fredag den 20. januar 2023

Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen (1811)


Sense and Sensibility

One of the major milestones on the book list is to get to Jane Austen. Her books are among the few classics that are still widely read and the sort of books most people are supposed to be familiar with. To my embarrassment I believe I have only read “Pride and Prejudice” prior to the book list, mostly I think because the world of Austen has never been my go-to literature. Now, though, I am getting the chance with four Jane Austen novels back to back. First up is “Sense and Sensibility”.

Right off the bat, let me say that I enjoyed reading “Sense and Sensibility” a lot more than I expected to. Austen does everything Fanny Burney did, but better. Austen is witty and clever, but treats her characters with respect. It is a comedy, not because of a comedic theme or outright silly characters, but because of that special angle Austen uses when she describes her characters. She nails their character traits for better and worse and I sit back with a chuckle reading about them.

Elinor and Marianne Dashwood belong to the gentility, somewhere between lower nobility and upper middleclass. When their father dies, the wealth of the family fall on their half-brother John and they are forced to leave the manor with their mother and little sister Margaret. A distant relative, Sir John Middleton, offers them a cheap rent at Barton cottage, close to his own manor. Soon the girls are involved with the Middletons and the people that come and go at Barton Park.

The overriding theme of the novel is that of marriage and the relationships that lead up to marriage. Elinor, who represents sense, formed a relationship with Edward Ferrars, the brother of John Dashwood’s wife, Fanny, while they still lived at Norland, but at Barton she learns he has been engaged for the past four years to a Lucy Steele, a girl with no money to speak of and poor education. Proper conduct is to respect such an engagement, but can Elinor control her emotions enough for that?

Marianne, who represents sensibility, has a chance encounter with the charming John Willoughby and falls head over heels in love with him. In a matter of days everybody is convinced they are engaged, but then Willoughby suddenly leaves, not to return. When next Marianne sees him, he is about to marry a wealth girl in London. Can Marianne learn to control her emotional roller coaster and learn to love men who are not deucebags?

Each of Austen’s characters have some very dominant character traits. John Dashwood is obsessing over people’s wealth, his wife is greedy beyond belief, Edward is dutiful but meek, John Barton is a sportsman, Colonel Brandon is consciousness incarnate, Mrs Jennings is the ultimate gossip aunt and Willoughby is a certified deucebag. These traits are painted sharply, maybe too sharply for realism, but most, if not all of them end up revealing softening character traits that spoils the image of one-dimensional characters. Mrs. Jennings actually care about the people under her wings, Colonel Brandon has sensibility as well as sense and Willoughby does feel remorse.

I cannot read this book and not feel sorry for the women of Austen’s world. Their entire being seems to be reduced to a question of who to marry and whether to marry for love of money. While the men do seem to have a larger agenda, the women’s is rather insipid beyond the marriage question. Austen seem to agree with me. Through the eyes of Elinor and Marianne the thoughtless chatter and idle pastimes are almost painfully thoughtless and pointless. Their only duty is to look pretty and be respectable and I sense a rebellion in both Marianne and Elinor and maybe even an urge to actually do things. So, while Austen delves into the forms and practices of the gentility of the period, she also exposes the narrowness of that world with pointed remarks and a sense of claustrophobia.

A reflection of this is also in how narrow a world she describes. The only mention of characters outside their class are a few remarks on their servants. The village children are sweet to look at and there are actually people working in the shops they visit. But that is about it. There is nothing about politics of the period, economy is only how many thousand pounds each have per year, not where they come from, and there is absolutely no mention of the societal evolution Britain was going through in the Regency period, something I find immensely interesting, but Austen’s women clearly are entirely ignorant about. Design or flaw, I do not know, but it emphasizes the isolation of these women.

“Sense and Sensibility” is a wonderful read nevertheless. I love Austen’s characters and I cannot wait moving on to the next three novels. Highly recommended.

lørdag den 31. december 2022

Happy New Year 2023


Happy New Year 2023

Another year has gone by and again it is time to take stock. I think most people will agree that 2022 was not one of those years that will be remembered with fondness. Sure, this is the first new year post-COVID, but that already seems like such a long time ago and so much have happened since then. There is now war in Europe again and a bloody one at that and we are looking into an energy and an inflation crisis on top of all the other crisis’s plaguing us. I have an app on my phone telling me what the electricity price is over the next 24 hours so I can plan when to do laundry or use the oven, something I would not have thought of a year ago.

