Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is Muriel Spark's most famous novel. It was first published in The New Yorker and then in novel form in 1961, is on a great many 'Top 100' lists, and contains one of the world's most famous snobs ever created.

Miss Jean Brodie is, in her own words, very much "in her prime". She's a teacher in Edinburgh and has a 'set', the best girls, "the crème de la crème": Sandy, Jenny, Rose, Mary, Monica, and Eunice, and each of them stands out for something. She teaches them what matters, not the curriculum but life - art, history, beauty, love, and fascism - and there is the rub. Her charisma and passion will be Miss Brodie's downfall: her set, her girls whose lives are determined by Miss Brodie in some way or another, and her control over them becomes an almost dark force and she is similar in a way to one of her idols Mussolini. One of them will eventually turn on her and reveal to the headmistress exactly what it is Miss Brodie is teaching and finally, after many years, the headmistress has an excuse to get rid of her. But who was it?

Despite this darkness, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is by in large a comedy, but it has the sharp edge we often see in Scottish humour. The character of Miss Brodie is perfect psychological study, despite being such a short novel (my edition was 128 pages), of a single woman post-World War I (she was "robbed" of her fiancé who died fighting): she is an enthusiastic lover without a partner, and her energy and joie de vivre is poured out into teaching her girls. But some of those impressionable ten year olds, who once worshipped her, begin to feel stifled as teenagers and young adults, and, once betrayed, Brodie is forced into a new role: she is no longer a source of inspiration, vitality, and worship or an essential part of the girls' lives, the situation is flipped and, once adults, it is she who needs the girls. Her desire was to 'produce' individual and independent young women, but what she did was try to produce women like her and who fit her ideal. In that, we see Miss Brodie's approaches as not unlike fascism. It's a strange and sad little novel, yet somehow funny. This is my second read of it, and I've no doubt I'll read it again one day.

Further Reading

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

A Tale of Four Dervishes by Mir Amman.

A Tale of Four Dervishes (قصه چهار درویش) is a small collection of stories and is also known as Bagh-o Bahar (باغ و بہار,; The Garden and Spring). The stories were originally composed in Persian in around the 14th Century by Amir Khusrow and were then known as Qissa Chahar Dervesh (Tale of the Four Dervishes). In 1803 Mir Amman translated the tales, which he explains in the Prologue:
Mr John Gilchrist, the noble and beneficent and a great patron of the noble ones (may he ever remain exalted as long as the Jamuna and the Ganga flow), kindly urged me to render this tale into pure Hindustani which the Urdu people, the Hindus and the Muslims, men and women, young and old, and high and low use in common parlance. As desired by him, I have written it in the conversational style.
The book was later translated by Duncan Forbes into English (1862), however I read the much more modern translation of Mohammed Zakir.

The book has a frame-story structure: the basis for it is seen in the first section, 'The Beginning' -
Now the tale. Please listen and deal justly with it. Thus it is, as written in Qissa-e-Chahār Darvesh, and as it is told.
Once upon a time there ruled a king in Turkey, as just as Naushervan and as benevolent as Hatim. His name was Azad Bakht and his capital was Constantinople (Istanbul). Everyone was happy under his rule. The treasury was full, the army well off and the poor at ease. Every day was festive and every night full of joy. No thefts and robberies took place as thieves, robbers, pickpockets, swindlers and mischiefmongers were banished from his kingdom. Nobody shut the doors of his house or shop at night. The travellers who passed through his kingdom went safe with their silver or gold.
He was a great king ruling over a thousand cities and many a ruler and overlord paid him the annual tribute. Yet he was a God-fearing man. He never neglected his duties or his prayers to God. He had all the pleasures and comforts but no son and this worried him constantly. After his daily prayers he prayed to God to bless him with a son who might be like a lamp in his dark abode, carry on his name and ascend the throne after him.
The king leaves his palace in search of wise men to offer him advice and on his journey he encounters the four dervishes (Muslims, usually Sufi Muslims, who have taken the vow of poverty): a merchant of Yemen (the first dervish), the prince of Persia (the second dervish), the prince of Ajam (the third dervish), and the prince of China (the fourth dervish). Each dervish has a tale to tell: Bakht observes the first two tales and then tells his own, then the third and fourth dervish tell their tales (and there are tales within tales) before the narrative is concluded.

The stories share a theme of love and loss, and, as is often the case with Medieval literature, suffering is caused usually as the result of a beautiful woman. It is love that has proven to be the men's downfall - they have all characteristics of the ideal Medieval man - strong, valiant, noble, and chivalrous, but they have been unable to resist certain women's charms and are almost driven to suicide as a consequence. And, as each man is about to take his own life he is saved and told that he will meet three other dervishes in a similar state and as a group of four they will meet Bakht who will grant them their wishes and desires.

It is a wonderful and magical collection of stories, similar perhaps to the Decameron or One Thousand and One Nights. It's said that they were written for Nizamuddin Auliya, a Sufi saint of the Chishti Order, to cheer him up during a spell of illness, and the sheer beauty and hope, the adventures, and the magic it offers would surely certainly do that! A Tale of Four Dervishes is a new favourite and one I'll certainly re-read, most likely quite soon - it's a hard one to resist.

Monday, 28 August 2017

The Duchess of Padua by Oscar Wilde.

1907 edition of The Duchess of Padua.
The Duchess of Padua was the second play Oscar Wilde wrote (following Vera) and was to be performed in 1883, however after some very complicated negotiations with Mary Anderson, the actress who Wilde wished to be the Duchess, she ultimately refused and the play was not performed until 1891 under the title Guido Ferranti. It didn't do as badly as Vera, which only managed a week of performance, but it didn't do much better: this lasted three weeks before it was shut down. Again, as with Vera, I think that was a little unfair, but I must admit it is wildly melodramatic.

