Idylls of the King, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

I thought I’d cover the second half of the year with just this single review of Idylls of the King.

I guess Tennyson is one of those writers I’ve always held a prejudice against, to the extent that I’ve never even been conscious that it’s something I should be challenging. I only bought this book because of my interest over the last few years in Arthurian legend.

In Idylls of the King, Tennyson pretty much adds everything to Arthurian legend which always seemed to me to be missing. I’d noted in a previous post the peculiar artlessness of Arthurian writings in comparison to works like The Iliad/Odyssey. Tennyson alters all this, adding in such things as subtlety and human psychology. Particularly I enjoyed his exploration of the paradox which seems at the heart of Arthurian legend: the nature of Lancelot, who is at once the exemplar of Arthurian virtue and at the same time carrying on an affair with Guinevere. This essential corruption of the purity of the Arthurian ideal – the idea that, in the end, living in the way of Christ is inhuman – is a recurrent notion underlying most of the poems in this work, and binds it into a coherent whole. Although curiously (and, to me, inexplicably) this all changes in the last 2 poems, where Tennyson reverts to a more traditional and dull defence of Christian virtue (Guinevere reminds us that it’s all the woman’s fault, because she committed adultery).

Tennyson doesn’t seem to me to be a writer whose much read anymore – or at least, much talked about. I wonder if this is because he hasn’t been eclipsed by modernism. What is essentially an epic poem about Arthurian legend doesn’t exactly fit in with c20th artistic interests. Maybe it’s time for a revival.

Since we’ve now left the EU, here’s an appropriate line from the epilogue:

The voice of Britain, or a sinking land / Some third-rate isle half-lost among her seas?

(There were no oranges in the shop today).

My film recommendation from the second half of the year is Maria Saakyan’s The Lighthouse.

Spanish Literature Month – Two Books

Facundo, by Domingo F Sarmiento

This book was on my pile of books to be disposed of without reading (something of a necessity these days) – I think because it seemed, from the opening chapter, too much of a sociological / economic type history, rather than a kings and battles type history, which is the only kind of history Obooki likes. In reality it’s a mixture of both, and the sociological, and indeed geological, bit is of vast importance to Sarmiento’s ideas: – basically that Argentina is divided between a coastal area of European-influenced civilisation, and an interior area of barbaric pampas. Not that it’s that straight-forward, but essentially this is the conflict which Sarmiento sets up – the barbaric being personified in the character of Facundo Quiroga, brutal gaucho commander and ruler of some interior area of Argentina (where exactly anywhere in the hinterland of Argentina actually was, as described in this book, is beyond Obooki’s knowledge); and civilisation, pretty much, by the city of Buenos Aires (and such representatives as existed in other cities). Anyway, slowly Facundo, and other commanders such as Rosas, dismantle civilisation to replace it with their own barbarism.

It’s all interesting enough in itself, but what I found equally interesting was how much this book seeped into the other Spanish language books I was contemporaneously reading. The absolutism of Facundo, as a regional commander, over the people over whom he ruled – especially as regards any woman who took his fancy – reminded me remarkably of the position and attitude of the wicked commander in Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna – though without a king to restore order. Facundo’s ultimate death, in which his arrogance of his own prowess leads him to being incautious, is much the same of Don Alonso’s in Lope de Vega’s The Knight of Olmedo. Almost as if Facundo is merely a character born out of these earlier stories, a physical extension of old Spanish notions of honour and manliness.

And then there’s Borges. He has a quote on the back of my edition, claiming Facundo to be the “most memorable character of Argentine literature”. Maybe so, but I can’t help thinking Borges is even more influenced by Sarmiento’s juxtaposition of civilisation and barbarism, for he seems in his own stories to be obsessed by the idea (and the idea of contemporary events in reality seeming to be of different eras, and events in different eras being contemporary) – e.g. the story I read yesterday, The Story of the Warrior and the Captive (the reaction of a barbarous man coming into contact with civilisation; and a civilisation woman transported into a world of barbarism). Hopefully it will help me understand a bit more all his stories about gauchos and knife-fights.

Anyway, I’m glad I decided to read it, rather than give it away.

