Friday, August 01, 2014

BOOK: "The Works of John Keats"

The Works of John Keats. The Wordsworth Poetry Library. Ware, Herfordshire, 1994: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. xv + 491 pp. 1853264040.

I'm fond of romantic poetry; I read Byron and Shelley some time ago, but for some reason never got around to reading Keats until now. I'm glad I finally read his poetry, as I found many beautiful and enjoyable things there, though overall I didn't enjoy it as much as I did Byron's. I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out that in a certain sense Keats is the more purely romantic of these two — less action and more feeling — and that would explain why I lack the sensibility to really appreciate much of his work.


The longest poem in this book, Endymion, is what he called a “poetic romance” of about 4000 lines. I remember reading plenty of romances by Scott and Byron, but this is a very different beast, and not as much to my liking. In Scott you basically get a nice, straightforward narrative that makes you keep turning the page simply because you're curious what will happen next. In Byron there's still that, plus the additional psychological interest coming from the usual Byronic heroes, tired of themselves and of the world, etc. But here in Endymion, hardly anything happens. It's basically industrial-grade romanticism; lots of moaning and whining, visions, poetical descriptions of nature and the like.

The story, such as it is, is set in a kind of idealized early pastoral-age Greece. Endymion is a young man that falls in love with the moon, and/or the moon-goddess Cynthia, not that there is any real distinction between the two. He spends much of the rest of the poem, well, mooning — wandering about and generally being miserable because he doesn't know how to get to her. In the last book, he falls in love with a mortal woman named Phœbe instead, and decides to become a hermit, but then it turns out that Phœbe was really just the goddess Cynthia in disguise, and the story ends with a happy end. [I suppose I should have seen that one coming; Phœbe is obviously the female form of Phœbus, which is another name for Apollo, who was the brother of Artemis, who is the goddess usually referred to as Cynthia.]

I'm sure this is an excellent poem for people who like this sort of thing, but I prefer to read something with a bit more plot and action. My favorite part of the poem was Book III, in which Endymion encounters an old man named Glaucus, who has been cursed by the witch Circe to stay alive, but old and decrepit, for a thousand years. He's been spending this time sitting on a rocky shore and burying the corpses of shipwrecked lovers. Now his thousand years are up and with Endymion's help they bring them back to life.

A minor thing that bothered me about this poem (and others, e.g. Hyperion, on which more below) is that, although it's set in ancient Greece, the poet uses the Roman names of the gods all the time. I found it very jarring, although perhaps his excuse is that his readers would find the Greek names even more jarring since they were used so rarely in English works at that time.

Nevertheless there were many passages that I liked in this poem. Here's one that is a beautiful statement of what you might call extreme romanticism (1.835–42):

———— but who, of men, can tell
That flowers would bloom, or that green fruit would swell
To melting pulp, that fish would have bright mail,
The earth its dower of river, wood, and vale,
The meadows runnels, runnels pebble-stones,
The seed its harvest, or the lute its tones,
Tones ravishment, or ravishment its sweet
If human souls did never kiss and greet?

A lovely passage from a draft manuscript, which Keats didn't include in the final version of the poem (2.526, see note on p. 98); the poet professes himself unable to adequately describe the encounter of Venus and Adonis:

—————— O foolish rhyme
What mighty power is in thee that so often
Thou strivest rugged syllables to soften
Even to the telling of a sweet like this.
Away! let them embrace alone! that kiss
Was far too rich for thee to talk upon.
Poor wretch! mind not those sobs and sighs! begone!
Speak not one atom of thy paltry stuff,
That they are met is poetry enough.

A touching passage of despair from 3.539–54, where Glaucus just wants his suffering to end:

———— “Potent goddess! chief
Of pains resistless! make my being brief,
Or let me from this heavy prison fly:
Or give me to the air, or let me die!
I sue not for my happy crown again;
I sue not for my phalanx on the plain;
I sue not for my lone, my widow'd wife;
I sue not for my ruddy drops of life,
My children fair, my lovely girls and boys!
I will forget them; I will pass these joys;
Ask nought so heavenward, so too—too high:
Only I pray, as fairest boon, to die,
Or be deliver'd from this cumbrous flesh,
From this gross, detestable, filthy mesh,
And merely given to the cold bleak air.
Have mercy, Goddess! Circe, feel my prayer!”

And another contribution to my growing collection of depression-inducing quotes, from Phœbe's song in 4.173–80:

    “To Sorrow,
    I bade good-morrow,
And thought to leave her far away behind;
    But cheerly, cheerly,
    She loves me dearly;
She is so constant to me, and so kind:
    I would deceive her
    And so leave her,
But ah! she is so constant and kind.


Apparently I'm not the only one who didn't care much for Endymion; Keats was so hurt by negative reviews of it that he abandoned his next romance, Hyperion, after less than 900 lines. I think that's a great pity, because, judging by what we have of Hyperion, I'd probably like it a lot better than I did Endymion.

This poem was meant to deal with the Titans, who used to be the ruling group of Greek gods until Zeus Jove and the other Olympian gods overthrew them. Now their leader, Saturn, is in a deep sleep and the rest of them are either vegetating miserably in some sort of cave or wandering around (see start of book 2). Only Hyperion has retained his former splendor and his job as the Sun-god. His wife Thea wakes Saturn up, whereupon he and the other Titans have a discussion on what to do.

This debate was my favorite part of the poem and reminded me a little of Milton's devils in Paradise Lost, which was perhaps an inspiration for it. One of the most eminent Titans, Oceanus, makes an interesting argument (2.173–243) that the replacement of the Titans by the Olympian gods is just a kind of evolutionary step forward and that the Titans should accept the new reality, since the Olympians are simply better, just as the Titans were better than their predecessors (Earth and Uranus). But others aren't so resigned to their fate, and I'm curious how the story would have continued if Keats hadn't abandoned the poem.

A fine stoical passage from Oceanus's speech (2.202–5):

“Now comes the pain of truth, to whom 'tis pain:
O folly! for to bear all naked truths,
And to envisage circumstance, all calm,
That is the top of sovereignty. ——


This is probably my favorite among the longer poems in this book. According to the note on p. 193, it was inspired by an anecdote about Apollonius, a Greek philosopher. A young man named Lycius meets a beautiful and mysterious woman, falls in love with her and comes to live with her in Corinth. Eventually he persuades her that they should get married; his old teacher, Apollonius, also shows up for the wedding, and recognizes that the bride is really a lamia, a kind of demon; as a result, she vanishes, along with her riches, which were mere illusions.

Keats modifies this story a little, to make it more romantic. In his poem, Lamia (which is her proper name here) is not a demon and has no ill designs upon Lycius; she is more like a nymph and is genuinely in love with him, as is made clear in the early part of the poem. However, she pretends to be a regular mortal woman because she knows he'd freak out if he knew the truth. When he convinces her to announce a wedding, she urges him not to let Apollonius attend it, but the old man turns up anyway and practically stares her down into disappearing.

So in Keats's version, Apollonius is undoubtedly the bad guy, going out of his way to ruin Lamia's and Lycius's happiness for no good reason whatsoever. I suppose Apollonius would say that he didn't want Lycius to base his entire life on an illusion, but that doesn't strike me as much of an excuse. Who is Apollonius to say that it's better to know the truth and be miserable, than to live an illusion and be happy? Besides, who is to say that she couldn't still reveal her true nature to Lycius after a while, once she got more comfortable trusting him with that sort of information? Whatever happened to the good old idea of minding your own damn business, Mr. Apollonius?

Actually this old question of romance vs. philosophy (nowadays we'd probably say ‘science’ in its place) is a notable theme of this poem. Keats of course sides with romance here, and I for my part am happy to agree with him. There's a beautiful passage about this in book 2 (ll. 229–238):

———— Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person'd Lamia melt into a shade.

Now, of course the well-known excuse of scientists, skeptics, philosophers and their ilk is that understanding a phenomenon doesn't necessarily detract from its charm, and may in fact add to it; for example, Richard Dawkins makes that argument in one of his books, Unweaving the Rainbow, whose title was in fact inspired by the lines quoted above. Such people do have a point, in a way; but at the same time, it's easier and more pleasant to get charmed by letting your imagination wander freely around a phenomenon that is unknown and not understood, whereas by committing yourself to a scientific approach you have basically chained your mind to reality such as it really is, regardless of whether you find it appealing or not.

Of course, while being charmed by Keats's take on the story, my more practical side couldn't help wondering how the relationship between Lycius and Lamia would work in practice. What would it be like to be in a relationship with an immortal person? How would Lycius react in a couple decades time when he realizes that she doesn't age? If she cuts her finger, does she bleed? What happens if she gets squished in a car accident? Will she find someone new after he dies, and so on indefinitely? How will she deal when she reaches the modern time, when they will ask to see her papers before she can get married, and when her next Lycius will become suspicious why she isn't filing out an income tax form every year?

Incidentally, before reading this poem, my vague idea of the word ‘lamia’ was that it refers to some kind of vampire, as I remembered seeing it in a fake Latin phrase occasionally found on the web: “nunquam lamiae morde me dice”, meaning “never say ‘bite me’ to a vampire” :) See also the Wikipedia page about Lamia for several beautiful pre-Raphaelite paintings on the subject.

Isabella, or The Pot of Basil

Another very pleasant and touching narrative poem, based on a story from the Decameron. Isabella and Lorenzo fall in love, but alas! she is from a rich merchant family and he is just the servant employed by Isabella's two brothers. When the brothers find out about this, they secretly murder Lorenzo and tell Isabella that they sent him away on a long business voyage. Three months later, his fate is revealed to Isabella in a vision, she finds his grave, digs up poor Lorenzo's head and buries it in a pot of basil, which she then proceeds to water with her copious tears. The brothers eventually take even this pot away from her, and she dies of grief.

