Archive for the ‘Classic’ 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.

 

Lucius Procopius – The Gothic Wars

Monday, June 30th, 2014

I conclude The History Of The Wars  by Lucius Procopius with Books V & VI which described The Gothic Wars (ca. 553). Unfortunately I discovered that The Gothic Wars do not consist of 2 books like the previous two Wars but of four, of which Book VIII only exists in a fragmentary form. Of Book VII there is no affordable translation available, so I will have to do with an incomplete collection of the events.

The Gothic Wars is a bit misleading name. It recounts the war that the Eastern Roman Empire fought against the Ostrogothic kingdom that finished the Western Roman Empire in 476. The setting is thus Italy where the Goths only form the ruling class and society is still very much Roman in nature and character. The reconquest of Italy by the Eastern Roman Empire is possibly an essential event that allowed for the survival of Roman society and culture in Italy and the Pope in Rome gradually gaining ascendancy as the central power of the Catholic Church, as the Goths, and later the Langobards, were Arians, and this protected them against a possible dominant influence. But I am getting ahead here of the narrative. This book is only about the first campaign in Italy by the Eastern Roman Empire.

The difference between the first two Wars is that in each War the central figure, the general Belisarius, is more present. In the first Persian Wars he was only barely present during the events and in the Vandalic Wars he was only there initially and the successes could hardly be assigned to him and more to his commanding officers. In The Gothic Wars he is all present and here I finally had the feeling his fame was given credit. Warfare in the later days of the Roman Empire was far from the effective military machine of its early days so it is nice to see some tactical creativity.

More than the previous Wars, as Belisarius is more present, Procopius is able to provide an accurate narrative of the events as he was the personal secretary to Belisarius. There is much more detail and far less digressions than before. The previous Wars were more chaotic in nature. This war is more focused and there are more peculiarities to be noticed. This is not the place to discuss them as they are the interesting things to explore when reading this history. Procopius remains a fairly neutral observer. He does not judge although he sometimes expresses sadness or worries regarding the actions of certain persons. So his commentary remains of a mild nature. In general he is never negative or overly positive.

Despite that The Gothic Wars ends abruptly as there have been written more books there is a sort of conclusion of the first part of the campaign and some events of the second part which in some cases remain somewhat in the open. There the war turns a bit more chaotic again so one could say we get to see the better and more interesting part of the war.

The quality of the narrative in this final volume is the best of the series as we get a true eyewitness account of someone who was in the middle of the events. It is a well written history and there are few of those in those days at the start of the Middle Ages. Later histories were mostly written by members of the church and their histories have a very religious perspective, giving more focus to religious events, something that Procopius barely has attention for. It is perhaps one of the shortcomings of the histories of Procopius as they focus on martial events and only political events directly related to these are remarked upon. There is no complete picture as most historians are wont to provide for. However, this remains a very interesting read.

 

A dive into history

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

I take the field of literature in a broad sense. As I have mentioned before I like to read books from earlier times which are often not truly novels but relatively contemporary narrations of historic events. As they are written in the times they author lived in he writes from his own cultural and social perspective which gives each of these narratives a unique feeling.

These days many webshops provide the option to create wishlist. Here you can store items you don’t want to buy yet, usually because they are of lesser priority or because they are too expensive and you want to wait for an acceptable discount. Recently I decided to clean up one of my wishlists a bit as I realized many had been in there so long they wouldn’t get a serious discount soon and that I have been buying cheap books for such a long time now that its not that bad to buy some books for a more regular price.

The batch that I have purchased covers a wide range: Books XI to XIV of the Library (30 BC) by Diodorus Siculus. It is the only work that covers the period of Greek history between the rise of Athens and Sparta after their victory over the Persian Empire in 480 BC and the conflict that would mark the decline of Greek power in 431 BC. The books continue until 401 BC, but for that period contemporary historic works have survived and Diodorus Siculus uses these much as source. In a way the work by John Zonaras is similar. Books XII and XIII of The Epitome Of Histories (1134) covers Roman history between the years 218 and 395, which also lack suitable sources. More contemporary is History Of The Lombards ( 799) by Paul the Deacon, who lived in Italy in the eight century. The man who conquered the Lombards was Charlemagne. A combined book I bought contained two biographies: The Life Of Charlemagne (836) by Einhard and Charlemagne (887) by Notker the Stammer, of which the first is more famous as Einhard was knew Charlemagne personally. Next follow several books from the later Middle Ages: The Orkneyinga Saga (ca. 1200), a history of the Orkney Islands around they years 1000 and earlier. No author is known. The same is the case for Njal’s Saga (ca. 128o), which provides detailed stories of life in Iceland. And finally are two chronicles of the Crusades: The First is narrated by Ralph of Caen in the Gesta Tancredi (1118), which describes the Norman participation, and The Chronicle Of The Third Crusade (1222), written by multiple authors and thus not clearly attributable, in which the most powerful rulers of that time joined in like Frederick Barbarossa of Germany and Richard the Lion Heart of England. Both narratives are eyewitness accounts of these events.

