thorold thrusts out knees and feet in Q4 2018

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thorold thrusts out knees and feet in Q4 2018

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Bearbeitet: Dez. 29, 2018, 11:32am

Oh, good gigantic smile o’ the brown old earth,
This autumn morning! How he sets his bones
To bask i’ the sun, and thrusts out knees and feet
For the ripple to run over in its mirth;
Listening the while, where on the heap of stones
The white breast of the sea-lark twitters sweet.

That is the doctrine, simple, ancient, true;
Such is life’s trial, as old earth smiles and knows.
If you loved only what were worth your love,
Love were clear gain, and wholly well for you:
Make the low nature better by your throes!
Give earth yourself, go up for gain above!

Robert Browning - "Among the Rocks" - from Dramatis personae, 1864

Amsterdamse Waterleidingduinen, November 2017

Bearbeitet: Okt. 2, 2018, 5:47am

This is the follow-on from my Q3 thread, which was here:

Unrealistic reading goals for Q4 - lazily updated from Q3:

- European history (only about 900 300 pages to go in Jonathan Israel, and I want to find out who did it...); after that I've got Geoffrey Parker's Imprudent King and Tim Blanning's Frederick the Great lined up
- Central Asia Transitions for Reading Globally
- Travel writing/Great Outdoors - follow-up from Q2/Q3 and my own outdoor activities
- More Spanish
- Belle van Zuylen/Mme de Charrière - I was reminded about her by visiting Zuylen Castle a couple of weeks months ago
- More 19th century - Zola, Trollope, Balzac, Hardy ...
- Maybe something Italian, as I've got another trip lined up...?
- The TBR pile (this time it's really going to be tackled ... No, wait, who am I kidding?)

Bearbeitet: Okt. 13, 2018, 4:12pm

Quick summary of Q3:

32 books read in Q3 (Q1: 51, Q2: 44):

Author gender: F 16; M 16
By main category: Crime 13; Fiction 12; Poetry 2; Travel 4; History 1
By language: French 7; English 20; Dutch 3; German 1; Spanish 1
(Of the 20 English books, 12 were translations - original language Swedish 10; Japanese 1; Turkish 1)

By original publication date: Earliest 1843; latest 2017; mean 1979, median 2000. 3 books were published in the last five years; 3 were published before 1900.

By format: 10 physical books from the TBR; 18 read-but-not-owned (free e-books or public library); 4 paid e-books

20 distinct authors read in Q3 (Q1: 41, Q2: 32):

Author gender: F 6; M 14
By country: UK 5; FR 4; NL 2; CA 1; AU 1; ES 1; TK 1; CH 1; IE 1; SE 1; MA 1; JP 1

- Hmm, I think I can see a trend in the number of books - three points counts as a straight line for an ex-physicist! Good weather and travel may have accounted for much of the decline, but it's also clearly got something to do with the presence of quite a few thick books, including two Zolas and a Balzac.
- And Jonathan Israel's The Dutch Republic, started in Q2, in which I advanced about 600 pages in Q3. Not a book that can be rushed, and at nearly 1.7kg it's not one that can be read on the train or in bed, either...
- On the other hand, I did read all ten of Helene Tursten's Swedish crime novels, at the rate of about one a day

Highlights of Q3:
- Illusions perdues by Honoré de Balzac - almost the perfect 19th century European novel
- The Makioka sisters by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki - a wonderful 20th century Japanese riff on the 19th century European novel
- The invention of tradition edited by Eric Hobsbawm & Terence Ranger - why we shouldn't trust what we think we know about the past

- and the obligatory surprise entrant: Une enquête au pays by Driss Chraïbi

Bearbeitet: Okt. 2, 2018, 7:08am

...and on to the first book I finished in Q4. It's rather wonderful how I still keep stumbling across Iris Murdoch novels I didn't know I still had to read. And even better that I found this one in a hardcover with John Sergeant art on the dust jacket, with a yellowing newspaper cutting of the review by H van der Kroft in the NRC still tucked into it (they liked it, with some reservations about the opening chapter):

A fairly honourable defeat (1970) by Iris Murdoch (UK, 1919-1999)


A staple of many classic comedy plots is the malevolent genius who - usually to prove a point or settle a bet - does the author's work by manipulating other characters into betraying their partners. Eventually it's all resolved and we leave everyone at the end of Act III confused and a little bit disillusioned but otherwise unharmed. Shakespeare uses it all the time, and possibly the most perfect example is in Mozart's Così fan tutte. And we all know it's a stage convention and enjoy it, even if Mozart reminds us that this is dangerous stuff to play with. But what if it wasn't a comedy, and someone started doing that sort of thing to real people like you and me? - Or at least people like the sort Iris Murdoch knew in 1970, the senior civil servants, academics, students and middle-class housewives of contemporary London.

Murdoch explores the nasty things that can happen when you deliberately take people's illusions away from them and play around cynically with their emotions. The mix of psychological realism and farce is full of strange twisted variants on comedy set-pieces, like the stolen letters, the eavesdropping scene, the nude scene, the burnt-dinner scene, and even the falling-in-the-pool scene, and it can't help being funny, but it's funny in a very grim sort of way, and you know this isn't going to end well. It sometimes seems to be taking Adorno's famous dictum a step further and showing where social comedy fails us in a mid-20th century world that has to deal with the Holocaust and the threat of global nuclear destruction. Or maybe it's saying that only (black) comedy can deal with such a world...?

Bearbeitet: Okt. 2, 2018, 1:44pm

Interesting throes given your epigram. You've made me interested in this, I hadn't heard of it. You make me wonder what is black comedy and what is realism, but then I may be being blackly comic.

But on a lighter note, to get here i looked at your q3 epigram again and connected to it better than I had previously, I know it but it touched base today. But this epigram lovely too, I didn't know it, am working on my throes daily at the mo.

Okt. 2, 2018, 3:13pm

>5 tonikat: Thanks! I'm not sure if the Hopkins epigraph worked out so well in the end - I wasn't quite happy with the line I picked and it was probably pretty opaque for anyone else who didn't know the poem well.

The Browning is a less well-known poem, but I think it's one I'm going to enjoy being made to look at repeatedly. Interesting too, to think about Browning in the dark years just after Elizabeth's death and to read it in that context. Throes indeed. And I love the little image of the earth taking its shoes and socks off to sunbathe...

(I just stopped myself in time from picking Sonnet 73 - that way lies horrible cliché!)

I'm working on the idea that it's comedy when you know the clown will stand up again after the pratfall, and realism when you're genuinely afraid he might not. Something like that.

Bearbeitet: Okt. 2, 2018, 3:34pm

>6 thorold: epigraph! you know I do know the difference, but about a month ago I suddenly doubted myself and decided to look them both up, and ever since I've totally reset myself and this is no the first time I have said epigram. It probably sounds an excuse, and it is, please don't be too certain of my madness due to it.

I stopped myself from saying but it occurs to me that the Hopkins may be better sited to autumn? you may not agree. Part of me says summer can be pied too -- but autumn, well.

Oh I could have coped with sonnet 73. But your choice is good. I don't really know RB or EBB at all.

That's an interesting distinction. Something to do with faith, and subjective. It occurs to me that horror may then be when the clown is expected to stand up and doesn't. What would that make it if they stood up when not expected to? redemption? all the way to resurrection and renewal? (discovery/reminder of faith when it was most doubted?)

Bearbeitet: Okt. 2, 2018, 4:15pm

>7 tonikat: horror may then be when the clown is expected to stand up and doesn't

... but carries on as a zombie (provided a complicated set of requirements is accidentally satisfied, involving phases of the moon, lightning, religious symbols, and unseasonable weather for California).

I think you're right about "faith". In the theatre we've learnt that the clown stands up again, and we've built up a system of beliefs around that that protects us from being scared out of our wits when we see a performance (as small children sometimes are). Murdoch challenges that faith by asking us to imagine what happens if the clown falls down in the street and not on the stage...

...and I think I'm getting to the limits of this image!

Okt. 2, 2018, 4:00pm

>8 thorold: :) - or a comet maybe, that'd do it, so says my handbook of mcguffinry (imagined) -- or maybe that would be Triffids.

Bearbeitet: Okt. 13, 2018, 7:26am

Five months in the reading, 1.68kg of paper, 1231 pages, as much a physical endurance test as an intellectual one, it would probably have been better to tackle this book when it first came out and I still had strong wrists...

The Dutch republic : its rise, greatness, and fall, 1477-1806 (1995) by Jonathan I. Israel (UK, 1946- )


British-born Jonathan Israel currently holds a chair in history at Princeton; he was previously professor of Dutch history at UCL. As well as this book, he's known for his subsequent writings on the European Enlightenment, where he controversially gives the leading role to Spinoza.

It does what it says - a heavyweight (in every sense) overview of Dutch history from the late medieval period to Napoleon, focussing on how the Republic came into being, how it was governed, and how the political system related to developments in religious and intellectual life. Economic, military and colonial developments are covered as well, but not quite in the same level of detail.

What really interests Israel - probably to the despair of some readers, although I found it oddly fascinating - is the complicated way in which the Republic operated as a not-quite-federation of unequal and frequently disunited provinces, each of which had its own internal conflicts and divisions. In most of what I've read before about Dutch history, you only really get to hear about Holland, with the occasional passing mention of Geuzen in Zeeland and sieges in Brabant. But when you're reading Israel you also have to be aware of how the political manoeuvres in The Hague are affected by the complexities of relations between Groningen and its Ommelanden, or between the three quarters of Gelderland (I still don't know why they call them quarters if there are only three of them...). Endless fun, if you enjoy that kind of thing.

The other big element of the book is the analysis of what was going on in religion, science and philosophy (and to a lesser extent, the arts), and how it was enabled and sometimes restricted by the peculiarities of the Dutch political system. Israel makes it clear that there's a lot more to it than the standard idea that official tolerance created a kind of free market in ideas and gave the Netherlands an advantage over the repressive, absolutist rest of Europe. In fact, when it comes down to it, the religious establishment in the 17th century Netherlands had as little tolerance for divergent ideas as their protestant and catholic neighbours, and preachers were constantly campaigning to have sects other than their own shut down, books burnt, professors banned from teaching Descartes or Spinoza, and all the rest of it. There was always a strong "Voetian" element in the Dutch Reformed Church that felt that religious observance ought to be enforced by law. And it never took much to provoke the urban working classes to start an anti-Catholic riot. Where the Dutch Republic was different from the rest of Europe seems to have been in a pragmatic sense at the highest levels of government that public order mattered more than religious conformity. The state never regulated what people believed, but it could - and did - intervene to stop them causing unnecessary trouble, e.g. by publishing revolutionary ideas in Dutch, or by over-zealous preaching. Then as now, Dutch society was all about minimising overlast (nuisance). The other key thing in the 17th century Netherlands was that there was so much divergence from province to province and town to town, that you could almost always find somewhere where your views were acceptable. Spinoza moved from Amsterdam to Voorburg after he was expelled from the synagogue; professors who were too unorthodox for Leiden were generally welcomed in the rival universities at Franeker or Groningen (and vice-versa).

Whilst reading this book, I more than once had to wonder why OUP didn't split it into two (or more) volumes. This is essentially narrative history that you want to read sequentially and at leisure, not a reference book for dipping into. But a dictionary-sized book like this (1130 pages of text plus another hundred of index and bibliography) is just far too heavy to hold comfortably. My Everyman edition of Motley is about the same total number of pages in total, but in three nice, pocket-sized volumes. You could easily slip one of those into your backpack. Not that you can in any way compare Motley's chatty style and unconcealed protestant propaganda with what Israel is doing...

Okt. 13, 2018, 9:58am

A mental and physical workout? Sounds fascinating. I know very little about Dutch history, but I’ve always been curious how it got to be that kind of place.

Okt. 13, 2018, 1:25pm

>11 dchaikin: Go for it! I’m sure it would be a breeze for someone used to swinging a geologist’s hammer. Simon Schama’s The embarrassment of riches is very good too, if you’re more interested in the culture and less in day to day politics.

Okt. 14, 2018, 5:44am

This is one of the pile of random Simenon paperbacks I picked up from the charity shop a few years ago, and which has been on holiday with me a few times "in case the e-reader stops working". I finally got fed up with seeing it on the TBR shelf...

La mort d'Auguste (1966, The old man dies) by Georges Simenon (France, 1903-1989)


Antoine and his father Auguste have worked hard for twenty years to build up what was just a market-workers' bistro outside Les Halles into a profitable and fashionable restaurant with two stars in Michelin. But when Auguste has a stroke and dies unexpectedly, Antoine realises that he has never talked to his father - still a suspicious old peasant at heart, even after more than sixty years in Paris - about wills or inheritance, and he doesn't even know what his father has done with his share of the earnings from the business. A question that Antoine's two impecunious brothers would like to have answered fairly promptly, and which even leads them to suspect Antoine of cheating them...

This counts as one of Simenon's "straight" novels, not a Maigret or even really a crime story in the usual sense, and it's not the technical question of "where's the money?" that drives the plot, but the way in which Antoine has to find a way to handle this annoying (but potentially crucial) irrelevance at the same time as coming face to face with the arbitrary brutality of death and dealing with the normal emotional stresses of the loss of a parent. And, of course, it being Simenon, we get some brief but very telling little glimpses into the restaurant trade, the mentality of Auvergnats who migrated to Paris, and the lost world of Les Halles, already designated for relocation and redevelopment at the time of writing (it actually happened in 1971).

Bearbeitet: Okt. 14, 2018, 6:29am

>10 thorold: "Where the Dutch Republic was different from the rest of Europe seems to have been in a pragmatic sense at the highest levels of government that public order mattered more than religious conformity."

I suppose it’s mostly because I’m re-reading a Discworld novel, but I couldn’t help thinking of Ank-Mopork and Lord Vetinari as I read this.

The Dutch Republic sounds interesting but intimidating. The Embarassment of Riches sounds even better.

Okt. 14, 2018, 6:44am

And the next stage of my stroll through the work of eccentric Swiss genius Robert Walser:

Der Spaziergang, Prosastücke und Kleine Prosa (originally published 1916-1917; in the complete works 1985; The walk, etc.) by Robert Walser (Switzerland, 1878-1956)


Frustrated at his inability to find a way to follow up the modest success of his three novels, Walser left Berlin in March 1913 and returned to Switzerland, to settle in Biel for the next few years. He continued to publish pieces in newspapers and magazines, and he even won a literary prize for the last of his collections published in Germany, Kleine Dichtungen (the money was trapped in a German bank account and wiped out by inflation before he was able to touch it), but the outbreak of war interrupted his relations with his German publishers. In 1916 he was approached independently by three different Swiss publishers looking to include him in their catalogue of home-grown authors, which resulted in the publication within a short space of time of the novella-length Der Spaziergang, and two collections of short pieces, the pamphlet Prosastücke and the book-length Kleine Prosa. These three are brought together in Vol.5 of the Suhrkamp complete works, but you might find other combinations in translations.

Der Spaziergang sets the tone for all the pieces in the book - superficially a very simple account of a stroll the narrator takes on a sunny day in the Swiss town where he lives. He comments on shops and people he passes, reflects on the weather and the scenery, talks about a couple of encounters that sound significant but don't seem to lead to anything, and describes a lunch he's been invited to and a few small errands he has reserved for the afternoon (posting a letter, a fitting with the tailor, an appointment at the town hall). It's all set up in a very modest, self-deprecating and ironic tone, but we soon realise that there's something else going on under the surface. The prose defies the apparently realistic context by looping away in grand, rhythmic structures that often take the reader's breath away. The conversations the narrator describes clearly aren't meant to be taken as realistic accounts of what he has said (or what anyone could get away with saying in real life), but rather what he wishes he could have said, or what he was thinking when he said whatever he did actually say. This creates an uneasy sense of disconnection, alienation, from the banal, ordinary events of life. Images and chance remarks keep reminding us that there's a horrific war going on just offstage. Although all the explicit references are to German Romanticism of the Brentano era, this is unmistakably the voice of modernism - you can't help reading Walser's strolling writer posting his letters, eating his lunch and worrying about his tailor as a contemporary (or precursor) of Bloom wandering through Dublin, Mrs Dalloway buying her flowers or Prufrock walking on the beach.

In the two collections of prose pieces - most of which slide between categories like essay, sketch, story, memoir and review in undefinable ways - there's a similar sense of disconnection between the writer and the world, and a slightly amused astonishment at how strange everything is. We read pieces that are about nothing but themselves and the language they are made of, pieces about great writers (Dickens is chastised for being so good at what he did that he discourages all others from even trying to write), about a sausage, about odd characters who reject social norms, about fairy-tale-like incidents, and very frequently about young writers with various different names (in one case three different names in the same story) who work in offices or factories, become domestic servants, or live in isolation and penury in the suburbs and try to write - all things that Walser had done at various points in his career. Fascinating and delightful!

