tirsdag den 16. april 2024

The Betrothed - Alessandro Manzoni (1827)


The Betrothed

I am not accustomed to Italian novels on this list, but this one, “The Betrothed”, is apparently one of the most famous Italian novels and hence included on the List.

We follow a young couple from a village outside of Milan in the seventeenth century. He is Lorenzo, a young silk weaver, and she is Lucy, a bashful young girl. They want to get married, but the curate, Don Abbodio, refuses to wed them because he has been threatened by thugs not to do so. The thugs belong to the local noble, Don Roderick, who wants the girl for himself. An attempt to capture her by force fails but sends the young couple on the run and thus starts an adventure.

They get help from a Capuchin friar called Christopher who sends Lucy to one and Lorenzo to another monastery in Milan. Both end up in trouble, Lucy betrayed by a nun and kidnapped by a gangster and Lorenzo gets unintendedly involved in an uprising and accused of treason, causing him to hide out in Bergamo. Their adventures are many and through them we get introduced to many aspects of life in seventeenth century Italy.

There is the food shortage and ensuing riots in Milan, the havoc of war when passing soldiers of various origin plunder everything they can get their hands on and send the local population fleeing, seriously deepening the food shortage crisis into a shortage of anything but misery and finally the plague, killing left and right, high and low. Throughout, the authorities tasked with handling these crisis’s are completely inept or corrupt, deepening rather then alleviating the disasters with either lack of or self-serving actions. The only authority that effectively deal the string of disasters is the church and that is mainly driven by a few energetic characters.

While the apparent story of Lucy and Lorenzo is both interesting and touching, “The Betrothed” can be read as an allegory of Italy in the nineteenth century. I can definitely see that. In a very direct way, the author goes to great pains to describe the situation around the various crisis’s, more than is strictly necessary for the story of Lucy and Lorenzo, but in order to make us understand what is going on. This insight is interesting in itself but it also helps us to understand some social and political dynamics with relevance to the nineteenth century.

I am thinking that the allegory can be taken a lot further. Lucy and Lorenzo may represent the Italian people who wants to be united but is not allowed because out outside agents. Greedy nobles (Roderick) who stops at nothing, self-serving politicians, outside powers, in the book Spanish, German and French soldiers, in the nineteenth century, French and Austrian troops battling it out in Italy and keeping the place occupied. The role of the plague as an allegory is a bit mystifying, but may represent disasters outside human control, but to which we can respond irresponsibly or sensibly. A clear message it is that much of the trouble is unnecessary as they are created by irresponsible or self-serving people or are aggravated by the same. Probably a good picture of the fragmented Italy in 1827 and in many ways even today.

Lucy and Lorenzo do get each other, it is that kind of story, and so the author promises that also the Italians will get each other and hopefully learn by the mistakes of the past.

As a reading experience, “The Betrothed” was an interesting book to read. The adventures of Lucy and Lorenzo sometimes loses a bit of momentum when the narrative turns tangential, but these tangents may actually be the best part of the book as they provide so much insight. Especially the section about the plague in Milan was gripping and interesting. Since our own experience with the pandemic, there is so much to recognize here. The powerlessness in the face of an indiscriminate killer, the draconian steps to curtail the contagion, the strange conspiracies springing up, especially to blame somebody for the disaster or refuse to accept it for what it is. We have so recent been exactly there. When I read about the Lazaretto in Milan, the picture I saw were those of the over-crowded hospitals in Bergamo in March 2020.

“The Betrothed” is a recommended read and one I understand Italians will insist is essential.


torsdag den 22. februar 2024

The Last of the Mohicans - James Fenimore Cooper (1826)


The Last of the Mohicans

One of the most famous early American novels, “The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fenimore Cooper, helped paint a picture of the frontier that has lasted through the centuries. Although a contemporary audience typically will associate the American frontier with the prairie or the sunbaked southwest, there was a time before where the frontier was in the woods of New England.

Fort William Henry on the southern edge of Lake George in what is today the state of New York, is the host of a British detachment under the command of Colonel Munro. It is the year 1757 and the British and the French are at war. Rumor has it that the French are approaching with what may be superior numbers. At this very moment Munro’s daughters, Cora and Alice decide to pay their father a visit. Cora and Alice are escorted by Major Heyward and a singing master David Gamut. Their guide is an Indian named Magua.

