torsdag den 31. december 2020

Happy New Year 2021


Happy New Year 2021!

To say 2020 was the worst year ever is historical ignorance, but I cannot personally remember a year that felt as crap the one that is now ending. I am certain I do not need to expand on the reasons why, that must be obvious to anyone alive on planet Earth.

As we are about to start a new year, we are going through a second lockdown in Denmark. We may have done decently early on, but now it is going pretty bad and the only consolation is that we have finally started on the vaccination program. Let us just say we are starting the year on a low.

Thankfully, here at home we are okay and so is my closest family so there is that. There has been Corona positives in the larger family, but nobody got very sick (fingers crossed).

On my movie blog it was par for the course. I reviewed 59 movies in 2020. Of these 49 were List movies and 10 were off-List movies. Clearly, going off-List is getting a life of its own and I have to consider if I need to change the format on that, but that will be for another time. The 49 List movies took me from 1969 to 1972. Not a long period at all, 1971 was a killer year with the largest number of movies yet for a single year. It was as usual a mixed bag of candy, but enough great movies and small surprises to keep it interesting.

What really took off in 2020 was my book blog. Not that anybody actually reads it, but I was far more active there than I have been in previous years. The count ended on 14 books, which is almost 3 times more than my target. Lockdown provides for a lot of time to read. This took me from Tom Jones (1749) to Humphry Clinker (1771), about 22 year, mostly covering a golden period in British literature in the mid-eighteenth century. The quality was more varied that I am used to with Rousseau and Sterne marking low points, but also with great stuff from Smollett, Fielding and Lennox. I may not be able to keep up this pace for long, but it is a consolation during lockdown.

I wish all my readers a happy New Year, hope sincerely that you will stay safe and that there is good stuff out there on the other side.

lørdag den 26. december 2020

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker - Tobias Smollett (1771)


The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker

“The Expedition of Humphry Clinker” is the second book by Tobias Smollett on the List and, oh boy, is this a step up, both from his first entry and from the mediocre stuff I have been reading lately.

Tobias Smollett was a man of comedy and satire, but what he did with “The Expedition of Humphry Clinker” was to tone down the sarcasm and wittiness and instead embrace a concept to the extent that it truly comes alive. We follow a group of people as they travel around Britain, consisting of the bachelor squire Matthew Bramble, his sister, aging spinster Tabitha, his niece and nephew, Liddy and Jerry and an assortment of servants, particularly Tabitha’s maid Winifred Jenkins. The story is their journey and experiences, both with each other and with the places they pass through. As an interesting and elegant stylistic touch, the story is written as letters these people are sending back to people they left at home. In this way we get different viewpoints, often on the same events, as first (and sometimes second) hand accounts as these people are experiencing them.

Mr. Bramble is an excitable and hypochondriac patriarch with a good heart but very opinionated. Likely a cover for the author himself. His viewpoints are rather settled, there are those things he despise, dirt, stink, hypocritic coxcombs and insensible management, and there are those he love, which are decent, honest people, cleanliness and common sense. His letters are often counterpointed by Jeremy’s letters. His young age allows for a more unprejudiced viewpoint, especially where Mr. Bramble gets agitated, and he is the progressive one pointing out absurdities both in his travelling party and in the environment, they are travelling through.

Tabhita is described comically is a nightmare of a woman, past her prime and desperately looking for a husband, she jumps at everything male until refused, at which point she despise them with a vengeance. She is petty and cheap and very impressed with herself and therefore an easy mark for hilarity. Liddy is almost the opposite, a timid young girl who offers a romantic element to the story as she is wooed by the mysterious Mr. Wilson. Finally, Winifred offers the servant point of view in letters of poor spelling, misunderstandings but also common sense.

The story follows two tracks, one of character development and the second of a travelogue through 18th century Britain. The character development side to the story holds some elements of romance and mistaken identity, both favorites of the era,  but it is in the interaction of these characters that we see the real progression of the characters. Mr. Bramble learning to appreciate the active life, Jerry to control his temper and Tabitha finds her match from the most unlikely corner. This is all fun and interesting, but the satire never crosses the line and become unbelievable. As original as these characters are, they remain absolutely believable and even today they are recognizable.

Yet, in my opinion the travelogue is the greatest asset of the novel. I am not one for long descriptive parts, but this portrait of 18th century England and Scotland, as seen from different angles is fascinating stuff. The spa life in Bath, high society hypocrisy in London, a seaside escape on the Yorkshire coast, the curious habits of the Scotch such as eating haggis, drinking Whiskey and playing that weird game they call golf… To sit here in the 21st century and read an excited description of these well known institutions, written with a wonder and curiosity of a novel experience is infectious. I could not get enough of it.

