lørdag den 31. december 2016

Happy New Year 2017

Happy New Year 2017
It is the last day of the year and thus time for the annual status on my blog.

I wish all my readers a happy new year. May 2017 be a better year than 2016.

2016 was a year where it was difficult to be an optimist. I learned a new word: "nativism", which is about as contrary to everything I believe in as is possible. Of course the concept is not new, it has been around for at least two hundred years, but it has not coalesced like this since the forties. When you travel as much as I do and see as many people as I see it is really difficult to come to terms with the nativistic mindset and telling people they are wrong seem to have the opposite effect.

However this is not a political blog, so I can stick my head in the sand and focus on what I do here.

New Year is also anniversary time for my movie project. Seven years down the line it clocks in at 368 movies plus a few extra down the list and a handful of titles from the Danish edition. I am very close to finishing the fifties (expect a post on that topic in a few days) and a new decade beckons in the horizon.

In 2016 I watched and reviewed 54 movies from the List, which continue the downward trend. I had expected to cover a few more movies, but things did not turn out that way and a movie per week seems to be the realistic pace for me. Alas, as I keep saying this is not a race. Also I did watch and review a few movies off List.

The period covered in 2016 was 1955 to 1959, both years included and while I will return to the issue in my decade concluding post, I can say that this was a most interesting period in movies with high’s and low’s, of course, but interesting none the less. My excitement with this project is unabated.

2016 was also the second year of my book blog and after a rough start that project is now on track. My ambition of five books per year from the List holds as I am now 10 books down. It does not take a Ph.D. to figure out that it will take a medical miracle for me to complete the List, but I have no intention of doing that. It is all in the process.

Followers of the book blog will however have noticed that nothing has happened since October. That is not laziness on my side, but due to the nature of the next book on the List. Gargantua and Pantagruel is a brick ticking in at 1000 pages, which is okay, I do not mind big books, but it is also a 500 year old comedy that is not funny. Ugghh. Going is slow and it is likely to take me a few more month to get through that one.

Still, despite this late setback I enjoy the book project as well, if nothing else then for that fascinating window into times past.

I wish everybody a very happy New Year and hope that you all will have a great time tonight. I certainly intend to.

mandag den 10. oktober 2016

Lazarillo de Tormes - Anonymous (1554)

Lazarillo de Tormes
Still on the Iberian peninsula I am blazing through the decades and halfway through the sixteenth century I find ”Lazarillo de Tormes”, a small book with a major punch. This book is in fact so subversive that the author has remained anonymous through the centuries and it was banned by the Spanish Inquisition. Why? Because it is an irreverent tale about a greedy church, vain nobility and lusty clergy. I have no doubt in my mind that this is a fair description of all these, but if you want to keep the peasants under the thumb you have to suppress such ill-founded rumors…

 “Lazarillo de Tormes” is a short, picaresque novel about a boy going through a host of masters. Most of these are horrible masters who beat or starve him and only through his own cleverness does he manage to stay afloat.

He first master is a blind man who keeps food and wine to himself and uses harsh violence to exert his dominance over boy. To stay alive Lazarillo finds ways to steal food from him such a sucking up wine with a long straw, which in turn earns him some serious trashing. The next master is not much better, a clergyman who locks up all the food while starving the boy. Here he develops a cunning scheme to simulate a rat or snake attack on the food chest and for a while he gets away with it. Then on to a nobleman, who may look like a ton of money, but has got nothing at all. Instead they survive on the boys begging and so on.

Through it all Lazarillo goes through some horrible things, yet manage by using his head and while that is amusing in its own right it is not really the point of the story. That is instead the pictures being drawn of his masters. These are not flattering to say the least and the implied criticism reaches a climax in the story of the seller of papal indulgences, which is revealed as a complete scam taking advantage of gullible peasants. It is always fun when self-righteous fools are exposed of their hypocrisy and no doubt that is much of the reason for the fame of the book. I even think it is funny here four and a half century later.

