Friday, 22 June 2018

Nantas by Émile Zola.

Nantas is a short story by Émile Zola first published in Le Messager de l'Europe in 1878, the same year as A Love Episode. However it has far more in common with one of Zola's earlier novels - The Kill (1872). In The Kill Astride Rougon comes to Paris to make his fortune. He struggles in poverty until he marries Renée, a woman of high social standing who needs to marry as she is pregnant as a result of being raped. Her dowry gives Astride, who changes his name to Saccard, the means to speculate and accumulate, leading to phenomenal financial success.

The similarities with Nantas are striking, indeed I thought Nantas had been written before The Kill as a study or experiment with the plot. But no it came later, and in truth it cannot be called identical. In Nantas the hero of the tale, Nantas, has come to Paris to make his fortune, however like Saccard he struggles and reaches the point where he bitterly contemplates killing himself (in part, as he says, to punish Paris). But one day he is visited by Mlle Chuin who wishes him to marry Mlle Flavie, a young woman of high society parents who is pregnant having been seduced. He agrees, and like Saccard in The Kill, he looks over Paris that evening saying "You're all mine now".

Their marriage is a very business-like affair, cold and calculated, with both living separate lives. However, Nantas ends up falling in love with Flavie and regrets the promise that she could live her life as an independent woman.

Nantas is an interesting exploration of the idea of strength and the act of conquering. Nantas has been successful in his aim having virtually conquered Pairs, showing what luck and determination can achieve. But without the love of his wife he is far from satisfied, and as he was on the brink of suicide in his earlier poverty, so he finds himself once again with love for Flavie. For that there is more of the romantic (I use that word very loosely) in Nantas than there was in The Kill. It's not Zola's strongest work, and I can't help but wonder why exactly he wrote it, but even so it's enjoyable and rather satisfying, and I think others who have also read The Kill will find it the same.

And that was my 25th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - Fasti by Ovid.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Смерть Ивана Ильича) is a novella by Leo Tolstoy written in the late 1870s and first published in 1886. It is one of the most famous, if not the most famous of Tolstoy's shorter works.

It begins with the death of Ivan Ilyich, a member of the Supreme Court who lead a relatively unremarkable life and died at the age of 45. As Tolstoy writes,
The story of Ivan Ilyich's life was of the most simplest, most ordinary and therefore the most terrible.
His death is discussed and thought of in rather practical terms: funeral arrangements, and what it means for his colleagues: will they be promoted, for example. From the second chapter, however, Tolstoy goes back several decades and describes the life of Ivan. He was the middle child, attended the School of Law at the age of thirteen, becomes a magistrate, and then gets married and has children. His marriage to Praskovya is happy at first but following the birth of their children she becomes increasingly irritable and self-absorbed, and so he throws himself into his career yet is still passed over in chances for promotion. When his financial strains lead him to moving back to St. Petersburg for a higher wage, he has an accident - a fairly unremarkable one - he misses the step on a ladder and bangs his side on the window frame. He is fine, except he is not: this sparks his slow and painful death. As he comes to terms with the fact that he is dying, his family are in denial and treat him as though he is ill but will recover. He is tormented by this, knowing he will die whilst those around him pretend otherwise with the exception of Gerasim, his butler who is essentially a contrast to the artificial life around him. Finally he realises this falseness was ever thus, and in realising this he feels some peace and joy. after which he dies.

What's most striking about this novella is how mundane it is. Death in literature from the Ancients to the Victorians was always very remarkable: noble or tragic, often with romantic undertones, violent sometimes, revenge and retribution; so often there was a great and higher reason for dying. Not in The Death of Ivan Ilyich: he dies but those around him will move on, and he only died because he had a slight fall. In years to come he won't have been remembered: death in Tolstoy's story was everyday and ordinary. Yet to Ivan of course it was not ordinary, and Tolstoy depicts his mental struggle with incredible sensitivity - Tolstoy contrasts the mind and 'inner life' of Ivan with that which he projects and that which is perceived from the outside world, and it feels so very real. It's an outstanding work, and one of Tolstoy's absolute finest.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Cicero's Republic, The Laws, and On Obligations.


Last week I read Cicero - a lot of Cicero: Republic, The Laws, and On Obligations. They're all of them short, but for me and my philosophy-resistant brain he's the kind of author I enjoy reading but find devilishly difficult to talk about and write about, so consider this yet another inadequate mini-post on ancient philosophy!

