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Three projects this year and here is my list of authors I hope to get through (only the highlights)
the mirror of modeste
Fidele and Fortunio
The Arraignement of Paris
Battle of Alcazar
The troublesome reign of King John
Famous chronicle of king Edward I
The Spanish tragedy
Dido Queen of Carthage
The Jew of malta
The anatomy of Absurdity
An almond for a Parrat
The Comedy Of Errors
And so my project for the year is to get to the date of 1590 which was probably the date when Shakespeare wrote his first plays.
Unread Books From My Shelf (all authors with surnames starting with B) and so:
Simone de Beauvoir
A S Byatt
Iain M Banks
Professor Jonathan Smith has a blog where he analyses each of the 108 sonnets in Sidney’s collection of poems and in his introduction he compares them to Shakespeare’s sonnets.
“I like to say that a great sonnet is a small piece of art of great value, but available to anyone to own. Shakespeare might have more of his sonnets hanging in the Louvre or the Hermitage, but any collector would be proud to have a Sidney in her own collection.”
Sir Philip Sidney died at the age of 32 after wounds received in a skirmish at Zutphen (on the continent) in 1586. He had written his sonnet and song collection probably between 1581- 84 but they were not published during his lifetime, however they would have been read by a select group of admirers in manuscript form. Sidney was a courtier to queen Elizabeth I, member of Parliament, scholar, soldier and related to the Earl of Leicester who was a leading member of the protestant group at Court. All of his literary works were published after his death and it is these that have carried his fame through to current times as he had a fairly chequered career at Court, because Elizabeth kept the young man at arms length, perhaps suspicious of his connections in Europe.
A sonnet derived from an Italian word meaning little poem is recognised as having fourteen lines that follow a strict rhyming scheme and a specific structure. In Elizabethan times sonnets were typically poems of love based on the Italian writer Petrarchs (14th century) collection of songs and sonnets dedicated to his would be lover Laura. The English sonnet had been developed a couple of centuries later by Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey and in Sidney’s day were featured in collections by George Gascoigne and Thomas Watson, they became known as the poems of unrequited love. Sidney is now recognised among the great triumvirate of Elizabethan sonneteers, the others being Spenser and Shakespeare.
The object of Sidney’s passion is Stella and Astrophil is her star-lover. Sidney’s poems of unrequited love are based to some extent on personal experience. Stella has been identified as Penelope Devereux who Sidney first met in 1575 when she was fourteen years old. Sidney’s family had drawn up a contract of marriage for Sidney and Penelope, but unfortunately Penelope’s father died before the contract was signed and Penelope was contracted against her will to Lord Rich. There is little if anything specific in the poems (apart from some word play on Lord Rich’s name) to link them to Sidney’s love affair with Penelope, however knowing the history provides the reader with an interest in deciding how much of this comes straight from the heart of the poet. This is always tricky because of the formulaic nature of much courtier love poetry and Sidney’s poems do follow in that tradition; for example the life and death pains suffered by the male speaker/poet and the elevation of the lady into some kind of goddess.
Sonnet number 1
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she (dear she) might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know;
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain;
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburnt brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”
In the very first sonnet Sidney addresses these issues. The first line states he is writing poems of his true love in verse and emphasises this point in the last line. He says that ‘oft turning other’s leaves’ is not good enough he is looking for ‘Invention’. It is for the reader to decide (if he/she wishes) how successful Sidney has been.
In my opinion Sidney does take his sonnet collection to another level from those that had preceded him. For a start most of the poems read well, there is very little awkwardness and when there is, it is usually for poetic effect. His poems are well structured with rhyming schemes that work well and with variations from the Italian formula that points to a more particular English sonnet style. He stresses in his first sonnet that Invention is key to his poetry making and while he does not always stray too far away from traditional courtier love poetry his poems have a level of invention that makes them consistently interesting. I read through these 108 sonnets always looking forward to reading the next one.
The sonnets seem to fit together, they seem to describe an actual love affair, however one sided it might be. We have to wait until sonnet 73 when he steals a kiss while Stella is asleep and this is possibly for the speaker the high point of the affair. It is sonnet 82 where he tries to have the last word on that stolen kiss, but now the writing is on the wall and Stella has become angry with him and it is a short step for her not wishing, or being prevented from seeing him again. Throughout the collection there is an ongoing debate about reason versus passion as the speaker struggles to contain himself. There are poems that personify certain feelings or sins, there are poems of serious reflection and there are poems based around small incidents. There are many poems about the beauty of Stella particularly the power emanating from her eyes. Much of this ground was covered in Petrarch’s Laura sonnets, but Sidney finds different, perhaps better, perhaps less artificial ways of dealing with themes that had become cliché.
There are many poems that can stand alone outside of the collection for example sonnet 78 that takes jealousy as its subject; warning in the final line that the beast of jealousy can lead the sufferer into wearing the horns of a cuckold.
O how the pleasant airs of true love be
Infected by those vapours which arise
From out that noisome gulf, which gaping lies
Between the jaws of hellish jealousy:
A monster, others’ harm, self-misery,
Beauty’s plague, virtue’s scourge, succour of lies;
Who his own joy to his own hurt applies,
And only cherish doth with injury;
Who since he hath, by nature’s special grace,
So piercing paws as spoil when they embrace,
So nimble feet, as stir still, though on thorns;
So many eyes aye seeking their own woe,
So ample ears, as never good news know:
Is it not ill that such a devil wants horns?
Astrophil and Stella has been one of the high points of my reading in Tudor literature. I suppose readers unaware of the cultural differences and not used to reading poetry might find many of these poems artificial and/or difficult, but for me they were a five star read.
I love his final line in this lovely first sonnet. I'm grateful for your introduction.
>2 baswood: Looks as though you can’t go far wrong with those “writers beginning with B”!
Looking forward to having a proper look at what you say about Sidney and sonnets when I’m back on a big screen. Petrarch is moving steadily up my to-do list. (BTW: don’t let Sidney’s bad experience put you off Zutphen!)
Leicester’s Commonwealth is a scurrilous attack on Robert Dudley Earl of Leicestershire and favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. It was printed anonymously in France and found its way into Tudor England in large quantities, vigorous attempts were made to squash its promulgation and attempts were made to smoke out the authors and printers, but these were unsuccessful at the time. The book purported to tell the inside story (the black legend) of the Earl of Leicester and was taken as a valid source by historians and fictionalists: Sir Walter Scott did much to further the view that Leicester was a thoroughly bad lot. D C Peck’s edition of the Commonwealth puts the whole thing in context with an excellent introduction, extensive notes and summary of the latest historical research as at 1985 when his edition was printed.
The letter itself takes the form of a secret conversation between a Scholar and a Lawyer witnessed and written up by a Master of Art of Cambridge. The conversation starts innocently enough as the topic for discussion is the definition of a traitor, it is clear that the scholar is a protestant and his friend the lawyer is a catholic. They seem to agree that catholics in a protestant country could strictly be defined as traitors, but would not be traitors under law until they took action against the state in the name of their own religion. Many examples in Europe are given of protestants living peacefully in catholic countries and vice versa. The conversation then moves to consider the actions of the Earl of Leicester and very soon turns into a detailed indictment of the treachery and crimes he has committed, while serving as a courtier and close advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. The crimes mount and it feels like once they have started on the subject of the Earl then common sense seems to fly out the window it becomes a little hysterical. He is accused of murder, lechery, bigamy, rape, corruption, atheism and really anything else that they can think of. They conclude that he is the most powerful man in England and effectively runs the country for his own financial gain effectively making it Leicester’s commonwealth. They give as evidence many examples of his actions: the murders he has committed, the women he has spoiled. the extortions and corruption that constitute his working methods. They then turn to discuss his traitorous family and the history of the Dudleys.
The conversation calms down when they consider the huge issue of the succession to Elizabeth I. There is a history lesson of who has a claim to the throne and these are discussed in some detail, with agreement that King James of Scotland would make the best candidate. However they cannot stop talking about Leicester and the final part of the letter reiterates the crimes and the ambitions of the Earl:
He Killed his first wife Amy Robsart so that he could marry the queen
He killed the Earl of Sussex after an affair with his wife.
He committed bigamy with Lady Sheffield
He was responsible for the Drayton Basset riot where men were killed.
Peck’s view is that the Commonwealth was written by catholics in exile in France and that there were several contributors, this would account for the unevenness of the text. The allegations against Leicester can certainly not be proved, but that does not mean that they are entirely false. It is clear that Leicester was the queens favourite for a long time and as such wielded tremendous power at Court. He was a proud man and was a forceful enemy to the rival factions at court and it was easy to see why the attacks against him became personal. Peck says that the information in the Commonwealth cannot be relied upon for the facts of the case but they are a reliable guide to the “gossip’ of the time.
The Commonwealth is generally well written and there is some intentional humour, there are some parts that are not so interesting, but generally the text is a lively window into what was being talked about outside of the Queens court, something like a modern scandal sheet journal. Libellous it certainly was and dangerous for the authors and printers, well worth a read (its free on the internet) for readers interested in the Tudors. For me it was a four star read.
The Temple of Nature, or the Origin of Society
Erasmus Darwin was an English Physician, natural philosopher, physiologist, inventor and slave-trade abolitionist; he died in 1802 and his long poem The Temple of Nature was published after his death. He was the grandfather of Charles Darwin and had enjoyed popular success with The Botanic Garden another long poem published in 1791. According to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction he is now considered an important figure in the genre of proto Science fiction because of his theories on evolution.
The book is described as a poem, with philosophical notes, the actual poem consists of nearly a thousand rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter with footnotes explaining or surmising about the scientific theories therein. There are also extensive notes following the poem, but I was far too tired to go into these having read the poem in a single sitting. Darwin’s The Botanic garden had enjoyed critical as well as popular success, but probably The temple of Nature was one poem too many. He had been seen as a forerunner to the romantic poets and there are many passages similar to this in his poem:
"Now young DESIRES, on purple pinions borne,
Mount the warm gales of Manhood's rising morn;
With softer fires through virgin bosoms dart,
Flush the pale cheek, and goad the tender heart.
Ere the weak powers of transient Life decay,
And Heaven's ethereal image melts away;
LOVE with nice touch renews the organic frame,
Forms a young Ens, another and the same;
Gives from his rosy lips the vital breath,
And parries with his hand the shafts of death;
While BEAUTY broods with angel wings unfurl'd
O'er nascent life, and saves the sinking world.
However it does sound much too artificial, he was not interested in describing feelings or the inner workings of the mind. His use of the poetic form was to bring attention to his scientific and anthropological theories. His didactic style wears thin and his attempts to intersperse this with classical mythology only serves to produce more footnotes for the confused reader. Darwin says in his introduction that his poem is not meant to instruct its aim is simply to amuse by bringing distinctly to the imagination, the beautiful and sublime images of the operations of nature. It is his theories on the operation of nature that are of interest because he tells us that life began beneath the sea, with atoms and chemical reactions producing cellular creatures that evolved into the life forms that we see today. He must have realised that these ideas on evolution might be rejected by the religious community because he kind of shoe horns in the Adam and Eve story from the bible.
The poem might be interesting for readers who are researching into early ideas on evolution, or for those that like the “romantic” language of Darwin’s rhyming couplets. Apart from a few arresting passages, I was glad to be finished with it and so 2.5 stars.
After just having read Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella; a collection of love poetry written by a courtier to Queen Elizabeth, with its carefully chosen imagery and language that would appeal to the higher echelons of society, it was like taking a cold shower to read Scots book, which delves into the underbelly of Tudor England. Scots book was certainly not aimed at common people many of whom could not read, but it was aimed at the class of people that would have dealings with them, either professionally or through religion.
Reginald Scot published his discoverie of witchcraft in 1584. It was a book that purported to be against the practice of witches, but comes perilously close to being a textbook of witch-craft. Cornelius Agrippa had published his Occult Philosophy: Natural Magic some fifty years earlier, in which he had written details of arcane practices that he thought provided clues to the mysteries of life. Reginald Scot writes in similar detail with many additions from other works, but says that these are fables, old wives tales or complete rubbish written to influence gullible people. Scot was writing at the start of a phase of renewed persecutions against witches or wise women and it is clear in his view that the renewed drive against poor, simple, mostly elderly women was a campaign against some of the most vulnerable people in society.
Scot claims that his book is written to celebrate the glory and power of God, because all of the wonderful, dangerous, magical powers that witches are claimed to posses could not possibly exist because such powers can only be used and known by God. The power of God as detailed in the bible is the only supernatural power there is and it does not need the foolish ‘trumperie’ of magical charms, spells, and other paraphernalia that is associated with witches. Scot was a protestant reformer and he delights in equating the practices of witchcraft with the practices of the catholic church. He sees no difference between the two and goes on to say that the catholic church’s use of relics, and the mysticism of its services is similar to witchcraft in that it relies on the ignorance and naivety of people for its success.
The majority of Scots book is a recycling of, or translations from other sources. Particularly Jean Bodin’s Daemonomania and Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Springer; he also uses many stories and examples from the Bible as well as classical literature. His method of working is to transcribe these items in some detail and then to dismiss them as nonsense or absurd or attempts to usurp the power of God. There are 26 volumes amounting to over 600 pages of modern text for those people who like to dwell in such matters, most of the time I skimmed, looking for relevance to life in Tudor England. Scot only gives a few examples of witchcraft practised in England, but there are more examples of stories from the continent.
The book covers: the power of witches; spells, transformations, charms, with a section that warns readers who are loathe to read bawdy or filthy stories to skip over that part. It covers the Cabala and the power words used by the Jews, it covers miracles and oracles, alchemy, conjuration, powers of the angels devils and spirits, and a long section on magic tricks and how they work. It ends with a strong refutation of most of what has gone before.
I suppose because the book is full of superstitions, of knavery, sharp practices and spiritualistic manifestations and it was extremely popular in Tudor England is comment enough on the society at that time. King James later ordered copies of the book to be burnt, but that was because of its fierce anti-catholic stance and his own belief that witchcraft was a problem in early seventeenth century England. A book to dip into perhaps, but most of it sounds preposterous to me and I think it will for the majority of readers today 2.5 stars.
>2 baswood: Those Bs make a wonderful collection. Do you start browsing in book stores at letter A? I did this for a while and soon realized I rarely made it beyond C before my budget ran out, so now I randomly choose a starting letter.
>10 baswood: Leicester continues to fascinate so many people on so many levels. Scott may not have had him right, but Kenilworth was certainly fun.
>21 baswood: This sounds like a dangerous book to have owned in its time.
I have still one book to read from the A list and that is A history of God by Karen Armstrong. This is not a book that I would have browsed in a bookshop, any mention of the God word in the title usually makes me pass over fairly quickly. The Karen Armstrong book was thrust into my hands by someone at our final book club meeting with the dreaded command "you must read this"
>23 baswood: this is fun history. And nice of Scott to highlight the bawdy parts. I love that he uses the power and glory of god to reveal all this trickery is not supernatural, making it essentially a logical circle going nowhere. But it seems he had the right idea about the nature of witches.
>24 valkyrdeath: interesting about its reputation in magic.
A History of God by Karen Armstrong
‘Human beings cannot endure emptiness and desolation: they will fill the vacuum by creating a new focus of meaning. The idols of fundamentalism are not good substitutes for God; if we are to create a vibrant new faith for the twenty-first century, we should, perhaps, ponder the history of God for somer lessons and warnings’
And so ends Karen Armstrong’s A History of God; the final chapter was entitled ‘Has God a future’ and for believers in God this will not sound a very optimistic note. A.N Wilson has been quoted as saying that this book is the most fascinating and learned survey of the biggest wild-goose chase in history - the quest for God. The History of God according to Armstrong seems to have been an attempt to know the unknowable.
Before her final two chapters which are both questions (The Death of God? and Has God a Future?) Armstrong takes the reader through the history of three monotheist religions; Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, she does this in some detail concerning herself with the history of religious thought, the sacred texts as they were received and the prominent men (nearly all men) who were the prophets, scholars and writers. Judaism being the oldest religion is given precedence in the early part of the book, but it gives the reader the background for christianity and then Islam. I found this early history interesting, but perhaps with too much detail, it took the emergence of Islam for the book to grab my intention. The history of the three religions is then brought up to date with chapters on philosophical thought, mysticism, attempts at reform and then finally the enlightenment.
The book has a glossary, notes, suggestions for further reading and a pretty good index and so it could make a decent reference book and I will keep it on my bookshelf to serve this purpose. All in all a bit too much history for me to enjoy the book as a read through experience, but it was the next book on my shelf to read. 3.5 stars.
Fidele and Fortunio by Anthony Munday
Three Ladies of London - Anonymous.
Two plays from 1584/5 which Shakespeare might have seen when he first came to London in the mid 1580’s. Fidele and Fortunio as presented by Munday looks forward to the great drama that was to come at the end of the 16th century while Three ladies of London looks back towards an earlier era of morality plays. Both plays were popular enough to go into print and both have survived through the intervening centuries. I read them back to back on a misty, rainy afternoon in the French winter countryside and they lightened the gloom.
Anthony Munday (1560-1633) had a long career as a playwright, novelist, translator, entertainments for Lord Mayors shows, pamphleteer and spy. He was a man who seemed to have lived by his pen in what could be described as the popular media. He could certainly put words together and over 200 works have been attributed to him, but critical opinion says he was no poet. Fidele and Fortunato was registered in 1585 and described as a translation, which is probably why it has been attributed solely to Munday at a time when many plays for the London playhouses were collaborations. Munday’s play was more like a construction or interpretation from ‘Il Fedele’ which was an Italian Renaissance comedy by the Venetian playwright Pasqualigo.
For the London Stage Munday made some significant alterations. He excluded many of the minor characters adapting the plot to fit the reduced number of players. He removed much of the misogyny which was a feature of Italian comedy at the time and developed the characters a little better, while maintaining the touch of a light frothy comedy. The skeleton of the plot remains close to the original with its intrigues, star crossed lovers, magic charms, disguises and misunderstandings and it is set in Italy. It also has a standard funny character in the blustering, self important, but ultimately stupid Captain Crackstone. The play starts with the sad faced Fidele returning from the wars wanting to marry the woman he loves Victoria, however Fortunio has also fallen in love and in Fidele’s absence has been wooing Victoria for himself. Fortunio fearing Fidele’s return enlists the help of Captain Crackstone, but Crackstone hatches a plot to discredit Victoria with Fidele and Fortunio so that he can have her for himself. Victoria loves Fortunio and she hires the sorceress Medusa to use her magic, meanwhile Fidele asks his old schoolmaster Pedante for his help and he promptly falls in love with Victoria’s maid. Fortunio is fooled by Pedante in disguise and turns his attentions to Virginia who is in love with Fidele. The climax of the play is when Crackstone overplays his hand and ends up caught in a net by the city guards while he is disguised as Pedante. It all ends happily with the lovers getting the partners of their choosing.
The action has been speeded up from the original by Munday and there is hardly a dull moment with some witty dialogue and asides to the audience.
This is one of Crackstones asides to the audience when he is disguised as Pedante the schoolmaster; it is amusing as well as serving to move the plot along:
Softe, for it is night, I must not make any noyse I trowe:
Me thinks this apparell makes me learnd,
which of all these Starres doo I knowe.
Yonder is the gréen Dog, and the blew Beare,
Harry Horners Girdle, and the Lyons eare.Me thinkes I should spowt Lattin before I beware,
Argus mecum insputare?
Cur Canis tollit poplitem,
Cum mingit in parietem?
Alice tittle tattle Mistres Victoriaes Maid:
If I speake like the Schoolmaister, shée will neuer be afraid.
As soon as she opens the doore to let mée in:
With my Ropericall aliquanci I will begin.
Swinum, Velum, Porcum. Graye-goosorum iostibus:
Enter Fede¦le and Pe∣dante.
Rentibus dentibus, lofadishibus, come after vs.
I haue berayed my selfe I think with speaking so high:
This is Sir Fedele that is so nigh.
Till he be past it were not good for mée to appéere:
Therfore Ile slip into the Temple, and hide me in the Tombe that standeth héere.
Of course the scene ends with Crackstone rising from the tomb in which he has been hiding and frightening everyone to death.
The Three ladies was entered into the registry by author unknown in 1585 and it has the trappings of a morality play, while ignoring any religious connotations. The three ladies in question are. Fame, Love and Conscience and they are all in pursuit of Lucre. The characters of Dissimilation and Simplicity do battle with Fraud and Userie. Mercadore an Italian merchant arrives and he speaks in Pidgin English, he attempts to use Fraud and Userie to gain Lucre as do a Lawyer and an Artificier. Hospitality a dry old man appears on the scene and he is promptly murdered by Userie and so it goes on……….. The plot is threadbare to say the least and serves to highlight the dangers of Fraud, Userie and the pursuit of Lucre, There are no real characters and while some of the dialogue is fairly well written and probably was written to amuse as well as instruct the audience, it feels heavy and leaden beside Fidele and Fortunio.
The two plays serve to show the variety and development of drama in late Tudor England and paved the way for the explosion of talented playwrights who were just round the corner. While reading the plays it is interesting to imagine them being performed on stage and while Fidele and Fortunio would provide some entertainment, I cannot see how Three Ladies of London would be made to work and so I rate Fidele and Fortunio as 3 stars and Three Ladies of London as 2 stars.
The Other Side of the Sun, Paul Capon
British Science fiction from the 1950’s; The other side of the sun was published in 1950 and was the first part of Capon’s Antigeos trilogy. The Golden age of science fiction perhaps, but in Capon’s hands it had not developed much beyond the stories of H G Wells some 50 years earlier. The discovery of a new planet on the same orbit as the earth around the sun, but largely hidden from the earth by the sun causes a sensation in the press. A space ship (rocket) is built in England and six people travel to the new planet named Antigeos. The crew are two scientists, an engineer and two passengers who have paid for their passage by donating funds for the expedition. The scientist daughter smuggles herself aboard with the help of one of the passengers and a romance develops. The spaceship lands on Antigeos which is populated by human-like creatures who have developed a more innocent, utopian-like society.
This is story telling that would certainly have appealed to me as a young teenager and I quite enjoyed it today, revelling in its innocence and sense of 1950’s unsophisticatedness. The depiction of 1950’s England feels nostalgic and uncomplicated and the journey to Antigeos is made without too much of a problem. The discovery of a new world and a different society is handled with a charming simplicity. there are tensions, but these are easily overcome and the sense of wonder keeps the pages turning. The story avoids the misogyny of much of the genre and skirts around any violent complications. A three star read.
The forgotten years according to John Guy are from 1584 until the Tudor Queen’s death in 1603. He claims that during these years Elizabeth’s reputation as Good Queen Bess was cemented by the opinion makers, after all she repelled the Spanish Armadas and kept England at peace during this period. Guy says he wants to get closer to the truth about the ageing Elizabeth and so makes his book both a history and a character study of the Queen. He puts some popular beliefs to bed, especially those promulgated by the Tudor propagandists and their Victorian followers by looking more closely at Elizabeth’s letters and other original documents from the period: some of which have come to light only in more recent times. Elizabeth emerges as an avaricious, spiteful, proud, vain, autocratic woman who only thought of the welfare of her country in conjunction with her own prosperity, but of course she was hardly any different from the men and women who surrounded her at court. She overcame her personal vulnerability and fear to rule very much as she saw fit and compared with her predecessors Queen Mary and Henry VIII, then she was certainly no worse then them. She ruled for 44 years in a man’s world keeping her country united and free from invasions, which was an achievement in itself and despite not having an heir to the throne, anarchy and civil war were avoided at her death.
Guy writes his history largely chronologically after having provided a brief introduction to the early part of Elizabeth’s reign. His writing style although rich in detail would appeal to the more casual reader; his explanations are clear and he provides additional detail where necessary and his use of letters and other personal documents provide the reader with a chance to see more rounded characters. Not only does he leave us with a vivid impression of the elderly queen, but also Robert Devereux the earl of Essex, William Cecil, and Francis Walsingham emerge from the shadows. He is able to give his readers an impression of how Elizabeth ran her government with some idea of the day to day workings of her court.
Although this is mainly a political/biographical history, there are snapshots of social conditions as they affected the politics for example the soldiers returning to England from the continent, who Elizabeth refused to pay; they formed gangs and social disturbances that needed to be controlled to prevent insurrections. There is also references to the theatres of London none more so than when players and playmakers at the Globe theatre were suspected of aiding and abetting the Earl of Essex when he challenged Elizabeth and her government (Essex was executed for treason).
In my opinion this is a lively and good historical account of the last Tudor government and its ageing Queen and it leaves me with the impression that I probably do not need to read another one and so a four star book.
The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker
“The epicritic grounded in the protopathic, the ultimate expression of the unity we persist in regarding as the condition of perfect health”
This is what Dr W.H.R Rivers (or perhaps Pat Barker) thinks as he struggles to help soldiers suffering from the effects of war in the trenches during the first world war. For a book that has a psychologist, neurologist, psychiatrist as its hero Barker does well in explaining the issues without the use of too much jargon and that is possibly why the extract above stood out from the text for me, because it is unrepresentative.
Barkers “The Eye in the Door” is an historical novel detailing the treatment of mentally wounded soldiers by Dr Rivers; one of whose tasks is to decide whether they are fit to return to active service. The time period is towards the end of the war when mental health issues were becoming more prevalent although little understood by many in the medical profession. While Doctor Rivers’ star patient Siegfried Sassoon is well documented the two major protagonist/patients; Billy Prior and Charles Manning are inventions by the author. The backdrop to the story are two major events of the period; an attempt to assassinate Lloyd George and the sensationalist headlines concerning a list of 47,000 people who because of their beliefs, race or sexual orientation were branded as undermining the British war effort. Prior and Manning’s invented stories interweave around the historical events in a way that is thoroughly convincing. In fact Barker’s depiction of an England that is suspicious, bureaucratic, nasty, class ridden, but jingoistic and fully committed to winning the war is distinctly plausible. It is a place where spies, intelligence and counter intelligence can destroy lives both innocent or guilty or more usually because they are seen to be different. Nasty grubby little people can flourish while across the channel the horrors of war still seem to be far enough away. Barker talks about bombing raids over London as though they were usual, but I think they were few and far between, it is the wounded soldiers and those home on leave that bring the war to England’s shores.
The novel is anti-war in so far as it describes in striking detail and imagery the horrors of trench warfare, but this contrasts with life in England where it is only citizens actions and thoughts about themselves and one another that cause problems. Soldiers experiencing a life at war as part of the war machine and then life at home amongst people who have no experience of the horrors, find themselves in two worlds and so it is unsurprising that people like Dr Rivers have to try put people back together again. It is a subject that provides fertile ground for novelists, but at the end of the day I am not convinced by ‘The Eye in the Door’. First of all it is all over far too quickly, Barker could have explored her characters further. I understand that those people who are well documented as part of the history of the times present limitations for the author, but even Manning and Prior her own characters hardly leap off the page and Dr Rivers is almost a cypher. Secondly I find her writing style curiously flat, I found there was nothing much on which to dwell and I ended up reading through it too quickly. There does not seem to be much of a plot, nothing appears resolved and I finished the book much as I started. These observations are personal to me as other readers might enjoy Barker’s writing style and as it is part of a trilogy of books then issues might feel more resolved in the final book. I have the third part of the trilogy sitting on my shelf waiting to be read, but I can’t say I am really looking forward to it and so a niggardly three stars from me.
John Lyly - Campaspe, Sappho and Phao
Two plays published in 1584 and both performed at Whitehall in the presence of Queen Elizabeth I. Campaspe was reprinted in 1591, but there are no records of any other performances at this time. The plays have rarely been performed since, although very recently 2017 and 2018 there were productions of Sappho and Phao. It is not difficult to see why they have remained relatively obscure, because there is very little narrative drama, hardly any action and their merits are the intricate word play of Lyly and their topicality to courtiers of Elizabeth I. The plays although performed at Blackfriars theatre as well as at Whitehall were designed and written for Elizabeth’s court and they have not travelled very well since then. In my opinion there is as much pleasure to be had from reading the text as to seeing a production on stage (if you were able to find one).
These are Lyly’s first two plays and both are original plays which have been developed from classical sources. They are written in prose form with a few songs interspersed. There are very few props needed perhaps a barrel on the stage for Campaspe and a bed for Sappho and Phao, they could be performed on a flat open space with a couple of spaces for entrances and exits. The players in Tudor times were boy actors and the audience would be seated around a rectangular hall perhaps on raised benches. Elizabeth I would have pride of place probably on a raised throne in front of the acting space. The plays were designed to appeal to a sophisticated courtly audience with a knowledge of classical literature, rhetoric and a veneration for humanistic ideals. In his prologue to a performance at Blackfriars Lyly makes it clear that his plays were not anything like the Italian renaissance comedies that were adapted by playwrights like Anthony Munday:
“Our intent was at this time to move inward delight, not outward lightness, and to breed (if it might be) soft smiling, not loud laughing knowing it to the wise to be as great pleasure to hear counsel mixed with wit as to the foolish to have sport mingled with rudeness. They were banished the theatre at Athens, and from Rome hissed, that brought parasites on the stage with apish actions, or fools with uncivil habits, or courtesans with immodist words. We have endeavoured to be as far from unseemly speeches to make your ears glow as we hope you will be from unkind reports to make our cheeks blush”
The inspiration for Campaspe comes from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. The play opens with prisoners from the war with Thebes being presented to Alexander and two in particular the noble woman Timoclea and the lowly born but beautiful Campaspe are singled out for protection by Alexander. He falls in love with Campaspe and takes her to Apelles the most renowned painter of his generation to have a portrait made. Apelles falls in love with Campaspe and she in love with him and the issue for them both is what action Alexander will take if they dare to confess their love. Meanwhile Alexander is preparing to march into Persia in his bid to conquer the world. Alexander consults with some leading philosophers including Plato and Aristotle and the stoic Diogenes who lives in a barrel and has no respect for a soldier like Alexander. The topics of the play are of course love, particularly between high born and low born characters, morality, kingship, mercy and magnanimity and freedom. Lyly explores these ideas in his own inimitable way from many sides, sometimes in the same sentence, but his central idea is a comparison of Alexander the Great with Queen Elizabeth I.
The source for Sappho and Phao is Ovid’s Heroides, but Lily changes things around; Sappho is a queen (not a poetess) and Phao is a ferryman. The Goddess Venus makes Phao into the most desirable of men and with Cupid’s help she makes Sappho fall in love with him. Phao turns to Sibylla for advice and she warns him against being too proud. However Phao is so magnificent that Venus herself falls in love with him and she has to turn to her old lover Vulcan to make new arrows of disdain for Cupid to fire into Sappho and herself to jolt them out of love for Phao. There is also a cast of courtiers and servants to Sappho to discuss and debate issues similar to those of Campaspe. Themes concerning the behaviour of courtiers and court verses university are explored, however in this play Elizabeth I is more readily identified with Sappho and the major topic of the play is the struggle between carnal love and the need to maintain virtue. In Elizabeth’s case she was still considering the possibility of a marriage. In this play the affects of love on the central characters is explored by Lily by some witty and poignant dialogue. In both plays there are no subplots other characters are used to focus on the issues surrounding the love affairs.
Both these plays could be described as comedies (there is certainly no hint of tragedy) and they can be enjoyed as such because of the wit and word-play of John Lyly. Word-play in Lyly is highly antithetical and it gives his characters in these two plays the opportunity to explore the inherent contradictions in the human condition. His wit can certainly raise a smile and his similes and imagery can be both clever and arresting, if sometimes they need a bit of work to understand them. Of course there are double sometimes triple entendres but they are mostly subtle and need some imagination from the reader. Both plays were written to cover topical issues and so a knowledge of issues facing the Tudors is an advantage.
I read the plays in the Revels Plays series and these two had lengthy introductions by G K Hunter and David Bevington and although they date from 1988 I cannot think that they could be bettered; essential reading before launching into the text itself. There are copious notes on the same page as the text as well as a glossarial Index to the commentary. These plays will probably not make you want to rush to the theatre to see a performance, but I would not mind attending a read through, as unlikely as that might be. This whole package of Lyly’s two earliest plays I would rate as 4 stars.
Iain M Banks - Consider Phlebus
Its an Iain M Banks novel rather than an Iain Banks novel and so it is one of his science fiction novels. In fact it was his first published science fiction novel dating from 1987 and the first in his Culture series. It is in the sub genre of Space Opera in that the whole galaxy is background to the story of Bora Horza Gobuchul. Far in the future the humanoids of the Culture are at war with the Idirans described as three-strides-tall-monsters. The Culture have developed machinery/robotics that allows their humanoids to enjoy a more hedonistic lifestyle while the Idirans with their god fearing culture are intent on dominating the galaxy. Bora is an agent of the Idirans because he prefers the God folk monsters rather than the machine dominated lifeless Culture. The novel opens with Bora a prisoner of the Gerontics who are part of the Cultures sphere of influence. Bora is a changer in that over a period of time he can adapt to resemble a humanoid which makes him an excellent assassin. He escapes from the Gerontics and embarks on a series of adventures around the galaxy as an agent of the Indirans.
The novel is loosely held together with Bora’s quest to locate a Mind; an advanced piece of robotic machinery developed by the Culture which has escaped from a battle with the Idirans and is hiding in a tunnel network on one of the dead planets Schar’s world. Bora manages to infiltrate a gang of mercenaries and the second half of the novel takes place in the claustrophobic tunnels of Schar’s world where the team and a captured Culture agent do battle with an elite vanguard of Idirans. The tunnel network with decommissioned trains and impossible odds provides an atmospheric backdrop to the climax of the book.
Banks is at his best in this novel when he creates a scenario where he can unleash some fast paced thriller writing against an imaginative background. The gruesome goings on on the island of Fwi-song or the ingenious drug enhanced game of Damage on Vavatch Orbital on the eve of its destruction and finally in the tunnels of Schar’s world, in each of these stories Bora battles his way through the limits of his physical capabilities in his single minded quest to win and survive. However it is Bank’s ability to carry the reader along with his visualisation of his fantasy environments and his portrayal of his characters that are deep enough for them to emerge from the two dimensional. It is adventure rather than hard science and episodic rather than continuous, but it does have that sense of wonder during its best passages that make it an enjoyable science fiction read which I rate at 3.5 stars.
Originally published in instalments in the popular Parisien newspaper (Journal des débats politiques et llttéraires) between September and October 1865 after the more famous Journey to the Centre of the Earth a year earlier. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction claims that Verne was one of the two pre-eminent authors in the field of science fiction in the nineteenth century the other being H G Wells. Verne wrote his From the Earth to the Moon some 36 years before Wells’ First Men in the Moon and easily beats it for scientific facts and figures and while Verne might not have had the literary style of Wells he still paints an effective portrait of America just at the end of the Civil War. It is a portrait laced with satire and while the straightforward plot bears no deviation from its title (not a single female character) it still manages to hugely entertain.
The novel opens with a meeting of the American Gun Club in Baltimore and its members are worried about the future, The war has ended, nobody is using artillery, nobody is ordering guns, arms manufactures are losing money: what can be done. The members explore the possibilities of a new war, of wars in foreign countries, but everyone is at peace; something must be done. Its president Impey Barbicane comes up with an idea that will save the club, they will oversee the production of a massive gun that will fire a shell from the earth to the moon. When he announces the new project he is carried shoulder high around the town as the whole of America is gripped with moon fever. Much of the first part of the novel concerns the logistics of building the canon and disputes over the calculation of distances, range and dimensions. Then a telegram is received from Paris sent by Michel Arden who says he is on his way to America and wants the shape of the bullet changed so that it can be hollowed and they can travel inside to the moon. Arden arrives he is a larger than life character and Verne uses him to satirise the french. Arden we learn is a “breaker of windows” an adventurous, courageous, proud man who has no time for details. His enthusiasm matches the Americans and soon they are in agreement to travel together to the moon.
I read the Livre de Poche edition which features 41 illustrations by Henri de Montaut which captures the text superbly and heightens the satire. The illustration of the inner circle of the gun club shows them all with crutches, wooden appendages, hooks instead of hands and steel plated craniums. The pictures of Michel Arden who towers over the Americans are brilliant and really I found myself lost in the details of these pen and ink drawings. Jules Verne’s parodies of Americans and French make great characters, the English it appears are beneath contempt hardly worth the bother as they pour cold water on the magnificent adventure. Part of the interest in reading science fiction before it was called science fiction is to check off the more accurate predictions of the future and Verne seems to have known enough science to make a reasonable stab. Of interest to me was the devastation caused to the earth and its atmosphere by the firing of the huge gun, this was an unexpected consequence of the gung-ho adventurers. Verne’s mix of science, adventure and humour which sometimes turns black hit the right note for me and I am looking forward to reading more of his ‘Voyages extraordinaires' 4 stars.
