Monday, June 6, 2022

Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine

The loss of irreplaceable books has recently been on my mind. 

While visiting the fair for Artbooks in Ghent, I was attracted by a stand with slim books where they sold transcripts of books learned by heart and remembered by readers. These works were the results of the Art project "time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine" by Mette Edvardsen, who, inspired by the characters of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, enthused participants to become living books.

From a Homer writing down his epics 2700 years ago to avoid forgetting, to people learning whole books by heart to remember them even if books are destroyed, the circle has come to a full close.

To become a "living book" could be a final chapter in Valéry Larbaud's tongue in his cheek portrait of a passionate reader. 

Which book would you learn by heart ?

Sunday, June 5, 2022

"The Poetics" by Aristotle

"How to tell a Story, An ancient Guide to the Art of Storytelling for Writers and Readers" is nothing less than Aristotle's classic masterwork "The Poetics", translated, rearranged and introduced by Philip Freeman.

Freeman is a university professor in Malibu California ( yes, some guys just have it all ) and to reassure  his readers that he has not tinkered with the text while rearranging, the book is printed with the original Greek text on the left-hand side and the English translation on the right.

Aristotle's "Poetics" is of course THE seminal text in literary theory which cannot be absent from your library. It's a thin book with a huge content and reading it you are reminded of all these concepts and idea's which we take for granted nowadays but which were posited and explained first by the great Aristole: there is the Mimesis ( imitation ) of Auerbach's fame, the Catharsis ( purification ),  the apò mēkhanês ( Deus ex Machina ) and even the Homeric Anagnorisis ( Recognition ).

Reading the  Poetics invariably comes with this sad awareness that writings, these repositories of  narratives and knowledge, are fragile and fleeting. Throughout his book, Aristotle illustrates his literary concepts with numerous examples of texts and authors, most of which have been lost. Lost, probably forever, altough they were once written down and numerous copies existed. The Margites, a comic epic by Homer Himself for instance, gone...The Antheus by Agathon dissapeared, the Lynceus by Theodectes, lost; the Cresphontes by Euripides and the treatise "On Poets" by Aristotle forgotten...

This sad feeling culminates when the book frustratingly ends with chapter two "on Comedy" followed by white pages. The second part of the "Poetics" is lost too.

Umberto Eco, in his "In the name of the rose" fantasizes that the last copy of Aristotle's Comedy is destroyed by the fictional Jorge, the obsessive blind librarian, in a bonfire that sets the whole medieval library ablaze.

An interesting read!

Thursday, May 26, 2022

The Twilight World by Werner Herzog

It is not really surprising that one grows trust - issues after fighting 5 years of intense war.

So when Hiroo Onada, a Japanese officer on an endless guerrilla mission on the island of Lubang in the Philippines, is informed that Japan has surrendered and the conflict is over, he does not believe it and creeps even deeper in the jungle to continue the fight. For thirty more years...

Initially consisting of four soldiers, over the years the squad is reduced to a single person. One soldier surrenders in the fifties and walks out of the jungle. Two others are killed by Philippine troops trying to oust them out of the forest. Only Onada keeps eluding all tentative of contact in the decades following the end of WW2. 

Onoda will remain hidden until 21 February 1972, when Norio Suzuki, a young world-traveller, onto whom the soldier has stumbled in the forest, convinces the old man to come out of his hiding . 

His is the story told in The Twilight World, the latest book by famous cinematographer Werner Herzog. Herzog has a penchant for exceptional characters, especially so if they are hidden, lost or trapped in the jungle. Suffice to remember his movies or documentaries featuring Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Dieter Dengler and Juliane Koepcke. And now with his recent novel, the Twilight World, he has added to these Hiroo Onoda. 

The title of the book sounds even more dramatic in the original German: "Das Dämmern der Welt, like in the operatic word "Götterdammerung", a slow darkening, a closing out of the light, a creeping darkness preceding a full black-out. 

When on tour in Tokyo in 1997, Herzog shocks his hosts, by preferring a meeting with the jungle rescapee instead of with their Emperor. According to the German, He and Onoda, both jungle - aficionados, connect easily and have long discussions. The soldier tells his story and the 100-page novel is Herzog interpretation of it. While clearly irenic in intention, the author sides with the loner; the point of view in the narrative is the one of the warrior. The peaceful inhabitants of the island, who fear the ghost in the forest are rarely mentioned, their perspective is omitted. 

