May be a five-star, as it was a very early modern take on the Great Game topic, and actually set up some of the rules for the genre. (Haven't read inMay be a five-star, as it was a very early modern take on the Great Game topic, and actually set up some of the rules for the genre. (Haven't read in too long a time, though; deserves another look.) ...more
Here in Part II we're carried along with the journey begun and paused at the edges of the Danube in Fermor's A Time Of Gifts. There are most of the asHere in Part II we're carried along with the journey begun and paused at the edges of the Danube in Fermor's A Time Of Gifts. There are most of the aspects of that volume here, too, and with a far more exotic landscape, that of Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria rather than the preceding western and central Europe.
Make no mistake, though, any of this completely willful and enigmatic journey is a fascinating story, taking place as it does in the pivotal era that was 1934 and freely, unconcernedly being the early impressions of a very young man just seeing the world. What a world it was, and Fermor valiantly tries to bring it back alive.
What isn't immediately apparent here is how the distancing (lists, explanations, updates and overall a lot of what couldn't have been known by the young author) effects arise, and for that we are glad to have the introduction by veteran travel writer Jan Morris. Whereas A Time Of Gifts relies on journals and ready, firsthand memories, this volume wasn't published till the eighties, and is cobbled together from fragmented or secondary sources. So inescapably we have the informed, worldly reflections of the elder author in his seventies re-assembling this account, and while the fact-checkers may be much happier here for that reason, the voice, and the stay-up-all-night-in-the-magic-spell-of-europa spirit ... is nearly gone.
We have here a strange brew of the young man's pathways and adventure, as filtered through the older man's better knowledge and reflection. Even still, occasionally the sheer outrageous scale of the endeavor will break through, as when, coming down out of the wolf-ridden Carpathians, we encounter the 'Baths Of Hercules', a posh spa hideaway in the mountains where formal wear for dinner and waltzes on the terrace are the norm. Or as Fermor is getting thru yet another later-life listing of what he might have seen, the present of the narrative crashes through and a Perseid meteor shower rains down above the high Balkans. Immediately, the old-man author has shut up and we gaze enraptured with the young man's eyes again.
In his defense, Fermor makes oblique apologies that note lost journals and notebooks, and we do seem to have more wine and women in this act of the play, too. I'm giving this four stars even though it doesn't deserve it, as much to say that Time Of Gifts... or the grand, fearless, reckless nerve of the whole project... deserved much more. And as with that first volume, sometimes the planets just align for Fermor, and we are carried right along :
It was getting late. The sun left the minaret, and then the new moon, a little less wraith-like than the night before, appeared on cue in a turquoise sky with a star next to it, that might have been pinned there by an Ottoman herald. With equal promptitude, the hodja's [muezzin's] torso emerged on the balcony under the cone of the minaret. Craning into the dusk, he lifted his hands, and the high and long-drawn-out summons of the izan floated across the air, each clause wavering and spreading like the rings of sound from pebbles dropped at intervals into a pool of air. I found myself still listening and holding my breath when the message had ended and the hodja must have been half-way down his dark spiral ...
Let's not forget that the object of this long walk across Europe in 1934 is the former Byzantine capital, Constantinople, the gate to the mysteries of The Orient. Here by the end of book two of three, we've only gotten near the goal, and we leave off there, with Book Three still not published here in May of 2013. Fermor has passed away, and there are all kinds of rumors about whether he ever finished Book Three. But there are also some indications that something will be published by Fall 2013. It has a name, The Broken Road, and it has, needless to say, interested readers ...
Primarily a private and nonstop reverie; a recollection of the surefooted, imaginative adventure of youth. Ondaatje gradually establishes a nicely ploPrimarily a private and nonstop reverie; a recollection of the surefooted, imaginative adventure of youth. Ondaatje gradually establishes a nicely plotted Mystery On The High Seas framework for this book, which works well when he lets it. There are touches of all the seafaring motifs, as well as some quirks, perhaps ala Richard Hughes' A High Wind In Jamaica. Unfortunately, he decides midway that he wants things both ways, and chooses to use that frame to poke at some unhealed wounds still present later in life; whatever else it may be, this is a book that shouldn't be preoccupied with middle age pondering.