On their way to Fort William Henry, they encounter the band of Hawkeye, the scout and the Mohicans Chingachgook and Uncas, father and son. They see Magua is up to something and takes control of the party. True enough, before long they are besieged by Magua and a band of Huron Indians, aligned with the French. Cora, Alice, Heyward and Gamut fall into the hands of Magua, but are eventually freed by the Hawkeye’s band just as the ritual torture was about to start.

Although the band arrives safely at Fort William Henry, the peace is short lived. The fort is attacked by the French and their Huron allies. Badly outnumbered and outgunned Munro is forced to surrender. Although granted free passage, the Hurons fall onto the train and massacres the women and the infirm. Cora and Alice are again captured by Magua. He is leading them north to his own tribe with sinister plans for the girls. Tracking him a few days behind, Hawkeye, Chingachgook, Uncas, Heyward and Munro must catch up with Magua if they want to see the girls alive.

I read “The Last of the Mohicans” as a child and although I remember liking it, I quickly realized I had forgotten everything else. Poor memory is sometimes a blessing and it felt like a first read.

When “The Last of the Mohicans” is good, it is really good. This is especially the case in the chase scenes, whether the band is chasing Magua or being chased. There is a fast pace to these scenes and a level of detail just enough to keep me riveted and being able to visualize the chase. The chase across Lake George stands out in particular. Cooper was a good action writer.

Cooper is also good at writing on the wilderness itself. You get the feeling he has seen these places and has some experience with outback life, if not life on the Frontier itself. The skills of Hawkeye and the Mohicans are described in convincing detail, and I can imagine generations going out into the forest to emulate Chingachgook and Uncas with the book as their guide.

Cooper obviously have a lot of respect for the Native Americans, their skills and their culture and he deserves a lot of credit for that, yet he is also a product of his own time where racial differences were a very real and insurmountable barrier between people. The Indians are frequently called savages and not just the Hurons and you can hear the regret that these are just Indians and thus cut off from being something better. Hawkeye for all his praise and respect for his Indian friends must mention in every second sentence that he is a man without a cross, meaning pure white origin as if that somehow makes him a better person.

It is such a pity that Cooper does not dare to bridge the gulf. There may be some adherence here to the actual separation, also in the period of the narrative, but I sense that Cooper wants to bridge it. There is a budding romance between Uncas and Cora that would have been beautiful if it had been allowed to unfold, but Cooped seems afraid to go that far. Cooper also laments the fate and plight of the Indians, besieged and forced to make way for the whit people as they are. He places word in the mouth of some of the Indians that demonstrates his understanding, but he does not finish the step. Their fate is lamentable but it is just too bad, he seems to think.

The real problem with “The Last of the Mohicans” however is in the plot. As others before me have pointed out, Cora and Alice’ visit to their father is hopelessly unmotivated and ill-timed, but without it, there would be no story. The same with the singing master Gamut, his presence is unexplained, and he has not function but comic relief except he is not funny at all. While these may be the most glaring plot holes, there are numerous decisions and actions throughout the story that feel contrived or unmotivated but the only thing I can do as a reader is to just to accept and flow with it.

If you take into account that Cooper was not a modern writer, nor a contemporary writer of the times he writes about, he did do an amazing job with “The Last of the Mohicans” and the millions of readers worldwide are testament to that. Wikipedia lists 11 different movie or serial versions of the story in a addition to a number of German versions of the story! I am dying to see Bela Lugosi as Chingachgook in Der Letzte Mohikaner from 1920!


lørdag den 20. januar 2024

Life of a Good-For-Nothing - Joseph Von Eichendorff (1826)


Memoirs of a Good-for-Nothing

Lately, the books on the List have been having a dark streak with the possible exception of “Tomcat Murr”, though even that had some sinister sides. “Memoirs of a Good-for-Nothing” (“Memoirs…”) is the direct opposite. It is light and easy in every sense.

