Heidi – Johanna Spyri

I asked my Catalan friend Anna, who is an advocate for children and young adults reading around her country, to choose a children’s book from three titles that I have on my shelves, but have never read, for me to tackle this week and she chose Heidi. I have to say that I know very little about it other than it is Swiss, Heidi lives with her grandfather and she has a friend called Peter so it’s all going to be new to me. In fact I couldn’t even have told anyone the authors name until I looked it up for this blog, that is how little I know about it. The copy I have is by Puffin Books and was printed by them in November 1956, the translation from the original German is by Eileen Hall and the lovely cover illustration is by Cecil Leslie who also provided the drawings included within the book.

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Well that was an interesting read, I don’t know what I expected but this book definitely wasn’t it. For a start when we first encounter five year old Heidi she is being taken up the mountain by her aunt, whilst wearing most of her clothes on a hot summers day, so that she can be dumped on her grandfather who has no idea she is coming. Why is this happening? Well the aunt who has looked after her since she was orphaned at the age of one has been offered a job in Frankfurt which she wants to have and cannot take Heidi with her, so has to leave her with somebody, and the apparently cantankerous old man is the only option. He lives way up the mountain all alone, well away from the nearest village having distanced himself from them over the years so the villagers cannot believe that the aunt is planning on leaving Heidi there so far from anyone else, in the sole company of the man known to everyone (at least in this translation) as Uncle Alp. The handover does not go well…

“Good morning Uncle” said Detie. “I’ve brought you Tobias’s daughter, I don’t suppose you recognise her as you haven’t seen her since she was a year old”

“Why have you brought her here?” he demanded roughly.

“She’s come to stay with you Uncle” Detie told him coming straight to the point.  “I have done all I can for her these four years.  Now it’s your turn.”

“My turn is it?” snapped the old man, glaring at her. “And when she starts to cry and fret for you, as she is sure to do, what am I supposed to do then?”

“That’s your affair!” retorted Detie. “Nobody told me how to set about it when she was left on my hands a baby barely a year old. Goodness knows I had enough to do already looking after mother and myself. But now I’ve got to go away to a job. You’re the child’s nearest relative. If you can’t have her here, you can do what you like with her. But you’ll have to answer for it if she comes to any harm and I shouldn’t you’d want anything more on your conscience.”

Detie was really far from easy in her mind about what she was doing, which was why she spoke so disagreeably and she had already said more than she meant to.

The old man had got up at her last words. She was quite frightened by the way he looked at her, and took a few steps backward.

“Go back where you came from and don’t come here again in a hurry,” he said angrily, raising his arm.

Detie didn’t wait to be told twice.

And so the deed was done, and 12 pages into the 233 page book things were where I thought they should be, Heidi was on the mountain with her grandfather; although how we had reached this arrangement was a considerable surprise to me as I hadn’t known that she had just been abandoned there with him. However he turns out to be very kindly to her and all is well in the bucolic bliss that Spyri conjures up and I settled down to enjoy the tales of goat herding with Peter and descriptions of the high mountain pastures.  However just 35 pages later, two years in Heidi’s life have passed and Detie reappears to drag her away from the life she has come to know and love and dump her yet again on another unsuspecting household, this time in Frankfurt. Just what is going on with this book, and why isn’t Detie being investigated for child abandonment?? The well being and happiness of Heidi seems to be nowhere in her considerations and indeed once she has again abandoned Heidi and run away before anyone in the house could stop her she is never heard of again in the book.

Without giving away too much more of the plot there now follows roughly a hundred pages of Heidi having fun with Clara, the invalid girl she has been brought here to be the companion of, but at the same time getting more and more homesick and depressed about being trapped in the city far away from the Swiss mountainside and her grandfather whom she has come to love. Yet again this book is not what I expected. Eventually she becomes so unwell that she is sent back to Switzerland and the book finally takes the positive tone that I was looking forward to when I started it.