The Duchess of Padua is Beatrice, the wife of Simone Gesso, the Duke of Padua. Guido Ferranti is a young man who has travelled to Padua to learn who is true father is: as a child he was left, we learn, with a man who he refers to as his uncle. Once in Padua Moranzone tells him his father, Duke Lorenzo, was murdered by the Duke and he must take his revenge. Moranzone show Guido what was once his father's knife, and then they contrive to get the Duke to accept Guido in the royal household. Once in, Guido then meets Beatrice and, of course, the two fall in love.

Guido and Moranzone plan that Guido should murder the Duke with Guido's father's knife, and one day Moranzone sends the knife as a signal that it is time to commit the deed. He has had second thoughts though, and decides instead on leaving the knife by the Duke's bedside to let him know he could have killed him. He does not anticipate, however, what the Duchess is prepared to do in the name of love.

The Duchess of Padua is a fantastic read and a great take on Jacobean drama. It reads almost like a modern Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet for example, or even Hamlet, and the title recalls Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. The style is deliberately Jacobean too, which somehow gives it more gravitas than perhaps it merited. But I did love it: Wilde in tragedy mode is criminally underrated.

And that was my 34th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: Trojan Women by Seneca.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Vasari's Lives of the Artists Chapter X: Brunelleschi.

It's been well over a month since I blogged about Vasari's Lives of the Artists because, in all truthfulness chapter ten, 'The Life of Filippo Brunelleschi, Sculptor and Artist', was not only particularly lengthy, but I didn't feel I got so much out of it: this, I think, is one of the challenges of reading about artists many of whom I haven't heard of. But these posts are mainly for images so, as with other posts, I'll write briefly and then get to some of his works. It is worth noting, though that this is a very long chapter. A quick look at the contents tells me this seems to be only second to the penultimate chapter on Michelangelo, and is far longer than those of Raphael, da Vinci, Titian, Botticelli, and Donatello, all artists who I thought may get a longer section.

The Life of Filippo Brunelleschi, Sculptor and Architect
[1377 - 1446]

"Nature has created many men who are small and insignificant in appearance but who are endowed with spirits so full of greatness and hearts of such boundless courage that they have no peace until they undertake difficult and almost impossible tasks and bring them to completion, to the astonishment of those who witness them. No matter how vile or base these projects may be, when opportunity puts them into the hands of such men, they become valuable and lofty enterprises."

An intriguing start! Vasari goes on to praise Brunelleschi, writing that "it might well be said he had been sent to us by Heaven to give us a new form of architecture which had been going astray for hundreds of years". He adds that he was also very virtuous, and the finest friend anyone could hope to have.

Vasari gives some biographical details, Brunelleschi's parents and upbringing for example, then turns to his teachers and his professional life and accomplishments in architecture, as well sculpture and even making jewellery when times were hard.

Here are some of his works:

Nave of the Santo Spirito, Florence.

The dome of Florence Cathedral.

Sacrificio di Isacco.
Church of Santa Felicita in Florence.

Next time: The Life of Donatello, Florentine Sculptor.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Chapters XLVII - XLIX of The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.

We've now reached the 17th instalment of The Pickwick Papers. 180 years ago this month as it was first published there was a General Election which was triggered after the death of King William IV (this would be the last election triggered by the death of a monarch). Once again the Whigs, led by William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne won however Robert Peel and the Conservatives closed the gap yet again: in the next election in 1841, Robert Peel would win. Elsewhere, August 1837 was a notable date as it was the year Britain saw its first black policeman John Kent (born in 1795). Finally, if you like cheese on toast this is highly significant, Lea & Perrins began making Worcestershire sauce. Quite a month, then. As for The Pickwick Papers, we left on quite a cliffhanger - Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller remain in prison, but they are now joined by Mrs. Bardell!

Chapter XLVII

Is Chiefly Devoted to Matters of Business, and the Temporal Advantage of Dodson and Fogg—Mr. Winkle Reappears Under Extraordinary Circumstances—Mr. Pickwick’s Benevolence Proves Stronger than his Obstinacy.

'Mr. Winkle returns under extraordinary
circumstances' by Phiz.
Mr. Pickwick has been in prison since April and at last he is finally freed: he reaches an agreement with Mrs. Bardell - he will pay her solicitors fees in exchange for her dropping the charges, which were brought, as she admits, partly because she was encouraged to do so by Dodson & Fogg. Whilst this is playing out, our Mr. Winkle shows up with Arabella Allen and they have some very surprising news:
‘Miss Arabella Allen!’ exclaimed Mr. Pickwick, rising from his chair.
‘No,’ replied Mr. Winkle, dropping on his knees. ‘Mrs. Winkle. Pardon, my dear friend, pardon!’
Mr. Pickwick could scarcely believe the evidence of his senses, and perhaps would not have done so, but for the corroborative testimony afforded by the smiling countenance of Perker, and the bodily presence, in the background, of Sam and the pretty housemaid; who appeared to contemplate the proceedings with the liveliest satisfaction.
‘Oh, Mr. Pickwick!’ said Arabella, in a low voice, as if alarmed at the silence. ‘Can you forgive my imprudence?’
Mr. Pickwick returned no verbal response to this appeal; but he took off his spectacles in great haste, and seizing both the young lady’s hands in his, kissed her a great number of times—perhaps a greater number than was absolutely necessary—and then, still retaining one of her hands, told Mr. Winkle he was an audacious young dog, and bade him get up. This, Mr. Winkle, who had been for some seconds scratching his nose with the brim of his hat, in a penitent manner, did; whereupon Mr. Pickwick slapped him on the back several times, and then shook hands heartily with Perker, who, not to be behind-hand in the compliments of the occasion, saluted both the bride and the pretty housemaid with right good-will, and, having wrung Mr. Winkle’s hand most cordially, wound up his demonstrations of joy by taking snuff enough to set any half-dozen men with ordinarily-constructed noses, a-sneezing for life.
‘Why, my dear girl,’ said Mr. Pickwick, ‘how has all this come about? Come! Sit down, and let me hear it all. How well she looks, doesn’t she, Perker?’ added Mr. Pickwick, surveying Arabella’s face with a look of as much pride and exultation, as if she had been his daughter.
‘Delightful, my dear Sir,’ replied the little man. ‘If I were not a married man myself, I should be disposed to envy you, you dog.’ Thus expressing himself, the little lawyer gave Mr. Winkle a poke in the chest, which that gentleman reciprocated; after which they both laughed very loudly, but not so loudly as Mr. Samuel Weller, who had just relieved his feelings by kissing the pretty housemaid under cover of the cupboard door.
‘I can never be grateful enough to you, Sam, I am sure,’ said Arabella, with the sweetest smile imaginable. ‘I shall not forget your exertions in the garden at Clifton.’
‘Don’t say nothin’ wotever about it, ma’am,’ replied Sam. ‘I only assisted natur, ma’am; as the doctor said to the boy’s mother, after he’d bled him to death.’
‘Mary, my dear, sit down,’ said Mr. Pickwick, cutting short these compliments. ‘Now then; how long have you been married, eh?’
Mr. Pickwick is then asked to tell Arabella's brother and Mr. Winkle's father in the hope they might take it a bit better from him!

