When I read Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure I came away with a list of interesting prospects; Manservant and Maidservant was the last on that li...moreWhen I read Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure I came away with a list of interesting prospects; Manservant and Maidservant was the last on that list. Every one of Dirda’s recommendations has panned out but none more so than this novel. I had put off reading my copy for the longest time because I was afraid I wouldn’t like it. I don’t have a native love of Victorian authors (or Victorian-style authors, Compton-Burnett published this in 1947); some I like, some I don’t. But from the first page this novel enchanted me. It’s hard to describe just how much fun this book was to read even though it demands focus and concentration. It’s like working hard on a college paper about a subject you’re interested in – it takes a lot of effort and mental sweat but when it’s over, you feel like you’ve accomplished something.
Manservant and Maidservant is a rather dark comedy about the Lamb family, their servants, and several incidental characters who cross their paths. The primary plot revolves around Horace Lamb, the patriarch, “sadist, skinflint, and tyrant, a man whose children fear and hate him and whose wife is planning to elope.” (backcover blurb) A life-changing event alters Horace’s behavior toward everyone but it’s hard to overcome all that has come before.
Compton-Burnett writes almost entirely in dialog but can still give a vivid description of a character or scene when necessary. And, as I mentioned at the beginning, it takes a certain amount of effort to follow what’s happening but it’s worth it. To give you just a taste of her style:
“There was One that saw you, George. There was the all-seeing Eye. Did you think, as you plied your guilty task, that you were not seen? Did you forget your early teaching, the lessons you learnt in infancy?”
“You tell me to leave that part of my training behind.”
“Do not indulge in trivialities, George, at this moment of your life. That can only mean what it does.”
“And will mean it for himself,” said Cook.
“But how did you know? You can’t know anything. You are pretending to know,” said George, not doubting the divine observation as much as the conveyance of its results to Bullivant. (p. 267)
One of the best reading experiences I’ve had in a long time so I would recommend this novel without reserve.(less)
I'm not an overly generous dispenser of four- and five-star reviews but when a book moves me emotionally or intellectually (the latter, in this case)...moreI'm not an overly generous dispenser of four- and five-star reviews but when a book moves me emotionally or intellectually (the latter, in this case) it must be acknowledged. James O'Donnell's The Ruin of the Roman Empire is a brilliant (if flawed) look at a critical moment in the evolution of Western civilization that moves the reader to reassess their understanding of the period.
The primary thrust of O'Donnell's arguments is that what we call "the Roman Empire" didn't fall to barbarians but was brought down by the ignorant and foolish policies of its emperors - most especially Justinian (whose epithets in this volume include "arrogant," "indecisive," "rash" and "dumb"). The author attempts to make the case that, if we could go back to the fifth and sixth centuries, often we would be hard pressed to distinguish Roman from barbarian (and the distinction would have been meaningless, anyway, to the men in question).
The poster boy for O'Donnell's thesis is Theodoric, the "king of the Ostrogoths" from 471 to 526. He was the son of an Arian general and a Catholic (or, perhaps better, orthodox) mother; raised and educated at the imperial court in Constantinople; and didn't see his "people" until 471, when he was 18. Note that O'Donnell is careful not to identify any of the actors in this drama too closely with the traditional labels. Even distinguishing Theodoric's parents by religious creed is problematic at a time when all identities were in flux. The author argues that the emergence of a "Gothic" identity or a "Frankish" one was driven by Rome's unwillingness to accommodate barbarian desires for assimilation into the Roman system. The men and women Theodoric led were Heruls, Scirians, Suevi, Romans, Greeks, even Syrians; it was only in the furnace of Justinian's attempt to reconquer the West and historical hindsight that an Ostrogothic Kingdom emerged (however briefly).
The first few generations of barbarian usurpation in the empire were all men who were products of the imperial system: Stilicho, Ricimer, Aetius, Alaric, Odoacer, Theodoric and so on. All sought legitimation through recognition from the emperors, or they claimed imperial prerogatives as can be seen from a dedication to Theodoric found along the Appian Way:
Our Lord the most glorious and celebrated King Theodoric, / victor in triumph, / ever Augustus, / born for the good of the state, / guardian of freedom and propagator of the Roman name, / who has tamed the nations... (p. 145)
The important point here is the word "Augustus," a title reserved to the emperor alone by this time. Neither I nor (I think) O'Donnell would claim that Theodoric claimed imperial honors but the presence of this man's dedication indicates how Italy viewed the man who ruled them and what they expected of him.
The author suggests that the examples of Theodoric, the Goths in Provence and Spain, and the Vandals in Africa were leading toward a new Roman "commonwealth," a reordering of the empire as profound as the reorganizations the marked the change from Republic to Principate at the beginning of the Christian era, and from Principate to Dominate at the end of the third century.
