Fabulous fun. What I didn’t expect is that both the end-of-time aesthete and the Victorian lady are charming me to death and yes, I am getting into th...moreFabulous fun. What I didn’t expect is that both the end-of-time aesthete and the Victorian lady are charming me to death and yes, I am getting into their romance. I preferred her in his world, though. The back half was him as an innocent abroad in 1890s England, but with more Dickens than fin de siècle. Whereas at the last thousand years of the universe, the parties reminded me of a 200-page party in the single volume I have read yet of Proust (Sodom and Gomorrah): since it’s Moorcock I can believe, deliberately. (less)
I put these Logue Homers on my 'epics' shelf which is *not for modern works* -- to express my sense they are the genuine article. Achilles in his scie...moreI put these Logue Homers on my 'epics' shelf which is *not for modern works* -- to express my sense they are the genuine article. Achilles in his science-fiction armour creates for us the experience Homer's audience might have had. What I adore about Logue's Homer is his inventive fidelity to Homer's artistic techniques. Not that I know Greek (I tried once. I got through the grammar) -- neither did Christopher Logue. I'm a fan of Pope's Iliad and Chapman's, which I haven't finished although I agree it's unbeaten in English. I found these Logues in George Steiner's great collection of translations, renditions and riffs, Homer in English. George Steiner, whom I rather worship, says, "Christopher Logue's fragments out of the Iliad are an act of genius," and describes them as "Logue's transmutations of the Iliad into 'now'..."
Still, years later I dock a star. For the first installment, War Music in the '88 Faber of 84 pages that only has 'Patrocleia/GBH/Pax': death of Patroclus and afterwards.
It is the most tremendous combat description. Fans of combat writing ought to try this, whether or not they think they like poetry.
It has the punchy shortness of modernity:
“Run to the Fleet. Give Wondersulk our news. His love is dead. His armour gone. Prince Hector has the corpse. And as an afterthought, that we are lost.”
It has (best! best! to me now) a faith in the ancient art and is unafraid to follow Homer. Not only in the epic similes but the epic second person. I don’t know enough about epic second person: I just googled it and found this on a blog:
“The narrative shift from third-person omniscient to the second-person address to Patroclus is inherent in the original Greek text. You see these inexplicable shifts all the time in Homer; some translators just gloss over them and smooth the narrative into a single point of view, but so doing causes the text to lose some of its power: how effective is it, after all, that the poet directly addresses Patroclus as the warrior faces his death? The pathos is pumping at that moment, and I think we have that narrative shift to thank.” http://humanitiesteacherman.wordpress...
To which I say, amen. Logue is not a glosser-over, on the grounds that such things are strange in English. If I tell you once, in the heat of the moment, the poet calls Patroclus ‘darling’, that, out of context, might sound strange. But it’s Homer, and gives a vitality, a sense of being present. Need the poet hide his involvement in his story? his suspense at the plot and his emotions?
But that brings me to my but. Does it have a heart? In spite of this tender habit of talking to Achilles and to Hector, neither of them – in this first installment – was likeable, and I like to like my Achilles and my Hector. Nobody in the poem seems to like each other, either, and I’m afraid I didn’t feel Achilles’ grief. It’s easy to despise Ajax, but isn’t he celebrated in Homer, even if he is ‘as thick as the wall’? I am kept at a distance, and that has not been my experience of Homer. Of course, this may be a Logue experience instead – he has every right to part ways with Homer where he lists. Let’s see in the next sections, which I never read. (less)
Guy’s a serious gender-abolitionist. I honestly didn’t find this outdated. It is a bit of a screed, though. There was an elegant running cross-comment...moreGuy’s a serious gender-abolitionist. I honestly didn’t find this outdated. It is a bit of a screed, though. There was an elegant running cross-commentary between the future one-gender humans and daily life at time of writing in Begonia Drive. Crazily, as the book progressed I became more interested in Begonia Drive.(less)
The ‘great man theory’ of history is out of fashion, and I don’t know how often historical fiction, either, sets out to portray greatness – whatever t...moreThe ‘great man theory’ of history is out of fashion, and I don’t know how often historical fiction, either, sets out to portray greatness – whatever that is – in the political sphere. In this book I found myself convinced I was in the presence of greatness, a person I want to call great, and to add to that uncommon experience, she’s a woman.
If any of that sounds easy, I don’t think it is. At a point in this book it dawned upon me that in historical fiction, I haven’t met a great woman before – at least in the world of political leadership and statecraft. That may be down to the hf I read, or not. I avoid hf with titles like Empress, Princess, Queen, Consort or Concubine, because I can’t live in the women’s quarters for fun: therefore I don’t know what’s inside those novels, but I do know that this novel – which I nearly didn’t read on title – bulldozed those prejudices of mine, in seconds flat. In here I found quite an awesome human being. And I thought, it isn’t only that the historical subjects are rare (great stateswomen), but in order to create them on the page, you must have to rigorously do your thinking behind your writing. I sensed a rigour of thought behind the presentation of this woman.