I was particularly impressed by stanza 51, in which Isabel digs up Lorenzo's corpse (remember that he has been buried for three months):

In anxious secrecy they took it home,
    And then the prize was all for Isabel:
She calm'd its wild hair with a golden comb,
    And all around each eye's sepulchral cell
Pointed each fringed lash; the smeared loam
    With tears, as chilly as a dripping well,
She drench'd away:—and still she comb'd, and kept
Sighing all day—and still she kiss'd, and wept.

On the one hand, of course: ewwwwwwww. I mean, it's a three-month-old corpse, come on.

But on the other hand: awwwwwww <3 Nowadays such a thing would be laughed at as unrealistic, or condemned as pathological; but at one time it was possible to write such a scene in such a way that it conveys to the sympathetic reader a portrayal of an incredibly intense sort of love-inspired grief. I wonder how one would describe a feeling of such intensity today without seeming grotesque; would it even be possible? I can't help feeling that people in the middle ages (when this story probably originated) simply lived, and felt, so much more intensely than in modern times, both for good and for bad.

Otho the Great

This is a verse tragedy of about 1800 lines, and seems to be Keats's only play. Some of the historical background of the story seems true enough: the titular Otho really existed, fought off a Hungarian incursion and dealt with a rebellion of his son L(i)udolph. The rest is, I guess, Keats's invention. Prince Ludolph, the son of emperor Otho, was set to marry the emperor's niece Erminia, but the intrigues of duke Conrad and his sister Auranthe have ruined her reputation and he marries Auranthe instead. Eventually their guilt comes to light and leads to the usual kind of tragic denouement.

This play was pleasant enough to read, but in hindsight, it does have a few defects. Scene 1.3 makes much of Ludolph's proud character and his complicated relationship with Otho, but this doesn't seem to have any real effect on the rest of the story. Ludolph going mad with grief after the guilt of his wife is discovered (scene 5.4) is very silly; after all, he was a medieval German prince, not some sort of sissy-ass emo romantic poet. This is the wrong way of trying to make us sympathize with what is probably supposed to be one of the tragic characters of the play.

Otho is a pretty decent and just person, as far as medieval monarchs go. Here are some fine lines of his (1.2.175–8):

I know how the great basement of all power
Is frankness, and a true tongue to the world;
And how intriguing secrecy is proof
Of fear and weakness, and a hollow state.

I liked the negative characters better. Conrad almost rises to mustache-twirling levels with his plotting and trickery; and as for Auranthe — well, evil + beautiful is a combination I always had a soft spot for. At times she sounds like a medieval equivalent of a mean girl (4.1.32–4):

How many whisperers there are about,
Hungry for evidence to ruin me;
Men I have spurn'd, and women I have taunted?

I just wish she had more agency; now she seems too much a pawn in her brother's machinations.

It was getting a bit worrying when I reached the start of Act V and nobody important died yet; I was wondering how he was finally going to kill off his characters. The ending in particular was a bit weak and the deaths of Ludolph and Auranthe struck me almost as a cheap deus ex machina.

The Cap and Bells

This is probably one of the most deliciously frivolous things ever written in Spenserian stanzas. If he hadn't abandoned it after 88 stanzas, it could be a masterpiece of comical poetry.

The story, so far as we have it, is simple and already pleasantly silly. The faery emperor Elfinan is in love with a mortal woman, a Miss Bertha Pearl of Cambridge, England; but he is finally persuaded by his advisors to send an embassy to fetch him a proper faery princess from a nearby kingdom as a bride. Meanwhile he sends for Hum the magician, who reveals to him that Bertha is really a changeling, thus a faery and technically he could marry her instead. Elfinan takes off towards Cambridge, and meanwhile the embassy returns, finding his palace in a chaos.

But the story isn't really the point here; it's the style, the playful inventiveness, the generous abundance of nonsense scattered throughout the poem. Much of the humor is based on contrasts and parallels between the world of the faeries and our real world. For example, there's a rant on the introduction of gas, “Which to the oil-trade doth great scaith and harm,/ And supersedeth quite the use of the glow-worm.” (24.8–9)

I know that for some reason many people dislike puns, but how can you not laugh when a faery says “by my fay” (52.9) :)))

The home of Elfinan's bride can boast the most hilarious blazon ever: “The Imaian 'scutcheon bright—one mouse in argent field.” (65.9)

There are a few jokes about the faeries being small (73.1–3):

“Five minutes before one—brought down a moth
With my new double-barrel—stew'd the thighs
And made a very tolerable broth—

I love the notion of ‘bringing down’ a moth, as if it were an elephant :) On a related note, 86.1–2 refers to “the state purveyor/ Of moth's-down, to make soft the royal beds” :))

Another very funny passage from 68.6–8:

    He bow'd at Bellanaine, and said—“Poor Bell!
    Farewell! farewell! and if for ever! still
    For ever fare thee well!”—and then he fell
A laughing!—snapp'd his fingers!—shame it is to tell!

These lines allude to the opening of Byron's poem, Fare Thee Well: “Fare thee well! and if for ever,/ Still for ever, fare thee well:”. It's one of my favorites among Byron's poems, full of beautiful if somewhat overwrought grief; and in fact I first encountered those two lines not in Byron, but in Eugene Onegin, where they are used as an epigraph for one of the chapters. But here Keats puts them in a silly and light-hearted context, where Elfinan is mocking Bellanaine, his faery-bride, as he is getting ready to fly away just in time to avoid having to meet her. Was Keats trying to tell Byron something like ‘get a grip, George, and stop being so emo’? :)

Some aspects of the faery world have been inspired by India: Elfinan's city stands “In midmost Ind, beside Hydaspes cool” (1.1), their law-code is a “faery Zendervester” (2.5), and the emperor amuses himself by playing the “Man-Tiger-Organ” (37.9).

Shorter poems

Probably about half of this book consists of shorter poems, a much higher proportion than e.g. in Byron; and on average I probably liked them better than the longer ones. In fact the only bits of Keats's work that I knew before reading this book are two or three short poems: Ode on a Grecian Urn and La Belle Dame Sans Merci, which are still among my favorite poems in the entire book; and the sonnet On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, which is also nice. I also enjoyed the Ode to Apollo, in his capacity as the god of poets (pp. 286–7).

There are many fine poems about friendship, and it was really nice to see him on such good terms with his brothers; and there is of course the usual romantic obsession with flowers and birds (“For what has made the sage or poet write/ But the fair paradise of Nature's light?” — from “I stood tip-toe upon a little hill”, ll. 125–6).

For lovers of emo poetry, there's a beautiful Ode on Melancholy (the following is from 3.1–6):

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
    And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
    Turning to Poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of delight
    Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine.

And a very touching sonnet on the subject of mortality (p. 303):

When I have fears that I may cease to be
    Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
    Hold like rich garners the full ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
    Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
    Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour
    That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
    Of unreflecting love;—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

I guess that for him, this was an especially relevant topic, as he knew that he had tuberculosis and wouldn't live long; see also the introduction, p. xv. On a related subject, there's also the sonnet The Human Seasons (p. 308), which draws parallels between the stages of life and the seasons of a year.

From another sonnet, “Why did I laugh tonight?” (p. 348):

Why did I laugh? I know this Being's lease,
    My fancy to its utmost blisses spreads;
Yet would I on this very midnight cease,
    And the world's gaudy ensigns see in shreds;
Verse, Fame, and Beauty are intense indeed,
But Death intenser—Death is Life's high meed.

Another short poem I liked was “In a drear-nighted December” (p. 338), about how it's remembering past joys that makes people extra miserable.

By contrast, some poems are delightfully lively and cheerful. Stanzas to Miss Wylie begins thus:

O come Georgiana! the rose is full blown,
The riches of Flora are lavishly strown,
The air is all softness, and crystal the streams,
The West is resplendently clothed in beams.

And sometimes he can be surprisingly down-to-earth: “Give me women, wine and snuff/ Until I cry out ‘hold, enough!’ ” etc. (Women, Wine and Snuff,  1–2).

There's a delicious poem called Sharing Eve's Apple, which is about as full of double entendres as you can imagine given the title (pp. 303–4; the following is stanza 3):

O sigh not so! O sigh not so!
    For it sounds of Eve's sweet pippin;
By these loosen'd lips you have tasted the pips
    And fought in an amorous nipping.

In a similar vein, there's The Devon Maid, which begins (p. 314):

Where be ye going, you Devon Maid?
    And what have ye there in the Basket?
Ye tight little fairy just fresh from the dairy,
    Will ye give me some cream if I ask it?

And I love the plausible deniability in the third stanza: “I love your hills, and I love your dales,/ And I love your flocks a-bleating—” he's obviously talking about the beautiful landscape of Devon, what else? ;P

There's a very pretty immitation of traditional ballads (from “Extracts from an Opera”, p. 310):

The stranger lighted from his steed,
    And ere he spake a word,
He seiz'd my lady's lilly hand,
    And kiss'd it all unheard.
The stranger walk'd into the hall,
    And ere he spake a word,
He kiss'd my lady's cherry lips,
    And kiss'd 'em all unheard.
The stranger walk'd into the bower,—
    But my lady first did go,—
Aye hand in hand into the bower,
    Where my lord's roses blow.
My lady's maid had a silken scarf,
    And a golden ring had she,
And a kiss from the stranger, as off he went
    Again on his fair palfrey.

He seems to have done a tour of Scotland at some point, and several of his shorter poems were inspired by it. There's even a nonsense poem in an immitation of Burns's dialect (A Galloway Song, pp. 324–5). He visited Ben Nevis, the highest mountain of Scotland, where the mist inspired a comparison with the general ignorance of himself and all humankind: “all my eye doth meet/ Is mist and crag, not only on this height,/ But in the world of thought and mental might!”, Sonnet written upon the top of Ben Nevis, 12–14). On a lighter note, the same climb inspired a comical dialogue between the mountain and “one Mrs. Cameron of 50 years of age and the fattest woman in all Invernessshire who got up this Mountain some few years ago—true she had her servants—but then she had herself . . .” (note to Ben Nevis, a dialogue, p. 333).

