About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 29 November 2015

"The Wild Boys" by William Burroughs

Burroughs, heir to a fortune, dropped out, became a junky, killed his wife and wrote gay erotica. His books are so much of their time. The Wild Boys was written in 1969.

Burroughs wrote a number of his books using a 'cut up' technique: narratives were written, cut and pasted in a different order. This makes it very difficult to talk of a plot. The Wild Boys is about a group of boys near Marrakech who go feral and roam the desert (and. it seems. the Mexican jungle) killing and having ritualistic gay sex. The story mixes in science fiction and supernatural elements: one gay ritual involves boys creating 'zimbus' during gay copulation enabling the tribe to procreate without women.

In the late sixties these books must have seemed daring and avant garde. But now it is relevant to ask whether they are actually any good.

The book starts with a description of a derelict Mexican slum. It appears in the first paragraph and is then forgotten. The first paragraph has a fly-by drone taking photos; the second concentrates on adjectives of dereliction such as choked, rusty, cracked and broken; the third introduces colours. There are lots of colours in this book; they are almost his favourite adjectives. Yet his palette isn't terribly extensive and the same colours are repeated again and again.

Repetition is also a feature of the book and one wonders whether the cut-up style might have been invented to space out the repetitions and avoid them seeming to become burdensome. Certainly, fragments from the erotic couplings are repeated again and again; Burroughs seems to see this as a sort of peep show arcade as opposed to the blue movies which are given rather more story and rather less sex.

After some effort, we arrive at the meat of the novel. A number of named characters, all young boys, including prep-school Aubrey and all-Americans Johnny and his cousin Mark, and poor Mexican Kiki have anal sex. These episodes seem to be retellings of first times. Rather cutely, Burroughs takes refuge in Spanish when it comes to some of the more explicit moments: vuelvete y aganchete means turn around and get down, quiero follarte means I want to fuck, buen lugar para follar means good place to fuck etc. Intrioguingly this, the pornographic heart of the novel, straddles (I think that might be an apposite word) the dead centre of the book.

So far, so undistinguished. Burroughs has produced a shocking book which aspires to literary greatness partly because of its subject matter but also because of its disdain for many of the literary conventions. Does that make it good or merely self-regarding?

The only reason Burroughs gets away with it at all is because of his ability to create vivid images. The whole wild boys adventure is a fantasy and others can go further down this road. But there are some phrases which stand out:

  • "A jungle seen through a faceted eye that looks simultaneously in any direction up or down"
  • "Occasionally the overseer adjusts a slow worker with his eyes."
  • "trailing white-hot wires like a jellyfish"
  • "Everyone has reversible linings and concealed pockets"
  • "the walking dead catatonic from hunger ... the legs of this river of flesh ... burrows of walking flesh."

In the end, though, it is just another sixties work of art promising a revolution that was never delivered.

Allegedly, David Bowie was influenced by the book when creating his androgynous image (and possibly also by the paragraph which talks of two astronauts, gay lovers, who orbit in a Gemini space capsule which then loses radio contact; this seems a possible source for Major Thom).

I have now also read by Burroughs:

November 2015; 184 pages

Friday, 27 November 2015

"The Warden" by Anthony Trollope

This is the first of the Chronicles of Barsetshire, Trollope's clerical life series.

Septimus Harding, a meek and mild clergyman whose principle interest is early choral music and playing the cello, has been awarded wardenship of an almshouse, a sinecure worth £800 per annum. But this is so vastly more than the allowances of the old people who are the intended recipients of the almshouse charity that it is challenged by local radical doctor John Bold (who wants to marry Warden Harding's daughter) both legally and through the Thunderer national newspaper.

It is one quarter of the length of any one of Trollope's political books which make it a neat enough novella. If you can forgive the repeated intrusion of the author's own voice in telling his story, and the use of comic names, this book does enjoy the character of the Archdeacon, who is the Bishop's son and Mr Harding's son in law, who bullies his father (whom he calls 'My Lord') and his father-in-law; they are both rather comically afraid of him. But he is almost the only nuanced character. Mr Harding is depressingly goody-goody, the Bishop almost vacuous in his ineffectiveness, and the journalist a stock baddy. The women are rather better being more conflicted but the outcome is that you never feel that Mr Harding will not resolve his dilemma honourably, the only real question being how much he will be made to suffer the consequences.

And in a story about the conscience of a man it is sad to see that the noble and honourable Warden Harding hardly considers poor people. For him, religion is about singing in church. He is more than happy to take the income as awarded to him. And, most damningly, when he considers resigning the wardenship he thinks he can move to his country parish which at the moment is administered by his curate who supports a family on the income from the parish. If Harding moves, the curate will lose his job. This does not worry Harding in the slightest.

A small book with a decent plot and some interesting details about clerical life in the early Victorian era.

