Sunday, 31 December 2017

2017 in Pictures.

For the previous years I've always tried to write something on the year that's passed, but this year, which on a nation and indeed world-wise level has been very full and tumultuous, I decided instead to let the pictures paint the words. Here's some memorable pictures of some of the main events that really stood out for me from the United Kingdom.

Fireworks in London for the New Year's celebrations (1st January)

The Women's March (21st January)
[Guy Bell / Rex / Shutterstock]

Keith Palmer’s police helmet at the spot at which he was killed in the Westminster terrorist attack (22nd March)

Sheikh Mohammad al Hilli, Archbishop of Canterbury the Most Rev Justin Welby, Chief Rabbi Ephriam Mirvis, Sheikh Ezzat Khalifa, and Cardinal Vincent Nichols Archbishop of Westminster attend memorial service following the Westminster attack (24th March)

Article 50 is triggered (29th March)

Saffiyah Khan during an English Defence League rally in Birmingham (10th April)
[Joe Giddens / PA Archive/PA Images]

Theresa May calls a snap election (18th April)
[Dan Kitwood / Getty]

Police during the aftermath of the Manchester Arena attack (22nd May)
[Owen Humphreys / PA]

St. Anne's Square, Manchester; some of the crowd sing Oasis' Don't Look Back in Anger (25th May)
[Jeff J Mitchell/Getty]

Aftermath of the London Bridge and Borough Market Attack (3rd June)

Ariana Grande performs on stage during the One Love Manchester Benefit Concert at Old Trafford (4th June)

Theresa May leaves Downing Street to meet the Queen (9th June)

Emergency services attending the fire at Grenfell Tower (14th June)
[Daniel Leal-Olivas / Getty]
The morning after the Grenfell fire (14th June)
[Mike Kemp / Getty]

The Queen meeting residents at Grenfell Tower (16th June)

The Queen's Speech (19th June)

Forensics Officer investigating at the scene of the Finsbury Park attack (19th June)

Jeremy Corbyn speaks at Glastonbury (24th June)
[Matt Cardy / Getty]

Theresa May, Arlene Foster, Nigel Dodds and Jeffrey Donaldson reaching an agreement (26th June)
[Dominic Lipinski / PA]

David Davis appearing unprepared in a meeting with Michel Barnier (17th July)
[Thierry Charlier/AFP/Getty Images]

Prince Philip makes his final solo official appearance (2nd August)
[Hannah McKay / Reuters]

Big Ben falls silent for repairs for the next four years (21st August)
[Daniel Leal-Olivas]

The anniversary of Princess Diana's death (31st August)
[Dan Kitwood / Getty]

Prince George's first day at school (7th September)

The Jane Austen £10 note entered circulation (14th September)
[Chris J. Ratcliffe / Reuters]

Theresa May's speech at the Conservative party Conference (4th October)
[Phil Noble / Reuters]

Hyclere Castle during Hurricane Ophelia (12th October)
[Hyclere Castle]

Theresa May waiting for Donald Tusk (19th October)
[AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert, Pool]

Storm Brian, Porthleven in Cornwall (21st October)
[Andrew Matthews / PA]

ulien Epaillard winning the Olympia leg of the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping (17th December)
[House & Country]

#AVeryMerryMuslimChristmas trends on Twitter to celebrate the significant charitable contributions of British Muslims over the festive period and throughout the year (19th December)
[Mohammed Abed / Getty]

Prince William, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry, and Meghan Markle at Sandringham on Christmas Day
[Karen Anvil]

And what is there left to say but let's hope for a calmer 2018.

Happy New Year everyone!

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck.

John Steinbeck and Charley.

For the past two months I've given myself some very tough reads: Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Bleak House (one of the longest Dickens novels), Dostoyevsky, Malory, and St. Augustine. At the end of it all I gave myself a reward: a re-read of Steinbeck's travelogue Travels with Charley, one of my favourite reads of all time. 

The book was first published in 1962; in it John Steinbeck describes his road trip through America in 1960 accompanied by his poodle Charley. It was undertaken because Steinbeck felt out of touch with the 'new' America, a crime he felt given his novels and indeed his success was based on his knowledge and understanding of his great country. He writes,
My plan was clear, concise, and reasonable, I think. For many years I have travelled in many parts of the world. In America I love in New York, or dip into Chicago or San Francisco. But New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England. Thus I had discovered that I did not know my own country. I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills wand water, its color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years. In short I was writing of something I did not know about, and it seems to me that in a so-called writer this is criminal. My memories were distorted by twenty-five intervening years.
This, coupled with a love and need for getting away and travelling on the open roads (as well as, it's thought, the heart condition which he knew would eventually kill him), motivated Steinbeck to pack some belongings and take Charley and his specially made camper van (Rocinante, after Don Quixote's horse) and learn once more about the United States. It was a time of great tension: not only was the Cold War happening but the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and as Steinbeck works his way from Long Island, New York through New York State, Connecticut, Maine, California, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Texas and the Southern States (and more besides), back up to New York again, he encounters a great many individuals and discovers a change in the America he once knew and a certain element of hardness in people as well as kindness.