At the beginning, though, it's all-systems-go, a boy's book of wonders & puzzles; a morning begun with a meeting by a stairwell and soon leading to forbidden zones,
...strolling barefoot on the First Class deck. First class was an unguarded palace at six in the morning, and we arrived there even before a fuse of light appeared on the horizon, even before the essential night-lights on the deck blinked and went out automatically at daybreak. We removeed our shirts and dove like needles into the gold-painted First Class Pool with barely a splash. Silence was essential as we swam in the newly formed half-light.
If we could last undetected for an hour, we had a chance to plunder the laid-out breakfast on the Sun Deck, heap food onto plates and abscond with the silver bowl of condensed milk, its spoon standing up in the center of its thickness. Then we'd climb into the tent-like atmosphere of one of the raised lifeboats and consume our ill-gotten meal...
Nice, full of the immediacy and simplicity of nature's dictum that boys will break the rules just for the sake of it, do things silly and fast, get caught and try again anyway.
The other, perhaps not so obvious flaw in the proceedings here is that Ondaatje has a keen perception of what would make for Impressive Cinema, somewhere down the money-trail, when his book is adapted to screenplay. The scene of the Dinner Party In The Hold (perilously close to those thundering turbines)-- as well as the Nude Posing And Langorous Teasing Salon notes (of Miss Lasqueti's letter)--- are hoplelessly contrived-sounding, genuinely stilted, and plainly included in the book only to brighten the montage possibilities in the potential movie script.
Add the multiplex-ready material to the middle-aged conundrums, and then subtract them both. The result would be a deceptively simple gem, an artless tapestry of memory and magic.
They say cartoonists always add an extra finger or thumb, so that the editor will ask only for that blatant correction, and leave the rest of their work alone. Maybe that's what Mr. Ondaatje had in mind here. Hard to tell. But when it's in the moment, it just flies :
.. We left the crockery and the knives and spoons that came with our stolen meals in the lifeboat, and slipped back down to Tourist Class. A steward would eventually discover traces of our numerous breakfasts during a later security drill when the lifeboats were manned and swung over the water, so that for a while the Captain searched for a stowaway on board.
It was not even eight o'clock when we crossed the border from First Class back to Tourist Class. We pretended to stagger with the roll of the ship. I had by now come to love the slow waltz of our vessel from side to side. And the fact that I was on my own ... I had no family responsibilities. I could go anywhere, do anything ... [we] had already established one rule. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden. The day had barely begun, and we still had hours ahead of us to perform this task.
It is the most important obligation of every boy or tom-boy at that "difficult" age, and Ondaatje seizes the moment with spirit and easy flair. And, uhm, snacks. ...more
We've listened to Tom Schnabel's radio program in LA for over twenty years at this point; that the exceptional music on the radio show would be enhancWe've listened to Tom Schnabel's radio program in LA for over twenty years at this point; that the exceptional music on the radio show would be enhanced by a book wasn't a certainty. But Schnabel's very knowledgeable book is a great aid and a personal connection to the still not-well-known artists and musicians involved.
My theory is that part of the immediacy and success of The Beatles was the slight deflection in accent & taste (even to Londoners, for whom Liverpool was in the far hinterlands, and certainly to those of us in America), the sense of another, very similar, but still foreign sensibility --creating that rivetting sound-- that was a pillar of their appeal. Odd minor keys, medieval touches, and celtic harmonies (perhaps more due to George Martin's influence, but that's a quibble) found their way into Beatle pop music, sending the discreet signal that this was something different. Different but mesmerizing, and wrapped in a sugar-sweet bubblegum wrapper.
I personally remember the very moment in the early eighties, even already familiar with African music a little (Miriam Makeba, Manu Dibango) and Caribbean music, in the reggae, zouk or calypso veins... that I first saw and heard a filmclip of the Senegalese band Toure Kunda. Driving infectious rhythm, and a kind of euro-colonial-african melodic feel really dealt a knockout blow to whatever was going on commercially here. And it was certainly something legitimate and organic, rather than some followup rock opera or twelfth double-album from a millionaire supergroup of the day. The howling, hungry, syncopated rhythms of a whole other world were out there to be heard, and nothing in the West was vaguely comparable.
