My wife and I finished Robertson Davies’s What’s Bred in the Bone (starts off a little dull, but becomes quite absorbing) and decided to follow it up with another Canadian novel, this one translated from French: Nikolski, by Nicolas Dickner. We’re only 85 pages into it, but we’re already thoroughly intrigued: characters are introduced in slantwise fashion, there hasn’t been a predictable moment, and the prose (though translated) is actually livelier than Davies’s.

There are a lot of fish in this novel (one passage on page 79 begins “Starry ray, rainbow smelt, sturgeon, herring, sardine, sea trout, eel, cod, hake, threebearded rockling, John Dory, mullet, red goatfish, thicklip grey mullet, Atlantic bonito, swordfish, ocean perch, Norway redfish, American plaice, lumpsucker, dab, rock sole, Atlantic saury…”), and it taught me a nice piscine adjective a few pages before that: “A police car glides ahead of her with the quiet slowness of a shark. The driver turns his head in her direction, sunglasses covering his selachian gaze.” Merriam-Webster explains that the adjective refers to “any of a variously classified group (Selachii) of cartilaginous fishes that includes the existing sharks and typically most related elasmobranchs (as rays)” and is “ultimately from Greek selachos cartilaginous phosphorescent fish; akin to Greek selas brightness.” Don’t know when I’ll next get the chance to use it, but it’s now in my arsenal, ready for deployment.

Incidentally, I foolishly assumed that one of the locales, Tête-à-la-Baleine (“Whale’s Head”), was invented, but no, it and its companion, Providence Island, are real, and you can see pictures here. And if you’re curious, you can read the first chapter in French here (pdf; here‘s a Google cache).


  1. hsgudnason says

    What’s Bred in the Bone is of course the middle volume of a trilogy. It’s been twenty years or so since I read them, and I enjoyed some parts more than others, but if you haven’t read The Rebel Angels, your slow start may have something to do with leaping into the middle of a very weird universe.

  2. Ah, thanks—reading the first book might have helped! We just looked at the description on the back cover, thought it sounded interesting, and dived in.

  3. Davies’s books are, indeed, weird universes! I haven’t read the Cornish trilogy but I enjoyed the Deptford trilogy a lot and liked the Salterton, too. Like hsgudnason, I enjoyed some parts more than others — that probably sounds obvious but Davies’s trilogies have a lot of variation.

  4. marie-lucie says

    Yes, LH, Davies liked writing trilogies rather than enormous single volumes, and even though the three parts can be read singly it is best to read them in order, although the successive volumes are not simply chronological extensions of the earlier ones.

  5. There’s a Lord Selachii in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, who is named so for the perceived shark-like qualities of aristocrats.

  6. The Rebel Angels is my favorite Davies as it includes gypsies, magic spells, Canadian universities, music, cuckolds, adultery, mad professors, love-struck priests, and the Wisdom of God. Good stuff.

  7. The Rebel Angels also contains a great bequest:

    However, should any snooper decide to dig me up, I make a final bequest under the provision of the Human Tissue Gift Act of 1971. I leave my arse-hole, and all necessary integument thereto appertaining, to the Faculty of Philosophy; let it be stretched upon a steel frame so that each New Year’s Day, the senior professor may blow through it, uttering a rich, fruity note, as my salute to the world of which I now take leave, in search of the Great Perhaps.

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