Charley is an important part of it as any of it really; he was Steinbeck's companion throughout and offered some light relief at times, and, in other times, a good companion for Steinbeck to share his thoughts with. And, for Steinbeck, he was also a good way of starting conversations with people, facilitating many a conversation. It ought to be acknowledged that there is some doubt over how much of this actually happened, and exactly how much time Steinbeck really did spend alone with Charley (it's suggested a good part of the journey was with his wife Elaine, contrary to what the book suggests), but that doesn't hamper the enjoyment for me. This is a novel of possibility; indulging (if that's the right word) in wanderlust and acquainting oneself (or reacquainting in Steinbeck's case) with America during a period of great change, and social, racial, and political tensions. As one would expect from Steinbeck there is much to learn from this novel, not only about Americans but about humanity. There's warmth and affection in it, but also some disappointment and what comes from dealing with isolation. It's a very inspiring work, beautifully written too, and for that it will forever be a favourite.

Friday, 29 December 2017

2018 Challenges.

View of the village this morning.

We woke up this morning to a winter wonderland: it had snowed hard all last night and this morning so the roads have been closed and we're all of us stuck in the village enjoying an unexpected excuse to stay indoors! One thing I did do today, aside from watching Mary Poppins and eating too many Ferrero Rochers, was finally sort out my 2018 reading challenges! 

The first: Back to the Classics 2018 - it's tradition! Here's what I think I'll be reading:
A 19th century classicIdylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
A 20th century classicTortilla Flat by John Steinbeck.
A classic by a woman authorA Simple Story by Elizabeth Inchbald.
A classic in translation: Les Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautréamont.
A children's classic: Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
A classic crime story, fiction or non-fictionThe Swindler by Francisco de Quevedo.
A classic travel or journey narrative, fiction or non-fictionAround the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.
A classic with a single-word titleMeditations by Marcus Aurelius.
A classic with a colour in the titleScarlet and Black by Stendhal.
A classic by an author that's new to you: Vis and Rāmin by Fakhruddin As'ad Gurgani.
A classic that scares youThus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche.
Re-read a favourite classicCold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.

Next, European Reading Challenge 2018. Again, these are just some ideas:
Austria: Totem and Taboo by Sigmund Freud.
FranceScarlet and Black by Stendhal.
GermanyThus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche.
NorwayGhosts by Henrik Ibsen.
PortugalThe Lusiads by Luís Vaz de Camões.

This next one is hard: Adam's Official TBR Pile Challenge requires commitment so after much deliberation and changing titles, here is the list I will read:
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
The Lusiads by Luís Vaz de Camões.
The Temptation of St. Anthony by Gustave Flaubert.
Vis and Rāmin by Fakhruddin As'ad Gurgani.
Les Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautréamont.
On the Nature of Things by Lucretius.
Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche.
Coming Up for Air by George Orwell.
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck.
Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.
The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf.
Twelve Caesars by Suetonius.
Fruitfulness by Émile Zola.
Another challenge which was too fun to pass - the Victorian Reading Challenge. I'm going for Option A, which Becky explains:
Read alphabetically A-Z with authors OR titles OR a blend of authors/titles. I've decided that from now on X in reading challenges stands for multiple authors. I'm flipping my "x" to a "+".
Here's my list (which, like most of the others, is tentative):
AFairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen.
BThe House of Ulloa by Pardo Bázan.
CArmadale by Wilkie Collins.
DDombey and Son by Charles Dickens.
EThe Condition of the Working Class in England by Friedrich Engels.
FThe Temptation of St. Anthony by Gustave Flaubert.
GGothic Tales by Elizabeth Gaskell.
HThe Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo.
IGhosts by Henrik Ibsen.
JThree Men in a Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome.
KWestward Ho! by Charles Kingsley.
LLes Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautréamont.
MBel Ami by Guy de Maupassant.
NThus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche.
OOblomov by Ivan Alexandrovich Goncharov.
PAgainst Sainte-Beuve by Marcel Proust.
QTo the Queen by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
RThe Blessed Damozel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
SScarlet and Black by Stendhal.
TThe Torrents of Spring by Ivan Turgenev.
UUtilitarianism by J. S. Mill.
VAround the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.
WThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.
XThe Happiest of the Three by Eugène Labiche and Edmond Gondient.
YThe Wanderings of Oisin by W. B. Yeats.
ZFruitfulness by Émile Zola.

