onsdag den 2. august 2017

The History of Thomas of Reading, Or the Six Worthy Yeomen of the West - Thomas Deloney (1600)


 
Thomas of reading or The Six Worthy Yeomen of the West
After the grueling read that was ”The Unfortunate Traveller” I was not looking forward to ”Thomas of Reading or The Six Worthy Yeomen of the West”. I suspected it would just as challenging, but I was relieved to find that it was a much easier and far more pleasant read. Whether or not this stems from the fact that my edition was a copy of a print from 1827 I do not know. It could be that the language was modernized for this edition, but I suspect it was not. It felt archaic, but not illegible and the style of writing was far more accessible than “The Traveller”.

“Thomas of Reading” is not a normal novel. There is very little in terms of progressive story. Rather it is a series of intermezzos involving a limited group of people centered on a group of clothiers in provincial England. One is trying to have an affair with a hostess at an inn, another is murdered by another host and hostess. One is having trouble with thieves stealing his wares and find that executioners are difficult to find and some get good friends with the king who recognizes the clothiers as the backbone of the country.

The closest the book gets to an actual plot is the story of the high-born Margaret, who when her father the Earl falls from grace finds herself alone and destitute and becomes a maid with one of the clothiers. While nobody realizes she is a noble lady she does get a lot of admirers and finally runs away with one of them, a duke who happens to be the kings rebellious brother. When the king finds out his brother has run away he gets royally pissed and it end badly for Margaret and the duke.

I get the clear impression that the book is based on some folk tales going back to medieval times. Certainly there are references to a time well before that of the writing and hints that the events of the story have fostered local legends, place names and traditions still known to the reader in 1600. It is very possible that the author, a Thomas Deloney, has elaborated on these stories and thereby created this tapestry of events.

This is a very entertaining read. The author is not blind to the comical aspects of the situations and much of it still works these four centuries later. It is also a far more tender story than what I have been reading lately, It does not dwell as much on mutilation and gore, even when it gets juicy, and prefers to tone it down, which suits me just fine. That is perfectly in line with the positive note the book is playing. We get praise rather than condemnation, success rather than failure and hard times are mostly used as a moral lesson. This could all make the story somewhat tame, but the colorful writing gives it plenty of juice.

I was laughing aloud from the tale of the clothier’s wives who went to London and discovered a world of feminine luxuries to the chagrin of their husbands. Ah, nothing has really changed… Another hilarious story was that of the clothier who wooed an innkeeper’s wife and went to very elaborate trouble to tumble her only to get caught red-handed by the innkeeper.

“Thomas of Reading” will never be considered the greatest book ever written, but it is a very enjoyable one and easy enough to access to make it recommended. I could think of worse books to bring along with me on a plane.

It will likely be a while before my next post. “Don Quixote” is hefty brick of a thousand pages…

 

tirsdag den 4. juli 2017

The Unfortunate Traveller - Thomas Nashe (1594)



The Unfortunate Traveller
I received my copy of ”The Unfortunate Traveller” by Thomas Nashe while in the midst of the literary purgatory which is “Gargantua and Pantagruel” and was therefore well pleased to see that “The Unfortunate Traveller” was very thin and probably an easy read. That was deceiving. It is printed in a very small font and retains the original old English text complete with odd spellings and obscure meanings. This was a very tough read indeed!

I will not claim that I understood everything, quite the contrary. I was often left bewildered by sentences that seemed to give key information I entirely missed. So I am not entirely sure what is going on here, but the gist of it is thus:

The narrator, one Jack Wilton, has ended up in Europe as part of some war involving the English king. Jack is a prankster who pulls some stunts that backfires badly. I am sure these shenanigans would be hugely entertaining if I had understood what he actually did. Something about telling the cider seller that the king was suspecting him of treason and convincing a minor officer that he would win lots of glory if he undertook a particular suicide mission. In any case Jack leave the army in disgrace and takes on a tour of the continent. In Germany he gets involved in a religious raucous that end poorly and in Venice he get arrested for another person’s crime. He escapes with a girl to Rome where he gets into even more trouble. This involves his landlady being raped and killed with Jack accused of the misdeed. Saved in the nick of time he proceeds to be caught by a Jew (yes, this is highly anti-Semitic!) who sells him to a doctor to be cut up in anatomy class and finally he becomes a sex slave of a local noble woman (oh horror).

This is a book that starts out as a comedy, at least that seems to be the intention, but ends as a gruesome cautionary tale with terrible torture and villainy. Several people are killed in the most terrible manner, described in bloody detail and usually with a lengthy speech from the killer or the victim. I cannot say that was amusing to read.

Thomas Nashe has very little respect for anybody. Nobility, clergy, burhgers, and Jews, everybody get a rap and are described as depraved and vicious. That would probably have amused a lot of people in the late 16th century and would certainly have been daring, but this was also a time where the English Crown was at odds with the rest of Europe and a text that would make the English look good and continent depraved and amoral would have been welcome. That indeed seems to be the purpose of the text.