What derailed a second Roman renaissance was a combination of three things:
1. Religious fundamentalism 2. The artificiality of Roman unity 3. Justinian and his immediate successors
All three factors are related and this review can hardly do them justice. An example of the first factor, is the divisive nature of imperial intervention in religious doctrine. What often was academic distinctions of no substantive effect on fundamental dogma rapidly became poles around which opposition or support of imperial policy focused. Under circumspect and tactful rulers like Theodoric and Anastasius (emperor from 491-518), a delicate balance was maintained. Under an "ignorant peasant" like Justinian, who saw any variance as a threat to imperial stability, firm lines were drawn between Chalcedonians, Arians, monophysites and any other number of creeds; compromise became difficult and, ultimately, impossible.
The second factor - the unity of the Mediterranean basin - is interesting as O'Donnell argues that Rome's imposition of that unity was a fluke and only endured so long as Rome faced no serious, socially advanced polities along its borders. A situation that was beginning to change in the fifth and sixth centuries (for a more detailed analysis of this phenomenon, I would recommend Peter Heath's Fall of the Roman Empire).
Internally, the empire was a collection of highly disparate regions: the hellenized, urbanized East, where there was a three-millennia-old tradition of culture; the Balkans, characterized by O'Donnell as the empire's "Wild West"; the Mediterranean provinces of the western empire (south Gaul, Spain & Africa), hellenized to the extent that its few urban centers were Greek and/or Punic in origin but otherwise only superficially urbanized; and the frontier provinces in north Gaul and the Rhine and Danube valleys, where Greco-Roman culture was represented by vast estates, cities were essentially military camps, and most lived lives little different from the tribes Caesar had conquered half a thousand years previously.
The "Great Satan" of the sixth century, however, the man who put paid to the continued existence of a Roman Empire and Mediterranean unity, is Justinian, who reigned from 527-565, but probably ruled for much of his uncle's preceding regime as well (518-527).
I first encountered Justinian in the pages of L. Sprague de Camp's novel Lest Darkness Fall, and it was not good first impression. In this alternate history, Martin Padway (or Martinus of Padua, as he's known in Theodoric's Italy) is transported from modern Rome (c. 1950) to Italy soon after Theodoric's death, on the eve of Belisarius' invasion. In order to preserve peace and stability in Italy and, thus, his own life, Martin proceeds to "invent" U.S.-style political campaigns, paper, a printing press and the heliograph, and suborns Belisarius and his troops to the Gothic cause. Justinian doesn't come off at all well since he's willing to devastate Italy for the impossible dream of restoring the old empire (kind of like the Vietnam-era idea of "destroying the village to save it").
O'Donnell clothes that fictional Justinian with the facts of history. In 518, Anastasius left a full treasury and a relatively stable political situation but Justinian's and his uncle's ill-considered, blundering and expensive policies bankrupted the empire, alienated and polarized opponents, and broke the military. The results were ruined provinces in Italy, Spain & Africa; a powerful Frankish state in northern Gaul; crippling divisions between monophysite and orthodox; and the seeds of a ruinous war with Persia that would leave both empires prostrate before the looming Arab jihad.
The are just examples of some of the themes O'Donnell explores in this well-written, provocative book. Before I end this review, I should mention what I consider the weakest part of the volume. From the beginning, O'Donnell has been arguing that we need to divest ourselves of misleading labels and the misconceptions of 2,000 years of historiography and place ourselves in the minds of the period's contemporaries (as much as that's possible). Yet, in the final chapters of the book, I think he falls into that trap by imputing motives to Cyrus, Alexander, Augustus and any other conqueror to unite the world in a peaceful commonwealth of diverse communities. Perhaps I'm too cynical, but in my reading, I've never found a conqueror or statesman who acted from such high motives. They may have had strategic visions (a position I'll grant to Augustus, certainly) but more often than not they were simply greedy megalomaniacs (Alexander) or trying to achieve "top dog" status and protect themselves against enemies (Genghis, perhaps?). Whatever benefits resulted from their conquests were recognized and justified in hindsight.
This book isn't "perfect" but it does shake up the reader's perception of the "received wisdom" on the late empire and its neighbors. For a novice in Roman history, it's a revelation; for an older hand, it's a wonderful tonic and corrective, and I'd recommend it unreservedly. (I'm looking forward to reading his biography of Augustine.)(less)
**spoiler alert** Upon rereading The Bonehunters, I'm going to nudge up my initial rating to 5 stars. Outside of Gardens of the Moon, this is the best...more**spoiler alert** Upon rereading The Bonehunters, I'm going to nudge up my initial rating to 5 stars. Outside of Gardens of the Moon, this is the best installment of a great series (Gardens is my first love - where I came to know "my Malazans" - so it will always hold a particularly fond place in my heart).
