Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Greek Tyrants by A. Andrewes

I've had this Harper Torchbook edition for a ridiculously long time, and it's a book I've seen on my shelf and challenged myself to read many times, to no result. No biographical data on Mr. Andrewes is provided, but it's no surprise to find on Wikipedia that he was, as I imagined him, an Oxford classicist of the old school (the first edition of The Greek Tyrants was published in 1956).

Although short and incredibly dry, this volume packs a lot of information as to what was known about pre-classical political structures of ancient Greece, and particularly about the long transitional period from the "dark ages" from monarchy to aristocratic rule, and subsequently from tyranny (in the instances where it occurs) to democracy.  Sources from this time are scarce, and it is the work of contemporary poets, such as Hesiod and Pindar, that supplement the (often questionable) writings concerning various tyrannies in later historians such as Herodotus. Although some archeological evidence is referenced, anecdotes and quasi-legendary stories make up a good deal of the "facts", such as this amusing story:

Something must also be said of the spectacular meeting about 570 which ended in the marriage of Cleisthenes' daughter Agariste to the Athenian Megacles, the son on Alcmeon.  Herodotus tells us about this competition organized in the leisurely style of the epic.  A formal invitation was proclaimed at Olympia after Cleisthenes' victory in the games, the illustrious suitors spent a year in various tests at his court, then on the last evening the dance of the Athenian Hippocleides grew wilder till at last he stood on his head and waggled his legs: Cleisthenes warned him that he had danced away his marriage, but he replied "Hippocleides doesn't care."

Most other anecdotes are more brutal, such as the tyrant of a Greek colony in Sicily who was famous for roasting his enemies inside a large bronze bull, and battlefield atrocities are not uncommon. There is a good discussion of the Samian tyrant Polycrates, who was - depending upon who you asked - either a pirate or a shrewd operator who understood the value of sea power.  He must have had charisma: Herodotus notes that "his friends were more pleased when he returned their goods than if he had never seized them in the first place."

Andrewes is not one to overpack his study with anecdotes however, and we read insightful analyses of the role of the growing middle class in providing hoplites to tyrants as a hedge against aristocratic overreach, the political status of the Sicilian colonies and the Greek enclaves along the coast of Asia Minor, the development of the unique Spartan system, and the growing shadow of the Persian Empire and its influence on Greece through support or dissatisfaction of various tyrants along the western seaboard. Andrewes begins the study with a long analysis of the etymology and meaning of the word "tyrant" (tyrannos) itself, noting that the term carried a variety of connotations in ancient writers: that tyranny in pre-classical Greece was necessarily considered bad should not be assumed. Much depends on the author and the context to which he is referring.

Monday, November 14, 2022

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald


I'll keep this short, as W. G. Sebald is hardly "obscure", having been on the thinking person's radar ever since he was praised by Susan Sontag in a 2000 essay entitled (what else?) "On W. G. Sebald". I haven't taken the trouble to go back and reread Sontag's essay to see what she found so illuminating about his works, but I'm sure the praise was deserved. In reading The Rings of Saturn over a few nights, I came to appreciate the slow, discursive tone of this fiction, which describes a walker's memories and experiences whilst sauntering in the North (or German, per Sebald) Sea vicinity of Norwich, as well as the opposite shore of the Netherlands.

Similarly to Borges, whom he openly admires, one can't vouch for the veracity of the facts as presented by the narrator; of course, there is a basis in reality, but one can't be sure where the narratives presented transition into fancy. Sebald discourses on a number of topics, beginning and ending with Sir Thomas Browne, with reflections on Rembrandt's "Anatomy Lesson", Edward FitzGerald, the silkworm moth, Joseph Conrad, Chateaubriand, China's Dowager Empress, and the isolated and eccentric personages he encounters in his rambles. What is most apparent is the stasis of many of those whom he encounters and the bleak landscapes which they occupy, or, in the instances of Conrad and Chateaubriand, an escape from stasis only to find the sorrows and ugliness of the world awaiting them.  One comes to sense a deeper unity in the narrative, which at a glance seem to be a series of discrete essays on diverse topics; the whole is, of course, more complex than its parts. Towards the end, the author reveals the unifying element - "...our history, which is but a long account of calamities...".