Republic

The Vision of a Knight, 
also called The Dream of Scipio by Raphael (1504-05).
Republic (De re publica) was written between 54 - 51 B.C. It's divided into six books and styled like the Socratic dialogues of the likes of Plato, however instead of Socrates being the one to represent the more wise and mature of those in the dialogue, Cicero uses Scipio Aemilianus, a Roman general (185 -129 B.C.). As the title indicates the major theme of this work is politics, and it begins with a discussion on the current state of Roman politics. They talk of the political theorists and education, and Cicero suggests that the theorists are worth a great deal less than the actual politicians who do more for society. They then discuss, as in Plato's Republic, what exactly is meant by the 'state', arguing that it is essentially a group of people bound together by certain ideas and values. The politicians represent their interests. Again as with Plato, they talk of different forms of rulership: dictatorship, monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, and argue a combination of the best forms of all three avoiding the worst aspects of them is the preferred route. The types of constitutions are discussed further later in the book, as is Roman history and the development of the current constitution as well as education and the idea of the 'ideal' citizen. The work ends with what is referred to as the "Dream of Scipio" (Somnium Scipionis), which is the part I was particularly looking forward to as it's referred to numerous times in the works of Chaucer - I'm specifically thinking of The Nun's Priest's Tale in The Canterbury Tales and in The Parlement of Foules. In this Scipio describes a dream in which he is visited by his grandfather Scipio Africanus who tells him his future, and in which he hears the music of the spheres and the composition of the universe, made up of nine celestial spheres - a theory that went on to influence Boethius and cosmology of the Middle Ages (also seen in, for example, Dante's Divine Comedy). The story itself is a retelling of the Myth of Er in Plato's Republic.

Henry VIII's copy of On Obligations: he's
written "This boke is myne. Prince Henry." on
the page.
The Laws

The Laws (De Legibus) is a natural progression from Republic. It was written later and again follows the style of a Socratic dialogue, this time between Cicero, his brother Quintus and their friend Titus Pomponius Atticus. There are three books, though it's believed there were originally six and three have been lost. They begin by discussing old fables and the relationship between such fables and accepted Roman history. From there they discuss law, Cicero arguing that the law is a natural part of humanity and ought to be based on justice, promoting the common good and inhibiting the bad. Humans, he says, are endowed with reason and rationality and so are, in part at least, divine. There is, therefore, a natural law that does not require legislation. Giving examples (such as the rape of Lucretia), he shows how there are actions that are immoral and unjust, and whilst they are not illegal per se, they are still perceived with revulsion. In the final surviving book, Cicero outlines his ideal constitution, writing on the judicial system, the role of the senate, magistrates, assemblies, and the voting process. It's an interesting work, but I imagine far more enlightening and engaging to those with at least some legal background.

On Obligations

The final book I read was On Obligations (De Officiis), which was written about ten years later than the Republic and The Laws - 44 B.C., and it was one of Cicero's final works. It's divided into three books - the first asks what it is to be honourable (he writes on wisdom, kindness, moderation, and a sense of justice)54`, the second what is beneficial and the dangers of selfishness, and the third is on how to combine what is both honourable and beneficial. I would dare say that this work isn't read as much these days, but in the Medieval and Early modern period it was hugely influential - both Thomas Aquinas, Voltaire, and a great many others praised it and were inspired in some way by it. It's an enlightening read, but, like the others, I would need at the very least a second read to begin to get to grips with it.

And that was my rather heavy reading for last week! As I say I do like and admire Cicero, but it will take more than a single read for me to truly understand him. Philosophy, I'm afraid, does not come easily to me!

Monday, 18 June 2018

The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales by Gerald of Wales.

I've been meaning to read Gerald of Wales for ages and I've now finally read The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales. These are the kinds of books I love: travelogues and ethnography written by a Medieval monk, Gerald of Wales born in Pembrokeshire in 1146. He was a royal clerk and chaplain to King Henry II of England and accompanied Henry's son John (John, King of England, 1166 - 1216) to Ireland in 1185, then in 1188 toured Wales with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Baldwin of Forde. He wrote two accounts of this journey: Itinerarium Cambriae (The Journey Through Wales, 1191) and Descriptio Cambriae (The Description of Wales, 1193-94).