...except the Prussians, Austrians, Italians, Danes, and French, all on the verge of fighting each other in 1865. That idea for an opening must have come back to bite him, at the latest in 1870!
I’ve just been reading a passage where Amos Oz compares the new state of Israel to Verne’s L’île mystérieuse. I don’t think I’ve read any actual Verne since I was about 12.
This is a biography of Robert Greene an Elizabethan man of letters published in 1915. The book concentrates on Greene’s written work giving a critical evaluation of the texts with a brief overview of his life and serves as an excellent introduction.
Robert Greene 1558-92 one of the Elizabethan ‘university wits’ earned his living from his writing, one of the early jobbing writers who relied on sales of his books rather than on patronage, there is no record of connections with the Tudor Court. He died in poverty at a young age and is famous amongst Shakespeare scholars for his reference to a young Shakespeare in his ‘Greene’s groats-worth of witte brought with a million repentance’:
. “for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.”
Greene tried his hand at anything that might sell starting off with novels that owed much to John Lyly then moving onto romances. He wrote many framework stories based on ideas from the Italian renaissance, usually with a moral theme and published in pamphlet form. He turned to ‘prodigal son’ stories with a religious bent when he saw a gap in the market and then hit a vein of bestsellers with his social pamphlets such as ‘A noteable discovery of coosenage’ and ‘Conny catching’ these were exposures of confidence tricks used by vagabonds and sturdy beggars. He wrote poetry most of which was secreted in his romantic novels and towards the end of his life he wrote plays , at least four of which survive and ‘Fair Em’ and ‘James IV’ are considered by John Clarke Jordon as successes.
Jordon’s view of Greene is that he is an excellent teller of tales and some of his writing has genuine artistic merit, but much is little better than cheap journalism. He had his finger on the pulse of the market and was always ready to produce something at short notice to make some money. Jordon criticises him for his weakness in providing characters that provide motive for their actions, too much of his narratives rely on the wheel of fortune.
For someone wishing to read works by Greene then Jordon provides a good sift through what is available and what may be worth reading. A good biography of its kind that refuses to delve too deeply into the black side of Greenes character 3.5 stars.
Glad to see another Verne reader. I'm really enjoying going through his lesser known works (while of course exploring the more famous ones). It's always an adventure and just good wholesome fun.
Arbasto; the anatomie of Fortune - Robert Greene
Two books from 1584 and early works by Robert Greene. Mamillia is a full blown novel while Arbasto is described as a romance and is more of a pamphlet than a novel. Mamillia is all style over content, while Arbasto is all content with very little style. Robert Greene earned his living by his pen and these two works show him bending his talents into what were established formats at the time.
Mamillia owes everything to John Lyly’s Euphues; he copies his ornate style of writing with sentences that seem to go on for ever with their extended clauses, that are designed to give a duality to almost every point that is raised, using the sound patterns of the words to highlight the style. Lyly was able to produce sentences that were fascinating and poetic at the same time although they did little for the narrative flow; Greene does not quite have the same success and much of his writing seems laboured in comparison. Here is an example towards the end of the first book (there are two); it describes the thoughts of Pharicles as he wavers over whether to marry Mamillia to whom he has known for some time or Publia who he has recently met:
“ to refuse Mamilia without reason and choose Publia without trial : to receive assurance for uncertainty: to sith for hope, where I might satisfy myself with trust : to venture upon one of whom I have had no proof (but if there is so much) a little trifling love. Well those whelps are ever blind, that dogs beget in haste : he that leaps before he looks may hap to light in a ditch : he that settles his affection with such speed, as he makes his choice without discretion so his hasty choosing may purchase yet a heavy bargain. Truth, he that seekes to restrain love, kicks against the prick: he steps and stream and beats the fire down………………..”
The only thing that happens in the first book is Pharicles courtship of Mamillia and his meeting with Publia at a dinner party, we have to wait for book two for the narrative to get going. The lovers express their feelings to each other by letter and again this epistolary device is copied straight from John Lyly’s novels.
In book 2 Publia rejects Pharicles proposal and on the death of her father joins a convent determined to preserve her virginity. Meanwhile Pharicles leaves his home town of Padua in Italy and travels to Sicily where he becomes a palmist ( beggar) on the streets. He gets bored with this paltry existence and reveals his nobility to the court; he is propositioned by Clarynda a rich woman of easy virtue but when he rejects her she accuses him of being a spy and he is sentenced to death. Mamilia hears of his plight and travels to Sicily to save him.
Mamilia is set in Italy and its protagonists are the Nobility. Arbasto is set in France and tells the story of Arbasto king of Denmark laying waste to most of Pelorus’ kingdom. After the final siege of Orleans Arbasto meets Pelorus daughters Doracilia the youngest and Myrania the eldest. He falls in love with Doracilia, but it is Myrania who fall in love with him. A good narrative story follows as Arbasto seeks to win Doracilia by promising Pelorus that he will leave France, but Doracilia says she hates the Danish invader. Treatises are made and broken but the two sisters remain constant in their liking and loathing of Arbasto.
In both books it is the men who are depicted as false flatterers, the women remain constant and true in their affections and this is a notable turn around to much writing of the time where women were seen as the fickle creatures of love. In the final letter in Mamilia where she writes to her friend Modesta on the subject of love; she denounces that lascivious poet Ovid and goes on to warn her that many male authors denounce the alluring subtleties of women, while being blind to the “fained assault of men’s flattery”. This is Greene making a point I think.
I can only recommend these two books to people interested in sixteenth century novel writing, they will have little to say to the more casual reader and much fortitude will be needed to get through Mamilia.
The Ghost Road - Pat Barker
In many ways The Ghost Road feels like a rewrite of the second book in the trilogy ‘The Eye in the Door’ but Barker has done a better job this time. The first book in the trilogy Regeneration broke new ground with its historical fiction perspective of the story of the two most famous world war one poets sojourn at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh. Here Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen among others were helped to overcome their war neuroses by Dr Rivers talking cure. This concentration on historical figures was augmented in the second novel by the introduction of Billy Prior a fictional character, who also becomes one of Dr River’s patients. The Ghost Road continues with the story of Billy Prior as he is passed fit for service and is sent back to the front line for the final months and days before the end of the war, taking his place in the same regiment as Wilfred Owen who we know was killed in action one week before the armistice was signed.
As the trilogy has evolved Barker’s writing has become less cognitive until in this third book we are presented with a rip roaring story of soldiers trying to survive in the trenches and doctors who are trying to heal impossible mental and physical wounds. There is enough fairly graphic sex to keep readers interested at the expense of theories concerning the efficacy of Dr River’s methods of treatment. Perhaps that is why it was this novel that was selected by the Booker prize panel in 1995. If a dumbing down of the content has taken place (in order to win the Booker prize?) then it has also improved the readability of the novel and by concentrating on more conventional story telling it is my opinion that Barker has written a better novel. It was E M Forster in Aspects of the novel who maintained that authors should concentrate on the story, the people, the plot, pattern and rhythm and in Ghost Road Barker seems to have done just that. Her characters are more fully developed, for the first time we are given a back story of Dr Rivers and his work as an anthropologist on the Torres Straits expedition linking his experiences there with his approaches to treatment of the wounded men of the Great War. Billy Prior is given a more human characterisation with his courtship and engagement to Sarah; a working class girl from the north. The plot of the novel follows the course of one of the final conflicts of the war where Barker’s description of events is both real and enhances her theme of the futility and loss of life. There is pattern and rhythm provided by the different story strands told in alternating sections for example Dr Rivers adventures amongst the headhunters, his work in the hospital, the story of Billy Priors courtship and then his final tour of duty, these strands crescendo nicely to provide an excellent climax to the novel.
Barker also creates the idea of two or perhaps three different worlds existing at the same time for these junior officers caught up in the war. There are the obvious differences of the army and the battlefield and life in England when the soldiers are on leave, but there is also another world, the world of Dr River’s hospital. Barkers comparing and contrasting bring out the themes of her book: the call to duty, the futility of war, sexuality both homo and hetero, class, survival and the destruction of ordinary lives. I read Regeneration a few years ago and have just recently picked up the final two books of the series and while I was fascinated by the first book and its attempts to portray the poet heroes of the war, I found the second book badly balanced and sort of stuck in no mans land, however I thoroughly enjoyed The Ghost Road and so 4.5 stars.
Proto science fiction from 1851. A young man who lives by the Hudson river is left enough money to to take ship to travel on the high seas. A local storm sinks the boat and he is thrown overboard, he surfaces to find a metallic container inhabited by a scientist who persuades him to travel by rocket to the planet Kailoo. Other improbable adventures follow. Adventure stories for a pre-teen audience.
I too remember liking that one more than others did . . . although the series is sort of fading for me as a whole as I read it 10 years ago.
The Arraignment of Paris by George Peele
Performed before queen Elizabeth I in 1584 George Peele’s Arraignment of Paris is very much a play of its time. It was its intention to amuse, entertain and beguile the classically educated audience of courtiers that surrounded the queen. The fact that it reads so well today is in my opinion the result of Peele’s excellent writing in verse and prose and his ability to deliver a play that for the most part the reader can imagine being performed. It has songs, dances, witty repartee and rhetorical arguments that keep on the right side of providing entertainment. If the reader is looking for character development, psychological insights or a dramatic storyline then he will not find it here, but this was not the aim of the author, he was concerned with delighting his audience with this masque like production, he was looking at delivering a spectacle.
George Peele (1556-1596) was one of a number of university educated men making their living primarily by their pen in Elizabethan England. Peele was a translator, poet, songwriter and dramatist and The Arraignment of Paris is his earliest attributed play. Along with other playwrights at the time: Greene, Nashe, and Marlowe he had a reputation for riotous living, but this should not detract from his skill as a wordsmith. The play is a court entertainment: a pastoral that includes mythical Roman Gods; it draws down from the knowledge base of its audience, who would be comfortable with the subject matter. Peele plays with genres here by making the mythological figure of Paris appear in a pastoral setting as a shepherd singer, but first Three Roman goddesses; Pallas representing wisdom, Juno representing majesty and Venus representing love, descend to earth and are welcomed with gifts. Paris and his lover Oenone walk in the pastoral paradise, sit under a tree and tell stories and sing and play together. The three goddesses also tell stories but are interrupted by a strange storm and from a lightning strike a golden apple descends to earth and a note saying that it belongs to the fairest. They each claim the apple but cannot decide who shall have it and so they agree that the next person they meet should be the judge. Enter the shepherd swain Paris; Juno promises Paris riches and a golden tree magically arises, Pallas shows the power of martial arts with a procession of armoured men, but Venus the goddess of love promises Paris success in love and shows him Helen surrounded by four cupids and Helen sings to Paris. Paris gives the golden apple to Venus.
A change of scene in act III but still very much in a pastoral setting, indeed Peele cleverly refers to Edmund Spenser’s Shepherds Calendar published five years earlier by introducing characters from that play: Colin, Hobbinol, Diggon, and Thenot who play and sing about constancy in love. The jilted Oenone appears to sing a lovers complaint and the God Mercury arrives to sing a duet which soon becomes a singing competition; a staple of pastoral poems dating back to Virgil. Mercury says that he will report Paris’ wrongdoing to Jove the father of the gods, meanwhile there is a funeral procession featuring Colin’s hearse. Mercury summons Paris and the goddesses to appear on trial before Jove and Paris with a flash of fore sight says:
“The angry heavens, for this fatal jar
name me the instrument of dire and deadly war”
Paris appears before the Gods and presents his case argued on logical rhetoric. A central theme to the play is the definition and moral validity of beauty and in Paris’ eloquent defence in front of the tribunal he says he should not be blamed because he was bewitched by the beauty of the goddess Venus. It is a well thought out and structured argument and provides a climax to the action of the play. In the second longest speech of the play Apollo’s diplomacy saves the day. Paris is acquitted, but there is still the problem of who should have the golden apple. Jove says that as the apple appeared near to Diana’s bower, she the goddess of chastity should decide. Diana refers to the nymph Eliza and speaks in glowing terms of the rule of Elizabeth of the kingdom of the English. In this final act Peele has high-jacked his own play to turn it into a panegyric to Queen Elizabeth who is presented with the golden apple. It must have produced a not unexpected moment of drama when the play was performed in front of the Queen. In view of all the pageantry that had gone before it would have been the icing on the cake.
It is a play that largely avoids the long speeches that were a feature of the morality influenced plays of the then recent past. It was written and played as a spectacle with plenty of images to delight the audience, who would be expected to appreciate the pastoral setting, the mythological figures, the logical arguments and of course Paris role in the Trojan Wars. The play features rhyming verse, blank verse and snatches of prose and while the modern reader may not be able to envisage the scene before the queen and all the pageantry, song and dance, he can enjoy Peele’s poetry. I enjoyed reading this play which I think is one of the better examples of the spectacles presented for the queen and so 4 stars
The Player of Games by Iain M Banks.
Iain M Banks science fiction novel published in 1988 is the second in his Culture series and while it does develop the themes in the first novel; it’s central plot idea owes something to Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game published a decade earlier. The late 1980s saw the release onto the market of the fourth generation of game consoles, computer gaming had been in the reach of many people for the previous fifteen years and its interest among the younger generation saw sales rocketing it was therefore an opportune moment to publish a science fiction novel whose plot featured a game player from the distant future. A game player as hero must have seemed a popular motif.
There is more going on here than gaming, even though the game playing is the structure on which this novel is based. Similar to the first novel in the series (Consider Phlebus) the story takes place in the distant future in our galaxy when a society called the Culture is the dominant force. It is a society of humanoids who have developed machines of artificial intelligence that have created a utopian like existence for the humanoids. It is a society based on socialism, where the idea of ownership is a foreign out-dated concept. In consider Phlebus the hero Bora Horza was a mecenary figure fighting for the Indirans a religious society fighting to wrest control of the galaxy from the Culture, The player of Games takes place some centuries later after the defeat of the Indirans when the Culture have come up against the more primitive Azad Empire. Whereas Bora Horza was critical of the Ai machine (minds) dominance of the society Jernau Gurgeh in The Player of Games is more than content to be part of the Culture. He leads a fairly idyllic existence where he can do and have most things that he wants and leads a life where his interest in game playing has become his chosen profession. Gurgeh becomes interested when Contact the diplomatic/military/government arm of Culture send an emissary to tempt him to play in a special game on the other side of the galaxy. Gurgeh eventually decides to take up the offer and he discovers the Empire of Azad: a dictatorship whose rulers are chosen by how well they play the game of Azad which underpins their society. The empire is everything that the Culture is not, a cruel dictatorship bent on taking over their corner of the galaxy.
Much of the novel is taken up by Gurgeh’s involvement in the game as he succeeds in getting through the preliminary rounds to face tougher and tougher opposition. When not playing he takes the opportunity to see the underside of life in the capital city, where he comes under physical threat, the Azadians are not playing by the rules and the tension in the story is created by following Gurgeh’s perilous path through the games and trying to figure out Culture’s role in it all. The actual games take place on a huge board covered with counters and playing pieces; some of it appears to be based on Risk where players seek to dominate the whole of the playing area, but Banks never explains this in any detail. He is more concerned with describing the players and their reactions. The tension in the story builds to a good climax and Banks paints a credible picture of the world of Azad in contrast to Gurgeh’s artificial world created in the Cultures sphere of influence. Like the first book in the series this story takes place during a certain period of time during the history of the Culture and is self contained in that there are no characters from the previous novel. Once again the story is well written and picks up pace towards the end to provide a thrilling read. Banks does not pull his punches and there are some gruesome goings on, but this did not overly tax my sensitivity and so 4 stars.
Chronology nitpick: we learn in the novella "The State of the Art" that the Culture visited Earth in 1977, looked us over, and decided to leave us to stew in our juices. Consider Phlebas and (I think) Player occur earlier. So the Culture is not descended from Earth humans, and the first two novels are set in the past, not the future. How it is that many planets are populated by humanoids sufficiently similar to us that some can pass as Earthlings is something I don't think Banks ever made clear.
Are you doing Use of Weapons soon?
Thomas Lodge was a university man who made his living as an author in Elizabethan England. He never finished his law degree, but instead became a prolific writer in fiction, non fiction, drama and poetry. An Alarum against Usurers was an early work published in 1584 and in addition to the pamphlet style approach of the titled work it contained a pastoral romance and a long satyrical poem. If nothing else this volume proves that Lodge could write, but there is little here that is innovatory or that would hold the casual readers interest for long, apart from a satirical poem that finishes the book
The alarum is a morality pamphlet that starts by decrying the practice of money lending. Lodge seems to be speaking from personal experience as he relates in some detail how an unwary young gentleman is tricked into seeking the services of a money lender. The young man is lured into a relationship with a ‘woman about town’ and spends his inheritance on clothes and entertainment. He soon cannot pay his debts and asks his father for help, he agrees to clear the debts but gives the young man a lecture on living well in the sight of God. The young man soon gets into debt again and his only way out is to work with the money lender in luring other landed young gentlemen into similar traps. There is certainly a moral story here and Lodge finishes by speaking of the evils of hoarding wealth. Significantly there are no racial slurs in this story; it is a warning about morality rather than a hateful rant.
“The Delectable History of Forbonius and Prisceria” is a pastoral romance, nicely written and containing a sonnet and a series of eclogues set to music. A story of star crossed lovers who flee to a pastoral world of shepherds music and poetry. The volume ends with another poem, but this is something different; a satire entitled Truths Complaint Over England. The poem starts with a paean to a loved and now lost England and then turns into a complaint about Princes, the Court, and the Legal profession. There are some good lines and it is worth a read. 3 stars for the pastoral and the satire.
Anybody here like Julian Barnes? I have just read the first chapter of 'A History of the world in 10 and a half chapters you know the one about Noah: my first impression - what a load of twaddle - jokes wear thin and when we get basically the same joke for 33 pages; its flinging the book across the room time, it woke the cat up anyway.
Anybody here like Julian Barnes?
I've listened to 2 of his on audiobook --the first was Flaubert's Parrot, which I could describe as "twaddle," but I listened while gardening and it amused me enough and in the end I think I gave it a high rating. The second was The Sense of an Ending, and I thought it was outstanding.
I also read England, England and I enjoyed it, although I'd say it was a bit frantic for me. Some parts of it could probably be accurately describes as "twaddle" as well. He referenced a lot of stuff that I think the reader needed to be immersed in 1990s English politics and culture to get.
Hey, are you still planning on going to Lake Garda this year? We briefly discussed it last year on my thread. My Italian Alps trip is mostly planned now. When we chatted, I didn't think we were doing Lake Garda, but along our way to the Dolomites, we're going to stay for a few days in Riva del Garda. I was poking around the internet one night and found some pictures of it and thought "Yes! I must go there!" Where do you go on Garda?
>74 Nickelini: I spent a couple of days in Sirmione at the end of October, en route to Padua. Very pretty and well-supplied with ice-cream shops, but ridiculously busy, even right at the end of the season. I'd hate to be there in summer. Sadly, we didn't have time to explore very far - didn't get any further than Desenzano. It must be the north end of the lake that is most interesting scenically. I liked the brief look I got at Verona, but Vicenza is the place we visited I'd most like to return to at leisure.
A History of the World in 10 and a half Chapters by Julian Barnes
The 10 and a half chapters of short stories that make up this novel are written to entertain and bye and large they do, if the reader can get past the first story which I found to be just plain crass. The Stowaway is a re-telling of of the story of Noah’s Ark from a humorous practical perspective, the jokes or really one extended joke are relentless and thirty three pages later I feared for the rest of the book. It does however serve to introduce one of the major themes that run through the book and that is the myth of storytelling. This is picked up and taken to the extreme in the chapter entitled ‘Shipwreck’ which is a deconstruction of Théodore Géricault’s painting “The Raft of the Medusa” (there is a reproduction of the painting enclosed in the book so that readers will not find themselves all at sea) - Oh my God I am beginning to sound like Barnes. Chapter seven starts off like this:
“I was a normal eighteen-year-old: shuttered, self conscious, untravelled and sneering; violently educated, socially crass, emotionally blurting.”
I immediately thought that if I was still this eighteen year old person then I might have found this book wonderfully enriching, but as I am not I don’t.
The novel was published in 1989 and has been hailed as a post-modern approach to the history of the world as a reflection of the human condition. I enjoyed some of the stories and appreciated some of the clever witty writing, but only when the crassness was not too overwhelming. Barnes references the story of Noah’s ark in every one of his stories I think, although I could not bring myself to search through the half chapter entitled Parenthesis (I had a feeling it was called Possession until I checked the contents list) to check this out. A mixed bag then that has amused and entertained many readers, but it didn’t do much for me especially as I knew where Mount Ararat was having seen it for myself. Three stars
PS I have got Flaubert’s Parrot on my shelf to read and I have a feeling I know exactly what it is going to be like, perhaps I can forget it is there.
Love to read about your trips in Italy. So much to see and do. We are going in May, so I hope it's a good combination of nice weather and more-moderate crowd size (I say more-moderate because I was in Florence on a mild sunny afternoon in mid-November 2000 and it was mobbed by Italian tourists, so I pretty much figure things can be busy anytime). My husband was born in Canada to fresh immigrants from Tuscany, but he grew up speaking Italian and spending many summers there, so I have no problem talking him into going back for another trip (it's getting him to visit other parts of Europe that are more of a challenge).
History of the World in 10½ Chapters is the only book by Julian Barnes left unread on my shelves, although I have already read that infantile first chapter. Altogether, I have read 14 books by Julian Barnes. If you look at over-all appreciation of his books on LibraryThing, you will see that most of his books achieve only 3.5 stars, which is often indicative of mediocrity. The Sense of an Ending has a higher score of four stars, but I would ascribe that to Booker Prize media frenzy rather than quality of the book. I gave that one only 2.5 stars.
Of 14 books, I gave five a score of two or lower than two, while for most others I awarded them with three or 3.5 stars. His humour (as you have seen) is silly, while his novels and short stories have very little substance. His essays, mainly about French literature, for instance in Something to declare deal with very obscure authors, and impenetrable subjects.
Personally, I found Flaubert's parrot one of his best books, because it has a number of interesting observations in it, and the book is a type of hybrid between novel and essay (Four stars). I also gave four stars to Through the window. Seventeen essays and a short story and Levels of life.
Wow. Why would you read so many books by an author that you dislike? 5 books with a score of 2 or lower is a lot of unhappy reading.
Firstly, it has something to do with my book buying and hoarding habits. Having become interested in an author, I will buy as many books of that author as I can find (China is not a country where you can conveniently order a book.)
Then, a disappointment will usually not deter me from reading more books by an author, although three bad books in a row will definitely put me off.
I also read those books with large gaps of several years between:
the first book in 2004 (one star), the next in 2006 (4 stars), then 2008 (2 stars), 2011 (2 stars), 2013 (4 stars), 2014 (5 stars), 2014 (3.5 stars), 2014 (4 stars), then since 2016 five books in a row with scores lower than 3 stars.
Another thing is that I can't really discard books once I have bought them, although I am inceasingly inclined to do so. I just need more practice.
So perhaps I should just decide NOT to read History of the World in 10½ Chapters.
“Pap With An Hatchet,
A Fig For My Godson,
Crack Me This Nut,
A Country Cuff, that is, a sound box of the ear for the idiot Martin, to hold his peace, seeing the patch will take no warning.
Written by one that dares call a dog a dog, and made to prevent Martin's dog-days.
Imprinted by John-a-'noke and John-a-'stile for the bailiff of Withernam cum priuilegio perennitatis, and are to be sold at the sign of the crab-tree cudgel in Thwack-Coat Lane.
Martin hangs fit for my mowing.”
In the late 1580’s the Martin Marprelate controversy was seen as a threat to the Elizabethan government. It took the form of a series of pamphlets printed “underground” with the help of the well organised puritan networks. The author of some of the pamphlets referred to himself as Martin Marprelate (Mar-prelate) was a satirical name for attacks against the bishops of the Anglican church supported by the Elizabethan government. Not only did the pamphlets name and shame the bishops with tales of their nefarious deeds, they also argued against the way the church government was run by the bishops. They did so by the use of satire and language that would appeal to the average man in the street (assuming he could read). They used a conversational style which was unprecedented at the time, intent on causing amusement and laughter at the church government’s expense. The government took the satirical attacks seriously and launched extensive searches in the form of a nation-wide manhunt to unmask Martin and stop the production of the pamphlets. Martin was never caught and the pamphlets continued production sparked outrage: there were six pamphlets altogether and a broadsheet before the printing press was discovered. The printer John Penry escaped to Scotland, but pushed his luck a bit too far when he returned to England and was captured and hung. It was suspected that Job Throckmorton was Martin and he was indicted, but successfully defended himself.
Thomas Nashe, Robert Greene and John Lyly got involved in the pamphlet war, writing to counter the arguments of Martin Marprelate. Lyly was the biggest hitter and with his connections at court he may well have been sponsored by the government although Pappe with an Hatchet was printed anonymously. There were Martinist plays and shows performed in 1589, but they have not survived. Lyly took on Martin at his own game taking his witty conversational style to new heights:
"I thought it more convenient to give them a whisk with their own wand than to have them spurred with deeper learning.”
but with the power of the government position behind him the threats to Martins continued existence were all too apparent and Lyly makes this clear:
"But when we find that to the rule of the church the whole state of the realm is linked, & that they, filching away bishop by bishop, seek to fish for the crown, and glue to their new church their own" conclusions, we must then say, Let bishops stand, & they hang”
Lyly spends the first couple of pages hurling insults at Martin and then goes on to refer to the efforts to track him down:
"He saith he is a courtier; I think no courtier so perverse that, seeing the straight rule of the church, would go about to bend it. It may be he is some jester about the court, and of that I marvel, because I know all the fools there, and yet cannot guess at him. Whatever he be, if his conscience be pinned to his cognizance I will account him more politic than religious, and more dangerous for civil broils than the Spaniard for an open war. I am ignorant of Martin and his maintainer, but my conscience is my warrant to care for neither.”
The stories, jokes, satire, threats pile up, but Lyly does not enter into the the controversial religious arguments. He is content to mock and his trade mark word play is apparent:
“Take heed, he will pistle thee. Pistle me? Then have I a pestle so to stamp his pistles that I'll beat all his wit to powder. What will the powder of Martin's wit be good for? Marry, blow up a dram of it into the nostrils of a good Protestant, it will make him giddy, but if you minister it like tobacco to a Puritan, it will make him as mad as a Martin.”
He manages to keep this going in the form of a personal letter to Martin ending with bidding him goodnight and probably well content that he has outdone Martin in his own ribald style. It reads as though Lyly has dashed this off, as there is little form or development to the piece. It would be hard to make much sense of most of it if the reader was not familiar with the Marprelate controversy, but some of Lyly’s stories might amuse if allowances were made for references that need further explanation. Light hearted, funny, sometimes vicious, but with an underlying threat and something very different from Elizabethan England: 3.5 stars.
OK, that made my head hurt. Definitely going to skip it.
>43 baswood: I've been wanting to read Consider Phlebus for quite a while. I've got to get out there and find a copy.
Published in 1952 this novel is included in the Science fiction masterwork series. It is science fiction very much of it’s time with its central hero Mitch Courtenay bulldozing his way through seemingly impossible odds to marry the girl of his dreams while defeating all his enemies. It is also a very fast paced thriller which despite its title is very much earthbound. What makes it stand out from the crowd of science fiction writing of the time is the scenario of an America (and the world) in hock to advertising corporations that shape society in order to increase sales. They have become so powerful that they control the government and in allegiance with production companies have addicted much of the population to their products. These huge companies’ creation of a totally free market driven by greed for more and more sales probably strikes a chord with some readers as it does not seem a million miles from our current situation. Perhaps then this short punchy novel lingers more in the realms of rosy reminiscence than actuality, because in my opinion it is not great science fiction.
It is written in the first person and starts off well in plunging the reader into the viscous world of a board room struggle at the Fowler Schoken associates who we are told have achieved a corporations dream by merging a whole sub continent into a single manufacturing complex. Mitch Courtenay gets to be named head of the latest project which is to control advertising and production for a manned space flight to Venus. He has to juggle his new responsibilities which include fending off the resentment of other unsuccessful executives with his prolonged courtship of Kathy who blows hot and cold and at the moment seems to be trying to avoid any commitment. It is very much a sort of here and now scenario with any background to the rise of the conglomerate companies kept to a minimum as the novel is intent in taking off on its path through action and adventure country. Not only does Mitch have to fend off attacks from within the company, but there is also a rival conglomerate who will stop at nothing to achieve their ends and in addition there is an underground group of “consies” the WCA or World Conservation Association. In no time at all there are attempts on Mitch’s life and he finds himself stripped of all authority working as a labourer amongst the slave like conditions of much of the addicted population. The rest of the story is the struggle to regain his position and an unconvincing conversion to the “consies” cause.
The book paints a picture of a dystopian future with a small minority of executive figures manipulating the lives of the vast majority of addicted consumers, but too much is taken for granted as far as this reader was concerned. We get glimpses of this future world which seem to me to serve more as a convenient background for the thrills of the action adventure and the working of the plot. It is in keeping with much American science fiction of the time with the central premise that energy, hard work and a dare devil approach to life will lead to success. In my opinion this novel deserves its position as one that stands out from the crowd (early 1950’s science fiction) because of its plethora of ideas and glimpses of a believable future and the writing is decent enough, but it wasn’t much of a crowd. A thriller dressed up as science fiction or science fiction that wants to be a fast paced thriller, it seems to be caught between the two and so 3.5 stars.
Oh just noticed on the spine of my Masterworks edition that Kornbluth's name is missing the L
Defence of Poesie, Astrophil and Stella and other writings - Sir Philip Sidney
This Everyman publication features much of Sidney’s best poetry. It contains a complete version of Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, his ‘The Defence of Poesie’, Two Pastorals, Certain other sonnets and some selections from his translation of the Psalms of David and The Lady of May. None of this was published during his lifetime but much of it would have existed in manuscript form and been read by his circle of friends. The Lady of May was written to entertain Queen Elizabeth on one of her summer progresses when she visited the Earl of Leicester at Wanstead.
Sidney’e Defence of Poesie was written as a response to Stephen Gosson ’s `school of Abuse: containing a pleasant invective against poets, pipers, players and jesters’…………. Gosson had dedicated his pamphlet to Sidney no doubt thinking that Sidney’s puritan views would coincide with his own and no doubt he was correct in thinking that Sidney would also condemn lewdness and social abuse in literature. He was however wide of the mark in lumping poets in amongst the pipers, players and jesters as Sidney makes clear in his defence. Sidney believed that poetry was the highest art form in literature and would not only delight the reader but also teach him moral virtue:
“I affirme, that no learning is so good as that teacheth and moveth to vertue, and that none can both teach and move thereto so much as Poetry”
The Defence as one would expect quotes examples from antiquity whilst arguing against Plato for banishing poets from his republik. It examines other forms of literature particularly history and philosophy, maintaining that this writing does teach, but usually fails to move the reader. According to Sidney poetry can in fact enhance both subjects. He briefly mentions English poetry that he admires: Chaucer’s Troylus and Cressida, the Mirror for Magistrates collection, Earl of Surrey’s lyrics and Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calender, before plunging into a denunciation of much of English drama. Sidney argues his points well and keeps his prose lively and entertaining. This Everyman edition has plenty of clear notes to assist the reader.
The Lady of May is an entertainment written in the pastoral tradition and flows well, there is poetry and music and of course the star of the show is Queen Elizabeth herself who makes the final adjudication between the two suitors for the hand of The Lady of May. While there are no direct political references the morale of the little play would not have been lost on the courtiers and their followers. I have previously read Sidney’s wonderful sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella and it is good to now have the poems in a printed version.
Certain Sonnets contains some gems which are not found in Astrophil and Stella, for example:
Leave me, O Love, which reachest but to dust,
And thou my mind aspire to higher things:
Grow rich in that which never taketh rust:
Whatever fades, but fading pleasure brings.
Draw in thy beams, and humble all thy might,
To that sweet yoke, where lasting freedoms be:
Which breaks the clouds and opens forth the light,
That doth both shine and give us sight to see.
O take fast hold, let that light be thy guide,
In this small course which birth draws out to death,
And think how evil becometh him to slide,
Who seeketh heaven, and comes of heavenly breath.
Then farewell world, thy uttermost I see,
Eternal Love, maintain thy life in me.
The two Pastorals are also charming being dedicated to Friends and fellow poets: Sir Edward Dyer and Faulke Greville and take friendship as a theme. This is a very good collection of Sidney’s poetry, well set out with adequate notes and a retention of Sidney’s original spelling, although the letters of the alphabet take the modern form. A good introduction goes to make this a five star publication.
I am glad that this is the last book on my shelf by Pat Barker, because I found this to be such a depressing read. It was published in 1998 some three year after Ghost road which was the final part of her Regeneration trilogy. Another World could almost be an addendum to the Regeneration books because one of the themes of the book is an old first world war soldier’s (Geordie is 101) difficulties of coming to terms with incidents from the war. Juxtaposed with his struggles as he stares into the face of his own demise is his sons own struggles with his extended family. Nick is in the unenviable position of having to help look after his deteriorating father while trying to keep his second family from imploding: tiredness and exhaustion exasperate an already fraught situation.
In my opinion there is too much going on in this story which barrels along leaving its characters strewn in its wake. The most developed character is Geordie who heroically faces his mortality while harbouring a terrible secret: usually where two threads of a storyline are run in parallel one can see connections of plot or theme, in this case the only connection seems to be the family connection, Geordie’s struggles seem to have very little bearing on the problems of Nick’s second family apart from adding to Nick’s tiredness. Barker is adept at touches of observation that seem so right and her dialogue can be spot on, but where she struggles in my opinion is in her analysis of the issues created by her storyline and this is not helped by a continually changing POV. We get snatches of characters feelings, wants and desires, but overall there is little depth to them and their actions are not always consistent in the way that Barker has presented them. There is also her theme of ghosts either from the past or in the present that seem little more than vehicles for her plot.
A story about a struggling family and a first world war veteran stricken with cancer is not going to be a fun read, but Barker wants to rub her readers noses in the dirt and the filth. Sex and of course there is sex in Barker’s books is totally joyless, family members go out of their way to create problems for themselves and Geordie’s illness is graphically described . A centre of calm is provided by Helen an author and psychologist who has been recording Geordie’s war time experiences, but she is little more than a stock character. For me Barker’s eagerness to tell a story and to create a realistic scenario has resulted in a book that lacks depth. A bit of a disappointment and so three stars.
The World of Christopher Marlowe by David Riggs.
A Biographer of Christofer Marlowe is faced with an immediate problem because there is very little evidence in the archives to piece together his story. There are the plays of course, but there are no first person utterances for us to interpret. The facts of his adult life are few and far between and not helped by some evidence that he was heavily involved in the world of espionage and counter espionage making even these few facts of doubtful accuracy. He had a criminal record but never went to trial and was never convicted of anything, he lived in a world of informants and dissemblers and so third person witness statements must also be treated with suspicion. There is only one example of Marlowe’s signature and that was on a legal document. Only one of his works was published during his lifetime and his name does not appear anywhere on the text.
David Riggs solves the problem in two ways, he fills in the contextual details and then links this to the plays and the poetry, while piecing together as much as is known of Marlowe’s life, clearly indicating where there are gaps in his story. Marlowe was murdered when he was thirty and some of the details of the crime are known, but why he was murdered is still the stuff of conjecture: it may have been retribution for his work in spying and informing on others, it may have been because his views were seen as a threat to the queen and the state, or it may have been a simple argument over money. Riggs tells us the story as far as it is known and queries the more blatant conjectures, without advancing his own particular theory. He does however fill in some of the background of the concerns of the government, of Marlowe and other jobbing writers that could be pertinent to the murder, so giving the reader the information required to make his own judgement.
