søndag den 16. januar 2022

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano - Olaudah Equiano (1794)

 


The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

Some of the most interesting books on the List are the autobiographies. I previously read the amazing story of Bernal Diaz del Castillo and several the books have been pretended autobiographies (fiction in first person narration) and that of Olaudah Equiano (with the most absurd long title of “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African”) follows in those footsteps. His life was an odyssey worthy of a tale.

Equiano was a native West African, who at a tender age was kidnapped from his village and sold to slavers. Arriving in the West Indies he is “lucky” to be sold to a “good” captain of a ship who uses him as part of his crew. In that function Equiano takes part in the Seven-year war against France as a young boy. This is not without physical danger as Equiano is close to getting shot and bombarded to pieces. During his travels Equiano visits England and gets familiar with family and friends of the captain and he starts learning to read and do math. At the end of the war, when he expects to be set free and get a share of the prize money, his captain pulls a trick on him and sells him as a slave to a ship going back to the West Indies. Turns out the captain got a new wife, and she wants him to get rid of Equiano because he had become a favorite with his former wife.

Again, however, Equiano is “lucky” and gets sold to a merchant who is decent to his slaves and uses him and his slaves to work in his shipping business. In that way Equiano gets to sail all over the Caribbean and see and experience firsthand how slaves and black people in general are treated. Ultimately, Equiano is able to buy his freedom, but even as a free man there are no justice for black people and he narrowly escapes many dangers, both from white supremacists and from the natural dangers of a seafaring life.

The general message and ultimately the purpose of the book is to be an eyewitness to the injustice and inhumanity of the slave business and how wrong it is that there is no justice whatsoever when it comes to colored people. Equiano formulates himself in a way a British gentleman or lady would be familiar with in the eighteenth century and acts according to what is considered common sense and gentile behavior, effectively removing the “them and us” barrier. Equiano is on the inside, telling the reader he is no different from her or him, so why does he need to be treated any different? That he turns (intensely!) pious towards the end even serves to remove religious arguments (heathens are lesser humans).

As such it is incredibly effective, even for a modern reader. You cannot read this and not feel indignation and shame of belonging to a nation that dabbled in slavery (yup, some of the rich eighteenth century mansions in Copenhagen were built on slavery wealth). It is easy for us today to condemn slavery as an inherent evil, but it took more back then. It is convenient to shut the eyes on the darker consequences of what brings you wealth, that has not changed in 230 years. The book was therefore also a highly political text in support of the abolitionist cause and given political agenda’s ability to color things favorably it is possible that not everything in this text holds water. Some criticism has been raised that Equaino was in fact from South Carolina and not West African, but it actually matters little. Even if some of the events are imagined, they are painted so vividly and true to a reality in the West Indies that the message rings true.  

Even without the political angle, this is one spectacular odyssey and the sheer adventure of it was enough to keep me riveted throughout.

Only miss for me is the religious emphasis in the last three chapters. They are mostly filler and I could have done without them.

Nevertheless, strongly recommended, both as an interesting adventure and for anybody interested in slavery and race issues. There were times reading this I wondered if we really have come that far in 200 years.


fredag den 31. december 2021

Happy New Year 2022

 


Happy New Year 2022

Again, we are here, on the last day of the year and again we are saying goodbye to a year that will not be missed. Just as we thought the pandemic was over, heck we even discarded use of masks altogether, it is coming back big time and Denmark is now officially the most infected country in Europe (with a large margin!) and possibly the world. Well, that is just this year in a nutshell.

We started doing online training at the office and that has become so popular that I have done little else since summer. Nobody is going anywhere anymore. For a guy like me who used to travel 7-10 times per year, this is a big change and very sad too.

Having said that, I am grateful that I have lost no one in the family and those who got the virus, got through it easy enough or at least survived. I do hope we are soon through this.

As usual on this day I take stock on what happened on my blogs in the past year and, well, that is mostly business as usual.

I did a total of 59 movie reviews in 2021, which is the same as I did last year. Clearly this is my level of pacing. Of these 49 were List movies and 10 were off-List. This took me from 1972 to 1975. The most interesting event for me being the discovery of the Cinemateket in Copenhagen, which appears to have anything ever released in Denmark. Not the last time I will use that. In case anyone of the staff read this, thank you for kind assistance.  Otherwise, I will not point out anything special from this period except that I am listening to an awful lot of groovy seventies music these days.