My one negative point about the book is that half way through religion really started to be pushed, the children have to say their prayers and later on when she gets back home hymns read to Peter’s blind Grandmother. I suppose it is a mark of the times when the book was written (1880) but equally I don’t remember other children’s books of the period being so proselytising to the point where it sometimes gets in the way of the narrative. This does seem to be an issue with her other books as well as the Deutsche Biographie states at the end of it’s summary of her life, translation below:

S.’s writings were already criticised during their lifetime because of the religious-conservative positions they represented as well as their tendency against women’s emancipation

Having raised the one negative that I found with the book I have to say that it was a great read, with more twists than I expected and I’m glad I have finally read it.

The Jaguar Smile – Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie is best known as a novelist, but he has written a few non-fiction books and this was his first. Originally published in 1987 and subtitled A Nicaraguan Journey even Rushdie in his new introduction to my edition written 10 years after first publication admits…

In the last ten years the world has changed so dramatically that The Jaguar Smile now reads like a period piece, a fairy tale of one of the hotter moments in the Cold War.

By the time I first read the book, almost a further 10 years on again in 2006, I was also in Nicaragua and the story was coming full circle although I didn’t know that when I arrived.

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But first a little history to set the book in its time and to provide background to the various characters. We need to go back to the US occupation of Nicaragua which lasted from 1909 to 1933 and which was opposed in a guerrilla war by a group led by Augusto Sandino. When the Americans left Sandino agreed a peace treaty with the new regime but on his way home from the signing banquet he was assassinated on the orders of the commander of the National Guard, Somoza who in 1937 took power himself and so began a 42 year brutal dictatorship led by his family. They siphoned off all the money they could from the country during their time in power especially the aid funds to rebuild the capital, Managua, following a devastating earthquake in 1972 this meant that when they were finally deposed in 1979 it was estimated the family wealth was in the region of $1 billion ($3.5 billion today) and all from a relatively poor small country of just three million people. They were overthrown by a rebel group who call themselves Sandinista’s in honour of the 1930’s rebel leader, whose profile now stands high above Managua.

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And this is where Rushdie comes in, he arrived in 1986 during yet another revolution, this time by a group called the Contra’s and financed by the Reagan administration in the USA in an attempt to overthrow the Sandinista government, even though the US Congress and the International Court of Justice in the Hague deemed such actions as illegal. The fighting was brutal with the Contra’s targeting the civilian population with kidnapping, rape and random murders being their main strategy to try to wear down the people rather than attacking the military forces of Nicaragua. That is not to say that the Sandinista’s were blameless and he makes a fair attempt to provide a balanced view of the situation. He had excellent access to almost all the government leaders and as a novelist he seems to have been able to talk to them (most of which were published novelists or poets themselves) as an equal and therefore get past the politics to be able to put issues regarding press freedom, food shortages, repression of the Catholic church and other items directly to even the president Daniel Ortega himself. There is a whole chapter detailing an interview with Ortega.

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The ruins of the cathedral in Managua

All of the leaders point out that they are at war and it is difficult to do things in such a context, and that the food shortages were mainly due to the US blockade and mining of the only deep water port in the country which was a fair point. They are however able to point to successes such as the reduction in child mortality, this would be halved by the time they lost power in 1990 and a significant increase in literacy (although this was not as big as they claimed), which was a priority for a government led in the main by writers. That the capital was still in ruins, and presumably still is, it certainly was when I was there twenty years after Rushdie, was not really a surprise either with the Somoza’s having emptied the country’s coffers when they fled into exile.

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Anti-CIA mural on a wall in Leon, presumably dating back to the 80’s when Rushdie was there as the CIA were heavily involved in the Contra revolution.

As well as having excellent access to the leadership Rushdie also manages to travel round the country to a certain extent, obviously the border areas, especially those with Honduras were too dangerous to enter, but he did manage to get over to the Caribbean coastal area of Bluefields which as usual was in the middle of storms throughout most of his time there and he memorably describes as

Bluefields was poor as mud (only dry places could be dirt poor)

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Bluefields

This is a really interesting section of the book. The Sandinista’s had completely messed up their control of this part of the country and were only then coming to recognise that the west (where they were) and the east were very different places, indeed there wasn’t even a road joining the two sides of the country and the east was (and still is) really really poor. There was slowly coming into place a new policy called “Autonomy” where the east would have more control over its own governance and the wildly mixed population could return to their own localities.

