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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Runes Have Been Cast

Robert Irwin

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To purchase The Runes Have Been Cast

Title: The Runes Have Been Cast
Author: Robert Irwin
Genre: Novel
Written: 2021
Length: 249 pages
Availability: The Runes Have Been Cast - US
The Runes Have Been Cast - UK
The Runes Have Been Cast - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Dedalus

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Our Assessment:

A- : good fun; nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Spectator . 15/1/2022 Michael Delgado
TLS A 4/2/2022 Philip Womack

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)he novel as a whole never quite transcends the insularity of its own satirical mode, which is more a cul-de-sac than a platform for any meaningful discussion of grander themes. The Runes Have Been Cast is a brisk and enjoyable read, with some good quips and eccentric plot turns, but it ultimately feels just as narrow in its scope as the rarefied academic world it seeks to send up." - Michael Delgado, The Spectator

  • "Irwin offers a postmodern take on the genre, in which the boundaries between fiction, reality and the supernatural are infinitely porous. He also pokes witty fun at the worlds of academia, creative writing courses, and the art of novel-writing itself. (...) Robert Irwin, the real puppetmaster, delightfully teases us along, setting up false trails, coincidences and promises that seem as if they are about to lead to something, before shifting into something else entirely. This is a complex, compelling addition to the literature of the weird." - Philip Womack, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title -- echoing M.R.James' story, 'Casting the Runes' -- and then the first line of The Runes Have Been Cast would seem to suggest a story suffused with the supernatural:

