Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Summerbook #9: The Uncommercial Traveller

The Uncommercial Traveller, by Charles Dickens

This is one of my oldest TBRs!  It's been sitting around forever.  These are essays published over years in Dickens' magazine, All the Year Round.  His conceit is that instead of being a commercial traveller (a traveling salesman), he's an UNcommercial traveller, always wandering around looking for a story.  So these are portraits of situations or places, mostly in London but sometimes elsewhere.

Dickens starts off with a bang, being present at the aftermath of a tragic shipwreck off the coast of Wales, and chronicling the tremendous care and work the locals give to the situation.  Then it's off to an assortment of places -- a tour of the Wapping workhouse, the lead-mills, or the gigantic dockyards, interviews with mistreated English soldiers or destitute families looking for work.  He explores a Stepney school for pauper children, of which he highly approves because they're so well cared-for.  He rants about street gangs and the lack of care for homeless children, and produces tiny vignettes of odd people, like the elderly couple making hay in a bitty little churchyard.

One of the more famous essays -- in my circle, at least -- is a fairly entertaining tour of an emigrant ship, the Amazon, which is filled with hundreds of Mormons on their way to Salt Lake City.  Dickens is bewildered by them.  Mormons are clearly lunatics, and he expects to see a bunch of rabble.  He's puzzled to find that the group is organized and respectable.

My copy is a cheap little volume from a 'complete Dickens' set printed in 1900.  It's bound in red leather, but only just barely -- it's incredibly thin leather -- and manages to get over 450 pages into a volume that is maybe 3/4" thick.  So it took me quite a time to read, longer than I thought it would; there are 36 longish essays in here.  It's a fun collection, containing a lot of very opinionated Dickens.


Some favorite quotations, often very funny:

The aunt and nephew in this City church are much disturbed by the sniggering boys.  The nephew is himself a boy, and the sniggerers tempt him to secular thoughts of marbles and string, by secretly offering such commodities to his distant contemplation.  This young Saint Anthony for a while resists, but presently becomes a backslider, and in dumb show defies the sniggerers to ‘heave’ a marble or two in his direction.  Here in he is detected by the aunt (a rigorous reduced gentlewoman who has the charge of offices), and I perceive that worthy relative to poke him in the side, with the corrugated hooked handle of an ancient umbrella.  The nephew revenges himself for this, by holding his breath and terrifying his kinswoman with the dread belief that he has made up his mind to burst.  Regardless of whispers and shakes, he swells and becomes discoloured, and yet again swells and becomes discoloured, until the aunt can bear it no longer, but leads him out, with no visible neck, and with his eyes going before him like a prawn’s.

There are not many places that I find it more agreeable to revisit when I am in an idle mood, than some places to which I have never been.  For, my acquaintance with those spots is of such long standing, and has ripened into an intimacy of so affectionate a nature, that I take a particular interest in assuring myself that they are unchanged.  I never was in Robinson Crusoe’s Island, yet I frequently return there....

...on my twenty-first birthday I gave a party, and She was there.  It was a beautiful party.  There was not a single animate or inanimate object connected with it (except the company and myself) that I had ever seen before.  Everything was hired, and the mercenaries in attendance were profound strangers to me.  Behind a door, in the crumby part of the night when wine-glasses were to be found in unexpected spots, I spoke to Her—spoke out to Her.  What passed, I cannot as a man of honour reveal.  She was all angelical gentleness, but a word was mentioned—a short and dreadful word of three letters, beginning with a B— which, as I remarked at the moment, ‘scorched my brain.’  She went away soon afterwards, and when the hollow throng (though to be sure it was no fault of theirs) dispersed, I issued forth, with a dissipated scorner, and, as I mentioned expressly to him, ‘sought oblivion.’  It was found, with a dreadful headache in it, but it didn’t last; for, in the shaming light of next day’s noon, I raised my heavy head in bed, looking back to the birthdays behind me, and tracking the circle by which I had got round, after all, to the bitter powder and the wretchedness again.

I make bold to go aboard a transport ship (iron screw) just sent in from the contractor’s yard to be inspected and passed.  She is a very gratifying experience, in the simplicity and humanity of her arrangements for troops, in her provision for light and air and cleanliness, and in her care for women and children.  It occurs to me, as I explore her, that I would require a handsome sum of money to go aboard her, at midnight by the Dockyard bell, and stay aboard alone till morning; for surely she must be haunted by a crowd of ghosts of obstinate old martinets, mournfully flapping their cherubic epaulettes over the changed times.

...my sponge being left behind at the last Hotel, I made the tour of the little town to buy another.  In the small sunny shops—mercers, opticians, and druggist-grocers, with here and there an emporium of religious images—the gravest of old spectacled Flemish husbands and wives sat contemplating one another across bare counters, while the wasps, who seemed to have taken military possession of the town, and to have placed it under wasp-martial law, executed warlike manœuvres in the windows.  Other shops the wasps had entirely to themselves, and nobody cared and nobody came when I beat with a five-franc piece upon the board of custom.  What I sought was no more to be found than if I had sought a nugget of Californian gold: so I went, spongeless, to pass the evening with the Family P. Salcy.

My journeys as Uncommercial Traveller for the firm of Human-Interest Brothers have not slackened since I last reported of them, but have kept me continually on the move.  I remain in the same idle employment.  I never solicit an order, I never get any commission, I am the rolling stone that gathers no moss,—unless any should by chance be found among these samples.

[He ponders upon]...the existence of a polished state of society that bore with the public savagery of neglected children in the streets of its capital city, and was proud of its power by sea and land, and never used its power to seize and save them!






Monday, July 27, 2020

The Mysteries of Udolpho Readalong: II

The Mysteries of Udolpho Readalong

I've finished Volume II, so it's time for an update!  I'm keeping up with the schedule -- I'm really a bit late with this post -- and enjoying this leisurely read of a very long novel


In Volume II, Emily is whisked off to Venice, where there are a lot of parties.   Her aunt, the new Madame Montoni, thinks everything is going to be great, but she is very wrong.  Montoni has a bit of a gambling problem, his friends are sketchy as all get out, and all of them will do anything for money.  Maybe it wasn't such a hot idea to marry this guy after all.

