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Baswood's books, music films etc part 2

This topic was continued by Baswood's books, music films etc part 3.

Club Read 2012

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Edited: Apr 24, 2012, 12:39pm Top

New thread and my reading or planned reads for the coming month:

The Novellino of Masuccio short stories from renaissance Italy 15th century
On Painting Leon Battista Alberti
Renaissance in Italy: Italian Literature: part 2 by John Addington Symonds
The Civilization of Renaissance Italy Jacob Burckhardt
Meditations on the Soul Selected letters of Marsilio Ficino
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The strife of love in a dream

Books of Hours: John Harthan
Mort D'Arthur Thomas Mallory

Voss Patrick White
Lady Chatterley's Lover D H Lawrence
Why be Happy When you Could be Normal Jeanette Winterson

Mar 16, 2012, 6:46am Top

Great news Sonny Rollins is playing at the Marciac Jazz Festival
I have already rushed into town to buy my tickets.

Mar 16, 2012, 7:30am Top

81 and still playing. Amazing.

Mar 16, 2012, 7:53am Top

3 - What an opportunity to see one of the greats bas - and right on your doorstep!

You look to have an interesting month of reading ahead of you. The Paston Letters have been on my to-read list for some years now!

And Ficino has loomed large over my reading over the last few months. I clicked on your link and eventually found myself at Amazon reading up on The Planets Within, The Astrological Psychology of Marsilio Ficino which looks like a must have for me.

I'll be interested in your thoughts on his selected letters when the time comes....

Mar 16, 2012, 8:29am Top

2/3 - there was a documentary about him on BBC4 a few weeks ago. Up until then I was convinced he was dead. From the clip of the 80th birthday concert (with the usual special guests) he sounded in good form - the segment of him playing with Ornette Coleman was fun.

Mar 16, 2012, 8:39am Top

I once saw Benny Carter play; he was in his 70s then. Must be something about music that keeps them young.

Mar 16, 2012, 9:16am Top

Look at these two from last years festival:

In the presence of the masters. "I'm still here" sang the 90 year old Dr Yusef Lateef and I for one was happy to be in his company at this historic performance at Marciac

Ahmad Jamal a mere youngster at 80 years of age today leads a youngish quintet who are heavily into world music percussion and sounds. Jamal has always been and still is an important piano player in the jazz canon; his percussive playing is echoed by the sounds made by his group. Herlin Riley is an outstanding drummer and in Manolo Badrens the quintet has a percussionist who can make all sorts of sounds from assorted drums and other instruments. The rhythms and textures are exciting and infectious as Jamal marshalls his group superbly.

After three numbers Dr Yusef Lateef shambled on stage and the groups sound became more eastern as James Cammack the bass player laid down a motif that stretched the time signature of the music. Lateef took up his flute and note by note became more confident as his beautiful tonal playing brought applause from the audience. It was however when he took up the tenor saxophone that he was at his best. Those ripe rich phrases pared down now because of his age still rang out with the intensity of a man who knows exactly what he wants to say. Absolutely spellbinding. He has written that:

It should be the goal of every musician to combine their theoretical knowledge with their life experience and to offer and accept knowledge from their personal source of strength, inspiration and knowledge

A rich and sagacious life was expressed tonight through the playing of both Lateef and Jamal. I did not want the concert to end and yet felt keenly aware of the age and frailty of Yusef Lateef. Not to worry all was laughter and smiles at the end and Lateef shuffled back on stage to sing the blues for an emotional encore.

Harold Lopez Nussa trio had opened the show and his cuban influenced piano style sounded fine. They were followed by Tigran Hamasyan A young Armenian who played thoughtful and fluid solo piano. Good performances that highlighted the different piano styles on show tonight. This concert though was all about those old stagers Lateef and Jamal who still have the power to uplift and inspire.
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Mar 16, 2012, 10:08am Top

Oh, I wish I could have been there for that one, Barry. It sounds incredible.

Mar 16, 2012, 1:37pm Top

>1 baswood: and 4 – I too have some Ficino on deck, in fact the very one Zeno mentioned, which is about him rather than by him, but I'll have to look into the Meditations on the Soul as well.

Mar 18, 2012, 11:04am Top

Posting here will help me keep up. Looking forward to your future posts. Thought I saw you mention Tree of Man somewhere as also coming up. I've started it, although I'll take it slow.

Mar 18, 2012, 7:28pm Top

Always nice to see you here Dan

Mar 18, 2012, 7:34pm Top

Christine de Pizan

Edited: Mar 18, 2012, 9:28pm Top

The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan Norton Critical Edition
Christine de Pisan; Europe’s first professional female writer, lauded in some quarters as a sort of proto-feminist, but I think she did about as much for 15th century women as Margaret Thatcher did for equal rights in 1980’s Britain. Christine was a successful woman in a man’s world; no mean feat in itself, but she was not concerned in the least with changing the status of women in her society.

I read the Norton Critical Edition of Christine de Pizan’s selected writings (more on this later), which features seven critical essays written mostly in the 1980’s. All of the essays concern themselves with Christine’s stance as a feminist writer or with her success at establishing herself as an authority, there is nothing about the quality of literature that she produced and for me that’s the rub. As I read the selections I asked myself “was her writing any good” was it of a standard of excellence that warranted it being elevated to the canon, or was it the fact that there was a dearth of female writers of the period and she has been singled out as an important woman’s voice.

Christine was born in Venice in 1364, her father Thomas was a reputed physician and astrologer and secured a position at the court of King Charles V at Paris. Christine married Etienne de Castel a notary and secretary at court. The family’s fortunes suffered on the death of Charles V as they did not receive the same level of patronage under Charles VI. Catherine lost both her father and her husband and at 25 she was a widow and found herself with three children and a mother to support. She decided not to re-marry and took the courageous decision to support herself by her writing while pursuing her rights to her husband’s estate through the courts.

There is no doubt that she was admired as a writer and had no shortage of patrons and after having established herself at court she was commissioned by the Duke of Burgundy to write “The Book of the Deeds and Good Conduct of the Wise King Charles V”. Christine had made her name in the debate that raged in Paris in 1401-2 about the Romance of the Rose. Christine weighed in heavily; criticising the misogynistic view of women expressed in the text, she accused the authors of maligning and mistreating women for no good reason. She also criticised the moral tone of The Romance and its too explicit sexuality. She continued with her pro-woman stance in much of her writing, notably in Christine’s Vision and The Book of the city of Ladies. Her method was to use well known source material, much of it lifted from Boccaccio and to enhance the role of women in the stories, taking out any overt criticism and playing down the misogyny that was an all too frequent opinion expressed by male authors. This was not meant to be propaganda for an overhaul of women’s role in public life or in the home, she would have been horrified by such an assumption; look at what she says in the concluding paragraphs to “The Book of the City of Ladies”:

“And you married ladies do not resent being subject to your husbands: for sometimes it is not best for human beings to be free……. And those that have husbands that are evil, cruel and savage should make an effort to endure them so that they can try and oppose their evil ways and lead them back if they can to a reasonable and good life. And if their husbands are so obstinate that the wives cannot succeed, at least they will acquire great merit for their souls through the virtue of patience. And everyone will bless them and be on their side”

This does not sound like a proto-feminist and even from a 15th century perspective it seems reactionary. Christine was an aristocratic lady; she had no intention to rock the boat, quite the reverse in fact.

So what of the work that she produced; there is certainly a lot of it and an astonishing amount of variety. She was equally at home writing poetry or prose and there are two collections of ballads that stretch to a hundred pieces in each. The poetry is competent and probably sounds better in the original old French, but this is difficult to judge from the Norton edition as the selections are translated without attempting to follow Christine’s rhyming schemes. Her 100 ballads of a lover and a Lady take the part of both protagonists and in their way are a celebration of courtly love, probably more in tune with the 13th century than the 15th century, however it should be noted that this was a commission and Christine was a professional writer and she makes it clear that her heart wasn't in it as she says:

“I pray to God that I won’t get tired, for I’d
rather occupy myself with other business, with
more learning, but a sweet and noble person
requires me to write this to make up for what
I said about noble ladies and what amorous
Thoughts do to them. Thus I must compose one
Hundred ballads of amorous feelings”

Christine lived in turbulent times. At the start of the 15th century France was almost in a state of civil war and the English would soon enter Paris. I think Christine’s prose is at its best when she is chiding the nobles about their war like habits. In “The Lamentations On the Evils That Have Befallen France” and “The Book of Peace” she calls the king’s brothers to task and passionately pleads with them to seek peace: pointing out the evils of war. Christine an aristocrat to the core, once again proves that she has no love for the common man or woman: who are “no better than beasts” and should not be used in warfare, because they cannot be trusted and will only be interested in looting. Her vision is for a return to a feudal society with a wise and benevolent monarch firmly in control. Her finest writing, in my opinion is contained in “The Book of The Path of Long Study. This is a dream vision and Christine manages to produce prose that floats along with her vision of her journey through the spheres, it is both atmospheric and inventive.

Towards the end of her life Christine finally had a woman hero to celebrate and she wrote “The Tale of Joan of Arc” A poem of 61 short stanzas translated into prose for the Norton edition. Her poem is more of a peon to divine intervention than an exaltation of Joan the woman warrior, king maker and saviour of her country. According to Christine, France had God on it’s side and so Joan came to lead the French King to glory. For a supposed celebrator of the importance of women in history Christine seems to have missed a trick here, also her heavy handed religiosity is not to my taste and the prose translation makes it all seem rather flat.

Now a word about The Norton Critical edition , which is a real stinker. Part of the clue is in the title; The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan, but this does not tell the story as what we have is selections from the writings of Christine, Apart from a couple of letters there are no complete texts and so it makes it difficult to take a view on her work. Are the selected extracts just the best bits or are they those that will go some way to make a case for her being an important woman’s voice; we will never know from these selections. Christine made her name through letters and her “The Debate on The Romance of the Rose and so I settled down eagerly to read her text and found this:

“Hush, now” Caddy said. I hushed and ate. Quentin wasn’t eating, but Jason was.
“That was Mother” Quentin said. He got up.
“You set right down” Disley said. “They got company in there, and you in them muddy clothes. You set down too, Caddy, and get done eating………….”

After an initial puzzlement I realised I was reading an extract from William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury”. Now I like Faulkner’s book but wondered what an earth it was doing here. The extract went on for 31 pages and so I never got to read Christine de Pizan’s Debate. Obviously the proof reader or the printer had fallen asleep, but it is a mistake that does nothing for the reputation of Norton books.

From the selections I have read it would seem to me that Christine de Pizan is largely a writer for historical interest only. She was a well respected professional writer at the court of one of the greatest monarchs in Western Europe. Important for her squibs about the context of “The Romance of the Rose” and for her attempts at re-evaluating the role of women in the source material available to writers at the end of the Middle Ages. The appalling Norton Critical Edition does her no favours and so I would rate this book at 2 stars. . .

Mar 18, 2012, 8:40pm Top

Not only an excellent but a very useful review, Barry. I steer away from books that are just selections from longer writings--to me this is just like reading an abridgment--and you've reinforced my view on that. I don't own any Norton Critical Editions, and now I'm certainly in no hurry to buy any.

I've only known of Christine de Pizan as the author of the Book of the City of Ladies. You said she used source material from Boccaccio--did you recognize any of it?

Mar 18, 2012, 9:26pm Top

Steven, no I didn't recognise any of it. This may be because the extract from the Book of the City of Ladies omits Christine's retelling of the stories from The Decameron.

Mar 19, 2012, 8:28am Top

Very interesting. I've been enjoying your medieval reads, and hope to get back to that time myself, one of these days. Too much else to read!

Mar 19, 2012, 8:43am Top

A nice review Barry. Probably not something I will read, but very interesting nonetheless. I don't think I've ever seen a proofreading/printing mistake quite as egregious as the Faulkner extract you found. Did you buy this book new? I'm surprised it never got caught and wonder if there is a mechanism for publishers to "recall" books with major errors.

Mar 19, 2012, 2:20pm Top

Fascinating review of Christine de Pizan, Barry. It sounds like I would enjoy reading "The Book of The Path of Long Study" but not much else.

I am quite astonished that the Norton so-called Critical Edition should have made such a hash of Christine's work. My own limited experience with Norton Critical Editions is quite contrary to this. Thanks for the heads up on this one.

Mar 19, 2012, 4:18pm Top

Interesting review. I've never been tempted by the 15th century (well, except for Braudel's 3 vol. Civilization and Capitalism and perhaps a Barbara Tuchman...but those are histories and read such a long time ago) , but I'm happy to explore it vicariously through your reading!

Mar 20, 2012, 9:34am Top

Your background information about de Pizan sounds more interesting and informative than anything from the anthology (esp. the Faulkner excerpt - simultaneously bizarre & shameful).

Edited: Mar 20, 2012, 8:50pm Top

Linda, Suzanne, I bought the book on line from Amazon marketplace and it looks like a new book, but it was published in 1996 and so it could have been sold cheaply because of the misprint. I did not buy it direct from Norton. As misprints go it was fairly spectacular.

Thanks ljbwell

Lois, thanks for the link to Civilization and capitalism, which looks very interesting

Edited: Mar 23, 2012, 8:25am Top

Two recent visits to the cinema to see

Edgar J. - Directed by Clint Eastwood

Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy Directed by Tomas Alfredson

Both were very understated film with very little colour to them. In fact they were so colourless that they might well have been better shot in black and white. I enjoyed Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy which featured a monotone performance by Gary Oldman, whose speaking part in the film could probably have been written on one page of the script.

Both films looked to be excellent on period detail but I am finding Clint Eastwood's direction to be increasingly stodgy. Worthy films but nothing to make me feel that there was anything special going on here.

Mar 23, 2012, 5:58am Top

22 - it must have been a difficult role for Oldman to do something with, the imprint of Guinness as Smiley is so strong. I haven't seen the film yet, primarily because I recently watched the BBC adaptation. It's interesting how critics now talk about 'slow TV' in relation to series like The Killing and Mad Men - rather than a new development it seems like a return to the type of unfolding drama that existed pre the jump cut mentality.

Mar 23, 2012, 7:47am Top

I would like to see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy eventually just to see how they can make it into a 2-hour movie. I loved the book, and thought the BBC series was excellent, so I'm a little concerned about the brevity of this version.

Mar 23, 2012, 10:07am Top

I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy last week, and also enjoyed it. Spy thriller aren't usually my cup of tea, but I've heard that le Carre is more literate than most thriller writers, so I might give the book a look sometime.

Mar 23, 2012, 10:56am Top

You're right; le Carre is fundamentally a writer about character and issues of loyalty and betrayal in the context of the spy novel. In my opinion, A Perfect Spy is his masterpiece. On the surface a spy story, it is really a book about love, deception, betrayal, the broad impact of World War II on the following decades, and how the stolen childhoods of two men (one by a con artist, larger than life father, one by war and history) affect their future lives.

Mar 23, 2012, 1:58pm Top

#13 Christine de Pizan is not going on my to read list. Enjoyed your review.

Edited: Mar 23, 2012, 5:20pm Top

The recent movie of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy drew me in even if I didn't follow the conclusion. I liked it so much that I bought and read the book. Then I was curious about details of what set up the conclusion, so I went back to the movie, something of a rarity for me. I too wondered how it would spread out over six hours, so when I found the BBC DVD's at Costco at a fair price I picked them up and watched them. They are all good.


Mar 26, 2012, 11:50am Top

Mark Whitfield trio with guest Teodross Avery Marciac L'Astrada 24/3/2012

The Mark Whitfield trio became a quartet with the addition of tenor saxophonist Teodross Avery for a concert at L'Astrada on Saturday night. Guitar, tenor saxophone, bass and drums is one of my least favourite groupings for a jazz quartet. Mark Whitfield influenced by the George Benson school of jazz guitarists has a sound that is quite one dimensional and it does nothing when put together with the tenor saxophone. It was like listening to two separate trios as the lead players took their solos. I think in a quartet setting a tenor saxophone cries out for a piano in the group.

Whitfield is technically a very good guitarist, but to hear him at his best the group really needs to swing, but with his son on drums Mark Whitfield junior this did not happen. Teodross Avery is a very fine tenor saxophonist heard at his best tonight playing on the slower numbers. An enjoyable concert with some very good playing, but nothing to lift it into the memorable bracket.

Mar 26, 2012, 2:05pm Top

I am curious, Barry, how many people typically show up at L'Astrada in what I presume to be the off-season?

Mar 27, 2012, 6:51am Top

Suzanne, L'Astrada seats about 600 people and for the Mark Whitfield concert it was nearly full. The concerts this weekend coincided with a local wine festival and so there were a few visitors in town.

The jazz concerts that go on throughout the year (one a month on average) are usually pretty well sold out. The artists booked are top line names and so coach parties will arrive from Toulouse and Bordeaux, both about 2 hours drive away.

Edited: Mar 27, 2012, 7:28am Top

Souvenirs D'al Andalus - L'Astrada Marciac 25-03-2012

An early evening concert on a beautiful summers evening (and it's only March) by an ensemble led by violinist Rachid Brahim-Djelloul. The other musicians played an oud, guitar, mandoline and percussion and they were fronted by the soprano voice of Amel Brahim-Djelloul. Amel has made her name as an opera singer in France but her deep toned soprano, which sounded more like a contralto to me was very well suited to a programme of old Andalusien music. Al-Andalus is the name given to Muslim Spain (711-1492) and the music dated from that period was sung in Arabic.

I was a little concerned that the classically trained Brahim Djelloul partnership would present very watered down versions of these old songs, but they sounded delightful to me with Amel able to voice convincingly the glottal sounds of the Arabic language. The playing was excellent if a little controlled but the music wafted over the audience in delightful waves. The musicians got a good reception and we enjoyed the concert

Here is what they sound like http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ISD_809kGA

Mar 27, 2012, 8:25am Top

What a lovely way to spend an evening.

Mar 27, 2012, 11:40am Top


Mar 27, 2012, 12:14pm Top

Edited: Mar 29, 2012, 7:39pm Top

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Dickens last completed novel still finds the author at the height of his powers, but Our Mutual Friend is a curiously disjointed affair. I selected this for our book club read and as I laboured through the first 150 pages, I feared that many of the club readers would not have gotten even this far. Perhaps my ear was not tuned to the author’s style; after all it was 15 years since I had read any of his novels and I had always thought you can’t rush Dickens you have to take him slowly, but suddenly it all started to click: new characters had been introduced at the start of part 2 and the plot started to unfold. I was gripped and remained so until the rather contrived ending 600 pages later..

The novel starts with a powerhouse opening chapter; Gaffer Hexam and his daughter Lizzie are out on the river Thames in a rowboat. This is no pleasure cruise they are near the dock area and the half savage man is searching for corpses. The mud, dirt and grime are oppressive but they find a body, which could be the missing John Harmon. Mr Boffin old Harmon’s foreman inherits the fortune following the death of the son John and installs himself in the town house. His former place of business the Bower is home to three large mounds of dust which have also been left to him and which may contain further riches. The kindly Bowers take in Bella Wilfer who was mentioned in old Harmon’s will and set her up as a lady. Silas Wegg an itinerant peddler is also befriended by Mr Boffin and is placed in the Bower as custodian of the dust heaps, he immediately starts plotting to embezzle his patron. A grand deception is played out on Bella, but she is not the only person to be deceived, as identities are concealed. There is murder, there is blackmail, there are rich society folk intent on squeezing the downtrodden poor for all they are worth. The need for money corrupts most people and even Mr Boffin starts to worship at the feet of mammon; becoming a miser, women are sorely tested as they attempt to take a step up in society, there are love stories; romantic love, obsessive love even homosexual love, but overarching everything is the love of money, and the central mystery as to who will gain control of the Harmon fortune and what role John Rokesmith; Boffins secretary will play in this drama.