With appropriate ambiguity, W. G. Sebald died in Norwich in 2001, of either a heart attack or an automobile accident.

Friday, October 23, 2020

The Mysteries of Paris by Eugene Sue


I’ve had a copy of The Mysteries of Paris* on my shelf for decades, with the clear intention of reading it.  I suppose the pandemic gave me the opportunity to do so.  I’ve had my anonymously translated and undated 1,300 + page Walter J. Black edition for long enough that it’s finally been superseded by a Penguin Classics translation from 2015.** I read the beginning of both editions to help me decide which version to go with (I’m sure as hell not going to read it twice), and ultimately chose the older one.  Despite its having been thoroughly bowdlerized, with an inexact (if not simply fanciful) translation, the 19th Century sensibility and underworld argot seem more alive here than in the meticulously translated (and to me – remarkably flat) Penguin edition.  Sure, some scenes have been omitted, but it’s pretty easy to tell from the context of the narrative when a rape or some other such horror represented by lacunae has occurred.  Frankly, I simply enjoyed the flavor of the older edition better, and I’m reading for enjoyment.

The Mysteries of Paris began publication in a serialized form in 1842-43, and was an immediate success. It was a social novel, luridly yet humanely representing different strata of Parisian society and therefore appealing to a wide audience.  It could be read in bourgeois drawing rooms, or aloud in a smoky tavern for eager listeners.  It proved to be a model for later works, such as Les Miserables (which took up its examination of social issues having to do with crime and the poor, and the responsibilities of the wealthy) and The Count of Monte Christo.  Sue clearly sought to use his novel as a means of putting forth aspirational views of reforming how French society views the poor, and how society approaches questions of incarceration and rehabilitation. 

The cast of characters is large, but surprisingly intimate in a contrived way.  As we read, we become astonished at how, in a large and crowded metropolis, the right people just happen to run into each other at the right time; for instance, in a woman’s prison, the heroine just happens to form a bond with another inmate whose lover happens to be the brother of the river pirate who will later try to drown said heroine in a hit job later in the novel. There is a remarkable trend of serendipity in this work, from the very first scene.

*Potential Spoilers Ahead*

And so – in the beginning, a mysterious man thwarts an attempted assault of a teenage streetwalker by a ruffian who goes by the name of “Slasher” (the first of many delightful sobriquets in the book).  Slasher, as we should not be surprised to learn, is a fellow with a sharp knife and anger issues, but comes to have a deep respect – devotion, really – for Monsieur Rudolph, who has, to use the vernacular, kicked his ass.  Incredibly, this M. Rudolph, the Slasher, and the virginal prostitute la Goualeuse (aka Fleur-de-Marie) end the evening as fast friends. From here, the novel descends into a blur of secrets, betrayals, suicides, madness, poverty, infanticide (alleged), noble actions, social polemics, and icky craven lust. We meet the Screech-Owl, a one-eyed crone who is the tormenter of dear Fleur-de-Marie and the companion of the hideously disfigured (by his own hand) Schoolmaster and other unsavory types.  We take side trips to an idyllic farm run as a social experiment, and to an antebellum slave plantation in Louisiana, where the (obviously) cruel master keeps a harem of dusky maidens to serve his own perverted lusts.  We meet the honest clerk Germaine, of uncertain parentage (there’s a lot of that) and the endearingly hardworking seamstress Mademoiselle Dimpleton (aka Rigolette), the desperately poor gem-cutter Morel and his family, which includes his gibberingly senile mother-in-law and his unfortunate daughter Louise, who is held captive and assaulted by the loathsome solicitor Jacques Ferrand, and we meet the proprietors of the rooming house where many of these folks live, the comical Madame Pipelet and her husband Alfred who, in characteristic ill-fitting clothing and a floppy oversized hat, is tormented to distraction by the affectionate teasing of a bohemian artiste named Cabrion, who plasters he and Alfred’s names on the walls of Paris as exemplars of inextinguishable friendship.  We will also meet an epileptic nobleman who holds a gentleman’s breakfast during which he blows his own head off after his wife – who has had her father turned against her by a gold-digging stepmother who has likely poisoned her (the wife’s, that is) own mother – refuses to sleep with him due to his horrid foaming-at-the-mouth.  (Apparently he stopped foaming long enough once to have sired a daughter upon her, but who the hell knows what happened to her?  Wrong!  It’s not Fleur-de-Marie – she’s someone else’s lost daughter, the big secret of the book that’s revealed quite casually about one-third of the way in.)