One can either mock or pity Onada for wasting away 30 years in the jungle. But the truth is more complex. Over the decades American war planes and warships kept flying over or passing the island. Unbeknownst to him, they are enroute to the next battlefields, the Korean and then the Vietnamese. Refusing to surrender, the old Japanese remains a danger for the isolated local civilians he encounters on the fringe of the jungle. And it is rather unfair from Herzog that he tells about the death of the two companions of Onada, killed in ambushes by Philippine soldiers and not about the 30 farmers the Japanese officer kills over the years, stealing their food and destroying their crops. 

As long as one of the belligerent parties decides to continue the fight, and there is always one who does, the fight continues. 

That is also Onoda's statement in a sentence that might be a blurb for a book on Human History. 

"The truth is that War is never over. Only the locations of the battlefields change"

Monday, January 31, 2022

Kramberger with Monkey by Rick Harsch


picture by Natasha Juhnov

There was such a man.

Three decades ago, there was, in far-away Slovenia, a self-made businessman with presidential ambitions, orating to his fellow-citizens with a monkey on his shoulder.

He was killed. Someone shot him down, just like the Kennedy's. They caught the suspect; a drunk. Intoxicated he confessed; sober he denied. But he went to prison all the same.

And the Monkey, asks the narrator, where was it when the fatal shot rung? Did it call in sick that day ?

So begins Rick Harsch's novel "Kramberger with Monkey", a wild and runaway exploration on political murders, rogue reporters, innocent scapegoats, invisible hitmen, murdering chimps, seedy politicians, ludicrous conspiracy theories, emerging democracies and coagulating autocracies.

In 44 dazzling funny chapters, and with a handful of devilishly selected scenes ( both true and fictional ), the author reminds us of the senselessness of the human comedy played out in an indifferent world.

As always with Harsch : dark entertainment shedding light.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

"Anabasis" by Xenophon

Lately I have been reading, enjoying and schooling myself with the 2400 year old "Anabasis" written by Xenophon.

The story relates the ordeal of the 14.000 Greek mercenaries who enter the Persian Empire in 401 BCE, commissioned by the Persian prince Cyrus (the Younger), in his attempt to dethrone his older brother King Artaxerxes.

But things do not go as planned and the mercenaries get themselves stranded a few kilometers from the city of Babylon (the actual Bagdad), deep into enemy territory and with all their senior commanders dead. The troops however are feared Hoplites and the army of Artaxerxes hesitates to launch a frontal attack, even at the moment when the Greeks are at their weakest. This gives these foreign phalanxes just the few days they need to reorganize and elect new leaders.

Enters Xenophon. It is a bit unclear why this 30 year old, well-educated scion of a wealthy Athenian family, is among these fighters, but in this moment of confusion and chaos, he stands up as one of the new leaders. Their new objective: get the army of mercenaries out of Persia as fast as they can. A march of 1500 km through unknown and dangerous territory, surrounded by numerous hostile armies and tribes, awaits them.

It is no wonder that such a story still captivates the mind.

I have read Xenophon narration in the illustrious Robert Strassler's Landmark edition. This is a series of important historical texts, translated and annotated by numerous specialists in the field. Lavishly illustrated with maps, with detailed drawings of battle formations and with pictures of the actual sites, these books make a huge difference on the reading experience. If there is a proof that digital reading will never fully replace reading a paper-book, this is it.

Xenophon’s Anabasis (which basically means an "inland march") turns out to be a detailed report of the long retreat to get out of enemy territory. Its main attraction is that it is written on the level of the individual grunt; no great overarching strategic vistas. It is continuous "problem solving" on human level. Do we attack or negotiate? Do we cross the river or not? Shall we advance or wait? And this with the continuous concern to keep the vanguard and rearguard safe and the distance between them never dangerously overstretched.

Besides turning out to be a very capable and humble commander, Xenophon is also a perfect narrator. Even though he is an Athenian, he has strong and open sympathies for the Spartan lifestyle: resilience, perseverance, grit. No wonder he is banned from Athens. And he couldn't care less. Xenophon was an early student and follower of Socrates, and he was disgusted with the Athenian city for the condemnation of the famous philosopher. His Anabasis therefore can somehow be read as Socratian philosophy applied to a long survival situation.

