The Prince – Niccolò Machiavelli

Everyone has heard the name Machiavelli, but how many have actually read the book he is most famous for? Well until this week I hadn’t got round to it despite owning a copy for many years. It’s an interesting book, originally written in Italian at around 1513 and ultimately dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici after the original proposed dedicatee died before the work was finished; it has given its author a reputation for ruthlessness and scheming which is partly but not entirely justified. Machiavelli was above all else a patriot to his city state of Florence and having lived through turbulent times when the various Italian states had been repeatedly fighting each other along with invasions from both France and Spain he wanted to set down some advice based on his experiences. Florence was seriously weakened during his lifetime and he wanted it to rise again so sets out in the first half of the book some arguments as to how a state rises, is maintained, and can ultimately fall with numerous historical examples to back up his propositions.

It is probably the second half of the book which has been historically so troubling but frankly despite the directness of the language, you can still read it and see where he is coming from even if you don’t agree with his arguments, see the following passage for how a prince should behave

he should learn from the fox and the lion; because the lion is defenceless against traps, and the fox is defenceless against wolves. Therefore one must be a fox in order to recognise traps, and a lion to frighten off wolves. Those who simply act like lions are stupid. So it follows that a prudent ruler cannot, and should not, honour his word when it places him at a disadvantage and when the reasons for which he made his promise no longer exist. If all men were good this precept would not be good; but because men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you, you need not keep your word to them.

Chapter XVIII – How princes should honour their word

He further looks to whether a prince should be generous or parsimonious and concludes that whilst generosity can possibly rise a new ruler to princedom it cannot keep him there as it ultimately will be ruinous and any attempt to raise further funds will be resented by the majority who have to supply the money either by taxes or seizures of property and merely appreciated by the minority who gain by them. This will lead to uprisings against the prince and the loss of his state or more likely his life. The decision is then that a prince should be seen as miserly by preference especially if they use the garnered wealth to maintain sufficient soldiers to make the state safer from possible attacks from its neighbours. He also has much to say about armies and why mercenaries are a bad thing as they just draw on the state funds when not in use and can simply move to another state willing to pay them more money if things start to look as if they are going against them. Even a professional army is a problem that needs to be carefully looked after to avoid officers rising to a point where they could see themselves as possible rulers and therefore mutiny and there is a balancing act needed to ensure loyalty without engendering resentment from the populace who ultimately have to pay for them.

He is even more troublesome when it comes to cruelty or compassion to your subjects

So a prince should not worry if he incurs reproach for his cruelty as long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal. By making an example or two he will prove more compassionate than those who, being too compassionate, allow disorders which lead to murder and rapine, These nearly always harm the whole community, whereas executions ordered by the prince only affect individuals.

Chapter XVII – Cruelty and compassion, and whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse.

Well that last sentence is certainly true, especially for the individual being executed, but I’ve never come across such an argument so brutally put and it is probably such sentiments that have given Machiavelli his reputation today, and indeed pretty well ever since the book was published in the early sixteenth century.That is not to say that the book is not worth reading, because it definitely should be read today especially when considering the current state of world politics and conflicts. Machiavelli is blunt in his opinions but that only makes them easier to read and understand, I’m certainly not recommending the book as a guide to how to exist nowadays but it can give valuable pointers as to the possible mindsets of various rulers today who whilst not embracing Machiavelli in his entirety definitely give the impression of being in general agreement with him.

The Secret History – Procopius

Procopius was born around 500AD and died sometime after 565AD, a period during which the Roman empire was in serious decline. For many years he worked for the celebrated military commander General Belisarius during which time he wrote the work he became known for in the time of the empire ‘History of the Wars’. This series of eight books is a standard document of the campaigns of Belisarius who seemed to be leading his armies, and even the navy at some point, everywhere. It is clear from the level of detail that Procopius was on the scene for most of the battles he describes even though his official role, at least initially, was as legal advisor to the general. Less well known is his work ‘The Buildings’ which is largely a hagiography of Emperor Justinian (527AD to 565AD) as it describes the major construction works undertaken during his reign and exclaims the greatness of Justinian due to these churches and other civil engineering projects. His third work however is the one that I have read this week and it is very different to the rest, not least because it wasn’t available during his lifetime and indeed was only discovered in the Vatican library centuries after his death and finally published in 1623. So why wasn’t it available in the preceding thousand years, well Procopius gives us the explanation in his foreword.

