Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Sir Walter Scott's Count Robert of Paris

 "...let the devil of knight errantry, which has such possession of thee, take thee upon his shoulders, and carry thee full tilt wheresoever he lists."

Count Robert of Paris (1832) is a late novel of Sir Walter Scott's. It's set in Constantinople at the beginning of the First Crusade (1096-1099).

Hereward, a Saxon, fought at the battle of Hastings. His father was killed there. He believes his intended, Bertha, was slain during the chaos that followed. Hereward abandons England and takes a job as a member of the Varangian Guard, sworn to protect the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus at the time. Which Hereward does, so successfully, he's called in for an interview with Anna Comnena, composing a history of her father's reign. 

And so he's caught up in palace intrigues.

The Byzantine empire at the time is caught between the rising power of the Seljuk Turks and new kingdoms in the Balkans. And then the knights of the First Crusade appear on their doorstep. Are they friend or foe? Will they attack Constantinople? (The Crusaders didn't sack Constantinople until their fourth trip through.) Alexius already has one Frank bandit/king in his dungeons, Ursel (Roussel of Bailleul) from an earlier war.

And one of those crusader knights is Count Robert of Paris. Robert is the son of William the Conqueror; Hereward's his enemy at first sight. Robert's the one that 'the devil of knight errantry' is about to carry off.

William the Conqueror did have a son Robert who did go on the First Crusade, but our Robert owes more to those tales of knight errantry, even to Don Quixote, than he does to the historical record. And his wife, Brenhilda (!) of Aspromonte, armor-clad and perfectly happy to joust in the lists, feels more like Orlando Furioso than anything historical. Though Scott is at pains to tell us there's an armor-clad female warrior by the name of Gaita in Anna Comnena's history (which I haven't read).

Robert behaves like a tool when he first gets to Constantinople, lounging on Alexius' throne, breaking ancient artworks. Alexius is irritated enough to throw Robert into prison even as he's doing all he can to move the rest of crusaders on their way. 

But there's a conspiracy on to overthrow Alexius. It's led by Achilles Tatius (Hereward's commander), Nicephorus Briennius (Anna Comnena's husband and so the emperor's son-in-law), and Agelastes, the aged court philosopher. Each of them imagines he's the one that will end up on the throne, and, while Alexius would let Robert go after a bit, the conspirators plan on using Robert as part of their plot. In addition Nicephorus has fallen into lust with the amazonian Brenhilda. 

You probably don't need me to tell you the plot fails. Scott isn't one to rewrite the historical record so blatantly, and Alexius' actual reign lasted until 1118. You probably also don't need me to tell you that beautiful Bertha isn't really dead, and that somehow she ends up in Constantinople, too. The cool-headed Saxon Hereward and the hot-blooded Norman Robert are forced to get along to sort this all out. Which they do.

One of the nice things about this novel is that it reminds that Scott can be funny. There's Robert, who, except for the fact that he can actually fight, could be Don Quixote. Hereward, Sancho Panza-like, is forever trying to get him to show some sense. There are couple of running gags: Anna Comnena's literary soirées bore everyone to tears, and Alexius is forever saying that if Anna doesn't want to lose her husband she should quit forcing him to listen to her read. Well, Nicephorus does decide he prefers Brenhilda. Also the emperor can never remember Hereward's name, generally settling on Edward after trying a few other possibilities.

Now, nobody would claim this as one of Scott's great novels. His prose style is what it is--generally feeling pretty archaic now--and his tendency to write overly fulsome dialog is definitely on display here. But if you're a fan...

Actual engraving of Scott's home hanging behind me as I type... 

...I think you'll enjoy it. Anyway, I did. đŸ˜‰

From my Classics Club list and this year's Back to the Classics list.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Brooke Clark's Urbanities (#poem)


Hot Tip

Here's my advice on how to shine on the epigram-writing scene:
  a poem should not mean, or be; but it should be mean.

Take that, Mr. MacLeish! Brooke Clark's Urbanities came out from Fitzhenry & Whiteside, a small Canadian press, in 2020. It's a collection of mostly epigrammatic poetry adapted from classical models:

from Advertisement here's my pitch: I've tried to write some poems you might enjoy--
  a radical idea now, to deploy
the resources of poetry, not to stretch and strain
  syntax until it cracks, but to entertain.
He writes in the afterword, "The original impulse behind this book was to try to capture some of what I loved about Martial in English." (Both the poems I've quoted above are adaptations from Martial.) But he goes on, "These are not direct translations, however, and none of the poems in this book is a particularly good guide to what the original actually says."

