lørdag den 20. november 2021

The Dream of the Red Chamber - Cao Xueqin (1791)


The Dream of the Red Chamber

It has been a while since my last book review. My excuse is that this, the next book on the List, was a big and difficult one to get through.

“The Dream of the Red Chamber” by Cao Xueqin is a massive work. When I first started googling it, I kept getting hits on an entire bookcase of volumes. The one I settled for, a single tome of 966 pages, turned out to be a translation of just the first 56 chapters of a total of 120 chapters. Translated by H. Bencaft Joly in the nineteenth century in a very literal style. I know that, reading this, I have by no means read the entire story, but I think I got a pretty good idea what this is.

Essentially “The Dream of the Red Chamber” is a slice of life in the mansion of a high-level noble clan, the Jia, in China in the eighteenth century. In the gardens, pavilions and apartments on the compound the men are mostly absent, and the women are largely running the affairs on their own. The only exception is Baoyu, an adolescent male and grandson of the current head mistress of the clan, the Dowager Lady Jia. Most of the other characters we follow are the women, sisters, cousins, aunts and maids. There is known to be upwards of 400 named characters in this epic novel and we are introduced to a lot of them in this first part.

The scenes are pictures of daily life in the mansion. Celebrations of new year, visits to the temple, guests arriving from far away, the poetry club, sickness, feasting, domestic chores, small disasters and other events as they would happen in such mansion. It all carries the impression of being scenes from real life, not a glamoured up drama, but life as it happens for this sort of people. A window into a world totally alien to a westerner like me, and yet so familiar in its domestic universalities.

Technically the story moves around between the characters, following first one, then another and a third with a handover where they meet, so it is an unbroken stream passing through many characters. Sometimes one of the cousins, or aunts or maids, only the lowest ranking in the hierarchy are treated as general background. The insights into the going on’s is impressive. Each of the named characters are fleshed out, whether it is Daiyu, Baochai, Xiren, Li Wan, Lady Feng or any of the others, which is quite incredible. I got the nagging feeling that the author actually knew these people.

Nothing much happens in terms of a plot. Or rather, the plot is the daily life in the mansion. While interesting enough on its own, it does make for slow reading, when nothing of consequence is happening. Domestic drama is only… so interesting. When reading up on the full story I can see that there is some actual drama in store further down the line. The decline that is only hinted at towards the end of the part I read will apparently escalate, so if at some point I decide to continue I will get that.

Another element that makes this a difficult read is the cultural differences together with the very literal translation. I have lived in China for half a year back in 2008 and I regularly visit China, at least before COVID and it has always struck me how translations invariably look like bad Google translations. I think there are some fundamental differences in language concepts that just makes it very difficult to translate the meaning and intention of a text and the result is often misleading or confusing. Add to that a cultural baggage that we do not share and things like humor or poetry becomes obscure and indecipherable. I found myself reading entire sections where I had no clue what was going on, or thinking I just read a bad insult, which turn out to be a compliment or the other way around. As a westerner I probably lost 40-60% of the meaning and details and while this was frustrating, eventually I got to learn to live with it.

“The Dream of the Red Chamber” provides a fascinating window into the old Chinese nobility and for that alone it is worth a read. It is a very slow one though and I suppose this is not for everyone. I am curious about the sequel, I just do not know if I have the patience for it.  


tirsdag den 17. august 2021

Justine - Marquis de Sade (1791)



I went into “Justine” with very low expectations. After the disgusting and gory rape-porn which was “120 Days of Sodom”, I could hardly imagine this would be much better. Starting from such a low point though it takes only little to be positively surprised. I would not say I liked “Justine”, there is still a lot of rape-porn and undisguised, gleeful sadism on display, but de Sade managed to do something more. Alongside the torments, which de Sade evidently took a lot of joy in imagining, there are a lot of philosophical discussions which are a lot more interesting than the sex.

De Sade makes no pretense at realism here. This is a fable to demonstrate his points, a series of setups to enable the discussions he wants to make with his reader. Justine is a girl of 12 who is orphaned and penniless. She tries to be virtuous and maintain her religious faith all through, but wanders through one horrible scenario to the next where criminal and evil people abuse her in every way possible, physically as well as mentally. In between her whippings and penetrations, she manages to have philosophical discussions with her tormenters. Ludicrous of course, but that is beside the point.