From early on Heavenlight (Wu Zetian) gives the impression that her abilities swamp those around her, and moreover, she has a confidence in this. When, later in life, she finds herself more effective in worldly affairs than her emperor husband, she steps up to the job without… cognitive dissonance. She’s never been a hanger-on of others (who happen to be men). This mentality must have been necessary for a woman who makes herself Emperor of China.
As I understand, Wu Zetian was hopelessly traduced and trashed in the historical sources, so that we can’t expect to recover the ‘truth’ about her. What Shan Sa has chosen to do is salvage her with possible interpretations – possible, and positive. The resultant portrait may or may not resemble the historical person, but again I’ll say, is possible, and even just for that is a useful exercise. For myself, in future, I’m going to have a hard time picturing Wu Zetian any other way than the Heavenlight of this novel.
On style. This is told in intense first person; it’s about her and from her; her feelings for others are conveyed, but not so much the others’ existence in themselves. No doubt our subjectivities are as self-centred as this – it isn’t that she struck me as a selfish person. There is a brevity (one large life in 300 pages): in the middle parts I felt this a skimming-over, but in the late parts this brevity worked as an extraction of the essential or the right lines (the author’s a painter). Maybe that was me, getting used to the style. It had enough exclamation marks to play toy soldiers with... I don’t like to complain of such trivialities in translations from the French, but they got hard to ignore. At times I was plunged into the emotional life of this novel; at other times it failed to engage me. Again, I don’t whether that’s me, and I’ll see what happens next time I read this.
I mentioned that I can’t stand to live in the women’s quarters: here the Inner Palace is a prison and an insane asylum, and that meant I was fine. These women are overwrought, but they are seen to be made insane. It’s fair enough.
I’d note the parallels of youth and age in her sex life. As a young girl she suffers an obsession for one of the emperor’s older wives; when she herself is fifty she is once again infatuated with a fourteen-year-old girl. For years she serves as emperor’s wife; in her widowhood she acquires a young man, and he is kept, for her uses, in such a turned-upside-down way, equivalent to how the emperor treated his concubines… that I think Shan Sa is interested in exploring these matters.
I’m a fan of the use of translated names. Zetian is Heavenlight, and so we notice the light themes that coalesce about her. Children of hers are named Splendor, Future, Miracle. Lucky they are, because she can have little to do with her children, and these names were far more memorable for me than, in my ignorance, the Chinese. It exploits the ironies: Wisdom? uh-uh. Intelligence? a distinct lack of. It adds to the atmosphere and the intelligibility of the world, it tells us about their values. The city Chang’an is Long Peace. Our experience is more real when we know what the names mean, as, obviously, the novel’s inhabitants know. (less)
Short novel, read again in an afternoon. Enlists sympathy for its assassin Raven, with his background of a hanged father, a mother who cut her throat...moreShort novel, read again in an afternoon. Enlists sympathy for its assassin Raven, with his background of a hanged father, a mother who cut her throat on the kitchen table and a 'home'. Anne befriends him and he trusts for the first time in his life. A social-conscience tearjerker in the guise of a thriller.
I seemed to be keenest on those he subtitled 'An Entertainment'. The inside of this one explains, "in order to distinguish it from more serious work."...moreI seemed to be keenest on those he subtitled 'An Entertainment'. The inside of this one explains, "in order to distinguish it from more serious work." Hey. I thought his entertainments were great. (less)
This, I swear, was heavily influenced by Dostoyevsky -- no bad thing in my book, although I spent the novel distracted by Dostoyevsky-spotting. Also m...moreThis, I swear, was heavily influenced by Dostoyevsky -- no bad thing in my book, although I spent the novel distracted by Dostoyevsky-spotting. Also my first Iris Murdoch. Not one of her majors I imagine. (less)
Not a perfect book but a creative one, and my style of fantasy -- New Weird if it's called that, or in my private universe I'll call it cultured-from-...moreNot a perfect book but a creative one, and my style of fantasy -- New Weird if it's called that, or in my private universe I'll call it cultured-from-M. John Harrison. With nods to great decadents of the past... I think... (less)
Thus says Yahweh: "You will build for me a house for my dwelling? For I have not dwelt in a house since the day I brought up the...more When God was a nomad.
Thus says Yahweh: "You will build for me a house for my dwelling? For I have not dwelt in a house since the day I brought up the children of Israel from Egypt, and until this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and in a Tabernacle." -- 2 Sam 7:5-6
And he refuses the offer of a house… this time.