I loved the ending of the story. Lazarillo befriends an archpriest and agrees to marry his servant girl. The servant walk in and out of the priest’s house, which makes people talk, but of course Lazarillo trusts his wife and the priest is very supportive…. Hmmmm. I know what is going on…

“Lazarillo de Tormes” founded a style, the picaresque novel, that became a staple for centuries to come. Even today you can find novels written in this episodic style and I suppose literature owes it a lot. It is a very easy read and the translation I found was very decent, albeit old. It was translated by Sir Clements Markham probably around the turn of the century, who, I found out, lived a most exciting life as a polar explorer. That story is in fact probably even more interesting than this book he translated. You tend to think of literature scholars as dusty, boring types and this fellow was anything but.

At less than a hundred pages this was a fast read. My next book arrived yesterday and I found to my horror that it is a thousand pages. Ah, well, looks like this page will be quiet for a while.

torsdag den 22. september 2016

Amadis of Gaul - Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo (1508)

Amadis of Gaul
If you thought the sort of fantasy made popular by ”The Lord of the Rings” and ”Game of Thrones” is a new invention you are hopelessly mistaken. Long before the printing press fantasy tales of knights and strange kingdoms and damsels in distress abounded. If you think about it you knew that already. The King Arthur tale is medieval high fantasy and just one of many.

My next book on the list is such a fantasy tale. Completely invented and magnificently imagined this is “Game of Thrones” anno 1500.

I have read quite a bit of fantasy in my time, it is an… ahem, guilty pleasure of mine, and the connection between the old stuff and the present day’s novels is pretty clear. “Amadis of Gaul” is a fantasyland refuge for the readers (or more likely listeners) who in the novel found ideals outlived. It is a place where the good site is championed by worthy and noble knights, where honor is important and bestowed on those who deserve it and where mundane things like money, sickness and petty squabbles are non-existent.

As such it is quite entertaining. The story moves forward with a rapid pace and like any good tv-serial there are both sequential events and a connecting story to tie it all together. I can imagine that in public readings you would want each reading to finish a particular quest, yet keep the larger story on track. The benefit to a modern reader is that it does not get boring.

We follow Amadis of Gaul, the best knight in the world, from his inception and through his exploits which are many. As a Moses child the infant boy is sent off to sea because he was born outside of wedlock, albeit the child of a princess and a king (children outside wedlock is a bad bad thing…), but luckily he is fished out of the water by another king who raises him as his own child. Unaware that he is actually the son of a king Amadis grows into a glorious knight and soon he is on the road as a knight-errant finding adventure and opportunity for glory around every corner. He ends up with King Lisuarte who happen to have a daughter, Oriana, for whom Amadis have the hots. When Amadis eventually learn of his heritage that does not hurt him one bit. In the world of knights being the son of a king (who eventually married Amadis’ mother) is a pretty cool thing.

Later on Amadis finds two brothers of his who were also considered lost and together they are busy being awesome. I have to admit that I only read book 1. Depending on the source there are several sequels, at least four more books, and so I actually do not know how the story ends. My guess is that eventually Amadis and Oriana get each other, but not before an awful amount of trouble and a lot of dead knights.

There are a number of curious things to notice in this novel. For one, where I suspected Tirant lo Blanc to have been written by a woman I am fairly convinced that Amadis of Gaul is conceived by a man. The scenes of romance are plenty, but tend to be repetitive and the women one-dimensional. They all react in the same way and if they are not pretty little ladies, they are bitching snakes full of deceit and venom. Every so often the knight would get a sexual reward from the damsels they save before they ride on. Battle scenes however are super detailed and varied and both bloody and gory. It seems to me that the writer found a particular delight in these and the knights miss no opportunity to bash some heads.

