fredag den 7. februar 2020

Fanny Hill - John Cleland (1749)



Fanny Hill - Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure
“Fanny Hill – Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” has been touted as one of the first pornographic novels in history, but I am inclined to think that humankind has always been obsessing about sex and so these stories has always been around. For every new media that has appeared, pornography has been there from the beginning, so why not novels?

“Fanny Hill” is a first person narrative in retrospect of a woman, Fanny, who comes into the city from some countryside backwater very young and all innocent. She is quickly picked up by a brothel who can make a lot of money on selling her virginity. This backfires when Fanny runs away with a young and handsome client with whom she starts a very sexual relationship. Some month later he is suddenly sent off to sea. Fanny becomes a held woman by an older nobleman, which lasts until he ditches her and Fanny now becomes a member of a high-class brothel until eventually she gets reunited with her original boyfriend.

This is not a terrible interesting narrative, but it also merely serves as a vehicle for describing Fanny’s many sexual encounters. You might have thought from the above that this would be a terrible social indignant story about trafficking, but rather on the contrary, Fanny embraces and enjoys all her sexual activity. To her this is exciting stuff and something she craves and so, without shame, guilt or regret she tells us of all her adventures.

It is surprisingly liberal and certainly at the entirely opposite end of the spectrum of the contemporary Samuel Richardson. Gone are all the prudence and talk of virtue and the scare of sexuality. As a twenty-first century reader I cannot help feeling that it is liberating reading this after all the constrained morality of contemporary writers. You easily get the feeling that back then people where so estranged to their sexuality it is a wonder they had children at all.

But then again, reading this you get a nagging suspicion that this book is not about presenting liberal ideas about sexuality, but simply sexual gratification. The girls are always pretty, the men are very well endowed and the sexual act always ends in mutual orgasm through penetration. We also manage to cover most varieties of sexual encounters through orgies, cosplay, bdsm, rape fantasies, female homosexuality, you name it. Only male homosexuality is frowned upon. This is all recognizable from modern pornography and likely therefore serves the same purpose.

As most such texts it quickly gets boring. Sex is just one of those things that are more interesting to do than to observe and it quickly gets repetitive. The author tried to vary the language and consistently uses metaphors for the sexual acts with great variety, but fundamentally it is the same thing happening over and over again. Fortunately, this is not a long book.

The story about the book is more interesting than the story itself. Through the centuries this has been THE dirty book that people would look for or prosecute and it has been at the center of much debate about sexuality and pornography. Incidentally it was Fanny Hill that was instrumental in legalizing pornography in Denmark in the sixties. If the ban on pornography had to be maintained then this book should be outlawed, but the historical value of “Fanny Hill” made that absurd and so the ban was lifted.

 
 

lørdag den 18. januar 2020

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling - Henry Fielding (1749)



The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling
The second book on the List from Henry Fielding is “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”, or just “Tom Jones” for short.

Readers of this blog (in case there are any) may remember that I was not terribly impressed with the first book “Joseph Andrews”, but with this second book Henry Fielding has redeemed himself. It is a much better book.

This story follows the adventures of Tom Jones. He was a baby left on the bed of a widowed and childless nobleman, Mr. Allworthy, who raised him together with his younger nephew, Mr. Blifil. Where Jones is cheerful, honest but also impetuous, Blifil is brooding, servile and heartless. While Allworthy is a good man and genuinely cares for Jones, Blifil finally manages to scheme it so that Jones gets kicked out in disgrace. This coincide with Jones and the neighbor Mr. Western’s daughter Sophie fall in love, only to be misinterpreted by Mr. Western and his sister as Sophie is in love with Blifil. Excited, they set up the marriage only to discover that it is the poor Jones with no family name and not the rich Blifil that Sophie loves. This sends her packing as well to avoid the wedding.

