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Archive for the tag “Robert Graves”

Goodbye to Christmas Truces

(published originally at Wrath-Bearing Tree December 2014)

We have recently passed the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, which has occasioned a fair amount of press coverage looking back at the so-called (and ill-named) “Great War” or “War to End all Wars”. I intend to join this chorus with some of my own thoughts. For many people interested in history, the Second World War is the more interesting one due to its grander scale and its relatively clearly-defined moral force. For me, the First World War holds more interest since it was what I consider a “highly preventable” war that preceded and directly led to the next “necessary” or “just” war (if such a thing does exist, per Saint Augustine, then World War II is surely its closest reification in modern history). To be honest, I would rather consider both wars merely two parts of the same dance of death, punctuated by a short interval of instability (not unlike a modern and truly global version of that first “world war” reported by Thucydides — the Peloponnesian War). In any case, the causes and aftermath of the First World War would be laughingly stupid and unbelievable if they were not already tragically stupid and unbelievable. I am reminded of a quote by Jorge Luis Borges about the 1982 Falklands War, “It is a fight between two bald men over a comb.” In a similar way, we could say that the First World War was a fight between a bunch of spoiled children over who got to use the playroom. Though they all had their own toys, sharing and cooperation were unlearned traits. There is something profoundly important to remember about this tragedy, though sometimes the easiest way to deal with tragedy, if not outrage, stoicism, or escapism, involves a disarming sense of humor and irreverence. All four issues will be dealt with in this essay, in which I will focus on Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, his memoirs of early life in England up to and after his participation in the trenches of WWI. Graves was a highly prolific poet and author most famous for his fictional rendering of the Julio-Claudian dynasty in I, Claudius and Claudius the God, and of the Byzantine general in Count Belisarius (which I reviewed here). He was born in 1895, making him 19 years old when the war began–a typical age for new officer and soldier recruits. His mother was German and his middle name was von Ranke, which was no small problem considering the bullying nationalistic anti-German hysteria before, during, and after the war, and was one that caused suspicion from bullying schoolmates and later even from fellow soldiers despite his proven competence in battle. This was a smaller version of the same problem faced by fellow writer D.H. Lawrence, a pacifist married to a German who was under de facto house arrest for the entire war.

Goodbye to All That, published 11 years after the Armistice in 1929, was Graves’ second work of non-fiction after a biography of his friend T.E. Lawrence called Lawrence and the Arabs. By this time, Graves had already published many poetry collections, including poems written before and during the war. The publication of his memoirs came at a time in which the young author had apparently only recently recovered from years of emotional trauma that today we would call PTSD (often called “shell shock”), and the title references what he calls his “bitter leave-taking of England”, including its war, its politics, its society and education, and even many of his own family and friends. Here is a representative quote about his post-war experience: “Very thin, very nervous, and with about four years’ loss of sleep to make up, I was waiting until I got well enough to go to Oxford on the Government educational grant. I knew that it would be years before I could face anything but a quiet country life. My disabilities were many: I could not use a telephone, I felt sick every time I travelled by train, and to see more than two new people in a single day prevented me from sleeping. I felt ashamed of myself as a drag on Nancy, but had sworn on the very day of my demobilization never to be under anyone’s orders for the rest of my life. Somehow I must live by writing.” After publication of Goodbye to All That, Graves moved to the Spanish island of Majorca were he remained for the rest of his life, except for a long stay in America to escape the Spanish civil war.

The book is important for its ability to capture, from the point of view of a single individual rather than a comprehensive historian, the passing of one epoch to another that occurred with the First World War–from what has been called the “long 19th century” (or the “belle epoque” if you like) to the “modern age” of which we are still living (or transitioning out of to a still-undefined age). These are mere historical categories, but they tend to capture the turbulence that saw many of the changes to an old world system dating from the French Revolution, or the Middle Ages in some cases, to a new world where possibilities for progress and destruction both expanded exponentially. Graves serves as a paradigm of a certain type of young person (by definition well-educated and middle-class), especially in England but also throughout the West, after the First World War who saw personal shifts in thinking towards more radical ideas like socialism, atheism, feminism, and pacifism based on their first-hand experiences in the trenches, as well as in their jaded view of a society which they discovered to be neither as civilized nor as progressive as they had thought (I think Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, for example, captures this sense from the German perspective).

Graves opens with an account of his family history and early years, with the first line stating his acceptance of the autobiographical convention of starting with earliest memories: witnessing Queen Victoria’s 1897 Jubilee, in his case. He spends some time in these chapters detailing his visits to his aristocratic German relatives in their Bavarian castles and against whom he would later take arms.

He attended many public schools (what Americans would call private or prep schools), with the longest tenure at one called Charterhouse. Several anecdotes are given regarding the severity and hypocrisy of the education system he went through. Outdated but still powerful Victorian standards of morality accomplished little more than to stifle emotional development and foster “immorality”. One such case is his description of the rampant homosexuality in these types of all-boys boarding schools, going so far as to detail his own platonic infatuation with a younger schoolmate. He dwells on his friendship with George Mallory, the famous alpinist who was an older mentor at Charterhouse and later best man at Graves’ wedding. Mallory, who died on Mount Everest in 1924 after possibly being the first person to reach the summit, was mentioned as one of the only people who treated students like humans, which puzzled everyone according to Graves. Also at this time Graves took up boxing as much to defend against bullies as to keep fit, and would later prove useful in proving his manliness (and, thus, his worth) in front of soldiers and superiors alike.

The heart of the book comes in the middle chapters detailing Graves’ time spent on the Western Front. At the outbreak of war, he deferred his matriculation to Oxford University in order to join the army. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Welsh Regiment since his family home was in Harlech in northwest Wales. Like so many other young men, he was eager to join in the fighting before the war ended (how many times it is said at the beginning of every war that it will be over “by Christmas”). While the war obviously did not end by December 25, 1914, Graves witnessed the famous Christmas Day truce soon after joining his regiment on the Western Front (he refers to it as the Christmas 1914 fraternization, of which his regiment was among the first to participate). This event, the likes of which are rare in the annals of war, saw the belligerents, German, French, and British, come out of their trenches and join in an unarmed singing of carols and exchange of greetings and gifts. More than anything else, this short-lived sense of shared humanity and brotherhood can be interpreted as soldiers losing the martial spirit and wanting to take back control of some part of their lives, however small or temporary. I spent two Christmases in Afghanistan and well understand the sentiment of soldiers that comes at times like Christmas in which all that is desired is a temporary break from the stress and trauma of war.  Even in 1914, the truce was obviously resented by the generals and politicians, who ensured there would not be a repeat of such non-warlike sentiment the next Easter or following Christmases, as well as by the Press in the involved countries, where no mention was made for at least a week after the event that hundreds of thousands laid down their arms to hobnob with the enemy. The press coverage also distorted and minimized the truce in order to make it seem more freakish and less peaceful than it actually was. The Christmas Day truce lives on in popular memory and culture, however, and this year the British supermarket Sainsbury’s went so far as to make a television commercial reenactment of it in which a German and British soldier swap chocolate and biscuits.