November 2015; 169 pages

I have also read and reviewed Trollope's political Palliser novels:

  • Can You Forgive Her? in which Alice Vavasor oscillates backwards and forwards between goody two shoes John Grey and her wicked cousin George Vavasor. This book is blessed with a humorous counterpoint as rich and merry widow Mrs Greenow oscillates between rich farmer Mr Cheesacre who repeatedly tells everyone how well to do he is and penniless chancer and fraud 'Captain' Bellfield; the funniest of the palliser books
  • Phineas Finn, Irish charmer Phineas enters parliament and seeks marriage with Violet Effingham (he fights a duel over her) or Laura Standish (who rejects him for dour Scot Mr Kennedy whom Phineas subsequently saves from muggers) whilst being pursued by a poor Irish girl from home. Phineas suffers political tribulations but the best part of the book is the sadness over Laura's marriage.
  • The Eustace Diamonds, The wonderful minx Lizzie Eustace, who has married a dying man for diamonds and is determined to keep them despite legal attempts to win them back for the family, is Trollope's best character. She lies, she manipulates and she breaks the law to retian what she has convinced herself is rightfully hers.
  • Phineas Redux  Phineas returns, is again embroiled in woman trouble, and stands trial for murder. This should be the most exciting of the Trollope books were it not for the fact that Trollope writres his own spoilers.
  • The Prime Minister Plantagent Palliser, Duke of Omnium, becomes Prime Minister of a coalition but he is too concerned for his honour to be a successful leader and he struggles on the rack of his own conscience
  • The Duke's Children in which Plantagenet's children do their best to make unsuitable matches. The Duke finds it hard to apply his own liberal principles to his children.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

"Sapiens" by Yuval Noah Harari

The real beauty of this book is that it is written in very clear, very accessible, very simple language. It explains ideas and concepts. And it covers 2 million years of human history in 466 pages.

The inevitable downside of all this simplicity and brevity and clarity is that it admits no uncertainty. There is no suggestion that the ideas it presents may be controversial, that even the facts it offers are interpretations of evidence about which there are often fundamental disagreements.

For example, on page 55 he states that there is "some evidence that the size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging." (p 55) Fair enough. But he then builds speculation on this evidence as if it were a fact. Human brains have decreased in size because agriculture opened up "niches for imbeciles".  One of his great themes is how well adapted humans were to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and how much more miserable agricultural peasants were than their forebears.

He defines religion as "a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order" (p 255) and thus he claims that Buddhism and Marxism are religions even though they deny the supernatural. I would classify religions as systems of beliefs that accept the supernatural and thus I would deny that either Buddhism or Marxism are religions. He doesn't argue the point, he just states his definition and that is that. Later he says "if it makes you feel better, you are free to go on calling Communism an ideology rather than a religion" but that just made me feel patronised! Presumably science, in that the Laws of Nature are 'superhuman' and that  a scientist is likely to have a world view with human norms and values embedded into it (such as Occam's razor) qualifies as a religion. Hmm.

Another example: On page 266 he states that "one of the distinguishing marks of history as an academic discipline" is that "historians tend to be sceptical of ... deterministic theories." Yet this comes at the end of several pages when he is arguing that empires inevitably grow.

I mean, I like the idea that: "Capitalism's belief in perpetual economic growth flies in the face of nearly everything we know about the universe. ... The human economy has nevertheless managed to keep on growing throughout the modern era, thanks only to the fact that scientists come up with another discovery or gadget every few years." (p 352) But is this a fact or Mr Harari's opinion?

I have grumbled enough. Such a wide sweep over world history in such an accessible book inevitably requires short cuts. On balance, Sapiens is a delightful book with lots of brilliant insights. I agree with most of his claims above. I also thoroughly enjoyed the insights below.

  • Chimpanzees have a hierarchical structure in which less dominant grunt and grovel to the alpha male (p 28)
  • The Maoris only reached New Zealand 800 years ago; almost immediately the islands' mega-fauna became extinct. (p 74): We are not the first generation to drive other species out of existence.
  • Wheat "domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than the other way around". (p 90)
  • "From a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural." (p 164) Some things are forbidden in our culture but they are not 'unnatural'
  • "Every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions." (p 182) For example, the values of equality and freedom inevitably contradict one another (p 183) "Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values , it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture." (p 184) Eg God and the devil. Logically, monotheists cannot admit a dualistic belief such as the devil (p 247)
  • History is a "level two chaotic system" (p 267) because predictions made by historians are likely to affect the outcome (the weather is a level 1 chaotic system because weather forecasts won't affect what the weather is ,unless we start seeding clouds etc). He suggests that this is likely to make historians "prophets who predict things that don't happen" (p 268)!
  • Cultures are "a kind of mental infection or parasite, with humans as its unwitting host", carried by memes (p 270)
  • "Ardent capitalists tend to argue that capital should be free to influence politics, but politics should not be allowed to influence capital." (p 367)
  • "It is chilling to contemplate what might have happened if Gorbachev had behaved ... like the French in Algeria." (p 414)
  • Many of us act like a man on the beach trying to welcome good waves and push back bad waves. Buddhists suggest we should behave like a man who "sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please." (p 442)

Read this book. It is beautifully written and full of important ideas (but remember that they are ideas, not holy writ). November 2015; 466 pages

Sunday, 15 November 2015

"1606 William Shakespeare and the year of Lear" by James Shapiro

What is brilliant about this Shakespearian scholar (James Shapiro) is the way he roots each play in its context.

