Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Alexandria by Edmund Richardson

Remnants of an Army by Elisabeth Butler. 


Alexandria, a historical biography of amateur archeologist James Lewis, is a book I enjoyed very much for it succeeds to be interesting on multiple levels. 

First of all, it is captivating read, at moments even a page - turner, with its many narrative surprises, fascinating characters and cliff-hanger-ending-chapters.
Edmund Richardson brings us a deeply researched biography of a James Lewis  (1800–1853) a.k.a Charles Masson, a soldier with the British East India Company, who in 1827 deserts the Army and walks, on foot and with a single companion into the Thar desert in search of the mythical city known as "Alexandria under the Mountain". It is also known as "Alexandria in the Caucasus", a fabulous city created by Alexander himself.
This is the beginning of  narrative worthy of all  the best fictions you ever read. I will not divulge what Masson uncovers in his digs in Afghanistan, but he is the hero of the book and a few pieces he uncovers are still prized artifacts in the British museum.


Alexandria is also the kind of book that leaves the reader, more clever with the ways of the world, after turning the final page. There is the "Great Game" Geo-political for instance, the political climate in which Masson travels, does his research, his diggings and his discoveries. There is the increased meddling of the British into Afghan politics, culminating into the first Afghan - Anglo war. A conflict launched by a British invasion and legitimated by "fake news" ( The Russians meddling in Afghan politics ).  On a more human level, there is the race and the competition for fame and wealth of a handful of adventurers and amateur archeologists. They fiercely grub in the Afghan soil searching for lost cities, treasures, gold and gems. It is a no-holds-barred fight and one cringes at the destructive methods that are used to uncover ancient tombs and price-less pieces of art.  Kipling was inspired by these ruffians for his story "The Man who would be King". All of this is thoroughly researched. The notes at the end of the book total nearly 60 pages for a novel of 260 pages.

Finally, there is a post-modernist tang to this history book, in the sense that it skeptically and ironically reframes what we learned at school, the so-called common knowledge,  the history we were brought up with.

Alexander the great ? Not always so great after reading this book, but what a convenient historical figure  for 19th century politicians who endorse conquest "to bring civilization".

There  was no hard frontier between east and west. The border towns, cities, civilizations merged the best of east and west and were therefore wealthy and striving. Afghanistan was Buddhist before the Arabs conquered the country. The destruction of the irreplaceable Buddha statues of the Bamiyan valley in March 2001, was just "mopping up", a last chapter in eradicating the remnants of a non Islamic culture.

Avarice, plunder and political opportunism will bring you further than mere intellectual curiosity. The famous Archeologists Schliemann and Evans were in fact destroyers and looters.
And men like Richardson are doomed to be forgotten.

Some British officers behaved like savages in Afghanistan and  Pakistan. You are not likely to forget the civilizing works of Lieutenant Loveday.

In the end, the bullies win most of the time; the meek lose most of the time.

An excellent read.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Ray Bradbury : "The Martian Chronicles"


My first reaction when turning the pages of the "Martian Chronicles" was, that even after a lifetime of reading, classic fiction can still surprise, entertain and even delight the most blasé of readers. Now nearly three quarters of a century old, we must acknowledge that Ray Bradbury’s "Chronicles" have aged surprisingly well. The book is certainly as enjoyable, jolting and actual today, as it was when its chapters first appeared in the Planet- and Wonder stories magazines shortly after the War.

 
A firmly established Classic since long, the book might even have improved over the years. The time elapsed since publication has added a certain hue of innocent boyhood-charm to the pages, albeit darkened with a strange patina of nostalgia and dismay.
 
Published in 1951, a mere 6 years after the Earth blasted into the Atomic Age and a decade before our first hesitating flea hops into outer space, the novel has lost nothing of its urgency. It raises concerns indeed over values and doings that still worry us today:  Racial oppression and exploitation, genocide and colonization, nuclear war and militarism and even planetary pandemics. Some chapters, with recent occurrences in mind, have the emotional impact of a Biblical text.
 
