Saturday, June 16, 2012

Portobello Notebook by Adrian Kenny 

"Seeing things ... hearing things ... trying to write things. That would be his life, as Harry’s life had been buying junk and trying to sell it on. There would be no change now."

After too long a silence Portobello Notebook, a collection of short stories, marks a welcome return to the written word by Dublin writer Adrian Kenny. Set for the most part in and around Portobello and it’s environs this collection, which spans thirty years, charts the narrator, who is based on the author, as he comes to terms with the life he’s leading and his own particular place in the world.

In order to understand his own standing the narrator must first interact with characters who in some way have missed out on life. They’ve lost sight of their dreams or else have watched as they vanished about them. Happiness eludes them and they flounder in a disaster which for the most part is of their own design.
At times these characters annoy the narrator. They invite him into their homes and after half an hour he can’t wait to get back to his wife. On other occasions he is jealous of their freedom, as they revel in their Bohemia he is tied down in quiet domestic bliss.

This is very much the case in the story "The Tea Cloth" where the narrator visits a neighbour, who is also an old lover. Her boyfriend has just left her and she lives alone. Working as a part time waitress she harbours ambitions to become a painter. Her work in horrendous and according to the narrator "She breathed out an air of failure, which bored him."

In "Harry" an old Jewish junk collector, who is an invalid and until recently lived alone, visits the author at home. Harry’s house was burgled, he was assaulted, and a number of valuables stolen. After a number of hours the author leaves Harry home, to a house, which like Harry, has fallen into decrepitude.

"The Lower Deck" introduces us to Triona, another former lover and old neighbour, who has died to cancer. Like many characters Triona, a dressmaker and perennial rebel, had seen her plans for life go awry. Kenny tells us that she’d been wild like all the children of the 1960’s who resembled "butterflies fluttering against the windowpane". She immigrated to Barcelona where she remained for a number of years. Her dreams didn’t work out and she eventually returned to Portobello, where, as an adult, she was still stuck fluttering inside.

Despite the various scenarios, and however bad their situations, the writer has a basic sympathy for his characters. As they drift along annoy, pester and bother him he respects and attempts to empathise with their lives. "In New York" he visits Joe, an old friend, and pities him as he flounders under an overpowering wife. While in "Kestrel and Starlings" he observes as a young woman’s marriage falls to pieces around her.

By the end of the collection the author has accepted his lot. He has collected all his characters and listed their stories is in notebook. He has realised his mistakes and is happy both with his wife and the life he is leading in Portobello.  


Friday, June 01, 2012

The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault by Angela Carter 

Don’t let the title deceive you, this is not a collection of saccharine coated fairly tales for 21st century, or as it was first published in 1977, 20th century children. Instead what we have is a subtle translation and retelling by Angela Cater of ten fairy tales which for the most part were first presented in France by Charles Perraut in 1697.

As the title "Fairy Tales" suggests the collection contains many of the classic stories you would associate with the genre, "Little Red Riding Hood", "Puss In Boots" and "Sleeping Beauty in the Woods" are just three tales contained in the collection. At a glance each tale contains all the ingredients a story more suited to children rather than adults, good overcomes evil and the prince and princess live happily ever after.

However as this is a retelling rather than a literal translation Angela Carter has for her part taken some liberties in her presentation of the stories. The first thing that the reader notices is how modern and immediately accessible the writing is. Nowhere can you say that the tales are written in a faux old world style so beloved and bedevilled of translators with translations.

The heroes are not wooden one dimensional characters rather they come across as being all too human , for example the cat in "Puss In Boots" uses cunning, intimidation and the threat of murder in order to further the cause of his master. While the princess in "Donkey-Skin", pretends not to have seen the prince spying on her as she tries on her dress that is the colour of the sun.

Some of the tales have a dark side not normally prevalent in modern rendering of fairy stories, for example in "Little Red Riding Hood", usually her father shows up, just in the nick of time to save her from the big bad wolf. In Angela Carter’s version, Little Red Riding Hood’s father is notably absent. While in "Donkey-Skin" the original reason for the princess’s departure from her kingdom is that her father was so convinced that she was the most beautiful woman in the land that the wished to marry her. Incest being reason enough for any young woman, princess or not, to flee her home.

Angela Carter was greatly influenced by Charles Perrault’s fairy tales and gave "Puss In Boots", "Beauty and the Beast" and "Cinderella" an outing in The Body Chamber, her own collection of fairy tales, albeit giving each tale an unorthodox twist at the end. She also participated in writing the script of The Company if Wolves which of course was based on her own version of the classic tale.

Each tale in the collection ends with a moral, some enhance the story while in other the moral may appear contradictory to the spirit of the story. The moral in "Sleeping Beauty" states that no modern woman would consider waiting a hundred years for a brave handsome husband. While the moral at the end of "Cinderella: Or, The little Glass Slipper" goes,

"It is certainly a great advantage to be intelligent, brave, wellborn, sensible and have other similar talents given only by heaven. But however great may be your God-given store, they will never help you to get on in the world unless you have either a godfather or godmother to put them to work for you."

In Charles Perrault, Angela Carter chose a godfather with whom she could display all her numerous illuminated talents.


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