Schnabel rightly points to the Brian Eno / David Byrne collaboration My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts as another watershed moment in crossing the boundaries, ennabling African and Arab influences in world culture to begin to speak for themselves. The introduction to the book is in fact written by Brian Eno.
About thirty years later, it's cool to see TS's book, filled with biographical backgrounds of these far-flung artists, and to read about their origins and influences. Interesting, for example, to know that West African Baaba Maal's father was the village Muezzin, using song to call the faithful to prayer at the mosque. His son would go on to study in Dakar and then Paris before learning to integrate an electric groove with the Euro/Afro mix he was helping to forge. Interesting also to learn that Argentina's tango master Astor Piazzolla found his muse hearing a Hungarian concert-pianist neighbor, in New York city, rehearsing Bach every morning, across the backyards behind his house.
To hear Official US Pop Culture tell it, modern popular music was found, sitting at a soda fountain at Hollywood & Vine waiting to be discovered. Rhythm Planet and its Discography says it ain't so, but a very nice little tale thanks, and where can we plug in our amps ..?
*** dotakenote of that excellent discography in the back of the book, more important for it's brevity than any attempt to be complete. All selected by Schnabel as the best of the best, the two or three absolute killer titles in what can be a bewildering list of records in each artist's repertoire. Love to see a Volume II or updated edition of this '98 volume. ...more
"Östlich von Wien, fängt der Orient an." -Metternich .. East of Vienna, the Orient begins ..
Off the start-mark at a run, A Time Of Gifts begins as a yo"Östlich von Wien, fängt der Orient an." -Metternich .. East of Vienna, the Orient begins ..
Off the start-mark at a run, A Time Of Gifts begins as a youthful dash toward freedom and maybe even civilization itself, exiting deliriously from the stuffy attic-rooms of academia. From a gritty mooring by London Bridge, Fermor hitches a ride on a tramp steamer and arrives in the Hook Of Holland, eager to explore one continent right after the next in a headlong rush. Although this is an overland journey, it is the rivers and waterways that draw the narrative, from the Lowland canals toward the Rhine and then to the Danube :
Even before I looked at a map, two great rivers had already plotted the itinerary in my mind's eye: the Rhine uncoiled across it, the Alps rose up and then the wolf-harbouring Carpathian watersheds and the cordilleras of the Balkans; and there, at the end of the windings of the Danube, the Black Sea was beginning to spread its mysterious and lopsided shape; and my chief destination was never in a moment's doubt. The levitating skyline of Constantinople ...
Itinerary in hand, Fermor proceeds to track a serpentine and unpredictable path through the northern Europe of 1933. It is an adventure, and both hazard and history are close behind. What's very interesting here is that Fermor is not only learning his fundamentals, in the travel sense and the culture sense, but he's learning to write as he goes. There is a lot of time on the hike, we gather, to develop both themes and organizing principles, creating and editing as he walks. Often the bleak lost-in-blizzard moment is deftly transitioned to the lap-of-luxury moment, by mere chance and good luck, as is customary in this kind of 30's memoir.
Some of the episodic accounts aren't really successful, but come off as charmingly youthful and romantic. The reader is altogether captivated by a cosmopolitan Baron in Slovakia; likewise the brief but ecstatic interlude where our author is adopted by Anna and Lise, age-similar housesitters in Stuttgart, where their absent father's grammophone and vintage wines were included. Sometimes, the unsuccessful moments go without an excuse, though, and the text reads like a long list in a tourism book.