In Bluefields it was often difficult to remember I was still in Nicaragua. The west coast was, for the most part, homogeneous, but here, as well as Mestizos, there were Creoles, three different Amerindian tribes and even a small community of Garifonos, who shouldn’t have been there at all, according to the textbooks, but up in Belize. And that wasn’t the only difference. The majority of the inhabitants here were not Catholic, but belonged to the Moravian church. And a large proportion of them were English speaking to boot.

I had arrived in Bluefields via a small plane from The Corn Islands, a pair of islands about 70km (roughly 45 miles) off the coast from Bluefields where I was when the result of the elections that we had been following since arriving in Nicaragua were announced. These two islands are a tropical paradise and made the poverty in Bluefields even more striking.

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Procession of cars driving round and round Big Corn Island in celebration of the Sandinista win in the 2006 elections

In 1990 the Sandinista government lost the election and would be out of power for sixteen years. The government that replaced them was led by Violeta Chamorro, the widow of a journalist who had been assassinated by the Somozo regime and whose paper had been closed down by the Sandinista’s so there was no love lost between her and Ortega. Rushdie also has a chapter interviewing her in the book and although he ends up being less than impressed by her she would be the person credited as bringing an end to fighting in Nicaragua after decades of various struggles.

Salman Rushdie makes a creditable attempt to understand Nicaragua and present as balanced view as was possible at the time. If he went there now I’m sure he would write a very different book, the Sandinista’s are still led by Daniel Ortega and he is still president thirteen years after the election I witnessed but for how much longer? There is considerable unrest in Nicaragua again and this time the Sandinista government are the ones putting down a rebellious populace. It’s a pity, it is after all a beautiful country with friendly people and a fantastic place to be and I thoroughly enjoyed this book whilst I was there and it’s subsequent rereading for this blog. Yes it’s dated but it’s still definitely worth a read.

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Brightly coloured buildings in Grenada

All photographs are by myself from my trip in 2006 and are © David Jackson 2019

The Evolution Man – Roy Lewis

Although my copy, published by Penguin in 1963 has the title ‘The Evolution Man’ this was not the original title; when the book was first published by Hutchinson in 1960 it was called ‘What We Did to Father’, it has also gone under the title of ‘Once Upon an Ice Age’. As far as I can tell it has been out of print since 1994 when it gained a further subtitle which because it rather gives away the ending I’m not going to repeat here.

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The book is written from the point of view of Ernest one of the sons of Edward, the Evolution Man of the title. The family are Pleistocene ape-men in Africa and recently down from the trees, which is where his Uncle Vanya thinks they should all still be but Edward is determined that they must evolve. Part of the conceit of the book is that he is aware of the time periods that we now assign to history and worries that they may still be in the early Pleistocene and so have a long way to go rather than the mid to late period so are well on their way. The other part is that father achieves all the steps needed to lift them from scavenging apes just venturing onto the plains to the cusp of becoming the dominant species dragging his protesting family behind him. His first discovery is fire for warmth and defence against predators.

Fire – ‘How did fire work?’ ‘what I wanted was a small portable volcano’ ‘my only hope of finding the sort of limited family sized fire I wanted was to go up a volcano and chip a bit off’

Whilst telling the tale of how he brought fire from the volcano he accidentally invents ‘the heavy duty hunting spear with the fire hardened point’ by not paying attention to where his spear was when engrossed in the story. The fact that he instantly names it correctly and understands what he has got is entirely typical of the character. He is determined that humanity will progress and he won’t tolerate any back-sliding

The secret of modern industry lies in the intelligent utilisation of by-products,” he would remark frowning, and then in a bound he would seize some infant crawling on all fours, smack it savagely, stand it upright, and upbraid my sisters: “When will you realise that at two they should be toddlers? I tell you we must train out this instinctual tendency to revert to quadrupedal locomotion. Unless that is lost all is lost! Our hands, our brains, everything! We started walking upright back in the Miocene, and if you think I am going to tolerate the destruction of millions of years of progress by a parcel of idle wenches, you are mistaken. Keep that child on his hind legs, miss, or I’ll take a stick to your behind, see if I don’t.