Okt. 14, 2018, 7:03am

>14 FlorenceArt: I couldn’t help thinking of Ank-Mopork and Lord Vetinari

Yes! Maybe Pratchett had something like that in mind. Not that anyone in the Republic was ever able to exercise the amount of personal power that Vetinari seems to have. Even the most competent and devious Stadholders (William I, Maurits and William III) had to mix coercion with a lot of lobbying and bribing to get what they wanted, and even then it didn't always work for them.

Okt. 14, 2018, 5:31pm

It's been a good weekend for finishing things off...

No. 6 in the Zolathon:

Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876; His Excellency) by Emile Zola (France, 1840-1902)


This is a sort of counterpoise to La Curée: we're back in Paris, in the second half of the 1850s, but the focus is on national rather than local politics, and the central character this time is Aristide's brother Eugène Rougon, a career politician in Napoleon III's government, with the highly desirable quality in a man of his profession that he can bounce back almost effortlessly into office from the depths of whatever scandal he lands in.

Astonishingly, for once, Zola manages to put together a plot without any doomed under-age sexual relationships in it: the main axis of erotic tension this time is between Eugène and the beautiful Clorinde, a femme fatale clawing her way up into Second Empire society from nowhere. Since they are both far more turned on by power than by conventional sexual allure, and neither of them wants to concede an inch to the other, their relationship is far from straightforward, but Zola wouldn't be Zola without a magnificently symbolic sex-scene, so at one point in the story they are allowed to get hands-on with a horsewhip in the riding-stables. Zola would definitely have enjoyed the possibilities of cinema.

A narrative trick that Zola re-uses from La fortune des Rougons is to tell us a lot of the story through a group of minor characters, here Eugène's hangers-on, the little people who spread propaganda on his behalf in exchange for the prospect of favours when he gets into office, in a less well regulated version of the 18th century clientage system. And of course it is usually the greed and ingratitude of these people that push him into over-reaching and get him into trouble so that he has to start clawing his way back again.

The main point of the book, though, is to show us the corrupt and hypocritical workings of government under Napoleon III: We open with the puppet Assembly of 1856, in an atmosphere of the deepest possible tedium and pointlessness, voting through a huge budget allocation for the baptismal ceremonies for the Emperor's infant son; there is more high-level royal tedium in a hunting party at Compiègne (Zola turns out to be surprisingly good at conveying boredom entertainingly); We move forward to the Orsini assassination plot of 1858, which gives Eugène another chance to come back into power, this time as the minister charged with implementing repressive anti-terrorism measures; There's a glorious set-piece cabinet meeting at which Eugène argues convincingly that only a policy of hardline repression and a climate of fear can sustain an absolutist empire in 19th century Europe - possibly Eugène is the only person in the room who misses the obvious conclusion that this is an argument against absolutism, not one in favour of repression - and then digs himself in deeper by condemning a "subversive" popular education book which - again, Zola doesn't tell us in so many words, but we can see it dawning on everyone around the table and the Emperor trying to keep a straight face - is a transparent rip-off of the Emperor's famous 1844 socialist pamphlet, Extinction du paupérisme; And we close with another, far less tedious but equally pointless, session of the Assembly, in which the Bonapartist delegates get to shout insults at the tiny Opposition group who are attempting to point out the hollowness of the 1861 reforms. And who is the government spokesman? None other than our old friend E. Rougon...

Bearbeitet: Okt. 16, 2018, 12:11pm

I've read far too little of J.M. Coetzee's work - possibly because I'm always a little shy of taking on writers who come so very heavily recommended (a Nobel, two Bookers, and all the rest, plus a large coterie of Dutch and South African Coetzee fans who keep lending me his books with meaningful looks...). And at least one of the ones I have read (Disgrace) I didn't like all that much. But now the South African member of our book club has manoeuvred me into a corner by craftily proposing Summertime as our next book, knowing full well that I would never read the third volume of a trilogy without reading the other two as well... :-)

Scenes from Provincial Life: Boyhood, Youth, Summertime (parts 1997, 2002, 2009; combined edition 2011) by J. M. Coetzee (South Africa, 1940- )


J.M. Coetzee has a reputation as an extremely modest, publicity-averse sort of writer - and of course he can afford to be: if you have that many trophies on the mantlepiece, you don't exactly need to go to small-town book-signings every day. But even modest writers usually manage to boast a little bit about their achievements in their memoirs, to look back with amusement at their youthful struggles from the olympian heights of where they are now, and of course to take it for granted that any vengeful ex-lovers will save the embarrassing revelations for posthumous biographers.

Not so Coetzee, apparently: his chief concern in these three lightly fictionalised fragments of autobiography seems to be to show us all the ways in which he falls short of his own standards for what a Coetzee, an Afrikaner, a writer and a human being should be. He shows us his subject "John Coetzee" as a boy at school, as a student and then an exile in England, working in the computer industry, and then back in 70s South Africa as a teacher and academic who has yet to make his mark as a writer. In the first two parts the form is relatively conventional - there are plenty of other famous memoirs in which the author writes about himself in the third person and in the present tense - the only real peculiarity being the absolute exclusion of any kind of explicit hindsight. Coetzee-the-narrator never lets us spot him taking advantage of the intervening years to put events into context or add information we know John-the-subject couldn't have had access to at the time. That gives the text a lot of the rawness and immediacy of a novel, preventing us from standing back and saying "Ah well, that was before...".

Boyhood is mostly about the young John attempting to work out the rules of the complex world he lives in, constantly frustrated by his parents' inability to be "normal" - they speak English, not Afrikaans, they don't go to church, they don't vote for the National party, etc., but they have an Afrikaner name, and they live in the same squalor as their Afrikaner neighbours, not up in the posh part of town like the "real" English and the Jews... Then, when he goes to his grandparents' farm in the Karoo, he feels utterly drawn towards this landscape, even though he knows he has no sort of right to it.

Youth has John at a stage where he knows from everything he's read and dreamed that it's only a matter of days or weeks before the Significant Thing must happen - he will meet the person he wants to spend the rest of his life with and/or find the inspiration to write the great poem/story/novel he's destined to produce and/or discover the professional satisfaction in computer programming that's been eluding him so far and/or take the world of literature by storm with the insights in his MA dissertation on Ford Maddox Ford. But things go on not happening. Affairs with women are unsatisfactory and are usually ended by him behaving badly in some way; his writing is getting nowhere; Ford, apart from the great novels he already knew, turns out to be a bore; and computers are taking John to places where he doesn't really want to be, not least to AWRE Aldermaston.

Then in Summertime Coetzee changes course to play with a quite different and much more dangerous formal approach. He kills off his subject and hands the narration over to Vincent, a clumsy academic and not very good writer, who is compiling material for a biography of "John Coetzee before his breakthrough". As in the last part of Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince, one unreliable narrator is replaced by a whole bunch of others, as Vincent interviews four women and a man who were close to John in one way or another during the first years after his return to South Africa - a married woman with whom he had an affair, one of his female cousins from the Karoo, a Brazilian dance teacher who may have been the inspiration for the woman in Foe, and two faculty colleagues, one male and one female. The whole is topped and tailed by fragments of John's notes presumed to be from an abandoned attempt at a third volume of memoirs. And of course all of it is set up to show us John's repeated failures (as far as the witnesses know) to connect in the wholehearted way he would like to have done with his family, students, his lovers and with the broken culture of the broken country he grew up in.

It's often extremely funny, but it makes painful reading. And it - of course - doesn't manage to answer the question it poses, how someone who seems to be damaged in ways that prevent him from getting to grips in real life with what it means to be a human being could ever be able to write novels that purport to tell us just that. Probably, we have to look into ourselves and decide that no-one could ever really attain the standard of humanness that Coetzee sets himself - as one of his characters points out, Gandhi couldn't dance.

Okt. 17, 2018, 6:16am

There still seem to be two or three Muriel Sparks I haven't (re-)read in the last couple of years - time for another one:

The ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) by Muriel Spark (UK, 1918-2006)


This is one of Spark's crazier novels, published the year before Miss Jean Brodie. It is set in a working-class district of South London, and the story is all about factory workers and their bosses, dances, nights at the pub, fights about girls, petty crime, adultery, saving up to get married, sneaking lovers past the landlady, etc., so it's clearly setting itself up as though it's in the same genre as the novels and plays of contemporaries like Alan Sillitoe and Stan Barstow. But this is most definitely not grittily realistic angry-young-man fiction, it's more like a sophisticated, playful parody of its conventions. No-one here is the victim of anything other than their own moral limitations. The violence, when it occurs, is as balletic as anything in West Side Story, and the story line is constantly wavering at the very edge of realism.

The comic disturbing agent in the plot is the Scotsman Dougal Douglas, who often seems to be Psmith playing the part of Donald Farfrae. We're in Wodehouse country, after all: Peckham Rye is just down the road from East Dulwich. Douglas is an agent of chaos who enjoys inserting himself into social situations and interfering at random. Apparently he does this simply to see what will happen, as Psmith did, but he himself also enjoys dropping hints that he is an incarnation of the Devil, an interpretation Spark does nothing to confirm or deny (Peckham Rye is also William Blake country...). In the course of the story he completely undermines employee morale in two local factories where he's been brought into the Personnel department as an "Arts man" with an ill-defined mission to tackle disaffection and absenteeism (so ill-defined that he's able to hold the same job simultaneously in both companies without his bosses noticing anything); he sends several managers into breakdowns or depression; he sabotages a long-planned wedding, and he's indirectly responsible for at least two deaths. And he has time to adapt his adventures to fit a ghosted autobiography he's writing for an elderly actress...

Entertaining in a very Sparkish way, but I'm not sure if it does anything beyond that. There may well be a serious moral tale buried under all that exuberant chaos, but if there is, it's so convoluted and ambiguous that few readers are going to bother to work it out.

Bearbeitet: Okt. 17, 2018, 8:09am

>10 thorold: "... known for his subsequent writings on the European Enlightenment, where he controversially gives the leading role to Spinoza"

And why not?! Seriously though, could you elaborate a little - I am always interested in Spinoza.

>17 thorold: You've definitely captured this one. Unfortunately I rely on translations, so had to wait for this year for a good one. I read this in July (and I'm even further behind in my reading post). Although the reading was definitely out of the suggested reading order, it didn't seem to make any difference, although anyone reading it should definitely read L'Argent and La Curée too.

>18 thorold: Wonderful look at Coetzee.

Okt. 17, 2018, 9:25am

>20 SassyLassy: could you elaborate...?

Even though I’ve survived years of presenting shaky data to rooms full of sceptical managers since then, that phrase still manages to call up the awful sensation you get in tutorials when you’re reading an essay out and you realise from the look on your tutor’s face that you’ve just said something more than usually sweeping and implausible, and he knows you don’t have any authorities in reserve to back it up with...

I haven’t read Israel’s books on the Enlightenment (yet). What I gather from the abstracts and from Israel’s Wikipedia page is that the controversial issue is how he sees relative moderates like Locke and Montesquieu as a kind of evolutionary dead end, and traces all the Enlightenment ideas that really changed the world back to the most radical thinkers, especially Spinoza. But that’s probably a huge over-simplification of what he actually says.

Zola: I agree, reading order rarely seems to matter much, apart from the first and last books. We go back and forth in time anyway. I noticed that, whilst Eugène was mentioned a couple of times in La Curée, Aristide didn’t appear at all in this book, and the rebuilding of Paris was only mentioned a couple of times rather indirectly.

Okt. 17, 2018, 9:12pm

>18 thorold: you might relay to the South African member of your book club that I enjoyed these reviews of Coetzee.

Okt. 18, 2018, 8:16am

>21 thorold: It was kind of tongue in cheek, knowing that sensation all too well myself, but I truly was interested in the idea of Spinoza having such an effect. Just read the Margaret Jacob review in the LRB, "Spinoza Got It".

Bearbeitet: Okt. 18, 2018, 2:43pm

>23 SassyLassy: Yes, Spinoza's definitely very interesting. I keep meaning to follow up on Steven Nadler's A book forged in hell, which I read a couple of years ago, but haven't got very far yet.

Just such a nuisance that whenever you ask for his work in a bookshop you risk getting handed Florence Craye's latest novel instead...

Not the immortal (but elusive) Spindrift, but still a book I came across and got sucked into when I was looking for something quite different.

Old Filth (2004) by Jane Gardam (UK, 1928- )


Jane Gardam has been writing fiction for both adults and children since the seventies, and there are nearly 2000 copies of this book on LT, but for some reason I never seem to have come across her before. Maybe I was just a year or two too old to notice her children's books when they started to become known? My loss, anyway.

It took me a little while to get properly involved with this novel, in which an elderly, retired colonial judge looks back on a life that is quite different from the smooth ride everyone else assumes he must have had.

Gardam is not an aggressively witty or sophisticated writer, and she doesn't do much to haul the reader in at the outset. Her favoured technique seems to be to sneak in towards something that will give us a deeper insight into her characters, but then turn back just before she gets there, leaving us dangling until the next opportunity. An approach that can be very effective, but makes this read almost more like a novel of the 1950s than one written just over a decade ago. This slightly archaic feeling is reinforced by the subject-matter, of course: there are strong echoes of Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs Palfrey in Gardam's tough-but-emotionally-scarred survivors of upper-class colonial childhoods, and of course (as she acknowledges) the voice of the most famously damaged Raj child, Kipling, is never far away. But Gardam brings in plenty of material that goes beyond the obvious - having been married to a QC for many years she is able to write about ageing barristers without making it sound like a pastiche of Rumpole (not that John Mortimer would ever take on a judge as a sympathetic main character!), and the cameo appearance of Queen Mary is a rather splendid touch. I wouldn't quite put in on my list of 100 greatest books, but it does go a step or two beyond being merely entertaining and well-researched.

Okt. 18, 2018, 5:01pm

>20 SassyLassy: >22 dchaikin: Coetzee

- I’m looking forward to discussing it with the book club in a couple of weeks. I feel I only scraped the surface with what I wrote there. There’s just so much going on that presses buttons for me. The whole bilingualism thing, for instance, or the way he keeps both the interest in literature and that in maths and computers going, but also feels it’s a weakness in himself not to be able to decide for one or the other. And lots of other stuff...

Okt. 18, 2018, 8:45pm

"Her favoured technique seems to be to sneak in towards something that will give us a deeper insight into her characters, but then turn back just before she gets there, leaving us dangling until the next opportunity."

Enjoyed your Gardam review. And it looks like there may be more Coetzee in your future.

Okt. 19, 2018, 7:13am

>24 thorold: I love Gardam's oblique approach to her characters and their lives in that book. I haven't read the next two in the series (The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends), in part I think because I anticipate some slight disappointment when they're stacked up against the first. It's been long enough since I read it, though, that maybe they wouldn't suffer by comparison. I did really like that first one, which is probably in my top 100.

Okt. 19, 2018, 2:23pm

>27 lisapeet: Well, as it happens, I had an unexpected day of idleness today, so I went right on and read the other two...

The Man in the Wooden Hat (2009) by Jane Gardam (UK, 1928- )
Last friends (2013) by Jane Gardam (UK, 1928- )


The storyline of Old Filth doesn't seem to offer much scope for sequels - it's pretty much a cradle-to-grave novel, with no obvious sign of a younger generation following - but, like Laurence Durrell in The Alexandria Quartet, or like Ford Maddox Ford in The good soldier, Gardam uses the trick of going back over essentially the same material from the viewpoint of a different central character, and showing us how it can all be read with quite a different slant. I think she must have had FMF in the back of her mind - Sir Edward Feathers sometimes seems to have more than a hint of Ashburnham (or even Tietjens) about him.

The man in the wooden hat puts Feathers's wife, Betty, in the spotlight, and shows us something about the history of the love affair hinted at in the first book, but what it's really interested in is the way two people who are married for fifty years and may be presumed to know each other better than anyone else does, can still have important pieces of their lives that they aren't prepared to share - whether or not their "secrets" are really secret. And what the presence of those "secrets" in their lives means to them.

I felt that this was perhaps even a better, more complicated novel than Old Filth, although it's difficult to assess, because it does also rest quite heavily on the heavy work of exposition and scene-setting that's already been done in the first volume. Certainly, Gardam seems to be more comfortable with Betty as a character, and is more prepared to take risks and let herself be witty.

Last friends moves the perspective to Feathers's rival, Sir Terry Veneering, and to another barrister who has played rather a minor role in the story up to now, Fiscal-Smith. It turns out that whilst everyone else is a Child of Empire, these two rather anomalously grew up in a Catherine Cookson novel. Somehow, the plunge into back-to-backs, flat caps, coal-carts and gleaning on the beach didn't feel quite right in the light of the rest of the story (although I'm sure Gardam, who grew up in the North-East in the thirties herself, is well-qualified to write about it). But the real interest of this one is not so much that additional background as the investigation into the way old age and the ticking of the clock pressures you to change the way you handle your relations with contemporaries and younger people. Resentments, secrets and passions are still there, but can you afford to let them get between you and the last few people who have any understanding of the things you have lived through?

Okt. 30, 2018, 5:44am

A few reviews to catch up with after another little holiday in an extraordinary building, via Landmark Trust - this time we were staying in the attics of the Villa dei Vescovi, built in the 16th century as a summer residence for the Archbishops of Padua. (More info here:

I would say something about coming back to rainy Holland, but you'll have seen on the news how much it was raining in Northern Italy when we left on Monday. Fortunately we weren't in the area directly affected by the floods, but it was very bumpy flying over the Alps.