Reasons of State, by Alejo Carpentier

Already one of my favourite Latin American writers, especially for Explosion in a Cathedral (less so the books I’ve read since), I was very taken by the first half of this book, but I did get bogged down for a long time in the middle. It’s another of your typical Latin American dictator novels (as, in many ways, is Facundo). This time our hero is the dictator of an unnamed Latin American country around the time of the first world war, who spends as much of his time as he can living in France, only occasionally having to return to the world over there in order to suppress insurrections against his rule. But the world is changing; his brutal methods of suppression in his own country are being publicised in the US and Europe, and his friends in high society are increasingly refusing to see him. Now the spectre of communism too threatens his overthrow.

I liked all of Carpentier’s rich language, but to me his downfall is his obsession with lists, in which he perhaps could challenge the great Emile Zola.

In Spanish the book’s title is El Recurso del Metodo, which I take to mean “recourse to the method” (a phrase which appears in the book) – the method in this case being the one of retaining power, which works repeatedly, as they say, right up to the moment when it doesn’t; but also seems to have reference to Descartes, whose quotes appear constantly as chapter headings (though I don’t really remember Descartes being so political). On the other hand, bearing in mind the subject matter, Reasons of State is an equally sensible title. I’m just left wondering why they changed it. It was also published by an organisation called The Writers and Readers Publishing Co-operative – a name which makes me think of some sort of anarcho-syndicalist publisher – and yet I wonder if this book espouses exactly the ideology they imagine: – I don’t know Carpentier’s affliation, but to my mind he spends far too much time in the book describing the Parisian life of decadence and wealth, for any reader to think he was wholly opposed to it. You’d hardly mistake it anyway for socialist realism.


Books Read – June 2020 (Part 2)

The Prelude, by William Wordsworth

I think this is the first English language epic poem I’ve read (at least, in its entirety). I guess it’s a literary form which has been pretty much out of fashion these last two centuries; today it would just be an autobiographical novel. Basically it’s an enquiry by Wordsworth into how he became Wordsworth: the growth of the artist within, how he’s sustained by his love of the natural world (mostly the Lake District), and less so by human society (more specifically the French Revolution, or what it led to). In general interesting enough, but that didn’t prevent me getting very bogged down at times. I’m still not sure epic poetry is at all suited to English.

The Invitation, by Claude Simon

If you’ve read all of Faulkner, and want to read some more Faulkner, then you could read some Claude Simon. He even employs a lot of Faulkner’s syntactical tics. Structurally, his works tend to be more broken up, and the subject matter is certainly not Faulknerian. This novel is about an invitation extended to 15 famous figures from around the world to visit the newly perestroikaed Russia (or, at least, this is what I derived from the text – the essay afterwards says it would be reductive to claim this was what it was about). It kind of starts and ends and doesn’t really go anywhere or say anything or have a point. (I’ve got another novel, which I must finish reading, called Perestroika in Partygrad, by Alexander Zinoviev, which is much the same, but from a Russian satirical point of view). But as with Faulkner, I mostly enjoyed just the pure writing.

Dom Casmurro, by Machado de Assis

This is certainly my favourite of his novels – far better than his other two more Sterne-like, post-modernist affairs (Epitaph of a Small Winner and Quincas Borba, the latter of which I remember not enjoying at all – and possibly not finishing). This is the accepted view too. (Although I did enjoy the previous more realist novel of his I read, which I haven’t the effort to look up now but I’m sure is somewhere on this blog [I looked it up later, it was Yaya Garcia]). Basically a story of adolescent love flourishing, perhaps, into mature adult love (i.e. marriage) – and not even particularly against the wishes of anyone’s family.

The Double Tongue, by William Golding

This the last novel Golding wrote, and the last of his novels I had yet to read. (It’s very rare for me to actually finish an author’s complete works). I think it’s far from his best novel. As we observed a few months ago about Golding, he has a great interest in extreme states of mind (far from the modern Western one). This novel is about a woman who becomes the voice of the Pythian oracle at Delphi, but it didn’t really satisfy on this account. There was too little examination of what the mind of an oracle might be; and too much religious scepticism (I’m always sceptical towards scepticism of ancient religion; in many ways the ancients took religion a lot more seriously than we do). Additionally, there’s a counterplot about a Greek conspiracy to rid themselves of Roman imperium which, while I’m inclined to believe lots of people living under the Romans would rather they didn’t, I found unlikely (especially for the Greeks, who ultimately throve to the extent of completely taking over the eastern empire).