A (very?) young man leaves his village carrying only the cloth he wears and his fiddle. He gets a ride with two ladies and plays for them so nicely that they offer him a job in the palace gardens. Soon he is even promoted to be a tollkeeper. The young man, whose name we never learn is hopelessly in love with one of the ladies, whom he keeps referring to a “my lovely lady”, but as he assumes she is a countess, he never approaches her. Instead, he plays his fiddle and put flowers for her wherever he can.

One night he discovers that the other lady is the one looking for him and that his own “lovely lady” is together with another man and his hope shatters. He immediately embarks on a journey to Italy, gets kidnapped by bandits, are taken to a castle in the mountains, where he is treated as a lord, barely escapes and hang out in Rome. In Rome he thinks he has found his girl again and indeed he is told she is looking for him, only to find out she already left for Austria, so now he needs to get back home and find her there.

The conclusion, which I shall not reveal here, includes so many revelations and mistaken identities that I am entirely confused myself, but, happy ending, the end.

This is super light and super short, 120 easy pages, and anything that resembles a crisis is resolved within a page or two. Our hero is never really in any danger, or rather, no danger he cannot easily escape from, and he usually gets by simply by playing some music. People are really nice to him and those that are not, are just pretending. Meanwhile, the sun is always shining, people are happy and well-fed and dancing is only just one song away. It actually sounds very much like a Hollywood golden age musical.

It is so brief, rushed and light that I cannot really say it made a lot of impression on me. It is like a piece of candy, nice and sweet and gone in minutes. It is difficult to be upset with it because it is so harmless, but at the same time, the novel feels more like a synopsis of a much larger and deeper book. My guess is that I will have forgotten about it in a few weeks.

Yet, this tiny novel is praised as a masterpiece of late German Romanticism and apparently it presents a lot of elements hailed as typical of this movement. Classless love, the freedom, the appreciation of beauty, both natural and human made such as music and painting. Eichendorff was a celebrated poet, and a lot of his poems are included in the book, though I am not qualified to tell if the appreciation is deserved.

I suppose it is nice to also get some lighter and happier fare than the gloomy stuff of late but there is simply not enough meat on this for me to truly recommend it.

tirsdag den 9. januar 2024

Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner - James Hogg (1824)


Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

This is a case of a novel that is more interesting from a technical point of view than from its subject matter. Not that this is entirely uninteresting, but the technical devices of “Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner” (or “Confessions…” as I will shorten it to from now on) are both very advanced for its time and used in a very interesting manner and this alone is good enough reason to read it.

“Confessions…” is divided into three segments. The first is “the editor’s” description of events that happened a little more than a hundred years in the past. A Scottish nobleman was briefly married to a fiercely religious woman and managed to have two sons before she moved out to live with her priest, the Reverend Wringhim. George, the older stayed with the nobleman, while the younger, Robert stayed with the mother. Though never explicitly stated, it is implied that the Reverend is the actual father of Robert, though for such religious people that would be absolutely unheard of.

George and his father are jovial types and George is well liked and described as a fairly ordinary young nobleman. Robert, on the other hand, is a dark, brooding type and very religious. During a game of tennis, he seeks out George and starts interfering in everything George does, presumably to convince him to see the light. Eventually George is murdered. His father’s housekeeper investigates and eventually finds out Robert did it after which Robert disappears.

The second part takes the form of a found manuscript written by Robert. It essentially tells the same story, but instead of the third-party objectiveness of the first section, this is a highly subjective first-person account and as such dramatically different. For once, Robert is not only deeply religious, he is also righteous and convinced that he is among the elect who can do no wrong because they are already admitted to heaven. This gives him a free ticket to do whatever he wants and a conviction that whatever he believes is correct and everybody else is wrong.

Robert also meets early on a person who never really introduces himself, but acts as Robert’s friend and supporter. Together they hatch a plan to eliminate people who are in the way of the true faith and start off with a minister. Successfully done, George is the next on the list. The impetus for these murders seems to be from Robert’s friend and he does seem to have uncanny abilities such as assuming the voice and looks of other people. Slowly it is implied that this friend is some sort of demon or devil haunting Robert and when Robert starts to suffer lapses in memory after which it appears he has been conducting unspeakable crimes, he has to flee. Not only the law, but also his supernatural friend.

