Chekhov: A Life in Letters – edited by Gordon McVay

Rather than produce a standard biography, Gordon McVay has translated and edited a selection of letters from Anton Chekhov which give a wide view of his interests and career development from starting medical school in Moscow in 1879 through to his final letter in June 1904 written the day of his heart attack which would ultimately prove fatal four days later. There are extensive notes that put the letters into context and this has proved to be an excellent use of the material as Chekhov is a lively letter writer and travelled extensively so his correspondence is full of detailed descriptions of his experiences both good and bad. My copy is the Folio Society 1994 edition bound in black buckram and embossed with Chekhov’s signature across both covers. The book is currently available as a Penguin Classics edition. To give a feel for the letters I’ll selected a few extracts and will add them between paragraphs in this blog.

23 December 1888

That this represents just a tiny fraction of Chekhov’s letters is proven by the regular mention in the notes of a thirty volume Soviet edition and even that is not complete because it can only include those letters that were kept by the recipients. The Soviet edition is also censored to remove things they didn’t feel appropriate, such as his dalliance with a Japanese woman on his trip to Sakhalin, and anything judged not politically sound. The edition I have has 365 pages dedicated to the letters along with a useful 22 page introduction and an excellent index which made going back to find things I wanted to refer to very easy. That the Soviet edition is censored is actually quite appropriate as Chekhov complains many times about what the censors in his own time had done to his stories and plays, some of which he regarded as particularly badly damaged so that the sense of the play is lost.

In Siberia on his way to the island of Sakhalin 1890

In 1890 Chekhov travelled to the penal colony of Sakhalin to survey the conditions and interview prisoners for what he explains in various letters is a payback to medicine. It eventually took him three years to write up his findings to appear in ten parts in one of the serious journals and then more work to produce a somewhat longer book. Presumably he wrote letters from his months on Sakhalin but none of them are included in this collection however there are quite a few describing his massive journey by horse drawn carriages and river boats right across Russia as Sakhalin is as far east as it is possible to go and he started in Moscow. The extract above highlights that even then Siberia was a place of exile for people that had offended the state in someway but his observation that now they can say what they like as where else would they be sent is to the point. On Sakhalin he was only allowed to interview a small number of the political prisoners but he still produced a comprehensive report and oddly his health, which was never very good appeared to improve during his time away from Moscow and St Petersburg. Although he was a doctor he seemed to have a blind spot regarding his own tuberculosis which he suffered from for decades, describing many occasions of ‘blood spitting’ although he was never formally diagnosed until 1897.

4 July 1888

The letters are also often quite humorous which lightens the tone overall against some of the more serious pieces or times when things are just plain going wrong like his descriptions of the disastrous first performance of The Seagull in 1896 or when his health issues cause significant problems which was quite often. One of the more interesting features is the continuation of his career as a doctor even as his fame as a playwright and story writer grew dramatically. As can be seen below this devotion to medicine had serious implications in his ability to write of travel to oversee productions of plays and talk to his various publishers. By the early 1890’s he had purchased an estate in Melikhovo and become the local doctor in preference to renting a home in Moscow which he had done since arriving there to study as a doctor.

16 July 1892

By the mid 1890’s however he had started travelling extensively in Europe and correspondence from various Italian, French and German cities amongst other countries he passed through bring a different outlook to the letters, some places he loved others he was glad to see the back of. There is also a lot of letters to women throughout the book some of which he probably came close to marrying but in fact he was a confirmed bachelor until just three years before he died when he finally married an actress he had come to know from her performances in his plays. Oddly his letters to women, even the ones he was particularly close to, are rarely romantic and quite often have some slight barb to them. The ones to his future wife, Olga, are mainly about her performances rather than anything else even though they actually lived almost 1000 miles apart most of their married lives as she was in Moscow and he was in Yalta to get a better climate for his tuberculosis. Chekhov was much happier on his own, hence his long time avoidance of marriage and indeed living apart suited him well.

13 June 1890

The letters are great fun to read and show much more of Chekhov’s character than would be found in a biography. I don’t think I could cope with the full thirty volumes, even assuming they were available in English, but this selection made an excellent way to pass a few evenings this week.

In Memoriam A.H.H. – Alfred, Lord Tennyson

By way of complete contrast with last weeks blog on happiness, this week I have read, to give the poem its full title, ‘In Memoriam Arthur H. Hallam’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson which is his long eulogy to his fellow student at Cambridge university who died in 1833 of a brain haemorrhage aged just twenty two. He started writing almost immediately after Hallam’s death and kept adding to the work over the ensuing years until it was finally published in 1850 by which time it had grown to 725 four line verses (2,900 lines in total) split into 131 cantos along with a prologue and epilogue although these first and last blocks of verse were not called that by Tennyson himself but rather have gained those titles over the years. Not only did this, one of Tennyson’s greatest works, finally get published in 1850 but in November that year he became Poet Laureate, a title he held until his death in 1892 the longest time that anyone has held the post.

Although the poem was published in 1850 Tennyson was still not satisfied with it and continued to tinker meaning that there are several versions produced by him over the next forty years and indeed the version included in my copy, and what is now regarded as the definitive version, was the one further amended by his son Hallam Tennyson after the poets death. For such a long poem on such a sad subject it is surprisingly readable once you get into the rhythm of the work. Each of the verses take the rhyming format of A B B A, meaning that the first and fourth lines rhyme as do the second and third, although sometimes the rhyme is rather forced as can be seen in the very first verse of the prologue. The middle lines are fine as they pair ‘face’ with ’embrace’ but lines one and four are rather shaky pairing ‘love’ with ‘prove’, I’m not sure what accent you would need for that to work but it is rather jarring and doesn’t get the work off to a flying start.