All is not bleak though. One man’s death is another man’s bread as the (Danish) saying goes. I work with renewables, and this is a field that is booming, as in gold rush boom times. We are hiring and are very busy and if all goes well, I will be opening our new Copenhagen office sometime in 23. If you are interested in this field you may want to check out the Danish Energy Island project, which is labelled as the Danish equivalent to the Moon project. Truly exciting stuff.

This was also the year where Sight and Sound presented their new and updated list of the 100 best movies ever and the number one spot, the best movie ever made, was: “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080, Bruxelles”. Interesting choice…

I have listed 55 movie reviews on this blog in 2022. Of these 46 were List movies and 9 off-List movies, making this the slowest year so far, but I am in no rush so never mind that. The period covered is 1975 to 1978 and three List years per calendar year does seem to be my pace now. A thing I have noticed in this period is how difficult is has become to limit my off-List movies to only three titles. There is just so many interesting movies out there that never many it to the List. This was also the first year without a new release of “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” and while it may bee too early a call, this could be the end of an era. It does also seem like the host of 1001 bloggers have been thinning over years, either from abandoning the project or by finishing it and this blog may end up as an anachronistic artifact, but then, so am I.

On my book blog I have read and reviewed 13 titles which is almost three times more than the target I have set for myself, so I can be pleased with that. This took me from 1794 to 1811, 17 years, and I am now far into the Napoleonic wars, in the period known as Regency. So, that means I am looking into a lot of Jane Austen stuff.

I would like to wish everybody a happy new year with my sincere hope that 2023 will finally be a better year. I think we all need that.


tirsdag den 27. december 2022

Michael Kohlhaas - Heinrich von Kleist (1811)


Michael Kohlhaas

You do not need to write a huge tome to point out ethical, moral or legal dilemmas. Heinrich von Kleist manages to do that very well in little more than a hundred pages.

Michael Kohlhaas is a horse trader from Brandenburg who usually sell his horses in Saxony. This is supposed to be the sixteenth century, so Germany is divided into countless small fiefs, principalities, duchies and what not. Something that was still the case when Heinrich von Kleist wrote this book. Anyway, the good Herr Kohlhaas is as usual taking his horses to market in Leipzig, when he is stopped at Tronkenberg and asked to present a permit to transport horses through. This is news to Kohlhaas and in the end he manages to get through by pawning two mares until he can come back with a permit. In Leipzig he finds out as expected that there is no such requirement for permits. This is just a scam set up by the new master of Tronkenberg, Junker Wenzel von Tronka. Returning to Tronkenberg, Kohlhaas finds that his horses have been worked almost to death and the groom kicked out. Kohlhaas is also kicked out and now he starts his quest for justice. Junker Wenzel von Tronka must restore his horses to their previous state and return them with damages.

Problem is that the Junker is nobility with friends in high places who blocks the case at every turn. When Kohlhaas’ wife offers to bring the case before the regional ruler, the Elector, she is beaten to death. Kohlhaas, seeing that the opponent is not obeying the law, decides to force the issue outside the law himself. His attack on Tronkenburg sends the Junker fleeing and it escalates into a regular uprising. Only the intervention of a famous cleric (Martin Luther himself, no less) convinces Kohlhaas to return to a legal track, but now Kohlhaas is also a vigilante and a criminal in his own right.

The questions asked by Heinrich von Kleist is if you have a moral right to seek justice outside the law if the opponent is outside the law or protected by a flawed system and following that, if the purpose condones the means. This is a timeless question and what makes this book readable and relevant today. Von Kleist does not answer the question (who can?) but frames it most provocatively. Kohlhaas is likeable all the way. He has a good and righteous case, and his only real motivation is justice. Not the monetary value or a settlement, but proof that the law is for everyone and that a noble scoundrel is subject to the law the same as everybody else. His extra-legal means of pursuing this justice is however as villainous as can be: arson, plunder and murdering, not to mention challenging the policing might of the system.

Similarly, the nepotism and arbitrariness of the power structure with family relations protecting each other and legal rulings being made by people entirely unfit for the job, placed their qua noble birth and family relations. It is a system obviously unfair and biased against the little man in which the law is flexible and apply less the higher in the hierarchy you are.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, I am not surprised, and you do not have to go to fiction to find examples.