Occasionally, though, the stars align, subject meets interpreter on a level landing, and Fermor goes on perfect, soaring autopilot... as with this passage on Danube School artist Albrecht Altdorfer :
"Here, at the northern most point of the river, a hundred and thirty miles upstream from the Abbey of St. Florian, the ancient stronghold of Ratisbon spans the Danube with a bridge that rivals all the great bridges of the Middle Ages. Those battlements and steeples, wrapped in myth, dominate one of the most complete and convincing mediaeval cities of the world. Anyone who has wandered in these streets can understand why the holy pastorals which his colleagues turned into dialect folk-tales, shift, under his hand, into the mood and the scenery of legends. The episodes of scripture—which are nowhere more splendidly manifest than in his great altarpiece at St. Florian’s—are suddenly clothed in the magic and the glamour of fairy stories; fairy stories, moreover, where the Mantua-Antwerp axis, uncoiling brilliant strands into the fabric, has been most potently spinning. Under the gothic interlock of cold whites and greys that canopy hallowed scenes in Flanders, the Biblical characters, clad in robes of lilac and mulberry and lemon and the shrill sulphur hue Mantegna loved, evolve and posture with convincing Renaissance splendor. Pontius Pilate—velvet-clad, mantled in dark sapphire, tasseled and collared like an Elector and turbanned like a Caliph—twists his sprinkled hands between ewer and salver under a magnificent baldaquin of scumbled gold. Through the lancets and the cinquefoils and beyond the diamond panes, the fluted rocks ascend and the woods and cliffs and cloud-banks of Gethsemane frame a luminous and incandescent sunset that presages Patinir. Though the centurions are knights in dark armour, no mortal smith ever wrought those helmet-wings and metal flourishes and knee-flutes and elbow-fans, even on the anvils of Augsburg and Milan in Maximilian’s reign. It is the fabulous harness that flashed later on every pre-raphaelite Grail-seeker and greaved and gauntleted the paladins in the Coloured Fairy books. Shifting from Divinity to sacred fable, the same ambience of magic isolates lonely knights among millions of leaves and confronts St. Eustace and the stag with its antlered crucifix, in a forest full of hazards and spells."
This is a young writer still learning his craft, but Place and Time have conspired to give us a near-perfect piece of Period Travel in this book; this one leaves off at Hungary, so much more from this ambitious road trip still to come. ...more
Stunner of a biography, from an era before xenophilia became fashion.
First, its well worth seeing the film Kwaidan, for the wider impression. SomehowStunner of a biography, from an era before xenophilia became fashion.
First, its well worth seeing the film Kwaidan, for the wider impression. Somehow the film version sets the stage really well for the lifelong passions of Mr. Hearn, bewitched and entranced by other cultures just beyond his grasp. But by all means see also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lafcadio...
An exotic from the era when exotics emerged on the strength of their own willpower, not parentage or whim. ...more
In the mass effort to put a major dramatic scene on the the silver screen, mistakes are sometimes unavoidable. For a horror movie, say-- at that windsIn the mass effort to put a major dramatic scene on the the silver screen, mistakes are sometimes unavoidable. For a horror movie, say-- at that windswept island house in the grassy flats on Chincoteague Island, wild ponies and raking sea breezes notwithstanding, it may feel a little contrived when the viewer sees a lighting scaffold just outside of the break in the curtains...
A fiercely fought battle by a valiant film crew to convert New York's Washington Square into the 19th century version envisioned by Henry James-- traffic stopped, blocks locked up under crowd control and dusted down with authentic vintage dirt, hansom cabs and liveried footmen in attendance... Can be compromised with the notice of an airconditioner in a window, or the flash of a yellow cab across an intersection three blocks into the depths of the scene.
At some point after the last frame has gone thru the camera, someone inevitably points out the unfortunate error, committed to history now and too expensive to restage. And the grizzled filmcrew veteran, wrapping cables or brooming up after the horses, is tasked with answering with the time-honored irony of his trade : "well, if they're looking at that, we've lost them long ago"....
A lot of Ms Roan's essay on the film treatment of Asian subjects is a little like that, and honestly seems a bit lost; a little overly concerned with pointing out the minute but obvious mistakes across large swaths of cinematic history, and a little under-informed on what actually comprises Location Filmaking (which afterall is her book's tag-line, On Location, Travel, and the Cinematic Geography of U.S. Orientalism.. just saying...) Not to say her book is about bloopers or something, and in fact she wants a deep discussion about western subjugation of alien cultures via cinema, but often enough tries to make the case with obvious / minor examples.