All the family get caught up in this drive for progress, the youngest son Alexander uses burnt stick to draw uncle Vanya’s shadow one evening so inventing representative art. A little later on as Edward instantly understands what he has done they work together to draw a mammoth and soon after that the family kill a mammoth.  As this is perceived as cause and effect by the family, if not Edward, is this the start of religion? In another part of the book he demonstrates a basic grasp of genetics, or at least the need to widen as far as possible the genetic pool and get away from the natural trend for a small tribe to inbreed.

I should point out that the Roy Lewis who wrote this book is very different from the crime writer of the same name who has written over sixty books. Roy Lewis of The Evolution Man wrote only two works of fiction, he was a journalist and worked for The Economist and The Times in his long career, he also founded The Keepsake Press, a small private press.

To summarise the book I can do no better than to quote Sir Terry Pratchett from a article he wrote for the Washington Post published 7th April 2002

I first read The Evolution Man by Roy Lewis (in and out of print all the time — a Web search is advised!) in 1960. It contains no starships, no robots, no computers, none of the things that some mainstream critics think sf is about — but it is the hardest of hard-core science fiction, the very essence. It’s also the funniest book I have ever read, and it showed me what could be done.

I can only say I heartily agree.

Sentimental Journey – Laurence Sterne

To give the book its full (and misleading) title “A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. Why misleading, well in the copy I read, which is 161 pages long, by page 143 he is still in Paris having travelled there from Calais on page 1, after that there is a rapid dash as far as Lyon which is where the book ends. Sterne undoubtedly intended to continue the tale in a further volume, as he had done numerous times with his much more famous novel regarding ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy’ which eventually ran to nine volumes, but he died just three weeks after this book was first published in 1868.

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I have two copies of this book on my shelves, both there due to them being parts of separate book collections rather than a desire to own a copy of the novel but it did feel that it was time to tackle the book as it is regarded as a classic of English literature. That this is so is attested by the fact that the Folio Society edition I have read is only the fourteenth title produced by that publisher and came out in 1949. The other copy I have is from 1938 and was part of the ten books published by Penguin as Illustrated Classics which were their first attempt at a series of illustrated books, just three years after they started publishing. That two major publishers should select it so early in their existence suggests how much both companies rated the book and both editions are beautiful. The Folio Society copy is illustrated by Nigel Lambourne in lovely drawings that match well his cover design, see the picture of Maria further down this essay. The Penguin edition, in common with the other nine volumes published simultaneously, uses wood engravings in this case by a master of that art form Gwen Ravarat.

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And so to the tale itself… Well I have to admit that of all the books I have read so far for this blog this was the one I struggled with the most. Even though it is quite short (less than forty thousand words) it has taken over three weeks to read it as I kept putting it down after a few pages. Both the Maupassant short stories and The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon have been read and written about whilst I worked my way through A Sentimental Journey. There are two main reasons for this, firstly I couldn’t get on with Sterne’s style of writing and secondly it really needs a significantly better knowledge of French than I have so I have had to pause to translate sections before continuing if I really wanted to make sense of the narrative especially in the case of a letter which is important to the story but which is entirely in French. A random sample of the text, where Yorick (Sterne’s alter ego in the story) employs a servant is below.

La Fleur had set out early in life, as gallantly as most Frenchmen do, with serving for a few years; at the end of which, having satisfied the sentiment, and found, moreover, That the honour of beating a drum was likely to be its own reward, as it open’d no further track of glory to him,—he retired à ses terres, and lived comme il plaisoit à Dieu;—that is to say, upon nothing.

—And so, quoth Wisdom, you have hired a drummer to attend you in this tour of yours through France and Italy!—Psha! said I, and do not one half of our gentry go with a humdrum compagnon du voyage the same round, and have the piper and the devil and all to pay besides?  When man can extricate himself with an équivoque in such an unequal match,—he is not ill off.—But you can do something else, La Fleur? said I.—O qu’oui! he could make spatterdashes, and play a little upon the fiddle.—Bravo! said Wisdom.—Why, I play a bass myself, said I;—we shall do very well.  You can shave, and dress a wig a little, La Fleur?—He had all the dispositions in the world.—It is enough for heaven! said I, interrupting him,—and ought to be enough for me.—So, supper coming in, and having a frisky English spaniel on one side of my chair, and a French valet, with as much hilarity in his countenance as ever Nature painted in one, on the other,—I was satisfied to my heart’s content with my empire; and if monarchs knew what they would be at, they might be as satisfied as I was.