In the case of Herr Kohlhaas, he does manage to get justice in the end, but his extreme means costs him everything and even that resolution is so arbitrary and with so many byways that it feels random. Meaning that even at the ultimate prize, justice is no guarantee.

Heinrich von Kleist was a known provocateur of his day. Anti-Napoleonic, but also liberal and revolutionary, he seems to have been a critic all round. I can certainly see “Michael Kohlhaas” as an argument for German unity as well as democratic reforms, even if the ultimate question of the novel is how far you are allowed to go to seek justice in an unjust system.

“Michael Kohlhaas” is a short book and even though written in that very complex German style where you almost forget how the sentence started by the time you reach the end, it is easy enough to comprehend and it is knife sharp on its moral and ethical points. If anything, it is too short and brief to get under the skin of the characters, but I doubt that was the intention anyway.

In my research of the book, I discovered it was made into a movie in 2013 with Mads Mikkelsen and Bruno Ganz. I think I will look up that movie.   



søndag den 11. december 2022

Elective Affinities: A Novel - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1809)


Elective Affinities

One of the best, and likely also worst, things about art is that it is open to interpretation and not an exact science. In the case of Goethe’s “Elective Affinities” I seem to have a rather different understanding of the novel than the clever heads who have formed the official interpretation of the novel and because of the above, my interpretation may be as good as theirs.

In the German countryside live Charlotte and Eduard. They may be lower nobility, but their rank is newer spelled out. They have resources enough for some extravaganza, but not endless funds. Both were previously married but as both widowed around the same time their infatuation with each other in their youth can now be realized in a marriage at their not so young age.

Their life together is in harmony when they get two new lodgers, Charlotte’s niece Ottilie and Eduard’s friend, the Captain (known throughout as “The Captain” and later “The Major”). Eduard falls passionately in love with Ottilie and his feelings are reciprocated. Charlotte and The Captain also develop feelings for each other but are better able to control them. When Eduard and Ottilie’s affair becomes too obvious Charlotte decides that Ottilie must be sent away, but Eduard flees and begs that Ottilie then can stay in the house. Eduard just manages to make Charlotte pregnant before he leaves but that is not enough to bring him home. Instead, he goes to war and throws himself into danger (the Napoleonic wars are raging at the time). When finally he does come home, he is dead-set on getting Ottilie. His scheme is that he gets divorced from Charlotte and marries Ottilie, while Charlotte marries the Captain/Major. Except his wild passion sets off a string of calamities, starting with the drowning of his little son.

Now, as I understand it, the common interpretation of this novel is as a critique of the institution of marriage as that being what prevents the “logical” pairings of the characters. Another, slightly more refined interpretation says that it is not so much the institution of marriage but the inability of the characters to think out of the box and release their adherence to conventions. In any case, they seem to think that Goethe meant these people to combine in different ways and their misfortune was that they were prevented from doing so. The major argument being that Goethe himself had affairs left and right and did not really consider marital faithfulness an objective but merely an obstacle.

My take on this story is much simpler. It demonstrates two characters, Charlotte and Eduard, where one can handle her emotions and weather potential disasters, while the other is a victim of his passions which unchecked must cause disaster left and right. Rather than being an advocate of serial monogamy, this story demonstrate the danger of unruly passions to the happiness and wellbeing of people.  

All characters have potential good futures ahead of them with plenty of reward, both socially and materially. Charlotte and the Captain/Major demonstrate how to reconcile passion and reality to both a common and a personal good, even satisfaction. Eduard on the other hand entirely embraces the romantic idea of letting his passions run his decision making with no regard for other people’s feelings and the potential for disaster, personal and to others. This makes him an egocentric person and his affair with Ottilie is just one example of his passion driven poor decision making. Charlotte’s daughter, Luciane, is another example of such a character where the damage she inflicts on others for he own gratification is obvious.

Rather than being an advocate of free love, Goethe is actually running a critique on the romanticism that was the rage at the time, asking those free spirits to rein in their passions a bit. This follows very much in the line of Goethe’s earlier novels, “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” which run similar conclusions.

Of course, I could be entirely wrong, but I am entirely entitled to my own interpretation of art.