This book is basically a scandal sheet denigrating Justinian as a genocidal leader interested only in the money he could confiscate or swindle out of everyone else and slaughtering tens of thousands of people on a whim whilst losing vast chunks of what was left of the empire. His wife is portrayed as a scheming whore, free with her body from an outrageously young age, stripping off in public places and letting anyone have their way with her as they wished. His former boss Belisarius and his wife are similarly pilloried by Procopius as is the previous emperor Justin who is described as an idiot and little more than a jackass. It is quite clear why he decided not to publish in his lifetime or indeed whilst anyone mentioned in the book was still alive, the repercussions would have been swift and brutal.

One slightly irritating feature of the book is the constant references back to Procopius’s eight volume history, this is usually where he is giving a scandalous reason for something that he had previously written about but which he had glossed over the causes of in the earlier book. This becomes more annoying if, like me, you don’t own ‘History of the Wars’ so can’t refer back, the notes in this edition simply tell you which of the eight volumes the story was first told, it would have been nice if a short precis was available so that the reader can compare the two accounts but that would have made the book probably over long. All in all I quite enjoyed this book though, it is unusual by being a character assassination of a couple of Roman emperors written at the time of their reigns, the only work I can think of that I have read with a similarly blunt although not as brutal or scandalous assessment of the emperors is ‘The Twelve Caesars’ by Suetonius although all the rulers he wrote about were dead before he started work on that.

As can be seen from the foreword the writing style is fairly chatty, although the subject matter with it’s never ending tales of depravity can get a little wearing at times. The translator of this Folio Society edition is Geoffrey Williamson and it was originally published as a Penguin Classic (L182, first published August 1966). The Folio Society first printed it in 1990 and it has gone through several editions since then.

The Knight in Panther Skin – Shota Rustaveli

This prose translation of Rustaveli’s Georgian epic poem from the twelfth century by Katharine Vivian was praised by The Director of the Institute of the History of Georgian Literature in Tibilisi, A G Baramidze, as

an interesting attempt to render Rustaveli’s poem in prose – not to give a literal word by word translation, but rather a free rendering which may bring to the reader the contents of the poem and thus contribute greatly to Rustaveli’s popularity throughout the English-speaking world.

Prefatory note

The poem is seen as one of the greats of Georgian literature and Rustaveli is regarded there in much the same way as Shakespeare is here so it was a surprise on reading it that it doesn’t appear to have any action take place in Georgia. Instead Avtandil and his great love Tinatin are portrayed as coming from Arabia whilst Tariel and his love Nestan-Darejan are Indian. The story concerns how Avtandil and Tariel are separated from the loves of their lives and ultimately win their hands in marriage although in two very different ways. But let us start at the beginning because that is where the story is closest to Georgian history. The first chapters deal with Tinatin being raised to be Queen of Arabia by her father as he steps aside and this mirrors the ascension of Queen Thamar in Georgia who was monarch during Rustaveli’s lifetime and this is still seen as a golden age for Georgia. Avtandil is commander of Tinatin’s army and a favourite of her father Rostevan whilst Queen Thamar’s second husband was a highly successful military commander. From here onwards though the poem leads off on a mythical path.

One day whilst Rostevan and Avtandil were out hunting they see in the distance a knight on a black charger clad in a panther skin and when they get nearer it can be seen that he is weeping. Rostevan dispatches some of the soldiers with them to bring the knight to him but he seeing soldiers approach kills them assuming that they meant him harm. When the king attempts to get near the knight turns his horse and vanishes. Greatly intrigued by this mysterious knight and saddened by the loss of his men Rostevan sends Avtandil on a three year quest to find the knight in the panther skin. Now this is where the tale could have been padded out considerably in describing Avtandil’s journey, and the poem is already 200 pages long, but within a page we find ourselves near the end of the three years and all we are told is that he hadn’t found him, Rustaveli is clearly keen to get to the action.

Finally about to turn back and report failure Avtandil spies his quarry but remembering what happened to the last soldiers he saw approach the knight decides to track him rather than approach directly. He discovers his home in some caves and finally manages to talk to the woman who lives with him and persuades her to get the knight to talk to him. This knight turns out to be Tariel and king of one of the seven kingdoms of India and prospective heir to other six who are all held by one man, he is also maddened by grief. It turns out that he is desperately in love with Nestan-Darejan who is the daughter of the other king and she is in love with him but that he had killed the man who had been arranged to be her husband and fled the country to avoid the repercussions. Nestan-Darejan, once it was discovered that she was in on the plot was exiled in secret and Tariel had been looking for her ever since and this is where the story really begins to pick up.