Another problem I had was the references to Tristram Shandy (which I have not read) including a whole section near the end of the book where Yorick goes off to comfort one of the characters from that novel thereby further muddying the narrative of this supposed travellers tale unnecessarily.

alas! I have but a few small pages left of this to crowd it into,—and half of these must be taken up with the poor Maria my friend, Mr. Shandy, met with near Moulines.

The story he had told of that disordered maid affected me not a little in the reading; but when I got within the neighbourhood where she lived, it returned so strong into the mind, that I could not resist an impulse which prompted me to go half a league out of the road, to the village where her parents dwelt, to enquire after her.

’Tis going, I own, like the Knight of the Woeful Countenance in quest of melancholy adventures.  But I know not how it is, but I am never so perfectly conscious of the existence of a soul within me, as when I am entangled in them.

The picture of the distraught Maria from the Folio edition is below.

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Enough of the negatives however, I persevered with the book rather than abandoning it because hidden behind the irritating (at least to me) overly stylistic writing is actually a pretty good story if only the first part of it. Laurence Sterne had indeed travelled through France and Italy in 1765, which was a couple of years after the Seven Years War had ended and he sets the story with Yorick making a similar trip but earlier so the conflict is actually still in progress. That it has no impact on his ability to travel through the country other than the need to get a passport authorising the journey, something Yorick had neglected to do before setting out thereby creating part of the story as he endeavours to obtain such a document before the police catch up with him, is surprising to modern readers. Although the title implies that this is a travel book do not expect any descriptions of places, rather it is a tale of his interactions with the people he meets, especially the ladies, and that is what makes it A Sentimental Journey.

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If you wish to read the novel for free then it is available on Project Gutenberg by following this link.

The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon

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This beautiful Folio Society edition was first published by them in 1979 and my copy is the 4th printing from 2015, it is bound in black artificial moire silk blocked in gold with the title in Japanese characters. The original book was written during the late Heian Period, between 900 and 1000AD, by one of the ladies at the Japanese emperors court and is a rather strange combination of observations, being whatever she felt like writing down at the time. The translation used is that of Ivan Morris from 1967 and he has numbered each of the entries unlike some other translators. It is literally a pillow book because it was a notebook kept by the bed for use when inspiration struck some of the entries are fascinating glimpses into life at court whilst others are just odd lists of objects or places for example entry 140:

Things That Give a Clean Feeling
An earthen cup. A new metal bowl. A rush mat. The play of the light on water as one pours it into a vessel.
A new wooden chest.

Others really are simple lists as in section 108

Hot Springs
Nanakuri, Arima and Tamatsukuri

There are about 150 of these simple lists on subjects as varied as Peaks, Plains, Markets etc. spread through the text. Whether they were just particular favourites it is impossible to tell as very rarely is any context given. The third passage however lets us visit the court itself…

Especially delightful is the first day of the First Month, when the mists so often shroud the sky. Everyone pays great attention to his appearance and dresses with the utmost care. What a pleasure it is to see them all offer their congratulations to the Emperor and celebrate their own new year!

This is the day when members of the nobility who live outside the Palace arrive in their magnificently decorated carriages to admire the blue horses. As the carriages are drawn over the ground-beam of the Central Gate, there is always a tremendous bump, and the heads of the women passengers are knocked together; the combs fall out of their hair, and may be smashed to pieces if the owners are not careful. I enjoy the way everyone laughs when this happens.

