Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

Good intentions

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

What better way to start the new year than by buying some new books? First off I picked up a up a trilogy by G.W. Dahlquist. The three novels are supposedly a hybrid of fantasy and science fiction. The style and approach of the novels caught my interest. I’m not sure how good they will be but my gut feeling is positive. The three novels are The Glass Books Of The Dream Eater (2006), The Dark Volume (2008) and The Chemickal Marriage (2012). Now that I think of it; I have bought complete series just before or after the new year the past few years as well. At least reading a completed multi-volume series will improve my mood for the novels of the plenty ongoing series I am following.

The second thing I bought were two volumes containing the Lives (ca. 120) by Plutarchos (or Plutarch for those who prefer popularized names). I have had the Dutch translation for some ten years, but that translation only cover about two-thirds of the biographies of the great Roman and Greek men of antiquity. This particular edition is one of the few complete editions and set up according to the original structure in which a biography of a Roman was partnered with a biography of a Greek that shared certain similarities. It was not that expensive and I don’t mind having something duplicate because for classical works I prefer to read the Dutch translations when the material is about the most famous times in Roman history as pretty much all English translations use the ugly popularized versions of the names instead of the actual ones.

With these books I can enjoy some good reading for the coming weeks, although I should spend a little more time catching up on my reviewing. Another ‘good’ intention. One knows how those go.


Babur – The Journal Of Babur (Babur Nama)

Saturday, July 6th, 2013

Among the most interesting autobiographies are those written by rulers of the distant past. These are so interesting because there are so few. In most cases we have to deal with biographies, often written after the ruler has died. One of the most famous autobiographies, although most people will never have heard of it, is the Babur Nama (1530), which can be translated by The Journal Of Babur, written by Babur, the founder of the powerful Mughal Empire in India.

The journal itself is not exactly a diary. Babur wrote since an early age but later on in life he started to combine them, leading him to add comments and reflections. He was barely coming into majority when he succeeded his father, one of many noblemen in Central Asia, so one can assume these early writings did not contain the rich knowledge and experience of old age.

The noblemen in Central Asia were often semi-independent rulers. They ruled as they pleased and fought wars where they choose but accepted guardianship of one or more of their more powerful relatives. Almost any nobleman of stature was related to all others because they married their sisters or daughters to each other.

I mention this fact because it is a central motive in most of the early parts of the Babur Nama. The power of these noblemen was often fickle. The allegiance of their vassals depended on providing an image of strength and action. A ruler could not sit at home and govern his domain but had to go on campaign to fight an enemy with the hope of gaining booty or lands which he would share with his vassals. If they didn’t profit they would rebel or give their allegiance to a nearby ruler, often urging that ruler to attack their weak former ruler. The campaigns themselves were usually of a demure nature. The ruler tried to find easy opportunities for gains, rarely gave it his all and if chances were not so good he quickly gave up. Actual fighting was limited. At least he had shown he was willing and his vassals also didn’t really want to risk their lives, so both were satisfied this way.

Actual victories did often not last. Conquering another great city meant giving less attention to your home city or giving its ruler to someone else while one hadn’t set up a powerbase in the new city, making one weak for usurpation or reconquest.

The early years of Babur’s life were a continuous string of minor victories and losses, going back and forth to recover what he had lost. One peculiarity in all these events were the marriage relationships. Because all the rulers were related to each other, they could all set a claim for each other’s domain. However, their kinship was also important to them. Killing the former ruler was rarely done unless they fell in a direct battle. They usually let him go to another domain which meant he could come back to recover his loss.

The reason why I am explaining this is because the events in the first part of the Babur Name are of a chaotic nature and continuous mild violence. One would think it very surprising that these rulers often managed to live so long. That is why I explained the issue of kinship.

Of course one does not become the founder of an empire if one stays in such an unstable environment. Babur got tired of it and moved south when he saw an opportunity and when more joined him than he could have expected he managed to break the circle and rise.

However, it took quite some time before he finally decided to make a real grab for the power in India. It did provide him with a secure powerbase which allowed him to sustain his own domain and the new.

I will not tell more about the journal. I just wanted to add my own reflections of what I have read. There is no plot or story development, so I have to write about something of the content.