One of the central events in the book is the Battle of Loos, a British and French attack on German lines in September 1915 in which a few kilometers of ground changed hands and almost 100,000 men died. It was the first use of poison gas by the British, and also the battle in which Kipling’s son went permanently missing in action, prompting that writer of The Jungle Book to write the sad poem “My Boy Jack.” Graves describes how the gas was euphemistically referred to “the accessory”, and how everyone was highly skeptical of its efficacy because its supervisors were university chemistry professors brought in to administer it. Sure enough, “the accessory” was deployed with a headwind coming into the Allied lines, causing the gas to harm the British more than the Germans it was intended for. The battle itself was also an all-around disaster. Graves mentions how, much later in the war when he had been sent home to recover from his wounds, he was asked to give a speech to 3000 incoming Canadian soldiers. “They were Canadians, so instead of giving my usual semi-facetious lecture on ‘How to be Happy, Though in the Trenches’, I paid them the compliment of telling the real story of Loos, and what a balls-up it had been, and why – more or less as it has been given here. This was the only audience I have ever held for an hour with real attention. I expected Major Currie to be furious, because the principal object of the Bull Ring was to inculcate the offensive spirit; but he took it well and put several other concert-hall lectures on me after this.”

A key feature of Goodbye to All That is the farcical and probably invented dialogue, which reads like short theatrical set-pieces. It seems like almost every occasion of reported speech involves a back-and-forth rhythmic dialogue that ends in someone laying a punch-line. Along with the stock characters, this shows the fictionalized nature of Graves’ memoirs (a feature which recalls Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast, or Robert Byron’s travel writing masterpiece The Road to Oxiana).

One of the most important characters in Graves’ book is Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow “war poet” who joined Graves’ Royal Welch Fusiliers regiment in 1916 and struck up an immediate friendship. Sassoon published his own three-part fictionalized autobiography in the 1930’s with the middle book, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, covering the war. Like Graves, Sassoon had not published any poetry when they met, and Graves’ realistic (as opposed to romantic) style influenced his friend. They both published collections before the end of the war. Sassoon was described by Graves as being one of the most courageous men he had ever seen or heard about in his time in the trenches. He tells one story in particular about how Sassoon single-handedly attacked and took control of a German observation trench, then enraged his superiors by not telling anyone about it. He was found two hours later sitting in the German trench reading a book of poetry. Sassoon, like Graves, later suffered a type of nervous breakdown and wrote his famous 1917 “Soldier’s Declaration” denouncing the war and the government’s incompetent prosecution of it. In this, he was encouraged by anti-war activists like Bertrand Russell and Ottoline Morrell. Sassoon threw his Military Cross for bravery into a river, though he escaped a court-martial, with Graves’ help, and was sent to a hospital to recover from “shell shock”. There he met Wilfred Owen, another war poet hugely influenced and encouraged by Sassoon, and who was himself killed on the Western Front one week before the Armistice. I find it worth mentioning that Sassoon and Owen were both gay. Another gay soldier was the Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein who, like Sassoon, volunteered for service at the outbreak of war and demonstrated repeated bravery in battle on the Russian Front to the point of being thought suicidal (which he also was). Such examples make one wonder why gay soldiers in the American military have until recently been considered unfit for service.

One of the most tragic, and understated, events of the book is when three officers of Graves’ battalion, and three of his closest friends, were all killed in the same day by shelling and sniper fire. David Thomas, the third member of the trio of poet friends in the battalion, was among the dead. Graves states: “I felt David’s death worse than any other since I had been in France, but it did not anger me as it did Siegfried. He was acting transport-officer and every evening now, when he came up with the rations, went out on patrol looking for Germans to kill. I just felt empty and lost.” Soon thereafter, he writes: “My breaking-point was near now, unless something happened to stave it off. Not that I felt frightened. I had never yet lost my head and turned tail through fright, and knew that I never would. Nor would the breakdown come as insanity; I did not have it in me. It would be a general nervous collapse, with tears and twitchings and dirtied trousers; I had seen cases like that.”

Graves finished his time in the trenches during the 1916 Battle of the Somme, being injured so gravely as to be reported dead. He spent the rest of the war convalescing in hospitals, helping train new volunteers to his unit, and even being posted to Ireland where the English garrison was trying to stop (unsuccessfully, it turned out) the burgeoning Irish uprising. The rest of the book talks about his marriage to a feminist activist, their move to the country near Oxford, setting up house, opening a general store (“The moral problems of trade interested me. Nancy and I both found it very difficult at this time of fluctuating prices to be really honest; we could not resist the temptation of under-charging the poor villagers of Wootton, who were frequent customers, and recovering our money from the richer residents. Playing at Robin Hood came easily to me. Nobody ever detected the fraud”), and having four children in eight years (possibly the most amazing fact of the autobiography; he mentions at this point how sometimes he would only scrape out half an hour or so of writing a day in between his fatherly and household care taking duties–we can well imagine).

In this later part he also deals at length with his friendship with T.E. Lawrence, whose biography he wrote just before Goodbye to All That. Here are, in my opinion, two of the most important quotes from that chapter: “I knew nothing definite of Lawrence’s wartime activities, though my brother Philip had been with him in the Intelligence Department at Cairo in 1915, making out the Turkish Order of Battle. I did not question him about the Revolt, partly because he seemed to dislike the subject – Lowell Thomas was now lecturing in the United States on ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – and partly because of a convention between him and me that the war should not be mentioned: we were both suffering from its effects and enjoying Oxford as a too-good-to-be-true relaxation. Thus, though the long, closely-written foolscap sheets of The Seven Pillars were always stacked in a neat pile on his living-room table, I restrained my curiosity. He occasionally spoke of his archaeological work in Mesopotamia before the war; but poetry, especially modern poetry, was what we discussed most.” And the other: “Lawrence’s rooms were dark and oak-panelled, with a large table and a desk as the principal furniture. There were also two heavy leather chairs, simply acquired. An American oil-financier had come in suddenly one day when I was there and said: ‘I am here from the States, Colonel Lawrence, to ask a single question. You are the only man who will answer it honestly. Do Middle-Eastern conditions justify my putting any money in South Arabian oil?’ Lawrence, without rising, quietly answered: ‘No.’ ‘That’s all I wanted to know; it was worth coming for. Thank you, and good day!’ In his brief glance about the room he missed something and, on his way home through London, chose the chairs and had them sent to Lawrence with his card.” I find these scenes moving and relevant.

The book ends in 1929, though shortly after he divorced his first wife, and got married and had four more children with his poetic muse, Laura Riding, with whom he established a publishing company at their base on Majorca. He was runner-up to the Nobel Prize in Literature won by Steinbeck, and he died at the age of 90 with 140 published works.

The whole of Graves’ memoirs is filled with stories of understated and cynical humor, and pathos. In one case, he describes the last time he attended church which was during his Easter 1916 visit home. He tells a story of having to push his mother uphill in an heavy bath chair, since the only available wheelchair in town was taken by “Countess of-I-forget-what”, and then sit through a three-hour service despite being ill himself. About the ordeal he writes: “I forgot my father’s gout, and also forgot that passage in Herodotus about the two dutiful sons who yoked themselves to an ox-cart to pull their mother, the priestess, to the Temple and were oddly used by Solon, in a conversation with King Croesus, as a symbol of ultimate happiness.” During the sermon the “strapping” young curate, one of four men present–compared with 75 women–was “bellowing about the Glurious Performances of our Sums and Brethren in Frurnce today. I decided to ask him afterwards why, if he felt like that, he wasn’t himself either in Frurnce or in khurki.” His father then took him to meet War Secretary (and future Prime Minister) David Lloyd-George, who Graves says “was up in the air on one of his ‘glory of the Welsh hills’ speeches. The power of his rhetoric amazed me. The substance of the speech might be commonplace, idle, and false, but I had to fight hard against abandoning myself with the rest of his authence. He sucked power from his listeners and spurted it back at them. Afterwards, my father introduced me to Lloyd George, and when I looked closely at his eyes they seemed like those of a sleep-walker.” It is worth mentioning that Graves’ book angered so many people that even his father, one of the offended, felt it necessary to write his own memoirs as a rebuttal to his son’s entitled To Return to All That.

