About Me

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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 30 June 2018

"My Family and Other Animals" by Gerald Durrell

I read this when I was a child, so long ago that I could remember nothing but the title and the fact that  the writer Laurence Durrell and a taxi driver was involved.

Nowadays this book has become famous again because of the ITV series on the Durrells which has been adapted from this book. This is why I went back to reread the book. I was glad I did.

Although my interest in natural history is rather less than the average person's (I don't even watch wildlife documentaries) the bits about animals are interesting partly because of the anthropomorphisation of them. But that is not the main point of this book. There are two features of this book which make it superlative.

Firstly, there is the brilliant characterisation of a family of eccentrics (and their eccentric friends) who interact in dialogue and events that are some of the funniest I have read. Books are often described as 'laugh out loud. I hardly ever do. With this book I couldn't help laughing. On more than one occasion.

Secondly there is the jaw-droppingly brilliant descriptions.

  • The sea lifted smooth blue muscles of wave as it stirred in the dawn light, and the foam of our wake spread gently behind us like a white peacock's tail. glinting with bubbles. The sky was pale and staying with yellow on the eastern horizon. Ahead lay a chocolate-brown smudge of land, huddled in mist, with a frill of foam at its base. This was Corfu” (p 14)
  • The appearance of a rather pompous judge wearing a wig several times too small.” (p 50)
  • Then he rounded the curve of the road and there was only the pale sky with a new moon floating in it like a silver feather, and the soft twittering of his flute dying away in the dusk.” (p 53)
  • After the swim, my body felt heavy and relaxed, and my skin as though it were covered with a silky crust of salt.” (p 66)
  • Then suddenly the moon, enormous, wine-red, edged herself over the fretted battlement of mountains, and threw a straight, blood-red path across the dark sea. The owls appeared now, drifting from tree to tree as silently as flakes of soot, hooting in astonishment as the moon rise higher and higher, turning to pink, then gold, and finally riding in a nest of stars, like a silver bubble.” (p 145)
  • In a few days small white clouds started their winter parade, trooping across the sky, soft and chubby, long, languorous, and unkempt, or small and crisp as feathers, and driving them before it, like an ill-assorted flock of sheep, would come the wind.” (p 182)

But it is the characters who make the book come alive:
  • Larry, the writer, eternally asserting his own intellectual superiority, with a wonderful line in stupendously rude put-downs: 
    • With a point of view as limited as yours, you can hardly expect me to listen to it.” (p 55) 
    • Why should we have to fall all over the old hag because she's a relation, when the really sensible thing to do would be to burn her at the stake?” (p 198) 
    • You are always ready with the apt platitude to sum up a catastrophe. How I envy you your ability to be inarticulate in the face of Fate.” (p 242)
  • Lesley the man of action, eternally keen on guns and shooting, who builds a boat for Gerry: “the sounds of sawing, hammering, and blasphemy floated round from the back veranda.” (p 163)
  • Margo, always looking for love, always getting things wrong: “before you go throwing stones you should look for the beam in your eye.” (p 254)
  • Mother, forever trying to make the piece, and always finding nice spots to be buried in.
  • Spiro, the taxi driver and incredible Mr Fix-It, stealing goldfish for Gerry from the King of Greece’s Corfu residence, and pluralising all his words: “Whys donts yous have someones who can talks your own language?” (p 24)
  • Theo the fellow naturalist, with a fine line in puns. Talking about a black-headed gull he says that “all the nice gulls love a sailor” (p 296) and then says these birds can be “terribly gullible” (p 297)

A magical memoir. June 2018; 308 pages

If you enjoy it don't ignore the other two books in the trilogy. They're just as funny:

Another, perhaps even better, memoir of Greek Island life, this time on Symi in the Dodecannese, is Bus Stop Symi by William Travis.

Other memoirs reviewed in this blog include (in order of how much I enjoyed them, favourites first):
  • Memoir of the Bobotes: by Joyce Cary: a brilliantly written memoir of the author's time as a medical officer during the Balkan Wars (pre World War I): the writer became a novelist and his craft shows; full of humour and keen observation
  • My Family and Other Animals (and the sequels) by Gerald Durrell: Beautiful descriptions and hilarious accounts of an eccentric family living on the Greek Island of Corfu between WWI and WWII
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: a well-written, frequently humourous account of Pacific paradise
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: the account of three years spent on the remote and at the time unspoilt Greek island of Symi: well-written, charming and amusing
  • Surprised by Joy by C S Lewis: an account of the famous author's life, mostly from the perspective of his Christianity: beautifully written
  • A Death in the Family by Karl-Ove Knausgard: the first volume of a series in which the author, in the guise of writing novels, portrays real people with real names: the writing is brilliant
  • Beautiful People by Simon Doonan: The story of a young gay man: well-written with moments of marvellous humour
  • Teacher Man by Frank McCourt: the third volume in the series that started with Angela's Ashes
  • The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles: a reasonably well-written account of a year spent living in Venice
  • A Detail on the Burma Front by Winifred Beaumont: a nurse's story from one of the theatres of World War II: more compassion and humour: reasonably well-written
  • Whatever Happened to Margo: Margaret Durrell's account of running a boarding house in Bournemouth: sometimes muddled but often funny
  • Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two by Maggie Smith-Bendell: an interesting and reasonably well-written account of a Romani Gypsy childhood
  • Not for the faint-hearted by John Stevens: the autobiography of a senior police officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story
  • Forty Years Catching Smugglers by Malcolm Nelson: the memoirs of a senior customs officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story

Thursday, 28 June 2018

"The Hapsburg Monarchy 1809 - 1918" by A J P Taylor

With his characteristic piercing insight this classic historian dissects the long-time-dying Austrian Empire from the Congress of Vienna to the end of the First World War. Although the intricacies of the politics proved too much for me to follow, the essence of their problems was (a) that Prussia, under Bismarck, was creating its own German Empire by defeating France during the Franco-Prussian war and persuading all the little principalities of the German Confederation to join the Reich while excluding Austria which Bismarck saw as a rival against Prussia for predominance  and (b) the challenge of the many nationalities within the Empire who all wanted some form of autonomy and (c) the fact that they were run by a single man who was determined to hang on to his Emperorship. 

There wasn't much they could do against Prussia although industrial modernisation might have helped. As for the nationalities question they were stymied by the Magyars. They were a minority in Hungary (“In Budapest the Hungarians were little more than a third of the population as late as 1848.” p 24) and yet they predominated and bullied the Empire not only into giving them self-government for themselves but also to retain power over the oppressed minorities in ‘Greater’ Hungary: the Romanians in Transylvania, Slovenes in what is now Slovenia, and Croats in what is now Croatia. Winning self-government they refused to share it with any other nationalities except for the Austrians, not even the Czechs who were part of Austria and whose independence would only damage Hungary in its prestige. But Hungary grew the wheat which fed the Empire. They wanted the Magyars to be in charge. One of their politicians said “Our citizens of the non-Magyar tongue must, in the first place, become accustomed to the fact that they belong to the community of a nation-state, of a state which is not a conglomerate of various races.” (p 222) Attitudes die hard.

What made the book great were the many asides that show how much AJPT understands of the world:
  • Often when European serfs were freed “when the peasants were freed from serfdom, the land was free from the peasants.” (p 18)
  • In Northern Italy “all land was owned by the lords ... this is, no doubt, the principal reason for the industrial development of northern Italy.” (p 18 fn)
  • Backward industry sheltered behind prohibitive tariffs” (p 19)
  • Regimental officers, in every country, are narrow and blundering politicians.” (p 28)
  • They did not understand that politics is a conflict of forces; they supposed that it was a conflict of arguments.” (p 29)
  • Rural life cannot survive the impact of rationalism.” (p 30)
  • Everywhere monarchy was treated as a sentiment rather than as a force; and kings hope to save themselves from Jacobinism by a ‘historical’ camouflage. They collected traditions as geologists collect fossils, and tried to make out that these fossils were alive.” (p 42)
  • The revolutions of 1848 were not caused by the Industrial Revolution, but by its absence. Towns increased faster than the industries which provided employment and goods; and, as a consequence, their growth lead to a declining standard of urban life. Industrial development ... is the remedy for social discontent, not it's cause.” (p 58)
  • University students were the field officers of the revolution; they had not the maturity to provide responsible leadership and certainly did not find it in their professors. Besides, apart from the medical students, they were all bureaucrats in the making; and sooner or later felt the pull of real life.” (p 58)
  • The eighteen-fifties were everywhere in Europe a period of great capital investment; in the Habsburg monarchy barracks took the place of factories and railways, and Austria now lost the economic lead over Prussia which she had hitherto possessed. Even the economic achievements of the old regime was sacrificed. The state railways ... were handed over to a company of foreign capitalists.” (p 89)
  • There was no attempt to consult the peoples and no intention of taking them into partnership; they were regarded as tiresome, wayward children, and the only problem was how to put them in a good humour so that they would pay their taxes and serve in the army.” (p 96)
  • National frontiers, like natural frontiers, are advocated only when they involve an accession of territory.” (p 115)
  • The limitless continents of the idealist.” (p 146)
  • A later attempt to differentiate them [the Ruthenes] from the Russians led to the invention of a Ukrainian nationality; Ukraine is merely Russian for the frontier.” (p 149)
  • “It was common doctrine among nineteenth century conservatives that nationalism was a middle-class movement ... and, if government could not be kept as an aristocratic monopoly, the masses should be called in against middle-class nationalism and liberalism.” (p 165)
  • The greatest consolation of an oppressed class or nationality is to feel itself superior to one still more oppressed.” (p 189)
  • War can only accelerate: it makes a dictatorial state more dictatorial, a democratic state more democratic, an industrial state more industrial, and ... a rotten state more rotten.” (p 232)
  • Until the end of 1915, the war had seemed a purely military affair ... Suddenly, the initial impetus exhausted ... decision cpassed from generals to peoples. In every country new ministries were formed or new courses followed. ... Compromise or the knock-out blow was the issue which lay behind the events of the bitter winter of 1916-17 - behind the rise to power of Lloyd George ... behind the first Russian Revolution and the French mutinies.” (p 240)
  • Every ‘Austrian’ had to be easy going and flirtatious, to love music, and to wear to Tyrolese costume. It would have been as sensible to dress English factory-workers in pink hunting-coats.” (p 258)
  • Slovakia and Croatia could be ‘ independent nations’ only in a German system.” (p 260)
  • During the second world war Austria’s “record of resistance against Hitler was inferior to that of Prussia.” (p 260)