A good deal of poetry in the second half of the book are bits and pieces that he included in letters to his friends and relatives; much of it nonsense verse, written out of the sheer joy of writing poetry, improvising and extemporizing. “There was a naughty boy/ And a naughty boy was he,/ For nothing would he do/ But scribble poetry—” (A Song about Myself, 2.1–4). Other pleasant poems of this sort include “When they were come into the Faery's Court” (pp. 349–52) and Two or Three (a delightful bit of nonsense verse, p. 353).

There's a curious Sonnet on the Sonnet (p. 361), in which he complains about the constraints imposed upon poetry by this particular verse form. Many people have made such complaints, but I wouldn't expect them from one who wrote so many sonnets himself :)

From the first of two Sonnets on Fame (p. 360), where he basically suggests that fame is like those women who like assholes instead of Nice Guys :P

Ye love-sick Bards, repay her scorn for scorn,
    Ye Artists lovelorn, madmen that ye are!
Make your best bow to her and bid adieu,
Then, if she likes it, she will follow you.

From You Say You Love, a poem about mixed signals:

You say you love; but with a smile
    Cold as sunrise in September,
As you were Saint Cupid's nun,
    And kept his weeks of Ember.
        O love me truly!

He seems to have been quite fond of Spenser, and wrote several poems in Spenserian stanzas, occasionally even immitating his archaic language (Spenserian Stanzas on Charles Armitage Brown, p. 342). Perhaps it was simply a bit of a fashion trend; Shelley also wrote much in Spenserian stanzas. In any case, I'm always glad to see another Spenser enthusiast as I enjoyed his work a lot when I read it many years ago; his Daphnaida made me weep on a bus once; but then I was in a weepy mood.

A few revolutionary lines

Unlike in some of the other romantic poets I've read, Keats doesn't seem to have written much on political and revolutionary subjects. There is the occasional hint (Epistle to George Keats, 128–30):

Through which the poppies show their scarlet coats;
So pert and useless, that they bring to mind
The scarlet coats that pester human-kind.

There's also a sonnet to Kosciusko (p. 41).

And there's this beautifully aesthetic cry against exploitation from Isabella (14.3–16.8):

And for them many a weary hand did swelt
    In torched mines and noisy factories,
And many once proud-quiver'd loins did melt
    In blood from stinging whip;—with hollow eyes
Many all day in dazzling river stood,
To take the rich-ored driftings of the flood.
For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
    And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gush'd blood; for them in death
    The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark
Lay full of darts; for them alone did seethe
    A thousand men in troubles wide and dark:
Half-ignorant, they turn'd an easy wheel,
That set sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.
Why were they proud? Because their marble founts
    Gush'd with more pride than do a wretch's tears?—
Why were they proud? Because fair orange-mounts
    Were of more soft ascent than lazar stairs?—
Why were they proud? Because red-lin'd accounts
    Were richer than the songs of Grecian years?—
Why were they proud? again we ask aloud,
Why in the name of Glory were they proud?


A nice inspirational quote, from the Epistle to Charles Cowden Clarke (ll.  99–100):

The air that floated by me seem'd to say
“Write! thou wilt never have a better day.”

From Sleep and Poetry (90–5):

Life is the rose's hope while yet unblown;
The reading of an ever-changing tale;
The light uplifting of a maiden's veil;
A pigeon tumbling in clear summer air;
A laughing school-boy, without grief or care,
Riding the springy branches of an elm.

A very fine thought on poetry, which I'm afraid would be considered old-fashioned nowadays (Sleep and Poetry, 245–7):

—————— the great end
Of poesy, that it should be a friend
To sooth the cares, and lift the thoughts of man.

From a beautiful sonnet that's identified in the page header as “Keats's Last Sonnet” (p. 486):

“Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
[. . .]
    Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
    Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

Grumbling about this edition

Facsimile reprints of old, long out-of-copyright books are all the rage these days. You see them polluting the catalogues of AbeBooks, Amazon, eBay etc. in huge numbers. Most of them are ridiculously overpriced and come with completely generic covers which give me the impression that they were made by some completely automated process; probably some shady outfit has amassed scanned copies of a few thousand books by crawling the PDF files from and Google Books, assigned new ISBNs to them and inserted them into catalogues, all in a completely automated manner, and the same system now prints them on demand if/when some poor fool decides to order a copy.

The situation was very different back in the late stone age, when dinosaurs walked the earth and print-on-demand seemed to belong to the sphere of science fiction — that is to say, in the mid to late 1990s. Publishers that wanted to do this sort of reprints had to actually do their own scanning and print the books in advance, so they had to be careful which books to choose and how to price them. One such publisher that had a strong presence in the bookstore where I do most of my book-buying was a small British one called Wordsworth Editions; their main product seemed to be a “Wordsworth Poetry Library”, consisting of a few dozen reprints of single-volume editions of collected poetical works of various well-known British poets. I bought about 15 of those books, and read about half of them by now.

Their main advantage was that they were very cheap (the equivalent of about 4 EUR, if we don't count inflation between then and now) and thus in a sense good value for money. This also had some downsides, of course; the binding was a bit shoddy and occasionally a page or two would fall out. But my main complaint is that the publishers deliberately provided no information about the source edition of their reprints — who was the original publisher, where and when was it published, they didn't even provide the name of the editor. This struck me as rather shameful; first of all, the poor editor did a lot of honest work to bring the book together so he deserves to at least have his name mentioned in it; and secondly, it makes it seem as if Wordsworth was trying to fool us into thinking that this is not a reprint of a book from 100 years ago, which is just plain insulting to the intelligence of the reader.

The other thing that bothers me about these Wordsworth reprints is that they omit the original editorial introductions and often also the endnotes. For example, in their reprint of Byron's works, the poems end at p. 840 and the index begins at the next page; but the index occasionally refers to pages with numbers above 840, even above 900, which suggests that there used to be some notes there and the index originally came after the notes. So they omitted the pages with notes and renumbered the pages of the index to try hiding this fact. I suppose they would say that they tried to save money by making the book a bit thinner; but it's 800+ pages long anyway, so a couple dozen pages more or less surely won't make any difference.

This excuse would make even less sense for the Keats volume, which is just around 500 pages long but they still omitted the original editor's introduction of some 55 pages, as well as the 15-page “List of Principal Works consulted” — judging by the table of contents, from which they surprisingly didn't try to delete the corresponding lines. What we got instead was a new, 5-page introduction by Antonia Till, which is interesting enough, but that's hardly a reason to omit the original one.

Interestingly, I tried looking this book up on by ISBN; it turns out to be still for sale, but with a different cover than the one I have, and its amazon page says that the introduction is by Paul Wright, and that the book is 544 pages long. The one I have is definitely around 40 pages shorter than that; either there is some mistake or the new introduction is much longer than any of the introductions I've seen in the Wordsworth paperbacks so far.

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

BOOK: Teofilo Folengo, "Baldo"

Teofilo Folengo: Baldo. Vol. 1: Books I–XII. Translated by Ann E. Mullaney. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 25. Harvard University Press, 2007. 0674025210. xxiii + 471 pp.

Teofilo Folengo: Baldo. Vol. 2: Books XIII–XXV. Translated by Ann E. Mullaney. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 36. Harvard University Press, 2008. 9780674031241. xii + 544 pp.

This is a mock-heroical epic poem of almost 15000 lines, written in the early 16th century. It's somewhat similar to e.g. Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, except that it's in verse instead of in prose. (As the introduction says on p. xviii of vol. 1, Rabelais was in fact influenced by Folengo's poem.)

The story

The story is rather picaresque but divides pretty naturally into two parts. In the first half of the poem, dealing with Baldo's childhood and youth, he terrorizes everyone around him, teams up with various other rogues and scoundrels, and eventually gets imprisoned; after that, much of this part of the book deals with the intrigues of his friend Cingar, who is just as bad a rogue as Baldo, but relies more on wiles than on brute strength. Cingar plays tricks on various people whom he regards as Baldo's enemies, and eventually succeeds in liberating him from jail.

In the second half of the poem, Baldo and friends set sail for the east; the team gains increasingly bizarre members (including a giant, a centaur, and a half-man half-dog character) and enters upon a series of increasingly surreal adventures, fighting pirates, witches, demons, devils, exploring vast subterranean caverns, spending time on an island which turns out to be an enormous enchanted whale, and eventually they descend into Hell itself.

I liked the second part of the poem better than the first part, probably because it feels somewhat more like a normal tale of adventure, in which you can sort of think of Baldo and his friends as heroes that you can root for. In the first half of the poem they simply come across as rogues and criminals that act like assholes towards people around them for no acceptable reason. (In the second half, they are still violent assholes but at least their victims are now various demons and monsters that you can imagine as being deserving targets of this sort of treatment.)

In which I don't get the joke

I suspect that either humor is one of those things that don't necessarily age too well (or, for that matter, travel across cultures even if there isn't a big gap in time between them), or that something is broken about my sense of humor — which might very well be the case; perhaps a steady diet of gross internet jokes does leave one a bit unprepared to appreciate the humor in the literary works of previous centuries. Whatever the reason might be, the fact is that whenever I tried reading supposedly important comical works, I rarely found them funny: ancient Greek and Roman comedies, Don Quixote, Gargantua and Pantagruel, most of Molière's comedies, there's also the ITRL volume of renaissance comedies that I read a few years ago (see my post from back then), etc.

