Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

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.


Alexandre Dumas – The Man In The Iron Mask

Friday, February 8th, 2013

I have finally completed the large three-part sequence dubbed Ten Years Later, written by Alexandre Dumas. It is the third installment in his Musketeer saga, in which the four heroes have become old men, something that is also reflected in their behavior in the story. Due to the large size of Ten Years Late, it being originally a serialization published weekly, it is usually cut into three parts: The Vicomte De Bragelonne, Louise De La Vallière and The Man In The Iron Mask (1847). Now that I have completed them all I can conclude that the separation into three is the best. Smaller parts could be possible, but especially the last two parts shouldn’t be read too long after each other as there are some minor events in Louise De La Vallière that echo on in The Man In The Iron Mask. I read The Vicomte De Bragelonne over a year ago and I never felt I was missing on much.

In The Man In The Iron Mask the four musketeers take full presence again after staying mostly on the background in Louise De La Vallière. There is a change in pace compared to the previous novel which main characters were young and with mind filled with silly dalliances. The four musketeers are no longer acting on impulse and always on the action. There is much reflection and deliberation. The characters hold on to their great past and this affects their behavior and reactions. They have regrets and ambitions they would like to fulfill before their end. This novel is much more serious and looks more into their psychology. Dumas also had the intention to make this the final story and he thus works towards a conclusion, spending much time with the characters individually.

Compared to the first two parts The Man In The Iron Mask has much less story. The main premise which has been adapted to the screen so often is relatively short and the surrounding events are stretched out to a great extend. There is a long foreplay and afterplay. Perhaps this is what makes it more easily adaptable compared to the other stories which have too many threads or lack a central theme. The story contains also rather little real action. There is one sequence which is more tragic than heroic.

The musketeers have become old men and it shows. On this part Dumas has shown over the series true character development. He held on to their core characteristics. The accompanying behavior is reflected in their station in life and their past experiences. This has changed gradually throughout the story and the conclusion shows this as well.

Now that I look back I can only say that the fame of the Musketeer saga is quite justified. Of course it is not perfect as Dumas wrote with great speed and not great accuracy. Many scenes seem extended to create the most drama and effect he can obtain. However this is not bothersome. It creates an atmosphere of its own. The many characters are quite distinct. One gets to love or hate them as Dumas intends. After 160 years the story still stands. They are not easily accessible due to the style which is so different from contemporary prose. One needs to hang on and get used to its rhythm and then you will not be able to let go.

Alexandre Dumas – Louise de la Vallière

Saturday, January 26th, 2013

After almost a year I finally picked up the second part of the so-called Ten Years Later trilogy by Alexandre Dumas. Ten Years Later is his third serialization of his famous the Three Musketeers saga. As this part was far too long (over 2000 pages in fairly small print) to publish in one novel, it is often split into three parts. The reason it took so long to continue was not because the first part, The Vicomte Of Bragelonne, was bad, but simply because a long serialized novel (over 600 pages) from the mid nineteenth century is somewhat an exhausting read. Serialization means that every week a chapter is published and that the reader has to be able to understand the story sufficiently to know what the situation is and that each chapter has to sell and push the reader onward towards the next chapter. This means each chapter has a certain amount of repetition. Dumas handles this expertly by extending dialogues and/or adding some quick short notes in the narrative to keep the reader up to date. Nevertheless the effect on the dialogues is such that they get dramatized and that one character goes into long ways to either avoid telling what is going on, forcing the other character to keep trying to slowly nibble all the details from the other, or tries to tell what happens in an elaborate way to avoid misunderstanding. This actually creates amusing and intricate dialogues which one rarely finds in novels these days, but after scores of such chapters one simply needs a break, no matter how entertaining the story itself is.

The second part of Ten Years Later, known as Louise de la Vallière (1847), had some peculiarities about it. As it is the middle part of the story there is no real beginning or end. The book pretty much ends in a cliffhanger. Luckily I have the third part so I don’t need to wait. If it was intended or not I don’t know, but cutting Ten Years Later in three parts is exactly the best way it can be cut. This I know now because I’ve already started with the third part. There surely is some overlap in events, but the moments chosen to cut it are actually the best to choose. One could of course cut it into smaller parts, but to have a better view of that I need to complete the last part, The Man In The Iron Mask, first.