We then follow the many things that happen to Jones and Miss Western on their separate journeys until they finally arrive in London for a showdown. It goes without saying that the situation for both get worse and worse with Tom ending up in prison for murder and Sophie forced to accept marriage with a would-be rapist if not Mr. Blifil. How can they get out of this mess?

“Tom Jones” is a comedy and that means that everything is written with a glint in the eye for amusing effect. And thank heavens, it is actually funny. Some elements are of course dated, but many are of a timeless quality that makes this story amusing also for a modern reader. It surprised me that many of Fielding’s humorous observations of men’s and women’s nature hit home today. The characters of Mr. Western and his sister are hilarious. Mr. Western is a loud, rough and quick to action country-side squire, disrespecting anything that smells of high-culture, while his sister is equally loud and brass but embracing high-culture to the extend that she considers herself refined and world-wise. Both however seem to misunderstand or misinterpret even basic concepts of what they profess, yet have full confidence in themselves. Their arguments are many and wonderful to read. As are the ridiculous discussions of the clergyman Mr. Twackum, whose favorite tool is the whip, and Mr. Square, the logician, who insists on the natural rightness of things. Both hate each other and both strongly support Blifil against Jones. Idiots who insists on being right are almost always funny.

Fielding has many observations of the workings of world around him, mid-eighteen century, politically, socially and on human interactions. He is cynical and sarcastic, but delivers his jabs in so good a style that it would be difficult to be upset with him. He is also not blind to the negatives of his society, the prejudices against the poor, gypsies or prostitutes or the unfairness inherent in social hierarchy or between genders. Yet, he stops short of being revolutionary. He never goes so far as to criticize the system, only the people representing the system. The faults are human flaws, not inherent flaws in the system. Women are still subject to the men in their lives, the poor are subject to the rich and name and title do matter. Jones can only succeed when he is no longer a foundling but of proper family. Sophie may flee her father, but ultimately she has to bend to his will.

This is a weird balance as if with one hand Fielding is progressive, yet with the other he is conservative. I suppose this has to be seen in the light of his time and what was possible to write in 1749. As it is, I have a feeling he was pushing the envelope.

The story has a good flow and it is an easy book to read. Despite Fielding breaking in with personal comments to the reader from time to time there is a good pace and we never loose track of where we are in the story. Only near the end it seems that the pace becomes too fast as if Fielding ran out of time and wanted finish off in a hurry. There are several potentially great moments that Fielding rush past instead of exploiting them. Several meetings are simply referred to having taken place rather than being described, such as when Jones learns of his origin.  

It is a small compliant though and does not change the general impression that this is one of the best books so far. Unfortunately, I have not yet seen the 1963 movie based on the book but I should look it up. The book however is absolutely recommended.

   

tirsdag den 31. december 2019

Happy New Year 2020



Happy New Year 2020!
Wow, how did that happen? Is it really already New Year again?

The calendar says so, it must be true then, but, man, did that year slip by fast?

Being that time of the year, I would like to wish everybody a very happy New Year and indeed a new decade. I am grateful to all of you who, occasionally, have read my blogs and especially to those who have written comments to my posts. It is always great encouragement with that sort of attention.

I suppose I should be doing a list of sorts of the best movies of the decade we are finishing now, but I am hopelessly out of the loop on current movies. The decades I can comment meaningfully on are up until the sixties, so I will skip that and let smarter people do that.

In 2019 I did 63 movies, of which 52 movies were from the List, 9 movies were Off-List and a single movie was so bad I just had to write a post on it. This took me from 1966 to 1969 with just 4 movies left for that year. It is also a step up from last year and I guess this is the amount I can expect in a typical year. Eventually I will get there. I am very happy to have introduced the 3 off-List movies per year though. As I move on there are more and more movies I would wish to include and already for 1970 I feel I will be limiting myself. Then again, I set the rules myself.