Okt. 30, 2018, 6:01am

Another Maigret, since I had a longish flight and a change of planes in Munich to cope with (not that I need an excuse):

Cécile est morte (1942; Maigret and the spinster/Cécile is dead) by Georges Simenon (France, 1903-1989)


Cécile has been coming to see Maigret for some time to complain about mysterious nocturnal goings-on in the apartment she shares with her elderly aunt, to the extent that she's become a standing joke with Maigret's subordinates, but so far the police haven't found any sign of wrong-doing. But then the aunt is found murdered and Cécile goes missing, only to turn up dead in a broom cupboard in the Palace of Justice. Embarrassing for the police, to say the least, but it gives Maigret an excuse to shift his attention from a tedious surveillance operation elsewhere and dig into the backgrounds of the miserly aunt and her downstairs neighbour, a shady debarred lawyer from Fontenay-le-Comte.

A fairly routine sort of Maigret, but with enough nice touches to keep the reader's attention.

Okt. 30, 2018, 6:21am

An Ali Smith novel I'd missed up to now:

Hotel world (2001) by Ali Smith‬ (UK, 1962- )


Maybe I was reading this in the wrong conditions, but it didn't grab me quite as much as the other novels by Ali Smith that I've read. There are a lot of good things in it, as you would expect: the opening conceit of the ghost trying to retain a grip on the physical world and having an argument with her own decaying body; the hotel chain as a metaphor for impersonal capitalist society; the homeless woman looking into illuminated windows and seeing snapshots of other people's lives; the tantalising reflections on the arbitrariness of loss and death, and a lot of very clever, witty language. But there also seemed to be long stretches where the prose was just coasting along and didn't quite have that grab-you-by-the-lapels quality that Smith's writing usually has. This is probably one that I will need to re-read before I can really make my mind up about it.

Okt. 30, 2018, 6:49am

Since I was in the Veneto...

(Hmm. The second book in a week about a lawyer running a prostitution empire. I wonder if there's a pattern here?)

A Venetian reckoning (1995; a.k.a. Death and judgment) by Donna Leon (USA, 1942- )


In this fourth outing for Commissario Brunetti, he gets to investigate the death of a prominent Venetian lawyer who has been shot in the Padua to Venice train, and soon finds himself dealing with a nasty web of organised crime and political corruption.

These are entertaining novels: Leon is very good at keeping the Venetian background at the right level so that we feel almost like insiders, not tourists, and she is clever at characterising Brunetti through the way his relationship with his wife and teenage daughter works, but unfortunately she doesn't seem to be very interested in devising inventive mystery plots, possibly because she is so preoccupied with (usually well-justified) ranting about the evils of Italian society. Brunetti has to make do with endless variations on the three investigative tactics Leon allows him - having lunch/coffee/dinner with attractive, well-dressed women; making off-the-record phone calls to other policemen he believes not to be corrupt; and putting himself into danger late at night in shady parts of Mestre. He goes through the motions, and after 250 pages or so the author relents and tells him who did it. But, of course, Italian society being what it is (in Leon's world, at least), the real villains are rarely if ever brought to justice, and Brunetti might well ask himself why he bothers.

Bearbeitet: Nov. 1, 2018, 6:05pm

This is a wonderfully obscure book I'd probably never have heard about if Dilara86 hadn't reviewed it on her thread: - many thanks for making it visible!

In the course of the discussion there, we found out that by a lucky chance the first English translation of Hayîm Habshûsh's manuscript is coming out at the end of 2018, so there's no excuse not to read this (well, OK, it will be a prohibitively expensive university press doorstep edition, but apart from that...). Details here:
Like Dilara, I read the book in the 1995 French translation by Samia Naïm of CNRS, who was also responsible for the first publication of the original text in Arabic some years before.

Yémen (1995) by Hayîm Habshûsh (Yemen, 1833-1899), translated by Samia Naïm-Sanbar


The French orientalist Joseph Halévy visited Yemen in 1869-1870, travelling in parts of the country no Westerner had got to since Roman times, and came back with a huge collection of transcriptions of Sabaean inscriptions that revolutionised the study of the ancient history of the Arabian peninsula.

Twenty years later, another traveller, the Austrian Eduard Glaser, also collecting Sabaean inscriptions in Yemen, met a man called Hayîm Habshûsh, a Jewish coppersmith and antiquary from Sana'a, who told him that he had accompanied Halévy on all his travels in the interior of Yemen, and assisted him by copying inscriptions, but that Halévy had expunged him from the published record of his travels. Glaser encouraged Habshûsh to write down the story of the journey from his own point of view. Obviously it's a rare and fascinating thing to have an account of an orientalist expedition from the local's point-of-view, but Glaser was possibly more interested in the chance of annoying his academic rival. But he was also very interested in getting an example of a written text by a Yemeni Jew for linguistic analysis: we see this when he interrupts Habshûsh about a quarter of the way though to tell him off for writing in classical Hebrew; Habshûsh switches to his everyday language of Arabic written in Hebrew characters (and also changes from giving dates withJewish-style year numbers to Islamic ones!). Glaser doesn't seem to have done anything with Habshûsh's manuscript, and it remained unpublished until S.D. Goitein published a Hebrew version in 1939.

Habshûsh is a gloriously eccentric, rambling narrator, who keeps straying off the track of his journey with Halévy to give us apparently random background information about the customs of the people he's travelling amongst, or recounting anecdotes which have some vague relevance to those people, their ancestors, or their descendants. It's a very sitting-around-the-fire sort of story, it's no good being impatient and trying to skip ahead. Especially since the manuscript seems to be incomplete (or unfinished) - it just tails off a little before Halévy and Habshûsh get back to Sana'a. You have to sit back and enjoy the detail, which actually tells you quite a lot about the complexities of life in Yemen, especially about the relations between Arabs and Jews.

A lot of what Habshûsh tells us was obviously almost as strange to him, a city dweller who rarely ventured out of Sana'a, as it is to us. Jews had a client-status in Yemeni society, rather like women and slaves - they were not allowed to carry arms to defend themselves, and had to pay protection money to a tribal leader who would take it as a matter of honour to avenge any wrong done to them. The fine (blood-money) for killing a Jew or a woman was four times higher than that for killing an Arab warrior. Habshûsh seems to have mixed feelings about Ottoman rule - in some ways it made society more orderly and protected Jews against the arbitrary rapaciousness of tribal leaders, but in other ways it messed up the clientage system by making Jews pay taxes to the state and taking away the protector's sense of obligation.

Halévy and Habshûsh have all sorts of adventures on their travels - they are robbed, taken for spies, djinns, or witches, imprisoned, they suffer hunger and thirst in the desert, have to deal with snakes and scorpions, but they also meet with a lot of kindness from strangers who are sometimes even worse off than they are. Jewish solidarity and the Arab tradition of hospitality are obviously both very important. As is the ritualised sharing of news between travellers (which both T.E. Lawrence and Wilfred Thesiger discuss at length in their books) - Habshûsh finally seems to lose his patience with Halévy when they are rushing back to Sana'a and Halévy tells him that they have no time to spare to stop and gossip with everyone they meet. This is a simply unthinkable breach of desert protocol!

It's fun to try to match up Habshûsh's account with Halévy's, but I didn't get very far with this. There are only a very small number of incidents that they both describe - and of course they have strikingly different versions, since Halévy does all his own negotiating, exploring, fighting and transcribing in his version, whilst in Habshûsh the honoured maître is so conspicuous and clumsy a foreigner that he can barely go out in public without starting a riot, and it's Habshûsh who has to do everything for him, especially scrambling up mountains in search of bits of stone with Sabaean characters on them. (And it's a nightmare trying to match-up the places they visit, since the two books use different conventions for romanising Arab names.)

I don't suppose there's any actual evidence after this length of time to prove which of them was stretching the truth - they both have something to gain from a bit of self-glorification, but Halévy's motivation to lie is probably stronger, since he can't have anticipated that Habshûsh would ever get to tell his version. One obvious reason to write Habshûsh out of the story is that travelling with a Jewish companion and staying with Jewish people puts Halévy's own Jewishness in the centre of the story, something that he probably would have wanted to play down as far as possible in the France of the 1870s. On the other hand, Habshûsh comes across as a colourful storyteller, not a precise witness. And if we were really being devil's advocate - what's to prove that Glaser didn't make the whole thing up as a joke? (OK, I'm sure someone must have checked that...)

Obviously, the academic world of the 21st century has a strong motivation to dig up voices like Habshûsh's, who give the orientalised a chance to speak for themselves, so it's not unreasonable to assume that he's been given a bit more benefit of the doubt than he's really entitled to. Fortunately, we don't have to decide on this, and can simply enjoy his text for what it is, a great story of adventure in distant lands, told from a rather unusual perspective.


Joseph Halévy's 1872 account of the journey is available here: (The first 50 pages or so describe the journey in an entertaining travelogue; the rest of the book is all technical stuff about the Sabaean inscriptions.)

Nov. 1, 2018, 8:06pm

>33 thorold: fascinating review.

Nov. 2, 2018, 10:19am

I might chase this one down too, once it’s available on English. Enjoyed your review.

Nov. 3, 2018, 7:48am

Sounds fascinating!

Bearbeitet: Nov. 4, 2018, 6:52am

Something completely different...

I've rather lost sight of Daniel Kehlmann since Die Vermessung der Welt (the third book I reviewed after joining LT in April 2007!), but his latest novel caught my eye on a Munich airport bookstall. Where it was just about the only German book on offer that wasn't a self-help manual or a translation of a Swedish or American thriller.

Born in Germany, but mostly growing up in Austria, Kehlmann is a member of a well-established literary dynasty, the son of a prominent (Jewish-)Austrian stage director and the grandson of a Viennese expressionist writer. He published his first novel in his early 20s, and first came to international prominence with Ich und Kaminski in 2003.

This hasn't come out in English yet, but it's obviously written with the Anglo-Saxon market in mind, so I'm sure it will:

Tyll (2017) by Daniel Kehlmann (Germany, Austria, 1975- )


The tale of the itinerant prankster Tyll Eulenspiegel (spelled in a million different ways...) has a similar sort of standing in German folklore to that of Robin Hood in England - written versions of the story go back at least to the earliest printed chapbooks, and places all over Germany claim associations with him, but no-one has ever found any convincing evidence that he really existed. The story is usually set in the first half of the 14th century, but Kehlmann has chosen to update it to the Thirty Years War (1618-48), a high-risk strategy because it means he's setting himself up to be compared to some of the most distinguished works in the German canon. Everyone who's anybody, from Grimmelshausen to Brecht, has used this particular conflict to illustrate the random, all-embracing horror of war, so it would be a challenge for any writer to try to find something new and worthwhile to say about it...

Kehlmann, of course, is extremely good at what he does, and he's produced a fluent, engaging and intelligent historical novel, a real page-turner that I raced through in a couple of days (and it's not a short book!). He brings Tyll together with real historical figures of the period, in particular Elizabeth Stuart, the "Winter Queen" (you've got to have something for the English readers...) and Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, the last of the great pre-Cartesian polymaths, the man who amongst many, many other things "solved" Egyptian hieroglyphs incorrectly, just missed discovering the cause of the plague, and almost invented the magic lantern. Gustavus Adolphus gets a memorable walk-on appearance. Never named, but a powerful presence just offstage, is Shakespeare, and we also get quite a few references to the Gunpowder Plot, so there's plenty to keep you amused even if your memories of Lützen, Wallenstein and the Peace of Westphalia are a bit vague.

What this book seems to be about is theatrical performance and the way it briefly gives the performer power - for good or ill - over the audience. Tyll, in Kehlmann's version, is a victim of his times who finds that performing and getting people to do things they didn't want to is the only way that he can assert his human identity and stay alive, despite all the logic that says he should have been squashed long ago by the forces of cruelty, war and intolerance. Elizabeth is addicted to performance, seemingly never understanding that she isn't merely an actor on a stage, and that her disastrous (Shakespeare-inspired) ambition to enter politics and play the role of a queen has plunged Europe into three decades of total war. And Kircher is also a performer, a laughable nonentity who has trapped himself into playing the role of a great scientist and does it so convincingly that everyone believes him, even when he comes out with leaps of logic that only Terry Pratchett could get away with. (Dragons are known to be invisible. Holstein is the one place in Germany where no-one has ever reported seeing a dragon, therefore there must be a dragon in Holstein...)

Fun and quite rewarding, but perhaps promises a bit more than it actually delivers.

Nov. 7, 2018, 11:58am

...and moving back a century:

I bought this in January, after someone recommended it and I happened to see a copy in a bookshop - I knew that I recognised the author's name, but it took me ages before the penny dropped that this was the same Geoffrey Parker who wrote the Pelican book on The Dutch Revolt that I first read some forty years ago. Largely thanks to Prof. Israel, it's taken me a little while to get around to reading it.

Imprudent king : a new life of Philip II (2014) by Geoffrey Parker (UK, 1943- )


If you grew up in northern Europe, Philip II has to count as one of the most indispensable bogeymen in history. What would we do without the little shiver that goes down our spines whenever someone uses the words "inquisition" or "armada"? Who else came as close to reversing the reformation in England and the northern Netherlands? Who else was implicated in so many secret assassination plots at home and abroad?

But Philip is also the first ruler who can claim to have had an empire "on which the sun never sets", with a global spread of dominions and a length of time in power that comes pretty close to rivalling even Queen Victoria. Admittedly, he did even less to deserve it than she did - most of the hard work was done for him by his Hapsburg ancestors industriously marrying their cousins for generation after generation until there was practically nothing they weren't in line to inherit. Fortunately for everyone, Philip's one serious attempt to extend his realms by marriage himself was nullified by the early death of Mary Tudor. As Parker points out, if she'd lived as long as her sister did, or if she'd managed to produce children with Philip, that really would have been the end of the reformation in England, and probably in the Netherlands as well.

The interesting question, of course, is how someone who seems to have been an intelligent, well-educated (by the standards of princes) and cultivated ruler, and who had the vast resources of the Americas to draw on, as well as some of Europe's most sophisticated bureaucracies and intelligence networks and its most powerful army, managed to lose so many wars, to bankrupt his country twice and leave it depopulated and impoverished, and to fail so completely in his prime strategic goal of suppressing protestantism.

Parker looks in detail at the way Philip worked - his correspondence and daily routine, the committees he dealt with, the orders he sent and the reports he received, and so on - and seems to have come to the conclusion that he was essentially a middle-manager promoted above his level of competence. Philip wasted endless amounts of time on settling the detail of minor matters (and on his own pet projects, especially the Escorial) but didn't give clear policy direction on the big things, and hated delegating responsibility to the people he had appointed to run things on the spot. Despite 16th century postal delays, he was constantly trying to interfere with day-to-day matters in Brussels or Lisbon, resulting in confusion and delay and discouraging those around him from using their own initiative. And above all, he was convinced that he was doing God's work, so he was not particularly open to considering the possibility of failure or putting in place a "plan B". All of which sometimes means that this book starts reading like a 21st century management textbook instead of 16th century history...

But there's still plenty of period atmosphere around as well. There's a lot about Philip's relations with his father, his four wives, and his children (but the Don Carlos tragedy turns out to be less romantic than in Schiller's version!), there's a whole chapter on the murder of Juan de Escobedo and the subsequent cover-up, and more on the various plots to assassinate or marry Queen Elizabeth of England. Not much on culture, though - we have to be content with a couple of passing mentions of Cervantes. Philip doesn't seem to have been much interested in the arts much, apart from architecture, and anyway he obviously wouldn't have been a very good patron of the arts, since he always knew better than the experts...

This is Parker's third go at a biography of Philip II - the first one, which came out in 1978, remained in print in various editions until quite recently; then, in 2010 there was a colossal new scholarly life in Spanish, aptly titled Felipe II: la biografía definitiva and incorporating the fruits of vast amounts of digging in additional collections of state papers that had become accessible since the 70s; Imprudent King is essentially an abridged translation of the Spanish book, cut down to around 375 pages of narrative text (plus about 75 of notes and appendices), but it still contains more than enough detail for all but the most obsessive of general readers, and it's a very readable, pleasantly unacademic kind of a book to deal with.

Nov. 7, 2018, 7:21pm

Imprudent King sounds a worthy book right at the centre of my current interest in history. I might just get around to it so that I can compare the Spanish culture of ruling monarchs with the Tudors. Philip II certainly got a bad press in England, but this may have been more late Tudor propoganda.

Bearbeitet: Nov. 8, 2018, 11:11am

>39 baswood: Yes, it also struck me as a very interesting account of what kings (16th century ones, at least) actually do.

