Category Archives: Travel writing

I cannot surrender my soul to any nation state, or to any set of beliefs.

It’s been a little while since my last update. I’ve had holiday (Bologna, always lovely) and started a new job (Cabinet Office, fascinating). Between all that I’ve not really had a lot of spare time.

Even so, with the time off between jobs and my holiday July ended up being a fairly reading-heavy month. Ten books! Some short I admit, some very short in fact, but still, ten!

Here they are.

The Gigolo, by Francoise Sagan and translated by Joanna Kilmartin

This is one of those little Penguin pocket editions – a handful of Sagan shorts. Sagan is always enjoyable and this was no exception.

The title story is about an aging woman’s relationship with her younger lover. He loves her, she pays his rent. It’s a nicely observed little tale about the clash between society’s expectations and private emotions.

The second tale is about a wife who returns home early from a trip to find signs that her seemingly trustworthy husband may be having an affair. There’s a sting in the tale, which I guessed early, but it’s still well written and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

For the past ten years, she had talked about pot plants, gardenias, verandahs and lawns, and for the past ten years David had said nothing in reply.

Lastly there’s a tale about a dying man being comforted by his wife as he thinks about past affairs. I had actually completely forgotten that one and the description comes from Amazon, so probably not the strongest of the three…

Anyway, it’s a fun little collection and perfect for popping into a pocket on a summer’s day.

Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie

This is the last of Leckie’s space operatic trilogy. I talked about the first two here and here. If you’ve read number two and liked it, you’ll like this. If you haven’t, you probably won’t. I thought it brought it all together pretty well and left the right amount unresolved (I hate overly neat endings).

I don’t know if the trilogy is a future classic – space opera can age badly quite quickly – but I think it at least has potential to be. This is proper old-fashioned widescreen SF, but with a modern feel to it and good characters, setting and story.

The Beautiful Summer, by Cesare Pavese, unknown translator

Penguin doesn’t identify the translator for this as best I can tell, which I think is pretty shabby.

Ginia is a sixteen year-old in Fascist Italy, caught between the fading ties of childhood and the daunting allure of the adult world – or at least what adolescents think is the adult world (more sex, bars and late night conversations; less early alarms, work deadlines and crying children).

She becomes involved through a friend with an artist who the reader can plainly tell just isn’t as in to her as she is to him. Pavese captures brilliantly and with sympathy her conflicting emotions – on one side her desire to do what pleases the artist and to become part of his world; on the other her fear of the consequences and her growing sense of self and of her own life.

I read this while out in Italy and it is pretty much a perfect summer read. Cleanly written and plotted. Nothing happens here that will surprise you but as with Sagan it’s very much about the emotions of the journey rather than the destination.

My only criticism is that I do wonder how much it will stay in memory. Sagan still feels sharp to me, but I don’t have a sense yet whether this will in say a month’s time.

Finally, I’d be very interested to hear the thoughts of any female readers who’ve tried this. It’s written by a man and I think the reviews I’ve read are also by men, but it’s about female experience and I did wonder if it was a slightly anodyne, idealised, version of that experience. There’s none of the intensity or desire one finds in say Duras. Does it get it right?

Grant also wrote about this here, and I think others have too so views and links welcome in the comments.

The Red Tenda of Bologna, by John Berger

This is another pocket Penguin. Here it’s a typically well written sort-of-memoir by John Berger. A short meditation on memory triggered by familiar locations. It’s slight, and honestly I’ve already largely forgotten it, but I do remember enjoying it while reading it. An ice cream of a book – it may not last but it’s enjoyable at the time in the heat.

The Third Tower: Journeys in Italy, by Antal Szerb and translated by Len Rix

This is a sort of non-fiction precursor to Szerb’s marvellous Journey by Moonlight. A tired and troubled Szerb holidays in Fascist Italy for what he’s very aware is likely the last time (and I think it really was his last time).

He experiences crowded sites, bad rooms, stultifying heat and the rising tide of fascism about him. It’s slight but the sense that Szerb’s world, the civilised world, is being overrun gives it a certain power and makes it regrettably timely.

I arrived at a bad moment. It was Ferragosto, the 15th of August, and to cap it all there were outdoor games in the Arena for which the whole of Italy had turned up, travelling on spectacularly discounted tickets. In the city you no sooner worked your way past one Italian tourist than you bumped into another. It was like being in Salzburg – a cut-price, petty-bourgeois, Fascist Salzburg.

There’s a lovely coda to it all about the importance of carving out a place for yourself in an increasingly maddened and hostile world. Szerb, a bookish intellectual, saw no place for himself in a Europe dominated by extremists, ultra-nationalists and a rising tide of unreason. So he had to make a place, however fleeting, however fragile.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution, by Peter Watts

Next up was some distinctly gloomy hard-SF. In this novel a spaceship spirals through the galaxy creating wormholes for a humanity that may long since have gone extinct. Members of the crew are only woken for the more difficult jobs, a handful only each time, and because their ship must travel slower than light that means tens of thousands of years pass between each job.

The ship travels on, now tens of millions of years from its original launch. In all that time nobody’s got in touch, nobody’s said thanks or come home. If humanity still exists it must surely be nothing like the people who launched the mission all those years ago. Utterly transformed; alien.

Some of the crew now want to bring the mission to an end, find some new purpose, but how do you mount a revolt against a permanently awake shipboard AI when the conspirators are separated by millennia of frozen sleep?

I liked this, but it eventually becomes apparent it’s intended to be part of a series, which I hadn’t realised. The result is that it doesn’t really have that satisfying an ending, leaving lots open for the next book. Still, I’ll read that next book and the ideas are interesting.