King Lear was borrowed from an older play called King Leir which was printed in 1605. With numerous quotes and including the fact that in Shakespeare's first version Lear is spelt Leir several times, Shapiro demonstrates how Shakespeare rooted his play in the old one. But then he goes on to demonstrate Shakespeare's brilliance in the improvements that he made,for example using a line that mentions nothing to make nothing a motif for the entire play: "Nothing comes of nothing."

Intriguing stylistic aspects of Lear include:

  • the remarkable part of the Fool: "a role unlike any Shakespeare ever wrote before or after - witty, pathetic, lonely, angry and prophetic"'; 
  • the subplot of Edmund and Edgar and the Earl of Gloucester which "would be the first and last time that Shakespeare ever included a parallel plot of subplot in one of his tragedies;
  • the  "highly experimental" passage at the end of Act Three when Lear's madness "shifts in and out of lucidity, from prose to blank verse to snatches of song" and which is "closer to Samuel Beckett than to Jacobean drama";
  • the use of not one but "two powerful recognition scenes: the first between Lear and Cordelia, the second, soon after, where the two plots converge, between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester";
  • and the biting irony: "We hear, time and again, a version of 'The Gods are just'. But the Gods are not just; as the blinded Gloucester has learned, 'As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods; / They kill us for their sport."
And then we discover that the device of the mysteriously delivered letter by which Edmund throws suspicion on his half-brother Edgar by letting his father Gloucester read it was mirrored a few days after it was written when a mysterious letter was delivered which contained sketchy details of the Gunpowder Plot; the 'recipients' of the letter similarly allowed King James to divine its meaning. Suddenly we are into the most famous conspiracy of English history: Guy Fawkes and his fellows. And Shakespeare is in the thick of it, living in both London and in Stratford-on-Avon, very near where the conspirators are massing (Ben Jonson, fellow playwright, was also involved, having recently dined with the conspirators at a London pub). Can a history book get any more exciting?

The Gunpowder plot was close to the London theatre scene. On 9th October 1605, less than a month before the discovery of Guy Fawkes, Ben Jonson, playwright, Shakespeare's friend and a Catholic, dined on the Strand in the company of conspirators Robert Catesby (ringleader), Francis Tresham (most likely author of the mysterious letter) and Thomas Winter.

And of course a major theme of Macbeth is equivocation ('Fair is foul and foul is fair') which was a controversial talking point in the immediate aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot. 

Macbeth also has interesting stylistic points: 
  • King Duncan is killed offstage ... and so is Macbeth!
  • In the 'Hell's Porter' scene "Shakespeare offers us, in the most down-to-earth scene in the play, the closest thing to an evocation of hell itself." It is also a comic interlude (perhaps the only moment of humour in this dark play) which comes immediately after Duncan's murder, the point of no return.

Shapiro discusses the discovery of an old beam, scorched and marked with mesh design based on a pentagram. The symbols are towards the fireplace because "fireplaces and chimneys were thought to be rapid transit systems favoured by hellish spirits." And so to Harry Potter?

And finally, Shapiro deals with Antony and Cleopatra. In this play:
  • Shakespeare virtually abandons the soliloquy
  • He "never lets us see Antony and Cleopatra alone together on stage"
  • "His account of Cleopatra is suffused with paradox and hyperbole: ... 'she makes hungry Where she most satisfies'" (A2 S2) (Shapiro 2015 1606 William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear; p 280).

In Titus Andronicus there is a mad scene in which Marcus Andronicus kills a fly and Titus first reprimands him and then attacks the dead body of the fly; this scene was introduced between the Quarto version of the play and the First Folio and dhows that Shakespeare revised his works. I wonder whether the famous 'Fly' episode of Breaking Bad when Walter White spends a whole episode trying to kill a fly that might conceivably contaminate his meth cook (ironic since Crystal Meth is not known for customers who worry about the possible harm it may do).

The genius of Shapiro is that he lets us see how the plays were constructed by an ordinary man who was writing in the context of his company, the limitations of his theatre, and the context of events happening at the time. He tells us of the sources for the plays, the dates when they were published, the extensive borrowings Shakespeare made and the changes he made, and why he made them.

This book is a brilliant sequel to Shapiro's equally fabulous 1599 and the wonderful Contested Will. Read them all!

Also read Charles Nicholls The Lodger and the unputdownable Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World as well as Shakespeare and Co by Stanley Wells.

November 2015; 359 pages

Friday, 13 November 2015

"The Great Pursuit" by Tom Sharpe

A literary agency receives a manuscript from a novelist determined to remain anonymous and persuade one of their unpublishable authors to pretend they wrote it for the US book tour. With arson, serpentine Southern services and sex and skulduggery in Oxford, this is a classic farce.

There are some brilliant lines: the fat agent Frensic stuffs himself with food because his "appearance tended to limit his sensual pleasures to putting things into himself rather than into other people." (p3) And near the end, when someone suggests that the epithet 'late' shouldn't be applied to a man who is still alive the riposte is that it scarcely seems suitable for one who is dead. But it was originally published in 1977 and some if the stereotypes, such as the gay publisher with a boyfriend called Sven, seem predictable and laboured.

November 2015; 380 pages

Thursday, 12 November 2015

"Measure for Measure" by William Shakespeare

A playscript is a first for this blog but I saw this production at the Young Vic and was inspired to read the play.