Ion, by Euripides

I re-read this because it’s referenced in The Double Tongue, though aside from being set around the oracle of Delphi, and occasionally the Pythian priestess appears in it, it doesn’t have all that much in common with it. The back of my copy claims it’s a play about “reconciling religious faith with the facts of human life”, but this seems to me a very Christian point of view and not at all evidenced in the text (though now I guess I’m going to have to read it again to make sure!). The ancient Greeks had no difficulty in reconciling religious faith with the facts of human life: they simply didn’t believe the gods had our best interests at heart in the first place. Something of a proto-#MeToo play as well, in which the central character Creusa finally years later decides to speak out about how she was raped as a young girl.

Knight’s Gambit, by William Faulkner

Usually I take months (if not years) to complete any given book of short stories, but these six I read in six days. There are all detective – or at least crime – stories, revolving around that familiar Faulknerian character, Gavin Stevens. Aside from the first story, which is mostly a Poirot-like everyone-gathered-together-to-reveal-the-mystery affair, mostly in these pieces one wonders if the chain of detection is quite as important to Faulkner as the cultural environs of the crime and the corruption of the legal process (or society at large in which it exists), not to mention the extension of the general mythology of Yoknapatawpha County. The last and longest story is somewhat different, in which Faulkner’s digressive garrulousness itself is used to distract you from the clues as to what’s going on. Far-fetched perhaps at times, but wonderfully written – he is in his full story-telling mode.

Books Read – June 2020

I’m going to divide this month into 4 parts (probably), there’s so much I’ve read (or, at least, finished).

Andreas, by Hugo von Hofmannstahl

This is a novel (or part of one) from last month which I forgot. I really enjoyed it, and it’s a great pity Hofmannstahl couldn’t overcome his hang-ups about writing and finish it. On account of the bizarre nature of the happenings in it, it reminded me a lot of ETA Hoffmann. The whole business of the servant seems like the typical Hoffmann story starting off normally and then spiralling off into unexpected dimensions; – and then, as far as I remember, there was a woman who climbed up walls like a spider. I’d like to have known more what that was all about.

A Maze of Death, by Philip K Dick

Philip K Dick is an author who can be divided more easily than most into his good and bad books. A Maze of Death falls into his good category. From what I’ve read before, it’s closest to Ubik. The set-up is the same (a group of people start mysteriously dying in a world which for some reason is disintegrating), and so are a lot of the preoccupations (mostly, death). That is to say, like most Dick, it’s not your run-of-the-mill sci-fi. The reader is left with the usual sense of not really knowing what’s going on throughout, though unlike Ubik, where the ultimate “explanation” for all this leaves you strangely none the wiser, A Maze of Death‘s explanation – like the previous Dick book we read, Time Out of Joint – seemed a bit disappointingly (ahem) deus ex machina.

Plays 2, by Dario Fo

I can’t say I was much impressed by these, although 2 of the plays (Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay – a sort of socialist strike play – and The Open Couple – about what it says) were better than the other two. Elizabeth, the longest play, has the problem of competing in my mind with Miranda Richardson’s portrayal of Elizabeth, against which nothing can compare, and is in the end rather silly (which is a harsh criticism of a farce).

The Saga of Gisli

I think this is so far my favourite Icelandic saga. It’s short, only about 60 pages, and is the usual Icelandic story of murder and revenge. Four friends are destined to fall out and kill one another. The explanation as to why is left very vague (perhaps one friend commits adultery with another friend’s wife?) the reader remaining as uncertain as the characters seem. It all escalates, until our hero Gisli ends up an outlaw (no one is allowed to give him shelter, though naturally many do) and is hunted down (rather like say The Running Man – i.e. the book, not the film).

