Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

Umberto Eco – The Island Of The Day Before

Monday, July 11th, 2011

The novels of Umberto Eco are famous for its erudition. The author delves into a vast range of curious subjects and displays great detail in describing them while putting them in their natural habitat within the story. More than his other works (for so far that I’ve read them) The Island Of The Day Before (1994) is such a novel. Taking place halfway during the seventeenth century everything is told from a seventeenth century perspective even as the story is told from a third-person view.

This perspective is also the strongest part of the novel. The reader gets induced in the physics and philosophy of those times although there is a fantastical element to it. The sheer complexity and details that Eco presents are quite stunning and captivating. Even though some things are obviously fantastical it is hard to distinguish what is and what isn’t.

Another element that marks this novel is the story within the story. There are actually many of them and in some ways they can be seen a digressions in which we explore certain topics. The negative effect of this is that the reader can get lost in where the story is heading, more profoundly it even causes a lack of focus within the story as it continuously loses pace and momentum and does not seem to progress much.

So what the book actually seems to become is an exploration of seventeenth century beliefs and ideas for which the story forms the setting.

This is also what makes or breaks this book. If you are looking for an engaging and exciting story you will not be satisfied. There are some parts which are enjoyable but this book seems to aim more at exploring ideas of the seventeenth century than at telling a powerful and captivating story. When I started this book I had no idea and expected to get at least an entertaining story but this I didn’t really get. In that sense it was unsatisfactory to me. Although the digressions and explorations of different topics in a seventeenth century view are certainly an impressive feat they were not that interesting to me because we know now that many have turned out wrong. So it is all about the mindset with which you read this book if you will like it or not. Most people will probably not like it much. It was amusing at times to me but often the digressions were simply too long and long-winded to hold on to my attention. As I’ve read other works by Umberto Eco I know he’s not a consistent writer. Every novel is different from the other although they have certain elements in common. In my personal experience this is the weakest I’ve read but as mentioned before it is all a matter of taste.

Alexandre Dumas – Twenty Years After

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

The great success of The Three Musketeers allowed Alexandre Dumas to continue his historical story of seventeenth century France with Twenty Years After (1845). As the title depicts, it takes place approximately twenty years after the events of the first story. The four main characters have taken different paths in life and as one can expect, they join together once again, although Dumas doesn’t make this happen as easy as one might think. With this hidden struggle Dumas illuminates the famous “One for all, All for one” phrase to show that the quartet together is something greater than apart. They complement each other and compensate the different weaknesses.

There are a number of differences between the two books. One is that Dumas delves deeper into the four main characters to give them more depth, in strength and weakness. This does not mean Dumas did not do so in the first book, but the story was more episodic, requiring more time to be spent on the course of events than of a greater characterization. This leads me to the second difference. Twenty Years After is a far more solid story compared to The Three Musketeers which episodes varied in style and quality. This variation is not there in Twenty Years After and this is an improvement. The downside is that some of the episodes of the first book were truly great, while Twenty Years After lacks such peaks.

The story itself follows two historical events in France and England. While the four main characters are woven nicely into the French events they are very much constrained by the English events as Dumas cannot let them play a role that would conflict with history. This diminishes their role although Dumas does his best to give it a dramatic take.
What is very much different is that the characters mainly depend on wit instead of arms. While The Three Musketeers contained many fights, there are relatively few to be found in the sequel. This does not just change the atmosphere of the story but also shows that after twenty years the four characters have changed and grown wiser. They are not crazy daredevils anymore, although their daring has not diminished.

The main weakness of the book is the first quarter. Dumas takes his time to set up the situation of the story and not much exciting happens. This gradually improves until Dumas is done setting the stage. Then the story starts off and the reader is quickly back in the atmosphere and pace of The Three Musketeers.

Twenty Years After is a good sequel to The Three Musketeers. It has certain improvements which also causes some weaknesses, but these are minor. We get a greater feel for the four famous characters which enriches their iconic status but does not change it. Overall the novel is not as good as the first, but the difference is small, mainly caused by much fewer heights. Anyone who enjoyed The Three Musketeers will certainly read this volume as well.