Among all the parties and boat excursions, Montoni's friend Count Morano is paying a lot of court to Emily, which she is not happy about one bit.  No matter how often she tells him she's not interested, he keeps pursuing her.  Montoni is pressuring her to marry him, and eventually comes up with a trick in which he 'understands' her to have accepted the suit.  He's determined that she is jolly well going to marry Morano whether she likes it or not.  Everything is prepared for the next morning, but...

...instead of a forced wedding, the ladies are now whisked off to Signor Montoni's mountain castle of Udolpho.   Morano has turned out not to have any money, so there's no point in forcing Emily to marry him.   Madame Montoni and Emily are, for all practical purposes, imprisoned, and they only see Montoni when he shows up to bully his wife into signing over her estates to him, since he has long since lost all his money at the gambling tables.  Being a fiery sort, she won't comply, and is confined to a tower alone.  Emily is pretty sure her aunt must be dead!  Meanwhile, there is a mysterious room near Emily's chamber, where there is a black veil covering one wall.  Emily has a peek and faints at the horrible thing she sees!  What could be behind the horrid black veil??   The spurned Morano tries to persuade Emily into an elopement, and there is a lot of fighting.  In fact, Montoni is clearly setting up to be the leader of a band of mercenaries, who will roam the country and plunder hapless travelers when they aren't engaging in battles.  The place is packed with vicious-looking soldiers and ruffians.  But every once in a while, late at night, Emily hears lovely music -- songs of her own homeland.  Who could be playing them?



The story is set in 1584, but honestly it's impossible to imagine Emily in anything but the Regency styles that were juuuuust coming into fashion when the novel was published in 1794.   She is so completely the perfect Regency miss.  (Now, Fanny Burney's heroines can only be imagined in the dress of 20 years before that!)  Also, she faints, or almost faints, on a regular basis.  Emily has a reasonable amount of gumption, but only after she talks herself out of fainting from fright, or sorrow.  She's always having to support herself on the nearest piece of furniture.

Look how quickly fashions changed!


Emily also spends a tremendous amount of time looking out the window in a melancholy fashion, but to be fair, she doesn't have a lot else to do right now.  She's essentially trapped in her room; leaving it exposes her to the possibility of running into drunken soldiers wandering through the halls, and as it is her room isn't even properly secure.  And Montoni may well have murdered her aunt.  Emily has nowhere to go at all.


Friday, July 24, 2020

Summerbook #8: The Spy and the Traitor



I was slightly surprised to find that the subject of this book probably actually is the greatest espionage story of the Cold War.  It's a pretty gripping story, anyway.

Oleg Gordievsky grew up in a KGB family; his father was an officer, and it was natural for Oleg and his older brother to join up as well.  But the building of the Berlin Wall gave him serious pause.  He became interested in dissident thought, and when he was posted to Copenhagen, he fell in love with the freedom and clean, cheerful city where everything worked.  He could read whatever he wanted and listen to the music he loved.  When the Prague Spring was so brutally suppressed in 1968, Gordievsky was appalled and became utterly disenchanted with the Soviet system.  He started to think it might be a good idea to help Western countries instead of his own.

It took quite some time, but Gordievsky started to give information to the Danish intelligence organization (PET) and MI6.  He wasn't interested in money; he genuinely felt that the Soviet government was wrong and that he should do his best to bring it down.  And so he passed enormous amounts of valuable KGB information to MI6.  He did this for years, first in Denmark, and later, after several years back in the USSR, from a new posting in London.  He even became the London rezident -- very briefly, until he was identified by a CIA spy, Arthur Ames, who had decided that he needed a lot more money.

Gordievsky's escape from the USSR is a hair-raising story; and, despite what MacGyver taught us, it's unique in the history of the KGB.  No one else ever escaped.  The tragic part was that Gordievsky had to make the wrenching decision to leave his much-loved wife and children.  After about six years, they were reunited, but the marriage did not survive; although Gordievsky's dream had been to defect while still in the West and live happily with his family in the UK, he wound up in a position where he had no choice but to give up his family for their safety.  MacIntyre describes him as "one of the bravest people I have ever met, and one of the loneliest."


Anybody interested in the Cold War and Soviet history would enjoy this detailed and fascinating story.

Some bits and bobs:
[A British description of two Danish intelligence officers]  "Jens was small with a large fair mustache.  Winter was enormous, roughly the size of a large door.  I called them Asterix and Obelix."

[On Gordievsky's job of trying to recruit Danish people as spies]  This new form of intelligence work was exciting but frustrating.  Danes are almost too nice to be spies, too honest to be subversive, and too polite to say so.  Every attempt to recruit a Dane bumped into an impenetrable wall of courtesy.  Even the most ardent Danish Communists balked at treachery.

The internal security system in Moscow Central was both complex and crude.  The most secret operational files were kept in a locked cabinet in the office of the department head.  But the other paperwork was retained in the various section offices, and in individual sages handles by the officers overseeing different aspect of the department's work.  Every evening, each officer locked his safes and filing cabinets, placed the keys in a small wooden box, and then sealed this with a lump of plasticine into which he pressed his individual stamp -- like the was seals used on ancient documents.  The duty officer then collected the boxes and placed them in another safe in Gennadi Titov's office.  That key was again placed in a small box, and sealed in the same way with the duty officer's stamp, before being deposited in the office of the secretariat of the First Chief Directorate, which was manned around the clock.  They system took up a great deal of time, and a lot of plasticine.

[In Moscow] It was easy to spot the KGB vehicles: the brushes of the KGB carwash, for reasons unknown, could not quite reach a spot in the middle of the hood, so each car had a telltale triangle of dirt on the front.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The Golden Bough Readalong: Part the Sixth

I've been reading along just fine, but finding time (and motivation) to blog isn't so easy.  But here we are, just about halfway through!  Much of this chunk was specifically about Adonis/Attis/Tammuz worship.