The third part is again the editor explaining how he found the manuscript in a grave, somehow giving credence to the story as a “found manuscript”.

The technique of telling a story from two different perspectives is novel in the early nineteenth century and is particularly interesting because it highlights the unreliable narrator. Who do we trust more, the impartial third-party narrator with limited access to the details or the first person narrator with full access but also personally invested in the story? Not to mention, severely religiously biased.

Then of course there is the almost satirical portrait of a person so convinced of his religious doctrines that his views, actions and morality are far outside what we would consider the norm, even in a more religious age than today. I suspect this is the real agenda of the author and it certainly does make these cultist types highly suspicious. Most dangerous seems to be how completely impervious they are to other opinions and common sense. This is something that can frustrate even in our current day and age.

In my opinion, however, the most interesting element is that of the demon. With twenty-first century glasses on, Robert is schizophrenic and suffering from a split personality. An invented friend that feeds him with subconscious impulses he might otherwise have suppressed and leaves him with blank periods in his memory are typical schizophrenic symptoms. Though for an author in the early nineteenth century to describe a schizophrenic case sounds unlikely. Psychiatry was not that developed at the time, but we are really close here. The other possibility is the religious one that this pious type is haunted and corrupted by the devil and simply fails to recognize it because hellish and strict orthodox dogma are so very similar. In this understanding, Robert is suitably punished for his religious intolerance and arrogance. This is far more down the line of a nineteenth century writer and, of course, supporting the satirical agenda, but I cannot help reading a mental patient case story into this and that ambivalence is super interesting. Maybe it is implied that demonic intervention is causing schizophrenia?

“Confessions..” could easily be made into a horror movie today and I would not be surprised to learn this has already happened. Wikipedia mentions a Polish movie and several screenplays, but the big Hollywood production seems to be pending.

Apparently, it was the inspiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and I can definitely see that.

Certainly, an interesting read.     

søndag den 31. december 2023

Happy New Year 2024


Happy New Year 2024

It is New Year’s Eve again. I would have loved to have been able to say that the past was a great year, but, alas, it was not. Personally, I am doing alright, life carries on as it usually does, but the world looks bleaker than it has done for quite some time. It is no secret that my six years living in Israel make me take special interest in what happens there, but although it is hard not to, I try to keep politics out of the blog. Cannot say I am always successful at that, after all, my blog is my window to say what I want, but I want this to be about movies and books and not about politics.

This year was also the craziest weather I ever experienced, and I think most of us know what that means for the future. Let me just say that I have never felt this good about working in renewables. To actually be able to make a difference on something this important is special.

I could list up a lot of terrible things going on, but today is supposed to be a celebration, a good riddance to the old year and the best of hopes for the coming year. I do sincerely hope there will be good things in store for us all. If there is one particular wish for the new year from me, it is responsibility. That people, high and low, governments and organizations, take on responsibility themselves instead of blaming everybody else. Half the problems in the world could be solved if everybody took a hard look at themselves rather than blaming somebody else for their misery.

Anyway, during 2023 I watched and reviewed 62 movies, which is more than I have done in a while. 12 of these were off-List movies, leaving 50 movies on the List. I went from 1978 to 1982 and I am now well into what I consider the golden era of cinema: the eighties. The past two months I have been through a streak of classics that would please me any day and although I am looking into a series of more mundane movies, there are lost of highlights to look forward to.

On my book blog I have done 9 titles this year, which I consider an acceptable achievement, considering my target is just five books per year. I have gone through the period 1811 to 1822, a period known for romanticism and the post Napoleonic years. Jane Austen was a wonderful acquaintance and I really liked E.T.A. Hoffmann’s book about his cat.

I wish everybody a happy new year and all the best for the time ahead. May 2024 finally be a good year.

tirsdag den 5. december 2023

The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr - E. T. A. Hoffmann (1822)


The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr

“The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr” is one of the more bizarre books on the List, at least at face value. It pretends to be the memoirs written by a cat, Murr, but in the publishing process the manuscript got mixed up with a story about Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler with whom Murr was staying for a while. Amazingly, it is actually this second story which is the wild one.