Riggs’ biography is written chronologically with the first six chapters concerned with Marlowe’s education. Knowing which school and colleges he attended allows the author to enter into some detail as to what Marlowe was taught and how he fitted into the social milieu, By careful readings of the plays and poems Riggs is able to identify themes and issues that were used or rejected by the young author. He builds an educated picture of Marlowe and the tools he had to hand to create his literature and how he developed what had gone before and Riggs is in no doubt that his subject warrants the acclaim he now receives.
He offered spectators a thrilling repertory of poetic tragedies that spoke to their most urgent concerns – grinding poverty, class conflict, erotic desire, religious dissent, and the fear of hell. Marlowe’s eight-year career exploded with masterpieces. Tamburlaine the Great, Dr Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Edward II transformed the Elizabethan stage into a place of astonishing creativity.
There is a chapter on each of the plays with Riggs guiding the reader through the themes and ideas that he has garnered from his own reading. Space does not allow him to carry out an in depth study, but there is enough here to stimulate the prospective reader of Marlowe’s oeuvre.
This is an excellent biography that serves also to stimulate a reading of Marlowe’s texts, providing plenty of context to the life and works of the author. There is much criticism and biographical work on Marlowe available for the interested reader, but Riggs provides something that gives more than just an introduction; a critique and biography in its own write and I would rate it as 4 stars.
Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women by George MacDonald.
“Alas, how easily things go wrong
A sigh too much, or a kiss too long
And there follows a mist and a weeping rain
And life is never the same again.”
A bildungsroman; first published in 1858 it is one of the earliest book length prose fairy stories. Anodos is 21 years old when he sees a fairy figure in a desk that he inherited from his late father, she tells him about fairy land and next morning he awakens in a forest and his adventures and his quest for love lead him into the land of the fairies. This is a Victorian novel which is chock full of repressed sexuality and MacDonald has been careful to remind his readers it is a Romance for Men and Women, although children would come to no harm if they chanced to pick it up. Phantastes has been cited as the first book length fantasy story for adults.
When Anodos wakes up in fairy land he is enchanted by the flowers which seem to be home for the fairies, but there is danger in the enchanted land as the fingers of the evil ash and alder trees threaten to destroy him. The episodic story gets going when he discovers the marble statue made by Pygmalion, Anodos sings to the statue of a beautiful woman which promptly comes to life and floats away towards the forest, Anodos is compelled to follow and his pursuit of image leads him onto further adventures. He catches up with her, but after enticing him into a cave and sending him to sleep he awakes to find himself imperilled by the alder tree. He meets kind maternal women who warn him about foolish love and he meets more sinister women one of whom tricks him into opening a door where he finds his own shadow that appears black and evil in the light of the sun. Anodos begins to gain satisfaction from his shadow and when he meets a maiden/woman dancing happy as a child who carries a globe in her hands, she tells Anodos he must not touch her globe, but then says if he does it must be very gently; Anodos does, but the maiden draws away and says he must not touch it again, but:
“I put out both my hands and laid hold of it. It began to sound as before. The sound rapidly increased, till it grew a low tempest of harmony, and the globe trembled, and quivered, and throbbed between my hands. I had not the heart to pull it away from the maiden, though I held it in spite of her attempts to take it from me; yes, I shame to say, in spite of her prayers, and, at last, her tears. The music went on growing in, intensity and complication of tones, and the globe vibrated and heaved; till at last it burst in our hands, and a black vapour broke upwards from out of it; then turned, as if blown sideways, and enveloped the maiden, hiding even the shadow in its blackness. She held fast the fragments, which I abandoned, and fled from me into the forest in the direction whence she had come, wailing like a child, and crying, “You have broken my globe; my globe is broken—my globe is broken!”
After this encounter, which feels like a rape or defloration, Anodos must journey on through other parts of fairy land, eventually arriving at a fairy palace where he learns more about love and enchantment. He must sacrifice himself for an honourable, more reputable love in the fairy world, and he must be forgiven for his past demeanours, before he can arrive back in the real world. The central story has dreams within dreams and tales within tales as MacDonald weaves his magical allegory, but some parts work better than others. Characterisation is not MacDonalds strongest attribute as the reader does not gain much insight into Anodos, although much of the story is written in the first person. We see him learn from experience, but in a fantasy story it is the world outside of the hero that should hold our interest and this is where MacDonald is at his best. The author was a Christian Minister and a poet and it is his knowledge and love of poetry that seems to be the major influence for his writing in Phantastes. Every chapter starts with a quote; notably from the early English canon; Chaucer, Spenser, Lyly and Sir Philip Sidney, but also from the German Romantics. There are new songs and poems by MacDonald that are a feature of Phantastes woven into the text rather like Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, although in my opinion MacDonald never reaches those heights. MacDonalds book must be admired as an early example of English fantasy literature, which obviously influenced later Victorian authors: Walter De La Mare, Lewis Carroll, J M Barrie, and C S Lewis. Reading today it still contains some striking passages, but its central theme does not hold strongly throughout the story and I am sure that some readers will find the poems and songs a distraction, however I think they add to the enchantment. It does not have the panache, humour or memorable characters which I find in Lewis Carrolls work which is the nearest comparator, but still a worthwhile read and so 3.5 stars.
Probably first performed in 1586 it was the first play written by Marlowe and was performed by the Children of her Majesty’s chapel. When it was published in 1594 it was titled The Tragedie of Dido Queene of Carthage written by Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nash. Critics have since concluded that Marlowe wrote the vast majority of the play and he would have done so when he was twenty one or twenty two years old and fresh from a classical education. The source material was Virgil’s Aeneid, but this is not merely a dramatised translation, but a re-write with additions by Marlowe. My first impression when reading this was that it is the most modern sounding play so far: whereas George Peele’s Arraignment of Paris performed a couple of years earlier before Queen Elizabeth seemed to cast aside the accoutrements of medieval drama and the all pervading influence of John Lyly, Marlowe’s first play is an important step up. There are few difficulties in the text and these can be explained by adequate foot notes and the largely blank verse form in relative strict iambic pentameters will present no problems for readers of Shakespeare. Marlowe’s writing flows delightfully and I could imagine it being performed on stage, although a performance by children could be a bit of a stretch. It is also a good story adapted well enough to have sense and meaning for the reader and playgoer
It’s all in the lap of the gods might be a summary of one of the main themes of the drama. it is the gods in this play that create the drama and a fickle lot they are. The play starts with the stage direction of Jupiter (king of the gods) dandling Ganymede upon his knee:
‘Come, gentle Ganymede, and play with me:
I love thee well, say Juno what she will……..
What is’t sweet wag, I should deny thy youth
Whose face reflects such pleasure to mine eyes
As I, exhal’d with thy fire darting beams,
Have oft driven back the horses of the night,
When as they would have hal’d thee from my sight?
Sit on my knee, and call for thy content,
Control proud fate, and cut the thread of time.’
Jupiter and Ganymede are jolted from their lovemaking by Venus who demands that Jupiter takes action against Juno who is bent on destroying a fleet of ships led by Aeneas who is fleeing from the defeat at Troy. Aeneas is Venus son by a mortal man and thanks to prompt action by the gods he arrives battered but safe on the shores of Carthage. Venus disguises herself so as to assist the disorientated Aeneas in getting his fleet together and directs him to the local ruler Dido Queen of Carthage. Dido is impressed with Aeneas who tells her of the last days of the fall of Troy and his escape from the Greeks with the help of Venus. Dido is being courted by Larbas a neighbouring king, but Venus kidnaps Aeneas’ son Ascanius and orders Cupid to take his place so that he can get near enough to Dido and make her fall in love with Aeneas. Anne: Dido’s sister is in love with Larbas and encourages her sister in wooing Aeneas. The gods Juno and Venus combine together to ensure that Aeneas and Dido get separated from a hunting party and need to shelter in a cave and it is obvious that when they emerge they are lovers. The gods however have other plans for Aeneas and he is reminded that he was headed for Italy when the storm disbursed his fleet. He makes preparations to leave Carthage but Dido now with Cupid’s help is madly in love with him, she promises to make him king and then has the rigging from his ship dismantled, he appears to wish to stay and dreams of building a new city at Carthage. The gods will not be denied and Mercury is sent to warn Aeneas that Jupiter has commanded him to go to Italy. He agrees to go and after a brief interview with Dido steals way to his ship leaving behind a series of tragic events that lead to Dido, Larbas and Anne all taking their own lives.
The Roman gods in this play are presented as immoral, lovers of sensation and delight, however they have a strategic view of what must happen on earth, hence their insistence that Aeneas should eventually fulfil his destiny in Italy. It is their disregard for mortals that are the catalyst for the tragedy of Dido. The plot centres on the love story between Dido and Aeneas and as to whether he will leave her to fulfil his destiny as indicated by the gods. The two strongest characters are both manipulated in such a way that it is not clear who is responsible for the tragic events and Marlowe’s text gives clues for both sides of the equation. Aeneas could be seen as a weak character who selfishly leaves Dido to her fate or a man who really has no choice. Dido could be interpreted as a domineering person who will do almost anything to get what she wants or as an unwitting victim of supernatural forces. Its all there in the text waiting for actors or directors to make their own interpretation and this is why for me this drama is a milestone for modern theatre.
Spectacular display is a theme that separates the Gods from the mortals. The play starts in the world of the Gods where imposing display is a matter that is handled comfortably by them. In the world below ceremonies possessions, costumes and display are liable to be misinterpreted, devious or self delusional. The play is full of these and Marlowe’s use of hyperbole makes this a sumptuous play to read. It is a play that never sinks into turgidity, there is always something of interest and there are some purple passages. Aeneas has the longest speech when he is telling the story of the fall of Troy and what a story it is. Marlowe conveys the horrific violent death of King Priam without losing sight of the poetry. Dido’s lament at Aeneas’ hasty departure with the fleet is full of fantastical nautical imagery.
The central character that gives her name to the title of the play is Dido and as a female character this was most unusual in the sixteenth century. It is of course vital to the play that her character is well developed. Marlowe was writing the play to be performed in front of Queen Elizabeth, but he also had to be careful not to make Dido incomprehensible to the mores of Elizabethan England. Certainly Dido is portrayed as a noble autocratic ruler, there are instances where her thoughts about her lesser subjects would make us wince today, but would be expected in Elizabethan times for example when Aeneas thanks Dido ‘in all humility’ she immediately retorts: “Humility belongs to common grooms” There is no doubt who is in charge. Yet Dido is completely undone by love, a foolish passion, but remember it is the very real and active figure of the god Cupid who is responsible. Aeneas like Dido cannot gainsay the gods, but in his case the reader is a little less sure.
The play does appear to be subversive; right from the start there is the homoerotic scene between Jupiter and Ganymede and although this is not repeated it sets the tone for the rest of the play. It is of course difficult to judge how much irony was in play when Marlowe presented this drama to the Children of her Majesty’e chapel. The rule of the virgin queen Elizabeth I would have been in the audiences minds when they viewed the play, but Marlowe could always hide behind the politics of the gods. There is no real evidence that the play was performed by an adult troupe of actors although there are references to a Dido or a Dido and Aeneas play. What is clear is that the play remained largely forgotten, it was briefly revived in 1964; the four hundredth anniversary of Marlowe’s birth with a boys read through, but had to wait until the 21st century to receive a fully spectacular production by the RSC. There have been other productions and so now it could be firmly in the repertoire of other companies. I think it full deserves to be so as it has much to offer including some brilliant writing from Christopher Marlowe who specialised in laying on the hyperbole; this is Dido explaining to Aeneas what she would give him to repair his wrecked ships:
I’ll give thee tackling made of rivell’d gold
Wound on the barks of oderiferous trees;
Oars of massy ivory, full of holes,
Through which the water will delight in play;
Thy anchors will be hewed from crystal rocks,
Which if thou lose shall shine above the waves;
The masts whereon thy swelling sails shall hang
Hollow pyramids of silver plate;
The sails of folded lawn, where shall be wrought,
The wars of Troy, but not Troys overthrow;
For ballace, empty Dido’s treasury,
Take what you will but leave Aeneas here…….
The third book in Bank’s Culture science fiction series and a book that I had read perhaps twenty years ago. Unfortunately as soon as I started reading I remembered the twist at the end and so that element of the novel held no surprise for me. However knowing the ending enables the reader to search for clues as one reads, but I did not discover much that was new. Having read the first two books in the series I was able to appreciate the world view of the Culture and how it operated. A force for good perhaps where humans species are heavily reliant on the thinking machines that they had created, but who now seemed to be used by the machines rather than being in control themselves. Much like the previous two books the story concerns a human agent who is employed by the Culture to carry out missions in the galaxy, he has little knowledge of the bigger picture and his objectives are not always clear. Banks has created an interesting scenario in which to place his stories and his hero’s struggle to make sense of what they are trying to achieve, risking their lives in the process but in the knowledge that the superior technology of the Culture may be able to whisk them away if events turn very nasty.
Cheradenine Zakalwe is the agent in this story and his minders are Diziet Sma a human operative and the drone (highly sophisticated thinking macine) Skaffen-Amtiskaw as in other books in the series the humans have a love/hate relationship with the machines. This particular novel in the series is more concerned with telling an exciting story than exploring the relationship between the humans and the machines. Banks fills in the back story of Zakalwe by telling stories within the central story of some of his previous missions and they are exciting tales in their own write and build up to the climax of the final twist in the tale. Banks is a good thriller writer and his hero’s have to undergo extreme physical privations; usually viscerally described before they can be allowed to escape: in this novel Zakalwe is decapitated before eventually being rescued.
It has to be said that some of the stories are starting to get a bit familiar, but perhaps the strong central story is enough to see this book through. I was hoping that Banks would explore further the relationship between the machines and the humans, but apart from a conversation between Zakalwe and Tsoldrin (the man who he is on a mission to rescue) any deeper probing gives way to the adventure story with Zakalwe shrugging his shoulders and saying “I never try to second guess the Culture” There was enough in the imaginative writing of Banks to keep me interested, but only just for this second reading of the novel. Twenty years ago I would have probably rated this novel as 3.5 stars but today only three.
This is a pamphlet of some 24 pages published in 1587 in which Rankins castigates the actors who performed on the Elizabethan stage. He says they do nothing but present prodigious vanity. He uses allegorical figures to explain the vices inherent in the players who performed on stage and so there is: idleness, flatterie, ingratitude, dissention, blasphemy, and impudence, he uses as an example a production of an imaginary masque wedding. These same vices could of course be used to describe courtiers, but Rankins is careful not to make that allusion. He includes examples of stories from the bible and from classical literature and his pen seems to run away with him. He does not cite any particular player, author or production and so it does not feel satirical.
A similar pamphlet was published in the same year The English Ape and its full title was: the Italian imitation, the footesteppes of Fraunce VVherein is explaned, the wilfull blindnesse of subtill mischiefe, the striuing for starres, the catching of mooneshine: and the secrete found of many hollow hearts.
Rankins this time takes as his theme the influences from Europe that debase and corrupt the noble English spirit. He steers clear of using allegory this time but his stories from the bible only add to the incoherence of the text. These two pamphlets feel like hack work and in my opinion have little literary merit. No hidden gems here and so a 2 star read,
However I do agree that the book read much better back in the 1990's.
In his author’s note at the end of this novel about the final few years of Christopher Marlowe life Burgess says: “The virtue of a historical novel is its vice - the flat footed affirmation of possibility as fact.” There are few facts known about the late sixteenth century playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe and so Burgess has great fun making up a story that fits with the facts that we do know. It is a rumbustious, roisterous, sacrilegious look at the life of a writer making his living around the playhouses of Elizabethan England and one asks oneself “was it ever thus” - well it just may have been.
Anthony Burgess was no stranger to Elizabethan England having written a thesis on Marlowe’s Dr Faustus at university and published in 1964 his “historical” novel: Nothing like the sun: A story of Shakespeares love life. A Dead Man in Deptford tells the story of the last six years of Malowe’s life. He died on 30 May 1593 at the age of 29 years; killed in an upstairs room of a tavern after an altercation with some known violent characters. There is much conjecture that Marlowe was employed by Francis Walsingham the Elizabethan spymaster, there is no doubt that his outspoken views on religion (he was named as an atheist) caused him to be marked as a suspicious character and he was arrested in 1593 after being named by fellow playwright Thomas Kyd as a writer of heretical letters. It was at a time when the Elizabethan government were nervous about a foreign invasion, nervous about threats from both the Puritans and the Catholics and concerned about unruly and riotous behaviour around the London theatres and so Marlowe with his reputation may well have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. However Burgess spins a much more exciting tale of espionage, plots against the government and murder. He surmises that Marlowe was an agent for Walsingham, spying on the catholics in Rheims, and those around the court of James VI in Scotland. He also describes a meeting with John Penry who was hung drawn and quartered for setting up a printing press for the scurrilous Martin mar-prelate puritan pamphlets. Like many agents at the time Marlowe would have been blackmailed into serving the state. He also imagines Marlowe as being part of the coterie that met at Sir Walter Raleigh’s house addicted to the “nymph” (tobacco smoking). Much of this is conjecture, but as Burgess says it is all grist to the mill in the “flat footed affirmation of possibility as fact”.
The story is told by a young actor and sometime lover of Kit Marlowe who says he knows a little of the story, but proceeds to tell a whole lot more. The story then starts in the first person, but there are passages of imagined conversations involving Marlowe that change the point of view. Burgess has fun from the first sentence when the boy actor addresses the “fair or foul reader, but whats the difference” and then plays around with the syntax of his sentences and phrases to give an impression of how the Elizabethans may have spoken to each other. It would seem to me that Hilary Mantel may have gained much from reading this novel in developing her own style for her Wolf Hall novel.
Burgess describes Marlowe as a violent man, quick to take offence and an easy maker of enemies. His education and reasonably humble beginnings equip him to slip in and out of all levels of society and as a successful and notorious writer and poet more doors are open to him than would have normally been the case. His careless talk, religious views and homosexuality made him both a dangerous character to know as well as an exciting companion for the more adventurous. He was certain of his own talents and disparaging of others, when it would have been advisable to hold his tongue, he could not bring himself to do it. He was a man who easily got himself into trouble. Burgess imagines him having an affair with Thomas Walsingham cousin of Sir Francis, of working with Thomas Watson the poet and translator and having to collaborate with Thomas Kyd the playwright and then there is young Tom the actor - all these Toms Burgess says “a world of Toms like a night roof top” It is a typical aside because Burgess’ writing appears as undisciplined as the character he is describing, not being able to resist a quip, perhaps letting his pen run away with him, but always showing his love and knowledge of the period. The use of alliteration was a favourite ploy of many Elizabethan poets and playwrights and Burgess has fun imitating this style as well as dredging up some arcane words. Here is Marlowe holed up in Newgate jail with his friend Tom Watson and reflecting about the rats in their cell:
“ We could catch one, Tom said and eat it raw. Though rats are as they say inesculent. The learned word bounced hollowly.
A man should not play with these things. jails and privation and death. I sit comfortably with my pen penning men into pens of this kind. I did not think I could be so short of breath.”
It is always advisable to have access to a dictionary when reading Anthony Burgess and I realised that I have led a sheltered life, having to look up irrumatio and torchcul.
There are quotes from Marlowe’s plays and poems, sometimes quoted inaccurately back to him by other characters and there is a mock pastoral singing contest that takes place in an ale house in Rheims. Burgess portrays Elizabethan England as a dangerous and dirty place, especially for those people like Marlowe living on the edge of the criminal world, however this is not the main thrust of the novel because Burgess is more interested in the conversations, the word play and the invention of a good story. In my opinion it is a book that would be appreciated more fully by a reader already familiar with Marlowe for example there is a running joke about Marlowe’s name: is he Marley, or Merlin, perhaps Morely or Marlin: this all stems from there being only one document in existence signed by Marlowe and this looks like he has signed himself Morely. This is an historical novel and so there are no helpful notes and readers not familiar with this fact might wonder why Burgess continues with this idea. It is all part of the fun, in-jokes a-plenty as Burgess flexes his muscles as writer and entertainer. I was entertained even if:
“Elation made his member swell visibly in his codpiece, and he was thus led to the composing of a poem of love”
A four star read.
But I suspect he got his dirty talk more from the dictionary than from real life.
The Diamond Lens is a short story by Fitz-James O’Brien; published in 1858, it holds its place in the canon of proto science fiction. It is a story of a young man obsessed with microscopes in an age where important scientific discoveries were still being made in the field. He sacrifices everything to build a machine that can see further than anyone has seen before. With the help of an occultists he learns that a very large diamond could be made into a lens which would serve his purpose. He commits murder to obtain his diamond, but is rewarded when he finally peers through his lens for the first time. It is a well written story with an imaginative denouement that still has the power to grip the reader with a sense of wonder. The excellent pacing and imaginative writing led me to explore further and I came across this 1925 collection of O’Brien’s stories.
O’Brien was born in Ireland and emigrated to New York in 1852. Previously he had edited a magazine in London and was prepared to earn his living as a writer in New York. He had stories published in Putnam’s magazine, Vanity Fair and the Atlantic Monthly and joined a coterie of bohemian writers living and working in New York. He enlisted in the New York National Guard during the civil war and died of wounds received in April 1862 at the age of 35. The 1925 edition of his collected stories starts with The Diamond Lens and it is the most satisfying story in the collection, however there are others that are worth reading. The Wondersmith tells of a gang of gypsies living in a tenement in a seedy part of the city, who plan to unleash an army of small wooden figures brought to life by Herr Hippe the leader of the gang. The evil figurines are on a mission to murder Christian children. This claustrophobic story involving Herr Hippe’s adopted daughter and her lover moves towards an exciting climax with well drawn characters. Two good stories to start the collection, although both are worryingly anti-Semitic.
The other stories in the collection are not so well paced or so well developed as the first two, but the anti-Semitism is no longer present. “The Pot of Tulips” is a fairly run of the mill ghost story but “The Lost Room” is much better; a group of ghosts take over a reclusive bachelors apartment and he must enter into a dice game with them to get his apartment back. “The Golden Ingot” is a story of a modern alchemist which again features an obsessive character who destroys himself with his obsession. What Was It is a weird tale of a murderous ghost that is creepy enough, but “My Wife’s Temper” takes O’Brien away from fantasy elements to a story that is only strange because of its lacklustre conclusion. The collection ends with ‘The Dragon Fang Possessed by the Conjuror Piou-Lu in which the fantasy elements tend to run away with the story.
The obvious comparison to O’Brien’s stories are those of Edgar Allan Poe whose stories would have been in print when O’Brien started writing, in my opinion a couple of Obrien’s tales stand up well with those of Poe and they are certainly as well written. As an example of early fantasy writing in short story format I found these well worth reading. An enjoyable afternoon’s read and so 3.5 stars.
An interesting but by no means essential play performed (probably for it’s one and only time) in front of Queen Elizabeth I in 1588 at Greenwich. The sources for the play were Geoffrey of Monmouths 'Historia' and Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur and if it did nothing else it helped foster the King Arthur tradition in English literature. The play takes as it’s starting point King Arthurs return from his wars with Rome and ends with his final confrontation with Mordred. It was not written for the popular theatres of London, but as an entertainment for the Queen and her courtiers, it was written in the classical tradition and some passages were little more than translations from the plays of Seneca the Younger: it looks backwards rather than forwards.
As theatre it pretty much lacks any stage craft and its text written in blank verse is good but not memorable. It has not been deemed suitable for a modern production. The interest for today’s reader is the political aspects of the play as to what it might tell us about the reign of Queen Elizabeth and the mood of her court. Although it was performed in February 1588 just five months before the Spanish Armada, it was written a year earlier about the time that Elizabeth was hesitating as to whether to sign the death warrant for her cousin Mary Queen of Scots: some readers have identified that family relationship with the King Arthur-Mordred relationship in Hughes’ play, but my reading does not come to the same conclusion.
It was a play written by the grouping known as the University wits and their first priority would be to please the queen. The play opens with King Arthur’s court in turmoil; Guenevera is involved in an incestuous relationship with Mordred (here he is Arthur’s son) and they have just been made aware of Arthurs imminent return from the wars. Guenevera seemingly has no remorse and considers either killing Arthur within an hour of seeing him or committing suicide herself, she finally compromises and gets herself off to a Nunnery. Mordred has usurped Arthurs crown as well as his wife and has little trouble in raising an army to challenge Arthur when he arrived on the South coast. Two things immediately stand out as very different from Elizabeth’s reign; she was in complete control of her court with no intention of leaving the country to fight on foreign soil and she was lauded as the virgin queen with no hint of sexual scandal. As the story of Arthur and Mordred pans out they succeed in killing each other, leaving the realm at the mercy of the Danes, the Saxons, the Picts and anybody who felt strong enough to challenge for part of Arthur’s kingdom. The contrast with Queen Elizabeth could not have been greater especially when taking into consideration King Arthur’s legendary reputation. This is Guenevera:
GUENEVERA. The wrath that breatheth blood doth loath to lurk:
What reason most witholds, rage wrings perforce.
I am disdain'd: so will I not be long.
That very hour that he shall first arrive,
Shall be the last that shall afford him life.
Though neither seas, nor lands, nor wars abroad
Sufficed for thy foil, yet shalt thou find
Far worse at home –thy deep-displeased spouse.
A feature of the play are the dumb shows that precede each of the five acts and a commentary by a chorus at the end. The dumb shows in particular are elaborate performances which would only be understood by an educated audience: they were staged by Christopher Yelverton. Francis Bacon, John Lancaster and others. They are the high point of the dramatic presentation because the actual play is more a series of long speeches with all the action taking place off stage, however there are some one liner sharp interchanges in each of the acts, but these seem stilted and do not work well; they seem forced in an effort to create some drama.
The play can be read with modern spelling and for the most part the iambic pentameters work well enough and there are some good passages, however it never really takes off despite it having an interesting story to tell. The fact that most of it happens off stage does not help. A play for those interested in Elizabethan drama and for me a three star read.
Many claims have been made about this play written for the Elizabethan theatre:
It contains the first Machiavellian Villain,
it contains the first play within a play,
It is the first modern revenge tragedy
The first play that can be considered as an art form
The first play to represent human causality skilfully
However we cannot be certain when it was written or when it was first performed. A consensus seems to be around the year 1587, but I would not be surprised if it was a year or two later than that. The Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588 and although Spain remained a threat to England this victory may have given Kyd the impetus to launch a play that depicts the fall of the Spanish Royal family. Certainly there is no doubt about its popularity with the theatre going public, because since its appearance in the list of plays performed starting in 1592, there were 29 performances recorded. We are talking of a play probably performed before Shakespeare’s successes, but continuing well into the next century and up to the closure of the theatres.
It is not difficult to see why so many claims have been made for The Spanish Tragedy because it feels to me like a watershed. On one side is the early Elizabethan theatre of courtly performances and rigid acceptance of the style of classical theatre and the other side being a step towards characterisation and drama that would appeal to all levels of Elizabethan society and point the way to modern theatre. It has been revived in modern times notably by Londons National Theatre in 1982 and then by the Royal Shakespeare company in 1997. The play is steeped in the language of rhetoric with much of it appearing to be versed in antique styles of expression, so there are awkward passages where two sides of an argument are rehearsed followed by a conclusion of sorts, which bears little relation to everyday speech, but the edges are starting to get blurred and a more natural voice is starting to come through. The play still wears its classical garb having something like a Greek chorus providing commentary, but here it is reduced to a ghost (Andrea) accompanied by the allegorical figure of Revenge and they are not present throughout the play and their thoughts are more like a conversation between the two of them. There are still some latin phrases interjected and at one point Hieronimo sings a dirge in latin in commiseration to his murdered son.
The play starts with a long speech by the ghost of Andrea setting the scene and describing his journey through the underworld and the following scene contains a report from the general of the Spanish forces to his king of the battle with the Portugueses army and so in typical fashion all of the action has taken place off stage. A sort of pageant in front of the king of the victorious army follows and up until this point there is little to distinguish the play from previous efforts. Then things get more interesting; Lorenzo starts scheming with Balthazar, there is a charming love scene between Bel-imperia and Horatio before Horatio is viciously murdered on stage, by the schemers before the screams of Bel-imperia awaken Hieronimo who is left to mourn the butchered body of his son. Real drama with good use of the spaces on stage and from this moment on there is action aplenty and the body count rises; the play moves steadily towards its climax, the characters of Hieronimo, Isabella and Lorenzo emerge with soliloquies that enable the audience to glimpse their thoughts and feelings. There are more onstage murders and suicides and possibly the first black comedy scene where Pedringano jokes with the hangman believing that his pardon is contained in the box held aloft by a Page. The climax is dramatic leaving a pile of bodies onstage with Andrea and Revenge having the last word:
“Then haste we down to meet thy friends and foes,
To place thy friends in ease, the rest in woes.
For here, though death hath end their misery,
I’ll there begin their endless tragedy”
The plot is fairly complex with action taking place in the courts of both the Spanish and Portuguese Royal families. Andrea a Spanish gentleman and lover of Bel-imperia has been killed in the wars against Portugal, after a journey through the underworld his ghost returns to earth with Revenge to seek retribution. Balthazar; the son of the King of Portugal has been captured by Lorenzo of the Spanish Royal family and Horatio the son of Hieronimo; Knight Marshall and chief Justice of Spain. After the death of Andrea Bel-imperia appears to have fallen in love with Horatio, but Lorenzo persuades Balthazar that they must kill Horatio in order that Balthazar can woo the beautiful Bel-imperia. Lorenzo schemes and using Pedringano the servant of Bel-Imperia as a fall guy, murders Horatio leaving Hieronimo to mourn over the death of his precious son. Hieronimo seeks revenge, but the Royal family close ranks. Lorenzo arranges the deaths of Pedringano and Seberine; Balthazars servant to cover his tracks. Hieronimo is almost driven insane, but his sense of justice prevails and when he uncovers the identity of the murderers, he enlists the help of Bel-imperia to stage his revenge by way of a play put on in front of the two Royal houses who have got together to conclude a peace treaty and the marriage of Bel-imperia to Balthazar.
The play was popular because it would have appealed to the groundlings who paid their penny’s to stand in the pit. They would have enjoyed the drama of the onstage murders and the black comedy of the hanging scenes, being used to the frequent public executions that took place in London. They would have enjoyed the variety with the plays masques, pageants, dumb shows and the drama of the play within the play. They would also be able to appreciate the more sophisticated entertainment provided for the courtiers as allusions to classical references tended to peter out as the drama took over. They might have been able to identify with the sorrows and frustration of Hieronimo whose fight for justice had to overcome the politics of the Royal family and they would have been aware as to how topical it all was with the chance to express their pride and jingoism at the fall of the Spanish Royal family. There was also plenty to enjoy for the more educated playgoer; the constant dichotomy of the themes of justice and revenge, the many mirror images of the scenes in Portugal and Spain, the ironical nature of much of drama as the audience with its all seeing eye would always know more than the characters on stage, who all seem to labour under incomprehension or false knowledge.
Reading the text of the play (with some later additions) in the Norton Critical Edition enabled me to appreciate the structure and complexity of the drama. There is much to admire although the prose never really hits the heights of Christopher Marlowe’s blank verse. The prose does however enable some characterisation to shine through and for the reader to appreciate other themes running through the play like the heedless destruction of good local governance by global political ambition. The reader might also pause for thought on the character and actions of Bel-imperia who has to fight the conventions of dynastic political marriages, taking lovers from outside the nobility, and emerging as a sort of femme fatal. The critical essays at the back of the Norton edition are interesting and led me back to re-read the text of the play. Unfortunately there is no video or youtube production of the full play available and so I will have to rest with my own imaginary pictures of how the final scene of the play would be staged - all those dead bodies.
This play could be described as the first of the really big hitters of the Elizabethan theatre and so there is much critical commentary to be read. I thoroughly enjoyed my week spent with this play and so five stars.
Nightwood - Djuna Barnes
Reading this book is like being transported to another world (usually a good sign in a novel) a world full of allusion where the reader is left grasping at smoke rings, which elegantly curl above the heads of the characters. Although the language is elegant the emotions are raw as the characters, all living in a world of pain desperately try to cope with their feelings of love and loss.
There is an excellent introduction by T S Eliot that alerts the reader to the writing style of the author, prepares him perhaps for a reading experience that will take some concentration. I found it best to approach the book in small chunks, because the writing style then becomes fresh with every read and allowed me to revel in the use of language, without becoming too tired or complaisant. This approach served me well for the first six chapters: the final two where the strands of the story come together in a more narrative approach I was pleased to read in one sitting.
T S Eliot says the style of the novel with its beauty of phrasing the brilliance of wit and characterisation has a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of an Elizabethan tragedy. This is Barnes describing the Squatter Jenny Petherbridge:
“She was nervous about the future, it made her indelicate. She was one of the most importantly wicked women of her time - because she could not let her time alone, and yet could never be part of it. She wanted to be the reason for everything and so she was the cause of nothing. She had the fluency of tongue and action meted out by divine providence to those who cannot think for themselves. She was master of the over-sweet phrase , the over-tight embrace”
Barnes aims to fascinate the reader, not merely by what is said, but also by the manner of saying it. There is duality and word play in the sentences in a style not unlike that of the Elizabethan author Jon Lyly, but like Lyly’s writing the style can be more important than the content and so the reader is left with decisions to be made about what he has just read and what has just been said. It does not always work because at times it feels like a scatter-gun approach, and it can be waring. However there is much in the writing that made me stop and think at how thoughtful, original and appropriate a phrase or sentence was in the context of the novel.
Djuna Barnes was an American artist, illustrator, journalist and writer Nightwood published in 1936 is considered a cult classic of lesbian fiction. She spent two decades in Europe and her novel has a distinctly European feel, with its old world sophistication and her use of German, French and Italian phrases: much of it is set in Paris between the two world wars. The story is basically about a lesbian menage-a-trois relationship with the pains and guilt of love being laid at the door of a male Doctor who advises while getting caught up with the emotions and struggling with his own catholicism. The Doctor is an Irishman who is not a qualified practitioner and leads an alcohol fused existence on the edge of polite society. The events in the novel centre on a couple of incidents that define the nature of the relationships and lead to thoughts and conversations that reflect on love, pain and death. The book has an intense feeling of melancholy leading to despair and is shot through with observations that may not be life changing, but may make you think about living - warning the style can be infectious. It is a book that will go back onto my shelves for an occasional partial re-read and so 4 stars.
Robert Greene - Pandosto
This is one of Robert Greene’s pamphlets in the form of a Romantic novel, but as usual with Greene there is an underlying moral subject. It was written in 1587 and on the front cover it is described as “Pleasant for age to avoid drowsy thoughts, profitable for youth to eschew other wanton pastimes, and bringing to both a desired content”
Robert Greene 1558-92 one of the Elizabethan ‘university wits’ earned his living from his writing, one of the early jobbing writers who relied on sales of his books rather than on patronage, there is no record of connections with the Tudor Court. He died in poverty at a young age and is famous amongst Shakespeare scholars for his reference to a young Shakespeare in his ‘Greene’s groats-worth of witte brought with a million repentance’: Greene tried his hand at anything that might sell starting off with novels that owed much to John Lyly then moving onto romances. He wrote many framework stories based on ideas from the Italian renaissance, usually with a moral theme and published in pamphlet form. The connection with Shakespeare continues here, because Shakespeare probably used Greene’s Pandosto as a primary source for his play “A Winter’s Tale”. He would have had no trouble in finding a copy because Greene’s Pandosto was reprinted five times after initial publication.
Pandosto is subtitled; ‘The Triumph of Time’ and uses the familiar trop of mistaken Identity, but the moral theme here is jealousy. Greene tells us at the start that: Pandosto, “furiously incensed by causeless jealousy, procured the death of his most loving and loyal wife and his own endless sorrow and misery.” Pandosto king of Bohemia invites his friend Egistus king of Sicily to his court and soon Egistus is entranced by the wit and knowledge of Pandosto’s wife Bellaria. Pandosto becomes insanely jealous and plans to poison Egistus, but the would be poisoner reveals the plot to Egistus who wisely decides to head off back home to Sicily. Bellaria discovers she is pregnant and Pandosto after a mock trial imprisons her. The baby is born and Pandosto puts it to sea in a small boat to take its chances but fortune smiles and it is washed up on the shores of Sicily and the baby girl Fawnia is raised by a couple of Shepherds. Time passes and Egistus son the princely Dorastus who would “rather to die in the field with Mars than dally with Venus in the chamber” meets and falls in love with the beautiful Fawnia. He becomes so entranced that he dresses up as a shepherd in order to sneak out of the palace to meet her. They decide to elope and of course end up at the court of Pandosto, disguised as merchants.............................
