onsdag den 20. marts 2019

Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus - Alexander Pope (1741)

Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus
In the early years of the eighteen century a group of writers formed the Scriblerian club. Central to this group was Alexander Pope and Johnathan Swift, but another four or five writers and poets were members as well, some of them on-off. The purpose, it seemed, was to write satire for the fun of it, in the name of an invented comical character Martinus Scriblerus. Years later, in 1741, Alexander Pope published a selection of these writings as “Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works, and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus”.

Through this character the group satirized on every fad and absurdity they observed among their contemporaries, making Scriblerus an outrageous character. This covers anything from an obsession with ancient literature, over crazy principles on raising children to medicine and science. The book covers the life of Scriblerus from his birth to his eventual demise, not death, but simply disappearance, but the chronology is simply used to fit in age appropriate satire.

Most of the satire is so rooted in its era that to a modern reader it falls pretty flat, though I can certainly see a connection to conspiracy theorist of today and the many absurd fads going around, from aversion to vaccination to bizarre dietary principles. In any case, for the most part you probably should have been there to find it amusing. This changes however midway through the book through two stories that hit the nail for me. The first is how Scriblerus and his friend, Crambe’s, studies in anatomy came to an abrupt halt when they sneaked a corpse into a rented apartment, woke up the entire house when they dropped it down the stairs and got arrested for murder. The second one was even better. Scriblerus falls in love with one part of a pair of conjoined twins, springs her from the circus where she works only to be sued by her former owner who arranges the other twin to be married to “a black prince” also in his possession. The court case is absolutely hilarious and absurd, each lawyer claiming the other guilty of anything from trespassing to bigamy.

Worth a mention is also the list of discoveries they attribute to the worthy Martinus Scriblerus. While many of them are rather silly, the ones belong to physics are actually very modern and relevant questions today, such as the mass of the universe, a calculation on the lifespan of the sun, how to apply the force from the speed of light to mechanical purposes and so on. This just goes to show how these humanists were ridiculing the natural sciences of the day.

“Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus is not a long book. The antiquated writing was easily compensated by the absurdly large font used for the print I found, so I went quickly through it. Despite this I am not entirely sure I would recommend this book. A few interesting sections is not enough to make it worthwhile the read, but I have a feeling this book was included on the List more for its influence on contemporary writing than for its own qualities.


fredag den 8. marts 2019

Joseph Andrews - Henry Fielding (1742)

Joseph Andrews
In the early 1740’ies Samuel Richardson published his novel “Pamela” and sparked a controversy that resulted in Henry Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews”. The weird thing is that the List has decided that “Joseph Andrews” predates “Pamela” and therefore I get to read this reaction novel before the book it is reacting to. That does feel a bit strange and especially the burlesque “Shamela” that introduces the novel is difficult to come to terms with in this context.

Anyway, “Joseph Andrews” follows two characters, the young man Joseph Andrew and the parson Abraham Adams on their journey home from London. Joseph was a footman to the widow Lady Booby, the aunt of Squire Booby in “Pamela”, but when he refused a pass she made on him, she kicked him out and he ventures home toward his home parish. On the way he soon encounters the parson and together they have an incredible number of adventures.

There is a lot of Don Quixote in this story. Most of the encounters has a counterpart in Don Quixote and at times I get the feeling that certain events are mostly there because they are so in Don Quixote. An objective is comical relief and the Parson is supposed to be a somewhat deluded clown that gets himself into all sorts of trouble because of his uncompromising adherence to Christian doctrine at the expense of any situational sense, thus being the Don Quixote of this story. That means that the underlying message is that fundamental Christianity is unpractical and laughable, but inherently good.

I am not sure how to read the “Pamela” response, because as mentioned, I have not read that book yet. What I can see is that Fielding is conservative in his position, but sneaks in a number of progressive ideas. It is as if in order to do a critique of, especially, the rich and the powerful he had to wrap it in a conservative framework. I believe “Pamela” is supposed to be refined in style and “Joseph Andrews” is in many ways crude and direct, as if honesty and simplicity are the virtues it supports as opposed to those of “Pamela”.

“Joseph Andrews” was intended as a comedy and that begs the question if it is funny. Sadly, it is not so, at least not to me. Comedy translates poorly over space and time and the attempts at comedy fell flat on the ground for me. That does not mean it is a complete fail, in many ways this is an interesting read, but frankly I would much rather read the real Don Quixote again.

