Archive for January, 2011

Walter Scott – Ivanhoe

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

With Ivanhoe (1819) by Walter Scott I turn to the mediaevil times where chivalry meets the actual historical truth. Back when it was published Ivanhoe quickly became popular all around the world, but I expect many would not know about it except for some Hollywood movie adaptations. Still it is considered a classic in it’s own sense, as it also presents the figure of Robin Hood as we know him today.

As a novel from the early nineteenth century one might expect Ivanhoe to be a modern kind of novel, but I was surprised that it looked more like an actual mediaevil novel I read by Wolfram von Eschenbach about Parzival (c. 1220). For this reason I don’t categorize it as a modern novel. The reason for this came forth from the way the story was told and the style of prose. It is hard to describe what this is. The best way to do so is by saying that we read it from a story teller’s point of view. This narrator has his own voice, usually at the beginning of each chapter. There is also specific attention to setting the scene which is different.

Another typical style was a lack of real dialogue. Characters often seem to make long speeches to each other. It is a dramatic way of telling the story, almost like it is a play. It does take away the feel of a normal dialogue away, but I guess it makes it easily adaptable for a movie.

As I wrote in my first sentence Ivanhoe als presents a contrast. Chivalry plays an important theme in Ivanhoe and also that loyalty and other good virtues are important. Opposed to this is the historical late twelfth century setting: The tensions between Normans and Saxons, the strife within the royal English family, the dubious practices of the Templar Knights, the Jewish role in mediaevil society and anti-semitism. Scott doesn’t just write a story but he also provides the reader with the historical background and makes sure the reader is able to place the events in their time-frame. He also refers to later historical events so that the reader doesn’t get the wrong ideas.

The pace of the story is fairly decent, even with extended descriptions to set the scene and long dialogues, but in the middle part this becomes only relative as many scenes happen parallel to each other. This does rise up the tension as the reader what is happening elsewhere. It is a trick Scott uses several times: setting up a cliffhanger and then turning to some other characters who are almost dallying around for some time.

The end of Ivanhoe is almost anticlimatic. Most of the exciting action happens at the end of the first and second thirds. The titular hero does not even play that a prominent role. It almost feels toned down. The way Scott tells his story there are several main characters, either good or bad. He gives them a clear characterization so that the reader understands them well.

Ivanhoe is surely a remarkable novel with many elements that make it stand out. However, it does feel that it is a classic of it’s own time, but not particularly one of modern times. It did not impress me, but I can put myself in the position of an early nineteenth century reader who would be blown away.

Jacoba van Velde – The Large Hall

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

During the holidays I got a free giftbook called The Great Hall (1953) by Jacoba van Velde. It is a Dutch novel and the author is actually rather unknown. She only published a few novels in the fifties and sixties. The Great Hall (also named The Big Ward), her debut work, did obtain critical acclaim at the time and has been translated in several languages, including English. Thus I can review it, although non-Dutch readers will have a hard time finding a copy.

The Great Hall is not a long novel. It is a tragic story about an elderly woman who is forced to live in a place for the elderly and her daughter. Both points of view are followed, although the main focus is on the mother. The theme of the book is old age and death, as one can guess. Van Velde provides variation through the two viewpoints and clear characterizations of the other elderly women at the retirement home.

Two things stand out in Van Velde’s prose. She writes with great clarity and without any finery. This is a typical style which was used by a number of writers during the interbellum. As the book was published in 1953 this style was still to be found. I like this kind of style because it shows that prose can be enjoyed without it having a notable style for which a certain knowledge of words is required.

Another oddity of the novel is the lack of punctuation to define paragraphs and dialogue. This requires the reader to put more attention to the text, but I cannot say it’s something positive. Of course there are paragraphs but they just look like long slabs of text.

The Great Hall is a timeless work. Even as it has been written 50 years ago anyone reading it will find elements that will touch you. The characters described are of all times which you can find anywhere, even how peculiar they seem. It is not a remarkable work, but it surely gives a vivid and accurate description of old age and the coming of death. Even as it is tragic it does not focus on this and its length is kept short enough so one will not end it with mixed feelings but more solemnly.

