Tuesday, March 31, 2015

specimens of the literature of Sweden - Påskmust



Stay away from anything that ends in "must", advised my Mum.

 I thought it tasted all right, though. That's supposing you can cope with very sweet soft drinks at all. It looks like Coke (as usual, I din't think of photographing it until I'd drunk it.) Tastes a bit like it and a bit like Dandelion & Burdock.


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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870)

Prosper Mérimée iPhone Case

Mérimée is one of my compensations for not being able to read French well enough to manage Balzac or Proust. His most productive period came early and did not last very long; in 1834 he was appointed Inspector of Historic Monuments and thereafter his brilliant career as a hard-working public servant meant that the literary output became fitful. But when the stories did emerge, like Carmen (1845), they were as casual and wily as ever.

Chronique du temps de Charles IX (1829)

One of the first works to show how fertile Scott's influence would prove in Europe: the effect, as usual, very different from Scott and playing on a wholly different register of ironic subtleties. A wonderfully readable book.

Mateo Falcone (1829)

The "ravins" of the topographical opening paragraph return with changed effect at the end; Mateo tells his wife that Fortunato's body lies in the ravine. The comedy of "Si vous avez tué un homme" is also changed, into the harshness concealing tenderness of "Elle est bien longue, n'importe". In the key central scene, the soldier turns the child's inherited pride this way and that until he finds a way to get what he wants. This is a perfect short story - the challenge for later writers was to achieve that perfection without resorting to such soon-exhausted extremes as filicide.

La Partie de trictrac (1830)

One of the great gambling stories. Roger's moment of dishonesty proves to have appalling consequences that he is unable to avert or undo, though he tries to give half the money back. In fact it's the Dutchman's principles, as well as his own lack of them, that destroys them both.

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Xenophon: Anabasis

Old Khndzoresk, Armenia (Photo by Mher Ishkhanyan). Xenophon mentions seeing troglodytic villages like this.

[Image source: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/70883746]

Xenophon wrote the Anabasis some time around 370 BCE. The narrative covers spring 401 - spring 399.

The book I read was a Penguin Classic (The Persian Expedition) containing Rex Warner's translation of 1949 along with George Cawkwell's 1972 introduction.

Some readers have found George Cawkwell's introduction to The Persian Expedition too captious, because it's primarily concerned with weighing the accuracy of Xenophon's account; but after all that's the proper thing for a historian to do, rather than spend time eulogising the lucid prose. We do like, I know, a eulogistic introduction; it reassures us we are reading something great, and are spending our time wisely. (Just as, so I've heard, the main audience for car adverts on the TV is people who have just bought the model being advertised.)

Not everything Cawkwell says has the weight of consensus behind it, for instance his account of the battle of Cunaxa. He asks the right question, though: how on earth did Cyrus expect to win it? Once asked, Xenophon's account is plainly unsatisfying. And Cawkwell's scepticism about the young Xenophon keeping a travel-journal is persuasive.

I don't think it's a firm conclusion, either, that the Anabasis has a Panhellenic agenda. Still, few works of canonical literature are as straightforwardly militaristic. The book's former prominence in the education of our male elite is something to ponder.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)

Honoré de Balzac, daguerréotype by Louis-Auguste Bisson, 1842 (Maison de Balzac)





In the 1970s if you went to the shelves of a professional but not too literary British person you found novels in the Penguin Classics series. For instance Balzac, Zola, Turgenev and Tolstoy. (You also found Solzhenitsyn and probably Isaac Bashevis Singer.) There might be some Hardy and some Jane Austen, too, but the foreign-language novels, being translated into 1970s English, seemed more contemporary.

A few years later, these same persons “raved about” the French film Manon des Sources.

I mention this odd footnote of history (it’s in rather a Balzacian spirit, I think) because although the Penguin Classics list still exists, indeed is more numerous than ever, it has largely – and Balzac almost entirely – disappeared from the shelves of High Street bookshops. I suspect the main reason was the dramatically improved marketing of moderately substantial contemporary novels, which began in the 1980s and is indissolubly associated with the rise of Waterstones. Old Goriot and Lost Illusions didn’t have quite the same razzmatazz, and besides everyone was growing younger, especially middle-aged professionals. Channel 4 had something to do with it, and probably Thatcherism too, in a back-handed kind of way.

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Anon. The History of Poland (1831)


Bohdan Khmelytsky with Tuhai Bey at Lviv, painting by Jan Matejko (1885)

[Image source: Wikimedia]


This is a volume of “The Cabinet Cyclopaedia. Conducted by the Rev. Dionysius Lardner, LL.D etc, assisted by Eminent Literary and Scientific Men.”