I read that “the chronicles” was a book readers liked to "carry with them over a lifetime." And I can easily understand this. Somehow these chapters stick and keep ghosting in the reader’s mind. Bradbury understood this attraction because the "Chronicles", rather than a work of science fiction, had the allures of a myth or a fable.
 
With only 305 pages and 26 short chapters the “Chronicles” invite easy reading. Even more so because each chapter is a short-story, very loosely related to the previous or the next. One can dip into any chapter without need to have an overall comprehension or an overview of a storyline. The Martian Chronicles are in fact what is called a fix-up, a novel created by combining several unrelated short-stories. Some short interstitial chapters, frame stories and a bit of editing here and there have done the magic of organizing it all into a composite novel.
 
The lesser effort in reading allows more time for pondering over the stories told.
The general story - line is clear: a sequence of Mankind's efforts to land on, explore, understand and colonize the planet Mars. That the colonization of Mars echoes chapters of the colonization on Earth is of course intentioned. Parallels can easily be detected within our history - books, from the Pilgrim Fathers to the Indian Wars, from Jim Crow laws to Hiroshima.
 
But when meeting the Martians in the future, unbiased by our nationalities, free from our history, our culture and our skin color, and strengthened this time by our Scientific and Historical knowledge, will Man act differently this time?
 

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Reading Oscars 2020


For my 2020 reading I managed only 22 books.

 

non - fiction

 

The weirdest People in the World by Joseph Henrich. 

Interesting book with topics on race differences, education, social strata. Interesting stuff but balancing on the edge of what the right - thinking citizen of modern society will accept. Interesting but like always with these subjects: Controversial.

 

Wagnerism: How a Composer Shaped the Modern World by Alex Ross. 

The impact of Wagner on every cultural aspect of the late 19th and early 20th century is impressive and not widely known. That is until one reads Ross. Another brilliant book by this music critic.

 

Trieste by Jan Morris

It is about Trieste...it has a dreamy feeling and it is about nowhere.

 

Signatures: Literary encounters of a lifetime by David Pryce-Jones. A collection of very entertaining reminiscences of the bibliophile who met them all: Bowles, Auden, Huxley

 

A short walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby. 

Funniest book of the year, hugely entertaining! It deserves a reread and a review.

 

The decline of the novel by Joseph Bottum. 

Can’t remember what it was about…

 

How to read water: Clues and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea by Tristan Gooley. 

The book describes exactly what is said in the title. Occasionally very interesting stuff for sailors and walkers.

 

A.N. Wilson: Dante in Love. Fascinating book about the world in which Dante wrote his comedy. Good enough to start an immediate rereading.

 

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. 

Travel lit. from the seventies. Not bad, but not wildly exciting either. Again, Chatwin was right. Tortuga is Matthiessen’s better book.

 

WINNER: ERIC NEWBY with his Afghan travelogue

 

fiction

 

La gloire de mon père by Marcel Pagnol. 

A fine read that triggered remembrances of things past: my adolescent years in a French collège.

 

Hav and lettres fom Hav by Jan Morris. 

A travel guide for an unexistent city. Not bad but Jan Morris presence in the book is a bit too much.

 

La neige était sale by George Simenon. 

Very believable naturalistic written "fait-divers” against a second war back-ground. Impressive tight writing and a scisseled dark atmosphere.

 

Silk by Alessandro Baricco. 

A dreamy story of travels to the far East and a mysterious women.

 

Gabriele, girofle et canelle by Jorge Amado. 

A Love story playing out in the city of Bahia. Ah the voluptuous “Brésiliennes".

 

WINNER? No real favorite. No price discerned this year.

 

Théater

 

Topaz by Marcel Pagnol. 

From Rags to Riches by scheming and dealing. Life as it is. At may be a comedy, but it describes the things like they bloody well are.

 

Knock ou le triomphe de la médecine by Jules Romains. 