This is a difficult play to review. It has the  potential to be a classic but there are moments when Shakespeare seems to take his eye off the ball.

Dollimore (1998, 113) describes M4M as a play in which "fundamental political instabilities are being focused in a witch-hunt against promiscuity".
Act One
At the start the Duke needs to leave Vienna in a hurry. Not clear why. The suggestion is that he has taken his eye off the ball and that Vienna has become a hotbed of sin and promiscuity. (I personally think that 'the Duke' is God and Shakespeare is writing a parable about what might happen if God, having allowed the world to fall into sin, disappeared and left us to it). So he appoints Angelo, a well known puritan (though the Duke knows he is a bit of a hypocrite because he has sneaked himself out of a marriage contract and |Angelo himself is uncertain whether he is ready for the challenge) to be his deputy. Or to take the fall. Because Angelo's task is to reform immoral Vienna. He is to brink back morals. And this is obviously going to win him no friends. The Duke is 'setting him up'.

Almost the first thing that Angelo does is to have Claudio arrested for getting his girlfriend pregnant. This is a crime even though they are getting married. Claudio is sentenced to death. Claudio asks his amoral friend Lucio to find his (Claudio's) sister Isabella and ask her to go to Angelo to beg for his life.

Now we discover why the Duke made his hasty exit. He recognises that for 14 years "we have let slip" the "strict statutes and most biting laws" of Vienna. It is interesting that he uses the royal plural instead of the singular personal pronoun he has been using so far; is this his attempt to deflect responsibility? The Duke recognises that the laws are therefore no longer respected
"And Liberty plucks Justice by the nose, 
The baby beats the nurse.

Friar Thomas protests that it was up to the Duke to "unloose this tied-up justice". The Duke more or less admits that he is setting up Angelo to take the blame for the fierce imposition of old laws so that he, the Duke, will not appear tyrannical. But the Duke is going to disguise himself and lurk around Vienna to see what happens.
Act Two
In a courtroom scene Angelo resists calls for mercy to be shown to Claudio. Then we have a comedy scene in which pimp Pompey is tried for lewdness but, arguing that all young people fornicate and if this morality law is applied it will depopulate Vienna ("Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?”) he gets off with a warning.

The next scene is the crux of the play. Isabella comes to plead for Claudio even though
"There is a vice that most I do abhor, 
And most desire should meet the blow of justice; 
For which I would not plead, but that I must". 

She begins to beg for Claudio's mercy. She accepts that Claudio has done wrong but insists that justice can be tempered with mercy. She argues that had the roles been reversed Claudio would have let Angelo off:
"If he had been as you, and you as he, 
You would have slipp'd like him, but he like you 
Would not have been so stern.

Angelo takes refuge in the law:
"It is the law, not I, condemn your brother. 
Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son, 
It should be thus with him"

Isabella says that it is good to be strong but the strong should be kind to the weak:
"Oh, it is excellent 
To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous 
To use it like a giant."

We can't judge others by our own standards: "We cannot weigh our brother with ourself."

Angelo admits to himself that she is sensible but more than that, she is sensuous:
"She speaks, and 'tis such sense 
That my sense breeds with it.

She goes, saying, as she goes "Heaven keep your honour safe." This is of course a customary phrase in which the 'honour' is the person (Your Honour) and the 'safe' refers to their physical well-being. But it has the double meaning of Angelo's honour and Angelo realises this by replying: "Amen. For I am that way going to temptation" And then Isabella checks what time she should return and says goodbye again: "Save your honour." And again Angelo recognises the double meaning, saying after Isabella has gone "From thee: even from thy virtue."

And when she's finally gone his soliloquy shows that he wants to corrupt the innocent maid:
"What's this, what's this? Is this her fault or mine?
The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?
Not she: nor doth she tempt: but it is I
That, lying by the violet in the sun,
Do as the carrion does, not as the flower,
Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it be
That modesty may more betray our sense
Than woman's lightness? Having waste ground enough,
Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary
And pitch our evils there? O, fie, fie, fie!
What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully for those things
That make her good? O, let her brother live!
Thieves for their robbery have authority
When judges steal themselves. What, do I love her,
That I desire to hear her speak again,
And feast upon her eyes? What is't I dream on?
O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue: never could the strumpet,
With all her double vigour, art and nature,
Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite. Even till now,
When men were fond, I smiled and wonder'd how."
Isabella returns. Angelo is torn between the "Heaven in my mouth" and  "in my heart the strong and swelling evil." (Swelling as in erection?)

She comes in and her first words underline Angelo's dilemma. "I am come to know your pleasure," she says, and then "Heaven keep your honour."

He offers her Claudio's freedom if she will have sex with him.
"Give up your body to such sweet uncleanness 
As she [Julietta] that he [Claudio] hath stain'd?

She says that she would "rather give my body than my soul"; she doesn't quite realise what he is proposing; when she does she will realise that he is asking for her soul as well because what he proposes is a mortal sin. But he argues that "compell'd sins",sins that you are forced to do, don't really count. Then he argues that in the case of saving Claudio's life there would be "a charity in sin"; not only would it not count as a sin but it would even be a good thing. This is the 'end justifies the means' argument: is it right to do a bad thing to prevent something worse?