Greene manages to pack in much of what he knew would be popular for his Elizabethan readers. There is the moral story, there is a pastoral, there is a love story and there is the divine right of kings. Most events are at the mercy of the wheel of fortune, but Greene does start to explore the difficulties of lovers who are at different levels of society, the extreme case here of a Prince falling in love with a shepherd girl ( but of course she is of royal birth). Greene is a good story teller and the 85 pages flow by. His writing still owes much to John Lyly’s euphuistic style, but this does not interrupt the pace of the story telling. An easy and enjoyable read for those who are accustomed to Elizabethan story telling and so 3 stars.
Ray Bradbury - The Illustrated Man
Published in Great Britain in 1952 this collection of short stories still manages to surprise the reader with its variety and buzz of new ideas, new to the 1950’s that is because other writers have mined these stories to create stories of their own. The stories fit into the loose genre of Science fiction, but there is very little science: Bradbury is more concerned with the psychological effects of life and incidents in the future. In 'Kaleidoscope' he imagines a rocket torn apart in space and the surviving crew members space suited and in radio communication drifting towards their very individual deaths. In 'The Veldt' a rich family indulge their children with an enhanced virtual reality room that takes over their lives. In 'The Other Foot' a black community exiled from Earth await the arrival of the first white man to visit them in twenty years. In 'Marionettes, Inc' a man invests in a robot that can replace him as and when he wishes allowing him the freedom to slip away to indulge himself as he wishes.
The stories are rarely longer than fifteen pages and yet it is enough time for Bradbury to immerse the reader in his tales. For example in 'The Long Rain' an expeditionary force are trekking through the forests on Venus where it never stops raining. In 'Usher II' an individual prepares traps based on the stories of Edgar Alan Poe to strike his own revenge on the book burners. This is the second collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury that I have re-read and while ‘The Martian Chronicles’ had a certain music and colour to them that linked the stories; The Illustrated Man has a linking device of a tattooed man whose body is overdrawn with pictures of the stories in the book, but in the end this is neither here nor there as Bradbury soon looses interest in any linkage. There is however a consistent quality of ideas behind this collection and a style that is clearly that of the same guiding hand. In short these stories are still a delight to read and one of the best collections from the 1950’s and so five stars,
George Peele -The Battle of Alcazar from The dramatic and poetical works of Robert Greene & George Peele
“To split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise.”
Shakespeare was probably referring to George Peele’s play The Battle of Alcazar or a very similar production. Shakespeare had a point because The Battle of Alcazar proved popular with the Elizabethan theatre going public and it is certainly very noisy as the whole play is concerned with the build up to and the Battle fought between two Moorish (muslim) kings, the kIng of Portugal and an English expeditionary force led by Captain Thomas Stukely. Two of the kings are killed along with Stuckley, but as we are told this is going to happen in the first scene of the play then I am not giving anything away. Shakespeare may have been a bit jealous of the play’s popularity because it went onto a good number of performances and was revived at least twice during the early years of the theatre. Significantly however there have been no modern productions.
Shakespeare might not have liked the dumb shows, but Peele uses them well and they were still a feature of many plays at that time. Peele has a Presenter who informs the audience about what has happened and who the major players will be, while a dumb show is going on behind him. The audience will see the Moor’s uncle and his two young brothers being smothered in bed to display the Moor’s (Muly Mahamet) cruelty, tyranny, and ambition. Peele has a lot of information to share at the start of the first act and it serves to get the play underway and fills in the background while also leading the audience to wonder about what is going to happen next.
“Sit you and see this true and tragic war
A modern matter full of blood and ruth
Where three bold kings, confounded in their height
fell to the earth. contending for a crown;
And call this war The battle of Alcazar”
Abdelemec or Muly Molocco is considered the rightful king of Barbary and in the first act he defeats Muly Mahamet and sends him into exile. The rest of the play details the efforts of the tyrant Muly Mahamet to win back his crown. He seeks an allegiance with the catholic Sebastian king of Portugal and also with an English adventurer Captain Thomas Stukeley. They all come together in the final act which describes in some detail the course of the battle. In my opinion Peele’s main reason for writing the play was to tell the story of this battle in a way that would be entertaining and exciting. It was also fairly contemporary, not something from Britain’s long lost past; the events happened just 10 years before the plays first performance. King Sebastian was killed at the battle and King Philip II of Spain (who refused an alliance in the play) was still alive, so the appeal; would have been of a story within living memory. Sir Thomas Stukeley, the notorious English courtier, pirate, adventurer and soldier also died at the Battle of Alcazar in Morocco in 1578, while serving in the army of King Sebastian of Portugal which again emphasises the contemporary nature of the action. It was one of the first plays to deal with Muslim Kings and their names and the descriptions of them as negro-moors would have made them sound exotic. Peele seems to have little interest in making any racial comparisons. If there is a theme then it is the depiction of the rightful heir to the throne, the rule of kings and their progeny. Muly Muhamet is a usurper and must be dethroned. The king of Portugal and Thomas Stukeley both ally themselves with the usurper and so they too must die. The noble Muly Molocco also dies but his army are victorious and his son takes the crown. The stage directions point to an all action play: Muly Mahamet makes his entrance in scene ii Act 1 on a chariot, there is the sight of a blazing star, diplomats prove their loyalty by making a fire and thrusting their hands in it, dead men’s heads are displayed on dishes, there are numerous skirmishes some described as long skirmished and a number of killing scenes. Stukeley’s slaying is perhaps the most dramatic:
Stukeley: Strike on, strike down this body to the earth
Whose mounting mind stoops t no feeble stroke
Jonas: Why suffer we this Englishman to live?-
(they stab Stukeley)
Villain, bleed on: thy blood in channels run
And meet with those whom thou to death has done.
This does not stop Stukeley giving a lengthy speech before he dies.
The powerful blood soaked language does not let up throughout the play and this is my main criticism because it makes it all too one dimensional. There is no subtlety, no emotions just the heavy thump of a language marching to the beat of a drum. There is time however for a panegyric to Queen Elizabeth, delivered by Stukeley who wants to be king of Ireland but realises this is impossible when Elizabeth I is “sacred, imperial and holy in her seat”. It has to be said that Peele’s blank verse is impressive and there is no let up in the action, but compared to The Spanish Tragedy it remains one dimensional and so although worth reading I rate it at three stars
I’ve lately been imagining Shakespeare’s plays as analogous to movie adaptations (of history or novels). In that light, this would might be like the action movie of its day.
Le Grand Meaulnes- Alain-Fournier
A Quoi bon; (whats the point) is what the woman said to Alain Fournier, when he finally plucked up the courage to speak to her, after following her around Paris for days as a very young man. She later added on another occasion "Nous sommes deux enfants, nous avons fait une folie." Alain Fournier never gave up on Yvonne de Quièvrecourt who unwittingly became the inspiration for his first novel which is a classic of French literature. This moment when the young author discovered the pangs of an unrequited love is translated into a novel that captures the wonder, the fantasy, the childlike innocence of adolescent love. The Grand Meaulnes took Fournier eight years to complete and it was first published in serial form in 1913.
Le Grand Meaulnes is actually the leading character in the novel: Augustine Meaulnes. He is 17 years old when he is enrolled in a school of mixed age groups in a small provincial town. He is bigger and older than the other boys and soon becomes the boy who everyone wants to know, including Francois who is the son of the head teacher and who tells the story. Meaulnes is disappointed when he is not selected to accompany the head teacher on a trip to the local station to pick up the grand parents. He finds another horse and carriage in town and embarks on a race to get to the station. He gets lost in the winter fog and eventually deep in the countryside sees a light through the trees. He stumbles across fields to find a tumble down chateau which is playing host to a wedding party. There are adults and children dressed in clothes from a previous century and Meaulnes is invited to join in. The bride never arrives but Meaulnes sees and falls in love with Yvonne the bridegrooms (Frantz) sister. Altogether he is away from school for three days and when he finally returns he seems a disturbed young man, obsessed with trying to locate the mysterious chateau in the woods. He eventually takes Francois into his confidence and together they plan to solve the mystery and find Yvonne. This completes the first of the three parts to the romance and the story continues with Meaulnes and Francois search for Yvonne with the added complication of Frantz still in love with the woman who jilted him.
Fournier based his novel very much on his own upbringing. His father was the head teacher at a small school and the sights and sounds of the life of the pupils in a small provincial town are atmospherically portrayed and then suddenly the reader is plunged headlong into Meaulnes adventure and we are in the land of mystery and fantasy and a bit like Meaulnes we do not want it to end. The wedding party seems full of young adults and children and there is magic in the air, there is also romance and there is innocence, but this must change when Meaulnes finally finds his way back to school. He is determined to chase his dreams but as he grows up and searches for love innocence is left behind and choices must be made. The final part of the book which tells the story of Meaulnes relationship with Yvonne is steeped in melancholia, the characters are searching for things lost or for what they never had and the melancholia turns to sadness and sorrow. I found it a deeply affecting book. Why this novel works so well is that even when Fournier is working through the machinations of his plot he still manages to turn the readers attention back to the magical scenes of the first part: for example there is a party thrown to bring Meaulnes, Yvonne and Frantz back together, it is held in a country estate beside the river and the woods and an atmosphere is created similar to the wedding party and Meaulnes even plunges into the woods, but this time he is angered by the actions of Yvonne and her family and the magic is dissipated: it is if his more childlike self was for a moment within reach.
The novel is by no means faultless, there are coincidences that serve to hold the plot together and people appear and disappear it seems at the whim of the author, but nothing can take away the sense of wonder that Fournier creates with his beautiful text, his character may be innocent even puerile, but they live and breathe in Fournier lovely book. A romance, but lodged in realism, an innocence that clings to the characters, a purity that negates the need for any talk about sex. That Fournier manages to pull this off and make it a pleasure for adults to read and read again is a triumph and so five stars.
>125 baswood: Glad you enjoyed Le grand Meaulnes! I first read it as a teenager, just like every person who's been through the French school system in the last forty years, it seems to me! Reading it again as an adult was a revelation: it was a different beast altogether. As a thirteen-year old, I found nothing odd or impossible about the castle scene: I was just annoyed that he could never find it again! Apparently, Le grand Meaulnes was the inspiration for The Great Gatsby, which you would never know from the latter's French title Gatsby le magnifique...
I've had this book on my TBR pile for ages as my mother has been trying to get me to read it. I haven't read your review as to avoid knowing too much about the book but looking at the reactions of the other comments it seems I should get to it sooner rather than later.
Simone de Beauvoir - Memoirs of a Dutiful daughter.
de Beauvoir says towards the end of the first part of her autobiography that she like to talk about her favourite subject - me. I should imagine that she enjoyed writing about herself and she spends many words here in doing just that. Memoirs of a dutiful daughter covers the first twenty years of her life and runs to 360 pages of close typed paragraphs. She is proud of her achievements and spends much time measuring herself against her competitors who are mainly fellow students in this first part of her story.
Simone de Beauvoir was born in 1908 into a comfortable upper middle class family and mixed in a society where many of her compatriots were born with "silver spoons in their mouths", however Simone was expected to be the dutiful daughter of the book's title. This did not sit at all with her ambitions, which from a fairly early age were to carve a career for herself as an intellectual. Her struggles to gain independence from her family while remaining on good terms was a balancing act that Simone managed to perform throughout her early life. It is this struggle that brought home to me the difficulties for a woman like Simone to realise her potential when most of society saw her role as a wife and mother. It was probably more difficult for Simone because of her family's place in the hierarchy, where arranged marriages were still the currency for families to thrive and prosper. As a woman Simone had to deal with family pressures as well as working hard to compete with her fellow students who were mostly men. Her successes in Education allowed her to study Philosophy at the Sorbonne and she was only the ninth woman to have received a degree. De Beauvoir does not need to highlight the inequality that she faced as a woman as this is self evident from her matter of fact presentation of the details of her early life.
It would not be much of an autobiography if the author did not reveal anything about herself and Simone certainly cannot be criticised on this score. She kept a detailed diary from her early student days and this must have helped her to enter into much self-analysis of this developmental period of her life. She tells us about her relationships with her family particularly with her devoutly catholic mother. She tells us about her admiration, her competitiveness, her inspiration and her intellectual development through many long hours of talking, discussion and questioning of her fellow students and teachers. She usually comes to the conclusion that she can and does outgrow them intellectually. Although she loses her catholic faith in her fifteenth year her strict moral upbringing, and her determination not to be sidetracked means that she like many women at that time represses her sexuality. At twenty years old she still seems naive in her dealings with the opposite sex and this results in anxiety that becomes acute at times as to how she should act/behave; for example with Jacques who she thinks she might marry and with whom she might be in love. She has a tendency to worship at the feet of men that she admires only to become disillusioned, when they do not come up to her expectations. Simone says towards the end of her book that:
'I placed people in two categories, the few for whom I felt a lively affection, and the common herd, for whom I had a disdainful indifference.'
If this sounds snobbish with an underlying lack of consideration for others then this is how Simone is happy to present herself at this time.
At the end of this first part of her biography Simone has crashed into the inner circle of intellectuals (all men) that surrounded Jean-Paul Sartre and he is starting to pay her special attention.
The book ends with the tragic death of her friend Zaza Mabille whose difficulties are similar to Simone's in that she is a clever woman, who struggles to become independent, in her case her failure to do so in Simone's opinion causes her early death. There is a genuine feeling of sorrow in Simon's relationship with Zaza in that she tried her best to help her much loved friend, but could not fight the social pressures under which Zaza eventually buckled.
This autobiography was first published as Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée in 1958 when Simone was fifty years old and there is very much a feeling of the wiser mature woman looking back and thinking deeply about herself as a younger woman. It proves to be a fascinating document not only of Simone's inner thoughts, but also of upper middle class society in France between the wars. The translation by James Kirkup flows well and I am looking forward to reading the next instalment. 4.5 stars.
I also enjoyed reading that many of the students in Simone's circle were blown away by Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meulnes which I have just read.
The language of hyperbole the relentless cruelty of the central character and a play that features one martial exploit after another as the protagonists march across the stage makes the reading of it an exhausting experience. It was however a great hit on the Elizabethan stage, it was the play that put Christopher Marlowe on the map, in fact part 1 was so popular that the sequel part 2 was soon in production and it proved to be remarkably similar to part one without losing its power to shock its audience. If ever a character strode across the stage like a colossus then it would be Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, but over 5 hours of this striding is enough for anybody. Modern productions of the play that wish to tell the whole story (i.e. parts 1 and 2) have tended to make substantial cuts to the text.
Marlowe's play comes under the genre of history plays. Timur of Lenk was a conquering chieftain from the previous century (fifteenth) and was seen both as a cruel barbarian as well as a charismatic figure who threatened christian Europe. Marlowe's Tamburlaine mirrors this dichotomy and in part 1 of the play the audience could both admire and be horrified by the central character, in part 2 the audience is more likely to be horrified as the cruelty takes over and Tamburlaine slips into something like madness. Marlowe depicts the charismatic side of Tamburlain not only by continual reference to his physical attributes but by the use of the language of hyperbole set down in strident iambic pentameters. This language is not only used by Tamburlaine himself, but also by other characters when describing Tamburlaine. In Act 2 scene 1 we get a description by Menaphon an adversary:
Of stature tall, and straightly fashionèd,
Like his desire, lift upwards and devine;
So large of limbs, his joints so strongly knit,
Such breadth of shoulders as might mainly bear
Old Atlas' burden. 'Twixt his manly pitch,
A pearl more worth than all the world is placed,
Wherein by curious sovereignty of art
Are fixed his piercing instruments of sight
Whose fiery circles bear encompassèd
A heaven of heavenly bodies in their spheres...........
And this is Tamburlaine chiding Bajazeth whom he takes prisoner to humiliate and torture:
The Chiefest God, first mover of the sphere
Enchased with thousand ever-shining lamps,
Will sooner burn the glorious frame of heaven
Than it should conspire my overthrow.
But, villain, thou that wishest this to me,
fall prostrate on the low, disdainful earth
And be the footstool of the great Tamburlain,
That I may rise into my royal throne.
(Be very suspicious of anybody that refers to themselves in the third person.)
Elizabethan playgoers had never heard this sort of language before and it has since been dubbed Marlowe's mighty line. The soaring magnificence of Marlowe's mighty line in iambic pentameters would have been key to the popularity of the play, but so would the cruelty of the action onstage: King Bajazeth is kept starving in an iron cage which is brought into the food hall where Tamburlaine holds court, he is offered a knife to kill his caged wife so that he can live from her flesh, finally he beats his brains out on the iron bars as does his wife. The Governor of a besieged city sends out a group of virgins to Tamburlaine to plead for mercy, he hardly listens to their pleas before ordering his horse men to run them through with their spears and has their slaughtered carcasses hoisted up on the walls of the city. He stabs to death one of his own sons who refuses to fight................He orders the death of every man, woman and child of towns who do not surrender within three days of his arrival, commenting that they know my custom my pride would not let me do anything else.
The character of a tyrant who sees himself more exalted than a God is exposed in a soliloquy just after he has ordered the killing of the virgins. He starts significantly by declaring his love for Zenocrate (his sort of love) before ruminating on his place in the world, his virtue, his nobility and his glory. Opposite him plays Zenocrate, who is the daughter of the Sultan of Egypt and whose beauty saves her from being a mere slave of Tamburlaine. He professes his love and makes her his queen, but it is a love based on show, she is a trophy which he loves to parade and Zenocrate accepts her role, first to save her skin and then she grows into being wife to Tamburlaine and exalting his greatness. She is brought up short when she sees the bodies of Bajazeth and his wife, but can rationalise the actions of her husband. Her death in part 2 involves a sumptuous funeral and her coffin is carted around by Tamburlaine and put on display wherever he is fighting his next war. Zenocrate like the audience is charmed by the charisma of Tambulaine and becomes blind or chooses not to see his cruelty.
There are other themes in the play apart from the depiction of a tyrant, but they need to be picked out. Wars of religion and the slaughter of christians by their Moslem enemies makes it impossible for them to combine together to defeat Tamburlaine. Loyalty bred by fear rather than love is another theme, but essentially this is a play about Tamburlain the great. Marlowe's magnificent rhetoric makes this a play to be admired rather than loved. Opening it at any point and the reader can enjoy some brilliant blank verse, but to carry on reading page after page of martial exploits is perhaps not for everyone. It is not a play that I would want to re-read in full and I would hesitate to attend a live production, because the success of the play would depend on the acting of the central character, the way the director handles the action scenes and an atmospheric production. The temptation may be to soak everything in buckets of blood which is not my thing. Let Tamburlaine have the last word:
But since I exercise a greater name ,
The scourge of God and terror of the world,
I must apply myself to fit those terms,
In war, in blood, in death, in cruelty,
And plague such peasants as resist in me
The power of heavens eternal majesty,......
Question: When you say, “Elizabethan playgoers had never heard this sort of language before” - well, what does that say about the relationship between the language in these plays and the language spoken, the normal prose of the era? Maybe it’s not an answerable question.
I also really enjoyed your review of Simone de Beauvoir‘s memoir. Terrific, as I think is everything that shows up here.
It is difficult to put a time line on when exactly plays were written and performed in Elizabethan England but it is thought that Tamburlaine was written in 1587/88 which is probably a couple of years before the first of Shakespeares plays. It marked a turning away from the clumsy language and loose plotting of earlier dramatists. He had perfected the art of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameters) and made the lines comfortable for actors to match the rhythms of speech but also showed them where to place the accents to get the maximum from the lines. It not only flowed better but could be used to create power and tension if handled by a writer such as Marlowe.
Here is an example; The first speech comes from a play by Thomas Lodge written at about the same time - Lodge was considered to be more of a hack writer and this is from his play "The wounds of Civil war"
Scilla hath vowed whole vows the heavens record
Whose othes hath pierst and searched the deepest vast
I and whose protestations reign on earth
This capitol wherin your glories shine
Was near so prest and thronged with scarlet gownes
As Rome shall be with heaps of slaughtered souls
before that Scilla yield his titles up.
Ill make her streets that peer into the clouds
Burnished with gold and Ivory pillars fair,
Shining with Jasper, Jet, and Ebonie,
All like the palace of the morning sun,
To swim within a sea of purple blood
before I loose the name of general.
Here is a speech from Marlowe's Tamburlaine and like the speech by Scilla above Tamburlaine is convincing people of rank to follow him;
In thee, thou valiant man of Persia
I see the folly of thy emperor
Art thou but captain of a thousand horse,
That by characters graven in thy brows
And by thy martial face and stout aspect
Deserv'st to have the leading of an host
Forsake thy king, and do but join with me,
And we will triumph over all the world.
I hold the fates bound fast in iron chains
And with my hand turn Fortunes wheel about,
And sooner shall the sun fall from his sphere
Than Tamburlaine be slain or overcome
Marlowe's use of blank verse runs more smoothly, his metaphors are better more inventive, and the speech reaches a logical conclusion.
The use of iambic pentameters does imitate natural speech patterns, but used in lines of blank verse can take those speech patters to another level, and in Tamburlaine the underlying rhythm of the lines gives the whole play its own distinctive character, but of course people in ordinary life did not speak like that.
In terms if everyday speech, I wasn’t thinking of the poetic rhythms, of course, but the base language. How difficult was it for someone to follow along? Was it a high brow vocab or the natural vocab turned poetic? Were they writing up - for the most educated or on level for the average education, so to speak.
Thomas Lodge - The Wounds of Civil War (Sulla and Marius)
A Looking Glass for London and England Thomas Lodge and Robert Greene
Charles Sisson says of Thomas Lodge; "There was never a truer Elizabethan" in that he explored ways of earning a living or paying his debts, by endless zest and persistence, challenging circumstances by asserting his own wit, his own powers and his own desires. He trained as a lawyer, but there is no record of him practising, however he used his knowledge in a series of endless litigations many of which were against his brother. In Sisson's view he paid a heavy price for the privilege of writing a few charming lyrics, a poor play or two, some second rate satires, a few novels and a pamphlet in defence of the stage. These comments are a little unfair I think because 'The Wounds of Civil War' is somewhat better than a poor play. It is the only play where Lodge is listed as the sole author and it was probably written in 1587/88 about the same time as Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the great. Like Marlowe's play the majority of The Wounds of Civil War was written in blank verse and although it does not reach the heights of Marlowe's writing it does have its moments and the use of iambic pentameters shows some skill.
It was an early example of a history play; it tells the story of the conflict between Sulla and Marius which wrought havoc in Rome between 88 and 78 BC and Lodge adapted the story from Appian's Roman History. Roman conquests are under attack from Mithradites and a general needs to be chosen to direct the Roman legions. The elder statesman/soldier Marius is chosen by the senate, but Sulla a younger commander disputes the choice and drives Marius and his supporters out of Rome. Sulla defeats Mithradites and returns to Rome in triumph only to find that Marius has returned and rallied support for himself. There is in effect a civil war between the two resulting in each leader ordering the slaughter of the others' supporters as well as any citizens who get in the way. Anthony a supporter of Sulla provides much of the moral commentary as he tries to stop the bloodshed:
Unhappy Rome and Romans thrice accurst
That oft with triumphs fill'd your city walls
With kings and conquering rulers of the world,
Now to eclipse in top of all thy pride
Through civil discords and domestic broils.
O Romans, weep the tears of sad lament
And rend your sacred robes at this exchange,
For Fortune makes our Rome a bandying ball
Toss'd from her hand to take the greater fall.
The play concerns itself almost totally with the power struggle, showing how the two leaders intransigence leads to death and destruction in Rome. There are no subplots and no female characters to speak of and the moral that lust for power and prestige can lead to civil war that causes the deaths of many people is plain to see. The last of the five acts is an anti-climax; Sulla enjoys his triumph for only a few months deciding that he has had enough of public life and retires to his country estate. Lodge shoehorns in a comic interlude, but this fails to enliven the final speeches of the play. It would have been a clear example for all those involved in Elizabethan politics not to disrupt the stability of Elizabeth's reign.
A Looking Glass for London and England was the only other play bearing Thomas Lodge's name and this was written in conjunction with Robert Greene, although Lodge's name is in bigger letters on the frontispiece. This was written a few years after The Wounds of Civil War and although more ambitious in content is not much of an improvement on a simple moral play that could have been performed some twenty years earlier.
This time Lodge stages a story from the bible interspersed from scenes taken from contemporary London. The book of Jonah depicts the city of Nineveh as a wicked city worthy of destruction. God sent Jonah to preach to the city of its coming destruction. The message was heard and the Ninevehans repented their sins in time for God to spare the city. In the play we first meet King Rasni who has just defeated the king of Jerusalem, he has returned home in state and now plans to marry his sister because he now sees himself as a God who can command nature. One of his attendant Lords says
'O my Lord not sister to thy love
Tis incest and too foule a fact for kings
Nature allows no limits to such lust'
The attendant is promptly exiled and Rasni goes ahead with his plans while also coveting one of his fellow king's wives. Interspersed with this story are a series of comic episodes involving a clown, a blacksmith an apprentice and various drunken ruffians. The stories intertwine when Rasni stepping out of his Palace trips over the drunk clown and a man bleeding to death. Separate scenes also take place in contemporary London where a Gentleman, and a poor man are both running foul of a usurer, who is heartlessly calling in his debt and bribing a lawyer and a judge to obtain the right result in court. These scenes seem to be taken from Lodge's own personal experience of usury and corruption in the courts of law. The scenes in Nineveh are written in blank verse for the story of Rasni and in ordinary prose for the comic interlude. The scenes in London are largely in ordinary prose. At the end of each scene there is Ofeas as a sort of Greek chorus summing up the action in a pithy song/poem. A mixture of styles that works well enough although the blank verse sections are not as good as those in The Wounds of Civil War: The repentant usurer gets the best speech towards the end of the play and this seems to come from the heart of Thomas Lodge. The play was obviously written as a spectacle because there are violent storm scenes, a character is destroyed in a pillar of fire, Jonah is regurgitated from the body of the whale straight onto the stage and there is an apparition of an angel holding a sword over the frightened citizens of Nineveh. There is plenty of opportunity for comic acting and in the London scenes the poor man comes up with a series of fart jokes. This seems like a play that wanted to have something for everybody it was made to entertain and it was a success as a number of performances were recorded.
Characterisation is pretty much zero and the story line is aimed to present a moral that wicked behaviour will be punished if people do not repent in time. The repentance of the citizens of Nineveh is mirrored in the repentance of the usurer in London. In my opinion The Wounds of Civil War with its good passages of blank verse and its straightforward story telling is the more impressive of the two plays and in some ways the most modern. A looking Glass for London and England is a melange that looks backwards rather than forwards and would have little relevance for modern theatre goers. I can find no record of a modern production for either play. As examples of plays performed on the Elizabethan stage a few years prior to Shakespeare and not now considered to be relevant to the modern stage then they are worth a read. 3 stars for The Wounds of Civil War but only 2 for A Looking Glass.
I was fascinated to see the things you read and the way you review them. I used to read early science fiction, but have not found it that enjoyable. I read Spanish but poorly, but my English is quite flexible and comfortable. Do comment, if you care to. Can you suggest someone to help me? Yourself? Did you like the poem? I hope I didn't disappoint you. Oh, I hear the dulcet tones of a grandchild's voice coming in my back door. Time to go be Grandma!
I have become less interested in contemporary literature - most of it I find fairly puerile; as soon as those all-knowing wisecracks start I am ready for throwing the book across the room, but I do need some variety and so I have two other projects, one is to read all those unread books on my bookshelves (much of that is 20th century literature) and the other is classics of science fiction, a genre that I gobbled up as a teenager. I am also trying to improve my french (pretty essential as I live in France) and so I have a French reading list as well.
My books now almost select themselves from my own reading lists and I never have to worry about what I should read next . Thats got to be an advantage.
I did like your poem. I can appreciate how difficult it is to concentrate when suffering from a chronic pain syndrome and I count my lucky stars that most of my reading is pain free. I have no children and therefore no grandchildren and so my only distractions are a fairly hectic social life; since we retired this has seemed to increase exponentially, but long may that continue...................
About 2 years ago I started two reading projects, but they were fizzled by increasing pain and disability when I had a spinal injury. (Somewhere I explained that I had surgery a month ago and my right leg was paralyzed for a while.) I realized I had missed a few, and I went back to the beginning of the Hugo awards and began reading and acquiring them in order. I made it up to 1971, a time when I had great access to library collections and read Science Fiction constantly. In addition, I began to read or reread sacred books from the whole world. I had already read the Eddas and many Sagas, the Mabinogion, the Bhagavad Gita, the book of the Tao, the Book of the Dead, the entire Bible many times. I needed to reread some and look for others. I had only a passing knowledge of the Torah and Koran, had limited exposure to most Eastern traditions. I also began to collect the original stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood. I lusted for the Childe ballads, too. I have read very little from Africa, Russia, Germany, Australia, Indonesia, and the Americas. Is there literature from Zoroaster? There must be stories, at least. Did you know that Freddie Mercury was a lineal descendant of Zoroaster? I started with some background of the Mabinogion, and that was when my spinal injury occurred. I managed to hang on until my official retirement age plus two months. I was then forced to retire because I couldn't work any more, and I was so grateful, but in far too much pain to do anything. It seemed like a waste of retirement, rolling around in bed and moaning much of the day and all night. Sorry to bring that up again. I am not looking for any specific response, just putting that in time order. I hope to get back to the project soon.
I have always been interested in Comparative Religions and Anthropology. I myself am Agnostic, but my husband and kids are Atheists. I need to read or reread the early works on Psychology and Anthropology, although I have a reasonable acquaintance with them, a little dusty now. You are right, there is more to read than I will ever get to, but I don't mind rereading.
Here's the latest poem:
Poem # 9
Bird-houses in shallow water sway with each wave.
Angels turn like dervishes, screwdrivers to the world,
Seeing to its winding. Their wings so like handles.
Their faces are set and still.
But the things of the earth are never still.
Even a motionless man or woman is occupied,
They reify their Fathers wrapped in winding sheets
Issac Babel was born in Odessa (Russia) in 1894 and was executed on 27 January 1940 as part of the Stalin purges. His career as a writer could be described as patchy. He achieved fame when some of his short stories were published in Moscow in 1923. These were taken from two of his collections: Red Cavalry and Odessa. Other stories appeared later but he seems to have struggled to publish much else. If his writing career was patchy so is much of the information concerning his life in Russia and much of this is down to the man himself. His daughter who lived in Paris and was ten years old when Isaac Babel died claims that he was a man who spun stories about his life; he could have been a spy working for one of the groups in Revolutionary Russia, he was almost certainly a cavalry officer if we can believe the stories he told in Red Cavalry, his 'autobiographical' stories describe a life in a jewish family struggling to cling to their religion and identity in the face of pogroms and racially motivated cleansing operations and he seems to have inside knowledge of the jewish criminal gangs operating in Odessa. We know that he tried to make a name as a film script writer and published a couple of plays, but his fame today rests on his short stories.
This book is a penguin Classics edition and groups his short stories in three main sections: Early Stories and Autobiographical Stories, Red Cavalry and Odessa stories. They are clearly the work of the same author with their mixture of realistic incidents and impressionistic flourishes that serve at times to wrong foot the reader. They are mainly told from a first person perspective or that first person is inserted into the story, here is a typical example from Sunset, one of the Odessa gangster stories:
'Benchik' he said let us take this job on ourselves, and people will come and kiss our feet. let us kill Papasha, whom the Moldavanka no longer call Mendel Krik. The Moldavanka calls him Mendel the Pogrom. Let us kill Papasha - can we wait any longer?'
'It is not yet time' replied Benchik, 'but time is passing. Listen to its footsteps and make way for it. Step aside, Lyovka.
And Lyovka stepped aside, in order to make way for time. It started on it's path - time, the old cashier - and on its path it met Dvoyra, the King's sister, Manasse, the driver, and the Russian girl Marusya Yevtushenko.
Even ten years ago I knew men who wanted Dvoyra, the daughter of Mendel the Pogrom...................................................
This first person approach adds realism or perhaps makes all the stories a sort of eye witness account. Babel may have been both a Cavalry officer and an Odessa gangster, but first and foremost he was a jewish writer, a Russian jewish writer and this is evident from both the stories in the autobiographical section and in the Odessa section. Curiously enough the author's jewish identity is subsumed in the Red Cavalry stories. Here a young man reports incidents from the wars that followed the Russian revolution: the Poles seem to be the enemy but factions from the red army and the white army are adept at changing sides. It really is the fog of war where individual incidents are used to demonstrate the dehumanising effect of what seems to be an endless war. There are some graphically explicit incidents described in a matter of fact way with elements of conversation that might have been an inspiration for Joseph Heller's Catch 22. Certainly the reader is made to feel the mud, the blood, the confusion and the self serving of a cavalry squadron in an age where horses were being overtaken by machinery as a weapon of war. Various officers and other characters appear and reappear in the stories but there is no underlying progression, there is however the attempt by the author to fit in, to conceal his jewishness and the final story ends:
I had to leave. I got a transfer to the sixth squadron. There things were better. Somehow or the other, Argamak had taught me how to sit in the saddle the Tikohomolov way. My dream was fulfilled. The Cossaks stopped following me and my horse with their eyes.
In collections of stories such as this some will stand out because of the content of the stories others for the portrayal of a time and place that is unfamiliar. Babel rarely fails to establish a background that is both exotic and interesting, but he can lose the reader with an overstuffing of titles and place names. Many of the stories are in some respects fragmentary incidents (especially in Red Cavalry) that have to stand on their own, eye witness accounts that have no revelatory plot twists designed to amuse; the reader must make their own judgement and draw their own conclusions. However the last two stories in the Odessa section serve to demonstrate the culture clashes caused by the revolution. 'The End of the Almshouses' tells of a group of jewish people who are housed in a building in the cemetery wall, they make a living by digging graves, washing bodies and burying the dead. The revolution has caused a shortage of wood and so the working group hit on the idea of re-using the same coffin, the living is good as people are prepared to pay, however when a local war hero is buried with military honours the workers are not able to save their coffin. Belts must be tightened, food becomes scarce and when a member of a new revolutionary council visits the cemetery the almshouses are cleared. Karl-Yankel is the story of a Jewish grandmother who kidnaps her grandson in order for a backstreet circumcision to be performed. The father returning from the war takes his grandmother to a tribunal for retribution and their follows a trial which describes the hysteria that such a clash of culture can produce.
Isaac Babel is now firmly ensconced in the canon of Russian writers and certainly in the smaller canon of Russian jewish writers. His short stories plunge the reader into an era and a culture that is entirely convincing. When I finished the book I discovered there is now available a single volume of Babel's collected works, which includes all his stories, his film scripts some letters and his plays. I was tempted to make another purchase but have contented myself by thinking I have perhaps already read the best of his stories and a re-read of these would serve just as well. I found the translation by David McDuff a bit clanky in parts, but this may be due to the style of Babel's prose. The new collected volume has a different translator.
Paul Bailey - Gabriel's Lament
Paul Bailey's collection of odd-ball characters that make up Gabriel's lament are treated with a humanity that made them real. The overbearing father, the clever but shy, reserved son, the mother that appears to leave for no reason, the van Pelts: the fathers crony friends, Katherine the mad aunt and the collection of character that the son Gabriel Harvey meets in his struggle for independence all pack the novel with characters that feel might live round the corner. The story is told in the first person by Gabriel who blames his father for his mothers disappearance and for all that appears wrong in his world.
Oswald Harvey; Gabriel's father dominates this book. His presence is felt in almost every aspect of his son's life even though he left home when he was seventeen. Bailey's portrait of Oswald Harvey is nothing short of magnificent, A working class man with all the prejudices of a working class conservative inherits a large sum of money from a titled employer that he served for a number of years. The money entitles him to become the snob he had always been, but it drives away his wife who is thirty years younger and the lecturing hectoring father becomes too much for his shy son. The trick that Bailey pulls off is that however bad the son's view of his father appears to be, the reader never loses the sight that Oswald is probably doing his best and that the son can also appear ungrateful and difficult. The book is set mainly in London from the 1950's onwards and certainly the racist, sexist, snobbish views of Oswald are not surprising to anybody who remembers those times in a working class community. The problem for Gabriel is that he cannot cope with his father's presence and takes to hero worshipping his mother.