     Although Lancelyn owed (if 'owed' was the right verb) his first experience of the apparently supernatural to a tin of alphabet spaghetti, his introduction to the theory and literature of hauntings had come a couple of years earlier.
       But, though there's some discussion of the Victorian ghost story and of local ghosts early on, the supernatural is mostly quite carefully dosed out -- so also with the episode with the tin of alphabet spaghetti, which takes place only more than halfway through the novel -- and woven in. Beyond that, for much of the novel, it is literature, literary theory, and the world of academia that are at the fore. (As the mention of a tin of alphabet spaghetti might also suggest, nothing here is taken too seriously.)
       The Runes Have Been Cast begins in Oxford, in 1960. Lancelyn and his friend Bernard are both reading literature at Merton College; they share a tutor, Edward Raven. Raven thinks they're both promising students -- and they both go on to get firsts -- but is disappointed that they're thinking of continuing in academia:
Raven groaned. 'And all my teaching gone for nothing. Research is a nasty, unnecessary thing which is ruining universities. It narrows the mind, cuts you off from human beings and delays your entry into real life. Research prepares you for nothing except more research. Only second-raters go in for it. Only second-raters need their ghastly little diplomas. Worst of all, research teaches you to write like an academic.
       Lancelyn and Bernard have very different backgrounds. Lancelyn's family is very wealthy, with his parents constantly traveling abroad; if he so pleased, Lancelyn could simply live, like them, a life of very comfortable leisure.
       If not entirely traditionally old-fashioned, Lancelyn is also rather set in his ways and thinking, and not exactly forward-looking, preferring things as they are, or were. And:
Ever since his schooldays Lancelyn's mind and therefore his world had been taxonomically ordered and numbered by him
       He actually knows "large parts of the Dewey Decimal System of library classification by heart" -- to the extent that: "the whole thing had been internalised, so that his own brain was decimally organised". Unsurprisingly, this also means that, in many respects, Lancelyn is a bit unworldly; tremendously bookish, he also prefers, and feels more comfortable, reading to participating more actively in life at large.
       Where Lancelyn went to Eton -- and felt right at home there --, Bernard is a grammar school boy, smart enough to do well at Oxford, but obviously not fitting in as easily and naturally as Lancelyn does. Nevertheless, the two become close friends.
       Tutor Raven is also something of a mystery man -- not only because: "Raven had never published anything, rarely lectured and was not known to have any special subject". Indeed:
There is no record of him ever having been at any university, or for that matter, school. He seems to have materialised out of nowhere.
       As it turns out, he did not quite materialise out of nowhere, but he certainly did reïnvent himself at one point. He eventually offers up one version of his past for Lancelyn, but the truth turns out to be rather more complicated than he first admits to.
       Among the lessons Raven did try to pass on to his students was one of a particular kind of close reading: based on the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola, he guides his students into: "understanding literature through total immersion", the reader trying to visualize and immerse themselves in whatever scenes they are reading.
       Though initially dubious, Lancelyn takes to this "Ignatian method of immersion":
But it changed the way they read forever. For example, when Lancelyn in Cannes had got around to reading Ian Fleming's Casino Royale, he as a matter of habit entered the novel he was reading, and he found himself with a glass of martini in his hand in the casino in Royale-les-Eaux, standing behind James Bond and staring down on the cards Bond had in his hand during the opening round of the high-stakes game of baccarat.
       While still at Oxford, Lancelyn and Bernard meet Molly Ransom, a student at Somerville. When they meet her she says she is working on a novel; she seems to abandon that and then embrace a role as muse, looking to attach herself to a man with great promise. Initially, this is Bernard -- but Lancelyn is never quite out of the running.
       After graduating from Oxford, Lancelyn gets a position as a lecturer at St Andrews, in an English Department headed by the aggressive Professor Wormsley. The wealthy Lancelyn can easily afford to more or less stay above the departmental fray -- the faculty is bitterly divided: "between partisans of F.R.Leavis and those of C.S.Lewis" -- and continue to indulge in his book-buying addiction, while also trying to work on his thesis.
       Among the ambitions at St Andrews -- something of a backwater in those times -- is Wormsley's idea of establishing a creative writing course. As Wormsley will eventually come to admit, he's eager to establish such a program not simply to entice more American students (who go for and expect this kind of thing ...) or because he thinks it's a worthwhile area of study:
But I am not really interested in producing writers. There are far too many out there already. Who cares if the student gets his crappy novel or poem published ? I certainly don't. I am after bigger game.
       So is, in a variety of ways Irwin, in this novel that ambles along and unfolds at a leisurely pace, but packs quite a tremendous amount in. Among this is the very foundations of writing -- as, for example, it turns out quite a few of the characters are in the process of trying to write a variety of works, from Molly's would-be novel to a novel one of Lancelyn's colleagues is writing, The World of Fiona MacAlpine. Then, beside his thesis -- which he struggles with --, there's the autobiographical The Prelude which Lancelyn sets out to write, at the instigation of Molly. As Raven sums up, late (too late ... ?) on:
Our lives are no work of literature, but they can and should become one. I ... we just needed more time ... and more energy.
       Bernard actually produces a work that is published -- the rest are works in various stages of progress -- but it is basically academic. Lancelyn savages it in a review in the Times Literary Supplement (anonymously, as their reviews still were back then, though Raven has no difficulty identifying the author), a final nail into the coffin of the path Bernard chose, as he drifts largely out of sight.
       Meanwhile, despite his command of the Dewey Decimal System, Lancelyn finds his library getting entirely out of hand -- symptomatic for how his own life is escaping the easy control he likes to have over things. The literary hold he could always depend on eludes him -- as, soon, does most everything else.
       With its colorful characters -- notably Raven and Wormsley, but also, for example, Molly (who admits: "I don't want a happy life. I want an interesting one") -- and a composed-seeming Lancelyn who finds himself coming apart in a world he can not readily categorize and impose an order on, much of The Runes Have Been Cast is tremendous good fun. Oxford and St Andrews -- and academia in general -- in the 1960s are amusingly presented, and the range and use of literary references, from M.R.James to The Anatomy of Melancholy to George MacDonald's Lilith and even the first Lee Child novel (plus a cameo by J.R.R.Tolkien) --, in particular, are a lot of fun (and often clever).
       The story does crack up a bit in its conclusion -- appropriately enough, in some respects, as practically none of the characters' various ambitions come to much, not least Wormsley's planned creative writing course. The only true success is one of Lancelyn and Bernard's classmates, who majored in history but recognized already then that he didn't want to be an academic -- and who even back then: "could not see why English literature was a degree. Surely anybody could just read all those novels and poetry in the bath ?" Certain already then that: "I want to do something in the real world", he is the one character that does -- and apparently makes quite a success of it.
       Stylish, like the works of Gilbert Adair, The Runes Have Been Cast is thoroughly enjoyable. The final chapter is set many years after the action, an older and at least in some ways wiser Lancelyn summing it all up as: "so much fuss about nothing very much !" but a lot of the fuss is -- at least for the reader -- good entertainment, and even if there's a slight let-down at it not all adding up to something more, that true to life turn also helps ground the otherwise often extravagant novel in the real world. The conclusion can feel, in some ways, small, but is ultimately no less satisfying for that.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 March 2022

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The Runes Have Been Cast: Reviews: Robert Irwin: Other books by Robert Irwin under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Robert Irwin was born in 1946.

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© 2022 the complete review

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