What impressed be much was how Smollett went from his rambling and inconsistent style of “Peregrine Pickle” to this super tight and consistent masterpiece and without losing the astute and humorous perception. I am so used to these “almost-right” novels of the 18th century that I am frankly surprised at finding one so well-rounded and polished. There is never too much, the editing is sharp, but still, it has room for a wealth of detail. He is also able to go through with his concept down to the details. Each character writes, and writes consistently, in his particular style with consistent wordings, mistakes and penchants. You believe Smollett actually visited the places or met people like those he describes. There is no sloppiness here.

I thoroughly liked “The Expedition of Humphry Clinker”, one of the best books so far on the list, and this is certainly a recommendation from me.

And Humphry Clinker? He is just some dude the party picks up on the way.


lørdag den 28. november 2020

The Man of Feeling - Henry Mackenzie (1771)


The Man of Feeling

In my last review, on “A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy”, I introduced to theme of the sentimental novel. Well, we are there again, this time condensed to the exclusion of anything else.

“The Man of Feeling” has a single purpose, to present several tableaux to move the reader. We are supposed to cry a little, feel sorry for the unfortunate, a bit of weltsmertz and then on to the next. Apparently back in its day this really worked. Henry Mackenzie’s “The Man of Feeling” was an instant bestseller and remained so for a long time. The individual tableaux were singled out and used whenever people needed to be moved and in the world of sentimental literature Mackenzie was legend.

Here is the thing though: There is literally nothing else in this novel. No progressive narrative, no character study, no morale, except that for many people life stinks. Therefore, all depends on that these small bits of emotional porn work their magic.

Structurally, this is a story within a story within a story. The outermost shell of this literary babushka doll is Mackenzie himself. He is writing about some curate who accidentally come by a fragmented text. The text is written by an observer (likely a fellow called Sedley) who is telling the story of a gentleman called Harley. The fragmentation of this manuscript allows the author to skip in the narrative so what we get are a number of incidents were Harley is the observer to somebody else’s story. Harley rarely interacts with the unfortunate any further than listening to them and offer a bit of assistance or sympathy. He is the sentimental person who is moved by the story and obviously it is hoped that this translates to the reader.

There are stories about fallen women, old people sent to the army, a father to a prostitute, the mental ill and so on. These stories are naturally sad stories, and as such they are milked to the max. The major problem, at least my issue with them, is that they are tableaux. We are presented to people who then disappear, we have no deeper relationship to them and therefore I do not feel as much impact from their stories as I would had I known them better. The characters easily become non-entities or types rather than actual people and that significantly reduces the emotional impact. For this reason, “The Man of Feeling” does not carry anywhere close to the impact today as it apparently did back then.

This is a real problem, when the only leg the book has to stand on turns out to be weak and this is why I am rather indifferent to the book. It is a lot easier to read than Sterne, but as a sentimental novel I much preferred “A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy” as we here at least had a focus in Yorick and the book became a character study on him. I know practically nothing of Harley except he was a passive and easily moved fellow.

The value of “The Man of Feeling” is mostly its significance in the development of the sentimental and romantic genre. In itself I found it less than impressive and I do not think there is much to recommend it.


torsdag den 19. november 2020

A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy - Laurence Sterne (1768)


A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy

After the menace which was “Tristram Shandy” I was apprehensive going into another book by Laurence Sterne. I feared it would be a repeat of the chaotic, well, lack of, narrative, but I was pleasantly surprised that “A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy” is a quite different piece of literature.

Most notably there is a coherent narrative and Sterne is much less inclined to tease the reader with narrative sabotage. There are digressions, yes, but of a different kind that meshes far better with the story. This is also, as hinted by the title, a venture into the “Sentimental” genre which was very much in vogue when the novel was released.

The sentimental genre, I am learning, tried to perceive the world emotionally rather than rationally. For example, rather than writing that something is red, the sentimental writer would describe how the color made him feel. This makes for a very impressionistic style of writing, which I can mostly compare to that of Marcel Proust.

Sterne’s character, Yorick (whom we met as a minor character in “Tristram Shandy”) is travelling through France and describes his experiences and encounters, not so much factually, but by referring the thoughts and the emotions going through him. This makes it at times a bit difficult to follow and he does, characteristically for the sentimental writer, skip quickly over the boring parts. Practical things of little sentimental value are often ignored, while he seems immensely touched by the various people he encounters.

Yorick, supposedly a priest of sorts, have a fond eye for the girls. He falls in love with practically every girl he meets, be they nobility or servants and is quite unapologetic about it. One such encounter hints that the romantic idea gets a bit further than that, confirmed by the fact that he gets kicked out of the hotel for having brought a girl to his room for over two hours.

Beside being a sentimental story, it is also a travel novel, describing a journey through a foreign country, something which was apparently another fashionable thing at the time and perhaps founded by this novel. As such the journey is an integral part of the story, maybe even the point of the story. There does not seem to be a particular personal journey for Yorick, this is more a matter of describing encounters of sentiment Yorick has, travelling through the country.

