lørdag den 31. december 2022

Happy New Year 2023


Happy New Year 2023

Another year has gone by and again it is time to take stock. I think most people will agree that 2022 was not one of those years that will be remembered with fondness. Sure, this is the first new year post-COVID, but that already seems like such a long time ago and so much have happened since then. There is now war in Europe again and a bloody one at that and we are looking into an energy and an inflation crisis on top of all the other crisis’s plaguing us. I have an app on my phone telling me what the electricity price is over the next 24 hours so I can plan when to do laundry or use the oven, something I would not have thought of a year ago.

All is not bleak though. One man’s death is another man’s bread as the (Danish) saying goes. I work with renewables, and this is a field that is booming, as in gold rush boom times. We are hiring and are very busy and if all goes well, I will be opening our new Copenhagen office sometime in 23. If you are interested in this field you may want to check out the Danish Energy Island project, which is labelled as the Danish equivalent to the Moon project. Truly exciting stuff.

This was also the year where Sight and Sound presented their new and updated list of the 100 best movies ever and the number one spot, the best movie ever made, was: “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080, Bruxelles”. Interesting choice…

I have listed 55 movie reviews on this blog in 2022. Of these 46 were List movies and 9 off-List movies, making this the slowest year so far, but I am in no rush so never mind that. The period covered is 1975 to 1978 and three List years per calendar year does seem to be my pace now. A thing I have noticed in this period is how difficult is has become to limit my off-List movies to only three titles. There is just so many interesting movies out there that never many it to the List. This was also the first year without a new release of “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” and while it may bee too early a call, this could be the end of an era. It does also seem like the host of 1001 bloggers have been thinning over years, either from abandoning the project or by finishing it and this blog may end up as an anachronistic artifact, but then, so am I.

On my book blog I have read and reviewed 13 titles which is almost three times more than the target I have set for myself, so I can be pleased with that. This took me from 1794 to 1811, 17 years, and I am now far into the Napoleonic wars, in the period known as Regency. So, that means I am looking into a lot of Jane Austen stuff.

I would like to wish everybody a happy new year with my sincere hope that 2023 will finally be a better year. I think we all need that.


tirsdag den 27. december 2022

Michael Kohlhaas - Heinrich von Kleist (1811)


Michael Kohlhaas

You do not need to write a huge tome to point out ethical, moral or legal dilemmas. Heinrich von Kleist manages to do that very well in little more than a hundred pages.

Michael Kohlhaas is a horse trader from Brandenburg who usually sell his horses in Saxony. This is supposed to be the sixteenth century, so Germany is divided into countless small fiefs, principalities, duchies and what not. Something that was still the case when Heinrich von Kleist wrote this book. Anyway, the good Herr Kohlhaas is as usual taking his horses to market in Leipzig, when he is stopped at Tronkenberg and asked to present a permit to transport horses through. This is news to Kohlhaas and in the end he manages to get through by pawning two mares until he can come back with a permit. In Leipzig he finds out as expected that there is no such requirement for permits. This is just a scam set up by the new master of Tronkenberg, Junker Wenzel von Tronka. Returning to Tronkenberg, Kohlhaas finds that his horses have been worked almost to death and the groom kicked out. Kohlhaas is also kicked out and now he starts his quest for justice. Junker Wenzel von Tronka must restore his horses to their previous state and return them with damages.

Problem is that the Junker is nobility with friends in high places who blocks the case at every turn. When Kohlhaas’ wife offers to bring the case before the regional ruler, the Elector, she is beaten to death. Kohlhaas, seeing that the opponent is not obeying the law, decides to force the issue outside the law himself. His attack on Tronkenburg sends the Junker fleeing and it escalates into a regular uprising. Only the intervention of a famous cleric (Martin Luther himself, no less) convinces Kohlhaas to return to a legal track, but now Kohlhaas is also a vigilante and a criminal in his own right.

The questions asked by Heinrich von Kleist is if you have a moral right to seek justice outside the law if the opponent is outside the law or protected by a flawed system and following that, if the purpose condones the means. This is a timeless question and what makes this book readable and relevant today. Von Kleist does not answer the question (who can?) but frames it most provocatively. Kohlhaas is likeable all the way. He has a good and righteous case, and his only real motivation is justice. Not the monetary value or a settlement, but proof that the law is for everyone and that a noble scoundrel is subject to the law the same as everybody else. His extra-legal means of pursuing this justice is however as villainous as can be: arson, plunder and murdering, not to mention challenging the policing might of the system.

Similarly, the nepotism and arbitrariness of the power structure with family relations protecting each other and legal rulings being made by people entirely unfit for the job, placed their qua noble birth and family relations. It is a system obviously unfair and biased against the little man in which the law is flexible and apply less the higher in the hierarchy you are.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, I am not surprised, and you do not have to go to fiction to find examples.

In the case of Herr Kohlhaas, he does manage to get justice in the end, but his extreme means costs him everything and even that resolution is so arbitrary and with so many byways that it feels random. Meaning that even at the ultimate prize, justice is no guarantee.

Heinrich von Kleist was a known provocateur of his day. Anti-Napoleonic, but also liberal and revolutionary, he seems to have been a critic all round. I can certainly see “Michael Kohlhaas” as an argument for German unity as well as democratic reforms, even if the ultimate question of the novel is how far you are allowed to go to seek justice in an unjust system.