Considering these knight are made blood, flesh and noble manners it is incredible how eager they are to fight and kill. They are super easy to provoke, just call them chicken or throw an insult and they will come charging at you. Or, well, simply to measure their skill against each other, which is reasonable enough except that they frequently die or are badly maimed as a result. Incidentally these bloody activities takes a heavy toll on horses. Just in this first book I bet Amadis alone has lost the first ten horses. Well, I guess they did not care that much about horses back then.

Now all this may sound as if I did not like the book, but I did. It was very entertaining and surprisingly imaginative. But these knights in their stuffy chivalric nobility are so easy to make fun of. I bet Monty Python watched this before making “The Quest for the Holy Grail” and I know Cervantes did before writing “Don Quixote”.

So, if you are fond of modern fantasy you have to read this one. This is the real thing.


tirsdag den 9. august 2016

Celestina - Fernando de Rojas (1499)

With my next book I am remaining on the Iberian Peninsula, which I take it was the literary hotspot in Europe around 1500. This one is “Celestina” by Fernando de Rojas, published 1499 presumably a few years after it was written.

There are interesting elements to this novel. First of all the subject matter is quite different from the previous novels I have been through. Here are no mighty heroes or glorious battles. Instead this is a love story gone terribly wrong. It features a lovesick gentleman called Calisto who enlists the help of an old bawd called Celestina to win over Melibea, the daughter of an even wealthier citizen of the town where the story takes place. Celestina dabbles in magic and all sorts of unsavory stuff and somehow she does manage to turn the head of young Melibea who falls hopelessly in love with Calisto. Celestina and Calistos’ two servants Semporio and Parmeno consider the affair a golden opportunity to milk Calisto of his riches and plot together to make it work. Once successful however they turn greedy and end up killing each other. Calisto and Melibea and not better off. Calisto falls down a ladder and breaks his head and Melibea throws herself off the roof.

That is a fairly bizarre story.

Secondly the story is written strictly as a dialogue. There is not a single descriptive line in the entire book and that at first seems like a very modern trait. Clearly the story was meant to be read aloud, almost like a stage play.

I normally like dialogue based stories and find that lengthy descriptive passages are a burden to a text. But in the case of “Celestina” the dialogue often turns into lengthy declamations, stilted and elaborate and it totally takes the pace out of the story.

That is also a problem since the story is supposed to be a comedy. A brief glance at the summary above clearly reveals a potential for a hilariously dark comedy of Monty Python’ish proportions, but the lengthy monologue ruins the comedic timing and the story never becomes funny. A shame really, because it seems to be the intent of the book. Maybe 500 years ago people found this sort of declamation a riot, but that has certainly lost its lure over the centuries.

Instead the book retains a morbid charm by alternating between characters who build themselves up with ridiculous self-importance and those who cut them down with crude remarks. This theme is also found in the general plot as the characters devise device complicated deceits and conspiracies to their own end only to find that the result is completely out of their control and essentially random. It is also the story of big and deep love that seems to be based on silly infatuation and comes to a brutal conclusion through random events that has nothing to do with anything. It is not Melibea’s parents who discover and end the affair, it is not the town constables or the heavy that Elicia and Areusa, the lovers of dead Semporio and Parmeno, send to kill Calisto, that intercepts them, but a clumsy misstep on the ladder.

Retold today this could be a great story I would like to hear or read and it would be funny. As it is it is still interesting as a window into a world 500 years ago and to what people thought was funny back then. I am always baffled by how cheap lives are in these old novels and the importance people assign to things we would not think twice of today. Taken seriously, which I think would be a mistake with this book, arranged marriages are a cause of much grief, but you can also say that all the principle characters are digging their own graves through stupidity, greed and starry eyed infatuation.