I am not certain if I would recommend it unless you think that a parson who drinks and eat too much, forget where he is and what he is doing and preach fundamental Christianity to anybody who cares to listen as well as a lot who grows heartily sick of him, is your idea of a great time. To me the parson is a self-righteous ass and Joseph Andrews himself has as much character as a cardboard cut-out.

On to the next. 1742 looks to be a busy year.

tirsdag den 22. januar 2019

A Modest Proposal - Jonathan Swift (1729)

A Modest Proposal
Maybe you know what it means when somebody has A Modest Proposal. I did not, until very recently, mostly because I am not a native speaker, but now I am in on the joke. A Modest Proposal is used to make a straight-faced suggestion of something completely absurd and outrageous. It all harks back to Jonathan Swifts essay “A Modest Proposal” from 1729.

In this essay Swift, completely straight-faced proposes to solve to problem of poverty, idleness and the hordes of papists in Ireland by selling infants to gentlemen in Ireland and Britain for eating. He presents a perfectly sensible case complete with the economics, the practical details, the problems it would solve and the general benefits to the scheme. Well, except the delicate detail that eating children is just about the most horrendous idea imaginable.

I suppose in all its absurdity it is supposed to be funny, but you have to have an inclination for very, very black humor to enjoy this. Raising children like livestock and cooking them when they are a year old for their tender meat is an absolutely revolting idea and it was just too black for me.

The context of this essay, however, is interesting. Ireland and the Irish were essentially lawless to the British in the eighteenth century. There were no limits to how you were allowed, and maybe even encouraged to, abuse the local population, which was in turn looked upon as a lesser sort of human beings, Papists, poor and good for nothings. As an Irishman Swift was likely upset by the arrogant attitude of the British and while “A Modest Proposal” goes further than even the vilest British bigot, it is written in the same tone as other very demeaning schemes to abuse the Irish, which very outrageous enough in themselves.

Sometimes you need an exaggeration to see the problem.

A second apparent context is the rationalism that was becoming popular at this time and towards which Swift was very sceptic. This is quite apparent in “Gulliver’s Travels” where the scientists or “projectors”, as he calls them, are ridiculed as useless geeks. Swifts saw common sense as being opposed to rationalism (although in truth the two are very connected) and wrote this essay as a rationalistic argument that makes no sense at all.

“A Modest Proposal” is a very short booklet. The only way it could be pumped up to 30 pages was by inserting lots of pictures with no relation to the story and print it in a font larger than those used in my son’s easy-reading books. So, I breezed through the text here in the weekend and I am ready with my second entry of 2019.


lørdag den 19. januar 2019

Gulliver's Travels - Jonathan Swift (1726)

Gulliver's Travels
I must have been only a child when I first encountered the story of Gulliver and his travels. The memory of a movie with a giant on a beach with hundreds of tiny people tying him up is very vivid. This is a story many, if not most, people are very familiar with, but the part we recall is usually only the visit to Lilliput. The story is much longer than that. After Lilliput Gulliver went to the giants in Brobdingnag, the to a series of lands inhabited by crazy scientist types and necromancers and finally to the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos in Houyhnhnm-land.

The narrator, one Lemuel Gulliver is a surgeon (a bone-mender) who takes jobs on ships that keep shipwrecking him alone in the most bizarre lands. First stop is Lilliput, where he is a giant among tiny people. There people are also of small minds and outsize ambitions and although he repeatedly helps them out and befriends them, he eventually has to escape as they, in all friendliness, seek to main and kill him.

Next, he ends up with the giants in Brobdingnag. Tables turned, Gulliver is now the tiny person among monstrously large people with large minds. These have no plans to hurt Gulliver, but the sheer size of everything makes even a bee a deadly foe. When he leaves this country, it is merely by accident, being picked up by an oversize bird.

In the third book the marooned Gulliver is picked up onto a flying island. This is a country ruled by scientists with their concerns on math and the heavens rather than common sense. There is definitely a sense that Swift did not care for the academics of his age and these people are laughable in the extreme. Down on the ground he visits a university where “projectors” are wasting time and money on useless projects. This trip also takes him to a place where people get very old and stupid and another, ruled by necromancers, where he has long discussions with long dead people.

Finally, in the last chapter Gulliver visits that land of the talking horses where humans are reduced brutes called Yahoos.