Lest you think I’ve given too much away, my friends, we’ve hardly scratched the surface.  I haven’t even mentioned Cicely, the irresistibly sexy quadroon (think young Lisa Bonet) who brings about Ferrand’s downfall, driven mad with lust; her abandoned husband, the African-American David, who rose from slavery to the practice of medicine in the service of Rudolph; the Skeleton, who rules his fellow prisoners with an iron hand; a disenfranchised noblewoman and her daughter, dying helplessly of hunger in a garret as the daughter is threatened with assault; or finally the duplicitous Sarah McGregor, who pursues Rudolph (remember him?) even unto death based on an early prophecy that she would marry into nobility.  And just who is this Rudolph, master of disguise?  Is he a lowly clerk, or something more? Like maybe, say, a German prince? That might explain the Sarah McGregor thing.

It’s a long and raucous ride, with lots of noble actions, regretful weeping, earnest emotion, hidden love, violence, torture, assault, blinding (for his own good, really), drownings and near-drownings, partings and reunions.  But after all the twists and turns and the serial cliffhangers, the wicked are punished to the appropriate degree of their repentance, monetary legacies are established to raise the poor – a few of them anyway – above the filth and violence of the Paris streets, and father and daughter are reunited for a happy ending.  Well, not really: Sue sought fit to tack on an epilogue in which, despite his best efforts, Rudolph simply cannot convince his poor daughter, the delicate flower who had been debauched in the dark alleys and dim taverns of Paris, that you can unring a bell, and a fat turd of a downer is dropped on the final act, but one which might have been oddly satisfying to the weeping readers of France. 

*Entitled The Works of Sue, a misnomer, as The Mysteries of Paris is the only work represented, and Sue published many other works, including an equally long novel called The Wandering Jew (1844).

** There is also a Dedalus edition, based, I believe on a different older translation.  I don't believe this one is still in print.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Searching for Icons in Russia by Vladimir Soloukhin


Tangible reminders of Russia’s Byzantine heritage, icons are intensely venerated images of Christ, Mary, saints, and holy scenes popular in Orthodox pre-revolutionary Russia.  As they age, the varnish that gives their surfaces a brilliant luster turns black. In the past, the darkened images were often painted over, the new image reflecting what was generally a less artistic manifestation of the underlying image.  This could occur several times, and, as Vladimir Soloukhin discovered sometime in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s (his chronology is obscure), it was relatively easy to strip off the later images layer by layer, ultimately revealing a pristine and vibrant sixteenth century painting below the accumulated later works. This discovery led to an obsession which consumed much of Soloukhin’s time as he traveled from village to village in Soviet Russia, searching out the icons that had, for decades, been devalued, reused to make vegetable crates, watering troughs, and window coverings, or axed into kindling.

Translated into English in 1971 and now out of print, this work (originally titled Black Boards in Russian) is an anecdotal account of some of the author’s encounters with rural villagers as he seeks out rare and beautiful icons. It is in part an elegy for the destruction of a part of the Russian heritage, and while Soloukhin wisely does not debate the wisdom of Soviet policies towards religion, he does write passionately regarding the beauty of the icons as a unique manifestation of the Russian artistic heritage.  He seeks them in abandoned or repurposed churches and in the homes of elderly village women who have managed to salvage a few icons and continue to venerate them, if not as religious objects, at least as relics of a disappearing past. 

Some of Soloukhin’s attempts to separate the objects from their caretakers may raise an eyebrow, but in general, the caretakers feel somewhat reassured that the images will be respected and tended to, rather than fall into the hands of heirs who would just as soon burn them for firewood. Most of the villagers the author encounters are bemused, rarely hostile, as he collects the relics.  A few give him a good ribbing as to why he values such useless items, but he counters with passionate arguments in favor of beauty for beauty’s sake (pointing at the lilacs along the fence line - “What did you plant them for? They’re not potatoes or carrots, you can’t eat them”).  What is most disconcerting is the general indifference to the past, that not a thought is given to the bulldozed churches where their parents were married, or the cemeteries where their grandparents lie, the stone and marble grave markers carted away and cheap plywood markers used for the graves of those who have died under the Soviet regime.