XXXI. Adonis in Cyprus.  Cyprus looked pretty good to the Phoenicians, and Paphos was the center of Adnois worship.  Dubious-sounding pre-marriage practices involving "sacred harlots."  Story of Cinyras.  Music in worship, with references to Saul and David.

XXXII. The Ritual of Adonis.  Adonis festivals involved a lot of mourning for the death of the god, who was often carried out to burial in water, and they would sing about his future revival.  Offerings of fruit, flowers, cakes -- the date of the ceremony is not known but probably summer.  Red flowers were said to have been dyed by his blood.  Once a society became agricultural, the focus shifted from general fertility to specifically grains/cereals. 

XXXIII.  The Gardens of Adonis.  Women would plant little temporary gardens in baskets of earth sown with grain and flowers.  The plants would shoot up rapidly in the sun, but withered from lack of root, and after 8 days were thrown out along with the effigies.  All these little ceremonies of sympathetic magic meant to encourage growth.  Examples of similar ceremonies from all over the world.

XXXIV. The Myth and Ritual of Attis.  Attis, in Phrygia, was a very similar figure to Adonis.  Said to have been born from a virgin mother who put an "almond or pomegranate in her bosom," and beloved by Cybele.  Except the priests of Attis castrated themselves, and sometimes the worshipers did too, as part of the mourning ceremonies -- which were pretty exciting stuff.  In fact eunuch-priests were pretty common when it came to Near Eastern fertility goddesses; evidently the idea was to give their fertility to the goddess.

XXXV.  Attis as a God of Vegetation.  Attis wound up the eastern version of the maypole -- he was personified as a pine tree and they would cut one down and decorate it with flowers for the festival, sometimes with an effigy attached.    Both pines and ivy were sacred to Attis, so maybe there was something about evergreens.   He was also personified as ripe grain.

XXXVI. Human Representatives of Attis.  Cybele's high priest was called Attis.  They'd do blood-drawing rituals because Attis killed himself under a pine-tree.  Examples of similar/related tales.


This was actually a pretty short chunk, and interesting.  I have my doubts about some of Frazer's conclusions...I mean, check this out about Attis' mother:
Such tales of virgin mothers are relics of an age of childish ignorance when men had not yet recognized the intercourse of the sexes as the true cause of offspring. 
That doesn't work at all.  The entire rest of the chapter shows so.  It wouldn't be a special, divine birth if just any-old-body could get pregnant from their snacks.  And why would anybody castrate themselves if they were ignorant of how babies are made?  He says himself they had to give their fertility to the goddess.


Here are some other quotations:
...no one except the unfortunate astronomer Bailly has maintained that the Adonis worship came from the Arctic regions.

It has been suggested by Father Lagrange that the mourning for Adonis was essentially a harvest rite designed to propitiate the corn-god, who was then either perishing under the sickles of the reapers, or being trodden to death under the hoofs of the oxen on the threshing-floor. While the men slew him, the women wept crocodile tears at home to appease his natural indignation by a show of grief for his death. The theory fits in well with the dates of the festivals, which fell in spring or summer; for spring and summer, not autumn, are the seasons of the barley and wheat harvests in the lands which worshipped Adonis. Further, the hypothesis is confirmed by the practice of the Egyptian reapers, who lamented, calling upon Isis, when they cut the first corn; and it is recommended by the analogous customs of many hunting tribes, who testify great respect for the animals which they kill and eat.

There is some reason to think that in early times Adonis was sometimes personated by a living man who died a violent death in the character of the god. Further, there is evidence which goes to show that among the agricultural peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean, the corn-spirit, by whatever name he was known, was often represented, year by year, by human victims slain on the harvest-field. If that was so, it seems likely that the propitiation of the corn-spirit would tend to fuse to some extent with the worship of the dead. For the spirits of these victims might be thought to return to life in the ears which they had fattened with their blood, and to die a second death at the reaping of the corn. Now the ghosts of those who have perished by violence are surly and apt to wreak their vengeance on their slayers whenever an opportunity offers. Hence the attempt to appease the souls of the slaughtered victims would naturally blend, at least in the popular conception, with the attempt to pacify the slain corn-spirit. And as the dead came back in the sprouting corn, so they might be thought to return in the spring flowers, waked from their long sleep by the soft vernal airs. They had been laid to their rest under the sod. What more natural than to imagine that the violets and the hyacinths, the roses and the anemones, sprang from their dust, were empurpled or incarnadined by their blood, and contained some portion of their spirit?

Certainly the custom of drenching with water a leaf-clad person, who undoubtedly personifies vegetation, is still resorted to in Europe for the express purpose of producing rain. Similarly the custom of throwing water on the last corn cut at harvest, or on the person who brings it home (a custom observed in Germany and France, and till lately in England and Scotland), is in some places practised with the avowed intent to procure rain for the next year’s crops. Thus in Wallachia and amongst the Roumanians in Transylvania, when a girl is bringing home a crown made of the last ears of corn cut at harvest, all who meet her hasten to throw water on her, and two farm-servants are placed at the door for the purpose; for they believe that if this were not done, the crops next year would perish from drought. At the spring ploughing in Prussia, when the ploughmen and sowers returned in the evening from their work in the fields, the farmer’s wife and the servants used to splash water over them.