Gabriel eventually becomes a writer and his only novel 'Lords of Light' hits pay-dirt and an invitation for a reading in Minnesota (America) when he is still a 40 year old virgin, and a legacy from his father Oswald who has died a double amputee focuses his attention on the past that haunts him, but he realises that there is still much work to do before he can move on.
Bailey gives Oswald all the best stories and all the best lines, it is a portrait slightly grotesque, but alway humorous: a loveable old rogue might be stretching it a bit, but this is how Oswald must appear to his cronies down at the local public house. When he comes into the money he stops drinking beer and takes to drinking whiskey with his new friends in his splendid new house. Gabriel nicknamed the starch-angel by his school friends and Piss-a-bed by his father cannot compete and must get away for his own sanity. However Gabriel's stories taken from his novel 'Lords of Light' which he quotes to his new American audience, do not compete with the stories his father told. Much of the book is focused on Gabriel's issues with his family and his own prejudices and fantasies, but in the final section a new theme emerges and it is the power of religious preachers, con-artists and charlatans over the working classes. Gabriel's book and his American visit introduces this aspect to the novel and while it is easy to ridicule some of the American TV evangelists it does not quite sit with the majority of the novel.
It is a bildungsroman and the story is told mainly in linear fashion, but Bailey is able to include some flashes forward and flashes backwards that intrigue the reader and help fill out the story, without turning into a stream of conscious type puzzle. The writing is good throughout with some wit, but no self serving wisecracks, it feels a little old fashioned in places (the book was first published in 1986), but this fits well with the period that the story covers and the milieu of 1950's London. Gabriel's Lament was shortlisted for the 1986 Booker prize and Bailey a grammar school boy from Battersea in London is perfectly at home with his subject matter. The book does not pretend to deal with most of the grand themes of literature, but within it's perhaps limited aims it strikes me as entirely successful, if a little quaint. A four star read for me, but if this is the only book that I read by Paul Bailey I will be satisfied.
The True Tragedy of Richard III - anonymous
The full title of the play as printed on the front sheet is The true tragedie of Richard the third wherein is showne the death of Edward the fourth, with the smothering of the two yoong princes in the Tower: with a lamentable ende of Shores wife, an example for all wicked women. And lastly, the coniunction and ioyning of the two noble houses, Lancaster and Yorke. As it was playd by the Queenes Maiesties Players. This of course gives some idea of the contents but it misses out the best portion of the play which is the climax of the Battle at Bosworth field. The play was printed in 1594, but was probably written and performed some five years earlier. It is not performed today because of the later Shakespeare version, which most people would agree is a far superior version of the historical events. It is important though as an early example of a play based on English history and dramatically it has its moments.
It was printed without an author on the title page and it may well have been transcribed from an actual performance. There have been many theories on who wrote the play from it being a very early play by the bard himself to Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Lodge, George Peel or Uncle Tom Cobbly and all. My guess is that it may have been Uncle Tom Cobbly and all in that it was written by more than one hand or that the 1594 production suffered some revisions. The connection with Shakespeare is obvious because there are similarities both in the events and the text: for example in the True Tragedie when Richard III is unhorsed at Bosworth field the True Tragedy reads:
A horse, a horse, a fresh horse
A flie my Lord and save your life
Flie Villaine, looke as tho I would flie................
But enough of this conjecture on authorship as I am no scholar, and my interest in who might or might not have written the play is limited, after all we have a text in front of us to read which is the most important thing.
Having established that the True Tragedie (TT) is an early example of an English history play, how does it fit with those plays that we know were being written for the Elizabethan theatre and is it a worthwhile read? It does not have the uniformity of vision that can be seen in Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy or Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, this may be because there is an unholy mixture of prose, poetry, blank verse, and prose that could have been verse in an earlier production. Some of the text written in verse form varies from four syllables to 14 syllable in a matter of a few lines. This is especially true in the first half of the play. It does however have a story to tell and it does this in linear fashion which is easy to read and largely develops the story to a climax at Bosworth field and ends with the coronation of the new king Henry VII and a panegyric to Elizabeth I. Dramatically it seems to work. There is perhaps some advance in characterisation: Richard III is unremittingly bad, however he does have speeches where he explains his motives and in his 'revenge speech' (revenge is mentioned 15 times) he gives an impression of a king tormented by his past deeds, and his madness is that he sees no alternative but to carry on with his lust to be king. Perhaps the only other character to emerge from the history story is Shores wife, she explains her fears when she realise that Edward IV is dying: she has been his mistress for a number of years and her position at court is one of considerable power and patronage, once Edward dies she fears that she will be stripped of all her money and land. Her worse fears come true not only does the vengeful Richard strip her off her land and money he strips her of her clothes and forces her on the streets to beg as a penance. She has her own scene where she approaches various courtiers and servants and they all deny her charity fearing retribution from Richard. It is this interlude that seems to kick start the action and we soon move onto the murder of the princess in the tower with the play naming the characters responsible who are hired by Richard to do the deed. The murder is seen on stage with the princess fearing the worst.
The battle of Bosworth field is describes well with the important switching of sides by Lord Stanly effectively portrayed. Richard the tyrant becomes stripped of accomplices and the final duel with the Earl of Richmond takes place on stage and is described afterwards by the Page for added effect. The play then moves onto the crowning of the new king and his wish to unite the houses of York and Lancaster in peace and prosperity. The audience is then given a brief history lesson bringing them up to date with the glorious reign of Elizabeth I. Yes there are ragged moments and the play takes some time to get into its stride. A better copy of the play might have resulted in some better verse, because the quality of the writing is not consistent especially when some of the best wording is lost in prose form. There is little poetry in the play and few memorable speeches and apart from Shore's wife's begging scene it is a bit one paced. The author or authors whoever they were knew how to provide a workable drama of recent English history and although the play was easily surpassed by Shakespeare some years later it is still worth a read for those with an interest. A three star read.
Arthur C Clarke - Childhood's End
Published in 1953 Chilhood's End is another from the SF Masterworks series. It is one that I have not read before and I was amazed at just how good it is. It seems to avoid many the tropes of 1950's fiction that might bother readers in the 21st century, for example excruciating sexism, nasty racism and problem solving by beating the crap out of your adversary. Instead it is a story that sets the imagination reeling in a quiet methodical way. An advanced alien race appear in huge space ships above earth, they are intellectually, technologically and militarily light years ahead of mankind. They are benevolent god like figures who remain hidden, but guide human beings towards a golden age. They are known as the overlords and communicate with one representative from the human race. They become accepted by the majority, but opposition grows because the questions of who are they and why are they here remain unanswered. From this scenario Clarke develops a story that is mysterious, shocking and full of wonder as events take an altogether unexpected turn.
The storytelling is straightforward and Clarke writes well enough, characterisation is adequate, it is the story, the plot, the science fiction that drives this book forward. It is the sort of book that as a teenager I would not have been able to put down and I read it over a couple of days this time round. Imaginative science fiction that you do not need a physics diploma to understand, what's not to like if you feel like giving yourself up to an entertaining read. I loved it and so 5 stars.
The Spanish Armada - Colin Martin & Geoffrey Parker
The book is a straightforward re-examination of the Spanish Armada posing the question; why did it fail? Its coffee table format hosts a number of photographs of paintings, drawings and diagrams as well as information in tabular form, it is attractively presented and carries enough detail to interest the casual browser to look further. Martin's background is in archeology while Parker specialises in military and so they have combined resources for this publication. It was first published in 1988; the Spanish Armada took place in 1588 and so this book celebrates its 400 hundredth birthday. It is by no means the last word on the subject as Robert Hutchinson's book published in 2014 will testify.
The book's first part examines the build up to the Spanish fleet entering the English channel, while part 2 cuts back to put the event in its historical context, some hundred pages later the authors are ready to continue with the battle. This is neatly done and while 40 years of European history in one hundred pages must be sketchy in parts, the book does well to concentrate on the issues that would affect the outcome of the Armada. Part 3 covers the actual fighting and part 4 covers the tattered remains of the Armada seeking to return to Spain via Scotland and Ireland.
Much of the book concentrates on the Spaniards part in the affair and this is because they kept better records which are a mine of information for historians. English records for all sorts of reasons do not carry the same amount of detail; for example there is no list of the English ships that took part. The reader does feel he is travelling in the Armada with the Duke of Medina Sidonia; Philip II's Captain General of the Ocean sea and is introduced to all the various sub commanders. The Spanish were the aggressors and in many ways it was there battle to lose and so concentrating on their tactics and their society gives a fuller picture of the events.
Martin and Parker are intent on exposing the popular myths that it was bad luck and bad weather that caused the Armada to fail, along with the better manoeuvrability of the English ships. According to the two authors a bigger factor at play was the use of artillery and the command structures of the Spanish navy which led to communication difficulties. They tell a convincing story of the battle itself along with potted histories of the ships that struggled to get home in the aftermath. The military historian is in his element here with details of the canons and shot used by each side and a pattern emerges that gave the English sailors an advantage that they used to the full in the final decisive battle just off the shores of Calais. In many respects this is fact based history well researched that is livened up with diagrams, pictures and tables. The actual events are exciting and desperate enough and do not warrant any dressing up.
Despite this being an English book and publication one gets the feeling that the Authors sympathies are with the Spanish. They tell with some admiration of Philip II efforts to ensure the well being of the sailors that managed to get back to Spain which was in stark contrast to Elizabeth and her courtiers who were intent on letting her soldiers and sailors starve in order to save money. The idea of a strictly religious jihad against a pack of privateers and pirates lingers below the surface of this book. I was entertained and informed and so 4 stars.
I suppose the test of a coffee table book is to leave it on your coffee table to see if anyone picks it up - I wonder.......................
I believe Parker spent most of his career in Spanish archives reading Phillip II’s correspondence: it’s probably not surprising that the book is more interested in the Spanish side than the English! I read his most recent Phillip book, Imprudent king, not long ago - that was excellent too. He talks a lot in that book about communication delays and reluctance to delegate decision-making to local commanders as causes of the failure of the Armada (and other Spanish ventures of the time).
So, did anyone pick it up yet?
To defend them against the
SCANDALOUS REPORTES OF
a late Surfeiting Lover, and all other like
Venerians that complaine so to bee
overcloyed with womens
Written by Ja: A. Gent.
Printed by Richard Jones, and Thomas
Jane Anger - Her Protection for Women
Little is known of Jane Anger, whose name has come down to us because of her authorship of Her Protection of Women which was the first full length pamphlet to be published by a women in defence of her sex. This is not a gentle riposte to the many and varied slanderous pamphlets/books written by men against women, but a full throated roar of outrage. She says in her introduction to The Gentlewomen:
"I will not urge reasons because your wits are sharp and will soone conceive my meaning, ne will I be tedious least I proove too too troublesome, nor over darke in my writing, for feare of the name of a Ridler. But (in a worde) for my presumption I crave pardon, because it was ANGER that did write it: committing your protection, and my selfe, to the protection of your selves, and the judgement of the cause to the censures of your just mindes"
She aims her first barbs at the male writers who she says are so carried away with their own vanities that they write beyond the boundaries of their own wits and when they have exhausted their arguments they can always turn to a safe (for them) subject: the castigation of women, because they know that male readers will support their views and there will not be women brave enough to refute them: "and they think we wil not write to reproove their lying lips:"
Jane Anger soon makes herself clear where in her view the fault lies and that is the lust and lechery of men;
"If we wil not suffer them to smell on our smockes, they will snatch at our peticotes:"
Their unbridled lust causes them to lie, to cheat, to dissemble and they are never satisfied. Jane Anger points out that from Roman times laws have been passed to keep lechery in check, but this does not stop men from pursuing women for their own ends. It should be noted here that this is very much an us and them invective; as most women are tarred with the same brush in male writing then Anger is doing something similar here. It is clear there are few exemptions, few real gentlemen.
Anger delves into classical writing to give examples of how male authors have continued to interpret myths and stories to denigrate women. She also comes up with a few stories of her own. Her writing is lively and direct and strangely entertaining, reading it some 400 years plus after it was written. However as Anger herself points out those women that she was trying to protect were often in life or death situations when deciding as to their course of action following sexual advances from men. What is writ large in her advice is; do not believe a word a man says when being flattered; folly, vice, mischief, lust, deceit and pride will be motivators for the actions of these men. I found this document amazing for its forthright views; there is no heavy handed religious moral story here and no prudery, this is a woman speaking out against a male dominated society, where those men are using whatever means possible to subject women to their needs/lusts. Jane says:
"It hath bene affirmed by some of their sex, that to shun a shower of rain, & to know the way to our husbands bed is wisedome sufficient for us women: but in this yeare of 88, men are grown so fantastical, that unles we can make them fooles, we are accounted unwise."
A four star read and a quote in the form of a poem on cuckoldry where Jane is saying cuckolds deserve all that is coming to them:
The Gods most just doe justly punish sinne
with those same plagues which men do most forlorn,
If filthy lust in men to spring begin,
That monstrous sin he plagueth with the horne.
their wisdome great wherby they men forewarne,
to shun vild lust, lest they wil weare the horne.
Deceitfull men with guile must be repaid,
And blowes for blowes who renders not againe?
The man that is of Coockolds lot affraid,
From Lechery he ought for to refraine.
Els shall he have the plague he doth forlorne:
and ought perforce constrain'd to wear the horne.
The Greeke, Acteons badge did weare, they say,
And worthy too, he loved the smocke so wel,
That everie man may be a Bull I pray,
Which loves to follow lust (his game) so well.
For by that meanes poore women shall have peace
and want these jarres. Thus doth my censure cease.
Thanks for the ref. Will be looking for a pretty edition.
Anne Dowriche published her French History in 1589. She was the daughter of a prominent Cornish family who were fiercely protestant. Her French history which covers four events during the French wars of religion takes the form of a poem which stretches to over 2400 lines. It is written in rhyming couplets with end stopped lines of mainly 14-16 stresses and as a poem it has little literary merit.
It was a tract that served as an invective against the catholic religion and its purpose was served by highlighting a number of atrocities from the French religious wars which Dowriche embellished to demonstrate the evils of Popery.
She has recourse to Satan himself to influence the events that she describes and her modus operandi is to use stories from the bible to reflect on the evil actions of the catholics in France. She uses a framing device of the poet/speaker coming across an exiled Huguenot who is tramping the English countryside bemoaning his experiences; the poet invites him to his house to tell his stories. The narrative stories have their moments as Dowriche does not pull back from her bloody invective and her description of the St Bartholomew's day massacre of 1572 is quite effective.
A mixture of history and religious propaganda that was probably written to stir up the protestants in England against the catholics. I read it as one of the few examples of women's writing from the Elizabethan period, but I would be at a loss to distinguish it from much other writing of the time. 2 stars.
Intrigued by your current stage of Tudor-era female authors. (Sometimes I wonder what Shakespeares’ strong female characters say about the era - or if they’re really strong or it’s just my misunderstanding.)
Simone de Beauvoir - The Prime of Life.
Why do authors commit themselves to writing an autobiography. Is is to tell the story of an interesting life? perhaps to put the record straight? to reveal the inner workings of the mind or to supply reasons for their actions. Of course it could be because they wish to augment or aggrandise their fame or to increase their stock in public life, whatever the reason they do leave themselves open for judgement by their readers. Simone de Beauvoir's The Prime of Life covers fifteen years of her life from 1929 to 1944 in over 600 pages of densely written paragraphs and in her introduction she reveals why she has embarked on this second instalment. She claims that by revealing details of her own life she is also telling the story of other lives and in this case particularly that of her long term friend and lover Jean-Paul Sartre. She also says it is a way of dealing with the age old questions that writers are asked by their admirers: why do they write and what is involved? She goes on to say that she has no intention of telling her readers everything and that:
'there are many things which I firmly intend to leave in obscurity'.
Why should this be one wonders, is she trying not to cause any harm, or any offence to friends and associates, is she being economical with the truth or does she wish to avoid accusations of scandal-mongering? My own interpretation is that for all the detail and all the soul searching that is evident in this tome of an autobiography there is a big fat "elephant in the room"
There is no doubt that de Beauvoir has an interesting story to tell, the fifteen years covers the flourishing artistic world in France following the emergence from the devastation of the first world war and then the rise of Fascism in neighbouring Germany which led inevitably to the second world war. She spent the majority of the war in Paris under Nazi occupation and brings vividly to life firstly the flight from the invading troops and then the uneasy co-existence with the regime in Paris. A high point of the book is her description of the liberation of Paris, especially the fraught few days when the Germans were evacuating before the eventual arrival of the allied troops.
She was the confidant, lover and friend to Jean-Paul Sartre: she describes their life together, and their life apart because often they found themselves posted to different towns in their teaching profession. Their relationship was very much a meeting of minds, she tells of their joint development as writers and how they helped each other. At times this has the feeling of Boswell's biography of Dr Johnson in that we are told in great detail of the hotels they used and the meals they ate. She in particular had a desire to see and experience all that life could offer and she became a little obsessive in her holidays and hiking tours, sometimes dragging an uncomplaining Sartre along with her. They were frequently low on money relying on their teachers pay and she takes pride in telling how they were happy to 'rough it' on their travels.
De Beauvoir reflects long and hard on her own writing career and her thoughts on the 'big questions'. She reveals early on that she sees two main tendencies in herself, a zest for life and an urge towards literary achievement.
She fights to live more in the moment and to banish her fears, she wishes to be able to take things in her stride as Sartre seems more able to do. She reflects on the meaning of her life and her fears of death. She says she does not see herself as a philosopher, but it is clear that she helps Sartre with his theories and his writing. On her own account she tells why she writes and what she is trying to achieve in her novel writing. She goes into some detail, giving synopsis and critique of her own writing projects. This does provide some insight into her work although her examination of her unpublished work can get a little tedious.
The artistic milieu that was part of Parisian life and which swirled around the intellectual couple especially after Sartre and then de Beauvoir became published authors is lovingly described. We are told of the books they admired, the films they saw, the plays in which they became involved and of course the people with whom they were associated: writers Malraux, Camus, Jean Genet, artists Giacometti and Picasso and the entourage surrounding Charles Dullin: theatre manager and director. The cafes and hotels where they worked, the restaurants they frequented, the streets of Paris and the walks, the hiking and the holidays all around the country all serve as detailed background to the lives of this special couple.
Yes, it is the special couple aspect of this autobiography that begins to raise concerns with this reader. Certainly de Beauvoir's "urge towards literary achievement" is the prime mover in her life, so much so that I get the feeling that if someone desperately needed help; perhaps choking to death then Simone, would be minded to finish the book she was reading first. She and Sartre are totally wrapped up in their own lives. They are aware of the rise of fascism in Germany, but are in almost total denial to the build up to war, they see the persecution of their Jewish friends and keep their heads below the parapet. Friends and colleagues get involved in political action, but Simone and Sartre go on holiday. Their work as writers always comes first. However there is another aspect to this special couple that de Beauvoir needs to leave in obscurity and the elephant in the room is their sexual predilections. Early in their relationship Sartre and de Beauvoir agree to have an open relationship where they are free to indulge in love affairs. Simone reveals that she has trouble controlling her sexual urges and is obviously bisexual and goes on to say she does not want to involve her readers in sexual tittle tattle and so we have to read between the lines that when she says that she is meeting someone or staying with someone she is probably sleeping with them and likewise with Sartre. However she begins to refer to a string of pupils that become special friends and who also become friendly with Sartre. Students some as young as sixteen end up staying with her and she refers to them as a trio or as family. She describes how difficult some of these young students can be and the tensions that results from what becomes obvious to me is a menage-a-trois. Perhaps worse than that is the thought that de Beauvoir may have been procuring students for Sartre. She was dismissed from her teaching post for an inappropriate relationship with one of her students.
Autobiographies often leave authors open to judgement by their readers, sometimes from what they choose not to say and it is always tempting to read between the lines. De Beauvoir's Prime of Life was first published in France in 1960 when many of the people to whom she refers were still alive and obviously she had to be careful what she said. I detect nothing malicious or gossipy in her revelations and she rarely has anything bad to say about the people in her circle. I think she was being as honest as she could possibly be, unfortunately this honesty lays bare the selfish and at times patronising approach to life taken by this special couple who may also have been a predatory couple. As readers we do not always have to like or approve of the actions of the subjects of biographies, but what we do want is some additional knowledge of the people involved and a realistic portrayal of the context surrounding the world in which they lived. We certainly get this from de Beauvoir's autobiography, but I think that perhaps she has revealed a little too much and the detail can be a little overwhelming even tedious and so 4 stars.
Edward Everett Hale - The Brick moon and other stories.
This collection of short stories attracted me because of the title of the first story The Brick Moon, which according to the science fiction encyclopaedia is the first known depiction of an artificial satellite. Published in 1869, it is a mixture of science, speculative fiction and morality although the science is not plausible science, but for the readership of the mid nineteenth century this might not have been an issue. It is well written and as a piece of speculative fiction it works well; with enough realism to make it seem possible.
A group of friends have an idea of launching into space an orbiting artificial moon to aid sailors calculating longitude. It must be brick so as to withstand the heat of air friction when launched (the word satellite is not used at this time). The artificial moon would be a rough sphere 200 feet in diameter and the interior would be a mainly hollow space with interconnected brick supports. The brick moon is launched by means of stored water power through a flywheel contraption that has been patiently constructed over a period of some months. When finally constructed the engineers and workers shelter inside the moon in an exceptional cold spell of weather and wake up to find themselves launched into space.
There are seven other stories, all quite different but none have the same kind of imagination as found in the Brick Moon. I enjoyed Crusoe in New York which has an atmosphere all of its own; a kind of claustrophobia arising from a family living in a house constructed specially in a space between a church wall and another dwelling in the heart of New York. The Lost Palace also has an air of mystery telling the story of a lost carriage when a train jumps a ravine.
Edward Everett Hale was an American author, historian and Unitarian minister and was recognised early on as something of a child prodigy where literature was concerned. He wrote 'The man without a Country' which was intended to strengthen the Union Cause in the North. Throughout his life he contributed short stories, articles and sermons to various publications. Some of the stories in this collection are worth a read and I rate them as 3 stars. (free on the internet)
L Sprague De Camp - Rogue Queen
L Sprague de Camp was a prolific author of over a 100 books, many in conjunction with his wife Catherine Crook. He made his name as one of the leading American authors of science fiction and fantasy in the late 1930's and 1940's, but perhaps he is best known today for his sword and sorcery novels that he turned to later in life. The Rogue Queen is one of his most highly regarded science fiction titles although it is helped by some excellent adventure/fantasy writing that keeps the story moving on towards its conclusion.
The story is set on a planet inhabited by a humanoid species whose civilisation has developed along the lines of bees in a hive; in as much as individual colonies have a Queen who is served by male drones who live alongside neutered workers. The male drones are subject to a periodic cull while the worker neutrals run the colony in support of the queen. The books point of view is one of the worker neutrals "Iroedh" who is part of a working party sent out to meet a human detachment who have landed on the planet as part of an information gathering expedition. The bee people's civilisation is stuck in the bronze age, but the meeting with 20th century type humans causes a violent change in their culture, despite the humans attempts not to interfere. Iroedh's curiosity and need of the human's help in her own nascent feeling of love for a condemned drone drives the story, which becomes a story about how a more civilised culture can have a long lasting effect on a more primitive and differently organised culture.
The writing and general drive of the story telling is akin to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian series books. The adventure story is very well handled with some tension, suspense and sword play, but with the added theme of the help given to the protagonists by the humans who have problems and issues of their own. There is romance and the world building of the bee peoples culture gives a background to an exotic science fiction adventure story. Light entertainment it might be, but there was enough here to hold my interest and it never became too corny. Three stars.
>163 baswood: Also enjoyed the review of the Simone de Beauvoir, which I read in the later 90s after reading The Second Sex. I had difficulty getting through it as i remember, thought it a bit boring (perhaps I just wasn't ready for it....)
The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England - George Peele - Edited by Charles R Forker.
The anonymous The Troublesome Reign of King John (TR) was printed in 1591 and Probably composed in 1589-90. It was rewritten by Shakespeare perhaps five or six years later and printed in the first folio in 1623 under the title The Life and Death of King John. Is it worth reading the anonymous play when we have Shakespeare's more famous version to hand? This is a question I asked myself when I started reading TR and found myself frequently turning to Shakespeare to appreciate the differences.
I read TR in the Revels Plays edition published by Manchester University Press, which claims to be 'a fully annotated, historically contextualised and modernised text of the most formative Elizabethan chronicle play apart from Shakespeare and Marlowe's Edward II.' The edition is edited by Charles R Forker whose weighty introduction of over 100 pages seems more intent on proving that George Peele was the author of TR than on providing a critical analysis of the play. I have to say that one of my pet dislikes in reading criticism of Elizabethan plays is the inordinate amount of space wasted on trying to establish authorship of anonymous or contentiously authored plays. I think to myself "who cares" especially when we know that many plays of this period were collaborations. The sometimes fanatical drive to establish authorship does very little to enhance knowledge or enjoyment of the text itself and seems to be more of a need to establish the romantic ideal of individualism.
TR is a historical drama dealing seriously with political matters that is well plotted and to my mind an improvement on the True Tragedie of Richard III a slightly earlier play that was also in the repertoire of the queens men players. It takes as its subject King John who reigned some 400 years before this play was written using as its main source the Holinshed chronicles, but inserting the fictitious character of Philip the Bastard. It tells its story chronologically although sometimes taking liberties with the timescales in order to make things work, and work it certainly does. There is a feeling of completeness at the end of the play, the audience feels that a story has been told, this is not just a patchwork of events thrown together to provide an entertainment. The major events are the wars with France and the rights of succession to the throne: King John is challenged by Arthur the son of Richard-coeur-de-lions brother for the right to rule and he is supported by King Philip of France. Meanwhile John with his mother in close attendance is sitting in judgement over another right of succession to the Falconbridge estate where it emerges that Philip Falconbridge is in fact a bastard son of Richard coeur-de-lion and aligns himself steadfastly with King John. The wars with France are inconclusive but are made more complicated when the Pope's legate Cardinal Pandulph arrives to effectively excommunicate King John for not appointing The Popes nominee as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Arthur is captured by King John and taken to England and placed under guard. John orders Hubert to blind Arthur, but Hubert cannot bring himself to carry out the order when face to face with Arthur. John appears to be relieved when he learns his oder has not been carried out, but Arthur dies anyway trying to escape his prison. The nobles in England align themselves with King Philip of France who launches an invasion of England, meanwhile Philip the Bastard is intent on despoiling the monasteries. The Bastard rallies the English soldiers and the nobles turn to King John, meanwhile an already feeble king is poisoned by a monk in a monastery.
The obvious themes that emerge are the divine right of kings and the rights of illegitimacy. There is also King John's stand against the Pope and the wars with France. King John appears at turns weak and strong, he seems to be influenced by his matriarchal mother Queen Eleanor at the start of the play but then grows into his kingship. He stands strong against the French and more importantly against the Pope. He is to be pitied when he is dying at the monastery. The invented character of Philip the Bastard has the longest and best speeches and he is the principal character in the satirical scene that turns into farce when he seeks to rob one of the monasteries. Characterisation is not a strong point in the play, but there are some strong characters for example the two queen mothers.
There is action on stage and the death scenes of Arthur and John are given some poignancy. There are other excellent dramatic scenes like the judgement of the Falconbridge brothers and the proposed blinding of Arthur. The play is largely written in iambic pentameters apart from some prose passages that are used for less noble characters for example when Cardinal Pandulph makes his first appearance. Doggerel used in the comic scene in the monastery. The language: the blank verse is good throughout and there is some good imagery; what is absent is the pageantry and listings of previous efforts, this really does feel like the start of modern theatre. When reading Shakespeare's later version I found TR easier to read, the less complex language makes the plot easier to follow, that is not to say that TR is pedestrian, it just seems to be written by a different author or authors.
The revels edition contains as much information as most readers will need to enjoy this play. There is a detailed commentary below the text, which also includes references to Shakespeare's play. There is a very useful appendix containing historical background and longer extracts from Holinshed's chronicles. A not so useful (to me) index of 'unique matches of three consecutive words in the Troublesome reign with comparable word strings in other plays by Peele' as if we did not have enough words in the introduction on this topic of authorial identification. I enjoyed reading this play, it is easy to read in this modern spelling edition and so 4 stars.
Composed probably in 1589 this play accredited to Christopher Marlowe was a big hit on the Elizabethan stage. It is not difficult to see why it was so popular as it would have appealed to theatre goers on many levels and reading it today I found the underlying subversiveness of the text intriguing and led me to wonder how much of Marlowe's deeply pessimistic view of society would have registered with those early theatregoers; some of whom no doubt would be howling and braying at the evil Jew. Without a doubt this play is anti-Semetic but it is also anti-religious and because the focal point of the whole play is viewed from Barabas' (the Jew) point of view, we are encouraged to see the world through his eyes. The play is introduced by the ghost of Machiavelli adding another layer to the events that are about to pan out before us and he says:
............I come not, I,
To read a lecture here in Britainy
But to present the tragedy of a Jew
Who smiles to see how full his moneybags are crammed,
Which money was not got without my means,
I crave but this: grace him as he deserves,
And let him not be entertained the worse
Because he favours me.
The play switches to Barabas in his counting house in Malta, the den of this merchant prince who is interrupted from musing on the ships carrying his fortunes in trade around the world by his Jewish friends who warn that the Turkish fleet is moored in port. The Jews are summoned by Ferneze the Christian governor who informs them that if they do not convert to being Christians half of their wealth will be confiscated in order to pay off the Turks.
Barabas refuses and Ferneze reminds him that it is a penalty he must pay for being allowed on the Island and the short interchange between the two sums up their position
No, Jew, thou hast denied the articles,
And now it cannot be recalled.
Will you then steal my goods?
Is theft the ground of your religion.
Ferneze replies by forcibly taking all of Barabas money and jewels and turning him out of his house which is converted into a nunnery. Barabas has a beautiful daughter: Abigail and he persuades her to say she wants to become a nun so that she can gain entrance into his old house and locate the riches he has buried there for a rainy day. Barabas visits the slave market and buys the Turkish slave Ithamore who proves to be the devil incarnate. Barabas and Ithamoe use Abigail to lure Ludoviko: Ferneze's son into a fight with another suiter of his daughter, the luckless Mathias. Barabas witnesses the fight and eggs on the protagonists to go for the kill, which proves to be successful because they kill each other. Barabas gets a taste for revenge and after he is deserted by Abigail he poisons her and all the nuns in the convent, next on his list are two friars who attempt to blackmail him and then the unholy trio of Bellamira a courtesan, the thief Pilia-Borza and Ithamore who has schemed with them to rob him. Finally he betrays the Christian rulers by showing the Turks a secret passage into their citadel stronghold. The final three acts of the play are an orgy of blackmail, double crossing and murder as Barabas' need for revenge seems to run away with him, it is a bit like Tamburlaine in Marlowe's previous play who never knew when to stop his conquests and cruelty to the Nations around him.
The play would have appealed to the London Public rather like a modern day horror film appeals to the mass market cinema audience. Marlowe chooses ever more inventive ways for Barabas to dispatch his victims; first he manages to encourage two duelists to dispatch each other, then he adds poison to the porridge eaten by the nuns which carries them all away including his daughter. He and Ithamore kill one of the friars by stringing him up with the rope around his cloak and pulling hard on it and then using the dead body to entice the other friar to bash out the brains of his rival and take the rap for the murder. The trio of Bellamira, Pilia-Borza and Ithamore are killed with a poison scented nosegay and finally an elaborate trap is set for the Turkish commander to fall into a vat of boiling water. All of this takes place onstage. The audience would have also enjoyed the easily identified villains of the piece, the hated Jew and the Turkish slave Ithamore.
The audience might however have an unease or even concern about the other characters in the play, very few of whom behave well, especially the christian fraternity. While they might have enjoyed the jew baiting that takes place they might have felt some sympathy for Barabas, especially as he takes the audience into his confidence in the first couple of acts with frequent asides. He is the one who loses everything because he is a Jew and has money. He is not portrayed as a usurer, but as a merchant prince and although his love of money is excessive there is no doubt he adds to the wealth of the Island of Malta and has some respect; at the end of the day it is his money that buys off the Turks. The Christians are shown to be more Machiavellian than the Jews, they attempt to double cross the Turks, their religious community in the shape of the friars and nuns are lecherous and as money grabbing as the Jews and their young princes Ludovik and Mathias are shown to be foolish and easily manipulated. The only person who behaves with any honour is Abigail, but she too allows herself to be manipulated by her father.
The subversive element to the play shows that everybody is in it for themselves. The Christians who control the politics are underhand and Machiavellian. They loathe and fear the Jews, but are happy to let them contribute to the wealth of the Island. Everything and everybody has a price in the society and this is shown in the slave market where the slaves literally have their price marked on their backs. There is little doubt that Marlowe is making a statement about the society that he is part of. It is the Elizabethans that are up on the stage.
The play for the most part is written in the now more familiar iambic pentameters for those parts where the characters have something important to say, prose is used for the low life characters such as Bellamira and Pilia-Borza. Barabas has the longest and best speeches and Marlowe uses much skill in demonstrating various shades of irony throughout the play. In fact the irony at times metamorphoses into black humour as the body count piles up.
There is no music to a Christian's Knell.
How sweet the bells ring, now the nuns are dead,
That sound at other times like tinkers' pans!
I was afraid the poison had not wrought,
Or thought it wrought, it would have done no good,
For every year they swell, and yet they live.
Now all are dead; not one remains alive.
Good master, let me poison all the monks.
Thou shalt not need, for, now the nuns are dead,
They'll die with grief.
The Royal Shakespeare Company has made the most recent noteworthy production of Marlowe's classic, but it is a play that needs care when played before a modern audience. The anti-Semitism may nowadays cause offence and the elaborate murders happening on stage could bring the curtain down on a farce. Perhaps it is safer to read the text of the play in the privacy of ones own home. I did and would give it 5 stars
Robert Greene - Menaphon
Menaphon is an early novel which can be described as a Romantic Pastoral. Its full title was "Menaphon - Camila's alarm to slumbering Euphues in his melancholy cell at Silexedra, etc. Two references here are interesting. Slumbering Euphues refers to the work of John Lyly whose first novel Euphues introduced a writing style that has been mined by Robert Greene for his Menaphon. The other reference is Silexedra which was a building; Fisher's Folly in Bishopsgate London owned or rented by Edward de Vere who held court to a number of writing cohorts.
Menaphon published in 1589 is a story set in the wonderful world of Arcadia, where enlightened shepherds sport and write songs and poems. Greene plays this up for all he is worth and his story of far fetched star crossed lovers, involves the usual tropes of mistaken identities, shipwrecks, pirates and shepherds in love. It is pure entertainment that ends quickly when disaster is averted and everything is resolved to everyone's satisfaction. The prose in Lyly's by now slightly old fashioned style is interposed by sonnets, songs, roundelays, madrigals and the inevitable poetry competition, all on the subject of lovers laments. There is nothing new here; Greene has packaged up a series of unlikely events which may be considered as a sort of fantasy and if the reader approaches it in this light then there is some charm. Probably a good example of entertainment for the well educated 16th century reader, but today it feels pretty archaic and so 2.5 stars.
L Sprague de Camp - Lest Darkness fall
Further back in science fiction time with L Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall originally serialised in an American Pulp fantasy magazine (Unknown) in 1939. It is an early novel in the sub-genre of alternative history science fiction. The idea as explained on the opening page of this novel is that some people who disappear slip back through time and if we imagine time as like the trunk of a tree then people from the future who change events of the past form a new branch of the tree, which grows out from the main trunk of time to form an alternate past.
The story starts with archeologist Martin Padway being struck by lightning while working in Rome. He wakes up to find himself still in Rome but in the year AD 535 at a time when the kingdom of the Ostrogoths would shortly be at war with the Byzantines and the war would devastate Italy and launch the European world into a time that has since been labelled the dark ages. When Martin is transported into the past he must first consider ways of making a living and so launches on a career as an inventor using his knowledge of 20th century culture. He manages to make a living and further experiments bring him to the notice of the political rulers. He gradually becomes a man of power and influence and decides in his own interests and the people around him he will try and stop Italy's fall into the dark ages.