It's almost as if Roan wants to boldly prove that things in movies are often misrepresented, that there are actual inconsistencies and incongruities to be found if one only looks. Added to that, (as with the film cultures of most countries) those incongruities tilt toward affirmation of the home country's familiar values, toward blatant hero-worship of the national identity, and are often shot through with benighted alienation regarding the unknown culture, the other.
Numerous examples go somehow onto the scales to show that (western) society's film narratives are rearranged by their makers. Even language, geography and integrity of place are manipulated (!) by those engaged in the writing and filmaking, and quite often with a western bias unappologetically worn on the sleeve. Was this a secret ?
(Particularly irksome is the critique of the film of D.H. Hwang's play M. Butterfly that seems to advance the idea that since Hungary, France, Canada and other countries were used to stand in for certain aspects of China, certainly something orientalist and diabolical is going on. Uhm... no. That's just the way it goes in yer average cinematographic contextuality, as it happens. It might be rainy season in the one place when you needed to match sun, the cameo actor may only have two days to get to set without travel to Beijing first, the money might not be there to put sixty people up for sixty days in the Forbidden City Hilton, but the Toronto one is cheap in the winter, happy-hour still relatively unknown in China, lotsa things ... phew.)
This isn't revisionism so much as it is applying the enlightened values of a future age to works committed to celluloid in the innocent(ish) past, a sport that wears itself out after the first few plays. A bit like watching the 1920 world series and helpfully pointing out what might have been shown with instant video replay.
Any study of world cinema that doesn't consider bias and cultural shading is shortchanging its students; in the Hollywood oeuvre there is ample predjudice to weigh & analyze. There is compelling reason to be aware of what comprises Orientalism on the spotty historical record of the western world, and as represented by its media and culture. But finding little occasions of sin mirrored in the world of cinema isn't -- at least as developed here --- going to be moving the needle very much.
Adelstein seems to have looked back on his abbreviated career in the Japanese print media and determined that it wasn't just "crime beat" but actuallyAdelstein seems to have looked back on his abbreviated career in the Japanese print media and determined that it wasn't just "crime beat" but actually Noir. Okay, well enough, but this leads him down a peculiar prose path: rather than saying, for example, that he just interviewed someone with possible Yakuza connections, he noirishly sketches out the loner journo leaning his stark frame against a shattered doorway whilst lighting the millionth cigarette of the morning --before getting down to the connections. That kind of thing.
Let's not be too hard; this is all based on a real adventure in the seamy milieu of Japanese organized crime, murder, sex-slaving, cosplay and kink, along it's intersection with otherwise normal society. Though it can tend a little to self-aggrandizement, it's also got it's eye on the culture, the atmosphere, and the little details that make this kind of narrative come alive.
And unpredictably, the haircuts. There is Takeshi Aida, owner of a chain of adult clubs, who sports "a punch perm-- tight curls all over his head, a thin mexican mustache, and photochromatic oval shades." Or "Saeki, the head of Saitama homicide... running the press conference. He had bad skin and thick glasses, and even though he was at least twenty pounds overweight, he still managed to find suits that were baggy on him. He was growing bald, so he combed his hair, grown long on the sides, over the bald part on top, producing the hairstyle known in Japan as bar-code".
This kind of cross-cultural slang and shorthand is the real foundation for the book; when bad guys do bad things, it's just cowboys and indians, but when they've been tatooed from head to foot first, or do it with a bow beforehand, it can only be Japan. All in all, an intriguing ride. doːitaɕimaɕi̥te. ...more
Slightly meandering, mild-mannered memoir of Blofeld's years in pre-Mao china of the thirties & forties. In his younger, more curious years, he haSlightly meandering, mild-mannered memoir of Blofeld's years in pre-Mao china of the thirties & forties. In his younger, more curious years, he has interesting encounters with the Singsong Girls of the Flower-ships, as well as the opium pipe. As things move on, they get more academic, though occasionally a rivetting meta-moment occurs in the higher reaches of Toaist practice.