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;

There is, as you would expect for a Victorian English work of literature, a Christian emphasis to a significant part of the poem, but probably less than you would imagine. Tennyson is far more concerned about getting his feelings, along with those of his sister Emily who was engaged to Arthur Hallam at the time of his death, onto paper than expressing a strong religious position and the work is all the more powerful for it. It includes a very famous quote as the last two lines of canto twenty seven which can be seen in the image below as the third verse on the left hand side.

“Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ actually shows Tennyson starting to come to terms with the loss of his friend and prospective brother in law and contrasts with the last lines of canto one ‘Behold the man who loved and lost, but all he was is overworn’. The rest of the text in the image above is part of the three cantos that deal with the first family Christmas after the death of Arthur Hallam, which eventually has the family able to sing together although somewhat reticently. Canto seventy eight deals with the following Christmas in 1834 where things are somewhat more normal although still strained and later in the poem he also covers the 1837 and 1838 Christmas festivities as he finds greater solace in his faith. The poem ends on a bright note with the marriage of another of his sisters, Cecilia, signifying the gradual coming to terms with loss of his friend.

Another famous line from the poem occurs in canto fifty six “Nature, red in tooth and claw” which came to be associated with the theory of natural selection as set out by Charles Darwin nine years later and indeed some parts of In Memoriam can be read as indicating that Tennyson was at least passingly familiar with the concept even then as he wrestles with his faith in the aftermath of his friends death. The quote isn’t entirely original to Tennyson but this is the first appearance of the full phrase.

My copy of the book is by the Folio Society and was printed in 1975. It is quarter bound in fine grained black leather with olive green cloth boards and printed on Abbey Mills antique laid paper which makes the whole book lovely to handle and a pleasure to read. The headings to the cantos are particularly attractive and the Bulmer typeface chosen for the text is very clear. It is pretty easy to get hold of this edition, at the time of writing there were four copies available on abebooks starting at just £6.60 plus postage. I probably still wouldn’t have picked it off the shelf if I hadn’t been in lock down due to coronavirus as a poem of almost three thousand lines is rather daunting, especially given the subject matter but it is definitely worth a read.

Folio Society Poetry Miniatures

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Starting in 1991 the Folio Society introduced a short series of miniature books of poetry. This was back in the day when the society operated as membership scheme and to retain your membership you had to buy four books a year, you would also receive a free book each year you renewed your membership which was that years presentation volume. As an extra incentive to buy all your books in one go at the start of the membership year they would sometimes have an extra gift which was often available to buy in the annual collection and would only be on offer for free for a month or so; these books were that extra offer in the 1990’s. Obviously it made sense to get as much income as possible early on as the costs of publishing had been incurred and for cash flow reasons you need to offset that cost as quickly as possible as soon as a collection was announced so these books were an extra incentive to get that order in early. The books are bound in moire silk on boards and illustrated with wood engravings by various artists, they are roughly the same size although they vary slightly and they also all have gold coloured card slipcases.

1991 The Lady of Shalott – Alfred Lord Tennyson

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This edition simply consists of one of Tennyson’s best known poems beautifully printed with five wood engravings by Howard Phipps.The poem is a retelling of one of the Arthurian legends about the Lady of Shalott who whilst imprisoned in a tower up river from Camelot is cursed never to look out of the window. Unfortunately she sees Sir Lancelot in the reflection of a mirror and is drawn to the window to see him better. Leaving the tower the curse befalls her and she dies in a boat heading to Camelot. The version used is the 1842 revision which makes it less clear than the original 1833 version that she knew she would die if she left the tower and therefore was effectively committing suicide by doing so as this was very much against Victorian morality.

The book was reprinted in 1993, with this volume being the only one to have a second edition apart from the final book in the series.

Printed by The Bath Press and bound by Hunter and Foulis – Size 116 x 83 x 8mm, typeface 9 point Monotype Ehrhardt

1992 The Pied Piper of Hamelin – Robert Browning

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I must admit that until I owned this book I hadn’t realised that Browning wrote a version of the Pied Piper story, it had completely passed me by, in common with the rest of the series of books it is illustrated with lovely wood engravings, this time six of them by John Lawrence. For the most part the poem covers the most common version of the story although here the piper leads the children away immediately after he is cheated out of his payment for removing the rats and the townspeople are magically immobile so cannot prevent him doing so rather than returning later as I had read in an alternate telling. It also has a ending where instead of the children being led into the magical cave and never being seen again they do reappear but in Transylvania rather than Germany.

Printed by The Bath Press and bound by Hunter and Foulis – Size 116 x 85 x 7mm, typeface 9 point Monotype Blado

1993 The Garden & Other Poems – Andrew Marvell

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Andrew Marvell is the earliest of the featured poets in these little books as he was writing from the mid 1630’s onward and was a friend of John Milton. Along with ‘The Garden’ there are seven other poems, ‘The Picture of little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers’, ‘The Mower Against Gardens’, ‘Damon the Mower’, ‘The Mower to the Glow-worms’, ‘The Mower’s Song’, ‘The Garden of Appleton House’ and probably his most famous work ‘To His Coy Mistress’, these are accompanied by nine wood engravings by Harry Brockway. The four Mower poems comprise a set covering the four seasons in a meadow and the man who works it, the first is dismissive of gardens planted by man in imitation of nature when all around him in his meadows there is beauty. ‘To His Coy Mistress’ doesn’t really fit in with the other works but due to its fame I can see why it was included at the end.