What about the journal itself? I read an abridged translation. This mean some parts are left out. It is impossible for me to know what I missed. Most of the journal is about the campaigns Babur undertook. Vassals betraying him and coming back are treated leniently. It was part of the daily affairs. One takes what one can get. Real loyalty is appreciated but in contrast less loyal vassals have to be appeased much more and thus get the greater gifts. Babur is very honest in this and simply states his losses how they happened, trying not to make judgments.

There are some sections describing the lands he has ruled, either short or long. Only at a later age Babur tells more about his daily affairs outside the campaign. In here we get to know a bit of his personal feelings. There is much poetry in the journal itself, either quotes from others or lines he wrote himself. He is also honest about his failings, how he tries to redeem himself but not succeeding to do so. These are actually the more enlightening parts of the journal where you gain some insight in those times and locations.

Over the years I have read quite a few (auto)biographies. As they are written during the same period the central character has lived in everything is told from a perspective in which what happens is natural for that time. So a reader has to read between the lines and recognize what is not told or told in such a usual matter that you don’t notice it as peculiar. It are these things which make me enjoy such works as just reading a history will miss most of these peculiarities which provide a greater insight and understanding.

James Cook – The Journals

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

I was not sure what to expect when I started to read The Journals (1779) by James Cook, the famous explorer. It is an abridged version covering his three expeditions into the Pacific Ocean. The book is more than 600 pages long, so there is plenty coverage of events.

While it is an official journal describing the daily progress and technical details and complications of the journey, Cook adds in a lot of observations. He is not simply recording where they are and what they encounter, he also tries to understand the people and cultures he meets and explain it in the right frame of mind. He is not simply an explorer, he pursues scientific research. He is careful in his approach, prefers to hold back and not judge too quickly, avoiding violence if possible even if the people he encounters have rather barbaric habits. He tries to understand them and does not push his values upon them. He is knowledgeable on previous explorations of the unknown and the errors that were made in those, leading to enmity and misunderstanding between explorers and natives. He tries not to abuse them from his superior position, although his expedition is limited in resources he always needs to trade for food in the most profitable way as he does not know how long his journeys will be.

While writing his accounts on what takes place, the reader gets insight in his character and behavior. He also gives his opinion on the situations he encounters. Often he seems very lenient towards the natives he encounters. This is only as long as they don’t cross certain boundaries that might cause undesired side effects. When this happens he immediately steps into action and does not stop until matters are resolved to his satisfaction while making sure he limits any negative impact from his actions. This approach made me reminiscent of the so-called Prime Directive from the Star Trek series. Cook himself reminded me much of captain Picard from the Next Generation Star Trek series. It almost seemed to me that his character had to be inspired by Cook. Because of his personal contribution to the journal it also resembles much of a diary. So this is not just a travel book, but also a partial autobiography.

The journals cover three expeditions. The first is to the Pacific Ocean. This is very new territory and most of the serious discoveries take place on this first journey.  It is also the most dramatic of the three journeys. Cook encounters more dangers and hardships than on the other expeditions.

The second expedition aims at finding the unknown southern continent. As we already know there is only ice there is not much to discover. Even so, Cook returns to some of the places he has been before and some new ones in between his attempts to find the southern continent. As he spent much less time in those places during the first journey we get a better view.

The third journey aims at exploring the northern Pacific Ocean, especially the Arctic. This is a quite different kind of journey. In the first place is the style of the journal. Cook lets go of the daily notifications and tries to write more of a travel story than a journal. Before heading to the northern Pacific he returns to earlier places and spends much more time there, giving many more details of rituals and other local matters. In his behavior Cook has also changed. He has less patience with the nasty habits of the natives and he treats them harsher. Perhaps he believes they should know better after several visits.

The abridged version focuses mainly on the discoveries and the events the expedition encounters. General descriptions of the lands and details that are similar to earlier ones that have been described are mostly left out. Only in a few cases I wanted to have read them. In most cases I was fine with the chosen cuts.

The edition I read kept Cook’s original writing style. Most prominent is the lack of consistency in the way he writes his words. Often he uses a phonetic version and this version can vary as well as if he is not sure how to write certain words. Fortunately it does not hamper the readability of the journals. One just has to get used to it and then it reads easily enough. Despite the use of phonetic words Cook’s prose is quite readable. I’ve read old journals before and I had much more trouble with them. I had expected I would need several to many months to finish this book, but it went much faster. Nevertheless this is not a book to read in long sessions. I simply read for like an hour per day and that worked fine.