There are some moments of fun too, if humour can be found in the absurdities of autocracy:
  • The new emperor Ferdinand was an imbecile, epileptic and rickety; his character was expressed in his only sensible remark, ‘I'm the emperor and I want dumplings!’” (p 47)
  • With the characteristic impulsiveness which, throughout his life, followed his long delays, Francis Joseph, who had evaded decision for more than a year, now demanded a settled constitutional draft within a week; indeed the general principles was settled during a single conversation ... in the train between Salzburg and Vienna.” (p 100)
  • The foundations of the Austrian Empire were discussed; the fortunes of the Empire swung violently into a federalist, and then back into a centralist channel; but the discussions took place ... in the Emperor's study, and the decisions depended not on the wish of the peoples, but on the sudden autocratic resolve of Francis Joseph.” (p 96)
  • The Habsburg administrators prevented any element of education [in Bosnia Herzegovina]. Kallay ... who directed the administration of Bosnia and Hercegovina for more than twenty years, forbade there the circulation of the History of Serbia which he has himself written.” (p 153 - 154)
Heavy going at times but some great maps.
June 2018; 261 pages

Sunday, 24 June 2018

"The Gathering" by Anne Enright

Veronica, the narrator, comes from a large Irish family. Her brothers and sisters include Ernest, a lapsed priest in Peru, and Stevie, who died aged two, and Midge, who died aged 42 from pancreatic cancer, and Bea, and Ita, and psychotic Mossie, and Liam, and Kitty the actress, and Alice, and the twins Ivor and Jem. The mum, who is rather vague, had seven miscarriages as well.

Liam is dead. He was found in the sea at Brighton. Veronica travels to retrieve the body and brings it back for the wake and funeral. After which she finds it difficult to sleep. So she starts to remember her grandmother Ada who married Charlie whose best friend was Lamb Nugent. There is some family mystery tied up here which Veronica tries to reconstruct from her unreliable memories: "All I have are stories, night thoughts, the sudden convictions that uncertainty spawns ... I wait for the kind of sense that dawn makes." (p 2).

Veronica is unhinged by grief. She is horrid about and to her patient husband and she all but neglects her daughters for months after Liam dies while she wallows in grief. It is all the fault, it seems, of whatever happened all those years ago when Liam and she were little children. And yet Liam doesn't appear to have been destroyed by it; damaged perhaps, but there are other things that could have caused him to find it difficult to settle down, as he has, and is his fondness for a drink a symptom or a cause? In the end the revelation, overlain as it was by outright speculative fantasy and undermined by Veronica's unreliability as a witness, never seemed sufficient to hang a whole book upon.

Nevertheless, it won the 2007 Booker.

Some great lines:

  • "What amazes me ... is not the fact that everyone loses someone, but that everyone loves someone. It seems like such a massive waste of energy ... We each love someone, even though they will die. And we keep loving them, even when they are not there to love anymore. And there is no logic or use to any of this." (p 28)
  • "I have all my regrets between pouring the wine and reaching for the glass." (p 39)
  • "London was all flow, it had no edges" (p 78)
  • She thinks that having children is just "feeding the grave" (p 79)
  • "A silence happens, as quick as a door clicking shut." (p 209)

July 2018; 261 pages

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

"Arrow of God" by Chinua Achebe

The third novel in Achebe's African trilogy but, like the other two (Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease), it stands on its own.

It starts with Ezeulu, the Chief Priest of tribal god Ulu, who is watching for the new moon. “The moon he saw that day was as thin as an orphan fed grudgingly by a cruel foster-mother.” This part of his priestly job will become important at the end of the book. It is to do with the announcement of the new year, a task which gives him great power although in many ways "he was merely a watchman". "It was a fight of the gods. He was no more than an arrow in the bow of his god."

But for the most part the narrative meanders around the priest and his family. He has four sons: Edogo who wants to be a wood carver; Obika, a strong man and in some ways his father's favourite but headstrong and a lover of palm wine; Oduche whom has been sent by his father to the mission school so that he can learn the ways of the white man; and little Nwafo, still a boy, but perhaps the one most likely to inherit the priesthood. If there is a plot it revolves around the colonial officer's and their ignorant attempts to bring civilisation by building roads (with forced unpaid labourers who can be whipped) and appointing village leaders to become local kings. Ezeulu is one of those whom they want to appoint.

What makes this book great, and I would rate it higher than either of the other two, is that it understands the people. Each character is portrayed with their strengths and their weaknesses. It is a fond portrait of family life. And when bad things happen, blame is difficult to ascribe. Is it due to the well-meaning but ignorant intervention of the colonial conquerors or is it due to the superstitions and pig-headed clinging to tradition of the villagers?

There are some fabulous descriptions, such as a promise that “went no deeper than the lips.” A man with a hangover thinks “the walking was already doing him some good; the feeling was returning that the head belong to him.” A stubborn man “could never see something and take his eyes away from it.” Caught in a rainstorm two men get soaked: “the cloth clinging as if terrified to their bodies”. These are observations of humanity that transcend time and culture and place.

But perhaps the best thing about the book is all the wonderful proverbs within it:

  • What kind of power was it if it would never be used?
  • To you whatever I say in this house is no more effective than the fart a dog breaks to put out a fire
  • Wisdom is like a goat-skin bag; every man carries his own.
  • In a great man's household there must be people who follow all kind of strange ways. There must be good people and bad people, honest workers and thieves, peace-makers and destroyers ... In such a place, whatever music you beat on your drum there is somebody who can dance to it.” This is repeated . The first time Ezeule says it; the second time it is said to him: “In all great compounds there must be people of all mind - some good, some bad, some fearless and some cowardly; those who bring in wealth and those who scatter it, those who give good advice and those who only speak the words of palm wine. That is why we say that whatever tune you play in the compound of a great man there is always someone to dance to it.” A number of the proverbs are repeated, sometimes very similar but often changed slightly to reflect the character or the context.
  • The white man is like hot soup and we must take him slowly-slowly from the edges of the bowl.” 
  • A man may refuse to do what is asked of him but may not refuse to be asked.
  • The death that will kill a man begins as an appetite.
  • If a man sought for a companion who acted entirely like himself he would live in solitude.
  • A woman who began cooking before another must have more broken utensils.
  • A man who asks questions does not lose his way.” 

Other great lines
  • He was as good as any young man, or better because young men were no longer what they used to be.
  • My things always turn out differently from other people's. If I drink water it sticks between my teeth.” 
A great book by a writer who has really come into his power.

June 2018; 222 pages

Monday, 18 June 2018

"The Aeneid" by Virgil

This is the classic Roman poem about how Aeneas flees the sack of Troy with his dad and his son and quite a lot of other Trojans, how they take refuge in Dido's Carthage before going to Italy where his descendants will found Rome. It was written sometime after 27 BC and unfinished when Virgil died in 19 BC. It is in 12 books, each of about 900 lines of epic poetry. My version was a prose translation by David West published by Penguin Classics.

Some of the ideas in this blogpost reference a CD course of lectures on The Aeneid of Virgil given by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver and published in 1999 by The Teaching Company, Chantilly, Virginia.

Vandiver (1999) suggests that the first six books which tell of the travels of Aeneas before he reaches Italy are modelled on the Odyssey and the last six which are about the wars to found a state in Italy are based on the Iliad.

Book One Shipwreck

Book One tells the story of how Aeneas is shipwrecked on the Carthaginian (North African) shore and how he and his men are given refuge by Queen Dido.

The proem
There is a short section in which Virgil sets out what he will do with this work. This introduces themes:

Vandiver (1999) points out that the The Aeneid starts with the three Latin words arma virumque cano (Of arms and of the man I sing) and thus references Homer whose Iliad is about warfare and whose Odyssey is about the man Odysseus. It also makes a distinction between Homer, who uses the conceit that he is told the tale by the Muse, and Virgil who states categorically cano, I sing (and later asks the Muse to 'remind' - line 8 Mūsa, mihī causās memorā - him of what happens).

Aeneas is pietas which means that he does the right thing, he does his duty, he plays the game, he does noblesse oblige and he makes the right sacrifices etc. (Vandiver 1999)

The founding of Rome is inevitable, it is decreed by the fates. Vandiver (1999) says that the word used is fatum which means that which is decreed; she points out that who decrees is ambiguous: sometimes it seems to be Jupiter and at other times not. Whilst in Homer fate governs what happens to an individual, in Virgil fate controls the destiny of a group of people, the Trojans,

The story

It starts, as the Homeric epics model, in media res (to quote Horace, contemporary of Virgil), with a storm at sea. On landing Aeneas despairs (why couldn’t I have died in battle at Troy; words very reminiscent of Odysseus when he fears raftwreck; Odyssey 5: 295 - 312) but when he has to talk to his men he puts on a brave face and uses his words to rally them: we’ve faced worse than this.

In Book 1 we are introduced to three gods:
  • Juno who is utterly anti-Trojan after the adverse Judgement of Paris and because Jupiter fancied Trojan princeling and pretty boy Ganymede and because she knows that Rome will destroy her beloved Carthage; 
  • Venus who is the mum of Aeneas; 
  • Jupiter who tries to keep the peace and run the show and to some extend is in charge of deciding the fate.