While I have enjoyed and profited from reading “big” history, Goodbye to All That is a great example of the importance and edification of reading individual accounts of history. I always find autobiographies of great and famous people illuminating for the perspective it helps give to their time period. Though I have studied history and literature, I am no scholar and seek mostly entertainment and self-improvement in my reading. I will leave it to others to argue more convincingly the faults or short-comings of books like Graves’ or Sassoon’s memoirs (Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory comes to mind, which Mike Carson has already discussed at length here), but I personally find such personal accounts interesting and instructive.

Regarding a sense of humor towards destructive war declared by elites and suffered by the common man, I think it is not only in bad taste but can do more harm than good by normalizing the illegality and immorality of the war. Thus, I agree with this quote by Bertrand Russell, a pacifist who spent the last year of World War One in prison for speaking against involuntary military service for conscientious objectors: “Alas, I am that extremely rare being, a man without a sense of humour. I had not suspected this painful fact until the middle of the Great War, when the British War Office sent for me and officially informed me of it. I gathered that if I had had my proper share of a sense of the ludicrous, I should have been highly diverted at the thought of several thousand young men a day being blown into tiny little bits, which, I confess to my shame, never once caused me to smile. I am reminded of a Chinese emperor, who long ago constructed a lake made entirely of wine, and then drove his peasants into it only to amuse his wife with the struggles of their drunken drownings. Now he had a sense of humor.”

Regarding a sense of humor, which can only be “dark” or cynical, by veterans against their war which may be a way to ease the personal trauma and represent, even fictionalized, the collective tragedy in which they played a part, I look up to Graves and his successors such as Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, who have highly influenced the field of war literature.

Regarding the causes of destructive (and self-destructive) wars like WWI, I will leave it once more with the wise and quotable Bertrand Russell, writing here in his book Education and the Social Order about the innate violent sense of retributive justice that is easily awakened in humans: “I found one day in school a boy of medium size ill-treating a smaller boy. I expostulated, but he replied: ‘The bigs hit me, so I hit the babies; that’s fair.’ In these words he epitomised the history of the human race.” One of the things that makes us human is the ability to laugh in the face of the tragically absurd, and continue living in spite of it. Graves in this book has done just that, making his book a classic not only in the genre of war literature but in modern literature as a whole.

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What I Read in 2015

Reading is an activity subsequent to writing: more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.     J.L. Borges

Near the end of 2014 I made a spur of the moment decision to publish a list and commentary on all the books I had read the past year (which you can read here). This had a couple of unplanned benefits: it led me to posting more essays on my blog again after a two-year hiatus; and it helped me to better plan and maximize my reading time. For example, after making the 2014 list I noticed that there was only one female author, and that this was shamefully not out of the ordinary for me. I decided my first goal for 2015 would be to read many more books by women. I think you will see from the following list that I succeeded. This also led me to other unexpected avenues, such as many books by African authors, and also African-American authors. One of the many benefits of reading is that it can help you learn about, and empathize with, people from different backgrounds than yourself. For other benefits and a much longer reading list, take a look at this great article I came across by a librarian who read 164 books in 2015. I started 61 books this year, and finished all but six of them. That is nearly double the 33 or so books from the previous year, and still almost shocking how I even got this far considering my busy teaching schedule and my two-year-old twins that take up most of my time.

I have already reviewed some of the books on this list at length, and I would like to comment much more extensively on most of them, but that will have to be done individually in future posts. I tried to keep any comments here as short as possible for brevity’s sake. Unfinished books are marked with *, and sometimes reasons are given. My reading list for 2016 is already quite long and each book I encounter usually leads to several other books by the same or similar authors, all in the pursuit of what Nabokov termed the “Orphic thirst” of reading and rereading. I hope if you are reading this far you, too, will find some recommendations, and I would welcome any comments or other suggestions you have in the comments section. Without further ado, the list:

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Post-Apartheid South Africa, economical and unpredictable plot, typically precise writing from the 2003 Nobel Laureate

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

Important metaphorical novel about the relationship between Whites, Blacks, and land in Apartheid-era South Africa from the 1991 Nobel Laureate.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Out of AfricaSeven Gothic Tales* by Karen Blixen

Started my growing interest in reading more African-themed books this year.

The Sea, The SeaUnder the Net by Iris Murdoch

Very entertaining, philosophical, and memorable books in both cases by a prolific author and philosopher. The Sea, The Sea is one of my favorite books from this year; the setting itself was so evocative that it was almost a central character.

High Lonesome* by Joyce Carol Oates

Chosen nearly at random as my first entry into her endless works, read a good portion, technically well-written, but laid aside due to lack of interest in the characters and settings.

On Violence by Hannah Arendt

Very important perspective on political philosophy that I will write about more at a later date.

The Handmaid’s TaleThe PenelopiadThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

All three great, though the second is little more than a trifle. The Handmaid’s Tale is another of my favorites from this year and, as Harold Bloom comments in the preface, every bit as good and important a dystopian vision as 1984 and Brave New World.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

Very long and ambitious, but perhaps too much so by the 2007 Nobel Laureate. Difficult to finish. I most enjoyed the sections set in pre- and post-war Rhodesia, but not so much the section about Communist Party struggles in 50’s Britain.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Excellent all-around novel for its time and place, as it should be considering the near universal praise it always receives these days (Salman Rushdie being the sole exception). Great psychological depth to characters, and even the language was very stimulating for formal Victorian prose.

TypeeWhite-JacketMoby-DickThe Piazza Tales by Herman Melville

Looking back now it was a crime that I had never read Melville, and the recommendations by two separate people whose taste in literature I trust set me to remedying my omission. I quickly become a firmly convinced believer in Melville as the greatest American writer. Moby-Dick was the best book I read this year.

Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Herman Melville by Harold Bloom (editor)

He holds that Moby-Dick is the darkest of America’s three national epics (the other of which are Huckleberry Finn and Leaves of Grass). He also notes how fully four out of the six short novellas of The Piazza Tales are veritable masterpieces.

The White CastleMy Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Already written a review of these books here.

Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell

The second part of the Alexandria Quartet, filling in the gaps from where the first novel Justine, which I read last year, left off. I suspect I will read the third volume in the coming year and possibly the fourth.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Julian by Gore Vidal

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves

I already reviewed the three above novels of Ancient Rome here.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

After Memoirs of Hadrian, I chose this one randomly hoping that another French female writer named Marguerite would also be as good. I was disappointed, and if this one were not so short I would not have finished it.

Half of a Yellow SunAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I already reviewed these novels here.

Things Fall ApartNo Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe

This and the following seven authors all connect with the running African theme I followed this year.

Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka

Excellent play, especially appreciated the litany of Yoruba proverbs.

Weep Not, ChildWizard of the Crow* by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

The second of these, a funny and important satire on African dictators, is unfinished only due to its length, but I’ll come back to it next year.

The Sultan’s Dilemma by Tawfiq al-Hakim

Wonderful play, a sort of comedy of errors set in Mamluk-era Egypt.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

The Famished Road by Ben Okri

Incredibly dream-like story of a desperately impoverished family in the slums of Nigeria, won the 1991 Booker Prize.

Song of SolomonBeloved by Toni Morrison

This and the following three authors were all mentioned in my essay “Why Black Literature Matters

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Still incredible that the person who wrote this excellent and thoughtful memoirs became president; even a bit disappointing that he hasn’t been a better president considering this book.

Go Tell it on the MountainGiovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

The Roman Near East by Fergus Millar

A History of the Later Roman Empire: AD 284-641* by Stephen Mitchell

After finishing the three novels of Rome above, I wanted to catch up on a couple of pieces of academic historiography I had overlooked during my Master’s study in Ancient History.

Mongols and Mamluks: The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War, 1260-1281 by Reuven Amitai-Preiss

Research inspired by The Sultan’s Dilemma above.

Climbing: Philosophy for Everyone by Stephen Schmid (editor)

Light-weight philosophical essays discussing various ethical issues surrounding my favorite hobby–rock climbing.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

Very good and very funny social satire on 19th century Russian society; the first part is a masterpiece and much better than the second, which tends to repeat itself and lose narrative focus.

Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison

Three well-wrought and captivating novellas about tough everyman characters seeking revenge and getting the most out of their lives.

A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew Hefti

Debut novel to be published in January 2016 by my colleague at www.wrath-bearingtree.com; deeply-felt story about how two men’s lives changed after fighting in Iraq.

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton

Another Iraq veteran discusses the consequences of climate change on the human species and how we can possibly preserve some of our culture; my review of it will appear soon either here or on another website.

Daisy Miller; The Turn of the ScrewThe Aspern PapersThe Ambassadors*The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

All audiobooks during my commute; the first three are slow but rewarding novellas with precise subtlety of characterization and plot; The Ambassadors I could not finish due to lack of readily available plot; The Portrait of a Lady kept me interested just by its rich psychological character studies.

Pragmatism by William James

Not a particularly readable or convincing case from Henry’s older brother; I think Dewey and then Rorty is probably the better way to go with the “American” philosophy of Pragmatism.

Howard’s End by E.M. Forster

Great novel, a slightly better version of all of the Henry James above, but after all these (along with Middlemarch and Dead Souls), I will probably take a break in 2016 from 19th century or turn of the century dramas of the social and class divide, scheming matchmaking, and invisible servants.

Gilead* by Marilynne Robinson

Became interested after reading Obama’s interview with the author (and because of the shared name with the country in The Handmaid’s Tale); alas, it was too slow and uninteresting for me, which I’m sure is my fault more than the author’s.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Great example of how to use literature to mock dictators (the monstrous Trujillo, in this case) and learn about people from different backgrounds.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

More like a connected series of short stories than a novel; the first couple chapters were the best, but I began to lose interest by the second half due to generally unlikeable characters and more superficiality than I like in my books.

Three Novels of Ancient Rome: Memoirs of Hadrian, Julian, and Count Belisarius

One of the reasons I decided to do a Master’s degree in Ancient History came from my interest in seeing the ruins around Greece and Italy during my travels there. Another reason was my chance reading of Robert Graves’ novel I, Claudius, which I picked up in a hostel in France two days before starting the Camino de Santiago and had already finished before starting the walk. Obviously I learned quite a lot about Ancient History doing an advanced degree, but the reading and studying was exclusively of an academic and historical nature. Readers of my blog will have noticed that I enjoy literature as well, for its own sake. When history meets literature it is classified as the genre of historical fiction–a creative reimagining of historical events into a fictional narrative. Recently I had the pleasure of reading several more examples, like I, Claudius, of historical fiction centered on ancient Rome that I had not had time enough or interest in while formerly focusing on pure historical research. They are, in chronological order of their protagonists’ lives, Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar; Julian, by Gore Vidal; and Count Belisarius, by Robert Graves.

Swarthy, bearded, Spanish-accented Hadrian

Swarthy, bearded, Spanish-accented Hadrian

Hadrian is known by most people as the builder of a wall in northern England. In fact, he was arguably the most successful of all Roman emperors, as well as one of the most fascinating, in my opinion. He presided over the Empire for a brief period in which it was at its political and cultural apex, and almost completely at peace at home and abroad. Such a description obviously pays homage to Gibbon’s famous opening of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in which he claimed that the happiest period in history, until his own time of course, was during the reign of the so-called Five Good Emperors, of whom Hadrian was the third. Hadrian was a deeply committed philhellene who completed the synthesis of Roman and Greek culture. He was the only emperor to visit every part of the Empire, this while it was at its greatest geographical extent. He climbed Mt. Snowdon in northern Wales, crossed the Tigris River, and rode into the deserts of Algeria and Morocco. He was an architect, whose Pantheon, still standing proudly in Rome, used cutting edge dome technology, and whose villa at Tivoli is still evocative today; a poet, whose sole surviving poem is called “Animula vagula blandula” and has generated dozens of different translations (here is the novel’s version, and perhaps my favorite: “Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore. But one moment still, let us gaze together on these familiar shores, on these objects which doubtless we shall not see again…Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes”); and a philosopher. We know that he also composed an autobiography, though unfortunately it is lost to us. Marguerite Yourcenar, the first woman to be elected to the French Academy, made it her decades long life project to create her own version of this lost autobiography. The result, Memoirs of Hadrian, is a profound masterpiece.

The book takes the form of a letter from the dying Hadrian to his young adopted grandson, Marcus Aurelius, who was destined to rule as the last of the aforementioned Five Good Emperors. This format has the wise and experienced Emperor giving advice to his future heir to the throne whilst at the same time recounting his life story. Hadrian came from a noble landowning family with deep roots in colonial Spain, like his predecessor and adoptive father, Trajan (in antiquity known as the so-called “Best Emperor”, which this book disputes–”He had reached that moment in life, different for each one of us, when a man abandons himself to his demon or to his genius, following a mysterious law which bids him either to destroy or outdo himself.”). Hadrian, a somewhat late bloomer, spent the first forty years of his life in civil and military service to the Empire, where he became known as a highly capable general, manager, and administrator (“Nothing is slower than the true birth of a man.”). The tale of his succession to the throne is gripping and well-told, and then we follow him in his constant travels around the Empire for the rest of his reign and life. His biggest occupation was shoring up the defenses and military capabilities of the Empire, maintaining peace through strength, and increasing general welfare and prosperity and spreading culture as widely as possible. This Hadrian, probably much like the historical one, is a refined and enlightened humanist who can be seen as far ahead of his times. The book portrays with taste and circumspection the tragic event of this emperor’s life, which was the death by drowning in the Nile of his 20-year-old Greek companion Antinoös. Hadrian reacted by building a new city on the site and founding a new cult in his honor which was one of the most widespread and well-attested in Roman antiquity (“Meditation upon death does not teach one how to die; it does not make the departure more easy, but ease is not what I seek. Beloved boy, so willful and brooding, your sacrifice will have enriched not my life but my death…Centuries as yet unborn within the dark womb of time would pass by thousands over that tomb without restoring life to him, but likewise without adding to his death, and without changing the fact that he had been.”).