Recommendation? It is okay, but pales compared to Goethe’s earlier work.


søndag den 6. november 2022

Rameau’s Nephew - Denis Diderot (1805)


Rameau's Nephew

Yet again we take a step back in time with another one of Denis Diderot’s leftover manuscripts. As with “The Nun” and “Jacques the Fatalist”, Diderot kept “Rameau’s Nephew” to himself or at least in very local circulation in his lifetime, presumably because the political climate did not allow a public release, and it only found a way to the public in 1805. Even then, it took another 150 years until a version we can consider Diderot’s own version, was published.

The novel takes the form of a dialogue between a first-person character (Diderot himself?) and a character called Jean-Francois Rameau, the nephew of a famous composer with the same surname. These were real characters, and the conversation is presented as if it really took place, yet we can assume that although Diderot and Rameau really had a conversation at a vey specific time and venue, Diderot used this as a framework upon which to discuss and lampoon a number of issues that was on his mind.

Rameau is a scoundrel. A hand-to-mouth swindler and con artist, but also a very self-aware clown, conscious of his own limitations, who simply do what he does best with what he has. And what he does best is to entertain and con people by appealing to their vanity.

During their conversation Diderot and Rameau get into a great many topics, particularly around music, yet the recurrent theme is that appearances matter a lot more than substance and that people want to be fooled and confirmed. Rameau’s current situation is that he has just been dismissed from the family who had sponsored him for the past months. Rameau’s parasitic existence had been to be around, be amusing and confirm the host family of how amazing they were. His dismissal was caused by him telling the truth.

According to Rameau’s creed, the purpose of existence is to eat, drink, bed women and empty the bowels. This is the only obligation and purpose of man, and the means is just whatever works to get there.

Diderot’s purpose for this dialogue has apparently been discussed extensively, yet to my mind it is pretty obvious. Diderot was an incredible gossip, and he got a real kick out of a juicy story. “Rameau’s Nephew” is an outlet where Diderot could lampoon the entire establishment for their scandals and idiocy. In the buffoon of Rameau, the ridiculousness of the establishment becomes condensed and very entertaining and it is a safe space for Diderot as nobody gets to read it. This is Saturday Night Live for the smallest audience possible.

I found it an incredibly amusing read. It is sharp and witty and often caused me to laugh out loud. Very few of the comedic texts of the eighteenth century have accomplished that. Rameau is a tragic clown, a complete cynic with a heart and reading of his exploits is both distressing and highly entertaining. I think Diderot had a blast writing this and I can feel his need to lampoon his fellow men and women seeping through the pages.

“Rameau’s Nephew” is an easy, short read and highly recommended from me. I could totally see such a text being written today. In fact, I got an idea for a novel or sci-fi movie I would read or watch: What if Diderot was really a twenty-first century comedic writer for SNL who fell into a time hole and then had to carve out a life in the eighteenth century? Not so far fetched as you might think. His texts and his views are incredibly modern. I would love to be credited for that idea.


onsdag den 19. oktober 2022

Henry Von Ofterdingen: A Novel - Novalis (1802)


Henry of Ofterdingen

I have never really understood the concept of poetry.

I get it as far as it being an attempt to condense something, usually intangible, into verse and that you are supposed to feel it rather than understand it. Which actually to me sounds like the definition of art as a concept. My problem is that it usually does not touch me and often strikes me as so much sophism and form that I find it hard to take seriously. I know, this is a philistine viewpoint, and I will likely take a lot of heat for it, but there it is. To me, it is like watching dancing: probably fun to be a part of but leaves me cold and non-plussed to look at.

This is a problem when reading Novalis’ “Henry of Ofterdingen”. This is a book that seems to be intended as a manifest for poetry. Novalis tries to describe to role and search of the poet, and define what poetry is and should do. Not in some positivistic, practical sense, but by setting up a spiritual framework that most of all sounds like a cult.

The framework of the story is that of a young man, Henry, who is travelling from his home in Thuringia with his mother to her father’s court in Augsburg, Bavaria. This is a boy with poetic aspirations and underway he encounters numerous characters who tell him instructive stories or instruct him directly in how poetry work. The stories are rather lengthy and with a clear sense that it is these and not the real-life voyage of Henry that is the agenda of the book.

