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Sunday, 28 August 2011

Lord Dunsany's Last Book of Wonder

Lord Dunsany (1878-1957) is little enough read nowadays, and seems to be mostly noted as an influence on H.P. Lovecraft. But Dunsany was a great writer, and didn’t have that much in common with Lovecraft, though the latter considered him a great influence. Dunsany certainly had a better sense of humour - not difficult, admittedly.

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My introduction to Lord D. came with the volume Time and the Gods (Millenium, 2000 ("Fantasy Masterworks" series)). This volume includes 6 collections of D.'s stories, all from his early career: from his first, The Gods of Pegana (1905) to The Last Book of Wonder (1916). All fit into what now would be called fantasy, but they show an interesting progression. My preference is for the later stuff, and I think The Last Book of Wonder is the best of the lot.

What's immediately notable about Dunsany is his sumptuous prose style: very King James Bible-ish and classically inflected. The 20th century doesn't intrude into his style at all, and he's a real master of his chosen style. He's also great at coming up with names - "the greatest of name-coiners", in Lovecraft's words. Sardathrian, Inzana, Limpang-Tung, to take some from the opening pages. But this sort of thing won't endear him to all, though you can't help but admire the writing, and indeed the quality of his imagination.

The later stories, like those in The Last Book of Wonder, show the same stylistic virtuosity and lush imagination, but what makes these short (mostly very short, a lot only 4 or 5 pages) stories such a pleasure is the edge of mockery that gradually appears. Take, for example, "Why the Milkman Shudders when he Perceives the Dawn", its very title combining grandiose language with the most prosaic of contexts, for what could be less grandiose than the profession of milkman? (No offense to persons of that profession). More and more the everyday world starts invading Dunsany's tales, to ridiculous effect, though his prose never loses its cool, or descends to the level appropriate to the banalities it is documenting - and that, indeed, is its charm.

Another interesting story in The Last Book of Wonder is "The Three Infernal Jokes". If you've seen that Monty Python "Funniest Joke in the World" sketch you'll see that Dunsany pre-empted them by over 50 years with this tale of a man who meets a mysterious stranger who offers him three jokes on three pieces of paper, each of which will cause all hearers to die of laughter. Once used, though, the joke erases itself from the paper and when the protagonist tries to repeat it, he finds it has no effect. Dunsany gives the text of one of the jokes as repeated without the paper by the man, and it's decidedly unfunny, but, as the narrator notes: "No joke sounds quite so good the second time it is told." And, anyway, who's to know if he remembers it right? It seems unlikely that the Pythons were actually familiar with Dunsany's story, probably more a case of great minds think alike. Dunsany got there first, though, but not a lot of people know that.

Best of all, for me, is the chess story "The Three Sailors' Gambit". Dunsany was a highly respected chess player and this ingenious tale concerns a crystal ball that informs its possessor of the correct move at any point in any chess game, against any master of the game. Three somewhat dim-witted sailors use it to win small sums of money from challengers in public houses, and so on. The humour partly lies in the contrast between the aloof and refined prose of Dunsany and the coarse speech of the sailors as they apparently perform feats of chess playing unknown to men. It's a great story.

The Last Book of Wonder is available to read free online. Which is nice.
The volume I mentioned with 6 early Dunsany collections is available at Amazon US at the link below

Also at Amazon UK:

Of course, lots of other collections/anthologies of his stories are available as well, some of more recent vintage.

Lord D. hit the big screen a few years ago with a film of his 1936 novella My Talks with Dean Spanley (film just called Dean Spanley, and starring Sam Neill, Peter O'Toole and Jeremy Northam). A very good film, too, I might add. Not sure if that's the first ever film of one of his works, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was. Anyway, in conclusion, Dunsany is a really beautiful writer, and deserves to be more widely read than he is, and some of his works show an excellent line in dry, understated wit.

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