lørdag den 16. juni 2018

Oroonoko - Aphra Behn (1688)

”Oroonoko” is a short story from 1688 by Aphra Behn.

Already in that short sentence there is a lot to comment upon.

This is my last book from the 17th century and from now on it will be 18th century books for the next several years to come. That is, I suppose, an anniversary of sorts.

Secondly Aphra Behn was a remarkable character, apparently. A rare female writer in an age where practically all writers were men and a royalist on the Stuart side at a time when public sentiment was so strongly against the Stuarts that Britain welcomed a Dutch prince to take the throne. She was a spy in Antwerpen, she was for awhile in Surinam (where the story takes place) and even at one point in prison. A busy lady.

It is however the book itself which is the focus of this review. At a mere 77 pages this was a very easy read, made even more so by an author that generally sticks to the point and know how to move a story forward. Something her contemporaries could learn something from.

“Oroonoko” is the story of an African prince, the eponymous Oroonoko, who runs afoul of his grandfather, the king. The king is envious of the prince’ woman, Imoinda, and claims her for himself. When it becomes apparent that the brave and honorable Oroonoko will not put up with this the King sells her to a slaver and tell Oroonoko that she died. Some time later Oroonoko, who himself has sent war prisoners to slavery befriends a slaver who invites him onboard his ship only to trick him and ship him off to slavery in the New World.

Although Oroonoko is black and sold as a slave he is treated almost as royalty by his owner and his friends and in his semi-freedom he finds Imoinda and they are reunited. Oroonoko wants to return to Africa with his wife, especially as she becomes pregnant. That however is not so easy. A slave is after all a slave. Eventually Oroonoko’s patience run out and he incites the slaves to rebellion and escapes. This turns out pretty badly, mainly through white mans dishonesty.

I found this a very interesting story for many reasons. This has been seen as an antislavery story, but Behn does not seem to have a problem with slavery per se. She still classes people as some being better than others, aristocracy versus the rabble, nobility against the dishonorable. The special thing about Aphra Behn is that she is colorblind. To her skin color is not what sets people apart and being black or Indian for that matter is not an inherent flaw. Nor, interestingly, is adherence to another religion. Dishonesty, faithlessness and cruelty however makes people less and these are the flaws Behn are lashing out against. When the rebellious slaves are easily talked into giving up their rebellion and turn on Oroonoko they show themselves deserving their status as slaves, whereas the noble Oroonoko was never supposed to be a slave.

While the part of the story that takes place in Africa is largely fantasy, the second part in Surinam is very credible and bears all the marks of first hand experiences. So, here we have a woman who has actually travelled in Surinam and uses the story of the African prince to tell about the experience. She even goes so far as to place herself in the story although more as a witness than an actual participant. The result is a richness in detail that makes this a window into a world I knew nothing about.

The plot itself is also interesting though I suspect it was largely borrowed from the Greco-Roman classics. It is a heroic tragedy, but with an unlikely hero and villains that would be very familiar to Behn’s contemporaries. I bet this did not make her super popular with her readers, though others might have found some glee in having these characters exposed.

So, conclusively, this was definitely a good read and an interesting story, but also a historically important text. Definitely recommended.


søndag den 20. maj 2018

The Princess of Cleves - Madame de la Fayette (1678)

The Princess of Cleves
”The Princess of Cleves” is a French romantic novel from 1678 that takes place at the French court about 100 years earlier. While the main characters are invented, all surrounding characters are real historic individuals.

Mademoiselle de Chartres is a young lady who is being introduced to the court. She is the innocent girl who is being fed to the sharks and immediately a number of aristocratic young men fall in love with her, among them the Prince of Cleves. When the plans for an arranged marriage collapse the Prince of Cleves steps in and offers to marry her. Mademoiselle, or rather her mother, accepts and the girl becomes the Princess of Cleves.

Soon after however, the Casanova of the court, The Duke de Nemours sets his eyes on her. He has quite a reputation with women, to the extent that the king intends to send him to the English court to seduce the British Queen Elizabeth. Instead the Duke forgets all other girls in his attempt to seduce the Princess. The seducing part is quickly achieved because the Princess also falls in love with the Duke, but there is just that thing that she is already married…

So, will the Princess and the Duke get each other, or will the girls virtue prevail to keep her faithful to the Prince? Or a third outcome?