Also, another great tradition: Jay's Deal Me In 2018. I've a mix of poetry, plays, essays, and short stories:
Short Stories
AceThe Negro of Peter The Great by Alexander Pushkin.
KingDubrovsky by Alexander Pushkin.
QueenThe Captain's Daughter by Alexander Pushkin.
JackWhite Nights by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
TenThe Dream of a Ridiculous Man by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
NineA Gentle Creature by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
EightThe House with the Mezzanine by Anton Chekhov.
SevenMan in a Case by Anton Chekhov.
SixGooseberries by Anton Chekhov.
FiveAbout Love by Anton Chekhov.
FourFor a Night of Love by Émile Zola.
ThreeFasting by Émile Zola.
TwoNantas by Émile Zola.
AceThe Would-Be Gentleman by Moliére.
KingThat Scoundrel Scapin by Moliére.
Queen: The Miser by Moliére.
JackLove's the Best Doctor by Moliére.
TenDon Juan by Moliére.
NineGammer Gurton's Nedle by William Stevenson.
EightVolpone by Ben Jonson.
SevenCato by Joseph Addison.
SixVenus Preserv'd by Thomas Otway.
FiveThe Phoenician Women by Seneca the Younger.
FourMedea by Seneca the Younger.
ThreeAgamemnon by Seneca the Younger.
TwoHercules by Seneca the Younger.
AceOf Winter by Thomas Dekker.
KingWestminster Hall by Oliver Goldsmith.
QueenThe Stagecoach by Samuel Johnson.
JackWitches, and Other Night Fears by Charles Lamb.
TenMy First Play by Charles Lamb.
NineOf Persons One Would Wish to have Seen by William Hazlitt.
EightBook-Buying by Augustine Birrell.
SevenOn the Pleasure of Hating by William Hazlitt.
SixJuly Grass by Richard Jeffries.
FiveThe Whole Duty of a Woman by Edmund Gosse.
FourA Meditation upon a Broomstick by Jonathan Swift.
ThreeThe Scholar's Complaint of his Own Bashfulness by Samuel Johnson.
TwoA Vision by Samuel Coleridge. 
AceThe Wanderings of Oisin by W. B. Yeats.
KingThe Blessed Damozel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
QueenTo the Queen by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
JackThe Passionate Shepherd to His Love by Christopher Marlowe.
TenThe Lady of May by Philip Sidney.
NineLamon's Tale by Philip Sidney.
Eight: Amores by Ovid..
Seven: The Art of Love by Ovid.
Six: Cures for Love by Ovid.
FiveFasti by Ovid.
FourThe Georgics by Virgil.
ThreeThe Ecologues by Virgil.
Two: Sorrows of an Exile by Ovid.
Deal Me In begins next week so in preparation I've drawn my card and my first title will be: The Would-Be Gentleman by Moliére.

My only other challenge is to read at least 15 titles from my Ancient Greek and Roman Challenge, with a general focus on the 1st Century B.C. and 1st Century A.D. Here's a few titles I may read:
  1. Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius.
  2. Poems by Catulus.
  3. The Gallic War by Julius Caesar.
  4. Amores by Ovid.
  5. The Art of Love by Ovid.
  6. Cures for Love by Ovid.
  7. Fasti by Ovid.
  8. Sorrows of an Exile by Ovid.
  9. The Phoenician Women by Seneca the Younger.
  10. Twelve Caesars by Suetonius.
  11. Medea by Seneca the Younger.
  12. Agamemnon by Seneca the Younger.
  13. Hercules by Seneca the Younger.
  14. The Georgics by Virgil.
  15. The Eclogues by Virgil.

And there are my plans! If you're joining in with any of these challenges let me know 😃

Eastward Ho! by George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston.

Ben Jonson by Abraham Blyenberch (1617).
Eastward Ho! is a play by George Chapman (best known for Bussy D'Ambois and his translations of Homer), Ben Jonson (Every Man in His Humour, Volpone, or The Fox, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair) and John Marston (poet, playwright and satirist). It was first performed in 1605, though banned until 1614, and its title refers to an earlier play - Westward Ho! by Thomas Dekker and John Webster (1607). Both Eastward Ho! and Westward Ho! (and Northward Ho! also by Dekker and Webster come to that) are set in London and so are called 'City Comedies', other examples being The Shoemaker's Holiday by Dekker or The Old Wives' Tale by Peele. The nearest Shakespeare got to a city comedy was The Merry Wives of Windsor (which was set in the town of Windsor rather than a city), but that is by the by.