“Michael Kohlhaas” is a short book and even though written in that very complex German style where you almost forget how the sentence started by the time you reach the end, it is easy enough to comprehend and it is knife sharp on its moral and ethical points. If anything, it is too short and brief to get under the skin of the characters, but I doubt that was the intention anyway.

In my research of the book, I discovered it was made into a movie in 2013 with Mads Mikkelsen and Bruno Ganz. I think I will look up that movie.   



søndag den 11. december 2022

Elective Affinities: A Novel - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1809)


Elective Affinities

One of the best, and likely also worst, things about art is that it is open to interpretation and not an exact science. In the case of Goethe’s “Elective Affinities” I seem to have a rather different understanding of the novel than the clever heads who have formed the official interpretation of the novel and because of the above, my interpretation may be as good as theirs.

In the German countryside live Charlotte and Eduard. They may be lower nobility, but their rank is newer spelled out. They have resources enough for some extravaganza, but not endless funds. Both were previously married but as both widowed around the same time their infatuation with each other in their youth can now be realized in a marriage at their not so young age.

Their life together is in harmony when they get two new lodgers, Charlotte’s niece Ottilie and Eduard’s friend, the Captain (known throughout as “The Captain” and later “The Major”). Eduard falls passionately in love with Ottilie and his feelings are reciprocated. Charlotte and The Captain also develop feelings for each other but are better able to control them. When Eduard and Ottilie’s affair becomes too obvious Charlotte decides that Ottilie must be sent away, but Eduard flees and begs that Ottilie then can stay in the house. Eduard just manages to make Charlotte pregnant before he leaves but that is not enough to bring him home. Instead, he goes to war and throws himself into danger (the Napoleonic wars are raging at the time). When finally he does come home, he is dead-set on getting Ottilie. His scheme is that he gets divorced from Charlotte and marries Ottilie, while Charlotte marries the Captain/Major. Except his wild passion sets off a string of calamities, starting with the drowning of his little son.

Now, as I understand it, the common interpretation of this novel is as a critique of the institution of marriage as that being what prevents the “logical” pairings of the characters. Another, slightly more refined interpretation says that it is not so much the institution of marriage but the inability of the characters to think out of the box and release their adherence to conventions. In any case, they seem to think that Goethe meant these people to combine in different ways and their misfortune was that they were prevented from doing so. The major argument being that Goethe himself had affairs left and right and did not really consider marital faithfulness an objective but merely an obstacle.

My take on this story is much simpler. It demonstrates two characters, Charlotte and Eduard, where one can handle her emotions and weather potential disasters, while the other is a victim of his passions which unchecked must cause disaster left and right. Rather than being an advocate of serial monogamy, this story demonstrate the danger of unruly passions to the happiness and wellbeing of people.  

All characters have potential good futures ahead of them with plenty of reward, both socially and materially. Charlotte and the Captain/Major demonstrate how to reconcile passion and reality to both a common and a personal good, even satisfaction. Eduard on the other hand entirely embraces the romantic idea of letting his passions run his decision making with no regard for other people’s feelings and the potential for disaster, personal and to others. This makes him an egocentric person and his affair with Ottilie is just one example of his passion driven poor decision making. Charlotte’s daughter, Luciane, is another example of such a character where the damage she inflicts on others for he own gratification is obvious.

Rather than being an advocate of free love, Goethe is actually running a critique on the romanticism that was the rage at the time, asking those free spirits to rein in their passions a bit. This follows very much in the line of Goethe’s earlier novels, “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” which run similar conclusions.

Of course, I could be entirely wrong, but I am entirely entitled to my own interpretation of art.

Recommendation? It is okay, but pales compared to Goethe’s earlier work.


søndag den 6. november 2022

Rameau’s Nephew - Denis Diderot (1805)


Rameau's Nephew

Yet again we take a step back in time with another one of Denis Diderot’s leftover manuscripts. As with “The Nun” and “Jacques the Fatalist”, Diderot kept “Rameau’s Nephew” to himself or at least in very local circulation in his lifetime, presumably because the political climate did not allow a public release, and it only found a way to the public in 1805. Even then, it took another 150 years until a version we can consider Diderot’s own version, was published.

The novel takes the form of a dialogue between a first-person character (Diderot himself?) and a character called Jean-Francois Rameau, the nephew of a famous composer with the same surname. These were real characters, and the conversation is presented as if it really took place, yet we can assume that although Diderot and Rameau really had a conversation at a vey specific time and venue, Diderot used this as a framework upon which to discuss and lampoon a number of issues that was on his mind.

Rameau is a scoundrel. A hand-to-mouth swindler and con artist, but also a very self-aware clown, conscious of his own limitations, who simply do what he does best with what he has. And what he does best is to entertain and con people by appealing to their vanity.

During their conversation Diderot and Rameau get into a great many topics, particularly around music, yet the recurrent theme is that appearances matter a lot more than substance and that people want to be fooled and confirmed. Rameau’s current situation is that he has just been dismissed from the family who had sponsored him for the past months. Rameau’s parasitic existence had been to be around, be amusing and confirm the host family of how amazing they were. His dismissal was caused by him telling the truth.