Busts of Hadrian and Antinoös from the British Museum

Busts of Hadrian and Antinoös from the British Museum

Besides the narrative itself, which flows nicely due to the constant action of the life of the protagonist, the book’s strength include its poetic and lyrical passages combined with its philosophical introspection that comes from the life of an experienced and wise author channelling a like-minded Emperor. Indeed, choosing just a few representative quotes from so many worthy ones is a difficult task, and I am certain this will earn a rare rereading by me. (“For my part I have sought liberty more than power, and power only because it can lead to freedom. What interested me was not a philosophy of the free man (all who try that have proved tiresome), but a technique: I hoped to discover the hinge where our will meets and moves with destiny, and where discipline strengthens, instead of restraining, our nature.”).

Gore Vidal (1925-2012) was a quite famous public figure in his day, and especially known as a writer of historical fiction like Burr and Lincoln. Julian, about the life of the eponymous Roman emperor, is considered one of the very best from Vidal’s long career; it is the only book I have read by him so far but I would easily imagine that to be the case. Julian, who earned the later sobriquet “the Apostate” from Christian writers, is the second Roman emperor I personally consider most fascinating, despite his short reign of only four years. Indeed, I did quite a bit of research about his life and times and almost focused my thesis on him. Julian (330-363), was a nephew of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, and was destined to be the last heir of that dynasty before dying prematurely at the age of 33 (incidentally also the age of Jesus, Alexander, and me as I am writing this) under dubious circumstances during the retreat from a Persian campaign (the narrative tension at the end of this novel, and the most obviously invented fiction of the novel, involves a conspiracy over the death of the emperor).

Julian and his brother were raised in seclusion in Cappadocia after the sons of Constantine murdered the rest of his family in a paranoid pre-emptive strike against his familial rivals. Julian was very bookish and philosophically oriented; it would not be a stretch to say he was among the most educated and intellectual emperors in Roman history whose only real competitors would be Marcus Aurelius and the aforementioned Hadrian (and perhaps also Claudius, who was an antiquarian and the last known reader of the Etruscan language). Julian was also a deeply religious Christian whose study companions included two future Fathers of the Church, Saint Basil “the Great” of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, as well as another influential Christian writer, Gregory of Nazianzus. Julian also received philosophical training in Athens, where he listened to well-known orators and philosophers like Libanius and Priscus. At some point, Julian secretly renounced Christianity, the new state religion of his family, and adopted Hellenist paganism and sun worship.

A coin of long-bearded Julian with an obverse of a bull, symbolizing the enormous scale of his ritual sacrifice to Helios

A coin of long-bearded Julian with an obverse of a bull, symbolizing the enormous scale of his ritual sacrifice to Helios

The novel is written as a series of letters between the two previously mentioned philosophers years after Julian’s death. These letters form the frame story of Julian’s life, which is revealed in the chapters of his secret autobiography owned by Priscus and lent to Libanius with his own notes, to which Libanius adds his own comments. The events of the mid-4th century around which the story turns are interesting on their own account, and the retelling by Vidal makes them even richer and more alive. The characters are fully fleshed, from the false piety of the kin-slaying villain Constantius, Julian’s predecessor, to the fat, obsequious, and powerful eunuch Eusebius who ruled the huge court of the former. Julian is portrayed by the two story-tellers as an overly idealistic hero, whose goal of restoring the old Roman gods was always doomed to fail.

Most of Julian’s reign was spent in the second city of the Eastern empire, Antioch, preparing for a Persian campaign to follow in the footsteps of that always out-of-reach model of ambitious Romans, Alexander the Great. Despite Julian’s short reign, there is probably more extant writing from his own hand than any other emperor, as well as a myriad of other primary sources about his life. This was because of the literary circles Julian moved in no less than the caliber of his enemies, such as the previously mentioned Cappadocian Fathers. Julian wore an apparently ragged beard for most of his adult life, and, uniquely among all Roman emperors, wrote a satire disparaging himself in order to castigate the intolerable citizens of Antioch–Misopogon (Beard Hater). He also wrote a surviving satire on other Roman emperors in the style of Lucian of Samosata’s works and modeled and named after Plato’s Symposium. In this dialogue, Julian portrays a contest in front of the Olympian gods by all the Roman emperors to see who was the best among them. Julian takes this opportunity to make fun of them all, especially his uncle Constantine, and–Spoiler Alert–ultimately names Marcus Aurelius as the winner, but only because he didn’t stoop to the level of the other strivers, or even bother to respond.

Despite obvious fictional creations that historical fiction narrative requires, Julian is a very well-researched and historically accurate picture of the beginning of the Late Roman Empire. It is also a very entertaining novel in its own right with a certain amount of philosophical perspective that go well beyond commonplace, though not to the high standard of the profound and nuanced Memoirs of Hadrian. (“The rhetoric of hate is often most effective when couched in the idiom of love.” “Nothing human is finally calculable; even to ourselves we are strange.”) Though I have little interest in reading his American-centered historical fiction, I have already added Vidal’s Creation, his other foray into ancient Greek historical fiction, to my list.

First in order of composition but last in order of historical sequence comes Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius. Graves (whose World War I memoirs, Goodbye to All That, I already discussed at length in an earlier essay Goodbye to Christmas Truces) basically invented the genre of ancient Roman historical fiction with his 1934 I, Claudius, followed the following year by the sequel Claudius the God (an entertaining 1976 miniseries starring Derek Jacobi also featured a young and non-baldheaded Patrick Stewart as Sejanus). Count Belisarius (1938) was Graves’ next endeavor which moved the setting fully five centuries ahead to the height of the early Byzantine empire.

Mosaic from San Vitale in Ravenna, thought to represent the black-haired Belisarius

Mosaic from San Vitale in Ravenna, thought to represent the black-haired Belisarius

Belisarius was a military commander who rose through the ranks to become the right-hand man of the emperor Justinian. Belisarius was an extremely capable leader and innovator who developed and trained a new hybrid unit of heavy cavalry archers. His character was honorable and virtuous to a fault, and he possessed every quality desired in the best emperors save one: personal ambition. Throughout his amazing career he never failed to follow orders and defer power back to the emperor, Justinian. This came at great cost, as Justinian was portrayed in this novel as a counterpart to the earlier villainous Constantius in Julian: weak, cowardly, venal, jealous, petty, and hypocritical. Justinian’s goal, in the novel, was to earn for himself the appellation “the Great”, and to further this aim he focused on reforming the law code, building great monuments (the magnificent Haghia Sophia stands as one positive testament to his reign), and spreading largesse to churches and monasteries. The great military successes of Belisarius were little regarded by Justinian, who would always recall him to the capital at inopportune times and always failed to send enough resources to ever truly win wars or hold new territory.