Returning to Eastward Ho!: it tells the story of a goldsmith, Touchstone, and his two apprentices Quicksilver and Golding. The two apprentices are very different: Quicksilver, whose name is associated with syphilis, is dishonest and disreputable whereas Golding, as his name suggests, is the golden boy and so will marry Touchstone's virtuous daughter Mildred. Touchstone's other daughter Gertrude is, as with Quicksilver and Golding, very different to her sister. She's engaged to marry the bankrupt Sir Petronel Flash, which will greatly enhance her social status (if nothing else). At the wedding Quicksilver behaves very inappropriately and so is dismissed, defiantly shouting as he leaves that he will go "Eastward ho!"; Golding, meanwhile, is promoted. That is not the end of Quicksilver, however: we follow his story further. He devises a way to get rich fast and with a minimum amount of effort with the help of Security and he is joined by none other than Sir Petronel Flash who has already tired of Gertrude's spendthrift ways. They plan to head for Virginia on the east coast of America to search for gold. Off they go but are hit by a storm on the way and get no further than the Isle of Dogs (East End of London). They come up with another scheme to get rich quick, but it is not to be: Golding, newly appointed to Master Deputy Alderman, discovers them: all the devious characters will get their comeuppance. 

It is a fun and humorous play on the dirty goings on in London, then nicknamed by some as Sodom on Thames. We see the criminal underworld in this play, but in the end it is the good and virtuous who are celebrated. I enjoyed it very much indeed: it was the perfect antidote to all the Ibsen I've been reading of late!

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Bleak House by Charles Dickens.

Bleak House has never been my favourite Dickens but I decided a while ago I should revisit it and give it another chance. Finally, after a few years of putting off that second read I picked it up again for Fanda's Dickens in December. I'm glad I did: I don't love it, but I like it better than the first read, and, whatever the case, it has in my mind one of the best and most evocative beginnings. I'm going to quote it in full, despite its length, because I love it so much:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln's Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.
Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.

Now, the novel tells a rather complicated story based around the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce (itself hardly explained because hardly anyone understands or remembers the details) and the effects of the case on a variety of characters. It involves conflicting wills, and the case has run on over several generations. The first three characters affected are Esther Summerson (a sometimes narrator of the novel), Ada Clare and Richard Carstone: John Jarndyce is the guardian of Esther and she moves into Bleak House with him; he then takes Ada and Richard as his wards. Esther becomes Ada's governess whilst Richard attempts to find a profession, convinced all the while that the Jarndyce and Jarndyce will be settled and make him rich, which rather reduces his motivation in life. As this goes on, we also meet Lord and Lady Dedlock, and we learn that Lady Dedlock has a connection to the case; she later takes a great interest when she recognises the handwriting on the papers of her solicitor Tulkinghorn's papers. Through Tulkinghorn's investigations into this we meet Jo, a young impoverished street sweeper who will later meet a mysterious veiled woman who wishes to know all about Nemo, the man whose handwriting Lady Dedlock recognised. We also come to know a great many others: the Jellbys, for example, Hortense, Skimpole, and many others, all tightly or loosely tied to the web that is Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

It's certainly a tale of intrigue, and it is extremely well crafted, told partly by an omniscient narrator and partly by Esther Summerson. Like many Victorian novels it is panoramic in its scope which I'm afraid often leaves me picking out my favourite elements and glossing over the other parts I deem less interesting. There is a sensation element to it as well: the mystery of Lady Dedlock, her interest in the handwriting, and the connection with the veiled woman, and for me that was the best part of the book. The problem I had with it was that it was far from a relaxing read: it's a demanding work (with hindsight I ought to have left it until I was ready for putting a great deal of effort in) and it is particularly complicated. The characters make up for it however, there are, as with all of Dickens' novels, some particularly good characters who one can't help but root for, and some rotten ones who are so vile it's hard not to enjoy their misfortune. Bleak House is a novel that I admire rather than love, and it was quite a thing to read it after the long read-along of Pickwick Papers, which also has some legal themes but in tone a much different novel - Bleak House is a great deal more serious than the light (for the most part at least) and entertaining Pickwick. Still, it's a very worthy read.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The City of God by St. Augustine.