According to Rameau’s creed, the purpose of existence is to eat, drink, bed women and empty the bowels. This is the only obligation and purpose of man, and the means is just whatever works to get there.

Diderot’s purpose for this dialogue has apparently been discussed extensively, yet to my mind it is pretty obvious. Diderot was an incredible gossip, and he got a real kick out of a juicy story. “Rameau’s Nephew” is an outlet where Diderot could lampoon the entire establishment for their scandals and idiocy. In the buffoon of Rameau, the ridiculousness of the establishment becomes condensed and very entertaining and it is a safe space for Diderot as nobody gets to read it. This is Saturday Night Live for the smallest audience possible.

I found it an incredibly amusing read. It is sharp and witty and often caused me to laugh out loud. Very few of the comedic texts of the eighteenth century have accomplished that. Rameau is a tragic clown, a complete cynic with a heart and reading of his exploits is both distressing and highly entertaining. I think Diderot had a blast writing this and I can feel his need to lampoon his fellow men and women seeping through the pages.

“Rameau’s Nephew” is an easy, short read and highly recommended from me. I could totally see such a text being written today. In fact, I got an idea for a novel or sci-fi movie I would read or watch: What if Diderot was really a twenty-first century comedic writer for SNL who fell into a time hole and then had to carve out a life in the eighteenth century? Not so far fetched as you might think. His texts and his views are incredibly modern. I would love to be credited for that idea.


onsdag den 19. oktober 2022

Henry Von Ofterdingen: A Novel - Novalis (1802)


Henry of Ofterdingen

I have never really understood the concept of poetry.

I get it as far as it being an attempt to condense something, usually intangible, into verse and that you are supposed to feel it rather than understand it. Which actually to me sounds like the definition of art as a concept. My problem is that it usually does not touch me and often strikes me as so much sophism and form that I find it hard to take seriously. I know, this is a philistine viewpoint, and I will likely take a lot of heat for it, but there it is. To me, it is like watching dancing: probably fun to be a part of but leaves me cold and non-plussed to look at.

This is a problem when reading Novalis’ “Henry of Ofterdingen”. This is a book that seems to be intended as a manifest for poetry. Novalis tries to describe to role and search of the poet, and define what poetry is and should do. Not in some positivistic, practical sense, but by setting up a spiritual framework that most of all sounds like a cult.

The framework of the story is that of a young man, Henry, who is travelling from his home in Thuringia with his mother to her father’s court in Augsburg, Bavaria. This is a boy with poetic aspirations and underway he encounters numerous characters who tell him instructive stories or instruct him directly in how poetry work. The stories are rather lengthy and with a clear sense that it is these and not the real-life voyage of Henry that is the agenda of the book.

The stories range from fairy tales over real-life stories to mythological fables of which the last ones are of a nature that I hardly know what is up or down in them and much less what the point is. Recounting these seem pointless. It is easier with the real-life stories such as those of the miner and the knight. They do make some sense, but again, they are supposed to drive a point that eludes me.

I suppose that if I had been into poetry and really cared for it, this might have been a gold mine and this is exactly what this text is considered to be. Almost the defining text on the romanticism of early nineteenth century. I can just imagine wannabe poets poring over this text and trying to find that spot where it all makes sense. Proselytes into this mishmash cult of Christianity, Hellenisms, nature and beauty.

For me however it comes across as a mess. In terms of catching the ephemeral, the intangible essence I am far more a subscriber to the Proustian style. Marcel Proust had much less need for a mythology and mysticism to formulate his images and it seems to me more straight forward and obvious that the dramatic complexity of the systems Novalis sets up.

Or maybe I have just misunderstood the whole thing.

The ending is rather peculiar. The story comes to an abrupt stop and in a post-script, a friend of Novalis tries to summarize what was to come next, hinting that we only got the first one and a half chapters of a five chapter long epic. For a while I thought this was an artificial tool of Novalis, like Diderot would use, but it seems to be genuine enough, making this an unfinished novel.

I am not certain I would need to read the remaining chapters of the story. I get the picture and think I will leave it to others to use this text. It is not a recommendation from me.

fredag den 30. september 2022

Castle Rackrent - Maria Edgeworth (1800)


Castle Rackrent

With Maria Edgeworth’s “Castle Rackrent” I have left the 18th century and entered the 19th. Not a major shift there, but it does feel like rounding a significant corner. It is therefore particularly pleasing that this book also feels like a novelty compared to my previous reading.

This is, if I remember right, the first book on the List to take place in Ireland and it is also written by an Irish, albeit of the Anglo-Irish landowner class. That in itself is interesting, I like when these books take me around the world, and I did my share of travelling in Ireland some twenty years ago. The true novelty however is that the first-person character who narrates the story is an Irish domestic who narrates in his own tongue and mannerism. Edgeworth thus takes on a different persona, which she was likely familiar with, but still a radically different character from herself, and does it with conviction.

