Saturday, June 4, 2011

Time, A Falconer: A Study of Sarban

The obscurity of many twentieth-century practitioners of supernatural fiction has not only limited the reprinting of their works, but also hindered biographical and critical analysis of that wor.  So it is that Sarban, author of three well-regarded volumes, including the famous dark alternate history The Sound of His Horn, should only recently have received a preliminary study.  This brief but thorough and thoughtful volume, by writer and scholar Mark Valentine, is fortunately a model of its type, and will be of interest both to fans of Sarban and those who have yet to encounter his fiction.

Valentine draws on Sarban's archive, including an autobiographical timeline put together by the author for his daughter, to offer a brisk description of his life, from childhood in the industrial town of Mexborough to education at Cambridge to a career as a diplomat in Northern Africa, Western Asia, and South America.  The external details of Sarban's life are, it must be said, not of surpassing interest despite the diversity of these assignments.  What makes this study powerful is Valentine's careful consideration of the author's personality as reflected in his private life and his fiction.

Without being prurient or psychologically pat, Valentine observes the recurrence of certain themes in Sarban's fiction, both published and unpublished, and compares these to the concerns expressed in his diaries and to events in his life, including a doomed relationship with a younger woman and his marriage to Eleanor Riesle.  A portrait emerges, perhaps lacking vividness but nonetheless real and sympathetic, of a private, contemplative man, scrupulous in his duties but not truly occupied by them, interested in the natural world and in the range of gender dynamics.  These interests were reflected in his fiction, which Valentine describes and analyzes, quoting contemporary reviews and remarking on influences, sources, and recurring images.  He has the gift of capturing the essence of a story without vitiating its effect, so that one is eager to read what has been described and doesn't feel it has been spoiled.  Time, A Falconer, which is available from the publisher, is a handsome volume with numerous illustrations, and a welcome addition to any library of scholarship on the supernatural.

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