My book blog is getting a lot less attention than my movie blog, probably due to me not being much involved in book list communities, but 2019 was actually a good year on reading. I did 6 books for the List which took me from Gulliver’s Travels (1726) to Clarissa (1748). Not a great span of years, but now the years are more densely populated with books. Clarissa was apparently one of the longest novels in English literature, so I guess it is downhill from now on. The books I read continue to be good and interesting and that is important when you work on a list you know you will never finish.

So, Happy New Year to all of you and may the next decade be a great one.

  

tirsdag den 29. oktober 2019

Clarissa - Samuel Richardson (1748)



Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady
Half a year it took me to get through this one, but then I can also say I have read one of the longest novels in English literature. And, yeah, it is a tough one to get through, but also worthwhile. It moves at glacial speed, but because of that we get details, facets, aspects that enrich the tale to an extent few other novels achieve.

The basic story is not very complex. Clarissa is a young lady of 18 years of a wealthy, landed family. She is the virtuous youngest child of three with a covetous and choleric brother and an envious sister. When Clarissa gets courted by the hated Robert Lovelace, the brother and sister sets the entire family up against her to make her marry a terrible, but rich fellow named Solmes, partly to avoid Lovelace and partly to get back at their beloved-by-all sister.

Clarissa counts dutifulness to her parents among her many important virtues, but marrying Solmes is too much. Instead she wants to remain single. The family does not buy this but insists this is just so she can marry Lovelace. He, in turn, is a certified libertine and is encouraging this resentment hoping it will move Clarissa to run away with him. He almost succeeds, but when Clarissa changes her mind, he tricks her and take her with him to London.

Lovelace does not intend to marry her, he just wants to get into her pants, seeing her virtuousness merely as a challenge worthy of him. He employs all his talents for schemes and plots, gets her installed in a house that is actually a brothel, invent characters, one of which is supposed to promote a reconciliation with her family, and finally he resorts to sedation and rape.

This attack on her virtue is so hard a blow that Clarissa resolves to die as the only means to recover her virtue and while suicide is out of the question, she “dies of shame”.

It is obvious that Clarissa is the good girl besieged by the villain Lovelace and her implacable family and that only her virtue saves her. It is in the tone that we are supposed to admire her and despise Lovelace. But it is not as simple as that. For all her qualities Clarissa is singularly incapable of helping herself. So stuck is she in her ideas of correct behavior that she cannot save herself from her family or from Lovelace. Yes, she makes an escape, but it is almost pathetically poorly executed and all options of taking her fate into her own hands are consequently refused with a “leave me alone” petulant attitude. Her friend, Miss Howe, whom she styles her letters to, is an altogether more resourceful type, and although both Clarissa and the author constantly chide her for her independency, there is also a hidden admiration as if secretly the author actually prefers her qualities, contrary to the generally accepted sentiment of the age.

In the same way, while we are supposed to despise Lovelace, it is difficult not to see him as a lot more interesting man than anybody else in the story. Sure, he carries his manipulations too far and has a very high opinion of himself, but his far more practical and joyful approach to life is adventurous and he main error is that he has thrown his love on the one woman who is completely unresponsive to his charms.

So, beneath the story of good versus evil, there is an undercurrent of criticism against over-zealous virtue and the passive state women are supposed to be kept in.

The story would have been entirely different if Clarissa had taken the consequence of the impossible options of obliging the family (by marrying Solmes) or obliging Lovelace, by choosing an active third option, such as leaving England, rather than the passive one of “the single life”. She could have taken Miss Howe up on the offer to go away with her or at least accept her financial support for a solution away from her family and Lovelace, but meekness is a virtue, and constantly those virtues force her to take the wrong decisions, camouflaged as the right decision, ultimately leading to her “blessed” death.

How about matching up Howe and Lovelace? Then Clarissa could have the dull and prudent Mr. Hickman. But then of course there would be no story.