Soloukhin begins the book with a chapter on collecting, on the mania that people can suddenly develop for stamps, books, chinaware, etc.  The scene where his artist friends show him the technique for revealing ancient icons beneath the layers of the “black boards” soon follow, and one assumes that he is simply entranced by their beauty and intrigued by their fairly easy availability in the rural areas of the Soviet Union.  It is only much later in the book that he reveals that, as a child, he and his friends would take the boards and figurines abandoned outside the church in the village in which he grew up and float them off in the nearby stream, lobbing rocks at them to sink them. Surely Soloukhin – the poet who later published impassioned works on the necessity of preserving the Russian artistic heritage and who was denounced for his troubles, only to be revitalized as an enthusiastic supporter of perestroika – felt a sense of shame for the unperceived callousness of his childhood games.

Searching for Icons in Russia is a pleasant and unique testament to one person’s passion, and a love letter to collectors everywhere, who pursue their objects of desire with enjoyment of the chase and the pleasure of acquisition, with a sense that they have done a small service to the past by preserving an aspect of it for the future.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

On Having Too Many Books (First of an Occasional Series)

Recently, I sat in a colleague’s office discussing a project.  Behind him was a small bookshelf with a number of nice hardcover volumes, some of which were on topics of interest to me, and some of which I hadn’t seen before.  I’ll admit to a certain distraction as we conducted the conversation.  Books are catnip – or porn, if you want to be vulgar about it - to me, and if they’re in plain sight, well, I’m going to be looking at them.  I’m also gonna hightail it out after the meeting and look up as many of the titles as I can remember to see if they should go on my wishlist.  I’m a bibliophile, and that’s what we do.

Over the holidays, we visited relatives in Seattle and my niece gave us a nice tour of the University of Washington.  I was particularly struck by the beautiful reading room in the Suzzallo Library, a/k/a ‘the Soul of the University’.  In this vast booklined space, I noticed two things: all of the hardcovers lacked dust jackets, and none were catalogued.  I dug deeper and found out that this particular collection houses books that were gifted to the University and that were duplicate copies of those already in their collections.  I tore myself away, but only after taking photo of a book that caught my eye. I checked Amazon that evening and found that the most inexpensive copy of The Frozen Tombs of Siberia by Sergei Rudenko (University of California, 1970) could be purchased for around eighty dollars.

A few days later, a Twitter post alerted me to the existence of Everett Bleiler’s Checklist of Fantastic Literature, which sports a delightful drawing of a gargoyle-like creature reading with evident relish on the dust jacket. That one’s going for fifty-eight bucks.  I won’t likely be buying either this or the Rudenko book anytime soon (my Christmas gift cards have already been exhausted), but I feel happier knowing that they are out there, and I can gaze upon them in my wishlist whenever I like, biding my time until a bargain copy turns up.  Such are the cheap thrills of a bibliophile.

At present, my book catalogue shows a total of almost 7,500 volumes in my library.  I have a separate spreadsheet showing that I’ve removed almost 1,300 books since I began to tally such things only a few years ago.  Although it may appear static, a personal library is an ever-changing beast.  Still, it is a comfort to me that I can stand and look at the shelves and recognize individual titles and think about the meaning that each of them has; they are all talismans of a sort, with individual meanings whether they’ve been read or not.  (It humbles me to think of how many of these books that I, a constant and lifelong reader, have not yet read and, as my age creeps up on me, I may never have the opportunity to read.)  Every one of them is something I’ve picked up in a book store, or found in a catalog or website, considered, and ultimately decided that it was worth bringing home. I’ve had few regrets in these decisions, although I’ve had plenty of regrets for items I’ve passed up.

Over the years, I have honed a response to that absurd question that people ask when they come in and eye the shelves, then turn to me with an accusatory look and spit out “have you read all these books?”  I look right back and say, quite truthfully, “I’ve read some of them twice.”

I fully acknowledge that my collecting and reading are likely manifestations of, or compensation for, some psychological defect.  So what?  A realization I’ve acquired over the years is that we all have some psychological defect, and some of us have several of them. I at least do not suffer chronic alcoholism, or have an idee fixe that people from the Highway Department are trying to steal my garden hose.  