The Journals of James Cook is certainly a very interesting read to anyone wanting to know about late eighteenth century shipfaring and the Pacific cultures and peoples of those times, even when you don’t know what it all means, but you know as much as the explorers do so you feel like you are part of the mission. It is a fine story of a careful and scientific approach to exploration. I enjoyed it quite a bit, much more than I expected.


A different view of history

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

As I have been posting about several mediaevil books about the history of the Byzantine Empire, they have all been written from the Byzantine point of view. That aspect was of course was interested me mostly, but it is also good to have a different view. This was the books The Conquest Of Constantinople (c. 1207) by Geoffroy de Villehardouin, a French nobleman. Unfortunately I don’t have a Byzantine view (yet), but it is nice to have an eyewitness report of one of the most dramatic and shameful events in Christian history. For those who don’t know: During the Fourth Crusade the main attack was not aimed at the muslims, but at the most important and oldest Christian stronghold in the East, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, which was sacked and plundered, most of the lands divided among the conquerors, breaking up the old unity. Still it was amazing that the Byzantines managed to restore the empire over 50 years later and kept it alive for another 200 years. The question remains if it might have survived longer if it had been able to keep itself intact.

The book itself is only 130 pages long and probably because of this reason the publisher, Penguin, decided to combine it with another book describing events of the Crusades. This was the book The Life Of Saint Louis (1309) by Jean de Joinville, another French nobleman. The Penguin edition is named Chronicle of the Crusades, for those who are interested. As the books are a century apart in age and (obviously) written by different authors, I will treat them as separate books. The Life Of Saint Louis is obviously a biography. It is about the French king Louis IX (1226-1270) who took part in two Crusades. De Joinville was a confidant and advisor to the king, especially during the first Crusade and is just like De Villehardouin an eyewitness of the most important events.

The whole book as such describes three Crusades, although the third only partially as Louis IX died early during that Crusade. Quite unique about these two works is that they have been written by noblemen and not by clergy or the professional writers of those times. I had never heard about that these kinds of works existed, so this was a sort of pleasant surprise. Another nice details is that The Conquest of Constantinople is also one of the first prose narratives to be written in French.

I don’t know when I will be reading the book. I’ve been buying quite a lot of historic work the past months and although I like to read about history I do have to be in the mood for it. It is of a different category than regular novels, so I don’t feel the same rush as I often feel when buying a new book.

Michael Psellus – Fourteen Byzantine rulers

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

This review takes us to a time and place few will be familiar with. It is a part of history that is mostly forgotten, because it is about an empire that was only renowned in it’s early years and when it finally fell: the Byzantine Empire. And this is odd, because this empire existed for a long time: from 395 until 1453. An empire that spanned the Middle Ages and thus upheld the classic times until the Renaissance.

I have been gathering a number of histories of the Byzantine Empire written by contemporaries. The first of those histories is Fourteen Byzantine rulers (Chronographia) (c. 1085) by Michael Psellus. It tells of the emperors of the Byzantine Empire ruling between 976 and approximately 1078. Michael Psellus was born in 1018 and became a courtier early on, living at the imperial court and thus being intimate with the emperors and ongoing politics. Actually, Psellus grew in power, starting as a secretary in 1042 and ending up the head advisor to the emperor in 1071, virtually controlling politics to a large extent. Psellus thus plays a big role in history himself and he doesn’t hesitate to mention the parts he played and the reasoning of his actions. This is a perspective few historians ever had. Of course, being part of history, it makes his history less objective, so one has to read between the lines. I will get to that later.

The history of Michael Psellus isn’t actually a history in the true sense. I have read quite a variation of classic histories, but this one lacks. This history is mainly a limited biography which resembles The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. Each emperor is characterized and some background is given. The historical events described are almost random in order. He mentions no dates and doesn’t mind going forward and backward in history to explain certain developments. Historical events and character descriptions are mixed randomly, so there is also a lack of structure. A lot of text is used to described the fall and rise of subsequent emperors. As there was no dynastic succession after 1028 this played an important role. In a sense this is very interesting to know in such detail, but it’s a pity other historic events are not treated with the same accuracy.