Of the five Musketeer novels into which the serializations have been collected Louise de la Vallière stands out as the novel lacking musketeer presence. Less than a quarter of the novel includes one or more members of the famed musketeers. This also means that all of the action is only found there. The reason for this is that most of the novel focuses on romantic intrigues at the royal court. As such Louise de la Vallière can better be described as an historical romance instead of an historical adventure like the other novels. The intrigues are elaborate, border to silliness, but are also rather entertaining because the behavior of the characters often feels quite odd. I am still quite surprised how fast I have been able to complete this long novel while romance is not a genre I like. Of course the chapters that did contain musketeer action helped a lot to break the romance streak. There was a stark contrast between those chapters and it made me enjoy them to a far greater extend as Dumas made the chapter very witty and the development much unpredictable.

One of the things that saves this long romance is that Dumas uses every possible excuse to create a confrontation between characters. The developments do not always follow logic and often happen too quickly within the timeframe, but this is only noticed when one pays attention to it. Many novels often choose to make the characters avoid each other, creating tension because confrontations just miss or the characters try not to give anything away and create intrigue because the characters don’t know enough. Instead Dumas creates confrontations in which too much is disclosed through heartwrenching dialogues causing great drama and more intrigues and confrontations to follow. It’s great fireworks and in a way also exhausting.

Most of the characterization is done through the dialogues. Dumas only provides some motivational comments so that the reader can put the words of the character in the right perspective. As most of the approach in the dialogue is dramatic and most characters avoid saying things straightforwardly as they don’t want to be misinterpreted, this does make it hard to genuinely understand the character. Many choices are made because or for others and not for the character himself. Many characters are thus acting to provide the right impression and not their true nature. Of course this can be as a representation of the behavior of the people in these times.

Louise de la Vallière is not the best of the Musketeer novels, which is also proven by the fact that it has never been adapted for the TV screen (to my knowledge). It is quite different from the typical Musketeer novels as it focuses on courtly life, but the many silly romantic intrigues do have their perks and are a change from the regular fare.

Charles Palliser – The Quincunx

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

If you are a fan of the works of Charles Dickens you will find the right novel in The Quincunx (1989) by Charles Palliser. Although I have read only one novel of Charles Dickens I quickly felt the same atmosphere, style and themes from Dickens in The Quincunx, which takes place in the same time and environment as Dickens wrote his novels, although in his case he wrote contemporary novels. Either way it is a remarkable feat to do so more than 100 years later. In my case there is however a downside. I am no Dickens fan. I don’t like his style much, although my stance is more neutral than negative. I don’t rule out the possibility that I will try another of his novels.

While The Quincunx breathes in the same way as Dickens novels, there are a number of major differences. I will name the three most notable ones. The first is the tone of the story. Dickens’ stories contained a character going through bad and good times, experiencing different sides of the mid-nineteenth century Victorian society in England. There are also moments of light comedy and you know the main character is going forward. In The Quincunx the story sees very few good, or rather reasonable, times. There is very little cheerful about the story, it is actually quite depressing. As Palliser like Dickens wrote a large novel, the road is long. I can stand some negativity in a novel, but if it goes on for too long, it gets harder to keep going.

The second main difference is the detail of the setting. Dickens kept the details commonplace, mainly touching on familiar grounds the reader would be easier able to relate to. The Quincunx shows an impressive amount of research of the period and times, introducing sides and details of the society I hadn’t been aware of. He brings it in a natural way and I could only think it to be true. The story also includes extensive descriptions and discussions of the economical, financial and judicial (obviously all related) systems of the times. This all makes the novel more complicated and impressive.

The first two differences already make The Quincunx a harder reader than the average Dickens novel. The third difference takes the story to a different level. The plot is of a grand complexity that drives the reader forward and keeping him attentive. A number of mysteries form the core of the plot which drive the story and the main character. It is here that Palliser provides the reader with a greater challenge. The main character has to figure out the mysteries on his own based on often contradicting tales from characters involved in the plot and who don’t know the whole picture themselves.

It doesn’t hurt to disclose these things in my review. I started reading without being aware of it, while it would have made me pay more attention to all the revelations. It was only at a later stage in the book that realized the intention of the author and by then I didn’t remember enough to draw my own conclusions.