Monday, July 20, 2020

Six in Six 2020

This is the first time I've heard of this game, but I like the idea!  Jo at The Book Jotter says:
The idea being that as the end of June approaches and we are then halfway through the year,  let us share the books we have read in those first 6 months. In fact let’s share 6 books in 6 categories, or if time is of the essence then simply share just 6 books. Whatever combination works for you as long as it involves 6 books.
Well, that sounds fun!  There are about a zillion categories, so it's hard to pick just six.  It had to be a little bit arbitrary if I was ever going to choose.  Here we go, six books in six categories:


We all need a break from the world sometimes, so here are Six books to read to avoid politics
I love reading non-fiction, so: Six From the Non-Fiction Shelf:
Books sometimes disappoint.  Six books that didn’t live up to expectations:
Here's kind of an easy one, given my Reading All Around the World project.  Six Non-US/Non-British Authors:
I'm not very artistic, but here are Six book covers I love:
And finally, we'll end on a high note with Six books I have enjoyed the most:
PS: For a bonus, Six book covers that bear no resemblance to the story contained within.  I didn't have six of these, but I certainly have one: the very very pretty Bards of Bone Plain, the heroine of which is an archaeologist constantly covered in dirt.


Speaking of six, my oldest told me about this musical which I guess is something of a hit in the UK, which posits the six wives of Henry VIII as a girl group singing about their lives.  This is a pretty awesome idea, and I really like Anne Boleyn's song and also Katherine of Aragon's spiky cap.  This is about half? the song on a talk show:

Friday, July 17, 2020

Tales From A Rolltop Desk


Hey, two Christophers in a row!  Ha.  This Christopher, however, was an American journalist type who wrote a lot of funny stories, most famously Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop

This little tome is a collection of short stories published in magazines in the late 1910s, back when short stories in magazines were the great American pastime.  Just about all of them are set in the journalistic scene of New York City, and they're nearly all funny -- but there's a mystery and a ghost story too!  They feature bright, clever secretaries and young reporters scrambling for their wages -- all the usual suspects for New York stories, and often reminded me of P. G. Wodehouse's New York stories, except these came first.  I wonder if the two knew each other...

...having done a few minutes of poking around, I can't see how the two could have avoided meeting, though there's nothing to indicate a friendship.  But they were both in the New York theater and literary scene at overlapping times.

Anyway, these were fun stories and I think I'll nab any more Morley that comes along.  (This, of course, came off the donation table months ago -- there hasn't been a donation table since lockdown started -- and it's actually the original 1921 edition, discarded from a library in the next county.*  There is a note on the copyright page that says "All rights reserved, including that of translation into foreign languages, including the Scandinavian," which really makes me wonder what there was about the complexities of copyright law in 1921 that made that necessary.   It's pretty beat-up, but the etching on the cover is the same design as the cover shown here, which is for the Kindle version -- and they want a buck for it, which is nice and cheap but all this stuff is in the public domain and almost certainly on Gutenberg or something.)


* The card pocket is still in place on the inside cover, and says that "A fine of two cents a day will be charged on each book" that is not returned on time.


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Summerbook #7: The Children of Húrin

The Children of Húrin, by J. R. R. Tolkien/Christopher Tolkien

As these very pretty editions of tales, packed with Alan Lee illustrations, have been published, I've been tempted to read them, but I wasn't sure what order they went in or what exactly they were (stories from the Silmarillion...?), so it took me a little while to get around to it.  Christopher Tolkien explains in the notes that his father had written, variously, the bare bones of the Children of Húrin story, then a chunk of an enormous epic poem in the alliterative style of Anglo-Saxon poetry, and notes and versions.  The son then eventually kind of synthesized all of this material into something that would be readable and comprehensible to those of us not prepared to read several thousand lines of alliterative verse and still not know the end of the story.  So it's Tolkien's material, and Christopher's editing.  Three of the longer stories of the Elder Days have now been given this treatment, and I gather another is forthcoming.  I happened to read the first one first, to my surprise, so next I'll move on to Beren and Lúthien,...at least, if I ever get to go back to my workplace.

To my enormous surprise, I found out that the events in the Silmarillion, or at any rate before the Fall of Gondolin, take place not in the familiar landscape of LOTR, with the Shire and various kingdoms of Elves, Men, and Dwarves, but in a different area to the west that was flooded and lost when the Elder Days ended.  There are allusions to it in LOTR, in songs and such, but I really had no idea, which proves that I am not all that good at being a Tolkien fan.  So, I had to go find a really good map, and the best one I found is shown at the bottom of the post -- you can enlarge it.  The book has a fold-out map in the back, but it isn't really adequate; even some of the locations in the story are not pointed out.

The story centers on Húrin, his wife Morwen, and his children, mostly Túrin.  Húrin is a descendant of Beren One-Hand, and a great warrior and lord.  Morgoth, however, is gaining in power, and orcs are overrunning the land.  Húrin and his brother Huor go off to fight in a great battle, and Húrin survives -- but is taken captive by Morgoth, and tormented.  Húrin's children have a doom laid upon them that they will not be able to escape.

Túrin is Húrin's eldest child, an intelligent and serious boy, and his mother sends him to live with Elves for his protection.  There he grows to young manhood, and while he is strong and lovable, he is also proud and quick-tempered, traits which get him into trouble more than once.  Túrin's difficult and turbulent life lead him into many places, and he's always trying to escape himself by changing his name, yet inevitably his efforts and his heroism lead to ruin and disaster for those he loves.  At the last, he fights a great dragon, and also finds himself in the worst situation yet.

It's a story of fairly unremitting tragedy.  The children of Húrin make Oedipus look pretty lucky.  Of course, it's also beautifully written and fascinating in detail, so I recommend it; but prepare for a sad tale.


Click to enlarge to a readable size

Monday, July 13, 2020

The Golden Bough Readalong: Part the Fifth

This is such a weird summer.  It's both boring and stressful.  There is almost nothing to do, which is kind of restful but also no fun.  I've decluttered a bunch of areas, though, so that is nice.  And this week my oldest is coming home for a visit and a birthday!

So what has Sir James Frazer been up to?  I read chapters 25-30 in the last couple of weeks.


XXV.  Temporary Kings: So, instead of getting killed while still in the prime of life, in order to preserve the land at full strength, some kings figured out ways to get around it, such as installing a temporary king who has to go through a mock execution, or some other such dodge.  Here are various examples of temporary kings.