I remember one occasion when I visited the Palace to see the procession of blue horses. Several senior courtiers were standing outside the guard-house of the Left Division; they had borrowed bows from the escorts, and, with much laughter, were twanging them to make the blue horses prance. Looking through one of the gates of the Palace enclosure, I could dimly make out a garden fence, near which a number of ladies, several of them from the Office of Grounds, went to and fro. What lucky women, I thought, who could walk about the Nine-Fold Enclosure as though they had lived there all their lives! Just then the escorts passed close to my carriage, remarkably close, in fact, considering the vastness of the Palace grounds, and I could actually see the texture of their faces. Some of them were not properly powdered; here and there their skin showed through unpleasantly like the dark patches of earth in a garden where the snow has begun to melt. When the horses in the procession reared wildly, I shrank into the back of my carriage and could no longer see what was happening.

It is fascinating to see what happens during the period of appointments. However snowy and icy it may be, candidates of the Fourth and Fifth Ranks come to the Palace with their official requests. Those who are still young and merry seem full of confidence. For the candidates who are old and white-haired things do not go so smoothly. Such men have to apply for help from people with influence at Court; some of them even visit ladies-in-waiting in their quarters and go to great lengths in pointing out their own merits. If young women happen to be present, they are greatly amused. As soon as the candidates have left, they mimic and deride them, something that the old men cannot possibly suspect as they scurry from one part of the Palace to another, begging everyone, “Please present my petition favourably to the Emperor” and “Pray inform Her Majesty about me.” It is not so bad if they finally succeed, but it really is rather pathetic when all their efforts prove in vain.

This passage is quite revealing about Sei, she is quite often arrogant and demeaning to others, she also finds it funny to cause problems for people she regards as her social inferiors. In this she is not alone at least according to her own accounts. Entry 292 describes an encounter with a man who has lost everything when his house burnt down following a fire in the Imperial haylofts…

We all burst out laughing at this, including the mistress of the robes; I took a sheet of paper and wrote

If the vernal sun burns strong enough
To sprout the young grass roots
Even a place like Yodo plain
Can ill survive its heat

‘Kindly give him this’ I told Mama throwing the paper to her. With loud laughter Mama handed the paper to the man.

They then instructed him to get somebody to read it to him and set off to the palace roaring with laughter as he set off believing that he had a record slip granting him money. She also claims that when the Empress was told about this she also found if funny.

But for all the casual cruelty of her interactions with others the book is still an important document into the lives of Japanese courtiers over 1000 years ago. She is free (and frequent) with her choice of lovers and this is also clearly normal as is the expectation that as soon as the gentleman has gone home in the morning that he would write a carefully considered letter to her using his finest calligraphy and choose a handsome page to deliver it. We are further told that he should not rush off on leaving in the morning but should linger a while, however if he is leaving during the night then spending time getting formally dressed is not acceptable as who would see him and he should just go when decent. What things look like or at least appear is everything to the ladies of the court, a deep knowledge of poetry and an ability to produce their own lines at a moments notice and of course write them with beautiful lettering is vital.

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I was simultaneously fascinated by and surprised by the details in this book, admittedly as Sei herself says at the end this was not intended for publication, it was her notes for her own pleasure, but it has gone on to be one of the classics of Japanese literature. We do not even know her real name, Sei is either a pseudonym or possibly a family name and Shōnagon is actually her title (a minor counsellor of the fifth rank). She was however of the class that would place her in the court as a daughter of a provincial governor and a long distant descendant of the former Emperor Temmo (630 to 686AD). She was a part of the Yokihito, literally ‘The Good People’. who comprised the aristocracy, and they preserved a complete lack of knowledge and indeed interest of the Tadahito, ‘Mere People’, which comprised the vast majority of the Japanese population. As such she can tell us nothing regarding the life of most Japanese at the time but the rarefied existence at the very top that she enjoyed is fascinating. In fact the Emperor whilst running the country at least in name was for centuries merely a puppet of the Fujiwaras family who were careful to never actually become Emperor but were always the power behind the throne and ensured that the cultivated art inspired court remained completely distant from the people so they could get on with actually controlling the country.

It was an interesting time, the Heian period lasted well over three centuries and there are few other records for us to see what was happening during that period. Sei Shōnagon has left us this record and it is well worth finding a copy and reading.