So I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I mostly missed the humor in Baldo as well. Part of the humor of a mock-heroic epic usually comes from the fact that it uses the same high style that would be used in a serious epic, but applies it to decidedly non-heroic characters, actions and events. And as with any parody, in order to appreciate it, you should be sufficiently familiar with the thing that's being parodied. Some years ago, I read Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock and enjoyed it a good deal, as I could feel that Pope is using the same pompous classicist style that he used in his translations of Homer, but now applied it to a much more frivolous and insignificant topic. But here in Baldo, I lacked this sort of familiarity; among the translator's notes there are many mentions along the lines of ‘here Folengo is alluding to such-and-such a passage from Virgil, or Ariosto, or Pulci, or some yet other tale of heroism and chivalry’, but I just wasn't sufficiently familiar with these works to be able to appreciate the parodying that's going on.

The language

Another part of the humor which I largely missed was that coming from Folengo's ‘macaronic’ language — that is, the poem is written in a kind of Latin with a copious admixture of various more or less colloquial Italian words. This is largely absent from the English translation, and I don't blame the translator for it as I imagine that this sort of thing is probably difficult or impossible to translate anyway. Occasionally the translation tries to convey a similar effect by resorting to modern-day colloqualisms (“I don't give a shit”, vol. 2 p. 99), but I guess it's still a far cry from what one could get from the original. Unfortunately I know neither Latin nor Italian, so I had to content myself with reading the English translation.

Incidentally, another downside of having to read the translation is that it's in prose, like most translations of poetry in the ITRL series. For me, a part of the charm is inevitably lost in the transition from verse to prose. The front flap of the dustjacket says the original is in hexameters, though my impression from trying to read a few lines and count syllables is that it's more pentameter than hexameter.

A rebel with a cause?

But maybe the biggest reason why I didn't find Baldo to be that funny is that I'm reading it in a very different context than the one it was written in. I imagine that Folengo was sick and tired of idealized, larger-than-life heroes of the ancient epics and chivalric romances which dominated so much of the literature of his day, so he deliberately went to the opposite extreme in his poem: his ‘heroes’ are really rogues and scoundrels, cunning and violent but mostly without a shred of honor; there's lots of violence (the more grotesquely over-the-top the better) but mostly without any redeeming higher purpose; its victims are for the most part not characters you can sympathize with either, being either too dumb or themselves bad enough that they seem to deserve what's coming to them. (This is particularly noticeable in the first half of the poem; in the second half, the enemies are a bit more traditional.)

And as if he was deliberately rebelling against all the unwelcome efforts to elevate mankind towards something higher and loftier, Folengo is downright obsessed with everything that is gross and disgusting, and everything that emphasizes the material aspects of human existence. His particular obsessions are eating (the more gross and gluttonous the better) and defecation — shit is mentioned on practically every page, his characters shit their pants on the slightest sign of alarm, etc., etc.

I imagine that writing (or reading) such things must have felt liberating to him and his original readership, as a big hearty fuck you to the annoying forces of order, religion, morality etc. that are constantly trying to get you to act better than your natural tendencies incline you to do. I can sympathize with that point of view, but things seem very different from the perspective of someone like me. All those references to shit and other gross bodily functions don't feel all that liberating to someone weaned on goatse and tubgirl, and raised on a steady diet of blue waffles and 2-girls-1-cup. Likewise, having scoundrels instead of heroes for your characters, and placing them in a generally shitty world in which almost nobody is particularly sympathetic, doesn't seem all that revolutionary and liberating nowadays, since pretty much no form of storytelling (with the exception of some of the clumsier sorts of political propaganda) has been taking heroism seriously for a long time now.

In short, what to Folengo must have felt like a welcome act of resistance to the oppressive forces of order and decency, simply doesn't have the same effect on us now since we aren't oppressed by those forces to nearly the same extent as he was. I can read his tale and sympathize with his views, but at the same time I can't help wishing that he'd finally stop mucking about in shit and tell us something nice for a change.

As another example, I suppose that the various mentions of corrupt priests and friars must have been fairly daring in Folengo's day, but they seem less shocking and impressive now when you practically can't open a news website without finding articles about how the church is harboring pedophiliac priests, opposing abortion, exploiting orphans and the like.

Interestingly, for all his rebelliousness in these matters, in some others he is remarkably conventional. For example, he comes across as a bit of a misogynist; nearly all the female characters mentioned in the poem are negative (with the exception of Baldo's mother, who however dies very early in the book). Many of them are witches, Folengo denounces them in the harshest terms as whores, sluts, bawds etc. for trying to seduce his characters, and they invariably meet their end in a grotesquely brutal way. He praises Baldo's friend Leonardo highly for resisting such temptations and preserving his chastity (book 17). In short, Folengo might be very much on board with gluttonous eating and defecation, but when it comes to sexuality, he's in no disagreement with the conventional authorities of his day.

Epic lists

Folengo's style has some other curious features which felt more like bugs to me. For example, he's quite fond of long, rambling lists that rarely contribute anything much to the story and often feel more like the sort of padding that we would expect if he had been getting paid by the line. For example, there's a long list of things that individual Italian cities are famous for (2.96–130); of tales of chivalry read by Baldo (3.102–9); letters of the alphabet (8.535–99); winds (12.317–99); an astrological lecture on the heavenly spheres and the seasons which extends over the better part of books 14 and 15; a list of about 40 diseases and ailments (15.361–74); etc., etc., etc.

Was there some phenomenon from bona fide epic poems which Folengo was trying to parody here? I remember Homer's famous “catalogue of ships”, but that at least had a purpose: it increased the chances that whatever local Greek magnate was listening to Homer (or some other similar bard) perform that bit of the Iliad would recognize one of the heroes there as one of his supposed ancestors, and therefore be more likely to reward the singer/poet generously. Here in Baldo, the lists just feel like pointless rambling; I suppose if you enjoy them, you'll be glad that they are there, but for someone like me they were for the most part just a nuisance.

(P.S. Judging by the wikipedia, there exists in fact the concept of an “epic catalogue”, of which Homer's catalogue of ships is just one example, so I guess this is what Folengo was trying to parody.)

The picaresqueness

Another thing that bothered me somewhat is the picaresque nature of the story. Much of it consists of various little episodes that are only very loosely linked to each other, and that could be rearranged without really changing anything. I don't doubt that this is deliberate, and probably some readers like this sort of thing; but I'd like the story better if the plot was a bit more coherent.

The way it's written now, you just have seemingly random things turning up out of the blue without any obvious reason, as if the poet was just improvising and blurting out whatever happened to fall into his mind at any particular moment. Occasionally I felt like ‘Oh, so the heroes, sailing down this underworld river, come across an old man riding a crocodile and accompanied by a bunch of nymphs, and after beating him up they move along, never mentioning him again? OK, great, I'm sure that makes some sort of sense...’ (23.38–101.)

Likewise, advancing the plot often depends crucially on characters turning up suddenly and magically, which ends up feeling like a cheap deus ex machina over and over again. The poet/seer Seraphus is probably the most blatant example (22.490, 23.704, 25.409). I can't help feeling that the author was simply too lazy to construct a proper plot, and he just enjoyed rambling a bit. Who knows, perhaps this whole thing is just a big piece of snark against the very idea of a plot, and I'm just too dense to get the joke.

The world-building

On a related topic, I was also a bit bothered by the ad-hoc nature of the fantasy world in which most of the second part of the poem takes place. Perhaps it's an unrealistic thing to expect from a 16h-century author; but modern fantasy authors try to at least pretend that the fictional world in which their stories are set is consistent and reasonably well planned-out. Some of them do in fact plan everything meticulously in advance (Tolkien would probably be a good example of that), others improvise but at least manage to give you the illusion that their world sort of makes sense.

But here in Baldo, I couldn't help feeling that the author is just making up random stuff as he goes along. You constantly keep getting random things which you had no reason to expect a moment before: a witch inhabiting an island which is really a giant whale (18.294–306); another witch in a giant underworld palace (book 23); the poet/seer Seraphus (18.257 and many subsequent times) and his order of long-dead ancient knights and heroes (book 18); a giant forge in the underworld, populated by naked devils (book 21); suddenly, an armory containing the arms and weapons of ancient heroes (book 22); etc. And the end of book 25 is completely psychedelic; he must have been smoking some really good stuff when writing it. I was reminded of the last scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

When Dante was descending into hell, you had the feeling that things are orderly and well-organized, into levels and various smaller departments, etc.; here in Baldo the only vaguely consistent thing is the sense of constant descent ever deeper into the underworld, towards hell, but apart from that it's just one damn random thing after another.

Folengo's improvisational approach to world-building reminded me somewhat of another early fantasy work that I read a long time ago — Lucian of Samosata's True Story (which, incidentally, also involves an enormous whale, except that Lucian's characters are trapped inside the whale rather than on top of it). I rather enjoyed Lucian's story back then, perhaps because it was shorter than Folengo's poem. In any case, I probably shouldn't be too hard on Folengo's work; there's nothing wrong with it, it's part of a peculiar but well established genre, it just isn't the sort of thing I like best.

So I guess that, as long as you don't demand a coherent plot and a world which makes sense, this can in fact be a very fine thing to read. You get an author exercising his imagination just for the sheer joy of it, generously throwing out his ideas and episodes by the bucketload, improvising and rambling and inventing stuff as he goes along. I found it tolerable enough in small doses, but for the right sort of reader I imagine it could make for a very enjoyable read.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

BOOK: Pietro Bembo, "History of Venice" (Vol. 3)

Pietro Bembo: History of Venice. Vol. 3: Books IX–XII. Edited and translated by Robert W. Ulery, jr. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 37. Harvard University Press, 2009. 9780674022867. xi + 396 pp.

