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.
  

lørdag den 1. september 2018

Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe (1719)



Robinson Crusoe
Welcome to the 18th century!

With “Robinson Crusoe” I have officially opened a new century, something that does not happen too often going through this list, and in style. “Robinson Crusoe” was and still is a bestseller, one of the most popular novels of its time and remained so for at least two hundred years.

I must admit that the hype is deserved. It is every bit as interesting and engrossing as its popularity would indicate. Maybe my version had updated the language slightly, but I felt that the writing here was far smoother than what I have learned to expect from these old books. But that is actually the least of what this story has to offer.

Everybody knows the story of “Robinson Crusoe”. Or think they do. A man gets stranded on a deserted island and learns to survive. If you really know the story you also know that eventually he befriends a native and names him Friday. This basic story is so famous that it has generated a whole bunch of spin-offs or adaptions. I recently watched “Cast Away” and was struck by the similarity. Matt Damon has a tendency to get stuck on deserted planets. It even has a name, a robinsonade.  

What fewer people realize is that the story is more than just being stuck on an island. The protagonist, Robinson Crusoe, spends the first part of the book escaping a sinking ship on the way to London, then escaping Moorish captivity while trading on the slave coast and finally setting up a plantation in Brazil. Each of these stories are interesting and detailed in their own right and it is quite late in the book that Robinson Crusoe sets out to Africa from Brazil and gets marooned on his island for 28 years.

It is true that a fair part of the book follows Crusoe in his challenge to first stay alive and then getting comfortable on the island, but the book then takes an interesting turn. Having stayed on the island for many years Crusoe finds out he is not alone. His island is used by a native tribe from the main land to take war prisoners for human sacrifice and to munch on them. The European horror story about wild savages. What is a lonely Englishman to do about that? This story develops in interesting ways that I had not expected and the short of it is that eventually Robinson Crusoe is not so alone anymore but ruling over a small population of various origin.

Throughout the story Crusoe is a crafty and prodigious fellow who manages to accomplish a lot with little. He is lucky at times, but he is also a hero who makes is own luck. He rarely gets things right in first attempt and he honestly admit to taking on futile projects that he eventually has to give up because he did not think them through, but he does not give up and usually gets where he wants in the end. Very commendable, yet humble traits. His attitude towards the natives are both what you would expect from a European in the 17th century, but also, when he thinks things over, surprisingly modern. His plans to simply kill the cannibals is abandoned because he is questioning his right to judge them. Something colonial Europeans rarely considered.

It is therefore easy to like Robinson Crusoe. The only place I was seriously questioning him was when he left with the English ship together with Friday rather than waiting for the Spaniards and Friday’s father. Where they not supposed to join them on the island and together work on a way to escape? That was a bit strange.

Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” enters my top 3 of best books so far in sharp competition with “Don Quixote” and “The Conquest of New Spain”. I had a great time reading it and I feel that a big gap in my general learning has been patched by finally having actually read to book. I feel ashamed it took me this long.

lørdag den 16. juni 2018

Oroonoko - Aphra Behn (1688)



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

søndag den 20. maj 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

søndag den 15. april 2018

The Adventurous Simplicissimus - Hans von Grimmelshausen (1668)



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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