“Clarissa” is definitely a story of its age. The gender politics are antiquated and the emphasis on virtue is tiresome. Yet it remains an interesting read, not least because of its epistolary format. The 537 letters give a unique view into the minds of people of the mid-eighteen century and the characters manage to become very much alive. I am happy I got to read it.

  

torsdag den 25. april 2019

Pamela - Samuel Richardson (1740)



Pamela or Virtue Rewarded
Remember how a few month ago I read Henry Fielding’s response to Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela”? Well, now I actually got to read “Pamela” and I must say I liked it a lot better than “Joseph Andrews”. In fact, this may be the best book this year so far.

What works so well here is that for all its length the story here is driven forward so I am actually interested in finding out what happens on the next pages, it is a classic page-turner, and that despite that the story in itself should not be something that would appeal to me. Or at least it works very well until the half way point.

“Pamela” is an epistolary (based on letters) novel featuring a young (16 years old) servant girl, Pamela Andrews, who is being chased by her lord and master, the wealthy squire, Mr. B. Mr. B wants some hanky panky but Pamela protects her virtue (virginity) fiercely and so Mr. B, who is not used to be refused, starts to obsess about getting her. He abducts her to his second estate where she is placed in house arrest in the hope of breaking her. His attacks on her becomes worse and worse until she is close to taking her own life. At some point he realizes he is not getting any further on that path and so changes his approach. He becomes nice and friendly to her and when he proposes to her she is finally won over and they live happily ever after.

The first part while she is chased and her imprisonment, was captivating. I very much enjoyed that part. The sense of being under siege comes through very well and we get as nervous as she is. She can trust no-one and everything she does is being turned against her. As her fortune changes however the pace and momentum go down and I believe it took about a hundred pages to get that wedding set up. From that point, barring twenty pages of intense (and interesting) conflict with Mr. B’s sister, the Lady Davers, the story gets excruciatingly slow and drawn out. Really, had the book ended 60% in at page 300 I would have given it top ratings.

For a modern reader Pamela may seem overly protective of her virtue. Her fierce resistance to starting a relationship with her master may be difficult to understand, but in the eighteen century this made a lot of sense. Having a child outside of marriage would doom a girl, literally, and even the suspicion of have had an affair would blot her reputation almost as much as if she had had a child, never mind the religious repercussions people believed this could have. Pamela constantly fears being ruined and she has a very good point.

In this era it is also the most natural thing that wealthy nobility can get away with almost anything against their serfs, who has no protection what so ever. I would not even be surprised if they could get away with murder and dallying with the serfs would from their point of view be of no consequence.

As a modern reader Mr. B comes through to me as a selfish, mean and unreliable person. In this capacity he is a good villain in the first half of the book. When he seems to reform, he is completely forgiven by Pamela and indeed by everybody who hears the story, which is passed on with some glee by Mr. B himself. This is not so easy to chew. Of course, the moral here is than reform is good and forgiveness is a holy duty, but here we are asked to accept Sauron as a reformed gentleman!

In some ways “Pamela” is ground breaking. A servant elevated to the highest circles in society and a high-born gentleman marrying a servant was unheard of at the time. This sort of socially mobility belongs to the twentieth century and not the eighteen. For Pamela to resist her Lord would in her time practically make her a criminal. Also, the author very explicitly asking nobility to behave themselves and not take their power for granted is a seditious move.

Yet, it is also scarily old-fashioned in many of the views. There is still an unquestioned accept of the master – servant relationship and the class structure in general. Religion is also a very strong element, which is probably not surprising, but it does start to annoy when for the millionth time we are told it is God’s work that Pamela has been married to Mr. B, when very clearly this would never have happened but for the actions of Pamela herself and Mr. B. Pamela’s humility also gets a tad too much and is a large part of the reason the last third of the book is unnecessary.

Still, it was a pleasant read and a nice surprise. Which may be what I need to get started on the next book “Clarissa”, also by Samuel Richardson. At 1500 pages it may be some time before I get to write the next review.

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.