(Continued from Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

Book IX

The war against Maximilian continues; towards the end of the previous book, the Venetians re-took Padua from him, and now he's trying to get it back, with the aid of numerous allies (9.18). Both sides spend plenty of time in getting ready for the siege, but eventually Maximillian gives up on it without accomplishing anything concrete (9.30). The Venetians remain on the initiative and conquer several other towns that used to be under Maximilian's control, such as Rijeka (9.33) and Vicenza (9.40); soon afterwards, Maximilian is ready to discuss a truce with them (9.54). On the other hand, they get involved in a war against the duke of Ferrara and suffer a heavy naval defeat (9.56). Meanwhile they are still at war with the pope (and under excommunication), and they decide to submit to his demands due to being unable to fight against so many enemies at the same time (9.60–1).

Bembo quotes “a poem of remarkable antiquity carved in stone” on a tower in Feltre (which was unfortunately destroyed during the war in 1509): “Feltre, thou art condemned to the harshness of snows without ending;/ Never perhaps, after this, will I approach thee — farewell.// Above the poem was inscribed the name of Julius Caesar.” (9.8.) I'm very curious is this is a genuine piece of ancient history preserved until 1509 and then unfortunately lost, or is it simply a medieval fake intended to attract tourists or inflate the locals' egos with a purported link to Caesar. The inscription is also mentioned in Feltre's wikipedia article.

There's an amusing story in 9.27–8, on the efforts to deliver wages to the soldiers that were defending Padua. This was a nontrivial amount of gold and the question was how to get it past Maximilian's forces; the Venetians loaded several mules with bags of sand and sent them towards Padua under heavy guard, thereby giving the impression that those are carrying the gold. The majority of Maximilian's forces went off to chase them and meanwhile other Venetian horsemen, carrying the gold in smaller amounts, were able to get into Padua safely.

Bembo describes yet another scary-sounding kind of siege weapon in 9.29: “It threw a stone ball eighteen inches in diameter up as high as the rooftops in a great arc through the sky.” A slightly more desperate kind of artillery appears in 9.30: “Maximilian took the further step of having letters wrapped around arrows shot into town, in which he urged the townspeople to desert the Republic”.

In each book I wonder if the Venetian financial situation can possibly get more desperate, and it always does. Now “all magistrates should serve for six months without pay or expense [. . .] They were indeed effectively unable to extract any further taxes as the citizens had been cleaned out by such frequent contributions to the treasury” (9.37).

The Venetians are apparently on good terms with king Henry of England; perhaps because they are so far away from each other :P In 9.54 he writes to their enemies, “asking them not to make war on Venice, which if it did not exist, would surely have had to be created by mankind as a whole for the public utility and ornament of the world”. I can't help thinking that this is the sort of quote which, if it hadn't been actually written, the Venetians would have been glad to invent it; and perhaps they did. (I'm not sure which Henry was that, by the way; Book IX covers the year 1509, and according to the Wikipedia, Henry VII died in the April of that year, and was succeeded by Henry VIII.)

There is a curious tale of hot incest action in 9.59, which unfortunately ends badly: Pietro Balbo, the podestà of Padua, “ordered the arrest of one of the commoners who was using his own daughter as a concubine, and of the daughter as well, the crime having been reported by an informer. When both confessed, he had them bound and beheaded, setting fire also to the father's corpse.” Silly commoners should have known that such things are reserved for the princes and the popes :)))

Book X

You probably won't be surprised to hear that this book contains yet more warfare :) Venice is still at war with the French, the Germans, and Ferrara, but on the other hand the pope is now on their side since they made peace with him at the end of the previous book (10.10). This also means they are now able to hire mercenaries from Rome and other areas under the pope's control (10.45). A new party enters the warfare in this book, namely Hungary, who is persuaded by France and Germany to declare war on Venice (10.62), even though it was earlier even getting subsidised by it (10.2). But it appears that Hungary won't actually fight, due to the lack of money (10.62).

Another thing that repeats itself like a broken record are the increasingly desperate efforts by Venice to raise more money and manpower. People who had been exiled for manslaughter (but not premeditated murder) are offered amnesty if they agree to serve in the Venetian fleet (10.8). Civil servants could, by a one-time payment of five times their yearly salary, upgrade their temporary appointment into a permanent one; for twice as much, those with a permanent appointment could buy the right to have the job pass on to their son or nephew after the current holder's death (10.12). This strikes me as an interesting (and unorthodox) way of raising money; I find it hard to imagine something similar being done nowadays. Few people could raise that kind of money, at least not without selling their house; even just taking out a loan wouldn't be enough as they couldn't afford to pay instalments for a loan of that size.

Another curious law is mentioned in 10.16: “no citizen whose son, brother, or nephew was a priest could attend the Senate” when relations between the pope and Venice were discussed, as their association with the church might lead them to favor the pope's interests over those of Venice.

As always, there are occasional interesting anecdotes amidst the warfare. The Spanish soldiers occupying Verona (“men who by nature and training were plainly craftier and cleverer than the French and Germans”) used a trick to identify Venetian supporters by shouting pro-Venetian slogans at night and taking note of the houses from which people replied with approval. The soldiers would then return the next day and plunder the houses of such pro-Venetian townsfolk.

There's also the curious tale of the efforts to find a new captain-general of the Venetian army. They offered the post to Francesco Gonzaga; the curious thing is that this man was being held in Venice as a prisoner at the time, the Venetians having captured him after he had previously deserted from a similar post in the Venetian army and gone over to the German side. I would imagine that they would think twice before inviting him to command their army again, but I guess the endless switching of sides in these wars got everyone used to the idea that all loyalties are just temporary anyway. Admittedly, he said the Venetians could take his son as a hostage, but his wife then refused to hand the boy over, so nothing came of the whole plan (10.23–4). Later, on the pope's advice, they released him (10.53) and appointed him as their general anyway (11.2; and he eventually sent over his son as a hostage, 11.12).

Book XI

Warfare continues in this book, and by this time I was only very vaguely aware who was at war with whom at any particular moment :) It's still mostly Venice and the pope vs. France (and Germany, though the latter is starting to show some signs of being interested in concluding peace; 11.67, 11.80); and the pope manages to get England and Spain involved on his side (11.75, and see also 12.19). Even some of the participants themselves are starting to get a bit confused — the Hungarians declare that “they would not abandon their alliance with the Republic” (11.57), so I can only assume they had entirely forgotten that they had declared war upon it not long ago (see 10.62 above). :)

Even our indefatigable author seems to be getting slightly tired of all the warfare, and he decides to omit a few details in 11.44: “I have not felt it necessary to give an account of these battles.” Yay!

Bembo describes a rather hardcore law against electoral corruption, enacted in Venice in 1510: “henceforth any citizen who asked another to favor him or one of his people in casting his vote would be barred from all magistracies [. . .] for the space of ten years” (11.15). I've always been of two minds about this sort of things — on the one hand I suppose that corruption is bad, on the other hand corruption of this sort is probably the only opportunity for people to get anything from politicians at all. And I'm surprised that they made such a fuss about this, since the Venetian political system was thoroughly undemocratic anyway and all power was permanently concentrated in the hands of a small rich elite.

As usual, this book also chronicles various further desperate attempts by Venice to raise more money for their warfare. They impose a new “property tax of half a percent” (11.17). “Its six-month term having expired, the law about magistrates giving back half their pay to the Republic was extended for another six” (11.45); he says this as if he had forgotten that they had already extended it for several six-month terms and that in fact the previous extension required the magistrates to give back all of their pay, not just half of it (see book IX above). Eventually they reach this hilarious conclusion: “The only remedy that remained untried was that citizens indebted to the state should pay up and give the treasury what they owed” (11.60) :))) They also tried to strengthen this measure by kicking politicians from the senate if they failed to pay their debts, and on the other hand offering future tax breaks to those who did pay up (11.73).

I couldn't help feeling that Venice was stretching itself a bit too much at times. In 11.29 Bembo mentions that certain a Venetian naval commander, “getting nowhere with his repeated attacks of Genoa” was ordered to withdraw his fleet — to Corfu!

On the subject of odd news, there's another case of Siamese twins in 11.32 (see 1.37 for the earlier case): “a boy with two heads and four arms and hands, then four legs and feet [. . .] only one chest with one set of kidneys and the rest of the back. The child lived for an hour and a half”.

Bembo also mentions a big earthquake that struck Venice in March 1511. “A great many pregnant women miscarried and died in paroxysms of fear.” (11.42.)

There's an old proverb about not speaking ill of the dead, but clearly Bembo wasn't too keen on the idea. He doesn't hide his delight at the death of cardinal Alidosi: “Not long afterwards, with many a self-recrimination, he breathed his last, a man of shameful and criminal life, in whom there was no integrity and no religion, to whom nothing was ever inviolate, nothing chaste, nothing holy.” (11.53). :)))

On the occasion of promoting a certain deserving citizen to a senator, doge Loredan makes a curious speech in 11.82; I don't know whether to be touched by these quaint old-fashioned virtues, or to roll on the floor laughing: “he will find far more satisfaction in these labors of his than if he enjoyed every advantage and engaged in a life of endless pleasure with absolute freedom from care. For to be truly alive consists in this: to be useful to your country, to defend the Republic, to protect your fellow citizens, to set no value on a life without liberty, even to prefer death to servitude.”

Book XII

This book again consists mostly of warfare, and various small towns change hands once or twice, but I couldn't really be bothered to keep track of the details. There are some efforts to end at least some of the wars: the pope tries to arrange a peace treaty between Venice and Germany (12.17), though Maximilian (the German emperor) doesn't seem too keen to offer good terms to the Venetians (12.51); but they cave in to the pope's pressure and conclude peace with Maximilian after all (12.63–5, 12.98). Pope Julius dies soon afterwards, and the book ends with the election of a new pope, who by the way appoints Bembo as one of his secretaries (12.102–3).