I learnt from this book that there is dispute about how nomadic the Hebrew tribes ever were; this comes down on the side of yes, they had been nomads and the Old Testament is nostalgic for that age. Of course there are phases and states in between settled-nomadic, and what I liked about this book is that it looks at experience as lived, to understand these intersections. For example, when they argue over whether a structure described in the Bible is fixed or unfixed, he photographs the ways tents in the area today morph into huts and houses sprout tentage – it’s not either/or. With this sort of work he salvages the nomadic case.
Me, I didn’t know there was an argument. I took a couple of courses in Biblical Literature years ago. It’s Jack Weatherford in Savages and Civilizations who made me aware of the Old Testament as a unique document from the nomad point of view – unique among ancient Near East writings, since written records issue from cities (although, doesn’t Gilgamesh give both sides, in a way?) What Weatherford said and this book says in a little more detail – though don’t miss Jack Weatherford’s original insights – is that in the Bible, tents and nomads ‘connote positively’, and urban life tends to connote negatively -- wicked cities. In every other ancient Near East text it’s the opposite: a tent means filth and ignorance. The Bible stands quite alone for insight into ancient nomads.
In its later chapters this book collects what knowledge we have on ancient Near East war tents and holy tents, then looks at speculative reconstructions of the Tabernacle. A large set of plates at the end illustrate every aspect of the book. (less)
It’s called ‘Exemplars and rules’. Between the two, it is in exemplars that a Mongolian’s moral significance lies; these are not of blanket application but are more of a personal quest, and it can be the quester who invests them with meaning. A morality structured this way is not expected to be consistent across society. There is an outlook that every existence will pursue its self-fulfillment, and the harmony of these is not assumed to be achievable. Before I crudify this essay any more, you can go and read it instead.
The introduction, by the brains behind the book, made me keen on the titular concept, and is worth reading in itself. Anthropologists have been shy to study moralities (plural) head-on, but she makes a case for it and talks about the difficulties.
The rest of the pieces seemed meagre and perhaps haven’t grasped the nettle or at once achieved the goals set in the introduction. There’s a later, larger book, though not a collection of case studies, A Companion to Moral Anthropology -- also with Caroline Humphrey’s involvement.
Entries from Zimbabwe, PNG, Mexico, Yemen (‘Inside an Exhausted Community’ – I’ll have to say I found this one judgmental). If you’re into football I bet you’ll love the one on Argentinian football and the moralities of sport. I couldn’t make myself read much about anti-outsider attitudes in an English village called Wanet – the subject matter was too dire. The strange inclusion, however, was the last, on Eve in Genesis. (less)
I’d have thought I had an appreciation of how important trade was to Mongols, but after the early groundwork section of this I said no, we still under...moreI’d have thought I had an appreciation of how important trade was to Mongols, but after the early groundwork section of this I said no, we still underestimate. It was of the very first importance, and this book explains why in terms I haven’t met before. The Pax Mongolica often has ‘so-called’ prefixed to it, but again, with this book I saw what a gala for international merchants the Mongol age was. Prior to them, Byzantium and Islamic states didn’t allow foreigners to travel freely in their interiors, and they had their own merchants whose interests to protect. Not so Mongols, who sought to attract foreign merchants in every way they knew how, and facilitated their travel through the vast spaces in which they had demolished borders. This book goes on to concentrate on one example of that symbiosis: the Golden Horde and the Genoese on the Black Sea. To quote, this was “the closest recorded working relationship between European and Asian powers in the medieval period, achieved by the joint efforts of the Chinggisid rulers and the Italian merchant republics.”
The amount of Mongol-European contacts, in government employ or miscellaneous, intrigues me or I might say staggers my imagination, and in that area I found this a definite addition to Peter Jackson’s The Mongols and the West. Also, with this I have made strides to understand the export of slaves from the Golden Horde (by means of the Genoese, sold to Mamluk Egypt). For the Golden Horde this trade was a sacrifice in aid of its foreign policies; later, in the age of the plague, they couldn’t afford to ship out population. For this among other reasons the Golden Horde-Genoese cooperation broke down. These Italian merchant states act with great confidence in the Mongol world; few of them may have gone as far as Marco Polo, but they certainly had adventures. (less)
A Job-type story, but I found events contrived to serve its "shocking & provocative" ends. Perhaps you have invest in these people's belief that t...moreA Job-type story, but I found events contrived to serve its "shocking & provocative" ends. Perhaps you have invest in these people's belief that they are guided by God for this to work. I saw them as naive, not to say ignorant anthropologists. I don't want to leap to conclusions about its messages, but I was distinctly uncomfortable with story developments in those sensitive areas of sex and religion. Hence my one star. No doubt buttons were pushed. I'll say why briefly under a spoiler.