Tough as steel in battle, proud when deserved but humble when in error.

A strong recommendation

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Reading Oscars 2021



I Kicked off the reading year 2021 with Ray Bradbury's Martian chronicles. I liked the novel and I wrote a review.I followed it up enthusiastically with "The illustrated Man", another Bradbury, but gave up after two chapters.

 I looked for something else.

 A few years ago, a handful of Belgian journalist assembled the "Flemish canon", a list of 50 must-reads in the Dutch language.

From that list, I choose the one most recently written: Hugo Claus' "The sorrow of Belgium". I read it front to back in one long reading rush; I was captivated by this wartime story . Claus' was Belgium's most likely candidate for a Nobel Price, but he passed away a decade ago. Brilliantly written, thoughtful, intelligent.

With that positive experience, I next opened Harry Mulisch's "The invention of Heaven". Although it is also very well written and reads easily, I abandoned the thick volume half way. I picked it up a few days ago, started reading again and expect to finish it before the end of the year. Intriguing.

 A book, I did finish was "Paradise" by Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah. I don't know yet what to make of it, but I have a soft spot for Tanzania and the East African coast so it brought back a few memories.

 The winner I choose for this year fiction reads : Claus' "The sorrow of Belgium"

Non Fiction

Parallel with the fall of Kabul ( but not intentionally ) I read "Alexandria" by Edmund Richardson . It is a very interesting book about a country, people and a chunk of history that does not get too much attention normally. A reviewed it on my blog. I find reviewing nowadays difficult. My attention tends to wander.

I followed that reading with a book containing a collection of articles from musical author Alex Ross :"Listen to this". I am a huge fan of Alex Ross, but this novel is not as good as his "The rest is noise" and the "Wagner" - book, that are both, as far as I am concerned, genuine masterworks.

Then I immersed myself in Homer and the Odyssey for a couple of weeks.

A review on Daniel Mendelsohn' s " An Odyssey" in the Octavian report ( why to read the classics? ) directed me not only to Mendelsohn's book, but also to the most important text-books he consulted for his personal take on Homer's work. So I read:

- Odysseus : a life by Charles Rowan Bey Brillant!

- Homeric moments : clues to delight in reading the Odyssey and the Iliad by Eva T. H. Brann. Fantastic !

- The world of Odysseus by I. Finley. I had this classic already in my library. Interesting

- Disguise and recognition in the Odyssey by Sheila Murnaghan I did not read. It is too expensive to purchase (even on the second hand book market).

I topped up this Homeric readings with "Hearing Homer's song : the brief life and big idea of Milman Parry" by Robert Kanigel. The book gives a good idea about how the Iliad and the Odyssey were created and how Milman Parry got the inspiration for his theory.

As a reading coda, I finished this Homeric streak with Mendelsohn's "Three rings : a tale of exile, narrative, and fate", a kind of spin-off, musing or footnote to the writing of his very personal Odyssey book. It is interesting in itself because it dwells on the Homeric ring composition, Auerbach's Mimesis, François Fénelon and " W.G. Sebald.

Very entertaining and instructive was the book by Spanish Irene Vallejo "Papyrus, the invention of books in the ancient world". It seems it has not yet been translated in English. It is a pity for it is ( at least for Bookish people ) an enjoyable read.

Finally, my nightstand book was "Island dreams, mapping an obsession" by Francis Gavin, an easy enjoyable read of which only fragments linger in my memory after a good night sleep.

The winner I choose for this year non-fiction reads : Homeric moments : clues to delight in reading the Odyssey and the Iliad by Eva T. H. Brann.


To complete my reading report I should add that I left a few books half read : "If this is a man" by Primo Levi, "The Quest for the Tomb of Alexander the Great": by Andrew Michael Chugg, "The dawn of everything : a new history of humanity" by David Graeber, "The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas Machado de Assis ", very much hyped by social networks.

And then finally there was the usual dabbling and rereading : the odd page of Moby Dick, Lacarrières's hagiographic lives of the Desert Saints, "The Pound Era" by genius Hugh Kenner

So in general not a bad year in reading. Especially taking into account a very challenging year, both professionally and privately.

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.