The novel follows a similar path to other novels I have read by de Camp; starting with an interesting premise but ultimately degenerating into an adventure story featuring plenty of military action. The first part of the novel where the 20th century Martin must make his way in a society from the past with nothing in his pocket but his wallet and a few coins is imaginative and well handled and became a page turning experience. Martin becomes mysterious Martinus who not only invents things but has a sketchy knowledge of the future and by hard work and industry established himself in his new world. It was when this early part of the novel turned into the heroic general Martinus leading the Goths into a war with the Byzantines that the novel palled for me. However this is in many ways where De camp is most at home with the adventurous sword fighting stuff and the story rattles along. The imagination of creating a different world is not completely abandoned, but the action scenes now drive the story.
Lest Darkness Falls is considered to be one of De Camps best science fiction stories, paving the way for others in this sub-genre. Enjoyable enough and so three stars.
'WATER RATS AND WERE RABBITS'
This is the first two parts in translation of Bacchelli's magnum opus The Mill on the Po ( Il Molino del Po) First published in Italy between 1938-40 it tells the story of Lazzaro Scacerni a mill owner on the River Po with a background of Italian history from the Age of Napoleon to the first world war. Lazzaro Scacerni and his extended family are fictional, but the events that shaped their lives and the officials and politicians that they encounter are the result of some meticulous research by Bacchelli. The book has the feel of an historical novel and the grand sweep of history encompassing some the events of the Unification and beyond, as well as the continual battle against flooding and deprivation in the Po valley ensures that the family story is rich in context.
We are introduced to Lazzaro Scacerni as an Italian volunteer in Napoloen's Grand army during the retreat from Moscow. Immediately we are plunged into a world where survival is a battle between man and nature, the remnants of the army are fleeing from the Russian Cossacks and the partly frozen river Vop is the next barrier to their escape. Scacerni goes to the assistance of an officer and risks his life getting him across the river, however the officer is mortally injured and gives Scacerni a promissory note in an ivory case, muttering that it is for treasure looted from a church, which will lead to damnation to the holder. Scacerni makes it back to Italy and in Ferrara redeems his note and with the proceeds decides to set himself up as a miller on the river Po. Scacerni's idea is that people will always need grain for bread and the cheapest way to set up his new career is to have a floating mill on the river. The story follows this honest man's struggles to make a living, and his uneasy relationships with the local bandits, and the customs officials and the smugglers at a time when the Austrian Empire control the other side of the river. He marries, has a son and a surrogate daughter arrives in the form of a near drowned teenager. Giuseppe the son is almost the complete opposite to his father in appearance and manners and is nicknamed 'Were Rabbit', Afraid of the water his only interest is making money and the second part of the story follows his attempts to get ahead.
The novel combines the authentic feel of the beauty and dangers of an artisan's life on a floating mill with events largely beyond his control that will decide his fate. Bacchelli leaves the reader in no doubt as to what he is trying to achieve and in a somewhat clumsy piece of authorial intervention tells us:
"How often poetic recreation is a resurrection of the dead and an interpretation of their lives like the one the gypsy woman made of my grandmother's, only looking back instead of forward. In this epic of the water mills the writer'e endeavour has been to poeticise a century and to celebrate the tenacious humility of the little people of Italy."
"The tenacious humility of the little people of Italy" does sound a little patronising and Baccelli's somewhat right of centre viewpoint might cause a raised eyebrow with some modern readers. The church was a huge influence on the life of many of these ordinary people in the novel but was being challenged by scientific progress and left wing agitators. Bacchelli rehearses some of these arguments through his characters, but this reader was in no doubt where his sympathies lay. When at a time of crisis one of his characters cries 'God have mercy on us' Bacchelli tells us:
'This prayer illustrates one of the deep meanings of the Christian religion, which gives mans faith in God's mercy at a critical juncture like this, where a pagan would be overcome by the blind violence of nature and call it fate or else a piece of treachery on the part of his capricious deities. For no one could see this condition of the Po without feeling that it was the expression of some immense and evil will.'
Lazzaro is a good catholic although not an intensely religious man, but he has plenty of catholic guilt not only because of his inheritance of the spoils from a church, but also with the actions he is forced to take with the criminal fraternity. The church in a region controlled by the Pope (Papal states) is a powerful figure in many ordinary lives and gives shape to their daily life and Bacchelli is probably right to remind us of this.
Characterisation is a strong ingredient of this novel and Bacchelli makes his readers feel for his characters, even the cold hearted 'Were rabbit' can elicit reader sympathy, however it is the youthful adventurer Lazzaro who develops into a thoughtful honest man in his middle years before turning into a reactionary figure in his old age that is at the centre of much of this story. There are strong female characters as well: the near drowned teenager Cecilia who becomes a mill owner of some independence and Lazzaro's wife who negotiates the uneasy relationship between Lazarro and his son 'Were rabbit' But of course it is largely a man's world which fits well with the author's outlook.
The action scene are full of grit, determination and horror and Baccelli's places his characters in situations where they are tested to the limit. Lazzaro crossing the river Vop, 'Were rabbit trying to save his skin at the siege of Bologna, Lazzarino; Were rabbits son in Garibaldi's rag tag army outside Rome and Cecilia trying to save her husband from the flood waters. Running in conjunction with the action scenes are the internal politics, the Machiavellian operators both in government and in the criminal world, whose actions directly and indirectly provide further tests for the Scacerni family.
This is a novel that looks backwards rather than forwards both in its subject matter and in its general outlook; it is no coincidence that the strongest character becomes a reactionary in his later years. The story is told in a straightforward linear fashion that harks back to the previous century. I suspect that Bacchelli is an author who is scarcely read today and this is a pity, if his somewhat old fashioned style is a barrier to some. Its strength lies in its ability to transport the reader into the world of the river mill owners and their struggle to survive in a world where politics and criminality seemed to run hand in hand and nature was always there to mop up the pieces. It's strength also lies in its careful research of the subject matter and Bacchelli's ability to transfer that into good writing (the translation by Frances Frenaye from 1952 reads well enough) Before reading this book I knew nothing about the floating corn mills and little about the Po valley. This was a book that had been lurking on my bookshelves, but it is only the first two parts of the trilogy - I have ordered the third part and so 4 stars.
Thomas Lodge - Glaucus and Silla, with other lyrical and pastoral poems
Thomas Lodge was a university man who made his living as an author in Elizabethan England. He never finished his law degree, but instead became a prolific writer in fiction, non fiction, drama and poetry. Glaucus and Silla is an early poem and closes out my reading from 1589, some of the additional lyrical and pastoral poems must have been written at a later date, because their subject matter is the speaker looking back on his youth. Lodge died in 1625 around the age of 66.
Glaucus and Silla is an extended poem based on a story from Ovid's Metamorphosis and seems to have been written to amuse the university men The printed version that I read has an ababcc rhyming scheme in iambic pentameters for the most part. It is printed in one continuous stanza, but might have been written in sestets. The speaker of the poem is in melancholy mood walking beside a stream and meets the sea-God Glaucus who is an even worse state of grief. Glaucus tells his story of unrequited love for Silla. Venus and her son Cupid appear and Cupid fires an arrow into Glaucus wound so curing him of his love fever. He is then encouraged to seek out Silla who lives in the ocean and takes the speaker with him on the back of a dolphin, meanwhile Cupid has fired an arrow into Silla and the roles are reversed. Glaucus rejects the advances of Silla who dashes herself against some rocks, eventually becoming part of the rocks and a hazard to passing sailors. The poem ends with the speaker saying
"Ladies he left me, trust me I missay not,
But so he left me, as he wild me tell you:
That Nymphs must yield, when faithful lovers stray not,
Least through contempt, almightie love compel you
With Scilla in the rocks to make your bidding
A cursed plague, for women proud back-sliding"
And so ends the poem with a typical sentiment from an Elizabethan man's point of view. The poem is well structured and moves towards its climax of Scilla's fate with the introduction of Echo to finally add some pathos. The sundry poems and sonnets that are included with the title poem are of varying quality with two major themes. The advantages of a quiet life in the country over the wasteful and dangerous world of serving at a Royal court and the others are in the form of lovers lament. The longer poem Beauties Lullabie is a poem addressed to a beautiful women and has some interesting lines although the chug of the Poulters measure (14-16 stresses to the line) can be heavy going. Nothing of special note here, but good examples of the poetry of the era 2.5 stars.
It was on sale by Heritage Auctions.
I started my reading from the year 1590 with two anonymous plays that were a hit with the Elizabethan theatre going public in the 1590's and the general consensus amongst the experts is that they were probably written in the first year of the decade. They are both comedies and both are fast moving productions that have an emphasis on their entertainment value. At this time it would seem that blank verse was the preferred form for many of the plays that made it through a print run and these two are well written examples and fun to read.
"A pleasant commodie, of faire Em the Millers daughter of Manchester vvith the loue of William the Conqueror: As it was sundrietimes publiquely acted in the honourable citie of London, by the right honourable the Lord Strange his seruaunts." this was how Fair Em was described on the printed front cover. It would seem that many anonymous plays in production at this time are scanned for evidence of them being early plays by William Shakespeare, but almost certainly not in this case. It has been attributed to Robert Green but modern critics favour Robert Wilson or Anthony Munday, whoever wrote it was in tune with what was required for the London Stage although there is no real evidence of its success.
What gives this play some added zip is that it deals with two plots running simultaneously - in a sort of parallel narrative fashion. The movement between the two is fairly brisk and so one could imagine one set of actors coming on the stage to act a couple of pages of script then departing while another set came on from the other side to play their story. No time for the audience to get bored and plenty of movement even if it was only on and off the stage. The two stories have similarities of course and are cobbled together at the end. The first story involves William the Conqueror who falls in love with a painting of Blaunch a princess of Denmark, he travels to the court of the King of Denmark with his friend Marques Lubeck, however when he meets Blaunch in the flesh he is less than impressed and much prefers Mariana who is a guest of the king while a ransom for her is being collected. The Marques of Lubeck is in love with Mariana as well, but hesitates to go up against William the Conqueror. The tangled affairs of the men are sorted by the women through a series of tricks and disguises. Meanwhile the second story involves Fair Em a millers daughter from Manchester who is in love with a gentleman called Manuile, however two of William the Conquerors courtiers Valinford and Mountney have heard of her beauty and are both trying to secure her for themselves. Again it is up to the woman Fair Em in this case to take action to resolve the conundrum and in both stories there are twists and turns in the courtships. This is poor William the Conqueror who is run ragged by Mariana and Blaunch:
Conseit hath wrought such generall dislike
Through the false dealing of Mariana,
That vtterly I doe abhore their sex.
They are all disloyall, vnconstant, all vniust:
Who tryes as I haue tryed,
And findes as I haue founde,
Will saie thers no such creatures on the ground.
The Suitors of Fair Em would also have the same sentiments, however it is the double dealing of the men in the first place who create the difficult situations. The play enables both sets of women to provide some laughter at the expense of their male counterparts, however there is no overtly comic character in this play.
Mucedorus is a different prospect being one of the most successful plays of its time : 16 quarto editions were published between 1598 and 1668 making it the most widely printed extant play of its time.. To give it its full printed title A most pleasant comedie of Mucedorus the kings sonne of Valentia and Amadine the Kings daughter of Arragon with the merie conceites of Mouse. Newly set foorth, as it hath bin sundrie times plaide in the honorable cittie of London. Very delectable and full of mirth.
This is a genuinely funny play with the character Mouse being one of the first outright fools on the stage. Like Fair Em it has at one time been attributed to Shakespeare in parts and certainly the quality of writing is superior in places to Fair Em. First and foremost it is an all action play, incredibly fast moving and in the earlier performances would have started with two principle characters Amadine daughter of the king of Aragon and Segasto being chased around the stage by an angry bear. The gentleman Segasto betrothed to Amadine runs away faster leaving the beautiful Amadine to her fate. She is saved by Mucedorus the king of Valentias son disguised as a shepherd who has come to woo Amadine. Mucedorus is presented at court as a saviour, but still in disguise and the jealous Segasto hires captain Tremilio to murder him. In the ensuing fight Mucedorus kills Tremilio and Segasto attempts to have Mucedorus tried for murder. He is saved by Amadine who tells the story of the bear and how Segasto ran away, instead of hanging Mucedorus is banished. Amadine now in love with Mucedorus arranges to meet him in the forest but on her way to the rendezvous is captured by the wild man Bremo. Segasto has Mouse his servant track down the lovers, but now Mucidorus is disguised as a hermit. Much fun and murderous games take place in the forest until all is resolved.
The play is a heady mixture of comedy and murder but once again it is the strong character of Amadine who manages to turn the tables on the feckless Segasto. Mouse is the star of the show being one of those fools who always gets the wrong end of the stick, is lazy and lives for his wine and his food, but here is a perfect foil to his master Segasto.
Mucedorus has the best speech in the original play when he is trying to persuade the wild man Bremo not to kill him:
In time of yore, when men like brutish beasts
Did lead their lives in loathsome cells and woods
And wholly gave themselves to witless will,
A rude unruly rout, then man to man
Became a present prey, then might prevailed,
The weakest went to walls:
Right was unknown, for wrong was all in all.
As men thus lived in this great outrage,
Behold one Orpheus came, as poets tell,
And them from rudeness unto reason brought,
Who led by reason soon forsook the woods.
Instead of caves they built them castles strong;
Cities and towns were founded by them then:
Glad were they, they found such ease,
And in the end they grew to perfect amity;
Weighing their former wickedness,
They termed the time wherein they lived then
A golden age, a goodly golden age.
Now, Bremo, for so I hear thee called,
if men which lived tofore as thou dost now,
Wily in wood, addicted all to spoil,
Returned were by worthy Orpheus' means,
Let me like Orpheus cause thee to return
From murder, bloodshed and like cruelty.
What, should we fight before we have a cause?
No, let's live and love together faithfully.
I'll fight for thee.
Many of the speeches by the noble characters end with a rhyming couplet that finishes off things musically. The comedic characters speak in prose or one liner witticisms and this provides the contrast between the comedy and the more sinister plotting.
The original play was topped and tailed sometime during the reign of James I with the allegorical characters of Comedy and Envy. It adds a certain seriousness, but gives away the surprise that the disguised shepherd Mucedorus is of noble birth. This play was fun to read from beginning to end and while there are similarities to Fair Em there is a very different feel. There are no notable modern performances of Mucedorus which I find surprising, although it has to be said the plotting is faintly ridiculous there is much burlesque comedy and in the right hands the text could be made to sparkle. I would rate Fair Em at 3 stars and Mucedorus at 3.5
Iain M Banks - Excession
Excession looks like a word that should mean something, especially when it appears on the dust jacket of this science fiction novel without a capital letter at the start of the word. It looks like it should be a derivation of excessive but that does not sound quite right. The only definition that I could find came from a website The Urban Dictionary which was:
"something so technologically superior that it appears magic to the viewer."
A word then invented by the author that is still finding it's way into everyday usage (all those other people who are not dedicated science fiction readers). No real clues then as to what the story is about from it's title but it eventually became clear that at the heart of it was an OCP (Outside Context Problem); there goes an initialism and how science fiction writers love their initialisms and acronyms and although not overused by Banks they do nothing to help the uninitiated reader. Fortunately I know my GCU's from my GSV's having read Bank's four previous novels set in his imaginary future universe of the Culture. it still took me some time to make headway into this story, but I have learnt that Banks would make things a little clearer as I went along and that by the end of the novel I would have a fairly good grasp of what had happened.
This is a story that will be appreciated by those readers already familiar with Bank's concept of the Culture and readers coming to the series for the first time might have to take quite a lot of the writing on trust, however the human story that is at the core of this novel should appeal to many readers. In accordance with Bank's universe the Culture is the dominant force/society that exists many years in the future when much of the universe has already been explored. Humans may or may not have given birth to the Culture which are, robots, machines, spaceships controlled by their own artificial intelligence. They would appear to be a force for good in the universe and certainly humans have adapted their lifestyles to fit into this quite different world. Bank's stories have a familiar 'modus operandi' the Culture calls on certain humans with the necessary skills to carry out certain diplomatic/operational/intelligence operations usually involving alien societies who have trouble in accepting the values/society of the Culture. The humans in many instances are pleased to accept these tasks, but occasionally have to be pried away from their otherwise hedonistic lifestyles. The stories then have a kind of cross pollination between humans and intelligent machines, but in Excession it is the machines in the form of spacecraft that drive this plot with the reader wondering where the human characters fit in. It is the novel perhaps that many of Bank's dedicated readers have been waiting for, that is waiting for him to share more of his vision of the Universe of artificially intelligent machines.
The OCP (outside context problem) takes the form of a mysterious object that appears in the universe and which seems to have powers that go far and away beyond anything that the Culture possesses. Meanwhile a rising species of aliens The Affront who have less than human characteristics seem intent on using the distraction of the Excession to overthrow the Culture who in its turn are calling on a couple of humans to carry out a secret mission.
The two humans Djeil and Genar-Hofoen have had an intense relationship some years before and are now living estranged lives after a near murderous end to their affair. Djeil seems to have been living in an artificial world created by the Culture for hers and their benefit and much of the early part of the novel explores this solitary world. Banks is at his strongest as an imaginative writer in creating these different worlds and he does a similar thing with Genar-Hofoen in his role as a diplomat on the alien home planet of the Affront. Then there is the asteroid called Pittance where a human recluse has chosen to live, which also houses mothballed war machines left over from the last war the Culture had to fight. As a reader we know that these different milieu will form part of the story but Banks persuades us to linger there with him while he creates an ambience that contrasts with other events that will overtake his characters. After all this is the novel where the artificially intelligent spacecraft (minds) confront the Excession. It is these minds that show all to noticeable human characteristics that results in both their weaknesses and their strengths and of course make Bank's story more interesting. Banks at times skates perilously close to banality with some of this, but he just about keep on the right side.
This is an excellent novel for Culture enthusiasts and probably one for science fiction readers who are prepared to enjoy a human story that can be more perceptive than the super-intelligent minds of the Culture machines. I think Banks has achieved a very good balance in his story telling. If the ending appears a little too engineered for some tastes then that does not take away from the high spots that precede it. This is my favourite book in the Culture series, running just ahead of The Player of Games and so 4.5 stars.
Young Man With a Horn sounds like the title of a movie, which of course it is: released in 1950 starring Kirk Douglas, Lauran Bacall, and Doris Day. Perhaps less famous is the novel on which it was based written by Dorothy Baker and published in 1938. The story is a fictional biography of a young jazz musician (Rick Martin) who burnt out at the relatively young age of 28 mainly through an addiction to alcohol. I have not seen the film but apparently in the film version, the women in his life were also instrumental in his downfall, but this motif is underplayed in the book. Women were almost incidental in Rick's life, his passion was playing music, which would probably not have been such good subject for the box office receipts of this film.
A simple story then, but Dorothy Baker does something different; she is intent on getting across to her readers Rick Martins passion for music. She describes the intensity of his playing and his need to push himself further in musical terms, that amateur musicians and others who have similar passions will understand. Rick Martin was a poor white boy from Los Angeles who discovered he had an ear for tunes and set about teaching himself to play hymns on an old piano he found in the basement of a church. The church congregation were black folks and when they discovered Rick one night they frightened him half to death. Rick could be described as a "loner" only meeting people through music and when he does make a friend it is with Smoke a black youth who plays drums. It is Smoke who gets Rick interested in jazz as Rick is already changing around the hymn tunes that he has learned and the two young men hook up with Jeff Williams and his hot band of black musicians. Rick finds himself in a world of young black people in 1920's America, but to Rick and the book as a whole this is incidental, because it is the music that drives his world.
Later Rick gets a job as a musician in an all white band as he would be expected to do, but although he enjoyed the playing he is continually striving to be the best and finds the only way of really stretching himself is to play with the black musicians. He becomes relatively well off and very much respected: a musician's musician, he has switched from piano to trumpet and is the star in whichever group he performs. He cannot however push his head through the glass ceiling that he encounters, his attempts to get a band featuring black musicians to record does not attract the financial backing that he needs. He marries a society white girl who is attracted by his talent, but cannot live her life centred around Rick's music and Rick becomes frustrated and uses alcohol to fuel his talent........
The first sentence of the book says:
"In the first place he shouldn't have got himself mixed up with negroes"
This proves to be ambiguous, because without being "mixed up" in the world of black musicians Rick probably would not have discovered his passion, his purpose in life. The musical world that these black people inhabit is the backbone of this novel and Baker makes a wonderful job of describing the feeling of joy that they find in the playing of jazz music. Here is Jeff Williams leader and piano player putting the band through their paces:
"Jeff led them to it with four bars in the key and then the horns came in together held lightly by a slim melody by three separate leashes. Then Jeff led the rhythm to the drums, and the piano became the fourth voice, and from then on harmony prevailed in a strange coherence, each man improvising wildly on his own and the four of them managing to fit it together and tightly. Feeling ran high, and happy inspiration followed happy inspiration to produce counterpoint that you'd swear somebody had sat down and worked out note by note on nice clean manuscript paper. But nobody had: it came into the heads of four men and out again by way of three horns and one piano"
Dorothy Baker's prose takes inspiration from the hard-bitten crime novels such as those by Raymond Chandler that were flooding the market in the 1930's. Her novel has run its course in just over 120 pages and the feeling is that hardly a word has been wasted. Quite simply this is one of the best novels that pins down a musical milieu that I have read and so 5 stars.
The History of Orlando Furioso
The Scottish History of James IV
Three plays by Robert Greene probably written between 1588 and 1592. It is thought he turned his hand to writing plays after witnessing the success of Marlowe's Tamburlaine and Kyd's Spanish Tragedy. John Clarke Jordan says that Greene turned his hand towards anything that might sell and previous to his career as a dramatist he had written pamphlets, romantic novels, framework stories taken from the Italian renaissance, usually with with a moral theme, prodigal son stories with a religious theme and social tracts warning citizens to beware of confidence tricksters. Looking back at Greene some might say that he was little more than a money driven hack, his vast output in different genres would seem to have resulted in much slapdash work. There is no denying that his output was uneven, but he was not a poor writer and amongst his more forgettable works there are some gems and I think that these three plays prove the point. Alphonsus king of Aragon is structurally suspect and lacks Greenes usual humour and satire. Orlando Furioso is a dramatisation of part of Ariosto's great romance and adds nothing to the original, however The Scottish History of James IV is something else entirely, an original play with good characters based on recent and current history and containing some of Greene's best humorous writing. Greene perhaps always wanted to prove himself as a writer, wanted critical acclaim and this play written right at the end of his life was perhaps his best shot.
The Comical History of Alphonsus king of Aragon was perhaps an imitation of Marlowe's Tamburlaine. Greene however was more intent in providing a spectacle than a study of one man's lust for power. Alphonsus feels his father has been cheated out of his kingship and vows to regain the throne. His early success leads to various kings either supporting him or betraying him and there is much changing of sides. The disturbances attract the attention of Amurack the Turk a fearsome warrior in his own right and the second half of the play switches to his preparations to take on Alphonsus. Medea charms the gathering of warrior kings who support Amurack and summons Calchus an auger from his grave. Amurack dreams that he is defeated by Alphonsus and that his daughter Iphegenia has fallen in love with Alphonsus. He awakens and banishes Iphegenia with her mother Fausta. Medea searches them out and tells them that Amurack needs their help:
MEDEA: In vain it is to strive against the stream:
Fates must be followed, and the God's decree
Must needs take place in every kind of cause.
Therefore, fair maid, bridle these brutish thoughts,
And learn to follow what the fates assign.
A brazen head appears to a couple of priests and claims to be the voice of Mahomet and tells them to ensure that there is support for Amurack who is on his way to Naples to meet Alphonsus. Meanwhile Alphonsus father also has a vision and the play switches back to Alphonsus, but by this time the audience will have spent too long away from Alphonsus.
As can be imagined there is plenty of opportunity for Greene to stage his spectacle and he does this right from the start with a framing device where the goddess Venus descends onto the stage to set the scene. There is the summoning of Calchus from his grave and the appearance of the brazen head with the voice of the Prophet. Act II featuring Alphonsus' conquests is all action and there is the climactic battle scene at the end. The play might have provided plenty of entertainment, but reading it today it all feels disjointed although Greene's ability to tell a story keeps it moving along.
The History of Orlando Furioso is a strange concoction. A mixture of adventure and comedy, unfortunately Greene decided to depict the part of the story where Orlando goes insane as comedy, losing much of it's dramatic force. There are plenty of references back to Ariosto's Orlando Furioso and so the playgoer may well have wished he was more in tune with a knowledge of classical literature. The use of iambic pentameters is skilfully done with the text reverting back to prose for the period of Ariosto's insanity. There is some evidence of satire when Orlando is described as a poet and therefore must be insane. All in all this seems to have been a play for the university wits rather than the ordinary London theatregoer. It was performed at the court of Queen Elizabeth.
The Scottish History of James IV
Music playing within, enter ASTER OBERON, King of Fairies; and Antics,
who dance about a tomb placed conveniently on the stage; out of the which
suddenly starts up, as they dance, BOHAN, a Scot, attired like a ridstall
man, from whom the Antics fly. OBERON manet.
A ridstall man risen from the grave and Greene uses this as a framing device and also to provide dumb shows in the intervals between the acts of his play. Bohan was a courtier at King James court and says that his sons have shut him up in this tomb. He procedes to tell Oberon his story of dastardly deeds at king James court. A stunning opening to the play that held my attention throughout. Bohan tells of the peace brought to the two kingdoms (England and Scotland) by the marriage of Dorothea daughter of the English king to the young King James. The young king however is a lustful youth and during the wedding ceremony he spies Ida daughter of the Countess of Aran. He must have her and comforts himself with the thought that as king his subjects must obey his will. A scholar: Ateukin spots the kings lustful looking and offers his services in procuring Ida. He visits her at the home of the Countess of Aran and unexpectedly meets a virtuous young woman who says she would rather die than be a concubine to the king. The Countess cannot persuade her daughter to go to the king and so Ateukin has to go back to the king empty handed. The king is not pleased and Ateukin suggests that if he were not married he is sure that Ida would be his queen. The solution is to do away with Dorothea. The Scottish nobles soon get wind of what is going on and many of them drift away from court to show their disapproval. They tell Dorothea that she may be in danger but she says she will not leave her young husband. However when she is shown the kings warrant for her murder she agrees to flee dressed as a man. She is pursued by an assassin (the frenchman Jaques) who wounds her badly, she is rescued by a Scottish nobleman meanwhile the English king believing that his daughter has been murdered has invaded Scotland and put 7000 Scots to death. A fully recovered Dorothea must decide where her duty lies, to her young Scottish husband or to her father.
It is a good story that would have been highly topical to the London Crowd in the 1590's. James VI was on the throne in Scotland and he was young and untested and had surrounded himself with his young friends, the importance to England was that he was the logical successor to the English Queen Elizabeth who was without children herself. The succession had been a huge issue throughout Elizabeths reign and so Greene had hit upon a story that would have resonated with the English public, although he had made up the story about the earlier James IV his play would have seemed prescient.
My first thoughts about the play was that it read very well with some good speeches. it is written in iambic pentameters with some rhymed line endings, it flows very well and the storytelling is well handled without any obvious loose ends. The female characters Dorothea, Ida, and the Countess of Arran are particularly strong. It is a play that does not take itself too seriously and Greene intersperses nearly every dramatic scene with some comedy and he is on top form here with Bohan's sons Slipper and the dwarf Nando providing most of the laughs. There is also Oberon king of the fairies and his antics to lighten the mood. Ateukin is the scheming presence at the king's court, a skilled sycophant rather than malevolently evil. When he cannot deliver Ida to the king he has to arrange Dorothea's murder to save himself.
There is not only good writing here, but also innovation. Greene several times uses a split stage technique with two groups of people conferring on different issues unaware perhaps of the conversation in the other group that might concern them. For example Dorothea is exchanging witticisms with the dwarf Nando on one area of the stage while the nobles in another corner are worrying about the threat to Dorothea from the king, Greene skilfully brings these two groups together seamlessly. The dialogue crackles: here is Ida squaring up to up to Ateukin:
Ida. Better, than live unchaste, to lie in grave.
Ateu. He shall erect your state, and wed you well.
Ida. But can his warrant keep my soul from hell?
Ateu. He will enforce, if you resist his suit.
And here is a witty speech by Sir Cuthbert, using anthropomorphism to tell his version of events:
Sir Cuth. I see you trust me, princes, who repose
The weight of such a war upon my will.
Now mark my suit. A tender lion's whelp,
This other day, came straggling in the woods,
Attended by a young and tender hind,
In courage haught, yet 'tirèd like a lamb.
The prince of beasts had left this young in keep,
To foster up as love-mate and compeer,
Unto the lion's mate, a neighbour-friend:
This stately guide, seducèd by the fox,
Sent forth an eager wolf, bred up in France,
That grip'd the tender whelp and wounded it.
By chance, as I was hunting in the woods,
I heard the moan the hind made for the whelp:
I took them both and brought them to my house.
With chary care I have recur'd the one;
And since I know the lions are at strife
About the loss and damage of the young,
I bring her home; make claim to her who list.
My only criticism of the play is that Greene seems to have thrown everything, but the kitchen sink into this play; there is pathos, there is suspense, there are dumb shows organised by Oberon and there are some moralising speeches thrown in for good measure. Then there is the comedy; perhaps a bit too much comedy with Bohans sons easily flitting between the world of Oberon, Bohan and the fairies and the complicated reality of the Scottish kings court, are never lost for a witty remark. None of this stops the onward progression of the storytelling.
Greene's plays have rarely been performed in the modern era, but I can see some potential in this play. Male actors would have great fun with the comedy and the strong female characters would carry this play along. Witty, inventive even innovative, this makes it a 4.5 star read.
I'm enjoying your reviews, especially when you move between science fiction and early fiction. I understood enough of your review of Excession to understand that this isn't a book for me and I should stick to the books he wrote as Iain Banks.
Saul Bellow - Henderson The Rain King
MR ANGRY DREAMS OF BEING A LION KING
Difficult to know just what to make of this shaggy dog story written by Saul Bellow and published in 1959. It certainly bears all the hallmarks of a Bellow novel in that passages of fine descriptive writing and intense storytelling are infused with some turgid philosophical ramblings. The story of Eugene Henderson's vivid sojourn amongst remote African tribes is so laced with the unreal that I could only think that it was a feverish dream of a rash, blundering man fearful of holding it all together. That the dream is not in the end a nightmare gives the novel a feel of a bildungsroman especially as it is written in the first person.
"When I think of my condition at the age of fifty-five when I bought the ticket, all is grief. The facts begin to crowd me and soon I get a pressure in the chest . A disorderly rush begins - my parents, my wives, my girls, my children, my farm, my animals, my habits, my money, my music lessons, my drunkenness, my prejudices, my brutality, my teeth, my face, my face, my soul! I have to cry, No, no, get back, curse you, let me alone! But how can they let me alone? They belong to me. They are mine, and they pile into me from all sides. It turns into chaos."
This is Henderson explaining why he bought that ticket to Africa and why he chose to strike out in search of primitive tribes who were out of reach of civilisation. It is not the language or the actions of a college professor and by and large Bellow hits the right note in his portrayal of a man who is rash and unlucky and acts without sufficient reflection. He bulldozes his way through life perhaps breaking heads and certainly treading on toes in the process, describing himself as a high spirited kind of guy and we all probably know people just like him.
Henderson almost on a whim travels with a married couple to Africa in search of something else. He soon splits from them hiring a guide (Romilayu) to take him outside the scope of civilised Africa. He is led to the tribe of Anewi and finds them in despair because their cattle are dying of thirst. They treat their cattle as part of the family, sitting up with them and caring for them when ill. A species of frogs have invaded the water cistern and Henderson believes that he can solve their problems by rigging up a bomb from the ammunition he is carrying. First he has to wrestle with the tribe's champion and when he wins he comes under the spell of his auntie the queen; an enormous African woman who is prepared to buy him with her dowry. Henderson thinks she can straighten him out with her simple philosophy of the love of life.Things do not go well and soon Henderson and Romilayu are forced to seek out a neighbouring tribe the Wariri. Their king Dahfu is guarded and cosseted by over fifty naked Amazon women and he explains to Henderson that he can only survive as long as he can service his harem. He has other problems; the tribe believes that the previous king exists as a lion and Dahfu must capture this lion to keep his kingship, however he has already caught a lioness who the tribe believes is bewitching their king. Henderson is befriended by the king who sees in the powerful American an ally. Dahfu is an educated man and has theories about how the soul shapes the outward appearance of a man and that all men bear a close relationship to a species of animal, soon Henderson is being encouraged to walk in the lions den..........
The portrayal of the African tribes is pure anthropological fantasy, something that might have been invented by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but Bellow seems to want his readers to believe in the unreality as one of the themes of his novel is reality and unreality. How real is the world of Henderson? Of course one could accuse Bellow in wallowing in some racial fantasy, but I think this would be missing the point and of course the Amazon women have to be naked. Henderson thinks he may have found some answers to his search for meaning in his life through the chief Dahfu, but the readers of the novel will soon be convinced that Dahfu is as much of a crackpot as the culture of the tribe in which he is intrinsically part of. However much energy Bellow spends in trying to make Dhafu's philosophy palatable he really only succeeds in miring up the novel, if it is supposed to be funny then it was lost on me.
This is a novel that loses it's grip on reality by straying too far into the world of hokum. It is hokum that could also cause offence, but then the character of Henderson is just as likely to cause offence. Is Bellow being deliberately provocative and if so does he get away with it? I think this is very much for the individual to decide. I have read that this is one of his most popular novels, perhaps this is because of the attractions of the anti-hero or perhaps the fantasy world African primitivism appeals. I have mixed feelings, while I admire some of the writing I really cannot see where it is going other than a parody of novels which feature a hero's redemption through coming to terms with primitive cultures, there are plenty of those on the bookshelves. A generous 3.5 stars.
Robert Greene - Greenes mourning garment given him by repenitance at the funerals of love - Greene's Never too late
Two more items from the large output of Robert Greene that have come down to us from the late16th century. Both could be described as moral tales and are of pamphlet length - roughly 40-50 modern pages. They each contain a central story, housing poems and songs and would have been written by Greene who wanted to shift items and who always had his eye on the commercial market. They have been grouped together into a genre that did sell: the genre of prodigal son stories, which were popular at the time. These two pamphlets are good examples, and Greene can surprise his readers and Never Too Late has a quality and intensity that is not present in Mourning Garment. Greene himself referred to Never Too Late as an amorous tale something that he pretends to censure himself for writing.
The full title of the first pamphlet is "GREENES Mourning Garment, Given him by repentance at the funerals of Love, which he presentes for a favour to all young Gentlemen that wish to weane themselues from wanton desires." R. Greene.
Greene takes the Prodigal Son story from the Bible adding a pastoral interlude and embellishing other parts. There are songs and poems and the impression here is that Greene was throwing everything at this story to make it sell. He emphasises the destructive powers in women that lead men astray and cannot resist throwing comments such as this into the mix:
"Womens faces are not those of crystals truth, nor their words gospel”
“women's thoughts are like babies fancies”
The story is well told, but it is chock full of allusions to classical literature and suffers from imitating John Lyly's ornate style.
Greene's Never too late is a vast improvement on Mourning Garment for the modern reader. Greene is intent on telling a good story without falling back in using some of the ornate sentence structure. It is a framework tale with the first person traveller meeting a palmer (penitent beggar) who is suffering the sorrows of love. He offers the palmer (Francesco) a bed for the night and listens to his story. Francesco tells of his courtship of Isabel and how he persuaded her to elope with him to get married. Her father tracks the lovers down and has Francesco thrown into jail. Francesco by his good character and honesty persuades the local magistrate to release him and he lives with his wife Isabel earning his living as a tutor. They have a son and after five years the father forgives the couple for eloping and their financial situation is improved. After seven years Francesco goes away for three months on business and he meets and falls in love with a courtesan Infida. Francesco's naivety is no match for Infida and he sets up house with her staying away for three years. She throws him out when his money runs out and he sets off back to his honest wife to plead for forgiveness.