Printed by The Bath Press and bound by Hunter and Foulis – Size 115 x 85 x 7mm, typeface 9 point Monotype Fourmer

1994 Sir Patrick Spens & Other Ballads

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We are going back even further than Marvell in this collection of four old Scottish ballads illustrated with five wood engravings by Jane Lydbury but in this case no authors are known and there are multiple variants known of each of them. The versions chosen appear to be from the anthology by Francis James Child first published in 1860 but this isn’t confirmed in the book as no source is given for any of them. Apart from ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, there is ‘The Battle of Otterbourne’, ‘The Demon Lover’ and ‘Waly, Waly’, the final page consists of a useful glossary of the Scots dialect words used. As befits ballads these are best appreciated spoken out loud and I found myself doing just that whilst reading the book. If it wasn’t for the 1995 offering this would probably be my favourite book in the series.

Printed and bound by Mandarin Offset – Size 117 x 86 x 8mm, typeface 9 point Monotype Joanna

1995 The Raven – Edgar Allan Poe

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My personal favourite of these short works is this one and it is of course bound in black to honour The Raven and contains seven wood engravings by George Tute. I fell in love with this poem many decades ago, the rhythm of the words as you read them, again like the book of ballads this is best done out loud, drew me in at an early age and I visited the one surviving home of his in Philadelphia in the mid 1980’s when it was basically just an empty property. It still has no furniture in it but from the website it appears to have more going on there than thirty five years ago. The place being empty made me think of The Raven for some reason as you could imagine a man alone in the rooms at midnight being visited by that dark and terrible bird with it’s single word vocabulary that struck terror into the night.

Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore’

Printed and bound by Mandarin Offset – Size 117 x 85 x 7mm, typeface 10 point Monotype Bulmer

1996 Fifty Folio Epigrams – edited by Sue Bradbury

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A distinct oddity in a series of poetry books, quite a few of the epigrams are taken from larger works but some, like the example by Max Beerbohm shown above are simply pithy quotes, the number of illustrations has also shot up from the earlier books and there are now eighteen wood engravings by Peter Forster. The collection is edited by Sue Bradbury who was Editorial Director at The Folio Society for many years and varies from Confucius to Dorothy Parker via Sophocles and W.C. Fields amongst many others. The Shakespeare quote by the way is from Richard II, Act 4, Scene 1.

Printed by BAS Printers and bound by Hunter and Foulis – Size 117 x 86 x 7mm, typeface 10 point Monotype Baskerville

1997 Fifty Folio Love Poems – edited by Sue Bradbury

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This collection is also edited by Sue Bradbury and none of the selections are longer than a page, along with them are thirty two wood engravings by Simon Brett, one of which is repeated. The selection must have been popular because it became the only the second of these little volumes to be reprinted, in this case in 1997. Shakespeare and The Bible are of course included along with that particularly prolific author Anon. I was particularly pleased to find in Budapest a statute to Anonymous in recognition of his or her massive contribution to literature. Some are deep and passionate but there are also funny ones to offset the seriousness.

Printed by The Burlington Press and bound by Hunter and Foulis – Size 116 x 84 x 8mm, typeface 11 point Monotype Van Dijck italic

The bibliographic details at the end of each entry above are taken from Folio 60 which is the most recent of the bibliography volumes produced by the Folio Society and which was printed in 2007.

Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems – Galileo Galilei

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The final, and longest, book in my August reading marathon of important scientific works is also definitely the oldest and arguably the most significant in the leap of understanding passed on to those members of the public able to read a copy. Published originally in 1632 in Italian so that it was more accessible to the general public than it would have been if written in Latin it was immediately seen as an attack on the Catholic church as it presented as valid the then heretical Copernican system of the Sun at the centre of the Solar System rather than everything rotating around the Earth as taught by Aristotle and Ptolemy and adopted as clearly correct by the church as Earth should be the centre of Gods handiwork. Galileo was duly tried by the Inquisition and sentenced to life imprisonment at home and the book remained on the Catholic church’s list of banned works for over 200 years until 1835.

It is styled as a conversation over four days between three characters, Salviati is the instigator of the meetings and is clearly a Copernican, Simplicio is an adherent to Aristotelian and Ptolemaic systems and Sagredo is there initially to play devils advocate putting questions to both of the others but towards the end is obviously swayed by Salviati. Both Salviati and Sagredo are based on real people with those names who had been friends of Galileo but had both died many years before publication so could not be implicated by their names being used, whilst Simplicio appears to have got his name from the Italian word semplice which means simple minded. The choice of this name for the character backing the Ptolemaic system was also not lost on the Inquisition. Galileo was well aware that he was pushing at boundaries and originally got permission from the church to write a book about tides which grew into the final work covering far more than his original proposal, but even the characters acknowledge that this is potentially dangerous territory.

We are arguing for our own amusement, and are not obligated to any such strictness as one would be who was methodically treating a subject for professional reasons, with the intention of publishing it … it should be almost as if we had met to tell stories, so that it is permitted for me to relate anything which hearing yours may call to mind.