It's become a tradition that in December I read a book that I am dreading, which will save me from having to carry a difficult task into the new year. Last year's was The Duke's Children by Trollope, the year before Resurrection by Tolstoy, and I couldn't say what book I chose the year before that: this year it was The City of God (De civitate Dei contra paganos) by St. Augustine, which I was planning to include in my 2018 Challenges but decided quite suddenly I should just go for it in December. Now, as with most of ancient theology and philosophy, it's no use pretending I did very well with it; it actually went very badly indeed, so badly I wouldn't even attempt to do a book by book summary. I'll just whip through it and feel glad I did at least try.

It really is a mammoth book: my edition had over 1,000 pages and I dutifully struggled through about two books a day for ten days (it's divided into 22 books, I must have found the strength from somewhere to read more than two books a day at some point). It was written by St. Augustine in the early 5th Century A.D. towards the end of what we now call the Ancient period: in fact it followed the Sack of Rome in 410, which many regard as a key event in the fall of the Roman Empire. As the people came to terms with what had happened, many suggested it was because Rome had abandoned its Pagan beliefs and was beginning to turn to Christianity. Augustine of course disagreed, and in The City of God he argued that this was not the case, in fact Christianity was responsible for some of Rome's success.

The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410 
by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre (1890).
In the first half of the book Augustine addresses these concerns in depth, pointing to other cities who were Pagan who also fell and writing that misfortune was a part of life and not a consequence of religion and angering Pagan gods. Even Rome itself had suffered during its time of being Pagan, which would beg the question why, if Christianity had lead to the downfall of Rome, why were the gods not blamed previously if the reason for the fall was to do with religion. Furthermore Augustine believed that Paganism had lead to moral corruption and spiritual degeneration, which he argued lead to a weakening in the people and thus the state. That Rome had been successful for so long, Augustine thought, was perhaps because of God: though the Romans did not worship God, in their earlier days they were virtuous and God rewarded them for it. He continues by refuting many of the key Pagan beliefs to argue that only belief in Christ leads to eternal life.

From here Augustine turns his attention to the City of God and its opposite, the Earthly City, constructing the arguments from his extensive knowledge of the Bible. Using Genesis he writes on how the angels were divided and thus how the two cities came about. He goes on to write about the progress of these two cities throughout the Old Testament writing on Cain and Abel, Noah, Samuel, David, and then Christ. He continues by writing on the destiny of the two cities and the idea of supreme good, and how peace and happiness can be found on earth and finishes by writing on the Last Judgement and the eternal punishment of the damned in the City of the Devil as well as eternal happiness in the City of God.

It is as I've said a very difficult work. My way of 'getting in' as it were to consider it along with Plato's Republic (which other people may not find helpful at all) in that both are discussing virtue and an ideal life for a large community. Augustine comes at it theologically using scripture to make his various points. Another aspect I found interesting was the scope: Augustine talked of himself and individuals in Confessions; in The City of God he spoke, as Plato did, of a society in the discussions of the two cities, the Earthly and the Heavenly. St. Augustine writes on so many of the concerns still considered today: evil, reconciling the existence of evil with the existence of God, the concepts of sin and free will, and for that it is a key text in understanding not only theology today but society, and how though Christianity has changed its thoughts in some aspects, its fundamental principles are often unaltered. The City of God is a key work, and I'm glad I've tackled it at last.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Merry Christmas!

I just want to wish a very Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate it, and a peaceful and happy day for those who don't! And, as it's Christmas Eve, I'll finish with my favourite Charles Dickens quote:

From Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens (1836).
☆ ♡ ❅ ♡ ☆

Friday, 22 December 2017

Little Eyolf by Henrik Ibsen.

Little Eyolf (Lille Eyolf) is quite possibly the most bleak of Ibsen's plays that I've read. It was first performed in January 1895 and is centred on the death of a child: Little Eyolf.

Eyolf is the nine year old son of Alfred and Rita Allmers and appears in the first act: he's a sweet child and sadly half-paralysed, and wants nothing more than to lead a normal life and play with other children, even be a soldier when he grows up, but his disability prevents it so Alfred encourages him into a more academic life. Meanwhile we learn of the rift between Alfred and Rita, that Alfred has emotionally and sexually withdrawn from her leaving their marriage rather dysfunctional and Rita showing jealousy of both Eyolf and Asta Allmers, Alfred's half-sister.

One day the Rat-Wife appears: a kind of rat-catcher who is able to encourage rats down to the fjord where they will drown. There are no rats, but Eyolf is rather drawn to her and so follows her down to the fjord. There he drowns, and his body is never found.