People can usually be divided into two groups: Those who believe that love will and should prevail and carries its own justification, in which group most Hollywood productions belong, and those who take a more practical point of view. I unfortunately belong in the second group.

For a reader in the first group this novel would be heartbreaking. The love that cannot be fulfilled because of a girl’s virtue and men that die of jealousy. From my point of view, it seems to me that the aristocrats at court had way too much time on their hands and spent way to much time being nosy in other peoples affairs. Wait, are we talking about the French court in the 16th century or the rich and famous today?

In any case, it is hard for me not to be annoyed with the Duke who is setting out to ruin a marriage and at the girl for not making it clear early enough that this is impossible when she so clearly sees what a charlatan De Nemour is.

Having said that this is a surprisingly detailed novel with a much deeper sense of the characters than anything I have read so far on the list. That alone sets it apart as a surprisingly modern novel. It also avoids some of the romantic tropes by emphasizing the problems facing especially women who dabble with adultery. It would have been too easy to give this a Hollywood ending, but, without saying too much, this novel takes a different road.

Still, I feel I belong to the wrong demographic reading this novel. There may be something I am missing, but it very much seems as if ALL these people are doing is having illicit affairs with each other or gossiping about them. Don’t they do any real work? But then, what sort of work would an aristocratic lady do in the 16th century? They have maids for anything resembling work and were probably busy looking pretty.

While I recognize the significance and quality of this novel, I doubt it would ever be a favorite of mine. It is one I am happy to have read and on to the next one.


søndag den 15. april 2018

The Adventurous Simplicissimus - Hans von Grimmelshausen (1668)

The Adventurous Simplicissimus
The 30-year war from 1618 to 1648 was in almost every way a major event in European history. What started out as a religious strife between Catholic south and Protestant north developed into a major conflict that involved all of Europe, from Spain to Sweden and from England to Russia. Over the course of the 30 years the war lasted shifting alliances meant that religious fault lines took second seat to political ones and at the conclusion of the war the Habsburgian empire’s dominance was broken and France, The Netherlands and Sweden emerged as leading nations.

However, the real and lasting impact was on the ground. Germany was the battleground for most of the fighting and somewhere between 25% and 40% of the population died, 8 million people has been mentioned, and the divisions caused by this war have lasted to this day. That makes the 30-year war comparable to The Black Death, World War I and World War II in scope, damage and lasting impact.

Today the war is largely forgotten by the public and in media.

Hans von Grimmelshausen’s “The Adventurous Simplicissimus”, published 20 years after the war, uses this war as setting for a picaresque story about a young boy who from a very tender age gets involved in the conflict. The boy’s, Simplicissimus’, farm is attacked and plundered by soldiers and the young boy escapes to the woods where he lives for a few years with a hermit. That makes him a very naïve and neutral witness to the mess around him and Grimmelshausen can through Simplicissimus’ ignorance freely comment on the absurdities of the war. Of course this makes Simplicissimus to be perceived as a fool, but as a fool he can unhindered speak his mind.

Over the course of the book Simplicissimus adventures are numerous and varied. He is sometimes employed by one side, then the other, then back again. Making fortunes, losing them, making a reputation as a cunning soldier, falling in disgrace. Eventually he gets married only to be prevented from returning to his wife who eventually dies. A summary of the events is quite impossible and ultimately pointless. For Simplicissimus the vagaries of his life make him a humble man who lives on the short time rather than long term planning, but in the process, we get quite an adventure.

Von Grimmelshausen’s style is similar to those Spanish authors I have been reading. The events are briefly described, and an episode may be concluded in just a few pages and then on to the next episode. There is a continuation in the story, thankfully, but I get the impression that von Grimmelshausen did not quite know where the story would lead him and merely made it up as he went. That means that although the individual events are interesting enough there is a lack of direction to the novel. He could have ended it in a number of places, but every time decided to pick it up again and extend Simplicissimus adventures.