Robert Greene portrays the seduction of Francesco by Infida with much sensitivity, focusing on the choices that Francesco has to make and how in the end his lust overcomes all his better judgements. This is the earliest writing that I have found that gets to the heart of a common situation where a man's head is turned by a more experienced woman and where he enters into the relationship aware of the possible consequences. The characterisation is good and I was involved with the emotions portrayed rather than just the mechanics of the story. Greene may have felt that he had said too much, but it makes interesting reading. The pamphlet ends with Greene promising more:
"The gentleman and his wife, very loath to be tedious to the good palmer, were content with his promise, and so taking up the candle, lighted him to bed, where we leave him. And therefore as soon as may be, gentlemen, look for Francesco’s further fortunes, and after that my Farewell To Folly, and then adieu to all amorous pamphlets."
Imprinted at London by Thomas Orwin for N.L. and John Busby, and are to be sold at the west end of Paul’s church.
Rosalynde or Euphues' Golden Legacy by Thomas Lodge.
Published in 1590 Rosalynde is a pastoral romance and it proved to be very popular in its day and has been reprinted a number of times. The Golden Legacy in the title is an interesting concept, because the story was adapted from a 14th century tale; "The Tale of Gamelyn" once attributed to Chaucer, however more famously Shakespeare used Lodge's story as a source for his play "As you Like it" and so we have a sort of lineage stretching from Chaucer to Shakespeare. The Legacy in the title refers to Euphues; the anatomy of wit the novel published ten years earlier by John Lyly seen as the earliest precursor to what we now understand as a novel and certainly Lodge uses the ornate writing style of Lyly throughout his book, however the sources which I think have the most significant influence on Rosalynde are Edmund Spenser's The Shepheardes Calender and Philip Sydney's Arcadia. Not a bad lineage then stretching from Chaucer to Shakespeare by way of Lyly, Spenser and Sydney. Rosalynde uses a similar formula to other pastoral romances most of which contained poems: songs, roundelays and sonnets and so it wins no points for being original, but it does combine the story telling and poetry to produce a short novel length book, which sold well. It suffers a little in comparison with Sir Philip Sydney's Arcadia which was a much longer work published in the same year but written ten years earlier and published posthumously.
The story involves the usual tropes in that two brothers Rosader and Saladyne who are in receipt of legacies from their wealthy father after disputing their inheritance find themselves banished at different times from court and seek shelter in the countryside of an Arcadian forest (The forest of Arden) where they separately fall under the spell of the idyllic lives of the shepherds. Two princesses Rosalynde and Aliena are also banished by the usurping king Torismond and they travel in the forest disguised as Alinda and her squire Ganymede. Rosader is in love with Rosalynde but does not recognise her as Ganymede, while Alinda falls in love with Saladyne. The shepherds are also suffering from problems of the heart with Montanus trying to woo Phoebe, but Phoebe falls in love with Ganymede. Gerismond the usurped king is also living in the forest and he is the father of Rosalynde, but with the assistance of Rosader and Saladyne he plans to win back his kingdom. There are plenty of opportunities for poems and songs as the protagonists have much to be unhappy about express their sorrows in sonnets and roundelays. The most interesting love story is that between Phebe and Montanus where Ganymede (Rosalynde in disguise) must say to Phoebe that:
"I will never marry myself to woman but unto thyself."
to placate her tears and to extract a promise from her that she will entertain the lovelorn Montanus if things do not work out between herself and Ganymede. This is the most complex of the love affairs and Lodge handles it well.
Readers today may fall for this tale of romance, it does have some charm but they will have to be prepared to read through passages of archaic ornate prose in the style of John Lyly and also the frequent stops for the poetry of unrequited love where Lodge proves to have an unexceptional talent. Lyly's influence was starting to abate in the 1590's, his prose with its three distinct mannerisms: a balance of phrases, an elaborate system of alliteration, and a profusion of similes taken from fabulous natural history was starting to sound old fashioned. Lodge collaborated with Robert Greene on various projects and their play A looking glass for London was successful, they both tried their writing hand on various projects, but Greene who in 1590 only had another four years to live was quicker to leave behind the old fashioned stylings. A three star read for me.
Robert Bage - Hermsprong or man as he is not.
Robert Bage waited until he was 53 to publish his first novel and Hermsprong published fifteen year later in 1796 was his last novel and it raised eyebrows with its attack on English society and the moral turpitude of the late eighteenth century. I say raised eyebrows because the book's satire is overlayed by a romantic story that seems to be a comedy of manners with philosophical overtones, but it is meant to amuse as well as protest.
Hermsprong is a german name given to the hero of the story who had been raised in the company of American Indians or native Americans as we would say today. He returns to Europe and moves to Cornwall in England where he takes up residence in Grondale valley and is soon locking horns with Lord Grondale whose pride and prejudices cannot abide the free spirited Hermsprong. Lord Grondale's daughter the dutiful Caroline falls in love with Hermsprong and an intense battle of wills develops between him and the aristocratic Grondale. It is a battle which threatens to ruin Hermsprong, with-whom the modern reader is bound to sympathise. Bage does several things to make this story more interesting. Firstly we are not made aware of Hermsprong's upbringing until over halfway through the novel. Secondly the story is told by Mr Gregory Glen who flits in and out of the story never becoming a principal character, but always ready to interject in a way that feels like authorial intervention. Thirdly much of the dialogue is given over to discussions of radical ideas that serve to enhance the characterisations within the novel and some of this is both amusing and toe-curling.
In addition to the radical ideas of Hermsprong there is also the strong feminist arguments put forward by Maria Fluart who befriends Caroline and attempts to give her some backbone, when her father Lord Grondale insists that she obey his wishes. Maria flirts with the dissolute Grondale who is forced to stand on his dignity to the point of becoming increasingly obnoxious and finally plainly vindictive. I can't say that this really ramps up the tension because the reader will be aware that the handsome hero will win through in the end, whatever is lined up against him, because the novel is plainly a romance with barely a whiff of tragedy. If the reader is meant to feel outraged by the actions of Grondale and his sycophantic clergymen and lawyer friends then the novel has achieved it's purpose.
I enjoyed the satire which is present throughout the novel: it does owe something of a debt to Sterne's Tristram Shandy, but never achieves the noirish cutting edge wit, which is a feature of that book. Hermsprong and Maria Fluart have all the best lines here is Hermsprong giving forth at a dinner party:
"You are rich, and addicted to pleasure, to luxury. It is a consequence that has always followed wealth; and a consequence of this addiction is political carelessness, the immediate precursor of political corruption."
There is no chink in the righteous armour of Hermsprong, but Bage holds our interest by not revealing his motives, until the final denouement. The book does feel a little overlong and the court case which was perhaps included to heighten the drama feels superfluous. I am not complaining because I felt thoroughly entertained by the novel and can only guess at the consternation it might have caused some of it's readers who perhaps were more than a little disturbed by the French revolution across the channel. A good read and 3.5 stars.
excession has me thinking about trying to complete the first culture novel. I am stuck on the space station. I think the fight in getting there reminded me of too many sf movies/tv series. The idea of the culture also kind of hurts.
Henderson the rain king has interested me for ages -- maybe it was referred to in relation to the film Joe versus the volcano, which I thik I saw and quite liked but know that may be somethign to be ashamed of in many eyes, my own included. so maybe I need to work both out. It was long ago, as a teen and hopefully a lot of working out has been done since.
Young man with a horn - my be retitled today? but you make it sound very interesting in my firs steps in music. I don't know but it sounds a kind of bliss, a way to meet directly/indirectly in synch. ad makes me wonder if she is romanticising a bit, reifying a bit, and in touch with what we'd mostly like a bit of a bit.
Hermsprong sounds interesting, i had no idea of it.
very interesting reviews, again :)
Probably written in 1590 and attributed to George Peele: the play that has come down to us is a real hotchpotch. It is generally believed to be an extremely corrupted text, in that it either has suffered from revisions by Peele himself or more likely it has been patched together by more than one hand. There are obvious time line problems in the plot and occasionally the text makes no sense. King Edward I is named as Longshankes throughout the play and there are references to a play called Longshankes that was popular in London during the 1590's and historians believe this was Peele's play in some form or other.
The play can be divided into three parts which are loosely connected: the first part deals with Edward I return from the Holy Land and his subsequent battles with Lleuellen the rebel in Wales and John Baliol of Scotland, the second part is Lleuellen's impersonation of Robin Hood complete with Friar Tuck, Little John and Maid Marion and the third part is the vilification of queen Elinor of Spain wife to Edward I. Generally the play becomes more fantastical as it stumbles through its various stages, but there is some evidence of fine writing, some successful comedy interludes and some political overtones that might have appealed to the London public.
The play opens with Edward Longshankes triumphant return from the holy land. The stage directions point to a colourful display of pageantry with a large number of actors taking part which if they were all on stage together might have stretched resources a little, but this is pure spectacle and it has the text to go with it similar to Christopher Marlowe's mighty line used in Tamburlaine:
"Illustrious England, ancient seat of kings,
Whose chivalry hath royaliz'd thy fame,
That sounding bravely through terrestrial vale,
Proclaiming conquests, spoils, and victories,
Rings glorious echoes through the farthest world."
This is the queen mother paving the way for Edward to address the crowd, but when he does the high flown language comes down a peg or two and he refers lovingly to his companion in arms his wife Queen Elinor and then most surprisingly he commits to ensuring that all the soldiers that returned with him will be well looked after and hospitals will be found for those sick and maimed. He then starts a bidding war amongst the attending nobles as to who will grant the most money for relief of those hurt in the fighting. In the 1590's Elizabeth I and her courtiers had become dismissive of soldiers and sailors returning home from war, many of whom were left to roam the countryside to get a living as best they could. The speech by Edward I in the play would have made a succinct point to the audience. The next scene switches to the court of Lleuellen of Wales and the bawdy humour of the friar and the novice written in prose contrasts with the pageantry of the scene before and it concludes with a song from the Harper. The play starts to become confusing at this point with Edward negotiating with the Scots and then fighting in Wales. A Lady Elinor appears to be taken hostage and the play staggers on with the decision by Lleuellen and his followers to take to the forest and impersonate Robin Hood.
The final section is the most weird as it strays into magical realism. Queen Elinor has produced a male heir, and the relationship with the king has improved, but then there are witnesses that see her sinking into the ground at Charring Cross and rising again at Queenhithe. Meanwhile there is more pageantry as Lleuellen's head on a spear is paraded through London along with his bother David on a hurdle and the Friar and Harpur who will be executed. The play shifts back to Queen Elinor who has taken to her bed and says that she must make her confession. The king disguises himself as her confessor and hears of her adultery with his brother Edmund on the eve of their wedding. There have already been clear signs of Queen Elinor's madness and Spanish pride when she had the Mayoress of London killed by adders sucking at her breast. Elinor dies, her daughter Joan succumbs through shame of a lowly birth, but Edward puts all this behind him as he prepares to battle with the Scots.
The source of Queen Elinor's sinking and rising again has been taken from an anonymous ballad entitled 'A warning piece to England against Pride and wickedness:
"With that at Charring Cross she sank
Into the ground alive
And after rose with life again
In London, at Queenhithe.”
Queen Elinor's disgrace at the end of this play probably owes much to the then current war with Spain and England's fears of invasion. It is true that historically Queen Elinor was not popular because of her use of power to make property deals in her favour, but the rest of the stuff in the play is pure fantasy.
How typical this patched together production of a play is for the London stage is a matter of conjecture and it might be that George Peele's name at the bottom of a printed version has led to its survival; as it is included in a volume of collected works published in 1829. For its curiosity value and the odd piece of fine writing 2.5 stars.
Published anonymously in 1871 this novel follows in the traditions of a hollow earth theory already explored in Niels Klim's Journey Under the ground in 1741 and Symzonia in 1820. Like the previous two novels the protagonist describes a utopian society living someway below the earths surface, which is hollowed out and contains it's own atmosphere. Jules Verne also described a hollowed out earth in his Journey to the Centre of the earth (1864) but his hero's did not encounter any utopian societies. As in the previous two utopian novels the book is a first person account by a man who penetrates beneath the surface of the Earth and discovers a race of humanoids (the Vril-ya). Their life style, culture and society is one of harmony and ease compared with the life on the surface of the earth, but of course utopia is not for everyone and like the hero's of the previous books our man risks his life to get back to the civilization that he knows.
Bulwer-Lytton spends most of his energies describing the society of the Vril-ya. There are 29 chapters and the first five describe the circumstances of the narrators descent and reception by the Vril-ya and it is not until chapter 25 that the story starts up again with the narrator planning his escape. This is not an adventure novel, but a description of a utopian society and although the narrator is never entirely comfortable, for the most part he is on a voyage of discovery. He cannot of course help but compare his own society (he is an American by birth) with what he finds in the underground world. In this respect it is quite similar to Thomas More's Utopia from the early sixteenth century, but the difference here is the substance from which the race takes it's name: vril. It strikes the narrator as being like electricity, but in the form of an all permeating liquid that can do almost anything once properly handled and understood. It lights the underworld, it provides power, it can be harnessed as a death ray by almost anybody, it powers airboats, and individual wings for flight, it runs the automatons that do much of the menial work, it heals and cures, and gives the powers of mind reading and telepathy. This unique substance has enabled the Vril-ya to become masters of their environment and has taken away the need for striving and competition. There is no need for war, there is no crime and the city is run for the benefit of all, with the motto of
"A poor man's need is a rich man's shame"
However our narrator is not convinced:
"I longed for a change, even to winter, or storm, or darkness. I began to feel that, whatever our dreams of perfectibility, our restless aspirations towards a better, and higher, and calmer, sphere of being, we, the mortals of the upper world, are not trained or fitted to enjoy for long the very happiness of which we dream or to which we aspire."
Generally speaking the females are better at controlling the Vril and they have developed into the most powerful sex, but choose to live in harmony with the males. The females make all the moves in choosing a mate, but once married they settle into domesticity and hang up their wings. Much of the energy in the society comes from a youth culture dominated by the females.
Bulwer-lytton paints the society as completely alien to the surface world with the threat once mentioned by the Vril-ya almost in passing that when the time is right they will go up to the surface. The narrator sees a coldness behind the harmony of the Vril-ya and is in no doubt that they see themselves as the master race. His unease even when he is shown kindness and friendship keeps the reader in suspense for what may happen. The majority of the book is however a description of an alien culture, and Bulwer-Lytton seems to be indulging his own interests when he spends a chapter on the development of their language. This may be fascinating to those readers interested in linguistics, but for others that want to get on with the story then it might feel a bit like a cul-de-sac. The story does eventually pick up and the uneasiness felt by the narrator is well justified, but of course we know that he lived to tell his tale. This short novel does have its longueurs, but it is well written and deserves its place in the canon of proto science fiction. It was quite popular in the nineteenth century and the word vril became associated with life giving elixirs. There was a Vril-ya Bazaar held at the Royal Albert Hall in 1891. 3.5 stars (I prefer Marmite)
The Last Days of Pompeii made a great impression on me when I was 11 or so, and it gave my little sister, who was 9, terrible nightmares for years. He was a great, and colorful writer, although much of his work is a touch overblown.
As Trains Pass By (Katinka) by Herman Bang
STATIONARY WOMEN LONGING FOR LOVE
This is a short novel by the Danish writer Herman Bang published in 1886 as Ved Vejen.The translation is by W Glyn Jones and was published in 2015. A previous translation had titled the Book Katinka, but the amended title is more appropriate given the importance of the passing of trains in relation to the passing of the life of Katinka, but this is not a book about trains. It is a study of women's roles and their restricted lives.
Katinka grows up in the town in which she was born and finds herself married to the Station master Mr Bai, she is a dutiful wife and lives quietly with Bai, she finds him a little rough at first, but she settles into a routine and tries to make the best of her lot. She is well liked but seems to fade into the background and when she starts to lose weight and become ill hardly anyone notices. Her life revolves around a small group who socialise with Mr Bai and she takes her pleasure in companionship, knowing the women around her, observing their characteristics and being a party to their needs and issues. She is a good listener. Mr Bai has an eye for the ladies and takes his sexual pleasures where he can find them, but he is not unkind to his wife. They are not blessed with children and so Katinka has more time than most women in her circle to enter into her own peaceful world and enjoy the countryside and her minute observations of the people that pass by the station house.
A Mr Huus: a solid quiet man takes the job as a bailiff with one of the gentleman farmers who are in the Bai's circle of friends. Huus becomes good friends with the Bai's and spends time in their house and garden. He is a permanent member of their social circle and Katinka finds that she feels comfortable with him and then something more, as slowly she misses him, and thinks about him when he is not around. Huus increasingly seems to seek her out and Bai is quite happy to leave the two of them together, because as he says to one of is friends Huus hasn't a clue about chasing women. Herman Bang's writing lends a slightly dreamy quality to their friendship which could develop into a romance. He also writes about the quiet suffering of their other friends. Little Miss Jensen the elderly school teacher who craves companionship and lavishes all her affection on her little pug Bel-Ami. The widowed Mrs Abel who has two fractious daughters of marriageable age still at home and the elderly parson and his wife, who do their best to provide a centre for the small social group.
These are people who live in the slow lane whose life is measured by the trains that pass by. Their meeting place is the station and the stopping trains either focus their attentions on the passengers or are an impetus for them to come and go from the station. A tranquil existence but for many of the women and some of the men it is a life of quiet suffering and Katinka is the one that Herman Bang has selected to express for us a life of understated desperation. The slow pace of life, measured by the changing seasons and observations of people in simple social gatherings give this book a rather special atmosphere. As a reader there is a feeling of people dreaming their lives away while suffering nightmares of worries and doubt underneath. The translation aids the gentle understatement that is a feature of the book, but the understatement can mean the reader is struggling to know who is speaking during conversations. I enjoyed this sad, contemplative novel and so 4 stars,
The Barrens (Nečista hči) - Miha Remec
MORE SEX THAN SCIENCE
At a time when Extinction Rebellion are demonstrating world wide Remec's little book feels more like a story from a future that awaits us, rather than some fantastical science fiction novel. It was originally published in 1986 in the now defunct Yugoslavia and The Barrens is the first of this Slovenian author's novels to be translated into English. It was released last year and is well translated by Peter Amalietti Rick Harsch is joint editor
The Barrens has only four characters and so the whole feel of the book is micro rather than macro, but then in this future imagined by Remec there are very few people left alive. Those that inhabit the earth try to scratch a living from a planet that is like one huge toxic waste dump. The cities have been depopulated some time in the past and their toxic levels have long since failed to support life. Job Harp and his daughter Gea live on a patch of land from which they try and extract uncontaminated vegetables in order to feed their stepdaughter Rhea who is fertile. The likely extinction of the human race had called for punitive measures to protect all fertile humans and although there is no evidence of any existing government, Job and his daughter who are both infertile have pledged themselves to keep Rhea safe. Rhea is a now a beautiful woman who has been waiting all her sexualy mature life for a fertile partner. Two things happen within a very short period of time which give hope to Job and his daughters. Job finds a cleaner patch of land (paradise, Garden of Eden?) while searching in his battery operated micro-light aircraft and the family are able to raise crops that produce seeds that are contamination free. His journey to register his seeds at the central seed bank results in a discovery of a fertile male.
The constant battle to produce food in a hostile world along with the struggle to procreate are the central themes of this novel, along with human sexual needs in a family where three people are living in close proximity to one another with no outside interference. Dystopian novels set on planet earth call for less scientific knowledge than most other categories in the science fiction genre and Remec is equally interested in intimacy and sexual relations. In his world where fecundity is everything it would be like having an elephant in the room not to describe sexual activity and Remec does not disappoint. I enjoyed this short sojourn into the lives of the Harp family and some of which, like in the best science fiction seemed all too believable. A prescient little book from from 1986 which provides a distracting mornings entertainment and deserves to see the light of day (that is translated into English) and so 3.5 stars.
OH WHAT A LOVELY BARD.
Will in the World - Stephen Greenblatt
The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare - Emma Smith
Shakespeare's Language, Frank Kermode - Frank Kermode.
Three books that might serve as an introduction to Shakespeare. All of them written with the general reader in mind, but all of them in my opinion would expect the reader to have some familiarity with the plays and the poetry.
Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare - Stephen Greenblatt
This seems to be one of the most popular books on Shakespeare with 2,768 people owning a copy and fifty reviews on Librarything. The preface to the book states that it aims to discover the actual person who wrote the most important body of imaginative literature of the last thousand years. This is a difficult task as there are no surviving contemporary biographies and as far as we know Shakespeare never wrote anything about himself. There are business transactions, there are playbills in which he is named, some petty legal affidavits, a marriage license, property transactions and a last will and testament, but nothing personal to the man. In addition to this there are a number of lost years especially in his youth when we know nothing about him at all. So what is there to write about? How do you fill up a book of 400 pages? Well! you do what other biographers have attempted in the past you mine the plays and the poetry for information, putting this in context with what is known about the milieu in which Shakespeare lived and worked.
One might think that the famous sonnet sequence might provide some information, but it would appear that Shakespeare did his best to keep his secrets even when he was writing sonnets about love. Shakespeare does not name the youth who he is encouraging to start a family, he does not tell us the name of the young man to whom he addresses the love sonnets or the dark lady to whom other sonnets are addressed, we might think that he kept these secrets on purpose. There are no authorial interventions in the plays giving us his personal viewpoint and precious few references to him that might give an inkling to his character by his contemporaries. All this means that attempts to discover the actual person must be pure conjecture and that is the problem with the aims of this book: the reader loses sight of the man himself, this is not to say that Greenblatt loses sight of his quarry, this is not the case at all, he writes endlessly on what he might have done, where he might have been and what he might have thought, but it is at the end of the day just educated guesswork.
The book does examine in some detail the relatively few facts that we know about Shakespeare, and more to the point it provides a contextual background to the protagonist. Greenblatt describes the world of the Elizabethan theatre, he describes the society, he fills in bits of history; all the time thinking about how these thing may have impacted on Shakespeare. He searches through the plays to find references to events that may have shaped the plots, the dialogue and the speeches of the characters. In particular he looks for events or incidents that Shakespeare may have witnessed and how they might have influenced what he wrote down for his characters to say in the play, but there is nothing very specific. An example is the burial of his son Hamnet in 1596 at Stratford-upon-avon. Greenblatt assumes that Shakespeare attended the burial and assumes that he was so deeply affected, that when he came to write his play Hamlet in 1601 the name of the central character so like the name of his son encouraged him to write with a new inward expressiveness. Critics do see Hamlet as a kind of turning point in the oeuvre, the play where Shakespeare began to illustrate the inner thoughts of his characters by their speeches and their actions and Greenblatt may be correct in his assumption but equally he could be way off the mark.
There are just too many 'what if' moments. What if Shakespeare was a closet catholic like his father may well have been, could he in those missing years between being resident in Stratford-upon-Avon and turning up as an actor in London have been a tutor in the north of the country, and if so could he have met with, or come under the spell of the Jesuit Edmund Campion who was preaching to the faithful in Lancashire in 1580-1. Would he then have been shocked and scared by the savage executions of Campion and his followers. There is not the slightest evidence for any of this, it is just pure conjecture and Greenblatt tells us so, but after erecting these edifices the reader could get the impression that Shakespeare was a man who may have been troubled with questions of faith.
The big plus in reading the book is that Greenblatt paints such a vivid picture of Elizabethan society and although little of this was new to me I still enjoyed the way the author wove this mine of information into his story. He occasionally gets seduced by the texts of some of the plays, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth for instance, but he always has something original to say about them. In an Afterword to his book Greenblatt says:
Shakespeare seems to have felt no comparable desire to make himself known or to cling tenaciously to what he had brought forth. The consequence is that it is not really necessary to know the details of Shakespeares life in order to love or understand his plays
That being said I still enjoyed Greenblatts adventurous ride through the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean era in pursuit of the elusive master playwright. I could not help, but to be carried along with it all and so 4 stars.
The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare by Emma Smith
This seems to me to be an introduction for the student approaching a deeper study of Shakespeare but the writing of Emma Smith is so lively and interesting that it could certainly be enjoyed by the more general reader. There are chapters on Characters and how Shakespeare approaches them, on performance and how actors can interpret the words in the script, a chapter on the texts in general, how they have come to us and how they have been edited, Shakespeares language: did anyone really talk like that? Structure of the plays, sources and history. Smith uses examples from the plays themselves to make her points often concentrating on one play per chapter. At the end of each chapter there is a 'Where Next' section that points to practical things to do to further appreciate the subject matter and books for further information.
There is an awful lot of information crammed into this book, but very little that is dull and boring. It is presented in such a way as to make the reader think on what is being presented. I found this to be an excellent read and so again 4 stars.
Shakespeare's Language, Frank Kermode
This book examines how Shakespeares language developed throughout his career. It is aimed at the general reader rather than the scholar and Kermode is careful to explain the more technical terms that are used. Fifteen of the later plays are given a chapter each, while the earlier plays are covered in a part one that is given just a quarter of the book space. I am reading through part one of this at the moment and like very much how Kermode marshals his thoughts about the language of the plays. I will use this as a reference/introduction to the plays as I read them.
Years ago, a friend of mine lived downstairs from him in Cambridge, and was always complaining about “Sir Frank” letting his bathwater overflow. I assume it only happened once, but he felt it was an anecdote worth retelling...
The Taming of the Shrew - William Shakespeare (The Arden Shakespeare)
The Taming of the Shrew - directed by Franco Zeffirelli 1967
The Taming of the Shrew - BBC production directed by Jonathan Miller 1980
'Why, theres a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate
Says Petruccio after Kate has delivered the longest speech in the play in which she spells out the duties of care and obedience for women in marriage. The shrew has been tamed and she exhorts other women to follow her example
This early Shakespeare play has been described as a problem play, but critic Harold Bloom says
"If you want to hear this line as the culmination of a "problem play" then perhaps you yourself are the problem."
It is a play that is open to interpretation as to whether the will-full outspoken Kate has been fully brought to heel by her rumbustious husband. George Bernard Shaw was in no doubt -
" a piece which is one vile insult to womanhood and manhood from the first word to the last" he describes Petruccio as a "coarse thick skinned money hunter, who sets to work to tame his wife exactly as brutal people tame animals that is, by breaking their spirit by domineering cruelty"
There are many views on this aspect of the play which for some people distracts from the knockabout farce which it surely is. It starts with an induction: Sly is drunk and disputing with the landlady of an inn about payment for some broken glasses, she threatens him with the constable, but he just falls asleep. A Lord and his huntsmen enter and notice the comatose Sly and decide to have some fun with him. The Lord makes arrangements so that when Sly awakes he will think he is a Lord. The deception works and just as one of the Lords men dressed as a woman is convincing Sly that he is his wife there is a noise of trumpets outside and a troupe of players ask to be allowed to perform a comedy. Sly now fully convinced he is a Lord welcomes the entertainment and the real play begins;
Sly is watching a comedy which is The Taming of the Shrew and the scene is a street in Padua. Baptista has two daughters to be married: the eldest Kate has been labelled a shrew and no man will take her on. The younger sister Bianca who is dutiful as well as beautiful has many suitors but Baptista insists the elder daughter must be married first. Petruccio is new in town and he takes on the challenge of taming Kate. The numerous suitors to Bianca must disguise themselves as schoolmasters to get a foot through the door: Lucentio, swops clothes with his servant Tranio and Hortensio disguises himself as a music master to gain entrance along with the pantaloon Germio an elderly suitor. While Petruccio and Kate indulge in a battle of wits, Bianca is leading her suitors a merry dance in another part of the house. Petruccio's witty flyting competition with Kate gets a little physical when she hits him after sitting on his lap, but Petruccio is convinced that this is the match for him and he says that they will be married on Sunday. Baptista offers Bianca to the most wealthy of the suitors and a bidding war starts. Fortunately Tranio disguised as Lucentio claims to be the richest and this is the man that has attracted Bianca.
Petruccio arrives just in time for his wedding with his servant Grumio, they are poorly dressed and Petruccio behaves boisterously at the ceremony, he refuses to attend the wedding reception and he and Grumio draw their swords to whisk Kate away to his country house. Petruccios boisterous behaviour continues in his efforts to tame his wife. He sends back her food, he keeps her awake all night, he insults the tailor who is making Kates clothes and he beats the servants. He sets out to take her to see her father but turns the horses around when she wont agree with the time he says they will arrive. Meanwhile Lucentio (Tranio in disguise) persuades a merchant to disguise himself as his father Vicentio to assure Baptista that he is a rich man. This latest disguising act unravels when the real Vicentio tuns up. Hortensio who has lost out in the competition to marry Bianca turns instead to a rich widow and a double wedding is arranged. Petruccio and the now quiescent Kate join in the celebrations, that lead afterwards to a competition amongst the men as which of their partners will come to the call. It is Kate who comes to Petruccios summons.
How much of a problem is this problem play? For many modern readers the appalling treatment of Kate by Petruccio is beyond the pale and yet performances of the play continue to be popular. George Bernard Shaw's plea that in future all men and women who respect one another will boycott the play until it is driven off the boards has not been heeded. It is a play whose text may appear shocking to those people who think that Shakespeare somehow speaks to us down through the ages, wrestling with problems that are still pertinent today. Petruccio boasts of his 'taming school' and his physical taming of Kate is particularly humiliating because it is based on the taming of animals: a falcon in this instance:
"Thus have I politicly begun my reign,
And 'tis my hope to end successfully,
My falcon now is sharp, and passing empty,
And till she stoop, she must not be fully gorged,
For then she never looks upon the lure.
Another way I have to man my haggard,
To make her come, and know her keepers call."
This is a soliloquy by Petruchio who is in the process of denying Kate food. It comes from Act 4 of the play when she is a virtual prisoner in his country house. He denies her sleep, keeps her away from her family, physically abuses the servants in front of her, sends away the tailor who has made her clothes and throws plates and other kitchen utensil as he acts out the roaring boy. It is a particularly dark point in the play and goes on far too long.
Kates imprisonment only ends when she agrees with everything that Petruchio says. Her final speech at the end of the play is one full of contrition where she swears obedience to her husband and tells other wives present that:
"I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway
When they are bound to serve love and obey."
The play can however be adapted in performance to suit the sensibilities of different ages. It is first and foremost a comedy. It has all the elements of an Elizabethan comedy: wealthy people disguising themselves as schoolmasters, servants and masters exchanging identities, a merchant impersonating Lucentio's father to fool his future father-in-law, which comes to grief. There is the witty dialogue, the puns, quick fire wise-cracks and teasing and there are always servants around who get a good cuffing for being stupid or cheeky. In addition to the comedic elements that have always been evident the play can be interpreted as a love story or at least a romantic comedy. After all the central plot is the marriage of the two Minola daughters, who are faced with starkly different choices. Lucentio and Bianca are in love and they must find a way of seeing off the more reputable suitors while Kate and Petruchio are involved in a battle of wills, but there is enough in the text of the play to tease out a love affair between them, almost from the moment when they first meet. It may be too much of a stretch for some viewers to see Kate winning her battle with Petruchio, but there is some evidence that she may have kept some independence of spirit and their relationship will be all the more better for it.
The play portrays Elizabethan marriage customs for the more wealthy members of society. It was at a time when parents still had most of the power to choose partners for their offspring. Baptista is happy to accept Petruchio because he is assured that Petruchio is rich enough to support his daughter and the choice is limited by her shrewish reputation. In Bianca's case Baptista has an auction amongst her suitors and chooses the highest bidder. In Shakespeare's time young ladies were beginning to exercise more power in the choice of partners, even if it was only a negative choice. Both Bianca and Kate do get the partners of their choice, but Bianca has to use some subterfuge. In Hortensio's case it is the rich widow who chooses him. It was however important that there should be some harmony between the couples and they would have to establish their own ground rules for the relationship, but of course men had both social and economic power to bring to bear. These issues should be at the forefront of the thoughts of modern readers, when they find themselves justifiably horrified by the evidence of the inequalities between the sexes.
in addition to the Romantic Comedy and running parallel with it is the theme of mastery, not only between the sexes, but also between masters and servants, there is some exchanging of places Luciento with his servant Tranio and later the merchant (pedant) who assumes the role of Luciento's father. Each is censured for usurping a place in society that is not meant for him. The levels of domestic violence and women's place in this crops up throughout with Kate beating her younger sister and beating the servants, she even hits Petrouchio at their first meeting, until he warns her not to do it again. That masters beat servants as a matter of course is evident.
The Taming of the Shrew is an early play by Shakespeare. It shows plenty of dramatic skill and it ends on a high note with the competition and Kate's final speech. The iambic pentameters work well and they are interspersed with prose passages in accordance with whom is speaking or what is being said. There is no great poetry, but there are plenty of witty lines and some excellent dialogue. It works well enough, but can be confusing to read with perhaps three or four people being in disguise at the same time. Shakespeare's language is more knotty than other playwrights of this era, he is already packing more thoughts and ideas into single lines than was normal. It is genuinely funny and of course one feels the hand of a master behind the words which do much more than just tell a story. The influence of John Lyly is evident, but the moral and allegorical plays and stilted dialogue of some previous efforts seem to belong to another century. Wonderful and 5 stars.
Taming of the Shrew (Norton Critical Editions)
This follows the usual contents material of the Critical Editions. There is an introduction and then the text of the play with brief vocabulary notes at the bottom of each page (just enough to understand the text). A section follows on Sources and contexts and there are extracts from Ovids Metamorphoses, George Gascoigne's Supposes (a translation from an Italian play) and an anonymous poem entitled 'A Merry jest of a shrewd and Curst wife lapped in Morel's skin, for her good behaviour" 1550.
There is a large section of criticism with some interesting essays:
The Taming of the Shrew by Arthur Quiller-Couch
This early comedy does not compare with the later comedies. It is a patchwork and non too cleverly patched at that, but it goes better on the stage. The character of Petruccio is full of ranting and raving, but underneath there is delicacy and courteousness.
A Social Comedy by George R Hibbard
Despite a large element of knockabout farce, it contains a true comedy. It is a play about marriage in Elizabethan England and is constructive as well as destructive. Patruccio is of the old school his wife should be in complete subjugation of him.
The Taming of the Shrew - George Bernard Shaw
Household Kates: Domesticating Commodities in the Shrew by Natasha Korda
Cates are by definition exchange value commodities and Korda says that Kate is a Vicarious consumer. her animal like consumption wears away both her fathers and her husbands resources.
Household Chastisements Gender Authority and Domestic Violence by Francis E Dolan
Examines the levels of violence in Elizabethan households and highlights the fact most of the violence was meted out on the servants, especially by the women.
Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds - Lynda E Boose
A description of methods of punishment for women scold in Elizabethan times. Points out that Petruccio has all the power and in the end Kate must "stoop to the lure"
The Taming of the Shrew by Harold Bloom
The play is a romantic comedy as much as it is a farce. It is a love story you idiots, because you would have to be deaf not to hear the irony in Kate's final speech.
Construing Gender: Mastering Bianca in the taming of the shrew by Patricia Parker
A major theme of the play is exchanging of places and positions in society
Inside or Outside the Joke by Shirley Nelson Garner
The attitudes to women in this play are appalling. The play loses all its humour when Kate undergoes her taming at Petruccio's house. The betting scene at the end is where the men stake their masculinity on their wives compliance. Difficult to teach this play to modern day students, especially Kates final speech which satisfy's men who are bent on maintaining patriarchal power and hierarchy
Women Acting and Power by Juliet Dunsinberre
The fact that boys/young men usually played the women's parts might have modified the audiences perception of power structures in the play
Performing Sexual Politics by Maria Mitchell
How performances on stage can get around the fact that the treatment of Kate is downright sadistic and offensive.
Renaissance Family Politics by Karen Newman
Says from the outset of the play Kate's threat to male authority is through language. In response there is constant allusion to her kinship with the devil , linking her to witchcraft.
The Fairy Tale element in Taming of the Shrew by E M Tillyard
The Folk tale Origin by Jan Harold Brunvand.
There is a final section on Rewritings and appropriations with extract from 'The Taming of a Shrew 1594 which is an anonymous play on the theatre circuit about the same time as Shakespeares play. An extract from John Fletchers A Tamer Tamed 1611 in answer to Shakespeares Shrew and an extract from John Lacey's 'Sauney the Scott or the Taming of the Shrew - A comedy 1667. David Garricks Catherine and Petruccio 1756 and even a few songs from Kiss me Kate by Cole Porter. There is also a selected Bibliography. This is a very good example of a Norton Critical Edition with essays the put the play in context as well as ideas for different readings. 5 stars for this edition
The Taming of the Shrew: Third Series, Arden Shakespeare.