The backstory behind “Celestina” is something about that de Rojas was Jew but forced to convert to avoid being burned on the stake, something that apparently happened to some of his family members, and that “Celestina” is a bitter exposé of hypocrisies in a world that has condemned his kind. I am not entirely sure how to read that in the story, but I have a feeling that a story about Fernando de Rojas himself would be at least as interesting as his book.

tirsdag den 14. juni 2016

Tirant lo Blanc - Joanot Martorell (1490)

Tirant lo Blanc
Planes are great for reading and on this trip to China I managed to knock off another book from my book list: “Tirant lo Blanc”. It is also entirely fitting that I am sitting here in Istanbul writing the review while I wait for my connecting flight as the major part of the story takes place in this city.

With Tirant lo Blanc I am finally through the ancient texts in later reprints and have arrived at texts actually written around the times they got printed… almost. In this case there is only 20-30 years between the writing and the printing, but at least we are not talking centuries anymore. That means that I can safely say that I have arrived at the… later half of the 15th century.

“Tirant lo Blanc” is very much a book of its time, for better or worse. The late medieval era was the heyday of chivalric romances and “Tirant lo Blanc”, the white knight, is almost the quintessential knight’s tale, so I take it that its inclusion on the list is as a representative of its genre. Here is the supreme knight with all the noble or at least chivalric qualities of a knight. He is brave beyond measure, fights the enemy in open battle and wins through skill and bravery and not through tricks. He is modest of ambition and gives his wins away rather than keep them for himself and he will go to stupid extremes to avoid looking selfish and greedy. Tirant is also a romantic hero who will go through fire and water for his lady and yet respect her to an extent where he hardly dares to speak with her. Pick a random Hollywood movie (such as “Shane” or “Superman”) and these are the qualities we are looking for in our hero and Tirant has them all.

But this is the 15th century and a knight of lofty station is also of a will and in a position to deal out swift judgement on those of lesser station he feels offends him or his code of honor. Killing a man or maiming him to a cripple is only an offense if he is of similar station. Many are those Tirant happens to kill and even when he realizes his mistake there is little regret. Servants, Moors (muslims) or just about anybody not a Christian knight are free game.

So, yeah, an interesting look at the medieval ideal of a man.

“Tirant lo Blanc” follows Tirant lo Blanc on his travels around the known world. He manages to visit England, Sicily, Constantinople and the Barbary Coast (North Africa) leaving a wake of corpses and broken hearts. Half the book is devoted to Tirant’s battles and the other half to all the romantic escapades in between. The battle parts soon become tiresome through repetition, super human skill and a general foul up of geography and actual events (Moorish invasion of England???, total victory over the Turkish invasion force in front of Constantiople when it actually fell, Catholics in Greece where people are and is Eastern-Orthodox etc.). The romantic scenes however are far more vivid and they are those that carry this story.

In those romantic sections we get real characters and realistic scenarios… almost. We are still dealing with human ideals anno 1470, but had this been a movie this would not be R rated, not even PG. The brave knights become tame as lambs in the presence of these women and the romantic setups with nightly visits in bedrooms and close escapes out the window are genuinely entertaining. The emphasis on these elements and indeed the quality difference between battle and romance made me wonder more than once if the writer was actually a woman and Joanot Martorell, the author credited, just a front. I can just imagine how this story would have been a success with the girls in its day.

For me the book was a mixed bag of candy. Not surprisingly a lot of the writing is antiquated and motives and morality hopelessly outdated. I know that for centuries to come this will be a recurring theme, but when a man’s success is measured in how many he has managed to convert to his religion it is missing the mark for me. Rating people in A people, B people and infidels also grinds on me. Oh me and my 21st century sensibilities… However there are also surprisingly modern elements such as the bedroom sequences and the ending, which I really did not see coming.

“Tirant lo Blanch” was made into a movie of the same name in 2006 (Spanish-English co-production). I have not watched it, but I looked it up and it looks positively naughty and fairly close to the book. I think I will have a go at it.

mandag den 11. april 2016

The Golden Ass: The Transformations of Lucius - Apuleius (ca. 170, publ. 1469)

The Golden Ass
Having done a streak of East Asian novels I am now back in the west with Apuleius’ ”The Golden Ass”.