I realised that I had another Hapsburg-related book on my TBR shelf:

Die Kapuzinergruft (1938; The emperor's tomb) by Joseph Roth‬ (Austria, 1894-1939)


This is one of Roth's last books, and decidedly not an optimistic one. The narrator, Franz Ferdinand Trotta (a distant cousin of the Trottas from Radetzkymarsch) watches with a jaundiced eye as the Dual Monarchy falls apart in the First World War and then the Alpentrottel (Roth's not very flattering term for German Austrians) collude with the Saupreußen from over the border to smash up what's left, culminating in March 1938 with the Nazi takeover. All that Trotta can think of to do as the swastika flags go up and Jewish businesses close down is to go and pay his respects to the late Franz Joseph, the last decent Austrian.

As usual with Roth, there are layers and layers of irony to get through, and this is also obviously a book that was written in a hurry and in a bad temper, so it isn't always clear which message we're supposed to be taking from the book, but the general thrust seems to be that however flawed it was in detail, the Hapsburg monarchy provided peace, stability and order for the people at its periphery, a world in which Trotta's chestnut-roasting cousin Joseph Branco could travel to sell his wares wherever he chose in Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia or Galicia without a visa, in which a Jewish cab-driver from Galicia could send his son to the Conservatorium in Vienna (if he happened to know the right aristocrat to pull strings for him) and in which Trotta could enter a café anywhere in the empire and know exactly what to expect. The small-minded cult of nationalism has missed the point, Roth seems to be arguing, by ignoring the huge benefits of living in a world without borders. And that's obviously a point we would do well to remember today as well.

On the other hand, it's sometimes difficult to know when we're supposed to sympathise with Trotta's defeatist conservatism and when we should be laughing at him. A large part of his disenchantment with the post-war world comes as a result of his impetuous marriage, on the eve of mobilisation, to a girlfriend who, when he returns to her after four years absence as a PoW in Russia, turns out to be both in love with another woman and determined to earn her own living as an avant-garde designer (it's hard to say which of these things horrifies him more...). What's more, although he and his mother can no longer live on their inheritance, Trotta makes no effort at all to change his life and find a job. What's the point, when the world is only going to end anyway?

Fun to see a buried Švejk reference when, at the outset of the war, Roth sets it up so that Trotta and a corrupt military chaplain have to make a complex journey together in pursuit of the rapidly-retreating regiment they are supposed to be joining...

Interesting, provocative, but a bit unsatisfying. A great writer caught at a moment in his life when he obviously wasn't at his best and couldn't see any way out for the world.

Nov. 10, 2018, 6:59am

Still chipping away at the TBR pile after a couple of recent splurges of book-buying. After removing this one, it's down to a fairly respectable 117 books, which once again (just about) fit on the three shelves I keep for the purpose. That's normally bad news, it only encourages me to go out and find a few more to pile on top and fill it up again...

I bought this a couple of months ago, and I'm not exactly sure why it caught my eye, since neither of the two novels by Homes I've read before this completely won me over (Jack in 1989 and This book will save your life in 2006), and my experience with 21st century short story collections in general has been pretty underwhelming so far. But I think I did have the idea in the back of my mind that Homes is a risk-taker, and writers who are prepared to step outside the realm of the safe and commercial these days are not so common that we can afford to ignore them!

Days of Awe (2018) by A. M. Homes (USA, 1961- )


This is an interesting collection, which isn't afraid to push boundaries and experiment with form: Homes clearly isn't someone who would ever accept being tied down to the "Creative Writing" idea of what a short story should be. As you would expect, that sort of approach is something that can work either brilliantly or disastrously, but it's rarely sitting anywhere near the comfortable middle ground. There are a couple of what I thought were really excellent, unforgettable stories in this collection, but there are also quite a few that I really didn't like. And I'm pretty sure that many other readers will feel the same thing, but come up with an entirely different list of hits and misses...

What really grabbed me? The title story, first of all, in which a Transgressive Novelist and a War Correspondent have a brief fling during an academic conference on "Genocide(S)", and Homes cleverly manages to get them to debate the thorny question of imaginative fiction versus reportage from first-hand experience whilst going to bed with each other, eating apples and ice-cream, and rediscovering their Jewishness. A real tour-de-force, where you know the writer must be playing you in cunning ways from beginning to end, but you're never really aware of it. And "The National Cage Bird Show", where a traumatised soldier serving in Afghanistan and an overprivileged teenage girl in New York stray into the discussion on a chat forum dedicated to parakeets, where neither of them has any obvious business to be, and find themselves unexpectedly bonding - or at least imagine themselves to be, until the real world catches up with both of them. And "A Prize for Every Player", where a family who have turned their weekly shopping expedition into a complicated game come out with a couple of unexpected rewards. And a couple of very clever short-short stories, where a complicated life-event is unpacked in the space of a single dialogue pared down to the absolute minimum.

What didn't work so well for me were the several stories where Homes plays with the same satirical view of the artificial life of the Los Angeles wealthy that she developed in This book.... I just couldn't see how she could find these people interesting or important enough to bother with the considerable effort of making fun of them, and I'm not all that sure that she could, either.

Like all worthwhile short story collections, a curate's egg, but (messing up the metaphor) one that's worth it for the good bits.

Bearbeitet: Nov. 12, 2018, 4:49am

This one's been on the TBR shelf since May 2017 - I'm not quite sure why I bought it, I think it may have been one of those things stuck on the end of an order at the last minute to qualify for free postage...

Un brillant avenir (2008) by Catherine Cusset (France, USA, 1963- )


Catherine Cusset is a French writer who has lived in the USA since the early 1990s. Before becoming a full-time novelist, she taught 18th century French literature at Yale. Despite her being firmly embedded in anglophone culture, it looks as though the only one of her dozen published novels to have been translated into English so far is The story of Jane (1999).

Un brillant avenir is Cusset's best-known work in French to date, having won the prestigious Goncourt des lycéens in 2008.

In Bucharest in 1958, Elena's parents tell her not to have any more to do with Jacob - if she marries him, he'll only drag her off to Israel and she won't be happy there because she isn't Jewish. In New Jersey in 1990, Elena (now Helen) and Jacob tell their son Alexandru not to marry Marie - she'll only want to drag him off to France, and he won't be happy there...

Through several generations of a Romanian-American family, Cusset looks with a mixture of irony and agony at some of the complex ways relations between generations can fail to work - not just the alarming tendency of parents to repeat, with the best possible intentions, the exact same mistakes that their own parents made in trying to ensure that their children get the brilliant future they obviously deserve, but also the astonishing way we can manage to give offence to our in-laws and start epic feuds without even noticing it.

It's tempting to imagine that Cusset set out on this exercise as a way of releasing her feelings about her real-life mother-in-law, but then got so interested in the character of Elena that she let her take over and become the sympathetic focus of the book, in which the French daughter-in-law ends up a rather peripheral and not always very endearing figure. Elena is the fighter whose determination gets her family out of Romania and via Israel to the US; she's the dreamy reader of Tolstoy and Victor Hugo who carves out a career in nuclear physics (how many works of literary fiction can you think of where a female scientist is the central character?) and then reinvents herself as a software engineer; she's the little girl who never discovers for sure whether her adoptive parents are also her biological parents; and she's also the mother-in-law who can never bring herself to believe that her son's wife is treating him right...

A fascinating and very readable novel - for once, I think the mixing-up of the timeline, juxtaposing parallel incidents from different generations, is not just a gimmick or a way of delaying a big reveal, but does actually add something to the book. I think I'll be looking out for some more of Cusset's work.

Nov. 12, 2018, 5:37am

>42 thorold: And that's another book on my wishlist...

Bearbeitet: Nov. 15, 2018, 6:41am

>43 Dilara86: Coals to Newcastle! :-)

I had to make a couple of online orders for upcoming book-club picks, and predictably ended up ordering some other books as well, so I've got four new books heading towards the TBR pile. But at least I've managed to finish one more fat one that's been sitting there too long.

I bought this in June 2017, which wasn't a very good moment for starting a demanding and fairly long novel in Spanish (I was in my last few weeks at work, and things were a bit stressful...). Nonetheless, I spent an afternoon on it and read the first couple of chapters, but then put it back on the shelf, and didn't come back to it again until this week. At the time I bought this book, it was his most recent novel, but in the time it's taken me to get around to reading it he's written another one...

Así empieza lo malo (2014; Thus bad begins) by Javier Marías (Spain, 1951- )


Javier Marías is probably the best-known living writer in Spanish after Vargas Llosa. I've read about seven of his novels: for those who don't know his books, the trilogy Your face tomorrow is the work that really stands out.

Madrid in 1980 is still in its most hedonistic "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" phase, with everyone who is young enough and has the money partying through the night, every night, to make up for the lost decades of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. But there's also the worrying certainty that the next right-wing coup attempt can't be very far away, and a dangerous sense of moral vacuum because of the general amnesty for political abuses during the civil war and dictatorship and the resulting reluctance to talk openly about anyone's recent past.

The narrator, Juan de Vere, has just graduated and found his first job, working as secretary/researcher for the well-known B-movie director Eduardo Muriel. He often has to stay overnight in Muriel's Madrid flat, and thus gets to know the family rather well. It's not long before he realises that there is something very wrong with Eduardo's marriage to Beatriz - although he behaves impeccably toward her in public, within the family sphere he refuses her any kind of intimacy and addresses her with insults that seem to have the same sort of forced and stagy quality as those that Hamlet addresses to his mother in the scene Marías is referring to with his title (e.g. when he accuses her of lying "in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, / Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty"). It appears that Beatriz has done something a long time ago that Eduardo considers he should not forgive, and he persists with his rejection even though he's clearly doing her serious damage and hurting himself as well. The two of them seem unable to separate. Divorce doesn't exist yet in Spain, as Juan reminds us several times, but even if it did, they seem to be so tied up in each other that it's difficult for Juan to imagine them living apart.

Whilst he works his way gradually towards discovering what it actually is that caused the rift, Juan discovers that there are some other shadows over Beatriz's life as well, and begins to investigate the past of one of the members of Eduardo's entourage, a shady paediatrician called Van Vechten who specialises in blackmailing women into granting him sexual favours.

As usual in a Marías novel, it takes a long time for the narrative to wind its way towards the unlocking of the mystery. As well as the usual philosophical digressions about the nature of time, the mysterious process of growing-up and the ways it changes our perception of the world - or fails to - justice and whether it really exists, and much else, we also get plenty of real-world detours, in the course of which we find out a lot we didn't know we didn't know about Shakespeare, B-movies, Harry Alan Towers, Mariella Novotny, the Profumo affair, Casanova's brother the painter Francesco Giuseppe, Harley-Davidsons in cinema, and the "Movimiento apostólico de Darmstadt". It all seems to be fairly reliable information, except for the last of these, where Marías or his publisher obviously decided they couldn't get away with portraying the real-life Schönstatt Movement (well-known for its influence in Chile) as a mere front for undercover Pinochet supporters, and therefore gave it some mischievously incongruous Bauhaus overtones...

One very characteristic feature of a Marías novel is the way the narrators admit to being unable to avoid thinking about sex at particularly inappropriate moments, especially when they find the (equally characteristic) dead or injured female character. This time Marías overdoes himself by taking a heterosexual male narrator who is at a stage in his life where he apparently does 98% of his thinking with his genitals (he's supposed to be describing these events thirty-something years later, so perhaps it would be more accurate to say that 98% of what he remembers is sex-related....). During most of the book, Marías gets Juan to describe the male characters from the neck up and the female characters from the waist down. Only Beatriz, the most important female character, actually has a face, but whenever Juan gets around to looking at it, either the eyes are closed, or it's obscured behind a frosted glass door. At other times, even when he's prompted to look up, he doesn't get beyond chest-height. Even Ian Fleming would probably realise that Marías is trolling the "male gaze" here! (Incidentally, there's a brief cameo appearance at one point in the book by one of the most famous Bond girls, the gold-painted Shirley Eaton, to make sure we spot that the Ian Fleming way of looking at the world is relevant here.)

Another classic Marías tic that is very evident in this book is the problem he has getting his characters across thresholds. It's not quite as bad as the famous doorbell in Your face tomorrow (where an entire volume intervenes between the bell ringing and the door opening), but there are several points where a chapter or two of digressions passes in between the pushing of the door handle and the door opening. And the wonderful scene where three characters are rushing to rescue Beatriz who, they fear, may have made a suicide attempt in a hotel room. Before Juan gets into the room, he's imagined, in considerable detail and with plenty of variations and alternatives, three possible scenes that they might find inside; just as the door opens it occurs to him that there is a fourth possibility, the scenario in which Beatriz has done nothing yet and will decide when she sees the door opening whether or not to jump off the balcony.

Something else he enjoys is teasing us with the non-event - we get pages and pages of foreplay, but very little sex; there's a big lead-up to the set-piece dinner-party with a whole slew of interesting real-world guests that's clearly going to be the centre-piece of the narrative - but then it's cancelled at the last minute. And so on. You never quite know where you are with a Marías narrative - is he going to come back to that point, or did we blink and miss it?

Although Marías is always on the side of his female characters and makes sure that we understand that the bad things that happen to them are the result of wrongs done to them - deliberately or negligently - by male characters, and although you would have to be very obtuse to take his narrators as moral guides, I always have a little bit of a problem with his books because he does so frequently portray women as mere victims, and because his male characters - and implicitly, presumably also his male readers - so often get an illicit sexual thrill from seeing their suffering.

Very rewarding, beautiful writing, mostly very enjoyable but occasionally frustrating, sometimes just a little bit annoying...


Hamlet: ...Once more, goodnight:
And when you are desirous to be bless’d,
I’ll blessing beg of you. For this same lord,
I do repent: but heaven hath pleas’d it so,
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. So, again, good-night.
I must be cruel only to be kind:
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.
(Hamlet III:4)

For real pedants only: There's potentially a small quibble about the title of this book in English - of the two definitive Shakespeare texts, the Second Quarto has "This bad begins...", whilst the Folio has "Thus bad begins...". Modern editors differ as to which they prefer. The one I used for my studies, the New Penguin Shakespeare edition by T.J.B. Spencer, which coincidentally appeared in the year in which the novel is set, goes for "This". But Marías obviously reads it as "thus", otherwise the Spanish title would probably have had to be something like "Esto malo empieza".


PS: Am I the only one to wonder "what happens next?" in the Spanish cover image? When the model transfers her weight to the right leg, is the shelf over the washbasin going to collapse, the bathtub going to escape its moorings and tip up, or will the model slide back and end up face-down in the water...? (the painting is "Stepping out the bath" by Balthus)

Bearbeitet: Nov. 15, 2018, 10:26am

...and a quick in-between read. When I last reviewed an Ian Buruma book, in April, I mentioned that he had recently been appointed editor of the NYRB. That didn't last long, did it...?

A Tokyo romance (2018) by Ian Buruma (Netherlands, UK, 1951- )


This is an engaging and often very funny memoir of Buruma's period living in Tokyo in the late seventies, initially as a student of Japanese cinema and later on trying to make his way as a photographer and as a (fringe-) member of a couple of experimental theatre companies. Probably required reading if you are interested in the work of Kara Juro, Terayama Shuji, or Butoh dance, but otherwise it's basically just another account of the gaijin experience, albeit one that benefits from being written by an intelligent, observant professional journalist with the benefit of forty years of hindsight and no real need to prove himself any more (well, not at the time he wrote this, anyway...).

Nov. 15, 2018, 11:15am

Slightly off-topic, but I've been watching Edgar Reitz's film series Heimat again on DVDs, probably about 20 years after I last watched it - I got to the end of the first series last night, which deals with the lives of several generations of a family in a village in the Hunsrück between 1919 and 1982. Surprisingly captivating - and worth watching again over a short spell because it made it so much easier to keep track of all the many characters. The first time I watched it I left a few quite long gaps between episodes and kept getting mixed up about what and whom I'd seen before.

There's a bit of nostalgia involved for me, of course - not that I have any direct connections with the Hunsrück, but of course I had a lot of relatives who belonged to the generations involved in the films (my grandparents and their siblings correspond roughly with the second generation in the films, born ca. 1900), and some of those people lived in villages not unlike the fictional Schabbach (but on the other side of the Rhine), and Reitz is clever in picking themes that look very local but are actually much broader and correspond to things that would have affected the lives of families in most parts of Germany living through those times. Wherever you come from, if you're honest, everybody knows (of) people in the family or neighbourhood who did their best to profit from the rise of the Nazis, everybody knows people who had a hard time during the financial crash, everyone lost somebody in one or both wars, and in many cases they didn't know for sure that those people weren't coming back until a long time after they were reported missing. And everyone knows somebody who was doing well in business again mysteriously quickly after 1945...

Nov. 16, 2018, 6:21pm

>44 thorold: All that is certain about the model stepping out of the bath is that the floor is going to get wet. Enjoyed your review of Thus Bad Begins and for me an introduction to the writing style of Javier Marias

Bearbeitet: Nov. 17, 2018, 6:38am

>47 baswood: Yes, a wet floor seems to be inevitable...

This is one of two books that have been on my TBR shelf since "time immemorial" (i.e. when I joined LT in April 2007). The other is Melville's Pierre, or the ambiguities, which probably should get a preservation order as a historically unread book...