XXVI.  Sacrifice of the King's Son: Often those temporary kings do have to come from the royal family, in order to represent the king properly.  Who better than the actual son?  [I see some potential problems with this, actually...]  Frazer cites a legendary king of Sweden who sacrificed NINE of his sons to Odin -- not all at once, but one at a time in order to preserve his own life.  The tenth son survived because the people wouldn't let him be killed.  There are also some gruesome Greek legends about sons being sacrificed. 

XXVII.  Succession to the Soul: Frazer theorizes that when the king is killed, his divine kingly soul is believed to be transferred to his successor -- another reason to kill off your king while in the prime of life.  This has to be speculation [dude, MUCH of this book is speculation] but here are some examples of somewhat related practices.

XXVIII.  The Killing of the Tree-Spirit.
  1.  The Whitsuntide Mummers: Frazer figures this all fits right into the King of the Wood at Nemi, who must be slain by his successor.  As soon as he can be beaten by a challenger, he should die and the challenger take over the divine right.  Well, are there any examples in Europe of periodic slayings of "the human representatives of the tree-spirit"?  Oh, most certainly!  Here are a whole lot of examples of European peasants' spring-time rituals about killing a tree and bringing it back to life in a younger form.
  2. Burying the Carnival: Let's see if we can show that a belief in killing and resurrecting a god, any god, was a thing back in pastoral and agricultural societies.  That would make this speculative argument more probable, yes?  So here are lots of ceremonies about killing Death, or various other things, at Carnival (Mardi Gras, just before Lent starts).
  3. Carrying Out Death: This is similar to the Carnival ceremonies, except it also comes with bringing in Summer or Life.  Generally this involves the girls and boys of a village doing a ceremonial driving-out and funeral for Death, and then singing about bringing Summer in.
  4. Bringing in Summer: Or, to get even more elaborate, they might actually enact a bringing-Summer-in play.
  5. Battle of Summer and Winter: This kind of ceremony might wind up being a mock battle between Winter and Summer, and Summer isn't usually guaranteed to win.  But you sure hope it will.
  6. Death and Resurrection of Kostrubonko: In Russia, these ceremonies happen at spring and midsummer, and instead of calling it Death or Carnival, they call it various mythical names, such as Kostroma or Yarilo.  [Yarilo is delicately described as a "Priapus-like figure."]
  7. Death and Revival of Vegetation: So, these are clearly all pretty much the same thing, and the Russian version shows that "Kostrubonko, Yarilo, and the rest must also have been originally embodiments of the spirit of vegetation, and their death must have been regarded as a necessary preliminary to their revival."  But why the glee and excitement about killing off the spirit?  Why the dread of the first, old spirit?  "We must therefore recognise two distinct and seemingly opposite features in these ceremonies: on the one hand, sorrow for the death, and affection and respect for the dead; on the other hand, fear and hatred of the dead, and rejoicings at his death. How the former of these features is to be explained I have attempted to show: how the latter came to be so closely associated with the former is a question which I shall try to answer in the sequel."
  8. Analogous Rites in India: Report of a spring fair in one part of India that sounds kind of similar.
  9. The Magic Spring: A meditation on how early societies may not have understood the cycle of the year; sounds pretty improbable to me.  Then a description of an Australian aboriginal 'spring rite' which contains theories that are obviously embarrassingly wrong even to my uneducated mind.
XXIX.  The Myth of Adonis: Meditations on the transition from magic to religion, and how people have used both to try to get the most important things in life: food and children.  Let's talk about the Eastern Mediterranean countries, where many societies worshiped a young man god who died and rose, and was clearly a vegetation spirit: Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Attis.  In Frazer's telling, Adonis was beloved of Aphrodite, and wound up a sort of male version of Persephone.

XXX.  Adonis in Syria: Byblus in Syria and Paphos in Cyprus were major sites of Adonis-worship.  A bit about the ancient rites there.

Phew!  That chapter XXVIII was a doozy.  There's a lot of interesting stuff in here.  But Frazer seems determined to believe that ancient magic practices were taken so very seriously that people thought they actually controlled the seasons and weather themselves.  This strikes me as very, no, extremely unlikely.  It seems much more reasonable to suppose that people did their magic rituals in order to encourage things to go well, because it was so obvious that things could go disastrously wrong very easily.  One of my favorite historians, Elizabeth Wayland Barber, seems to me to have a much more plausible explanation in Dancing Goddesses, a book I loved and have been wanting to re-read.  Also, Frazer interprets everything he reads in the light of his own theory, which works kind of OK for Europe, and much less well for cultures he doesn't know much about.  It's absolutely disastrous when he talks about Australians.

I think I'm now at a half-way point , so I'm feeling pretty good about this routine of reading 3 chapters a week and making summary posts.

Some quotations:
But perhaps, for our purpose, the most instructive of these mimic executions is the following Bohemian one. In some places of the Pilsen district (Bohemia) on Whit-Monday the King is dressed in bark, ornamented with flowers and ribbons; he wears a crown of gilt paper and rides a horse, which is also decked with flowers. Attended by a judge, an executioner, and other characters, and followed by a train of soldiers, all mounted, he rides to the village square, where a hut or arbour of green boughs has been erected under the May-trees, which are firs, freshly cut, peeled to the top, and dressed with flowers and ribbons. After the dames and maidens of the village have been criticised and a frog beheaded, the cavalcade rides to a place previously determined upon, in a straight, broad street. Here they draw up in two lines and the King takes to flight. He is given a short start and rides off at full speed, pursued by the whole troop. If they fail to catch him he remains King for another year, and his companions must pay his score at the ale-house in the evening. But if they overtake and catch him he is scourged with hazel rods or beaten with the wooden swords and compelled to dismount. Then the executioner asks, “Shall I behead this King?” The answer is given, “Behead him”; the executioner brandishes his axe, and with the words, “One, two, three, let the King headless be!” he strikes off the King’s crown. Amid the loud cries of the bystanders the King sinks to the ground; then he is laid on a bier and carried to the nearest farmhouse.   [Wait, the girls are criticized and a frog beheaded??  This has no other context or explanation.]