I feel an unreasonable tinge of envy when I see a library larger than mine.  A recent profile on Twitter showed a library that turned me green, but I had a strange hunch and searched and found what I suspected -the photo in question was one of Umberto Eco’s library.  If ever there was anyone on earth who deserved a labyrinthine colossus of a library, it was the venerable Umberto.  He also provides a convenient excuse whenever anyone expresses the absurd idea that I have too many books: how could that be, when his collection numbered in the hundreds of thousands! My meager collection pales in comparison!

Thank you, Signore Eco.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Some Thoughts on Bookshelves

One of the things I've enjoyed about being on Twitter is being able to see the bookshelves of other booklovers.  It’s the same voyeuristic thrill that I get from visiting someone’s home and stealing a glance at their shelves (if they have any - sometimes they don’t, and that’s a horror story in itself). I’ve recently drooled over the book caves of Javier Marias and Alberto Manguel, the latter of which formerly occupied a rustic, converted stone structure in the Loire Valley (sigh).   I’ve searched in vain for photos of the library of Jorge Luis Borges, with whom Manguel had an early acquaintance, although one can find fascinating representations online of Borges’ famously infinite “Library of Babel”.   For a few years now, when I’m feeling down or bored, I’ll get online and seek out photos of Neil Gaiman’s magnificent and well-stocked shelves.  I haven’t read an awful lot of Gaiman’s stuff, but I sense in him a kindred spirit when it comes to the written word.

Beyond famous authors, it’s the shelves of ordinary booklovers that I enjoy seeing.  While some are rather sparse, with fresh, neat softcovers (and there’s nothing wrong with softcovers) lined up, with ample room for photos and tchotchkes, by far my favorites are the big, overcrowded ones, with books crammed into every available space.  This is what I have at home, with books behind books, books stacked on top to the ceiling, books horizontal on top of those vertically shelved, in a manner to make an archivist or serious collector (as opposed to a bibliophile) cringe.  While I’m biased, this to me is the home of a true booklover, the kind of person who can rarely return home without a new find in his or her satchel.  The joys of a bibliophile are generally twofold: the hunt and the reading, but I’d add a third category – the sheer visual and tactile enjoyment.  Bookshelves are obviously essential for the best enjoyment of this pastime.

For those just starting out and with limited budget, shelving may be cinder block and lumber affairs, and, poised to disparage the latter a few weeks ago, I remembered my own early days, and the cinder blocks of my own that I had to lug from place to place whenever I changed address.  Cheap shelving meant more money for books, even if it meant sore muscles as well.  I later ditched the bricks and honed my meager carpentry skill by building and staining my own shelves.  I used to dream of constructing my shelves in the manner of Thomas Jefferson, who ingeniously designed his as sort of packing crates, so that lids could be screwed on if they needed to be transported.  At this point, most of my shelving is store-bought, and much more aesthetically pleasing than my own handiwork.

A project I’ve contemplated for some time is posting a complete, annotated set of photos of my own shelves and their contents, because I know that there are others out there just like me, who would enjoy seeing them and who would try to zoom in to assess the titles and editions either out of curiosity (an essential virtue of the bibliophile) or to add to their own wishlists.  We’re bibliomaniacs, and that’s just what we do.

It should come as no surprise that one of the subjects I collect are books about books.  Most of these are descriptive; however, I do have a few with an emphasis on photographing books on the shelf.  A recent acquisition that I’ve been drooling over is BiblioStyle by Nina Freudenberger, which is intensely packed with exquisite photos of books and shelves, along with profiles of collectors, including the late and lamented bookseller Michael Seidenberg, who ran Brazenhead Books, a “speakeasy”-type bookstore and literary salon, out of his apartment on the Upper East Side until his recent death .  

In closing, some of my favorite books of biblioporn are:

At Home with Books: How Booklovers Live With and Care for Their Libraries by Estelle Ellis (Carrol  Southern Books, 1994).  My sentimental favorite.  Everything from Nicholas Barker’s crowded shelves to Keith Richards’ man cave.

Living with Books by Alan Powers (Soma, 1999). A nice design guide to different book environments in the home.

