Louise Welsh: Tamburlaine Must Die (2004)

It’s 1593 and London is a city on edge. Under threat from plague and war, it’s a desperate place where strangers are unwelcome and severed heads grin from spikes on Tower Bridge. Playwright, poet, spy, Christopher Marlowe has three days to live. Three days in which he confronts dangerous government factions, double agents, necromancy, betrayal and revenge in his search for the murderous Tamburlaine, a killer who has escaped from between the pages of Marlowe’s most violent play. The Final Testament of Christopher Marlowe is a swashbuckling adventure story of a man who dares to defy God and state and who discovers that there are worse fates than damnation.

I really enjoyed Tamburlaine Must Die. I liked Louise Welsh’s latest novel Naming the Bones (here’s the review) and wanted to read another one and I wasn’t disappointed. However I know the book got very mixed reviews and this mainly because of the language. Clearly Welsh tried to write 16th century English and might not have been 100% successful. I didn’t care or – because I’m not a native speaker – didn’t notice. I thought the language was beautiful.

In her novella Louise Welsh lets Christopher Marlowe, the famous playwright, tell his final ten days. Someone has written a libel in his name, imitating his writing, signing with the name of the main-protagonist of one of his plays, Tamburlaine. Welsh imgines how and why he must have been killed, how he spent his last days, sleeping with men and women, drinking too much, picking fights, putting himself in danger through his blasphemies.

I think Christopher Marlowe is one of the most fascinating figures of literature. An immensely gifted writer, a rake, a debauchee, a spy, a rough neck, a ruffian, an innovator and subversive man  and many other things. The book is atmospheric and evocative, you see the streets of London, the intrigue, the danger of a city afflicted by the plague, the violence of the times. Any sign of not following the Church, not being loyal to the Queen, being a homosexual were highly dangerous.

We know Marlowe escaped the dungeon but only to face death through an unknown enemy. His murder has never been solved and to this day there are many speculations.

I think I start to realize what type of historical novels I like. I like it when a writer manages to give a voice to historical figures, makes them come alive, imagines how they thought and felt.

One thing that has been criticized is that she didn’t depict a fear-ridden Marlowe although he knew he was going to be killed. I think from what I know of the man, he wasn’t too anxious, he threw himself into life until his last moment. He would have gladly gone on living, writing more plays but if this wasn’t to be, then it wasn’t. As simple as that.

The best about the book is that it sparked my imagination. I’m in the mood to read Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, The Great and Doctor Faustus which influenced Goethe and Thomas Mann and I would also be interested in reading about him.

Louise Welsh based her book to a large part on Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe but David Rigg’s The World of Christopher Marlowe sounds equally interesting.

Has anyone read any of these or other books about Tudor England?

Louise Welsh: Naming the Bones (2010)

Knee-deep in the mud of an ancient burial ground, a winter storm raging around him, and at least one person intent on his death: how did Murray Watson end up here? His quiet life in university libraries researching the lives of writers seems a world away, and yet it is because of the mysterious writer, Archie Lunan, dead for thirty years, that Murray now finds himself scrabbling in the dirt on the remote island of Lismore. Loaded with Welsh’s trademark wit, insight and gothic charisma, this adventure novel weaves the lives of Murray and Archie together in a tale of literature, obsession and dark magic.

I read a few intriguing reviews of Louise Welsh’s books and Naming the Bones was the one that tempted me the most. Set in Glasgow, Edinburgh and on the Island of Lismore, off the West Coast of Scotland, this is a very atmospherical read. The first 150 pages or so, it did remind me a lot of Kate Atkinson but farther into the novel, this changed considerably. And that is a bit sad. The novel had the potential to be great but the denouement wasn’t to my liking and so I would say, yes, it is a very good novel but not a great one.

Murray Watson, a professor of English literature at the University of Glasgow has a passion that makes him ask for a sabbatical. Since he was a very young guy, he loved the poems of Archie Lunan. Lunan has only had one slim collection published before he died an untimely and mysterious death. Living on the Island of Lismore for a certain time, together with Christie, his girl friend, he took a boat in stormy weather and never returned.

Murray wants to write his biography, do extensive research on the poet, interview people who knew him and secretly wishes to find a few undiscovered poems. Fergus Baine, the head of the department and husband of Murray’s lover Rachel, disadvises this approach. He tells him to concentrate on the poems, not the man.

It is obvious that Naming the Bones is exploring these two approaches to literature; the biographical one and the one leaving out everything related to the life of the author.

Murray is an interesting character. We meet him at a junction in his life. He has just been dumped by Rachel and realizes that Fergus may have known all along that he had an affair with her and that he may not have been the only one whith whom she had affairs. Fergus and Rachel seem to have a very unhealthy relationship.

Murray’s father died of Alzheimer’s and Jack, his brother, who is an artist, made an installation, showing their demented father on film which infuriates Murray.

Murray is a good looking, very attractive man and his charms are the reason why all through the novel women feel attracted to him.

What reads for the first 100 and so pages like a character study and an adventure story circling around the core theme of researching a deceased poet, starts to get dismal once it seems obvious that some of the people in Murray’s life knew Archie and that there may be secrets tied to Archie’s death that are far more disturbing than the possibility that Archie committed suicide.

When the reasearch in Edinburgh and Glasgow is finished, Murray leaves for the Island of Lismore where Christie lives. She doesn’t want to give him an interview or any other information, still Murray wants to see the place where Archie lived and died.

As beautiful as the island may be, it is a lonely and desolate place. Murray’s mood seems to get darker and darker, along with the developments in the novel. It also seems as if other people looking into Archie’s life had met with an untimely death and the further we read into the novel the more uncanny it gets.

I saw the term “gothic” mentioned a few times along with this book and couldn’t understand the use at first. I love gothic books but I do not like the blend of gothic and crime/thriller because that invariably means that  a “satanistic cult” or some such thing serves as part of the background. It’s not as bad as that here but the elements are present. Lucky the outcome isn’t tied to anything supernatural or occult. What we find out at the end just shows some young people’s depravity.

As said in the beginning, this is a very atmospherical novel. I have been to Scotland and know Glasgow and Edinburgh as well as some of the islands off the West Coast and I must say they are very well rendered. It is also an extremely well written novel, the numerous main and secondary characters are without any exception interesting and complex. There is more than one theme explored in this book which gives it additional depth. Welsh tackles topics like old age, research, poetry, alternative life styles, modern relationships, death and suicide with intelligence and a great deal of insight.

All this together makes Naming the Bones a very entertaining read on an autumn or winter afternoon when the world outside is as rainy, stormy and dark as the world in the novel. If you like a gothic atmosphere, you will enjoy this a great deal.

Here’s the island’s website should you plan a trip to Scotland: Island of Lismore.