Tuesday, 21 June 2022

Review: The Greater Trumps: A Novel

The Greater Trumps: A Novel The Greater Trumps: A Novel by Charles Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a Charles Williams novel, which means it's completely unlike anything written by anyone else (even That Hideous Strength , which is sometimes, with some justification, described as a Charles Williams novel written by C.S. Lewis).

I read it first while at university in the late 1980s; a friend owned most of the novels in paperback, and lent them to me. This version from Open Road is, not typically for them, quite a clean scan, with only a couple of minor errors.

Williams wrote books that these days would be described as "cosmic," based on his own mystical Christian theology combined with occult symbolism, and nowhere is this more marked than in this book, based on the Tarot. The premise is that the original Tarot deck has turned up in a collection of rare old card decks left to a middle-aged, fussy, irritable Englishman by a friend of his. By coincidence (which I assume we are supposed to conclude was orchestrated by cosmic powers), his daughter is engaged, or something very similar to engaged, to a man of Roma descent, whose grandfather is the keeper of a set of magically animated three-dimensional images of the Tarot that was separated from the deck many years before. The young man wants to reunite them, and invites the cards' new owner, the daughter, and the owner's saintly maiden sister to his grandfather's house for Christmas.

When I say "saintly," she is saintly in very much a mystical, meditative way, not at all in the sense of being dreamy, but in that she is just herself and is always perfectly content with whatever happens and completely surrendered, in a quiet and unspectacular way, to the will of Divine Love. It's difficult to convey exactly what she's like; Williams does it brilliantly and memorably. She is, at the same time, very ordinary and completely extraordinary, and in many ways she is the heroine of the story, except that her niece Nancy is also, in a different and more active way, the heroine of the story.

English books of the early 20th century often have these middle-class characters who are more or less lacking in self-insight and more or less ridiculous as a result, who get mercilessly mocked by the author for it; that's not what Williams does, though it at first looks as if he might. Mr. Coningsby, for example, the owner of the cards, is a man of very limited insight, but he's not actually a bad person, or cowardly, or despicable, when it comes down to it. Even Ralph, his son, who at first seems like one of the vague English wasters so often encountered in P.G. Wodehouse, shows strength of character when it's needed.

And it is needed, because much of the last part of the book is an extended sequence of trials, beginning with a conjured snowstorm, in which the various characters battle with and against the power of the Tarots for what they value - which is ultimately each other, or at least human connection. The language is heightened, almost poetic, and a few times we get sentences that go on and on for a page or more because the author is so caught up in his own attempts to describe something that is, ultimately, indescribable.

It's a rich meal. There's a lot of depth of thought behind it, which isn't dished out in expository lumps but alluded to in the context of the events; you'd probably have to read Williams' nonfiction works to really get to grips with all he was talking about, and even then you might not grasp it. But it's also a tension-filled, compelling story, and succeeds very well at that level, and also at the level of depicting ordinary human characters with flaws who are nevertheless and at the same time also creatures of great cosmic dignity and importance. I'm not aware of anyone writing today who can come anywhere close to it; contemporary "cosmic" fiction tends to be philosophically shallow, New Agey and amateurishly written, in my experience, though perhaps that's sample bias.

It's rich enough that I wouldn't want to make a steady diet of it, and I won't jump straight into another Williams (I bought a few of the ebooks when they were on sale some time ago). But it definitely belongs on my Best of the Year list for 2022.

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