And on that happy note, Mr. Pickwick and Sam finally leave Fleet Prison:
As Mr. Pickwick uttered this adieu, the crowd raised a loud shout. Many among them were pressing forward to shake him by the hand again, when he drew his arm through Perker’s, and hurried from the prison, far more sad and melancholy, for the moment, than when he had first entered it. Alas! how many sad and unhappy beings had he left behind!
A happy evening was that for at least one party in the George and Vulture; and light and cheerful were two of the hearts that emerged from its hospitable door next morning. The owners thereof were Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller, the former of whom was speedily deposited inside a comfortable post-coach, with a little dickey behind, in which the latter mounted with great agility. 

Chapter XLVIII
Relates How Mr. Pickwick, With the Assistance of Samuel Weller, Essayed to Soften the Heart of Mr. Benjamin Allen, and to Mollify the Wrath Of Mr. Robert Sawyer

Meanwhile in Bristol Bob Sawyer and Benjamin Allen bemoan their lack of trade and decide that Bob should marry Arabella and use her money: Allen's aunt sets them right, telling him that she's eloped. Bob is furious, believing Bent o be in on it, and it is Pickwick and Sam that stops the fight. He tells them the truth - that Arabella has married Mr. Winkle:
‘Pray hear me,’ urged Mr. Pickwick, as Mr. Ben Allen fell into a chair that patients were bled in, and gave way to his pocket-handkerchief. ‘I have rendered no assistance in this matter, beyond being present at one interview between the young people which I could not prevent, and from which I conceived my presence would remove any slight colouring of impropriety that it might otherwise have had; this is the whole share I have had in the transaction, and I had no suspicion that an immediate marriage was even contemplated. Though, mind,’ added Mr. Pickwick, hastily checking himself—‘mind, I do not say I should have prevented it, if I had known that it was intended.’
‘You hear that, all of you; you hear that?’ said Mr. Benjamin Allen.
‘I hope they do,’ mildly observed Mr. Pickwick, looking round, ‘and,’ added that gentleman, his colour mounting as he spoke, ‘I hope they hear this, Sir, also. That from what has been stated to me, sir, I assert that you were by no means justified in attempting to force your sister’s inclinations as you did, and that you should rather have endeavoured by your kindness and forbearance to have supplied the place of other nearer relations whom she had never known, from a child. As regards my young friend, I must beg to add, that in every point of worldly advantage he is, at least, on an equal footing with yourself, if not on a much better one, and that unless I hear this question discussed with becoming temper and moderation, I decline hearing any more said upon the subject.’
Ben agrees to speak with Mr. Winkle's father and generally calms down somewhat, and Pickwick and Sam return to the inn where they're staying and they encounter the "one-eyed bagman".

Chapter XLIX
Containing the Story of the Bagman’s Uncle 

'The Ghostly Passengers in the Ghost of a Mail'
by Phiz.
If I was reading The Pickwick Papers as a novel and not as instalments I honestly can say this chapter wouldn't have bothered me, but as this is the final chapter of the instalment I do rather wish Dickens had missed this one! But he didn't, so onward.

The chapter begins,
My uncle, gentlemen,’ said the bagman, ‘was one of the merriest, pleasantest, cleverest fellows, that ever lived. I wish you had known him, gentlemen. On second thoughts, gentlemen, I don’t wish you had known him, for if you had, you would have been all, by this time, in the ordinary course of nature, if not dead, at all events so near it, as to have taken to stopping at home and giving up company, which would have deprived me of the inestimable pleasure of addressing you at this moment. Gentlemen, I wish your fathers and mothers had known my uncle. They would have been amazingly fond of him, especially your respectable mothers; I know they would. If any two of his numerous virtues predominated over the many that adorned his character, I should say they were his mixed punch and his after-supper song. Excuse my dwelling on these melancholy recollections of departed worth; you won’t see a man like my uncle every day in the week.
The uncle dozed on a mail coach and when he awoke he found it packed and ready to leave, full of passengers and parcels. Various bits of drama ensue, a couple of fights break out, and the uncle escapes with a lady on the coach, but all melts away and he finds himself in the same spot in a shell of a coach as it had been when he got in it. The chapter, and the instalment, ends - 
‘Of course, my uncle knew very well that there was some mystery in the matter, and that everything had passed exactly as he used to relate it. He remained staunch to the great oath he had sworn to the beautiful young lady, refusing several eligible landladies on her account, and dying a bachelor at last. He always said what a curious thing it was that he should have found out, by such a mere accident as his clambering over the palings, that the ghosts of mail-coaches and horses, guards, coachmen, and passengers, were in the habit of making journeys regularly every night. He used to add, that he believed he was the only living person who had ever been taken as a passenger on one of these excursions. And I think he was right, gentlemen—at least I never heard of any other.’
‘I wonder what these ghosts of mail-coaches carry in their bags,’ said the landlord, who had listened to the whole story with profound attention.
‘The dead letters, of course,’ said the bagman.
‘Oh, ah! To be sure,’ rejoined the landlord. ‘I never thought of that.’
And so we must wait another month to see what happens in Birmingham. 