Eventually, this is an unfinished novel. Laurence Sterne died before it could be finished and so Yorick only just manages to cross into Italy, stuck at an inn with another lovely lady, before the book abruptly ends. It is difficult to say where the novel eventually would have gone, statically describing encounters or toward some sort of end for Yorick, making it a personal journey. I could hope so, but alas we will never know.

I am not certain I would call “A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy” a great book, but it was so much easier and more satisfying a read than “Tristram Shandy” that I am probably overrating it.  I definitely got a lot more out of these few pages than the many times larger “Tristram Shandy”.



tirsdag den 10. november 2020

Tristram Shandy - Laurence Sterne (1767)


The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

“Tristram Shandy” by Laurence Sterne is another of those novels I have known by name, but never read, not even known why it was famous. Having read it now I understand why it is considered special, though I feel incapable of appreciating it.

The point to “Tristram Shandy” is… that there is no point. It is a fairly long book that goes nowhere. While it is supposed to be an autobiography of the author, going by the fictional name of Tristram Shandy, it is merely occupied with vignettes on his close relations, particularly his father and his uncle Toby. These vignettes are in turn constantly interrupted and digressed from, sometimes to make a remote point and sometimes simply through sabotage. The narrative is broken up to a point that you never understand the chronology and how anything ties together. This anti-structure has been praised as proto post modernistic, but to me it merely comes across as a childish and indolent practical joke.

The vignettes themselves has a comedic aim. The father and the uncle are both odd characters, the father having far-fetched theories for anything and a combative way of promoting them and the uncle, kind, gentle and naïve has an obsession with warfare. They are interesting types with a lot of potential for ridicule, but I must be too far removed culturally and perhaps also language-wise to pick up on the humor because I missed most of the punchlines in as far as there were punchlines and those I did get hardly made me smile. The father’s obsession with noses and names is sweet and ludicrous and so is uncle Toby’s obsession with the campaigns he is reenacting in his backyard, but ever so often will Sterne’s attempt at bringing a story to a head be derailed by his own interruptions or be masked to a degree where I simply missed what was going on.

Sterne is best in the few cases where he allows a story to go uninterrupted over a few pages, such as with the big-nosed Diego who causes an uproar when people start obsessing over his nose, or the love affair of uncle Toby. Those moments hold some promise to what this book could have been if Sterne had gone for a more conventional style. This would of course have made it less special but so much more accessible to the reader.

As it is, I found it very hard to stay attentive. Without a narrative and with digressions even within the sentences I often lost track and found my mind drifting. Looking back over the section I had just been through I could not for money or fame recall anything of what I had just read, and I suspect that was largely the point. To tow the reader around by the nose without taking him anywhere.

I did learn a new word, though. From now on “hobby-horse” will be a new expression of mine. A hobby-horse is a passion, doctrine or interest (obsession, perhaps?) that would color everything you do. This is most notably used to describe uncle Toby’s all-consuming interest in warfare. Curiously, the Danish word for it, “Kæphest”, means exactly the same and I cannot help thinking that this may in fact be the origin of the word. Nice, another piece of useless trivia…

Although I understand why “Tristram Shandy” is famous, I hesitate to recommend it. I got far too little out of it and found it an ordeal to get through it. There is the potential for something amusing here but it rarely becomes more than a promise.


søndag den 27. september 2020

The Vicar of Wakefield - Oliver Goldsmith (1766)


The Vicar of Wakefield

Another short novel on the List, no complaints from me. At this size I am quickly progressing, and this will be my 10th book this year and number 40 on the List.

“The Vicar of Wakefield” by Oliver Goldsmith is one of those novels I have heard of as something everybody are supposed to know, but I never read it or even knew what it is about. Apparently, it is a famous classic and in my research I found that it was already made into a movie in 1910!

It is a about a vicar (a priest of sorts) who start out comfortably wealthy with a pleasant parish and a nice, big family. Then, right away misfortune strikes leading into what becomes a continuous deroute. His fortune is gone as the merchant with whom he placed his fortune disappears. He enters into a silly debate about clergy remarrying which estranges him from his friend Wilmott, whose daughter was supposed to marry the vicar’s eldest son and eventually the vicar with family is forced to remove to a remote parish and make a new beginning, this time much poorer.

They are befriended by the friendly, but poor has-been gentleman Mr. Burchell, and the local squire Mr. Thornhill, an infamous libertine. Burchell likes the vicar’s second daughter, Sophie, while Thornhill woos the elder Olivia. Blissful poverty does not last long. The vicar is ripped off by frauds, Olivia is kidnapped by Thornhill info a fake marriage and George, the eldest son, is adrift on the continent with no money. Accidents stack up until the vicar is in debt prison with half his family dead or dying.

