Travels with Herodotus

Travels with Herodotus (2004) by Ryszard Kapuscinski (English translation:2007)

Rating: ★★★★★

Kapuscinski was a great journalist and travel writer, and in part of this, his last book he presents a few fragments, a minuscule part of his wide experiences. These fragments become shorter and shorter while his reflections about Herodotus become longer and longer, so much so that the greater part of the work is about the Greek historian. The book is beautifully translated from the Polish by Klara Glowczewska.
Born in 1932, Kapuscinski grew up in a Poland which had become Communist after the war. He became a journalist, and round about 1955 he was sent abroad, in the first place to Italy. The first set piece comes early in the book: his first time out of Poland, his first travel by air, and the stunning impression, as his aircraft descended at night to Rome airport, of a city sparkling with lights and such a contrast with the very low-wattage country from which he had come.
Then he is sent to India: another memorable description of dense crowds sleeping on the platforms of Calcutta railway station.

A man is pushing his way through the huddled multitudes. He jostles an old woman, her bowl drops from her hands, and rice scatters onto the platform, into the mud, amidst garbage. In that split second, children throw themselves down, dive between the legs of those still standing, dig around in the muck trying to find the grains of rice. The old woman stands there empty-handed, another man shoves her. The old woman, the children, the train station, everything- soaked through by the unending torrents of a tropical downpour..”(p29).

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The World of Yesterday

The World of Yesterday (1942) by Stefan Zweig and Anthea Bell (translator)

Guest Review by Mr Ralph Blumenau

Rating: ★★★★★

In the Introduction to his book Stefan Zweig rightly says that no generation in recent times had undergone such a series of cataclysms, each breaking bridges with an earlier period, as had his own.

He had lived not only in one world of yesterday, but in several, and it is these worlds he sets out to describe. A truthful and passionate account of the advent of the horror that tore apart European culture, “The World of Yesterday” gives us insight into the history of a world brutally destroyed, written by a master at the height of his literary talent.

He was born, a Jew, in 1881 into a cosmopolitan and tolerant Vienna and into a world of utter political and economic security, confident in steady progress in society and in science. It knew the douceur de vivre (except that unmarried young men and especially young women led a sexual life which could find an outlet only in prostitution), and where culture – no longer under the patronage of the Court, but under that of the Jewish bourgeoisie – was more honoured throughout society than was wealth. The culture of the older generation was challenged by the avant-garde, with which Zweig and his fellow-students, even while still schoolboys in a stultifying educational system, were knowledgeably, passionately and actively engaged. Hugo von Hoffmansthal and Rilke were their lodestars. The universities were little better: Zweig was only a nominal student at the universities of Vienna and Berlin: his real intellectual life lay elsewhere. Already at the age of 19 he had the first of several articles accepted for the feuilleton section of the prestigious Neue Freie Presse in Vienna (of whose editor, Theodore Herzl, he gives a wonderful account). In Berlin he was looking for (and found) a wider circle – socially and intellectually – than in the somewhat inbred bourgeois and mainly Jewish milieu in which he had moved in Vienna. He drank in influences of every kind, from the sophisticated to the louche, exposing himself to `real life’ as opposed to the purely literal and to some extent derivative life he had led so far..

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Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Rating: ★★★★★

Lord of the Flies (1954), a hugely successful modern classic, provokes critical acclaim and acrimony simultaneously. The story is widely known, it has occupied a place in English Literature syllabuses since the 1960’s that is likely to continue. In 2005, the novel was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels written between 1923 to 2005. A superficially simple narrative that is easy to pick up is an obvious advantage, but in common with many of the classics, old and new, has layers of complexity.

A group of British public schoolboys are the survivors of an air-crash on an archetypical Pacific island paradise. There they confront the task of organizing survival and rescue. At first, they set up the systems basic to civilization, defined leadership, assigned roles, laws, food supply, shelter and waste disposal.

The original semblance of order imposed by the populist Ralph quickly deteriorates as the majority of the boys turn idle, their society disintegrating under the pressures of aggression, fear and irrationality. At one point, Jack summons all of the hunters to hunt down a wild pig, including the boys who were supposed to be maintaining the fire. A ship approaches, but passes by because the signal fire has gone out. Although the hunting of the pig turns out to be the hunters’ first successful hunt, Ralph is infuriated that they have missed a potential rescue. Many of the boys begin to believe that the island is inhabited by a monster, referred to as “the beast”..

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Theories of Fairy Tales

During the past century at least, folklorists have taken a serious look at fairy tales. The familiar tales from our childhood  are not as simple or as childlike as we might think.  It has been argued that the original context of traditional folk and fairy tales involved little or no differentiation between adults and children, and that these tales served predominantly to instruct and entertain adults. How significant was the role played by these tales in shaping social norms, values, aesthetic tastes and aspirations? Is there a difference between myth, fairy tale, and legend?