I have already conjectured that the annual flight of the priestly king at Rome (regifugium) was at first a flight of the same kind; in other words, that he was originally one of those divine kings who are either put to death after a fixed period or allowed to prove by the strong hand or the fleet foot that their divinity is vigorous and unimpaired. One more point of resemblance may be noted between the Italian King of the Wood and his northern counterparts. In Saxony and Thüringen the representative of the tree-spirit, after being killed, is brought to life again by a doctor. This is exactly what legend affirmed to have happened to the first King of the Wood at Nemi, Hippolytus or Virbius, who after he had been killed by his horses was restored to life by the physician Aesculapius. Such a legend tallies well with the theory that the slaying of the King of the Wood was only a step to his revival or resurrection in his successor.

In Russia funeral ceremonies like those of “Burying the Carnival” and “Carrying out Death” are celebrated under the names, not of Death or the Carnival, but of certain mythic figures, Kostrubonko, Kostroma, Kupalo, Lada, and Yarilo. These Russian ceremonies are observed both in spring and at midsummer. Thus “in Little Russia it used to be the custom at Eastertide to celebrate the funeral of a being called Kostrubonko, the deity of the spring. A circle was formed of singers who moved slowly around a girl who lay on the ground as if dead, and as they went they sang:

Dead, dead is our Kostrubonko!
Dead, dead is our dear one!

until the girl suddenly sprang up, on which the chorus joyfully exclaimed:

Come to life, come to life has our Kostrubonko!
Come to life, come to life has our dear one!’”

At a certain stage of development men seem to have imagined that the means of averting the threatened calamity were in their own hands, and that they could hasten or retard the flight of the seasons by magic art. Accordingly they performed ceremonies and recited spells to make the rain to fall, the sun to shine, animals to multiply, and the fruits of the earth to grow. In course of time the slow advance of knowledge, which has dispelled so many cherished illusions, convinced at least the more thoughtful portion of mankind that the alternations of summer and winter, of spring and autumn, were not merely the result of their own magical rites, but that some deeper cause, some mightier power, was at work behind the shifting scenes of nature. They now pictured to themselves the growth and decay of vegetation, the birth and death of living creatures, as effects of the waxing or waning strength of divine beings, of gods and goddesses, who were born and died, who married and begot children, on the pattern of human life.


Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Summerbook #6: The View From the Cheap Seats


Oh, I do like Neil Gaiman, though as usual I'm late to the party.  This is a very long collection of non-fiction -- I have noticed before that absolutely everybody wants him to write introductions.  So I took it fairly slowly and read it over lunches, so as not to overdose.  Gaiman, however, is not easy to overdose on.

The book starts with my very favorite essay, which I would have put in front too, the one about how important libraries are.  I may be a librarian, but since I'm not a writer, I can't defend libraries with quite this much eloquence.  If you've never read this one, be sure to do so.  I gave you the link, so you have no excuse. 

After that there are some more good essays on various bookish and writing topics before a set of pieces on 'People I Have Known,' which of course include the expected DWJ, Pterry, and Douglas Adams, as well as lots of other well-known and not so famous people.  (Neil Gaiman, fortunate fellow, has known an incredible number of really neat people, and I felt particularly envious about the Frouds, not to mention Ray Bradbury.)  Then there are sections on SF, films, comics, music, fairy tales...all of the topics you would figure on. 

I added quite a few titles to my TBR list; did you know that Kipling wrote horror stories?  Because I didn't.  Other titles went on to my re-reading list, such as American Gods, Sandman, Thurber's The 13 Clocks, and more.  I was happy that he talked about Lud-in-the-Mist, and I might even give The King of Elfland's Daughter a try, even though Lord Dunsany and I do not get along well.  (I was quite tickled to find, however, that Lord Dunsany's name was Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett; no wonder he used Dunsany.)

I particularly enjoyed an aside pointing out that "European MTV is the only channel in the world worse than American MTV," because having been subjected to large doses of European MTV back in about 1991, to this day I cannot listen to Erasure's "Chorus" or that one song "More Than Words."  

Finally there are some really great pieces at the end, one of which is Gaiman's other famous speech, "Make Good Art," plus some other things that I think must have been favorites and things he thought were important.

The favorite bits:
[on the PEN dinner for Charlie Hebdo]  Comics and cartoons can viscerally upset and offend people.  Cartoons and comics get banned and cartoonists get imprisoned and killed.  Some comics are hard to defend, especially if you prefer prettier drawing styles, lack cultural context, or were hoping for subtlety.  But that does not mean that they should not be defended.

[on meeting Terry Pratchett for the first time]   The author, a former journalist, has a hat, but it's a small, black leathery cap, not a Proper Author Hat.  Not yet.  The journalist has a hat too.  It's a grayish thing, sort of like the ones Humphrey Bogart wears in movies, only when the journalist wears it he doesn't look like Humphrey Bogart; he looks like someone wearing a grown-up's hat.  The journalist is slowly discovering that, no matter how hard he tries, he cannot become a hat person; it's not just that it itches and blows off at inconvenient moments, its that he forgets, and leaves it in restaurants, and is now getting very used to knocking on the doors of restaurants about eleven a.m. and asking if they found a hat.  One day, very soon now, the journalist will stop bothering with hats, and decide to buy a black leather jacket instead.

Why do we need the things in books? The poems, the essays, the stories? Authors disagree. Authors are human and fallible and foolish. Stories are lies after all, tales of people who never existed and the things that never actually happened to them. Why should we read them? Why should we care?
The teller and the tale are very different. We must not forget that.
Ideas–written ideas–are special. They are the way we transmit our stories and our thoughts from one generation to the next. If we lose them, we lose our shared history. We lose much of what makes us human. And fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gift of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.