For a while she doesn't understand him. At last the penny drops. She says that he has "little honour" and threatens that is he doesn't immediately pardon Claudio she will denounce him:
I'll tell the world aloud 
What man thou art."

"Who will believe thee, Isabel?" he asks and cites his good, not to mention puritanical, reputation and his position.
Here is her choice (and it is like the choice the Phantom offers Christine in the final scene of Phantom of the Opera): Isabella must have sex with him to redeem (Shakespeare keeps using this word, with its connotation of the forgiveness of sin rather than simply the quashing of a criminal sentence) Claudio or else not only will Claudio die but Angelo will ensure he suffers "lingering" torture. 

Act Three

The Duke, disguised as a Friar,  watches as Isabella visits Claudio in prison. At the start Claudio is resigned to his fate:
"If I must die I will encounter darkness as a bride 
And hug it in mine arms.
This is ironic given the nature of the crime that he has committed.

Then Isabella tells him that Angelo, outwardly so saintly, has said he will free Claudio in return for Isabella's virginity. Claudio's response is:
First, shock: "It cannot be!"
Second, refusal: "Thou shalt not do it."

But now he might escape, he becomes noticeably less enthusiastic about the prospect of death. When Isabella says that she would sacrifice her life for his he says "Thanks, dear Isabel." Then when she tells him to be ready for death he just says a very dry: "Yes."

And then he starts trying to convince her that the sacrifice of her virginity would not really be a sin. He starts to plead with her: "Oh Isabel!" and then he begs "Death is a fearful thing." and when she replies "And shamed life a hateful." he goes off into a long speech in which he paints a vision of himself dead, rotting in the grave and suffering the torments of hell. There is a lot of chaos in this part: "fiery floods" and "viewless winds" and "restless violence" and "howling". 

This is a brilliant reversal for Claudio. 

The Duke comes out of hiding and the poetry turns to prose. The Duke now proposes a trick. There is a lady called Mariana who was betrothed to Angelo but when her dowry failed to materialise she was dumped; Angelo falsely claimed she had been unfaithful. So the Duke always knew Angelo was a rotter, which makes the Duke's motivations even more mysterious. The Duke now suggests that Isabella shall agree to Angelo's proposals but that when Angelo comes to her bed, Mariana shall take Isabella's place (this is the famous 'bed-trick'). Isabella agrees and goes off to find Angelo.

Now we have more comedy in which Lucio suggests to the Friar that the Duke is pretending to be a beggar; this is uncomfortably close to the truth but Lucio doesn't spot the Duke in disguise and his loose tongue allows him to say things that will get him into trouble later on. First he tells the Duke that Angelo is inhuman, "not made by man and woman" and "his urine is congealed ice"; it is ruthless to hang Claudio "for the rebellion of a codpiece". Lucio suggests that the Duke would have been more merciful because he "knew the sport"; Lucio now makes more and more outrageous claims that the Duke paid women for sex, that he would get drunk, that he was superficial and ignorant and that he would "eat mutton on Fridays" (which is wrong for two reasons, first because Lucio is using 'mutton' as he has previously used 'beef', as a synonym for whores and second because the religious rule was that you should only eat fish on Fridays. The Duke (disguised as Friar) protests against these calumnies against the Duke but Lucio insists that he knows the Duke well. This bit is an ironic counterpoint to the case of Angelo: Angelo is a wicked man cloaked in virtue and the Duke (in his own eyes at least) is a good man being clothed in a dirty cloak.

Act Four
I don't like this scene. There are two missed dramatic opportunities, one papered over with an irrelevancy. Shakespeare marking time?

First the Duke talks to Isabella who tells him she has told Angelo she has accepted his terms and will sleep with him. Missed opportunity #1: what a chance to show Angelo 'persuading' a 'reluctant' Isabella.

Now Isabella goes off with Mariana (Angelo's wannabe fiancee) and off-stage persuades her to take part in this duplicity: she will pretend to be Isabella and let Angelo have sex with her. Sounds like a tricky sell but Marian is convinced (off stage) in the time it takes the on-stage Duke to deliver six lines of dialogue!!! Another opportunity of a difficult debate lost.

The Duke, as Friar, blesses the enterprise: "To bring you thus together 'tis no sin" even though Angelo and Mariana will be committing exactly the same crime as Claudio committed with Julietta.

Angelo has now decided that Claudio is to die despite Isabella's surrender. This is a major spanner in the works and it leads the Duke to propose the 'head trick' (having already arranged the 'bed trick', this Duke disguised as a Friar who eavesdrops and hides is obviously a master of deceit and trickery).

There is another prisoner, Barnardine, to execute. The Provost should respite Claudio for four days and send Angelo Barnardine's head in his place. The Provost protests that Angelo has seen both prisoners and will not be fooled by the substitution; the Duke claims that "death's a great disguiser" and suggests some cosmetic changes will do the trick. But the provost has sworn an oath to do his job. The Duke responds that the oath was sworn to the Duke and shows the Provost a signet ring and a letter, both from the Duke. The Duke is coming back to Vienna, although Angelo has received contrary letters.

This is a really weak piece of writing. The Provost seems to need little or no convincing to attempt this fraud on Angelo. Given Angelo's already fearsome reputation and the unlikelihood of the deception being successful, I cannot imagine why the Provost would agree to it. There's nothing in it for him. How could a mysterious Friar, who seems to have the run of the prison anyway, be able to arrange such a thing?