This book is however not any closer to modernity than the previous novels, quite the contrary. “The Golden Ass” is an 1800 year old novel and the only complete Roman era novel in existence. Or maybe only novel in Latin. In any case ancient stuff, preceding all the other novels so far read in this project.

“The Golden Ass” or “Metamorphoses”, as it is also known as, is the story of a fellow called Lucius whose curiosity gets him in trouble when he insists on witnessing a witch in action. He is himself transformed to an ass and as such wander from one disaster to the next, barely staying alive. He is also encountering tales of many different kinds which are recounted at length in the book. Near the end Lucius, the ass, has a religious experience. A Goddess helps him return to human shape and in return he becomes a monk.

By far the major part of the book consists of alternating stories with the progress of Lucius’ horrific experiences. Although those are certainly adventurous enough they are mostly a vehicle for the stories. As such this is a picaresque style of writing that I know I will be encountering a lot when I get to the renaissance books and beyond.

Personally that sort of writing has always annoyed me because the episodic stories distract me from the main theme and therefore often feels like unnecessary filler. A bit like episodes on X-files not relating to the main theme. In this case though there are a lot of meat on the stories and comparatively little meat on Lucius’ own and it is quite clear that they are the real agenda of the novel.

The stories cover a lot of ground. Some are related to magic and witchcraft, some to horrible crimes, but most of them relate in one way or another to relations between men and women. While there are horrible men most of the villains are women who either out of weakness, jealousy, greed or just meanness are causing the death and/or downfall of men around them. These stories have plenty of fairly explicit sex (though not as much as I was led to believe) and gruesome violence (a lot more than I expected) and certainly enough drama to warrant their inclusion. The most famous story, that of Psyche and Cupid, is almost a novel on its now and seem more like traditional mythology of gods and heroes and their doings and it feels oddly misplaced amid stories of whoring wives and murdering witches.

Whether there is a morality or even a point to the stories I have not been able to figure out. The main function seem to simply entertain and that is okay with me. If I should draw some sort of conclusion it would be that women should be mistrusted and that greed and viciousness is everywhere.

A thing that strikes me reading a novel so far removed in time is how the concept of many things are just different. I have noted similar things reading the Asian novels, but time clearly causes similar problems. A particular element is that of religious beliefs. This story is written sometime between 150 and 180 placing it in the Roman Empire long before Christianity became the dominant religion. The religious environment is super confused. There are elements of Roman religion, lots of Greek, Oriental elements and finally Egyptian. It is like a religious free for all, pick your God and belief. The only thing that is certain is the belief in religion. The cacophony of believes never for a second makes anybody doubt that there is a mystic world with gods and rules of all sorts. Instead it seems like a grasping for the right interpretation, even flirting with the idea that all these gods are different manifestations of a supreme being, maybe a precursor to monotheistic thinking. For me it is difficult enough to cope with Christian thinking. Pre-Christian thinking is even harder to grasp. It is a window into a different world where mysticism is very real and revelations through dream, divine intervention and providence are perfectly plausible and acceptable.

Another odd concept is the cheapness of life. Especially the distinction between free men and slaves. That a person can be the possession of another person is bad enough, but that such a person is barely considered human is difficult to grasp. The same with the degree of violence described, especially when you consider the medical aid a victim of violence could expect. Gruesome.

I have to commend on the translation of the version I read. By using modern words and formulations “The Golden Ass” does not feel as archaic as it is. Yes, it is still a product of its time, but it is absolutely readable and certainly entertaining. If for nothing else you learn a lot about how life was in Roman times and that is always interesting. A good companion to “The Golden Ass” would be to visit Pompeii. Look at the painting on the walls there and think of this book. Very real indeed.

søndag den 14. februar 2016

The Water Margin: Outlaws of the Marsh - Shi Naian (1370)

The Water Margin or Outlaws of the Marsh
My reading plans were thrown into a mess when I accidentally bought a children’s edition of this book. Sure it looks sweet with nice drawings, but at 53 pages it seemed a poor substitute for a story spanning in its complete form 120 chapters. So, with some delay I found another version, abridged, but substantial enough to cover the essential story and the feel of the novel.