Avarice and the relentless drive to make money in a society that seems threadbare of human virtues is a major theme and it brought to my mind the well known English aphorism “where there’s muck there’s money”. A juxtaposition that is evident throughout: from Gaffer Hexam picking the pockets of the muddy corpses hauled from the river to Silas Wegg and Mr Venus picking away at the enormous dust mounds in Boffin’s Bower. Dickens continually refers to Boffin as The Golden Dustman. The dirt and the grime of the city where the dark and gloomy counting houses are situated is home to the evil young money man Fascination Fledgely. He delights in using the good Jew Riah as a tool for calling in his debts. Dickens is not content to merely portray the winners and losers on the financial merry-go-round, this is not enough, these are nasty vindictive people and he wants his readers to be appalled by their actions. If money is dirty then so is the city of London and the Thames that flows through it is ugly and full of menace. Dust detritus and gloom is everywhere, everything and everyone is covered by it:

”The grating wind sawed rather than blew; and, as it sawed, the sawdust whirled around the saw-pit, every street was a saw-pit, and there were no top-sawyers; every passenger was an under-sawyer, with the sawdust blinding and choking him.
That mysterious paper currency, which circulates in London when the wind blows, gyrated here there and everywhere. Whence can it come, whither can it go? It hangs on every bush. Flutters in every tree, is caught flying by the electric wires, haunts every enclosure, drinks at every pump, cowers at every grating, shudders on every plot of grass, seeks rest in vain behind the legions of iron rails. In Paris, where nothing is wasted, costly and luxurious city though it be, but where wonderful human ants creep out of holes and pick up every scrap, there is no such thing, There, it blows nothing but dust. There sharp eyes and sharp stomachs reap even the east wind, and get something out of it.
The wind sawed, and the sawdust whirled. The shrubs wrung their many heads, bemoaning that they had been over-persuaded by the sun to bud, the young leaves pined; the sparrows repented of their early marriages, like men and women; the colours of the rainbow were discernible, not in floral spring, but in the faces of the people whom it nibbled and pinched. And ever the wind sawed and the sawdust whirled.”

This is typical of the some of the writing especially in the first half of the book. Dickens takes much delight in repeating a word or phrase to emphasise his point.

Money would appear to be the root of most of the evil in this book and Dickens lashes out at the unfettered capitalism that drove the society he saw around him. This is Dickens though and there are good people who will shine through the gloom. Our Mutual Friend has two people with the moral fibre to assert themselves in this rapacious world. Betty Higden and Lizzie Hexam two of the poorest characters in the novel are prepared to make sacrifices for what they believe is right. There are other characters that have good qualities but they are slightly bent out of shape by the world in which they live. I am thinking of John Rokesmith who continues to test the worth of his wife beyond reasonableness, Bella Wilfer and Jenny Wren good characters but both have curious father child relationships a sort of role reversal which feels very odd indeed. There are the two solicitors Mortimer Lightwood and Eugene Wrayburn that are content to drift through life and finally Riah who finds himself blackmailed by Fledgely.

While Dickens is able to tie the greedy money men and women into his plot and uses their machinations to move the story along he is not so successful with his attack on the society of the nouveau riche. The second chapter after the excitement of the river scene with the Hexams takes the reader into the rather too stately world of the Veneerings. These are newly rich people who are buying their way into society. They gather around them like minded people who are selfish and snobbish in the extreme. Their conversation and their ideas are all based on how much people are worth and where they are placed in society. Mr Veneering manages to buy his way into parliament and while we can feel Dickens grievance about the corrupt way things are done, their actions add nothing to the development of the novel. Most of the characters around the Veneerings table remain a sideshow, but Dickens spends so much time with them in the first half of the novel that they are a drag on the story element. Dickens at this stage of his life had become bored with such society dinners and his wish to expose them for what they were threatens to sink his novel.

I do hope that my fellow book club members were able to grit their teeth and plough on through the less than vibrant story telling of the first part of Our Mutual Friend as there are rich rewards to come. Some wonderful characters are introduced: Mr Sloppy with his buttons and his mangling, Jenny Wren the little doll maker whose stock phrase “I know his tricks and his manners” is aimed at all the men she meets. The aptly named Bradley Headstone obsessed with Lizzie Hexam, Rogue Riderhood, Betty Higden who is terrified of the workhouse, and of course The Golden Dustman. There are also some brilliantly written dramatic scenes; Lizzie Hexams refusal to marry Bradley, The recovery of Rogue Riderhood in the Six Jolly Fellowships and the attempted murder of Eugene Wrayburn.
Dickens takes his readers into the world of greed corruption and desperate times in Victorian London. It is a dark world indeed almost becoming supernatural at times, but there are always people who can shine on through. Despite its imbalance in some parts this remains a great novel: there is so much to enjoy, a 4.5 star read

Mar 28, 2012, 10:16am Top

Excellent review as always, Barry. Our Mutual Friend is definitely the darkest Dickens novel I've read, but it's my second favorite after Bleak House.

Mar 28, 2012, 10:27am Top

Another great review, Barry. Yet to read Our Mutual Friend, but it certainly sounds interesting, so I'll put it on the list.

Mar 28, 2012, 11:48am Top

Fabulous review of Our Mutual Friend, Barry. I already have it on my Kindle, so I'll probably read it later this year.

Mar 28, 2012, 12:00pm Top

I haven't read any Dickens since high school, which turned me against him. I know I should get over this irrational prejudice, and even bought Bleak House several years ago, but I have yet to pull it off the pile. Your review certainly is enticing, so maybe one of these days . . .

Mar 28, 2012, 1:34pm Top

Good stuff, Bas. And I love the picture after reading the description in your review (1st two lines, 2nd paragraph)

Mar 28, 2012, 3:07pm Top

Excellent review of Our Mutual Friend, Barry and one of Dickens' that I am not familiar with. So I am off to see if the Kindle version is free.

Mar 28, 2012, 5:04pm Top

Linda its available free on Project Gutenberg which you can download to your kindle

Mar 29, 2012, 4:10am Top

Thanks everybody, I hope to get to Bleak House sooner rather than later.

I had thought this year that I might try and read all of Dickens, but soon realised that I might be reading nothing else if I did that and so I have contented myself with Patrick White whose 100th anniversary it is this year. I am reading The Aunt's Story at the moment.

Mar 29, 2012, 5:15am Top

Really nice review of Our Mutual Friend. I have that one sitting on the pile and I'm hoping to get to it sometime this year. I'll second steven - Bleak House is my favorite.

Mar 29, 2012, 12:04pm Top

I thumbed your very interesting review, Barry. I really must add Dickens to my future reading.

Mar 29, 2012, 12:36pm Top

Me too, Suzanne. I plan on starting The Mystery of Edwin Drood this weekend and hopefully can finish it by the time Masterpiece Classic airs the new adaptation later this month.

Interesting reviews of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and J. Edgar as well, Barry. Haven't seen the latter yet. I thought that TTSS was artistically a very laudable film, but had trouble connecting with it on any emotional level. My dad says that the book is better.

Mar 29, 2012, 1:36pm Top

Thanks Suzanne and Nathan. It takes me at least a week to read a Dickens novel, good luck Nathan.

Mar 29, 2012, 6:05pm Top

Edwin Drood is one of his shorter works (even with a second half appended by another author posthumously) and I have two weeks, so I'm crossing my fingers.

Apr 1, 2012, 5:36pm Top

The Aunt's Story - Patrick White

Apr 1, 2012, 6:07pm Top

15) The Aunt's Story by Patrick White
Theodora Goodman goes quietly insane in Patrick White’s enigmatic third novel: The Aunt’s story. Symbolism abounds as White explores the fragmentary nature of Theodora’s mind. It is a very cleverly written novel, but a bit too clever maybe in the long second section; Jardin Exotique, where it is far from clear, what if anything is actually happening.

The novel opens with the death of Theodora’s mother the old Mrs Goodman. Theodora has never married she is in her mid forties and has become the dutiful daughter whose principal role is as her mother’s carer. Her sister Fanny and family arrive for the funeral and Theodora reflects back on her life. It soon becomes clear that she feels differently to most people around her, she cannot connect with other people and White puts this thought in the first person::

“I shall never overcome the distances, felt Theodora. And because she was like this, she found consolation in the deal mirror in the room for four. When she was done she spoke to the face that had now begun to form, its bone.”

Fanny says of her sister “Sometimes Theo you behave as if you are quite mad”. Theodora’s reflections take us back to incidents in her home life and at school. During this section White piles on the symbolism: roses, bones, rocks, mirrors, hats and music are all frequent motifs and while there is some fine writing around these ideas, it is never really clear what they all signify. They become a little claustrophobic, perhaps like the product of a mind that is losing its grip on reality.

The meat of the book is in the long second part: Jardin Exotique. Theodora is free after her mother’s death to explore her “other lives”. She travels, finally ending up at the Hotel Du Midi in the South of France that advertises a Jardin Exotique. On arrival the manager says that the hotel has many guests that stay a long time: General Sokolnikov and Madam Rapello have been residents for years. It is in the hotel and garden that Theodora seems to fragment before our very eyes. She imagines herself in the lives of the guests in the hotel. When she first meets the young girl Katina in the garden White says:

“And Theodora Goodman had become a mirror, held to the girl’s experience. Their eyes were interchangeable, like the distant unrelated lives mingling for a moment in sleep.”

The novel’s point of view is now the fragmented thoughts of Theodora, it is very cleverly done, but also disconcerting because Theodora is finding it difficult to distinguish between her other imagined lives and reality. She becomes the Generals sister; Ludmilla and Mrs Rapello’s best friend and other characters that appear may or may not exist. White uses a stream of conscious technique to reflect the thoughts in Theodora’s head, they sometimes jump about, become confused as though in a veil of fog or smoke. I found myself re-reading passages to get some sort of grip on what was happening and like Theodora I found it difficult to ascertain what was real and what was not.

White compares Theodora’s insanity obliquely with the insanity in Europe that led up to the second world war. It ended in a massive conflagration and there is something similar in the novel as the Hotel Du Midi burns down and Theodora is released again. Now she is quite mad and she travels to America in the short and beautifully written final part of the novel: Holstius.

Theodora now does not fit anywhere not even in other peoples lives and White’s hauntingly convincing prose in this section portrays a woman, travelling, searching for a place to belong, but finding only kindness, and in a new landscape and a new environment, this is not enough.
The music in her head is now of a harmony that means she has come to a realisation about herself and will accept her fate. I love this passage describing her journey across America by train:

“Sometimes against the full golden theme of corn and the white pizzicato of the telephone wires there was a counterpoint of houses. Theodora Goodman sat. The other side of the incessant train she could read the music off. There were the single notes of houses, that gathered into gravely structural phrases. There was a smooth passage of ponds and trees. There was a big bass barn. All the square faces of the wooden houses, as they came, overflowed with solemnity, that was a solemnity of living, a passage of days. Where children played with tins, or a girl waited at a window, or calves lolloped in long grass, it was a frill of flutes twisted round a higher theme, to grace, but only grace, the solemnity of living and of days. There were now two coiled themes. There was the flowing corn song, and the deliberate accompaniment of houses, which did not impede, however structural, because it was part of the same integrity of purpose and of being”

Patrick White takes more risks here than with his previous novel The Living and the Dead. It also has more shape and structure to it, especially with the final part tying things together so wonderfully. His writing throughout is both witty and profound with some purple patches that we expect from a writer of his quality and here he shows real compassion for his central character without any trace of the misogyny that he is sometimes accused of. However for me he has not yet managed to involve the reader completely in his storytelling and characterisation, I still feel half a step away, I know that in subsequent novels he will bring me closer to what he is trying to achieve, but it is not quite there in The Aunt’s Story. A four star read, nonetheless

Apr 1, 2012, 7:28pm Top

An excellent review, Barry, although that picture on the right gives me chills. I really do need to read something by Patrick White. What would you recommend as best to start with?

Apr 1, 2012, 11:38pm Top

Well, Barry, that's quite a tale. I suspect your review may be better than the book although I see from the quote that the writing itself is quite lyrical.

Apr 1, 2012, 11:47pm Top

You are well on track with your reading of Patrick White; I cannot find the right time and place to re-read The Twyborn Affair. I will hopefully be able to catch up with that centenary reading later in the year. Your reviews are very enticing to persevere.

Great review also of Our Mutual Friend, another Dickens unread on my shelves. I got underway reading Barnaby Rudge but could not finish it in March, as my work is getting busier and busier again.

We are having a short holiday now, a four-day break, to celebrate 清明,the Festival to remember the dead.

Apr 2, 2012, 2:23pm Top

Linda, I am reading the Patrick White novels in chronological order and would not recommend that you start with his early novels. All the others I read some time ago and so they are not really fresh in my memory. However I remember liking Voss and The Vivisector also A Fringe of Leaves. If you like short stories then The Cockatoos is excellent.

Suzanne, I think Patrick White was a superb writer, right up there with the greats and so when I am being critical of him it is in comparison with his other works and his own high standards.

Have a good break Edwin.

Apr 2, 2012, 5:03pm Top

Very nice review, Barry, and I like the section you quoted. I'm skipping The Aunt's Story and reading The Tree of Man, which I like very much so far.

Apr 2, 2012, 11:00pm Top

A terrific review. I'm slowing working through The Tree of Man, like Steven. For a 1st book it's been magnificent so far - there so much put into it.

Apr 2, 2012, 11:26pm Top

greatly enjoying your Patrick White journey, bas.

Apr 3, 2012, 5:13am Top

Dan, steven, The Tree of Man looks to be quite a substantial book and what with White's rather dense style of writing it looks like it will take some reading. I am looking forward to starting it in a couple of weeks time.


Apr 4, 2012, 12:40pm Top

A Visit from the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan

Apr 4, 2012, 2:17pm Top

16) A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
A Visit from the Goon Squad is smart, witty, sassy but ultimately as empty as the lives depicted in Egan’s novel. It won the Pulitzer prize for literature, whose criteria for selection seems to be a closely guarded secret all that we know is that the selected book should be concerned with American Life, but this is American life almost reduced to the level of sound bites. Chapter 12 “Great Rock and Roll Pauses is set out like a power point presentation, but only succeeds in being pointless. A great way to fill out space perhaps as it takes up 74 pages: that’s getting on for a quarter of the novel.

The thirteen chapters of this novel play out like a series of short stories centred around the circle of friends, relations and business associates of Bennie a record company owner and then record producer after selling his company. The stories are connected by the characters in them and references back to Bennie, they go forwards and backwards in time and some are told in the first person. They are all well written in a glib superficial prose style that can appear more conscious of leading up to a wisecrack than in developing plot or character. We suspect that the sort of people that hang around record company and advertising executives are a shallow bunch and Egan does nothing to dissuade us here.

It is a fast paced entertaining read and the short story idea works well as one of the main themes of the novel is connections and while connections are not immediately obvious when we start a new section, Egan soon skilfully makes them for us. It is also a critique of American society and points towards an uncertain future, but we have all heard this before and the smart ass writing keeps getting in the way. Don’t get me wrong I enjoyed it, but it felt more like a well scripted American movie than a prize winning piece of literature. 3.5 stars.

Apr 4, 2012, 2:28pm Top

Barry – Even some of us in America have difficulty figuring out the Pulitzer. I like your review, though.

Apr 4, 2012, 2:32pm Top

Well, it sounds like I read a different book than you did! I really loved A Visit from the Goon Squad because I felt Egan did an amazing job of not only capturing the voice and tone of each of her characters but also creating increasing compassion for and understanding of the basically somewhat unlikeable characters as the novel built. I found it a moving meditation on the passage of time and how human beings connect or fail to connect with each other.

Edited: Apr 4, 2012, 2:43pm Top

rebecca it does sound as though you got more from it than I did. I didn't dislike it and raced through in a couple of evenings, but it did not move me at all.

Apr 4, 2012, 4:34pm Top

I had thought this year that I might try and read all of Dickens, but soon realised that I might be reading nothing else if I did that

Indeed! It would take me more than a year, I'm afraid. And I really don't enjoy ODing on any series, author or genre. So for me, I read a Dickens a year. I'm in year five. And I don't plan on reading everything he's written--I think I'm good for another 3 years and then I'm considering him "done." And then I'd like to reread Bleak House.

Apr 4, 2012, 4:35pm Top

Barry, I liked A Visit from the Goon Squad more than you did, but I think you make valid criticisms. Perhaps the experimental touches worked better for me than for you. All-in-all, I also wasn't completely sold on the Pulitzer.

Apr 4, 2012, 5:31pm Top

Barry, I had read two of the chapters as stand-alone stories in the New Yorker before the book came out and had been really impressed by both of them, so I was predisposed to like the book and was intrigued by the format of it. I expected to really dislike the Power Point chapter, as I usually hate the kinds of clever things some contemporary writers do, but I felt this really fit in because it expressed the character and style of the daughter whose story it told.

But one of the things I love about LT is that we can all have different opinions -- life would be so boring if we agreed all the time.

Apr 4, 2012, 5:53pm Top

Thanks for the informative review of A Visit From the Goon Squad, Barry. Although I have friends who loved the book, I have had no urge at all to read it. I guess that is probably unfair, to judge a book on nothing more than just a gut feeling, but I'm afraid I do it quite often.

Apr 4, 2012, 6:47pm Top

rebecca, I think I am becoming a "grumpy old man" especially when I look back over my reviews and see that I have generally not liked modern novels, especially those written by female authors.

Yes it is good to have different opinions, it would be awful if we all raved about the same books.

Linda as you can see opinion is divided on A Visit from the Goon Squad, but you will never know if you don't read it. Here is something you could do, find a bookstore and spend half an hour reading a chapter or two. I wish I could do that sometimes, although Amazon and Google books can be useful.

Apr 4, 2012, 6:53pm Top

Barry, interestingly, I also don't like a lot of contemporary fiction, but most of the contemporary fiction that I do like is by women! It's the men I don't like (their writing, that is!).

Apr 5, 2012, 12:53am Top

Barry, I looked up A Visit From the Goon Squad's Pulitzer citation. It says:

"For distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life, Ten thousand dollars ($10,000).

"Awarded to "A Visit From the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan, an inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed."

I wonder if the pace of the digital age will make it obsolete.

Apr 5, 2012, 4:28am Top

Rise, It sounds to me like the Pulitzer prize panel are desperately trying to prove they are hip with the latest fiction: cultural change at warp speed well I think that says it all.

I am currently reading Renaissance Italy by John Addington Symonds who in his introduction written in 1896 says Literature must always prove the surest guide to the investigator of a people's character at some decisive epoch. This led me to think what an investigator one hundred years from now would make of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Would he/she/it judge the character of the people of today based on this prize winning book. Lets hope not, lets hope for obsolescence.

Edited: Apr 5, 2012, 6:48am Top

The hype has put me off Egan's book - I think I would approach it with too many preconceptions at this time. I am worried that she admits she doesn't know much about music when the novel revolves around characters involved in music - and I have been impressed by the excerpts I've read about her characters thinking about music. (Plus it's hard to take anyone seriously who does a chapter on great pauses in pop music and doesn't include Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)).