[on a letter he received] ...three young men who wanted to know how I could possibly have listed Kipling as a favorite author, given that I was a trendy and enlightened young man and Kipling was, I was informed, a fascist and a racist and a generally evil person.
It was obvious from the letter that they had never actually read any Kipling.  More to the point, they had been told not to....
In truth, Kipling's politics are not mine. But then, it would be a poor sort of world if one were only able to read authors who expressed points of view that one agreed with entirely. It would be a bland sort of world if we could not spend time with people who thought differently, and who saw the world from a different place.

[On Stardust]  I wound up defending it to a journalist who had loved my previous novel, Neverwhere, particularly its social allegories. He had turned Stardust upside down and shaken it, looking for social allegories, and found absolutely nothing of any good purpose.
"What's it for?" he had asked, which is not a question you expect to be asked when you write fiction for a living.
"It's a fairy tale," I told him. "It's like an ice cream. It's to make you feel happy when you finish it."
I don't think that I convinced him, not even a little bit. 

Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.
Make good art.
I'm serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it's all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn't matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.
Make it on the good days too.
And Fifthly, while you are at it, make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do.
So, this is a collection very worth reading if you're a Gaiman fan, but if you are, you've probably already done so.  Good stuff.  I would very much like to meet him someday, but if I ever do, I'll tell him that I really like his stuff but what I really want to talk about is Diana Wynne Jones.

And, finally, because I cannot see or hear the words 'cheap seats' without hearing this song in my head, enjoy:


Monday, July 6, 2020

Summerbook #5: Forest of a Thousand Daemons

Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter's Saga, by D. O. Fagunwa, trans. Wole Soyinka

This is a pretty amazing book and I feel so lucky to have found it.  To sum up, this is the first novel written in Yoruba -- one of the first in any African language -- published in Nigeria in 1939.  It's a major and influential classic in Nigerian literature which draws on Yoruba folk traditions.  Having read the two novels by Amos Tutuola last summer, I can now recognize something of the relationship between the two writers; Tutuola was clearly very influenced by Fagunwa.  Wole Soyinka translated Forest of a Thousand Daemons into English in the mid-1960s, and there is a wonderful note about his translation process, in which he comments, "Fagunwa's beings are not only the natural inhabitants of their creator's haunting-ground; in Yoruba, they sound right in relation to their individual natures, and the most frustrating quality of Fagunwa for a translator is the right sound of his language."   Obviously, only the smallest portion of Fagunwa's language choices can make it into a translation, but Soyinka really must have done a stellar job at it, because the language is individual and evocative, though I cannot claim to know anything much about it.

The narrator of Forest of a Thousand Daemons is not the story-teller; an old man comes to him and asks him to write down his story.  For three days, the man -- Akara-Ogun, 'Compound-of-Spells' -- tells about his experiences, and each day more people come to hear the incredible tales.  Akara-Ogun has been a hunter all his life, and a very skilled one, and a few times he ventured into this forest, a land inhabited by all sorts of spirits and beings, which are generically called ghommids.  His first adventure involves a huge fight with a strong ghommid, a trip to a village of the dead, and a marriage.  Akara-Ogun's second trip is longer; he is captured by a sort of fishy creature who is cruel to him, and only escapes by a trick.  He winds up at the court of the king, and becomes a trusted advisor, foiling several assassination attempts.   Finally, Akara-Ogun and several comrades go on a quest to a mountain kingdom, and have plenty of adventures along the way.

The forest is a very strange landscape, where circumstances change all the time and all sorts of creatures appear -- such as the one that is like an ostrich with a man's head... It all partakes of a dream-like feeling, and reminded me very much of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.  Though of course it's really the other way around!
...he said to us, "Aha, I observe that you fall silent, and the reason for your silence is this -- the key to this world remains in the keeping of God.  Were it in human possession there would be no illness, the poor would not exist, no one would ever know hardship, there would be no servants, everyone would be master in his own house -- and the world would be much worse than it is today."  His words amazed us greatly; they were full of wisdom and we changed our tune and began to tell him, "There is truth in this, old man; do carry on with your wise words."
And, it's illustrated with fabulous woodcuts, too.

I enjoyed this novel so much -- it's really, really strange, and it's a great novel, and I certainly did not understand it one bit, and I'm happy that it's currently in print.  People interested in African literature should definitely have it on a must-read list.  I think it really helped that I had already read some of Tutuola and Soyinka, but also that is not necessary.


 
Extra thoughts:

Getting to read translated literature at all is a gift, but it's always a limited one, because you can never really get the fullness, the complete feeling, of the original text.  Even if I could learn Yoruba, or Hindi, or Russian -- without a truly deep understanding of a language, I couldn't hope to really know the text.  (Take this far enough and you'll wind up in Bakhtin territory, and that way lies madness.)  I wish I could understand so many languages!  It always reminds me of the Grail Knight in the Indiana Jones movie; he could have said, "That is the boundary, and the price, of reading literature in translation."

But Soyinka continues in his translator's note: "The essential Fagunwa, as with all truly valid literature, survives the inhibitions of strange tongues and bashful idioms."  So it's always worth reading translated literature; 90% is a lot better than zero.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Summerbook #4: Edward Lear


This one got on my list because of the Slightly Foxed podcast, which luckily is only monthly, because it usually adds at least one book to my wishlist.  When I looked this one up, I was pleasantly surprised to discover it in our library collection at work.  So I took it right home.

I only know Edward Lear as a writer of nonsense verse, but that isn't what he did for a living.  And he was just a lovely man, but he had a really difficult life.  So here we go...

Edward was the 20th child of his very tired mother (she had 22!!! and a lot of them died), and after he was about 4, she left him to his older sister.  The sister was kind and loving, but the poor little guy was devastated, and his parents had an awful marriage.  That and a couple other things he never talked about just blighted his life; he was terribly lonely, yet couldn't really contemplate living with anyone.