Thady Quirk is steward to several generations of masters on Castle Rackrent (rackrent being the term used for a cruel method of extorting the tenants on the land). He tells us the story of four generations of Racrents, one is a spendthrift, a second sues everybody and their mother over pittances and lose mighty sums in the process. A third marries a Jewish girl for her wealth and locks her up until she is ready to part with her diamonds and a fourth… well, the fourth, Sir Condy Rackrent, takes up the major part of the story. He is well liked, cares little for how he spends money and takes an interest in people around him. Unfortunately for him, that means mismanagement of his estate and eventually he loses everything to Thady’s thrifty son Jason (this is hardly a spoiler).

Thady is incredibly loyal. No matter how absurd or cruel his masters, he is always ready to defend them. He loves them to a fault and in his eyes, they are never truly to blame for their error. Yet, it is not difficult to read between the lines that all these masters of Castle Rackrent are terrible landlords. That they are invested with a power they do not know how to administer and get away with it because Ireland is a place of the jungle law, where anything is possible if you have the means and the will and nobody are protected, least of all from themselves.

In these four masters, Edgeworth manages to present to us the evils going on in an uncontrolled Ireland and how unsuited the landed class is to take care of the country. It is quite a subversive writ really. A plea to the British to step in and reform the land.

Beside Thady’s gushing defense of the Rackrents a number of other elements work in the same direction. The Irish of the text itself are described as conniving children, but just beneath the surface it is not difficult to see that they are where the sympathy really lies. Additionally, the novel is equipped with extensive, original notes which all seem to placate the English reader by confirming all the demeaning stereotypes of the lazy and backward Irish, but again, it actually contains a wealth of background information and cultural context to demonstrate and understand the rich Irish culture.

“Castle Rackrent” is short, barely a hundred pages, but a very entertaining and informative read and one I quite enjoyed. I would not say it changed my life, but I do feel a bit smarter for reading it, and that is not a bad thing.

Sadly, as the novel was finalized, Ireland descended in turmoil and the English grip on the country only worsened, culminating in the disaster of the mid-nineteenth century. It is hard to think Edgeworth novel actually helped anything, but it should have and maybe it did in the very long term.

fredag den 16. september 2022

Hyperion - Friedrich Hölderlin (1797)



Friederich Hölderlin’s “Hyperion” is novel written like a poem. Or poetry in the shape of a novel. Either way it is the sort of reading you are not supposed to blaze through but read slowly to enjoy the cryptic images it conjures. Unfortunately, I am a rather plebeian reader on whom that sort of flowery writing is rather wasted and that heavily influences my opinion on this book.

While it is something you are supposed to analyze your way to work out, I understand that this is a fellow, Hyperion, who has returned to Greece and from there sends letters to someone named Bellarmin, who I suppose is a friend. This Bellarmin apparently has talked him into telling his life story.

As a young man Hyperion met an older man named Adamas whom he loved as a father. Adamas disappeared and Hyperion met Alabanda whom he seems to have had a homosexual relationship with. It certainly takes bromance to another level. Hyperion does not like Alabanda’s friends, possibly he is jealous, so he leaves him. Then he meets Diotima, and she becomes the love of his life. Though what he loves more than anything is to set his people, the Greek, free from the Ottomans, because the Greeks are a noble people who founded civilization. So, when the Russians and the Ottomans go to war, Hyperion joins a rebellion and becomes some sort of officer together with Alabanda. Unfortunately, the rebels do not live up to Hyperion’s lofty ideals and is merely a rabble, so Hyperion gets depressed and wants to die. So does Diotima. Hyperion changes his mind, but too late to save Diotima. This makes Hyperion really depressed so he goes to Germany in exile, but the Germans are terrible people so now he is back in Greece to write his story, which is the story we have just been reading.

The story apparent is one about a hyper-sensitive guy who seems to get carried away, even overwhelmed, by emotions at every turn. Nothing is simple and easy for this guy, and everything from the morning breeze to the plight of the Greek people becomes loaded with higher meanings far beyond what reality can answer, hence Hyperion’s life is one of disappointments. I would say this is a guy with mental health issues, but for that I would probably be crucified as someone lacking sensibility for the higher arts.

My copy came with a lengthy analysis of the text of which I understood even less that the actual novel. This appears to be a very important text from the nascent German romanticism. Hyperion is supposed to be our priest to teach us… well, that is not really clear, but my assumption is the beauty of nature and that the intrinsic value of beauty is all that really matters.

I have to say that I was not particularly overwhelmed by this text. Or maybe I should say that it lacked appeal to me because it was actually rather overwhelming. I kept worrying that this guy would go over the edge and become raving mad and maybe he should go back to his medication. To me, this sounded like a bad case of bipolar disorder with each part of the sinus wave making Hyperion lose touch with reality.

It was not surprising for me to learn that Hölderlin actually was mentally ill and in the end succumbed to schizophrenia. Poor guy.

I could easily image a lot of people liking, even adoring the poetic nature of this text and the melancholic suffering it expresses, but I think I passed that phase some time back in the nineties.


lørdag den 27. august 2022

The Nun - Denis Diderot (1796)


The Nun

We continue with another book by Denis Diderot, published posthumously decades after it was actually written. The subject matter and the style of writing is quite different from “Jacques the Fatalist”, this being a first-person narrative in the Richardsonian style about the suffering of a nun as opposed to the Sternian chaos which is “Jacques the Fatalist”, but Diderot being Diderot it also has very modernist elements.