Apr 5, 2012, 7:15am Top

"...hip with the latest fiction: cultural change at warp speed..." Just by the way, the SF Encyclopedia traces that usage to no later than 1931, and of course Star Trek made it more generally known no later than the mid-1960s. How hip can they be? :-)

Edited: Apr 8, 2012, 8:26pm Top

Meeting of Petraca and Laura at Santa Clair by Marie Spatali Stillman

All you who hear in scattered rhymes the sound
of heavy sighs with which I fed my heart
during the time of my first youthful straying
when I was not the man I have since become:

for the mixed style in which I speak and weep,
caught between empty hopes and empty sorrow,
from anyone who knows of love firsthand
I hope to bind some sympathy - and pardon

I can see now that I was made the subject
of lots of gossip among lots of people;
inside myself I am often filled with shame;

shame is the fruit of all my clever ravings:
so are repentance and my knowing clearly
that every wordly pleasure is a dream.

The first sonnet of Petrarchs 366 cycle of poems; The Canzoniere. Another 365 to go then.

Apr 8, 2012, 9:19pm Top

fabulous, the poem and the picture.

Apr 9, 2012, 5:33am Top

17) The poetry of Petrarch, translated by David Young
David Young’s translates all 366 poems of the Canzoniere. 366 poems written in the 14th century by a man lamenting his unrequited love for the woman of his dreams are an awful lot of poems to read unless you care about the development of poetry, or the subject of love of the most unrequited kind resonates with you. I read them all; I cared, I was enchanted and was able to share some of the emotions, and with the help of David Young’s introduction understand the points of view from a medieval perspective..

Petrarch was born in 1304 and on 6 April 1327 he saw Laura in the church of S. Claire, Avignon and immediately fell in love with her. His love was not returned. Laura was a respectable married Lady who would have nothing to do with the poet, she gave him no encouragement and when she saw him treated him mostly with disdain. Petrarch immediately started to write his poems about his love for Laura publishing them (this was before the availability of the printing press) as and when they were to hand. They were well received and he became the best known poet of his times. Laura died in 1348 probably of the Black Death, but Petrarch continued to love Laura and continued to write poems about her until he died in 1374.

The poems written in the first person document a one sided love affair and written over a period of 47 years, we are able to see how this developed in the thoughts and ruminations of Petrarch whose mind was in turmoil The first batch of poems are all about the beauty of Laura, his love for her and his passionate desire. It is clear that she has not returned his love but the poet can look ahead to a time when she will, if he continues with his suit. Some of these early poems also show the poet’s suffering; his despair about not being able to see her and a possibility that his overriding passion will lead to his early death. The poems continue along in this vein with Petrarch inventing new ways of praising the beautiful Laura and of describing his feelings and despair at his set backs. There are anecdotes, there are letters to friends there are poems about his house in the country and of course there are poems about writing his poems, but they all connect or lead back to his love for Laura. A smile from Laura or a kind word to him when they meet at a function or in the street will lead him to fire off a new batch of poems about renewed hope, but then he is plunged into despair when next he sees her and she is purposely wearing a veil. The time period and the number of poems written have resulted in some of the poems sounding quite similar; the poet is often reduced to tears as the same thoughts re-occur, but this is also part of the joy of reading them through because we can chart the poets moods, we can see his rising hopes, his downward turns into despair and always we can feel how he suffers in myriads of different ways.

Laura’s early death does not stop the flow of poems and after the initial grief the moods subtly starts to change. We gradually feel a relief from his more acute suffering and the poet starts to look backwards at his passion and desire and to look forward to his own death when he fervently believes he will be reunited with Laura in heaven. He sees her as sitting at one with the saints and that she will lead him up to sit by her side. He starts to realise that her chastity and virtue have saved him from himself and the final longer poem in praise of the Virgin Mary whom he equates with Laura is moving indeed. His path however is not a smooth arc and this again is part of the pleasure of reading them through, some poems will express his doubts and fears and others will make the reader believe that the poet enjoys his suffering perhaps a little too much.

Petrarch was aware that he was writing these poems for an audience, who would be well aware of the conventions of courtly (adulterous) love; the idea that a noble woman worthy of love was regarded as an ideal being, to be approached with worship bordering on adoration. The lover derived personal force, virtue elevation and energy from his enthusiastic passion and his sole purpose was to do the wishes of his lady. He should be made to suffer for his love and his suffering and untainted love would also raise him in the eyes of God so that his path to salvation would be easier. All this is in the Canzoniere, but it leaves the conventions of courtly love well behind in its wake as the poems look forward to a much more modern approach, with its concentration on the feelings of the poet. It is also a collection of poems without any prose or connecting thread and so it is the reader who puts the story together. This is not a difficult proposition because the language and thoughts shy away from a mystical or allegorical approach. We are firmly in the idiom of real time and real events.

Petrarch was a devout Christian who firmly believed that he would get to heaven and there he would be united with Laura. His faith causes some of his inner turmoil; he finds it difficult to control his passion when Laura is alive and to control his self pity when Laura leaves him behind to suffer alone on earth, but towards the end of his life it gives him the comfort and the hope that he needs. Despite this being a Christian poem there are also pagan influences. Cupid the god of love or Amore is part of the triangle that enmeshes the poet and Laura and is an ambivalent force throughout.

Modern readers may feel that Petrarch over emphasises the suffering, it is either part of or alluded to in most of the poems. Yes, we have sympathy for him, but more often than not begin to lose patience with yet more bouts of self-pity. The suffering though was a significant part of medieval courtly love and his audience would have expected it to be foremost in the poetry, Petrarch is a figure that seems to me to be at the crossroads of medieval thought and the new humanism that was such an essential part of the Renaissance. Sonnet no. 134 is a good example of the points I have been making and demonstrates the quality of David Young’s translations:

“I find no peace, and yet I am not warlike;
I fear and hope, I burn and turn to ice;
I fly beyond the sky, stretch out on earth;
my hands are empty, yet I hold the world.

One holds me prisoner, not locked up, not free;
won’t keep me for her own but won’t release me;
Love does not kill me, does not loose my chains,
He’d like me dead, he’d like me still ensnared,

I see without my eyes, cry with no tongue,
I want to die yet I call for help,
Hating myself but loving someone else,

I feed on pain, I laugh while shedding tears,
Both death and life displease me equally;
And this state, Lady, is because of you.”

David Young’s translations have not attempted to keep Petrarch’s rhyming schemes, he explains that there are far more rhymes in the Italian vernacular than there are in modern English and attempts to force rhymes would be at the cost of the meaning of the poems. I think he has made the right choice here, he has given himself a far wider vocabulary to get to the heart of these lovely poems and has used internal rhymes and paid close attention to metre to give a feel for the original text. Petrarch was famous for his sonnets and there are over 300 here along with ballatas sestinas, madrigals and other longer forms. It is a wonderful experience to read them all and I heartily recommend that you do, but not all at once perhaps. A five star read


Apr 9, 2012, 8:14am Top

A fabulous review, Barry. But it leaves me very curious to know more about Petrarch himself. 366 poems from 47 years of unrequited love for a woman you never had a relationship with? Was this the full body of Petrarch's work?

Edited: Apr 9, 2012, 8:30am Top

Linda, no indeed, he was anything but a sad man pining for a love he never consummated. He wrote other works but it is the Canzoniere which were very popular in his lifetime and on which much of his fame rests today. He led a full life he was a statesman and a courtier and managed to father at least two illegitimate children that we know about. Boccaccio The Decameron was his pupil.

Apr 9, 2012, 8:44am Top

Thanks Barry. Between you and Suzanne, I have become fully convinced that my classical education is severely lacking!

Apr 9, 2012, 12:45pm Top

Barry, what a wonderful review. I am definitely going to have to give these poems another look. I read them some years ago when I was less well informed than I am now in some areas, and I was reading the poems from a particular point of view, which meant I missed a great deal of the nuance that you have so beautifully articulated. The other problem is that I have a very checkered relationship with poetry. For all my love of poetic language, I am not always able to get to the core of actual poetry. As you say, Petrarch is quite concrete and therefore not difficult to understand, which is why I got through the entire book to begin with. My translation is by Mark Musa, and I compared Musa's translation with David Young's and they use slightly different vocabulary to express the same thoughts. At any rate, I am going to save your review and tackle Petrarch again one of these days.

Apr 9, 2012, 12:53pm Top

Laura was likely Laure de Sade, ancestor of the notorious marquis. I always found it a touching testament to the power of poetry, of art, that Sades took such enormous pride in the connexion all the female children in the family received "Laure" as one of the names.

Voltaire mischievously wrote to his friend Jacques de Sade (uncle of the marquis, and a great influence on the latter's development), that he thought he (Jacques) might be related to Petrarch by more than grace and talent, as it was difficult to believe that Petrarch would have loved for so long an "ungrateful" woman.

Apr 9, 2012, 2:21pm Top

Nice story Lola.

Suzanne, In his forward to the poems David Young pays respect to the previous translations and says how he referred to them when doing his own transation. He says that he only became aware of Mark Musa's translations when he was half way through the cycle. I can imagine he might have been spitting feathers.

Mark Musa has translated The Divine Comedy which I beleive is highly thought of and its on my shopping list.

Apr 9, 2012, 2:28pm Top

The Musa translation of The Divine Comedy is the one I read. I got interrupted somewhere in the middle of Purgatorio, but I found it to be very readable.

Apr 10, 2012, 12:03am Top

I must admit that I've always found all this pining after lost loves, especially as sublimated as it is in the Italian poets, rather a literary conceit -- a raison d'etre for writing poems. Courtly love poetry is at least as much meta-poetry as it is love poetry.

Apr 11, 2012, 7:25pm Top

Wow. I think your book review is the most enjoyable one I've read this year, on LT or anywhere else. Thank you for taking the time to write it, and for sharing it with us!

Apr 12, 2012, 2:27am Top

Thanks Darryl

Apr 14, 2012, 11:59am Top

At the the last meeting of our book club there was a unanimous thumbs down for A Visit from the Goon Squad. No one had anything good to say about it.

As I suspected I was the only one to have completed Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, everybody turned up clutching their copy with a book mark at the page they had struggled to. They all liked it, but just found it too time consuming to finish. The general consensus was that it was not a novel for "our times"

The next selections to read are Lady Chatterley's Lover by D H Lawrence and Why be happy when you could be normal by Jeanette Winterson.

D H Lawrence is my favourite author, but it is a long time since I read Lady Chatterley and so I am a bit anxious as to how it will read.

Apr 14, 2012, 1:00pm Top

We don't tend to read very long books for my book club either--it's just hard for everyone to be able to get through a long book in the same month. We pick our books in September, so we could be organized and read ahead, but we usually schedule the longest book to read over Christmas because we don't meet for about 8 weeks. Otherwise, long books don't work for our group either. I don't think it's necessarily a comment on the book as much as a comment on our lives (timed by how many are in the book club).

We "read" Lady Chatterly's Lover last year, but only one person got around to reading it (I'd read it previously). We try to read one classic each year, but it's not usually a book that goes over too well for some reason.

Apr 14, 2012, 6:10pm Top

John Dunstable (1390-1453) Sweet Harmony Masses and Motets - Tonus Peregrinus

John Dunstable can be considered as England greatest medieval and early renaissance composer. His music was very much the new thing with its carefully written parts for small choirs. He took polyphonic writing to new levels with harmonies that used thirds and sixths as well as octaves.

This is choral music from the middle ages given life and breath by by a superb choir made up of 2 female sopranos, 1 female alto, 1 male counter tenor and 3 tenors and 1 bass. They sing mainly parts of masses in glorious two and four part harmonies with the singers taking different lines and then coming gloriously together. Beautiful melodies and beautiful harmonies sung by voices of distinction recorded in the abbey de Chancelade, which gives a sound with just the right amount of echo.

I am a newcomer to choral music of this vintage but this disc has made me want to listen to more; absolutely enchanting

Apr 16, 2012, 3:33pm Top

I know I'm way late, but great stuff on Petrarch. Very interesting about Egan.

Apr 19, 2012, 10:49am Top

Edited: Apr 19, 2012, 2:25pm Top

18) The Paston Letters: A selection in Modern Spelling
Wow! This is the real deal. Reading these letters feels like walking in the footsteps of actual people in 15th Century England. The Paston family members and their associates come alive as we learn of their hopes and fears in one of the more turbulent periods of History. The 100 years war with France, the war of the Roses, the visitations of the Great Plague all had a tremendous impact on the family as they struggled to better themselves in a period when law and order was in danger of breaking down completely.

The Paston letters are a cache of letters and documents numbering over a 1000 pieces dating from the mid fifteenth century into the early sixteenth century and cover the eventful lives of three generations of the family. They are important because they are amongst the earliest collections of letters written in the fast developing English language and they are the richest in providing details of the society of the times. The World’s Classic Edition that I read contains 142 complete or extracts from the cache. Letters are perhaps the most personal of documents and are in many cases only intended to be read by the recipient. The Paston family were lawyers, by profession and so some of this correspondence is factual with an eye to the fact that it could become a public document. However most of the selections here are between members of the family expressing thoughts and emotions that are very private and immediate.

England had lost most of its territory previously gained in the 100 years war with France. Its military was on the back foot, only Calais remained firmly under English control and this was under threat. England was full of men trained for war from the aristocracy down to the common foot soldier. Henry VI came to power in 1422 on the death of Henry V the last of the great medieval warlord kings. Henry VI was in his minority and the Lords of the realm battled for control of the kingdom. The two great Houses of Lancaster and York rose to power and when Henry VI became temporarily insane in 1454 the two houses fought running battles across England: Ludford Bridge, Wakefield, St Albans and later Barnet . Henry VI regained his senses, but was usurped by Edward IV. Henry temporarily regained the throne in 1470, but was defeated by the Yorkists at Tewksbury and Barnet and Edward IV was king again. Leading members of the Paston family took an active part in theses events; chosing to be on the wrong side at the battle of Barnet and then being posted to Calais.

The Pastons were not aristocrats; they had worked their way up from being bondsmen. William Paston whose letters start this selection was a lawyer, working in London who had gone about buying land in Norfolk. He was an astute business man and he had purchased some of the best arable land in England with attendant houses and manors. On his death he passed his estate to his son John who made an excellent marriage with Margaret who was herself an heiress in the Norfolk region. They had five children and their two eldest sons John II and John III feature most prominently as correspondents. They had become an important family in Norfolk: Johns I, II, and III all became MPs with John III achieving a knighthood. They could best be described as provincial gentry.

They were therefore an upwardly mobile family, a family on the make as it were, but there is much evidence in the letters that they were basically good law abiding citizens. We warm to them as we read their letters; we see them develop as characters and share their fears and frustrations in trying to make good. John Paston I is the patriarch when we read Margaret’s first letter to him in 1441 which starts off “Right reverend and worshipful husband, I recommend me to you, desiring heartily to hear of your welfare…” John was working as a lawyer in London and Margaret was looking after family affairs in Norfolk and she gently chides him about not getting her a new girdle that she has asked for. It becomes apparent in the letter that she is pregnant and she would like her husband home with her she says:

“I may no longer live by my craft I am discovered by all men that see me…..I pray you that ye will wear the ring with the image of Saint Margaret that I sent you for a remembrance till ye come home. Ye have left me with such a remembrance that maketh me to think upon you both day and night when I would sleep”

.Much of the early correspondence is between John I and Margaret and his two elder sons. John spends more and more time in London and Margaret becomes the Manager of all affairs in Norfolk, repeatedly writing to her husband for decisions on urgent matters and increasingly taking the initiative. In 1448 she was forced to flee from her manor house at Gresham when Lord Moleyns men threatened to drag her out and lock her up in a castle. It was she who had to deal with the displaced tenants who came to her when they had been put out of their houses. On Johns death Margaret became very much a matriarchal figure directing her two elder sons as best she could and remaining a woman of property. We are able to follow Margaret’s development from a young mother to a woman of business and then finally to a de facto head of family.

Interestingly much of the family’s troubles stemmed from the very qualities that made them successful in the first place. John I’s ambition and acquisitiveness led him to a position where he became an executor to the will of Sir John Fastolf. Sir John had made himself rich in land and money through his conquests in France and two days before he died made a new will leaving nearly everything to John Paston, effectively cutting out 11 other executors to the will. When John I took possession of these lands and buildings all hell broke loose with powerful interests issuing legal challenges and martial force to get what they thought was due to them. This led to one of the most exciting events described in the letters; the siege of Caister Castle. John III has been left to defend the castle as John II has by this time taken over his fathers business in London. John III urgently asks John II to send men, crossbows and gunpowder. Margaret writes to Jon II saying help is urgently required as she would rather loose their livelihood than any of the lives of the men helping John III to defend the castle. Its all frantic stuff. Margaret is able to reflect years after the events to her son John III who is still in danger from retribution over the Fastolf inheritance.

“Wherefore in any wise beware of yourself, for I can think they give no force what to do to be venged and to put you fro your intent, that they might have their will in Sir John Fastolf’s land. I had liefer ye had never know the land. Remember it was the destruction of your father.”

Marriage and love is another key theme in these letters. At this time marriages were arranged with the important factor being what both parties could bring to the table, either in money, position and in the case of young women reputation (lack of it). Times were however starting to change and there is much made of two marriages that were certainly love matches and in one, Margaret ostracised her daughter Margery who was bent on marrying their estates manager Richard Calle. Margaret thought the marriage was beneath their station and got a bishop to tell her daughter just that. Margaret writing to John II says:

“I charged my servants that she should not be received in mine house. I had given her warning, she might be ware afore if she had a be gracious. And I sent to one or two more that they should not receive her if she came. She was brought again to my place for to be received, and Sir James (the chaplain) told them that brought her that I had charged them all, andshe should not be received; and so my lord of Norwich hath set her at Roger Best’s to be there till the day beforesaid, God knoweth full evilagain his will and his wife’s if they durst do otherwise.”

John III received perhaps the most famous letter in this collection; the so called Valentine letter from Margery Brews. There were protracted negotiations over the amount of the dowry and Margery wrote to John telling him how much she loved him and included a charming love poem.

Other issues covered by these letters are the difficulties for a young courtier in gaining access to people of importance. John II is castigated by his father for his lack of success. We hear of John III attached to Lord Norfolk’s entourage, shivering away (he only owns one gown) in wet cold Wales where his Lordship is gathering his forces. Both John II and John III fought at the battle of Barnet on the Lancastrian side and had to then seek pardons from the Yorkist king. John III was wounded; his brother wrote to their mother to say that “he is alive and fareth well and in no peril of death. Nevertheless he is hurt with an arrow on his right arm beneath the elbow” The Black Death reappears at intervals and John II dies of it in London after insisting on staying there to further the family’s interest. Family members are warned not to go to Norwich after another outbreak. The church plays a less significant part in the family affairs than one may think. We hear of other people making pilgrimages and of instructions for prayers in various wills, but Margaret is the only family member who regularly invokes the power if God. Towards the end of her life she becomes more and more under the influence of Sir James a powerful fighting man of the cloth and it is with undisguised glee that his death is celebrated by her sons.

The Getting of land the getting of money at a time when the population of the country was suffering from both internal warfare and the plague, is the major theme of these letters. Times were hard indeed but the Pastons managed to more than keep their heads above water through diligence and graft and they did this without losing their humanity. These are letters and so there is no connecting narrative, also there are references to people and places that are not obvious to readers today. Some of the jokes and some of the inferences are lost to us, but there is more than enough here to hold our interest and it is fun to read between the lines. The world Classics Edition contains a useful introduction a brief biography of family members and a timeline of the major historical events, as well as some notes following each letter; just enough to keep the reader grounded in the contents of the letters. And the letters themselves? Well they are not great literature, but they are well enough written, the spelling and some of the language has been modernised to make them intelligible and there is also an index of words. There really is so much of interest in the content of these letters, that for anybody attracted to the history of this period then I would recommend that you give these letters a try. They are essential and a five star read..