Folklorists have abandoned the search for origins, but there is still an effort to construct a “scene of origin”, a primal scene of narration, to explain how fairy tales came into being. It is usually pictured as peasants sitting around the fireside telling tales while they are repairing tools, patching clothes or spinning yarn.  Many of today’s fairy tales can be, and have been extensively re-worked. They are stories about the quest for power, wealth, and romance, often moralistic in tone, but the characters are mostly opportunistic, they respond to circumstances as they happen, as children themselves often do..

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Outlines of English and American Literature : An Introduction (1909)

WHAT IS LITERATURE? by William J. Long

“In an old English book, written before Columbus dreamed of a westward journey to find the East, is the story of a traveller who set out to search the world for wisdom. Through Palestine and India he passed, traveling by sea or land through many seasons, until he came to a wonderful island where he saw a man ploughing in the fields. And the wonder was, that the man was calling familiar words to his oxen, “such wordes as men speken to bestes in his owne lond.” Startled by the sound of his mother tongue he turned back on his course “in gret mervayle, for he knewe not how it myghte be.” But if he had passed on a little, says the old record, “he would have founden his contree and his owne knouleche..”

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William J Long 1866- 1952

William Joseph Long was an American writer, naturalist and minister. He lived and worked in Stamford, Connecticut.

Samuel Clemens

As a naturalist, he would leave Stamford every March, often with his two daughters Lois and Cesca, to travel to ‘the wilderness’ of Maine. William Long believed that the best way to experience the wild was to plant yourself and sit for hours on end to let the wild creatures “come to you; and they will!”

They would stay in the wilderness until the first snows of October, although sometimes he would stay all winter. In the 1920s, he began spending his summers in Nova Scotia, claiming “the wilderness is getting too crowded”.

He shared many of the same ideas of ‘wilderness America’ conserving and revitalizing the human spirit, as John Burroughs, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau, although as independent minded men, they were somewhat critical of each other.

He wrote of these wilderness experiences in the books Ways of Wood Folk (1899), Wilderness Ways (1900), Wood Folk at School (1903), Northern Trails (1905), Wood-folk Comedies (1920), and many others. His style was homely, individualistic, and compassionate, but perhaps lacking realism. Many of his early books were issued in school editions under the title of The Wood Folk Series.

He had a keen interest in the development of English and American Literature. Outlines of English and American Literature : An Introduction.. published in 1909, is written in such a charming style, I will devote the following Post to present its introductory material. It is freely available on the Internet.

Because of the increased interest in the natural world as a reaction to industrialization and urban life, many of his books were studied in the schools of the time. However, John Burroughs, adviser to President Roosevelt, accused William Long of gross exaggeration, if not outright lies, regarding his books and the reflections of nature therein. In March 1903, Burroughs published an article entitled “Real and Sham Natural History” in the Atlantic Monthly.

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Jean de Florette & Manon des Sources by Marcel Pagnol

Jean de Florette & Manon of the Springs

Rating: ★★★★★

A French literary masterpiece, Jean de Florette, along with the sequel Manon des Sources creates a single unbroken narrative. It is a two-part epic tale which spans three generations, building to an inevitable, yet completely unexpected conclusion.

In the first part, Jean Cadoret (Gerard Depardieu), a former tax collector, moves his family to the country to create a pastoral idyll in a rural Provencal village. From the neighbouring farm, Cesar Soubeyran (Le Papet), and his only remaining relative, nephew Ugolin, cast their covetous eyes on the adjoining  property. They need its spring water to grow their own carnations and vegetables, and so are dismayed to hear that a new owner from away has moved in. Conspiring against the stranger, imagining themselves somehow justified as locals, they mischievously  block up the spring, and watch as Jean desperately tries to keep his crops, his means of living, watered throughout the long, hot summer from a source miles away across the rugged terrain. Le Papet does not allow for Jean’s tenacity. Though they see his back-breaking efforts are ruining his health, and breaking his wife and daughter’s hearts, they turn a blind eye as events reach a tragic conclusion.

The story is a timeless one, a compelling triumph for justice and good, and reflects the revenge themes of the Viking sagas, or a Biblical parable unfolding, or perhaps the poetic justice of Greek tragedy, and it is satisfying to see the outcome,  the inevitable futility of the Soubeyran’s scheming. It was heart-warming too; that by the end, you could feel for Le Papet, and even Ugolin, for how many times have any of us begun an unwise course we cannot reverse?

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Robert Louis Stevenson 1850- 1894

Robert Louis Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Scotland. His mother, Margaret Balfour Stevenson, was a minister’s daughter, and his father, Thomas Stevenson, was a civil engineer, and with his grandfather, a famed lighthouse builder.