The Mabinogion

I’ve been reading this for a while, and it’s only the last two romances I read this month. (The four books of the Mabinogion themselves are very strange – in fact, beyond the first one, they’re reasonably incomprehensible. I guess it’s what happens with oral story-telling, once everyone’s forgotten what the story was originally about). These last 2 pieces are Arthurian romance. I’m not sure I quite grasped the point of Gereint son of Erbin: – because he paid too much attention to his wife, and not enough to his kingdom, he was ashamed and made her ride in front of him on a purposeless quest, killing any knights who approached them (the bit about mists at the end reminded me of Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant). Peredur son of Efrawg, on the other hand, I found fascinating as another version of the grail story, but this time without the grail, or any of the appropriate elements of the grail legend. Peredur is Percival (Parsifal), who grows up not knowing what knights are, becomes a knight, only to fail to ask the question of the Fisher King, just like in Chrétien de Troyes, but the stories thereafter differ – presumably around the point when Chrétien de Troyes died and left his story for other people to complete, and they decided to hedge it around with all kinds of Christian mysticism; whereas here in the Mabinogion the whole business has a much more prosaic explanation, it’s nothing to do with Christ or the last supper or Joseph of Arimatheia. There’s some scholarly discussion (so my introduction says) of which story influenced which, or if it all just comes from the same source. I can’t help feeling myself that this is probably how the original story was completed – and would have been how Chrétien finished his (but I need to re-read Chrétien some time).

The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, by Joseph Conrad

I was going to review this in light of Chinua Achebe’s criticism of Conrad as a racist (primarily, if I recall, and without actually looking up the article, because he feels Conrad refuses to ascribe black men (as Achebe says, Conrad’s favoured term is “niggers”) with humanity, using them rather as mere backdrop to the white man’s issues; though I remember at the time thinking it was odd that the article omitted all mention of The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus‘, which as I recall might at least have attempted to imbue one black man with humanity), but since I started re-reading it, the issue’s become too close to the zeitgeist for me to be bothered with it. Besides, it’s the kind of novel you could argue almost any position on. (If you’re looking for an undergraduate dissertation though, and don’t want to do Heart of Darkness like everybody else…)

What did trouble me in thinking about this matter, was who the narrator was in this novella. It’s told from an “I” point of view, which is often in truth a “we” point of view, like a Greek chorus. The narrator is clearly a member of the crew, observing events, and yet as a member of the crew he is invisible, a ghost – there is no interaction between him and anyone else. The only time he appears as an actual sentient being is at the end, when he says goodbye to one of the crew members (Belfast, the one who was best friend’s with James Wait, the “nigger” of the title – you see, Conrad even gives him a name). Otherwise the story is basically a comparison (in some way and for some purpose) between James Wait, who claims he can’t do any work about ship because he’s dying, and a character called D – who is a shirker, and perhaps proto-socialist shop-steward (I’m not sure Conrad says much difference) – who just doesn’t want to do any work; – and the attitudes of the crew to the two of them (generally, they’re favourable to Wait and dislike D). Or perhaps it’s just about a storm.

Let the Wind Speak, by Juan Carlos Onetti

After enjoying The Shipyard and Body Snatcher, I’ve struggled with the last few Onetti novels I’ve read. Even with this one, I’d previously read the first 80 pages, and believe I enjoyed them. The reason I never went on, I think, is that I put the book down for a month, and when I picked it up again, I had no idea what the book was about or who any of the characters were. This is perhaps not so surprising, as the book doesn’t put in much effort to make any sense, either in plot or structure – or even, one might say, consistency of character. As far as I can ascertain, a character Medina is living in Lavanda (a world parallel to Onetti’s usual Santa Maria, and which in the real world parallels Onetti’s own exile in Madrid), where he’s in a relationship with Frieda, and some other characters, and maybe has a son; and then he goes back to Santa Maria, where he is the police chief, and is still in some way having a relation Frieda, who is also having a relationship with his supposed son. The unwillingness to be comprehensible naturally began to grate after a while.



Hucbald: 9th century Oulipist

You can be sure that for every po-faced modern avant-garde literary experiment, there’s a precedent from past centuries, with this difference: – that in the past it was only undertaken out of caprice or boredom.

I was leafing again today through FJE Raby’s marvellous A History of Secular Latin Poetry in the Middle Ages (vol.1), where a mention of an epistle by Aldhelm which begins with 13 consecutive words begin with the letter ‘p’, leads Raby to reference again another passage in the book about the Frankish poet Hucbald,

Hucbald is best known for his amazing Ecloga de Calvis, a praise and justification of baldness dedicated to Hatto, the bald-headed Archbishop of Mainz.

This learned and impressiive defence of baldness is the only philosophic treatment of the subject which has ever been produced, and it has this peculiarity, that every word of the hundred and forty-six verses of which it is composed begins with the letter c.

Here’s a link to a pdf facsimile.


Books Read – May 2020

Is this all I read this month? – It would seem so. – Or, at least, it’s all I finished. – It was a month, I think, of starting books.