The tale of how Avtandil returns to Arabia to report finding the knight and then heads back to him against the wishes of Rostevan, thereby making himself an outcast, but he does so in order to aid Tariel find Nestan-Darejan. The great quest he makes in this search (which this time is covered by the poem) and the ultimate success not only in defeating the many enemies he comes up against but also in rescuing her and into the arms of Tariel is the main part of the story. That all ends well for our heroes, including the other characters that assist them greatly is happily the result and the way the story builds in excitement is really well done. Avtandil and Tariel are endowed with mythical abilities in war and either singly or with a few hundred men are capable of taking on foes with considerably greater numbers whilst emerging with at worst a minor injury to themselves. This truly is a tale of the Heroic Age and what would probably have been a daunting read, a 200 hundred page poem is something to take care with, was transformed in Katharine Vivian’s prose to be a romp through a great story. Georgian literature is poorly represented in English translation so I am glad I finally took this book off the shelves.

The book was published by The Folio Society in 1977, unusually by using letterpress, and is bound in Princess Satin cloth with a very attractive device on the cover by Levan Tsutskiridze. Sadly for A G Baramidze’s hopes that this would spread the word about their great epic it was never reprinted and I cannot find Katharine Vivian’s translation being subsequently published by anyone else. In fact this appears to be the only English translation of Rustaveli’s masterwork ever printed in the UK.

A Winter Book – Tove Jansson

Best known for her Moomin stories, Tove was also a highly talented artist and writer away from her children’s books. This volume is a collection of twenty short pieces originally published in Swedish between 1968 and 1998 and collected here for the first time in English in 2006 by Sort of Books.The book is split into three sections; ‘Snow’, ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’ and ‘Travelling Light’ the first two of which are re-arranged chapters from Tove’s first adult work ‘The Sculptor’s Daughter’ (Bildhuggarens dotter). This re-arrangement brings the winter themed parts together into ‘Snow’ and the summer items into ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’. ‘Travelling Light’ consists of six pieces, some of which have never been translated into English before and all of them are difficult to find in English. The book is illustrated with numerous photographs from Tove’s life including some charming ones of her as a small child. You may wonder why it is called ‘A Winter Book’ when it includes works that relate to the summer but that is to contrast with the earlier work ‘The Summer Book’ (Sommarboken) which was first published in 1972 and which was a novel rather than a compendium of short stories.

‘The Sculptor’s Daughter’ was first published in Swedish in 1968 and translated into English in 1969 and provides fictional retelling of episodes in the young Tove’s life growing up with her sculptor father and artist mother and all written from the viewpoint of the little girl she was at the time. Tove Jansson was fifty four when she wrote these tales down but she is meticulous in giving life to her younger self and continuing to see the world from the eyes of a small child, albeit one with a strong sense of adventure as illustrated by the story ‘The Boat and Me’ which recounts a journey she undertook in her first boat to head off round the group of islands where the family lived in the summer before being found and towed home by her father well after dark.

Another favourite of mine from these two sections is ‘The Iceberg’ where Tove finds an iceberg just too far off the shore for her to safely get on it and separated from the shore by some quite deep and freezing cold water. In the story she debates attempting to get on the berg and ultimately just throws her torch onto it where it nestles in an indentation exactly where she most wanted to be. The story is a tale of regret that she didn’t have the courage to attempt the jump herself and ride off on the ice to who knows where.

The story that I loved most however is from the collection of random stories in ‘Travelling Light’ and that is ‘The Squirrel’ which is taken from her second collection of short stories ‘The Listener’ (Lyssnerskan) first published in 1971 and here in a new English translation. In this story we have an old woman living on and island just as Tove Jansson and her long time partner Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä did but this lady is living alone. This island has no trees so she is surprised to see a squirrel one morning on the landing stage. The interplay and ultimate relationship she feels for this lost traveller over the coming winter is great fun and beautifully written, you can really feel for her as she tries to feed the animal and look after it without letting it into her home and what happens when it gets in anyway. The ultimate resolution of the story is completely unexpected and had me laughing out loud.

There are a couple of flops, particularly ‘Messages’ which frankly I didn’t get at all, but overall the book is a joy to read and a complete contrast to the Moomin tales, I’m so glad I spotted it and picked it up earlier this year.

Poems – St John of the Cross

For this, the 200th post in this blog, I have chosen a Penguin Classic translation of the poetry of St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic christian and follower of Teresa of Ávila whose writings have also appeared in the Penguin Classics catalogue. The book is actually rather more than a translation as it is a parallel text edition with the original Spanish text on the left hand pages and the English on the right. Saint John (Juan de la Cruz in Spanish) was a Catholic priest and Carmelite friar involved in setting up religious houses in northern Spain but was also the greatest of the mystic poets in Spanish literature and indeed one of the giants of Spanish literature regardless of style or theme.