Books Make a Home: Elegant Ideas for Storing and Displaying Books by Damien Thompson (Ryland Peters and Small, 2017). Newish book, excellent photographs.

Living with Books: 118 Designs for Homes and Offices by Rita Reif (Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co., 1973) – an interesting look at New York bibliophilia in the early 70’s. Lots of chrome, shag, and awkward hairstyles.

BiblioStyle by Nina Freudenberger (Clarkson Potter, 2019) – arguably the best of the lot, 270 pages of shelves and profiles.

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

The only novel of a scion of Sicilian aristocracy, published posthumously because, famously, no one would publish it in his lifetime, ranks among my all-time favorite works.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa fully inhabits the world he describes in The Leopard, a world of both change and timelessness, a world deep with melancholy. I first read this in my late 20’s and thought it exquisitely rich; now, at 58, I find it even more so.  A common comment on this work is that the reader never wants it to end, but, of course, the ending is the point.  In Don Fabrizio, the Sicilian Prince of Salina, we witness the slow decline from vigor and sensuality to helplessness and decrepitude.  It is a most sad elegy, brilliantly told through the eyes of an aging Prince of a parched and dusty realm.  To read this homage to patriarchy - published in 1958 - in 2019 may seem hopelessly anachronistic, but read it for the language, for the achingly beautiful descriptiveness, for the sense, on paper, of time's inevitable passing.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Book of Contemplation by Usama ibn Munqidh

The Book of Contemplation was published in 2008, around the same time as Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travelers in the Far North (the original of which was the source of Michael Crichton’s fictionalized Eaters of the Dead) and a few years before The Ultimate Ambition in the Art of Erudition (2016) and Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange (2017).  Like those texts, it is a terrific addition to the Penguin Classics collection of Islamic/Arabic works in translation, and I can only hope that others will follow. 

Usama Ibn Munqidh was a 12th century Syrian nobleman and man-of-letters who was turned away from his family estate, by his uncle after his father’s death, leading him into a life of intrigue and adventure.  Rather than a straightforward memoir, his text is a series of incidences, mostly from the time of the Crusades, which by Usama’s reckoning exemplify the mysteriousness of – and merit the contemplation of - the ways of God. For us, their obvious value is the light these tales shed on the Muslim experience of the Crusades and their attitudes towards the “Franks” (i.e., western Europeans) who initiated them.  The descriptions of military encounters, often mere skirmishes, are vivid and come alive in Paul M. Cobb’s translation, which conveys an intimate, conversational tone to the memoirs.  This translation supersedes that of Philip K. Hitti, an eminent Arabist who published his version in 1929, and which is incidentally available on Internet Archive here.  Cobb respectfully updates and corrects some of his predecessor’s errors.

In addition to acts of valor, there are descriptions of the inscrutable ways of the Franks, glimpses of the lives of the nobility in medieval Syria, humorous vignettes, and enough accounts of gruesome injuries to keep the text interesting. It is the immediacy and vividness of these tales that fascinates, bringing to life the thoughts and reflections of a person who died almost a millennium ago.  Usama was apparently in his nineties when much of this was written, and he laments in the closing pages (perhaps coyly) that God has given him a long life descending into irrelevancy rather than an earlier, glorious death on the field of battle.  

Supplementing the main text is a long digression on hunting, usually with reminiscences of Usama’s father for whom hunting was a pastime that he pursued with apparently fanatical enthusiasm, and a selection of anecdotes on holy men and healers as well as selections of other works of Usama.

Cobb’s introduction fills in the biographical blanks in Usama’s life, and fleshes out some of the intrigues that Usama perhaps chose to downplay.  A valuable edition.

Monday, July 22, 2019

With the Tibetans in Tent and Temple by Dr. Susie J. Rijnhart

Dr. Susie J. Rijnhart, a spunky Victorian-era Canadian missionary, spends a few years (1895-1899) in Tibet, being spectacularly unsuccessful in converting the heathen and complaining about Tibetan hygiene.  Still, her notes on Central Asian lifeways and record of political unrest make interesting reading.  Her recollections of her baby boy, who is born and dies in Tibet and is buried in an unmarked grave, are tender, as are her memories of her husband, a displaced Dutch ne’er-do-well who was, apparently unknown to her, on the run from a rape charge.