La Lecon, by Eugene Ionesco

As discussed in previous post.

The Faithful Shepherdess, by Beaumont and Fletcher

Two aspects which appear in Shakespeare but which I haven’t so much come across in his contemporaries are the use of magic / the faery-world (e.g. The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and a kind of pastoral comedy (e.g. As You Like It). Most Jacobean comedies are city comedies (i.e. set in a contemporary urban world, often London, often England), which Shakespeare didn’t write at all (the closest is probably The Comedy of Errors); which was why The Faithful Shepherdess interested me. It’s certainly both pastoral and it contains magical elements (e.g. characters transforming themselves into other characters), and it’s enjoyable enough, though the play’s pro-virtue / chastity stance is a bit tiresome: basically, various men and women are in love; and it did leave me wondering about connections between this play and As You Like It, which is what I was wondering to start with. There are lots of similarities. Now I need to read As You Like It again,

The Death of King Arthur, not by Walter Map

This is the French, La Mort Le Roi Artu, written by whoever, and comprising the last (and best) part of the Prose Lancelot. I read the previous Grail part some time last year, which has its interest, in between many far more tedious passages (and the same pro-virtue stance as The Faithful Shepherdess – the quest is, after all, primarily about living in the way of Christ (and not, like, Indiana Jones, actually finding the grail and mistaking it for a drinking cup!)). The Death of King Arthur is much more enjoyable – though it too has plenty of passages of longueur (mostly the battles). I found myself reflecting, towards the end, just how much more sophisticated the world of Homer was than this; Arthurian legend is, for the most part, artless in comparison. This tells of the final break between Lancelot and Arthur over the former’s love for Guinevere; the conflation of the Lancelot story with the earlier Mordred story (I suppose, since it’s the same story); and Arthur’s death at the hands of Mordred. (It’s also the same story as Tristan and Isolde).

Tunc, by Lawrence Durrell

Lawrence Durrell is one of those writers who goes down in my estimation with every book I read. I think though this is just because I am following a general trajectory from Justine. In essence I like his tales of unusual relationships set against exotic backdrops. I like his rich writing style, wit etc. And yet there’s increasingly something absent in his writing. (And that’s before, as with the Alexandria Quartet, the underlying political plot starts to interfere with one’s enjoyment). The incidental characters are the ones of interest in Tunc; the actual relationship at the centre of the book seems, on the other hand, undeveloped and half-described. Also, although Durrell inserts an apologia to that effect, it’s still faintly annoying how he’s just re-used the plots of his previous novels here (I don’t know why it’s so especially annoying though, since writers often repeat themselves). Still, I guess I’ll still read the sequel.


La Leçon, by Eugène Ionesco

I have an odd memory of studying Eugène Ionesco’s La Leçon at school.

Why I say it’s odd, is that this contradicts another recollection I have, which is that, although I was taught French from the age of 7 to 16, never at any point did I actually study any French literature. This: because the only possible use my school could envisage for learning French, was to be able to use it while wandering around a town as a tourist, unable to locate specific buildings. If I’d known at the time that you could also use it to read literature, I’d have applied myself a bit more (and not given it up the moment I could – because I really didn’t like languages I had to speak, hence specialising in Latin and Greek).

Of course, La Leçon is also an ideal text to teach to school-children, so the memory remains plausible. For a start, it’s about school (or at least, it’s about a teacher and a pupil) and, at the same time, it’s completely absurd. It views all teaching and learning as complete nonsense, which no doubt fits in very well with the ideas of school-children. And it’s very amusing, at least to me as an adult (I imagine, as a school-child, I’d have been too cynical to find it at all funny). I particularly liked the Professor’s paradoxical belief that all languages are exactly the same. My favourite line in the whole play though is when the Professor says “C’est possible…” (I suppose it might help if I gave a bit more context. – Also, he says it about a cat, which usually prejudices me). – And also, of course, the French is very easy (in the main).

I have another recollection of watching a school production of Ubu Roi (though whether in French or not I don’t know), which seems now just as implausible. (Ionesco though is much, much better than Jarry. – I don’t think you even want my views on Jarry).



Books Read – April 2020

I’m still only halfway through The Decameron. What I appreciate about it is the fact that, in contrast to our modern attitude to plague (which is to go on about it all the time, and have government ads in every ad break to remind us of it), Boccaccio and his characters haven’t mentioned the plague at all in the last 470 pages. (It’s the ultimately irrelevant book).