The main part of the novel is formed as one, very long letter to a possible benefactor of the nun Sainte Suzanne. She describes her life story, how as an illegitimate child, her parents wanted to get her out of the way by placing her in a convent. In the first convent she flatly refuses to take her wows, causing quite a scandal, but subjected to enough emotional blackmail she finally accepts to take her wows in the second convent despite being convinced that the religious life is not for her.

The Mother Superior of this convent is a saintly woman who actually understands the misery Suzanne goes through and tries to make her life as tolerable as possible. She dies, and her replacement as Mother Superior is the exact opposite. She sees in Suzanne a threat to her dominion and Suzanne is subjected to all sorts of harassments. Suzanne decides to attempt to be released through a court ruling, which when it becomes known, makes her conditions in the convent even worse. Torments, taunts, starvation and theft are just some of the cruelties she is subjected to. She loses her court case for some reason, possibly because you needed very powerful friends in high positions to get out of a nunnery, and the torments continue, now without hope. Her lawyer and a friendly Vicar General do manage to get her transferred to another, third, convent.

The main problem here is that the Mother Superior is lesbian and abuses her position in true Weinstein fashion to get sexual favors. When Suzanne refuses, the Mother Superior goes into self-escalation and, everybody blaming Suzanne, her life again turns misery.

So far, so good. This story is fairly straight forward. Diderot presents the convent system, not as a religious asylum, but as a prison system to put away unwanted women. A system where compliance is required on pain of torment and a system that will drive those mad who are not suited for a religious life. Diderot obviously was not a fan of convents. His sister was driven mad in one, and he himself fled from a religious career. As a criticism of the enforced convent system, this story is very effective. Suzanne cannot say what it is she wants instead on the religious life, it is the lack of choice that is the problem for her. She has lost her freedom and as intangible as this may be, it is soul-crushing to her.

Then something really weird happens. In a lengthy preface text after the novel proper, it is revealed that the text is a hoax, invented to lure a Marquis back from the provinces to Paris where his friends are missing him. This Marquis was previously engaged in a case where a nun wanted to be released but could not and now, through letters pretending to be from a nun on the lam, they are trying to get him engaged in this story. He consents, so they have to kill her off, and then send him her full narrative as described above.

Why this hoax? And why present this story as a hoax? Do we really want to, or need to, know that this is not just an invented story, but a story invented for crude laughs and petty motives? And even weirder, the way these letters a presented with Diderot talking about himself in third person, makes me wonder if not even this correspondence is a fake, invented for the effect if will have on the story?

I think the whole thing is an exercise in false reality, what we today would call fake news. That the object is to make the reader question apparent truth as something that may look and feel real but is not. This is my guess of course and may be inspired by the times I live in as opposed to the eighteenth century, but if correct, it would make Diderot a far more modern writer than his contemporaries. And well, that was a conclusion I already drew with “Jacques the Fatalist”.

In many ways “The Nun” is the better book, if for nothing else then because Sternian writing tends to annoy me, and beside the modernist mindfuck it also concerns itself with very real social issues that would surely touch a reader, even today. Recommended.


tirsdag den 2. august 2022

Jacques the Fatalist - Denis Diderot (1796)


Jacques the Fatalist

A year or so ago I was reading a lot of “Enlightenment” literature, especially the endless writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He spent most of his life quarreling with everybody else and in particularly a character named Denis Diderot. Frankly, from Rousseau’s telling, Diderot sounded like a far more agreeable character to be around and as it turns out, he also wrote and a far more delightful writer he was.

Diderot dared not publish in his lifetime. Or rather, he stuck to the Encyclopedia, which was controversial enough as it was. His dabbling into literature was way more transgressive and subversive and had to wait for The French Revolution to become printable. Rather promising actually, but also sad for the writer. It also means that I am now thrown somewhere between twenty and forty years back in time.

“Jacques the Fatalist” has been described as the world’s first post-modernistic novel, preceding the advent of those by some 160 years. What is meant by that is that Diderot is playing with the format in a way that is sometimes meta, sometimes explorative and always playful. Heavily inspired by Laurence Sterne, Diderot is not interested in a plot. In fact, plot-wise “Jacques the Fatalist” goes absolutely nowhere. A Master, known only as “Master”, and his servant Jacques travels from place to place. En route the time is spent telling stories. Some stories are begun but never finished. Some are picked up repeatedly, only to be interrupted. I am not quite certain any of them are ever finished and if they were, it is in an abrupt and not really satisfying manner, as if there is actually more to the story than is told.

The theme of the stories is usually around escapades, love affairs, swindles or other juicy topics. This makes them rather amusing if not very coarse, but also so much more disappointing when they never finish. I think Diderot is telling us that the conclusion to the stories is unimportant or the fact that we never know how they end is a point in itself. Jacques himself constantly drives at the futility of changing anything. He is a declared fatalist and convinced that everything that happens is written in the great scroll above. If a thing must happen, it will, and we are powerless to change it. Exactly how that motivates the stories I am not quite certain, but they do serve to illustrate how bizarre and outrageous things can be and that it is virtually impossible to predict what is going to happen, even if it is prescribed.