This edition was published by The Folio Society in 2013 using a translation originally done by Stillman Drake in 1953. It includes a modern introduction by Dava Sobel along with a foreword by Albert Einstein, which presumably dates back to the first publication of this translation. I did struggle a little with the verbose nature of the translation which whilst it may reflect Galileo’s original did also mean that I several times had to reread a sentence to make sure I followed the text correctly. This is not helpful when I was also trying to appreciate the leaps being made by Galileo whilst reminding myself that this was written decades before Newton formulated the Theory of Gravity so Galileo was truly groundbreaking in his explanations. His theoretically neutral but definitively pro-Copernican text starts from first principles with balls rolling down a slope to end up with not only the Earth rotating each 24 hours but also orbiting the Sun each year with the angle of the Earth’s axis also included to explain the equinoxes.

That is not to say that everything is correct as we would understand the cosmos now, Galileo has astronomical distances far too small, although much exceeding that of his contemporaries. A good example of this is the section of detailed calculations surrounding the two supernova that had been observed in the last few decades before he wrote the book. He is rightly dismissive of a book which aimed to prove that that these occurred within the orbit of the Moon so as to not disturb the changeless firmament which does so by carefully choosing between astronomical measurements of the period so as to find ones with sufficient error to support the authors position. However Galileo makes the same error in his selection by dismissing not only these examples but also any that would imply the nova occurred at an infinite distance from Earth which using the methods explained would actually have been the correct solution. Instead Galileo had decided that the stars were roughly six to eight times as far away as Saturn (then the furthest known planet) although some “could be two or three times further than that” to explain relative brightness and apparent size. He duly provides many pages of calculations regarding the sample set he has chosen, which are clearly there just to demolish the book and author he dislikes. Other ‘scientific’ books and papers from his time are likewise introduced and their methodology and reasoning torn apart. Galileo clearly wanted to leave no stone un-turned in his defence of Copernicus.

In the final section Galileo covers the subject that he originally stated was to be the main topic of the work, that is the tides and what causes them. Fortunately this makes up a tiny proportion of the whole book as sadly this is another area where he is in error by effectively ascribing them to the rotation of the Earth and the consequential ‘sloshing’ of the waters in the seas. The examples of mistakes given above are entirely understandable given the groundbreaking nature of the book and although I feel the translation could have been better this is still a book I thoroughly enjoyed as the insights presented by Galileo are not only good examples for today but give an understanding of the reasoning of the time and the turmoil between science and the Catholic church that would hold back scientific advances within its sphere of influence for decades if not centuries to come.

Galileo finally received an apology for his treatment at the hands of the church on the 31st October 1991 from Pope John Paul II over three hundred and fifty years too late.

The Elegant Universe – Brian Greene

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I bought this book in the July 2020 Folio Society sale specifically for this August science marathon which I have just realised I am reading in order of length. After the relatively short ‘The Double Helix’ last week I jump to the 432 pages of this volume, next weeks is a similar length and the final book to tackle is over 550 pages. If you are a regular reader of my blog you will know that I do a reading marathon each August, previously I have read multiple books each week but this year I have decided to tackle major scientific works at the rate of one a week when normally I would have interleaved them with shorter and easier works. So what is the importance of ‘The Elegant Universe? Well it was originally published in 1999 and is one of the first books to attempt to summarise the issues between Einstein’s relativity theories and quantum mechanics and then go on to explain a possible solution to their inconsistencies using String Theory to a readership that is not composed solely of physicists. The book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize so definitely qualifies for my requirement to be a significant science work for this months readings and represents theoretical physics as I have previously read and reviewed the logical book for this subject namely Einstein’s own book on Relativity.

After a couple of brief introductions, one written in 2017 especially for this new edition, and a brief summary of the current understanding of elementary particles which makes up section one of the book Professor Greene dives straight in with two chapters on the General and Special Theories of Relativity, how these moved us on from the Newtonian Laws of Motion and the odd effects that are predicted by Einsteins equations. After this is a chapter giving a good introduction to Quantum Mechanics, which is a surprisingly easy read given the counter intuitive behaviours of forces and particles at this level of magnification. These are followed by a chapter entitled The Need for a New Theory where he looks specifically at the contradictions between Relativity and Quantum Mechanics and the problems that are faced by physicists trying to unite the two in the search for the Theory of Everything. These four chapters make up the second section of the book and cover ground I was already familiar with however I have not read up on String Theory so from here on the theoretical physics was all new.


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The chapters get ever more complicated  as they try to explain the various aspects of String Theory, which by its very nature as the search for The Theory of Everything has to stretch from atomic level to cosmology. Professor Greene is very good at using analogies to express complex thoughts in a way the reader can approach them. For those who are fans of the Star Trek spin-off Deep Space Nine you will be pleased to find that String Theory allows for wormholes to exist. Spoiler alert – they probably don’t but at least there is some physics behind the idea as shown on the page spread above.

One potentially good way that the entire book is written is the ability of the reader to take it at their own pace and also to decide how deep they want to go. This is done by use of an extensive notes section at the back of the book which moves more complex discussions of points raised along with most of the mathematics out of the main body of the text. Now for me this became increasingly annoying as I had to keep two bookmarks to track where I was up to and to make skipping to the notes section easier but it does make the main text simpler to follow for the more lay reader who after all is probably the target audience.

Am I convinced by String Theory after finishing the book? The answer is probably no, there are far too many places where the solution to problems within the theory appear to be solved by the ‘with one giant leap our hero escapes’ methodology favoured by Flash Gordon short films from the 1930’s. Be it the ‘convenient’ choice of three holes in the six dimensions curved around a string so that the known three families of particles are predicted by approximate mathematical formulas. Or the super-symmetrical particles which are a cornerstone of most string theories (of which there are five versions which also doesn’t seem like a solid foundation) not being found as expected by the Large Hadron Collider so the assumptions of which they are based being changed so they ‘couldn’t have been discovered with current technology’ there are too many holes being papered over. Even assuming that the mathematics is finally worked out, and there is almost forty years of people trying, the idea that a mathematical model is also the physical construct is dubious to say the least and there is no need for the actual physical basis of the universe to match the mathematical representation for a theory to be valid in predicting motion and inter-reaction but String Theorists insist that this is the case.