On my book blog I have reviewed 11 books in 2021 which is great considering my target is a mere 5 books per year. This has taken me from The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) to Caleb Williams (1794), which is a neat span of years. The most remarkable thing is how international the List has become with two German books, five French, one Chinese and three British books. I like that the List editors has made this a list of world literature and not just English language books.

I wish all my readers a happy and healthy new year and may the new year bring better times to all.

And remember, as legendary Danish movie critic Ole Michelsen used to say on sign-out: “ Movies should be watched in the cinema”. Cannot wait for them to open again…


torsdag den 30. december 2021

Caleb Williams - William Godwin (1794)

 


Caleb Williams

With “Caleb Williams”, or Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams” I am back to British novels. The author is probably more know as the husband of early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), but “Caleb Williams” is sufficiently interesting to stand on its own.

The story is a first-person narrative of a young man, Caleb Williams, who is hired as secretary for Mr. Falkland, a country squire. The first volume tells the background story of Mr. Falkland, how he is a man on noble mind and intention, but fell into a depression after an affair with neighboring squire Mr. Tyrrel. This Tyrrel was a brutal fellow who was deeply envious of Falkland and tormented those who opposed him, such as his niece and a tenant, called Hawkins. After a fight with Falkland, Tyrrel is found dead, and Hawkins is blamed.

In the second volume, Williams cannot control his curiosity but is digging into this mysterious death. Despite several warnings to mind his own business, he finally learns, and Falkland admits, that it was he who murdered Tyrrel and let Hawkins take the rap. As a price for learning the truth, Williams must stay with Williams forever under close guard. Something Williams quickly gets fed up with.

When Caleb Williams insists on leaving, Falkland fabricates charges against him to send him to prison and possibly the gallows. Willams escapes and throughout the third volume we have a cat and mouse game with Williams constantly being pursued by Williams.

The immediate story serves as a thriller. It is tension on high level to follow first Williams playing with fire and then trying to evade his pursuers. Especially the last third reminded me a lot of the movie “The Fugitive”. Those that are pursuing Williams care nothing for his innocence, there is a price on his head and that is all that matters. He is setup by somebody to cover their crime, and as in “The Fugitive”, Willams only finds release when he stops fleeing and faces the real culprit.

Underneath, this is an undisguised criticism of the British legal system at the time and here it is important to keep in mind that the book follows on the heels of the French revolution, with new ideas about the order of society. Godwin’s criticisms are many, but notably the inequality before the law of those of rank compared to the servant class. Mr. Falkland can only be judged by his peers, and he is considered innocent on reputation alone. For a servant to even charge a nobleman with a crime is a felony in its own right, never mind his guilt. In this system, those without rank have no protection from the law. Secondly, Godwin is objecting to the conditions prisoners are subjected to. Life in prison is unspeakably horrible and prisoners are subjected to it without being convicted, but simply for being a suspect.

This is a commendable mission, and one that feels very much in order. I do not get the impression Godwin is exaggerating his examples, he had plenty of friends who felt the vengeance of the legal system. It is difficult not to feel indignation, but it is all plausible, although Caleb Williams is a tad more resourceful than most.

What I did not get was the ending. I read it explained that Godwin had a theory that the system could be reformed, not through revolution, but through understanding and honesty, by people simply talking to each other. Sounds commendable, but also, well, a bit naïve. Godwin is setting up that Willams should face Falkland, but rather than turn the table, they can simply talk it over and then get along. This despite Falkland being represented as a domineering and adamant opponent to Williams, almost a madman in his pursuit of Williams. I don’t know if I buy that.

Until that point though, this was a book I enjoyed reading more than I expected. It is lengthy at times, but especially the last third has a lot of drive, enough to keep me on the edge.

A moderate recommendation from me.  


lørdag den 20. november 2021

The Dream of the Red Chamber - Cao Xueqin (1791)

 


The Dream of the Red Chamber

It has been a while since my last book review. My excuse is that this, the next book on the List, was a big and difficult one to get through.

