Archive for the ‘Classic’ Category

Alexandre Dumas – The Three Musketeers

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

With this post I reach a small milestone. It’s my 100th. Not bad for three quarters of a year. Such a special post cannot be without a fitting topic, which can only be a review. This one will be my 70th.

One of the most famous historical novels is The Three Musketeers (1844) by Alexandre Dumas with countless regular and animated adaptations. It had been a while since I had seen any of those, so I thought it safe to read the actual book, as my memory of those movies wasn’t that clear anymore. With over 700 pages The Three Musketeers is clearly not that easy to adapt. Parts have to be cut. So I was eager to find out, or rather discover, what was in the story that I didn’t know about.

A first comment I have to make is that The Three Musketeers, like many of Dumas’ novels, were originally serials. What the book actually is, is a series of connected events. Why is this important to mention, you may ask. Well, it is because each event is somewhat different in style and setup. There are comedy events, adventurous events, romantic events and suspense events, just to name a few. Those different events make it that the reader is moved in changing ways. On the one side this is positive because the reader can’t get bored by repeating elements, but on the other side the change can be a bit annoying if one has gotten into a good reading mood. I had actually both feeling. I didn’t mind the change, but not all changes were all to my liking. This was partially caused by the fact that certain events are quite extensive with little progress, while other move quickly and dash forward. Such is of course not uncommon in a story, but because they are also a (minor) change of style.

The Three Musketeers is mostly a combination of comedy and adventure with small elements of drama. There is some darkness glooming in the horizon at times, but it is usually not noticeable. It is then that the story gets the feeling of The Count Of Monte-Cristo, which I read about a year ago, which is a quite dark novel. As The Three Musketeers is more famous than that book, the latter is a more solid and whole read as a complete novel. The Three Musketeers is a fun read but contains some weak parts. Funnily enough I expect readers will have different opinions on which parts are supposedly weaker. As they are so different it is really a matter of taste.

The Three Musketeers is very much character driven. Dumas presents a score of very different characters and takes his time to present them clearly. As a number of them are based on actual historic persons he can use the existing knowledge as a frame and make them into iconic figures. The same he manages to do with his original characters. It is this that makes the book stand out. One will remember each of them vividly. People who will have read the serial would be talking about them continuously like one would do with popular TV-shows.

What somewhat surprised me is that some characters are depicted in extremer or less extremer ways than the adapted movies. From a neutral point of view the good guys are actually quite nasty compared to the bad guys, who are are acting in the right interests. That is an impressing feat by Dumas, letting the reader believe that the ones doing what is wrong to be the good guys. Of course this is not true all the way. Both sides do good and bad things, but overall the balance should be in favor of the bad guys.

The Three Musketeers is certainly a classic of literature with so many iconic characters. The story itself has stronger and weaker parts, allowing adaptations to focus on those stronger parts. This does not mean that only the strong parts are well known. Some parts require knowledge of the historic setting or are too cruel or dark to show for a big audience. In that sense one will discover many new things that you will never have seen in a movie adaptation. Dumas tells us not just a story, but also a history, while he twists the motives of the characters as the historic events remain true. That it is highly recommended is no more than normal.

The first modern novel

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Many will probably be surprised to find out that the book that is considered to be the first modern novel is of Japanese origin and written in the early 11th century. This is The Tale Of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, a woman no less, which is even more rarer for those ancient times. In Japan it is put on par with Homeros and Shakespeare and also in the rest of the world of literature it is considered to be a classic. Although it is thought that the work was completed around 1008, the first mention of a complete edition being available stems from the year 1021.

It is actually a very complex book. Most translations have attempted to help the reader to keep trace of the hundreds of characters in the book. The original version is about 1000 pages long. As such one will find many abridged versions that pick out the best parts. The version I purchased is such an abridged version, just over 300 pages long, covering the first third of the book. Maybe I will obtain the complete version some time later.

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.

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.

Titus Livius – The Early History of Rome

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Faster than I had expected I have completed The Early History of Rome (c. 25 BC) by Titus Livius (Livy for the Anglicized version). The main reason for this was not only that the story was compelling, but most of all that the translation was pretty much done in smooth modern English prose. I’ve read other works by Livius in the Dutch translation and although I enjoyed them I remember them to be more in a Latin style (from what I know of the language) than modern Dutch. If the Dutch translation had been more strict or English is simply so different that the translation creates easier prose I don’t know, but it does make this classic work more easily accessible.