Venus appears (disguised as a huntress) to tell Aeneas to go and speak to Dido. He only recognises his mum as she goes. He goes to Carthage with his mate Achates; they are hidden in a cloud. It is ironic that it is in the Temple of Juno that Aeneas sees murals depicting the Trojan War. This encourages him. Next, he sees that most of his comrades have escaped shipwreck. He hears Dido offer the shipwrecked sailors support and protection. The mist disappears and he reveals himself to her. She calls for a feast. But Venus sends Cupid to take the shape of Ascanius, the son of Aeneas. Dido adores the cute little boy (he must be at least nine to have walked with his dad from the sack of Troy and to have spent the last seven years wandering) and takes him on her knee and in this way her erotic passion for Aeneas is kindled.

Selected good bitsAeolus is king and here in a vast cavern he keeps in subjection the brawling winds and howling storms, chained and bridled in their prison.
When disorder arises among the people of a great city and the common mob runs riot, wild passion find weapons for men's hands and torches and rocks start flying; at such a time if people chance to see a man who has some weight along them ... they fall silent, standing and listening with all their attention while his words command their passions and soothe their hearts.
The glow of youth shone all about him. It was as though skilled hands had added embellishments to ivory or applied gilding to silver or Parian marble.
Through my own suffering, I am learning to help those who suffer.” (1.630)

Book Two: The sack of Troy
Laocoon and his sons being attacked by the serpent
Aeneas fleeing Troy with Anchises on his back and leading Ascanius by the hand

In Book Two Aeneas tells the story of the sack of Troy. Vandriver (1999) says that this is the fullest account of the Wooden Horse and the end of the Trojan war. It contains the famous line “timeo danaos et dona ferentes (I fear the Greeks even bringing gifts)” which Laocoon utters. But,especially after a serpent comes out of the sea to strangle Laocoon and his two sons, and especially after Sinon’s lying tale, the Trojans ignore him. They take the horse into the city. That night the Greek soldiers swarm out of the belly of the hollow horse and open the gates to their comrades who have sailed back in the night. The sack of Troy begins. Aeneas, woken by dreaming of dead Hector who advises him to flee, wants to fight at first. He sees Cassandra dragged from the temple, Priam’s son slaughtered by Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, in front of Priam as he stood there in his ancient armour, Priam slaughtered on his palace altar. Then Venus appears in a vision and tells her son to flee. He rushes to the house of his father Anchises but Anchises refuses to leave. Which means that Aeneas has to stay. Then there is a third vision, this time of Ascanius, the little son of Aeneas, with flames in his hair. Anchises sees it as a sign they must go to save his grandson. So they leave. Aeneas takes Anchises (holding the Penates, the household gods) on his back and holds Ascanius by the hand. He tells his wife Creusa to follow “at a distance” (Vandriver 1999 points out that this is a bit odd). When they escape to a mound on which a sanctuary temple of Ceres is, Creusa has disappeared. Aeneas leaves his father and his son and plunges back into the city to seek her. But she has gone. Her ghost appears and tells him he will marry a new bride in a foreign land.
Dido must be hoping it’s her.

Selected good bits
  • I was paralysed. My hair stood on end. My voice stuck in my throat.” 

Book Three Wanderings and Prophecies

Vandriver (1999) points out that Book 3 is based on the Odyssey books 9 to 12 in which Ulysses recounts his wanderings after the fall of Troy; Aeneas even visits some of the same places. Both narratives are to friendly monarchs and there is the offer of a foreign bride.

The story

First they go to Delos where the patron God Apollo prophesies they must “seek out your ancient mother” (their ancestral homeland) which Anchises thinks is Crete, from which Teucer came. But when they build a city (Pergamea) in Crete there is a plague. Apollo is displeased! Aeneas has a dream in which the Penates tell him he’s in the wrong place; they need to go to Hesperia. When he tells Anchises his dad remembers that Cassandra prophesied they would go there (but no one believed her).

They set sail again and a storm drives them to the Strophades, where the Harpies live. They land and find unguarded goats and cows which they slaughter but just as they are sitting down to the feast the Harpies swoop down and befoul the food. The chief Harpy prophesies that they will not be allowed to found a city until they have to eat their tables.

Away they sail again and eventually land at pirus where Trojan prince Helenus has married Hector’s widow Andromache (after they had both been the slaves of Pyrrhus and she had even borne Pyrrhus a son). Helenus prophesies that they will know where the city will be built because they will find a white sow suckling thirty piglets. But before he will have to visit the sibyl in Cumae.

They sail off to Sicily passing the whirlpool Charybdis at the foot of mighty cliffs and pass by Mount Etna. Here they rescue a greek sailor left behind by Ulysses when he fled the cyclops Polyphemus. They take him aboard and flee the arriving cyclopses. Sailing off again, they land at Trapani where Anchises dies.

Selected good bits

The Harpies “are birds with the faces of girls, with filth oozing from their bellies, with hooked claws for hands and faces pale with a hunger that is never satisfied.

Book Four: The love of Dido

Vandiver (1999) points out that this story is unprovenanced suggesting that it is Virgil’s own creation. She suggests it is modelled on a Greek tragedy: there is a lot of dialogue and Virgil refers to Greek tragedy. It has three sections, each starting “at regina [but the queen]”; the next word sets the theme for the section:

At regina gravi [But the queen, serious]”: Dido tells her sister that she loves Aeneas. But when her first husband died she swore never to marry again. But Anna points out she has a duty to herself to love and to have children, and a duty to her people to provide an heir and to have a husband who can protect the realm from external threats. Venus and Juno then make a bargain to push Dido and Virgil together. A royal hunting party is interrupted by a storm and Dido and Aeneas take refuge in the same cave. “Fires flashed and the heavens were witness to the marriage while nymphs wailed on the mountain tops.” Mmmm. Subsequently rumours start to fly around and when Iarbas, a local King who allowed Dido to found her city and proposed marriage to her, hears of them he prays to Jupiter at which point the top god sends Mercury to Aeneas to remind him that his duty is to go to Italy to found Rome. So Aeneas tells his men to prepare the ships for departure.

At regina dolos [But the queen, deceit]”: gets wind of the plans and confronts Aeneas; she thinks he’s going to sneak off. He says that marriage was never on the cards; if he had done what he wanted he would never have left Troy. His fate sends him to Italy and he’s going. She tells him “You are a traitor ... It was the Caucasus that fathered you on its hard rocks and ... tigers offered you their udders. ... Away you go. Keep on searching for your Italy ... Look for your kingdom over the waves. But my hope is that ... you will drain a bitter cup among the ocean rocks ... I shall follow you not in the flesh but in the black fires of death and when its cold hand takes the breath from my body, my shade shall be with you wherever you may be.” Hell hath no fury. Doesn’t move Aeneas. Dido sends sister Anna to beg Aeneas to hang around for just a little longer. Nix. So Dido tells Anna to build a bonfire of all the things that Aeneas has left behind when he went aboard

At regina pyra [But the queen, funeral pyre]”: When Aeneas, reluctant and dithering to the last, is finally persuaded by Mercury to sail away Dido kills herself.

It is a pretty stupendous bit and Dido has some thrilling lines. If the sack of Troy was great for sculptors and painters, this book has inspired plays and operas: such as Dido, Queen of Carthage by Marlowe, and Dido and Aeneas by Purcell.

Selected good bits
But priests, as we know, are ignorant.
What use are prayers and shrines to a passionate woman?
The flame was eating the soft marrow of her bones and the wound lived quietly under her chest.
“So long as rivers run down to the sea, so long as shadows play over the hollows on mountain sides, so long as stars pasture on the pole of Heaven, always will your honour, name, and praise be with me, wherever I go.”: Erotic!
Book Five: Funeral games
To modern eyes this is a pause in the tension between the drama of the death of Dido and the drama of Aeneas visiting the underworld.

The story
Returning to Sicily and arriving on the first anniversary of the death of Anchises, Aeneas decides to host funeral games. Vandiver (1999) makes the point that these games are modelled on those of Patroclus in the Iliad; and reference the contemporary Trojan games re-instituted by Augustus; and that the dead Anchises represents the past and the competing Ascanius represents the future. There is an exciting sea race,Followed by a foot race in which Euryalus and Nisus compete; a boxing match; an archery contest; and finally a horse parade in which the manoeuvers were labyrinthine (Virgil references the Labyrinth of Crete).

At this point Juno sends Iris (Vandiver 1999 makes the point that Juno often works through a lesser deity) in the shape of a woman to tempt the Trojan women to burn the Trojan boats so that they will stay in Sicily. Aeneas prays to Jupiter who sends a rain storm and only four boats are lost. Aeneas, inspired by an old Trojan called Nautes and by a vision of his father Anchises, who asks his to meet him in “the home of Dis in the underworld”, decides to build a city in Sicily where the women and any man who cares can stay (Vandiver 1999 makes the point that each Trojan must choose between staying with the dead Anchises, the past, or sailing off into the future with the boy Ascanius). Then he sails off. But the helmsman of Aeneas’ boat falls asleep and falls into the sea with a broken part of the poop deck and the tiller. Vandiver 1999 points out that episode references the death of Elpenor in the Odyssey.

Book Six: The Underworld

In Book Six Aeneas travels down into the Underworld and witnesses a procession of the famous Romans of the future.

Given that the end of this book marks the half way stage in the story it seems likely that this is intended to be the pivotal point. Vandiver 1999 points out that it is modelled on the journey Odysseus took to the Underworld. For example, Odysseus meets one of his companions there whom he did not know had died, so will Aeneas; both men travel below to consult a dead soul. There are differences: Odysseus travels alone while Aeneas is accompanied by a guide, the Sibyl; Odysseus doesn’t actually enter the Underworld but stays on the margins, talking to spirits, while Aeneas actually enters; Odysseus narrates his journey allowing for the possibility that he is lying (typical Odysseus!) while Virgil narrates the journey of Aeneas; in the Odyssey the location of the Underworld is vague, beyond the straits of Gibraltar, while in the Aeneid it is very specifically near Lake Avernus.