Titus Livius – Rome And Italy

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Once again I return to ancient Roman history with Rome And Italy (c. 25 BC) by Titus Livius (or Livy in the English version), covering the books VI to X and the period 386 until 293 BC. Previously I have reviewed books I to V in The Early History Of Rome, providing the setting and circumstances of the Roman Republic until the Sack of Rome by the Gauls in 386 BC. As the sack destroyed most of the historical records, a lot of the early history originated from oral tradition. Hence, as was normal in those times, historians filled in those gaps as they saw fit to make sure the story was whole and made sense. An effect of this was that Books I-V felt more like a story than a history.

Why this lengthy reference to the review of the previous volume? It is because I will use it as a comparison to the next volume. After 386 BC records were far more available and the historian has to follow the facts and not make up things to fill the gap. This difference clearly shows in this volume. Livius regularly adds comments about his sources or expresses his doubts on the truth of the matter. Also conflicts arise. Apparently earlier historians have not been in agreement on which persons were involved in certain events and when events exactly took place. This problem was hardly around in the previous volume but arises frequently in the real history. As the rulers of Rome changed every year this makes it more troublesome because of a larger list of names that appear shortly and afterwards often quickly disappear again.

Two elements dominated the first volume: the political development of Rome and the continuous battles it fought with its neighboring cities which never lead to serious development or expansion. Outside its own region Rome did not play much of a role.

In Rome and Italy the political development is mostly done except for some finetuning. In the first volume the discussions and returing important persons hold the story together. In the second volume there are only speeches and the dialogues are gone. The historical characters become less pronounced, also because they play a less prominent role.

With the political development gone, most of the history is about warfare. After the sack Rome’s power declines which leads to instability. However, Rome achieves victories and manages to recover quickly. Even such that, unlike the first volume, it quickly starts expanding and dominating neighboring peoples. There is a greater dynamic and variation of Rome’s position in Italy. Now victories do last. Beaten peoples don’t rise up again within a few years or have doubts in supporting other peoples. Things that were not there in the first volume, where Rome’s enemies were aggressive and recovered quickly after defeats. The quick expansion goes together with internal stability and peace in it’s own region. The wars are fought far away from home.

Rome And Italy proves to be a more real history than the previous volume. While that one could be seen as a somewhat entertaining read, there is less story here and more history. The history also makes more sense but does not provide much insight with the focus on war and the greater stability. Still there are some heroic events that liven up the tale.

As a history Rome And Italy provides insight in how Rome became the dominant power in Italy and how expansion triggers new conflicts with either further expansion or loss of power. As Rome became the dominant power in Rome it would soon find a greater adversary, the city state of Carthage.

I enjoy reading Livius. His prose (or at least the translation) is easy to read although the material was somewhat drier than the previous volume. Obviously a must-read for anyone into classic history.

Glen Cook – The White Rose

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

I start the new year with a review of The White Rose (1985) by Glen Cook, the third novel about the Black Company and the conclusion of the highly recommended previous novels The Black Company and Shadows Linger.

As in the second book several years have passed as the start of the novel where some major changes turned the world around for the Black Company. Although the situation looks like it’s still far from closure, Cook again shows how he ignores cliches and turns things for the unexpected. Again he varies his style by introducing new narratives. Not only provide these a variation of settings but also prepare us for what is to come later. In that way we uses a similar trick as in Shadows Linger, but he does it in a different way.

The world of the Black Company is not black and white but various shades of gray. This aspect plays an even larger role in this book. Funnily enough there are some extreme black and white aspects which forms a peculiar contrast. In a way one can say that absolutes exist but in between those absolutes nothing is absolute.

In the previous books character development didn’t play an important role, but in The White Rose it does. Characters change or make choices that are sometimes not expected. The final of the ‘trilogy’ has elements that you get to expect but also has some twists that allow for a certain conclusion. As there are more novels to follow, I can tell that some open strands remain.

In the first two books the world of the Black Company had some peculiar things but overall it did not contain that much weird stuff. In the third book he adds a fair number of interesting creatures and environments. Some were hinted at in the first book, but kept so vague that there was little to wonder. Now we learn much more. It was certainly a nice addition. I’m interested if the next books will contain more like it.

The plot moves faster than the second book, but far from as fast as the first. Cook keeps up his concise style and the prose keep at the level of the previous books. The White Rose is somewhat capable to stand on its own, but as it concludes the stories of the earlier books it is better to have read those first. Again I can only fully recommend this third book as well. The next books have already been ordered, so I only need to be a little patient until I can continue the story of the Black Company.