Diderot insists that everything is true, in the sense that all his stories did actually happen in some form or another and it is difficult not to think that Diderot really just wanted to spread some juicy gossip. Another agenda of his seems to have been to lampoon and grill all the institutions and notabilities he could get away with. He was antiauthoritarian in an age where that was a very dangerous thing to be and he clearly had a lot of things to say about a lot of people.

The upshot is that “Jacques the Fatalist” is a chaotic and messy book to read but highly entertaining and playful, teasing you into rethinking what you think a novel should be. It will never be a favorite of mine, I think, but I am very happy to have read it and I do think I know both Diderot and his age a little better from reading this.

I am not done with Diderot though. The next book is another of his secret novels and another one will pop up when I enter the eighteen hundreds.


onsdag den 13. juli 2022

Camilla - Fanny Burney (1796)



It was with much anticipation I went into “Camilla”. Frances Burney’s first novel “Evelina” is to this date one of the best books I have read on this List and “Camilla”, being her third novel, had to be good. “Camilla” is not a bad novel, but it is in my opinion an inferior novel to “Evelina”, partly due to some plot flaws and partly because it has not aged as well. Where “Evelina” pointed forward, it feels as if “Camilla” is pointing backwards.

In “Camilla” we follow the Tyrold family, the timid and meek Lavinia, the emotional Camilla and the scholarly but deformed Eugenia. They have grown up in the virtuous and protected home of Pastor Tyrold and Mrs. Tyrold. Mr. Tyrold is the younger brother of the country Squire Sir Hugh Tyrold, a generous and not too clever older man without children himself. His nieces spend a lot of time at his place, Cleves, together with Sir Tyrold’s other niece Indiana Lynmere, a very pretty, but vain and vacant girl.

During the period of what appears to be one summer the girls are exposed to the surrounding world and the dangers lurking everywhere. There are two main plotlines. One is of Camilla and her on/off relationship with Edgar Mandlebert, the other is the terrible adventures of Eugenia.

Camilla and Edgar are in love with each other, but instead of being candid about it, they manage to misunderstand each other to an exceptional degree. This is largely driven by Edgar’s wish to get proofs that 1. Camilla actually loves him (which is sort of understandable) and 2. That she will be a good wife. As Edgar is a very old school prude and puritan, this means that Camilla should not see the wrong people or do any wrong and certainly not be improper in any way at all. Since being exposed to world means that Camilla will get in contact with all those things, especially as she is untutored and have grown up in ignorance, Edgar, always lurking in the background sees plenty of things that convinces him that Camilla is not up to his standards.

Eugenia is subjected to blow after blow. At first it was Sir Tyrold’s plan to marry her to his nephew Clermont (incestuously?!) who were on the Continent studying. For this purpose, Eugenia received scholarly training for which she has a great talent. Clermont, when he returns, turns out to be a jackass and a moron and certainly not interested in Eugenia. Then Eugenia meets the equally scholarly Melmond, but he sees only Indiana’s beauty and finally she is the prey of mercenary and brutal fraud Alphonso Bellamy.

“Camilla” is a long book, over 900 pages, but we get the outline of these plots rather early and the bulk part of the volume is mainly Camilla and Eugenia sinking deeper and deeper into trouble. Their trouble of the heart is supplemented and, in my opinion, overtaken by pecuniary trouble. None of the younger generation in the Tyrold household has any sense of economy, especially the brother Lionel and Clermont, who between them manage to throw away thousands of pounds, threatening to ruin both Tyrold households. When Camilla through little fault of her own is preyed on to lose a much smaller amount, she sees herself as the ruin of the family.

Burney is very good with characters. Every character is distinct with their own idiosyncrasies. Sometimes bordering caricature, but they are all alive and real people. Burney also has a very good sense of the environment into which the characters move. You get a feeling she was not only an observer but actually was there in these settings, in the Rooms in Tunbridge or the bathhouses in Southampton. This is not an imagined world as much as a real world with imagined characters. She is also good at setting up the drama. The trouble Camilla and Eugenia get into is very real trouble, especially the pecuniary trouble and the hole they find themselves in is very deep indeed.

Unfortunately, as mentioned above, there are a number of problems here. One has to do with plot resolution. With about 50 pages to go I got the feeling Burney herself got confused how to resolve this. There are some very real problems here, both for Camilla and for Eugenia, but instead of working towards a resolution we spend the majority of the end-section with Camilla fretting, crying and gushing without anything really coming out of it, while around her, things sort themselves out on their own. Just like that. Even Eugenia, the most capable of the girls, just resigns and have outside agents, through accidents, sort things out. Why did nobody call out Mrs. Mittens?

Another problem has to do with the characters and their sentiments. Camilla always means well, but is either mislead by principles and good heart or is simply too unprepared for the outside world and consistently makes the wrong choices. And Edgar… if ever I saw a “hero” who did not deserve to be one. Very early I decided very much against him. To paint him and his sentiments in a positive light was so at odds with my own opinion. I was wondering why on Earth Camilla was pining for him at all. Somebody needed to kick him badly, and when he comes around in the end, it is not with an excuse for his opinions or actions, but because he is now convinced she is good enough. Phew.