It is a grand set of works. They are of course not on top of my read list but regularly I am much in the mood to pick something like this up for a different kind of read.

Lucius Procopius – The Persian Wars

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

The Persian Wars (ca. 553) by Lucius Procopius are in fact Books I & II of The History Of The Wars. I could read the whole thing first but the edition I have (by the Echo Library) has cut them into three volumes according to the subject of the books. Even though the book is short there is enough to mention for a review, and besides, I am in no hurry to read the rest. It was just a quick read I was going for.

The relevance of this history is substantial. It is written by the secretary to the greatest general of the era, Belisarius, during a period of reconquest by the Eastern Roman Empire (also known, later, as the Byzantine Empire) under the emperor Justinianus. Procopius served Belisarius throughout his career and allows the reader a eyewitness account of these times. Nevertheless, Procopius was no neutral observer so the words need to be read carefully. He could not lie outright and much can be discerned by the careful reader.

The translation provides easy readable prose. Procopius seems a good storyteller and this is what he starts with. The book deals with the wars that the Eastern Roman Empire fought with one of the incarnations of Persia (this was the second) not only during Procopius’ lifetime but also before. Procopius starts off with an introduction to Persia and describes the recent history to provide the reader a good feel and insight to the character of the Persian. There are a number of amusing anecdotes and it seems to take some fair time before the Eastern Roman Empire gets involved.

Now I need to provide some background to it all. The Eastern Roman Empire had no ambitions to venture beyond its traditional boundaries to the east. It mainly had its sights on the west to recover the territory lost after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476. During this particular period the Eastern Roman Empire was very active in the reconquest. It had no interest in Persia. Peace was preferable.

One thing that is particular about the Persian Wars is that they are mainly defensive wars. Any attack on Persian territory were feeble attempts that were not very serious. One thing that is not mentioned in the book, but rather clear if you look well at it, is that the borders with Persia are very undermanned and that the Eastern Roman Empire could hardly form an army to defend itself against incursions by Persia. The wars are in fact a series of threats (in exchange for gold), looting and burning of Roman cities in the plains in the Middle East by Persia with rarely any resistance or counteroffensive by the Eastern Roman Empire. Even more staggering seems to be that the Empire doesn’t seem to care about the destruction of cities and the loss of wealth and people. The only question that remains is why Persia did not take full advantage. It is possible Persia was already overstretched in size, had internal problems and considered the great size of the Eastern Roman Empire too dangerous in case it decided to really strike. Any aims for conquests was focuses on minor states that were either subservient to one of the two powers.

The Persian Wars is a somewhat unusual book. There is hardly any mentioned about events in the Eastern Roman Empire itself. Most of the story is focused on Persia and the wars take only place around the border areas. Procopius remains neutral about the great losses. It happened and one should not be too much troubled by it as the Persians did not really gain actual territory. I enjoyed this particular history as it has a characters of its own and does provide certain insights in those times in that region of the world.

 

Words in pieces

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

In older times there were no standards set for the length of a story or a book. Because of that there exist some massive works spreading many volumes and it is only the loss of material due to lack of copying (everything) over time that many are reduced to more manageable sizes.

Recently I had a lengthy vacation in China and this roused by interest in the classics of Chinese literature. China invented bookprint some centuries before the West did so there must be some stuff around. I selected two works, partially because they were quite extensive as mentioned above. Luckily these were complete stories. However their length also meant that the work had been cut into separate volumes. Of course this happens all the time these days but with such old works there is always the question if the place where the work is cut into pieces is not random and does allow for a break. I have no idea so I will have to wait and see.