“Outlaws of the Marsh” is another story attributed to Luo Guanzhong, this time together with a fellow named Shi Nai’an, and that means that we again are on uncertain ground on the actual origin and that there probably are a hundred different versions of the story. That also means that I can only really speak for the version I read.

I found it an enjoyable read. A huge advantage with Chinese writing is that the written language does not age. In a western translation you simply pick the modern equivalent of the word the Chinese symbol represent and so the language never gets quite archaic. Add to that the colorful language used and the action packed sequences and you get the picture. This is low brow enough for most readers, all the way down to my level.

“Outlaws of the Marsh” is a Chinese Robin Hood tale of a gang of outlaws in 12th century China who preys on the rich and supports the poor while upholding a chivalrous moral code amid a sea of corruption and power abuse. That would explain the longevity of the tale and why it also works for us in the west.

The Liangshan Marsh gang is a sprawling gallery of characters, the leaders alone count 108 individuals. That is also the largest weakness of the story. With names like Song Jiang, Li Kui, Zhui Gui or Wu Song I quickly got lost in the characters. The first half of the book is a recounting of how each of them got to the marsh and while each of these stories are interesting it also means we only follow a character for a chapter or two before he disappears from the story for a long while as the book proceeds to the next character. By the time his name pops up again I would often have forgotten exactly who this character was. As the story loves to make long lists of names it becomes blurry to say the least. Even a reader well versed in Chinese names is bound to get confused.

Individually the characters are great. An officer turned monk to escape the law is kicked out of his temple for decidedly unholy behavior. Another hero gets drunk and decides to cross a mountain with a dangerous Tiger. Each of them are guilty in some vice, sometimes even capital crimes, but always their intent is good and so they are the kind of flawed heroes most people can relate to. With our modern sensibilities some of them definitely cross the line. Wanton violence and anger is not as excusable as it used to be and it is sometimes difficult to see how the outlaws are better than those they fight.

The second part of the book recounts some of the battles the Liangshan Marsh bandits gets involved in. Battles that are punitive against some slight or raids to get resources. Usually with the bandit being smarter than their opponents, snaring them into some trap or using guile to outwit them. Most noteworthy is a battle that kills the bandit leader Chao Gai and the subsequent war lead by the new leader Song Jiang (a man of many virtues) to revenge his death.

Not everything is great though and while some of that can be ascribed to the age and cultural differences they are still jarring. Women are rare in the book. When they appear they are consistently described as wanton whores, unreliable, fickle and weak. They act with no honor, are greedy and generally to be avoided. Another item I had a hard time coping with was the way a vanquished foe would be absorbed by the bandits and even straight away become a member of the leadership. It does not matter how loyal he is or how deeply he despises and hates the bandits, once defeated he will actively join their cause. There is probably something here I do not understand about Chinese culture, but it sounds very strange to me. At the very least such a vanquished enemy would be unreliable and to be handled carefully, not made your leader. With the magnate Lu Junyi this becomes even grotesque. The gang wants him to join so he is lured from the city into the region of the marsh. Lu Junyi is eager to fight the bandits so when they challenge him he rush headlong and singlehandedly into battle against an enemy hundreds of soldiers strong. The battle is fierce, but largely due to his stupidity the bandits gets him outmaneuvered. Defeated he now joins the ranks and the gang wants to make this complete idiot one of their leaders. Hmmm…

There are bound to be a number of issues with very old stories from far away countries so I am tolerant and let them pass and it does not change that this is a very enjoyable read and much recommended. I think I will use the children edition for my son. Maybe make the women look nicer.