Barnardine is not ready to be executed. Fortunately, however, the Provost has the head of another prisoner, who dies of fever, who looks rather more like Claudio. The disguised Duke and the provost agree to send this head to Angelo. This is a bit silly. Why didn't Shakespeare just use this fortuitous head instead of bringing Barnardine in to the plot?

Isabella comes to see if her brother has been pardoned. For the purposes of the plot she mustn't find this out until the end, so the Duke as Friar decides that she should not be told; that will be good for her soul. We have already established that the Duke is a cruel, manipulative trickster; this makes him even worse.

So the Duke as Friar tells Isabella that Claudio's head is off and sent to Angelo. Understandably, Isabella is distraught. The Duke persuades her to be directed by him so that she can have her revenge on Angelo. Meekly, she agrees. Really? Really???

Angelo and Escalus puzzle over contradictory letters detailing the Duke's return (the Duke is now manipulating by epistle!). Angelo asks "why should we proclaim ... that if any crave redress of injustice they should exhibit their petitions in the street" and Escalus tells him that the Duke's letter says that it is to clear A & E of any allegations. But guilty Angelo is not convinced. Once Escalus has gone he soliloquises, wondering whether Isabella will denounce him. He doesn't think she'll dare but... He killed her brother. "He should have liv'd," he thinks, except he might have taken revenge for Angelo dishonouring his sister. "Would yet he had liv'd," he thinks again. Once you have started on the path of sin, he muses, self-pityingly, "Nothing goes right."

Act Five
This is the culmination, the catharsis, and there is just a single, long scene.

The Duke returns and is met by Escalus and Angelo. He tells Angelo
"Oh, your desert speaks loud, and I should wrong it 
To lock it in the wards of covert bosom 
When it deserves with characters of brass 
A forted residence 'gainst the tooth of time 
And razure of oblivion

Of course Angelo is supposed to think that the Duke thinks he is an honourable man but the audience know better. And you might think that Angelo himself might start to wonder whether the Duke is laying it on thick with a trowel on purpose. Does he really mean all that?

Then Isabella arrives, demanding "justice, justice, justice, justice"; using repetition for emphasis. The Duke tells her to address herself to Angelo but she replies: "You bid me seek redemption of the devil". Angelo chips in, suggesting she is mad because her brother was "Cut of by course of justice" and she echoes him: "By course of justice!" which is now the seventh use of the word justice in 35 lines. Angelo says that "she will speak most bitterly and strange" and again she echoes him: "Most strange, but yet most truly will I speak." Then she launches into a jewel of a speech:
"That Angelo's forsworn, is it not strange? 
That Angelo's a murderer, is't not strange? 
That Angelo is an adulterous thief, 
An hypocrite, a virgin-violator, 
Is it not strange, and strange?

Then the Duke echoes her "Nay, it is ten times strange." and she echoes him so that we have the words true, or truth, and strange and justice echoing around the auditorium.

Isabella now tries to tell her story but is interrupted by Lucio, to the irritation of the Duke. This provides a breathing space from the rhetoric. She very briefly recaps what the audience already knows (but we have to assume the Duke is pretending not to) and then she gets to her complaint: Angelo demanded her virginity as a price for her brother's pardon, she yielded, he took her and then had her brother executed anyway.

The Duke professes not to believe a word of it and uses an image that has already been used:
"If he had so offended, 
He would have weigh'd thy brother with himself 
And not have cut him off."

Do as you would be done by. Measure for measure.

The Duke uses the tactic I have known other weak leaders use: blame the whistle-blower:
"say by whose advice 
Thou cam'st here to complain". 

And she replies "And is this all?" and "I, thus wronged, hence unbelieved go." At which point this game-playing Duke suggests she should be put into prison for making false accusations.

She tells him that it was Friar Lodowick (the disguised Duke) who had told her these things at which point the irrepressible Lucio puts his oar in yet again and tells the Duke that this Friar has been slandering the Duke (when of course it was Lucio who slandered the Duke to the Friar).

Friar Peter now gets involved, stirring the pot by claiming that he believes Angelo to be innocent and the Friar Lodowick would never slander the Duke. And then Isabella leaves and Mariana enters and the Duke tells Angelo that he, Angelo, shall judge this case.

Mariana starts with riddles: she is neither maid nor wife nor widow (nor 'punk', prostitute, as Lucio suggests, as eager as ever to intervene). Mariana tells the Duke:
"I have known my husband, yet my husband 
Knows not that he ever knew me." 

But after yet another intervention from Lucio, the fool, Mariana is unveiled and accuses Angelo of both reneging on the betrothal and of sleeping with her, thinking he was sleeping with Isabella. Angelo claims that he broke off the betrothal partly because the bride-price was not met but also because Mariana's "reputation was disvalued": she had been accused of immorality. She denies this at which Angelo insists that there is a plot against him and demands that he be given the power to investigate it. This is breathtaking stuff. But the Duke agrees to it, sets up the tribunal, suggests they get Friar Lodowick to testify, and exits. Escalus asks Lucio to stay on to testify against the Friar, whom Lucio has already claimed is a dishonest rogue.