“The Dream of the Red Chamber” by Cao Xueqin is a massive work. When I first started googling it, I kept getting hits on an entire bookcase of volumes. The one I settled for, a single tome of 966 pages, turned out to be a translation of just the first 56 chapters of a total of 120 chapters. Translated by H. Bencaft Joly in the nineteenth century in a very literal style. I know that, reading this, I have by no means read the entire story, but I think I got a pretty good idea what this is.

Essentially “The Dream of the Red Chamber” is a slice of life in the mansion of a high-level noble clan, the Jia, in China in the eighteenth century. In the gardens, pavilions and apartments on the compound the men are mostly absent, and the women are largely running the affairs on their own. The only exception is Baoyu, an adolescent male and grandson of the current head mistress of the clan, the Dowager Lady Jia. Most of the other characters we follow are the women, sisters, cousins, aunts and maids. There is known to be upwards of 400 named characters in this epic novel and we are introduced to a lot of them in this first part.

The scenes are pictures of daily life in the mansion. Celebrations of new year, visits to the temple, guests arriving from far away, the poetry club, sickness, feasting, domestic chores, small disasters and other events as they would happen in such mansion. It all carries the impression of being scenes from real life, not a glamoured up drama, but life as it happens for this sort of people. A window into a world totally alien to a westerner like me, and yet so familiar in its domestic universalities.

Technically the story moves around between the characters, following first one, then another and a third with a handover where they meet, so it is an unbroken stream passing through many characters. Sometimes one of the cousins, or aunts or maids, only the lowest ranking in the hierarchy are treated as general background. The insights into the going on’s is impressive. Each of the named characters are fleshed out, whether it is Daiyu, Baochai, Xiren, Li Wan, Lady Feng or any of the others, which is quite incredible. I got the nagging feeling that the author actually knew these people.

Nothing much happens in terms of a plot. Or rather, the plot is the daily life in the mansion. While interesting enough on its own, it does make for slow reading, when nothing of consequence is happening. Domestic drama is only… so interesting. When reading up on the full story I can see that there is some actual drama in store further down the line. The decline that is only hinted at towards the end of the part I read will apparently escalate, so if at some point I decide to continue I will get that.

Another element that makes this a difficult read is the cultural differences together with the very literal translation. I have lived in China for half a year back in 2008 and I regularly visit China, at least before COVID and it has always struck me how translations invariably look like bad Google translations. I think there are some fundamental differences in language concepts that just makes it very difficult to translate the meaning and intention of a text and the result is often misleading or confusing. Add to that a cultural baggage that we do not share and things like humor or poetry becomes obscure and indecipherable. I found myself reading entire sections where I had no clue what was going on, or thinking I just read a bad insult, which turn out to be a compliment or the other way around. As a westerner I probably lost 40-60% of the meaning and details and while this was frustrating, eventually I got to learn to live with it.

“The Dream of the Red Chamber” provides a fascinating window into the old Chinese nobility and for that alone it is worth a read. It is a very slow one though and I suppose this is not for everyone. I am curious about the sequel, I just do not know if I have the patience for it.  

   


tirsdag den 17. august 2021

Justine - Marquis de Sade (1791)

 


Justine

I went into “Justine” with very low expectations. After the disgusting and gory rape-porn which was “120 Days of Sodom”, I could hardly imagine this would be much better. Starting from such a low point though it takes only little to be positively surprised. I would not say I liked “Justine”, there is still a lot of rape-porn and undisguised, gleeful sadism on display, but de Sade managed to do something more. Alongside the torments, which de Sade evidently took a lot of joy in imagining, there are a lot of philosophical discussions which are a lot more interesting than the sex.

De Sade makes no pretense at realism here. This is a fable to demonstrate his points, a series of setups to enable the discussions he wants to make with his reader. Justine is a girl of 12 who is orphaned and penniless. She tries to be virtuous and maintain her religious faith all through, but wanders through one horrible scenario to the next where criminal and evil people abuse her in every way possible, physically as well as mentally. In between her whippings and penetrations, she manages to have philosophical discussions with her tormenters. Ludicrous of course, but that is beside the point.

The society de Sade describes is one completely corrupt. Where the powerful can do what they want because they are powerful and what men (and women) with power want to do is to satisfy their basic lusts. Sex, power, wealth, and to inflict pain and sorrow on others as long as it serves their interest. Those of power do it because they can and they do it because they care for nothing but themselves.