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Vera by Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde in America (1882).

Vera; or, The Nihilists is Oscar Wilde's first play, written in 1880 and first performed in 1883 in New York in the Union Square Theatre. It didn't do too well, the New York Times said it was "unreal, long-winded and wearisome" and the New York Herald described it as "long-drawn dramatic rot". It was closed after just a week, and, after another bit of bad luck with The Duchess of Padua (performed the same year), Wilde left the U.S. for Paris.

But, what do critics know? Vera is actually a great read, though far removed from his comedies of the '90s. Firstly it's a tragedy, secondly it's not set in drawing rooms but Russia following the French Revolution of 1793. It tells the story of Vera, "the priestess of liberty, the flame of the revolution, the torch of democracy" as she's referred to in the later part of the play. The play begins with a prologue set in a tavern in Russia, which is on the road to Siberia where prisoners are taken. One day she sees some of the prisoners, amongst them Dmitri - her brother, who is accused of being a Nihilist. Heartbroken she begs him to escape and for her to take his place but he refuses and asks instead for her to take revenge on his behalf. As he leaves she says,
To strangle whatever nature is in me; neither to love nor to be loved; neither to pity nor to be pitied; neither to marry nor to be given in marriage, till the end is come." My brother, I shall keep the oath. You shall be revenged!
And so she joins the Nihilists and becomes an infamous assassin, and falls in love with Alexis, who we learn is the Tsarevich, who will thus become the Tsar when his father is killed. And, of course, the Tsar is killed and Vera must chose between her love for Alexis and her mission to avenge her brother's imprisonment. 

It is grand-scale melodrama and is almost indecently unsubtle. Yet, what an exhilarating read! It is fun in a way it ought not to be quite probably, but that doesn't mean that it's a bad play, it's not "rot" at all, nor is it "wearisome". The theme of the clash between passion and reason and intellect is nothing new, and it should be noted that historically the play is wildly inaccurate (I don't think it should be condemned for that, however), but all the same it's enjoyable and interesting. It's also of note to compare with Wilde's more famous and successful comedies that came later. I can see it's not a great play but all the same I recommend it. It is, at times, clumsily touching and there are some great witticisms: my favourite - "experience, the name men give to their mistakes".

And Vera was my 33rd title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week, another Wilde and coincidentally his second play: The Duchess of Padua.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

An Unsocial Socialist by George Bernard Shaw.

George Bernard Shaw (1946).
An Unsocial Socialist, originally called The Heartless Man, was my introduction to George Bernard Shaw, most famous I dare say for his play Pygmalion (1912), and it was all rather bizarre. I can't honestly say if I liked it or not: The Guardian, who reviewed it in 1887 (four years after publication), sums it up quite neatly: "This is very nearly a good book, and still more nearly a bad one." I've no idea what to make of it.

It tells the story of Sidney Trefusis, our unsocial socialist, who is married to Henrietta (by Victorian ideals it was a very good match), who he swiftly leaves to live a true socialist life and encourage others to do the same. It begins in a girls' boarding school,
In the dusk of an October evening, a sensible looking woman of forty came out through an oaken door to a broad landing on the first floor of an old English country-house. A braid of her hair had fallen forward as if she had been stooping over book or pen; and she stood for a moment to smooth it, and to gaze contemplatively—not in the least sentimentally—through the tall, narrow window. The sun was setting, but its glories were at the other side of the house; for this window looked eastward, where the landscape of sheepwalks and pasture land was sobering at the approach of darkness.
It was that opening paragraph that sucked me in, such is my love of autumn, and the novel did more or less hold my attention (there was an unfortunate brief lapse about half way through which I regret). Shaw continues: Trefusis is a wealthy man, and he feels it necessary to adopt a disguise: he becomes Jeff Smilash and spends his time either trying to convince the lower classes to adopt socialism, or the upper middle classes to do the same. Meanwhile he falls in love, and we see his struggle to reconcile marriage with socialism and the ideas of property and capitalism which was so inherent in the Victorian era, even with regards to marriage.

Honestly it's so bizarre I can't go on. What helped a smidgen was knowing that George Bernard Shaw was himself a socialist and a member of the Fabian Society (a British socialist organisation): knowing nothing about Shaw I did assume when I bought it it was a satire, perhaps from a right-wing perspective. What it actually is, it seems, it is a left-wing social satire on prejudice. There are in it moments of humour, but they were largely down to the girls' activities in the boarding school and not so much Trefusis. What was good was his (Shaw's or Trefusis') challenging of the norms of Victorian society who (not unlike myself to be fair) were thoroughly confused and frustrated with Trefusis. What damned it was the rather misogynistic attitudes throughout. It's very hard to say what Shaw was doing in this novel, but it does seem as though he's writing, perhaps from his own experience, the difficulties of the middle and upper classes living as socialists, understanding socialism, and overcoming the perception of socially acceptable behaviour. It's a very strange work showing a dichotomy within Trefusis and is on the whole engaging.