The works of Alexandre Dumas

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

Those who have read the reviews on my site, or checked the List of Reviews, will have noticed that I often read several novels by an author in short succession. Usually this happens because I have read a book and like it so much I decided to read more. As I don’t have a particular stash of books that I want read but rather a stash of books I can read, I prefer to read what I am interested in at that moment.

Recently I read The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. I liked it sufficiently that I decided to pick up the sequels. As I don’t have money issues at the moment I can allow myself to buy all four sequels at once. The titles are Twenty Years After (1845), The Vicomte de Bragelonne (1847), Louise de la Vallière (1847) and The Man in the Iron Mask (1847). The last one is almost as famous as The Three Musketeers. The last three novels were actually originally one novel, with the title of the first book, but as it was too large to be printed in one volume it was split. Each book is over 700 pages in my edition so they are all heavy volumes.

I got them all from the Oxford’s World Classics edition as I like to have connected books in the same cover style. In this case this is actually not that easy as the middle three books are far less famous compared to The Three Musketeers and The Man In The Iron Mask. Those books are widely available.

I’ve already started with reading Twenty Years After, to find out why these volumes are less famous and if they should be mentioned instead.

Robert Louis Stevenson – Catriona

Monday, March 21st, 2011

In modern literature it is not that common to have sequels unless they fit the genre. The historic novel Catriona (1893) by Robert Louis Stevenson is a sequel to his famous novel Kidnapped, but never reached a similar popularity. Most people probably only know Kidnapped and are not aware there is a sequel.

Kidnapped had a conclusion but as it takes place in a historic setting there are always more events happening related to the historic people and events that take place afterwards. Stevenson had intended to write more about the main character of Kidnapped but it took some time until he knew how to make it into a full novel. This is mainly because the historic event he wanted to tell about is not that extensive. What Stevenson did was create a situation for the main character in which he plays a hidden role in the historic event which could have dramatic effects. Even this was not enough and the events only fill about two-thirds of the book. As the title suggests the remainder and some more a taken up by a romance.

Stevenson plays out the situation of the main character to the fullest. There is little focus on adventure but more on psychological situations in which the main character has to prove himself and build and show character. My feeling is that it is done too extensively. Most of that feeling is caused by the great formality with which most characters act. It is all quite tedious. There is little actual danger and mainly threats which have to be countered. With far fewer words a much stronger impact could have been created.

The romance part is quite constrained by the Victorian age in which it was written. Even as the story takes place almost 150 years earlier the author has been constrained by the allowed behavior of those times. The romance will feel weird for the modern reader, even considering the different values. It creates great tensions over little and also this part is quite tedious at times.

Even as it is tedious, the prose is strong but because of its formality not always that easy. The real problem is Stevenson’s extensive use of Scottish dialect in his writing. I don’t mind it here and there, but if a lot of dialogue is filled with it, it gets tiresome. There is even a whole chapter that is mainly written in Scottish dialect while the chapter itself seems to add little to the story.

It is quite obvious why Catriona did not gain the renown of its prequel. It is certainly more literary, with Stevenson aiming for more psychological situations instead of adventure. Stevenson also adds some interesting historic elements but they remain somewhat few to make it a more substantial historic novel as he spends much of the time on an invented subplot to the historic event and a somewhat tedious romance. As a sequel it is still a story that will interest those who liked Kidnapped and want to know more and will not disappoint much, although it is quite below the level of that book.

The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson (part 2)

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Some months ago I first added a post about the works of Robert Louis Stevenson in the expectation that I would soon add another, but as these things go when you order them online, some delivery took longer than expected and in the end got wrong so I had to order anew. So now I’m finally at adding part two. The books that I got are the so-called Scottish novels which. Kidnapped, mentioned in the earlier post, also was one of them, but Stevenson wrote some more. The first is the sequel to Kidnapped, Catriona (1893), which obviously brought him less fame, but would just as well gather sufficient interest into finding out what happened after. The other books are The Master Of Ballantrae (1889) and Weir Of Hermiston (1896). This last book was left unfinished as Stevenson died while writing it, but apparently there was sufficient praise for what he had written that it got published anyway. I expect I will pick one or more of them up after I finish the books of the Black Company, but that may take a few more weeks.