Funny modern take on the money - making business of being a doctor.

 

Both books are good reads!

 

WINNER? A tie between Pagnol and Romains

 

Poetry

 

Cathay: A critical edition by Ezra Pound. Interesting book if and only if you are interested in Pound’s writing method and techniques. So, only for the interested academician and the amateur delecting in the eclectic.

 

unfinished

 

Marcel Proust, a biography by George Painter. 

Very good bio of Proust. Enjoyed every page of it. Why did I stop reading?

 

Le Port des brumes by George Simenon. 

Again, the genius of Simenon in sketching in a few words tons of atmosphere and drama. Again, why did I stop reading?

 

Stalingrad by Vassily Grossman. Fighting in Stalingrad. 

Can you imagine that this book bored me to death? Stopped reading when the first bombs start falling.

 

The enchanted hour: The Miraculous Power of reading aloud in the age of distraction by Meghan Cox Gurdon.

I ordered a wrong book.

 

WINNER: Best unfinished book: Marcel Proust by George Painter

 

OVERALL WINNER: A short walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby. 

 

Friday, September 11, 2020

Topaze by Marcel Pagnol


Fernandel as Topaze
“It is exactly like the story of my mother's chimpanzee. When she bought, him he was skinny, he stank of misery, but I have never seen such a loving monkey. We gave him coconuts, we fed him bananas, he became as strong as a Turk, he slapped the maid. We had to call the fire department ... "

It was this funny quote, remembered by my dear father, that brought Topaze, this hundred-year old theatre piece written by Marcel Pagnol to my attention. Pagnol is of course no stranger for whoever has benefitted from an education at a French “college”. Especially his biographical novels, like La Gloire de mon père, Le château de ma mère and le temp des secrets were recommended novels for generations of young readers. Pagnol, a member of the French academy, was very famous in his time, not only as a writer, but also as a scenarist and moviemaker. 

Topaze was written in 1928 and an immediate and lasting success as soon as it hit the stage. Even today, the play is very entertaining and has barely aged. It tells the story of Topaze, a naïve and gentle teacher working in a school in a Paris suburb. Everybody, we soon notice, fellow teachers and pupils alike take advantage of this gentle person. Topaz in his unworldly simple-mindedness is unfit for the foul and corrupt world of the big city. When he refuses to falsify the school results of a rich dunce and he has a misunderstanding with the daughter of the school director, he is kicked out without any ado.

The unfortunate Topaze however is not long without a job. One of the students’ mother has noticed the childlike innocence and naivety of the teacher and decides to present him to her lover, a corrupt politician. Involved in many questionable business enterprises, this unscrupulous wheeler-dealer is in search of a straw man to shield himself from too much public attention. Topaze just fits the profile and is hired on the spot. His salary is doubled, his attire gets a make-over and his new business card mentions ‘Director’.

But the shrewd politician might have underestimated Topaz. Because this excellent teacher turns out to be a fast learner too…

An entertaining and funny read. 

Sunday, August 23, 2020

A.N. Wilson : Dante in Love

Gustave Doré, the ninth circle of hell, 1861

A recent newspaper article reminded me of the English writer-biographer A.N. Wilson. His name was not unfamiliar, so I looked him up in my library and yes, I had one of his books on my stacks: “Dante in Love”. It is a nice - looking illustrated hardcover, first edition and it seems that I purchased or received it immediately after its publication, in 2011. As I did not remember to have read it from front to back, I must have probably just dipped in, got bored and shelved it away. I gave it a 2 and 1/2 stars’ appreciation on LT. Not very generous and not fair, as I now understand after a second reading. 

For there was a second reading. While leafing through it, I got captivated and read it again, this time from the first to the last page. Finishing books nowadays, is in my case already a pretty sure sign of quality. As I grow older, I get impatient with books. 