However, before discussing the poems, I would like to take a little time over the translator, much as the book does with a preface by his widow Mary Campbell. Roy Campbell was born in South Africa in 1901 and first came to England in 1919 where he met and married Mary in 1922 and they moved back to South Africa in 1925. He worked as an editor on a literary magazine whilst writing poetry but disagreed with the apartheid regime so moved back to London in 1927. On their return to England they fell in with the Bloomsbury Group and Mary started a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West at the same time as Virginia Woolf was also having an affair with Vita. Roy strongly, and reasonably, disapproved of his wife’s affair and to separate Mary and Vita the Campbell’s moved first to Provence and then to Toledo in Spain where Roy Campbell discovered the works of St John of the Cross and the couple converted to Roman Catholicism. It was in Toledo that St John had been imprisoned by rival Carmelite monks opposed to the very strict variant of the calling espoused by Teresa and John, he wrote most of his poems during his confinement. Roy Campbell, by the 1930’s, was becoming a well known poet in his own right and was fascinated by the poems of St John and whats more his heroic poetic style seemed ideally suited to the extant works of St John so he began work on a translation that was finally published by Harvill in 1951 and won the 1952 Foyle Prize. It is this verse translation that is reprinted in the 1960 Penguin first edition that I have, Roy Campbell having died in 1957 hence his widow penning the preface where she completely fails to mention the lesbian affair that took them to Spain in the first place.

The Spanish text is by Padre Silverio de Santa Teresa CD, and first appeared in an UK book in 1933 published by the Liverpool Institute of Hispanic Studies.Roy Campbell has done an excellent job of translating the poems as not only has he translated the text but found English words which allow the lines to largely scan and always rhyme as the originals do. A moments thought would tell you how difficult this is and why many poetry translations don’t attempt this.The longest work is ‘Songs between the soul and the bridegroom’ where the poem is in the form of a conversation between the two parts where God is gradually revealed to be the bridegroom that the soul or bride is conversing with. I really enjoyed this one as there is more time for development of the story within the poem as it goes on for seven pages, most are less than a page and a half and some are simply one verse.

Several of the poems use repetition of the last line of each verse such as ‘Song of the Soul that is Glad to Know God by Faith’ where each verse, apart from the eleventh, ends “Aunque es de noche” (Although it is night) although with this particular poem Campbell varies the last line between “Although by night” and “Though it be night” and I’m not sure why he made the change as reading it with “Although by night” seems to scan perfectly well with each verse. My favourite poem of the collection though is ‘Verses about the soul that suffers with impatience to see God’ and this is another where repetition of the last line of each verse is utilised although this time it is the sense of the last line that is repeated as the words vary between “Am dying that I do not die”, “And die because I do not die”, “The more I live the more must die” etc. culminating in the more hopeful “I live because I’ve ceased to die”.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this volume of poetry as I’m not remotely religious, let alone Catholic, so am clearly not the target audience. I suspect this is partly down to the way religion is handled in English schools where is is taught as a ‘normal’ subject and after all nobody asks you to believe in geography.

Voyages to the Moon and the Sun – Cyrano de Bergerac

For a long time I believed that the author of this book wasn’t a real person but had been made up in some obscure French novel and that the character had lived on beyond the original work, so to find that Cyrano de Bergerac was not only real but an author as well as the famous soldier and duellist was a pleasant surprise. His life is however poorly documented, but this work can be dated reasonably well as it mentions the death of the philosopher Descartes, which happened in 1650 and de Bergerac himself died in 1654. My copy is the Folio Society edition published in 2018, illustrated by Quentin Blake and rounds off my selection of works translated from French that I have been reading throughout August. The illustrations to this blog were taken from the Folio Society web site entry on the book.

The book is in three sections so I’ll review it in the same way:

Journey to The Moon

The time that de Bergerac was writing in was a period of considerable scientific advancement as people moved away from the ancient Greek science towards the start of physics as we know it but there was much that was still up for debate such as if the Earth was the centre of the universe with everything else revolving around it. It is clear right from the start that de Bergerac had moved on from this notion and he understood that the Earth rotated, that the Moon orbited the Earth and that together they orbited the Sun. Journey to the Moon starts with the hero trying to reach the Moon by means of dew collected in jam jars. The reasoning is fair, dew rises in the morning so if you could collect enough of it and attach it to your body then it should take you with it, this he duly does and rises up into the air from Paris one morning. After a few hours he decides to land, releases the dew and is surprised to find it is still morning and he is in Canada as the Earth has rotated underneath him, de Bergerac didn’t consider that the atmosphere also rotates with the land beneath. Later he builds another machine this time powered by fireworks which does lift him to the Moon, leaving from Quebec.