The story
The ships land at Cumae (a Greek city founded in the eighth century BC near Naples). They find a temple where Daedalus, fleeing Crete, first landed; the doors of the temple has panels depicting the story of the Athenian tribute to the Minotaur in the labyrinth (this story also forms the basis for Mary Renault’s The King Must Die). They enter the Sibyl’s cave; she goes into a frenzy, foaming at the mouth, and sees the river “Thybris foaming with torrents of blood” and prophesies Rome etc and tells him “it is easy to go down to the underworld. The door of black Dis stands open night and day. But to retrace your steps and escape to the upper air, that is the task, that is the labour.” First Aeneas has to find a golden bough on a dark tree hidden in a grove in a dark valley. “So then, lift up your eyes and look for it, and when in due time you find it, take it in your hand and pluck it. If you are a man called by the Fates, it will come easily of its own accord. But if not, no strength will prevail against it and hard steel will not be able to hack it off.” But even before that Aeneas has to find the body of Misenus and bury it. Then he follows two doves who lead him to the tree. “Just as the mistletoe, not sown by the tree on which it grows, puts out fresh foliage in the woods in the cold of winter and twines its yellow fruit round slender tree trunks, so shone the golden foliage on the dark ilex, so rustled the golden foil in the gentle breeze.” The bough resists but Aeneas is able to tear it off. He goes back to the Sibyl. All this while the Trojans are burying Misenus.

Now Aeneas goes to the entrance to the Underworld. “There was a huge, deep cave with jagged pebbles underfoot and a gaping mouth guarded by dark woods and the black waters of a lake. No bird could wing its flight over this cave and live, so deadly was the breath that streamed out of that black throat and up into the vault of heaven.” They walk in. “In the very throat of hell, Grief and Revenge have made their beds and Old Age lives there in despair, with white-faced Diseases and Fear and Hunger, corrupter of men, and squalid Poverty, things dreadful to look upon, and Death and Drudgery besides. Then there are Sleep, Death’s sister, perverted Pleasures, murderous War astride the threshold, the iron chambers of the Furies and raving Discord with blood-soaked ribbons binding her viperous hair.” Aeneas thinks these things are real and draws his sword but they are only “disembodied spirits”. They meet “Charon in his filthy rags” who will only take those who have been buried despite the desperate pleas of the other souls. Here Aeneas finds the Spirit of Palinurus, unburied and so forbidden to cross.

Charon doesn't want to take Aeneas, remembering Hercules and Theseus who also had been living and came to Hades to steal. But the Golden Bough does the trick. The meet Cerberus but the Sibyl feeds him a drugged honey cake and he falls asleep. Then they meet the mourning dead. One of them is Dido who won’t look at him or talk to him and runs from him. (Vandiver 1999 points out that the parallels Ajax who also killed himself and who wouldn’t speak to Odysseus because he considered Odysseus to have wronged him). Then, in the “place set apart for brave warriors” he meets the Trojans who died at Troy and then the place where those who committed crimes and weren’t found out are punished. Finally they find the shade of Anchises and Aeneas tries to embrace it: “Three times he tried to put his arms around his father's neck; three times the phantom melted in his hands, as weightless as the wind, as light as the flight of sleep.” Anchises summons a procession of the future and Aeneas sees all the Roman greats to come.

After the show, Aeneas returns to the surface. “There are two gates of sleep: one is called the Gate of Horn and it is an easy exit for true shades; the other is made all in gleaming white ivory, but through it the powers of the underworld send false dreams up towards the heavens.” Aeneas exits through the Gate of Ivory!

Book Seven
The second half of the Aeneid(Books Seven to Twelve) is concerned with Aeneas arriving in Italy and fighting a war with the Italians led by King Latinus. This is the bit that is like the Iliad.

Vandiver 1999 points out that it mirrors book 1. Aeneas arrives on a strange shoreline. He is welcomed by the ruler. There is a marriage in the offing but the potential bride is already wooed by a local. This marriage will destroy the house of the ruler hosting Aeneas.
The story

It starts with a new invocation to the muse, this time Erato, the muse of epic poetry.

The back story is the King Latinus, descended from Saturn, has only a daughter as his heir. She is more or less promised to Turnus, leader of the Rutulians. Queen Amata, wife of Latinus, is very keen to see the daughter marry Turnus. But portents suggest the match might not be good.

So Latinus visits “the oracle of his prophetic father Faunus” which is a grove in “a huge Forest sounding with the waters of its secret fountain and breathing thick clouds of sulphurous vapour.” When the king “lay down to sleep in the silence of the night on a bed of the fleeces of slaughtered sheep, he would see many strange fleeting visions, hear all manner of voices, enjoy the converse of the Gods and speak to Acheron in the depths of Avernus.” Latinus is warned against Turnus as a son-in-law and he “did not keep it locked in his heart” so rumours spread.

The Trojan leaders have a picnic on the grass; their food laid on “wheaten cakes” and when they have finished they are still hungry so that eat the bread and Ascanius says “Look! We are eating even our tables” and Aeneas remembers this as the prophecy although he misremembers it as something his father prophesied when we were told (Book 3) that it was a Harpy.

The Trojans (not Aeneas) go to negotiate with Latinus who welcomes them after Ilioneus (who was the first Trojan to speak to Dido in book one because he was the oldest of the Trojans who were shipwrecked and so not with Aeneas) makes a speech in which he talks about what haa happened to the Trojans: “The storm that gathered in merciless Mycenae and swept across the plains beneath Mount Ida, and the fate that drove the worlds of Europe and Asia to collide, these are known to all men, those who live far to the north where the ends of the earth beat back the stream of Oceanus, and those who are separated from us by the zone of the cruel sun whose expanse covers the middle zone of five.” Latinus decides that Aeneas is the stranger that the prophecy meant to marry his daughter.

Juno is pissed off and again delegates, this time to “Allecto, bringer of grief ...Her own father Pluto hated his monstrous daughter. ... she had so many faces and such fearsome shapes, and her head crawled with so many black serpents.” Juno tells her to sow discord and mayhem: “It is a task after your own heart. ... You can take brothers who love each other and set them at each other's throats. You can turn a house against itself ... You have a thousand names and a thousand ways of causing hurt.” Allecto throws one of her snakes at Queen Amata: “It glided between her dress and her smooth breasts and she felt no touch of its coils. Without her knowing it, it breathed its viper’s breath into her and made her mad. The serpent became a great necklace of twisted gold round her neck. It became the training end of a long ribbon twined round her hair. It slithered all over her body. While the first infection of the liquid venom was still oozing through all her senses and winding the fire about her bones” she tried to argue and convince Latinus that he was doing the wrong thing. Then she went mad and tried to inflame the people of the city. Then Allecto, taking the appearance of an old priestess, tried to anger Turnus. He laughed it off at first but then he became angry: “It was as though a heap of brushwood were crackling and burning under the sides of a bronze vessel, making the water seethe and leap up, a great river of it raging in the pot, with boiling foam spilling over and dense steam flying into the air.

Then Ascanius, going hunting, chases and kills a stag, the pet of the daughter of the gamekeeper of Latinus, and this precipitates a village brawl, and people start being killed. The villagers complain to Latinus. He refuses to declare was but Juno opens the city’s Gates of War. And the Latins and their allies (there is a roll call) prepare for war.

Book Eight: Aeneas goes to Rome
The story

Aeneas sleeps on the bank of the Tiber and dreams that the river god himself tells him that this is the fated home, don’t give up, and that the sign shall be the white sow with 30 piglets (already foretold by Helenus in book 3).Following the advice of the river god Aeneas and some mates set out in a couple of ships to travel up the Tiber where they find Evander and his son Pallas and their people camped out on one of the hills that will become Rome. When Evander was young he met and hero worshipped Anchises; now Evander’s son Pallas will hero-worship Aeneas. They take a tour of the sites that will become Rome. Now Venus brings her son Aeneas the gift of some weapons including a shield with pictures taken from the future history of Rome: Romulus and Remus suckling from the wolf; the abduction of the Sabine women; Horatio on the bridge; the geese honking to warn of the Gauls; the battle of Actium.

Great lines:

A form of torture whereby living men were roped to dead bodies, typing them hand to hand and face to face to die a lingering death oozing with putrefying flesh in this cruel embrace.

Book Nine: Nisus and Euryalus
The story

Aeneas being absent, Juno sends Iris to Turnus to tell him to make a surprise attack on the Trojans in their newly-built fort. Angered that the Trojans hide behind their walls he decides to burn the ships (thus cutting off the Trojans opportunity to go elsewhere). Vandiver 1999 points out that this reflects the Iliad episode when the Trojans burn the Greek ships. But a miracle occurs. The ships sink and are turned into dolphins. So Turnus settles down to a siege.

Euryalus is a boy who hero-worships Nisus, a gatekeeper who has a plan to sneak out at night, cut his way through the Rutulians, get to Aeneas and tell him the camp is in danger and he must return. He is excited: “Is it the gods who put this ardour into our minds, or does every man’s irresistible desire become his god?” But he is reluctant to take young Euryalus: “You are young and your claim on life is greater than mine.”

Having had their mission approved by the Trojan council they go off, slaughtering drunken and sleeping Rutulians. Euryalus steals some of their armour. But then they are challenged by a Rutulian patrol and they have to run off into the trees. Nisus gets away but Euryalus is weighed down by his booty and gets lost in the woods; he is captured. Nisus goes back to look for his friend and starts to pick of the soldiers of the patrol with well-aimed spear throws but the patrol leader, angered when he sees his men killed from out of the night, decides to kill Euryalus. So Nisus breaks cover to rescue his friend. Too late. And pointlessly for Nisus too is killed. The Rutulians chop the heads off the two Trojans , impale them on spears, and parade them in the dawn before the besieged fortress; the mother of Euryalus is very sad.