The stories range from fairy tales over real-life stories to mythological fables of which the last ones are of a nature that I hardly know what is up or down in them and much less what the point is. Recounting these seem pointless. It is easier with the real-life stories such as those of the miner and the knight. They do make some sense, but again, they are supposed to drive a point that eludes me.

I suppose that if I had been into poetry and really cared for it, this might have been a gold mine and this is exactly what this text is considered to be. Almost the defining text on the romanticism of early nineteenth century. I can just imagine wannabe poets poring over this text and trying to find that spot where it all makes sense. Proselytes into this mishmash cult of Christianity, Hellenisms, nature and beauty.

For me however it comes across as a mess. In terms of catching the ephemeral, the intangible essence I am far more a subscriber to the Proustian style. Marcel Proust had much less need for a mythology and mysticism to formulate his images and it seems to me more straight forward and obvious that the dramatic complexity of the systems Novalis sets up.

Or maybe I have just misunderstood the whole thing.

The ending is rather peculiar. The story comes to an abrupt stop and in a post-script, a friend of Novalis tries to summarize what was to come next, hinting that we only got the first one and a half chapters of a five chapter long epic. For a while I thought this was an artificial tool of Novalis, like Diderot would use, but it seems to be genuine enough, making this an unfinished novel.

I am not certain I would need to read the remaining chapters of the story. I get the picture and think I will leave it to others to use this text. It is not a recommendation from me.

fredag den 30. september 2022

Castle Rackrent - Maria Edgeworth (1800)


Castle Rackrent

With Maria Edgeworth’s “Castle Rackrent” I have left the 18th century and entered the 19th. Not a major shift there, but it does feel like rounding a significant corner. It is therefore particularly pleasing that this book also feels like a novelty compared to my previous reading.

This is, if I remember right, the first book on the List to take place in Ireland and it is also written by an Irish, albeit of the Anglo-Irish landowner class. That in itself is interesting, I like when these books take me around the world, and I did my share of travelling in Ireland some twenty years ago. The true novelty however is that the first-person character who narrates the story is an Irish domestic who narrates in his own tongue and mannerism. Edgeworth thus takes on a different persona, which she was likely familiar with, but still a radically different character from herself, and does it with conviction.

Thady Quirk is steward to several generations of masters on Castle Rackrent (rackrent being the term used for a cruel method of extorting the tenants on the land). He tells us the story of four generations of Racrents, one is a spendthrift, a second sues everybody and their mother over pittances and lose mighty sums in the process. A third marries a Jewish girl for her wealth and locks her up until she is ready to part with her diamonds and a fourth… well, the fourth, Sir Condy Rackrent, takes up the major part of the story. He is well liked, cares little for how he spends money and takes an interest in people around him. Unfortunately for him, that means mismanagement of his estate and eventually he loses everything to Thady’s thrifty son Jason (this is hardly a spoiler).

Thady is incredibly loyal. No matter how absurd or cruel his masters, he is always ready to defend them. He loves them to a fault and in his eyes, they are never truly to blame for their error. Yet, it is not difficult to read between the lines that all these masters of Castle Rackrent are terrible landlords. That they are invested with a power they do not know how to administer and get away with it because Ireland is a place of the jungle law, where anything is possible if you have the means and the will and nobody are protected, least of all from themselves.

In these four masters, Edgeworth manages to present to us the evils going on in an uncontrolled Ireland and how unsuited the landed class is to take care of the country. It is quite a subversive writ really. A plea to the British to step in and reform the land.

Beside Thady’s gushing defense of the Rackrents a number of other elements work in the same direction. The Irish of the text itself are described as conniving children, but just beneath the surface it is not difficult to see that they are where the sympathy really lies. Additionally, the novel is equipped with extensive, original notes which all seem to placate the English reader by confirming all the demeaning stereotypes of the lazy and backward Irish, but again, it actually contains a wealth of background information and cultural context to demonstrate and understand the rich Irish culture.

“Castle Rackrent” is short, barely a hundred pages, but a very entertaining and informative read and one I quite enjoyed. I would not say it changed my life, but I do feel a bit smarter for reading it, and that is not a bad thing.

Sadly, as the novel was finalized, Ireland descended in turmoil and the English grip on the country only worsened, culminating in the disaster of the mid-nineteenth century. It is hard to think Edgeworth novel actually helped anything, but it should have and maybe it did in the very long term.