. Equally I don't want to draw this out until everyone loses all interest.

county_lady wrote:
I'm not ignoring these honestly - it is just that I am still thinking about them.

I've finally decided to plunge into the whirlpool of confused thought that these pieces have caused.
In reverse order
D. failed to interest me in spite of the subject matter and I blame the writing. It seems flabby - either an elderly author who has lost their touch or young and inexperienced. Either an attempt at whimsy by someone modern or like Himadri's Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde not the best of a body of work.

C. could be formulaic but I want to know more. Is the fugitive pursued by villains or the cops?  And why and what caused his flight?
In spite of the plain, straightforward writing this is the extract I enjoyed the most. Probably after 1960 but before 1990?

B. Gormenghast has been mentioned and that is exactly how I felt about this. It is not quite real  but probably an historical tale rather than from the fantasy genre. Not enough for me to judge dates but I feel it is modern.

A.  as this mentions the outbreak of WW1 it is certainly later than WW2!
The writing is unsensational, dry and educated. Maybe a fictional tale that will reveal more about the editor of those 45 journals than the author of them.

Literary  A B D C

and I prefer C A B D

Excellent! Anyone else...?

I'd love someone else to have a go at this, so please let me know if you're still interested and I will gladly delay, but otherwise I'll put the answers up tonight (in about 12 hours, probably).
Gul Darr

Sorry, I only just noticed this Gareth!
I recognise A as one of my maths' teachers had an unusual habit of reading short stories by this author to the class and this particular one resulted in complaints from several parents. I won't spoil it by naming this very well-known author, but I think it dates from the early 1980s.
The humorous tone and ecclesiastical content of B made me think momentarily of Anthony Trollope, but it's not the same style and the mention of Rome indicates that it is by someone else.
C would seem to be by an American author? Not keen on this passage.
And I wondered if D is by Dorothy L. Sayers (not that I've read any of her novels!)?

I'm hopeless at this sort of thing.

I recognised A so I won't say any more.

B puzzled me.  Is it in translation?  C I quite enjoyed.  I also feel it is American.  D I'm sure it is an author I haven't read.  It seems very elaborate.  I feel I would recognise the author if this is typical of his/her style.

Favourites:  C B D A

Thank you, both! All other responses will be received with joy.
Jen M

Ok, I'm sticking my head above the parapet here as I remember feeling very foolish when I did one of these before....

Anyway, here goes.

A is fairly modern (1970s??); the auction of private body parts would hardly have been written about much before then.  It certainly caught my interest and is something I might consider reading.

B does not appeal, I am afraid - "DunEden" jars with me.  But I am still curious to find out what it is, and what might happen next.  My first reaction was that the style was slightly stilted.

C is (obviously) American; apart from the place-names and spellings, it has a style which I think of as "wise-crackin' "  Again, I wonder what happens next, but don't think I would like to read a whole book in this style.

D is the one I like best - I felt a strong sense of place, and thought "Norfolk", even before the mention of the Fens.  Perhaps the earliest-written piece?

I suspect they were all written by men.

Literariness:  D A B C (but I am really not sure about B - it might be translated - it does feel a bit stilted)

Preference:  D A C B

Chronological order:  D B A C

I look forward to finding out what they are.

What astute comments you all made, and thanks for the final flurry of entries! Jen, your observations were exemplary.

Excerpt A is the opening paragraph of Ian McEwan's short story 'Solid Geometry', which appeared in his first published book, First Love, Last Rites in 1975. County lady is quite right that the great-grandfather does not become a major figure in this story; in fact, the artefact described at the start turns out to be a bone of contention (as it were) between the narrator and his wife, Maisie. It turns into a gratifyingly nasty little tale, though not in the macabre manner of most of McEwan's early stories. I don't know whether to be impressed or horrified by Gul's stories of his maths teacher. My memories of McEwan's short stories are dim, but I'd have said this was about the most suitable one for children of those I've read...

Green Jay majestically identified excerpt B as by Ronald Firbank. It is the opening of his short novel Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli, published in 1926, the year of his premature death. Firbank's rather neglected nowadays, but he was once championed by people like Waugh and Forster. I wondered whether the matter of the recipient of the christening would arouse anyone's curiosity. Monsignor Silex is baptising the Duquesa DunEden's dog (and not with water but with crème de menthe). I finished reading it earlier today, and will post something about it in a minute on the November thread.