All through this the vicar is sanguine and praise himself for having the best treasure, his family, around him, so things are not so bad.

“The Vicar of Wakefield” is at face value a simple story about misfortune and recovery for all the good guys. Nothing terribly special there. As far as I can tell its fame is due to two elements:

1.       Oliver Goldsmith makes a lot out the homeliness of domestic life at the vicar’s. This was apparently new at the time and had so charming effect that it got loved for this alone

2.       Hidden beneath the simplistic surface “The Vicar of Wakefield” is a satire on many contemporary institutions and issues. Legal, politic, religious and moral themes are all commented on in the many digressions of the story and always innocently by the naïve vicar who has no clue what a hornets nest he is stirring.

More importantly, there is a satire in the very structure of the novel. By being a good and moral person, the vicar gets cheated, injured and persecuted by all the evils his lifestyle is supposed to protect him from. A defunct legal system consistently lets him down. A nepotistic nobility can get away with anything, debauchery, violence, theft and fraud, with impunity. A reader unhappy with contemporary conditions in Britain could in all the vicar’s trouble find plenty of ammunition. Even the conclusion has so many coincidences happening all at once that the incredulity of it becomes an attack in itself. With the cards stacked against him there is no way the vicar can get out of this mess by himself and it takes a massive amount of intervention to set things right. Essentially saying that as things are, trouble comes easy, recovery takes magic.

It was a pleasant read and I was quite entertained. Despite his many digressions, Goldsmith did not waste time but drove the story forward and so it remained interesting throughout. Only one thing puzzles me: In the conclusion it is discovered (spoiler!) that Olivia’s marriage contract is not fake after all, so she is still married the vile Mr. Thornhill. This she is congratulated upon as she is no longer a fallen woman… ehhh, why is it a good thing that she is married to a terrible man instead of being free of him? Having lost everything what sort of bitter revenge will she have to endure from his hand and why is this good? Maybe the times are simply different, but if anybody can help me understand, I would be much obliged.

A recommendation from me.


tirsdag den 15. september 2020

The Castle of Otranto - Horace Walpole (1764)


The Castle of Otranto

“The Castle of Otranto” is known as the first gothic novel, predating “Frankenstein” by half a century. It is also one of the shortest novels on the List, at least so far, so it did not take me long to get through it.

The book was published under pseudonym and claimed to be a long lost Italian manuscript from the age of the crusades. Only in the second edition did Horace Walpole admit to having cooked it up himself. An early example of what in cinema is called Found Footage?

Back in those medieval days Manfred, the ruler of Otranto, losses his sickly son, Conrad, to a giant helmet that fell out of nowhere and crushed him on his wedding day. Bereft of his only male heir Manfred decides to marry the bride instead as he is convinced his wife, Hippolita, is now barren. Isabella, the bride, flees in horror, helped in her escape by a gallant peasant.

Manfred is pissed at the girl and pissed at the peasant and starts hunting for her. When he learns she is hiding in a nearby convent he gets pissed at the friar protecting her. The peasant must die for his insolence at which point the friar learns that the peasant is actually his son, Theodore, and no peasant but noble as the friar used to be a count. Theodore is helped escape by Manfred’s daughter, Mathilda, both of whom fall in love with each other. In his escape Theodore finds the lost Isabella and protects her from a mysterious knight. Theodore almost kills him only to discover this is Prince Frederic, Isabella’s long lost father, who claims rightful ownership to Otranto.


Walpole took the old medieval romance setting and populated it with Shakespearean characters with “modern” (18th century) sentiments. It is actually quite a bit of an exercise. You think you are reading an ancient tale, but all these characters are a lot more complex and detailed and in a way human than you would expect. Did you ever in an old romance find the Lord rolling his eyes and rage with impatience at a domestic who cannot get to the point? Or characters confusing each other pursuing their own agenda? I am no expert on Shakespeare, but I believe this contrary agenda element is borrowed there. These characters certainly make the story a lot more interesting and fleshed out than you would expect over hardly a hundred pages.

The gothic sense of doom at this castle is enhanced by frequent visitations of ghosts. First by the strange helmet that kills Conrad, but soon a giant is sighted, a statue cries blood and the ghost of a hermit appears to bring a message to Frederic. The function of these ghostly affairs is unclear at first and I had Walpole suspected of adding them simply for ambience, but along the way they work to promote the downfall of Manfred, whose grandfather apparently usurped the title from its rightful owner.

I found “The Castle of Otranto” very entertaining to read and got a lot more out of it than the diminutive length led me to expect. There were even funny element straight out of Monty Python. This playfulness is supported by the background of the novel. Horace Walpole, son of famed Robert Walpole, on of the longest sitting prime ministers of Britain, was a collector type who loved anything novel and unique and never did anything twice. He wrote many things, but all over the place and never another novel like “The Castle of Otranto”. As I understood it, he may even have written it as a jest.

