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The book of air and shadows

27 June 2014

The Book Of Air And ShadowsThe Book Of Air And Shadows by Michael Gruber

This isn’t a review, because I’ve only read the first forty pages of this book, and I’m not sure whether I’ll finish it. It’s a library book, so it’ll be no great loss, it’s not as though I’d paid for it or anything.

What makes one pick out a library book?

I saw the title and the author’s name on the spine, and pulled it out and read the blurb. It sounded interesting, a literary mystery, a lost play of Shakespeare that comes to light, professors of English literature fearing for their lives. It sounded a bit like The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, which I enjoyed.

And then there’s the author’s name, Gruber. I knew a professor of English literature called Gruber. So that recalled my days as an undergraduate, 50 years ago. Actually his real name wasn’t Gruber. His colleagues just called him that behind his back, as a joke. He was Professor W. Gardner, the head of the English Department at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg. His colleagues built up an elaborate mythology about Gruber, and how when he talked he emitted a gas called grubane, and so on.

I have very few memories of Professor Gardner Senior (his son Colin succeeded him as head of the English Department, and I got to know him much better). Gruber lectured us on the development of the English language, and the one thing I remember from his lectures is that he said the said that the Yorkshire expression “By gum!” came from the old English word for a man, gumum.

The other memory is second hand, from a brilliant student, Ritchie Ovendale, who did English and History Honours simultaneously. He mentioned to Professor Gardner that he had been reading James Joyce, and was advised not to, because “it will blunt your critical faculties”. Ritchie Ovendale spotted a copy of Ulysses on his desk, and we wondered whether he had confiscated it from a student. At that time the English Department  adhered closely to the dictates of F.R. Leavis, and Joyce was not a canonical author.

But, like one of the characters in The Book of Air and Shadows, I digress like Tristram Shandy, and the point of this is that I found the author’s name as intriguing as the title and the blurb.

The first few pages of The Book of Air and Shadows have the rambling reflections of the protagonist (one presumes), an intellectual property lawyer whose father was accountant to The Mob. Any mention of The Mob is guaranteed to put me off. I quite enjoy reading crime novels, with the exception of ones about organised crime, and especially American organised crime. And the style of writing fits that milieu, and here am I thinking that I really don’t want to read another 500 pages of this.

Then the scene changes, a couple of different characters appear, and the style changes too, with a third person viewpoint. So maybe it’s just one character who puts me off, and I’ll read on a bit more and see how it goes.

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