An example of his method is his treatment of Catullus 2, the poem about Lesbia's sparrow, now a cat:

from To A Fortunate Feline
A sweet deal, Toast, being Chloe's pet:
you hop up on her lap and get
a giggle or a happy sigh;
your paw slides up her inner thigh
demesnes denied the human hand...

Catullus, at least based on where he placed Lesbia's sparrow, was more a breast man. There was also a version of Catullus 51, which is Catullus' version of the Sappho poem. Clark's version begins, "That man seems like a god to me." I quite liked his two Horace adaptations, but they're a little long to quote. There's also Mimnermus (a favorite of mine in Greek), Callimachus, others.

I do wish he'd identified the poems he was adapting from. Some I recognized, but especially with the Martial poems (a poet I hardly know at all) it would have been fun to compare, but I generally couldn't.

One last Martial adaptation to end (and nearly the end of his book):


So that's my book. Such trifles don't make a literary star,
  but they can't have been all bad--you read this far.
Stardom's for those whose luminous lines sear with sincerity.
  You laughed a few times? Good enough for me.
Brooke Clark also edits the contemporary poetry website Asses of Parnassus, whose self-proclaimed brief is short, witty, formal poems, and so they generally are...

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Short Reviews: von Doderer, Faulkner, Scholem

Three complicated chunksters all of which I started long posts for. Those posts didn't get finished. (Oh, well.) Time to clear the decks.

Heimito von Doderer's The Strudlhof Steps (850 pages)

This is a fairly new release from New York Review Books, and Vincent Kling won the most recent Wolff Prize for translation from the German for it. The novel came out in 1951 in German, and hasn't previously appeared in an English translation.

The main events take place just before and just after World War I in Vienna. I'm a sucker for the place and time. And, hey, it's shorter than The Man Without Qualities; as a bonus, von Doderer finished it, too. Four sections, each coming to a dramatic climax--who gets married, who gets dumped, who gets a leg cut off by a tram--generally on or near the Strudlhof Steps:

Lt. Melzer features in the subtitle. He likes to drink Turkish coffee on the skin of a bear he shot in Bosnia in 1912; watched his commanding officer (whom he likes) die on the Italian front in World War I; seems almost unmarriageable, but is he?

René von Stengeler is born into a wealthy Protestant family, captured by the Russians in 1916, only making it back to Vienna after the war is over. Does he marry Grete, back from Oslo where she escaped the misery of post-war Vienna by teaching piano? And why does René's sister commit suicide? Because we know she did from the first few pages.

The novel requires tolerance, but pays back. It moves back and forth in time, at first seemingly arbitrarily. You have to accept its terms, and give it space to get started. Characters have last names or first names but not necessarily both, and sometimes merely initials. For example, we never learn Lt. Melzer's (a major character) first name: on page 823, "Sorry, but we don't know Melzer's first name." The narrative voice has a curious diffidence.

Von Doderer's politics were not particularly admirable. He joined the Nazis in the mid-30s, when the party was illegal in Austria. The afterword, by Daniel Kehlmann, says he was quite anti-Semitic at that time. He later turned against the party, but never publicly, and as a WWI veteran, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht, serving in garrison duty, first in Norway, later in France, where he started writing this novel. The publication of the novel was delayed while von Doderer was de-Nazified. René von Stengeler is clearly a self-portrait, and deliberately not a flattering one. What did he think by 1950? I don't know. There are minor Jewish characters in this, and they're treated with real sympathy.

Anyway, I thought it was very good.

William Faulkner's Light in August (480 pages)

I had heard that Light in August was a murder story, the story of Joe Christmas, and, well, it is. Christmas (named for the day his infant form was dropped off at the orphanage) murders his lover. Christmas may have black blood--he doesn't know and we don't know either, but he thinks he does, and though he could pass for white, once he's accused of having a drop of black blood (by his own grandfather, no less) he assumes he does.

But Christmas' story is not the whole of the novel by any means. It's the portrait of a town called Jefferson, and not just the evils of racism, but also the ways racism distorts the life of the town. Nowadays we don't really have any problem contemplating that Jefferson the man may have been a bit racist, but the novel came out in 1932. There's a daring irony to that. Was Faulkner in his heart of hearts free of racism? Certainly not, and I doubt he would say he was. But he knew that problem for a problem, and that counts for something. Percy Grimm, the white captain of the National Guard, is a particularly (dare I say it?) grim portrait of a racist.