Rijnhart’s frank notes on Tibetan culture are in decided contrast to Blavatsky’s fanciful Theosophical view of the plateau as the abode of floating lamas bathed in eternal celestial light.  You can almost smell the rancid butter that is generously offered to her by poor villagers at every turn and which she, to her credit, graciously accepts. On an ill-fated attempt to reach Lhasa, her small expedition is turned back and, abandoned by her guides, she and her husband are beset by bandits.  He goes off to reconnoiter and is never seen again.  Whether he is killed by the bandits or simply decided that this was a good opportunity to skedaddle is never established, but he was never heard from again.  Desperate, she puts her fate in the hand of some decidedly unsavory characters and, in veiled Victorian language, describes her stressful efforts to evade sexual assault (the pistol comes in handy) as she attempts to reach some outpost of civilization.

She eventually did reach safety and, after a period of recuperation, returned to China a few years later to continue her missionary work. She remarried (another missionary) and bore another son: she died soon after childbirth, in 1908.  In this adventurous memoir, she shows immense fortitude, bravery and compassion for the people she encounters, despite her biases against Lamaism, the Tibetan world-view, and disregard of basic hygiene.  My copy is the 1902 edition published by the Fleming H. Revel Company, via the Bible School Library of the Congregational Church in Binghamton, New York. My copy warns that “This book is on loan to you – it is not yours!” I suppose that, in the broad scheme of things, this is quite true.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The World in a Book: Al-Nuwayri and the Islamic Encyclopedic Tradition by Elias Muhanna

If you are a bookish-minded person with an interest in Middle Eastern history and culture, you might likely find The World in a Book: al-Nuwayri and the Islamic Encyclopedic Tradition (Princeton, 2018), to be a good introduction to the medieval concept of adab (i.e., wide ranging literary works reflective of the author/compiler’s cultural cred).  We are fortunate that  the Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri the enormous work that is the subject of this study, compiled in thirty-one volumes in the early 14th century, survived intact so that a modern edition, published over many years (alas, seemingly only in Arabic), could be prepared in the twentieth century.  Al-Nuwayri, an official of the Mamluk court, whose duties largely had to do with financial and real estate management for the sultan al-Nasir Muhammad, decided at the end of his career to embark on an enterprise not uncommon to cultured members of high Islamic society, the preparation of a vast compendium of universal knowledge encompassing natural history (zoology, astronomy and the like), history (secular and religious, although the distinction was not likely made), instructions for court officials (particularly scribes) and whatever else piqued his interest. 

In addition to preparing this study, Elias Muhanna is also the translator of the only English edition of the original text, translated as The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, a volume in the Penguin Classics series published in 2016.  I won’t go into that edition too much except to say that, for most, the introduction to that work is quite adequate in introducing al-Nuwayri’s work, without the scholarly apparatus.  I’m delighted that this translation has been made, and the selection is interesting enough (the other night I read several selections relating to the Islamic version of the story of Adam and Eve), but when you consider that this is the winnowing down of a thirty-one volume work, it seems quite inadequate, and I believe that it would have benefitted from an enlargement with a taste of some of the more esoteric selections.  But then, this is my issue with other works of this sort, such as the Pliny’s Natural History, also published by Penguin (among other editions).  I have a personal animus towards abridgements (although there’s no way in hell I would have ever gotten through al-Nuwayri’s work anyway, it would be comforting to know that it’s there).

For The World in a Book, Muhanna has prepared a study that seems to be aimed more towards the scholar than the general reader, and he seems more often than not inclined to pass off to future scholars questions that require a bit deeper consideration.  Still, for a committed biblio-enthusiast, this is an absorbing study that digs into the origins and context of a fascinating and forgotten work.  If you share my interest in Middle Eastern/Islamic history and thought, I’d say this is well worth reading.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Robert Graves Interview

I've been enjoying reading the last volume of Richard Perceval Graves's unnecessarily gentle biography of his uncle, the poet Robert Graves.  Graves was certainly an eccentric, and rather manipulative to boot, which the younger Graves seeks to downplay. It occurred to me that I don't believe I've ever heard Robert Graves speak, so I went looking for an interview and found  this piece from 1965 with notable British prick Malcolm Muggeridge, whom Graves admirably tolerates.