The Journey Through Wales is an interesting one documenting Gerald's travels around the coast in a recruitment drive for the Third Crusade. He begins at the start of March 1188 in Hereford, goes into Wales in New Radnor, Hay, Brecon, Abergavenny, and Caerleon, then along the coast to Llandaf and Margam Abbey, ultimately returning to Hereford on 14th April 1188 having travelled some 750 miles. It was a journey fraught with danger and Gerald records his adventures, the events, what he saw, and what he thought about what he saw. It's not the most unbiased account, but a travelogue from this period is rare and it is a fascinating document not only on Wales but the perils of travelling through wild terrain. It's the Description of Wales, however, that I found most enjoyable. In this he begins by describing the geography of Wales and how it is divided into three principalities: Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth, and how that came to be: in the 9th Century the king Rhodri Mawr split Wales between his three sons. Having described the land and its rivers, he goes on to write about the people. He writes practically first, on, for example, the military and military strategy, and then the people themselves. The details range from teeth cleaning, hair, and clothing, to the arts and music, and religion. He praises the Welsh, but he criticises them too in the second book, writing on their less desirable personal traits, suggesting for example they will swear on oath whatever is beneficial to them at the time, and are too easily turned against each other. Even so, Gerald of Wales' affection for his country is undeniable.

Both of these works are great reads, it's a valuable and rare glimpse into the every day life of the Medieval Briton. It's been a while since I've read Medieval literature and I always forget how much I enjoy it. I'm now looking forward to Gerald's Topography of Ireland now, which I'll have to try and get a hold of soon.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Satyricon by Petronius.


The Satyricon (Satyricon liber) is classed as a Roman novel (as is Apuleius' Golden Ass) and was written by Gaius Petronius in the late 1st Century A.D. It is, as one would expect from Roman comedies, quite insane.

It tells the story of Encolpius, the narrator, once a gladiator who is now travelling with his former lover Ascyltos, leaving behind his current lover and slave Giton. It begins in Campania where we find Encolpius arguing with Agamemnon about literature, Encolpis railing against education and bad literature (and Agamemnon disagreeing with him). He realising Ascyltos isn't with him and eventually finds him with Giton, the latter claiming Ascyltos has made advances towards him. An argument ensues, but eventually is settled and they go on their way. What follows is their series of bizarre adventures: cults, orgies, a feast at Trimalchio's (in which there is a fairly detailed description of the everyday life of the Romans, very interesting indeed, and stories of the supernatural are told), a journey on a ship and the inevitable shipwreck, and a sex-crazed priestess.

I'll be honest, it really wasn't to my taste and I didn't enjoy it much, but I can well see why some people find it so much fun. It's a satire of Roman life and customs, their values and tastes (particularly their taste in literature), and their sex lives. It's largely inspired by Homer's Odyssey, and follows a similar path to that, though it's far more bawdy, 'low brow', and often quite shocking. I can't say I got much more out of it that that, but all the same definitely worth a read. For mad escapades, though, I much prefer Voltaire's Candide.

Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence.

Lady Chatterley's Lover isn't just famous, it's notorious. It was first published privately in Italy in 1928, then in France and Australia in 1929. It wasn't published in England until 1960 (30 years after D.H. Lawrence's death) after the famous Regina vs. Penguin Books Ltd. trial that paved the way for the sexual revolution. 

The plot of the novel is fairly simple: Connie Reid, a liberal bohemian, married Sir Clifford Chatterley in 1917, after which, during the war, he sustained an injury that left him paralysed from the waist down leaving any sexual relations with Connie impossible. Clifford pursues a career in writing, at which he is very successful, and intellectually he becomes a powerful man. Emotionally however he recedes almost to a childlike state when a nurse, Mrs. Bolton, is employed to take care of his every day needs. Connie's independence turns into isolation and frustration as she is surrounded by the great intellectuals of the age who lack physical passion. Her sexless life, in short, makes her feel trapped and depressed. And so she embarks on an affair with Sir Clifford's gamekeeper Oliver Mellors who fulfils her sexual and, eventually, her emotional needs.