Even us Danes gets a blast:

“With the Danes and the Dutchmen I will not encounter, for they are simple honest men, that with Danaus daughters do nothing but fill bottomles tubs, & wil be drunk & snort in the midst of dinner”

To which my wife said nothing has really changed…

Had “The Unfortunate Traveller” been rewritten with modern spelling and wording I would have enjoyed it a lot better or at least understood it. Whether I would actually have liked it is doubtful though. It dwells far too much on human misery and violence be an enjoyable read.       

fredag den 26. maj 2017

Monkey: A Journey to the West - Wu Cheng'en (1592)



Monkey: A Journey to the West
“Monkey: A Journey to the west” is one of those stories that is a lot older than the actual publishing. When Wu Cheng’en wrote and published the story in the 16th century it was already an old folk legend that had probably mutated a lot over the years and there are likely many parallel stories over the theme. I have already encountered a few such stories (old Chinese legends), so this is not so much a story of the 16th century as a 16th century window into a traditional story.

Anyway, the story of the Monkey king is famous, also in the west. I remember watching cartoons on television in my childhood about the adventures of the Monkey king and although these shows are very faint in my memory I do recognize the tales in the book. The Monkey king Sun Wukong is a naughty and disrespectful fellow with immense powers. He jumps around on clouds and get into all sorts of trouble and that is great television for children.

As a book it is a little different. It is both a product of a different time and a different culture and it shows. From a modern, western perspective it is a story full of holes, strange jumps and awkward resolutions. You can have a carefully built up scene that gets resolved in two lines or hazards appearing out of nowhere. Responses of characters and those they meet are often weird, even bizarre and there is a repetitive pattern to the story that makes me grateful that what I read was a much reduced version compared to the original 100 chapter story.

Back in the seventh century the Buddhist monk and scholar Xuanzang went on a mission from Tang dynasty China to India to find and bring back holy Buddhist scriptures. This is a real historic event. In the folk legend however Xuanzang was accompanied by a number of disciples whose function was to keep the monk out of trouble. The Monkey was the foremost one of these (The others were Zhu the Pig and Sha the Monk) and in the legend he is far more central than the monk. In fact, he is a far more developed character than the rather one-dimensional Xuanzang,

The book can be divided into three segments.

The first and in my opinion the best one is the origin of the Monkey King. How he was created and lived in a valley lording it over his fellow monkeys and how he travelled the world to study to become immortal. Having achieved that status the next logical step was to challenge the celestial world. No matter what the heavenly powers did they could best him and all their attempts at sidetracking Monkey resulted in even worse trouble. When he ends up sabotaging the Jade Queen’s peach party they have had enough and trap Monkey under a mountain for 500 years. It is from this prison he is released in return for serving as a protector for Xuanzang.

And does he need a protector. For a master and important person he is incredibly helpless. Constantly he walks into trouble, and mostly deadly ones, typically involving a demon wanting to eat him. And every time Monkey will have to save him. About half the time Monkey manages on his own, no thanks to the other disciples, but just as often Monkey has to return to the celestial palace for some assistance. You would think the master is grateful, but, nah, his principles are more important and often Monkey is dismissed for some offense or another. The first few challenges are interesting enough but the pattern is always the same and I am actually grateful that some of the challenges can be resolved in less than ten lines. It gets really boring.

Finally, however, Xuanzang and company arrive in India, visit Buddha and get some scriptures to bring home. Everybody are happy, especially the monk who is flown back in eight days whereas the voyage out took 14 years. There is a lot of religious hokus pokus about how important this mission was and the end.

For a modern reader this is a story that needs some reworking and it probably has had that over the years. In its current form it is interesting, but rarely engaging. Fortunately, my copy had a lot of beautiful Chinese prints and that went a long way to stay my interest. Probably not a book I would read again, but not a book I regret reading.

onsdag den 26. april 2017

The Lusiad - Luis Vaz de Camões (1572)



The Lusiad
According to the Book, The Lusiad can be challenging to get through. After the struggle of “Gargantua and Pantagruel” the reading of “The Lusiad” was the smoothest thing ever. Take that Rabelais!

“The Lusiad” is something a kin to a national epos of Portugal, centered around Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India. It is a celebration of that event, but also a lot more. It is a celebration of the heritage Portugal builds on, leading up to the sea journey, especially the Reconquista (kicking out the Moors from the Iberian peninsula) and the rivalry with Castille, but also the heritage following the journey as Vasco da Gama kicked off Portugal’s golden age.

The form of this epos is Homerian. That basically means that Camões, the author, makes as many connections as he possibly can to antiquity, starting with the format. “The Lusiad” is a poem composed of eight-line stanzas and divided into ten cantos. That elicited an involuntary groan when I realized that, but it turned out to be no problem at all. Probably thanks to the translator the text is very fluid and has hardly been abused to fit it into the format. In fact, it is easy to forget that this is a poem.

Secondly Camões presents da Gama as a heroic character in parallel to Ulysses. In Camões optic, the exploits of da Gama are no less than those of Ulysses, even down to mystical elements and divine interventions.  Da Gama would and should blush had he read it, but, alas, it was published long after his death.