“The Castle of Otranto” is fun and messy and very much alive and never overstays its welcome. That can only be a recommendation.


mandag den 7. september 2020

Emile, or On Education - Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762)

Emile, or On Education

The second book by Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the List is not really a novel but a treatise on education. For a list of novels including this book is a bit of an odd choice.

Anyway, “Emile, or On Education” is a tough book to get through and not just because it is long.
I know that we are talking about a 260 year old treatise, but it is difficult not judge such a text with modern eyes. Half the time his ideas are monstrous and I feel like shouting: “KEEP THAT MAN AWAY FROM MY CHILD!!!”, while on the other half Rousseau are remarkable modern for his time and some of the ideas are not alien today. Whether you focus on the first or the later I suppose is a matter of temper, but it makes for a weird experience reading the book.

Rousseau takes us through the raising of a boy from infancy until marriage in that order and Rousseau has a lot to say for each stage. His main idea is that nature does things right so as closer you keep things to nature the better things are. Human civilization is the opposite of nature and that is the source of everything wrong. Therefore, a boy must be raised in the countryside spending his time in as natural activities as possible. Towns, books and science however, not to mention theater and other sophistry, is to be avoided at all cost.

A consequence of this is that Rousseau wants to avoid stuffing knowledge into the young boy’s head, claiming that knowledge the boy does not understand is useless and actually counterproductive. Instead Rousseau prepares the boy to learn. He encourages curiosity and train the child to search and deduce the answers himself by observing nature. In all things he refuses to provide the answers, and rather nudge the boy in the right direction.

To a modern ear that sounds about right. Certainly, the Danish education system has now for many years abolished root learning in preference of teaching the children the learning process. To the extend that I am sometimes shocked at how little young student actually know. Instead they are superfast at acquiring knowledge.

This principle extents to religion where Rousseau wants the boy to work out for himself what he believes in and then join the denomination that fits him the best. Again, fairly modern, but this position caused, rather predictably, quite a scandal in its time. For somebody to say that no religion can monopolize the truth and that one should stay away from dogma would, in a world where every  sect believes that they and only they know the truth, be considered the worst kind of heresy. Rousseau’s book was accordingly banned and burned in many places.

Considering how big a fan of nature Rousseau was, it is surprising how antagonistic he was towards science. Doctors he considers as frauds and books are simply not worth reading. Scientific research in any form that goes beyond observing nature he considers a was of time.

On the other hand, he chooses to include a part of his own treatise on the Social Contract, a very complex, and highly regarded, piece of political science. Talk about being inconsistent.

By today’s standard the most controversial part concerns the education of girls. Rousseau was of the opinion that it is a waste of time to send girls to school. They only need to look pretty, be adept at domestic work and be submissive to their husband. I found many paragraphs that were so outrageous I had to read them aloud and laugh. Even thinking such thoughts today would get you crucified. Seriously. Though at the time, this part went down with the general public much better than the sections on religion and politics.  We have, thankfully, come a long way.

Rousseau has a meandering style. Although there is a general structure to the book, the individual chapters run all over the place with segments tangential to the main themes. He was probably having a lot of fun imagining how he would like to raise children and got carried away. It was a lot less fun being the reader of this.

I cannot with a clear consciousness recommend “Emile, or On Education”. I suppose it is a good window into Rousseau’s ideas, but as casual reading this is very much uphill and any feminist would be in risk of an apoplectic stroke.

tirsdag den 14. juli 2020

Julie; Or, the New Eloise - Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1760)

Julie, or the New Eloise
The famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau has quite a few books on my book list and “Julie, or the New Eloise” (“La Nouvelle Héloïse”) is his first entry.

Rousseau is one of those characters many people have heard of, but very few actually read anything by. As a philosopher he was extremely influential, coining the term “The Noble Savage” which nicely summarizes his philosophy. According to Rousseau the natural state, uncorrupted by civilization, is the ideal and the state we must strive to return to. All faults of men are learned faults and artifacts. Feeling and emotion is better than facts and learning and honesty to yourself and others is the highest virtue. In a world still governed by religious dogma Rousseau’s ideas were quite radical even if they ultimately aimed for the same thing as the church, that of the virtuous soul.

“Julie, or the New Eloise” must be seen in this light. It is very much a moralizing tale, exemplifying his ideas by letting emotions and passions run free and somehow succeed in achieving sublime virtue.

This epistolary tale consists letters sent between a young man known as Saint-Preux, the love of his life, the young Baroness Julie Etange, Her cousin Clare, Julie’s latter husband Wolmar and Saint-Preux friend the English Lord Bomston.