Now the besiegers try to storm the fort. Turnus becomes a killing machine. Ascanius fires an arrow that kills Remulus but is then whisked away from the fighting in order that the heir might not be endangered. The Trojans open the gates to fight on the threshold but when the tide of battle turns against them they are forced to shut the gates, leaving some of their own men outside, cut off. But Turnus was inside the gates “like a great tiger among helpless cattle”. He slaughters Trojans and then, when hemmed in on every side, he jumps from the walls into the Tiber, in full armour, and, echoes of Horatio, swims away.

Selected gory bits:
  • The wave of frothing blood welled out of the black hole of the wound, and the steel grew warm where it had lodged in the lung.
  • As he lay dying he strewed around his nerveless limbs and armour blooded with brains, and the two halves of his head hung onhis two shoulders.” 
Book 10: The death of Pallas

Vandiver 1999 points out that one of the themes of the Aeneid is the love between a father and a son. In book 10 the death of Pallas, which will cause his father to grieve (reminding us of Priam grieving over Hector), is paralleled by the death of Lausus who dies protecting his father Mezentius who then, grief-stricken, returns to the battle and is also killed.

The story

Book X starts with a conference of the gods in which Venus pleads for Aeneas and Ascanius and accuses Juno of meddling while Juno points out all the interfering that Venus has done and asks if it is right that the Trojans should be allowed to steal the lands of the Latins. Jupiter decides it is time to end the interference of any gods and to let Fate decide.

The fighting goes on all day. At night Aeneas, his ship accompanied by the sea-nymphs that are the remnants of his other ships, returns from Rome with Etruscan allies and, of course, Pallas, the son of King Evander. As Aeneas arrives there is fire around his head, referencing the flames around the head of Achilles in the Iliad. For this bit, Aeneas is Achilles, Pallas is Patroclus, and Turnus is Hector.

Now is the bloodiest fighting:
  • Aeneas tore a huge gash with his sword in the flesh of his side” “Through Alcanor’s arm went the spear of Aeneas and flew on its way dripping with blood, while the dying arm hung by its tendons from the shoulder” 
  • His forehead struck the ground and his mouth vomited great gouts of blood.” 
  • Pallas ... cut off the hand of Larides. As it lay there, it groped for its owner and the fingers twitched, still half alive, and kept clutching at the sword.
  • Thoas he struck with a rock in the face, shattering the bones and grinding them into the blood-soaked brains.”
Then Pallas faces Turnus. Throwing his spear he calls on Hercules, a family friend. But knowing Fate, Hercules groans and is comforted by Jupiter with the words: “Each man has his allotted day. All life is brief and time once past can never be restored. But the task of the brave man is to enlarge his fame by his actions.” The spear of Pallas penetrates the shield of Turnus and grazes Turnus. Turnus then throws his spear and it goes through shield and breastplate and breast. “In desperation Pallas tore the warm blade out of the wound and blood and life came together after it, both by the same channel. He fell forward on the wound, his armour ringing on top of his body, and as he died his bleeding mouth bit the soil of his enemies.” Turnus takes Pallas’ sword belt.

As when Hector had killed Patroclus, so Aeneas now loses it. He goes on a bloodlust rampage, killing even those who are begging for mercy; those he captures he will use as human sacrifices on Pallas’ pyre (another parallel; Achilles also adopted this barbarian practice for the pyre of Patroclus). After this killing spree the siege is lifted.

Turnus is saved by Juno who fashions a lookalike Aeneas who runs to the ships. Turnus chases him onto the ship. This ship then goes adrift and Turnus ends up, bewildered and alone, in mid-ocean.

Meanwhile Aeneas keeps on killing. Mezentius (who was the Etruscan king but was driven from the throne into exile which is why the Etruscans have allied themselves with Aeneas) becomes leader of the Latins but when he is injured by Aeneas Lausus his son steps in between them to allow his father to escape. “Aeneas drove his mighty sword through the middle of the young man’s body, burying it to the hilt, the point going straight through his light shield ... It pierced, too, the tunic his mother had woven for him with a soft thread of gold and filled the folds of it with blood. Then did his life leave his body and go in sorrow through the air to join the shades.” 

This young death reminds Aeneas of his own love for his father and he becomes sorrowful. Mezentius, having bathed his wound, gets back on his horse and starts hunting Aeneas. But when the spear of Aeneas brings Mezentius’ horse down, pinning his rider underneath, Aeneas goes to kill Mezentius who only asks that he be buried with his son.

Great lines:
  • As each man has set up his loom, so he will endure the labour and the fortune of it.” 
  • Fortune favours the bold
Book 11: The warrior princess Camilla

The Trojans prepare to send the dead Pallas upriver to his father. Envoys from King Latinus request a ceasefire so that both sides can bury their bodies; Aeneas assents and proposes that he and Turnus should meet one on one. The Latins agree.

Meanwhile Evander mourns his dead son Pallas, refusing to blame the Trojans and suggesting that his son’s life will not have been in vain if it means the Trojans win.

Back in the Latin city there are some calling for Aeneas Turnus single combat; this is not their war;, they say; why should their soldiers die? At this juncture the envoys who had been sent to get help from Greek King Diomedes come back with a negative answer. The king decides to sue for peace and offer the Trojans some poor land (presently farmed by the Rutulians led by Turnus). Drances, a counsellor, asks Turnus to accept this treaty: “We have been routed often enough and have seen enough funerals. We have stripped our wide fields bare ... so that Turnus can get himself a royal bride, our lives are cheap. We, the rank and file, are to litter the fields, unburied and unwept.” Turnus accuses Drances of cowardice and calls them to martial glory. “Why then do we disgrace ourselves by stumbling on the threshold?” “Fortune comes and goes. She has mocked many a man, and then set his feet back on solid ground.”
Turnus is described thus: “He was like a stallion that has broken his tether and burst from his stall; free at last he gains the open plain and runs to the fields where the herds of mares are pastured or gallops off to bathe in the river which he used to know so well, tossing high his head and whinnying with delight while the man streams over his head and flanks.

He and his mates get ready for war; he plans an ambush for Aeneas. Meanwhile warrior maiden Camilla leads the Latins in a cavalry battle. She kills lots:
  • He vomited rivers of blood and champed the gory earth with his teeth, twisting himself round his wound as he died.” 
  • She cut inside the arc and began to pursue the pursuer. then, rising above him, she struck again and again with her mighty axe, hacking through his armour and his bones as he begged and pleaded with her and the axe-blows spilt the hot brains down his face.” 
  • As the sacred falcon flies from his crag to pursue a dove high in the clouds, catches it, holds it and rips its entrails with hooked claws while blood and torn feathers float down from the sky.
But then she too falls to a hurled spear. When Turnus hears the news he takers his men back to the battlefield and Aeneas shortly after passes through the point where he was to have been ambushed.

Another great line:
The dead warrior “lay like a flower cut by the thumbnail of a young girl, a soft violet or drooping lily, still with its sheen and its shape, though Mother Earth no longer feeds it and gives it strength.

Book 12: The death of Turnus

The story

Turnus is determined now to face Aeneas in single combat. Latinus urges him to reflect. He can still walk away. And Queen Amata, who has always wanted Turnus as a son-in-law and seems to love him rather more than her daughter does, is distraught.

There is a ceasefire while the terms are agreed: single combat and the winner shall have the country and the girl. But while they are praying at the altars Juturnia, sister of Turnus and semi-divine, makes an eagle grab a swan and fly off only to find the swan to heavy so that he drops it. The Rutulians see this as a portent of their victory so they begin the battle even during the ceasefire. Both armies begin to fight. Aeneas, weaponless, tries to calm the situation but he is struck and injured by an arrow. Seeing Aeneas taken from the field, Turnus reenters the battle.

Venus uses dittany from Mount Ida in Crete to heal Aeneid.

In Book XII.411-415 of Virgil's Aeneid, Venus heals the wounded Aeneas with dittany: “Hereupon Venus, smitten by her son’s cruel pain, with a mother’s care plucks from Cretan Ida a dittany stalk, [dictamnum genetrix Cretaea carpi ab Ida (412)] clothed with downy leaves and purple flowers; not unknown is that herb to wild goats, when winged arrows have lodged in their flanks.” (Loeb translation).

Cretan dittany was prescribed by Hippocrates for digestive complaints and to heal wounds. Aristotle (The History of Animals 612a4) wrote that “Wild goats in Crete are said, when wounded by arrow, to go in search of dittany, which is supposed to have the property of ejecting arrows in the body."; Theophrastus agreed (Enquiry into Plants 9.16.1)

Then Aeneas reenters the fray looking for Turnus. Juturna, the sister of Turnus, now becomes (again in disguise) his charioteer and she keeps him away from Aeneas.
Aeneas then leads his men to the city and they storm it. As they gain entry, the Queen, thinking that Turnus must be dead, hangs herself.

Turnus decides to face Aeneas. “Then Jupiter himself lifted up a pair of scales with the tongue centred and put the lives of the two men in them to decide who would be condemned in the ordeal of battle, and with whose weight death would descend.” Turnus attacks Aeneas but his sword breaks so he wheels his chariot around and flees. Aeneas pursues him.

Meanwhile Jupiter forbids Juno to give Turnus any more help and she agrees. But the bargain is that the Trojans will become Latins “speaking one tongue”. Jupiter sends a monster called Dira to call Juturna away from Turnus and she returns to her river. Aeneas throws his spear and it goes through the thigh of Turnus. On his knees, Turnus begs for mercy. He acknowledges that Aeneas has won the girl and the land but he begs Aeneas to pity Turnus’ father and let Turnus live. And Aeneas hesitates. But then he sees that Turnus is wearing the swordbelt he had taken from the body of Pallas. Aeneas cries: “By this wound which I now give, it is Pallas who makes sacrifice of you. it is Pallas who exacts the penalty in your guilty blood’. Blazing with rage, he plunged the steel full into his enemy’s breast. The limbs of Turnus were dissolved in cold and his life left him with a groan, fleeing in anger down to the shades.
Notice how this description closely parallels the death of Lausus in Book X.

Which is interesting that it ends with Aeneas not being merciful.

