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.

tirsdag den 22. januar 2019

A Modest Proposal - Jonathan Swift (1729)

A Modest Proposal
Maybe you know what it means when somebody has A Modest Proposal. I did not, until very recently, mostly because I am not a native speaker, but now I am in on the joke. A Modest Proposal is used to make a straight-faced suggestion of something completely absurd and outrageous. It all harks back to Jonathan Swifts essay “A Modest Proposal” from 1729.

In this essay Swift, completely straight-faced proposes to solve to problem of poverty, idleness and the hordes of papists in Ireland by selling infants to gentlemen in Ireland and Britain for eating. He presents a perfectly sensible case complete with the economics, the practical details, the problems it would solve and the general benefits to the scheme. Well, except the delicate detail that eating children is just about the most horrendous idea imaginable.

I suppose in all its absurdity it is supposed to be funny, but you have to have an inclination for very, very black humor to enjoy this. Raising children like livestock and cooking them when they are a year old for their tender meat is an absolutely revolting idea and it was just too black for me.

The context of this essay, however, is interesting. Ireland and the Irish were essentially lawless to the British in the eighteenth century. There were no limits to how you were allowed, and maybe even encouraged to, abuse the local population, which was in turn looked upon as a lesser sort of human beings, Papists, poor and good for nothings. As an Irishman Swift was likely upset by the arrogant attitude of the British and while “A Modest Proposal” goes further than even the vilest British bigot, it is written in the same tone as other very demeaning schemes to abuse the Irish, which very outrageous enough in themselves.

Sometimes you need an exaggeration to see the problem.

A second apparent context is the rationalism that was becoming popular at this time and towards which Swift was very sceptic. This is quite apparent in “Gulliver’s Travels” where the scientists or “projectors”, as he calls them, are ridiculed as useless geeks. Swifts saw common sense as being opposed to rationalism (although in truth the two are very connected) and wrote this essay as a rationalistic argument that makes no sense at all.

“A Modest Proposal” is a very short booklet. The only way it could be pumped up to 30 pages was by inserting lots of pictures with no relation to the story and print it in a font larger than those used in my son’s easy-reading books. So, I breezed through the text here in the weekend and I am ready with my second entry of 2019.


lørdag den 19. januar 2019

Gulliver's Travels - Jonathan Swift (1726)

Gulliver's Travels
I must have been only a child when I first encountered the story of Gulliver and his travels. The memory of a movie with a giant on a beach with hundreds of tiny people tying him up is very vivid. This is a story many, if not most, people are very familiar with, but the part we recall is usually only the visit to Lilliput. The story is much longer than that. After Lilliput Gulliver went to the giants in Brobdingnag, the to a series of lands inhabited by crazy scientist types and necromancers and finally to the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos in Houyhnhnm-land.

The narrator, one Lemuel Gulliver is a surgeon (a bone-mender) who takes jobs on ships that keep shipwrecking him alone in the most bizarre lands. First stop is Lilliput, where he is a giant among tiny people. There people are also of small minds and outsize ambitions and although he repeatedly helps them out and befriends them, he eventually has to escape as they, in all friendliness, seek to main and kill him.

Next, he ends up with the giants in Brobdingnag. Tables turned, Gulliver is now the tiny person among monstrously large people with large minds. These have no plans to hurt Gulliver, but the sheer size of everything makes even a bee a deadly foe. When he leaves this country, it is merely by accident, being picked up by an oversize bird.

In the third book the marooned Gulliver is picked up onto a flying island. This is a country ruled by scientists with their concerns on math and the heavens rather than common sense. There is definitely a sense that Swift did not care for the academics of his age and these people are laughable in the extreme. Down on the ground he visits a university where “projectors” are wasting time and money on useless projects. This trip also takes him to a place where people get very old and stupid and another, ruled by necromancers, where he has long discussions with long dead people.

Finally, in the last chapter Gulliver visits that land of the talking horses where humans are reduced brutes called Yahoos.

Jonathan Swift, the famed Irish writer, clergyman and many other things, was a satirist and Gulliver’s Travels was intended as a satire on the British government in particular and British/European mores in general. As such the book describes a trend from mild and entertaining, even bawdy, to increasingly mean and bitter satire. In the last chapter Swift is foaming with anger and bitterness and while the idea of clever and civilized horses is amusing there is not much to laugh at in that chapter.

Fortunately, we get that in the first chapters. There are plenty of amusing scenes, from Gulliver quenching a fire in the royal palace by pissing on it to the scientists working on abolishing spoken language since all words can be replaced by things. If you just carry enough things with you, you can make a full conversation without uttering a word. An idea shot down by women who insist on the right to chatter… It is this levity and the bizarre scenery Swift paints that makes for an amusing read even today, where the satire itself has mostly lost its relevance.

I understand why later versions, especially on the screen, has focused on the first chapter in Lilliput. It may be the section with most relevance today. However, there are lots to get from the other chapters as well and I would particularly like to see a movie rendition of the visit to the flying island.

Of course, I will recommend this book, but I knew that even before reading it. It is a classic after all.