Saint-Preux is a teacher hired to train Julie and Claire and at the opening of the story they are sending highly emotional, frantic even, love letters to each other. Theirs is a secret, forbidden love, and while they know it is impossible, they are loath to give it up. Julie’s father is very much against this match, Saint-Preux has no title, and when he learns of it, it is game over and Saint-Preux flees. That Lord Bomston makes him his protégé does nothing to mollify the father.

Saint-Preux goes sailing around the world on a British ship for four years and both Claire and Julie get married. Wolmar was promised to Julie by her father, but rather than being a disaster this is now a great thing because Wolmar is really nice and Saint-Preux is invited to come live with them in wonderful threesomeness.

I was not super excited about this novel. These two lovebirds are so too much. They are obsessing more than anything. Of course, being in love you get carried away, but this was completely hysteric. It got better when the crisis occurred. At this point there was more bite to the story, but the later part was, frankly, weird. It is full of tests of the characters worthiness, praise of chaste virtue and everybody are each other’s BFF’s. The commune they form would by all rights be doomed, yet it is supposed to work because they are all so good and honest people. Seriously?

There were gems, though. While both Julie and Saint-Preux are religious beings, Wolmar is not. As the story goes, he studied all the religious directions with a cold and discerning mind and found the mysticism inconsistent and counter intuitive. He could not reconcile the mystic doctrines and decided not to believe in God. He is however the most Christian and humane characters of all involved, more worthy to the name than any believer. Of course, him being an atheist is his greatest “flaw”, but it still feels like a great kick in the butt on religious orthodoxy. Apparently, Rousseau himself got in trouble with the church for making up his own mind.

Rousseau still have a number of books to impress me, but this one was a miss.


mandag den 8. juni 2020

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia - Samuel Johnson (1759)

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia
It is entirely fitting that the two books, Voltaire’s “Candide” and Samuel Johnson’s “The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia” should be listed back to back on my booklist. They are of course both 1759 entries, but beside this concurrency they also treat the same subject: How to live a good life.

This is of course neither the first, nor the last time that this subject is being treated in literature, but it is remarkable to see two so different and yet so alike treatments next to each other. Where “Candide” is flippant and satirical, “Rasselas” is sober and moralizing, but both use the disguise of a fantastical story to say that the ideal and happy life is a pipedream, mainly because human beings are deeply flawed.

In Johnson’s story we meet a prince (Rasselas) who is dissatisfied with the protected but idle life he leads in the secluded Happy Valley, a sort of prison resort for the royal offspring and their servants. He meets the poet Imlac who tells him stories about the outside world and Rasselas becomes convinced that out there he will find the meaning of life or, as Johnson formulates it, his “life choice”. Imlac and Rasselas tunnel themselves out of Happy Valley and are joined by his sister, Nekayah and her attendant Pekuah.

Once out of Eden they set out for the city of Cairo and spend the remainder of the book talking with high and low about what sort of life would be the best choice. We all know that the meaning of life, the universe and everything is 42, but Johnson refuses all shortcuts. No matter how you live your life, no matter what choices you make, there will always be drawbacks. Nobody are truly happy and no single choice is the right one.

Sometimes we get an interview with somebody they meet while at other times one of the characters report back from his or her investigations, but no matter who is talking it is with the same voice. This is probably the most disturbing thing about this novel. If we consider it a novel then each character should by rights have some characteristics more or less fleshed out in the course of the book, but that is not the case here. The characters have absolutely no personal characteristic, at least not when narrating. The voice is exactly the same. This is of course because this is not really intended as a novel but a poorly disguised intellectual discussion on philosophy and moral that Johnson is having with himself. Laying his words on different characters simply allows him to argue for and against, which incidentally seems to be the entire point. No argument is absolute, no certainty is final when it comes to the human condition. Hence the title of the final chapter: The conclusion, in which nothing is concluded. Johnson is running a campaign against absolute truths and while he is not, like Socrates, saying that he knows nothing, nor like a relativist saying that all has equal worth, he is saying that things are only as good as what you put into it and trouble lurks everywhere.

The discussion occasionally turn very highbrow and difficult to follow (this is one of the most annotated novels I ever read), but often the points are good and the discussion interesting enough to outweigh the book’s failings as a novel. I found the discussion on the immateriality of the soul particularly interesting, because it shows how your starting assumptions influence the conclusions. The argumentation is logical and follow Newtonian cause and effect rules, but then because of the religious imperative it gets to answers which are internally logical, but without this imperative completely illogical. It really shows how in any argument you need to agree on the rules. A modern discussion on the same topic can be found here for comparison.