There are two great barriers that are overcome in Lady Chatterley's Lover: firstly, the relationship of an upper class lady with a lower class gamekeeper, and secondly the explicit discussion of sex. Lawrence does not shy away from language many, still today, find offensive and he openly and unashamedly discusses women as sexual beings, moving abruptly away from the idea that sex is something women merely tolerate for the enjoyment of their husbands'. For this the publishers, Penguin, were prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act 1959. The defence argued that publishing it would not corrupt the public and was for the good of the public (section 4 of the Act) and it was finally published in England. It sold out on its first day, selling  200,000 copies.

Nearly 60 years later Lady Chatterley's Lover is not as shocking as it was, though the language and frank descriptions will undoubtedly put off some. It's still an interesting novel, at the very least for curiosity's sake, being as it is a book that at the very least had a major role to play in the sexual revolution. As for the book itself: it is a good book that examines not only sex and relationships (both between individuals and of the mind and body) but also industrialisation with Clifford representing the mechanical industrialisation and Connie nature. It is a little overdone, though, which made it less enjoyable to read. Still it's a page-turner, and it was good to revisit it. 

Monday, 11 June 2018

Hercules Furens by Seneca the Younger.

A manuscript of Hercules Furens
by Seneca theYounger
.
Hercules Furens (The Madness of Hercules) is a play by Seneca the Younger written around 54 A. D. and was inspired by Euripides' play Heracles (416 B.C.).