Psellus main flaw is the fact that he is a courtier. His life revolves about Constantinople and he rarely ventured to other parts of the empire. He has little knowledge of geography and warfare. Battles are mentioned and described, but the circumstances and location remain rather vague. Campaigns lack details and events outside of the capital are hardly known unless it’s about a revolt. We have little view of the Byzantine Empire beyond the capital. Also quite annoying is that he often does not use names of peoples involved in events. If you write a history, tell who it is about. In many cases it remains vague and only because of the notes to the book I got to know who events were about.

Psellus was a courtier and philosopher and most of all part of the peace faction at the court. The latter meant that his point of view is mostly that peace has to be maintained. War has to be prevented and when internal conflicts arise compromises have to be sought so everyone is happy. War is only allowed in dire circumstances. When reading his history one will slowly notice this stance that Psellus upholds when describing the emperors. He praises those who are peaceful and clement and is critical to those who are harsh and willfull. Overall he praises most of the emperors, but on most he is also critical, usually because they are wasting the treasury and ignoring the state of the army for the defense of the empire. While Psellus rises in power one notices that he complains but never seems to act to do something about it. Psellus lacks strength and also the insight in the troubling affairs in outer parts of the empire, because the empire is seriously in decline and while Psellus acknowledges it and sees the causes, he fails to do something about it. Most of the emperors are incapable of restoring the military power of the empire and mainly ignore this. They live vainly in a court that is only self-centered.

Fourteen Byzantine rulers is decently written for a history. The writing style is not troublesome and as Psellus often writes from his own viewpoint there is a smooth pace. He does not manage to keep the reader interested. The fact that he often remains vague about persons and events make it sometimes hard to keep your attention. Overall it certainly is an interesting work and recommendable for anyone interested in Byzantine history and the lives and nature of it’s emperors.

Connecting Byzantine history

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

Today I received The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, which was completed around the year 1148. It is my third historical book about the Byzantine Empire and like the other ones written by a contemporary. What I like mostly is that the three books almost fit together in the time periods they describe. The first one, The History by Leo the Deacon, covers the period 963-976, the second, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers by Michael Psellus, covering the period 976-1078, while The Alexiad covers the period 1081-1118. I am already reading Fourteen Byzantine Rulers, but history does not always require to read things in order. Either way, as far as I know, there are no other histories (easily) available about other periods of the Byzantine Empire. The only I know is by Procopius, describing the events in the sixth century when Justinianus I ruled, but I haven’t found an acceptable version yet that I would want to buy.

My version of The Alexiad is the Dutch translation. As the other two books are in English, naming conventions will be a bit different, but the publication of these classic works in the Netherlands is of very high quality and often available in hardcover. I like them much more than the English publications, which often seem to be cheap reprints of old publications, so if I can get them I prefer to do so, even if these publications are usually quite more expensive.

The author of The Alexiad, Anna Komnene, is the one of the first female historians. The book she has written is also a biography. It is even more special as she wrote about the reign of her father, the emperor Alexios I, making her an Imperial Princess. She was thus really in the middle of the events and had access to a lot of intimite information. More information can be found on Wikipedia. No need to go into that many details. In many ways thus, this is a classic book.

Dabbling in old classics

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

It’s not unusual that I am reading several novels at the same time. Usually it is because they are tough to read, even if they are interesting. Most common in this category are old classics. Books from before the time that reading was normal among commoners and when there was an even bigger lack of editors fixing the style of the writer.

At the moment I am reading 3 books, with the remarkable feat that for every one of them there is no clear publication year.

The first one is the Dutch translation of The Jewish War (De Bello Judaica) by Titus Flavius Josephus (c. 74). I have already read (the interesting part) of it’s prequel Antiquities of the Jews (written after this book), so I am actually reading it in the right order. I am getting near the end, although I will skip the bonus novel My life, which is a partial repeat of a part of The Jewish War. Maybe sometime later. I only bought it for the main book.

The second book I am reading is The Travels, ghostwritten for Marco Polo (c. 1300). The famous work about his journey to China and what he saw there. I am already halfway.

The third book is Fourteen Byzantine Rulers (Chronographia) by Michael Psellus (c. 1085). The book describes the rule of a set of Byzantine Emperors between 976 and 1078. The nice thing about the book is that Psellus was a contemporary of the time, being born in 1018 and living in the environment of the emperors after 1028 and playing a part in government from 1042 onwards. Maybe not always that objective, but fairly accurate.

I hope to finish them within a few weeks.