By the way, despite my near total lack of media savvy (I still blog, for God's sake) I now post to Twitter: just photos of my books and other curiosities, under the name Bibliophilia Obscura.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Penguin Classics)

My presumption is that when he published a portion of these key texts in 1927, W. Y. Evans-Wentz chose this title to mirror that of Wallis-Budge’s 1895 translation of the Papyrus of Ani, now and forever known as The Egyptian Book of the Dead.  It turns out that the document we know as The Tibetan Book of the Dead (a more accurate title of which is The Great Liberation by Hearing) is but a portion of a larger corpus of materials discussing Tibetan Buddhist concepts of death, and the passage from this plane of existence into that intermediate state.  Penguin’s extraordinary volume, published in 2006 and available not only as a trade paperback but also as a volume of their Penguin Classics series (2008, reprinted with corrections in 2017), rectifies the omission with a new and lucid translation.

Counting the Evans-Wentz translation and others by Robert Thurman (Quality Paperback Book Club, 1994) and Francesca Freemantle/Chogyam Trumpa (Shambala, 1975), this is the fourth version of this work I have acquired over the years, and, despite my fondness for Evans-Wentz’s weird and wonderful translation and commentary, published as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or the After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane by Oxford University Press (with The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, or the Method of Realizing Nirvana Through Knowing the Mind as a companion volume), this is now my favorite.*
An excellent feature of this volume is the introductory essay by the Dalai Lama, which places this material in context of the Tibetan Buddhist concept of the self and its relationship to existence.  This is a thoughtful piece of writing that merits close attention in preparing the reader for the different texts included in this publication.  As explained in the general introduction, this translation was vetted and deeply informed by consultation with masters of Highest Yoga Tantra, the preferred name of the tradition to which these documents belong.  This lends a value and credibility to this translation, which I’m sure will become the standard one.
Now, having said that, get yourself ready for some strange, sometimes difficult, sometimes enlightening reading (and be sure to read Book 5 out loud, for merely by saying the names of the deities listed within “one will avoid rebirth in the lower existences, and Buddhahood will eventually be attained”).  The perspective here is clearly not of the West, and that may require some getting used to – but no worries.  Maybe the best approach is to read each section through with an open mind, awake to the possibilities of the esoteric perspectives being expounded.  A return for a more close reading would then likely be in order.
The preliminary books consist of prayers, supplications, acknowledgement of the peaceful and wrathful deities, acknowledgement of the power of those deities, requests for forgiveness for having strayed from the path, prayers of gratitude, enumeration of some of the omens of impending death, guidance on how to know what form of existence one is likely to pass on to, the means of knowing when death is imminent, and rituals which might assist in averting one’s death.  The essence of the text, of course, is the chapters on consciousness transference and the great liberation by hearing.     By the guidance of one’s associates (which would typically be other monks, because, due to their complexity and degree of personal investment, these are essentially monastic rituals), one’s consciousness is guided and comforted as it passes through the intermediate or transitional states (usually translated as the bardo states, with the guidance text referred to as the Bardo Thodol, however that nomenclature is not used here).  From here, one may pass into one of the innumerable heavens (or hells), rebirth on one of the physical planes, or, much more rarely, some version of nirvana.  One seeks, through these rituals, to pass through to the highest state of which one is capable of in this existence.
The texts are repetitive and trancelike, meant to be spoken out loud and presumably, through their repetitiveness, inductive of a trancelike and opened state of consciousness.  Bear in mind that some of these texts are meant to be repeated literally tens of thousands of time.  Ultimately, the teachings, through contemplation and repetition become internalized and one acquires great merit through diligence and understanding. This is not a task for the dilettante, and in the cultural context of Tibetan monasticism there is significant preparation required before one is even exposed to these texts. 
Still, by reading the texts, and giving oneself over to them, a rewarding experience may be had – a change of awareness or a change of perspective that is expansive.  The experience can be an immersive one if approached with the correct frame of mind.  Maybe, like me, you’ll find yourself drawn back again and again for a taste of a different reality and a means to gain a transformed perspective of the world.
*You may be interested to know that Evans-Wentz also wrote a volume entitled The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, which was recently republished by The Lost Library, Glastonbury (n.d.)