Jonathan Swift, the famed Irish writer, clergyman and many other things, was a satirist and Gulliver’s Travels was intended as a satire on the British government in particular and British/European mores in general. As such the book describes a trend from mild and entertaining, even bawdy, to increasingly mean and bitter satire. In the last chapter Swift is foaming with anger and bitterness and while the idea of clever and civilized horses is amusing there is not much to laugh at in that chapter.

Fortunately, we get that in the first chapters. There are plenty of amusing scenes, from Gulliver quenching a fire in the royal palace by pissing on it to the scientists working on abolishing spoken language since all words can be replaced by things. If you just carry enough things with you, you can make a full conversation without uttering a word. An idea shot down by women who insist on the right to chatter… It is this levity and the bizarre scenery Swift paints that makes for an amusing read even today, where the satire itself has mostly lost its relevance.

I understand why later versions, especially on the screen, has focused on the first chapter in Lilliput. It may be the section with most relevance today. However, there are lots to get from the other chapters as well and I would particularly like to see a movie rendition of the visit to the flying island.

Of course, I will recommend this book, but I knew that even before reading it. It is a classic after all.

søndag den 30. december 2018

Happy New Year 2019

Happy New Year 2019
It is the end of the year and time, again, to look back on the year that has passed.

First, I would like to thank those of you who read my blogs. I know you are not many, but quality easily makes up for quantity and I am grateful for you being there and love your comments. A very happy New Year to all of you!

This has been an eventful year. I moved with my family from Israel, where I have been living for the past 6 years, back to Denmark where I now live in Copenhagen. That was a major transition and kept me busy for a large part of the year. I have also been travelling quite a bit including a visit to The States in the Easter break, Korea, China and many other places. Accordingly, I did not do as many movies this year as I did in previous years.

The movie count ticks in at just 55 movies, the lowest for a year so far. Of these 46 are List movies and 9 are off-List movies. Last year I started a practice where I choose three movies each year to review beyond the List. The idea was that these should be my suggestions for the List, but over time this have changed to simply movies I am curious to watch. I have to admit that the quality of those movies has be varying and not all of them deserves one of those hallowed slots. Lately I made the further addition that one of them should be Danish, but I am considering dropping this requirement. The selection of Danish movies is generally not interesting enough. I think going forward that I will check if there in a given year is one deserving attention, otherwise I will pick internationally.

Of the List movies I went from 1963 to 1966, which is probably not that impressive. There have been great movies (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Repulsion, A Hard Day’s Night) and utter crap (Vinyl, Mediteranee, Pierrot le Fou) and a lot in between. I maintain that the List content of the sixties is not as interesting as the fifties or forties, but there are enough pleasant surprises and quality content to keep me going.

On the book side I have done far better than expected. I have read and reviewed eight books, which is way ahead of the five books I aim at. The books span a century from The Trial of Persilles and Sigismunda from 1616 to Moll Flanders of 1722. Compared to previous years the books I read this year have been consistently good and interesting, which goes a long way to explain how I got this far. Also books are good to bring along for long flights…

If I should pick one for general recommendation it would be The Conquest of New Spain. Besides being a singularly unique and captivating story, it is also based on true events eye-witnessed by the author. I learned a lot reading that book and I was thoroughly entertained.

It is also telling that none of my 2018 reads will end on my crap list.

2019 looks to be more of the same, except that I have no plans to move anywhere this year so hopefully I will get to review a lot more movies and continue to read great books.

If anybody has suggestions for 1967 or 68 off-list entries do let me know, I am all ears.

Happy New Year to all of you and may 2019 bring joy and prosperity and lots of great movies.

torsdag den 29. november 2018

Moll Flanders - Daniel Defoe (1722)

Moll Flanders
Daniel Defoe may be best known for his “Robinson Crusoe”, but he was apparently a prolific writer and his second entry on the List is no light-weight. “Moll Flanders” was published three years later and is in many ways a very different novel, though it shares two central properties with “Robinson Crusoe”: Both are written in first person pretending to be written by the main character and secondly the amount of detail and background knowledge included is staggering. Defoe did not do things halfways.

In “Moll Flanders” Defoe writes from a woman’s perspective, which in itself must have been challenging, especially since it feels very authentic. This is an age were gender roles were far more clearly defined than today and the reality of women would have been quite different from what men had to deal with. The central character narrates the story from her old age as a sort of confession on a sinful, but spectacular life. She is a penitent, yet beneath all her protestations we do sense a pride because Moll is a survivor and survive is what she has done through all the challenges and hardships she has been facing.