Twenty years on from the book being written even those heavily involved in the physics back then are starting to have doubts about some of what is suggested. The most obvious candidate is super-symmetry. This is seen as one of the most important signatures that String Theory is correct and is number one on the list of things that ‘will prove or disprove the theory’ included in the book but few physicists now believe it is true as can be judged by this extract of a Royal Institution lecture by Dan Hooper, Head of the Theoretical Astrophysics Group at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the USA. Maybe String Theory will unravel, maybe it will be adapted to match experimental reality, who knows, but it is an fascinating subject and needs to be tackled to understand the fundamental basis of reality.

Read the book, it’s difficult, even with the solid background in Relativity and Quantum Mechanics that I have, but worth it. It will challenge your understanding of these subjects and that can only be a good thing, physics and mathematics rely on constantly pushing the boundaries and at least at the moment String Theory is the only game in town that attempts to mesh the Quantum Mechanics and what is happening at the smallest boundaries with Relativity and the physics of huge distances. It might be right, it might be wrong, but it will certainly push the boundaries of scientific endeavour for many years to come.

Tartarin of Tarascon – Alphonse Daudet

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Unusually for books on my shelves I have no memory of acquiring this one, it was printed by the Folio Society in 1968 and I suspect I purchased it with others in a mixed lot of Folio Society volumes when I really wanted some of the others in the collection. It does mean that now that I have come to take it down off the shelves I realise that I have no idea who Alphonse Daudet was and no concept as to what the book will be about. I don’t even know when the book was originally written as the only date inside is that of the translation by J M Cohen which is the same year as publication suggesting that this was an early translation for the Folio Society who up to this time tended to rely on reprinting already translated works.

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For reasons that will be explained later this novel took far longer to read than such a short book should have. It was written in 1872 and is clearly set at the same time and the first section takes places in the Provençal town of Tarascon, Daudet was a French novelist and writer of short stories, although his literary output was relatively modest in comparison to his English contemporary Charles Dickens, he has numerous schools and colleges named after him around France which attest to his popularity in his time. Tarascon is depicted in the book as populated by such dedicated hunters that there is no wildlife left in the area and the men of the town go out each week with their guns and shoot their caps which are thrown into the air for the purpose as there is nothing else to fire on. The one who most destroys his cap hangs the remnants on the end of his rifle and leads the parade back into town, this is apparently usually Tartarin. The consequence of this cap shooting makes the most profitable shop in town the hat shop.

Tartarin is, or believes he is, the greatest at all things in the town and as can be seen in the picture above lives surrounded by weaponry of all sorts. He is also convinced that there are secret assassins everywhere and always goes out armed and take circuitous routes to the club in the evening to shake them off. There are other apparent peculiarities regarding the residents of Tarascon such as each family having their own song which they sing each evening and it is unheard of for any other family to sing any others song at any time, apart that is for Tartarin who will join in with all the others at the drop of a hat, or probably the remains of one. The trigger for the plot of the novel is the arrival of a circus with a lion, here at last was an animal worthy of hunting and Tartarin declares in his usual boastful way that he will go to Africa on behalf of the town to hunt.

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So far so good, a short comic novel about a real town that Daudet has populated with ridiculous characters doing ridiculous things and initially it appears that the trip to Algeria that Tartarin is eventually shamed into doing after spending months hoping that his boast will be forgotten will be a satire of French colonial attitudes in that country, which it is, but only occasionally. The illustration above shows Tartarin in the outfit he chose for the journey, a very much stereotypical ‘Turk’ costume which he believes would be what everyone in Algeria would be wearing only to be very surprised when he is the only one. But this is where the book starts to fall apart, the clothing choice is clearly a dig at parochial attitudes in provincial France but once the action is in Algeria Daudet allows his racist and specifically anti-Semitic beliefs to come through although also makes comments regarding the colonial status quo. There are several derogatory statements about Jews the milder of which I can repeat below as it illustrates my earlier statement, others I wouldn’t include

Just ask the Arabs. Hark to how they explain the French colonial organisation. ‘On the top,’ they say, ‘is Mossoo, the Governor, with a heavy club to rap the staff; the staff, for revenge, canes the soldier; the soldier clubs the settler, and he hammers the Arab; the Arab smites the Negro, the Negro beats the Jew, and he takes it out of the donkey. The poor bourriquot having nobody to belabour, arches up his back and bears it all.’

Another comment about the Algerians which is also a valid point on colonialism is

A wild and corrupted people whom we are civilising by teaching them our vices

There is also the issue of Tartarin himself, surely nobody could be that naive as he falls for all the cons perpetrated on him but also just where did he get all his money? He is in Algeria for at least four months and is conned out of a significant amount of money on top of the huge amount spent before he leaves France on guns and equipment, but at the end of the book still has

his pocket-book, a good-sized one, full of precious papers and bank-notes

well until it finally gets stolen anyway. He just isn’t believable.

In summary I started off enjoying the story but gradually got more irritated by it and reading got slower as I progressed. If I wasn’t going to write about the novel I would probably have given up before the end.