Excerpt C is the opening of the novel Down There by the American David Goodis. It was first published in 1956, and was the basis of François Truffaut's celebrated 1960 film Tirez Sur le Pianiste (Shoot the Pianist), which starred Charles Aznavour. Fifty years ago Goodis was much more popular in France than in his native USA, but his reputation in Anglophone countries has been somewhat rehabilitated in recent years. Down There at least is now available in a Library of America anthology of noir novels.

Excerpt D divided opinion on the subject of its date. It comes from Thomas Love Peacock's novel Nightmare Abbey, which first came out in 1818. The character names might have given a clue as to the author, for Love Peacock was fond of the outlandish moniker (Sir Telegraph Paxarett, Humphrey Hippy, Esquire, of Hypocon House, and so on). There is a character in the same book called Emanuel Kant Flosky, so named because of Mr Flosky Sr.'s devotion to the philosopher. I wondered if, read out of context, Aquarius might have appeared to be a dog. In fact he is the son of Mr Asterias. Nightmare Abbey is a Gothic satire on Romanticism. Not knowing much about the things it was poking fun at, I expect the satire was lost on me when I read it a few years ago, but I remember charming elements of farce and light humour in several passages like the one I excerpted.

Finally the rankings, according to my rudimentary and flawed scoring system:


Thomas Love Peacock - 15.5
Ian McEwan - 15
Ronald Firbank - 13
David Goodis - 5

Personal preference

Ian McEwan - 18
Thomas Love Peacock - 17
David Goodis - 13
Ronald Firbank - 12

I'll gladly take part if someone else fancies putting together another one of these at some point Smile

I'm a bit surprised by Ian McEwan - I'm not sure why. As for Firbank, I'm kicking myself that I didn't think of him when considering English Catholic authors.

An intriguing quartet: thanks very much for that.

Thanks for that, Gareth. I was interested to see D (which I put as my personal favourite, I think) was by Thomas Love Peacock.  We studied his two best known works at university, no doubt focussing on the Gothic nature of them.  I think I don't like Gothic writing, but I did like this for its humour and style.  

I have only read On Chesil Beach by McEwan and was slightly disappointed in it, but I found this piece intriguing.  (Though of course, a good passage in Chesil Beach would have been intriguing too - the concept was; I just was bothered by some of the execution.)  

Ronald Firbank isn't really known to me, nor is David Goodis.  I see Firbank died in Rome aged 40 of lung disease.  Does this mean cancer? TB? or what?  Might pick up any book I see of his if I come across them.  

Thanks for that.  I do enjoy reading the comments of people about these pieces and the element of mystery and suspence.  

Cheers, Caro.

Grrr.  After having said that I would recognise D if it were a book that I have read, I find that it is a book I have read - many years ago.  I said I was hopeless at this sort of thing.

I've never read Firbank but he is an author who interests me.  I'll look out for what you have to say about him.

Gareth thanks very much for this thread. It was entertaining as well as excercising and teasing our minds.
Green Jay

I've never been described as majestic before!    Laughing  Shove over, Wills 'n Kate, stop hogging the screen!!

Firbank is quite unique. I have read Valmouth, but years ago. So naughty.

I've never been described as majestic before!

Yes, I was envying you that epithet, Green Jay.  You will be able to look down on us mere mortals now, and stick your nose way up in the air!

Cheers, Caro.

(You won't see me here for a few days - I haven't got the huff not to be the subject of Gareth's praise, but I am away for a few days.
Jen M

Thank you for posting the answers, Gareth, and thank you also for your kind comments.

I, too, was surprised that the first passage was by Ian McEwan - although I have only read two of his books.

Thanks Gareth - I did read the excerpts but didn't get very far with thinking about them (and still less far with responding).

My thoughts were that a) was probably 1980s; the style seemed familiar but I couldn't quite nail it - Julian Barnes was the only name that sprung to mind.

The others I couldn't get much of a handle on, though my personal reaction was that I loathed D intensely (unless it was intended as some sort of camp parody), and found B mannered and dated. I quite liked the writing style of C, even though it seems to be in the sort of American macho tradition that I don't normally go for.
Gul Darr

Thanks Gareth. I can't be 100% sure that all the short stories read to us by my maths teacher were written by Ian McEwan, but obviously 'Solid Geometry' was. I have a vague recollection of another story being about a one-sided coin. So there was at least some kind of vague mathematical interest to them. And he was a superb, if unconventional, teacher.

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