Extraordinarily bloodthirsty stuff and well deserving of the titles of epic and classic. June 2018

Sunday, 17 June 2018

"Children of the Mist" by Hywela Lyn

Having colonised an icy, mountainous planet and used names from Norse myth to map it, earthlings have developed telepathy and telekinesis but renounced rocket science and modern medicine. So when a mysterious sickness starts to kill people they have to gather together to send a telepathic message into space to summon their old friend Jess who has a space ship to come and help them. But when she arrives she is accompanied by her husband Dahll who was the previous love interest of Tamarinth (who, however, is now falling for the extraordinarily handsome Vidarh who himself is developing the ability to teleport). Then slavers arrive on the planet and kidnap Tamarinth and others. Can Jess and Vidarh and Dahll, together with Tamarinth's siblings and her pet icecat find and free Tamarinth at the same time as discovering a cure for the illness?

A carefully plotted and fast paced science fiction romance although sometimes the potential for conflict between the characters was not fully developed. Goodies are goodies and baddies are baddies. The only two goodies who appear to do something bad are quickly killed off and what they actually did is never fully explored. The love triangles could have been exploited more fully as could have the tension between Vidarh's loyalty to the mission and his desire to return home to save his family. And the deus ex machina at the end was just a little audacious. Nevertheless, a perfectly readable example of the genre.

June 2018; 218 pages

Thursday, 14 June 2018

"A Horse Walks into a Bar" by David Grossman

A retired judge, grieving the loss of his wife, watches a stand-up comic, once a childhood friend, perform a routine in a cabaret bar in Israel. As the evening progresses the stand-up turns the act into a confessional. One by one the audience leave as the jokes run dry and the comic becomes serious.

This book, which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2017, has a single scene (the cabaret bar); it starts when the comic enters on stage and it ends when he finishes his routine. It is narrated by the judge who observes the whole thing unfold. 

To what extent does the judge's bereavement foreshadow the climax of the story? “I saw for real that he wasn't worth anything without her, and that all his power in life came from her being with him. He turned into half a human in that one instant.” (p 193)

What's it all about?
Is it actually about writing? “I quickly discovered that exaggerations were warmly welcomed: no pin pricks would deflate my hot-air balloons, and it turned out that I could and should tell each story over and over again with embellishment and plot twists, some that were real and others that could have been.” (p 39) Is Grossman reflecting on the art of the storyteller?

Is it about the holocaust? There are several key metaphors here. Firstly, the crime that the Judge commits in the army camp is one of witnessing something bad happening and failing to do anything about it, perhaps from fear. It could be argued that this alludes to the way people who knew about the death camps did nothing to stop the crimes being committed there. This crime, of course, takes place in an army camp, and could equally allude to those who witness crimes committed against the Palestinians (or anyone weaker than you) and do nothing. Another metaphor is that of the choice which the comic feels he made, as a lad, which brings to mind the selection at the camps into those who would live and those who would die. A third metaphor could be found in the way that the comic keeps a tally of those who walk out of the show.

Is it about Israel? The comic with his puny scarred body could represent the Israeli nation. The small Medium keeps telling him that he was a good boy when he was young; perhaps he is no longer. He was bullied when he was small; his aggressive stand-up routine might symbolise the nation's way of standing up to the bigger nations that surround it. And the way that the show lurches into self-destruction might also reflect on the writer's perception of Israeli history.

Why the three characters? The protagonist is the stand-up comedian. The narrator is the retired Judge. Having a narrator is important, I think, because it allows Grossman to observe the reactions to the comedian and because it allows us not to know where the comedian is going. Their childhood friendship, during which the Judge betrayed the Comic, adds an important note of tension because, as the Comic tells his long story, we are unsure whether he will reveal what the Judge did. The third character, the small Medium who regularly defends the Comic, saying what a nice boy he used to be, is more difficult to understand in terms of her role within the story.

How is the plot structured? It seems a rambling account in which the Comic starts by telling jokes before embarking on the long confessional story of his childhood. But is there a skeleton? In film writing scriptwriters are exhorted to use a three act structure (I think of this as a four act structure because the middle act of the three is twice as long as the others and often divided into two parts). To ascertain whether this book was analysable in terms of a four act structure I looked at what happened around pages 50, 100, and 150:

  • Around page fifty the small Medium contributes, revealing that she knew the Comic when he was young telling the audience that he was a nice boy who walked on his hands. 
  • Around page 100 the Comic starts telling the audience about his experience in an army training camp and the Judge believes that this is where he will be outed as a betrayer.
  • Around page 150 the driver Jokerman has a realisation and starts to treat his passenger as a person.

I'm not sure if these are the major turning points. I suspect that the most important moment is about page 103 when we start to realise what the Comic's long story might be about.

Great moments:
  • ‘But I have seen you before’, I reminded him. ‘It's been years’, he said immediately. ‘I'm not me, you're not you’.” (p 63)
  • You were such medicine for me, such medicine for the dry bachelorhood that had closed in on me ... and for all the antibodies to life that had built up in my blood through all the years without you” (p 69)
  • Being. ... what an amazing, subversive idea.” (p 72)
  • A little boy trapped between the table and the wall as his father lashes him with a belt.” (p 79)
  • I’ve long ago forgotten if it's my dignity I've lost or my shame.” (p 133)
  • Be nice ... Remember that every person only lives for a short time, and you have to make that time pleasant.” (p 138)

A tour de force. One of the few books liked by all the members of my book group. June 2018; 198 pages

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

"Fear and trembling" by Soren Kierkegaard

This was originally written under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio. I found it very difficult to read short book. It is a work of theology more than off philosophy. It seems to take a Christian perspective for granted. It centres around the story of Abraham taking Isaac into the desert to sacrifice him. This story is told in Genesis 22: 1 - 18. God tells Abraham to take Isaac his son into the desert and to build an altar and to kill the boy on the altar. Abraham follows God's instructions to the letter until, with Isaac bound on the altar and the knife raised, God sends an angel to tell Abraham to desist and kill a sheep instead. The point of the story is that Abraham was tested and passed the test. It is because of this that God loves the descendants of Abraham.

At first sight this is a terrible story. Abraham is prepared to kill his only son because God has told him too. As SK says: “Abraham enjoys honour and glory as the father of faith, whereas he ought to be prosecuted and convicted of murder.” (p 41) It is wrong on every level. “There was many a father who lost his child”: the God that spared Isaac is the same God who destroys the only sons of other men. How is this just? “Is it because Abraham had a prescriptive right to be a great man, so that what he did is great, and when another does the same it is sin?” How is it just that what would be regarded as appalling in a normal person can be excused in Abraham? Is it because, in the end, Abraham did not kill Isaac even though that outcome was not chosen by Abraham? “Before the result, either Abraham was every minute a murderer” (p 50)

There are four scenarios which could have happened:

  • Abraham could have listened to God’s suggestion and refused the call. Me? Kill my son? No way.
  • Abraham could have gone along with the idea and then had a last-minute change of heart and spared Isaac.
  • As per the Bible story; Abraham could have been prepared to kill his son had God not told him not to at the last moment.
  • Abraham could have ‘sacrificed’ Isaac.

In which of these does Abraham do good? I would have suggested Abraham emerges with credit in only scenarios one and two. Three is attempted murder and four is murder. SK points out that there are parallels to child sacrifice, for example when Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia to obtain a favourable wind for the Greek fleet sailing to Troy. Agamemnon at least had the excuse that he was doing a bad thing for the greater good. Even then, the myths wreak eventual retribution on Agamemnon, suggesting that the Greeks believed that what Agamemnon did was bad. The morality of the pagan Greeks seems here better than that of the monotheistic Hebrews.

In which of these scenarios does God appear good? Only in scenario three does God not demand the death of an innocent child. Butt even in three he puts both Abraham and Isaac through psychological torture in order to test how fanatical Abraham is prepared to be. This is certainly not a nice God. “He who in demanding a person's love thinks that this love should be proved ... is not only an egoist but stupid as well.” (p 56)

Abraham is applauded because he passed God’s test: he would have killed his son for his faith.The message here seems to be: be a zealot; blind faith is good. As  SK asserts: “Faith is the highest passion in a man.” (p 94) Before this is dismissed as just 'Old Testament' something similar is said by Jesus too. SK points out that in Luke 14:26 Jesus says: “If any man cometh unto me and hateth not his own father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea, and his whole life also, he cannot be my disciple.”  But I suspect that today we see the blind faith of fundamentalists as leading to cruelty and inhumane wickednesses. Rather, it is good to doubt.

But then, this is because I don't believe in an afterlife. Promises of glory or a better world after death have always been used to motivate men to do terrible things. And SK subscribes to the belief that  there must be something spiritual that survives death. “If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the foundation of all then they only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all - what then would life be but despair?” (p 13) But this is a silly argument. Something doesn't simply exist because it makes life easier. As he himself says later: “Fools and young men prate about everything being possible for a man. That, however, is a great error. ... in the world of the finite there is much which is not possible.” (p 33) Of course that only applies (for SK) in the world of the finite and for him the spiritual/ethical world is that of the infinite. Nevertheless, until you are convinced that something about us is immortal you cannot argue that anything about the Abraham and Isaac story reflects well on either the fanatical murderer Abraham or the duplicitous tester God.

I just wonder how Isaac felt as he made the long trek back through the desert beside the father who had been about to kill him.

Doubt has to be better than zealotry.

Other interesting and insightful quotes from this book:

  • The thread is spun under tears, the cloth bleached with tears, the shirt sewn with tears ... everyone must sew it for himself.” (p 34)
  • People do not know what they ought to say but only that they must say something.” (p 42)
  • No one thinks that a man became great because he won the great prize in the lottery.” (p 48)
  • Know thyself? “Delving deep into oneself one would first of all discover the disposition to evil.” (p 77 fn)
  • From time out of mind people have been pleased to think that witches, hobgoblins, gnomes etc were deformed, and undeniably every man on seeing a deformed person has at once an inclination to associate this with the notion of moral depravity. What a monstrous injustice!” (p 81)
  • A genius must be “master of his madness ... since otherwise he would be actually a madman.” (p 82)

June 2018; 95 pages

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

"Some Do Not ..." by Ford Madox Ford

This is the first book of the Parade's End tetralogy. It is written by the author of The Good Soldier and it contains some of the same themes: the Catholic wife married to the Protestant husband, adultery, and the motivation of keeping up appearances.