The society de Sade describes is one completely corrupt. Where the powerful can do what they want because they are powerful and what men (and women) with power want to do is to satisfy their basic lusts. Sex, power, wealth, and to inflict pain and sorrow on others as long as it serves their interest. Those of power do it because they can and they do it because they care for nothing but themselves.

This was written during the Enlightenment, and I read it as a direct answer to some of those ideas brought to market. De Sade clearly sees Rousseau’s social contract as hopelessly naïve. There is no sharing of power, those in power takes no responsibility for the public, their interest is their own. The idea of a religious ideal that drive a society to a common good he considers hypocrisy. Those in power may pay lip service to religion but in reality they do not give a shit. Religion is just a means to control people.

The only way to get ahead in pre-revolutionary France was to play the corrupt game and be a criminal yourself. Virtuous behavior will only get you screwed over, literally.

This cynical and bitter outlook was likely driven by de Sade’s own fate. Not that he was virtuous at all, but he saw a world judging him that was, in his eyes, even more corrupt and criminal. How are they then to judge him?

In a revolutionary setting a lot of de Sade’s discussions easily become manifests for the revolution. The entire power structure was being turned upside down and now was the time to denounce it for all the rot it contained. Religion, money, public offices and noble rank were keeping people enslaved, but instead of suggesting an anarchistic freedom, de Sade seem to argue this freedom is a disaster, because without something to keep people in check, they succumb to criminal and egoistic lusts. Religion has tried and failed as de Sade make a lot of effort to point out.

What then?

Here it seems that readers of Justine diverge. Some appears to read that de Sade actually do want an ultimate freedom because he was a libertine himself and wants to be free to torment girls. Others read this as a warning against setting people free. That a just system must replace the Ancien Regime and that a religiously founded one is not enough.

I am inclined to this second interpretation, although it is somewhat undermined by the gleefulness with which de Sade gives himself away, submitting his literary girls to all sorts of suffering. I see him here more as a provocateur than a pornographic writer, or maybe that part just interested me a lot more than the porn.

Not great, but definitely better than “120 Days of Sodom”.


onsdag den 14. juli 2021

Vathek - William Beckford (1786)



I have a suspicion that the editors of the book List have certain affinities. One of those is the fascination with the lurid, the worse the better. Another is with gothic themes. Maybe these affinities are even connected as both can be seen as transgressive. This is in any case my only explanation for including “Vathek” by William Beckford on the List. A place it has held through the various editions of the List.

The backstory of the novel is complicated as several editions were released in competition with each other. Beckford was assisted by some Samuel Henley in editing the English version and this was released by Henley in his own name without Beckford’s consent. As an answer, a sloppy draft version was immediately released in French with several mutations appearing until an 1816 edition which is supposed to bridge the various editions. This was the one I read.

Beckford was also a bit of a libertine and adventurer himself, not a moralist at all, and so, given his background, critiques have found it difficult to read the meaning and intention of “Vathek”, making it a bit of an enigma. Not certain I agree, though.

“Vathek” is presented as a tale from the deep Arabian past, not as a fantasy, but anchored in what was at the time considered fact. Somewhat like the “found footage” tradition in vogue now and then. Yet, it quickly spins into the fantasy world of the Arabian Night tradition, complete with demons, spectres, immense wealth, exotism and magic items.

Vathek himself is based on a historical Caliph in the ninth century who, in this version, is a despotic ruler obsessed with self-indulgence of any kind. When dark gifts and powers are held before him, he sees no reason why he should not get his hands on those and is led by the nose by a demon as well as by his mother Carathis, who herself is a witch, dabbling in dark magic. Vathek has absolutely no spine and only wants to indulge in his own cravings, which includes ruining the lives of everybody else without blinking, even sacrificing fifty children to the demon. He also takes the beloved daughter, Nouronihar, from one of his hosts on this, his journey to find those treasures.

The price, when he finally finds this temple of dark treasures, is his own doom, to be tormented in eternity and that is basically that.

The immediate interpretation of this story is a cautionary tale about over-indulgence and a warning against excessive power with no restraint. Something that would fit a moralist and not a libertine. This is, though, a story peppered with a playfulness and sumptuousness that fit very nicely to that of a rebellious youth who has to act within the morally acceptable and it is this playfulness that makes it a more fun and interesting read than had it been a simple moralist tale.