An opinion on this book is hard for me. As I don’t really like Dickens the style was not much too my taste. The depressing overall story made it hard for me to keep focus while the complex mysteries, a thing I love, drove me on. Because of my weakened focus I was not able to keep my attention all the time, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I perhaps could have. I will let the review reader judge for himself.

Last of all I do would like to address some of my views on the plot. These might be spoiler-ish, so I put the warning here. It might be interesting for those who have already read it to read my view. It is not that I have that much to say. After I read the novel and the author’s afterword I looked up some commentary on the web. During the reading I noted some inconsistencies in the explanations. These were partially caused by the main character ignoring certain details and drawing his own conclusions, causing his own research to follow a different path. It was quite clear I was dealing with a untrustworthy narrator who also didn’t see the whole picture. This was even more obvious as the author, as he admitted in his afterword, had left out certain details. There was no single conclusion to the mysteries and different interpretations were possible. A challenge to the reader and it also addressed the notion that a story should not provide all the answers. Being able to discuss it adds a different dimension. My opinion thus is that there is no single answer. Each reader can decide on his preferred answer and be satisfied with that.

Hella Haasse – The Scarlet City

Saturday, August 25th, 2012

Most of the historical novels that I have read follow the same approach to tell their story. Either the authors create a fictional character who gets involved in all kinds of historical events or they find minor historical character about whom little is known who is or could have been in the same position as the fictional character. In both cases their impact on the events is presented in such a way that their contribution could have been overseen by history.

A very different approach is taken by The Scarlet City (1952) by Hella Haasse. Her main character is an actual historical character although of minor importance. Although this main character is most prominent in the narrative there are also several other narratives which are written from the viewpoint of very important historical characters. Haasse tries to get under their skin and represent their thoughts and views within the historical framepoint from which the story is told.

The narratives are told in a unique way. Haasse often starts out the specific narrative from a third person stand. This is usually used to quickly tell their involvement within the historical or personal events that have passed and then turns to their inner thoughts. This part is written from a first person point of view as the character also tells a story of what has happened to them and how they feel about it. These events can be recent or flashbacks to events from the past. A similar first person narrative is used in the form of letters between historical characters which also tell the developments of historical events in combination of the feelings of the characters. A third narrative is one that has none as it consists of a long bare dialogue between two characters. This approach forces the author to represent all emotions through the words she uses for the dialogues. I considered this quite well done. The dialogue narratives form a stark contrast to the pieces containing inner thoughts as those lack dialogue and take a bit more effort to get through because they are fairly long.

So there is quite some variation in how each narrative is told while the focus lies on each character’s feelings and inner thoughts. It is a more psychological approach. One often writes literature behind the background of a familiar contemporary setting as it is easier to obtain the right mindset. Here Haasse tries to do the same in a historical novel set in a time centuries ago. This is of course much harder to do although through the use of diaries and letters that survived from those times one can get close.

The story itself covers a dramatic period in sixteenth century Italy when it was the focus of Habsburg and French conflict with the papal city of Rome in the center of events. It was also a struggle between Spanish and French loyalties conflicting with independent Italian resistance to them both. Haasse does not create much fictional history. Only for her main characters she has to provide details and situations so that they are in a certain way involved with each other. After finishing the novel I looked them all up and there were only a few minor discrepancies. As the novel is 60 years old it could be that certain details were not known back then.

As Haasse is a Dutch author I have obviously read her novel in Dutch. She is one of the most renowned Dutch female authors and has been translated into English and other languages a lot so this should be a novel you can find in your own language if you want to read it. Her prose was easily readable, never complex or overly stylized. She was very careful with the words she used. Often an author will have a specific recognizable style in the way of the words that are chosen. One can see that as habitual phrasings. What I felt from Haasse was that she avoided getting habitual and chose her words in such a way that one cannot sink into the rhythm of the prose. She changed that rhythm in such a way that you don’t sink into but are lifted on it instead. The prose remains fresh while still having it’s rhythm, although it is not through the habitual phrasing of words.

This is a good novel and I enjoyed it. It has no particular strong plot as it only covers a small timeframe within eventful historical times and the focus lies on the inner motives of historical characters. That in itself is interesting and well done. The original way Haasse presents her narratives and her strong prose provide another reason why to read and experience this novel.

Umberto Eco – The Prague Cemetary

Monday, June 4th, 2012

With my 200th post I have reached another small milestone. It has taken less than 2 years to get here. Not too bad I say.