Apr 19, 2012, 1:54pm Top

Very interesting discourse on The Paston Letters. They seem to cover a period that interests me greatly. I may have to add this to my wishlist.

Apr 19, 2012, 2:46pm Top

Interesting indeed. I had not heard of these letters before, even though I'm sure primary sources from common people this long ago are very rare. It sounds like something where some preparatory or companion reading on English history would be advisable for those of us who know very little about that period.

Apr 19, 2012, 4:38pm Top

Oh my. How do you learn of books like The Paston Letters, Barry? And how did you manage to insert the family tree in your post? As usually happens to me on your thread, I am in awe.

Apr 19, 2012, 5:36pm Top

Yes, a fascinating review, although I doubt I would read the book. Great insight into what was going on in their world as well as the family itself.

Apr 20, 2012, 1:54am Top

Really intriguing review, Barry! I don't know whether you've heard of the book, but The Verneys by Adrian Tinniswood is also based on a huge cache of letters and other documents left by the Verney family, who seemed to preserve every scrap of paper they ever put pen to.

Apr 20, 2012, 4:57am Top

Dewald, I had not heard of The Verneys, thanks for that because when I get to the 17th cenuary next year I will read them.

Steven, I prepared for reading the Paston Letters by reading a factual history book about the Wars of the Roses and also I now have a good background to medieval life with other reading I have done. I don't think it is essential to have a detailed knowledge of the period because the Paston family was not involved at the higher levels of society and were not decision makers. The world classics edition does have a brief outline of the period.

Linda, I am concentrating my reading this year on the 15th centrury, which was a fallow period for English literature. There just is not that much secular writing around and so The Paston Letters have become quite famous for people interested in that period. Loading in the family tree was easy - I just googled in Paston Letters images and could then copy and paste in the usual way on LT.

Hi rebecca and suzanne, thanks for dropping by.

Apr 20, 2012, 5:14am Top

The Paston Letters (see #93 above) - Margery Brews wrote the famous Valentine letter to John Paston III and included in it some verse, Here it is with spelling modernised.:

And if you command me to keep me true wherever I go,
Iwis I will do all my might you to love and never no mo.
And if my friends say that I do amiss, they shall not me let so for to do,
Mine heart me bids evermore to love you
Truly over all earthly thing,
And if they be never so wroth, I trust it shall be better in time coming.

This was written in 1477 when Margery's marriage was on hold because of arguments over the amount of the dowry. She finished her letter by saying

And I beseech you that this bill (letter) be not seen of none earthly creature save only yourself

She could hardly have imagined that it would be posted on the internet.

Apr 20, 2012, 6:06am Top

Way behind here, but thank you for the excellent review of The Aunt's Story.

Apr 20, 2012, 11:14am Top

Wonderfully detailed review of the Pastons, Barry -- great background material.

Apr 21, 2012, 4:37am Top

Thanks Jane, nice to see you back pam.

Apr 22, 2012, 8:05am Top

A very good review of the Paston Letters, and very useful to bring to attention. I had heard of this, but it didn't really register with me or leave a lasting impression on me. Reading your review + some follow up on that has now elevated this collection to the same level of interest as Samuel Pepys diaries, which are still on my TBR.

Apr 22, 2012, 8:14am Top

Barry, I've come to it a little late but just wanted to say that I was very much looking forward to your thoughts on Our Mutual Friend, and you didn't disappoint me. I don't know yet what Dickens I'll be tackling next after the resounding success of Great Expectations, but this is certainly one I'll bear in mind.

Apr 22, 2012, 6:40pm Top

Kenny Barron Trio - Marciac L'Astrada

We were just sitting down in front of the TV to watch the 9pm showing of Robin Hood (the 2010 version starring Russell Crowe) when Lynn said to me "Have we got tickets for a concert tonight" I dunno I said I had better check. Well we had and the concert was due to start at 9pm. Thank goodness this is France where nothing much starts on time and so we were able to drive into town to catch the start of the concert.

Kenny Barron plays sumptuous tuneful jazz piano and he effortlessly glided through a programme of standards, some bebop tunes and ended the evening with a couple of excellent compositions of his own. It was left to his drummer Johnathan Blake to provide the excitement for the evening with an inventive drum solo. I drifted along to the music, but would have welcomed something a bit more challenging from such a good pianist. He played a couple of Thelonious Monk tunes (well most jazz pianists do) and managed to smooth the edges of the songs to such a degree that they sounded tuneful as well. Oh how I would love to have heard some 'Brilliant Corners', but it was just not that kind of concert. The audience were very appreciative and I was glad that Lynn had remembered where we should have been tonight.

Apr 22, 2012, 6:43pm Top

The line up for the Marciac Jazz Festival is now on line at http://www.jazzinmarciac.com/ete.html

Apr 22, 2012, 6:47pm Top

Edwin, I will get around to the Samuel Pepys diaries as well soon.

Rachel, glad you enjoyed the review.

Apr 22, 2012, 6:52pm Top

The Festival lineup looks great, Barry. Will you be able to attend any of the performances?

Edited: Apr 22, 2012, 7:42pm Top

One of my favorite ballads is "Quiet Times"' from Kenny Baron's 1985 album Scratch (I couldn't find a YouTube video of the song, but the album and song are available on iTunes and elsewhere). I'm glad to hear that he's still performing, and that you had a chance to see him in person.

Edited: Apr 23, 2012, 7:31pm Top

Hi Linda, I have already got tickets for the Sonny Rollins concert and I am planning to go to four more;

John Zorn who is a great favourite at the festival and who brings with him some stunning musicians
Esperanza Spalding and Joshua Redman, two acts I have seen previously here
Angelique Kidjo, who will sing some quite commercial African pop stuff I think
The Blues night with Eric Bibb and Keb Mo.

The festival seems to get longer and longer each year and it is now nearly up to three weeks. There are other smaller venues around town where there is a real club atmosphere and so I will be dipping into some of these. There is also plenty of free music around the festival with free concerts in the square and at the lake as well as plenty of street musicians.

I will be in town most days.

Apr 23, 2012, 7:44pm Top

Esperanza Spalding is performing with Joshua Redman??? Ooh, I'm jealous!

Apr 24, 2012, 3:55am Top

That's going to be an interesting 3 weeks this summer, Barry! In addition to the music, I love the atmosphere in such events. I have Mezzo on cable which often feature past Festival performances, but that's the closest I get to watching them. I, myself, am going to enjoy a musical treat this weekend in the Dias da Musica, an annual 3-day international music fest here in Lisbon. This year's theme celebrates the human voice so there's an interesting mix of music "From the Middle Ages to contemporary music, from madrigal Renaissance and Baroque to great choral symphonic Romanticism, from the intimate elegance of Lied to French mélodie, through genres of popular origin - such as blues and fado.... Can't wait.

Apr 24, 2012, 10:28am Top

Darryl, unfortunately Esperanza Spalding and Joshua Redman are separate acts on the same night. However Marciac is the sort of festival where performers are liable to wander in on other groups sets especially for encores and so you never know.

Deebee, I also have Mezzo, on my satellite TV. it is a great channel. Enjoy yourself at Dias da Musica.

Apr 24, 2012, 10:29am Top

Apr 24, 2012, 10:49am Top

19) The Tree of Man by Patrick White
This is a life enhancing novel. Patrick White has brought his undoubted talents as a writer to bear to create a story that is both human and metaphysical. A novel of power and conviction, beautifully focused on the lives of his two central characters; Amy and Stan Parker

At the turn of the 20th century; the young Stan Parker inherits a plot of land in the Australian outback. He is a practical slow thinking, hard working man who decides to clear the land and build himself a house. He finds a wife in a local frontier town with whom he will share his life. They make a farm together and watch other people move into the land around them, they survive floods and fire and Stan comes back from the war. They have children a boy and a girl who both in their way reject their parents honest simple life, but Amy and Stan endure; through their love for each other and the natural world around them, which cannot be expressed in words and remains a mystery to them, but speaks of some higher omnipotence, of which Stan is dimly aware.

There was a seven year gap since the publication of White’s previous novel The Aunts Story and during that time he had moved back to Australia with his partner Manoly Lascaris. The cultured, artistic life style of pre war London had been exchanged for the rough, tough life on a farm deep in the Australian hinterland. The two men worked hard to scratch a living and there was little time for writing, however when the need to write came upon White again he had a whole new experience on which to draw upon. David Marr’s excellent biography of Patrick White links episodes from the life of Patrick and Manoly directly to passages in Tree of Man and I am tempted to think that Stan Parker; perhaps Whites first good character is based on Manoly.

The dazzling prose and post modernist style of much of The Aunts Story has been stripped back for Tree of Man. White seems to have undergone a process of re-invention and certainly his more direct style suits the subject matter. His move back to Australia has allowed him to pick up the speech idioms of the country people and to present to us their less sophisticated views and emotions in sentences that seem perfectly natural. The cleverness has gone out of his style and he seems no longer to have to prove to his readers that he can write. There are still plenty of purple patches in his prose style, but they no longer distance the reader from the subject matter. White is a master of the stream of conscious technique, but it is reigned back here and used more sparingly. He uses it particularly well when there is music or art present. A concert or theatre going experience will lead his characters to muse about their own lives as they listen to a performance, stimulated by what they hear their mind will wander in all sorts of directions, allowing White to introduce new thoughts and ideas.

Stan and Amy Parker are indeed a fine creation. It is through their thoughts that much of the story is told although there are excursions into the lives of their disappointing children. Ray is a particular problem who seems in revolt against his father’s goodness. He shy’s away from his mother’s love as though he is not worthy in comparison with his father and when he leaves home it is no surprise that he get’s involved in criminal activities that will have harmful effects on those around him. His father on hearing about one of his escapades feels obliged to do something and White writes poignantly about Stan:

“But Stan Parker came.
He could not have avoided coming. In the beginning, as a young man, when he was clearing his land, he had hewn at trees with no exact plan in his head, but he got them down, even at the expense of his hands, though these in time became hard, and there were boulders to be moved, that he strained against with his horse, till the soft bellies of man and horse grew hard and stony too, and the stone of will prevailed over rock. It was in this frame of mind that Stan Parker, the father, blundered into town. He had no plan. He was bewildered by much of what he had been told. But he would if given a chance, harness his will to the situation and move it by strength and determination. He supposed. In the end he had hewn a shape and order out of the chaos he had found. He was also an improviser of honest objects of wood and iron, which, if crude in design, had survived to that day. His only guide in all of this had been his simplicity.”

Love is of course a central theme in the novel and White seems to explore similar ideas in this respect to D H Lawrence. Amy and Stan have an undying love that Stan accepts as given, but this is not enough for Amy. She worries that she does not show or does not in fact love Stan enough. She craves to get closer to her husband and finds it difficult to accept that in many respects each of them are inviolable. This is in contrast to the O’Dowds who live on a neighbouring farm, their lives seem completely at odds to the Parkers, O’Dowd is an alcoholic, their farm is a ramshackle affair they appear on the edge of chaos and yet they love each other unconditionally and demonstratively.

At the time of writing Tree of Man White was looking towards religion as a possible salvation from the human condition and some of this is explored in the novel, but it is left inconclusive. It is practical experience that will play the biggest part in the life of the Parkers. Stan experiences an epiphany at the end of his life, but it is his simplicity and his wisdom that leads him to it. For Amy there is not quite the same thing as she desperately tries to share in her husband’s vision.

In previous novels Patrick White has kept his characters at arms length from his readers, but this changes with Tree of Man. He makes us care about the characters. Their humanity is there for us all to see, their faults their failings, but also their love and their kindnesses. He gets us right in close and it is painful sometimes, but the rewards are great and the emotional impact of Stan’s death will live long in my memory. Patrick White has found his voice with Tree of Man. Highly recommended and a 5 star read..

Edited: Apr 24, 2012, 11:12am Top

A 5-star review of a 5-star book! Thanks for mentioning the biography and a bit of the background of the writing of this book. It's now on my wishlist. Several people in Club Read have indicated interest in other threads to read PW. Would be nice if somebody gets inspired to start a group read!:-)

Apr 24, 2012, 11:12am Top

This sounds like an excellent book, and a great introduction to Patrick White, whom I have not read before. I find it interesting you mentioning that White strips back the dazzling prose and post-modernist techniques in this book: would you say that one should read the other books first, or do you think that one can skip to this book (that is, if you want to read at least one of his books)?

I also thought your reference to Lawrence was notable, as White seems to approach the emotional world in a similar way to Lawrence. I'm under the impression that you have read Kangaroo, which is a very different book to this one, of course, but also set in Australia. Were there any resemblances between the books? Or is it more in the way they approach the theme of love?

Apr 24, 2012, 12:37pm Top

>114 baswood: Darryl, unfortunately Esperanza Spalding and Joshua Redman are separate acts on the same night.

It doesn't matter. I'm still jealous. I shall have to attend this festival in the future!

>116 baswood: Fabulous review of The Tree of Man! After reading reviews from you and Steven I will put this at the top of my wish list.

>117 deebee1: Several people in Club Read have indicated interest in other threads to read PW. Would be nice if somebody gets inspired to start a group read!

Several of us are members of the Patrick White 100th Anniversary Challenge group, including Steven, Barry and myself (although I haven't read or contributed anything yet). As I mentioned on Steven's thread, I own and plan to read The Vivisector later this year, but I'll also plan to read The Tree of Man.

Apr 24, 2012, 3:26pm Top

Excellent review, Barry. Thanks for bringing out the biographical background on PW--I had not read anything on him, but it certainly explains the shift in setting and tone from his earlier work. His notion of the "tree of man," does seem like a rather tentative deistic groping towards spirituality without embracing any organized religion.

I think we are in complete agreement on this wonderful novel. It reminded me of D. H. Lawrence's novels too. (But I like the cover of my edition better.)

Apr 24, 2012, 3:28pm Top

A new edition of The Tree of Man is not available from BN.COM. I am still unhappy about how I've been treated by AbeBooks; I'll have to decide whether I want to dive deeper into the World Wide Web for it.


Apr 24, 2012, 4:31pm Top

Very interesting review of The Tree of Man. I am planning on reading some Patrick White this year for the group honoring the centennial of his birth, but the book I bought, Riders in the Chariot, is long, so I'm waiting at least until I finish the long book I'm currently reading, and maybe until the summer.

Edited: Apr 24, 2012, 7:15pm Top

Dewald, I have read Kangaroo but not recently. It is the way that White tackles his big themes that reminds me of D H Lawrence. His prose has some of the power and some of the repetition that is a feature of Lawrence's writing. Tree of Man is a good place to start with Patrick White I think.

Thanks Steven and Darryl, I plan to be reading Voss next month

Rebecca, The Tree of Man is a fairly long book. My edition is 480 pages and you can't rush Patrick White, if you do you might not understand his prose which can be dense and which takes some unexpected turns. It is worth while to spend a bit of time with him.

Apr 25, 2012, 12:20am Top

Terrific and informative review of Tree of Man. I've set my copy aside as it needs more commitment then I'm willing to give it at the moment.

Edited: Apr 25, 2012, 8:52am Top

This is a life enhancing novel.
That's quite the recommendation, Barry, and even more so knowing the quality of your reading. I am anxious to read some Patrick White. I have looked for the The Tree of Man, but the local library only has The Solid Mandala, The Vivisector and The Eye of the Storm, so I will probably start with one of those.

Apr 25, 2012, 12:15pm Top

Linda all those will be good reads.

Apr 28, 2012, 11:29am Top

Petrarch, Boccaccio, Ariosto, Machiavelli, Aretino, Pontanto, Pomponazzi.
Renaissance in Italy: Italian Literature - 2 vols - John Addington Symmonds

Apr 28, 2012, 6:18pm Top

Renaissance in Italy. in two parts / Italian Literature By Joh Addington Symonds
“The intellectual medium formed in Italy upon the dissolution of the middle ages was irreligious and indifferent: highly refined and highly cultivated; instinctively aesthetic and superbly gifted, but devoid of moral earnestness or patriotic enthusiasms, of spiritual passions or political energy.”…….The men who made this literature and those with whom they lived, for whom they wrote, were well bred, satisfied with inactivity, open at all pores to pleasure, delighting in the refinements of tact and taste, but at the same time addicted to gross sensuality of word and deed”

John Addington Symonds writing in the 1880’s grits his teeth and plunges into the realms of these dissolute Italians. Symonds was a poet and literary critic who died in Rome in 1893. He produced a 7 volume history of Renaissance Italy; two volumes of which are devoted to literature. His passion for the Italian Renaissance shines through as he takes his readers on a guided tour of all that is worth reading from the period. This is much more than just biographical details of the famous as he uses his critical faculties to the full and along the way delves into much of the social history. He succeeds in producing a well rounded portrait of the literature and the life and times.

His two volumes start with providing an introduction to the romances of the middle ages and the struggle to find an acceptable national language with Latin rapidly becoming a dead language. He moves on to what he calls the Triumvirate of Italian literature; Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio and the influence they had on all those that followed them. There are chapters on popular secular and religious poetry before the excellent chapter on Lorenzo De Medici and the cult of the carnival and the pageant in Florence. The lesser known writers of epic romances are then covered before an excellent critique of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. There are good chapters on the Novellieri and the bawdy short stories that they produced, followed by the even more bawdy secular dramas. Another good chapter on Burlesque poetry, before a chapter on Pietro Aretino the ultimate perhaps in satire and bad taste. Politics and Philosophy are covered with reference to Machiavelli and Pomponazzi and there are chapters on Pastoral and Didactic poetry and a critique on the Purists.

There were many new names to me to explore further; Matteo Bandello, Giovanni Pontano, Salernitano Massucio, Teofilo Polengo, Francesco Berni and Niccolo Franco. It all got a bit dangerous for my bank balance leading to the purchase of seven more books with many other extracts downloaded from google books. John Addington Symonds writes clearly and well and in spite of what he says I get the impression he enjoyed the obscenity of the burlesque writers as much as he did the Pastoral and Religious poetry; he saves his most damming criticism for work that he finds dull. Of course he was writing from a Victorian perspective but I did not find this got in the way of my enjoyment of his book.

The full set of Symonds Renaissance Italy is available for free download at the Gutenburg Project. His critique of literature is contained in volumes four and five. Some of his examples and extracts remain in the original language and many of the translated pieces I found to be incomplete, however this was not a serious problem as the flow of his writing is not seriously disrupted. This is really a very good introduction to the literature of the period with enough context provided to enable the reader to make his own judgements on what to follow up.

Apr 28, 2012, 6:24pm Top

John Addington Symonds was an interesting author in his own write. here is his wiki page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Addington_Symonds

Apr 28, 2012, 7:15pm Top

Machiavelli is a dead-ringer for my late father-in-law, and they both came from the same part of Italy, so I like to think my husband (and thus my kids) are related to him. My husband has been known to have a Machiavellian streak in him at times ;-)

Apr 29, 2012, 12:32am Top

Such an interesting choice. This is one of those books I doubt I will ever read, but yet I'm really happy to know someone is reading it.

Apr 29, 2012, 3:43am Top

Barry, Symonds magisterial work keeps popping up in my reading, and I have been eying the Project Gutenberg production, even dipping into one volume. I appreciate your comments and I shall undoubtedly eventually read parts of this.

Apr 29, 2012, 8:50am Top

Thanks for pointing us to Project Gutenberg for Symonds' set, Barry. It gives me the encouragement that I need to take a look at an author I would otherwise have passed by.

Apr 29, 2012, 6:06pm Top

Fasciating reviews of both the White and the Symonds books -- I think I'm more apt to dip into White at this stage of my life, but even with summer vacation looming, I'm a bit daunted by the tome-ness of it.