One of the curious details are the very extensive annotations. By volume they amount to a third of the text. They explain the background of many of the features of the main text to the extent of being the real source of information here, as if this fable is merely the vehicle to communicate a lot of oriental background story. Critiques have also read it as Beckford using the annotations to play games with Henley, letting him spend a lot of work and energy of wild goose chases, explaining details of minor or inconsequential interest. The result is, in any case, that the annotations are fully as interesting and entertaining to read as the main text itself.    

The net result is an exotic tale full of the magic and gothic elements of oriental tradition, which would have entertained contemporary Europeans immensely. Today it is still an interesting read, though probably more as a curiosum and an exercise in juvenile exotism.

In any case, it is an easy read and I did not feel I was wasting my time. That, I suppose, is good enough.

søndag den 4. juli 2021

Anton Reiser - Karl Philipp Moritz (1785)


Anton Reiser

On my literary tour around the world, I am now in Germany with Karl Philipp Moritz “Anton Reiser”.

This was the most difficult book to find so far. It turns out that while this is a well-known and popular book in German, it is almost unknown outside German speaking areas. There exists only one edition in English (Penguin), which is now out of print and could not be obtained from any of my usual sources (If I did not want it in German). I finally did find it in a second-hand bookstore in Portland, Oregon and it cost me a fortune. Fortunately, it was worth it.

The big question when reading “Anton Reiser” is whether this is an autobiography or fiction. The truth is likely that it is a fictionalized autobiography, but with a very blurry line between biography and fiction.

Moritz intent seems to be to give a detailed account of the childhood and youth of a young man in order to describe what formed his psychology. To do that, it is not enough to describe external factors, but we need to creep into his mind to understand his thoughts and emotions. Though frequent enough in fiction, it is notoriously difficult to do this in real life. The only person you can truly get into the head of… is yourself. This seems to be the reason Moritz has used as a model for his character, Anton Reiser, himself. As a result, we have a fictional character on which Moritz prints his own experiences growing up. So precise is it that scholars have identified most of the characters and that most of the events are on record as Moritz own.

The inner life of Anton Reiser is therefore extremely vivid and detailed. It is not cooked down and trimmed to the plot as it would be for a normal fictional character, but elaborate, erratic and full of blind and seemingly inconsequential directions, which is at times confusing, but also serves to paint a very realistic picture and help explain the motivations and character of this young man.

Considering this is sort of an autobiography, Moritz does not pull any punches. The weaknesses and follies of Anton are on full display, explained perhaps but never excused. At times it even seems like he is raging and lecturing at his own youthful alter ego, so when Anton do have successes, they do not feel like bragging but rather a pause in the harassment.

The childhood and youth of Anton Reiser is problematic. He is raised in a cultic, religious family with little love and internal strife, learning from early on that he is a flawed person and that self-annihilation in the face of God is something to aim for. His apprenticeship to a hatter of the same cult is a disaster and when he wants to go to school to take an education, his father cuts him off. Forced to live and study on charity he is continually humiliated and lives on the brink of starvation. He is a gifted student, but his lack of confidence and resources repeatedly makes him fail to achieve his potential. As compensation for his dismal external conditions, Anton develops a very elaborate and vivid inner life in which poetry and theater plays a big role.

Here is one of the more confusing elements of the book. On the one hand Moritz declares that young people are in no state to choose what is right for them. That things like poetry and theater are poison that lead young people away from their true destinies and lead them into destruction. Without guidance the youth is lost. This rather conservative and preachy tone is then offset by the actual thoughts and motives of Anton Reiser. Moritz describes how important these things are to Anton, how this is what keeps him going and even alive and how destructive it is to him when his plans are (repeatedly) obstructed. It is as if Moritz is arguing with himself or rather, for the benefit of his contemporary reader, officially takes an approved of conservative attitude and undermines it every step of the way, saying that the conservative pedagogue simply fails to understand the youth.

This is either confusing or very, very clever.

Moritz was very interested in psychology and quite Freudian in his thinking, more than hundred years before that became a thing. He wrote quite a lot on the topic and “Anton Reiser” was his big case study. Unfortunately, Moritz died early (tuberculosis, I think it was) and the book series was never finished. The fourth section ends with a cliffhanger, clearly intended as a starting point for a fifth volume which never appeared.