This one is probably more in baswood's usual territory than mine, but having just made an excursion into the 16th century with Philip II I suppose I'm as near as I'm ever going to be. Not that there's any obvious link to be made with Philip - Pantagruel was published when he was five years old, so theoretically he could have read it illicitly under the desk during boring lessons, but for one thing his French was terrible, and for another there's nothing in the historical record to indicate that he had a sense of humour (or indeed that there was anything that was dull enough to bore him...).

I bought this after reading a very entertaining and rather tongue-in-cheek academic paper by Professor Barbara Bowen comparing the comic imaginations of Rabelais and P.G. Wodehouse (L'esprit créateur, Vol.XVI No.4, Winter 1976, pp.63-77, in case anyone wants to chase it up) and deciding that I ought to find out a bit more about Rabelais. As so often happens, the moment had passed before I got hold of the book, and it's languished on my shelves for many years...

Pantagruel (1532) by François Rabelais (France, 1483/92?-1553)


François Rabelais grew up in Poitou and had a humanist education in Poitiers and Montpellier (and probably also Paris at some point). He was working as a physician in Lyon at the time he wrote Pantagruel. Before launching into the world of satirical comedy, he'd built up connections with local printers by translating and editing medical texts for them.

The story of the giant Pantagruel is presented as the sequel to a popular chapbook of the time, the Grandes et inestimables Chronicques de l'énorme géant Gargantua (although Rabelais later went back and wrote his own prequel about Panatagruel's father, Gargantua) and ties in to a long popular tradition of giant stories. If Rabelais is to be believed (and he insists that everything he tells us is true, so obviously he should be), Gargantua and Pantagruel have a heritage that goes right back to the Book of Genesis, set out in one of the opening chapters in a three-page list of "and he begat ...".

But what's new in Rabelais is that he serves up the grotesque and fantastic elements of the giant story in an incongruous context of humanist renaissance scholarship. Pantagruel is not just any giant, he's a man of the moment, a graduate of the Sorbonne who can debate with visiting scholars, settle law cases, advise on medical matters, and much else, usually taking the opportunity to make scholastics, alchemists, indulgence-sellers and other enemies of humanism look silly in the process. I found it very interesting to discover how often Rabelais reminds us that we are living in a Renaissance surrounded by new, exciting ideas and need to get rid of the clutter of medieval thought. I hadn't expected to find this so explicitly set out! And of course it was this aspect of the books that repeatedly got Rabelais into trouble with the Church and the authorities at the Sorbonne.

However, we all know what "Rabelaisian" means: transgressive humour in glorious excess. And we get a lot of that: double-entendres, hundreds of codpiece and fart jokes, mammoth drinking sessions resulting in oceans of piss, baby giants eating live bears, a whole army sheltering under Pantagruel's tongue, and all the rest of it. I was amused to see how often the editor of the 1964 edition I was using felt he had to resort to blanks and circumlocutions in the Notes for things that were unmistakably explicit in the original text. As if his delicate young readers could be protected from unpleasant words by 16th century spelling conventions alone...

Is it still funny for modern readers? Well, yes, but not always. Some scenes still work brilliantly - I loved the philosophical debate conducted entirely in (meaningless) signs and gestures, for instance, which would have been equally effective as a Monty Python sketch. Perfect timing and a narrator who just about manages to maintain the pretence that he is taking it all seriously keep us on the edge of doubting that there might be some meaning in it all after all. The multilingual discussion when Pantagruel first meets Panurge is another triumph. And on the smaller scale, Rabelais is good at setting us up for the terrible puns he's about to sneak in. But in other places it can feel a bit formulaic - a fart or a reference to codpieces is just thrown in gratuitously when Rabelais wants to change the pace. The list jokes also seem to go on for about three times as long as they need to, and some one-liners are ruined when Rabelais draws them out too long (e.g. the notion that the walls of Paris should be rebuilt using female genitals because they can be had for much less money than building-stone at the moment - a joke that becomes decidedly unpleasant as soon as you start to think about it).

I was expecting to have trouble with the 16th-century French, but actually it's not all that difficult: the main hurdle to get over for a reader is the different spelling convention, and once you've got that sorted out, there turn out to be rather few words that aren't current any more, and most of those are either picked up by the Notes or obvious from the context.

Bearbeitet: Nov. 18, 2018, 7:20am

Another quick in-between read. Intrigued by the concept, I decided to try Catherine Cusset's most recent book, a non-fiction novel:

Vie de David Hockney (2018) by Catherine Cusset (France, 1963- )


One of the techniques David Hockney is known for is shooting large numbers of photographs of someone or something from different angles, and then putting them together into a collage that isn't limited by a single perspective. That seems to be more or less what Catherine Cusset is trying to do here, but with the important difference that she hasn't taken any of the photographs herself. She has read a stack of memoirs, biographies, interviews, catalogue introductions, etc., and watched a few films about Hockney. She makes it plain in her opening note that she doesn't know Hockney and didn't do any original research for this book, but has tried to distil the information from the published sources down into an imaginatively coherent novel.

What's supposed to happen in that process is that the novelist's liberty to imagine adds a layer to our understanding of the character, but in this case the effect is either so subtle or so trivial that I didn't really notice it was there at all, and the book just felt like a summary of the facts. Useful if you're looking for a pocket guide to Hockney's life in French without any illustrations, but it's hard to see where the added value is otherwise.

Part of the problem is that Cusset is clearly a big fan, and is always more inclined to defend Hockney from "élitist" critics than to question the wisdom of any of his many leaps into new techniques and styles. And of course it's tricky to go very deep into the private lives of characters who are mostly still alive - even if you say it's a novel, you don't want to cause unnecessary offence. But the biggest problem seems to be that Hockney's life simply doesn't lend itself very well to a literary narrative. It's very hard to engage the reader's sympathy for a character who - as we already know before reading the book - has met with continuous popular and commercial success from an early age and who has never let the minor reverses of his private life divert him from hard work and creativity. Where's the drama and suspense in that? He's obviously a remarkable person, but Cusset doesn't seem to have been able to put her finger on quite what it is that makes him so remarkable. I wonder if this would have worked better if Cusset hadn't been so determined to look at Hockney's entire life to date, and had instead focussed on his early life, before he got to London, when he had much bigger challenges to overcome.

Writing entirely at second-hand has its risks too - I was amused to learn that Hockney's Bradford friend Jonathan Silver had set up a gallery in "une ancienne usine de sel" (the famous Salt's Mill at Saltaire is actually a former textile mill, but it was built by a man called Titus Salt). Totally unimportant to what Cusset is trying to achieve, but it illustrates how easily information can degrade in transmission. Fun also to see that Gallimard's blurb-writer describes Hockney on the back cover as being born "dans une petite ville du nord de l'Angleterre". Not many people have said things like that about Bradford and lived to tell the tale. Of course, to rile Bradford patriots properly, they should have written "Né dans les banlieues de Leeds...".

Well-intended, but somewhat redundant.(*)

(*) I was tempted to say “a smaller splash”, but stopped myself just in time.

Nov. 18, 2018, 4:49pm

>48 thorold: Bravo for reading the 16th century French of Pantagruel. I read the modern penguin translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel by M A Screech about five years ago. I did buy the French Pocket edition of Gargantua with a texte intégral en ancient français et francais moderne. Comparing the two I found that the modern version changes the sentence structure of the original quite considerably. Interesting to dip into.

Interesting review of Vie de David Hockney

Bearbeitet: Nov. 19, 2018, 1:04pm

This next one is probably a pleasure postponed, rather than a book that got forgotten on the TBR shelf, but it comes down to the same thing, as it's been there since May 2010...

Boswell on the grand tour : Germany and Switzerland, 1764 (1953) by James Boswell (UK, 1740-1795), edited by Frederick A Pottle (US, 1897-1987)


James Boswell was the son of the senior Scottish judge and Ayrshire landowner Lord Auchinleck (pr. "Affleck"). Until the mid-20th century he was mainly remembered as the companion and biographer of Doctor Johnson, the conscientious but slightly dim and stodgy disciple who faithfully wrote down every remark his crotchety old sensei happened to make. That all changed when the diaries Boswell kept as a young man started to be published - not only did his accounts of picking up prostitutes on the streets of 18th century London turn the diaries into a surprise bestseller (and Boswell into an unlikely pioneer Safe Sex advocate...), but his astonishingly frank and human debates with himself about his ambitions, aspirations and weaknesses firmly established him as one of the most interesting and funny autobiographical writers of all time.

Professor Pottle taught at Yale, and ran the "Boswell factory" (the biggest collection of Boswell papers in any university) there from 1929 until his retirement in 1983. He appears to have written or edited almost all of the Boswell-related books in existence, without ever falling into the trap of taking his subject completely seriously. His restrained little jokes in the footnotes add a great deal to the charm of the diaries.

This is the third volume of the diaries to be published, following on directly from Boswell in Holland. At the end of his gap year at the University of Utrecht, in June 1764, Boswell gets permission from his father to travel on for a while through Switzerland and Germany. (His plan is to go on to Italy, but Lord Auchinleck being what he is, Boswell knows better than to ask for too much parental indulgence all at once.)

For the moment, Boswell has three great celebrity scalps in his sights: Frederick the Great, Rousseau, and Voltaire. With a mixture of charm, influence and foot-in-the-door, he manages to see all three, but only gets actual face to face time with the last two. Frederick turns out to be too canny, or too well protected, to put himself in the way of any of the traps Boswell sets for him. But the sessions with the two great philosophes more than make up for this, particularly since he met them both (Rousseau at Môtiers and Voltaire at Ferney) in December 1764, just before Voltaire published damaging revelations about Rousseau's private life that eventually forced him to leave Môtiers and go on the run again.

Boswell's strategies for hooking the interest of both great men are classics - with Rousseau he holds a letter of introduction from a man Rousseau owes big favours to, Lord Marischal, but he declines to use it, instead writing his own letter in which he proves - citing the logic of Rousseau's own writings - that he is "a man of singular merit". With Voltaire he gets in the first time on a letter of recommendation, then when he wants to come back for a longer visit, he writes to Voltaire's niece (knowing that her uncle will see it) a wonderfully comic letter in which, inter alia, he manages to imply that he wants to get into Ferney castle to seduce the niece's femme de chambre. Stalking, in modern terms, but stalking of more literary and psychological subtlety than you would expect from the average 24-year-old Inter-Railer...

There's lots of other interesting and amusing stuff in this book - visits to several minor German courts as well as Berlin and Potsdam, some pretty graphic tales of the discomforts of travelling in Germany, a few walk-on appearances by notables of the time, a few passing references to sexual escapades, and of course the background is-it-or-isn't-it romance with Belle van Zuylen, the young Dutch intellectual he'd made friends with in Utrecht but subsequently decided it might be rather fun to marry (she didn't think so, as we already know from the letters Pottle included in the previous volume). And Boswell's continuing worries about religion, masturbation, his own mental and physical health, his father's plans for him to become a lawyer, and the incongruity of imagining himself as the future Laird of Auchinleck. A treasure.

Minor disappointment: I didn't really think about this before starting, but apart from Frederick, there wasn't all that much of literary interest going on in Germany in 1764. Boswell certainly didn't meet any important German writers, and he would have had to talk to them in French or Dutch if he had. But of course Goethe and Schiller were still at school - a few years later, Boswell's ignorance of the German language wouldn't have been something he could get away with, but in Frederick's Berlin French was de rigueur anyway...

The absence of detailed musical interest is a pity too - Boswell stops in Leipzig, but there's no reason for him to be aware of J S Bach (d.1750), whom no-one outside the Lutheran church music world would have heard of at that time, so he doesn't even mention the Thomaskirche. Then in Mannheim - possibly the most exciting place in northern Europe for a musician at the time - he merely says that the music was "marvellous", without telling us anything about the musicians involved or what they were playing.

On to Italy, Corsica and France in the next volume...

Bearbeitet: Nov. 21, 2018, 2:07pm

And back to crime. Having caught up with Fred Vargas, I wanted to try some other current French crime-writing, and this is one that came up a few times in my recommendations:

Arab Jazz (2012; translations mostly retain the title of the French original) by Karim Miské (Mauritania, France, 1964- )


Karim Miské has made many documentary films for French TV, mostly on topics related to immigration and North Africa. Arab Jazz was his first novel. He was born in Côte d'Ivoire, with a Mauritanian diplomat father and a French mother.

In the multi-culti melting-pot of the 19th Arrondissement, things seem to be unmelting rapidly, as ultra-orthodox Jews and Muslims compete for visibility on the street corners. A young woman has been brutally murdered in circumstances that suggest a religious motive, and two officers from the local police station are trying to sort out the mess. Was it the nice but not-quite-sane Ahmed, a single man who lives downstairs from the victim in an apartment full of American crime novels, or could the crime be part of a sinister global narcotics conspiracy involving bent cops, Jehova's Witnesses and Hassidic rabbis? No, surely not...?

OK, this is an obvious first novel by someone who's seen too many American films, and it has a lot of awkward strokes in it, with some formulaic characters and a ludicrously overcomplicated plot that requires the narrator to break with convention and show us who did it at an early stage so that we have some sort of hope of keeping track of what's going on.

But it is also curiously endearing. Miské's world is one in which evil is everywhere and organised religion is nothing but a lot of frustrated men in silly outfits taking out their resentment on God, but there are still enough young people with common-sense and the determination to stand up for their liberal values. Even if it does have more than its fair share of Islamists, HLMs, poetry and hip-hop, this isn't the pessimistic world of Jean-Claude Izzo (not yet, anyway...). Miské wants us to see that good can triumph over evil, at least provisionally, but he does throw in a destabilising reference to the way the bad guys always get caught in the Mickey-Mouse comics to remind us that this isn't necessarily the real world he's talking about here.

Another thing that struck me about the book is how Miské keeps insisting that you can't force individuals into the little handful of ethnic or religious identities that match journalistic agendas. Everyone has their own particular complicated past to deal with, and many of those turn out to be non-standard. Whom do you identify with if your parents come from different cultures (and perhaps you didn't even have the chance to get to know them), if you have moved between countries several times, if the people around you are trying to reinvent an impossible ideal view of a world that never existed... Miské's use of mental illness in the story is also far from the usual clichés, and he remembers to include plenty of strong female characters. An entertaining book that can stand up for itself, despite a few minor issues.

Nov. 21, 2018, 12:45pm

Another little gem (rough diamond, perhaps...) from Katja Lange-Müller, who has popped up in my threads three or four times in the last couple of years.

(Sadly, she's not very much translated - a few of her books have appeared in Dutch and Spanish and one in French, but that seems to be about it)

Die Letzten : Aufzeichnungen aus Udo Posbichs Druckerei (2000) by Katja Lange-Müller (DDR, Germany, 1951- )


Sometime in the late 1970s, the narrator, a qualified but incompetent and thoroughly demotivated typesetter, gets a job in a small private printing works in East Berlin. It doesn't last long, but she has enough time to observe her three co-workers and realise that all four of them have only been allowed to work in the private sector because life has damaged them so much that they are considered no use to the state any more.

In a tightly-constructed novella that manages to give the impression of having been compiled by someone with a serious hangover even though it doesn't waste a word anywhere, Lange-Müller tells us the story of the other three castaways whilst letting us divine the essentials of the narrator's own situation (which obviously has more than a touch of autobiography about it). And she sets up a slightly backhanded memorial to a trade that has essentially disappeared in our own lifetimes, letting us decide for ourselves if we want to draw any parallels with a state that disappeared from the maps at about the same time as the last typesetter. Wonderful, sad, funny, and grumpy, all at the same time.

Bearbeitet: Nov. 30, 2018, 3:33pm

Classics again - this is another of those books we all know enough about to be able to bluff our way through dinner-parties without actually having read it. It was Daniel Kehlmann's Tyll (>37 thorold: above) that took me back to the Thirty Years' War and reminded me that I've had this on my to-do list since I first started finding out about German literature. Possibly that's why I chose to read it in the classic nostalgia-inducing German school edition, the floppy yellow Reclam...

Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus (1668; The adventures of a simpleton) by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen (Germany, ca.1622-1676)


Grimmelshausen grew up in Hesse, the son of a baker and publican from a formerly-noble family. He was caught up in the Thirty Years' War from an early age, and served in various parts of Germany, towards the end of the war as a regimental clerk. After 1649 he worked as a publican, a nobleman's agent, and ultimately the mayor (Schultheiß) of a town in the Black Forest. He seems to have taken to writing in the 1660s, but clearly had a thing about anagrams: it was only in the 19th century that scholars realised that the authors variously named on title pages as Melchior Sternfels von Fuchshaim, Simon Leugfrisch von Hartenfels, Michael Rechulin von Sehmsdorff, Samuel Greifnson von Hirschfeld, German Schleifheim von Sulsfort, Israel Fromschmidt von Hugenfelß, Erich Stainfels von Grufensholm and Philarchus Grossus von Trommenheim all had something in common...