It begins with a long monologue by Juno, which, long as it is, I'll quote in full (courtesy of Theoi Classics) because I did love it:
The sister of the Thunderer (for this name only is left to me), I have abandoned Jove, always another’s lover; widowed, have left the spaces of high heaven and, banished from the sky, have given up my place to harlots; I must dwell on earth, for harlots hold the sky. Yonder the Bear, high up in the icy North, a lofty constellation, guides the Argive ships; yonder, where in the warm springtime the days grow long, he shines who bore the Tyrian Europa across the waves; there the Atlantides, far wandering, put forth their band dreadful to ships and sea alike. Here Orion with threatening sword terrifies the gods, and golden Perseus has his stars; the bright constellation of the twin Tyndaridae shines yonder, and they at whose birth the unsteady land stood firm. And not alone has Bacchus himself or the mother of Bacchus attained the skies; that no place might be free from outrage, the heavens wear the crown of the Cretan maid.
But I lament ancient wrongs; one land, the baneful and savage land of Thebes, scattered thick with shameless mistresses, how oft has it made me stepdame! Yet, though Alcmena be exalted and in triumph hold my place; though her son, likewise, obtain his promised star (for whose begetting the world lost a day, and Phoebus with tardy light shone forth from the Eastern sea, bidden to keep his bright car sunk beneath Ocean’s waves), not in such fashion shall my hatred have its end; my angry soul shall keep up a long-living wrath, and my raging smart, banishing peace, shall wage unending wars.
What wars? Whatever fearsome creature the hostile earth produces, whatever the sea or the air has borne, terrific, dreadful, noxious, savage, wild, has been broken and subdued. He rises anew and has thrives on trouble; he enjoys my wrath; to his own credit he turns my hate; imposing too cruel tasks, I have but proved his sire, but give room for glory. Where the Sun, as he brings back, and where, as he dismisses day, colours both Ethiop races with neighbouring torch, his unconquered valour is adored, and in all the world he is storied as a god. Now I have no monsters left, and ‘tis less labour for Hercules to fulfil my orders than for me to order; with joy he welcomes my commands. What cruel biddings of his tyrant could harm this impetuous youth? Why, he bears as weapons what he once fought and overcame; he goes armed by lion and by hydra.
Nor is earth vast enough for him; behold, he has broken down the doors of infernal Jove, and brings back to the upper world the spoils of a conquered king. I myself saw, yes, saw him, the shadows of nether night dispersed and Dis overthrown, proudly displaying to his father a brother’s spoils. Why does he not drag forth, bound and loaded down with fetters, Pluto himself, who drew a lot equal to Jove’s? Why does he not lord it over conquered Erebus and lay bare the Styx? It is not enough merely to return; the law of the shades has been annulled, a way back has been opened from the lowest ghosts, and the mysteries of dread Death lie bared. But he, exultant at having burst the prison of the shades, triumphs over me, and with arrogant hand leads through the cities of Greece that dusky hound. I saw the daylight shrink at sight of Cerberus, and the sun pale with fear; upon me, too, terror came, and as I gazed upon the three necks of the conquered monster I trembled at my own command.
But I lament too much o’er trivial wrongs. ‘Tis for heaven we must fear, lest he seize the highest realms who has overcome the lowest – he will snatch the sceptre from his father. Nor will he come to the stars by a peaceful journey as Bacchus did; he will seek a path through ruin, and will desire to rule in an empty universe. He swells with pride of tested might, and has learned by bearing them that the heavens can be conquered by his strength; he set his head beneath the sky, nor did the burden of that immeasurable mass bend his shoulders, and the firmament rested better on the neck of Hercules. Unshaken, his back upbore the stars and the sky and me down-pressing. He seeks a way to the gods above.
Then on, my wrath, on, and crush this plotter of big things; close with him, thyself rend him in pieces with thine own hands. Why to another entrust such hate? Let the wild beasts go their ways, let Eurystheus rest, himself weary with imposing tasks. Set free the Titans who dared to invade the majesty of Jove; unbar Sicily’s mountain cave, and let the Dorian land, which trembles whenever the giant struggles, set free the buried frame of that dread monster; let Luna in the sky produce still other monstrous creatures. But he has conquered such as these. Dost then seek Alcides’ match? None is there save himself; now with himself let him war. Rouse the Eumenides from the lowest abyss of Tartarus; let them be here, let their flaming locks drop fire, and let their savage hands brandish snaky whips.
Go now, proud one, seek the abodes of the immortals and despise man’s estate. Dost think that now thou hast escaped the Styx and the cruel ghosts? Here will I show thee infernal shapes. One in deep darkness buried, far down below the place of banishment of guilty souls, will I call up – the goddess Discord, whom a huge cavern, barred by a mountain, guards; I will bring her forth, and drag out from the deepest realm of Dis whatever thou hast left; hateful Crime shall come and reckless Impiety, stained with kindred blood, Error, and Madness, armed ever against itself – this, this be the minister of my smarting wrath!
Begin, handmaids of Dis, make haste to brandish the burning pine; let Megaera lead on her band bristling with serpents and with baleful hand snatch a huge faggot from the blazing pyre. To work! claim vengeance for outraged Styx. Shatter his heart; let a fiercer flame scorch his spirit than rages in Aetna’s furnaces. That Alcides may be driven on, robbed of all sense, by mighty fury smitten, mine must be the frenzy first – Juno, why rav’st thou not? Me, ye sisters, me first, bereft of reason, drive to madness, if I am to plan some deed worthy a stepdame’s doing. Let my request be changed; may he come back and find his sons unharmed, that is my prayer, and strong of hand may he return. I have found the day when Hercules’ hated valour is to be my joy. Me has he overcome; now may he overcome himself and long to die, though late returned from the world of death. Herein may it profit me that he is the son of Jove, I will stand by him and, that his shafts may fly from string unerring, I’ll poise them with my hand, guide the madman’s weapons, and so at last be on the side of Hercules in the fray. When he has done this crime, then let his father admit those hands to heaven!
Now must my war be set in motion; the sky is brightening and the shining sun steals up in saffron dawn.
Her anger at her husband Jupiter's illegitimate son Hercules is palpable, and she vows to do whatever she must to destroy him. Hercules meanwhile has completed the Twelve Labours, the final one being to descend into the Underworld, from which he brought back Cerberus, who he had subdued. As he returns, Thebes is in chaos, now under the dictatorship of Lycus after he killed Creon. He then plans to murder Hercules' wife Megara, the daughter of Creon, however Hercules arrives and saves her. But Juno's plan is then put into action: Iris and one of the Furies arrives and drives Hercules into madness. He kills Megara and his children, and is only saved from killing himself by Theseus, who persuades him to go to Athens.

This isn't one of Seneca's most popular plays, but all the same I enjoyed it. We see in it not only the madness of Hercules, but also that of Juno, which adds a different dimension to Euripides' play. Seneca is a playwright who runs deeper than the older Greeks, and for that I love him. I'm sorry to say I only have one play left by him to read, The Phoenician Women, which I'll read at some point this year (it's on my Deal Me In Challenge).

And that was my 24th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - Nantas by Émile Zola.

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