There are of course also the inevitable new efforts to raise money, such as a new law to seize property of people who didn't pay taxes, and sell it at auctions (12.9); they would also be unable to become magistrates, and might even be sent to prison (12.14). In another example of haphazard and ad-hoc taxation, “lodgers should give the treasury a sum equal to half the income derived from letting out the houses” (12.26). And “[f]rom lack of funds, the Senate also suspended or held back from 13 November [1511] until 1 March all the pensions and payments customarily made by the Republic” (12.32).

There's an interesting passage about the siege of the fortress of Bastia (12.43). The attackers “made a breach in the wall, which was extremely thick. Within the breach they made a sort of little room, which they packed with gunpowder”. The resulting explosion blew up a stretch of the wall “and ten men standing on it, so that they looked like birds in flight” :))

There's another case of hot incest action in 10.84: “A citizen of Chioggia who had violated his three virgin daughters was burned at the stake by the podestà”. It's interesting how he emphasizes that they were virgins; because obviously if they had already been dirty sluts before dad started banging them, the whole thing would be completely unproblematic... </sarcasm>

I was pleased to see, in the index on p. 375, Istria described as an “Adriatic peninsula now in Slovenia”. Now we just need to convince the Croatians to agree with that :)))


I'm not sure what to say at the end of these three volumes. This history was not only boring (although perhaps slightly less than Bruni's history of Florence, which I read a few years ago) but also thoroughly unedifying. Not only is there almost nothing but fighting (and descriptions of various desperate efforts to raise money for it), but the belligerent parties are very fickle and unprincipled. There are no heroic personalities and events here from which you could draw inspiration or moral instruction, like you sometimes find in the work of ancient historians. There aren't even any clear good and bad sides; I'm accustomed to wars in which there are two pretty clearly distinct sides, ideally ones in which it is easy to tell which side are the good guys and which side are the bad guys. But here in Bembo's history there's nothing of that sort; at any given point, there are likely to be at least half a dozen various states involved in the war(s), in various configurations, and these arrangements are extremely unstable; you can easily be at war against someone this year, and welcome him as your ally the next year against someone who had been your ally the year before.

Well, I suppose there are some sort of lessons to be drawn from this sort of stuff after all, about cynicism and realpolitik and the like; and it isn't hard to imagine how Machiavelli got his famous cynical ideas — he lived through the entire period covered by Bembo's book.

Additionally, as far as warfare goes, the stuff described in this book is pretty unspectacular. If you expect big epic fights, large numbers of soldiers moving over large distances, you'll be sorely disappointed. It's just various more or less obscure Italian towns changing hands again and again, and the armies involved are small enough that sending a couple hundred horsemen to reinforce the defense of a city is apparently a sufficiently large number to (1) actually make a difference and (2) be worth mentioning in Bembo's history.

By the way, I'm not blaming Bembo for the story being boring; he simply had the bad luck that his chosen period consisted of almost permanent warfare. He made a decent effort to include various other bits of information to make his history a little more interesting, but obviously his manoeuvering space was limited. The thing that amazes me is how the renaissance Italians managed, amidst all this incessant warfare, to find the time to create all those works of art and literature for which that period is still so famous...

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Monday, July 14, 2014

BOOK: Pietro Bembo, "History of Venice" (Vol. 2)

Pietro Bembo: History of Venice. Vol. 2: Books V–VIII. Edited and translated by Robert W. Ulery, jr. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 32. Harvard University Press, 2008. 067402284X. xi + 407 pp.

(Continued from Vol. 1.)

Book V

This book is mostly about the war against the Turks in the years around 1500. The earlier part of the war seems to take place mostly at sea; the Venetians get a big fleet ready, but they aren't terribly successful, which rather surprised me as I didn't expect that the Turks would be much good at naval warfare. (The Turks conquer Lepanto in 5.12, which also surprised me as I remembered the battle of Lepanto as a big Turkish defeat; but as it turns out, that was on a later occasion, in 1571.) Later the war is mostly at land, involving various Greek islands and coastal towns, where the Venetians seem to be slightly more successful and manage to recover some of their earlier losses.

For some reason, I found this slightly less boring than most of the warfare in the previous books; perhaps because much of the fighting takes place at sea, or perhaps because it was easier for me to get emotionally invested in the war. In the previous books, I didn't really give a damn about the minor border adjustments between the various small Italian states, but here I could easily pick a side to cheer on: the Venetians, since I really didn't want the Turks to make further territorial conquests. Of course, this reading couldn't help being a bit melancholic since I knew in advance that these efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, and the Turks did in fact end up ruling over Greece and the Balkan peninsula for several centuries. Well, at least they were pushed out of most of those territories by the early 20th century or so, although I'm afraid that Asia Minor is theirs for good.

One of the few non-war related things in this book: “there was at that time a great fight between crows and vultures in the skies over Apulia; such was the violence of the clash, and so great the flocks of birds, that their carcasses filled twelve carts.” (5.1) :)))

There's an interesting description of the Venetians' efforts to raise money for the war by introducing new taxes in 5.3. I was surprised by the haphazard nature of much of this taxation. “[A] law was passed requiring all urban and provincial magistrates to return to the Republic half of a year's salary [. . .] Men were also chosen to levy an assessment based on the wealth of each individual citizen”, though the government promised to return part of this money afterwards, so that it would be more of a forced loan than a tax.

On the subject of curious laws: “by an ancient law no office could be given to those indebted to the treasury” (5.21). This despicable idea reminds me of the even more despicable proposals of some modern-day libertarians who proposed removing the right to vote from those people who receive aid from the state or are employed by it. There's something about taxes that drives many people ridiculously insane with whining about how ‘their money’ should be spent by the government, and who should be allowed to get it. That's why I always support the idea that 100% of everyone's income should be taxed, and the state can then distribute it according to what people want or need. That would hopefully get it through their thick skulls that it isn't actually ‘their money’ and it really belongs to the common good. In any case, the worthlessness of the Venetian law mentioned here is demonstrated by the fact that their government doesn't hesitate to introduce an exception to it so they can appoint a certain Tommaso Zen as the captain of the fleet (5.21).

There's an interesting story on the loss of the town of Methoni in 1500. It was surrounded by the Turks both at land and at sea; some Venetian ships managed to get through the Turkish blockade, aiming to bring supplies to the town; “[w]hen the townsfolk saw the ships coming to their rescue, they rushed to the harbor to carry off the supplies at once into the town” (5.33). This unfortunately included most of the defenders on the city walls, and the Turkish army was therefore able to get across the wall; by the time the townsfolk realized what was going on, the town was already full of Turks and the defenders were easily overwhelmed (5.33–4).

The nearby town of Navarino also surrendered to the Turks in the wake of this defeat, but the Venetians recovered it later in the same year, which provides another interesting story in this book (5.43). A certain Demetrio, a soldier in the Venetian fleet, had a friend in the Turkish garrison in Navarino, and persuaded him to hide about 50 Venetian soldiers in his “house near the town wall until the gates of the town were should be opened at daybreak. Once the gates were open, Demetrio broke into the town with his men and taking them unawares slaughtered about 50 Turks of the garrison”. Incidentally, I was surprised by the extremely low numbers of people involved in much of this warfare. Later in the same paragraph, the Venetians send 150 horsemen to guard the town. I guess my mental image of war is mostly based on what I had read about WW1 and WW2, which is probably not a good guide to what a war might have looked like a few centuries ago.

The translator's note on p. 379 includes an interesting passage from Bembo's manuscript (censored from the early printed editions of the book by the Venetian government), where he blames the Venetian defeats in this war on the fact that their commanders tended to be old men: “it was a very bad practice to put old men in command of fleets, for they are bereft of blood and passion owing to their length of years, and so unwilling to try anything. [. . .] citizens consumed by age should be reserved for the home or the grave.” This last sentence strikes me as a bit harsh but otherwise he has a point; even a careless reader like me couldn't help wondering, while reading Bembo's descriptions of various battles, why the Venetian commanders were so cautious and showed so little initiative.

Book VI

This is one of the most interesting books so far. Earlier I was complaining that Bembo hardly ever mentions the geographical discoveries of his age, but here he talks about them at length (6.1–14). The Venetian senate heard about the Portuguese discovery of India in 1501 and immediately realised it would be a disaster for their trade (6.1). (There weren't the only ones; in 6.12 he describes how the sultan of Egypt tried, unsuccessfully, to chase the Portuguese out of the Indian ocean.)

There's a nice summary of Columbus' arguments for geographical exploration in 6.2, followed by a short history of his voyages. Bembo says that the idea of looking for new lands on the [Atlantic] Ocean was already mentioned before Columbus: “it was much earlier the idea first of the philosopher Posidonius, the pupil of Panaetius, and then of the famous physician, the great Avicenna” (6.3). There are various bits of information about the Indians with whom Columbus got in touch, including a description of maize (6.3) and a mention of “a wild and fierce people called Cannibals, who fed on the flesh of boys and men they had captured in war or raids on other islands (the women they left alone)” (6.4). The Indians “lived for the most part in a golden age. They know no boundaries to their fields; they have no courts or laws; they have no use for writing or trade; they live not for the future but from day to day.” (6.5) “Their women who have known a man covered no part of the body except the genitals, the virgins not even that” (6.7). “[T]he dried bodies of their kings and potentates are kept in their houses and held in great honor. There is even a place where they grind them up when they have become dessicated and use the dust in food and drink to honor them.” (Ib.)

Bembo also describes how the Spanish and the Portuguese asked the pope to mediate in their dispute on how to divide the New World among themselves (6.6); according to the translator's note, this resulted in the papal bull Inter caetera, whose demarcation line seems to be a predecessor of the one from the better-known Treaty of Tordesillas.