The Moon he arrives at is however unrecognisable from the one we know as he finds the Garden of Eden there along with several old testament prophets and here the book starts to fail as he indulges in pages of theological arguments which drag the pace so much that I almost gave up at this point and began searching for another book to read, however I’m glad I persevered. Ultimately he leaves religion behind and goes on a fantastical exploration of his version of the Moon before returning to Earth by catching hold of the Devil on his way to deposit an inhabitant of the Moon to Hell and of course he has to pass the Earth on the way.

Journey to The Sun

For a long time it looked as if Journey to the Sun wasn’t actually going to get there, for the first twenty five pages it covers being persuaded to write up and publish Journey to the Moon and his subsequent denouncement as a sorcerer. Which leads to him being jailed, escaping and undertaking a very funny chase sequence which results in him accidentally running full circle and seeking shelter from his pursuers through the back door of the very jail he had escaped from. Eventually he builds a contraption which uses the power of sunlight via lenses to build up lift so that he can escape again, however he misjudges the power of his invention and instead of just rising and then landing again he is drawn all the way to the Sun and aims to land on a sun spot which he takes to be an area of land floating on the sun’s surface. The Sun in the book is not the flaming ball of gas that we understand but simply a larger globe that it is perfectly possible to traverse.

Eventually he meets a tiny king who with his subjects can transform themselves into anything they wish either singly or as a group to make something as large as a tree and in this tree is a Nightingale who leads him to the Kingdom of the Birds.

Story of the Birds

On arrival in the Kingdom of the Birds he is arrested and put on trial for the heinous crime of being a man and therefore a destroyer and killer of birds. Here de Bergerac demonstrates his ecological credentials and tries our hero for the damage mankind has done to the Earth and the wanton killing of bird life. He is ultimately sentenced to be eaten to death by insects but is reprieved when a parrot that he once set free from its cage speaks up in his defence.

Various adventures follow his release as he travels towards the Kingdom of Philosophers, although again de Bergerac gets distracted and spends pages retelling Greek myths without progressing with the story. Eventually this rather tedious section finishes and the hero continues on his way, meeting people from the Kingdom of Truth and the Kingdom of Lovers before the book suddenly finishes mid paragraph.

Overall I enjoyed the book but the large sections of ‘philosophising’ I could definitely have done without.

The Nun – Denis Diderot

The story behind this book is as fascinating as the novel itself and it would probably be good to start there, because it all grew out of an elaborate practical joke which was based on a real incident. In 1758 a young nun, Marguerite Delamarre, tried to get herself extricated from the vows she had taken in a Paris convent and returned to the outside world. However it was almost impossible for this to happen at the time and she duly failed but not before it had become the talk of the city. She ended up living her entire life, presumably unhappily, in the convent. Her story suggested itself to Diderot and a group of his friends as a means of persuading another of their company who had retired to the countryside to come back to Paris. They duly started a correspondence with him in 1759 pretending to be Suzanne Simonin, a nun who had escaped the cloister but needed assistance to avoid being forcibly taken back. They also included fake letters from Madame Madin, who was known to both parties and was supposedly sheltering the girl. Unfortunately for the friends of M. de Croismare he fell for the story rather too well and offered Suzanne a place in his household, even going so far as to try to arrange transport for her. They were forced to claim she was ill and then when he became more insistent that he wanted to help her they made the illness more severe and killed her off.

In a postscript, eight years later M. de Croismare did come to Paris and met Madame Madin and was surprised to find that she knew nothing of the whole episode. The story should have ended as a practical joke but Diderot had by now been so fascinated by their tale of woe that he decided to write Suzanne’s autobiography from childhood to how she ended up in the convent and then to her escape and he worked on it through most of 1760 although with no intent to publish, however once he found out that the joke was exposed he did finally publish in 1770.

To provide a reason for Suzanne to be shut up in a convent from the age of sixteen she had two slightly older sisters but it was becoming clear that potential suitors for them were getting more interested in Suzanne so she was put out of the way. This decision by her father was driven more by his (correct) suspicion that he was not actually her biological father and he wanted to prevent her having any call on the families money. He therefore determined that she should be got rid of in the most convenient way and as the story of Marguerite Delamarre proved it was almost impossible in 18th century France for a girl to leave a convent once she had been made to take her vows. However at the first convent she was sent to Suzanne refused to take her vows and created a scene in the church for which she was punished and later taken to a second convent.