The edition itself consists of Books I to V of Ab Urbe Condita (Since the Foudation of the City), which is the great history consisting of no less than 142 books by Titus Livius. These five books together are already some 400 pages in total, so it’s really a massive work. Most of the books have been lost over time, but the first ten have surprisingly survived completely. The first five books deal with the early legends of Rome until the sack by the Gauls in 386 BC. The first book deals with the early settlers, refugees from Troy, to the foundation of the city and the seven kings who would rule for a period of 250 years.  That these are legends is clear, especially with each king ruling for 30 or 40 years and often until a high age. The next four books covers a period of 120 years in much more detail and almost year by year. As I’ve already started in Book VI (first part of Rome and Italy, the next five books) it is remarkable to note that Livius states that anything written before that book was very fragmented and hardly accurate, as few consistent records survived those times, especially as Rome had no historians until 200 BC. So what Livius actually tells is that Books I-V are mostly made up history with a core of true elements.

If one has read Books II to IV one will be somewhat surprised as the books tell in detail how Rome started as a republic and gradually changed and improved their democracy. This process is very well written when you can see the development year by year. This part is hard to believe as fake.

The more unreliable parts consist of the almost continuous wars Rome fight. First to establish itself as a dominant city and later to sustain this status. There is hardly peace and the enemies are often the same. Several times it is mentioned the enemy has virtually been broken, but only a few years laters they are back at full strength. That Rome rarely obtains a decisive victory is also awkward.  Of course there are losses but the victories are far more plentier.

Overall this history is a mix of short wars, political strife and other events. The variation is exactly right so it never becomes boring. Livius adds in plenty of speeches, short and long, to create a greater feel of a story and not just a series of events. There are many great characters that stand out and create their place in time. It is no surprise these first books became so popular and survived time so well. Within the history is also a hidden theme. It is a moral theme where Livius praises the virtues and condemns the vices. The good usually prevail in the end, the bad often lose. That this does not get noted so easily is because the good and the bad are not of separate parties but are found among every party, either Roman or enemy. Although Rome is the great one overall, it is not a black and white story. Rome also has to develop and grow up and mistakes are part of it.

Although The Early History of Rome is a history it is, like in the classical tradition, also a story, to entertain the people. This history reminded me somewhat of the Histories of Herodotos, who wrote to entertain and to inform in the form of a history. Livius writes in a far more structured and concentrated way, but is also very enjoyable to read. Very much recommended.

Another one about Rome

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

I’ve been filling quite a number of posts about my purchases of Roman history and I still can’t get enough about this fascinating period. There is a positive side to it, though. There are only a limited amount of histories and even less translations available, especially for a decent price. Basically what I am saying is that I’m nearing the end of my collecting spree of the past years on this topic. I’m fine with that as it saves me a bit of money too, although I fear I will probably find something else. Still, I won’t stop writing about it here as I still have plenty of reading and reviewing ahead of me after all that buying.

My latest purchase is a collection of works by Gaius Sallustius Crispus (Sallust for the Anglicized version). Het wrote a number of historic works but only some small parts have survived. The size of these works is so small that they are combined into one book as they only fill up 160 pages. The titles are Catiline’s War, The Jugurthine War, and Histories (c. 35 BC). Sallustius, like most classic historians wrote about his own times as well and except for The Jugurthine War he can be named an eye-witness of those events. Like the several historians of those times he was an ally of Julius Caesar who also obtained positions of power, sort of mimicking their leader in his own writings.

Catiline’s war is about a famous conspiracy uncovered by Cicero in 63 BC while The Jugurthine War tells of a war in northern Africa between 111 and 105 BC. If you would wonder why this war would be of any importance to survive time and being translated is because the war brought two great men into prominence: Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla. They would rise in power until their rivalry would cause the first civil war in Roman history (88-82 BC), a time which would be eclipsed by the much greater civil wars of Pompeius and Julius Caesar and their successors. They were also partially responsible for the division of Rome into two parties as they became their leaders mainly to obtain their own desires (which was no different for Pompeius and Julius Caesar). The Histories are mainly fragments taking place after that first civil war, consisting of speeches and letters.

Appianus – The Civil Wars

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

This review only covers about half of the book The Civil Wars (c. 165) by Appianus. Reason for this is that the book is about the period 133 until 35 BC of the history of Rome and I already have read histories covering the period after 50 BC. As historians in those days had no problems with plagiarism, differences will be minor, even as the introduction of the book mentions that Appianus did not use many sources that have survived until this day. I’m not planning to read the rest any time soon and half should still be fairly sufficient for a review.