This was written during the Enlightenment, and I read it as a direct answer to some of those ideas brought to market. De Sade clearly sees Rousseau’s social contract as hopelessly naïve. There is no sharing of power, those in power takes no responsibility for the public, their interest is their own. The idea of a religious ideal that drive a society to a common good he considers hypocrisy. Those in power may pay lip service to religion but in reality they do not give a shit. Religion is just a means to control people.

The only way to get ahead in pre-revolutionary France was to play the corrupt game and be a criminal yourself. Virtuous behavior will only get you screwed over, literally.

This cynical and bitter outlook was likely driven by de Sade’s own fate. Not that he was virtuous at all, but he saw a world judging him that was, in his eyes, even more corrupt and criminal. How are they then to judge him?

In a revolutionary setting a lot of de Sade’s discussions easily become manifests for the revolution. The entire power structure was being turned upside down and now was the time to denounce it for all the rot it contained. Religion, money, public offices and noble rank were keeping people enslaved, but instead of suggesting an anarchistic freedom, de Sade seem to argue this freedom is a disaster, because without something to keep people in check, they succumb to criminal and egoistic lusts. Religion has tried and failed as de Sade make a lot of effort to point out.

What then?

Here it seems that readers of Justine diverge. Some appears to read that de Sade actually do want an ultimate freedom because he was a libertine himself and wants to be free to torment girls. Others read this as a warning against setting people free. That a just system must replace the Ancien Regime and that a religiously founded one is not enough.

I am inclined to this second interpretation, although it is somewhat undermined by the gleefulness with which de Sade gives himself away, submitting his literary girls to all sorts of suffering. I see him here more as a provocateur than a pornographic writer, or maybe that part just interested me a lot more than the porn.

Not great, but definitely better than “120 Days of Sodom”.

 


onsdag den 14. juli 2021

Vathek - William Beckford (1786)

 


Vathek

I have a suspicion that the editors of the book List have certain affinities. One of those is the fascination with the lurid, the worse the better. Another is with gothic themes. Maybe these affinities are even connected as both can be seen as transgressive. This is in any case my only explanation for including “Vathek” by William Beckford on the List. A place it has held through the various editions of the List.

The backstory of the novel is complicated as several editions were released in competition with each other. Beckford was assisted by some Samuel Henley in editing the English version and this was released by Henley in his own name without Beckford’s consent. As an answer, a sloppy draft version was immediately released in French with several mutations appearing until an 1816 edition which is supposed to bridge the various editions. This was the one I read.

Beckford was also a bit of a libertine and adventurer himself, not a moralist at all, and so, given his background, critiques have found it difficult to read the meaning and intention of “Vathek”, making it a bit of an enigma. Not certain I agree, though.

“Vathek” is presented as a tale from the deep Arabian past, not as a fantasy, but anchored in what was at the time considered fact. Somewhat like the “found footage” tradition in vogue now and then. Yet, it quickly spins into the fantasy world of the Arabian Night tradition, complete with demons, spectres, immense wealth, exotism and magic items.

Vathek himself is based on a historical Caliph in the ninth century who, in this version, is a despotic ruler obsessed with self-indulgence of any kind. When dark gifts and powers are held before him, he sees no reason why he should not get his hands on those and is led by the nose by a demon as well as by his mother Carathis, who herself is a witch, dabbling in dark magic. Vathek has absolutely no spine and only wants to indulge in his own cravings, which includes ruining the lives of everybody else without blinking, even sacrificing fifty children to the demon. He also takes the beloved daughter, Nouronihar, from one of his hosts on this, his journey to find those treasures.

The price, when he finally finds this temple of dark treasures, is his own doom, to be tormented in eternity and that is basically that.

The immediate interpretation of this story is a cautionary tale about over-indulgence and a warning against excessive power with no restraint. Something that would fit a moralist and not a libertine. This is, though, a story peppered with a playfulness and sumptuousness that fit very nicely to that of a rebellious youth who has to act within the morally acceptable and it is this playfulness that makes it a more fun and interesting read than had it been a simple moralist tale.