The deeds of Belisarius can be reckoned among the greatest of the ancient world along with Alexander, Caesar, and Hannibal. He won every kind of battle under any conditions, and his reputation was such that even the revanchist Persian empire sued for peace immediately when it was reported that he was returning to campaign there. He reclaimed the entire Roman coast of Africa which had been held by the Germanic tribe of Vandals for over a century. Then, in a long a destructive war he reclaimed all of the Italian peninsula from the Germanic Ostrogoths, who fielded a much larger army. Much of the damage to ancient Roman sites in Italy first occurred during these campaigns. Belisarius twice held the city of Rome from a besieging army 10 times larger, but the population dropped to just a few hundred for the next few centuries (after boasting one million residents during the height of the Empire). The novel recounts success after success by Belisarius in the face of adversity not only from enemies but from his own Emperor. There is also much narrative space devoted to the court intrigues between the great Byzantine women Theodora, the empress, and Antonina, Belisarius’ wife, as well as the chariot racing factions which ruled the politics of Constantinople. The novel is very well-written and very entertaining, and draws much of its historical framework from the gossipy account of Procopius, the court historian with an ax to grind, called The Secret History. Belisarius holds the honor of being the last person to receive a Roman triumph (and possibly the only person outside the Imperial family to receive such an honor since the last days of the Roman Republic fully seven centuries earlier).

"Belisarius begging for alms" by Jacques-Louis David

“Belisarius begging for alms” by Jacques-Louis David

The legend has it that Belisarius ended his days as a blind beggar after the unjust vengeance of Justinian for a non-existent treason against the throne. Ironically, the two men died within months of each other in the same year of 565. For a variety of reasons, Belisarius is one of the most compelling figures of late antiquity and Byzantine history, and, as I stated earlier, unequivocally one of the very best military commanders in history. Count Belisarius does justice to such a character, and its narrative force is at least as strong as Vidal’s Julian, though neither are ultimately as well-rounded and thoughtful as Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian.

What I Read in 2014

Despite those metaphysicians who hold that time is circular, the end of the year and the forward march of time is an opportune time for stepping outside of time, so to speak, and looking backward and forward in time to assess one’s life, what one has done well in the past, and what can be improved or attempted in the future. Like every other year, 2014 was a big year for me personally for various reasons. In this post, I will limit my discussion to books I have read, recapitulating and epitomizing each one, throwing in some digressions for good measure. The list is what it is–part of the past now, and part of my personal history and development. This year’s total of 30 or so books is not the most I have ever read in one year–I read over 40 solid books during my second deployment to Afghanistan which was 15 months, and I surely read much more during my Master’s study–but I don’t remember an overall assemblage of tomes from which I took so much enjoyment of reading itself, and not from research or other worldly duties and responsibilities. The books on this list were uniquely received and understood by me in a way that will be different for every other potential reader, owing to our mutual uniqueness of character and experience. If the list leads you to find a single good book you may not have otherwise read, I will consider myself happy (happier, rather, since my reading of these books was the original instantiation of my happiness). Unless otherwise stated, the list only includes books that I finished and not ones that I abandoned due to sudden change  of interest (Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, for example), dislike (one of the books of George Saunders, for example), or other various stories and volumes that I randomly perused or forgot I even started.

Postwar by Tony Judt

This was the only work of history I read this year, unusually for me, and was the longest of the year as well (835 pages). It covers the entirety of European history from the last years of World War Two until 2005. Considered the very best broad survey of this segment of world history. I learned many things about the nooks and crannies of Europe of which I know next to nothing (Romania and Yugoslavia, for example) and much more about the places where I supposedly know something (Italy and America, for example). The book also links together the pieces of the puzzle, including economy, culture, American foreign policy, and many other things, that led directly to the state of Europe as it currently stands.

Zorba the Greek and parts of Odyssey: A Modern Sequel by Nikos Kazantzakis

I had seen the film twice and started the book a few years ago, but I finally got around to reading the whole tale of Alexis Zorba. As is obligatory to say in such contexts, it is better than the film. Kazantzakis’ epic sequel of Odysseus’ wanderings would have ranked as the longest book of the year, but I did not finish it, and do not plan to in any hurry. It is one to be savored intermittently and at a leisurely pace. If you want to find out more about this author, I have already written a longer article called Nikos Kazantzakis the Greek. He is truly one of the great writers of the 20th century.

Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity and Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty

These are two accessible works (that is to say, not technical or jargony) of philosophy by the American pragmatist and political activist. They are quite engaging, though I have not actually made up my mind yet which parts of his thinking I disagree with. In the first book, there is a very interesting discussion and comparison between Orwell and Nabokov, not just as writers but as philosophical thinkers. Recommended for these final two chapters alone. The second book is basically Rorty explaining his same ideas in different ways, which is not necessarily a bad thing. As the most important American philosopher since Dewey, he deserves a longer explanation which I cannot give at this time. Here is one interesting quote from the latter book: “So, for pragmatists there is no sharp break between natural science and social science, nor between social science and politics, nor between politics, philosophy and literature. All areas of culture are parts of the same endeavor to make life better. There is no deep split between theory and practice, because on a pragmatist view all so-called ‘theory’ which is not wordplay is always already practice.” It is worth mentioning that these books are partly responsible for my decision (unconscious at first but very clear now) to change my reading habits largely back to fiction after a long time of focusing about exclusively on non-fiction (history, philosophy, and other theoretical pursuits).

Hadji Murad; assorted short stories by Lev Tolstoy

Tolstoy is in the literary pantheon, so it is never difficult to read or reread anything by the Count. Hadji Murad was his last completed novel (technically a novella), and was the inspiration for a short story of mine that is to be published in an anthology of veteran authors next year. One of only two pieces that I reread this year was the short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, which uses its 10 pages to their maximum story-telling potential. James Joyce considered it the best short story ever written (which obviously means the best that Joyce himself had ever read).

Anxiety of Influence and The Book of J by Harold Bloom

Bloom is the foremost American literary critic, and in the first work he describes how all literature is written with an “anxiety of influence” about drawing inspiration from and trying to surpass one’s literary forebears. Most of the book focuses on English poetry, but the ideas he puts forth are relevant to any field of study. The second book is more accessible but also more speculative. Bloom posits that the Hebrew Torah was originally the work of a single creative mind during the Enlightenment period of King Solomon, and further that this author was a woman. In his introduction to another book, The Western Canon, Bloom takes this idea a step further and claims the author was none other than Bathsheba. It is very well thought out and sound hypothesis, to the point that he includes the entire original version of the story of Yahweh supposedly created by Bathsheba in a long poem imagined by David Rosenberg. According to Bloom, Joseph would have been the heroic literary counterpart to the historical King David, whose reign would have been witnessed by the author and seen as a golden age compared to that of his incompetent grandson Rehoboam.

Very Little, Almost Nothing by Simon Critchley

The only real technical philosophy I read this year discusses the problematic idea of nihilism and how it can be overcome. A difficult read, punctuated by many interesting and inspiring quotes. One of the things that moved me was Critchley discussing the quote by Adorno about Auschwitz: “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.” Critchley then notes, “After Auschwitz, the Kantian epistemological question ‘How is metaphysics possible?’ yields to a historical question ‘Is it still possible to have a metaphysical experience?’ For Adorno, this is because actual events–the Holocaust–have shattered the basis upon which metaphysical speculation might be reconciled with experience.” It has quite a bit of value from the point of view of contemporary metaphysics and for those interested in existentialism.