In Praise of Folly – Erasmus

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Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote this, probably now his most famous work, in 1509 in Latin and the Folio Society edition that I have uses the Latin title as its cover design Moriae Encomium. By intention this title can also be read as In Praise of More because he dedicated it to his friend Sir Thomas More whom he was staying with in London at the time.

The book is split into sixty seven sections in this edition, although looking at other translations it is not always the case that these are numbered. The text I have was originally produced  for the Penguin Books edition translated by Betty Radice, used by permission by Folio. For a while this use of Penguin texts was relatively common at Folio so presumably they had a formal arrangement to do this. I liked the numbered sections in this text as it gives an easy way of referring to parts but as this is apparently not a standard I will use the opening line of a section if I need to specifically mention it along with the number. This translation also has short footnotes, when Erasmus wrote the book anyone likely to read it would have known the classical examples he refers to but nowadays this is far less likely so a quick guide as to where the quotation has come from and the relevance to the text is extremely useful.

Erasmus decided to make Folly the equivalent of a Greco-Roman goddess addressing the reader as though in a forum or theatre. She introduces herself and her faithful companions

And as for such my companions and followers as you perceive about me, if you have a mind to know who they are, you are not like to be the wiser for me, unless it be in Greek: this here, which you observe with that proud cast of her eye, is Philautia, Self-love; she with the smiling countenance, that is ever and anon clapping her hands, is Kolakia, Flattery; she that looks as if she were half asleep is Lethe, Oblivion; she that sits leaning on both elbows with her hands clutched together is Misoponia, Laziness; she with the garland on her head, and that smells so strong of perfumes, is Hedone, Pleasure; she with those staring eyes, moving here and there, is Anoia, Madness; she with the smooth skin and full pampered body is Tryphe, Wantonness; and, as to the two gods that you see with them, the one is Komos, Intemperance, the other Negretos hypnos, Dead Sleep. These, I say, are my household servants, and by their faithful counsels I have subjected all things to my dominion and erected an empire over emperors themselves.

What follows is, at least at the start, a gentle satire of the foolishness of mankind pointing out how Folly and her companions lead people astray but at the same time saying that the only truly happy people are babes, aged citizens in their dotage and others not fully in control of their mind because only they are not worn down by the cares and realities of life. There are many examples of how her or her companions have affected people for good or ill depending on how you interpret the results, and if the book remained in this vein it would still be well worth reading for the way it pokes fun at pomposity and self-indulgence, greed and wilful ignorance is as relevant today as it was back then. However by section 53, which in this translation begins ‘Then there are the theologians’ you can sense the tone changes. Erasmus is on tricky ground especially in 1509, Martin Luther was still eight years away from writing his Ninety-Five Theses and setting in train the Reformation with his attack on the Pope and other members of the Catholic hierarchy  for the selling of indulgences amongst other things that he regarding as debasing the Christian faith for profit, but Erasmus got in ahead of him.

This was in a time when the office of Pope could certainly be bought, and it cost a lot of money and contacts to work your way up the greasy pole, however the rewards were huge for those that got there. The selling of indulgences was a massive money spinner for the church and ultimately for the Pope himself and this was spreading discontent. What was surprising was that Erasmus felt safe to attack this at the time and not only turned out to be safe in the clever way that he presented his arguments but that his work was the equivalent of a best seller. Erasmus was not an early protestant but he recognised the excesses of the Catholic church and through this book was highlighting the problems that it faced. That he built up to this slowly is of no surprise bearing in mind the recriminations that he could have faced and the power of the church in enforcing discipline in the early sixteenth century.

What starts out as a harmless satire of mankind’s foibles turns into a denunciation of the money grabbing nature of the church at the time, but it is worth noting that Erasmus, and his friend Sir Thomas More, did not support the Protestant breakaway from the Catholic church, and in a roundabout way this would cost More his life as he did not attend King Henry VIII’s wedding to Anne Boleyn which marked the break of England from the Papacy. Erasmus however would be safe back in The Netherlands and would die of natural causes in 1536 having lived though the schism in the church the reasons for which he highlighted in this book but which he couldn’t have foretold.


The Age of Scandal – T H White

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First published in 1950, this is my Folio Society edition from 1993, The Age of Scandal is one of White’s lesser known works as nowadays he is most famous for ‘The Once and Future King’ his series based on the tales of King Arthur by Mallory which in turn were adapted by Disney as ‘The Sword in the Stone’ and by Lerner and Loewe as their musical ‘Camelot’. This however is White as a historian although as Raey Tannahill says in her introduction.

It seems wise, therefore, to warn the reader that T.H. White is not – was not, even in his own day – an orthodox historian.

an excursion into eighteenth century history which is outrageously partisan, appallingly opinionated, one hundred percent Politically Incorrect and highly entertaining from first to last.

This is certainly the case, if you like your history of the latter half of the eighteenth century to be apparently written by the gossip pages of the tabloids then this is the book for you and whilst it isn’t a option I had previously considered there is no denying that if any part of, mainly British, history is ripe for such an approach then this is the period. White does stray abroad a little but mainly whilst describing events that include somebody from these isles, the main exception to this is the final chapter but I will come to that in due course. Scandal, gossip and tittle-tattle were the driving force amongst the upper and middle classes for this was the age of the opinionated talkers and the  great letter writers and they had much to talk and write about. The main source for White’s book is Horace Walpole, the youngest son of the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole (or probably not as one of the scandals covered by White goes on to explain in considerable detail). To describe him as a prolific gossip would be an understatement, his collection of letters was eventually published by Yale University Press in forty-eight volumes and is available to browse online and White quotes him extensively.