Simplicissimus is the best-known German prose work of the baroque period. Like all great picaresque novels, it's made up of an unapologetically random succession of events, so many that between them they cover just about every possible literary mood - bucolic, military, nautical, comic, tragic, allegorical, satirical, didactic, fantastic, contemplative, religious, atheistic, luxurious, ascetic - everything from fart-jokes to scholarly discourses about the evils of worldly goods, not excluding battles, journeys to the centre of the earth, shipwrecks on desert islands, Miltonic debates between the devils in Hell, a witches' sabbath, and a Parisian erotic episode that seems to have been lifted from a 1970s French porn film...(*)

Essentially, it's the life-story of a small boy cast adrift in life when a random party of soldiers robs and destroys the farm in the Spessart on which he's grown up. He's taken in by a friendly hermit, who is amused to discover that the little shepherd-boy doesn't even know his own name - he's always just been "der Bub" (the lad). The hermit decides that the only fitting name to give him is Simplicius. Later, when the boy finds himself in the army for the first time, he needs a surname as well, and becomes Simplicius Simplicissimus. But by that time he isn't quite so simple any more.

Even though it's around 750 pages long, the pace is sometimes pretty hectic, and you will be doing quite well if you can keep track of how many times he is obliged to change sides between the Swedish and Imperial armies. Things are at their craziest in Book V, Chapter XXII, where, after the narrator has spent a couple of chapters doing nothing in Moscow (Moscow?!? - how on earth did he end up there?) waiting for the Czar to give him a job, in the space of two pages at the end of the chapter he is captured by Tatars, sent to the Far East and sold to the King of Korea, makes his way back West via Japan and Macao, but is captured in the Indian Ocean by Moslem pirates, sent to serve as a galley-slave in the Mediterranean, set free after a battle with the Venetians, and returns home to the Black Forest after making a pilgrimage to Rome. (The original 1668 book ended shortly after this, rather out of breath, but Grimmelshausen then added a sixth book, the Continuatio, where things get even more out of control.)

Fortunately it isn't always quite that extreme, especially when Grimmelshausen happens to be writing about something he knows about personally. Or has a detailed source to crib from - plagiarism was not so much frowned upon then as it is now, so even the battles we know he fought in himself are often described in the words of other writers.

Of course, all that colour, hectic movement and the remoteness of the baroque world he is writing about make it a fascinating read for us, but the thing that really sets it apart is the sheer energy and down-to-earthness of much of the language. When he's not putting on the voice of some hypothetical scholar - even then, it's often hard to tell when he's showing off his erudition and when he's mocking the way scholars see the world - Grimmelshausen talks to us exactly as you would expect someone from the depths of rural Germany to do. Hard, fast, simple prose, as few French or Latin words as possible, and plenty of earthy dialect expressions. Thomas Mann considered Simplicissimus a narrative work of extraordinary genius, and if you look at it sideways with one eye half closed you can convince yourself you can see something of what he took from it - Mann's discursive randomness is much more focussed and targeted than Grimmelshausen's, but it's obviously a development of the same way of seeing the progression of a story. Interesting! But pretty crazy, really.


(*) ...don't know how I managed to forget to mention the two chapters in which a piece of toilet paper tells Simplicissimus its life-story, with overtones of Thomas Hobbes. It doesn't get much odder than that, does it?

Dez. 1, 2018, 4:28pm

A slightly more recent book, by a writer from York who seems to be doing quite well for herself (and one that everyone else in CR seems to be reading at the moment):

Transcription (2018) by Kate Atkinson (UK, 1951- )


An enjoyable little spy story with plenty of period atmosphere from wartime London and the early-50s BBC. The mood is more John Le Carré than Ian Fleming, all files and typewriters and carbon-paper and plot-turns within plot-turns until you aren't sure any more how many different sides everyone is on, but of course all done with a considerably more feminist point of view than most spy fiction. And the central problem is one that you don't often see in fiction, that of keeping tabs on the residue of fascist sympathisers in Britain after the start of the war.

Atkinson's obviously gone to a lot of trouble to get her details right, and supplies us with a detailed specification of the balance of truth and fiction in an endnote (supported by a copious bibliography in case we want to follow the trail ourselves). I had the feeling in the early chapters that she might be falling into the trap of giving us a bit too much authentic detail at the scene-setting stage, but that soon sorted itself out. I really enjoyed the big-institution workplace atmosphere in the BBC scenes - that all rang very true. The MI5 bits were harder to assess - I would have guessed that things would have been rather more formal and bureaucratic than what Atkinson describes, but she's the one who spent her time in the PRO digging out all the paperwork, so I'm prepared to believe her. Up to a point: Juliet's irritation at being asked by her boss to make the tea seems to be the author's, not the character's. Fair enough to be irritated if she had come into the job with extensive experience or a Cambridge maths degree or something, but as an 18-year-old starting as a junior clerical worker straight out of secretarial college, she would surely have accepted tea-making as something that went with being the most junior person in the office. But that's a silly side-issue that doesn't detract from the rest of the story.

Good fun for a winter day, with just enough moral questions uncovered to make you feel you haven't merely been relaxing with a spy-thriller...

Bearbeitet: Dez. 2, 2018, 5:13pm

Time for another one from the TBR shelf - this one's been there since April 2017. I picked it up in the charity shop without looking at it too closely, since I've read and enjoyed several other books by Kader Abdolah (born in Iran, but now lives in the Netherlands and writes in Dutch). It was fun finding out what it actually was - not what I was expecting at all!

Kélilé en Demné (2002, based on sources going back to ca. 300BCE) by Kader Abdolah (Netherlands, Iran, 1954- )


Abdolah presents this book as a free adaptation into modern Dutch of the book known in Iran as Kalila wa Demna, which is a Persian translation of an Arabic translation of a lost Pahlavi text based on the Indian classic, the Panchatantra, which is thought to date back to around 300 BCE, and has often been proposed as the source of the animal fables collected by Aesop, La Fontaine, the Grimms, Kipling, etc., etc.

The book is a collection of fables told to a king by a wise Brahmin to illustrate important points of kingship, how to deal with human nature, how to avoid making silly errors (and how you can't avoid them sometimes), what happens when you trust the wrong advisers, and so on. The fables have a bewildering mix of human and animal characters - kings and viziers, lions and jackals, crows and tortoises - who often resort to telling each other fables to illustrate the points that they are making within their own stories, so we sometimes go down to the third or fourth level of narrative recursion before eventually resurfacing with the king and the Brahmin at the end of each chapter. You could take it at face value as a discourse on good government, a Machiavelli with talking jackals, but it seems to be written as much to entertain and amuse as to instruct. Especially since for every important moral point made, there seems to be another story saying the exact opposite somewhere else in the book...

Abdolah tells us that he's pruned out a lot of the Islamic accretions that found their way into the text through the Arabic translation, and he's presumably also condensed things a little and tightened up the structure, so it's a pleasant reading experience. He has put it into a fairly colloquial, everyday sort of Dutch, with just the odd fairy-tale flourish to remind us that we are in the remote Eastern past, but also with a few strategically placed anachronisms from the vocabulary of 21st-century government to prevent us getting too complaisant about that. The book is illustrated with copies of 20 or 30 woodcuts taken from an earlier Arabic version, but unfortunately these have wandered backwards and forwards quite a bit in the text as a result of the vagaries of book-production, so they rarely do much to enhance the text on the page. But they do add a suitable tone. Unlike the covers of both Dutch editions, which don't give any hint of what sort of a book this is.

Great fun, and now I know exactly how to deal with the advice I get from my viziers next time we have a war with another animal species...

Wikipedia on the Panchatantra:

Dez. 3, 2018, 6:39pm

Enjoyed your review of Boswell on the Grand Tour

Bearbeitet: Dez. 7, 2018, 4:45am

I thought this one looked somehow familiar when I borrowed it - it was only after I'd read a couple of chapters that it dawned on me that I have its big brother (the 1000-page A new history of Western philosophy, 2010) sitting on the shelf. But that's more a book to dip into for reference than one to read from cover to cover.

An illustrated brief history of Western philosophy (1998, 2006) by Anthony Kenny (UK, 1931- )


Sir Anthony Kenny is a distinguished academic philosopher, originally from Liverpool, who left the Roman Catholic priesthood in the 1960s and spent most of his teaching career at Oxford, where he was Master of Balliol from 1978 to 1989 (his predecessor was the historian Christopher Hill, who featured in my 2017 reading).

This is essentially Sophie's World for grown-ups, a useful compact (well, fairly compact - 400 pages) outline of the development of philosophy as a discipline from the Greeks to Wittgenstein with enough history to let us understand the context in which the main figures were working, and at least a critical outline of their most important work. Some of the most important get a reasonably detailed discussion - Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Bentham/Mill and Wittgenstein all get chapters to themselves, lesser figures have to squash in with their neighbours.

It's a fairly anglocentric book - from the middle ages on, Kenny generally alternates chapters on "British" and "foreign" philosophers, and a neutral observer might also suspect that there's a certain Oxford bias involved - until we get to Russell and Wittgenstein there's absolutely no mention of any universities that might have existed in the East of England, and even Hume and Berkeley seem to suffer a bit from their status as remote provincials. Kenny's background seems to creep in in other ways as well - there's a lot more about Augustine and Aquinas than about any Reformation figure. Kenny clearly doesn't approve of the Reformation - he sees the hardening of doctrinal attitudes on both sides as a step backwards from the "patient subtlety which characterised the best scholastics". Erasmus and Grotius are only mentioned in passing, and even Thomas More gets more space than Luther and Calvin.

However, that little bit of personal bias is also one of the real strengths of the book - this isn't merely a neutral account of the subject designed to cram you with information, but it's a critical discussion in which the author doesn't hesitate to point out the strengths and weaknesses of his distinguished predecessors' arguments. As philosophers do, he's trying to provoke the reader into doing some actual thinking. I'm not sure how well that worked for me - there were several points where I found myself promising that I would come back and have another go at that chapter later, especially when it came to Kant.

The stress seems to be on the core subject areas of metaphysics and philosophical logic - other areas like ethics and political philosophy are there, but are covered in rather less detail. Obviously something has to give if you want to make a book that is both accessible and of a manageable size.

But I did come out of the struggle with a few pointers about where I'd like to go next in exploring philosophy, and with a clearer idea of what "philosophy" is and how it's evolved over the last two-and-a-half millennia. So a success, I think!

Bearbeitet: Dez. 7, 2018, 5:28am

German writer Uwe Timm caught my eye years ago with Die Entdeckung der Currywurst, but for some reason I've been very slow to follow that up. I still haven't got around to his book about his brother, Am Beispiel meines Bruders, which is probably his best-known work. But how could I resist a novel about a penny-farthing-riding taxidermist?

Der Mann auf dem Hochrad (1984) by Uwe Timm (Germany, 1940- )


(The two books I mentioned above have been translated into English - this one apparently hasn't)

Somewhere in the mid-1880s, Franz Schröter becomes the object of public ridicule when he's the first person to be seen on a bicycle in the small and very conservative Residenz-town of Coburg, which is on the border of Thüringen and Franken, seat of the Dukes of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. He's a determined individualist - in his business as a taxidermist he's adopted the new English style of mounting stuffed animals in "lifelike" poses in dioramas, which puts off many potential clients until a couple of high-profile assignments carried out for the Duke and Duchess start a change in the fashion.

Cycling, for Schröter, is a pure pleasure, tied up with the particular difficulties and dangers of riding a high-wheeler (penny-farthing). But it soon gets tied up with all sorts of messy political and cultural issues: middle-class Coburgers want to be stylish early adapters of an expensive new technology, the socialists see the bicycle's potential as cheap transport for the working-man, women (led by Franz's wife Anna) see it as an escape from the limitations society imposes on them, not least the obligation to wear corsets and long skirts. And the local shoemakers' guild sees the bicycle as an economic threat to be fought against. Franz doesn't want to be in any of these fights, but he can't avoid them. And it gets worse when the new "safety" bicycle pops up a couple of years after Franz has nailed his colours to the high-wheeler's handlebars - it's obviously better for most practical purposes, but it lacks the danger and aesthetic satisfaction of "proper" cycling...

Timm is a very good storyteller, and he cunningly turns this fairly trivial plot into a very interesting - and funny - insight into the way small communities react to change. There are of course much more important changes going on in Germany between 1871 and 1918, and we see these in the background, but it's the evolution of Franz's and Anna's relationship with their neighbours that help us to see how these are working out.

Bearbeitet: Dez. 9, 2018, 4:48pm

Off topic into dataland again - whilst tidying up I came across a forgotten exercise book containing a handwritten catalogue of my personal library, updated to about the time I left school (only a few entries are actually dated, so I'm guessing from the fact that it hasn't got any of my college textbooks in it). For fun, I cross-referenced it with my LT catalogue - there are 178 books that match, plus about 30 that I've mislaid or given away in the intervening years (mostly children's books that went to my niece and nephew).

I don't suppose anyone else would be interested, but I've made it into a Collection:

(Edited to correct link)

Most tantalising is the back page of the book, where I seem to have started to keep a list of what I was reading (or planning to read?) from the public library. Sadly it only goes on for two months, but it is quite intriguing. I've transcribed what's on the sheet in all-caps, everything else is my guesswork from 40 years later:

SEPTEMBER (1979, 1980???)
- IMPRESSIONISM - (could be anything)
- Magic of the SWATCHWAYS (two old sailing books)
- HALLIWELL (I assume this was Halliwell's filmgoer's companion)
- SLIDE RULE (Nevil Shute's autobiography, I guess, but it could as easily have been a technical book about slide-rules)
- SCHRÖDINGER (a biography?)
- GALAXIES (astronomy? chocolate break??)
- Our present KNOWLEDGE OF THE UNIVERSE (Sir Bernard Lovell - more astronomy)
- The decipherment of LINEAR B (John Chadwick)
- MODern PHYSics (too many candidates here)
- Essential PRE-UNIVERSITY PHYSICS (...but I'm obviously having a go at the college reading list)

- WALLENSTEIN GER. (Schiller - I don't remember reading this at all)
- The real INSPECTOR HOUND (Tom Stoppard - probably something I'd been to/was planning to see.)
- MINING (maybe these three were suggestions from a confused and despairing careers teacher? - the first sort-of makes sense, but I don't think I ever saw myself as a marine engineer or a miner)
- ORGANIC REACTIONS (must have been something proposed by my chemistry teacher)
- DEMOCRACY AND PARTICIPATION (J R Lucas - that's the Pelican with an eye-catching cover image showing someone being squashed under a rubber stamp. Don't remember the contents, though. It came out in 1976.)

Bearbeitet: Dez. 9, 2018, 11:44am

...but back to the present day. Well, sort of. I'm still not much more than halfway through the Barsetshire novels of Angela Thirkell, but it's a year since the last one I got around to, so it's probably about time for another one (including this one, I've read 17 of the 29 in the series):

Private enterprise (1947) by Angela Thirkell (UK, 1890-1961)


This is Thirkell's 1947 book (she wrote one a year, regular as clockwork), with the author still deep in the gloom of postwar shortages and bubbling over with the full fury of her hatred for "Them" (the term she always uses for Clement Attlee's Labour government). Even the weather somehow seems to be affected by the depressing situation, and there's no sign of anything that could be called a summer, even by English standards.

Nonetheless, the Thirkell family has to be fed, so she casts around and - apparently slightly to her own surprise - discovers that there are two or three male characters in Barsetshire she hasn't got around to marrying off yet. With the help of a couple of unattached women drafted in from British India to swell the cast, she manages to cobble together a new iteration of her usual romantic comedy plot, and spice it up a bit with a few set-pieces: the Red Cross bookbinding exhibition (no, really!), a special Speech Day to mark the Birketts' retirement from Southbridge School, and some interesting amateur dramatics. In passing we also get a few more glimpses into the county's literary life, and there's a treat for ornithologists as Thirkell - who clearly can't be bothered to get the details right - simply makes up a dozen or more previously unknown bird species, with the anglo-indian stengah (or "whisky-and-soda bird") in pride of place.

In fact, I sometimes had to wonder if Thirkell was getting a bit bored with the format she'd trapped herself into by this time, and was trying to break out a little - the attentive reader will spot quite a few buried dirty jokes that would count as quite risqué by 1940s standards, but which are so cunningly concealed in the text that the respectable middle-class ladies who read her books could always pretend not to have noticed that they were there.

The lawyer Colin Keith, who is the comic romantic lead this time, is spending his summer on what is evidently the most boring project Thirkell could imagine, preparing a new edition of the classic railway-law text Lemon on Running Powers. She wasn't to know, since she was presumably writing this at the end of 1946, but she could hardly have picked a hotter topic, because the 1947 Transport Act (passed in August) was just about to nationalise the railway industry. Whatever Colin wrote in 1947 would have had to be revised completely after January 1948...

The stone-age politic attitudes and unconcealed snobbery are more tedious than offensive after all this time, and are still - just about - compensated for by Thirkell's acute and often very funny observation of the narrow range of people she considers worth noticing, and by her always-brilliant dialogues. Not a book anyone who hasn't already fallen for the charm of her characters need bother with, but if you do like this sort of thing then it's another necessary fix to keep you going for a while longer...

Dez. 9, 2018, 4:44pm

>61 thorold: Great review. I try to avoid Thirkell in general for just those "stone-age politic attitudes and unconcealed snobbery" and so get upset with myself when I find myself laughing at those digs of hers. She is very skilful.