Dante in Love is in fact a huge gloss on Dante Alighieri masterpiece Commedia. In his book, a long narrative poem, now rechristened as the ‘Divine Commedy’, Dante describes his wandering through the Catholic sceneries of afterlife - Hell, Purgatory, Paradise. He is not walking alone, he has guides who walk by his side: Virgil, Beatrice and (surprisingly nowadays) Bernard de Clairvaux. During his journey, Dante meets and interacts with people he once knew (personally or from reputation) and who are now trapped in one of the stages of the afterlife. The end of his journey and his book brings him in the blinding and blessing light of the Lord himself. 

It is generally agreed that Dante’s Commedia is a masterpiece; just like the paintings of Giotto or Cimabue are masterpieces. As Dante judges indirectly all the people he knew by positioning them in different parts of the afterlife, his Commedy is in fact a window on the mentality, the thoughts and the reasoning’s of the Medieval and Christian world. Unfortunately, with each generation that passes, the comprehension of what exactly is written down and how we are to understand it all fades away. Dante’s Commedia’s original was a manuscript, it was written and finished between 1308 and 1320. Books and printing did not even exist back then. 

Because it is so old, and because our understanding of the world Dante describes fades away, we need books as the one Wilson wrote. A detailed, step by step recreation of Dante’s life and the world in which he lived.  The Florence, Rome and Venice of Dante are not yet the cities we now recognize, not even from old paintings. Artists did not do realistic paintings of cities in the time of the Commedia. The countries Italy, Germany and France hardly exist, their borders constantly changing. Cities are dominant and the cities are brutally ruled and mismanaged by families. The mob and the bully rule. The worldview is impregnated by the church and by a dream of an imperial Christian Europe. But neither the Church nor the Christian Emperor have full control and rebellions and heresies flare up at any moment. When the Pope resists Philips the Fair, the King of France sends a handful of thugs to the Papal palace for an iron - fisted slap in the face. 

Wilson describes it all with enthusiasm. He has been reading and studying the Commedia all his life and he now shares generously all his acquired knowledge. With him, we follow Dante’s life-path, his rise and fall, his banishment from Florence, his wanderings, his meetings, his doings, his…Loves. For there is Beatrice too, that beautiful girl Dante first sees at the age of eleven and whose platonic love will still charm readers seven hundred years later. 

Not all chapters captivated me fully along the pages, but I really enjoyed the rereading this time and I have corrected my initial appreciation to four stars. 

An interesting and good read. 

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen



Far away eastward, far below, the Marsa River opens out into Lake Phewa, near Pokhara, which glints in the sunset of the foothills. There are no roads west of Pokhara, which is the last outpost of the modern world; in one day’s walk, we are a century away.

After a few aborted attempts to read Peter Matthiessen’s’ most popular ‘The Snow Leopard’, the lock-down gave me at last the time and space needed to join the famous author-adventurer-conservationist on his trek into the thin air of the Tibetan mountain-range.

In the last months of 1973, Matthiessen teamed up with the legendary naturalist George Schaller for a trip to the Dolpa region in western Nepal. The reason for the expedition was that Schaller wanted to study the Bharal, the Himalayan Blue sheep. His intention was to find out if the animal was more a goat than a sheep. Or if it was someting different altogether, a proto-sheep or a proto-goat, a common ancestor to both. The lama (Spiritual Master) of the Shey gompa (monastery) had in the past, and in his capra-philic wisdom, protected these beautiful animals. The result was that the Bharal were still very abundant in the wider area around the Gompa. And this in turn attracted wolves and even the elusive and therefore mythical snow leopard.

While the study of the sheepish goats would not offer sufficient attraction to an adventurer, such as Matthiessen, the long walk in fact offered many more excitements. The hope of glimpsing the Snow Leopard, this near mythic beast, was reason enough for the entire journey. But, even if that was very unlikely, the journey would still unwind along such wonders as the Blue Lake, the Saldang, the Crystal mountain and the Shey Phoksundo. For Matthiessen, a keen student of Zen, it would also allow him to practice his new acquired knowledge in the very environment where Buddhism had its cradle. It would even allow him to personally meet a famous Lama. Matthiessen from the start understood that he had embarked on a true pilgrimage, a journey of the heart.