I did enjoy the wry humor of the novel. Old as it may be the dark sarcasm over the absurdities of war is still valid. As is the bleakness when von Grimmelshausen goes in that direction. Life is cheap during war and death is ever present. As such I felt I learned a lot about this terrible period in European history. Simplicissimus story is fiction, but the setting and the various elements to the story are real enough, with the exception of a few fantastic elements and, well, some divine interventions here and there.

The main problem I had with my copy was some weird translation choices. Where the translator had mostly (but not quite) modernized the general language of the novel, all dialogue was translated into an archaic language. I do not really see the point of doing so. This is not a question of preserving the original German text, but about translating it to a different language. Whether this being an archaic or a modern language should not matter, so why not translate it to modern English? This made for very slow and often frustrating reading and that is a shame when the story has as much potential as this one has.

Nevertheless I will recommend this book, especially if a better translation can be found. It is an excellent window into a forgotten, but important, war and an interesting and captivating adventure in its own right.


lørdag den 24. februar 2018

The Conquest of New Spain - Bernal Diaz (1632)

The Conquest of New Spain
“The Conquest of New Spain” is a first-hand account of the Spanish discovery of Mexico and subsequent conquest, written by one of the soldiers in Cortes expedition, Bernal Diaz.

For those unfamiliar with that particular event, these were a number of expeditions that set out from recently settled Cuba in the period 1517-21 to discover new land with potential riches to be found. Two expeditions, both joined by Diaz as a regular soldier, discovered Yucatan and the land behind it (Tabasco), land settled by Indians of a higher culture than what they had found on the Caribbean Islands and, not least, rumors of a mighty empire rich in gold.

This triggered a third and much larger expedition to find this mysterious Mexico and Cortes was send out with a few hundred soldiers to see what could be found. As it happened Cortes found the Mexicans (the Aztecs) and first befriended them. Later when things turned sour he barely escaped Mexico City, but with a reinforced army he went back and conquered Mexico.

The uniqueness of this particular account is that it was not written by some dusty historian or colored by political or religious agendas, but presented in vivid details by one on the guys on the ground. Bernal Diaz view is of course his own and he was a Spaniard of the 16th century with all that entails, but barring that the account is surprisingly objective and the portraits of his officers and opponents has all the positives and negatives of real life characters. It is as if Diaz has concluded that the events themselves were heroic enough as they were, there were no reason to dress up or exaggerate anything, not even a white wash to make anybody look good. The result is a very readable, very realistic and incredibly informative story and one that I just flew through. This is exciting reading.

Let us first get a few misunderstandings out of the way. The few Spaniards (400 man strong initially) did not beat the crap out of the huge Mexican army because they all came with firearms and just gunned them down. This is still early 16th century and firearms a few, expensive and unreliable. There was a detachment of musketeers along, but the majority was fighting with swords, lances and crossbows. Arms not terribly different from those the Mexicans had. The Indians were much more impressed with the horses the Spaniards brought, but eventually the Mexicans learned how to counter them and they were of limited value in the actual conquest. Instead Cortes was an excellent diplomat and when he learned about the internal divisions among the Indian city states he cleverly exploited that and gained a lot of local allies among the Indians, not unlike the Romans in their time. During most of the battles the numerical majority of his forces consisted of allied units. Secondly the Mexicans relied heavily on signs and advice from their gods, which resulted in random and of counterproductive actions including a prophecy that some white bearded men from the sea would come to conquer their lands.

A post-colonial view on the Spanish conquest would easily view the whole affair as an imperialistic landgrab and plunder of an innocent indigenous people. This is not entirely wrong. They did want land and convert souls and particularly find gold. Diaz makes no excuses there. But in their view the Mexicans where an evil empire that had suppressed and enslaved the entire region and used their slaves as human sacrifices to their gods and munched on their flesh. In their eyes they were liberating the country from these vermin. I certainly find it difficult to entirely discredit the Spanish for unseating the Mexicans, although their missionary zeal does not look particularly good, nor was it very helpful for their operation. Interestingly, it is their accompanying priests and friars that keep Cortes in check and makes him tone down the religious zeal.

lørdag den 6. januar 2018

The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda: A Northern Story - Miguel de Cervantes (1616)

The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra is famous for having written “Don Quixote”, deservedly considered a classic novel. What may be less known is that Cervantes himself considered another book to be his masterpiece. On his deathbed he finished “The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda” (or “The Travels of Persiles and Sigismunda”), the book he wanted to be remembered for.