This narrative seems to lose color a bit as it attempts to 1. steer away from the political thunderclouds in China in that day, 2. find paths that navigate all bottlenecks presented by the tricky intersections of Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and 3. generally avoid criticism, never ever disparaging any aspect of Chinese culture, social practice, class structure or milieu... All presumably well-intentioned observances, but together they manage to drain the atmosphere a bit, and it's color and atmosphere that I tend to value most in a Period Travel memoir.
All that being said, this is a gentle and eventually winning account of China in the early twentieth century, standing on the doorstep of spectacular upheaval. Blofeld is on a spiritual quest here, too... He's not exactly here for anthropology, and by the end of the tale we get his vision a little better :
Modern science can now provide evidence for this idea of the primordial unity of all manifest form, throughout the universe. It has been demonstrated by science that matter (form) and energy (formless) are interchangeable, and that they both share the same essential vibrational nature. Einstein's famous equation E=MC²defined the dynamic commutability between these two dimensions of existence. Furthermore the advanced science of quantum physics now agrees with the fundamental hypothesis of ancient Eastern Cosmology that the entire manifest universe is formed and shaped by consciousness, and that nothing whatsoever exists beyond the infinite luminous field of primordial awareness.
It's possible that some of the distant quality here comes from the fact that the English Blofeld wrote this account in Chinese, his second language, for a Chinese readership-- and for this book his protégé has translated it back to English. ...more
After reading the nonfiction Dreamers Of Empire, which managed a wildly enthusiastic view of Empire in general while seeing almost none of the downsidAfter reading the nonfiction Dreamers Of Empire, which managed a wildly enthusiastic view of Empire in general while seeing almost none of the downside, the idea of a similarly-based fiction view of the Near East seemed intriguing. But was not to be.
Achmed Abdullah-- born Alexander Nicholayevitch Romanoff, he of the era-crunching and nationality-bending biography (click title above) -- also wrote for the monthly general-interest magazines, it turns out, and this was almost certainly the product of compiling "this-month's-installments" circa late twenties, till you have a book.
At turns interesting and then immediately enmeshed in the kind of bright, fizzy, wonderful-young-people-all-together-laughing scenes so beloved by the Hollywood film of the day, Abdullah has done much here to hold back nearly all of his serious talent and singular viewpoint.
Occasionally though, there are flashes of who the author really is :
... For, almost eighty years of age and reputed immensely wealthy, he was a survival of that picaresque, commercial era when traffic and barter in the far lands was still a clanking, swaggering adventure, a spirited gamble with Fate, a high-hearted, two-fisted romance; when yellow men and gold still disputed the eternal Asian trade balance with white men and blood; when, the other side of Suez, a merchant-prince was still a swashbuckler upon the blue hills and the gray waters, and not a swagbellied, dollar-coining, asthmatic automaton, safely ensconced behind a mahogany desk, a pile of ledgers, a steel filing cabinet, and an army of immaculate, college-bred private secretaries...
But there were sketchy, fantasmal, lawless tales of his earlier life, his first rise to affluence. Tales of the motley, swinging forgotten days when Malay Rajah and Gulf Arab sheikh and European adventurer met behind tightly closed rattan shutters, the velvet punka flopping lazily overhead, and dipped their disreputable noses in the same cup of honeyed, spiced brandy, and winked at one another as Greek is said to wink at Greek, and played hide-and-seek with His Britannic Majesty's red-coated soldiers, and black-coated judges, and nosing, inquisitive gunboats.
Egregious, these tales. Exotic. Grotesque. "
Interesting here to note that the Business at hand was negotiating the petroleum rights in Asia Minor, Persia and Mesopotamia. Of further interest is the prose itself. Notice that this little tour-de-force is composed of six sentences --- first, a sentence of 112 words that launches the topic, and proceeding through a couple more to the final two sentences, each composed of One Word alone. This is exciting --if a bit purple-- writing, something emblematic of the subject, the era, and the man who wrote it.
But try Dreamers Of Empire rather than this one. (Which begins with a staggering thousand-word sentence as its introduction. Really.) I'll sift through a few more Achmed Abdullah titles and see what else turns up.