Further Reading

Saturday, 19 August 2017

An A to Z.

Every once in a while Jane at Beyond Eden Rock does an A to Z and I thought this time I would join in...

A is for Aᴜᴛᴜᴍɴ.

Taken yesterday.

It's beginning to look very autumnal here. The leaves have faded, some are even yellow, and the flowers that survived this abysmal summer are going a little brown on their edges. The season is most certainly changing.

B is for Bɪɢ Bᴇɴ Rᴏᴡ.

Big Ben (Credit: Yui Mok)

It was announced that Big Ben would be silenced for four years, for the first time since 1859, whilst vital repair work is done on it. But, for some of us it seems, the idea of silencing Big Ben is too much, so there's a debate (almost overshadowing Brexit) on whether it is a) best to silence it, b) best to deafen the workers, or c) if it would actually deafen the workers anyway. To add to the trauma, it's also just come out that the Ayrton Light, installed at Queen Victoria's request, will be switched off: it's only ever been switched off for World War I and World War II.

C is for Cʟᴇᴀɴɪɴɢ.

This is how I will be spending my weekend: today the house, tomorrow the greenhouse.
But it will be worth it!

D is for Dᴜᴍᴀs.

Currently reading: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.

E is for Eɴɢʟɪsʜ Sᴜᴍᴍᴇʀ.

I think I've mentioned here and there (and everywhere!) that it is awful. The best headline on the subject is from the BBC - British summer time: It's raining.

F is for Fɪʟɪᴘᴘᴏ Bʀᴜɴᴇʟʟᴇsᴄʜɪ.

Brunelleschi Duomo [Photo credits: étoiles filantes].

I'm back to reading Vasari's Lives of the Artists and the next post will be on Brunelleschi, hopefully over the weekend or early next week.

G is for Gᴜᴀʀᴅɪᴀɴ Cᴀʀᴛᴏᴏɴs.

Ben Jennings on Theresa May's appeal for policy ideas.

I love political cartoons, especially Ben Jennings' for The Guardian and also Dave Brown for The Independent. Above is one of my recent favourites.

H is for Hᴀᴡᴋ.

This morning there was a very young sparrowhawk in the garden! It moved too fast to get a picture.

One of my favourite songs and, for a very long time now, when I'm waiting for something I find myself tapping out this beat.

J is for Jᴏɴᴀᴛʜᴀɴ Wɪʟᴅ.

Henry Fielding's Jonathan Wild was the last book I read. I did enjoy it but I'm afraid I can't find much to say on it at present, so it may be quite a while before I review it, if I do.

K is for Kᴀʀᴀᴍᴀᴢᴏᴠ.

I first read Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov a few years ago now and have always wanted to read it but still find it intimidating. Ruth's excellent recent review has given me some confidence to try again so soon, early autumn if not before, I'm going to give it another shot.

L is for Lᴜsᴛ Fᴏʀ Lɪꜰᴇ.

Lana Del Rey by Neil Krug.

Lana Del Rey is one of my favourites, and her Lust for Life was released in July this year. It's pretty much all I've listened to since. It's tough to pick out a favourite, but I do particularly love Cherry, Change, and God Bless America.

M is for Mᴜsʜʀᴏᴏᴍs.

They are absolutely everywhere here, many grouped together like little villages. I took some pictures for Wordless Wednesday.

N is for Nᴇɴᴇʜ Cʜᴇʀʀʏ

Neneh Cherry's Buffalo Stance is a song I can't get out of my head today.

O is for Oᴡʟs.

I love listening to the owls as I'm falling asleep, and they were pretty active last night despite the rain.

P is for Pᴏʟɪᴛɪᴄs.

Another book I'm currently reading: Politics by Aristotle.

Q is for Qᴜᴇᴇɴ Eʟɪᴢᴀʙᴇᴛʜ II.

The Queen and Prince Charles at the State Opening of Parliament.
[Photo credits: Wpa Pool / Getty Images]

There are rumours that she's abdicating?! Surely not!?

R is for Rᴇᴘᴜʙʟɪᴄ.

Next on my reading pile - Plato's Republic.

S is for Sᴇᴠᴇɴ Nᴀᴛɪᴏɴ Aʀᴍʏ.

I was very amused to learn that the White Stripes' Seven Nation Army sales spiked by 16,893% because of Jeremy Corbyn!

T is for Tᴜᴍʙʟʀ.

I was very excited this morning to see my Tumblr now has 37,000 followers!

U is for Uɴsᴏᴄɪᴀʟ Sᴏᴄɪᴀʟɪsᴛ.

An Unsocial Socialist by George Bernard Shaw is the last book I read and will be the next novel I review on here and frankly I'm struggling! What an odd book it is. I think I like it.

V is for Vᴏʟᴇ.

Water Vole.

Water Voles might be re-introduced to our area! I do hope I see one.

W is for Wᴀʟᴋɪɴɢ.

I've been doing a lot of walking recently, more so than usual, and I do find it wonderfully calming.

X is for Xᴇɴᴏᴘʜᴏɴ.

After I've read Politics and Republic, my next planned read for my Ancient Greek and Roman Challenge is Xenophon's Hellenica.

I sung You're Not from Brighton by Fatboy Slim to a dog today substituting the word "check" for "Jet", which is the dog's name...

Z is for Zᴏʟᴀ.

Zola by V-.A Poirson for La Vie Parisienne (1st February 1890).

Zola. Always on my mind.

Monday, 14 August 2017

The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall by Thomas Hardy.

The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall is, judging by Goodreads, a very under-read Thomas Hardy play - it only has 6 ratings (his novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles for example has 190,358). But Thomas Hardy is known best for his novels and his poetry, so it seems that reading his plays is just a matter of curiosity. Nevertheless I'd say I was well rewarded. 