Apr 30, 2012, 10:18am Top

Joyce; a definition of Machiavellian; a cunning, amoral, opportunist person. Make sure you stay on the right side of anybody like that.

The Project Gutenberg is a wonderful resource along with Google Books, so much to browse

Apr 30, 2012, 10:35am Top

Ah, yes, but Barry, history hasn't been true to Machiavelli. His reputation doesn't quite match what he said and did . . . or something like that, as I wrote in an essay on him back at university. I got an A, so there must have been something sensical in it. ;-)

Apr 30, 2012, 8:28pm Top

The Hours of Mary of Burgundy

Apr 30, 2012, 8:35pm Top

21) Books of Hours and their owners by John Harthan
A coffee table book; very well illustrated with 72 full colour plates. John Harthan’s lively introduction is wide ranging and knowledgeable, providing enough information for the casual reader to enjoy the wonderful examples that follow.

In medieval times secular people who wished to carry out their own devotions in relative privacy needed to own their own copy of a prayer book. Missals and Breviary ‘s owned by the clergy were not available or suitable and so wealthy patrons would commission their own personal Books of Hours from artists workshops. These books would be decorated with greater or lesser elaboration according to the taste, status and wealth of the customer. They started to gain popularity in the 14th century and for the next 200 years before the introduction of the printing press, they would be hand produced to order.

Books of Hours could be tailored to the individual needs of the customer, but their popularity coincided with the medieval cult centred on the Virgin Mary. This “Little Office of Our Lady” became the basic text of the Books of Hours to which patrons could add their own personal prayers as well as coats of arms and other paraphernalia of the times. Certain prayers were said at different times during the waking hours and so the books became known as Books of Hours, however their contents did not keep to a strict format, but they would usually start with a calendar, which would contain the important church festivals and the days of the more important saints.

The examples provided which form the meat of the book concentrate on the art work, particularly the full page paintings/illustrations which were a feature in the more sumptuous books of hours. They range from the early 14th century with their medieval like iconography through to the mid 16th century pictures which were smaller versions of renaissance art with its rules of perspective and depth of field firmly in place. The book itself almost provides a pictorial history of the development of art over the period. There is huge variety in the pictures, which repay repeated viewings to discover the wealth of detail contained within them.

Each example and there are usually two from each book featured is followed by an essay. Harthan’s stated aim is to provide some context to the art work displayed and so there is a history of the original owners of the Books of Hours. Many were owned by royalty and so there is some detail provided about the French Royal family in particular. Information on subsequent ownership of the books is also provided where known. The essay also discuss the art work and gives pointers as to the representational details within the pictures and intricate border work, there is also information on the artists where known. My personal preference would have been for the essays to be weighted more towards a discussion of the art work and what it represents and less information on the owners of the books.

It has to be said that some of the illustrations are stunning; works of art in them selves and so this is a great book to dip back into. I am not sure it will always remain on my coffee table but it will certainly stay on my bookshelf, where I will not lose sight of it.
A four star book.

May 1, 2012, 2:37am Top

Barry, glad you were able to get hold of a copy of Harthan's book, and I enjoyed your comments. This is one of my favorites among my volumes on books of hours largely because of the very informative introduction which you noted and the wonderful selection of reproductions. I note you said that you would have preferred more information about the content of the paintings, but I think you will find that over time and if you have an opportunity to see more images from this particular genre that you will begin to recognize the many conventional images of certain subjects that turn up again and again. For me at least it would have probably been easier if I had had a deeper religious background.

By the way, there are reproductions of entire books of hours on line. Check out the Sforza Hours at the British Library. This one is good because there is an audio program that goes with it and they do describe the paintings. The link is to the "Turning the Pages" portal and you can select the Sforza Hours or whatever else interests you:


Be forewarned — you can get lost there.

May 1, 2012, 5:15am Top

Thanks suzanne for that excellent link. There is plenty to keep me occupied there.

I was fortunate to be able to get a used copy of Harthan's Books of Hours in very good condition. I take your point about the "conventions" in the religious art of the time and I am familiar with some of these, but there is always more to learn. Part of the fun of looking at the illustrations in the book is to discover for yourself the iconography or to puzzle further over what it might mean.

The Louvre in Paris has an exhibition of the Duc de Berry books of hours running at the moment. We are spending a few days there at the end of the month. There are big Matisse and a Degas exhibition on in the city as well, which Lynn is keen to see. I will find time to sneak down to the Louvre to see those books of hours.

May 3, 2012, 8:34pm Top

Leon Battista Alberti

Edited: May 6, 2012, 8:44pm Top

22) On Painting (Penguin Classics) by Leon Battista Alberti
“Painting possesses a truly divine power in not only does it make the absent present (as they say of friendship), but it also represents the dead to the living many centuries later, so that they are recognised by spectators with pleasure and deep admiration for the artist.”

As this extract shows; Alberti was passionate about painting; he believed it was the truest medium to express the beauty of the natural world. He wanted to ensure that its practitioners were well aware of their responsibilities and that they would have the necessary skills to do their art justice. He wrote On Painting in 1435 as a relatively young man of thirty years old and would have been amazed that this short treatise would be his most famous work. This was at the dawn of the Italian renaissance in Florence and it was the first publication on the technique of painting. Alberti was well aware that he was writing an original work and also that it would be a teaching manual for students of painting, however it proves to be much more than this, as Alberti includes much of his philosophy on life which makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in the Italian Renaissance.

There are three sections to the treatise; book one proves to be the most difficult to read as Alberti is intent here on providing a theoretical background. It is ground breaking stuff as he applies the science of mathematics to the art of painting. He is intent on laying the ground rules of geometry, which he believes is essential for would be painters to master. He has a firm grasp of perspective and we can follow his methods in establishing a vanishing point. It is not quite so easy to follow him through his explanation of how the eye sees different shapes and how these are to be measured and transferred onto a painting. He uses Aristotelian optical science with its emphasis on rays of light emitting from the eye, which was a feature of medieval optical science and which reads very strangely to us today, but his thoughts can be followed well enough. Book two serves as an instruction to painters on how to look at objects and transfer these visions with the skill of his hand onto a painting. There is much detail on the effects of light, proportions of the body, the correct facial expressions to be used and the use of colour, which is all fascinating stuff. Reading this felt like being in a 14th century classroom with Alberti standing out front and lecturing me on the how to be a painter. Book three deals with the personal qualities that are required to produce a work of art, it also provides some pointers as to how to capture the beauty of a subject and finally the importance of an artists work to society.

Alberti’s ideas on the perfection within nature is found everywhere in this treatise. He constantly encourages his students to look, really look for those perfect forms that are everywhere apparent. The aim of the artist should be to express those perfect forms, to demonstrate how everything fits together in a harmony created by God. According to Alberti everything in the world was well ordered and it was man who challenged this order with his actions and by his reactions to the ravages of fortune. It was the painter who was best placed to restore that harmony by his art.

Alberti’s advice to his students is to concentrate on Historia (history paintings) because there they will find subjects that are worthy of their art. This of course to a medieval man could mean subjects from classical times. Typically as a renaissance man; Alberti continually refers back to writers, philosophers and historians from ancient Greece and Rome. In a way this is second hand because he would have only known of painters from Greek antiquity from reports from historians, as no paintings from that era survived. A Christian artist then is encouraging his students to study the works and ideas of pagan artists and maybe to use pagan subject matter. At the time of writing “On Painting” nearly all the surviving paintings from the early renaissance are religious paintings, but there is no advice on how to depict religious subjects, which is curious because the cult of the Virgin Mary was in full swing at that time. Masaccio and Masolino had finished decorating the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence with frescoes that Alberti would have seen. They were much admired by artists of the time and studied for their realistic depiction of biblical figures and their use of perspective and yet Alberti does not mention them. Alberti was a painter himself, but no paintings by him survive. I am not aware of any other history paintings from that era that are not religious and so the subject matter is a bit of a mystery.

I read the penguin classics edition which has an excellent introduction by Martin Kemp and a good translation by Cecil Grayson. The translation is from the Tuscan Italian text but with additions from a Latin text where they differ. The treatise itself is fairly short just 60 pages long, I suppose it would not appeal to the more general reader but to anyone interested in the renaissance or the history of painting then this is a must read. It is a chance to read directly the thoughts of a cultured scholar of his times, who must also have been an excellent communicator. He did have his eye on posterity, but did not think it would come from his treatise, as he urges his students to include his portrait in their paintings. Alberti has the last word:

“This is all I have to say about painting in theses books. If it is such as to be of some use to painters, I would specially ask them as a reward for my labours to paint my portrait in their “historia”, and thereby proclaim to posterity that I was a student of this art and that they are mindful of and grateful for this favour.”

His friend Masaccio complied. A five star read.

May 3, 2012, 10:11pm Top

Wow, your reviews are getting longer and better, all the time. I wish I could join you in reading some of that stuff. Probably later, as I do not yet have an e-reader.

Are you reading all seven volumes of the Symonds' book?

May 4, 2012, 4:54am Top

This afternoon, I was reading Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. I saw that you already read and reviewed it last year. The rural France in the novel is apparently in 'your' district of Gers.

May 4, 2012, 5:06am Top

Yes Edwin, my local village of St Justin gets a mention, which is quite amazing considering that only five families live in the actual village.

May 4, 2012, 9:16am Top

I just went googling to find Masaccio's portrait of Alberti...just to find that you posted it in #141. I'm getting a lot out of following the development of the Renaissance through your reviews.

May 4, 2012, 2:35pm Top

Nothing like getting it straight from the horse's mouth, Barry. I need to read Alberti. Did not realize his treatise was so accessible in English. But then I have not looked for it. This is definitely going on the list. Great review.

May 5, 2012, 7:31am Top

Suzanne "Straight from the horse's mouth" is very apt

May 5, 2012, 7:12pm Top

Another book that I probably will never read but that I enjoyed reading about. Thanks for the interesting review.

May 6, 2012, 9:36am Top

Another wonderful review, Barry.

May 6, 2012, 12:32pm Top

Great reivew of On Painting. I've only read selections from it but will be looking for a copy. Here is a Masaccio painting that is usually used to describe vanishing point. I believe it is one of the earliest existing examples.

May 6, 2012, 1:14pm Top

When I studied art history, this was considered the number one pivotal piece in the development of painting. So on my last trip to Florence, I made a point of stopping by that church to see it in person. I think they charged about $8 (??) to get in and it was well worth it just because I knew what I was looking at.

Edited: May 7, 2012, 7:59am Top

Joyce, it is well worth a detour to see the Fresco. I saw it about 15 years ago when I spent a week in Florence, a magical city. Here is the wiki link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Trinity_(Masaccio)

It is great to be well informed so that you can appreciate a work of art like this and its place in history.

Thanks Linda and Rebecca

May 7, 2012, 8:03pm Top

The Masaccio that seems to be used currently as the prime example of the vanishing point, as well as narrative painting, in textbooks I've been using is "The Tribute Money."

May 8, 2012, 2:11pm Top

Jane, I saw "The Tribute Money" the last time I was in Florence. It is situated in the Brancacci chapel in the basilica of santa Maria del Carmine. It is a tremendous fresco that stands out from others of the period because on first looking, it does not appear to have a religious subject matter. The halo's around the saints heads are not immediately noticeable. Also the subject matter does not depict a usual scene from the New Testament. It looks like a narrative history painting, which is what it is of course but the religious subject matter only comes across after that first look.

May 8, 2012, 3:58pm Top

Barry, I'd love to get to Florence -- it's near the top of the list of places to go when retired.

May 8, 2012, 8:35pm Top

Jacob Burckhardt clutching his portfolio

Edited: May 9, 2012, 2:51am Top

The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burkhardt
This is not a book to read if you are looking for a straight forward account of political events and movements in renaissance Italy: Burckhardt’s book is much more ambitious than that. He is intent, no less, on examining why there was a rebirth (renaissance) in Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries and how it differed so very much from the straight jacket of medieval culture and society.

The Civilisation of Renaissance Italy was published in 1860 and Jacob Burckhardt was one of the first historians who wished to provide more than just a series of events with an explanation of their cause and effect. His idea was to get under the skin of the culture of the period; to define the character of the society so that the reader is able to understand why people behaved the way they did. In short he wanted to provide as complete a picture as possible and in many ways he is successful. He is strong on the cultural history particularly literature, but also takes into account painting sculpture and architecture. He is also very good on religion, social institutions, society and daily life. What emerges is a real feel for the period and a presentation of the underlying circumstances that led to such rapid changes to the society in that small part of the world.

His approach has been labelled as unsystematic, but I would not agree. There are six parts to the book and each part introduces another subject that builds on what has gone before. He could be criticised for not drawing all the strands together at the end, but this is missing the point as there is plenty of guidance along the way and it is up to us to form our own conclusions. What we should keep in mind is that this is a Victorian perspective and so his central premise that it was the individuality of the Italian character and its unique place in history that was responsible for the renaissance would be challenged to some extent by modern historians.

Part 1 is a sort of gallop through the various political states that made up what we now know as modern Italy. Emphasis is on the individuality of these states and how they differed in character from the kingdoms prevalent in the rest of Europe. They were city states where it was said that “even a servant could become king”. There is a more detailed examination of Venice and Florence, two powerful states with completely different characteristics.

Part 2 starts to examine the character of the people within these states concluding that the absence of feudalism and the political culture led to the rise of the individual. Fame could be achieved in the arts as well as in politics, people began to revel in their own uniqueness, they could educate themselves, there was more freedom than in the more clerically dominated middle ages.

Part 3 discusses the huge importance of the rediscovery of antiquity. Particularly relevant to Italians as many of the Latin texts were felt to be their very heritage. This new found humanism was pagan in nature, which led to a discovery of a whole new approach to the world; one that did not involve such a close relationship with Christianity. Humanism and Christianity were viewed by some, as parallel viewpoints

Part 4 covers the outward bound Italians, emissaries to other states, explorers and adventurers and a more ready acceptance of the Muslim world with whom there was trade and cultural exchanges. This part also covers the great strides made in literature and the first hesitant steps in dealing with the inner man, there is also much here on daily life gleaned from poetry and novels.

Part 5 is entitled Society and festivals. Burckhardt is again at pains to point out how much this differed from life in the middle ages he says:

“Middle ages had courtly, aristocratic manners and etiquette differing very little in various countries in Europe….. Social life in the renaissance offers the sharpest contrast to medievalism, social intercourse now ignored all distractions of caste and was based largely on the existence of an educated class as we now understand the word”

Nobles and burghers dwelt together within the city walls. The church too was not to be used as a means of providing for the younger sons of noble families. Burckhardt claims that women stood on an equal footing with men and also examines costume and fashion, music and the cult of the festivals.

Part 6 delves into Morality and Religion and Burkhardt is at his best in this final section. The corruption within the church, the rediscovery of antiquity and the individuality of character all pointed towards men and women being able to think for themselves. Their religion; whatever form it took came from within rather than being hammered home by the clerical establishment. The old faith of paganism mixed with magic and mysticism also feature along with astrology. Immorality and the lawlessness that abounded in the city states is featured throughout the book but in this final chapter some explanation of this phenomena is given. Burckhardt indulges us with some of the more scandalous stories and I get the feeling that he is a little uncomfortable with some of these.

The book is free to download from The Gutenberg Project and although there are a few errors in the text, it is still very readable. Buckhardt writes well and the book seems to get stronger as it goes along with the authors portrayal of renaissance Italy coming together chapter by chapter and leaving the reader with a fine depiction of the period. A must read for anybody interested in the renaissance with the proviso that this is a somewhat outdated view, but then again there is so much here that feels exactly right to me. A four star read.

May 8, 2012, 10:29pm Top

Fantastic review and overview, Barry -- I must get this one -- though I'm not going to read it online.

May 8, 2012, 11:20pm Top

Barry, I still have my two-volume edition from college. I need to dust that off and read it again now that I know a tad more. After all these years, it will be like reading a brand new book. Marvelous overview, as Jane said.

May 9, 2012, 7:56am Top

Excellent review, Barry. The Gutenberg project is certainly a wonderful resource.

May 9, 2012, 8:23am Top

Jane, sounds like you need a kindle. Thanks Linda and Suzanne.

May 9, 2012, 9:32am Top

I'm not quite ready to go there yet. I just had new bookshelves built in the house. Maybe when I'm on a looong vacation -- but I do like to pick up haunt bookstores in the places I visit.

May 9, 2012, 10:36am Top

I did a lot of reading about the Renaissance several years ago, but never got around to Burkhardt. It's interesting how varied the interpretations can be. Most of the recent sources I read (unfortunately it's been too long for me to recall exactly who said what) emphasized that the Papacy not only bankrolled the Renaissance, but was largely behind the rediscovery of classical authors and the development of secular arts and scholarship. Much of this happened because of the movement to unify the Greek and Roman churches and the Greek manuscripts that were then made available to Catholic scholars.

Burkhardt was writing at a time when the various Italian states were struggling for independence from foreign control and for eventual unification. I wonder how much of his focus on Italian national characteristics was rooted in the aspirations of the 19th century rather than the events of the 15th.

May 9, 2012, 12:48pm Top

"his central premise that it was the individuality of the Italian character and its unique place in history"

That just sounds 19th-century, it makes want to bop him on the head. But, Bas, a great review.

#164 Steven - very interesting.

May 9, 2012, 5:21pm Top

Steven, good point about Burckhardt and the aspirations of the Italian states at the time he was writing his book on the renaissance. Certainly Burckhardt's passion for Italy and all things Italian comes across in his book.

You are also quite right in saying that catholic scholars were instrumental in rediscovering classical texts, much of the work was done in the universities and the vast majority of people in Europe were catholic at that time. Burckhardt's point is that it was especially relevant to Italians in the city states in the 13th and 14th centuries, because of their relative freedom from dogma and the society that they were a part of encouraged more freedom of thought. They were ready to take on the ideas that would lead them to a more humanistic view point.

Edited: May 13, 2012, 3:43am Top

Roberto Fonseca - Marciac LL'Astrada 12/05 2012
Roberto Fonseca is a favourite performer at the Marciac Festival and it is a couple of years since I last saw him. During that time Roberto has really found his voice.

He is a Cuban pianist who started his career playing with various groups from the Buena Vista Social Club scene and when he first came to Marciac he was leading a Cuban jazz group with a fairly standard line up. Piano, saxophone, bass and drums. On subsequent visits he was playing mostly his own material and developing as a pianist; his songs were getting stronger, but still sticking to the basic jazz format where all members of the group would take a solo before closing out on the opening theme.

Last night was very different. It was as though Roberto had served his apprenticeship and was now playing his own stuff. The group looked very different, more African than Cuban. There were two percussionists Ramses Rodriguez with a conventional drum kit and Joel Hierrezuelo with a Cuban kit, in addition there was Babs Sissoko a master of the talking drum. Further augmented by Jorge Chicoy on electric guitar and Yandi Martinez on electric bass. The music was now definitely fusion with a strong African feel to it; Baba Sissoko doubled on ngoni (plucked lute) and Roberto's writing seems to have got looser. The marvellous melodies are still there, but the rhythms have changed. Roberto has now become an excellent soloist, but there was equal attention given to the sound of the group as a whole. Various musicians played in different combinations with a feature being an attractive improvised duet between Fonseca's piano and Sissoko's n'goni. Tapes are used and vocoders were in evidence to further enhance the sound.

At the end of the day I think a group stands or falls on its material and Fonseca has been writing some great new stuff. It was a great concert, full of variation, excitement and some great grooves. At the moment Fonseca's must be one of the hottest groups on the jazz fusion scene. Not to be missed.