The Duke, disguised as Friar, enters. He points out that the women have little chance of redress if they have to appeal to a judge who is also the accused. Vienna, says the Duke, is flawed:
"I have seen corruption boil and bubble 
Till it o'errun the stew"; 
a play on the word for brothel. Lucio, again!, gets involved and accuses the Friar of the things that Lucio actually said to the Duke. When the Duke is about to be hauled to the prison, Lucio pulls his hood off and discovers ...

Angelo realises that the game is up, confesses and asks for the death penalty. First, the Duke makes him marry Mariana.

The evil bastard of a Duke still pretends to Isabella that Claudio has been executed. He tells her that she must forgive Angelo for his attempted violation of her, for Mariana's sake. But Angelo is condemned to die for executing Claudio (which, ironically, was the just sentence of the law, so Angelo is to be put to death for dealing justice but not for his treacherous bargaining with Isabella): eye for an eye, says the Duke, "Like doth quit like and measure still for measure."

Now Mariana kneels before the Duke to beg for Angelo's life. This failing, she asks Isabella to beg the Duke for her. Isabella is being asked to beg for the life of the man who (she thinks) killed her brother.

Will she? Won't she? She kneels, pointing out that her brother was, after all, justly condemned: "he did the thing for which he died" and Angelo, in fact, didn't violate her even though he wanted to:
"Thoughts are no subjects, 
Intents but merely thoughts."

Brusquely, in three words, the Duke denies the pleading of the two women.

Then the Provost unmasks a "muffled man" standing on the stage and we discover it is Claudio.

At which point the Duke pardons Claudio, asks Isabella for her hand in marriage, and pardons Angelo. All's well? Not so. The Duke still has one axe to grind.

Lucio has slandered the Duke. He is sentenced to be whipped and hanged; after all, he is the wicked one! But his sentence is redeemed if he will marry the prostitute he got with child. The utterly irrepressible Lucio still protests: "Marrying a punk, my Lord, is pressing to death, whipping and hanging!"

The Duke then asks Isabella again to marry him but the curtain comes down before she can answer.

But if he is god then by marrying him she will be doing what she intended right at the start of the play.

Charles Nicholls in The Lodger suggests Act 2 Scene 2 (137-8) "Go to your bosom,/Knock there, and ask thy heart what it doth know" echoes the motto of the essayist Michel de Montaigne: "What do I know?"; this predates the scepticism of Descartes; Montaigne's essays were designed to test ('assay') assumptions

November 2015; 114 pages

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include:

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

"The Judgement of Paris" by Ross King

This is a book about Meissonier, the highest paid artist in the world in the 1860s, whom almost no one knows now, and Manet, who sold almost nothing in the 1860s but is now regarded as the father of Impressionism. It is set in Paris between the years 1863 and 1873 and most of the action revolves around the attempts by the Parisian artists to exhibit their work in the annual Salon, the equivalent of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London.

Whch makes the book sound dry as dust. But the genius of Ross King is that he can take this tiny little bit of history and weave a story which incorporates so many other things. Because this was the Paris of the Second Empire when Emperor Napoleon III ruled over a city which had been transformed by the Boulevards of Baron Haussman; the Paris of cafes, artists, prostitutes (one in six Parisians was a sex worker) and the demi-monde; the Paris of the Universal Exposition, of glamour and glitter and industrialisation; the Paris of the secret police, of censorship, of political repression. And in 1871 it was the Paris which was beseiged as France lost the Franco-Prussian war and the Emperor fled; it was the Paris of the Commune.

This was a fascinating time, a revolutionary time, and art underwent its own revolution. But, as always, the opponents in the revolution were so much more interesting than their stereotypes.

Meissonier painted tiny oil paintings of incredible and exacting detail. He had made his fortune with pictures of Bonhommes (a bit like the Laughing Cavalier) but he longed to do more heroic work. He toiled for years over (slightly) larger works depicting the glories (and the tragedies) of the first Napoleon. He was a studio painter who rarely painted outdoors but his preparations and research were meticulous. He attended the Battle of Solferino for research and he had a train track laid in his garden so that he could move alongside galloping horses and study them precisely.

Manet really wasn't an impressionist and he certainly shouldn't be confused with Monet, who was. Manet's inspiration came from the old masters. His controversial Dejeuner sur l'Herbe featured a riverscape inspired by a Titian in the Louvre, a female nude inspired by Rubens and a clothed man who reclines in the same position as Adam on the Sistine chapel ceiling, albeit reversed. His even more controversial Olympia was a copy of another Titian. But both paintings owed much of their daring and their notoriety from the clever visual hints added by Manet (such as a black cat with an erect tail hinting at pussy); even the name Olympia hinted that the woman was a prostitute and the position of the left hand suggests that she isn't just being modest (and did you know that our word pudenda for female genitalia comes from the Latin pudens which means shame).

Manet must have been a resilient man with enormous self-belief. Year after year he exhibited to howls of derision. People laughed at his paintings, they said he was useless. It must have been hard for his models. Victorine posed naked for Dejeuner sur l'Herbe; many horrible comments were made about her ugliness; it was assumed she was a prostitute; she was laughed at. Next year she posed again, naked again, as Olympia (clearly a prostitute), and again was on the receiving end of ridicule and scorn. It wasn't even as if the pay was good and Manet took hours and hours over his models!