“The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia” is a cerebral experience and interesting enough, especially since it is short enough not to overstay its welcome, and while I doubt it would make any of my top-anything lists, I am happy I read it.

søndag den 24. maj 2020

Candide - Voltaire (1759)

After reading a long string of British novels I am finally extending my horizon and shifting across the Channel to read a French novel, Voltaire’s “Candide”. In fact, the horizon gets extended quite a bit as “Candide” takes place practically all over the known world.

Voltaire’s “Candide” is a very famous piece of work. I read it before, some 15 years ago or so, and it is one of those books that many people not particularly into old literature will know about. It also helps that it is rather short.

Voltaire wrote this as a satirical story where he manages to ridicule… everything. Seriously. The basic statement is that optimism is naïve and that the philosophers who promote optimism (Leibniz) are just pouring out BS. He does this by letting his “hero”, Candide, a young German man, be exposed to all the unfortunate incidents at all possible, usually instigated by the baseness of other people. Candide is a born optimist who keeps adhering to his philosophy that all is for the best and that this is the best of all possible worlds. This sentiment becomes more and more strained as more accidents happen than it is possible to list.

The events are not naturalistic, but rather fantastical and merely created to prove the point that people are in general egoistic and cruel and that goodness is always punished because other people do not need to follow rules of good behavior. Candide is convinced he will find somebody who is happy, but, nope, everybody is fundamentally unhappy. Except in the mythological Eldorado, a place inaccessible to normal humans.

This pessimism seems a bit tough, but it is worth keeping in mind that “Candide” was written at the height of the seven-year war, in which much of central Europe and indeed many other places in the world was devastated over a fundamentally pointless war (Kings wanted to extend possessions and influence). Besides, the mid-18th century had plenty of larger or smaller atrocities to pick from so for a humanist these were not great days. Voltaire uses this framework to point out all these injustices which may be institutional, religious, or simply borne out of low callous greed or arrogance. Consequently “Candide” was not well liked by rulers and institutions but loved by a population at large who likely recognized much of the unfairness Voltaire pointed out. “Candide” was released in five countries simultaneously and was the fastest selling book of the period. Take that, kings and priests!

Personally, I remember it as being more fun to read first time round. Some of the satirical elements are lost on a twenty-first century reader and some of the elements are so arbitrary and fantastic that it gets ridiculous, though that may be the point. Candide’s teacher, the philosopher Pangloss, who is the strongest proponent for optimism in the book manages to get himself killed four times, but magically reemerges from all but the last death. The Baron of Candide also manages to die a few times and switches between being best mate of Candide and mortal enemy every time Candide mentions his love for Cunegonde, the Baron’s sister. This is not a book to read for naturalistic consistency but to enjoy for the lampooning of all who are high and mighty or who think they are.

A curious detail, for me at least, is that after having visited Germany, The Netherlands, Portugal (during the big earthquake), Argentina, Paraguay. Surinam, France, Venice, Turkey, Persia and Norway, Candide ends up in Copenhagen, Denmark (where I happen to live) and after a short stint in Helsingør he settles here, married to a lovely Danish girl, this being the most tolerable place he has found outside of El Dorado. I am of course a bit flattered, but more likely the reason for this was that Denmark-Norway was one of the very few countries that stayed out of the Seven-years war and therefore avoided all these atrocities. Also the Danish king at the time had relinquished most of his power to a sensible chancellor who liberated the arts, something I am certain Voltaire would have appreciated.

“Candide” is short and easy and likely an essential read. I guess that is recommendation enough.



onsdag den 13. maj 2020

The Female Quixote - Charlotte Lennox (1752)

The Female Quixote
Progressing slowly to the year 1752 I have now read “The Female Quixote” by Charlotte Lennox and that was probably the funniest book so far on the List.

There is a trope in comedy where a person with an entirely different world view faces the real world, like an alien on Earth or a time traveler waking up in a different age. Add to that the arrogance and confidence of insisting on your world view and it gets really funny. Or tragic. Cervantes Don Quixote was the archetype for such a character. Apply this to women and you may find countless comedies on women insisting on living in an unrealistic romantic bubble. Add, again, the confidence of believing themselves the center of the world and it gets funny indeed. Or obnoxious and tragic. Here Charlotte Lennox’ Arabella must be the archetype.

Arabella is the only child of a marquis and grows up on a remote castle with old romances as her only company. As a result, she believes these are real historic events and the world is exactly as described in the novels. She spends her youth waiting for and expecting some romantic adventure to take place. Since her romances are haughty stuff she is convinced there are people out there just waiting to abduct her and that lovers must prove themselves to her through heroic deeds, that a refusal by her might cause men to die in grief and that she can save despairing men with a command to live.