The play was published in 1923, and the Queen of Cornwall refers to Iseult the Fair, the wife of Mark of Cornwall and the lover of Sir Tristan. This is the third time I've read a version of the 'Tristan and Iseult' myth (I've read Strassburg's Tristan, 13th Century, and Béroul's The Romance of Tristan, 12th Century). It begins with a prologue by Merlin:


Enter Mᴇʀʟɪɴ, a phantasmal figure with a white wand. The room is darkened: a blue light may be thrown on Merlin.


I come, at your persuasive call,
To raise up in this modern hall
A tragedy of dire duresse
That vexed the Land of Lyonnesse: -
Scenes, with their passions, hopes, and fears
Sunk into shade these thousand years;
To set, in ghostly grave array,
     Their blitheness, blood, and tears,
Feats, ardours, as if rife to-day
     Before men's eyes and ears.

The tale has travelled far and wide: -
Yea, that King Mark, to fetch his bride,
Sent Tristram; then that he and she
Quaffed a love-potion witlessly
While homeward bound. Hence that the King
     Wedded one heart-aflame
For Tristram! He, in dark despair,
Roved recklessly, and wived everywhere
     One of his mistress' name.

I saw these times I represent,
Watched, gauged them as they came and went,
Being ageless, deathless! And those two
Fair women - namesakes - well I knew!
Judge them not harshly in a love
     Whose hold on them was strong;
Sorrow therein they tasted of,
     And deeply, and too long!

Tristan and Isolde with the Potion 
by John William Waterhouse (1916).
Hardy tells the story in a single act, and, like the Ancient Greek plays, he has a chorus, or, as they're called in this play, Chanters - 'Shades of Dead Old Cornish Men' and 'Shades of Dead Cornish Women'. The action takes place at Tintagel, and the action that occupies much of Béroul and Strassburg's versions has already happened: Iseult and Tristram, already in Cornwall, have taken the love potion and are in love with each other. Iseult has gone to Brittany to see Tristram and his wife, Iseult of the White Hands, falsely tells her that he's died. She has returned home and believes her husband is unaware of her affair, not realising he has been informed. Tristram, alive, recovers from his illness and goes to Cornwall where he tells her he has been forced into marrying Iseult of the White Hands. She soon arrives and sees her husband with his lover, and she meets Queen Iseult. When King Mark discovers Tristram he kills him, and using the same knife Queen Iseult kills Mark then commits suicide by throwing herself off a cliff.

As with many of Hardy's novels (I'm thinking particularly of Jude the Obscure) the theme of mismatched marriages and destiny. As with other Hardy characters, Tristram and Iseult were thrown together despite the circumstances being entirely wrong, and both were destined to suffer marriages that made them unhappy and were punished for following their hearts. It's an odd little play, the medieval setting was somewhat unexpected, yet the Greek-like structure and those familiar ideas behind it made the 'Tristan and Iseult' myth very much Hardy's.

The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall was my 32nd title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: Vera by Oscar Wilde.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Last Days of Socrates by Plato.

Socrates Bust at Rubens House, Antwerp (© Corbis).

I promised myself this weekend I would get some of my more intimidating reviews on my pile done; yesterday was Aristotle's Ethics, and today Plato's The Last Days of Socrates which, I dare say, is marginally less tricky, but still it's very dense. The book is made up of four parts:
  1. Euthyphro (Εὐθύφρων)
  2. The Apology of Socrates (Ἀπολογία Σωκράτους)
  3. Crito (Κρίτων)
  4. Phaedo (Φαίδων)
They were written in the early 4th Century B.C. and are concerned with the trial and death of Socrates (399 B.C.).
This is largely a dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro, a religious man who has brought charges against his father for manslaughter: one of his workers died as a result of Euthyphro's negligence, and that same worker in fact murdered a slave earlier. Euthyphro greets Socrates who informs him he is being prosecuted for impiety, and the charges were brought by Meletus. In this short section (it's about 20 pages) the two discuss holiness: a holy deed, argues Euthyphro, is that which is agreeable to the gods, but as Socrates points out the gods frequently argue (which is the basis for many a great Ancient Greek play). Euthyphro then suggests that a holy deed is one that would approved by the gods, to which Socrates argued that the two cannot be the same. Instead, then, Euthyphro speaks of justice, arguing that the holy 'look after' the gods, which, as Socrates points out, undermines the argument that the gods are all-powerful. Finally, when Euthyphro loses his temper, he speaks of holiness, prayers and sacrifice, as pleasing the gods. The argument comes full circle and Euthyphro stalks off in anger. Socrates is left alone calling after Euthyphro,
Look what you're doing, my friend! You're going off and dashing me from the great hope which I entertained; that I could learn from you what was holy and what not and quickly have done with Meletus's prosecution by demonstrating to him that I have now become wise in religion thanks to Euthyphro, and no longer improvise and innovate in ignorance of it - and moreover that I could live a better life for the rest of my days.
There Euthyphro ends.
The Apology of Socrates
The Apology makes up the first of two sections on justice and duty. In this Socrates defends himself against the charges of impiety and corrupting the Athenian youth, beginning by pointing out his lack of legal training, and declaring instead that he will speak as he best knows how - directly and honestly. He refuses to accept that he is the wisest of men, as, apparently, the Oracle of Delphi proclaimed, saying that famous line - "I know that I know nothing". In espousing this 'wisdom' Socrates, whilst gaining the admiration of the youth, brought him contempt, perhaps, he says, leading to his trial. He then defends himself against Meletus' claim that he is an atheist, picking out contradictions in Meletus' argument, and then the matter of obedience (to the state, to people, or to the gods) is discussed. Socrates is then found guilty (by a narrow margin) and sentenced to death. True to form, he is philosophical, saying he ought not fear that which he does not know, and bears no ill-will to the jurors. 
This is another small section (it is the final section that takes up the bulk of The Last Days of Socrates), and is the second part that deals with the ideas of justice and duty. As Socrates sits in his prison cell awaiting execution he and his friend Crito (Crito of Alopece) discuss justice. Crito has arranged to smuggle Socrates out of prison to safety, yet Socrates won't budge. Crito presents a variety of arguments, such as the fact that he believes Socrates' sentence was unjust, and thus to kill him would be wrong, therefore by remaining Socrates is enabling his executors to act immorally. Also Crito reminds Socrates of his children who Socrates would effectively be abandoning if he was to ignore a way out. Socrates however is not persuaded and argues the importance of obeying the law; also he will be judged badly by the gods in the afterlife and be an outcast in this life. Socrates therefore remains in his cell.
This last part of The Last Days of Socrates is very moving with the odd moment of distress shown from his friends. Phaedo of Elis, who was present at Socrates' death, meets Echecrates who asks him what happened. Phaedo tells him that Socrates' friend were present, including himself, Crito, Simmias and Cebes, and Socrates told them that a philosopher ought to look forward to their death (not suicide). He speaks of the immortal soul, and on how the philosopher detaches himself from life. He goes on to describe the cycle of life and the 'argument of opposites' (life comes from death and death from life), the Theory of Recollection (rather than learning new facts we in fact recollect them, suggesting we are born with innate knowledge), the Argument from Affinity (the eternal soul in the transient body), and the life of the soul. It's pretty tricky and I can't honestly say I fully grasped this section. Phaedo finishes, as expected, with Socrates' death: he climbs into the bath, drinks hemlock, and passes away.