One of the curious details are the very extensive annotations. By volume they amount to a third of the text. They explain the background of many of the features of the main text to the extent of being the real source of information here, as if this fable is merely the vehicle to communicate a lot of oriental background story. Critiques have also read it as Beckford using the annotations to play games with Henley, letting him spend a lot of work and energy of wild goose chases, explaining details of minor or inconsequential interest. The result is, in any case, that the annotations are fully as interesting and entertaining to read as the main text itself.    

The net result is an exotic tale full of the magic and gothic elements of oriental tradition, which would have entertained contemporary Europeans immensely. Today it is still an interesting read, though probably more as a curiosum and an exercise in juvenile exotism.

In any case, it is an easy read and I did not feel I was wasting my time. That, I suppose, is good enough.


søndag den 4. juli 2021

Anton Reiser - Karl Philipp Moritz (1785)

 


Anton Reiser

On my literary tour around the world, I am now in Germany with Karl Philipp Moritz “Anton Reiser”.

This was the most difficult book to find so far. It turns out that while this is a well-known and popular book in German, it is almost unknown outside German speaking areas. There exists only one edition in English (Penguin), which is now out of print and could not be obtained from any of my usual sources (If I did not want it in German). I finally did find it in a second-hand bookstore in Portland, Oregon and it cost me a fortune. Fortunately, it was worth it.

The big question when reading “Anton Reiser” is whether this is an autobiography or fiction. The truth is likely that it is a fictionalized autobiography, but with a very blurry line between biography and fiction.

Moritz intent seems to be to give a detailed account of the childhood and youth of a young man in order to describe what formed his psychology. To do that, it is not enough to describe external factors, but we need to creep into his mind to understand his thoughts and emotions. Though frequent enough in fiction, it is notoriously difficult to do this in real life. The only person you can truly get into the head of… is yourself. This seems to be the reason Moritz has used as a model for his character, Anton Reiser, himself. As a result, we have a fictional character on which Moritz prints his own experiences growing up. So precise is it that scholars have identified most of the characters and that most of the events are on record as Moritz own.

The inner life of Anton Reiser is therefore extremely vivid and detailed. It is not cooked down and trimmed to the plot as it would be for a normal fictional character, but elaborate, erratic and full of blind and seemingly inconsequential directions, which is at times confusing, but also serves to paint a very realistic picture and help explain the motivations and character of this young man.

Considering this is sort of an autobiography, Moritz does not pull any punches. The weaknesses and follies of Anton are on full display, explained perhaps but never excused. At times it even seems like he is raging and lecturing at his own youthful alter ego, so when Anton do have successes, they do not feel like bragging but rather a pause in the harassment.

The childhood and youth of Anton Reiser is problematic. He is raised in a cultic, religious family with little love and internal strife, learning from early on that he is a flawed person and that self-annihilation in the face of God is something to aim for. His apprenticeship to a hatter of the same cult is a disaster and when he wants to go to school to take an education, his father cuts him off. Forced to live and study on charity he is continually humiliated and lives on the brink of starvation. He is a gifted student, but his lack of confidence and resources repeatedly makes him fail to achieve his potential. As compensation for his dismal external conditions, Anton develops a very elaborate and vivid inner life in which poetry and theater plays a big role.

Here is one of the more confusing elements of the book. On the one hand Moritz declares that young people are in no state to choose what is right for them. That things like poetry and theater are poison that lead young people away from their true destinies and lead them into destruction. Without guidance the youth is lost. This rather conservative and preachy tone is then offset by the actual thoughts and motives of Anton Reiser. Moritz describes how important these things are to Anton, how this is what keeps him going and even alive and how destructive it is to him when his plans are (repeatedly) obstructed. It is as if Moritz is arguing with himself or rather, for the benefit of his contemporary reader, officially takes an approved of conservative attitude and undermines it every step of the way, saying that the conservative pedagogue simply fails to understand the youth.

This is either confusing or very, very clever.

Moritz was very interested in psychology and quite Freudian in his thinking, more than hundred years before that became a thing. He wrote quite a lot on the topic and “Anton Reiser” was his big case study. Unfortunately, Moritz died early (tuberculosis, I think it was) and the book series was never finished. The fourth section ends with a cliffhanger, clearly intended as a starting point for a fifth volume which never appeared.

I strongly recommend “Anton Reiser” to anybody interested in biographies but also for the very detailed description of the daily life of regular people in the second half of the 18th century. This is a gold mine on both accounts.