The actual author, E.T.A. Hoffmann, uses the two stories both to tell an amusing tale, but also to make a thinly veiled satirical portrait of the world he himself lived in. The context is the fragmented world of the German mini-states after the Napoleonic wars. On the one hand there was the traditional polite society where noble birth and polished mannerism still survived from before the wars and on the other hand the upheaval and sense of opportunity in society, politics and science caused by war and revolution. The juxtaposition is a source of friction but also of hilarity and Hoffmann uses the latter to get to the former.

Murr is a very literate cat, staying as he is with the learned Master Abraham. He is also very much a cat, which means that he is absolutely convinced of his own brilliance and genius. Although he grudgingly has admit that not all his affairs have been the smartest, in fact more often than not he blunders abysmally, his self confidence is unshakable and he must be admired by everybody. I am very much a cat-lover myself and this description fits practically every cat I have ever known. With the exception that none of them were able to write. That I know of…

Murr tells his life story, how he was adopted by Master Abraham, his affair with Kitty, how he joined the brotherhood of cats and finally how he attempted to join the polite society of dogs. In this respect the cats represent the progressive liberals, students and artists and the dogs are the conservative society, the nobles and the police. Murr looks with scorn at the empty life of the poodles when they obey their masters and spend a life full of nothing, yet he is also drawn to it to get that flattering attention. The same with the brotherhood of cats, representing the revolutionary student fraternities of the time. The playing with fire is gratifying but also very dangerous.

The Kreisler story centers on a music composer, Hoffmann’s alter ego, who gets involved in the affairs of the court of a principality that does not even exist anymore, swallowed up as it is by the larger neighboring duchy. Yet, Prince Irenaeus insists on maintaining the illusion and pretense of a court although he rules nothing more than the lands of his castle. It is of course a mockery of the myriad and complicated German mini-states of the period and ridicules the strict adherence to past glories. Kreisler’s friend is Master Abraham (yes, Murr’s master), who taught him music as a child. Abraham is a man of mechanical arts and sciences which makes him a bit of a wizard, something the Prince is absolutely fascinated by having at his court.

Johannes Kreisler is a modern character, like Murr, but with much less confidence. Yet his presence at court as a music teacher and composer is a bomb to the stiff and ridiculous formalities there. His refusal to avert his eyes from the Prince’ gaze convinces him that he must be of noble birth which earns him the respect of the Prince. The court adder, Madame Benzon, is less impressed. Her schemes to control the court is thrown to pieces by Kreisler’s presence, not least because a romantic affair blooms between Kreisler and her daughter, Julia.

The intrigues and escapades reach new levels with the arrival of the playboy, Prince Hector of Naples and it gets both very confusing and immensely amusing.

I appreciate the unconventionality of the format and style of this novel, it is truly refreshing and while I can see the point of the cat biography, it is the Kreisler story that captivated me. It is fragmented so we never get any resolutions, but it builds up with mysteries and intrigues and absolutely hilarious characters throughout that I just wanted more. This may also be the biggest problem with the novel. It consists of two volumes and a third was planned, but never written as Hoffmann had the audacity to die before writing it. We will never know how it ends, if Kreisler gets his Julia, if Abraham finds his Chiara and if Madame Benzon succeeds in taking over the principality entirely. The book ends as each section ends, with a cliffhanger that will never be resolved, and we are left to just enjoy the ride. Fortunately, it was a very enjoyable ride indeed.


søndag den 22. oktober 2023

Melmoth the Wanderer - Charles Robert Maturin (1820)


Melmoth the Wanderer

It is entirely fitting, though also totally coincidental, that the book I am reviewing so shortly before Halloween is a ghost story. I did not plan it that way, but the timing is pretty good.

“Melmoth the Wanderer” by Charles Maturin is a gothic novel and very much so. It is a book that takes the genre tropes and gives them that extra push to top everything that came before. Yet, it is also a rambling, chaotic novel that only barely is tied together, almost as if Maturin wanted to tell five-six stories and wondered how he could fit it all together in one book. My opinion is that he was not very successful at that. The one thing that does (almost) tie the whole thing together is Maturin’s denouncement of the Catholic church.