The Castle of Crossed Destinies, by Italo Calvino

A terribly misconceived and tedious collection of short stories (or templates for short stories) of The Decameron variety, in which a group of people meet up and recount tales using tarot cards rather than speech.

The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino

In contrast to the above, a marvellous tale about a boy who, after an altercation one day at the dinner-table, climbs up a tree in the back garden and refuses to come down again, leading to him living the rest of his life among the neighbourhood trees without ever once setting foot on the ground. (Part of Our Ancestors, a collection of fantastical tales which Calvino conceived on the wholly laudable basis of writing the kind of stories he’d like to have read himself).

A History of My Times, by Xenophon

A continuation of Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, though not in quality or even-handed insight. As the modern footnotes evidence, Xenophon is deeply partially (he barely mentions the two great Theban generals of the period, simply because he didn’t like them). He can also be tremendously tedious – though, since I didn’t really know much about this period of history, this was easy enough to overlook. Basically Sparta and Athens just continue fighting, and then the Thebans join in, until this time Sparta loses. For a bit someone called Jason of Pherae becomes all powerful, but just at the crucial moment he’s assassinated.

Enderby Outside / A Clockwork Testament, by Anthony Burgess

Parts 2 and 3 of Burgess’ Enderby. Part 2 is relatively uninteresting, bringing to the fore a contempt for popular culture and a more typical light comedy feel. The use of language remains impressive. Part 3 is more interesting: Enderby adapts GM Hopkins’ The Wreck of the Deutschland for the cinema (?), and it causes an outbreak of violence and is banned – i.e. a bit like A Clockwork Orange. In general, in fact, Enderby as a whole has similar themes to that more celebrated book (and also to Beckett) – man acts one way; society wishes him to act another. Also, its portrayal of a US university as a place of stifling political correctness seems remarkably up-to-date (but I suppose it’s more likely that that’s how it’s always been – or is perceived to be).

Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett

I see Beckett’s theatre as derived from the music hall – the physical comedy thereof – a bit like say Morecombe and Wise (but funny). Beckett here discovers the essence of drama by adding a second tramp, who is more or less the same as his usual first tramp. The first half of the play is very enjoyable; the second seemed a tired rehash of the first, in which Beckett didn’t have any more dramatic ideas or anything further to say.

Life is a Dream, by Calderón

This play is based on my favourite story of all, The Sleeper Awakens. At first I found Calderón‘s treatment somewhat dull (though it’s certainly a strange play, to start with), but, once we get to the life-being-a-dream part, with Sigismundo’s view that reality should be considered nothing more than a dream, to which death will finally awaken us and, as in a dream, all we believed to be true and ours will be lost, it becomes very interesting. A very different type of drama though to what we’re used to – all long speeches, more in the vein of Seneca / Aischylos.

Due to lack of commuting time, my reading in French has slipped. Currently I’m reading (and greatly enjoying) Octave Mirbeau. He’s not quite what I was expecting – though easy enough to connect to some of my other favoured French writers.


Books Read – March 2020

My government has dictated that I stay home for a time, to read all the books I haven’t read.

I started reading Boccaccio’s The Decameron, to imagine what it would be like if I had to distract myself from a plague ravaging the cities and the countryside. I’ll just say for now, it’s odd to begin a book with the least interesting of the stories – though, in keeping with a Chaucerian verisimilitude, I guess appropriate, since the narrators didn’t have much time to think them up, whereas by day 2 they’d had a whole extra day.

Blindness, by José Saramago

I was bought this for Christmas, presumably in foreknowledge of what was to come. The plague in Saramago’s book affects more or less everybody, and certainly brings about a quicker dissolution of society, plunging us straight into familiarly apocalyptic territory. Despite the subject matter, Saramago succeeds as usual in making this as boring as possible for the reader. I’ve tried 3 books by Saramago now, and not succeeded with any. Yes, it’s true: I haven’t finished this: – I’ve read about 230 pages out of 300, and cannot foresee a time when I’ll possess the moral fortitude to force myself to read the rest. I will assume they all die.