(view spoiler)[To me, the aliens' social set-up seemed to illustrate the point that when sex cannot be reproductive it is devoid of any meaning and devolves into pornography and exploitation. I may be dead wrong but I saw that drift. Orgasm for its own sake or as an artistic pursuit -- discovered by an individual for the first time on the planet? eh? unbelievable in itself -- leads to this...? The shock value of the music they thought religious (simply because of its beauty) revealed as an art of pornography was at least too sensationalist for me. (hide spoiler)]
Also, I don't like to accuse authors of Mary Sues, but the trouble with Mary Sues is that an author is uncritical towards them. That describes Anne, who annoyed me unreasonably, the more so as the crew with its interactional style grew into an Anne-gestalt rather than a group of individuals. If only one person's sense of humour had struck an off-note with the others.
I never expected to think a Tiptree winner dreadful, but that's the word that insisted on expression as I closed this book. Tiptree, Tiptree, do you read? If the judges did read this one they understood it differently than I. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
My cousins got me the CDs. Go cousins. Aside from the inconvenience of no play list in the packaging -- you have to look at the CDs themselves, and th...moreMy cousins got me the CDs. Go cousins. Aside from the inconvenience of no play list in the packaging -- you have to look at the CDs themselves, and there the titles are severely truncated -- aside from that, half the time with no idea who I'm listening to, I am riveted. Writers read their own: way to go. (less)
Old, outdated, and the man cannot know everything. But I went through my Colin Wilson phase and read these 700 pages with mental excitement. Big quest...moreOld, outdated, and the man cannot know everything. But I went through my Colin Wilson phase and read these 700 pages with mental excitement. Big questions anyone? (less)
Story of an outsider. It has to be one of the greats of outsider fiction although maybe it doesn’t occur in The Outsider. With the terse psychology of...moreStory of an outsider. It has to be one of the greats of outsider fiction although maybe it doesn’t occur in The Outsider. With the terse psychology of sagas we watch Grettir alienate his fellow man from the start, and then watch him slip through the social pavement. He also earns devotion from a few. That few includes me.
This saga, a late one, is just glorious: harsh realities, eerie atmospherics, high heroics, lows of homelessness in Iceland. This is my saga of choice. It has genuinely freaky trolls along with what might be either mental illness or maleficent visions. It has stolen bits from Beowulf and from Tristan & Isolde. It has interesting women and unemployed berserks.
RIP Grettir. I know that is only ironic for you. (less)
Sits alongside Life of Aglovale de Galis and Porius: odd, intensely individual Arthurian tellings with dismal publishing histories. Porius has been ‘p...moreSits alongside Life of Aglovale de Galis and Porius: odd, intensely individual Arthurian tellings with dismal publishing histories. Porius has been ‘painstakingly restored’ to author’s intentions, fifty years later; Aglovale has seen the light of day again with an Arthur-dedicated publishing house; Vansittart’s other novels are getting into paperback, which they didn't manage on initial publication, but Lancelot – miles better than the pbacked A Safe Conduct – is still a rare secondhand. The three of these are on my list of dead writers who needed indie.
Vansittart writes a historical fiction that is about the processes of history. Story comes second, with him. However, if I find his intellectual content strong and his storytelling weak, that may be the fault of his publisher, who limited him to seventy thousand words [as he says in an interview, Arthurian-focused: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/te...]. (I think he saved on words by eliminating articles: ‘the’ and ‘a’ an unnecessary luxury when your publisher has scissors out). He is a determined legend-killer, and/or an extremist of realism. Lancelot, later taken over by the Courtly Love movement, doesn’t bother to distract himself much with women, although he knew Gwenhever from a brothel. Mind you, near the end, Lancelot (this is told in Lancelot’s voice) is driven to admit that there may have been more to Arthur, in the way of being material for legend, than he himself has seen, acknowledged, understood.
Lancelot also notes: “Their stories can of course be told very differently – I am not impartial and do not wish to be – and this will surely occur. The truth? Impossible. In telling stories we submit to matters beyond our control.”
It’s the processes of story-telling, or of converting history into story, that most interests Vansittart. Still, A Safe Conduct scarcely qualified as a novel, while Lancelot does. Maybe he has a bit in common with Julian Rathbone – I’ve only read The Last English King – in that he writes hf to analyse history, and our relationship to it. He hasn’t Rathbone’s overt modernisms but I was always sensible of the present day.
Again, I thought his great strengths were the punchiest, most innovative English, and his description of persons. That may be because I like those things. The Art of the Sentence is reason enough to read him. Not pretty, punchy. Knockout language use. (less)