This about sums up the first act: there are three acts in Little Eyolf and the remaining two deal with the family's loss and how they cope when they're already so fragmented. It is an impossible task, it seems, and it is a very painful and powerful read. Unlike many other of Ibsen's plays the tragedy occurs more or less at the beginning and we see the characters making sense of it, something we don't always see in Ibsen's plays, so for that reason there's a curiosity, I thought, about Little Eyolf. Like any great Greek tragedy we also learn something of human nature; Ibsen is a master at this. My problem is I've been going through quite an Ibsen phase of late (I've read five since November) and I think I'm growing tired of the onslaught of human pain. I have another four of Ibsen's plays left on my Classic Club list: GhostsA Public EnemyJohn Gabriel Borkman, and When We Dead Wake, but I'm finding myself yearning for something light and fun, perhaps a Tudor comedy. This alters my plans a little: I did want to finish the remaining four within a month, but Little Eyolf has just about finished me off! I'll leave the rest until some point in 2018, for now I think it may be time for some John Lyly...

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.

Two years ago (almost to the day) I proposed a read-along of Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, or to give it its original title, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, and I'm happy to say some of you were kind enough to join me! It was a twenty month read-along that mirrored the publication of the novel from 1836 - 1837 and marked its 180th anniversary. This was the schedule, and I've linked my monthly posts:
IMarch 1836 (chapters 1–2)
IIApril 1836 (chapters 3–5)
IIIMay 1836 (chapters 6–8)
IVJune 1836 (chapters 9-11)
VJuly 1836 (chapters 12–14)
VIAugust 1836 (chapters 15–17)
VIISeptember 1836 (chapters 18–20)
VIIIOctober 1836 (chapters 21–23)
IXNovember 1836 (chapters 24–26)
XDecember 1836 (chapters 27–29)
XI January 1837 (chapters 30–32)
XII February 1837 (chapters 33–34)
XIII March 1837 (chapters 35–37)
XIV April 1837 (chapters 38–40)
XV June 1837 (chapters 41–43)
XVI July 1837 (chapters 44–46)
XVII August 1837 (chapters 47–49)
XVIII September 1837 (chapters 50–52)
XIX October 1837 (chapters 53–55)
XX - November 1837 (chapters 56–57)

Original announcement of The Pickwick Papers.
One of the reasons I wanted to do this was because when I first read The Pickwick Papers I really hated it, and one of my friends told me his friend read it as monthly instalments and loved it, so I thought it would be fun to give it a go. That was one of the reasons I ended up loving it, the other reason was that I came to accept it for what it was, not what I wanted to be.

What I mean by that is that The Pickwick Papers doesn't read like a traditional novel with a definite plot. The Pickwick Papers is nothing like that, in fact it's almost quite modern in its structure: I'd go so far as to say it's like an early Victorian Ulysses. It begins with a suggestion from Samuel Pickwick that he and his friends Nathaniel Winkle, Augustus Snodgrass, and Tracy Tupman should form a group, which came to be known as The Corresponding Society of the Pickwick Club, and travel outside of London, recording events and experiences as they go. The motion is happily passed and they do just that, and The Pickwick Papers follows these adventures focusing largely on Mr. Pickwick. It is that that holds the novel together, this is the point of it: to simply make a record "of journeys and investigations, of their observations of character and manners, and of the whole of their adventures". Aside from that there isn't really a single unifying plot, the reader simply goes hither and thither with Samuel Pickwick and his companions.

The original cover of the first instalment.
And what adventures they have! Ladies are saved from unscrupulous suitors, Mr. Pickwick gets into deep deep trouble when his landlady Mrs. Bardell mistakenly thinks he has proposed (so deep in fact a long section of the novel is set in Fleet Prison), an election takes place, cricket of course is played, and we also follow the miserable marriage of the father of Pickwick's man Sam Weller: Tony, Sam's father, marries a widow and rues the day until her death. Along the way we meet some of Dickens' finest characters: the swindler Alfred Jingle, the sly Job Trotter, the excellent and forever sleepy fat boy Joe, Mr. Wardle, the owner of the farm in Dingley Dell, and the two medical students Ben Allen and Bob Sawyer to name just a few. And throughout we're told some short stories by various characters: The Stroller's Tale, for example, The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton, the Legend of Prince Bladud, and The Story of the Bagman's Uncle.