Cervantes was wrong. Where “Don Quixote” has earned its place in popular culture “Persiles and Sigismunda” has largely disappeared. And for good reason. It is not anywhere as good as “Don Quixote”. Not even close.

“The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda” is a “road movie” or the equivalent in literature, following the journey taken by two young characters, the heroic Periandro and the matchless Auristella, and whatever retinue they may pick up, from a barbaric island in what I presume is northern Norway to their destination in Rome. In the course of this journey they suffer an endless string of mishaps and accidents that all threatens to kill, separate or at least marry them off against their will. These are not minor events and Cervantes gets points for inventiveness: Human sacrifice to an evil god, shipwrecks, pirates, sorceresses and lovesick kings, princess, crown prince and dukes.

Each challenge is quickly presented and solved in three to ten pages and on to the next challenge, an episodic form reminiscent of the picaresque novel. That is good for pacing, but it is also too fast. I cannot help comparing it to an endless tv-series of half hour episodes each with a resolved, almost independent story.

The book is divided into four parts: The sea journey to the land of Hibernia, the stay at Policarpo’s court on Hibernia and their escape, the land voyage through Spain and France and finally the climactic ending in Rome. Of these the second part is maybe the most interesting part. It is relatively static, the party is stuck on the island as guests of King Policarpo, but it involves at lot of people, each with their agenda and a situation that is spinning out of control.

There is a lot of potential in the story. The framework of it makes for an interesting tale and the challenges are inventive, coupled with a host of interesting characters. Where it goes wrong for Cervantes is in his desire to write a refined book. That means a book in exquisite language and with a moral gravity. This becomes a straitjacket rather than an asset, especially to the modern reader, and the first victim is the humor and sardonic wit that made “Don Quixote” such an ageless pleasure to read. Without this, Cervantes is reduced from exceptional to standard and it is difficult to see why this story should be regarded as anything special.

Still I have a nagging feeling that Cervantes could not help himself and exaggerated the religious themes so much that it became almost sarcastic. I have no proof of it, but it is possible to read the ending in that context. Persiles and Sigismunda has for the duration for their journey been posing as brother and sister under the names Periandro and Auristela, but we know they love and are committed to each other. Especially Persiles has been going through hell to serve and save Sigismunda repeatedly. Yet, at the end of their journey Sigismunda tells him, without blinking, that, sorry dude, I cannot marry you, I want to devote my life to God. This is a very pious move, but also completely outrageous given the ordeals they have been through and totally without regard for Persiles feelings. A part of me wants to think that this is Cervantes slam at the church, but I am not convinced because it is also completely in line with the tone of the entire book. He might actually mean that this is a good idea.

lørdag den 30. december 2017

Happy New Year 2018

Happy New Year 2018
Here we are again, the last day of the year. Another year went by and that one went super fast. It feels like yesterday I was sitting here writing a New Year post.

In any case, Happy New Year to all readers of this blog. May 2018 bring happiness and joy to all.

So, what happened in that split second that was 2017?

My movie project is continuing more or less as planned. I went from movie no. 368 on the List to no. 422. That makes 54 movies, exactly the same as last year. This has brought me from 1959 to 1963.

I cannot say that I am overjoyed with the List in the sixties, though. My apprehension at all the experimental and obscure films I saw on the horizon was not unfounded. It seems more the rule than not when my reviews take a negative slant, especially when you add the massive amount of French new wave films of which only a few have struck a chord with me. There are highlights of course, and I live and breathe for those, but all that junk taking up space on the List has also encouraged be to introduce a new feature on my blog: two to three movies each year that should have been on the List. It turns out that these years are not actually as terrible as they look on the List, that there are several movies out there that ought to be there instead of some of that dross I am committed to watch.  

I get some help from Bea at Flickers in Time to pick my off-list movies (thank you for that, Bea!) and while I may still be missing some truly wonderful movies, at least I get to pick up some obvious mistakes of the editors. Adding the off-List movies to my count makes it almost respectable too.

On the movie side I also keep discovering new 1001 blogs, which I add to my blog roll. It is great to see there are still people who take on this project and I love reading what other people have to say about the movies I have watched.

