Monday, 19 October 2015

Mini-review of The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams

When I came to read Charles William's novels, I was expecting to like best The Greater Trumps - partly because I had a sort of fascination with the idea of Tarot cards; no doubt dating from a self-consciously 'trendy' teenage children's series which had one of the very best theme original theme songs I know - together with some shockingly dated graphics...

But, sadly, I have not enjoyed this novel - despite several attempts to read it. I have just finished the latest - which was the first time I have succeeded in getting through the whole thing, in order, without skipping.

It is always difficult to be accurate about why I don't like a novel - but the short answer is that I do not find much to like here. I find the style pretentious, sloppy and turgid (some paragraphs of purple description extend over more than two pages), the plot is unconvincing and rather dull, and I dislike each and every one of the characters!

Furthermore, I think the book's depiction of 'Good', notably in the character of Sybil, but also Nancy, is, actually, bad - Sybil is not only smug and tedious, but she is not what I would regard as a good person at all! Her 'forgiveness' is so quick and glib that it seems much more like frivolous insensibility - she seems more like a Pollyanna-robot than a Saint.

I particularly dislike the insistent and recurrent symbolism of 'hands' which comes out on almost every page (or so it seems).

It was an effort to finish the book, and even more of an effort to keep track of what was going-on.

My rating? Two stars, from a maximum of five.


Anonymous said...

De gustibus...

Good of you to make such a concerted effort, in the circumstances!

I love the hands, and think there is a lot of rewarding care taken in producing some of the 'purple patches' - with Henry's 'Tower' experience near the end of the book a good example of both, to my way of thinking.

Sybil is an interesting question - is the smugness (where it occurs) a failure in characterization on Williams's part, or a neat bit of shading to make her more of a rounded figure with evident room for growth? Perhaps a combination of the two? What do you think of her in comparison with Julian Davenant in War in Heaven?

Have you happened to read the late Professor Sir Michael Dummett's A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot, written together with Ronald Decker and Thierry Depaulis (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and its sequel, A History of the Occult Tarot, 1870-1970, written together with Ronald Decker (Duckworth, 2002)? I found them very interesting (though I've only managed to read around in the second, on account of limits of access to a copy). His research has gotten us enjoying Tarot for its original purpose, card games - playing Scarto thanks to David Parlett's Oxford A-Z of Card Games (2004).

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - I have never properly engaged with War in Heaven. So far I have only really appreciated and enjoyed - but a lot! - Place of the Lion and Descent into Hell, of the novels. I have had a pretty good shot at All Hallows Eve, without quite feeling I got it; and a partial engagement with War in Heaven.

I was pretty averse to Shadow of Ecstasy, and did not get far - but I think I may try again with Many Dimensions (I put it in my bag to carry around with me, this morning).

I find it almost essential in a novel to have a character, preferably several, that I broadly like and can identify with. But I am *not* a catholic reader of fiction - am indeed hyper-critical and hard to please!

John Fitzgerald said...

I find The Greater Trumps a very atmospheric and imaginatively-charged book. I love the Christmas Day Mass and the whole concept of the moving Tarot figures in the 'room of the golden dance.' The strongest memory I have from the story is when the characters are driving out of London at night and a traffic policeman takes on the appearance of The Emperor tarot card.

But yes, I found Sibyl irritatingly smug too. Glad I'm not the only one!

I may have got this wrong by the by but I'm sure I read before that 'Lewis' on ITV tonight(20/10)is about a fictional Charles Williams scholar murdered in Oxford in a bizarre alchemical ritual. Could be worth a watch?

What is certainly worth a read a propos of all this is 'Meditations on the Tarot' (1984) by the Steiner-influenced, Estonian-Russian-Catholic mystic, Valentin Tomberg (1900-1973). This deep, prayerful Christian reading of the Major Arcana knocks everything else I've read on the subject into a cocked hat. Highly recommended.

All the best, jf.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JF - Thanks for the tip about Lewis - I've set it to record. Presumably it must be to celebrate the new biography/ 70 year anniversary since he died...

Well, I wanted to like the Greater Trumps, but it just didn't work for me!

I did a post stimulated by an earlier phase of this reading of tGT on the Mormon group blog to which I contribute:

I am no kind of expert on the Tarot - although I have a Rider Waite pack which I like to look at and play around with sometimes (and another one of Lord of the Rings characters, which I haven't looked at for a while). There is certainly something more than meets the eye about it... I may well have a look at this book you recommend, which somebody else also recommended to me last week.

I first came across Tarot cards in Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies - an upscale campus novel full of arcane knowledge set in the U of T (University of Toronto) - well worth reading if you haven't. And one of my favourite incidents in Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell is the 'Cards of Marseilles' scene with Childermass and Vinculus.

Anonymous said...

I put the case that Many Dimensions is a sort of sequel to War in Heaven (for one thing because of a sort of prophecy in the first (WH) which is (sort of)fulfilled in the second (MD) in a surprising way - but I won't risk spoilers). Whichever order you end up reading them in, you might watch out for that, and see what you think.

War in Heaven was my first and is still my favourite, I think.

David Llewellyn Dodds

P.S.: Thanks for introducing me to Ace of Wands, of which I had never heard. Someone has a couple episodes posted in One of the Usual Places, so I'm getting acquainted.