Note: I have now seen the Penguin Classics version of Ivan Morris’s translation, first published in 1971, and in that he edited it to remove the simple lists so that instead of 326 sections there are only 185. This means that the section numbers above don’t work with this edition. I have therefore given below a cross-reference for passages quoted above:

  • 140 – Things that give a clean feeling becomes 97
  • 108 – Hot Springs is omitted
  • 3 – Especially delightful is the first day becomes 2
  • 292 – We all burst out laughing becomes 168

Boule de Suif and other stories – Guy de Maupassant

I have six volumes of short stories by Maupassant, three of which include his most famous tale Boule de Suif (literally ball of suet), and I have to admit that I haven’t read any of them. So in an effort to at least partly make amends I have picked one of the collections including Boule de Suif to read this week. The book I have chosen was the second title in the long running Penguin Classics publications and the fact that he was the second author chosen in this series, after Homer, suggests that the series editors regarded Maupassant highly. My copy is the first edition printed in 1946.

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There are seventeen short stories in this collection, but in total the book is only 218 pages long. Given that Boule de Suif is easily the longest at 45 pages on its own it is clear that some of the tales are extremely short and this for me is where Maupassant is at his best. Most, like ‘The Minuet’, are beautifully written character sketches where in just a handful of pages you feel you understand the sadness of the retired ballet master and his wife whose only solace is the park where he can dance uninterrupted and he believes unseen early in the morning. Others, such as ‘The Model’ are considerably less sympathetic to the protagonists, in fact rarely is Maupassant in tune with his female characters although some like Boule de Suif herself are beautifully drawn.

So lets get back to the title story, Boule de Suif as implied above is the less than flattering nickname given to an somewhat overweight prostitute who manages to get herself on a coach leaving Rouen trying to escape the occupation during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. The description of her in this translation is as follows:

The woman, one of those usually called “gay”, was famous for her youthful stoutness, which had earned her the nickname of Boule de Suif, the Dumpling. She was short and rotund, as fat as a pig, with puffy fingers constricted at the joints, like strings of miniature sausages: In spite of her shiny tightly stretched skin, and an enormous bust, which stuck out under her dress, she was nevertheless desirable, and was in fact much sought after, so attractive was her freshness. Her face was like a red apple, or a peony bud about to burst into flower. She had magnificent dark eyes, shaded by long thick lashes, and below a fascinating little mouth, moist to kiss, with tiny white teeth.

She was said moreover to possess many other attractions not visible to the eye.

Well you can certainly picture her from this sketch but I don’t think that she would have been very happy with the depiction. The story is very difficult to review without giving away too much but basically she is one of ten people on the coach in heavy snow which forces them into far closer proximity over a couple of days than any of them would like. Six are made up of two prosperous merchants along with the Comte de Bréville and their wives who regard themselves as far superior to all the others, there is also an idealist democrat who boasts of setting traps for the advancing Prussians but who would clearly rather escape than do anything risky now they are actually in his town. The party is completed by two nuns who take little part in the actual main story line. Suffice to say that Elisabeth Rousset aka Boule de Suif is treated shamefully by the rest of the characters and is frankly the only one to emerge with any credit at the end.

‘The Capture of Walter Schnapps’ is also set during the Franco-Prussian war and is about the only genuinely funny story in this collection, ‘The Deal’ is written to be funny but is too heavy handed in it’s telling to really succeed although it is possibly down to the translation rather than in the original French where it falls down. Back to Walter Schnapps though, he is an unhappy Prussian conscript who finds himself separated from his compatriots and resolves to become a prisoner of war to avoid further fighting and, more importantly for him, to get get better food than he is receiving. The problem is how to achieve this without getting shot in the process? The humour initially comes from his cowardice but towards the end it becomes a send up of wartime propaganda and all within nine pages.

I will just pick out two more of the tales included in this collection and these are both amongst the longest. ‘The Olive Grove’ is a dark story of a violent and arrogant past catching up with man who believes he has escaped it and does not end well for anyone. It is totally unlike all the other stories in this book and the contrast made it all the more striking. My final choice is also the final selection in the book ‘Madame Teller’s Establishment’, this was an absolute joy to read. Everyone in the story is so well described you feel you could have been with them on their trip. The story regards Madame Teller and her staff at her establishment which consists of five prostitutes and a waiter cum bouncer who looked after the rougher side of the house. She is invited to the confirmation of her niece and as she does not think that she can leave the business running in her absence, as she will need to be away overnight, she decides to take the five girls and the waiter with her to the little town where her brother lives. The resulting impact this has not only on her brothers town and the confirmation service but also back in her home where suddenly this well respected and frequented establishment closes without notice was beautifully told.