The book ‘The Snow Leopard' recounts, in the form of a realistic travelling journal (with dates, maps and all), the long walk, Peter Matthiessen undertook, towards the Tibetan monastery hidden high up in the Himalayan Mountain range. It is a faithful recollection of the three-month tour, a genuine expedition with Sherpa’s, carriers, yaks and all. The long trek, in a snowy, cold and unforgiving mountainous area has its hidden and not so hidden dangers. The travelers are mentally and physically challenged to the extreme and find themselves more than once on the brink of life threatening situations. But the book is more than just a description of an arduous trek. Matthiessen elegantly mixes the journal entries of the expedition’s progress with digressions on what preoccupies his mind and lyrical descriptions of a sublime nature.

The long and lonely walks on the interminable paths leading around and finally up the mountain liberate the mind for long bouts of introspections. Mentally, Matthiessen was not in the best of shapes for such a trip. Feelings of guilt, sadness and uselessness seep into his mind as he grows tired and encounters more and more obstacles on his way. Confronted with the overwhelming sublime vistas of the mountain range, emotions wash over him and bring him to tears. A year earlier Matthiessen lost his second wife to cancer. Memories of her last days grieve him and feelings of guilt of leaving his orphaned children behind constantly besiege him. Like anyone who has chosen to live an independent life, it comes at the cost of doubts and remorse.

Matthiessen who is a Zen apprentice, constantly switches, whenever possible, to his concentration, introspection and Shikantaza exercises. He commits his feelings and doings unadorned to the pages and from all this honest introspection and self-explaining rambling appears a real man of life and blood. And maybe it is all a bit too honest. The narrator at times comes over as arrogant, egotistical and impatient with the ways of the locals. He is aware of it though and writes down how he regrets it. Matthiessen can never entirely shed his American-Ivy League upbringings. He likes to indulge in the ways of the locals but when confronted with their dangerous or unhealthy lives he turns away in a reflex of self-protection. In the preparation of his earlier book, Far Tortuga, he joined a crew of fisherman but when he experiences their true living conditions, he bails out without finishing the voyage. In the Snow Leopard, on his way back, he constantly outdistances his travelling companions (who carry his stuff) in an impatient grumbling pace. At each camp-fire he then regrets his attitude. One cannot but compare it to Eric Newby’s attitude to the locals in the Hindu Kush. How more humane, with its mix of mock-attitude and self-depreciation.

Matthiessen, an ecologist, is mostly interested in nature and wildlife around him. The writer has but a mere descriptive eye for the man-made wonders he sees; when he visits for example the age-old monastery lost between the peaks of the mountain range...

Then he (The Lama) enters the little prayer room that looks out over the snows through its bright blue window. On the walls of the prayer room hang two fine thangkas, or cloth paintings, and the altar wall has figures in both brass and bronze of Karma-pa, the founder of this subsect, (…). On both sides are shelves of ancient scrolls, or ‘books’, as well as thangkas (the old thangkas on the wall are in poor repair, and these rolled-up ones must be even more decrepit). The walls all around are crowded with frescoes and religious paintings, and each corner is cluttered with old treasures, all but lost in musty darkness.


It is a pity. One can only regret that Robert Byron, Chatwin or Norman Douglas are not around to elaborate further and illuminate us with their comments on the architecture of the impressive shey’s and the significance of the old thangkas displayed in the decrepit vaults of the ancient monasteries and anchoretic dungeons.

Matthiessen regularly interrupts the narration of his progress, to tell us about his experimentations with hallucinogens, the story of Siddhartha, how Asian cosmology compares with the findings of ‘modern’ physics and so on. Together with the Kathmandu scenery (his second visit) the book is basically a wrap-up of all the subjects an entire generation of hippy youth gobbled up in the last ten years preceding this book. Rather than giving the book a generous and nostalgic gloss fifty years later, one must conclude that the Snow Leopard, despite its scope, has not aged very well on all levels. At times, it is a bit boring. I suspect the Snow Leopard is one of those cult books that, in the words of journalist H. Anderson, lost their Cool’.