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson; Beethoven: The Universal Composer by Edmund Morris

These are two of a series of short and lively biographies for a popular audience called “Eminent Lives,” each of which I read in a couple sittings. Though I already knew quite a bit about the world’s greatest playwright and composer, respectively, the authors have a flair for story-telling, and I now have more perspective about the world these two literary and musical luminaries moved in. About Shakespeare, it was just as interesting to learn about the historical reception and scholarship of the Bard as about the few real facts that exist on the man. About Ludwig van, Morris probably captures the man, if not the music, in this quote: “His talent amazed me. However, unfortunately, he is an utterly untamed personality, not at all wrong if he finds the world detestable, but he thereby does not make it more enjoyable either for himself or others.”

Afghan Post by Adrian Bonenberger; Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War by Various Authors

The first book is a war memoirs about the author’s time before, during, and after entering the Army and spending two years in Afghanistan. It is written in epistolary form and delves into a series of interesting dialogues, of which we only read one side but can infer the rest (or imagine our own responses), with old friends and relatives as his life changes dramatically through his experiences in war. I happen to be friends with the author since we served together in the same battalion for one year in Afghanistan. This shared experience allowed me to relive and rethink some of my own ideas about the war from a different perspective, now several years removed from action, and in the end I found my own personal catharsis.

The second is a collection of short stories by veteran authors written about the war experience in Iraq or Afghanistan, or as a military person in general upon returning home. Coming from many different backgrounds and experiences, the authors obviously use a variety of styles, and the stories are a mixed bag. These two books are the only contemporary war literature I have read since finishing my own time in the army, though I have been learning about some other intriguing and well-received books on that theme, and have already mentioned an upcoming collection vaguely inspired by Fire and Forget that will consist of 20 veteran authors’ stories set in the context of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Assorted Russian Short Stories

I find the Russians to be a great inspiration not only for writing but for living life with a wider understanding of the world and the people who populate it. I have already mentioned Tolstoy as the greatest of them. This year I read Gogol (The Inspector-General, The Overcoat, The Nose–which is second of two pieces this year that I reread), Pushkin (The Queen of Spades), Chekhov (many stories from a seemingly limitless short story writer), and Babel (The History of My Dovecote), and a few others I am forgetting.

The Words by Jean Paul Sartre

This is Sartre’s literary autobiography and one of his last works, I believe. It was somewhat interesting at the beginning while he leisurely lays out his family history and early years, but I struggled through most of it. It turns out that when I looked into it a bit later that Sartre was apparently attempting to disavow his literary career with this memoirs, and to discredit the act of writing itself, as opposed to direct action in the world. Whatever. Probably my least favorite book of the year.

Waiting for the Barbarians and The Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

These are considered the two best books from the South African Nobel laureate. I found them both to be quite excellent, with a very understated and seemingly simple story-telling style that nevertheless is totally compelling from start to finish. Both take place is generic nations (or empires) run by generic functionaries and military men (though I couldn’t help but imagine both the setting as apartheid-era South Africa). Both works have a deep moral force that keeps them afloat and invite the reader to think for himself.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

The author was a psychoanalyst who spent years in Nazi concentration camp, survived, and wrote this amazing book and many others. He founded his own school of existentialist psychoanalysis, called logotherapy, which states that finding meaning in one’s own life is the primary driving force in humans. The story he tells of his experience is probably the most intense story of human understanding that a person can ever tell, and I would recommend everyone to read it. Frankl was already a practicing psychiatrist and psychotherapist when he was taken to the concentration camps, and through a super-human act of human will, he was able not only to survive but to treat and inspire his fellow prisoners, and to keep keen observations of the extremes of human behavior he was witnessing everyday in order to write about it later. If Frankl could find meaning in life while in Auschwitz, how can we complain about our lesser quotidian cares and worries? Here is one representative quote: “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnesus by Patrick Leigh Fermor

These are the first among several literary travel books I read within a few months of each other and that all date from between the two world wars. The first two books are parts one and two of a trilogy, though the third installment was published unfinished in 2013 after the author’s death. They recount a walk across Europe, leaving England and debarking in the Netherlands with Istanbul as the final destination, by way of the Rhine, the Danube, and several other meanderings and tangents. This trip began in 1933 when the author was 19, and finished a couple years later. The background of the tale is itself quite significant–here was a young and idealistic Englishman (half-Irish, actually) embarking on a walking tour through old Europe–cosmopolitan, feudal, aristocratic, ethnically mixed up–before its last remains were blown away by the Second World War. His long first section walking across southern Germany took place just after the Nazis had come to power. Though he does not mention the political situation much, it is always present between the lines. This is because Fermor masterfully combines a sense of his youthful attitude with commentary from his much older authorial self–the book was written over 40 years after the trip, when Fermor was in his 60s and already long established as a war hero (he led the British-Greek resistance on Crete and abducted a German general and took him to Egypt) and travel writer (he had already published six full-length travel books, including Mani). The first book finishes with Fermor standing on a bridge on the border of Hungary and the second continues to the trip through Hungary and Romania to the border with Serbia at the so-called Iron Gates. The third presumably takes us across the last bit of the Balkans to Constantinople and thence to Greece, where Fermor would make his home later (here is a great article in The New Republic on the background behind  Fermor’s last unfinished installment). Along the way, we come to learn of the incredible amount of hospitality he received during the long sojourn, often and increasingly from old feudal lords and aristocrats of Germany and the Habsburg Empire. He sometimes stayed for weeks at a time in various castles of these learned and idle counts and barons. While the story itself stands on its own, what makes this a classic, and has led to Fermor being repeatedly named as the best English language travel writer, is his use of language. It is masterful and inimitable, and paints a wonderful picture in the reader’s mind.

The third book I read by Fermor this year was written after WWII and recounts in great detail a walking trip by the author and some friends through single long peninsula of the Peloponnesus called Mani. Fermor, who lived in Greece for decades and knew every part of Greece and its inhabitants, uses this singularly isolated and independent strip of land to describe the customs, culture, and history of its people and how they compare to other Greeks.

The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

This is another travel book that tells of the author’s trip from Venice through Palestine and Syria to Persia and Afghanistan in 1933. His purpose was ostensibly to study the origins of Islamic art and architecture, and he spends a lot of time describing the mosques and other buildings he encounters. It is also exceedingly well-written, and contains countless little short comical theatrical set pieces of dialogue that show Byron’s strong personality, sense of humor, and gifts as a writer. After finishing the trip he spent three years crafting this work, which has been called his masterpiece, and then he died on board a British vessel sunk by German torpedo whilst on his way to work for British intelligence in Egypt (and possibly Greece, as the name Byron would still carry weight there).

Abroad: British Literary Travel Writing beween the Wars by Paul Fussell

Fussell here attempts to make travel writing into a more reputable and rigorous topic of study in literary and historical circles with this book, and if he did not succeed, it is through no fault of his but of his academic colleagues. The book generally describes how the British (and, to a lesser degree, American) travel writing boom came about directly as a result of World War One–both life in the cold, muddy trenches for soldiers and scarcity and belt-tightening at home led the society in search of warmer places. Those who could not travel were still highly ready to read almost any type of travel book that did not involve England. Each chapter is on a different writer (Greene, Lawrence, Waugh, Douglass, Durrell, Auden and Isherwood, with especial praise for Byron) or aspect of the new travel industry (the British invention of the passport, for example). It was very educational for me to learn about another side of a period of history and literature I thought I had a decent grasp on, but to see with a completely new perspective.