On my book blog things are happening in a far more sedate pace. 2017 saw me adding 6 books to my list, which certainly does not sound like much, but is actually better than my stated goal of 5 books per year. It becomes a little better when I add that two of the books completed were 1000 pages bricks, Gargantua and Pantagruel, which I hated and Don Quixote, which I loved. I am in full swing with the next one and expect to review it in January.  Maybe my count sounds better if I add that those 6 books cover a 50 year period. Yeah, now I feel I can hold my head high…

Sadly, I have found very few book blogs doing this project. If anybody knows of such sites, do let me know and I will add them to my blog roll.

Again, I wish everybody a great 2018. May you all enjoy the movies you watch and the books you read and all the things that matter a lot more than movies and books.

Thomas Sørensen




fredag den 10. november 2017

Don Quixote - Miguel Cervantes (1605 - 1615)

Don Quixote
It has been a while since my last post, but it has been time well spent. For the past four months I have been reading “Don Quixote” by Cervantes and me being a slow reader, a thousand pages does take a bit of time.

“Don Quixote” was a great experience. In fact, this is by heaps and leagues the best book on the List so far. It was never an ordeal to read this book, on the contrary, I enjoyed myself immensely.

The story is famous, incredibly famous, actually, and many of the elements has gone into popular culture, also in Denmark, and stayed there. I even saw a cartoon series on the Don Quixote and Sancho story on my son’s children channels. I just never read it before and frankly, I do not know anybody who has, at least outside blogging circles. And that is truly a shame.

Don Quixote is a middle-aged man who has read so many romantic chivalry novels that he has decided they are real and that he should be a knight-errant himself. He sallies out from his village in La Mancha, first alone, but later with a local farmer, Sancho Panza as his squire. Don Quixote is delusional, and Sancho is simpleminded (but also shrewd) and together they are a comical sight. Their search of adventure is a continual string of disasters and when they finally encounter true adventure they miss out on it.

The equivalent today would be a super hero story, of somebody imagining that he had super powers and that his mission in life was to rescue the innocents from monstrous beings. “Kick-Ass” would be a good example. This very familiar analogue makes the story completely relevant today. Don Quixote imagines he has obtained medieval super powers and the comedy is watching him fooling around.

There is a cruel streak here. Especially in the beginning the fun is at his expense and it might not go down so well today, but as the story goes on the cruelty subsides and you sometimes wonder who the fools really are. Maybe Don Quixote is the one who is actually right, and the rest of the world has turned cynical and mean. Sancho as well develops from the butt of jokes to the eyes through which we see the world with other, less prejudiced, eyes. His term as governor is a good example of that.

“Don Quixote” is actually two books. The first, released in 1505, is a meandering story with a lot of subplots with very little connection to the main theme and with only limited character development. The second, from 1515 is a lot more focused on a plot line and includes some very interesting elements worth mentioning. The meta element is expanded a lot. Already in the first book the story is told as if it was translated from a Moorish writer called Cide Hamete Benengeli, as what today would be called “found footage”. In the second book Don Quixote meets people who has read the first book and therefore know the story of everything that happened until the beginning of the second book. They know him as an entertaining fool and Don Quixote’s adventures here are largely other people playing tricks on him. Later he even encounters people who have read a piece of “fan fiction” about Don Quixote and Don Quixote goes out of his way to prove he is not the character described there.

By focusing on Don Quixote and Sancho and especially their dialogue we also get the character fleshed out and the sympathy for them grows.

The comedy works incredibly well. My favorite topic is the 3300 lashes Sancho has to give himself to dispel the peerless Dulcinea del Toboso from the enchantment inflicted on her and Don Quixote’s pleading him to get on with the lashing. Every time it is brought up I am chuckling. The picture is so vivid. Another fantastic image is that of Don Quixote demonstrating for Sancho what crazy antics he will go through to demonstrate his love and despair for his Dulcinea, out there, in the hills of the first book.

“Don Quixote” may be a comedy about how stupid you get from reading chivalric romances (or super hero cartoons), but it is also a story that forever has defined the chivalric theme. Who today knows about Amadis or Orlando? Instead we know of Don Quixote and Sancho.

Highly recommended!