Matthiessen belongs to that post-war generation of writers - adventurers - discoverers who through their books, and to finance their lifestyle, contributed to open a pristine world to a larger public. They are then surprised and lament that the vanguard of encroaching commercial tribes and their reader-adepts following in their wake have destroyed the very wonders they described. They then turn into fierce environmentalist and defenders of the local communities and set-up half efficient organizations to protect what is been destroyed. Alas, all is business. And the Shey Phoksundo National Park, so magisterially described, is no exception. The internet shows that we now can book Snow leopard tours and Matthiessen tours to follow on the steps of the famous writer. Rafting those wild rivers is an option and bungee jumping over the Bhote Koshi River is a must. Matthiessen's son has lately reenacted with his father erstwhile companion Schaller, the trip all over again; walking in his dad's steps. His introduction contributes to the marketing of the Folio society’s beautiful edition of The Snow Leopard, including Schaller's original pictures. Images that are scandalously missing in my first signed edition.

As said Matthiessen is most entertaining when he describes wildlife around him. The shape of the valleys and mountains create natural amphitheater that allows a wide theatrical overview of the surrounding valleys and mounts. Matthiessen and Schaller can follow a flock of Bharal’s chased by a pack of wolves and cheer when an animal is caught or escapes by daring jumps. Schaller confesses that he has never been able to follow so well an entire chase in his long career.

We suspect that the writer is motivated by more than mere scientific interest, when he describes the kinky rutting behavior of the sporting blue sheep: male mounting male, dipping their snouts in the urine streams of the females. Both Matthiessen and Schaller exult whenever there is another ‘beautiful’ penis - lick.

There are a few true nuggets of amused wonder to be found among the 340 pages of the book.

The Nepal government takes yeti seriously, and there is a strict law against killing them. But one of the Arun Valley scientists has a permit to collect one of these creatures, and I asked him what he would do if, one fine morning, a yeti presented itself within fair range; it seemed to me that this decision should not wait for the event. The biologist was unsettled by the question; he had not made this hard decision, or if he had, was not at peace with it.

Cut away a few of the introspective ramblings 
in Matthiessen book and you are left with a wonderfully narrated voyage in the most sublime environments this planet can show. Fortunately for the reader, the overwhelming beauty abounds in 'The Snow Leopard’. The descriptions of the beautiful vistas, the gorgeous natural phenomenon’s and the animal sightings take the overhand from the introspective brooding in the second part of the book. The writing is beautiful too. Matthiessen’s Zen stuff works like John Ruskin’s ‘drawing advice’; to make one stop the time and take in the details’. Matthiessens spiritual exercises help him to 'see the world more clearly and to live with a deeper sense of presence. This and the wonderful trip he does (and of which we are a bit jealous) remains the major attraction of the book. It is not likely to disappear soon.

The trail follows the south bank of the Ghustang, a wild torrent off the Dhaulagiri glacier that cascades down over the rust-colored boulders through a forest of great evergreens, merging farther to the west with the Uttar Ganga and the lower Bheri. Where bamboo appears, four thousand feet below our Dhaulagiri camp, a log bridge crosses the torrent and a trail climbs an open, grassy slope of stolid oaks and lithe wild olives that dance in the silver breeze of the afternoon.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Genre fiction

Genre fiction, also known as popular fiction, is a term used in the book-trade for fictional works written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre, in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre. The main genres are crime, fantasy, romance, science fiction, western, inspirational, historical fiction and horror. Genre fiction is generally distinguished from literary fiction and mainly read for entertainment or to escape from reality. Literary Fiction on the contrary provides a means to better understand the reality of the world and to delivers an emotional response.