Bearbeitet: Dez. 9, 2018, 5:17pm

>62 SassyLassy: Thanks!
Yes, exactly. I held out for a year this time...

I had to wonder how it is that Wodehouse manages to write about characters who are if anything even more privileged than those in Thirkell, but he never comes across as a snob. I suppose it’s largely that he doesn’t pretend to be presenting anything other than escapist fun, whilst Thirkell anchors her stories in contemporary real life. We can treat Wodehouse characters as people who never existed, but Thirkell keeps telling us that her characters are the sort of people we should aspire to be.

And it may also have a lot to do with Wodehouse living so much in America, especially being essentially cut off from Britain and rejected by a lot of the British elite after his little mis-step during the war. So he never got to experience rationing (which wouldn’t have bothered him much anyway) or Attlee, and missed out on the bitter political atmosphere of those years.

>61 thorold: politic - oops! now you’ve quoted my typo, I won’t go back and correct it.

Bearbeitet: Dez. 10, 2018, 10:19am

Looking at that old reading-list reminded me that I have a couple of old sailing books downloaded as facsimiles from and never read. And this is the perfect time of year for reading about other people sailing!

The Cruise of the Widgeon: 700 Miles in a Ten-Ton Yawl From Swanage to Hamburg, Through the Dutch Canals (1876) by Charles Edmund Robinson (UK, 1853-1913)

(The author calls himself "Charles E. Robinson, B.A." on the title page, but in 1889 he double-barrelled his surname, becoming Charles Edmund Newton-Robinson. Confusingly, he sometimes also seems to have used Newton as a given name instead of Charles Edmund.)

At the time he made the journey described in this book, Robinson was still an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge. He later became a barrister, but he was obviously yet another of those great multi-purpose Victorian enthusiasts, being not only a yachtsman but also a noted art collector, fencing for Britain in the Olympic Games of 1900 and 1906, and publishing - amongst other things - several volumes of poetry, a parody of Alice in Wonderland, and the article on the épée in Encyclopædia Britannica. His father was the painter and art-collector Sir John Charles Robinson, one of the original curators of the South Kensington Museum (the V&A) in the 1850s.

Together with a couple of Cambridge friends, the indispensable professional skipper ("Hescroff") and sometimes a locally-recruited pilot, Robinson sailed his little 34ft yawl from Dorset to the Elbe in the summer of 1874, with the ostensible aim of visiting his brother who was (for unexplained reasons) staying with the Pastor of Brunsbüttel.

The route he followed took him up-Channel to Dover, across to Oostende, through the Delta and the Dutch canals to Amsterdam, then across the (then) Zuiderzee and through the Frisian canals to the Lauwerszee, where he got into the North Sea again to cross to the mouth of the Elbe. By the standards of the time, this was quite an adventurous journey. Apart from a few eccentrics like John MacGregor, no-one considered small yachts like the Widgeon suitable for overseas cruising; on the other hand, the sort of big keel-yachts that English gentlemen liked to sail in the 1870s would have had far too deep a draught to venture into Dutch inland waters.

Nowadays, of course, a 34ft yacht would count as at least medium-sized. A modern yacht of that size would also have a far simpler rig than the Widgeon (two big sails instead of five small ones), and be arranged to have a lot more cabin-space as well. Widgeon must have been quite a tight squeeze with four people on board, and from time to time they had five. And modern yachting enthusiasts, in the sub-millionaire bracket at least, don't have to worry about segregating the paid staff from the gentry. I was really struck by the way that persisted even when Robinson and Hescroff return to England by steamer at the end of the trip - Robinson goes cabin-class and dines in the saloon, Hescroff has to sleep in the fo'csle with the emigrants.

It's interesting to note all sorts of other things that you wouldn't immediately think about that have changed since 1874. One very obvious one is that modern yachts invariably have engines. If Robinson needed to manoeuvre in a harbour, he had to pay some fishermen in a rowing boat a few shillings to give him a tow (miraculously, there always seemed to be some of those on hand); when travelling through the canals he variously hitches a lift at the back of a chain of barges with a steam tug, hires a man-with-a-horse for the day, or - for short distances - "a couple of sturdy boys". Perhaps the most astonishing thing for a modern reader in that connection, though, is when he spends most of a day drifting around becalmed in the middle of the straits of Dover waiting for a wind. If you tried that nowadays you'd probably be run down by a bulk-carrier within minutes, or arrested by the coastguard...

It was fun too to see the Netherlands as they were 150 years ago, when the Delta and Zuiderzee were still tidal, when you had to be wary of the official charts because new railway bridges kept popping up unannounced, when Urk was still an island and grass was growing in the deserted streets of Enkhuizen (pop. 5000 at the time), when it was rare to find a foreign visitor to Amsterdam who was there for something other than business, when pleasure-boats were exempt from harbour-dues(!), when almost no-one spoke English, and when it was difficult to get a decent glass of beer...

Robinson's discussion of Brunsbüttel and Hamburg is interesting too, of course - construction of the Kiel Canal wouldn't start for another 13 years, so Brunsbüttel was still nothing more than a quiet, small fishing port with a ferry across the mouth of the Elbe. And it's only ten years since the area stopped being part of Denmark. It's funny to see how Robinson, who was completely baffled by Dutch and found Frisian only slightly easier, now claims to be perfectly au fait with Plattdeutsch, and even quotes and translates some verses for us. Could it be that his brother has been giving him a hand?

Dez. 10, 2018, 6:11pm

>60 thorold: Those Jennings and Darbishire books must have been in every school library in England

Dez. 10, 2018, 8:20pm

>65 baswood: Astonishingly popular in Sweden too, I remember someone telling me. Difficult to believe!
I’d certainly class them as among the less worthwhile children’s books I read, but I enjoyed them at the time.

Bearbeitet: Dez. 13, 2018, 8:31am

Elizabeth Stuart, the "Winter Queen," has come up two or three times in my reading lately, especially in Tyll (>37 thorold:). It was fun to bump into her again in a different context this morning, in an exhibition at the Mauritshuis of Dutch paintings from the collection of the British National Trust: this portrait, one of several by Gerrit van Honthorst, seems to have been painted not long after the execution of her brother, Charles I, and normally lives at Ashdown House. (She was 54 and had had 12 children by then, so the artist is probably being kind to her...)

Bearbeitet: Dez. 16, 2018, 7:32am

A little in-between read:

Schlechte Wörter (1976, 2015) by Ilse Aichinger (Austria, 1921-2016)


When her twin sister was sent to England in a Kindertransport, Ilse Aichinger stayed in Vienna with her Jewish mother: her traumatic experiences as a teenage unperson in her own city formed the basis for her famous novel Die größere Hoffnung (Herod's Children, 1948), which brought her within the orbit of Gruppe 47. However, she seems to have lost faith in large-scale prose works after that, and spent the rest of her writing career on radio plays and short, but highly-prized, essays and prose pieces.

Schlechte Wörter is a collection of short pieces (essays, stories, prose-poems - take your pick) from the first half of the 70s. As originally published in 1976 it also included the radio-play Gare Maritime, but in the 2015 collected works edition that has been moved into a separate volume of plays, and the editors have added the uncollected prose piece "Friedhof in B."
(I wondered if there could be a concealed joke here, because "Friedhof in B." opens with the cemetery in Nancy, and directly follows, "Rahels Kleider", which talks about an English schoolgirl called Peggy. It's unlikely that Aichinger could have been a Swallows and Amazons fan, but maybe the editor was...?)

The pieces clearly show how Aichinger was exploring ways of getting beyond the forced connections and causality of ordinary narrative: she generally starts out with an innocent-looking phrase, something random she has seen, overheard, or has just popped into her head, e.g. "the balconies of the home-countries are different", or "lovers of the western columns", or "the forgetfulness of St Ives", or just a nonsense word, like "Hemlin". Then she chases this phrase through a semi-controlled network of free associations to see what will happen to it. I assume she must have thrown a lot of such pieces away when they didn't lead anywhere interesting, but those she actually published are never simply random gibberish, but always give us some sort of new light on the way our minds and language and the world we live in work. Sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing, always rather beautiful.

Bearbeitet: Dez. 16, 2018, 11:17am

This is another of those classics I've always counted on not having to read because it's so deeply embedded in our culture.

Not quite sure what prompted me to have a go now, but I think it's probably that I've been looking back over my stash of old poetry magazines lately, and they mostly come from around the time of the big Ovid-boom around the late 90s, like my copy of Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid. But it also ties in with at least: >58 thorold: (Western philosophy), >56 thorold: (the Panchatantra), >48 thorold: (Rabelais) and with Ali Smith's Girl meets boy from my previous thread. And much more.

Metamorphoses: a new translation (original ca. 8 CE; Martin translation 2004) by Ovid (Rome, 43 BCE - 17 CE), translated by Charles Martin (US, 1942- )


Publius Ovidius Naso was one of the "big three" of Roman poetry (the others being Vergil and Horace), a contemporary of the emperor Augustus, whom he somehow managed to annoy sufficiently that in 8 CE he was sent off into exile in a remote outpost on the Danube delta (what's now Constanța in Romania) just after he had completed this book.

Charles Martin is an American poet and academic. He's previously produced a well-received translation of Catullus.

The Metamorphoses is not a modest work in scope: in his 12,000-line epic, Ovid tells us that he's attempting nothing less than to give us the history of the world from its creation out of Chaos right up to the time of Julius Caesar. The opening section is a grand, orchestral description of the creation in the spirit of Epicurean philosophy, and the final section includes a long speech by Pythagoras exposing a number of his scientific ideas (and arguments for vegetarianism), but what everyone remembers - and what gives the poem its usual title - is the material that fills the middle 13 books, a vast and unruly collection of stories of sex, violence and magical transformation gleaned from authors like Hesiod, Vergil and Homer (or simply made up on the spot by Ovid himself). Gods (of either sex) lust for mortals (of either sex) and have their wicked way or are frustrated; mortals lust for the wrong other mortals; individuals make rash promises or accidentally find themselves in the wrong place; revenge and jealousy get out of hand; or there is simply too much testosterone and alcohol about. And when things go wrong or a god gets peeved, then it's usually the unfortunate mortal who gets changed into an animal, tree, or rock, according to taste. According to Bernard Knox, there are over 250 transformations in the course of the poem (and that's presumably not counting the unnumbered myrmidons and dragon's teeth...). Most of them seem to end unhappily for the mortal in question - in a few cases the transformation saves someone from an imminent danger of rape, but then they are stuck as a tree for the rest of their life. Iphis and Ianthe are the one couple who seem to profit long-term - Iphis is turned into a boy on the eve of the wedding so that they don't violate the Cretan same-sex marriage ban in force at the time. (This is the story Ali Smith uses in Girl meets boy.)

One moral that really comes out of the story is that we should be very careful not to give our children names that sound like animals or plants. That's just asking for trouble. Especially if they happen to be called "Cycnus" - there are three separate characters with this name, in Books II, VII and XII, and they all get turned into swans. Nominative determinism gone crazy...!

Of course, Ovid being such an accessible source for subsequent poets, painters, dramatists, opera librettists and others, many of the stories are very familiar, but what is really striking when you read the whole thing is the pace. Ovid rarely lingers over descriptions (when he does, he's usually making some sort of satirical point), but hammers through the story at maximum speed, and segues into a new and quite different story - connected or not - as soon as he gets to the climax of the previous one. Or inserts a story in the middle of another one, down to two or three levels (not quite as much deep recursion as the Panchatantra, though). From the Big Bang to the moment when "terra sub Augusto est", the music never stops. Even the transition from one book to the next is usually just the flick of an eye - Ovid knows all about cliffhangers and doesn't hesitate to use them.

The speed and efficiency of his storytelling come across most obviously in Books XII-XIV, where we cover essentially everything Ovid thinks we need to know about the Iliad, Odyssey and Aenead. The Iliad, in particular, is masterfully handled as a single "brain vs. brawn" debate between Ajax and Ulysses, in which the two of them make speeches as if in court to justify their respective contributions to the war effort. In case we hadn't guessed it already from all the scenes where Ovid gleefully shows us muscle-bound heroes acting like dangerous idiots, the poet is firmly on the side of Ulysses. Ovid enjoys himself making gentle fun of the conventions of Big Epic and can't resist teasing Vergil about some small continuity errors in the Aenead. But it's all quite respectful fun - Ovid isn't suggesting for a moment that we don't need to read these great poets.

Working out where Ovid himself stands isn't easy at this distance. And he presumably doesn't want it to be easy either - he's writing at the height of Augustus's somewhat hypocritical clampdown on the morals of the Roman upper classes, and whatever he thinks himself, he certainly doesn't want to say anything that counts as explicit blasphemy or corrupting public morals. He's only reporting well-known bits of Greek mythology, after all. It's all the fault of our own dirty minds if we get the impression that the gods and goddesses as portrayed in Ovid are a pretty rotten lot, with only one important claim on our piety, their power to harm us if we annoy them (rather like Augustus, in fact...). And it's for us to decide whether a belief in petulant supernatural interventions is compatible with the logical Epicurean world-view set out in Book I or the Pythagorean pantheism gently mocked in Book XV. From this distance, we can't really know what Ovid expected his sophisticated Roman readers to think, but on the whole I'm inclined to suspect that there's more mockery than piety going on.

The Charles Martin translation

My Latin is just about good enough to work my way through Ovid in the Loeb parallel text, but when I tried that it quickly became obvious that I couldn't possibly keep up with Ovid's frenetic narrative pace, so I switched to the Charles Martin translation, mostly because of the few that came to hand, it seemed the best compromise between closeness to the text and readability.

Martin chooses to translate Ovid's hexameters into a loose and free-running version of English blank verse (which is based on the iambic pentameter line, of course). This turns out to be a really good choice. It's a form with a very solid track-record, of course, and we're so used to hearing it that it reads very naturally. It does mean that the book gets longer, though - it seems to take Martin about 30-40% more lines than Ovid to say something, so it's not easy to go backwards and forwards between translation and original.

The language Martin uses occasionally looks alarmingly modern and American, but he avoids gratuitous anachronisms, and is conscientious about not putting anything in that doesn't have a proper basis in the original text. The one place where he really lets himself go is in the contest between the Muses and the daughters of Pierus in Book V, which he reads as a satire on bad poetry

We’ll show you girls just what real class is
Give up tryin’ to deceive the masses
Your rhymes are fake: accept our wager
Learn which of us is minor and which is major
There’s nine of us here and there’s nine of you
And you’ll be nowhere long before we’re through {...}
So take the wings off, sisters, get down and jam
And let the nymphs be the judges of our poetry slam!

...and even that isn't very far from what it says in the Latin, and Martin apologises for it in the introduction and tells us he couldn't help it.

Here and there he gives us an editorial interjection if it's needed to explain something like a pun that is only obvious in Latin, but he always marks them off clearly with square brackets. The text also comes with short and unpedantic notes and a very handy index/glossary of names and places that you will need for all those times when you really can't work out whether Jupiter is that person's grandfather, father-in-law, or uncle - or all three.

An oddity in this book is that the publishers have used as Introduction an essay Bernard Knox published in the NYRB in 1998, in which he compares the currently-available translations of Ovid and finds them all wanting, except for the work-in-progress by Martin, whose completion he eagerly awaits. Of the current ones, Ted Hughes gets most points for style, but not many for accuracy. That feels almost like the Elizabethan habit of binding favourable blurbs from other poets as part of your book!

Dez. 16, 2018, 6:16pm

I was amazed to find that there are 76 reviews of Metamorphoses on LibraryThing it must be all that sex and violence. Charles Martin - a translator with a sense of humour.

Bearbeitet: Dez. 18, 2018, 10:02am

>70 baswood: Yes, sex and violence are always good for keeping sales up. Something the authors of the other book I've been reading lately seem to have overlooked...

(This is a partial review, because I've got to go away before I can get around to the last three chapters - watch this space...)

The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. 1: The Beginning to 1066 (1992) edited by Richard M. Hogg (UK, 1944-2007)

Scottish-born Richard Hogg was Professor of English Language and Medieval Literature at Manchester for most of his career. As well as editing the Cambridge History, he was responsible for quite a few Old English textbooks.

The Cambridge History of the English Language was a 4000-page mega-project involving many different authors, to document scientifically what we know about the history and spread of English from its beginnings to the present day. I've been eyeing these volumes on the library shelf for quite some time, but it's taken a little while to screw up the courage to have a go at one. And I have to underline that I'm reading this as an interested amateur, not a linguist: when it started to get more technical than I had any use for, I didn't hesitate to skip ahead a bit.

Volume 1 deals with Old English, the Germanic language that was current in England from about the middle of the 5th century CE, when the first "Anglo-Saxons" started to settle and displace the previous Romano-British culture, until about the end of the 11th century, by which time it was in the process of changing into something quite different called Middle English ("the language of Chaucer"). The cut-off date on the front cover shouldn't be taken too literally, of course: people in England didn't suddenly stop speaking Old English on the day the Normans landed at Hastings, but the change to an administrative class used to working in Latin and French obviously accelerated the changes that were already going on in the language. But that will have to wait for Volume 2...