Another interesting and pleasant aspect of The Pickwick Papers is that it's told in 'real time' so to speak: these twenty months are twenty months in life of the Pickwick Club, and correspond with the month; more often than not, I would say, Dickens includes a rather charming description of the month. One of my favourites was from August 1836:
There is no month in the whole year in which nature wears a more beautiful appearance than in the month of August. Spring has many beauties, and May is a fresh and blooming month, but the charms of this time of year are enhanced by their contrast with the winter season. August has no such advantage. It comes when we remember nothing but clear skies, green fields, and sweet-smelling flowers—when the recollection of snow, and ice, and bleak winds, has faded from our minds as completely as they have disappeared from the earth—and yet what a pleasant time it is! Orchards and cornfields ring with the hum of labour; trees bend beneath the thick clusters of rich fruit which bow their branches to the ground; and the corn, piled in graceful sheaves, or waving in every light breath that sweeps above it, as if it wooed the sickle, tinges the landscape with a golden hue. A mellow softness appears to hang over the whole earth; the influence of the season seems to extend itself to the very wagon, whose slow motion across the well-reaped field is perceptible only to the eye, but strikes with no harsh sound upon the ear.
And as we are so close to Christmas, here's another one from December 1836:
And numerous indeed are the hearts to which Christmas brings a brief season of happiness and enjoyment. How many families, whose members have been dispersed and scattered far and wide, in the restless struggles of life, are then reunited, and meet once again in that happy state of companionship and mutual goodwill, which is a source of such pure and unalloyed delight; and one so incompatible with the cares and sorrows of the world, that the religious belief of the most civilised nations, and the rude traditions of the roughest savages, alike number it among the first joys of a future condition of existence, provided for the blessed and happy! How many old recollections, and how many dormant sympathies, does Christmas time awaken!
The Pickwick Papers is a great book and in some respects is more like Dickens' first work Sketches by Boz than any of his subsequent novels. It's a collection of events, warmly and wonderfully told, that gives a little glimpse into pre-Victorian England. It's very entertaining and I do think I benefited greatly from the reading schedule. The only thing I would say is that at times it was a little slow: I think if anyone's thinking of reading The Pickwick Papers reading over a period of twenty months is a tad excessive! Nevertheless it was a valuable experience to read Dickens as his early readers did and really appreciate the cliff-hangers I wouldn't have picked up on had I have read it the way I would any other book. It was a great read, and a great reading experience, and I'm sorry in a way to say goodbye to it. I do think one I'll read another one of Dickens' novels in a similar way, so if anyone's up for another two year reading project let me know 😉 And thanks to all who joined in - I hope you found it as fun and as interesting as I did.

Monday, 18 December 2017

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli.

I think it's hard to overestimate the influence of Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince (Il Principe), which seemed to be around on the scene from 1513 but not actually published until 1532. It's a political treatise on how to be powerful and how to maintain it at all costs.

The discussion is limited to autocratic regimes - absolute monarchies, as we see in Saudi Arabia for example, or dictatorships such as North Korea - as opposed to republics, democracies, or indeed democratic republics. The first few chapters are concerned with definitions of principalities, inherited for example, or ecclesiastical, or newly acquired, for Machiavelli's advice is tailored to each circumstance. He also looks at types of army for warfare, the most desirable being those native to their country, and the least desirable being mercenaries or auxiliaries (loaned by other countries).  Following this comes what I think is the most interesting part: the qualities of a prince.

This section, I'd say, had a great influence on Elizabethan and Jacobean writers such as Christopher Marlowe (Machiavelli is even a character in The Jew of Malta) and William Shakespeare with his English histories and tragedies. I could name a few but the one that particularly jumps out is Richard III as portrayed in Henry VI Part I, Henry VI Part II, Henry VI Part III, and Richard III. Machiavelli outlines his thoughts on what makes a good prince. One of the key elements of this is the art of warfare; the ability to protect a realm or even expand it makes the people love their ruler. Virtue is another important part of being a prince, but, and this is crucial, it is not essential at all times. A prince must be willing to abandon virtuous behaviour if it will further his own ends. Generosity is another key consideration, and, as Aristotle also noted in Politics, it must be accompanied by temperance: an excess of generosity will lead to greed in people and even financial ruin, but too little generosity will also lead to the prince being thought of as a miser (this conclusion departs somewhat from Aristotle's point of view). Another departure from Aristotle's ideas is the idea of mercy: 'tis better to be cruel and feared, Machiavelli writes, than to be merciful. In a similar vein, it is also better to be a liar than to doggedly keep one's word if it will ultimately bring about harm. He then warns about keeping a fine balance: maintain one's power and reputation without causing discontent, and, importantly, to avoid flatterers. Discontent will lead to the downfall of the prince. All of this we see in Shakespeare's Richard III: his desire for power and a willingness to do whatever it takes to seize it and maintain it, until the point he loses his self-control and surpasses Machiavelli in his lack of consistency: a 'good' Machiavellian leader would not have done so. Iago of Othello was ultimately more successful in his aims.