The main talker of the time, I hesitate to call him a conversationalist because he preferred to dominate all conversations, was Dr Johnson and he duly gets a chapter all of his own. I hadn’t realised before reading this how sickly a child he was and how much he was still disabled into adulthood. This makes his rise in society at the time all the more remarkable. Another chapter is entitled ‘Men, Women and Herveys’ and this definitely falls in the one hundred percent Politically Incorrect category as it deals with the Hervey family whose males were all famously effeminate and/or eccentric during the time the book covers, Lord Hervey being ridiculed by Alexander Pope as his character Sporus in his poem Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot. The title of the chapter is however a contemporary quote from Lady Mary Wortley Montague who regarded mankind as split into those three categories as surely the Hervey family were not as everyone else, and it is one of these Herveys who is almost certainly the true father of Horace Walpole.

Other chapters are less specific such as ‘Royal Gossip’ which deals with the convoluted lives of George I, George II, George III and William IV, their actions, their courts, various wives and mistresses and anything else juicy that White feels like including. The following chapter though is probably the most enlightening regarding the reasons why the various characters exposed in this book behaved as they did and that is simply entitled ‘Bottom’.  It is probably best to quote White directly in his explanation of this term.

In the eighteenth century, but particularly under the Regency, a Gentleman was expected to have ‘Bottom’. It was a word of composite meaning, which implied stability, but also what the twentieth century calls ‘guts’. It meant being able to keep one’s head in emergencies, and, in a financial sense, that one was backed by capital, instead of being an adventurer. Bottom, in fact, was synonymous with courage, coolness and solidity.

This was an age of potentially sudden death either from accident or design, armed robbery was common and even Royalty were not immune from being held up by highwaymen but equally criminals were very much subject to capital punishment for crimes as little as burglary and these were quite a spectator entertainment. There were no anaesthetics, you would bear an operation with fortitude to be truly seen as one of the members of society and being to take your drink even in what now would be regarded as unbelievable excess was also to be expected. Dr Johnson is quoted as saying that he ‘had drunk three bottles of port without being the worse for it’ and two gentlemen are described in the book as having drunk ten bottles of champagne and burgundy between them at one sitting without it being regarded as exceptional. Needless to say a lot of people died young, if the alcohol didn’t get them than any of the various diseases prevalent at the time almost certainly would and the upper classes were trained to maintain the ‘stiff upper lip’ from childhood where violent and often sadistic masters would whip their pupils mercilessly.

I said earlier that I would get to the last chapter and this is one that sort of fits the rest of the book whilst feeling somewhat disjointed from it for it deals with the Marquis de Sade. I suspect that White felt that he couldn’t really write a book about his self described Age of Scandal without including such a notorious character but the way he does is surprisingly sympathetic which is out of sorts with everything that has gone before. However as Raey Tannahill puts it at the end of her introduction.

Whatever he may have lacked in scholarly discipline, Terence Hanbury White still deserves to be enjoyed as one of the last, unrepentant upholders of the rumbustious old tradition of Gibbon and Macaulay.

Marvel: The Silver Age 1960-1970

20200407 Marvel 1At this time of lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus I needed something completely escapist to read and also to take me back to happier times. This magnificent set is part of the 2020 Spring collection from The Folio Society and is a follow up to the 2019 offering entitled Marvel: The Golden Age – 1939-1949. Although I enjoyed the first set, what is regarded as The Silver Age encompasses the comics and characters I remember reading as a child, even if in the slightly later UK editions of the comics rather than the hard to track down American imports. As Michael Moorcroft says in his introduction

these new titles were hard to come by in the early 1960’s. Marvel had yet to have a national distribution in Britain. Two powerful and puritanical chains then owned or controlled UK newsagents in every high street, every railway station and airport. Other distribution through independent suppliers was patchy and erratic. US distributors frequently sold mixed bundles of American returns through UK distributors after they came off sale in the US

Patchy distribution, usually on wobbly racks in obscure corners of the shop meant that sometimes an issue of the Avengers would arrive two weeks after the following issue had just appeared, leading to somewhat surreal story lines.

Living in a small market town in England finding these comics was a real challenge so I treasured the ones I did mange to track down but even then it was rare to be able to find all of a multi-part story. You needed a lot of imagination to fill in the gaps until the later UK printed licensed editions finally came out in the 1970’s. Interestingly the UK versions were larger than the standard US comic book although from memory not as big as the reproductions included in this book which are considerably over size. The original comics were 10 inches tall by 7 inches wide whilst each page of this volume is 13 inches by 9 inches.

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The book itself includes fourteen complete comics ranging from The Fantastic Four number 5 from July 1962 to The Silver Surfer number 3 from December 1968 but includes several important issues such as the one illustrated above which sees the first appearance of Spiderman. Also making their debut in the book are Iron Man (in his incredibly clunky original suit) and The Vision and we also get the first re-appearance of Captain America after he was apparently killed off back in the 1940’s. The pages are quite heavy paper-stock and very glossy making the book pretty heavy. The comics are beautifully presented with black separating pages and the quality of the printing is superb.

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The Avengers issue included is from March 1964 as this is where we see not only the return of Captain America but also another long standing character, Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner. He has been running in his own comic for decades by now, having been one of the first characters featured in their comics before Marvel even existed as a name and they were known as Timely Comics, but also had a habit of appearing in the comics dedicated to other characters, usually as the bad guy. In truth he is normally more misguided and misunderstood then actually evil and varies from being an antihero combating The Avengers and others (see below) to for a while being part of both The Avengers and also The Defenders which was a similar group of heroes.