On paper she seems to have been a terrible person. She has been married five times, once with her own brother, she has been a prostitute and a thief, imprisoned and transported to America, a common way in those days to get rid of criminals, and she had several children with several men of which she only recognized one of them, and that after he became an adult.

However, as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Moll is rarely to blame for her situation. She is trying to make the best out of difficult situations and things just sort of happens. One thing she does learn is to trust no one completely. I doubt she tells anybody the full story of her herself, instead she keeps certain parts of her situation, funds or background hidden. This often makes her come about as dishonest, but really, she has simply learned the hard way to be cautious.

It is a thoroughly interesting story that moves surprisingly fast despite the high level of detail. The section where she becomes a thief may be the most spectacular, and it is, but I was very interested in her many relationships and how she got into them. That gave a surprising insight into the social dynamics of the era so different from our own.

If there was one thing I did not quite understand it was her casual attitude towards her children. Even if some of them died early she must have had several children around that she seems to care little about. Those from her first marriage we hear nothing about. The one she got as a courtesan she keeps until he is five and then he disappears. With her Lancashire husband she has a child which is raised by foster parents that she pays every year, yet when she is together with him again the child is not an item. And what about the children she had with the banker?

It does not detract from the general impression though that this is a captivating read and a story full on the same scale as “Robinson Crusoe”.

This is actually a reread of the book. I did read it years ago, the first book on the list where this is the case, and I was surprised how much of the story I had forgotten and how much better I found the book this time. It may be that reading all this old stuff primes me for reading this. Or I just get smarter with age, though that is questionable.

A highly recommended read.

søndag den 14. oktober 2018

Love in Excess - Eliza Haywood (1719)

Love in Excess or The Fatal Inquiry

This was a nice surprise.

I did not have high expectations for Eliza Haywood’s “Love in Excess or the Fatal Inquiry” believing it to be some silly love story among the rich and famous. Well, it is a silly love story among the rich and famous, but surprisingly fun to read. 

We follow the central character, Count D’Elmont as he develops from an inconsiderate and selfish playboy to become a steadfast and loyal lover. This happens through a series of romantic encounters with a range of women. 

The first, Amena, is a girl of lower (though not low, God forbid) status, whom he dumps, literally in the middle of the street, when it threatens to become serious. Off she goes to a monastery, the catch-all destination for fallen women. The next is the mercenary Alovisa. She is a conniving woman of means (read: rich!) who has her eyes set on D’Elmont. He is not blind to her wealth and she really wants him so why not? Also she is the sister of his brother’s girlfriend and it is nice to help him out.

However, when the matchless Melliora appears it is love at first sight and while Melliora is restrained and virtuous (a good girl), D’Elmont embarks on a crazy courtship. Alovisa knows something is up but just not who the girl is. The neighboring Baron wants Alovisa (just a bit of shagging, nothing too serious) and his sister Melantha wants the Count. This of course spirals completely out of control leaving the Baron and Alovisa dead and Melliora off to a monastery.

Finally, D’Elmont, in his despair, goes to Rome to get distracted, but all he can think of is Melliora. In Rome there are more women who want him, but now he has realized that there is only one girl for him and so he is busy dodging their attempts at him, while at the same time helping Melliora’s brother get his girlfriend so she will not be sent off to a monastery.

This is hilariously fun. Especially the conclusion of part two was a riot. Straight out of Fawlty Towers. The book tries hard to become serious in the romantic relationships, but to no avail, I can always sense that glint in the eye, that mischievous smile, that is driving for comedy. It makes for a great and fast read.

The book is also remarkable in the sense that it is written by a woman who dares to make the girls proactive and possessing erotic desires of their own instead of being the receptive vessels the male dominated moral codex of the day preferred. Sure, the most mercenary of the women get their due, but all of them are active players and even the saintly Melliora crave a good shagging. I am pretty certain this caused a stir when it was published in 1719 and would have been wonderfully subversive as a countercurrent to the mainstream.

For me it was also a bit of an eye-opener. I would have relegated this kind of story to “girl-pulp-literature” little better than a telenovela and as such written it of as not something for me, but hey, I loved it, it was truly fun to read.

I wonder if “Love in Excess” was ever considered for a movie or a mine-series. It would work great visually, and I would love to see it.