I learned so much from this book, from the controversial career of Napoleon III (two failed coups before he came to power including escaping from a French prison by dressing as a workman and walking out of the door with a plank across his shoulders) to the derivation of pompous (the French called the overblown toga-and-sandals paintings of David and fellows 'pompiers' because the helmets of the heroes resembled the helmets of French firemen) to Baudelaire, notorious author of Fleur du Mal, who so courted notoriety that on a visit to Belgium he pretended that he had killed and eaten his step-father to Whistler who had been expelled from West Point by Robert Lee to Manet who failed his naval training (proved by the fact that on one seascape the flags and sails of one of the boats are being blown in opposite directions) to the fact the landscape painting only really took off after oil paints began to be available in metal tubes rather than the much less wieldy pig's bladders ....

Written in 38 short chapters, this is a very easy read. It is so packed with characters and incidents that it never flags. It is brilliant and deserves a wide readership.

Ross King also wrote (reviewed in this blog):

November 2015; 374 pages

Friday, 6 November 2015

"Oroonoko" by Aphra Benn

Aphra Benn was a woman playwright and novelist during the restoration. When she was young she seems to have lived in Suriname (before it was ceded to the Dutch by the Treaty of Breda in 1667 following the Anglo Dutch War (the English got New Amsterdam which they renamed New York). This story is about an African slave who led a revolt there.

Oroonoko is a Prince in his own country and very good looking (in fact he resembles a fine young English gentleman except for the colour of his skin). He falls in love with a very beautiful woman, Imoinda but the King, his grandfather, summons her to join his harem. The old King is impotent so Imoinda's virginity is preserved until Oroonoko can sneak into her bedchamber and ravish her. All night. The King finds out and sells Imoinda into slavery. Shortly afterwards, English sailors seize Oroonoko by trickery and transport him to Suriname and sell him as a slave to a very nice overseer called Trefry who treats Oroonoko with all respect. Surpirse, surprise, Imoinda is there (and has resisted all advances). So Oroonoko is reunited with her. But the story doesn't end there. Oroonoko leads a slave rebellion which is put down with great ferocity, despite promises of peace made by yet more treacherous Englishmen. Oroonoko is whipped to within an inch of his life and swears revenge ...

It is really short, only 66 pages, but the prose is long-winded and there is a lot of description. It is remarkable as a history and as an example of the nascent flowering of prose fiction; it is a classic story but the characters are too stereotyped for modern tastes.

November 2015; 66 pages

Thursday, 5 November 2015

"Ragnarok" by A. S. Byatt

Byatt tells the story of a thin girl, evacuated with her mother during WWII and missing her airman father, who reads two books: Pilgrim's Progress and Asgard and the Gods. This last tells her the story of the Viking Gods, of Odin and Thor and Baldur and Loki, of wolves and sea serpents and bareserk warriors, of frost and forests and night.

Byatt has written a poem in prose form. Her images are intense and lyrical, her descriptions of seaweed and hedgerows are colourful and fresh. The great thing about the Norse Gods, which she brings out, is how vulnerable they are. Odin is one-eyed having sacrificed the other eye to buy prophesies from the head of Mimir, Tyr the hunter has his hand bitten off by Fenrir the wolf, Loki is captured and tied and has poison dripping into his face, Baldur is killed. And they are doomed. The world will end at Ragnarok and all of time is hurrying towards this finish.

This is a book filled with wonderful writing, fabulous, haunting characters (Hel, goddess of the underworld, has a face and a body which is half alive and half dead) and mysteries. What was the word whispered by Odin into the ear of his dead son? What will come after the destruction of Ragnarok?

Byatt has written a beautiful book. November 2015; 171 pages

Also reviewed by A S Byatt: Possession a delightful, Booker winning novel about a literary researcher tracing the details of an unknown and illicit Victorian love affair.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

"Bonjour Tristesse" by Francoise Sagan

Cecile and her widowed father take a villa on the French south coast for the summer. Elsa, the latest in a line of her father's girlfriends, joins them. Cecile meets Cyril.

Then Anne, a friend of Cecile's dead mother turns up. In very short order, Anne ousts Elsa and pwersuades Cecile's father to promise to marry her; she takes over as Cecile's step-mother and forbids her to see Cyril.

So Cecile concocts a plan: Elsa and Cyril will pretend to be lovers and arrange it so that Cecile's father and Anne will keep happening upon them; Cecile's father, not known for his fidelity, will bed Elsa and Anne will depart. Everything will be back to the previous free and easy ways.

What could go wrong?

In the course of this very short novel, Cecile grows up in several ways and realises that free love can have a very painful price.

A shocking book in the 1950s, more for its depiction of amoral sex than for the explicitness of the sex scenes which would today be regarded as very coy. But this book has simplicity and poetic naturalness that combine with the classic plot to produce an almost mythic tale. Indeed, under the surface of lax morals and promiscuity, the core message is surprisingly moral and old-fashioned: you need to remember that the people around have fears and weaknesses and wants just like you and that they can hurt just as much as you can.

November 2015; 100 pages

Sagan's next book, a haunting tale of a love affair with a married man, is A Certain Smile.