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Daredevil is the first blind superhero and here in issue 7 he is combating The Sub-Mariner but this is also a highly sympathetic portrayal of Prince Namor. Daredevil is a good example of Marvel’s creation of heroes with failings, in fact pretty well all their characters have their own problems, there is no all powerful hero who is just too good to be true and that is one of the reasons why I liked their production so much. That strong character development was unusual in the genre at the time and the need to have a back story rooted them in their environment and made them more than just throwaway ciphers you felt you could get to know them over a run of comics.

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There is one comic in the fourteen selected that stands out as it looks so very different to the others, Nick Fury was written and drawn by Jim Steranko and this issue was clearly inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. The artwork is completely unlike any Marvel Comic I have seen. Nick Fury completely passed me by as a youth so this was the first time I had read anything featuring him. This is much darker in tone and style with full page and even double page illustrations alongside the normal comic book cells. This looks more like an illustrated book in places rather than a comic and I really need to find more work by Steranko.

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There is also a magnificent facsimile version of the first Fantastic Four comic which includes their origin story although confusingly The Human Torch had been a regular character with his own comic since 1940 as android Jim Hammond with his sidekick Toro so he was completely re-invented to go with the others. Number 5 of The Human Torch comic from 1941 is included in the Golden Age book and makes an interesting contrast to his relaunch as part of the Fantastic Four as the two characters despite both being called The Human Torch have almost nothing else in common. The facsimile (like the one included in the Golden Age set) is scanned from an original and printed on as close as they could get to the right paper. The one in The Silver Age is considerably more successful as the 1939 comic has serious ink bleeds and blurring which makes it quite difficult to read whilst the newer version is very clear.

All in all the unlikely collaboration of The Folio Society and Marvel to produce these books must be regarded as a success and I’m glad that both of them are in my library. As you can see from the picture below the first one has a blue embossed cover with red page edging all round in a gold foil box whilst the latest book has a red embossed cover with blue page edging in a silver foil box.

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All images are taken from the Folio Society website and at the time of writing both books are still available and are priced at £150 each.

The Wanderer & other Old-English Poems

My latest limited edition book from The Folio Society is The Wanderer illustrated and signed by Alan Lee. An artist best known for his decades long association with works by Tolkien, both in illustrating his books and his many years in New Zealand working on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.

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The text is largely from a 1966 Penguin Classic ‘The Earliest English Poems’, translated by Michael Alexander, which also included four pages of Beowulf. Over the years this has been revised until the 2008 edition which provides the entire text for this book, with some amendments, which by then was entitled ‘The First Poems in English’. Lee was approached by The Folio Society to see if he would like to illustrate something for them and between them chose this work as it takes him back to the source materials that so inspired Tolkien in his writings. This is by no means a typical way round, the society would normally choose a book that they wanted to publish and then approach an artist to illustrate it; but what it has produced is a book where you can see the love the artist has for the material and I suspect they eventually had to stop him from creating any more artwork so that the book could actually get published. As it is each poem has its own distinctive decorative borders along with the beautiful tipped in colour paintings and on page printed black and white illustrations.

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The poems and riddles themselves come from a very short window in time, between the reign of King Alfred the Great over the Anglo Saxons (886 to 899AD) where he started the process of moving the written word from Latin to Old-English and the Norman invasion of 1066 when all that was swept away with the imposition of Norman French. In truth there were probably just thirty or forty years where Old-English hit its peak before becoming almost extinct. The greatest source material for the work of this period is The Exeter Book which was regarded as largely worthless for centuries before becoming recognised as the treasure trove that it is.  The poems are much more powerful than might be expected from their great age, they clearly come from an oral tradition as they are directed at the reader as though being read to them, I am reminded of the Icelandic sagas in concept if not in size. Indeed as Bernard O’Donoghue writes in his especially commissioned foreword

There’s a vitality to these poems, written as they were at a time when life was so much more embattled, more desperate and fragile

Along with the general introduction and note on translation each poem has its own introduction setting the scene for the following work and providing mush needed context. The works are over a thousand years old and the people who wrote and read them were very different to ourselves.

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The original Penguin book its variants and companion volumes have sold over a million copies in the fifty years since they came out and the quality of the work shows exactly why Michael Alexander is such a respected translator and this edition makes reading them so much more of a joy than the original paperbacks. The text is presented with the original on the left hand side and the translation on the right as can be seen in one of my favourite works included the fragment of ‘The Battle of Maldon’ from the section of Heroic Poems. I suspect I like these more than the somewhat more introspective other poems is my fondness for the sagas and these have more of a feel of those. However this is an account of a real battle that can be also seen in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to such a level of detail that there is also an accompanying map included with the text so the reader can easily see how the fight progresses, which frankly is not well for the English side and a lot better for the attacking Vikings.

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The riddles are great fun and at the back are a set of proposed solutions, however the one that I have shown as an example also has drawings by Alan Lee which somewhat give away the answer. All the riddles are from The Exeter Book where presumably there are a lot more as these start at number seven and there are lots of numeric gaps.

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The answer is of course mead.

As only 750 copies were printed at £395 each and these are all sold out from the Folio Society it would be difficult to get a copy of this fine edition, but if I have whetted your appetite for Old-English poetry and riddles then the Penguin paperback is still in print and considerably cheaper.

There is a short video showing the book from the Folio Society

and a longer video of an interview with Alan Lee.