Stevenson was a sickly child, born with a lung disorder, and spent much time in his bedroom drawing or painting, playing with toys, and making up wonderful stories of faraway lands and exciting adventures. He always yearned to go that “somewhere of the imagination where all the troubles are supposed to end”. His formal education started at the age of seven, but his studies were undertaken with great irregularity. What he loved most about school were the magazines he initiated: miscellaneous collections of ‘fact, fiction and fun’, titled Sunbeam Magazine and The Schoolboy Magazine. At his father’s insistence, he entered Edinburgh University to study Engineering. He then went on to study Law, although he was much more interested in Literature and writing.

In 1878, his first book, An Inland Voyage, was published, closely followed by Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879). This was a fascinating account of a romantic hike through the forests and hills of central France, with unforgettable scenes of Stevenson sleeping under the stars, with the strong-willed Modestine tethered by his side. His love of the people he encountered shines throughout. With such a strong visual sense, it is hardly surprising that Stevenson’s stories remain ever popular with successive generations of readers.

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John Milton 1608- 1674

John Milton was arguably one of the greatest writers in the English language. He also was a noted historian, scholar, pamphleteer, and civil servant.

Milton ranks along with William Shakespeare among English poets; his writings and his influence are an important part of the history of English literature, culture, and thought. He is best known for Paradise Lost, which is generally regarded, as he intended, the greatest epic poem in the English language. Milton’s prose works, however, deserve their place in modern histories of political and religious thought.

According to one biographer, Milton “was loved by many, hated by some, but ignored by few.” How did John Milton come to have such influence? What made his last work—On Christian Doctrine—so controversial that it remained unpublished for 150 years? (John Milton: A Biography)

John Milton was born into a financially secure London family in 1608. “My father destined me in early childhood for the study of literature, for which I had so keen an appetite that from my twelfth year scarcely ever did I leave my studies for my bed before the hour of midnight,” Milton recalled. He excelled scholastically and received a master’s degree at Cambridge in 1632. Thereafter, he continued to read history and classical literature. By his own account, his early enthusiasm for the sensual poetry of Ovid and other Roman writers gave way to an appreciation of the idealism of Dante, Petrarch, and Edmund Spenser. He then moved on to Platonic philosophy and finally came to hold the biblical Book of Revelation in the highest esteem. Milton’s scholarly and literary gifts had from childhood marked him out in the minds of his family and teachers for the ministry, however  Milton wanted to be a poet. England in his day was in the throes of revolution. Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell, appointed a court that had King Charles I executed in 1649. Using persuasive prose, Milton defended this action and became a spokesman for the Cromwell government. In fact, before attaining fame as a poet, John Milton was already well-known for his tracts on politics and morals..

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Taking Flight Theatre Company; Romeo and Juliet, Monday August 9th, Kidwelly Castle, Wales

Rating: ★★★★★

For the Americans in the audience at Kidwelly Castle, it was a night of the three things they immediately associate Britain with; a historical building, Shakespeare and rain!

Summer 2010 production

After two hours everyone was soaked, but at least we had coats and umbrellas, the cast did not. Awnings, or even patio umbrellas, might have helped save the players catching pneumonia, or at least in some scenes, but we appreciated how difficult this might have been in a production outstanding for its freedom of movement. The show must go on.

The show! Well-paced and professional, a blend of the familiar lines and a refreshingly light approach, they achieved so much in two hours. It left me feeling determined not to miss the next production. Not every company lives up to such superlatives, but Taking Flight deserves these and more. I shall continue to describe the strengths of this performance before mentioning minor weaknesses, at the risk of sounding, and feeling, churlish.

The major advantage of an outdoor setting has to be the informality, ‘Shakespeare in wellingtons’, and from the beginning you felt part of what was happening, identifying and empathising with the characters and their predicaments. One minor risk at first, is losing the thread of the story between scenes, as we followed the players, and reassemble to watch after costume or setting changes, but you soon adjust to this.

The castle yard setting lent an air of authenticity to the production, I was several times reminded of the replicated Globe theatre at Southwark, the Elizabethan theatre was open to the elements, but with its galleries and awnings, in Shakespeare’s time, itself represented modernity. In provincial settings, the plays must have been performed in similar fashion as tonight at Kidwelly. Would travelling players have made use of a horse-drawn wagon, as alluded to (Act 1, Sn.4) in the play? Quite possibly, and this gives an indication there would be few elaborate props, and these are often unnecessary, as here demonstrated so ably.

‘Romeo and Juliet’, with its well-known tragic theme , is nonetheless associated with Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, and the bawdiness of the earlier acts was well shown, to the point I wondered how the mood was to change upon the brawl and deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt. I need not have worried. The fight scenes were admirably directed (by Michael Aubin), spontaneous and natural, not stilted, including a stylish slow-motion sequence..

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