The Fall of the Roman Empire, by Peter Heather

(My specialist area at university). Unlike say Adrian Goldsworthy (whose books on the ancient world seem to proliferate exponentially), Peter Heather is a serious scholar of the period – and well worth reading. This is a fairly straight-forward narrative history, without too many tedious longueurs. As always with the fall of the Roman Empire, the question is why. Heather’s answer is: it was the Germans, stupid! He constructs a highly plausible and well-argued narrative – and in many ways that’s my reservation: because though he does his best to conceal it, the evidence for saying anything about this period is scant, and one discovery will throw all into doubt. (e.g. AHM Jones’ view on the economic decline of later Roman agriculture is here dismissed by some later archaeological surveys – published soon after – that there was no such decline). Obviously it wouldn’t have happened without the peoples on the other side of the Rhine and Danube, but I feel Heather wants to emphasise this too much against, say, the internal divisions of the Roman Empire (instability of regime / incessant civil wars, which he’s always dismissing with little real argument). (Heather made his reputation studying the Goths, so he has an interest in granting them and their barbarians friends a great significance). – I picked up a lot of books in this area recently, so will be exploring a bit more.

Arsène Lupin, gentleman-cambrioleur, by Maurice Leblanc

An interesting exercise in how the author can fool the reader (this reader) by using exactly the same trick over and over again. The master-thief Lupin steals stuff, generally after forewarning his victims that he’s going to do it – because otherwise it would be too easy, wouldn’t it.

Enderby, by Anthony Burgess

Like William Golding last month, I once read a lot of Anthony Burgess, but I haven’t read any for a long time. In my memory, Earthly Powers and The End of the News of the World, stand out, although I have the impression the quality of his works is mixed. Enderby is a short novel, the first in a trilogy (although I’m pretty sure there’s at least a fourth novel), about a little-recognised poet, who is rescued from poverty (unlikelyly) by a socialite, who tries to reform him, but he fears as a consequence that he’s losing his muse. It is very much then of the genre (like say Canetti’s Auto da Fé) of: the man who thinks getting married would be a good idea, but discovers that it is the destruction of the totality of his being. – Despite being set in mid-c20th England (anywhere between 40s – 70s is usually enough to put Obooki off), I greatly enjoyed this. The language is so rich, it is a physical pleasure to read: – it’s like a superior version of Nabokov, but a Nabokov with, you know, humanity and a congenial humour. I should find bits to quote; but you might as well just read it yourself. Just find a copy in a bookshop and read the opening scene. I’ll be reading more soon anyway (the next 2 books of this trilogy for a start; and my father has a lot of Burgess – though for some reason I’m not allowed to visit him at the moment).

René Leys, by Victor Segalen

I tried reading a book by Victor Segalen a while ago called Paintings, but it was one of those books which seemed deliberately written (like, say, Sartor Resartus) to appeal to as few readers as possible. My recollection is that it was just descriptions of paintings. René Leys, on the other hand, is reasonably a novel: our narrator is living in Beijing, and is fascinated by Chinese culture and the mysteries of the forbidden city; when he encounters a young Belgian by the name of René Leys, who seems to have obtained an unusual access to the higher echelons of Chinese society – and yet, with all his tales of spying and murderous plots, perhaps he isn’t all he seems. (A man fascinated and perplexed by the incomprehensible society in which he finds himself – I’m sure it should remind me of something else. But perhaps this was written before that). The end chronicles the fall of the Manchu dynasty, amid the rise of Sun Yat-Sen and the coming revolutions.

The Book of Nights, by Sylvie Germain

A magic realist family saga, about a water-dwelling people who gradually become land-dwellers. My main recollection is that there’s a lot of death throughout. I’ve got the second book too, but I’m not that enthused about reading it.

Anecdotes of Destiny, by Isak Dinesen

I’ve read all these before, and two have been made into films: the dullest story in the collection, Babette’s Feast, and the best, The Immortal Story (well, it was filmed for French TV by Orson Welles – well worth checking out! – Welles was a big Dinesen fan, and the plan was to make a whole series, but like many of Welles’ projects, it fell through). Dinesen is one of the breed of master story-tellers, in the 1,001 Nights / Decameron vein, though usually more subtle and complexly structured. Just a pleasure to read: The Immortal Story and Tempests are particularly good here.

Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust

I enjoyed the scene-setting at Combray, and Swann’s obsessive jealousy (it makes me so angry he’s in love with Odette / why doesn’t he see sense?), less so all the stuff about the Verdurins’ and society in general. (Yeah, that’s my review. Can’t think of anything else).