The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller

The American expat Miller forces his way into the travel writing craze against his will. This book is on the author’s 1938 trip from Paris, where he had made his home, to Greece, where he had never been. He came on the suggestion of Lawrence Durrell, who had made his new home in Corfu and maintained decades of correspondence with Miller. Miller makes a big show about his lack of classical or formal education in regards to ancient Greece, but it becomes clear throughout the book that he know a thing or two about life. It is written in his typical (and influential) colloquial and fearless style. There are long passages of internal monologue that are both poetic and inspired. Miller held this to be his best book, and many critics agree. One person said that Miller had raised solipsism to an art form. The colossus of the title is a certain prominent man of letters and outsized personality named Katsimbalis. In fact, the main character is Miller himself, and his enthusiastic reawakening to some type of life spirit in Greece (one critic said that Miller, in this book, had raised solipsism into an art form). While visiting Crete, Miller was greeted and looked after by someone named Tsoutsou whom Miller describes as being the biggest literary figure of Crete and a man who spoke 10 languages and knew everybody. I cannot find any other references to this theory, but I found myself imagining this as a fictionalized version of Kazantzakis. Another interesting fact is that Ghika, the famous Greek artist, was a member of the circle of friends of Katsimbalis that Miller frequented. Ghika illustrated Kazantzakis’ Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, and his house on the isle of Hydra was also where Patrick Fermor wrote Mani. The Colossus of Maroussi, on the other hand, was written in America after Miller had to unwillingly return there to escape World War Two, and his panegyric on all things Greek is openly stated to also represent his distaste for all things American. It is a must-read for anyone who loves Greece, traveling, or great writing.

Justine and Prospero’s Cell by Lawrence Durrell

Justine is the first of a larger four-part work called The Alexandria Quartet. Each of the four books is written from a different character’s point of view, and the first three take place simultaneously while the last one is set six years later. Justine is a lushly stylistic novel whose every sentence is a work of literary art. The entire quartet was a bit long for me to finish this year but I will gradually finish it over time, as I am prone to bounce between many different books at the same time, sometimes putting one down for several years before finishing it. The variety is what is important for me, and the same book reread years later would be received differently–the words were the same but I had changed. I think my short digression here does something to represent the spirit of Durrell’s masterpiece. Alas, Durrell’s setting of the cosmopolitan, cultured, and romantic Alexandria which lasted for 23 centuries is now long gone, as this article in Foreign Policy magazine shows. The second book I read by him was his fictionalized travel story of his year spent in Corfu in 1938. I have visited that largest of the Ionian islands as well, and this book did more than make me want to return as soon as possible. It was rich and interesting and entertaining.

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

This is the first book I read by Graves outside of the two Claudius books I had enjoyed several years back (after randomly finding the first one in a French hostel before starting the Camino de Santiago and finishing it within a few days). Goodbye to All That is a fictionalized (funny how many books of supposed non-fiction qualify for that adjective–that’s why it’s called literature and not documentary) memoirs of the author’s early life through trench life in World War One and his traumatic break with England and move to Majorca. It can be classified as another post-war travel book as I described earlier. I have written a much longer review of this book on my other blog in a post called Goodbye to Christmas Truces.

The World as I Found It by Bruce Duffy

This is more than a fictionalized version of history–it is a pure novel that happens to follow the real lives of eminent philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and, to a lesser extent, G.E. Moore. As a novel, it is wonderful and beautifully written. Since I happen to know quite a bit about these men and their work, I was not disappointed in any regard and found the book totally compelling. The author gave a lecture in 1991–three years after the book’s publication–in which he explains his rationale for changing and inventing facts about real people for the sake of a novel: “Was it moral, what I did? Was it moral of Max Brod not to burn Kafka’s manuscripts and papers as Kafka had instructed? I can’t really answer this question except to say there are different forms of homage. As I saw it thirty years after his death, Wittgenstein was nobody’s moral property. Like a man buried at sea , he was rightfully consigned to history.” And again here Duffy says: “In Shakespeare’s time to write plays about Julius Caesar or Prince Hamlet was not a bothersome thing, but today it is, I’m afraid. In an era of experts and unprecedented specialization–in a time when I should say we cripple ourselves by ceding far too much to the wisdom of experts–a book like mine is bothersome, for some to the point of being disorienting. For all our self-conscious poses, for all our irony and formal sophistication , not to mention our exposure to the strategies of modernism and postmodernism, many of us still like our categories straight. We are greatly bothered by confusions of fact and fiction. We are bothered by a novel that, say, in its prologue adopts the seemingly trustworthy voice of a biography only to monkey with the facts: This is unsportsmanlike, like impersonating a rightful officer of the law. Be more radical and experimental! says one camp. Be more conventional! says the other. When they rap my knuckles, critics seem to hold out these two shining alternatives, often seemingly at the same time. But again, their advice enshrines what too many naively expect nowadays. Straight categories. Fiction as some literary substitute for the old Classic Comics. Above all, the epic, churn-em-out complacency of that form I almost uniformly detest: ‘historical fiction.’ These by now are old tactics that do not trouble anyone.” In other words, long live the novel (and do not worry if its characters are real people–Shakespeare and Tolstoy didn’t). Whether you are interested in the lives of its characters or not, I can recommend this as an excellent and well-written novel that stands on its own merits.

The Collected Poems by Constantine P. Cavafy

This is the only work of poetry I read this year, which is something I would obviously like to rectify in future years. Cavafy was a Greek poet who lived and wrote about his home city of Alexandria, Egypt. He was a major inspiration for Durrell’s quartet above, and his poem “The City” was especially relevant to the latter work. His poems are a combination of historical, philosophical, and aesthetic, and are thus quite accessible and intriguing even for a poetry laggard like me. One of his poems, “The God Forsakes Antony”, was the inspiration for the Leonard Cohen song “Alexandra Leaving.” Another random (or not) connection is that Cohen also has a house on the island of Hydra and was heavily influenced by Henry Miller. Overall, Cavafy’s poems are evocative and inspirational for me, especially because I share a love of classical history and Mediterranean settings.

Runaway by Alice Munro

This collection of short stories is considered one of the best by the recent Nobel laureate. Most of her stories take place in rural Canada, where she is from. They are heavily focused on female characters and delve deep into their psyche and motivations. Munro has been called a modern, or a Canadian, Chekhov. I think this is great praise for her, and I see the resemblance but do not feel she is quite on the level of the Russian master of the short story. Time will tell, though. She does share with Chekhov a disregard for traditional plot devices and more focus on psychological aspects of the characters, especially involving sudden realizations that changes the characters’ lives in some way. Most of these stories have a deep underlying sense of humanity, and pathos. I was most moved by one called “Silence” (and not only because it contained the first cultural reference I have ever seen to ancient Greek romances by Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus). This is the most contemporary of the books I read this year, and the only one by a woman. It has helped me continue to try and expand my boundaries as a reader and explore new writers and different styles.

According to Borges, “reading is an activity subsequent to writing: more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.” Just as Borges considered himself, first and foremost, a professional reader rather than writer, I also hope to improve my reading skills and knowledge of the world each year. At a certain point, the issue becomes time and how to choose and prioritize what to read out of the infinite options–how to satisfy what Nabokov called the “Orphic thirst” of reading and rereading. I already have a long list of books to read next year and in coming years and which will lead to even more books that I have not even heard of yet. I hope to do better next year.

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