I strongly recommend “Anton Reiser” to anybody interested in biographies but also for the very detailed description of the daily life of regular people in the second half of the 18th century. This is a gold mine on both accounts.  

tirsdag den 1. juni 2021

The 120 Days of Sodom - Marquis de Sade (1785)


The 120 Days of Sodom

This was one of the most disgusting and horrible books I have ever read. It started bad, got worse and with 22 pages left I had to break it off. It was making me physically ill reading it and it is simply not worth subjecting yourself to this, not for completing a list. So, yes, for the first time on both the book and movie list I have not completed an entry.

There is no way to communicate the disgust I felt with this book, my attempts can only be feeble, and I am not certain I really want to make the attempt. This is a book I would rather forget I ever read.

Four criminal perverts are setting up their ultimate festival of their particular kind of debauchery, each representing a part of the power structure in France at the time: The nobility, the church, finance and the courts. The festival is going to last 120 days and takes place on a remote and isolated castle. To entertain them they kidnap eight young girls and eight young boys, age 12 to 15, thereby under-age, at least by our standards. Eight well-equipped men, four elderly women to keep order among the children and four “storytellers”, renowned bawds, who will tell of 150 cases of depravity each. In addition, each of the lords bring a “wife” which is actually their daughters they have married off to each other.

A setup for a juicy pornographic novel if not for the pedophilic and incestuous elements. That illusion, however, soon bursts as this goes off the rail in a big way.

The stories start in the light end with some pedophilia and toilet sex. Gradually it gets worse with rape and violence and in the end torture and murder. The catalogue of horror is made so much worse by being driven by lust. The torment and death of countless women and children is for the sexual gratification of perverts with limitless power. Because de Sade never finished this book the last three chapters are mercifully only in note format, otherwise I would not have gotten as far as I did, but frankly, you only need the headlines to visualize the explicit horrors.

Meanwhile, the four lords have their way with their attendants, following the same patterns as the stories. They eat each other’s shit, force the girls and boys to eat theirs, beat them silly and abuse them in any way possible. As the children loose limbs, teeth, suffer burns, scaldings, bleedings, castrations and eventually murder, just so the lords can get off, this becomes impossible to read.

Some political motives have been given de Sade, that this is sort of how the rich and powerful abuse the citizens of the country, but it is all too obvious that he wrote this to get off himself and that he wants us, despite our horror to feel sexual excitement too and that makes the entire thing even more disgusting. De Sade was imprisoned when he wrote this, and frankly, it sounds like he belonged there.

I do not want to have anything more to do with this snuff and I wish I could erase it from my memory. Unfortunately, I have a movie coming up all too soon with a similar title and a similar reputation and I am NOT looking forward. Yicks!

If you, dear reader, read this book and feel excitement, particular on the second half, I advise seeking medical help and perhaps lock yourself up and throw away the key. There is a very long way from consensual sado-masochism to the monstrous perversity of this book.


onsdag den 5. maj 2021

Confessions - Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1782)



Jean-Jacques Rousseau has not been my favorite acquaintance over the past year so when “Confessions” arrived in the mail I was pleased this looked manageable, the book is barely 200 pages. That was until I opened it. This edition was written with the smallest font imaginable, and my wife immediately vetoed me ruining my eyesight on that. That would be too much of a sacrifice for Rousseau. Instead, I cheated and got is as an audiobook. In that format it is still 30 hours long, but had it not been for that I am likely to have spent the next half year in pain, reading it.

To my great and pleasant surprise “Confessions” is a lot better than expected. In fact, it may be the best of all four of his books on the List. At least the first half of it.

“Confessions” is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiography and what makes it stand out is that this may be the first of its kind. I feel confident there has been earlier autobiographies, but not with Rousseau’s zeal of being brutally honest. In this way it set a new standard and became hugely influential. At least that is what I keep reading.

A critique of “Confessions” will necessarily be a critique of its author as well and Rousseau was a complex one. The way he tries to present himself is as an honest man with no desire for conflict and without disposition for hatred and avarice, but with plenty of faults in the form of shyness and stupidity as well as naivety. The way he across though is as a smart man prone to paranoia and a need to be liked and accepted. Although he continuously states that he bears no ill will to anybody, he readily throws accusations left and right and his text often becomes more of a defense than the confession he claims to be writing.

When Rousseau is best he is actually funny. Particular in his recollection of his youth he throws up some pretty baroque scenes and describe some amusing characters. This was a surprise, having become used to his normal endless stream of complaints. His description of his time in Turin and Venice are not a little interesting and colorful.