The first work is a historical novel called The Romance Of The Three Kingdoms (ca. 1400) by Guangzhong Luo. It is an abridged version, although this was done in the 1660s, in which non-relevant material (for the story) was removed and some passages were improved. So technically the story is still complete. It’s total length is about 1300 pages so the novel is cut into two parts. The novel is an adaptation of a set of oral tales about a period in history from 184 to 280, telling about the events that lead to the fall of the Han dynasty and the breakup of China into three rival kingdoms which warred with each other. The story has been adapted into modern versions a lot so it is nice to read the original tale.

The second work is one of the first modern Chinese novels, written in 1760, although the work was still incomplete by that time as the author, named Xueqin Cao, died in that year. It took until 1791 before the work was actually published and the publisher, named Gao E, used the working manuscript of the author to complete the story. The work I am talking about is published under two titles. Its most common name is The Dream Of The Red Chamber, although my edition carries the alternative name, The Story Of The Stone. Its total length runs to about 2500 pages. I have obtained the complete version of the novel and this edition has been cut into five pieces: 3 books of 600 pages, compromising the original works by Xueqin Cao, and 2 books of over 300 pages which have been completed by Gao E. Unlike The Romance Of The Three Kingdoms the five volumes each carry a title of their own: The Golden Days, The Crab-Flower Club, The Debt Of Tears, The Warning Voice, and The Dreamer Awakes. As the last two versions were not completely written by the author I intend to review each novel separately, although that may give me some headaches on giving each something new to say about.

So far about the background of this work. As I’ve mentioned it is a modern novel, which means it has a story that takes place in about the same time and reflects events that take place. So when it was published it was a contemporary novel: It told about people, society and culture that were fairly familiar to the readers and as such the work reflects and depicts mid seventeenth century life and just for that it makes a very interesting work as very few of such works can be found from the past and this one belongs to the earliest in which authors began to write about their own society and life (not counting autobiographies) in a story they made up themselves.

I don’t know when I will pick up these works but they will be attracting my eye on my bookshelves for the time to come.

 

Wilkie Collins – The Woman In White

Saturday, November 16th, 2013

One of my goals while exploring the world of books is reading the classics of literature. I don’t aim to read all of them because some  simply turn out not to my liking. So if I have tried at least one famous novel of an acclaimed author I am satisfied enough as I am able to express my opinion on its nature as a classic. One branch of classics, which is a bit more obscure, is reading those novels which created a new genre or subgenre in literature. Of course such definitions are prone to discussion as literature always goes through different stages of development. Novels can be denoted as partially creating a new genre so one defining line would be that a whole novel is intentionally written to be in the new genre as a whole and that it lead to many new authors copying the new genre.

One of those classics in literature which created a new genre is The Woman In White (1860) by Wilkie Collins, the first “sensation” novel. Of course sensation is a broad term. What defines The Woman In White is that its sole purpose is to captivate the reader with an exciting story while making use of cliffhangers to keep them reading. So one could say a sensation novel is a pageturner. It makes the reader unable to put the novel down. The novel was originally published as a weekly serial and its success achieved great heights. This format and the aim of the author to put in each part something that would keep the reader hooked was on a level not seen before.

So what is The Woman In White? It is a complex story with many layers which are well structured. The story is told from the viewpoint of several narrators who each contribute a part of the story. There are two main narrators. The others mainly fill in gaps so the reader gets the whole picture. The two narrators also pretty much define the nature of the story they tell. The first narrator, who is male, opens the story, then follows the second narrator, who is female, after which the first does the remainder. The first part is for the greater part told as a simple romance which on the background contains a lingering mystery. The latter is what keeps the reader going as the romance might be enjoyed by a female reader, but is nothing special.

The second part however turns everything upside down. It is a pure thriller, dark and captivating, in which the reader has little understanding of all that is happening and only knows that it is bad and nasty. There is great power in the central part of the story and as it is told by a female narrator who is part of the events and much constricted in her actions because of the social limitations she is bound to.

The third part changes style yet again. Now the story becomes more of a tale of mystery as the first two parts have created too many which need to be resolved. Collins takes his time and step by step everything is unveiled, either by chance or by smart reasoning. Even so nothing happens in any way that is predictable. There are some surprising twists which I hadn’t seen coming at all. This novel may have started a new genre but it did not contain any typical clichés we are now familiar with.