That is my very brief description of The Last Days of Socrates. It is very difficult, though I do enjoy the dialogues more than, say, Aristotle (only just, mind). These four books aren't simply philosophy however, there is the biographical element which was very interesting, and it was at times fairly descriptive giving the whole work more warmth than other by Plato's contemporaries. I'm glad to have finally read it, been meaning to for quite a while now, but the struggle and my tenuous grasp of it is frustrating.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle.

Detail of The School of Athens by Raphael (1509-11).
Aristotle is on the right (Plato on the left) holding a
copy of Nicomachean Ethics.
However difficult I found reading this and however unnerving it is to write about, this is quite an exciting post for me: Aristotle's Ethics is the 100th title on my Ancient Greek and Roman Challenge. It's taken over two years to get to this point and I'm certain that, right now, I'm focusing on the most difficult section of it: the 4th Century B.C. Plato and Aristotle, who dominate this era, are by far the most challenging authors I've come across and it so happens I have both of them in my to-be-reviewed pile: this, and my 101st title, The Last Days of Socrates by Plato. I hope you'll forgive me for these two reviews will be relatively brief: I've accepted my limitations and would urge anyone looking for decent information on these authors to look elsewhere! Nevertheless, I'll try and say a few words.

First, the easy part: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (Ἠθικὰ Νικομάχεια) was written around 350 B.C. It was so called as it was written most likely for Aristotle's son Nicomachus (his father was also called Nicomachus, throwing some confusion into it). Aristotle wrote three main works on ethics (ethics referring to the practice of morality, which is the theory behind the deeds): Ethics, which is followed by Politics, and then Rhetoric, all of which I plan to read.

Ethics is divided into ten books, and I'll attempt a very brief outline here:

Book I
In this Aristotle sets out the basis for the book: that all human beings strive towards good, and happiness (εὐδαιμονία; a word that incorporates success and the idea of 'flourishing') is the supreme good. What makes us happy, and how we achieve it, is what is in question. Happiness may be a sensual feeling, which is a lower or base goal, but at the higher end, knowledge, for example, is good in so far as it makes the individual and potentially those around him or her happy. Reason is the key to this, and the ability to make rational decisions. Another question raised is the 'end' result and how one gets there.
Book II
The second book is concerned with the idea of virtue, be it learned or practised behaviour. There is no absolute moral code; acting virtuously depends on the situation, which calls for observation, and acting with temperance and avoiding extremes, particularly in the context of pleasure and pain. In order to become virtuous we must not only avoid these extremes but have self-knowledge and be aware of what triggers certain behaviours in order to avoid them. Finally Aristotle warns us that pleasure very often impedes our judgement.
Book III
Aristotle draws a distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, either in ignorance or compulsion. Ethics, or being moral, is therefore a choice. Character determines this choice: the good will choose the good, and the bad will choose the bad. Those unable to make an informed choice may also chose the bad. He uses the example of courage on the battlefield: those who choose to fight despite being afraid of death are honourable, those who choose to fight for fear of being seen as dishonourable are dishonourable, or rather they lack courage.
Book IV
Aristotle moves on from temperance to discuss other virtuous characteristics: generosity, magnanimity, temperate ambition, gentleness, friendliness, self-awareness, charm, and modesty.
Book V
This section deals with the idea of justice, either with regards to the law or the perceived natural order of things, and it is concerned with one's relationship to other people. Those who obey the law are virtuous. Aristotle identifies two kinds of justice, distributive and rectificatory, i.e. rectifying the mis-distribution of wealth, for example. Justice manifests in two ways: state or political justice, and domestic, or private. As with virtue, justice is voluntary and is based on choice. Aristotle goes on to note that lawfulness does not always bring about justice.
Book VI
Here Aristotle moves on to discuss intellectual virtues, or knowledge and the importance of being informed. One cannot do the right thing if one does not know what the right thing is to do. Aristotle then talks of the rational, contemplative soul able to reason and the irrational part of the soul, and then goes on to outline the five intellectual virtues: art, scientific knowledge, judgement, wisdom, and intellect or reason that guides us into being able to know and understand a principle before acting on it.
Book VII
From the good to the bad: Aristotle writes on that which guides us away from virtue: vice, incontinence (the opposite of temperance), and brutishness or baseness. He goes on to describe how to remedy this: with self-awareness and information to gain self-control.
Aristotle moves on to write on friendship and the nature of friendship, arguing that there are three types: 1) convenience, 2) pleasure, and 3) goodness, the latter of which is superior, honest, and long-lasting. He goes on to argue that friendship is linked to justice, then writes on politics in this context, suggesting that there are three types of constitution: monarchy, aristocracy, and timocracy. This he will expand on in Politics.
Book IX
The theme of friendship is continued, and Aristotle writes of the breaking up of friendship, most commonly when a friendship is based either on utility or pleasure, or when someone misrepresents themselves. Aristotle also finds friends treat each other like they may themselves; the virtuous people who wish only good for their friends are the better friends; those who are not virtuous and who are, for example, jealous, do not make good friends. Aristotle then distinguishes between true friends and superficial friends (who may well have their place so long as one is aware of it).
Book X
In the final book Aristotle returns to the concept of pleasure, arguing that some things are good whilst not necessarily being pleasurable or indeed not pleasurable. Pleasure is a necessary part of life, but the goodness of a life is measured by virtue, which leads to a higher pleasure. One may lead a pleasurable life but ultimately not a good one. Contemplation is one of the highest activities a human being can partake in, and this must be remembered and adhered to in order to live a good life. As people may not be (in fact probably aren't) naturally virtuous, one must strive towards it and be guided either by one's parents, one's peers, or indeed the state. He then turns to politics, arguing that in fact politicians are ill-equipped to discuss it. Aristotle will continue this train in his next book, Politics (Πολιτικά).