Some Do Not ... was published in 1924, after Ulysses (1922) but before Mrs Dalloway (1925). As with these other novels, it foregrounds thought. Each chapter starts with a situation, and then rambles backwards and forwards. In this way the narrative technique resembles that of The Good Soldier (although it is less extreme, confining the rambling to within each chapter rather than allowing it to spread across the whole book as in TGS). In addition some of the chapters are told from within the head of one of the characters. Thus, Part One Chapter Six is a stream of consciousness in which Tietjens walks through the countryside following Valentine and thinks (and falls in love with her).

The protagonist if Christopher Tietjens, younger son of the owner of Groby, a stately home in Yorkshire, who is the ultimate in know-all geeks and the last of the stiff-upper-lipped old-style noblesse-oblige upper-class. The story opens in a railway carriage where CT and Vincent Macmaster (a Scott of very humble beginnings who has been supported through his education by CT's father and who is the soul of ambition) are discussing whether CT should forgive his wife who is asking to be taken back after running off to Europe with another man (leaving CT with a child whom he doubts is really his; in a brilliant pathetic fallacy we are told that CT is “interested in the domestic affairs of the cuckoo”). We progress through an attack on a golfing party by Suffragettes, a breakfast party with a clergyman suffering from some sort of religious Tourettes (at which VM falls in love with the clergyman's wife), to CT falling into unconsummated love with one of the Suffragette girls, Valentine Wannop (a wonderfully liberated woman who, to make ends meet after the death of her Professor father and to keep her brother at Eton works as a maid and later as a gym mistress). Part Two opens three years later during World War One. CT has been injured and is slowly recovering the use of his memory. Although everyone around him has been committing adulteries and he and VW are the only sexual innocents the rumours suggest he has made her pregnant; society (and particularly the guiltiest) is beginning to turn its back on him. CT is recalled to the front. Given that he may very well be killed, and given that he has already lost his reputation, should Christopher consummate his love for Valentine?

A wonderful novel exposing the double standards behind society. As the book points out, those who don't go to the front to fight resent those who do and therefore do their best to blacken their names. Those who are guilty hate those who are innocent.

There are some great moments in which the socio-historical situation is laid bare. It is difficult to say whether the comments reveal the attitudes of the author, or of the character, and to what extent the author is writing these things in order to criticise them.

  • I am offered the job—of course it’s an order really—of suppressing the Ulster Volunteers . . . I’d rather cut my throat than do it . . . ’ Sandbach said: ‘Of course you would, old chap. They’re our brothers.
  • And policemen to go round the links with Ministers to protect them from the wild women .
  • The wangle known as shell-shock was cynically laughed at and quite approved of. Quite decent and, as far as she knew, quite brave menfolk of her women would openly boast that, when they had had enough of it over there, they would wangle a little leave or get a little leave extended by simulating this purely nominal disease, and in the general carnival of lying, lechery, drink, and howling that this affair was, to pretend to a little shell-shock had seemed to her to be almost virtuous.
  • charity begins surely with the char!

There are many other brilliant lines:

  • As Tietjens saw the world, you didn’t ‘talk.’ Perhaps you didn’t even think about how you felt.
  • Disasters come to men through drink, bankruptcy, and women.
  • His life had necessarily been starved of women and, arrived at a stage when the female element might, even with due respect to caution, be considered as a legitimate feature of his life, he had to fear a rashness of choice due to that very starvation.
  • If you swat flies enough some of them stick to the wall.
  • What finally separated the classes was that the upper could lift its feet from the ground whilst common people couldn’t.
  • “dagger . . . sheath!”: This is a wonderful metaphor (full of sexual innuendo) in which the narrator compares his wife with the woman he loves:
  • Heroines are all very well; admirable, they may even be saints; but if they let themselves get careworn in face and go shabby . . . Well, they must wait for the gold that shall be amply stored for them in heaven.
  • No woman should wear clouded amber, for which the proper function was the provision of cigarette holders for bounders.
  • The devil of course is stupid and uses toys like fireworks and sulphur; it is probably only God who can, very properly, devise the long ailings of mental oppressions .
  • Actually, this mist was not silver, or was, perhaps, no longer silver: if you looked at it with the eye of the artist . . . With the exact eye! It was smirched with bars of purple; of red; or orange; delicate reflections: dark blue shadows from the upper sky where it formed drifts like snow . . . The exact eye: exact observation: it was a man’s work. The only work for a man. Why then were artists soft: effeminate: not men at all: whilst the army officer, who had the inexact mind of the schoolteacher, was a manly man? Quite a manly man: until he became an old woman!
  • But why was he born to be a sort of lonely buffalo: outside the herd?
  • when she entered the room every woman kept her husband on the leash.
  • He had come in like a stallion, red-eyed, and all his legs off the ground: he went down the stairs like a half-drowned rat, with dim eyes and really looking wet,
  • she was sure her butler would get to heaven, simply because the Recording Angel, being an angel—and, as such, delicately minded—wouldn’t have the face to put down, much less read out, the least venial of Morgan’s offences .
  • they hate the French for being frugal and strong in logic and well-educated and remorselessly practical.
  • Perhaps the complete study of one woman gave you a map of all the rest!
  • The poorer helots of great cities hearten their lives by dreaming of material beauties, elegance and suave wealth,
  • The staff officers who came to the Tietjens were not of the first vintages; still they had the labels and passed as such.
  • proficiency of the body calls for chastity, sobriety, cleanliness and the various qualities that group themselves under the heading of abnegation.”
The book explores social mobility. Tietjens, though an old Tory with the most privileged background, is utterly at home with all classes. Valentine was forced by her father's death to leave her privileged world and become a maid but this experience has not in the least coarsened her. Her bother, in contrast, who went to Eton at the expense of his skivvying sister, embraces communism and becomes a conscientious objector during the war, which involves working on a mine sweeper after a spell in prison, and is depicted as a drunk, coarsened by his rather privileged upbringing just as Valentine has been purified and refined by her descent into the working class.

Mrs Duchemin, the long-suffering wife of the manic preacher, who has an affair with Macmaster, and whose return for the protection and discretion of Tietjens is to shun him and blacken his name.She and Macmaster are from the poorest classes and successful social climbers; their Friday salons are a perfect example of evolving pecking orders.

Modernist writing at its best. June 2018

The tetralogy continues with No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up, and Last Post.

Monday, 11 June 2018

"Her" by Harriet Lane

Nina sees Emma on the streets. Nine doesn't recognise Emma. But Emma has a score to settle with Nina. So Emma starts to insinuate her way into Nina's life. Into her family. Into her children.

As the narration alternates between the two women, you realise that something is going to go very wrong for Nina.

This is a chilling psychological thriller distinguished by some wonderful writing. On the very first page the promise of the summer is polluted by what is deeply buried in a wonderful pathetic fallacy: “The golden air is viscous with pollen; but it's tainted, too, with the disquieting scent of the urban summer: the reek of exhausts and drains and sewers, the faraway stench of the ancient forgotten streams that seep through the rocks and silt deep beneath my feet.” (p 1)

Nina is a young mother who has sacrificed her career and the family's chance of financial security to care for her young children. There are some wonderful descriptions of how this feels:
  • Someone ... is practising Chopin in front of an open window, going over the same few bars, making the same mistakes.” (p 18)
  • For now I must sit here, trapped by my reflection and the reflection of the room behind me.” (p 41)
  • Lonely and yet never alone.” (p 78)

Even more disturbing are the vivid descriptions of the baby:
  • Here Nina is breast-feeding: “This is my job: to sit in an empty room holding this small unhappy thing close to me, allowing it to fasten onto my flesh, my milk pumping in, displacing the toxic silt which is waiting there in the plumbing.” (p 40)
  • This is what she thinks as she looks at the baby: "She's hot and damp and firm and squealing, an animated bag of dough smelling of farmyards. The urgency of her hunger makes me feel slightly sick. There's the usual wailing desperation as she tugs and strains, goldfish mouth flapping, fists flailing, her eyes screwed shut in fury.” (p 40)
  • Here the baby is tasting a banana: “Many emotions crowd her face in rapid succession: disgust, cautious optimism, greedy delight, and fury when it's all gone.” (p 103)
  • And after a flight, Nina sees herself as “A drained-looking middle-aged person, draped in children and exhaustion.” (p 169)

But there are other brilliant descriptions. Two teenage girls, nervously stroke their hair: “Self-grooming, a sort of tic.” (p 116)

Other great lines:
  • Above the trees in the clear promising sky a flock of birds: twisting and bobbing, rolling and weaving, cohesive as mercury.” (p 149)
  • The percussion of the main road starts to build: the distant wail of a siren, the sighs and expostulations of buses.” (p 149)
  • All this talk about ‘finding yourself’; often, other people show you yourself first.” (p 161)
  • This is the best time of day: new-minted, before the heat makes everything slovenly.” (p 194)
  • She approves of the baby Jesus ... he doesn't look like a bank-manager in a loincloth.” (p 197)

Breath-taking writing in the service of a story which got more and more tense as it built towards a nail-biting conclusion.

Wonderful. June 2018; 235 pages

Saturday, 2 June 2018

"Sudden Genius" by Andrew Robinson

This is a beautifully written book containing the potted biographies of ten characters upon whom Robinson bestows the title of  'Genius': Leonardo da Vinci, Wren, Mozart, Champollion, Darwin, Curie, Einstein, Woolf, Cartier-Bresson, and Ray. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book while disagreeing, on mainly methodological grounds, with almost all of the conclusions Robinson draws about genius.