John Melmoth is a young man in Ireland. His uncle is dying and as the heir to his estate, John is attending his uncle in his final days. Turns out his uncle is very much afraid of a family ghost, a member of the Melmoth family who has been wandering around for centuries, always a harbinger of disaster. When the uncle dies, John reads an old manuscript in a backroom of the house concerning a fellow called Stanton who once met Melmoth and spent his life looking for him, eventually ending up in a madhouse. This is followed closely by a storm during which John saves a shipwrecked Spaniard, Moncada, who proceeds to tell his story to John.

Alonzo Moncada was an illegitimate son of an important aristocratic family who was forced into a monastery against his will. We get a lengthy story about his futile attempts to escape the monastery with a clear, underlying tone that the Catholic church in their attempt at usurping the power and wealth of the Moncada family tries to pacify and get rid of the heirs. The suffering of Moncada takes no end and even his eventual escape lands him in the custody of the Inquisition. There he is tempted with escape by Melmoth. Ultimately, the prison burns down and Moncada gets away. He finds refuge with the Jewish community who lives a hidden life underground. Here he becomes a secretary, copying a story about a girl, Immalee, who has grown up, lonely, on a deserted island off the Indian coast. Immalee is befriended by Melmoth with whom she falls in love. Eventually, she is “rescued” from the island, and turns out to be the long lost daughter of a rich Spanish merchant. The life of a such in Spain is, however, not compatible with Immalee’s free mind. When Melmoth finds her, she resumes her love for him and eventually they marry in secrecy.

Immalee’s (now Isidora) father is finally on his way home, having never met his daughter. At an inn he is told a story about the Walberg family. A German protestant family cheated and plundered by the Catholic church, who at the cusp of dying from starvation is tempted by Melmoth. He then meets a stranger who tells him a story about the English Mortimer family who fell into ruin through inheritance schemes. On the brink of their ruin, they are also tempted by Melmoth.

At some point you would think that all these stories within stories will have to come together in some conclusion, but that is hardly the case. While we do learn the fate of Immalee/Isidora, we never learn how Moncada got out of Spain and ended on a ship. We do get a final rendezvous with Melmoth, but how or why the story ends for him here is entirely unclear.

The impression I am left with, reading this book, is that Maturin himself did not really know what was the idea with Melmoth the Wanderer. Not the character, nor the book. Maturin seems to have started in one place and then just wrote to see where it took him. He may also have had a number of separate stories that he somehow wanted to string together and badly needed some skeleton to carry it. Melmoth as a character is oddly diffuse. What I seem to understand is that he was a researcher of the occult who tried an experiment that would leave him physically dead, but give him 150 years as a ghost. This seems to have come with the price tag that he would be an agent of the devil to offer people in need a resolution at an unspeakable price, presumably at the expense of their soul. Still, the details are very unclear and although he is the recurring character, he seems strangely undeveloped. Except for the story of Immalee, he also only shows up at the end of the various stories.

To my mind Melmoth is actually a minor element to this book, a necessity for tying it together. Maturin seems to have been a lot more interested in going after the Catholic church. In his stories, there is no end to the greed and viciousness of the Catholic church, and they come about as the very antithesis of what Christianity is supposed to stand for. Compared to their crimes, Melmoth looks like an amateur and by setting them up against each other just emphasized the depth to which the Catholic church will go.

This position of Maturin may be explained by him being a Protestant clergyman in an otherwise predominantly Catholic Ireland. Even today there is a festering divide there and two hundred years ago, this would have been even worse. This is very much a part in a religious feud.

Isolated, the stories work surprisingly well. Moncada’s plight in the monastery draws heavily on Lewis’ “The Monk” and Diderot’s “The Nun”, but takes the gothic elements to the next level. I would love to learn what further happened to Moncada, but Maturin ran out of steam on that story and left a lot of threads in the air. Until that point though, this is a really good story.

“Melmoth the Wanderer” leaves a mixed impression of moments of excellence, of a sharp wit, but also of a haphazard construction with little point except to shock and poke at the Catholics. It is spooky, but not so much because of the ghost, but from what people will do out of greed and in the name of their church.