May 13, 2012, 7:23am Top

Thanks for that review of the Roberto Fonseca concert, Barry. I'm unfamiliar with him, so I'll look for him on iTunes and YouTube.

May 15, 2012, 6:12pm Top

Duccio Di Buoninsegna - Maesta (large front panel)

Maesta - pictures from the life of Christ

May 15, 2012, 6:19pm Top

Duccio Di Buoninsegna
Duccio (1255 – 1319) was an early Italian Renaissance painter. A pupil of Cimabue he serves as a link between the Byzantine iconography of his master and the more naturalistic painting that is a feature of the Italian Renaissance

This nearly A4 sized paperback book is published in the SCALA series: “the great masters of art.” (SCALA specialises in museum and famous historical buildings catalogues). There are well over 100 full colour photographs and an excellent text by Cecelia Janella an art historian. There is an outline of what is known of Duccio’s life and an overview of his work, however most of the text is devoted to the Maesta with some excellent detail (in words and photographs) on the panels that make up this masterpiece.

Duccio painted on wooden boards using pigment with egg tempura, but today there are perhaps only two or three works that can undoubtedly be attributed to him. There are disputes about several others including the “Stoclet Madonna” which was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for 45million US dollars.

Duccio came from Sienna where much of his work is now on display. He was a compatriot of Simone Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers who were active as fresco painters in the city somewhat earlier than the great renaissance painters in Florence. Like his compatriots, Duccio was a religious painter and his Madonna (Rucellai Madonna) was commissioned as an altar piece in the Rucellai Chapel of the Santa Maria Novella church in Florence. This iconographic representation of the Virgin shows some innovation in its conception and was completed in 1285.

Duccio’s masterpiece is the Maesta (Virgin in Majesty) completed in 1311 in his home town of Sienna. It was a huge altar piece with a central front panel portraying the Virgin surrounded by saints and angels. At first sight it appears Byzantine, but on closer inspection Duccio’s innovations can be clearly seen. Mary’s Robe is delicately painted to give a feeling of texture to the material which is edged in gold leaf. The Virgin’s expression is full of tenderness and love and the portraits of the saints have a startling actuality about them. It is the smaller paintings on the foot of the altar piece (the predella) and the 25 paintings on the reverse side, showing extracts from the life of Christ that are truly amazing. There are crowd scenes, much attention to detail and a curious mixture of the Byzantine and the naturalist styles that bring these paintings to our attention, forcing us to admire the skill of Duccio.

Duccio’s masterpiece was several years in the making and when it was finally finished it was carried around the central square in a triumphal procession before being placed in the Cathedral, where it remained on the high altar until 1505. It was then moved to a side chapel and in 1771 it was dismembered. This proved ruinous as the front and back panels were nailed and glued together and so were very hard to force apart and cut away. Some of the panels have been lost and others can now be seen in galleries around the world. The majority of it is now displayed beautifully in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Sienna, which I have seen. I have also seen a panel showing “the Transfiguration” in London’s National Gallery, but if I wanted to see the rest of the surviving panels I would need to go to; New York, Washington, Fort Worth (Texas), Budapest and Lugano. …

This beautifully illustrated book contains enough information to satisfy the most curious art lover. It does not pretend to be a scholarly document, although there is a short bibliography. It serves very well as a keep sake for a visit and provides a well rounded description of the artist and his work. A four star read

May 16, 2012, 5:40pm Top

Italian Altar Piece dating from 1334 - Albi Cathedral

I went on a day trip to Albi (South West France) today to see the newly refurbished Toulouse L'autrec Museum. After an excellent lunch I had time to visit the Cathedral which is next door to the museum. In the treasury to the museum I found the above altar piece, which was painted by Italian painters some 30 years after the death of Duccio (#170}. It is not nearly as monumental as Duccio's Maesta, but does feature a central panel of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, with other panels showing scenes from the New Testament. The Albi Altar piece is painted using pigment and egg tempura and leans far more towards the Byzantine iconography than the Duccio.

It was amazing coming across the 14th century Altar piece today, as there is just not many of them around.

May 16, 2012, 6:40pm Top

What a wonderful way to spend the day, Barry. I am so jealous...

May 16, 2012, 9:59pm Top

Sigh. Life in Europe.

May 17, 2012, 9:31am Top

>93 baswood: This is the real deal.
Indeed. That applies to virtually everything you post about, yet the source material in The Paston Letters is especially so. Catching up here is such a pleasant cultural outing!

May 17, 2012, 11:14am Top

Great find Bas. So, when can I come visit?

May 17, 2012, 2:49pm Top

You will always be welcome Dan

Thanks detailmuse.

May 18, 2012, 7:56am Top

>170 baswood: - if there are 100 illustrations but only a few genuine Ducci works are the rest listed as 'probable', 'possible' and 'not on your nelly'.

I have a problem with this thread - every time I read it I feel a little more ignorant.

May 19, 2012, 5:47am Top

Turner, most of the illustrations are from Duccio's Maesta. Don't tell the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York that their Duccio is a "not on your Nellie" after they paid 45 million dollars for it. Their painting has been labelled as a Victorian forgery.

Edited: May 19, 2012, 8:30am Top


E R Hughes - Pre-Raphaelite painter

Masuccio Salernitano 1410-1475

The State University of New York

May 19, 2012, 8:50am Top

Barry, could you elaborate a bit on the "connection" with the State University of New York building you show above? It is very familiar to me, being located in downtown Albany, where I spent my days for my entire working life. I have never been inside that particular building, which is used for the system’s administrative offices, but it has an interesting and striking architectural design, as well as a rich historical background related to its usage. Thanks!

May 19, 2012, 11:41am Top

Hi Linda, The book that I am going to chat about below, came from the State University of New York State teachers college Library and the picture of the administrative buildings caught my eye.

Edited: May 19, 2012, 12:05pm Top

The Novellino of Masuccio by Salernitano Masuccio
Oh! The joy of old books. I had discovered Masuccio through John Addington Symons excellent Italian Renaissance series and found a copy of The Novellino’s on line. I was surprised when two hard backed books arrived in my post box and was even more surprised to find that they were numbered, De Luxe editions. They had been privately printed in 1903 for members of the Aldus society in London and my copy was numbered 168 of the twelve hundred that had been printed. This was a first translation of the Novellino by W G Waters. I could find no information about the Aldus society although I suspect that they had taken their name from Aldus Manutius who was a renaissance printer in Venice who specialised in classic Greek texts.

The books are printed on good quality thick paper and some of the pages bear the Aldus watermark. They also feature 11 illustrations by E R Hughes; these take the form of sepia photographs of his original paintings. Hughes (1851 – 1914) was a Pre-Raphaelite painter who acted as an assistant to Holman Hunt and some of his work is still very popular with the poster buying public of today. My books came from the State University of New York: State Teachers college Main Library and I guess would have been withdrawn from the bookshelves some time ago and have been languishing in some second hand book shop ever since. My copies are missing the original leather binding and guilt lettering, but are otherwise in excellent condition.

Masuccio Salenitano (1410-1475) was a writer and collector of short stories; he was a courtier to Frederick I of Naples, a ruler described as cruel and treacherous as a tiger, brutal in speech, lustful and very avaricious. He had a habit of poisoning his most wealthy courtiers and then sequestering their lands and property for himself. His tyrannical rule did however keep the peace and literature flourished at this time. Masuccio distributed his stories amongst his friends and they were finally collected together and printed in 1476. It is not surprising to find they contain no criticism of Frederick I, but there is much invective against the Catholic church and the Papacy.

W G Waters translation is no bowdlerisation of the originals which outdoes Boccaccio in lasciviousness. These are for the most part bawdy tales with lustful women even more lustful friars and gentleman who are unable to control their passions and seek even more cunning and wonderful ways to have their way with the women of their dreams. Masuccio can tell a good story; he is fascinated by the art of seduction and is able to bring these stories to life, there is farce, there is tragedy and some real suspense in some of these tales.

The Novellino is a collection of fifty stories each one separate and with no attempt to provide an overall linking device as Boccaccio did in the Decameron. Each story begins with a dedication to some personage of note and usually a word of how the story might connect to them or serve as a warning to them and ends with a note by Masuccio himself, where he may take the opportunity to enhance the points made in the story or to tone the message down if he feels the need. Masuccio does group them together by theme and so the first ten stories castigate the catholic church and particularly the mendicant friars and at the end of this section Masuccio says that after being battered by troubled waters in his first ten novels, he will be sailing in calmer water for his next ten “In these I purpose to tell divers pleasurable jests, set forth in a strain which ought to give offence to no man.” Masuccio frequently turns to nautical metaphors to make his points. After these more light hearted tales he turns his attention to women and warns that “in this (the third part) the female sex so full of failings will be handled cruelly.” No punches are pulled in these tales and the author does not fail to ram home his points with his commentaries

“But why do I go about here and there, and thwart my fancy by writing anent the infinite meanness and treachery and wickedness of womankind? In sooth, it would be an easier task to number the stars of heaven…… How many more of these women of honeyed speech are there amongst us who by means of frauds like the aforesaid, and even greater, might easily beguile another Solomon? Amongst others are those who feign to be given up entirely to things of the spirit, women whose conversation is ever with priests and monks, talking of naught else but the beatitude of life eternal, and, with many other tricks and manners full of hypocrisy and superstition enough to make themselves a cause of offence to God and man, they deceive everyone who may put faith in their falseness” :

Part four is made up of tales of tragedy, but each one is interspersed with a lighter story as Musaccio explains that otherwise they would be too depressing. It is in these tragic tales that the power of Masaccio’s writing comes to the fore. In the fifth and final part the theme is virtue and Musaccio foregrounds this where possible in tales from recent history. These would have appealed to his audience, but also Musaccio can take the opportunity to spell out the virtues that man should strive for. There are cautious nods to love of ones fellow man and respect for other peoples religion here.

These little novels are well worth reading; they can be funny, they can be tragic, often they are bawdy, many are inventive and do not fail to give a lively picture of medieval and renaissance life. They tend to look back to the middle ages rather than forward to the renaissance with an equal split of stories concerning courtly love and chivalry and the more down to earth tales of town folk. Musaccio claims that all his novels are true and indeed they are rooted in every day existence. They are a cracking good read and they can be read on line for free, but I love my hard back editions.

May 19, 2012, 12:31pm Top

Masuccio sounds wonderful, Barry. Another gem you've uncovered. I love your picture gallery. (The lady in the final picture seems to have an awfully small head, though.) What is the connection with Edward Robert Hughes?

May 19, 2012, 1:47pm Top

I love the Hughes paintings!

May 19, 2012, 3:06pm Top

Fascinating stuff, Barry! Thumbed . . .

May 19, 2012, 4:12pm Top

Fabulous review, Barry! I will look for the stories online, but how wonderful that you were able to find the hardback editions, and numbered nonetheless. I am of course intrigued by their connection to this region. The State Teachers college long ago ceased to exist as such, becoming the State University at Albany, and now simply the University at Albany. The same University that sponsors the Writers Institute that I so enjoy.

May 19, 2012, 5:48pm Top

The interesting thing about E R Hughes is that he may have been commissioned to do the illustrations. There are 11 of them in the book and they are I suppose typical of late Victorian history paintings designed to carry some erotic charge. In the book the illustrations are all titled, but I can find no reference to them on the net.

May 19, 2012, 8:02pm Top

A great find, that book, The Novellino of Masuccio, Barry. I must still reconcile the idea that we can read and find so much more literature in the form of e-books, but neglect the aesthetics of printed books. Unless, like you, part is read and discovered as e-books, and part is still bought antiquarian. Pity the binding had come off. I'd love the pre-Raphaelite illustrations.

May 20, 2012, 1:19pm Top

Intriguing web of connections, Barry -- and a great review.

May 21, 2012, 12:12am Top

please stop. I cannot keep up or catch up. I'm still enjoying your Burckhardt review. You should also check out his Judgements on History and Historians recently reissued by Routledge. Thanks for posting the picture of B and his portfolio. Beautiful.

Edited: May 21, 2012, 6:49am Top

Hi TC, I have checked out Judgements on History and Historians and there are a couple of ex-library versions available at abe books and so I have added it to next months shopping list.

Next months shopping list is already looking problematical, because I am spending a few days in Paris this week. We have tickets for the Degas, the Matisse, the Helmut Newton and the Artimesia exhibitions and I am sure to be tempted by the coffee table size books.

Then of course there is the Louvre and I am sure I will stumble into the odd bookshop.

May 23, 2012, 5:52pm Top

Love the pictures and the review! As for the State University, as Linda I'm sure knows better than I, there are many branches. There also used to be a teacher's college for the state university in New Paltz, but now this is just an undergraduate college.

May 23, 2012, 6:49pm Top

You are absolutely right, Rebecca. How Albany-centric of me to think only of our University campus. Counting community colleges, there are now 64 campuses in the SUNY system and I wouldn't be surprised if a good number of them were once teachers' colleges.

Edited: May 28, 2012, 4:25am Top

Just back from four days in Paris and my senses are still reeling.

Crisis in Europe? Shhh....... don't tell the Parisians. With temperatures in the upper twenties centigrade, everybody appeared to be out on the streets - the place was buzzing. The cafes and Brasseries were full to brimming with tables full of people tumbling onto the pavements and out into the squares.

I found time to sit outside a few cafes, kindle in hand watching the world go by, while Lynn hit the shops.

May 28, 2012, 4:54am Top

Wonderful to see these three pictures in the same room; at the Degas exhibition at the Quai D'Orsay. Apart from the many Degas canvases on show the exhibition also has some works that inluenced him and so his canvas of the nude bathing is sandwiched between Henri Gervex's "Rolla" and Caillebotte's "Man at his Bath"

Edited: May 31, 2012, 4:42am Top

Women take their revenge
Artemesia Gentilesch an Italian baroque painter (1593-1692) was exhibited across town at the Musee Maillol. She made several pictures of "Judith slaying Holofernes" and the image below is the one showing the blood and gore. Artemesia used her own image in many of her paintings and in this picture she is the one wielding the sword.

Another great exhibition, but the unusually hot weather was beginning to take its toll on us and the Musee Maillol was hot and crowded.

May 28, 2012, 8:33am Top

The Degas exhibit, the Gentilesch... What is there to be said? Just gorgeous and how wonderful you had the chance to see them.

May 31, 2012, 4:51am Top

Jeanette Winterson

Edited: May 31, 2012, 5:47am Top

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson
A psychopath is a person who uses manipulation, violence and intimidation to control others and to satisfy selfish needs. They can be intelligent and highly charismatic, but display a chronic inability to feel guilt, remorse or anxiety about any of their actions. Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal is an autobiography and Jeanette’s stepmother (always referred to as Mrs Winterson) would qualify as being a psychopath, however Jeanette Winterson comes across as having many psychopathic traits herself and so in a way it was brave of her to write this book. Or looking at it another way one might say that it is just the sort of book that a psychopath would write.

The book falls into two distinct sections. The first part covers Jeanette's very unhappy home life. She was adopted into a household dominated by Mrs Winterson. Who blamed Jeanette for not being the darling boy she wanted to adopt. Fiercely religious, violent and vindictive by turns she took her unhappiness out on her adopted daughter. Jeanette spent nights in the coal hole or locked out on the door step. Friends were discouraged and the two women were often “at war”. Jeanette cannot do anything right and her own rebellious nature leads to violent scenes. When Mrs Winterson discovers that Jeanette's sexual preferences are for women, then the answer is an enforced exorcism carried out at the Elim Pentecostal Church. Much of this section of the book feels like an exorcism; it is as though Jeanette must write about it to free herself from the horrors of her childhood.

The house in Accrington, Lancashire where Jeanette spent her childhood is brought vividly to life. Like many people in the town the family were poor and the working class culture of the time is perfectly caught. It was a house with no inside toilet, hot water or bathroom, absolutely typical of the times and very similar to my own upbringing (although thankfully my parents were not psychopaths). Against all the odds Jeanette’s talent for words and love of literature leads to an escape via a scholarship at Oxford. She was not an ideal student:

“I beat up the other kids, boys and girls alike and when I couldn’t understand what was being said to me in a lesson, I just left the classroom and bit the teachers if they tried to make me come back.
I realise my behaviour wasn’t ideal but my mother believed I was demon possessed and the headmistress was in mourning for Scotland. It was hard to be normal.”

Her love of literature as a teenager acts as a sort of a light in the darkness. There is a horrifying moment however when Mrs Winterson discovers Jeanette’s hidden stash of books. She hid them under the mattress but “Women in Love” by D H Lawrence peeked out and the discovery of the stash led to a humiliating book burning ceremony in the back garden. Winterson writes with honesty and some humour and her combative personality of which she is rightly proud, sees her through many incidents that would have destroyed lesser mortals.

There is a big jump in time to the second section of the book which describes the successful novelist's search for her birth mother. The red tape, the uncompromising local judiciary, the need for secrecy and the possibility that the search will prove fruitless, provides plenty of tension. Again Jeanette pitches her writing perfectly, not too much hand wringing emotion, but more attuned to a determined woman overcoming obstacles, sometimes despite her own destructive personality.

Jeanette Winterson is a hugely talented author and her prose here does not let her down. If one was being harsh one might say that the book feels like a bit of a pot boiler; a novelist who falls back on autobiography because there are no new ideas in the pipe line. This feeling is enhanced by the structure of the book; a section dealing with her upbringing and then a huge leap forward to the search for her birth parents, with nothing much in between. A pot boiler, an exorcism of the past, a semi autobiography, whatever you want to call it, does not detract from an excellently written book. At times the honesty and integrity of the author allows us to see the world through her eyes. She talks about her relationship with a partner Susie:

“The love work that I have to do now is to believe that life will be all right for me. I don’t have to be alone. I don’t have to fight for everything. I don’t have to fight everything. I don’t have to run away. I can stay because this is love that is offered, a sane steady stable love.”

"Why be happy when you could be normal" says Mrs Winterson and this question rings large in Jeanette's thoughts as she recounts the battles she fought as a teenager to make her way in the world. That she succeeded so well is all down to her, but there is always a cost and she lets her readers see this side of the equation. This book is well worth reading and certainly recommended for anybody who has enjoyed her novels. I was thoroughly captivated.

May 31, 2012, 6:11am Top

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal sounds fascinating, Barry. Great review.

May 31, 2012, 9:24am Top

Excellent review, Barry. It does seem like this book goes over the same ground she covered fictionally in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, but it's a story worth telling. It sounds like the fact may be even more extreme than the fiction, from what I can recall of it. I had the same type of Pentecostal upbringing, so I can relate to Jeannette's background. There were no book burnings, but my father did threaten to pull me out of school and put me to work in the cotton fields when he caught me reading The Scarlet Letter.

May 31, 2012, 9:37am Top

I was struck when I got to the part of your review about the lack of indoor plumbing because that was also one of the things that struck me in Hilary Mantel's memoir, Giving up the Ghost. It is also a story of a harrowing childhood, but largely because of poverty and ill health, rather than psychopathic adults. I haven't read anything by Winterson, but your review of this book intrigues me.

May 31, 2012, 2:05pm Top

Color me green with envy re your days in Paris. I too have been away but to nowhere worth mentioning by comparison. No doubt you will have more to say . . .

May 31, 2012, 5:23pm Top

Steven, In Why be happy when you could be normal Winterson refers back to her first novel quite often. Perhaps it was the word scarlet that was deemed offensive.

rebecca, there was much outdoor plumbing in England when I was growing up.

welcome back suzanne yes there might well be more from the Paris trip.

