Monday, 29 November 2010

Marcus Sedgwick - Blood Red, Snow White

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. Marcus Sedgwick's fictionalised biography of Arthur Ransome was a surprise hit with me - partly because I had no idea Ransome was so interesting, and partly because it's an intriguing model for biography.


About once a week, I am simultaneously appalled and delighted my my general ignorance. Appalled, because no-one likes finding out they're less well-informed than they thought they were. And delighted, because finding stuff out, is, frankly, cool. Even if you're a bit late to the party.

I knew Arthur Ransome only as the author of 'Swallows and Amazons', which I've not read. I certainly didn't know that he was a journalist who had an unhappy marriage to a slightly unhinged woman, Ivy, and ran off to Russia to escape her 0leabing behind his young daughter Tabitha).

'Snow White, Blood Red' follows Ransome's life in Russia. The first section of the book, told in an allegorical fashion, tells of Ransome's early life, marriage, and journey towards Russia. It also sets the scene for the Russian revolutions of 1917:

Now, only a few trees ahead of him in the forest, stood two men deep in conversation. One was a Russian, the other a Jew, and they were firm friends, though they spent much of their time arguing.

They would argue about all sorts of things, but each would listen politely to what the other had to say. First, the Jew, whose name was Lev, would argue that the people of Russia should be its true masters, and while he did, the Russian, whose name was Vladimir, would stroke his small and excellent beard. Then they would swap, and Vladimir would argue that while what Lev had to say was true, they should not forget that people needed guidance from enlightened minds. And Lev would stroke his own small and excellent beard.

This should be a difficult task to pull off, but Sedgwick does a tremendous job, adapting Ransome's own 'Old Peter's Russian Tales'.

The second section is a single, pivotal evening for Ransome in Moscow, when a British agent attempts to recruit him as a spy. The style for this section - each chapter a time in the evening, 9.20 pm, interspersed with Ransome's planning & reminiscencing - is like a detective novel, with a simultaneous sense of urgency and inevitability.

And the third section - which tells of Ransome's love for a Russian woman, Evgenia, who just happens to be Lenin's secretary, and visits home to his daughter, and gradual involvement in various secret affairs - is told like a (pretty) straight biography, real people and events coloured in with dialogue and emotions.

The book ends with some facty stuff; a timeline, and reproductions of items from the English Secret Service files about Ransome's activities.

'Snow White, Blood Red' is a sophisticated, very enjoyable read. I think the only reason it's classed as YA is that biographies written for the adult market seem less likely to take the kind of licence Sedgwick has (Peter Ackroyd is the only writer of that type I can think of offhand, and I've found his books quite dull). Interestingly, it leaves me with little desire to read another biography of Ransome, because I've grown quite attached to the version that Sedgwick has given me.

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