My two favorite characters were by far Mrs. Arlbery and Sir Sedley Clarendel. Both represent modern ideals, free people who are capable of doing what they want, not caring of the opinion of prudes, but smart enough to make the right choices. And both of them with a heart. I get the feeling Burney actually admired this type, but was afraid to make them the ideal of the story. Their sentiments were completely at odds with those of the Tyrolds’ and particularly Edgar, representing as they were the modern world. Mrs. Arlbery also called out Edgar early on and warned Camilla what kind of marriage she was aiming for with him. When Sir Sedley takes an interest in her she gets the chance of setting herself free, but decides not to. That is her choice of course, but it also marks this as a poorly aged novel.

I did enjoy reading “Camilla”, Frances Burney is too good a writer not to, but it was at times an infuriating read and not up there with “Evelina”.

torsdag den 12. maj 2022

The Monk - Matthew G. Lewis (1796)


The Monk

There seemed to have been a wave of dark or gothic literature around the end of the eighteenth century and likely into the beginning of the nineteenth century, ranging from the romantic to the macabre and outright disgusting stuff. Whether this was inspired by the horrors of the French revolution or some other underlying and earlier reason I do not know, but the book List editors certainly have an affinity for these stories.

Matthew Lewis’ “The Monk” is, as I understand it, a highly influential work that tapped into this stream. From the basic idea that power and righteousness corrupt, he wrote the twin stories of two girls who falls into the clutches of corrupt monastic rulers. Or, as considered from the other side of the table, of the fall from grace of people who were supposed to be above these things, corrupted by power and temptation.

One story is about Raymond, Agnes and the prioress of the convent of St. Clare. We meet them while she is a nun and he is attempting some covert communication with her. In flashback we get the story how he was travelling in Germany incognito (he is the son of a Marquis in Spain) where he meets and fall in love with Agnes, a guest at the castle Lindenburg. Unfortunately, the baroness of the castle, Agnes’ aunt, is deeply jealous, thinking she should get his attentions. Raymond is kicked out and Agnes comes up with a scheme to pretend to be a renowned ghost to escape with Raymond. The real ghost gets in the way, Raymond disappears and Agnes, believing him dead, joins a convent. Back in Madrid, when they are reunited, they start a clandestine affair, Agnes gets pregnant and the prioress, massively incensed by this violation of rules, confines her to die in the dungeons of the convent.

The second story concerns Antonia, Lorenzo and the abbot of the Capuchin monastery, Ambrosio. In this story Lorenzo, a nobleman, is infatuated by the pretty but demure Antonia. Antonia’s father was of nobility (and related to Raymond) but disowned by his family and Antonia’s mother is convinced that so uneven a match will not end well. At the monastery Ambrosia is a super righteous monk who is slowly being led into temptation. A young novice he cares a lot about, Rosario, turns out to be a woman, Matilda, and she becomes the instrument to gradually corrupt the Monk. They start an illicit affair, but eventually he tires from it and instead turns his attention on the pretty Antonia. Matilda seems more interested in turning the monk onto the dark path than having an actual relationship and it becomes increasingly clear she has access to dark powers. With these Ambrosia manages to get Antonia into his clutches, hiding her away in the dungeon. Will Lorenzo get to her and his sister Agnes in time?

Lewis was very young when he wrote “The Monk” and I could tell how it is driven by his urge to tell a story. It is quickly paced and covers a lot of ground in relatively few pages, but it is also rambling in the sense that Lewis cannot decide exactly what story he wants to focus on and from what perspective and this gives it an almost anthology quality. There is a very important part about Ambrosia’s decent from holier than thou to be entirely in the thrall of sexual desires, ready to sacrifice every principle to satiate it. Antonia’s story is of course linked to it because she is his victim, but Lorenzo, the hero of the story, is largely relegated to an impotent observer and much less interesting to Lewis. The story of Agnes, Raymond and the prioress is, although the characters and linked to the first story, almost tangential to it with very little connection. It is a detour, an interesting one, but also so massive and different that it removes the focus from Ambrosia. I think Lewis let himself get carried away and he struggled to tie the stories together.

Thematically this is an attack on the hypocrisy of the righteous. That the vanity of religion corrupts and that we are not to trust those. It does feel a bit thin, though, and the real driver seems to me to be a desire to write a luscious and macabre story with ghosts, sorcery, pretty girls and evil people of power.

Reading up on the story before going in, I had the impression it would be way darker, maybe down the road of de Sade, but in that sense, I was happily disappointed. Sure, there is both rape and murder, but much less of it than I was led to expect, and it is not dwelling on it with sadistic glee.

The final verdict is that it is an easier and more entertaining book to read than expected but also a story strangely out of focus and unpolished. It was a bit hit in its time, but I frankly cannot see why people got so worked up on it.


onsdag den 13. april 2022

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1795)


Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship

Can you be impressed and confused about a book at the same time? I hope so, because this is exactly how I feel having just read Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship”.

In this we follow a young man called Wilhelm Meister of middle-class origin. Wilhelm Meister is in love with theater. Watching it, the production, the plays, the characters and not least the actors and especially the actresses. He is chaffing at the expectations that he will pursue a career in the family business and easy to distract with anything theater.