At this second convent she was persuaded to take her vows despite protesting she had no vocation to become a nun and so started a horrific experience of neglect, beatings, sleep deprivation, etc. as the Mother Superior had a sadistic side and was determined to beat and torture a vocation into the young girl. Several of the illustrations in the book are based around these episodes and it is the one failing of this edition that the artist appears to be mainly interested in the voyeuristic depictions of a naked and half naked Suzanne than a more balanced view of the plot and the other sufferings she endures at the hands of this Mother Superior and her coterie of similarly sadistic senior nuns.

Eventually she is assisted to go to a third convent and here although the beatings and humiliation are not present she becomes the object of affection of the lesbian Mother Superior much to the confusion of the innocent Suzanne. Diderot appears keen to heap all the exploitative possibilities of a cloistered group of women some of whom are driven half mad by the regime and being locked away from the outside world from such a young age. It is not an easy book to read as it is written entirely from Suzanne’s viewpoint, but I’m glad this session of French works has persuaded me to get it off the shelves.

My copy is the Folio Society edition from 1972 and is notorious for its fading cloth spine, all copies I have ever seen are this badly faded, the rest of the book being protected by a slipcase. It is illustrated by Charles Mozley and translated by Leonard Tancock and is the fourth in my selection of books translated from French for August 2021.

Clochemerle – Gabriel Chevallier

Just possibly the most fun book I have read this year, it is delightfully written with the author taking the role of narrator and introducing us to the small Beaujolais town of Clochmerle and it’s comical inhabitants in the way of a consummate storyteller. Every character and place is beautifully described, and at length, so that you can fully realise in your minds eye each and every one of them. It is the third in my August book theme of ‘translated from French’ and it has been an absolute joy to read even though it clocks in at 320 pages.

It all starts with the decision of the local mayor to bring progress to his sleepy town by building a public urinal and due to the odd geography of the place the best location is half way up the main street which places it firmly outside the church. Although not as indicated on the cover of this Penguin edition as it is placed not in the centre of a square but up against a wall adjacent to the Beaujolais Stores on an alley leading up to the church itself. To get a feel for the wonderful descriptions in the book let’s look at page one and the two men walking down the road from the square to where the urinal is to be situated.

One of these men, past fifty years of age, tall, far-haired, of sanguine complexion, could have been taken as a typical descendent of the Burgundians who formally inhabited the department of the Rhone. His face, the skin of which was dented by exposure to sun and wind, owed its expression almost entirely to his small, light grey eyes, which were surrounded by tiny wrinkles, and which he was perpetually blinking; this gave him an air of roguishness, harsh at times and at others friendly. His mouth which might have given indications of character that could not be read in his eyes, was entirely hidden by his drooping moustache, beneath which was thrust the stem of a short black pipe, smelling of a mixture of tobacco and of dried grape-skins, which he chewed at rather than smoked. Thin and gaunt, with long, straight legs, and a slight paunch which was more the outcome of lack of exercise than a genuine stoutness, the man gave the impression of a powerful physique. Although carelessly dressed from his comfortable, well-polished shoes, the good quality of the cloth of his coat, and the collar which he wore with natural ease on a week-day, you guessed that he was respected and well-to-do. His voice, and his sparing use of gesture were those of a man accustomed to rule.

And there we have a perfect pen-portrait of Barthélemy Piéchut, mayor of the town, a man of ambition to go far in the party and for which mayorality of a small provincial town was to be just a stepping stone. His fellow walker is Ernest Tafardel the schoolmaster and a far more devout republican than his friend although not destined to rise any higher than his current role. Against these two redoubtable men of the Third Republic there is the powerful Catholic Church although represented in Clochemerle by the Curé Ponosse a man who joined the priesthood for a quiet life and is definitely not the man for the crisis to come. However there is also the old maid, Mademoiselle Putet, full of religious fervour with nothing else to drive her forward now it had become quite clear she was destined to remain a Mademoiselle and untouched by the male sex rather than a married Madame. She it is that stirs up the trouble between the church and the state, initially over the urinal which as she lives by the church at the end of the alley where it is placed she sees as a personal affront to her dignity, but later as she interferes in the various goings on of the population.