Well as I said at the beginning I have other collections of Maupassant and these will definitely be read soon after years of being neglected on my shelves and I heartily recommend him to you. There may be the occasional not very good story but they are all so short and surrounded by excellent alternatives that this hardly matters.

The Unadulterated Cat – Terry Pratchett

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One of Terry Pratchett’s least well known books, The Unadulterated Cat is an odd mix of cat lovers companion, a parody of the Campaign for Real Ale, and a heavy dose humour about the joys (or otherwise) of owning a cat. It is illustrated by Gray Jolliffe whose style completely fits in with the text and as discussed below is one of the reasons why I would recommend the later editions over the first. So what is it all about then? Well the opening lines give a pretty good guide.

Far too many people these days have grown used to boring mass-produced cats which may bounce with health and nourishing vitamins but aren’t a patch on the good old cats you used to get. The Campaign for Real Cats wants to change all that by helping people recognise Real Cats when they see one.

Hence this book.

The Campaign for Real Cats is against fizzy keg cats

That last line is a definite reference to CAMRA which as an organisation prefers ‘proper’ cask conditioned ales over anything in a pressurised keg. That used to a reasonable position but nowadays a lot of craft brewers are producing some wonderful keg beers. However on with the review, or at least Pratchett’s idea as to what a Real Cat is…

For example: real cats have ears that look like they’ve been trimmed with pinking shears; real cats never wear flea collars… or appear on Christmas cards… or chase anything with a bell in it; real cats do eat quiche. And giblets. And butter. And anything else left on the table, if they think they can get away with it. Real cats can hear a fridge door opening two rooms away…

Anyone who has ever owned a cat, or gained a cat they didn’t intend to, or indeed have been owned by a cat will recognise most, if not all, of the situations described in the book. Just a selection of chapter titles will give a feel for what is covered.

  • How to get a cat
  • Types of cat
  • Naming cats
  • Illnesses
  • Feeding cats
  • Training and disciplining the Real Cat
  • Games cats play
  • Schrodinger cats
  • The cat in history

etc.

That types of cat includes ‘Black cats with white paws’ and ‘Boot faced cats’ is a hint that this is not a book that regards pedigree highly. Training cats is also not something that can be done well apart from using a litter tray anyway as Pratchett points out

You think it’s the cat turning up obediently at the back door at ten o’clock obediently for its dinner. From the cats point, a blob on legs has been trained to take a tin out of the fridge every night.

If you have a sense of humour and own a cat, or frankly even if you don’t then read this book, it will definitely give you a laugh.

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Note of variations between editions

I have two distinct versions of this book. The original first edition was a paperback published by Victor Gollancz in 1989 and is shown at the top of this review. I also have the first hardback edition, also published by Victor Gollancz, but not until 2002, pictured above, and this, along with two intermediate paperback editions, Gollancz in 1992 and Vista in 1997 are all described as ‘revised editions’ so what is different?

Well the initial obvious difference is the covers and the sizes of the two books I have, the first edition is 242mm tall by 172mm wide and the revised hardback is 185mm by 120mm. Partly due to this size differential the first edition is 96 pages as opposed to the 159 pages in the hardback. It appears the text is unchanged, unless there are minor corrections that I haven’t spotted, but the illustrations are significantly different between my two editions. There are a lot more of them in the later edition, which also adds to the page count, and those carried over from the original are sometimes in different places in relation to the text. There is one example of a mirrored version being used. Original version of what can happen if you accidentally leave your real cat in the house when you think it is outside is first.

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Another where the text is amended, apparently to clarify a joke that I think was already quite clear, original to the left

And two illustrations are dropped altogether, along with the front cover of the original which didn’t make it into the revised edition. In the first case the mink coat cartoon was replaced

In the second example there is no illustration at this point in the text in the revised edition.

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