It is also interesting to note how relatively modern his life was. Rather then simply apprenticing himself, Rousseau shops around, trying this and trying that. He travels a lot and face the differences in people with an open mind that makes him a good observer. Rousseau enters into an odd relationship with the older Madame de Warens, which can best be described as a hippie collective. He becomes a music teacher, a diplomat, a tutor and a cartographer until he eventually starts writing. When going to live in Paris Rousseau meets Therese with whom he begets five children which are all given away to an orphanage and only marries late in life. Pretty unusual stuff.

The second part of the book sees him fall out with everybody and their mother. Rousseau sees enemies everywhere, plots designed for his destruction and almost every friendship of his turns sour. This despite he, through his writing, has been elevated to the highest circles and is sought after by the upper nobility. That all this could have something to do with the highly inflammable things he has been writing on everything from statecraft to religion and education, not to mention his bigotry against almost every craft in existence, never seems to occur to him.

Although this felt long and confusing towards the end, I must say I enjoyed this (audio)book a lot more than I had anticipated and I guess the best story Rousseau had was the one about his own life.


onsdag den 24. marts 2021

Dangerous Liaisons - Pierre-Ambrois-Francois Choderlos de Laclos (1782)


Dangerous Liaisons

The focus on the book list is shifting towards France and with Choderlos de Laclos’ “Dangerous Liaisons we are most unusually not in Rousseau territory and that in itself is a blessing.

This is the period just before the French Revolution, that period so famous for painted effeminate men with silly wigs and women in monstrous outfits, both with too much time on their hands and so little useful activity to spend it on. In France particularly so. “Dangerous Liaisons” is well and proper lodged in this environment.

The Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil live and breathe for the games they play with other people. Their plots are to seduce their marks into scandal and ruin as if getting some sadistic pleasure from destroying people in the public eye while getting as much pleasure themselves in the process. In fact, I never really got the motivations straight. Is it malice or the glee of watching the morally self-righteous exposed as hypocrites? Or a selfish hunt for pleasure? The author is never entirely clear on this, which makes it tempting to think they are simply what “ordinary” people fear from rakes and libertines without caring too much at understanding their actual motivations. In this way they become more like boogeymen than real people

Anyway, the Vicomte and the Marquise keep up a correspondence discussing and cooperating on their various conquests. Valmont has his eyes set on a prudish woman, Madame de Tourvel whose husband is away on business while Merteuil wants to turn a 16 year old girl just out of school into her pupil. Cecile de Volanges is a naïve girl who is engaged to an older officer held up by an engagement on Corsica and Meteuil wants to use a young nobleman, Danceny, and later Valmont himself, to corrupt her.

This was clearly written as an exposé of the depravity of the idle nobility and struggles with a balance between enjoying the schemes and plots and juiciness of the affairs, and on the other side the moral codes that strongly disprove of all these sexual adventures. It is almost as if Laclos does not himself know if he approves or condemn Valmont and Mertuil. He lets them be successful in their corruption, deliciously so, but he also punishes them for their flawed characters. They are both smooth and clever, but also strangely delusioned, as if they only see the reality they want to see. Valmont is charming with the girls, but in his own head he is superhuman and in his interpretation of his exchanges with other people he only picks up the details that support this self-image.

Probably telling for the sympathies of the author it is not the impotent and useless morally upright that defeat Valmont and Merteuil, but their own weapons they turn on each other in an implosion of self-destruction. The women in particular are gullible and easy marks.

I was not blown away by “Dangerous Liaisons”. To be that, I think you need to feel the naughtiness of observing these shenanigans. The schizophrenic elements felt disturbing as if Laclos held back or could not make up his own mind and the epistolary form means a lot of repetition, not necessarily because the same events are described from several angles, but because the form itself includes all those tiring forms and protestations, making large chunks of each letter empty chatter. I did not feel this was scandalous in the way it was intended, but rather scandalous in the description of the idleness of these people. Whether they are men with nothing else to do than seducing women or women with nothing else to do than being bored.

It also feeds into a sexual moral that allows a lot more freedom for men than for women. It recognizes some of this unfairness in the dialogues, but seems in the final judgement to accept a much higher prize for women than for men for digressing from the morally acceptable path.

It was an okay book, but not recommendation from me.