The stage is set for a farcical ‘war’ between to two sides which is reflected in another conflict also in the location of the urinal between the two most attractive women in the town who run the Beaujolais Stores in the case of Judith and the bar of Torbayon in the case of Adéle which are directly opposite one another. Judith is well known for being free with her charms so to speak and Adéle flaunts hers rather than directly engaging in extra-marital affairs unlike Judith but this all changes when Judith’s particular favourite, who is staying at the Torbayon Inn, is taken ill and nursed by Adéle who takes advantage of his bed ridden state to discover exactly what she is missing in her own marriage. All this takes place in the long, hot summer of 1923 when tempers are getting frayed due to the heat and the annual fete is the cause of excessive drinking on all sides. The cast of minor characters is beautifully drawn and all have part to play in the ultimate fiasco and its resultant tragedy from the washerwomen of the lower town to the baroness in her chateau above the town, through the government officials more interested in cars and their private dealings and the military who can’t be bothered to intervene.

The book ends with an overview ten years after the calamities of 1923 by bringing us up to date with the happenings to most of the protagonists since then and all is well with most of them and the town now boasts three urinals, a great step forward indeed. There are apparently two sequels 1951’s Clochemerle Babylone and from 1963 Clochemerle-les-Bains both of which at least were available in Penguin so I can definitely see me hunting these out for future reading even if they are out of print which they appear to be.

Candide – Voltaire

What on Earth have I just read? I don’t really know what I was expecting from the fourth book issued in the Penguin Classics series, maybe a serious French novel, but it certainly wasn’t this surreal fantasy adventure. Penguin Classics started in 1946 with Homer’s Odyssey and then followed that with a collection of short stories by Guy de Maupassant and then the Theban plays by Sophocles, all solid classics as expected and then came this truly bizarre narrative at the end of 1947. This is the second of the blogs making up my August theme for 2021 which is ‘translated from French’, as I have already featured Boule de Suif and Other Stories by Maupassant I selected this book as the second French book in the Penguin Classics without knowing anything at all about it before I started reading this week.

The only book I can think of that has such fantastical episodes is Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and like that other classic this is a satirical parody, however unlike Swift’s book which is set in various fantasy lands Voltaire has set his amongst contemporary events and real people. The problem with both books is that they are over two hundred and fifty years old so the politics and philosophies they are parodying are long gone and the messages that would have been clear to readers at the time are obscure at best or completely lost to the modern reader. This if anything makes them even stranger. Still on with the review of the book in hand, which was first published in 1759.

As is my usual practice with books which have an introduction I didn’t read it first but after I had completed the novel. As usual I’m glad I did as the introduction not only gives away large parts of the plot whilst trying to explain the references it also totally reveals the ending. However the introduction is essential after reading the book because it answers so many questions the modern reader has, such as why does Professor Pangloss teach that this is “the best of all possible worlds” and anything that happens must ultimately be for the best despite the continuous disasters that surround him and his pupil Candide; including in Pangloss’s case being hung as part of a Portuguese auto-de-fe following the 1755 Lisbon earthquake which killed tens of thousands of people. It turns out that Voltaire was mercilessly sending up the Theodicy by Gottfried Leibniz which takes as it central premise that exact philosophy.

The book starts with Candide and Pangloss at the Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh’s country seat in Westphalia along with the Baron’s family, especially his seventeen year old daughter Cunégonde who Candide is madly in love with, all is well with the world. Cunégonde sees Pangloss making love with one of the maids and decides to entice Candide but this is seen by the Baron who kicks Candide out of the house before he can make a move. Candide is then captured by the Prussian army, press-ganged into service, flogged almost to death, made to fight in a war with the French and nearly executed before escaping to Holland, Here he meets Jacques the Anabaptist and then runs into Pangloss who is now a beggar with syphilis which he caught from the maid and who informs Candide that soon after he left the castle was over-run by the Prussians, Cunégonde was raped before her and all other inhabitants of the place were killed. Pangloss is cured of syphilis by Jacques, losing an eye and an ear during the treatment. We are now on page ELEVEN. The frenetic pace continues through the rest of the book along with the rapidly rising death toll and never ending coincidences and disasters surrounding the characters. Throughout it all Candide and Pangloss maintain the Leibnizian philosophy of this is the best of all worlds.

The other protagonists in the book are increasingly strange especially the ‘old woman’ whose tale is the most bizarre of all and acts as a balance to Candide as she certainly doesn’t believe that this is the best of all worlds after the life she has had. Starting as the illegitimate daughter of Pope Urban X and ending as a servant in Lisbon by the time she meets Candide, on the way seeing her mother drawn and quartered, becoming a slave and having a buttock cut off to feed starving Janissaries during a siege amongst other experiences. The surreal happenings to all the characters continue throughout the book which travels to South America and back to Europe via El Dorado dropping in at England just long enough to witness the execution of Admiral Byng for failing to prevent the fall of Minorca to the French and deciding that England was just too crazy a place to stay, which bearing in mind the things that had already befallen them by then was a pretty damning indictment.