Books Read – February 2020

I reread the third last section of Joyce’s Ulysses. – My previous reading of Ulysses was a largely negative experience, since long sections of the book are extremely tedious. This left me thinking, maybe it might be a novel better appreciated by reading only the less boring sections completely at random. (I still feel though, that novelist should at least try not putting boring sections in their novels in the first place. Which reminds of another book I read whilst not blogging: Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual). Anyhow, I rather enjoyed this section of Ulysses. This is the part after the Nighttown episode, where Bloom and Stephen Dedalus wander through the empty Dublin streets and end up at a café, where they listen to the various tales of the patrons. It’s mostly told from Bloom’s point of view, and for once the stream of consciousness is relatively integrated into the “action”, so we can understand what Bloom is on about. Stephen Dedalus’ tiresome thoughts and opinions are kept to a minimum. – Joyce then follows this up with the second last section, whose main intent as far as I can see, is to prevent any but the most dedicated reader ever reaching the end.

Privy Seal, by Ford Madox Ford

The middle book in Ford’s The Fifth Queen trilogy. For the most part, I forgot the action of the first part (which I read probably a few years ago now); all that remained was the impression conveyed by Ford of how dangerous life was back in the days of Henry VIII, particularly to anyone who aspired to a position of status. The whole book is pervaded by an atmosphere of fear. – I actually enjoyed this second instalment more. Ford adopts an odd style, in order to capture the time, especially in character’s speech (e.g. using an for if) – which is actually quite effective, though I imagine not entirely historically accurate. In fact, I’m not sure much about the book is historically inaccurate – Katherine Howard was certainly not the paragon of virtue she’s portrayed (or so they say) – but none of this is of any consequence.

(The theme for this month was novellas / short novels).

Tonio Kröger by Thomas Mann

I read this a long long time ago, and enjoyed it at the time, though I remember nothing about it. This time around, I wonder what I saw in it (perhaps I saw myself). It’s a story about a writer (always a bad start), and its purpose is to demonstrate that writers are fundamentally deformed members of society – to be contrasted with that happy, heedless multitude, who go through life without having recourse to writing. Anyway, the woman Tonio Kröger loves marries someone else, so he amuses himself (but not us) with long discussions about art. There’s a quotation in this novel about bohemian/bourgeois which I’ve been using myself for many years, but which I’d always attributed to von Ashenbach from Death in Venice. – Mann (perhaps like Tonio Kröger) has always struck me as being far too bourgeois ever to be a truly interesting writer.

The Scorpion God, by William Golding

Once upon a time I read almost all of William Golding, but I’ve not picked up one of his books in the last ten years. The Scorpion God was one of two I hadn’t read before. It’s actually three wholly unconnected novellas – save, I suppose, that they’re all historical (Roman Egypt, Egyptian Egypt and pre-Historic Africa respectively). I’m reminded how much Golding is interested in portraying cultures (states of mind) far removed from our own culture, even though they do at times – in their dialogue – seem to slip into mid-20th century English middle-classness. I think it’s time I revisited Golding’s work more generally. He’s become a bit forgotten since his death (aside from Lord of the Flies obviously), which seems undeserved.

Children of the Albatross, by Anais Nin

Struggling with Ladders of Fire – the first volume of this 5-volume Cities of the Interior series – I skipped over it, and read this instead. The trouble with Ladders of Fire is that it reads more like a proposition for a novel than a novel itself. Anais Nin has certainly absorbed the old adage: – tell, don’t show. – And it’s not that Children of the Albatross is any different in this respect; maybe it’s just more concerned with a single clear story: girl loves boy. In this instance, girl is a young but experienced denizen of the artistic demi-monde, and boy is a naïve would-be artist, escaping from strict parental control. Interesting enough but, due to the writing style, lacking in any drama.

Contes à Ninon, by Emile Zola

Typical work by the unrealistic fantasist Emile Zola. Zola recalls childhood tales he used to relate to his friend Ninon (supposedly). I only remember now the last one (which I seem to have been reading for most of the month) about Sidonie and Médéric (a giant and a dwarf) who have various crazy adventures. (I may steal some of this for a story of my own; – I’m sure no one in the English-speaking world will notice anyway). I found it all very amusing.