Appianus tried to be different from other historians by writing thematic histories in which he focused on one great event or several events that were closely related. Obviously those were the great conflicts. Among those conflicts the civil wars of Rome form the most interesting topic as they describe the transition of the Republic of Rome to the Roman Empire.

The Civil Wars consists of five books of which I have read the first two. The first book covers the period 133 till 70 BC (until the formation of the first Triumvirate) and the second the period 70 till 44 BC (until the death of Julius Caesar). Of the second book I skipped some small parts describing the period after 50 BC, mostly speeches that usually don’t add much extra value for today’s readers.

As the first book covers many years Appianus does not go into very much detail. He picks the most important events and he ignores all other big events that are not related to the theme of civil war. He keeps his focus and surely manages to select the right events, but he does little explanation or theorizing about their importance. They are simply mentioned and the reader has to recognize why they are important. Also notable about the first book is that there are no speeches.

The second book covers a shorter period and describes how Julius Caesar, Pompeius and Crassus controlled the Roman state until their quest for greatness lead to their doom. The main part is about the actual civil wars between 49 en 45 BC which was fought all over the Roman Empire. The pace slows here and Appianus goes into much more detail. The last part during which Julius Caesar ruled as victor until his assassination is described more shortly.

Appianus’ work is more of a pure history. He sometimes comments on events but overall he leaves it to the reader to interpret what he has read. Where possible he goes into detail, but as the history is thematic, he skips a lot of events. Appianus also rarely mentions dates or something to match the dates on. I already knew when all the events happened so it didn’t bother me, but for a new reader it can be quite confusing to find out the period of time and the years when events happen. Luckily there are plenty of notes to compensate for this lack.

The prose was easy to read. If this was because of a modern translation by the translator I don’t know. I’m familiar to translators trying to uphold the style of writing as much as possible, leading to a prose that I have defined as typical latin. However, those have been mainly for Dutch translation. This was actually my first English translation of a classic latin work. I did not notice a typical style and it read like a modern (well-written) history book. As the last three books go into much more detail with a lot slower pace I cannot say how well this opinion will remain, but I think it will.

So why recommend this book? This is actually the only remaining history covering the whole period between 133 and 65 BC. It does leave out a number of great events as it focuses on the theme of civil war, but for those who want to know more about those I refer to Plutarchus’ biographies of the important men of those times. These also provide some extra background, as Appianus is not a historian to add those for extra information.

Early Roman history

Friday, November 5th, 2010

As I am an avid fan of classic history I like to collect works written by the historians of those times as those books are also viewed from the perspective of the author. I have purchased two works by the famous Roman historian Titus Livius (Livy for those who only know his Anglicized name): The Early History of Rome and Rome and Italy. Technically these together are Books I-X of his history Ab Urbe Condita (From the Foundation of the City). As these belong to his earliest works they were written around 25 BC. With these books I’ve completed the available works of this great history as I already owned Books XXI-XLV (no more complete Books are available except for fragments). I have those in the Dutch translation in two very fine volumes. Books I-X were published previously and are out of print while I’ve never seen any second hand copies. Because of this I decided to pick up the English Penguin editions, which are relatively cheap. If there is ever a reprint of the Dutch version I will still surely purchase those eventhough there is little annoying Anglicization of Latin names in those older Books.

For those who wonder what time these Books cover: The Early History of Rome spans about the period 750 until 400 BC, while Rome and Italy covers the period 400 till 300 BC. The aforementioned Books XXI-XLV cover the period 220 until 170 BC, focusing on the war against Hannibal and activities in Greece.

Besides these older works I also bought a little more recent work by Cassius Dio from the Echo Library. This is Volume 6 of their series Dio’s Rome (233). Cassius Dio wrote a similar but smaller work as Livius, but now spanning the times until his own present time. I already have his histories covering the power struggles after the death of Julius Caesar between 44 and 31 BC and the reign of Augustus (31 until 12 BC and from 9 until 14 AD). I didn’t buy earlier and later histories as I already have works spanning those times, although he fills in a gap between 37 and 44 AD that exists in the Annals of Tacitus. Maybe I still will. I already have several overlapping histories and it’s not that bad to have different view points. Those others works by Cassius Dio exist in regular editions, but the period after 54 AD is very fragmented except for his last book which covers the period 221 until 229 AD. This book is in Volume 6 and a complete story reads much better than fragments. Even so, as this is the last volume and only one book is short, two thirds of the volume contains all the collected fragments from the foundation of Rome until 145 BC. So in a sense this history also covers early Roman history and I get an idea of what they mean with fragments when I read about what remains of lost works.