This is an edition that gives much information on the text of the play going much deeper than just vocabulary. Often there is more space taken up by the notes than by the text itself. The lengthy introduction focuses more on the play in performance with a good history of the different interpretations over the years. This is essential reading for people interested in how the play could be staged. The introduction also covers the history of the text, the play in context and sources. This is another great edition and so 5 stars.
The Taming of the Shrew - Franco Zeffirelli 1967
A blockbuster of a film that uses some of Shakespeares language. It looks wonderful with an all star cast. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Micheal Horden and Michael York. The film emphasises the comedy and the farcical elements but Burton as a roaring boy is excellent. This might not be quite Shakespeare but its not far off and provides super entertainment. I love it.
The Taming of the Shrew BBC production - directed by Jonathan Miller 1980
This is fairly faithful to Shakespeares text but it cuts the induction scene with Sly. The acting is of a high standard and it looks like a stage play. John Cleese is Petruccio (yes the John Cleese) and he comes over as more supercilious than a roaring boy especially in his first scenes with Kate. However he does portray a man in love and proud of his wife which makes the play seem more compassionate. The comedy is well done and the standout performer for me was Anthony Pedley as Tranio who gives a great performance of a servant/companion who tries to step into his masters shoes. This is well worth a look for anyone wishing to see what Shakespeare's text would like on the stage, on the stage.
- Mission of Gravity (1954)
Two science fiction novels from the 1950's by Hal Clement who has come to be known as one of the early leaders of the hard science fiction sub genre, which has been defined as concern for science accuracy and logic. The term Hard Science fiction usually frightens me a little as I am not a science graduate, but as in most things there are degrees of hardness. Jules Verne was one of the first to write in this way, taking delight in explaining (sometimes at great length) how the science in his novels worked. Hal Clement wrote in a similar vein assuming that his readers had at least a basic knowledge of physics, chemistry and astronomy. No doubt if you have more than a basic knowledge you might enjoy the novels a bit more.
The surprise factor here is not so much the hard science, but that it soon becomes obvious that the science is somehow askew, the science seems to make sense but the ground rules have changed. Non science readers will pick this up from other references like the main protagonist seems to have a tentacle. Clement pitches his story from the point of view of an alien life form. The weakness and confusion of this approach is that the aliens seem to think and act very similarly to human beings and so we learn that Salman Ken has been recruited as a spy to expose a gang of probable drug smugglers. He is in a science laboratory come space ship which has been trading with a world with an extremely hostile environment. It is so cold that their torpedo like probes can easily malfunction and the crew members dare not attempt a landing on the planet. They have been trading successfully with the planets inhabitants by sending down valuable metals and receiving in exchange a drug that is highly addictive. Salman Ken is curious to find out more about the planet and convinces the smuggling gang that better knowledge would improve the drug supply.
Mission of Gravity (1954)
There is a similar approach in this next novel by Clements, but this time it is the alien planet that has an extremely hostile environment even for the aliens that live on it. Barlennan is the captain of the sailing ship Bree and is at the very limit of his saucer shaped world when he makes landfall. He has rendezvoused with a human space mission which has built a tower at the worlds edge. The saucer shaped world of Mesklin has over 200 times more gravity at the centre than at the poles and Barlennan himself proves to be a centipede like creature just 50 centimetres long who being used to a heavy gravitational pull has an extreme fear of heights. He is also fearful of going over the edge of his world, but after making contact with the humans and their advance scientific knowledge he sees trading opportunities. Barlennan and his crew come into contact with hostile tribes built like themselves, but who have the power of flight and they seek help from the human beings, who are represented by the stoic Charles Lackland their scientific officer. Clement's scientific knowledge helps him to make the hostile environment of Mesklin convincing, the edge of the world is sparsely inhabited because of the violent storms that make travel impossible for certain periods of the Mesklin year and the efforts of Barlennan to cope with the environment and the efforts of Lackland to cope with the gravity create an atmosphere of continual struggle.
It is the situation and world building that give these short novels such a unique approach, they are thoughtful and adequately written. The struggles to cope with extreme environments takes precedence over characterisation and plot mechanics, but these work well enough to make for interesting reading. Both are worth a look for science fiction fans and I would rate Iceworld at 3.5 stars and Mission of Gravity at 4 stars.
Personal reading plans are part of our reading culture in librarything and this group is for those readers who want to share and track their own personal projects which they have set themselves. There are plenty of groups that set reading challenges for others, such as "1001 books to read before you die" or "2019 reading challenge", however some of us make up our own reading projects either through our particular interests, a course of study or more often than not because it is fun to do so.
A typical project might be to read all the books written by a favourite author or perhaps books written about a specific event or topic. Reading books from a different era can immerse the reader in another age or another time and there is non doubt that books can lead to other books and before you know it a plan or reading project has sprung into existence. So many plans, so many projects and not enough time to do them all, but at least you can set out what you aim to do and with the added bonus that you might acquire more books along the way.
Use this group to set up your own thread for your reading project/plan, perhaps say something about why you chose the project, certainly start by listing those books you plan to read and then perhaps reviewing those that you have managed to read.
In person he was delightful, the perfect high school chemistry teacher one wishes one had had.
"Youth which once fascinated me, seems now no more than a prelude to maturity"
Says Simone de Beauvoir in an epilogue to the third instalment of her autobiography. Simone and Jean-Paul Sartre have grown up. Whereas I found the second part of her autobiography The Prime of Life raised some questions about the aims and ambitions of the couple I have nothing but admiration for them as they strived to keep true to their ideals during the period between 1944 to 1963 in France.
The heady euphoria of the liberation of Paris in 1944 and then the end of hostilities gives way to a period of relative calm where both Sartre and de Beauvoir established themselves as authors and important figures on the left wing of political thought. Sartre became an internationally known figure whose views were listened to with respect and de Beauvoir won the Prix Goncourt for her novel The Mandarins. Whereas they had previously held on to teaching jobs to supplement their earnings from their writing they now could both live comfortably on Sartre's earnings alone. This new found wealth did not go to their heads they ploughed all their energies back into their work. The couple draw closer together as their outspoken opposition to General de Gaulle's fifth republic and the Algerian war put both their lives at some risk. They stood up to be counted when others took an easier route through the difficult years of the Algerian war of independence 1954-62.
Simone de Beauvoir says of her relationship to Sartre (she always refers to him as Sartre never Jean-Paul)
"There has been one undoubted success in my life: my relationship with Sartre. In more than thirty years we have only once gone to sleep at night disunited.......We have a common store of memories, knowledge and images behind us; our attempts to grasp the world are undertaken with the same tools, set within the same framework, guided by the same touchstones."
This is perhaps all the more remarkable seeing that they had an open relationship. During this period of her life Simone had long standing love affairs with the American Nelson Algren and the French jew Claude Lanzmann both of whom were on good terms with Sartre: Lanzmann in particular working closely with him at "Le Temps Modernes"; the newspaper founded by de Beauvoir and Sartre.
Sartre's international reputation ensured that they were invited to communist countries, and they went to Cuba, China and Russia. Sartre in particular had a sort of love hate relationship with the French communist party, breaking links with them after the 1956 Russian invasion of Hungary. He preferred to plough his own furrow especially with his support for the Algerian Independence movement and this stance made him and de Beauvoir targets of the O.A.S (the French Secret Army Organisation). In Force of Circumstance de Beauvoir describes in some detail her impressions and politica/cultural work on these trips abroad. The couple also spent a couple of months in Brazil. Her observations are both sensitive and acute and although they sometimes feel like a travelogue, she is also at pains to come to grips with the political situation. Her honesty in describing her own reactions to third world environments goes hand in hand with her admiration for the work done by certain people to improve standards of living. She is frustrated at times by not being allowed to see everything or not having the capacity to undertake some arduous travelling, but she and Sartre probably did better than most people on official visits.
The autobiography covers her own work and she gives some outlines of what she is trying to achieve and the public's reception of her books. She is also involved with Sartre's attempts to get his plays performed and all of this involves the couple being very much a part of the artistic/cultural scene in the period following the end of the war, however this tails off dramatically when they become almost social pariahs when their political stance gives rise to an estrangement from the artistic scene. Certainly in the first part of the autobiography there is much name dropping, but few close friends. The book is particularly strong when she becomes ashamed of her fellow countrymen. She is disgusted when Charles de Gaulle attains over 80% support in the referendum for the fifth republic. The rise of the political right so soon after the war and the reintegration of the collaborators with the Nazis sticks in her throat and she loses her love for her country. This all comes to a head in the final years of the Algerian war and both she and Sartre need to spend some time abroad to regain their spirits. She also has a fear of ageing and the loss of her physical and mental powers and although she is only 55 years old at the end of the book she is already talking about herself as an old woman. She writes at the end of the book:
"For now I know the truth of the human condition: two thirds of mankind are hungry. My species is two thirds composed of worms, two weak ever to rebel, who drag their way from birth to death through a perpetual dusk of despair"
There is a sense of helplessness here and although she admits that her social position and education has allowed her to make her points she looks askance at others around her. I found myself warming to and admiring Simone de Beauvoir as I followed her steps by way of this autobiography. She may come across as a little overbearing and lacking a sense of humour, but her honesty and her struggles to do what she thinks is right is only to be congratulated. I sympathise deeply with her despair at the rise of unchecked capitalism and she would not feel any better if she was alive today. This is both a story of a left wing intellectuals battle against the tide and a potted history of France after the second world war. It is a chunky read at over 670 pages of densely worded paragraphs, but it's well worth it 4.5 stars.
Matter is the eighth book in Iain Banks science Fiction Culture series and this is the fifth book I have read in the series. There are no more on my book shelves and so this will probably be the last one I read. The formula is similar to the other books in the series. The advanced utopian machine based Culture have become guardians of the universe. Robotics has become so advanced that machines build themselves creating their own minds. Humanoids and other alien races who choose to live in the society created by the Culture have enhanced life styles and immortality, but occasionally there are challenges to the system and when these occur human agents are employed by the Culture to deal with the problem. Each of the novels are therefore a story within the Culture series featuring a human agent sent on a mission and as such are stand alone books.
Iain M Banks who also wrote mainstream fiction as Iain Banks said in an interview he preferred writing science fiction, because the novel depended on the strength of the ideas by this he meant original story lines. He said:
"You can write a perfectly good mainstream novel with no original ideas at all, you just have to tell an interesting story with interesting characters who have something to say" he also said that "you get fewer ideas as you get older, but you do get better at developing them"..........
He is as good as his word because each of his culture novels is centred on an original storyline and in Matter this is as good as others I have read in the series. The human agent this time is Djan Seriy Anaplian female and sister to Ferbin Hausk who is a humanoid of the Sarl race. He lives on a Shellworld which is an engineered planet containing a number of levels stacked on top of each other in which various animal life forms live, although some levels are complete vacuums. The Sarls live on the seventh level and they are at war with the Deldeyns who live on the level below. A lift system which controls the movement between levels is controlled by another race who have an uneasy truce with a race of parasites. Ferbin is next in line to his father who rules the Sarls, but in the fighting with the Deldeyns his father is murdered by the general of his army. Ferbin flees and seeks out his sister who he knows to be an agent of the Culture. Meanwhile the Sarls have defeated the Deldeyns and have discovered an ancient city which is being gradually exposed by a huge waterfall tearing away the land mass. The big idea here is the Shellworld itself as there are many similar worlds in the galaxy, but they are under threat from another alien species.
If all this sounds confusing it really isn't because Banks is a good enough writer to juggle several plot lines at once and keep the reader on board while holding back some information that will create suspense in the unfolding of the story. I have been fascinated with the idea of the Utopian Culture in previous books, but in this novel Banks chooses not to develop this idea concentrating instead on his story, which builds to a climax with Djan Seriy Anaplian and her brother battling for their lives in the depths of the shellworld. Banks science fiction is not held down by hard science, he lets his imagination run free, but creates enough background (world building) to convince his readers that the scenarios are possible. He is a bit like a modern day Edgar Rice Burroughs in this respect without the overt racism and sexism.
Banks has called this novel Matter which is of course a play on the phrase Mind over Matter - the minds of the Culture versus the Matter of the Universe I suppose. Anyway this is a good example of Bank's science fiction work and so 3.5 stars.
Published in 1955 and now in the sci-fi Masterwork Series; The Body Snatchers is a title more famous for the number of film versions (four at the last count). It is certain that more people will have seen a film version than will have read the novel and so readers like me will probably be approaching the book already knowing much of the story, however they may well be surprised by this tightly written little novel. Much like H G Wells' novel War of the worlds which had a distinctly provincial feel despite it's title (the action takes place in rural suburbs outside London); the Body Snatchers is confined to small town America and although the story has global implications they are not explored in the novel.
There is enough background to the story to make this more than just a plot driven science fiction caper. There are no super-heroes or even heroes, just a small town doctor faced with some extraordinary events that he cannot explain which seem to be changing the people with whom he lives and works. Miles is recently divorced and the events in the town bring him into the company of Becky a friend from his school days and a love story develops. Although the story does eventually lead to a couple against the rest of the world scenario, the rest of the world is the town of Santa Mira
and so Finney is still able to keep his story well grounded with some keen observations about life in the town. This observation about the lack human activity in his town leads Miles to feel very uneasy about his situation.
"We might have been on a finished stage set, completed to the last nail and final stroke of a brush. You can't walk ten blocks on an ordinary street inhabited by human beings, without seeing evidence of say, a garage being built. a new cement sidewalk being laid, a yard being spaded, a picture window being installed - at least some little signs of the endless urge to change and improve that marks the human race"
Finney also finds the space to observe through Miles how a black shoe shine boy (Billy) can occasionally let the bitterness come through at the condescending way he is treated by the white folks which makes Miles despair of the human race. This is however a story about the strength and qualities of some human beings who are prepared to fight for their way of life, even when others appear to have given up. It is a good subject for a movie and Finney provides a good dose of mystery and suspense leading up to the denouement, and even though you might know what that is; there is still much to be gained from reading this novel. Characters are well drawn and there is something consoling when reading through a familiar plot line just to see how it all works out in the novel. A four star read for me.
Dorothy Baker - Cassandra At the Wedding
The story of two identical twins Cassandra and Judith brought up in a wealthy professional family who face separation when the younger twin (Judith: a matter of minutes) plans to get married. The time scale of the novel is a momentous three days in the lives of the two girls as they try and work through the difficulties of not being together or as Cassandra says no longer being as one. The title of the book has led to a soundbite on the front cover describing it as "A dark comedy about marriage' which is wrong on both counts; it is not a comedy and it's not about marriage.
The novel was published in 1962 and was the last of the four novels Dorothy Baker wrote. I recently read her first novel Young Man with a Horn and was so impressed by Baker's handling of dialogue that I wanted to read this novel which is said to be her best. Dorothy Baker's husband claimed that the novel was based on their own two daughters and certainly the dialogue between the two crackles with an intensity that feels like it could have actually taken place. Like her first novel there is hardly a word out of place.
The first part of the novel is from the POV of Cassandra. She is travelling from Berkley California to her parents ranch some 5 hours away. She wants to see her sister who has returned home to prepare for her wedding. We learn that the sisters had set up house together in Berkley but nine months ago Judith had left and had now met a man she wants to marry. Cassandra had only been alone for three weeks before seeking help from psychiatry. Now on her journey home the anxiety that she feels is expressed by her first telephone call to her parents home where it is revealed she is travelling one day earlier than planned to see her sister before the wedding. She finally gets to speak to Judith and her knees "buckle with recognition" when she hears her sisters voice. For the majority of the novel we hear Cassandra's side of the story, her view of the close relationship with her sister and their relationship with their father and Granny who still lives at home. A smaller chunk of the novel is from Judith's point of view before we are back with Cassie.
Baker is able to pinpoint in some detail the sisters' state of mind through their actions and conversations. Because much of the novel is from Cassie's POV she is seen as a sort of victim, the one who will lose most from Judith's marriage. The family unit is a little reclusive living out on the ranch and their father is a professor who has sought solace in brandy after the early death of his wife. The two sisters like him are very intelligent, but this does not help them solve their emotional issues, nobody behaves badly, but extricating themselves from the emotional trauma of their separation proves to be impossible without hurting the more vulnerable Cassie.
The micro world of this novel is not going to shed any light on the human condition, but it does focus extremely well on a vary small incident within it. From the first few pages the quality of the writing hooked me into Cassie and the families' issues, but as the story unfolded I thought the novel lost a little of its intensity. However a very good read and so 4 stars.
Arden of Faversham - Unknown
An Elizabethan period play that has managed to stay in the repertoire of performed plays right up to recent times, which does not surprise me because of the quality of the writing and the modern feel of the play. It is a play plucked almost in its entirety from Holinshed's chronicles of England Scotland and Ireland published in 1587 which describes in some detail the murder of Arden a gentleman of Faversham by his wife, her lover Mosby and their accomplices. Holinshed apologises for including the event in his history because of it being a private matter or as we might interpret: a domestic affair, but its 'horribleness' and detail would have attracted playwrights as a likely subject for a stage play. The fact that Shakespeare used the Chronicles as a source for several of his plays and that he has been linked with Arden of Faversham ever since Edward Jacob's 1770 edition of the play has not hindered its continuing relative popularity.
Assuming it was written for the stage around 1590; although there are no firm dates for it's performance, points to a further development in the history of the theatre; several reasons place it in advance of other plays performed at the time: the absence of any person of heroic qualities, the very few references to classical antiquity, the very close emulation of a reported historical event and the absence, by and large of magical or mystical events. It has the feeling of a modern day crime story. The play does have its problems, much of it stemming from the uneven quality of its writing with the general consensus being that it was one of the many patchwork productions of the time, with various playwrights in collaboration or later adding to the text. This is apparent from the characterisation of Alice Arden who seems to lurch from one moment portraying herself as a faithful wife to the extreme of a murderous women intent on having her lover at any cost. However it cannot be denied there is enough here in the text for a modern actress to make something of this part, although it might have been a stretch for a boy child actor who would have played the part in Elizabethan times. There is also a noticeable unevenness in the seriousness of the portrayal of a tragic affair, for example here is Alice asking the painter (Clarke) if he has prepared a poison to use against her husband Arden and her speech turns into a play on words between life and love:
Alice. Then this, I hope, if all the rest do fail,
Will catch Master Arden,
And make him wise in death that lived a fool.
Why should he thrust his sickle in our corn,
Or what hath he to do with thee, my love,
Or govern me that am to rule myself?
Forsooth, for credit sake, I must leave thee!
Nay, he must leave to live that we may love,
May live, may love; for what is life but love?
And Love shall last as long as life remains,
And life shall end before my love depart.
The history in Holinshed's chronicle tells of how many attempts there were on Ardens life by the cutthroat pair: Black Will and Shakebag and these are all faithfully written into the play, the problem is that Black Will and Shakebag could appear as a pair of bumbling fools rather than evil mercenaries. So much of the play is taken up with their exploits that more reflective thoughts on the situation by the characters are squeezed into a smaller place. They are there, however; I am thinking of Mosby and Alices thoughts on their relationship and Arden on his marriage to Alice: longer speeches that are attractive to those scholars who see the hand of Shakespeare himself. The very names of Black Will and Shakebag lead one to think of Shakespeare however these were the names taken directly from Holinshed's Chronicle, as was the character Greene. Greene, Shakebag, Black Will are names with which one could invent a sort of conspiracy that this play was worked up by playwrights in some unholy collaboration.
In the 21st century the play has been performed a number of times by various theatre groups, notably the Royal Shakespeare company in 2014. They chose to do it in modern dress, which on the face of it would seem to be a strange decision, because some of the charm of the play is the feeling of a portrayal of life in a prosperous community, not far from London in the Elizabethan era.
A mainly plot driven play that certainly tells a good story with some interesting characters that moves fast enough to be entertaining and which does have its black moments. I enjoyed reading it, but might be more circumspect about seeing a performance of the play 4 stars.
The Battle of Dorking - George Tomkyns Chesney
This novella written in 1871 is on most lists of must read proto-science fiction, because it was one of the first books that had a theme of an alternative reality. In this case it imagined a successful German Invasion of England. This description is a little misleading because there is very little about what life would have been like in England under an occupation: nine tenths of the book is about a significant battle between two armies on the North Downs of England; after all Chesney called his book The Battle of Dorking and so this should not come as any surprise.
Sir George Tomkyns Chesney was a British Army General, politician, and writer of fiction, (there are no other works of his still in print although they can be found online) and I am sure he would have been surprised by the relative success of this novella (60 pages). Sir George writes well about what he knows and this is a land battle in the late nineteenth century. He imagines the British army being ill prepared and suffering because of a better equipped and better trained enemy. The book does serve as a warning to Britain as Chesney sketches the political situation as he saw it in 1870's England: an economy dependent on trade and raw materials supplied by its commonwealth, with an army that was being scaled down in deference to a more powerful navy. He imagines a situation where troubles in Ireland and in India have stretched the army to a point where it is not able to defend its homeland. Although the invading country is not named it is obviously Germany. The alternate history serves as an introduction to the real meat of the book which a disastrous defensive action against the invasion.
Chesney writes from the point of view of a reservist called up with a couple of days notice to fight for his country. The description of the logistics of an overstretched transport system and the battle itself seems quite realistic. It was particularly relevant for me because I know the countryside around Dorking very well and could easily relate to the protagonist who does his best to do his bit in a situation that is confused and difficult. The battle scene itself is vividly described both from the point of view of the soldiers and the civilians inevitably caught up in the conflict. It is not an anti-war book, nor a book of heroic action it is rather a blow by blow account of a few days of military action and its consequences.
A political and strategic battle story whose realistic well written style holds the attention, the later addition of its significance to a genre still over 40 years away from its creation makes this well worth a look. I would not be averse to reading one of Chesney's other works of fiction if I came across them in a second hand bookshop. 3.5 stars.
The Faerie Queene: books 1-3 - Edmund Spenser
Frightened of the Allegory? With Good Reason
In his letter to Sir Walter Raleigh that now serves as an introduction to the poem Spenser claimed that:
"The General end therefore of all the book is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous snd gentle discipline"
From the high sounding tone of the letter it seems to me that Spenser was clear in his mind that he had written (or was going to write) the most important epic poem of the English Renaissance. It harks back to the most popular of books for the gentleman reader: Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier which had been translated into English some thirty years previously and was still immensely popular. Spenser was just as ambitious for his poem and for his own inspiration and for the edification of his readers he chose to base his poem on the myths of the knight errants of King Arthur's round table. The poem looks backwards rather than forwards and would have appealed to his readers for this very reason. His readers would also be familiar with the use of allegory, as much contemporary printed material and some popular stage plays were still steeped in its usage.
The first three books of the Faerie Queen were published in 1590. With Sponsorship from Sir Walter Raleigh he was able to get the Royal Seal of approval from Elizabeth I which guaranteed its success and obtained for Spenser a pension for life of £50 per year. The fact that Queen Elizabeth I is celebrated as the glorious queen of the faeries throughout the poem probably did not hinder Spenser's ambition.
Some of the reasons for the Faerie Queene's popularity with readers in the late 16th century, no longer hold good for readers today. It is a poem after all and a very long one at that. The whole thing of 6 (or 7 books if you include the Mutabilitie cantos) amounts to over 36000 lines. Spenser's intention was to write 12 books celebrating the adventures of 12 knights for the Christmas feast, some of us may be relieved that he only managed to get to half way. Then there is the allegory, familiar to Spenser's 16th century readers but not for many readers today and so when we are introduced to the very first character with that famous first line "A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine" it is Red Cross who symbolises Holiness; actually he is trying to achieve holiness and so the reader must have this in mind when trying to account for his actions in the story. Allegory is used in other ways; for example when describing the seven sins, they are characterised, here is Gluttony:
And by his side rode loathsome Gluttony,
Deformed creature, on a filthie swyne;
His belly was up-blowne with luxury,
And eke with fatnesse swollen were his eyne,
And like a Crane° his necke was long and fyne,
With which he swallowed up excessive feast,
For want whereof poore people oft did pyne;
And all the way, most like a brutish beast,
He spued up his gorge, that all did him deteast.
However Spenser rarely leaves his readers floundering, he usually tells us who the allegorical figures are or what they represent: at the start of each book we are told the name of the knight and his/her allegorical representation.
Spenser's language is adapted to fit into his poetic rhyming scheme, but this will be familiar to poetry readers, however his language was said to be archaic even by late 16th century standards, but really too much has been made of this and people who have been exposed to other 16th century writing and spelling will have no problem, for others if you can get to grips with the example above of Gluttony then you will enjoy the poem without a lot of trouble.
The epic proportions of the poem, the allegory and the language may be reasons to hesitate before starting in on a long read, but Spenser's Faerie Queene may be worth a little effort for other reasons. The poetry can be sublime and the syntax is not difficult to follow with most lines being end stopped. The poem is made up of nine line stanzas with a regular rhyming scheme and the final line more often than not provides a summary or commentary on the preceding eight lines.
This is an example of Spenser using the popular trope of a ship lost at sea to describe the hopelessness of ill fortune, or restless needs. It is the female knight Britomart the hero of book three, representing chastity;
"For else my feeble vessell crazd and crackt
Through thy strong buffets and outrageous blowes
cannot endure, but needs it must be wrackt
On the rough rocks, or on the sandy shallowes
The while the love it steres, and fortune rows;
Love my lewd pilot hath a restless mind
And fortune Boteswaine no assurance knowes,
But sail withouten starres gainst tide and wind:
How can they other do, sith both are bold and blind?
The battle scenes are inventive and full of action and Spenser's descriptive powers are in evidence throughout. Oh! and there is the eroticism that always seems to be just below the surface but can erupt out into some sensuous stanzas or into the realms of sadomasochism. There are plenty of purple patches but also some longueurs. Spenser saw himself as a historian or more accurately as a poetic historian and so there are some long sequences of stanzas that seem intent on naming all the mythical rulers of ancient England. These of course can be skimmed, but do hark back again to a late medieval feel.
There is no doubt the poem has layers of meaning, however it can be read as a straight forward epic adventure poem about knight errants. Some of the actions of the protagonists may seem strange, but the beauty of the poetry and the action sequences and vivid locations may be of enough interest. The next layer down is the allegory with which I think you need to have some idea to grasp the reasons why the characters do the things that they do. After all the poem is aimed to provide moral instruction and so missing out on this will put a brake on some of the enjoyment. There are also references to the politics of 16th century England and it's history, some of which will remain obscure. Spenser never aimed to be obscure and he is always there to help the reader; he usually speaks directly to the reader in the first two or three stanzas of each canto to set out his main themes or ideas and at the very start of each canto there is a four line synopsis of the canto. The Canto's can be read as separate poems, although characters do appear and reappear throughout the length of the poem the reader never needs to know the back story to make sense of the events.
Some critics have warned about reading too much into Spenser's allegory. The question Did Spenser really mean to say all of this? is pertinent and following through an allegorical, political or philosophical idea can lead to confusion. This is down to the choice of the reader, how much time do you want to spend teasing out possible meanings?
History has not been so very kind to Spenser's faerie Queene. The Cambridge History of English literature says:
"He tried to do too many things at once. and, in elaborating intellectually the allegorical plot he has confused the imaginative substance of the poetic narrative........ Spenser tried to tell his lies while clinging to a disabling kind of truth and so he does not convince his readers. He lives as an exquisite word-painter of widely different scenes and as supreme poet-musician using with unrivalled skill a noble stanza of his own invention. unparalleled in any other language"
This summary misses the excitement of the action and the underlying eroticism that lingers in the story telling. To my way of thinking Spenser has taken us into a wonderful world of faerie land, which sometimes resembles the real world too uncomfortably. It is a long poem with some passages more exciting and entertaining than others, however with a little knowledge of the allegorical structure the poem takes on another life and the reader can easily become absorbed. It is a 5 star read of course as there is nothing like it, but at times it can feel like a three star read.
Not quite sure that you and he have quite convinced me to give Spenser a try just yet, though...
The Beckett Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable - Samuel Beckett
It was a long time ago. How long ago I can't really say. Perhaps I was bamboozled it would appear from the evidence, but what evidence from the book lying on my desk, the book that I am not going to read. Charity begins at home, but in this case it was a shop selling charity, who was selling this charity and was I in the mood for buying? I was gazing upwards and I couldn't quite see, somebody was in the way, my neck was hurting a fortiori. Movement was impossible, crammed in nowhere to go, if only I could reach up, it is tantalisingly close, rows and rows wherever I looked, but I could not see too much because my head had become stuck, stuck looking upwards, but I could see those dirty dusty jackets and if I could move my arm above my head then surely I would get some relief, I could enclose my fingers around a spine and a sharp tug might do the trick. There I did it, but horror of horrors a sound like cardboard fluttering on wood, I jerked forward trapping a paper object against my chest, still could not move my head, how long did I stay in this position, perhaps not very long, because a shove from the right unlocked my potential, just enough, just enough, the smell of damp overcoats cold winter dampness, chilling I got my right hand under the object, the thought of trying to bend down to pick something off the floor made me press tighter, tighter, but this prevented me moving my hand any further, a short cough, not my cough I don't think, but difficult to place, but now I was getting hot under my collar, pressure from behind, more movement a grunted apology an arm appearing above my head, but not my arm, my arm was trapped, but I could now move my head, fresh air, fresh cold air, a space had been made to my left. I was holding my breath, I could hold my breath underwater for 52 seconds, not moving, concentrating, trying not to panic, but thinking what it would feel like to drown, bubbles, choking, thrashing of arms, light disappearing. I escaped I was holding a book, I looked inside: Lindsey 1980 it said, was that a girl or a boy a woman or a man, evidence that somebody had possessed this object, which had certainly taken on the look of something unpleasant, or was that just the dust jacket with its mouldy mottled brown yellow design, it somehow looked forbidding, not welcoming. I dare you to open me with intent, intent to what, intent to get through the first paragraph. The first paragraph finished at page 84, but the count started at page 11. I could not hold my breath for that long, but I felt I might need to. I needed a distraction, something to stop my eyes slipping down the page, slipping into a temporary unconsciousness: a temporary death, from which waking up would be a guilt ridden experience. I know this. Molloy, Moran, Malone, Mahood would all slip by in an unnamable abyss. What did Lindsey think, that pretty college girl in glasses, I am quite sure that Lindsey is what I have said she was or is, but perhaps no longer; college girls grow up, but probably not growing up thinking of Molloy, Moran Malone or Mahood. She might have never forgiven the author for changing Sapos name to Macmann, but closer reading would have revealed that Sapo was just a shortening of his Mothers name; Mrs Saposcat. He became Macmann because he needed the lineage of Molloy, Moran, Malone. Mahood. Lindsey probably thought that a novel written in the genre of the Absurd and with the technique of a stream of consciousness becomes absurd stream of consciousness. How much of the absurd stream of consciousness could she take, she might not have had a choice because she had written her name on the flyleaf, part of a college curriculum. How long before her eyes glazed over how long before her mind wandered to the girl next door. The phone rings, she must get up to answer: it is 1980. Sapo is no more, forgotten never to be revisited, but the book has not read itself. Lindsey gets back into position and she ploughs on through the Unnamable: the head in the glass jar, the voices, the craving for silence, will it never end? It did end, but forty pages from the finishing line; Malone and Moran although going round in circles appeared to be getting somewhere, nowhere good, but somewhere. Malone got to be dead which was his ambition from the start, but the Unnamable, oh the unnamable just got stuck and her neck started to ache. I can't go on. I go on.
Having teased you for picking these for Christmas reading, it occurred to me that I did the same thing a few years ago. I listened to them, I thought they worked very well as audio.
Tarlton's Jests and News out of purgatory - Anonymous
Tarlton's jests and news out of purgatory was published in 1590 and it would seem to be another in the long line of jest books which were still popular in the 1590's. Tarlton died in 1588 and this publication traded on his name, there is no evidence that he was the author of any of these snippets.
Jest books were collections amusing stories, sometimes risqué many of which were recycled and owed much to the stories from the Italian Renaissance, jests tended to be cut down versions that would not strain the reader too much, they were the equivalent of light entertainment and the jokes and anecdotes might be rolled up together with warnings about tricksters and cony-catchers. Richard Tarlton was a famous stage personality, a comedian and a clown, said to be Queen Elizabeth's favourite clown, he specialised in witty repartee noted for his ability to harangue and amuse play goers in the theatre, he was associated with Queen Elizabeth's men which were the dominant acting troupe of the 1580's. He was evidently a very funny man.
James Orchard Halliwell published the version that I read in 1844 for the Shakespeare society. It contains an account of the life of Richard Tarlton. The Jests are stories either involving Tarlton or tricks and jokes that were associated with him; there are his court witty jests, his sound city jests and his country pretty jests. An example:
Tarltons opinion of Oysters.
CErtaine Noblemen and Ladies of the Court, being eating of Oysters, one of them séeing Tarlton, called him, & asked him if he loued Oysters? No (quoth Tarlton) for they be vngodly meate, vncharitable meat, and vnpro∣fitable meate. Why, quoth the Courtiers; They are vn∣godly, sayes Tarlton, because they are eaten without grace, vncharitable, because they leaue nought but shelles: and vnprofitable, because they must swim in wine.
Tarlton's news out of Purgatory is a little different. The author is sitting dreaming under a tree when he sees the ghost of Tarlton, who gives a brief description of the path into purgatory and then describes some of the people who are trapped there. Each of these have a story associated with their predicament, for example there is a tale explaining why the Vicar of Bergamo is sitting with piece of coal in his mouth. Purgatory is of course part of the catholic religion and so some allowance has to be made for these stories circulating in a protestant country, and it also points to the origin of the stories. Light entertainment 2.5 stars.
The Lovers - Philip José Farmer
The lovers was originally a novella published in 1952 in the pulp science fiction magazine Startling Stories. It was Farmer's first literary success winning the Hugo award as 'most promising new writer' I read the expanded novel length 1961 version.
Farmer's novella was praised as one of the first stories in the pulp market genre to treat sex in a more responsible non-prurient way. The centre piece of the story is the seduction by an alien female of a human male, but Farmer fleshes out (no pun intended) his story in the expanded version to make it more credible. Hal Yarrow lives in a totalitarian society on Earth sometime in the future. Power lay in the hands of a religious sect based on the Forerunner a man who could literally travel through time. This is an assessment of him from the writings that he left for his followers
"He said that the Forerunner’s biographies and theological writings revealed him to an objective reader as a sexually frigid and woman-hating man with a Messiah complex and paranoid and schizophrenic tendencies which burst through his icy shell from time to time in religious-scientific frenzies and fantasies.".... A society based on fear, ignorance and repression."
Hal has problems coming to terms with the society that controls his every action. From cradle to grave he will be under the supervision of a person higher up the food chain who will have access to his apartment and to his actions via reports from his wife, colleagues and friends who tell of any infringements or unreal actions. If his moral chart reaches a low enough level he will lose his place in the hierarchy and possibly face a spell in a house of correction. Hal was assigned a wife for procreation, he has never seen her naked, they are under pressure because she has not conceived and their life in the tiny apartment is fraught with arguments and fights. Earth is overcrowded: pressures on individuals to toe the party line are intolerable and so when Hal has the chance to join a space exploration team he does not hesitate. The destination is a planet that has been earmarked for colonisation, currently inhabited by an insect race whom Farmer has cheerfully called the Wogglebugs (he tips his hat to Frank Baum creator of the Land of Oz). There is however remnants of an ancient humanoid race and poor repressed Hal is soon out of his depth with one of the females.
There are surprises in store for Hal and not just in the bedroom and the novel works through these well enough. The insect race which Farmer cannot resist calling the Wogs are shown to be one step ahead of the exploration team, both in terms of human qualities and actions and the female humanoid is able to tease out the real Hal from underneath his repression. This all happens far too quickly as characters are only lightly sketched, but Farmer avoids the inherent racism and sexism which was a feature of much 1950's (60's, 70's, 80's) science fiction. An impressive start to Farmer's writing career in the genre and so 3 stars and worth a look.
>243 thorold: Mark, if you read this, you definitely should try The Faerie Queene book 1. 🙂 From there, leave it to your preference.