A low-key, quirky little story from Conrad. Nothing awfully dramatic here, but all the components of the master's voice: involuntary fascination withA low-key, quirky little story from Conrad. Nothing awfully dramatic here, but all the components of the master's voice: involuntary fascination with the exotic Other; the internal stress-lines of the narrator, yearning romantic vs cynical modern; and the Twin or Double pattern of characters outwardly materializing those divisions.
Here the narrative hews very closely to Conrad's own experience of the outlying port of Mauritius, when he commanded a merchant sailing barque in the 'Orient' of the day. Thickly stagnant permanence in the French colonial social structure is contrasted with the perfumed flora & fauna of the island, which draws the story's Captain to a dizzying infatuation with a wild-child daughter of a peculiar island trader.
Old story, best intentions and ardent romanticism founder on the rocks of pragmatism and greed; colonial extravagance breeding decay, and underneath it, intoxicating lust and vexing contradiction. But Conrad has got the upper hand on this, having more or less made his name on setting this kind of tale into text; the patient eye and sure description of the remotest parts of the world make him strongly credible where more 'imaginative' writers would ring false. And as always, that magical thing about Conrad's prose that locks the practical into the intuitive, unifying the perspective completely. (Something to do with having learned English after his native Polish that creates this kind of perfect English prose, something he shares with Nabokov....?) The low-key and rueful tone manage to ground the narrative, and disarm any contrived turns that could derail the story's impact.
At eighty pages, this may be worth a second read. ...more
There is a sub-genre in the Memoir Department, having to do with staying in a notable place for a period of time. It can be really wide-ranging and coThere is a sub-genre in the Memoir Department, having to do with staying in a notable place for a period of time. It can be really wide-ranging and complex as with VS Naipaul's The Enigma Of Arrival, or narrower and concerned with an specific aspect of 'notable' --as in Palladian Days: Finding a New Life in a Venetian Country House by S Gable; both are valuable documents, even if the concerns of the latter are narrowed to the life and design of the villa, etc. And I'd recommend both of them for different reasons.
I coincidentally knew the term 'minka' --Japanese farmhouse-- before picking up John Roderick's memoir, and had seen numerous photos in several books about the Japanese design. Even more of a coincidence was that one of the books I'd seen was the beautiful volume of Japanese Country Style containing lush color photography of the houses restored by Mr Roderick's partner, Mr Takishita, including the one which the book chronicles.
I'd highly recommend pairing the two for a read of this account, since the small b&w photos allowed here don't really do any justice to the subject. John Roderick's "Minka" might even be so narrow as to deter the general reader; other than the descriptions of the massive beams and the struggle to translate Japanese cultural habits, the story doesn't quite come to life until you've seen the color photo book, which is from Kodansha International press.
With both at hand, it quickly becomes apparent that this tradition of building is a very early pairing of technology & aesthetics coming to terms, balancing at the level of practicality, indelibly Japanese in character. And beautiful, in ancient and austere wabi-sabi terms, which extoll the singular, the non-reproduceable quality of "the bloom of time"....more
Seems with a good book that a series of hurdles, if legitimate, present the reader with a more rewarding reading experience, for some reason. RussianSeems with a good book that a series of hurdles, if legitimate, present the reader with a more rewarding reading experience, for some reason. Russian novels come to mind, with the patronymic tradition that allows one character to be addressed differently by different characters; once the reader pushes through the identity issues, each exchange is a little enriched by how the characters address each other.
Similarly, historical accounts of Egypt under early exploration present the dilemma of Lower Egypt being in the North of the country, travelling Upriver on the Nile means you're headed South toward Upper Egypt, and Downriver toward the Nile Delta means you're Northbound. Once this is clear, you're on your way.
This is the second book about the Napoleonic invasion & occupation of Egypt I've read this year, and the better one, being more comprehensive in almost every respect. Why Napoleon In Egypt, again ? For me it fits neatly in the intersection between the Literature Of Empire and the east-versus-west catalog surrounding the Great Game... Who better to represent Mr Kipling's fictional The Man Who Would Be King in real-life terms than Napoleon Bonaparte ?
Colorful and romantic, the culture-clash between the backwater of the Ottomans that Egypt had already become and the Revolutionary French --creates the stress that reveals much about both worlds. And there is certainly something of the tragic and inevitable in "the contrast between the little bits of France which grew up here and there in Cairo, and the vast oriental city which engulfed them..."