I enjoy reading nineteenth-century historians. I have read most of Motley (The Dutch Republic and the United Netherlands) and thousands of pages of Lecky and Milman. This is not so good as those, but the author’s voice is one we are disposed to trust. In those days the historian made no secret of his beliefs, and judged accordingly. This historian is Protestant and enlightened, and so writes in a spirit of mordant condemnation about much of Poland’s history, especially the centuries of decline that made its demise as an independent nation seem (with hindsight, for now it was gone) inevitable. The other, apparently less partisan, value that has appealed to all historians since Thucydides is political savvy, the successful maintenance of power. Where religious difference is allowed for, the criterion of a supposedly common standard of morality is exercised. Thus, of the Catholic establishment yielding on an issue of clerical marriage: “This was a cowardly, we may add, a highly criminal subterfuge. Whether celibacy was right or wrong, they had sworn to enforce it.”  

But the reason for this note is the last six pages of the book: “to omit all mention of the Jews, a people more numerous here than in any other country of the same extent under heaven, and bearing so great a proportion to the whole population, would be unpardonable.”

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Jane Austen: Emma (1816)

Jane Austen, pencil-and-watercolour sketch by Cassandra Austen, currently on display in the National Portrait Gallery

[Image source: http://austenblog.com/2010/05/09/a-closer-look-at-images-of-jane-austen/ . This is the only fully authenticated portrait of Jane Austen that shows her face; there is a painting by Cassandra that shows Jane, but from the back.]

Emma is an epic of class distinction, or what might be better named class definition. The class being defined is the upper-middle class gentry, not quite titled. The same class that Scott in Ivanhoe five years later would call the Franklins of Merry England.

Knightley, the novel's most skilful operator, is relaxed in his nuances. He behaves well to the lower orders, he does not imagine what is not the case. When he discusses class distinction he is talking about classes or sub-classes that are lower than his own: we don't hear Knightley on the nobility. He uses the terms "line" and "set", apparently interchangeably, to talk about the place that Harriet Smith inhabits: Mrs Goddard's. But his definitions are also nuanced by "situation" - Miss Bates is in a situation which is economically straitened. Though her "line" is comparatively high, she ought not to be made the butt of Emma's thoughtless wit. Knightley praises Robert Martin, though he does not pretend that the friendship is an equal one. The exact wording is: "He knows I have a thorough regard for him and all his family, and, I believe, considers me as one of his best friends." It is not this: "I have a thorough regard for him, and he is one of my best friends." The phrase "and all his family" qualifies the thorough regard: what he registers is not quite a personal affection, it is a regard for retainers. And the second half of the sentence is like an ethologist talking about a chimp. Emma is an imaginer, that is the source of her errors, but Knightley speaks up for sense. Yet he is not (his term for Harriet) artless, except that comically both he and Emma turn out to have their humanly artless sides too, when it comes to making love. 

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Harriet is a little embarrassing: I mean, for Jane Austen. In a book that so relishes its expansive accounts of discussions, there's a significance to its suppressions, to the things that are not given to us. They include (in I, XVII) the painful interview between Emma and Harriet at Mrs Goddard's, in which the error over Mr Elton is revealed; this is reported to us, not word by word, but summarized into Harriet's tears and good behaviour. 

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Monday, March 23, 2015

amazon reviewers

This is a stub list of interesting Amazon reviewers I've happened across. - reviewers that make you want to press the button that says "Read all my reviews". I'll update it as and when.

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Steampunk "JS" Northern Ireland. 44 pages of reviews. 

His interests include razors and luxury eau de colognes and shaving creams, computer gaming, Christianity, painting and art history, Hebrew and classical Greek. He also does decent Vine reviews (these are solicited reviews where the reviewer gets the product for free).

There's pretty well no end to his talents: he paints, plays classical guitar, and runs Linux on his PC. He is 60ish and retired and in effect Amazon.co.uk is his blog - he's written lots and lots of reviews. He appears to be an Evangelical (believes John's Revelation to be a true account) but this leaves little trace on his reviews in general. He's theologically learned, yet enthusiastic about Transcendental Meditation and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. 


http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/cdp/member-reviews/A2BJAW5KECUBBM/ref=pdp_new

jacr100 (UK). 13 pages of reviews.

Reviews global modern novels, - Latin American, Polish, Armenian and anywhere else. Also books about private investing. Visits Africa. The approach is unacademic, impatient of any avant-gardism or obscurity. Opinions are unpredictable and mostly acute, though sometimes bizarre. (I came across jacr100 while writing about L'Etranger).

Seems now to have stopped publishing reviews. A pity.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

holiday reading


To start with:  two books that I didn't take.

In the checklist of things I had to do before leaving, one of the only unticked entries is "Buy Flora of Western Australia". This was my facetious term for a beginner's guide that would help me identify a few of the plants I might see as we walked about in this distant continent. It was a good idea, but I never got any further with it, or I might be able to tell you the names of the plants in these photos.

The second book that I didn't take was John Wilkinson's  book of essays The Lyric Touch. (I bought it primarily to read the piece about Andrea Brady; the one about Prynne is downloadable in the preview that you can find on Salt's website.) It was delivered a few hours before we left, and after skim-reading a few pages of Wilkinson's profoundly-considered but disputable prose I felt tempted to bring it along with me (plus I remembered reading his Lake Shore Drive while in Spain about ten years ago).  But I also knew that Wilkinson's text would try to make my brain work in a different way from the way it works on holiday. I need an emptier head than that.


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