And am I the only one who doubted Christmas committed the murder? No, because the Wikipedia article says it's unclear who did it. I don't think that's actually sustainable, and that Christmas really did do it, but I did wonder during the middle of the novel. But maybe that's attributable to too many years of reading mysteries: the obvious suspect is never the culprit.

The town's a mess, and there's nothing to do but escape, but almost nobody does; the only ones who do are Lena Grove and Byron Bunch, running off in a folie Ă  deux: she's looking for the man who got her pregnant and who will never marry her, and Byron's hoping she'll settle for him instead, and meanwhile he'll be there when she (which she won't) changes her mind.

One other thing to be said about this is that, of the great Faulkner novels, I thought this was the easiest read. And that's definitely something... 😉 It's easier than The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom. No chapters from the POV of dead people or madmen. Not the greatest of that quartet, I'd say, which for my money is Absalom, Absalom, but a better starting point. (Though if you include Sanctuary in your list of top Faulkner, I would say that one's a pretty straightforward read.)

Yeah, a classic.

Gershom Scholem's Sabbatai Sevi (929 pages, plus bibliography, notes and index)

Sabbatai Sevi (1626? - 1676) declared himself the Jewish messiah in 1665. (He may have intimated it as early as 1648 but only in limited circles.) Gershom Scholem, Jewish historian and friend of Walter Benjamin, made Sevi the subject of a major book.

Sevi (there should be a dot under the S which I can't figure out how to type, but think Tsevi or Zevi) was born in Smyrna to a middle-class merchant family, studied the Kabbala in Jerusalem, traveled on religious business to the Jewish community in Egypt and later to Constantinople. All lands under the control of the Ottomans at the time. When he began his mission in earnest, Nathan of Gaza was his prophet and explicated the theology of the new movement. Scholem, as a historian of Jewish mysticism, is rather more taken with Nathan than Sevi.

But the stories of Sevi and Nathan are just a small part of this fascinating book. What's surprising is the Europe-wide discussion of these figures, and not just in the Jewish community. Italy, Amsterdam, Morocco, Poland, Hamburg, Egypt are all discussing this new Messiah. English chiliastic Protestants write books about Sevi, who, they think, will lead 10000 Jews from the Lost Tribes across the River Sambatyon, armed with bows and arrows but still invincible. (The River Sambatyon doesn't actually exist, which is why you haven't heard of it.) Samuel Pepys writes about Sevi in his diary! Along with all the women he was shagging. He features in Venetian ambassador's reports and Jesuit Relations. One can imagine Blaise Pascal, roughly contemporary, being discussed across Europe, but it turns out not all Europe-wide discussions were so scientific.

Sevi himself always advocated a peaceful movement. Faith and the perfection of the self would lead to the kingdom of God. There were no armies in his vision.

In fact, I found the reception of Sabbatai Sevi to be more interesting than the biography of Sevi himself. Scholem is inclined to attribute Sevi's messianic proclamations to mental illness, labeling him a manic-depressive. Maybe. But diagnosing mental illness in the present is difficult enough--DSM-III, DSM-IV, DSM-V have different labels, and so will DSM-XCIII--diagnosing it in figures in the past in inherently suspect.

Why could a Messianic movement take root then? Scholem finds the main factor to be the diffusion of Kabbalistic thinking going back to Isaac Luria (1534-1572). But also the Jewish massacres by Khmelnitsky in Poland and the Ukraine take place in 1648. As for the interest in Christian circles, there was a feeling that 1666 should be an important year: the number of the beast plus 1000.

Once in Constantinople, Sevi was arrested by the Ottomans. They were relatively tolerant of Judaism, but weren't prepared to tolerate a figure who was going to lead an army of invincible Jews and put the crown of the world on his head. (If, in fact, Sevi intended these things. Probably not.) He seems to have impressed the vizier and then later the sultan, but still in September of 1666, he was told to convert to Islam or die. Sevi converted. 

Surprisingly this wasn't the end of the movement. A number of Sevi's followers also converted over the years. Sevi was ordered to leave Constantinople, first to Edirne, which was at times the Ottoman capital, then later to Albania. Sevi led his converts, the Dönmeh, also referred to as the Ma'min, or the Faithful, in a new syncretistic religious community influenced both by Judaism and Islam, particularly that of the mystical Sufi orders. Scholem's book ends in 1676, when Sevi dies, but the community survived, centred in Salonica until the Greek-Turkish population transfers of 1922. The Dönmeh were often thought to be hidden Jews, but they were Muslim enough for the time, so they had to go. The story of the Dönmeh would be fascinating, and Scholem had intended to write a book, but didn't live to do so. They do feature in Mark Mazower's book (recommended!) on Salonica, though.