In the final section Machiavelli writes on Italy and how it lost its states and came to be less powerful. He then implores that future leaders take heed of his advice, and writes that he believes only  Lorenzo de’ Medici, to whom the book is dedicated, can return Italy to her former glory.

The Prince is an absolutely fascinating work and very easy to read. Aside from writing about the importance of war and maintaining power, he also has some interesting comments on free will, arguing that whilst Fortune plays a part in life (as the Medievalists firmly believed), free will and choice also have a crucial role. It was a very interesting read, especially after Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics. I have read this work before but it's always good to revisit it and be reminded of some of its key points.

Further Reading 

Sunday, 17 December 2017

The Master Builder by Henrik Ibsen.

The Master Builder (Bygmester Solness) is one of Ibsen's final plays; after this he only wrote three more (Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman, and When We Dead Awaken). It was first published in 1892 and first performed a month later in January 1893, two years after Hedda Gabler, and it tells the story of Halvard Solness, the 'master builder' of the title.

Halvard Solness is a middle aged and well respected self-taught architect, however, as with so many of Ibsen's characters, his life is thrown into turmoil with the return of someone from his past. This 'someone' is Hilda Wangel who Solness had met ten years previous when Hilda was just 13. Solness, she says, had kissed her and promised her a "kingdom"; being as she was, indeed is, so young she believes him and has returned accordingly. Solness takes her on as an employee (for household duties and the like) and the two become close. 

As this plays out we learn more of Solness and his family: his wife Aline is very fragile; her family home burned down and she lost her twin babies shortly after. Nevertheless she worries about Solness' mental health, even confiding in the local doctor Dr. Herdal (I notice that many of Ibsen's plays have a doctor). Solness' employers are also featured: Knut Brovik, who trained Solness, his son Ragnar Brovik, and Kaja Fosli who is engaged to marry Ragnar however is in love with Solness. Solness has at some stage manipulated them all, putting Knut Brovik out of business and then interfering with Ragnar's plans to set up his own business.

As with so many of Ibsen's plays, it all ends in tragedy. Solness' vanity from the attentions of this young woman leads to his destruction; his own life and successes had been built on the backs of others' misfortune, and so it seems quite fitting. It's also quite a perplexing play and I dare say it would be more enjoyable to watch than read. But, nonetheless, it's very powerful and I would say well done. It was, unsurprisingly, rather controversial at its time: The Pall Mall Gazette began its review by remarking,
The blunder has been made. "Master-Builder Solness" has been played upon the London stage. The enemies of Ibsen may well rejoice over what the friends of Ibsen must needs call a calamity.
To me, that makes it all the more interesting to read!

Saturday, 16 December 2017

The Devils by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Portrait of Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872).
The Devils (Бесы; also known as The Possessed, The Devils, and Demons) is a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, first published in 1871–2. It's one of his 'Big Four', the others being Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov. The title comes from a passage from the New Testament, Luke 8: 32 - 36, known as the Exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac:
32 And there was there an herd of many swine feeding on the mountain: and they besought him that he would suffer them to enter into them. And he suffered them. 33 Then went the devils out of the man, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the lake, and were choked. 34 When they that fed them saw what was done, they fled, and went and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then they went out to see what was done; and came to Jesus, and found the man, out of whom the devils were departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid. 36 They also which saw it told them by what means he that was possessed of the devils was healed.
The thought behind the novel was the increasing prevalence of the philosophy of nihilism in Russia during this period. Nihilism denied meaningful existence, disputed the idea of ethics and innate morality, and rejected authority. In The Devils Dostoyevsky portrays a small society under the influence of nihilists, specifically the charismatic and Godless Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin. Dostoyevsky explores the ideas of not only how the attempts to bring a revolution in the provincial town about but why, and this question goes far beyond the mechanics of the actions. Some answers are fairly specific: Stavrogin's parents, for example, must take a portion of the blame for their self-centred stupidity, or the vain liberal Verkhovensky whose search for power brings the town to the brink of catastrophe, but some answers have larger implications for society as a whole: the lack of direction, moral substance, and, crucially, lack of faith. This lack of faith is one of the most important elements of The Devils as we see people who have become vulnerable to immoral, dangerous and exceedingly cruel forces, which in turn brings evil and the destruction of society.

It is a bleak and often upsetting novel though oddly enough not devoid of humour. It's also an exhausting read: I'm rather drawn to The Devils and feel as though if I kept reading it I would come to love it, yet somehow I never manage it. It's undeniably a great novel, but it's far too grim to actually enjoy. I do admire it, though, I admire it greatly.

Further Reading

Dostoyevsky's Devils by Dr. Rowan Williams (Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 - 2012)

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