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.