Some of the things he reports strike me as a bit dubious: “an immensely broad river — more than a hundred miles wide — which was full of islands” (6.8); though now that I looked in the wikipedia, it seems that the Amazon is actually that wide: “the mouth of the main stem is 80 kilometres” wide, and the whole estuary 240 km. An even more surprising report is the following: “The forests support an animal the size of a rabbit which is a bitter enemy of hens; the female has a pouch of skin [. . .] in which it carries its young and from which it lets them out as and when it wishes.” (6.8) I would expect that sort of animals in Australia, but that wasn't yet known in Bembo's time; this paragraph is about South America. And in a certain part of the Caribbean, men who dive for pearls are “so at home in the sea that on occasion they stay underwater for the space of half an hour” (6.10).

A particularly hideous form of female genital mutilation is described from the shores of the Red Sea: “These men sew together the reproductive organs of girls as soon as they are born, just far enough to allow urination. When they have matured, they give them in marriage stitched up in this manner, and it is the groom's first concern to sever with a knife the girl's labia thus joined and grown together: so high a value do the barbarians place on unambiguous virginity when taking a wife.” (6.11) Eeeeeek :S

Bembo also mentions Magellan's expedition (6.13–14) and includes this surprising statement: “having completed with great difficulty a three-year circumnavigation of the entire world [. . .] they found that each of their years had been longer by a day”. Surely it should be obvious that you get one day of difference for the whole circumnavigation (regardless of how many years it took you to complete it), not one day per year.

The rest of the book, from §15 onwards, again deals with the usual topics, mostly warfare. The war against the Turks is still going on and eventually they conclude peace in 6.47; another frequent cause of warfare in this book is Cesare Borgia, who is trying to secure his place on the map of Italy in the wake of the death of his father, pope Alexander. (The latter's death, by the way, is delightfully appropriate: “By a mistake on the part of a servant, Alexander swallowed a poison which he had ordered to be secretly given to Cardinal Adriano, one of his household, in whose gardens he was dining with his son Cesare Borgia”; 6.49, and Cesare nearly dies from the poison as well.)

Some of the Portuguese ships seem to have been very curiously decorated: “The stern of each boat was then draped with coverings of various colors, so that the spread-out fabrics reache the water and trailed in the waves.” (6.16)

The problems with taxation to finance the endless fighting, which I already mentioned earlier (see book V), continue here; there's a very interesting debate on whether the civil servants should be required to give up half their pay again. A certain Gian Antonio Minio makes some good arguments against it in the Great Council, saying that this is an unfair sort of tax which hurts only the middle and poorer classes, not the rich ones (6.22–4) — which I suspect is true, as a rich person would derive only a small fraction of his income from his salary, no matter what a position he held in the government. The doge then speaks at great length in favor of the tax (6.25–31), in a typical politician's manner — with lots of words but without really saying anything. He mostly whines about how the country simply needs money to keep financing the war, and how the rich are in fact paying their fair share of taxes, it just isn't as obvious because (unlike the middle and poorer classes) you don't see them going bankrupt and selling off their furniture to raise the money for taxes (6.29). In modern-day terminology, I suppose you could say that the doge is in favor of a flat tax rate, and he pretends not to notice that the mere fact that the rich people aren't going bankrupt from the tax while some of the poor ones are is by itself a sufficient proof that the burden of taxation is too heavy on the poor and too light on the rich. Sadly, nobody seems to have thought of a properly progressive tax rate at the time; or more likely, the rich bastards that ran Venetian politics would't have allowed it anyway. In any case, the outcome of this debate is that, in another clear proof of what a hollow sham the whole idea of deliberative politics was in Venice, Minio's reward for his parliamentary speech is a strict exile to “Arba, an island in Dalmatia” (which I guess is modern-day Rab).

Book VII

This book mostly consists of, you guessed it, yet more warfare. Maximilian, the Holy Roman Emperor, wants to travel to Rome to get properly crowned by the pope, but wants to bring a suspiciously large army along for the trip, ostensibly for his own safety. Venice refuses to let him pass through their territory; a war therefore erupts, in which Venice is also supported by Spain and France (which is making war on Maximilian for its own reasons). Venice seems to be doing reasonably well in this war at first and after a while, Maximilian makes a truce with Venice and her allies (6.41); but then the treacherous king Louis of France switches over to Maximilian's side and soon afterwards, Venice finds herself alone at war against Germany, France, Spain, and even the pope (7.51–9). The pope even uses his influence to prevent various mercenaries from accepting jobs in the Venetian army (7.66), and eventually excommunicates the doge and the entire city (7.78; the senate tries to evade this last move by the curious expedient of refusing to “accept the papal leters or admit those that brought them”).

As always, descriptions of the fighting are mostly rather boring, though occasionally I was interested to see that some of this fighting took place in the area of present-day Slovenia; for example, the town of Vipava is mentioned in 7.38, Koper in 8.26, and Postojna in 7.39. Bembo refers to this latter town as Postoina, which slightly surprised me since in more recent times the Italians called it Postumia.

One thing that came to my mind while reading this book is how incessant all this fighting really was. I am of course aware that the fact that we've currently had almost 70 years of peace in most of Europe is a bit of an anomaly; but my vague idea was that before that, one war per generation would have been a reasonable estimate. But here in Bembo's time we see that warfare was continuous; there was a new war every year, likely concluded a year or two later and then new wars would erupt in its place, often with the same players, only in a slightly different arrangement. What a horrible time it must have been to live in; and how much more remarkable it is that they managed to get the renaissance going in the midst of such chaos...

Unsurprisingly, the frequent shifts in alliances during these wars could wreak havoc on the lives of ordinary people. Bembo describes (7.65) how the Milanese government ordered their citizens to leave Venice when a war between the two countries was getting started; then the Venetian government, alarmed at the prospect of losing so many valuable traders and artisans, forbade them from leaving. Both laws prescribed confiscation as punishment for those who disobeyed, so basically people who owned property in both cities were screwed no matter what they decided to do.

The story of taxation to finance the wars also continues in this book; whereas they previously only required the magistrates to give up 50% of their pay, they now require some of them to give up 100% (7.71). The situation looks desperate enough that this is accepted without much protest. Furthermore, many citizens lend money to the republic, with the doge leading by example (7.74). One of the penalties for tax dodgers was to “be removed from public office. These offices are not only very numerous but also carry considerable emoluments, so that a large part of the citizens support themselves very handsomely on them” (7.76).

Like usually, Bembo manages to liven up his tale of endless warfare by occasional bits and pieces of more interesting information. For example, an embassy from the city of Nuremberg arrives in Venice in 1506 “to ask the senators for a copy of the laws of the Republic, declaring that they wanted to make use of those laws themselves” (7.9). The Venetians are happy to grant their request; I wonder if Nuremberg actually made any good use of those laws afterwards. Copying other nations' laws is of course a time-honored tradition, but I'm always a bit skeptical of it; what works for one nation might not work equally well for another if it has different customs and a different temperament.

Another curious tidbit from the same year: apparently people had the habit of asking for various favors from the Senate while a foreign ambassador was present, hoping that the politicians would be embarrassed to refuse the favor in the ambassador's presence; the Senate made a law forbidding this practice (7.14).

An interesting law from 1508: they forbade people from offering rewards to those who would nominate them for public office. On one hand, this is a very commendable law; on the other hand, it strikes me as highly hypocritical and bizarre — the entire political system of Venice was basically an oligarchy in which a few hundred rich people ran the city; in a system like that, why would you suddenly try to set up laws that prevent rich people from using their money to influence politics?

Bembo describes a kind of very large cannon (called a basilisk) used on some of their ships: “each piece twenty-two feet in length [. . .] They could fire an iron ball weighing a hundred pounds a distance of 2,800 paces” (7.34).

He also describes a strong earthquake on Crete in 1508 (7.44); surprisingly, this earthquake doesn't seem to have its own Wikipedia page yet :), although it is mentioned in passing in one or two articles. Another disaster is a large gunpowder explosion in the Venetian Arsenal in 1509 (7.63).

On the subject of odd news, there's the tale of an strange vessel found in the Atlantic not far from Britain in 1508: “a small vessel made of wicker [. . .] covered all over with tree bark. In it were seven men of moderate height and rather dark complexion [. . .] clothing made from fish skin dappled with spots. They wore painted crowns of straw [. . .] fed on raw flesh, and drank blood as we do wine. Their speech was unintelligible. Six of them died; one young man was taken alive ot the king in Normandy.” (7.50) I wonder what, if anything, is the truth behind this tale. Could an Eskimo boat have been carried by some storm all the way from Greenland to Britain?

I was surprised to see a very casual mention of the pope's daughter, Felice, in 7.78; she was married to the head of the powerful Orsini family. Bembo mentions her as if the fact that the pope had a daughter was the most unremarkable thing in the world! This was pope Julius II, by the way; I would have expected that sort of thing from his predecessor, Alexander Borgia, whose daughter Lucrezia is well known, but I guess that wasn't quite so exceptional in those days :] On a related note, I have now discovered that the wikipedia has a suitably pedantic article called List of sexually active popes :)))


The war of Venice vs. everyone else, which we saw starting towards the end of the previous book, is now under way, and as one might expect, Venice isn't doing too well in it. In a mixture of cowardice and incompetence, their army practically melts away upon facing the French army, to whom Venice thus loses some of its territory; in a desperate effort to end the war and gain some time to recover, they offer to restore further bits of territory to Maximilian and to the pope. In a move that I found extremely unexpected (but really shouldn't have, given the endlessly shifting nature of alliances in those days), Venice gets an offer of help from the Turkish sultan of all people! (8.42), and they seriously consider taking him up on it (8.44). The pope seems to be unable to make up his mind: on the one hand, he is worried that if Venice collapses utterly, Germany and France might turn against him next, although he is their ally at the moment (8.35); on the other hand, he keeps treating the Venetian ambassadors very arrogantly and making increasing demands from them (8.39). Maximilian seems to be content with his early gains and is not keen to pursue the war further, and king Louis of France, now that he is deprived of his German ally, seems to be willing to call it a day as well (8.37). Thus things slowly start looking up for Venice again, and towards the end of the book they even recover some of the territories they had lost earlier, such as the town of Padua (8.61).