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.

Robert Louis Stevenson – Kidnapped

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

After completing Treasure Island I continued with another well-known novel by Robert Louis Stevenson: Kidnapped (1886). As a kid I had seen a adaptation of the book in the form of an animation. This being quite some time ago I had obviously forgotten most about it. Thus the book was a fairly new experience to me.

Kidnapped is another historical adventure story. While adventure drove the story of Treasure Island, it was history that drove Kidnapped. Of course there was plenty of adventure but the theme of the Scottish Highlands and the aftermath of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 dominated for the most of the story. Naming this is a bit of a giveaway, but essential for my review. I normally try to speak in general terms and avoid being specific, but in this case I cannot avoid it. During the story we meet a fair number of historical figures whose place in history is nicely woven into the story which has little involvement in that background story, as it is fiction. From the historical point of view this was quite interesting and well portrayed by Stevenson, but it dulled the story.

Not all was as dull. About the first one third was very entertaining and nicely styled. A true adventure with some oddities, plenty of action and strange events. There were less historical elements here, just enough for the setting of the story. Just about the right mix. But after this the story lost its momentum. There was still the same pace, but less thrill. While Treasure Island was full with confrontations, the story of Kidnapped was for a large part about avoiding them. The ending was peculiar and somewhat fitting, but not very strong and could not pull the story out of the previous dullness.

As I had gotten used to in Treasure Island, the characterization was well done with some nice development. What seems to be a habit of Stevenson is the depiction of grayness to his characters. There is no clear good or evil and for an adventure story this creates more balanced characters than usual and varying points of view. In a historical setting this is even more important as it is often unclear who was right. Still, Stevenson had a certain preference on who was the good side, even if this was from a romantic point of view.

With a Scottish Highland setting the writing is intermixed with a lot of Scottish jargon and phrases. It creates a fitting atmosphere but also makes it sometimes harder to read. My edition had a few notes, but more wouldn’t have hurt.

Kidnapped is considered to be a classic of literature and although it has some excellent parts, overall it is has a somewhat unbalanced story which will leave a reader not completely satisfied. To me a classic has to be strong as a whole and Kidnapped still lacks some. A recommendable read, but I will not categorize it as a true classic.

Robert Louis Stevenson – Treasure Island

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Treasure Island (1883) was Robert Louis Stevenson‘s breakthrough novel and brought him great fame. As everyone knows, this is a classic tale of adventure and pirates. I was pleasantly surprised of several common phrases attributed to pirates these days that were a part of this story.  Of course I cannot be that certain that they find their origin here, but they seem to be so genuine to be copied.

As a historical novel the story has no meaning. It only provides the fitting setting of times where piracy was more common and romantic. It is all about the adventure of a young man. One could actually view Treasure Island as a Young Adult novel in the way that Stevenson presents the story. The story is fairly straightforward, but from the first person view it becomes a great adventure. Against this view is the large deathtoll in the book with some harsh descriptions. There is also not much contrast between good and bad guys. They remain somewhat gray, leaving openings for betrayal, confrontations but also civility. There is also plenty space for dialogue and arguments. Events aren’t that simple and dumb acts can turn events around.

Behind the tale of a simple adventure is woven a complex tapestry of interactions, choices and strong and weak personalities. Side characters are depicted sufficiently to give them some depth and as the story is from a first person view some information remains unknown. Some parts of the events are unclear. Are they flaws or conveniences in the plot or something missed by the narrator? This fairly simple story had many hidden layers for those who can see and to me this was a pleasant surprise.

Stevenson’s writing style is very natural and even after almost 130 years an easy read. His use of sailor phrases and lore fits in smoothly. He adds sufficient detail but never too much. He keeps a steady pace which is never too slow or too fast. Of course this is a novel written in the 19th century, so it still sticks to the ways of those times, but the feel is never awkward, just different.

Before I bought this book I wondered how this book would compare in quality to a classic like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Treasure Island is a different book, aimed at a different audience, but one can find the qualities here that were also there in that other famous book. Treasure Island should surely be counted among the classics of literature and as such I recommend it to anyone.