He also had epilepsy, which at the time was a terribly shameful condition.  People were only just barely beginning to realize that it wasn't actual demonic possession.  Regular work and exercise were the best thing for keeping seizures at bay, but they were still frequent.  Fortunately, he could feel them coming on, and so managed to keep his condition a complete secret from all his friends.  This was another factor that kept him alone; if he'd really shared a home, he would have had to tell.

Young Edward wanted to be a painter, but could not afford the expensive Academy education, and started by doing botanical illustrations, moving on to birds.  He produced wonderful paintings of various parrot species.  Then he started traveling in order to draw and paint various landscapes, and decided that his vocation was to be a landscape painter.  There were a couple of problems, though; without the technical education he needed, he was not very good at drawing people, nor could he paint well in oils.  He came upon the scene just as landscape painting was losing popularity in favor of Millais' rather sentimental tableaux.  Lear's exact and delicate watercolors couldn't be printed in books very well, either.  He did do several books, but the images had to be re-done in another format, which was expensive and could only achieve an approximation.  Still, mid-Victorian English people had a massive appetite for information about other lands that we probably can't even fathom, blessed as we are to have color photos of any place on earth (or off it!).

So he spent his years traveling a lot and painting.  Lear couldn't stand the English winters, which meant that he could never find a permanent home; Corfu was as close as he ever got, but it was difficult, because his friend Lushington was there too, and while Lear was quietly in love with Lushington, his feelings were not reciprocated.  Lear also contemplated marriage, but could never take the plunge.  He considered Emily Tennyson his ideal, but she was already married to Tennyson.

But this biography is not one of unrelenting loneliness and tragedy!  Lear was beloved by his many friends, and because he had been so miserable himself as a child, he loved to make people laugh.  He had a gift for sympathy and wanted to make people happy.  There are innumerable funny stories, my favorite being the one where his friend got a prestigious job, and he was so thrilled at the news (which he read while eating breakfast in an Italian pensione) that he grabbed a little fish off the plate and danced around the room with it...until he noticed the family sitting in a nook, eating their own breakfast.  Luckily they were easygoing Italians, and everyone had a good laugh.  (I also liked the one about the fellow in the train who informed Lear with great confidence that this fictional 'Edward Lear' person was really a pseudonym for the Earl of Darby.)

I did really enjoy this biography, which I have now talked about so much that you might feel that you've already got enough information.  Don't let that stop you; it's a really lovely book about a man who turned his many personal tragedies into an ability to love and sympathize with others.



Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Summerbook #3: Thames: The Biography


I've really been having a very Thames/London/UK-themed month, which wasn't on purpose but has been pretty enjoyable.

Peter Ackroyd is a British writer given to long, meandering historical books, and I've read a couple of them.  I enjoyed Albion pretty well, and London Under was mostly irritating.  I was really looking forward to Thames, and it was interesting.  It was also irritating.  I'd say about 50/50 of each.

It's a solid 400 pages of mixed history, myth, story, and Ackroyd's habit of putting in sentences that sound deep but only sometimes actually mean anything very much.   Any aspect of the river you can think of is in there: river work, river superstitions and traditions, river artists and writers, saints and fish and death.  Ackroyd wants to be comprehensive.

He kicks off with a statement that I find aggravatingly arrogant: that the Thames "can fairly claim to be the most historic (and certainly the most eventful) river in the world."  What, more historic than the Nile?  Than the Ganges?  The Tigris and Euphrates?  You're not selling me here, Peter; I want to enjoy this book but that's not a good start.  The Thames is very very historic indeed, but not more so than the NILE.

Before I complain too much, I do want to say that there was a lot to enjoy in this book.  There are lots of interesting stories, a bit of neat science -- I did like quite a lot of it.  That said, Ackroyd is given to a kind of writerly hyperbole that brings out the worst in me, and I go all pedantic.  I know Robert MacFarlane is the darling of UK writing of place, but I find him too self-consciously poetic, and Ackroyd has a similar problem.  Discussing sedimentary layers in geology, he feels the need to say things like "They are ribbons in the hair of Gaia."

And sometimes he makes scientific claims like this one, on water, that are more poetic hyperbole than fact:  "It is perhaps the oldest thing upon the earth.  It has remained unchanged, in every respect, for 3,500 million years.  The seas were formed in the depths of pre-Cambrian time, and there is not one drop more or less than at that inconceivable beginning."  That sounds neat, but it's not true.  Water molecules are broken apart and formed all the time.

He's prone to speculation and generalization which, again, sounds good but isn't in any way based on anything much, such as his comment on the guy in charge of building Old London Bridge, who died before it was quite finished and was interred in the chapel on the bridge: "His burial here may also have been a recognition of the old superstition that, in the foundations of bridges, a human sacrifice must be laid."

Or "The river was thus closely associated with spiritual authority."  Because there were a lot of meetings in various riverside towns...perhaps because they were convenient to get to?

On speech patterns of the Thames Valley:  "There is a special language of the river...There may be some trace here of a primordial language long since fallen out of customary use, perhaps derived from the Wessex or Mercian tongues."

On really big and ancient yew trees, he just gets his measurements a bit wrong and says that they are 29 and 31 feet in diameter, when he has to mean circumference.  (Why didn't anyone catch this?)

Statements that sound deep but mostly aren't:
The river is the oldest thing in London, and it changes not at all.

We are treading upon prehistory.

The creatures of the Thames share the ritual purity of the flowing waters.  (This was on the old habit of eating fish during fasting, which was not because fish were ritually pure.)

The river may heal that which is broken.  (This is from a bit about modern mudlarks, about which Lara Maiklem was a good deal more useful.  Ackroyd waxes poetic about how the official Thames Mudlarks have special intuitive associations with the river and find special things.)
So, maybe not really my kind of thing, but I'm glad to have read it.  I wouldn't trust Ackroyd's facts farther than I could throw Ackroyd himself, though; if I were writing a paper or something I'd go looking for citations.