I read the second edition of the book, which came out in 1973, translated by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky. Scholem says in the introduction that he had access to more material by then, and that it superseded the earlier edition.

And why did I read this book now? Well. Did I really need to read one nine-hundred page book about a failed Jewish messiah in order to prepare for another nine-hundred page book about a failed Jewish messiah? Oh, probably not, but that's what I did:

These were all August reads for me, and it's been a while now. Still I wanted to review these because they knock off a couple of challenge items. Light in August was on my original Classics Club list and works for this year's Back to the Classics challenge.

And the other two count for this year's European Reading Challenge:

The Strudlhof Steps is clearly an Austrian book, though it does have scenes in Norway and Switzerland. Sabbatai Sevi spent most of his life in what is now Turkey, but I've already done Turkey this year. Sabbatai Sevi the book ranges across Europe. Still we'll stick Sevi himself, who spent the last eight years of his life in Ulcinje, which was in the Ottoman province of Albania at the time, but is now in Montenegro.

Short reviews, did I say? Well, short-ish...

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Charles King's The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus

 "The mountains are full of free and ungoverned people..."

-Gen. Alexei Petrovich Ermolov

But there were various attempts to clamp down on that, including by a certain Russian General Ermolov in the early 1800s...

Continuing my reading of Charles King's back catalog and my voyage this year round the Black Sea, I got his book of 2008 from the library. It's another fascinating study.

It's a meeting place of continents and languages. In Arabic it's referred to as djabal al-alsun, the mountain of languages, and it's home to a half-dozen (or more, depending how you count) language families, of which Indo-Europenan is only one. Turkic and Semitic languages are widely spoken. And there are three language families indigenous to the area as well: Kartvelian (the best known of which is Georgian); Caspian (including the Chechen language) and Northwest Caucasian.

It's also the meeting ground of empires. The frontiers of Persia, of the Ottomans, and of Russian collide in the Caucasus. King's book really only starts in the 1700s, as Peter the Great tries to expand Russia into the area. By then the Persians and even the Ottomans are weakening, and it's mostly a story of Russian expansion. But 'imperialists are congenital optimists' as King says, and it wasn't an easy progress as the locals attempted to remain a 'free and ungoverned people', at least ungoverned by outsiders.

One of the themes King emphasizes is how the region functioned in Russian identity. Before Siberia it was their wild west, and is important in their writing to Pushkin (his The Captive of the Caucasus provides King his title), to Lermontov (A Hero of Our Time), and to Tolstoy (Hadji Murad, among other works). Pushkin's view remains fairly romanticized, according to King; Lermontov and Tolstoy are more realistic.

It's not just the Russians who have fanciful images of the Caucasus. The Russian tsar sends German scholars into the Caucasus; one of the questions he wants to know are the Circassian women as beautiful as they're reported to be. But so does Woodrow Wilson (!) want to know that. In the 19th century Circassian beauties were a regular feature of P. T. Barnum's (and others') expositions. (Though King says they were generally Irish girls with their hair frizzed.)

King tells the story of Jan Saremba, a Pole who fought against the Russians in his homeland. After the fall of Warsaw, he was drafted into the Russian army and sent to fight in the Caucasus. He and a group of Poles decided to cross over into the Ottoman lines, and join up to fight Russians instead of serving them, but the Ottomans sell them into slavery instead. Saremba eventually escapes, takes refuge with the French consul in Trebizond, marries a Greek woman, and later leads tours of the Caucasus, and it's through that he becomes known. But on other occasions Russians complain the forces ranged against them shout their battle cries in Polish. 

In the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution and World War I, the Caucasus is united into TransCaucasian State, but it breaks down pretty quickly into three countries Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. All three of those countries are gone by 1922, reabsorbed into the Soviet Union, only to reemerge after the collapse of the USSR. King ends with the wars that follow; the Second Chechen War still going on as he was writing the book, though by then winding down.

All in all, a pretty fascinating read and a good introduction to the area.

There are four countries from Gilion's list that occupy the Caucasus today: Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. (There are some other places that claim to be countries, but aren't widely recognized.) Azerbaijan seems to me the one I'm least likely to read another book from, and it's a country I've never covered in my years of doing the European Reading Challenge. So today's visit is to Azerbaijan!

I read the book in a place I couldn't obsess over the news:

If I was sitting in that chair and looking out...