NOTA BENE & SPOILER ALERT: The notes below assume the reader has read the books so there's a lot of detail I skip over.
I'm going to focus on that part of the book that has made it a "5" in my mind even though, as usual, Erikson continues to follow a variety of plotlines and introduces a few new ones (we (and the novels' characters) are finally beginning to see the scope of the coming war with the Crippled God).
The bulk of the book is taken up with the forging of the Bonehunters (aka the Malazan Fourteenth Army). It opens a few months after the events in House of Chains. Sha'ik Reborn (aka Felisin Paran) has been killed by the Adjunct, Tavore Paran, her older sister, and the remnants of the Whirlwind army are fleeing to the city-state of Y'Ghatan led by Leoman of the Flails. As an army, the Bonehunters are "shaky." Their victory at Raraku was won by ghosts of the Bridgeburners, and Sha'ik's death was anticlimactic. Morale is low and the competence of the Adjunct as a commander remains in doubt. Unfortunately, Tavore's personality does little to alleviate the problem as she remains cold and aloof even from her commanders.
Erikson anchors The Bonehunters around two defining moments in the army's evolution as a fighting force. The first is the siege of Y'Ghatan. This city is a cursed memory to the Malazans for it's here that the First Sword Dassem Ultor was (apparently) killed (actually he escaped both the swords of his Seven Cities' opponents and the Claw assassins sent by Surly (soon to be the Empress) to become the Ascendant known as Traveller). Leoman boobie traps the city with oil so that when the Fourteenth breaches the wall, they ignite a firestorm that consumes the soldiers who had entered the city with the exception of a few who escape into catacombs. Symbolic of a rebirth, these survivors wend their way through the bowels of Y'Ghatan to emerge, naked and with a new sense of identity forged by their ordeal. Meanwhile, the rest of the Fourteenth heads west to escape a plague unleashed in the east by Poliel, the Consort of High House Chains and goddess of disease, and meet up with the Imperial Fleet to return home. This is the first part of the novel.
The culmination of the book and the army's second defining moment occurs at Malaz City, where the Adjunct has brought the Bonehunters to confront Laseen. In the aftermath of the Seven Cities rebellion, Mallick Rel and Korbolo Dom - sent back in chains as traitors - have twisted the truth to make it appear that Coltaine and the Wickans conspired with the rebels. On Quon Tali, pogroms have been launched against the Wickans and a virulent xenophobia has gripped the minds of the city's citizens, abetted by sorcerous manipulations of the Mockra warren. In the course of Tavore's return, the Bonehunters have acquired new allies in the guise of the Perish - an army devoted to the new gods of war, Togg and Fanderay. She also learns that the Fourteenth is being forged to be the main army against the Crippled God's legions in the final battle.
At Malaz City, Tavore breaks with Laseen and flees the city with the Bonehunters and her new allies. Meanwhile, Korbolo Dom and Mallick Rel assume positions as Laseen's advisors (and the resolution of that will come in Esslemont's Return of the Crimson Guard).
Tavore has become one of my favorite characters, ranking up there with Trull, Duiker and Tattersail, and I find myself caring more about the fates of the Fourteenth's soldiers than I do about the characters introduced in the Letherii thread of the series. Both considerations making The Bonehunters my second favorite chapter of the series.(less)
To re-read actually -- I met Dostoevsky in my Junior year of high school with Crime and Punishment and found him a fascinating author. The relationshi...moreTo re-read actually -- I met Dostoevsky in my Junior year of high school with Crime and Punishment and found him a fascinating author. The relationship continued in my Senior year with the Brothers but it's been almost 25 years since I've read the novel and its about time I did it again.(less)
Michael Chabon has written an introduction to a new edition of The Phantom Tollbooth, which is reprinted in the latest issue of the New York Review of...moreMichael Chabon has written an introduction to a new edition of The Phantom Tollbooth, which is reprinted in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books (June 2011 - you'll need a subscription to read the whole thing), and which prompted a reread.
I will uncritically and unreservedly recommend this book to everyone. It's been my experience that while no singular author or book has ever consciously "blown my mind," many have done so unconsciously, including this one. How can you not love a world where you can only get to the island of Conclusions by jumping or where cars go without saying or where the Mathemagician transports our heroes to the Mountains of Ignorance by carrying the three?
Like Milo, I can easily fall into apathy and I like to think that my various enthusiasms were sparked by his example.(less)
Perhaps I should put this in a trilogy including Explaining America and Inventing America. Here, Wills shows how Lincoln's Gettysburg Address foreshad...morePerhaps I should put this in a trilogy including Explaining America and Inventing America. Here, Wills shows how Lincoln's Gettysburg Address foreshadowed our conception of the United States today (just a minor semantic example: prior to 1865, I would have written "these United States," as if I were referring to a collection of independent but allied states, not a nation).(less)