Jun 1, 2012, 8:57am Top

oh bas, great review. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal keeps coming to my attention and I keep ignoring it. 'Til now. It'll be a good follow-up to The Sociopath Next Door and The Gift of Fear.

Jun 1, 2012, 5:38pm Top

Thanks detailmuse, I think I might be tempted to read The sociopath next door although I am sure the lady I live next door too is not one.

Jun 1, 2012, 11:17pm Top

“The love work that I have to do now is to believe that life will be all right for me. I don’t have to be alone. I don’t have to fight for everything. I don’t have to fight everything. I don’t have to run away. I can stay because this is love that is offered, a sane steady stable love.”

On the basis of this extract, I will be avoiding Ms Winterson's work. Nothing more boring than personal therapy masquerading as litrecha.

Edited: Jun 2, 2012, 3:35am Top

TC, the personal therapy did her no good anyway, as her relationship with Susie broke down. Perhaps it was those psychopathic tendencies again.

Jun 2, 2012, 6:36am Top

Intriguing review of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?. Having unexpectedly enjoyed Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit , I am putting it on the list. Just finished The Sociopath Next Door, so shall apply Stout's thirteen characteristics to Jeanette.

Jun 3, 2012, 5:47am Top

Jun 3, 2012, 6:05am Top

27) Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lawrence D H
Let’s not beat around the bush here, this is one of the great novels in the English Language, Completed finally in 1928 and famous for being deemed unpublishable in Great Britain until 1960 and then subject to one of the most famous obscenity trials, where common sense prevailed and a verdict of “Not Guilty” was returned.

This is Lawrence’s final completed novel, written towards the end of his life when he knew he was dying of Tuberculosis. In many ways it is a summation of much of his previous work, but Lawrence was not content with a mere restatement, he was always looking to push the boundaries and in Lady Chatterley he finally got to grips with the “sex thing”. No serious writer had dared to explore the sexual act in such detail before (we are talking of 1928), but Lawrence was intent to show not only the passion and tenderness in lovemaking, but also its very nature for those people for whom it is an essential part of life. Lawrence goes someway towards suggesting that natural love (and he means sex) is fundamental to rolling back the mechanised money grabbing society that was rampant between the world wars. He might very well be saying the same today as little seems to have changed.

The simple story line is quite beautifully worked through. An aristocratic marriage; Connie becomes Lady Chatterley when she marries Clifford. Very soon afterwards he goes off to war and comes back “in bits”. After a long convalescence he remains paralysed from the waist down and Connie becomes his carer. Clifford becomes a successful writer helped and supported by Connie. He and his cronies believe that mental powers should take precedence over the physical body. Connie in desperation has an unsuccessful affair and makes herself unwell with her caring duties, she is fast becoming as dead as Clifford. A professional nurse Mrs Bolton is appointed to look after Clifford and Connie feels a sense of release and meets Mellors their gamekeeper. A passionate affair starts and Mellors reveals that he has also been damaged in love by his marriage to Bertha Coutts whose bullying and physical demands have led to his solitary existence as a gamekeeper. Clifford meanwhile encouraged by Mrs Bolton has taken an interest in the mining industry and as owner of the Tevershall Pitt, he throws himself into schemes for making it viable. Connie’s affair with Mellors becomes a real love affair with the huge issue of their class differences becoming paramount. Something has to give…….

This is not a romantic novel. Lawrence’s characters, superbly drawn are damaged by the society in which they live. Sir Clifford horribly disabled by the war can no longer make love and throws all his energies into making money. Connie horribly trapped by her marriage plunges into an affair with her gamekeeper, an outsider by choice with a bitter view of humanity that rivals Clifford’s in intensity.

Lawrence has set his last novel in his native Nottinghamshire/Derby mining towns and describes the ugliness of the landscape that seems scarred for ever by industry. Tevershall and even Wragby Hall the home of Sir Clifford are more than mere blots on the landscape, they seem to be the landscape itself the only haven is the fields and woods that Mellors patrols. He is the natural man at odds with the money and the greed. There is a wonderful episode where Clifford in his mechanised wheelchair breaks down and has to call on Mellors to help. He loses his temper when Mellors cannot fix the motor and is apoplectic when he has to be pushed home by Mellors and Connie jointly. Industry the destroyer of man and nature and the continual striving after money are major themes throughout this novel, along with the class system just as prevalent today as it was in Lawrence’s time.

But it is the sex that Lady Chatterley is famous for and justly so. We are nearly halfway through the novel, when Mellors and Connie have passionate sex for the first time. They have had sex a couple of times before but neither of them have been particularly enraptured by it, however when Connie really responds to Mellors then Lawrence hits us with the most wonderful tender and detailed description of their lovemaking. This is absolutely pertinent to the novel, these are two people previously hurt by love who find themselves in each other and Lawrence has to convince us why this is so. He does so superbly with some beautiful writing. The floodgates seem to open and the novel reaches new levels with some of the most sensuous writing that Lawrence ever produced. He gets to the heart of the sexual act, he gets to the feelings of his two characters and he is wonderfully convincing. There are more sexual episodes later and Lawrence starts to have some fun, having Connie and Mellors cavorting around naked in the pouring rain or threading wild flowers in their pubic hair. Of course the sex scenes have an erotic charge, they are meant to do so.

Mellors is a sort of Lawrentian anti-hero. A man who has come through, a man who can still provoke a response from a partner who is open to him and can then reject the society around him. In his final novel Lawrence has brought himself back down to earth. The industrial Midlands would do that for anybody. Talk of the old Gods and messianic figures leading the people to a new and better world has largely disappeared. Mellors is not a Godhead, he is barely able to forge his own existence in the mechanical world, where there seems only room enough for two. That does not stop him carping about what he sees around him:

“And that’s the only way to solve the industrial problem: train the people to be able to live and live in handsomeness, without needing to spend, But you can’t do it. They’re all one track mind nowadays. Whereas the mass of people oughtn’t even to try and think, because they can’t. They should be alive and frisky, and acknowledge the great God Pan. He’s the only God for the masses, forever. The few can go into higher cults if they like. But let the masses be forever pagan.
But the colliers aren’t pagan, far from it, They’re a sad lot, a deadened lot of men: dead to their women, dead to life. The young ones scoot about on motorbikes with girls, and jazz when they have got the chance. But they’re very dead. And it needs money. Money poisons you when you’ve got it, and starves you when you haven’t.”

Modern readers might not subscribe to Lawrences views: his characters, can only achieve fulfilment in life and in love by stepping outside of mainstream society; they are the hope for the future, the rest are leading the human race to hell in a handcart. He does feel at times like a voice crying in the wilderness, but in Lady Chatterley this vision has been constrained. Mellors and Connie are not about to change the world, they can barely find a foothold in it, but we delight in their struggle. Lawrence makes us care.

There are plenty of fine things in this novel. The portrayal of Mrs Bolton is masterful and her two pages of gossip to Clifford about the goings on in Tevershall town is brilliantly done. Mellor’s use of the Derbyshire vernacular, which he switches on and off according to his mood, presents us with a truly rounded picture of the man.Connie’s sojourn in Venice; which gives her breathing space away from the mess that Mellor’s has predicted will result from their affair gives life and another dimension towards the end of the book. The industrial landscape provides a typical vitriolic response from Lawrence, who rants on in an extended passage about the ills of modern society:

“Tevershall! That was Tevershall! Merrie England! Shakespeare’s England! No, but the England of today, as Connie had realized since she had come to live in it. It was producing a new race of mankind, over-conscious in the money and the social and political side, on the spontaneous, intuitive side, dead, but dead. Half-Corpses, all of them: but with a terrible insistent consciousness in the other half. There was something uncanny and underground about bit all. It was an underworld………”

I love D H Lawrence in this mood; feel the burn

Lawrence I think would have been happy with this final novel of his. He got it all down here after two earlier draft novels, (which have since been published).featuring the love affair between an aristocratic lady and a gamekeeper. Lawrence’s mature writing style and the well worked structure of this novel have produced a master piece. It is a must read for anybody interested in the English novel. A five star read.

Jun 3, 2012, 10:13am Top

Fabulous, fabulous review, Barry! I have yet to read Lady Chatterly's Lover, but based on your review, I honestly don't know what I'm waiting for!

Jun 3, 2012, 11:08am Top

Wow. I haven't read Lady Chatterley's Lover since I was a teenager (and I can't say I read all of it then!). The only other Lawrence I've read is Women in Love, and that didn't make me a Lawrence fan, but your review is so intriguing I may have to try again.

Jun 3, 2012, 12:39pm Top

Barry, this may be your best review! Ever! Wow! I am blown away. Like Rebecca, I may have to reread the book.

Jun 3, 2012, 9:08pm Top

Love the first Degas picture -- and it oddly fits with your review of Lady Chatterley -- though obviously the context is different. I devoured DHL in my late teens (I think he was my gateway into sensuality), threw him across the room as I became a feminist in the 1970s, but still revere his passion and brilliance. Great review, Barry.

Jun 3, 2012, 10:50pm Top

Excellent review of Lady Chatterley's Lover. When I read it I was expecting the sexual theme, and it did not disappoint, but Lawrence's social ideas on industrialization and materialism came as a surprise to me, and influenced my thinking perhaps more than any other novel I've read.

Jun 4, 2012, 10:43am Top

You're love of DH Lawrence is contagious, and almost washes out the terrific review of Winterson, that I also just read. You're on a roll. I'll keep this review in mind - need to read Lawrence sometime...

Jun 4, 2012, 11:59am Top

I've read Lady Chatterly's Lover one and a half times, and it really didn't work for me, but your terrific review has made me consider giving it another try.

Jun 4, 2012, 12:47pm Top

Fantastic review. I've read two of his novels (The Rainbow and Sons and Lovers but have not gotten to Lady Chatterly's Lover. I read those novels 2 decades ago and found them dull -- obviously I was too young to be reading DF Lawrence. More recently, though, I was reintroduced to him by way of his short stories. What writing! It simply swept me away. I will read his longer works now with a different eye, and after your intruiging review, what better place to start than this.

Jun 4, 2012, 2:39pm Top

Thanks folks

So many of us (probably of a certain age) read Lady Chatterly's lover as a teenager. I discovered D H Lawrence at school when a selection of his short stories and essays was one of our set books. I then read everything of his in the school library, but strangely enough the library never had a copy of Lady Chatterley.

Yes Jane all that talk of the power of the phallus is enough to put many women off.

steven, yes indeed Lady Chatterley is so much more than Lawrence writing about lovemaking. He hated the industrialisation of the North and Midlands in England, but there was a new dimension in Lady Chatterley: money as the root of most of the evil that he saw around him becomes a major theme in the book.

After the excitement of reading Lady Chatterley its back to Morte D'Arthur by Thomas Mallory; a book that seems to grind on and on and on.....

Jun 4, 2012, 3:56pm Top

It's that excruciatingly long section about Sir Tristan.....

Jun 4, 2012, 10:42pm Top

So true about the Sir Tristan section of Malory—and then there's no real payoff! We are told of Tristan and Isolde's fates later, in passing. Easily the most frustrating section of the Morte D'Arthur; the opening and closing books are so much better.

Jun 5, 2012, 7:00am Top

211 >fabulous review of a terrible book, Baz, well done.

Jun 5, 2012, 12:04pm Top

I have picked up my copy of The Erotic Works of D.H Lawrence where I left off last year in February, when I read the first part of this omnibus The Trespasser. Thirty pages to go, reading Honour and Arms} aka The Prussian Officer to get to Lady Chatterley's Lover. Thanks for your review which spurned me on.

Jun 6, 2012, 4:39pm Top

>from steven, about Lady Chatterley's Lover:
I was expecting the sexual theme ... but Lawrence's social ideas on industrialization and materialism ... a surprise

ditto for me, who hasn't read it but now wants to. Terrific review!

Jun 6, 2012, 7:25pm Top

Hi edwin and detailmuse. My reading of Lady Chatterley's Lover has had the effect of putting all my other reading on hold, while I read more D H Lawrence.

I am really glad to put Le Morte D'Arthur on hold.

Jun 6, 2012, 7:49pm Top

Back to Paris. we also got to see the Matisse exhibition at the Pompidou Centre. We arrived early only to find that the Centre doesn't open until 11 am. That will teach me to check opening times, but coffee laced with a little calvados in a bar round the corner helped to pass the time.

Once we got inside the Henri Matisse exhibition was stunning. Such depth of colour in his paintings. The brightness of the images really pulled you in. The standout for me however were the four canvases near the end of the expo; these were four of his Blue Nude series, which are basically cut outs from blue paper, but they are massive and the roughly cut shapes have a certain quality about them that make them irresistible. I have seen plenty of reproductions of them including some good posters, but the originals are a real knockout.

Jun 9, 2012, 9:30am Top

Oh, Matisse...! How lucky you are, Barry.

Jun 9, 2012, 1:55pm Top

Matisse seems more impressive in person. Something about the physicality of the work that speaks.

Jun 9, 2012, 4:39pm Top

Some art is just like that, isn't it? I saw Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" in person for the first time recently, and it's a completely different experience from viewing a high-quality print.

Jun 10, 2012, 5:34am Top

D H Lawrence
“The great creative genius of our age and one of the greatest figures in English literature”

“Creative genius in Lawrence manifests itself as supreme intelligence. What is it but intelligence that we have in the deep insight into human nature; the clairvoyant understanding of a wide range of types and of social milieu: that generalizing power which never leaves the concrete - the power we have seen exemplified of exposing the movement of civilization in the malady of the individual psyche?”
F R Leavis writing in 1955

During his lifetime Lawrence suffered over much from hostile criticism; it came from some of the most influential critics of the time: T S Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, much of this was unwarranted and some of it plainly vindictive. Looking back it now appears that the powerful academic elite that were in a position to guide critical opinion were determined to put down an author who was clearly not “one of them”.

D H Lawrence was a miner’s son who won a scholarship to Nottingham High school. He left school at fourteen but found his way back into education as a pupil teacher, eventually receiving a teacher’s certificate from the University College of Nottingham. He was accused of ignorance and snobbishness mainly because of his failure to attend a famous university, however nothing could be further from the truth. Lawrence’s education was from life. His childhood and formative years were spent in the mining community and it was his talent as a writer that propelled him into the ranks of the middle classes and a circle of friends which included members of the minor aristocracy and the Cambridge Dons. Bertrand Russell and Meynard Keynes were correspondents, but Lawrence recoiled in horror from the deadness that he found within the academic set and as a consequence they never forgave him.

There was a re-evaluation of his work in the 1950’s-70’s, when his genius as a writer was generally acknowledged, but subsequently he has fallen out of fashion. There was certainly a backlash from female critics who read in his work an obsession with the power of the phallus, which did not fit with the burgeoning women’s movement. Some of this I think is due to some willful misreading; there was much of this going on in his lifetime and he is still being wilfully misread today

Jun 10, 2012, 5:39am Top

D H Lawrence: Novelist in which Dr F R Leavis makes a case for Lawrence being one of the truly great novelists; clearly setting out his reasons why this is so:

The introduction states that his aim is to win clear recognition for the nature of Lawrence’s greatness as a novelist, concentrating mainly on his two major novels “The Rainbow and Women in Love and some of the novellas and short stories. In the chapter “Lawrence and Art” he firmly refutes T S Eliot’s criticisms, pointing out that Eliot’s attitude to life gleaned from his work is one of distaste and disgust, this is following a line taken up by Flaubert and continued even in the work of Joyce. By contrast Lawrence’s work is life affirming; an intelligence at work that Eliot failed to understand. Leavis then goes onto discuss what he considers to be Lawrence’s minor novels; Aarons Rod, Kangaroo, The Plumed Serpent and Lady Chatterley’s lover.

The chapter Lawrence and Class is concerned with emphasising Lawrence’s ability to transcend class. He is equally at home writing about working class people and mining communities as well as the middle classes and the aristocracy. His powerful observation, his interest in human beings allows him to write with a clear perspective. His writing has a fundamental reverence for life, whatever the class or the race of people he is writing about. His writing has a superiority of moral sensibility over all of his contemporaries and I would say that this has never been equalled since.

Lawrence and Tradition highlights Lawrence’s work as a recorder of essential English history in his two greatest novels. The Rainbow in particular shows the incomparable wealth of the novel as social and cultural history. Leavis sees him carrying on the tradition of George Eliot, but taking it further and deeper than she was prepared to go. Lawrence’s ability to see the whole picture, his wholeness in his response and the intelligence of the great artist allows him to render the vividness of all varieties of life, human and non-human. Leavis quotes many examples from “The Rainbow” to enable him to make his case. Lawrence is able to use his experience; to benefit from his upbringing when writing about working class people as he sweeps through three generations of the Brangwen family providing a document for the times as well as deep analysis of the psyche of a nation.

Leavis then goes on to discuss “Women in Love” which he believes is Lawrence’s finest achievement. It contains a presentation of modern civilization; 20th century England that has never been equalled. He does this through the portrayal of the individual lives of Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, who develop a relationship with Birkin who contains elements of the author in much of what he says and introduces them to his friend Gerald Crich. We follow the struggles of Gerald the industrialist the man who wishes to impose his will on everything that he comes across, and we follow him inexorably throughout the course of the novel to his death a burnt out man in the whiteness of the snow. In this novel Lawrence shows the individual life in its inescapable relations with others. He had never been so sure of his powers as he probes the depths of feelings of his characters and the dialogue sparkles as they play out the forces of their psyche, which at times they seem to have no knowledge of, or are unable to control. The novel has great structure to it and hardly a page goes by when there is not some new insight into the characters and their actions. There are fine examples from thy book provided to underline Leavis’s reading.

In discussing the short story “The Captains Doll” Leavis says that we are made to reflect with a fresh wonder:

“that never was there a greater master of what is widely supposed to be the novelist’s distinctive gift: the power to register, to evoke, life and manners with convincing vividness - evoke in the ‘created’ living presence that compels us to recognise truth, strength and newness of the perception it records. To say that he exercises it incomparably over the whole social range doesn’t suggest the full marvel.”

Leavis saves his greatest praise for the Novella “St Mawr”. He calls it a dramatic poem that presents a creative and technical originality more remarkable than T S Eliot’s “The Waste Land”. He claims that at the end of the 180 odd pages it is if we had had a representative view of the civilized world. St Mawr does contain some of Lawrence’s finest writing and there is an undeniable power in the story telling that does have the feel of a dramatic poem. The writing here seems to flow, everything about it seems just right. Lawrence captures the wonder and reverence of life perfectly, in the colloquialisms and the slang of the speech of the two grooms or the intimate tete-a-tetes between the mother and the daughter. And in the background their looms the iconic figure of the stallion St Mawr; the life force of the story.

Leavis points out that the short stories in themselves make a lasting claim for the greatness of Lawrence. He wrote more than 50 and only a handful of these could not be considered great art. There is tremendous variety in the social context and the presentation of his characters contain such force and reality because they are inseparably studies of the society to which they belong. I think the word studies is appropriate to most of these tales. They are not journalist short stories that surprise and delight the reader with a cunning twist at the end; they do however surprise and delight the reader with writing that reveals at firsthand Lawrence’s insight into human experience. Leavis examines about a dozen of the tales highlighting Lawrence’s skills, his use of irony that never seems malicious, his use of speech that reveals so much of his characters. He has a tremendous ear for accents and dialects. Leavis claims that taken together the short stories represent one of the major creative achievements of literature.