Umberto Eco is the author of one of my all-time favorite books, Foucault’s Pendulum. Because of this I am always interested in his work in the hope that he can achieve a greatness similar to that book. Sadly the books he wrote after Foucault’s Pendulum were far from its supreme level. I have picked up his most recent work, The Prague Cemetery (2010), and can already say that he has not succeeded again.

However, there are some noteworthy points. Let me first start with the weaknesses. The Prague Cemetery is a historical novel, set in the second half of nineteenth century Europe. This does not have to be a weakness if only many important historical events play a role in the story and thus defining it’s development. This is especially influenced by the format Eco has written the story in. As he has done several times before the novel is a book within a book as most of it is a recollection from the diary of the main character. As a consequence the story covers a long period of time in which the character retells the historic events and the minor role he has played in them. The effect of this is that the story is fragmentary and spends little time with different characters. The main character gets all the focus which makes the other characters, often real historical persons, rather one-dimensional. They remain distant and most are seen only for a short time. The main character himself doesn’t seem to change at all over time. This is explainable, but nevertheless a bit dull as we experience him over many years.

Because of the diary format, stylistically the prose is nothing peculiar. Like I have noted in the works after Foucault’s Pendulum Eco uses the lack of stylistic skills of the narrator to be lazy about the presentation of his writing. It creates no atmosphere or impact. It’s just a story, although it entertains well.

So with all this, historical events that dominate and do not provide just a background setting, lack of substantial characterization and unremarkable prose style, there are still many elements that make this a good novel. Eco is an erudite person. His knowledge of things is vast. He manages to provide historical events that few have taken notice of and takes them into the spotlight, recording them in a somewhat absurd light while human nature can be like that to make it realistic. His characters and settings mostly take place in the shady environment surrounding the events and with this he creates a strange and entertaining view of what could really have been going on. Truth, deceit and lies are hard to distinguish from each other. Eco doesn’t hesitate to show that not everyone is being fooled that easily. The problem is that nobody is able to see the real truth anymore. To can only see what they are allowed to.

Although I mentioned that the diary style and the way he used the historical events to dominate the story, they are all in the style of the classic historical feuilleton stories of the mid-nineteenth century. He does not hesitate to point this out by giving a small role to the famed author Alexandre Dumas and lets the main character be involved in the same industry as well. With this he created a metaphysical novel, representing what he is writing about. I only noticed it because I have been reading Dumas’ novels the past year.

The whole setup of the diary forms the true gimmick of this novel, one that I hesitate to disclose, although the reader will find it out fairly soon in the novel himself. Let’s just say that the diary is not what it looks like. Eco uses it to great effect and entertainment. Still I sometimes wonder if he could have used it even more stronger. Too much time is spent on the telling of the general story and the historic events, while there could have been a greater focus on the gimmick and develop it even more.

In the end I could consider The Prague Cemetery to be Eco’s best novel since Foucault’s Pendulum. It does not come close to that level. It does manage to rise above the average level of the novel since. It contains many entertaining elements to be a great read and it will, as Eco always does, let the learn about things he knew little about and broaden his perspective.

Three from eleven

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

Another three books I have been able to add to my stash, all three published in 2011. First is The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco. Although not all his works are of great quality, they are always interesting reads. Second is The Straight Razor Cure, the debut novel of Daniel Polansky. I had the feeling this one might turn out more interesting than others. Third is Vengeance by Ian Irvine. The first book of a brand new series called The Tainted Realm. I have read all of his Three World Cycle series and he always manages to provide an original and interesting read, so I will see if this one will manage similarly or maybe do something different.

Queen’s Day Bargains 2

Monday, April 30th, 2012

Like the year before Queen’s Day in the Netherlands is ideal for getting cheap book bargains as people are free to put the stuff they don’t want anymore for sale on the street. This year I picked up three books. The first two are a Science Fiction duology by Dan Simmons: Ilium (2003) and Olympus (2005). I’m a fan of Simmons’ Hyperion Saga, although I haven’t tried his other works, so now is the chance to do so. The third is the historical novel The Quincunx, The Heritage Of John Huffam (1989), by Charles Palliser. On the last novel I had heard some praises by friends in the past but for some reason I hadn’t picked it up yet.