Thirdly Camões invents elements to the story that involves antique Greek and Roman goods. Bacchus, Venus, Jupiter and Mars are featured about as much as da Gama and elevates the expedition into the sphere of old goods and heroes. The objective is obvious, to make that Homerian connection, but these are also the weakest and frankly annoying parts of the story.

What works however are everything that concerns the expedition itself. It is apparent that Camões was very familiar with the actual journey and had extensive experience from sea voyages himself as well as spent time in many of the same places. India is not mysterious, far off place, but somewhere he had seen himself and the vagaries on long boat trips he had felt on his own body. That lends an authenticity to his description that are both factual and realistic and completely at odds with all the antique stuff.

Of course there is a lot of white wash. Camões gives tricky situations a spin that places da Gama and the Portuguese in general in the right light. In such cases the excellent notes helps to clarify the reality behind. Portuguese who use the story to feel proud of their national achievements do not need to be told that the goods da Gama brought were completely uninteresting to the Indians. The story also use an inordinately long time on a story da Gama tells the Sultan of Malindi about the background of the Portuguese. If you think about it I doubt a Muslim Sultan would enjoy hearing about Portuguese killing droves of Muslim Moors and bring the word of God to distant shores. The function of that story is to educate us, the listener, on the heroic origin of Portugal.

Still, I enjoyed the book very much. It is not overly long, but full of fascinating details and written to be told an audience caught in rapt attention. It cannot overstay its welcome and it does not. If I was Portuguese I would be pretty damn proud of this epos, but maybe also a bit discomfited by the atrocities and intolerance being committed and expressed toward people of different faith.

Curiously I am actually in India right now writing this (in New Delhi for a trade fair) and it makes the story so much more relevant and alive. I may be five hundred years late, but I am following in the footsteps of Vasco da Gama.

søndag den 2. april 2017

Gargantua and Pantagruel - Francois Rabelais (1532-1564)



Gargantua and Pantagruel
Half a year. This is how long it took to get through “Gargantua and Pantagruel” by Francois Rabelais.

Part of the explanation for the exceedingly long reading time is that this is a massive book, just over 1000 pages. In fact, it consists of five books, but the List seems to consider all five part of the same work and who am I to question that.

The other and equally valid part of the explanation is that “Gargantua and Pantagruel” is a 500 year old comedy that is not funny. It is episodic, inconsistent and with little consideration for something as mundane as a plot. Combined with its status as a comedy means that the episodes it does tell have to be very interesting to keep my attention now that it is not funny and that is also, well, rather inconsistent.

Rabelais tells something (to call it a story is a stretch) about two giants (of variable size), Pantagruel and his father Gargantua. Book two was about the education of Gargantua and a mighty battle he was involved in. In Book three Pantagruel’s sidekick Panurge considers whether or not he should be married. He is convinced he will do just fine while his friends are convince the wife will cheat on him. In book four and five Pantagruel, Panurge and their extensive following go on a sea journey to find an oracle to answer the question in book three. Book one, well, I actually forgot what took place there.

This may sound quite exciting: battles, journeys, vital questions etc. but it is not. The progression of the story as it is is just not really happening. Instead the setting allows for a multitude of tableaux, discussions and descriptions. These have two functions of which one is to entertain.

It is very possible that in its day “Gargantua and Pantagruel” was hilariously funny, but comedy is notoriously entrenched in its own culture and translates poorly to other cultures, which, 500 years later, means us. The jokes are centered on farting and pooh jokes, with intercourse related wit mixed in. That ought to fit right into modern youth culture, but even that it fails. It is just crude and primitive. Other jokes make fun of sentiments and people relevant 500 years ago and yet other laughs (or attempts to) are of a scholarly colloquial kind, the sort that would mean nothing to you if you were not in the same line of business, meaning a monk dabbling in medicine, law and ancient Greek and Roman literature.

The second function is as a critique and ridicule of Rabelais’ opponents. Apparently, Rabelais belonged to the protestant side in the great religious schism dividing Europe in the sixteenth century and Rabelais got some royal protection to heap dung on the Catholic side in his books. Some, probably even most, of his criticism in intelligent, as far as I understand it, and it is this part that is interesting enough for me to actually finish this book.

It can be (certainly is to me) difficult to understand how practicing religion in two different ways can mean so much to people and throw Europe into a century of war, a conflict that still echoes today. This year it is the 500 year anniversary of Martin Luther, but the festivities seem muted, at least in Denmark. It is just not that relevant anymore. But clearly for Rabelais who was right there on the fault-line this was deadly serious and the viciousness of his attacks are hardly softened by the apparent comedy. This is certainly a window into an almost forgotten conflict that shaped Europe.

My advice to a reader considering to go into “Gargantua and Pantagruel” would be that this window to the past must be the primary motivation. Any other motivation is doomed to fall short. Read the first book and consider if this was rewarding enough. If it was not there is no point in continuing, it hardly gets better.  To read it just to be a completionist starts to feel stupid and ridiculous before the halfway point.