Until so far the story. What about the characters? There is not much particular development. Only the main male narrator undergoes a change which certainly improves the story. The others important characters are not so much developed but have great depth. The villains would have been very original were it not that they are one of the few elements which have been copied in later thrillers and mysteries. Even so they have many layers and very interesting. The character that stands out most among the main characters is the female narrator. She is almost manly (like a feminist), a relatively modern woman with great intelligence and understanding and a strong will. She dares and acts and is very likable. She is dominant despite her lesser social position and the rock that holds everything together.

Usually I’m very good at finding flaws and weaknesses in a story and most of my reviews contain much of that. The Woman In White is however a wonderful story with great complexity which is written with a good pace and with many strong twists that will  shock you. The different styles might set different moods of which one may be enjoyed better than the other but each serves it purpose. Because of the romance, the thriller hits harder and deeper and the mystery allows you to recover while still being much engaged. The only thing that makes me wonder about this novel is how little known it is. I only discovered it because I like browsing the available books in the libraries of publishers like Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics and Wordsworth Classics and look at books I haven’t heard about. The internet makes this easy to do. I certainly consider this novel to be literature because of the complex structure, the strong characterization and the mid-nineteenth century setting. This novel is certainly highly recommended. Anyone who loves a great book or a thriller or a mystery should certainly pick it up.

 

Wilkie Collins – The Moonstone

Monday, August 12th, 2013

In my ongoing quest for the classics of literature I have come across a lesser known classic. The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins belongs to the very first detective novels. So this was before any standard formats were used and the typical clichés were known. The Moonstone entered a new frontier and just that makes it an exciting read.

In some cases, if one encounters an early book of a genre, one runs the risk that, as it did not know of clichés it can be full of it. This is certainly not the case in the Moonstone. It is actually the lack of standards and formats which make is unique. Collins was still exploring this new genre. He did not know what would work and what would not. This resulted in a novel containing all kinds of familiar elements that are just off a little. They are very appealing but still lacking. It is imperfect. If one has read plenty of detective novels you easily pick out which elements developed into this or that later in the genre. Here they are still different and they have a different effect.

One big game changer compared to contemporary detectives is that this novel is a character piece. The characters define the plot and the mystery while usually it is the plot that defines the story and the characters needed to make it work. The plot itself is not that complex and one can fairly well guess who did it. It is only because Collins makes his characters create smoke screens that the reader remains uncertain until late in the book with a fairly baffling conclusion. The Moonstone makes its mark and it is certainly one of a kind. It will certainly survive the ages, although it should be awarded more attention that is has had as I myself only discovered it by chance.

As I wrote the novel is a character piece. This is for a large extent accomplished by telling the story in several different first person narratives. Each character is very different and creates a different atmosphere in the part in which their story is narrated. Collins has plenty of time to flesh them out. It would even have been better if other characters in the story would also have narrated a part of the story as some remain partially developed and not always as well as the other side characters have been done. Here Collins was probably constricted by the fact that he was telling a detective story and some narratives were simply not logical to present.

The Moonstone is not a perfect novel. Instead it thrives on its imperfections as a detective novel and a strong characterization. The plot floats between complex and simplistic. Some answers were quite impossible to guess while others were fairly obvious. The novel is very much a product of its time where science was only yet developing and there was still a division between higher society and government officials that limited serious investigations. This new change was at the time not ripened yet but one can see it coming. There were still constraints and the differences between social classes and their internal behavior played a large role. Collins depicts these clearly. As always, living 150 years later, it sometimes seems to strange. Are the descriptions and attitudes so distinct because they were normal and natural to the writer or something he aimed at to create a greater contrast. I am not that familiar with mid nineteenth century England to really make comments about it, but contemporary literature, in a way, always describes the times as they are written in and this is what makes them distinct as you can place them in their times. That is a difference that I note between contemporary authors writing a story that takes place many decades ago and novels written in that period.

I will not diverge to much from the actual review of this novel. I think I have said enough already. This one is certainly recommended, not only for fans of the detective genre. One last note: my edition contained extensive notes and introductions. It is advisable to skip them all until the novel is done as they are quite spoilerish.

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.