Nevertheless, in this history, we do get glimmers of French intent -- Napoleon made extraordinary cultural efforts on this expedition, including the accompanying Savants recruited in every field of science and the arts that travelled with his armada to invade Egypt. These men he would form into an Institute housed in the palaces of the deposed Egyptian elite :
The palaces themselves were surrounded by an extensive garden complex, which was enclosed by walls, providing the members and their savant colleagues with one of the most pleasant spots in the city. The Institute would soon include all manner of facilities, including an extensive library consisting largely of the books Napoleon himself had selected to bring with him on the expediton: a core compendium of Western literature and knowledge.
One such Savant recalls member Gaspard Monge, who "would expand on his views of the future of Egypt, sometimes on his skeptical ideas, sometimes on his latest ideas regarding his beloved descriptive geometry. He spoke with such enthusiasm that it colored his entire imagination. The beauty of the night sky, the scent of the orange trees, the sweet and pleasant airs, all added to the ambience of our meetings, which went on into much of the night..."
From the Egyptian viewpoint, even the eventual decree of holy war by the Sultan would contain interesting language regarding the French : They mock all religions, the reject belief in another life, as well as its rewards and tortures, they do not believe in the resurrection of the body, nor in the last judgement, and they think that a blind chance presides over their life and death, that they owe their existence to pure matter, and that after this life their body returns to the earth...
This was a loose, medieval, theist entity forced to confront something very alien. Here at the other end of the historical telescope, though, this little rant of the Sultan's might not appear at all critical, as it continues : The French think that men, being born equal, must be equally free; that all distinction between men is unjust, and that each ought to be the master of his own opinions and his manner of living..... They have the impudence to say: We are brothers and friends, the same interests unite us, and we have the same religious opinions...
All of that to the good, when we look back to the center of the picture, there is Bonaparte--- avaricious, bloody-minded, and fixated on himself above all else.
At a certain point in the proceedings, it even appears that Napoleon himself went off the edge. His lovelorn letters to his faithful Josephine back in France had been intercepted by the British Blockade at the head of the Nile. No big loss, had it not been for the fact that Josephine had been public with her lovers back in Paris, and the Brits published the letters in the London daily papers, to the very great amusement of the English readership.
It would be fair to say that Bonaparte blew fuses on hearing the news; in his defense, he quickly rose to the occasion and began to envision what was taking shape as his great Oriental Dream Of Conquest. He would march on Constantinople and conquer the Ottomans; he would follow in Alexander's steps and march on to India and thwart the British. In his own words to the Egyptians, "The power of God passes through me so that I defeat the enemies of Islam and crush the Christian cross... All I have done was inspired by God .. [it is:] the design of God; no one can prevent the execution of his will, and it is I who have been charged with this execustion."
Worthwhile to note is that all during the Egyptian expedition, notions of religion were falling down to revelations about the Ancient World of the Pharaohs, courtesy hieroglyphs and Rosetta Stone, both discovered largely by the Savant units. Highly developed civilization in the Luxor and Thebes valleys, thousands of years prior to that described in the origin-myths of judeo-christianity undercut the accepted greco-roman timeline. This would lend a certain freedom to Bonaparte's declarations of what God's design might be, what 'destiny' might have in store.
What begins to dawn on Napoleon, with his fleet destroyed in Alexandria harbor and nothing ahead but the untold riches of the Orient, is that he'll found a New Asian Empire, much as the Americans had recently taken control of their own new continent. He founds the Regiment des Dromadaires, a camel corps not unlike what Lawrence would later utilize. He very carefully re-examines the ancient idea of a canal from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, to support his overland conquests, via ships that would sail the Arabian Sea.... which eventually became the Suez Canal.
He's brought the libraries and experts from the old empire, and he starts to consolidate the vision : he will re-boot Civilisation itself from the cradle of the ancients. Free of all constraints (and any contact or control from France) -- his imagination, and his ambition would know no bounds.
How it turns out is best left to the book, and it's a twisted tale. Recommended.