On a business trip he gets seriously sidetracked and involved with actors and actresses and as they see him as a source of funding, he is soon involved in a theater project. Wilhelm’s ideal about theater and the reality of the business are quite different sizes and while he is not exactly being abused, he is being led on and for awhile I saw some comparison to “Der Blaue Engel”. But Wilhelm Mester is a lot more reflective than Professor Rath, taking a lot of responsibility on his shoulders and genuinely care for his, mostly ungrateful, colleagues.

Yet, Wilhelm is powerless to actually take charge of his life. Whenever he tries, it becomes false starts and instead he just drifts along from a conviction that fate is taking him to the right place. The result is that other agents are constantly pushing him around and he is lord of nothing.

There is a break in the story and when it returns, the tone is different. It turns out that practically everybody in Wilhelm’s surroundings is connected, that he is being manipulated in a way to discover for himself his true self by something called the Tower Society. Exactly why they take this interest in him and what their target is, is entirely unclear to me. The result, however, leaves Wilhelm as powerless as ever to control his own life.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote the first part in the 1770’ies, then only resumed the manuscript 20 years later and that shows. Where the first five chapters feel like a burlesque on the emerging theater scene in Germany with Wilhelm as the blundering fool but also as our keen observer, the last part is entirely different. Suddenly all the strings are being tied up. Apparently insignificant characters get a purpose and there is a mysticism and presentation of ideas entirely absent in the earlier part. Clearly Goethe has something on his mind and got some ideas about education, religion and purpose in life. But who makes that purpose? Are we born with it? Guided to it by “helpful” people or are we free to set a course on our own? Is Wilhelm Meister better off drifting along, making decisions on the spur of the moment? Or does he get to a better place if he is guided? And who reserve the right to guide us?

I sense a far more reflective Goethe in this latter section, one who is influenced by the enlightenment and the revolutionary thoughts in France. This is an age where fixed patterns are breaking up and people are allowed to reconsider their place in the world, especially the bourgeois. But what is to replace that earlier structure?

Meanwhile, Goethe himself had a love affair with the theater and was deeply involved with the theater at Weimar (where he wrote his most famous work “Faust”), so I definitely sense an autobiographical streak here as well. Is Goethe ironizing over his own life?

Ultimately, I am not certain what exactly Goethe is aiming toward with this novel, and I wonder if he was himself certain. Maybe he was just bouncing ideas and Wilhelm Meister was the unwilling victim of those ideas.

Absolutely recommended. Among the best books on the list so far.

torsdag den 17. marts 2022

The Mysteries of Udolpho - Ann Radcliffe (1794)


The Mysteries of Udolpho

Ann Radcliffe’s “The Mysteries of Udolpho” is touted as THE gothic novel to read, containing ghosts and old castles and mysterious murders. Sounds juicy and true enough, the story has all these elements, but not in that undiluted form we are used to expect in our time.

For the first third of this tome of a book (my version counted 672 pages), this resembled a romantic novella from a Readers Digest. Wholesome romantic fantasies in beautiful settings. Okay, there are parents that die, but even that is very pretty. A voyage through the mountains is mainly a highly detailed and sentimental description of the scenery and how it resonates the feelings of the characters.

We hear of Emily, a young French woman of the lower nobility and how she makes a journey from Gascony to Languedoc to improve the health of her father. On the way they befriend the young chevalier, Valancourt and a romance blossom. Emily’s father does not get better, but dies near the haunted castle of Chateau le-Blanc. Left on her own Emily falls under the guardianship of her aunt, Madame Cheron. She is not exactly a pleasant woman and when she marries the mysterious Montoni, Emily must go with them to Italy, far away from her Valancourt.

In Italy she becomes the de-facto prisoner of Montoni in a dilapidated castle, Udolpho, in the Apennines and this is where the novel turns gothic. Montoni is a mobster and an opportunist who seeks to achieve wealth and power through dominance and underhanded villainy. Emily’s part in his schemes is to be married away for his personal winning, a fate Emily consider too horrible to contemplate. Emily also fears for her life, but mostly for her virginity and then there are the ghosts in the castle…

“The Mysteries of Udolpho” is apparently often being considers a flawed, maybe even laughable novel. Radcliffe is good at building up tension, when she finally gets to that point, but her resolutions are terrible. There are several convoluted mysteries in the story. Supernatural, criminal or otherwise. They tend to scare or confuse Emily or her impressionable maid, Annette, but they almost uniformly deflate when they get resolved. Sometime revealed in an off-hand way, there is always a prosaic, even boring, explanation and Emily usually get out of her trouble surprisingly easy and with little or no effort. Her major quality being her ability to faint from fear and to be modest when tempted.

It is also obvious this is a story from Radcliffe’s fantasy. It is deeply anachronistic, the geography is all wrong and the men and women are cliché characters from a teenage girl’s day-dream. It is often difficult not to roll the eyes and groan. Yet, in the build-up phase there are these moments of brilliance that makes it worthwhile to read this book. The riddles are really quite impressive. So much more disappointing is it when they deflate in the resolution.

I am probably of the wrong gender for this novel, and I certainly belong to the wrong century. It is very possible a female reader two hundred years ago would find this a masterpiece and I could also see this be made into a telenovela. For me though it is merely okay and certainly way too long.


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.