I agree with most of what Leavis says although I think he has been too much seduced by the power of St Mawr, fine story though it is. He is also overly pre-occupied with refuting past criticism of Lawrence’s work and has a particular bone to pick with T S Eliot that leads him to compare St Mawr with The Wasteland. His intention from the start was to secure Lawrence’s place in the canon of English writers and he certainly achieves this. His method of close reading of selections from the text does serve to make his points particularly well. He does miss some tricks however; there is hardly any analysis of Lawrence’s style and method, which broke new ground I think in contemporary writing and by limiting himself to the novels he ignores one of the finest poets of the 20th century as well as a superb essayist and letter writer, It should be remembered that the book was published in 1955 and so more recent criticism of Lawrence has not been taken into account.

I am glad I read this as it has re-kindled my interest in Lawrence. Really no one has ever written quite like him and much contemporary literature falls far short of the standards set by him.

Jun 10, 2012, 5:58am Top

I haven't much to say on DHL bas as I haven't read anything by him.

I did live on the edge of Eastwood however, when
I first moved to the Uk. I remember going to the DHL Lawrence museum there, and passing the DHL Lawrence cafe often (without ever going in - it didn't look very sanitary).

We also used to walk down by the reservoir, through the woods that DHL used to walk through when he was courting.

Jun 10, 2012, 7:42am Top

If anyone is going to persuade me to try Lawrence again, it will be you.

Jun 10, 2012, 8:19am Top

Excellent and very informative review, Barry! Lawrence's short stories sound to me like they may be a good starting point. But I will read them with a deeper awareness of who the author is and what he strives to achieve, thanks to the insights you have provided.

Jun 10, 2012, 9:52am Top

I loved the major novels; now you've convinced me to move the Collected Stories of D. H. Lawrence to my reading shelf.

Jun 10, 2012, 11:33am Top

Great summary and review, Barry. The Rainbow and Women in Love were certainly seminal books of my late adolescence -- may have to revisit them one of these days. Though I think I'm more drawn at this point to his short stories and poetry.

Jun 10, 2012, 2:04pm Top

The short stories are mostly wonderful and a couple of the earlier collections are available on the Gutenburg Project. Avoid "Rocking Horse Winner" his most anthologized short story as it is not typical of his craft.

zeno, how wonderful to have walked in DHL's footsteps

Jun 10, 2012, 2:30pm Top

"Rocking Horse Winner" was in lit anthologies for years -- it seems to have gone away recently. Now it's mostly "The Horse Dealer's Daughter" which is a much better story.

Jun 10, 2012, 4:21pm Top

Catching up. A number of great recent reviews. There are several novels of Winterson's that I want to read first but I'll add Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal to the list of her books to watch for.

I enjoyed The Rainbow and Women in Love but found Sons and Lovers to be shallower so didn't look for Lady Chatterley's Lover - will do that now.

Informative review of the Leavis.

Jun 11, 2012, 11:28am Top

Barry, you have provided a wonderful introduction to Lawrence. I have not read any of his novels, only a few short stories, but one of these days I must correct this omission.

Jun 12, 2012, 6:48am Top

Just catching up as well. Lawrence is a writer I just can't warm to although I recognise the power of some of his writing, and his importance in English Lit as a ground-breaker.

Thought you may like this (it's from Craig Brown's The Lost Diaries) -

November 29th, 1922

Dear Lady Ottoline,

I cannot tell you how thoroughly we both enjoyed staying with you last weekend. Everything was so perfect – the scintillating conversation, the delicious food, the excellent wine, and all miraculously brought together to perfection by the finest hostess in the country!

By the way, I do hope I didn't cause any undue offence at dinner with your guests on Saturday evening when, just as that lovely soup was being served, I tore off my trousers, pulled out my aroused member and began to chase your buxom serving wench around the dining-room table.

I noticed that your first thought was that the tomato soup in the wench's great bowl was being tossed hither and thither over your well-dressed guests. How typical of you and your feeble servility towards the pathetic silliness of propriety that you should care more for the laundering of clothes – those absurd chains that keep man from his true self – than for the sex-flow that keeps man alive and is the only honest expression of animal energy that exists on this miserable globe.

And when I eventually caught up with her, and managed to grapple her to the ground, and was struggling to grasp her bountiful delights within my needy palms – then you implored me to forbear, you rang your bell and insisted in your cheap and degraded voice that there was 'a time and a place for everything'.

Do you realise what a loathsome thing you are? You make me ill. I wanted to light a flame, to warm my body against the heat of a real woman's naked form, to worship the sun-god of the sex-flow – and all you could think of to do was beg me hysterically to desist! You and your sort have a disgusting attitude towards sex, a disgusting desire to stop it and insult it. You are like a worm cut in half, with one half discarded in a bin while the other half wriggles around in a kind of grey hell.

Nevertheless, the main course was absolutely delicious, and I know that everyone also thoroughly enjoyed the pudding. And the rest of the weekend was every bit as heavenly! You were really extremely kind to entertain us all so extravagantly. Once again, thank you so much for a really wonderful weekend.

Yours ever,


Jun 12, 2012, 7:04am Top

Hmmm.... well its sort of funny, but of course it does demonstrate how Lawrence has been misread over the years. The poor man locked into his fidelity with his wife Frieda would have been appalled. He was shocked enough when he read the diaries of Casanova.

Edited: Jun 12, 2012, 8:10am Top

>243 baswood: - ironically, wasn't it Frieda who actually was regularly unfaithful?

I wonder why Lawrence's reputation seems to have declined in recent years. Do you think it's due to his style of writing falling out or favour or cultural changes? Does Lawrence the myth get in the way of Lawrence the writer?

Jun 12, 2012, 8:15am Top

>242 Jargoneer: love it

That Matisse cutout is sublime. I adore Matisse, all of it. HAve you come across Hilary Spurling's bio?

Jun 12, 2012, 8:54am Top

Turner, I think for all those reasons, Lawrence's reputation has declined.

However I don't think his writing style is too off putting although he can come across as a bit intense, all that repetition can feel like he is labouring a point, if you are not used to it.

Cultural changes have certainly affected his reputation. His insistence of the inviolability of the self even in love and love making has not rung true with many readers. It should not be forgotten that Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley (his last novel) in 1928 and while he broke new ground in the way he wrote about personal relationships his views are not in tune with much that is popular today.

Lawrence the myth is another factor, he has been labelled in such a way that many female readers are hostile even before they have read any of his stuff and some male readers are disappointed by what they find, if they ever get to it.

Lady Chatterley's Lover was the book chosen for our most recent book club read and I was delighted to find that everybody adored it, not only that but we could also appreciate Jeanette Winterson's latest book Why be happy when you could be normal which we read at the same time. It proved to be a great idea to read the two together.

Jun 13, 2012, 6:26pm Top

Back to Paris and another stunning exhibition at the Grand Palais. This time Helmut Newton's Photographs. Some gorgeous mainly black and white prints, many of them larger than life size.

Jun 13, 2012, 8:53pm Top

stunning but frigid

Jun 13, 2012, 9:51pm Top

Yeah, Jane, they must be a bit chilly like that.

Bas - Love you DH Lawrence comments/reviews...but I'm more distracted by Newton's models at the moment.

Jun 15, 2012, 5:55am Top

The Last sleep of Arthur in Avalon - Edward Burn-Jones

Edited: Jun 15, 2012, 8:37am Top

Le Morte Darthur (Norton Critical Edition) by Sir Thomas Malory
Weighing in at well over 900 pages the Norton critical edition contains all the background information you may wish to know before launching into the text itself. The only excuse for not reading it all is that most of it is so dull. I persevered (its in my nature) but in the end I was just relieved to be done with it.

A great amount of work has been done to provide an authentic text so as to present the reader with a true medieval experience, with a good introduction as to how it should be read and how it should sound. Malory’s English (mid 15th century) is not too difficult once you have got the hang of sounding it in your head phonetically and there is a good glossary at the back of the book. To ensure that the text is approachable for the modern reader the use of u, v, i, have been modernised along with the modern equivalents to th and gh and so what we have here is a language that would never have actually existed in this form. The text then is readable, but it still requires some patience.

It all starts well enough with the early life of Arthur and the sword in the stone episode being well described. This section features Merlin, but once he disappears from the scene the story starts to degenerate into a series of jousting episodes. The following section “The Noble Tale Betwyxt King Arthur and Lucius The Emperor of Rome” became almost unreadable for me, with seemingly endless battles, much confusion and so many knights and kings introduced that trying to keep track of them all was impossible. Malory’s writing here seemed at its flattest, which did not help the storytelling. A Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot Du Lake which follows is much better, but the two following very long sections “Sir Gareth of Orkney” and Sir Tristram De Lyones” are a very mixed bags indeed. Some bright spots, even some humour, but much of this is dreary tale telling. We have to wait till very near the end of Sir Tristram before elements of the holy grail story start to appear. The final three sections: The Tale of the Sankgreal (Holy Grail), The Book of Launcelot and Queen Guinevere and The Most Piteous Tale of the Mort Arthur, are very much better. This is the true stuff of legend and if you can stomach more of Malory’s dull prose then these are fascinating. These final sections are more imaginative, they contain some typical medieval dream visions and have a genuine feel for the disintegration of a time when there was more good in the world than evil.

Much of the problem of reading Malory is coping with his writing style. It is based on the Oral Tradition and so there is much repetition, especially of names, but this is not the only problem; Malory is using a limited vocabulary and he uses this unimaginatively; where descriptions are given then the same stock phrases and adjectives are used, to such an extent it is difficult to stop ones eyes glazing over. Malory’s sentence structure is fairly simple and the sentences tend to follow one another with very little connection Most of the time it is like reading a news report devoid of description and ornamentation.

I could not help comparing his style to (admittedly modern versions) of Chretien De Troyes or Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s stories of Arthur, which were written two centuries earlier and are far superior. Malory with his subject matter the age of Chivalry is looking backwards rather than forwards. He was writing at a time when the Wars of the Roses were dividing England and the age of chivalry was not much in evidence and his writing reflects this fact and so while the language is more modern than Chaucer’s for instance, the writing style seems to come from a period further back in time.

The Norton edition contains extracts from Malory’s sources; translations from the Old French Vulgate, the alliterative Morte Arthure and from the Stanzaic Morte Arthur. There are also some background information/texts from Malory’s own time period all of which will be useful to the student and interesting for the more casual reader. The Critical essays are the usual mixed bag with Helen Coopers essay on Counter Romance and Mark Lambert's on Shame and Guilt being standouts. All the additional information contained in the Norton does firmly ground the text in a place and time and will appeal to those readers who want to find out more about the origins of the Arthurian legends.

Personally I found this both a fascinating and a frustrating reading experience. I fell asleep more times than I can remember than when reading any other book. Malory’s text just seemed to sap my concentration levels and yet at other times I was intrigued. I suppose what I have gathered from this experience is that I should not have read it all at once; dipping in and out of it may have been the answer, but too late now I have read it all.


Jun 15, 2012, 8:25am Top

Congrats on finishing. As much as I've heard about this work, I think your post is the first review of it I've ever read. It's very interesting, but also kind of sad to learn that is was not so rewarding.

Jun 15, 2012, 8:29am Top

Excellent review, Barry. It's not a book that I would ever gravitate towards, but I applaud your persistence!

Jun 15, 2012, 9:15am Top

Because he is cited so often, I had long had the impression that Malory was the Shakespeare or Milton of Arthurian literature, and was looking forward to reading him. It's sad to learn that such is not the case. This also makes me suspect that most of the editions you see of Le Morte d'Arthur are abridged and simplified.

Jun 15, 2012, 10:59am Top

Malory's cited so often because he was such an excellent compiler of existing stories, bringing many of the traditions from both the continent and the British isles together in order to create one fairly cohesive story. In that aspect he's very important to the literary development of the Matter of Britain, but there are more aesthetically pleasing Arthurian texts. Only in the last book or two does he approach great storytelling, and I still wouldn't compare him to Shakespeare or Milton. By the way, Barry, what did you think of the alliterative Morte Arthure? One of my favorites, with some great speeches.

Jun 15, 2012, 11:27am Top

It took me a whole summer when I was in graduate school to read Malory. But he is central and climactic to the development of the Arthurian legend. Many of the shorter versions contain the best of the tales -- for anyone not interested in reading about endless battles and jousts. My favorite Arthurian works remain Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chretien' romances, and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival.

Jun 15, 2012, 12:25pm Top

Dan, steven, I was disappointed more than anything with Malory's prose. It seems so lifeless. I think that 15th century England was not conducive to great literature. Throughout the whole period there really is only Malory who was producing secular works that have stood the test of time.

nathan, there is only a short extract from the Alliterative Morte Arthur in the Norton edition of Morte Darthur, but from the little there is I am keen to explore it further.

Reading my review again it does sound very negative. I do understand that Malory was a great collector of Arthurian tales and is central to the tradition. For anybody wanting to sample it I would suggest the last three books: the Tale of the Sankgreal,, Sir Lancelot and Guinivere and the Deth of Arthur. Malory certainly saves his best till last.

Jane I agree with you, the earlier Arthurian legend stories are much better, but of course they differ from the stories that we are used to, that have come down to us from Malory.

Jun 15, 2012, 2:29pm Top

Jane, I'm with you when it comes to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It's a masterpiece. Of course, I think I must have a liking for alliterative poetry in general.

Speaking of which, here's one of Arthur's speeches from the alliterative Morte Arthure:

"King crowned in glory, in care am I left.
All my lordliness down in the dust is laid low!
You who gave me gifts by Your own grace,
Upheld my honor by the might of their hands,
Made me honored near and far, the overlord of earth,
In a wicked time this woe was wrought,
That, through a traitor, all my true lords are destroyed.
Here rests the royal blood of the Round Table,
Undone by a dog--dole is the more!
I can only make my home alone and hopeless on a heath,
Like a woeful widow in want of her man,
Waste away and weep and wring my hands,
For my greatness and my glory are all gone forever,
And I take leave of all lordship for what life I have left.
Here the blood of the Britons has been parted from life,
And here with this battle ends all my bliss."

Unfortunately my copy's not really complete either, Barry. It's in an anthology, The Romance of Arthur.

Jun 15, 2012, 2:51pm Top

Part of the problem with Malory is by the time he got to the tales, they had been infected by all the French Cistercian prose romances which he tried to untangle as he translated. And oh the guilt and misogyny they piled into the court of Camelot....

Jun 15, 2012, 3:10pm Top

Thanks for your review. I can now see that the copy of Le Morte d'Arthur that I've had since high school is a very abridged version. I had no idea.

Jun 15, 2012, 5:08pm Top

Nice one nathan,

jane, guilt or shame, the loss of honour seems paramount. The destruction of Camelot due to internal rivalries? the relative failure of the grail quest? incest? The complicated triangle of Lancelot, Arthur and Guinivere? or a society that had gone past its sell by date. Much to ponder at the end.

Edited: Jun 15, 2012, 8:19pm Top

OK -- here's my uncompleted dissertation thesis proposition in simplistic form -- Camelot failed because it stopped respecting and revering the feminine principle.

The Round Table was a wedding gift from Guinevere's father -- the symbol of the equal standing among all the knights. At its height, the knights sent their defeated opponents to Guinevere to be judged.

The high comic point of the work is "Sir Gareth of Orkney" in which Gareth wins the haughty Lionesse in true courtly love fashion.

The Grail Quest (introduced in its religious form by the Cistercians) was misogynistic, anti-social, and anti-life -- the only knight who achieved the grail was Galahad -- and he died upon its achievement. When the knights returned, they were at odds with each other and generationally. (Contrast with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight -- when Gawain returns to Arthur's court, and the whole court adopts the green baldric as a sign of fellowship and humanity).

The incest guilt was definitely emphasized by the Cistercians, who also demonized Morgan la Fee -- Malory couldn't escape from the tradition. The triangle with Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere is definitely complicated, and there is certainly textual evidence to support that Arthur knew of it long before the end, and tolerated it before it was made public by Aggravain and Mordred.

The saddest and most ironic sentence from the last book is:

"And therefore, said the king, wit you well my heart was never so
heavy as it is now, and much more I am sorrier for my
good knights' loss than for the loss of my fair queen;
for queens I might have enow, but such a fellowship of
good knights shall never be together in no company."

It was his queen who held together the fellowship of good knights.

And whose hands does Arthur end up in? -- the 4 Queens who take him to Avalon.

Jun 15, 2012, 11:36pm Top

All very reasonable, Jane. From a literary perspective I don't mind the emphasis of the incest guilt or the demonetization of Morgan le Fay—who doesn't love a good villainess—but I've never been able to stand Galahad and many of the attitudes re: purity that he embodies. Give me good ol' Percival any day.

Jun 16, 2012, 3:24am Top

jane, thanks for that exposition, much to think about there, although I am not inclined to read the whole thing again, I had not thought of "the feminine principle" as being significant and so that certainly is something to ponder on. I will not be able to stop myself from dipping back into it though after your post

Thanks for pointing out the influence of the Cistertians, I had picked up that there was a "sea change" of influences when the quest for the holy grail is introduced. This happens at the end of Sir Tristram's story where suddenly religion plays such an important part in the tale telling. At the end of it all though Arthurs's funeral rites are distinctly pagan.

nathan, John Gardner made a translation of the "alliterative Morte Arthure". I have ordered myself a copy.

If I am not careful I am going to find myself immersed in the Arthurian legends this summer. Oh well.

Jun 16, 2012, 7:10am Top

does that mean you 're going to read Porius again?
and don't forget the Mabinogion

Jun 16, 2012, 9:59am Top

Thanks for pointing the Gardner translation out, bas. I put it on my Amazon.com wishlist.

Edited: Jun 16, 2012, 10:09am Top

It certainly does mean I am going to read Porius again because its subject matter is the Arthurian legends and it is nicely sandwiched between two volumes of D H Lawrence's letters, sitting on my desk.

Jun 16, 2012, 11:47am Top

You may have inspired me to go back to some of the medieval literature books I bought last year after reading Arthurian Romances and Parzival and Titurel.

Jun 16, 2012, 10:25pm Top

you must be in bliss.

Edited: Jun 16, 2012, 10:28pm Top

actually, bas, come to think of it, there are considerable similarities between Powys and Lawrence, especially in their attitudes to and writing about the importance of sex. Have you read Wolf Solent? It's probably JCP's most Lawrentian book.

Jun 17, 2012, 3:36am Top

TC, I have not got to Wolf Solent yet, one JCP at a time I think. but it will go well with my Lawrence reading. I have just downloaded the complete short stories onto my kindle, now that really is bliss.

Jun 18, 2012, 10:25am Top

Excellent review of the Malory, Barry. We read a few extracts from it for a course on the Romance in England I did a few years ago, and I must admit, his prose style is hard going. I do, though, find the content of the tales quite interesting, however much they are sourced from other works.

Jun 18, 2012, 11:33pm Top

Really informative review of Le Morte d'Arthur. This is one of those books that I've always thought I should read, but based on your review and the many comments from the group - will definitely read de Troyes or von Eschenbach first.

Jun 19, 2012, 11:28am Top

I don't want to add to your list of books but have you looked at Simon Armitage's translations of Sir Gwain and the Green Knight and The Death of King Arthur. He presented an interesting programme on the former a couple of years, discussing the poet and poem in regional terms, as a work of Northern English.

I haven't read the second volume yet (I do have a copy) but Armitage is usually well-worth reading.

Jun 19, 2012, 6:11pm Top

I have read and enjoyed Armitage's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but did not realise he had made a translation of The Death of King Arthur. I will definitely get a copy of that one.

Jun 21, 2012, 3:48am Top

Time for a new thread, this one is taking too long to load, my bandwidth can't cope so well.

This topic was continued by Baswood's books, music films etc part 3.

Group: Club Read 2012

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