I suppose I should declare two interests. First, Robinson was a friend of mine at school. Second, my doctoral thesis touches upon creativity and 'eureka' moments, though not upon genius as such.

There are two major problems. Firstly, I dispute that you can draw valid conclusions about the nature of something by looking at those individuals who are, by definition, unusual. It is like trying to understand mammals by considering marsupials. Robinson acknowledges this problem, stating that “the convincing method to determine whether there are causal links between personality characteristics and creative performance would be to begin with a group of young people before they show any eminence and study their personality and their creativity over the course of their lives.” (p 295) Nevertheless he persists in drawing conclusions from anomalies.

Secondly, he has a sample of ten. Furthermore, he has selected these ten with no obvious criteria. Given that he quotes Csikszentmihalyi who points out that van Gogh's contemporaries did not recognise his genius. but we do, hence "What we are saying is that we know what great art is so much better than Van Gogh contemporaries did - those bourgeois philistines.” (p 208, quoting Csikszentmihalyi) nevertheless he insists that “genius is the name we give to the quality of work that transcends fashion, fame, and reputation ... Somehow, genius abolishes both the time and the place of it origin.” (p 315) He is proud that his sample is balanced between the arts and the sciences. There is also a nod towards ethnic diversity ('only' 90% western European) and gender equality (20% female). But there must be questions about who he has picked. Why Einstein rather than Schrodinger or Bohr or Dirac? Why Curie rather than Rutherford; Ray instead of Welles; Woolf instead of Joyce? With such a small sample size the selection is crucial. I am sure that I could prove almost any thesis if I only needed the evidence of ten individuals I self selected: all geniuses are left-handed; all geniuses are gay; all geniuses believe in God. As it is, even with his sample, Robinson struggles. He makes pronouncements such as “the huge growth in size and competitiveness of higher education in the second half of the twentieth century and after that did not increase the number of exceptionally creative scientists.” (p 276) which he evidences with an anecdote of a genius outside his sample. Seeking to prove that genius flowers after ten years of hard work on a problem he resorts to selecting manipulating start and end dates. He dates Einstein's ten years, for example, not from when he started studying Physics but from when he started studying it "seriously". Even then he has to explain away exceptions. Marie Curie was a bit too quick because she was married to Pierre, for example. Other pronouncements have even less evidence: he claims a characteristic of genius is that personality is protean: it is a "near-certainty that creative people do not actually have the kind of enduring personality.” (p 295) As to the percentage of genius which is perspiration: “There can be no doubting that geniuses work habitually and continually ... Bach on average composed 20 pages of finished music per day ... Picasso created more than 20,000 works; Poincaré published 500 papers and 30 books; Einstein produced 240 publications; Freud had 330.” (p 317) This looks impressive but it is again anecdotal, choosing five geniuses four of whom are outside his data set.

Is genius linked to madness?
  • It appears that the greatest artists of the Renaissance were neither notably unconventional nor notably temperamental, but on the contrary studious, hard-working, courteous, sociable, and sophisticated.” (p 57)
  • However the poets from the Romantic period “were more than five times as likely to have committed suicide, at least 20 times more likely to have been committed to an asylum or madhouse, and 30 times more likely to have suffered from a manic depressive illness.” (p 59)
  • However again, most modern writers “were charming, fun, articulate, and disciplined. They typically followed very similar schedules, getting up in the morning and allocating a large chunk of time to writing during the earlier part of the day. They would rarely let a day go by without writing.” (p 61)
I have a counter-thesis. Genius and talent are not separate categories, as Robinson believes, but part of a spectrum. A lot of genius is down to luck. Darwin without the Beagle is unlikely to have made the discovery that has led to the Genius label even though his work on barnacles would have been just as thorough. There are millions of brilliant minds working away as doggedly as the sung geniuses but because their work does not capture the zeitgeist they are unsung. Genius is like a sandpile. Each one of us is a grain of sand and we land on the sandpile. Most of us cause trickles, a few of us cause landslides. Whether you cause a trickle or a landslide is partly down to the characteristics of yourself but mostly due to the characteristics of the slope you land on.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book. Robisnon manages to find new interesting facts about people who have been much written about:
  • During its first run in Vienna in 1786 ... The Marriage of Figaro received so many encores that the length of each performance was almost doubled. Within a week of the premiere, the Holy Roman Emperor ... was obliged to issue a general order for all operas permitting encores only of the arias.” (p 106)
  • Mozart’s “constitutional inability to rest on his laurels is why he evolved into a great composer during the last decade of his life.” (p 117)
  • when some grand conception was working in his brain he was purely abstracted, walked about the apartment and knew not what was passing around ... but when once arranged in his mind, he needed no Piano Forte but would take music paper and whilst he wrote ... conversation never interrupted him.” (p 121 quoting Constanza Mozart)
  • Darwin’s notebooks show “key advances in Darwin's thought ... along with retreats, detours, impasses, and blunders.” (p 154) 
  • In Polish schools in the 1870s “The Russian language was mandatory in education, to the extent that lessons in Polish as a language had to be carried out in Russian.” (p 161) 
  • Pierre Curie and his brother Jacques discovered piezoelectricity in 1880. (p 170) 
  • Einstein wrote that “creating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a skyscraper in its place. It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wide views, discovering unexpected connections ... [ page break] but the point from which we started out still exists and can be seen.” (p 182 - 183)
  • Einstein's first child born to his first wife Mileva was a girl called Liserl. “To this day no one knows what happened to her” (p 190)
  • Virginia's cousin J K Stephen was mad and has “been proposed by one historian as being the murderer Jack the Ripper.” (p 205)
  • The novel Mrs Dalloway has “a narrative voice borrowed freely from speech rhythms shorn of conventional speech markers.” (p 210) 
  • Virginia criticised Edwardian novelists for laying too much “stress upon the fabric of things ... if you hold that novels are in the first place about people, and only in the second about the houses they live in, that is the wrong way to set about it.” (p 211)
  • The worst thing about the air raids at Richmond, Virginia [Woolf] wrote to her sister in early 1918, was having to make conversation with the servants all night in the shelter.” (p 213)

There are some other moments of fascination:

  • “‘proto-writing’ - that is, signs capable of expressing a limited range of meaning but not the full range of spoken language - seems to have existed during the last ice age, in the form of enigmatic cave drawings, petroglyphs, and notched bones, perhaps 20,000 years old. (Modern examples of ‘proto-writing’ include international transportation symbols at airports, mathematical symbols, and musical staff notation.) ‘Full writing’ - that is, a sign system able to express any and all thought - most likely started some five millennia ago in the expanding cities of Mesopotamia ... the breakthrough that transformed proto-writing into full writing what's the rebus” (p xxii)
  • The majority of breakthroughs do involve an identifiable, pivotal episode of revelation, whether one calls it a eureka experience or not. ... another term might be ‘ epiphany’.” (p xxiv)
  • There has never yet been an instance of a teenage breakthrough - not even by Newton or Mozart.” (p xxxv)
  • Francis Galton “ observed that a large audience at a lecture fidgets around once a minute on average, about half as often when gripped by the speaker’s words, and that the fidget of an engaged listener is briefer than the fidget of a bored listener.” (p 4)
  • Not only did the long-term committed perform better with a low level of practice than the short-term committed with a high level of practice ... the long-term committed performed 400 per cent better than the short-term committed when they, too, adopted a high level of practice.” (p 12)
  • The more a pianist practiced over time, the thicker was the myelin, the less leaky and more efficient the axons, and the better the communication system of the brain’s synapses and neurons.” (p 33)
  • No one puts their IQ in their curriculum vitae” (p 17)
  • An autistic child may step on another child on the floor, treating him or her as a lifeless object, because the autistic child has no ability to ... imagine that the second child may have a mind like its own.” (p 45)
  • If the genes that predispose people to madness can also cause positive attributes such as enhanced creativity, then there would be a force keeping them in the gene pool.” (p 53, quoting Nettle 2001)
  • How often does it happen that clothes, money, pomp, and especially the curled wig is that which turns a man into a scientist, counsellor, or doctor” (p 110, quoting Leopold Mozart)
  • The story of Idomeneus, king of Crete, who is forced to sacrifice his own son as a result of a vow to the gods, made while shipwrecked on his return from fighting in the Trojan wars, to sacrifice the first person he meets if he is saved.” (p 114)
  • To every ten real connoisseurs there are a hundred ignoramuses. So do not neglect the so-called popular style, which tickles long ears.” (p 114, quoting Leopold Mozart)
  • Nobility, wealth, rank, high position, such things make a man proud. But what did you ever do to earn them? Chose your parents carefully, that’s all.” (p 115, quoting Figaro in the Beaumarchais play)
  • hieroglyphic inscriptions continued to be written until AD 394.” (p 127)
  • The word Copt is derived from the Arabic qubti which itself derives from the Greek Aiguptos (Egypt). The Coptic script was invented around the end of the first century AD, and from the fourth to the tenth centuries Coptic flourished as a spoken language.” (p 129)
  • Even English has non-alphabetic characters such as £. (p 135).
  • Edward Gibbon wrote in his memoirs that ‘ conversation enriches the mind, but solitude is the school of genius’ ... Edison ... said: ‘the best thinking has been done in solitude’. ... Wagner noted that: ‘isolation and complete loneliness are my only consolation and my salvation.’ Byron stated: ‘society is harmful to any achievement of the mind’.” (p 262)
  • There is a developing genetic base for personality: “A study of New Zealand adults over time showed that those with the greatest tendency to depression - that is, high scorers on neuroticism - had two copies of short forms of the serotonin transporter genes, as opposed to either one copy of the short form and one of a long form or two copies of the long form, inherited from the subject parents.” (p 294)
  • ‘If there is inspiration, it’s not something that comes at the beginning of the piece. It comes in the course of writing it’, the composer Elliott Carter remarked.” (p 318)

Robinson also wrote a marvellous biography of Thomas Young The Last Man Who Knew Everything

June 2018; 329 pages