Something it's easy to forget about Old English, since we seem to have such a lot of written material from that period, is that we actually only have a tiny snapshot of the real language. The texts all fall into a few narrow classes - administrative, legal, religious and historical prose works, and poetry. All written by people of the same general class and background (people with monastic training) in a very limited number of centres, and mostly in the last couple of centuries of the Old English period. Most of the things you imagine being able to do with a language simply aren't possible with the evidence we have. You can't say for sure that a particular word didn't exist, or that a certain way of writing something is wrong, only ever that no-one did it that way in the texts we have. Although the need for reading a menu or booking a hotel room in Old English isn't very likely to arise, if it did we wouldn't have any real idea of the way people handled that kind of everyday conversation, or which of the words we know from books it would be appropriate to use. Imagine if your only knowledge of modern English came from (say) the poetry of Shakespeare, Burns and Derek Walcott, a pile of real-estate contracts, the Authorised Version of the Bible, and a translation of St Augustine...

Contents of Volume 1:
1 INTRODUCTION, Richard M.Hogg
- This is a very handy short summary of where and when Old English was used, what evidence we have of it, and what influences - political, religious, etc. - it fell under during the time it was in use.

- Here it starts to get very technical and theoretical, but I found it worth pursuing at least at a superficial level to get an idea of the methods linguists use to work backwards from languages we know about to those we don't - like proto-Germanic, the hypothetical common ancestor from which we must suppose the language of the real-life counterparts of the mythical "Hengist and Horsa" was derived.

- Hogg takes us briskly through the sound-systems and spelling rules of Old English, and the way words change according to the grammatical requirements of case, number, tense, etc. About as painless an account of phonology as I've ever come across, but I still feel much the same way about this branch of linguistics as I do about partial differential equations in physics, or Kant in philosophy...
This sort of thing is particularly interesting, if you can get your mind around it, because of course some of the most radical changes between Old and Middle English were in sound-patterns and grammatical inflections.

4 SYNTAX, Elizabeth Cloys Traugott
- This is the longest section in the book, a detailed blow-by-blow account of how Old English words could be put together into clauses and sentences. Again very interesting in principle because of the things that we know are going to change: it turns out that a surprising number of them were already conspicuously unstable during the Old English period, and Traugott shows us plenty of real examples where we can see things like the gradual slide of the OE demonstratives (equivalent of "this" & "that") into something like the role of the articles in present day English, or the shift from a typical Germanic "verb-final" sentence structure to something more like our "SVO" order.

5 SEMANTICS & VOCABULARY, Dieter Kastovsky
- As you might expect, this was the bit I actually enjoyed as well as finding it useful. Kastovsky takes us through where Old English got its words from, how it made new words, and how meanings could shift around as it did this. One of the most conspicuously strange things to us about the "look" of Old English is how few obvious loan-words from other languages there are. Alfred and Ælfric and their compatriots were evidently the sort of people who would always prefer "far-speaker" to "telephone"(*) when they met a new concept whilst translating a foreign text. But Old English was also astonishingly resistant to picking up words from other languages nearby - although Old English speakers and Romano-British speakers of Celtic languages must have co-existed for at least a century or two, there is only a handful of Celtic borrowings, mostly geographical terms, or religious language (originally Greek or Latin) that came via Irish missionaries. And it's a similar story with Scandinavian languages - there was a substantial population of Danish/Norwegian speakers in the East and North-West of England for a couple of centuries, and even a Danish king at one point, and thousands of words of Scandinavian origin found their way into Middle and Modern English. But again, only a few of those (mostly legal or seafaring terms) were current in Old English. English seems to have gone from being one of the most stiff-necked and exclusive languages you could imagine to one of the most open and diverse practically overnight.

To come:

6 DIALECTS, Thomas E. Toon
7 ONOMASTICS, Cecily Clark
8 LITERARY LANGUAGE, Malcolm R. Godden


Whilst working through this, I've been refreshing my memory of the basics by referring back to a very useful, low-threshold sort of book I've had for years, An Invitation to Old English & Anglo-Saxon England by Bruce Mitchell, the Australian-born Fellow of Teddy Hall who always used to claim he was the inspiration for Monty Python's "Bruces Sketch" (according to Wikipedia he wasn't...). Recommended.


(*) Wondering about the OE for "smartphone" - maybe something like snotor-clypiende (wise-calling)?

Dez. 18, 2018, 9:50am

>71 thorold: And that's another book on my wishlist...

Dez. 18, 2018, 10:12am

>72 Dilara86: Definitely a library book, not one to buy - current prices on ABEbooks start around $100 a volume.

Dez. 18, 2018, 11:24am

Ouch! That's a lot of lattes and avocado toasts ;) Especially if we're looking at buying all five volumes! I might go for A History of the English Language instead...

Bearbeitet: Dez. 23, 2018, 11:02am

This one was a light read for the aeroplane (fortunately I wasn't flying to Gatwick this time, so it was long enough to get me most of the way to where I was going...). I picked it from last week's Guardian piece on reading African women writers, but I see it's also been an LT Early Reviewers book.

Welcome to Lagos (2017) by Chibundu Onuzo (Nigeria, 1991- )


This turned out to be a surprisingly light-hearted story about a bunch of ill-assorted characters brought together by a common need to run away to the big city. The sort of thing that would probably make a good film, but feels a little bit flimsy as a novel, especially as it still seems to be locked somewhere in the moral universe of A Christmas carol, where all it takes for the wealthy to redeem themselves from decades of corruption and exploiting the poor is a quixotic act of charity. It's postmodern enough to accept that the quixotic act of charity doesn't actually change the world, but that doesn't seem to matter. Needle-eyes seem to be opening up wherever we look.

On the other hand, there's lots to enjoy in this book - some fascinating and amusing observation of the colourful life of Lagos, some very sharp bits of dialogue, and a nice send-up of the business of broadcast news as practised in the 21st century. Onuzo is certainly someone to watch.

Bearbeitet: Dez. 23, 2018, 10:10am

As I mentioned in the "what are you reading now" thread, I was reminded that I had never got around to this famous piece of critical theory (McClary herself calls it "a classic" in her introduction to the second edition...) in the silliest possible way, when it came up as the subject of a question on University Challenge. When I took a music theory course back in the 90s, it was mentioned, but too new to be on the syllabus yet.

I was pulled up short when I read that Professor McClary is married to Robert Walser - but it turns out that this particular Robert Walser is another American musicologist, no relation to either his Swiss namesake or the German Martin Walser...

Feminine endings: Music, gender and sexuality (1992) by Susan McClary (USA, 1946- )


McClary stirred up quite a bit of dust with this book in the nineties, but most of it seems to have settled again in the meantime, and these days you can read accounts of pieces of music in concert programmes that would make her analyses look pretty tame.

Essentially, what she is arguing is that quite apart from the obvious institutional sexism in Western art music, which kept all but the most determined women out of formal training and major creative and interpretative roles for centuries, there is also an element of inherent sexism in the aesthetic content of music, the supposedly "pure", non-representative formal structures that shape musical works. And this applies as much to works like Tchaikovsky's Fourth and Beethoven's Ninth as it does to Carmen and Duke Bluebeard's Castle. The struggle between the tonic and the dominant and its resolution are quite simply (well not quite as simply as all that...) metaphors for sexual pleasure delayed and consumated. McClary looks at some major pieces from the established, male-dominated repertoire, but also brings in contrasting analyses of works by female creators - not just mainstream art composers but also people of the time like Laurie Anderson and Madonna.

More readable and thought-provoking than this short caricature probably suggests, but probably mostly of historical interest by now.

Bearbeitet: Dez. 23, 2018, 10:58am

The Zolathon I started a year ago is rumbling on, bringing me to the 7th of the 20 books in the series, probably the first to be really well-known:

L'Assommoir (1877; many different English titles) by Emile Zola (France, 1840-1902)


The seventh book in the cycle follows Gervaise, a young woman from the Macquart side of the family, who works as a laundress and has moved from Provence to Paris with her unreliable man, the hatter Lantier, and their two young sons. When we first meet her, Lantier is in the process of pawning all their remaining belongings in order to run off with another woman. By hard graft, Gervaise gets out of that mess, and several further ones, but each time she gets knocked back down her will to survive is progressively lessened, and the short-term pleasures of drink start to look more appealling.

If you'd been a 19th century French reader following the publication of Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle in real time, you'd already have been aware by 1877 that you had to be ready for anyhting, and there was no knowing what he would do next. All the same, L'Assommoir must have been a shock. Thanks to Dickens and others, there were plenty of novels about poverty, the evils of gin, exploitation and debt. But they were always novels written from a safely middle-class viewpoint: most of the time the central character found himself in the slums as a result of malice or mistaken identity and was rescued by a generous benefactor as soon as his true identity came out, and invariably the narrative voice was that of an educated, respectable middle-class person who knew where to stop to avoid shocking his readers.

Zola, of course, is a writer who has rarely been suspected of knowing where to stop. In this case, he took an approach that now seems absolutely obvious, but must have been alarming to contemporaries: he gave his omniscient third-person narrator a descriptive voice using a very slightly more grammatical version of the same coarse Parisian argot that his characters spoke in. We're not allowed to take a step back into our safe, middle-class world: we have to see his characters from their own perspective, bounded by their own fears and ambitions. And it's not a very pleasant place to be. Work is miserable and ill-rewarded; the limited amount of fun you can have is always undermined by the knowledge that it's costing you money you can't afford; saving and hard work can give you a better life, but the least accident will upset all your plans and send you back down to the bottom again. And don't even think about getting old unless you have children who are earning well enough to keep you.

The raw language is one of the chief pleasures of this book, and we get fewer than usual of Zola's lush descriptions (plenty of descriptions of lushes, though!). But the restricted vocabulary he imposes on himself doesn't stop him giving us a couple of unforgettable backdrops - the steamy laundry (setting for a ludicrously erotic water-fight in the opening chapter), the forge, the squalid apartment building where most of the characters live, and of course the gin-palace, the Assommoir of the title, with its bubbling still in the background. And a couple of very memorable parties, but also lots of painfully graphic descriptions of the kind of behaviour that poverty, desperation and gin can lead people into, culminating in the scary scenes of Gervaise's husband dying in delirium tremens in the lunatic asylum.

Bearbeitet: Dez. 28, 2018, 11:23am

A rare excursion into science - not sure why it's so rare, since I approve of science in theory... but anyway, I saw this lying around and it looked interesting.

Brief candle in the dark (2015) by Richard Dawkins (UK, 1941- )


The second part of Dawkins's memoirs, in which he writes about his professional life from about 1970, when he returned to Oxford, up to the time of his seventieth birthday party in 2011. He chooses to do this in a non-chronological way, grouping the experiences he wants to tell us about under a series of big headings - publishing, television, teaching, conferences, etc. In between times he drops famous names ("I met my future third wife at Douglas Adams's fortieth birthday party..."), slips in a couple of accounts of research projects he was involved in, and some afterthoughts about the ideas in his other books. Fascinating, intelligent and very readable, as you would expect, but it somehow comes over just a teensy bit self-satisfied. Although, if you've had a career like his, there isn't really all that much to be modest about, is there?

Bearbeitet: Dez. 28, 2018, 11:50am

I started the year with The hand of Ethelberta - so why not slip in another early Hardy novel as we come to the end of 2018?

A pair of blue eyes (1873) by Thomas Hardy (UK, 1840-1928)


This was Hardy's third published novel, just before Far from the madding crowd, and it has a rather obviously autobiographical slant to the plot, with a young architect falling in love with the rector's daughter when he's sent to survey a church in a remote Cornish village. The rector isn't too happy about it when he learns that Stephen is not the gentleman he thought, but the son of a humble West-country stonemason. Which is pretty much exactly the situation Hardy found himself in when he met Emma Gifford, who was to become his first wife...

However, it's probably safe to assume that he made up the remaining features of the plot, which include two further suitors for the hand of Elfride (one deceased, one Stephen's best friend), a sinister widow who keeps popping up unexpectedly at dead of night, some interesting acrobatics on a church tower, and a final resolution of the plot that comes over as brutal and arbitrary even by Hardy standards. Not to mention the first recorded use of the device of ending an instalment of a serial with the hero dangling from a cliff by one hand, often cited as the origin of the modern term "cliffhanger". Or the scene where the heroine's brain explodes from the effort of trying to beat a man at chess. Or the chapter epigraph that reads "He heard her musical pants" - sadly Hardy never tells us where he picked that immortal line up!

Not Hardy at his mature best, then, but there are some very good scenes in this book, especially in the early part of the book where Elfride is still being allowed to be clever, headstrong and impulsive. The men are a little bit dull, though, and Hardy doesn't bother to include a second main female character, so Elfride has to do too much of the work on her own, which perhaps has a lot to do with her rapid decline.

Bearbeitet: Dez. 29, 2018, 11:35am

I haven’t completely done with 2018 yet, but I’m getting ready now...

Looks as though I've read 42 books in Q4 (maybe one or two more before New Year...), so around 169 for the year, which is a reasonably sane total. I'll put up some more detailed stats later.

My 2019 Q1 thread starts here:

Dez. 30, 2018, 12:45pm

Greetings! Just read through your thread, here, dipping into some of the reviews. As I've always enjoyed your posts elsewhere, I'll be following along more closely in 2019. As always, I'll be posting about my reading via my 50-Book Challenge thread. Best, Jerry

Bearbeitet: Dez. 31, 2018, 2:12pm

Another one just squeezing in before the end of the year...

I picked this off my mother's shelf because I read African laughter, which is effectively a sequel to this, earlier this year. baswood posted a nice review 3 years ago - I don't have all that much to add, really:

Going home (1957) by Doris Lessing (UK, Zimbabwe, 1919-2013)


Lessing describes a visit to the country where she grew up, pre-independence Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), in 1956, her first - and last - after moving to England. As it turned out, it was a very interesting historical moment: 1956 was a momentous year internationally (Khruschev's renunciation of Stalin, the invasion of Hungary, Suez, etc.) and it was also the time of the abortive attempt to create a white-dominated federation of former British colonies in Central Africa (modern Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi).

She writes perceptively and wittily about the peculiar political situation of the moment, and the hypocrisy that was needed on all sides to oppress black Africans enough to satisfy the fears and prejudices of the white settlers (the only people with any actual political rights in the autonomous colony) whilst keeping up the pretence to the rest of the world that Southern Rhodesia was still a bastion of British liberalism, quite different from its repressive neighbour South Africa.

It’s all rather less nuanced than what Lessing tells us about her later visits to independent Zimbabwe in African laughter, but obviously the political situation in the fifties was less nuanced too. And there’s a very typical Lessing move when you get to the end of the book: a sequence of (count ‘em!) four postscripts, written for new editions at intervals of about ten years, pointing out the things in the book that she feels with hindsight were wrong. Not least her frequent assertions of her own communist ideals (she had asked the Soviet government to sponsor her trip, and set out under the - mistaken - belief that they had).

A period piece, but very much worth reading if you want to know more about the messy winding-up of British colonialism.

Dez. 31, 2018, 1:18pm

And another quick one:

In honour bound (1961) by Nina Bawden‬ (UK, 1925-2012)

An early Nina Bawden novel, about a thoroughly good man brought up in the tradition of the English Gentleman who finds himself dangerously out of his depth in postwar Britain. A similar sort of idea to A Handful of Dust, but seen from the point of view of the friends who have to pick up the pieces. A bit uneven, but has some nice insights into the English class system and its faults.

Jan. 5, 2019, 9:02am

Quick summary of Q4:

43 books read in Q3 (Q1: 51, Q2: 44 Q3: 32):

Author gender: F 18; M 25
By main category: Crime 3; Memoir 2; Fiction 27; Poetry 1; Travel 4; Essays 1; History 2; Philosophy 1; Language 1; Music 1
By language: French 9; English 25; Dutch 1; German 7; Spanish 1
(Of the 20 English books, 1 was a translation - original language Latin)

By original publication date: Earliest 8 CE; latest 2018; mean 1915, median 1995. 10 books were published in the last five years; 8 were published before 1900.

By format: 19 physical books from the TBR; 18 read-but-not-owned (free e-books or public library); 6 paid e-books

37 distinct authors read in Q4 (Q1: 41, Q2: 32; Q3: 20):

Author gender: F 15; M 22
By country: UK 16; US 3; FR 5; NL 1; DE 4; AT 2; CH 1; ES 1; others 4

Highlights of Q4:
Oh, lots of good stuff! Finishing The Dutch republic : its rise, greatness, and fall, 1477-1806 was one obvious high-point, L'Assommoir was another - both very rewarding books that took a while to get into.
Así empieza lo malo and Boswell on the grand tour were both excellent books that had spent too long on the TBR pile.
And Simplicissimus and Pantagruel were two classics I should have read long ago.
Yémen was the pleasantest surprise, of Q4, I think.

Jan. 5, 2019, 9:03am

...and that really does close off the Q4 thread, I think.

My 2019 Q1 thread starts here: