May 4, 2003
Hope Mirrlees: Lud-in-the-Mist
1926's most famous book is probably A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh, though it was also the year that produced Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and Marazan, Nevil Shute's first book.
And, of course, this one, Hope Mirrlees' story of the town of Lud-in-the-Mist. Initially I was a bit puzzled by the style of storytelling, especially the strange tendency to switch between characters, as if the book didn't know whose story it was telling. At some stage, on or before the one hundred page mark, it suddenly became clear that it was Nathaniel Chanticleer's story, the mayor of Lud, and not any of the other characters who are introduced in the first few chapters. As soon as this became clear, I enjoyed the story a great deal and read the last 180 pages in one sitting.
Mirrlees has a superb ability with language, and is a never-ending source of startling proverbs and sayings. She creates a believable world, and entices you into it with a vivid display of intriguing details. The book has a timeless quality, and it becomes difficult to remember that it was first published nearly eighty years ago: Lud-in-the-Mist seems always to have been there, gently awaiting discovery. One small surface indication of its age can be found in its typography. Latin and French words are always presented in italics, so your eye hovers longer than necessary over dossier, ex cathedra and terra firma. I was also struck by the word "password," which is spelt "pass-word."
("Pass-word" was distinctive in another little way. At one point Nathaniel is stopped at a locked door, and is asked by someone on the other side for the password. He successfully guesses it, which makes for a great exchange. But then, only a few pages later, he becomes overwhelmed by other events and forgets the password. In these, the great days of Unix, this seems unbelievable and unforgivable.)
Like a lot of people, I came to this book through Neil Gaiman, who has a secondary career of championing overlooked gems such as this. (Lud-in-the-Mist dwelt in undeserved obscurity for nearly half a century.) He provides a brief but effective introduction, in which he says that Lud is ultimately about reconciliation. This is true, but it's not true enough. Towards the end Mirrlees shies away from describing several key events, leaving the reader a little unsatisfied. The ending satisfactorily resolves the storyline, but it's easy to see how the last twenty pages could've been three times that length, and three times more satisfying.
Still, there's a beautiful sense of creativity and imagination throughout the story. One of the chapters is called "Panic and the Silent People," and the characters have names like Endymion Leer, Professor Wisp, Moonlove Honeysuckle. Early on there's a wonderful description of the garden of Nathaniel Chanticleer, which casually finishes with:
There was also a pleached alley of hornbeams.
The nature and purpose of a pleached alley of hornbeams remains unclear, and this is entirely as it should be. This is a book to make you wonder, in all kinds of ways, about all kinds of things. I really liked it.
(The entire book can be downloaded at The File Library.)Posted by Sean Hegarty at 06:21 PM in the Fiction category | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)