I think I need to read Candide again in a few months just to fully resolve in my mind all that happens but if you like books at a mad pace then Candide is for you.

The Dutch Riveter : Edition 9 – Edited by West Camel

I picked this up from my local bookshop the other week and have been thoroughly entertained by this selection from modern Dutch writing and amazingly it’s free. This is volume 9 and was launched on the 17th March 2021 via an online event from the British Library. I’d never heard of The Riveter until Megan, the bookshop owner, suggested I might like to read it as she had had some copies dropped off at the shop a few days ago.

The Riveter is a free magazine devoted to riveting European literature in English. The idea is to make international writing popular and accessible to readers everywhere and to celebrate excellent translation and great books from the rest of Europe.

The Riveter was launched in 2017 by the European Literature Network. Professionally edited and published by a small dedicated team, it attracts support from a wide range of publishers, authors, translators, critics, academics – and readers. It has achieved acclaim with its special issues on Polish, Russian, Nordic, Baltic, Swiss, Queer, German, Romanian and Dutch literature in English.

From the website of the publisher https://www.eurolitnetwork.com/the-riveter/

It is mainly available online, follow the link in the citation above, but apparently print copies of the Dutch and Romanian versions are readily available in the UK and as I have greatly enjoyed this very professionally produced little volume, 120 pages, I will definitely be looking out for more as I prefer to read an actual book rather than on a screen. I’ll just pick out a few highlights for me:

Someone Who Means It, by Maartje Wortel. Translated by Sarah Welling and Margie Franzen. This short story, which was first printed in 2015, is appearing for the first time in English translation. It’s eleven pages long so represents almost ten percent of the total book but it’s worth the dominance of space it takes up. It’s a story of love and loss, jealousy and passion beautifully told and definitely makes me want to read more by Maartje.

Herman Kock gets one of the subsections, with an extract from his latest book Finse Dagen (Finnish Days) and a review of the most recent one to be fully translated into English, The Ditch. I quite enjoyed the three page extract from Finnish Days and was pretty convinced I wanted to get a copy of The Ditch whilst reading Max Easterman’s largely positive two page review right up until the excoriating final paragraph

Sadly, as the story progresses, Herman Koch doesn’t manage to meld these various strands into a convincing whole: they just don’t hang together. The analytical insight he brings to Robert Walter’s jealousy is dissipated in the final third of the book. The old prejudices about Sylvia’s unnamed country are laid bare, but in the end, the resolution of the story, in which the significance of the ‘ditch’ becomes clear, doesn’t work for me: it is a dying fall, a whimper, which left me wondering: why?

Well that’s one book that needn’t make it to my to be read pile then.

On the other hand Dutch poetry has a huge amount going for it and is well represented here with a two page introduction, twelve pages of poems and a two page review of a poetry collection. Poetry has to be the hardest style of literature to translate for not only does the translator have to manage the words but the flow of the words has to be right. The choice of poems is well done with a good mix of serious and lighthearted works with for me two stand outs from each of those categories. The excellent ‘My Skin’ by Dean Bowen is crying out to be read aloud, this is performance poetry written down and you can’t help reading it out loud to appreciate the rhythm of the words. on the other hand ‘Pitying the Reader’ by Menno Wigman will make any dedicated reader chuckle as we have all been there. I’ll just include the start of the poem here so you can see what I mean.

A book? From cover to cover? I lack the strength.
Even poetry – just thinking about it –
exhausts me now. I’ve overdosed on poems,
stare blindly at the pages of my books.
For many months I’ve had a reader’s block,

I’ve grown allergic to the alphabet.

The articles by translators on their job and the problems and joys of translating were fascinating, there is so much crammed into this slim volume but now I need more, I will have to see if can get other volumes in the series.

The one criticism I have of this otherwise excellent publication is the choice of a grey font on a grey background for the majority of the pages, this is clearly done for aesthetic reasons rather than for the practical as it makes reading more than a few pages at a time very tiring.

The Flemish section which has a salmon pink background is not much better either.

I’m astigmatic so have enough problems distinguishing between letters without the heavily reduced contrast that this choice by an unthinking design team has come up with. It’s not enough to put me off reading but it is a problem and they really should drop the background shades to improve readability.