That was a difficult book indeed but, somehow, enjoyable despite knowing I have but the tenuous grasp of it. Nevertheless I'm very much looking forward to reading Politics, and may even start it tomorrow. I do feel like I've moved forward a little with Aristotle and one thing I've taken from it is the importance of temperance: today the political system encourages an excess - capitalism, and I'll be very interested to see what Aristotle has to say and perhaps attempt to apply it to our modern world.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Oedipus by Seneca.

One of my favourite things about reading Seneca is that in doing so I revisit or am reminded at least of some of the great Greek plays of the 5th Century B.C. Thyestes recalled Aeschylus' Orestia, and Phaedra Euripides' Hippolytus, and this week Oedipus is a return to Sophocles' Theban Plays: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. I can't honestly say that I prefer Seneca to any of these greats, but still I do very much enjoy these plays not just for the reminder of the olds, but simply for the plays themselves. 

Oedipus, as I say, is a re-telling of Sophocles' Theban Plays, focusing on Oedipus Rex. It begins with a lengthy monologue by Oedipus, full of dark portents and omens:
The night is at an end; but dimply yet
The Lord Sun shows his face - a dull glow rising
Out of a dusky cloud. It is a torch
Of evil omen, this pale fire he brings
With which to scan our plague-polluted homes...
He goes on to describe how all is not well in Thebes, and how he came to be in Thebes; how he "escaped from the domain / Of Polybus my father, free in exile...". He recalls a prophecy from Apollo that he would kill his father and marry his mother, and in leaving Polybus' kingdom of Corinth he avoided this fate. But Thebes is suffering, apparently from the wrath of the gods, and he wonders if it wouldn't be best if he returned to Corinth. His wife Jocasta however persuades him to remain - 
... I believe a king
Should grasp misfortune with a steady hand;
The more unsure his state, more imminent
His fall from sovereignty, so much the more
Should he be resolute to stand upright.
He is no man who turns his back on fate.
And so he remains, and they learn from Creon, Jocasta's brother, that in order for Thebes to recover they must avenge the death of the former king Laius. The prophet Tiresias summons Laius' spirit to name the killer, and, as Creon reluctantly reveals, his killer was in fact Oedipus. Creon describes Laius having been summoned:
... How can I tell you - how forlorn he looked
As he stood there, blood streaming down his limbs,
His hair disordered and begrimed. He spoke,
As one deranged, and this is what he said:
'O you wild women of the house of Cadmus,
Lusting for kindred blood, go shake the thyrsus,
But in your orgies let it be your sons
You mutilate; away with mother-love.
It is the cardinal sin of Thebes. O Thebes,
By sin, not by the anger of the gods,
You are destroyed. Your plague has not been borught
By the dry breath of the rain-thirsty earth,
Nor by the south wind's scourge; but by a king
With blood upon his hands, who claimed a throne
As his reward for murder and defiled
His father's marriage-bed: unnatural son,
And yet more infamous a father he,
Who by incestuous rape did violate
The womb which gave him birth, against all law -
A thing scarce any animal will do -
Begat from his own mother sons of shame,
Children to be his brothers! Vile confusion,
Monstrous complexity of sin, more subtle
Than that shrewd Sphinx he boasts of. Murderer!
Oedipus however does not believe Creon, and suspecting a plot to oust him, has him arrested, despite a memory of killing a man on his way from Corinth to Thebes. He then learns that Polybus is dead and that he should return to Corinth to claim the throne, but he refuses, still in fear that he would marry his mother. The messenger, a shepherd, then tells him the queen was not in fact his mother: his mother is in fact his wife Jocasta. In his torment, deciding suicide is not bad enough for him, he blinds himself. Jocasta, horrified, commits suicide.

Seneca's play is far darker than Sophocles' and a great deal more violent. I've read that this is considered the weaker of Seneca's plays, but it is so very forceful, and has the bleak, bloody atmosphere of Aeschylus (who I've so far considered the absolute master of atmosphere) and Shakespeare. It is a great story, and some of the speeches in this are outstanding. I very recommend this, it's not weak in the slightest!

And that was my 32nd title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall by Thomas Hardy.

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