Then Arabella encounters the real world. Her father believes it is time for her to get married and suggests that his nephew, Mr. Glanville could be the one. Glanville is immediately smitten by the pretty Arabella, but such an arranged marriage does not at all conform to the rules of romance and so Arabella objects. And not because he is her cousin (icks!!). Arabella is completely convinced she is the heroine in a romance and this world view is so much at odds with the real world that everybody Arabella meets are baffled by her and she consistently misunderstand everything that goes on around her. It is simply hilarious. Glanville loves her but is exasperated with her absurd notions. His father believes she is insane and Glanville’s sister, Miss Glanville is envious of Arabella’s beauty and fortune and therefore smirks every time Arabella’s escapades causes embarrassment.

Her ideas are truly absurd, but they are also amazingly funny and they do make Arabella a far more interesting character than the docile and mindless “normal” women around her. She is a girl of action and opinion and pluck in a world of effeminate men and idle, gossiping women. Arabella believes in honor and pride and achievement, where the only achievement expected from her is to get married. While the immediate objective of the story is to laugh at her crazy ideas, there is a subtext that as a woman she must lose everything that is special about her to become a Stepford wife in 18th century England.

The ending which is by far the weakest element of the book is about Arabella getting a “treatment” by a doctor to give up her romantic ideals through argument. It is obviously a high-brow argument, but despite this, both too easy a resolution and one who tells us that all a woman can hope to do is to conform to habit and that nothing interesting is ever going to happen. Cured of her notions Arabella can now be happily married.

Except for this morale of the story, what we have in this book is a universal theme of speaking different languages that is just as relevant today and because of this “The Female Quixote” has aged very well. When people cannot agree on the way the world look and what different things mean it is very difficult to have a meaningful conversation. Add the confidence of believing themselves to be correct and everybody else wrong and it becomes difficult indeed. Just consider religious versus secular people or people from different ends of the political spectrum.  Then it is a lot more fun to use somebody caught up in romantic ideals as a case.

“The Female Quixote” is, despite a hurried and depressing end, a truly enjoyable read and one I can only recommend.


søndag den 19. april 2020

Peregrine Pickle - Tobias George Smollett (1751)

The Complete Adventures of Peregrine Pickle
It is not easy to write a comedy and it is even trickier to write one that remains funny centuries down the line. Tobias Smollett managed to do the latter. Reading “The Complete Adventures of Peregrine Pickle” I frequently chuckled and often laughed out loud from the antics of Smollett’s characters.

“Peregrine Pickle” is not a perfect book. It is in fact rather uneven and in its picaresque style it also seems old fashioned for its time. Although there is a red thread and connection from start to finish, each chapter takes Mr. Pickle on a new adventure that often departs from previous chapter and just as often does not add to the general progression of the plot. The purpose seems rather to give Smollett a chance to satirize on various topics even if these only peripherally relates to the story of Mr. Pickle. If these detours had not been so amusing, they would have made the story drag, but thankfully practically all of them are.

Peregrine Pickle was born to parents who disliked him even as a toddler. Instead he was raised by his aunt and her husband, the crass but likable Commodore Hawser Trunnion along with parts of Trunnion’s old crew in his “Garrison”. Throughout his youth Pickle plays pranks on anybody who gets in his way, including old Trunnion. We follow his education, courtship of his beloved Emilia, his tour of France and The Netherlands as well as his escapades in London.

Everywhere Mr. Pickle goes he gets an opportunity to discover amusing situations or instigate such situations. Some of the most spectacular includes a puffed-up doctor who insists on relating everything to the greats of antiquity and his friend, a painter, who in naivety is a good match to the doctor. The dinner party the doctor serves up with delicacies from ancient Rome is simply spectacular. Every single dish is inedible, but the party, not to lose face must eat their way through it with catastrophic results to their dignity. Just as hilarious is the duel Pickle provokes between the painter and the doctor. A duel which is aborted because both get cold feet.

Back in London Pickle and his friend Cadwaller Crabtree plays pranks on the stuffed-up nobility by setting Crabtee up as a mystic fortuneteller who frames his victims in terrible predicaments. This reaches a zenith when two drunk gents demand WOMEN whereupon they are sent into a second room to find the wife of one and mother of the other to their mutual chagrin.

While we learn of a lot of pranks, the story is scarcer on personal details on Pickle and his companions. The third person narrative is partly to blame, but even then, the characters are rather one-dimensional. Pickle is proud and clever, but also vain and promiscuous, both of which gets him in trouble more than once, but little else do we learn of his personal character.

“Peregrine Pickle” is not a novel for great drama or sophisticated morals, but for the pure and simple entertainment. Despite a lengthy and completely disconnected story, “The Memoirs of a Lady of Quality” inserted in the second half, this is an easy and enjoyable read and much recommended.

I started “Peregrine Pickle” while I was still in Australia in February and now, finishing it two months later, the world is a different place. How weird to think of.


fredag den 7. februar 2020

Fanny Hill - John Cleland (1749)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


lørdag den 18. januar 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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