(Continues in Vol. 3.)

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Saturday, June 28, 2014

BOOK: Frédéric de Janzé, "Tarred With the Same Brush"

Frédéric de Janzé: Tarred With the Same Brush. London: Duckworth, 1929. 193 pp. (The book doesn't mention his name; it just says “Le Comte de Janzé”.) Now also on Project Gutenberg Australia.

This book is a kind of sequel to Vertical Land, which I read a few years ago (see my post about it from back then; it also includes more about the author's background and how I got to know about him in the first place). Just like Vertical Land, it is inspired by the author's experiences while living among the wealthy British settlers in 1920s Kenya.

After my big disappointment with Vertical Land, I naturally approached this next book with considerably reduced expectations, and almost out of a sense of duty and completism rather than pleasure — I expected merely another boring slog and just wanted to finish the job, so to speak, and prepare an e-text of his second book so that both will be freely available to everyone.

Thus I was extremely pleasantly surprised by how much more I enjoyed reading this book than I did Vertical Land! I can safely say that at least 50% of Tarred With the Same Brush made for very pleasant reading, and the rest was at least tolerable; overall I liked it a lot better than Vertical Land.

Perhaps it's because the style of Tarred is less vague, and is much of the time closer to something like normal storytelling than the extremely hazy impressionism of Vertical Land. I suppose that some of that haziness was due to the fact that many of his tales were inspired by real people and real events, and he had to make things vague to avoid causing offence. But here in Tarred With the Same Brush, he used a somewhat different approach by reworking his material into a more conventional fictional narrative, and the result is much more pleasant to read. (And I guess that for the right sort of reader, of which I am not one, Tarred still has a lot of connection to real people and events, as you can see e.g. from the way it's quoted in Errol Trzebinski's book about the murder of Lord Erroll.)

That is not to say that the style of Tarred is completely different than that of Vertical Land, of course; it's still somewhat aloof and sparing with the details, and another thing that contributes to a feeling of vagueness are the ellipses — I don't think I've ever seen a book with as many ellipses as this one.

In any case, I suppose one has to be careful before making any sort of inferences from the tales in this book to the lives of real people. Judging by the contents of these books, the wealthy white settlers in Kenya didn't have anything much to do besides going on safaris, sleeping with each other's wives and then getting divorced and/or committing murder in fits of jealousy. This makes for entertaining reading, but one would hope that things were a bit better than that in reality.

Incidentally, de Janzé includes a sort of disclaimer in the introduction (p. 12), though I'm somewhat skeptical if we were meant to take it seriously: “These stories have naught to do with any living humans [. . .] go your way, untrue stories of mine.” Later he includes a sketch of a man who complains about the “damned foreigner” who “put me in his book” (p. 183), and one of a different man who complains about not being mentioned in Vertical Land (pp. 187–8).

The first half or so of Tarred consists of short stories told by a group of people on a safari trip, embedded in a framework that I guess was inspired by the Decameron. This was my favorite part of the book, and most of these stories were quite enjoyable to read. Most of them have some drama — people cheating on their spouses, trying to get married for money, trying to kill their rivals and the like. There's often a bit of a twist ending, and they don't even all take place in Kenya; one of the stories involves smuggling alcohol in prohibition-era America.

The second half of the book consists of shorter sketches that are perhaps more similar to Vertical Land than the first half. (In fact at the very end there's a section of extremely short and extremely vague character portraits exactly like those at the end of Vertical Land.) I didn't enjoy this part of the book as much as the first half, but some of these shorter stories were still pleasant. Most of them are told from the perspective of the same first-person narrator, nicknamed Tiny, who also told one of the stories in the first half of the book; I liked this approach as it makes the book feel a bit more coherent than Vertical Land did. Many of these stories are about animals, for which Tiny has a great fondness. He seems to live with a woman named Delecia (p. 141ff.), and incidentally the book is also dedicated to a Delecia (p. 5), so I'm wondering if this part of the book was partly based on the experiences of some real people whom de Janzé knew well.

There's a very touching tale in which the narrator adopts a lion cub whose mother had been shot by hunters; the lion becomes a cherished pet even after it grows up, but eventually the owner has to move back to Europe and leave the lion behind. By an amazing coincidence, he encounters the lion again a couple of years later, as the poor animal has been sold to a circus, where it is being treated badly. The story has a sad ending and also includes a touching and impassioned plea against the abuse of animals for entertainment. That struck me as a very decently progressive sentiment for 1929, and I was also pleasantly surprised by it because in the rest of the book the writer doesn't exactly come across as a bleeding-heart humanitarian in the way he treats his human characters. (In the introduction, he deplores hunting even while he admits he'd done plenty of it himself; and he adds a sentiment that is not often seen outside the most radical animal-rights circles: “Why should laws prevent you from going hunting another man with a gun when it lets you massacre the innocent?” P. 9.) In fact the author's fondness of animals is a recurring theme in this book.


He now refers to coconuts as coco-nuts, which is a considerable improvement from the cocoanuts which we saw in Vertical Land.

“Norma went back to her motherland to stagger the play-goers by her acting on the stage and the morning papers by her acting in her home.” (P. 46.)

Here's a very funny passage from p. 81, which evokes wonderfully the stereotype of the overfed British aristocrats and colonialists: “these people who, when they live past the days when they can get killed out hunting, terminate their useless careers with a stroke after too good a luncheon or in some home for arterial over-pressures.”

And here's one from pp. 121–2, in which a guest after a long and drunken party wakes up to find a lion in his bed: “The eldest souse of us all was sitting up in bed wildly gesticulating and asking us to hold him down as he was seeing things—that a lion was in bed with him and that the last time it had only been lizards and biting fishes, but this time it was lions and he could feel it too, and would we shoot him quick.”

In the copy of the book I've got, there is a pencilled inscription on the front free endpaper, which suggests that some previous owner of the book did a bit of genealogical research about de Janzé; it says: “Vicomtesse de Janzé, great-granddaughter of Mrs. Jordan & William IV / Comte de Janzé's mother? or grandmother? / C. de J., husband of Alice Silverthorne, whose Wanjohi farm was our home in Kenya.”

Sic transit gloria mundi?

There's an interesting passage on pp. 38–9, listing the contents of a rich woman's investment portfolio. “General motors, American Tel. and Tel.—St. Gobain—Suez—Wagon-lits. . . . Deutsche Algemeine Elek­trische Gesellschaft—Siemmens . . . and nearer home . . . B.S.A.; Shell Trans.; Daily Sketch Deb.; Guinness . . . and others.”

So those, I guess, were considered to be big and important companies of the day, solid and reliable investments. Naturally I was curious about where they are now, so I did a bit of searching on the wikipedia:

  • General Motors is, of course, still around and still important;
  • AT&T is also still around and still important, but the monopoly position it used to enjoy as a telephone provider is long gone.
  • St. Gobain, of which I never heard before, is apparently also still around and still a big corporation, producing building materials.
  • “Suez” probably refers to the Suez Canal Company, which managed the canal until it was nationalized by the Egyptian government in 1956. The canal is now managed by an Egyptian agency (Suez Canal Authority), but the Suez Canal Company still exists in some form, as part of an electric utility company.
  • The Compagnie internationale des wagons-lits, known for operating trains with sleeping cars, went into decline after the WW2 and apparently now exists as part of another company called Newrest.
  • The Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft, a manufacturer of electrical equipment, disappeared over several mergers in the second half of the 20th century. The AEG brand name is now used by various manufacturers of household applicances.
  • The British South Africa Company mostly came to an end with the 1960s due to decolonization, though apparently it formally “still exists, and is registered as a non-trading business”.
  • The “Shell” Transport and Trading Company was one half of the Shell group throughout the 20th century, the other helf being called Royal Dutch Petroleum Company. Both were finally merged for good in 2005, forming a company called Royal Dutch Shell.

  • The Daily Sketch was a British tabloid which merged into the Daily Mail in 1971. “Deb.” probably stands for debentures, a kind of bonds.
  • Guinness still exists and makes beer, but is now a part of Diageo, a multinational alcoholic beverages company.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the results. Despite various economic crises, a world war, and numerous other changes, about half of the companies in that 1929 portfolio are still around and apparently doing reasonably well. I wonder what an equivalent present-day portfolio would be like, and what it would then look like in 2100.


Both Vertical Land and Tarred With the Same Brush seem to be relatively rare books, the latter one even more so; I often looked for it on and it took a long time before a copy showed up for sale. I ended up paying £150 for it, which felt a bit horrible as I don't think I've ever spent that much on a single book, not to mention how little text there is in it.

But on the positive side, buying the book enabled me to prepare an e-text of it, just like I did for Vertical Land a few years ago, so that anyone can now read it at no cost. The author died in 1933, so the copyright on his books has expired in many parts of the world. You can now get an e-text of Tarred With the Same Brush from Project Gutenberg Australia (direct link: HTML, plain text).

  • Paul Spicer: The Temptress (2011). A recent biography of Alice de Janzé, an American socialite who was married to Frédéric during the 1920s and lived with him in Kenya.
  • Frances Osborne: The Bolter (2008). A biography of Idina Sackville, another notorious member of the same milieu that inspired de Janzé's books. (Is it wrong that I think of hobbits every time I see that surname? :P)

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