There are Little Kingdoms, by Kevin Barry

This was, I believe, Barry’s first published short story collection. I’ve previously written about his marvellous City of Bohane here and a bit about his equally marvellous short story collection Dark Lies the Island here.

For me, Kingdoms wasn’t as strong as Island, but then nor should it be – it came earlier and he’s developed as a writer since. Island has a powerful sense of place as you’d expect from Barry, and he persuasively captures the lives of Ireland’s lost and lonely.

Barry’s taste for the occasional grotesquerie shows more here than in Island, where that element is present but used more sparingly and to better effect. The dark humour I’ve grown to expect from Barry shows here and is as enjoyable as ever.

Ultimately though, when I came to write this I realised that every story I remembered clearly came from Island, not Kingdoms. If I hadn’t read Island I suspect this would have blown me away. As it is, it’s clear that I read Barry in the wrong order and for me Island is simply the better collection.

The Weird and the Eerie, by Mark Fisher

Mark Fisher was a cultural commentator who wrote a number of highly regarded essays including his excellent Capitalist Realism. Here he examines what he argues are two different horror traditions, I’ll let you guess what he calls them…

The weird here is horror that comes from the intrusion of the other into the ordinary (I’m simplifying heavily here). It is something present that should be absent, perhaps which shouldn’t be at all.

The eerie by contrast is the absence of that which ought to be there. For example, the sound of a woman crying but heard from an empty room. However, Fisher also cites “failure of absence” as a manifestation of the eerie – something present where nothing should be present, which seems awfully close to the weird on this taxonomy.

The difficulty is that I wasn’t remotely persuaded that these genuinely are two different traditions in horror fiction and film. Rather, this seemed to me a canter through a bunch of books, TV shows and films that Fisher grew up with and loved (and fair enough, I grew up with them and loved them too), and which he then hung a post-hoc critical framework on. I thought many of his examples of one form could easily have been used for the other and the entire distinction felt artificial, and worse, not useful.

Driven, by James Sallis

This is the wholly unnecessary sequel to Drive, in which Driver turns out to be as good at unarmed combat as he is at driving. Years after the first book he finds himself being hunted by professional thugs and hit-men. He effortlessly kills them all with his bare hands and turns the tables to hunt down the hunters. I found it unconvincing and a bit silly.

Childless, by Ignát Hermann and translated by Marie Busch and Otto Pick

This novella is part of a series of short classics being published on Kindle. One of the better things about that platform is the ease with which it allows publishers to release books that might not be profitable enough to merit a full hardcopy release.

Here it’s the tale of a successful and happily married banker whose life lacks lacks the one thing he feels would give it meaning – a child. Then he reads a personal letter of his wife’s and everything changes…

That makes it sound potentially rather dark and usually these sorts of stories are, but what’s unusual here is that it’s a story of basically good people who’ve caused pain more through failure to trust than through desire.

Unfortunately, the kindle copy did have a fair few typographical errors, but even so it’s definitely worth a read. David Hebblethwaite wrote about it a bit more here.

The Four Devils, by Herman Bang and translated by Marie Ottillie Heyl

This was my last book of the month and is another of those short classics on Kindle. Here it’s the story of four trapeze artists whose tight-knit world is thrown into a tangle of resentment and desire when one of them begins an affair with a local noblewoman.

It’s well written, deeply physical (as you’d expect given their profession) and has a sense of inevitability as compelling as a trapeze artist’s leap across the void. It costs literally less than a cup of coffee and if the Kindle form factor isn’t a problem for you I strongly recommend it. It also doesn’t have the typographical issues that Childless did. David Hebblethwaite wrote about this too, here.

And that’s it! A packed month in terms of reading and in terms of life too. Hopefully soon I can catch up on what others have been reading and some of the posts I’ve missed over the past few weeks.

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Filed under Barry, Kevin, Berger, John, Czech fiction, Danish fiction, Fisher, Mark, French, Irish fiction, Leckie, Ann, Pavese, Cesare, Sagan, Françoise, Sallis, James, SF, Short stories, Szerb, Antal, Travel writing

It is only when you take control of your life that you know you are alive.

Red Dust, by Ma Jian

The line between novel and memoir can be a tricky one. As I write this, Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Rcoom is shortlisted for the Booker. It’s been argued that it shouldn’t be eligible for that prize, and that it’s not a novel at all but simply a travelogue or memoir.

I’ve not read In a Strange Room yet, though I plan to. It’s not the only book though where that issue arises. Red Dust is a book by Chinese writer and dissident Ma Jian. Like In a Strange Room it’s a travel memoir that reads like a novel, which raises the question of which exactly it is. In a sense it’s both. Memory after all is unreliable and only Ma Jian knows how much of what he wrote is true.

In 1983 Ma Jian set out on a road trip across China. He spent three years travelling, frequently destitute and carrying with him only his forged papers, his camera and a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. This book is his account of those years.

My description above makes Red Dust sound like a more recent On the Road (or Down and Out in Beijing and Xian), but it’s much darker than that. Jian goes on a search for spiritual fulfilment, but what he finds only challenges his faith. What drives him out isn’t existential angst, but political pressure. This is not Eat, Pray, Love territory.

Jian is a painter and a propaganda worker (nobody in 1980s China lives by art alone). His social circle in Beijing consists of other painters, writers and poets but the social climate has turned against them and a new campaign against “Spiritual Pollution” has been launched. Jian is out of touch with the times, his paintings do not show “the joy and excitement of life under the Four Modernisations”.

Jian’s book is unsparing about the brutalities of what he refers to openly as “communist tyranny”. There is a chilling early section where he is instructed to attend a “self-criticism” session at work. It goes poorly, and soon after he is interviewed by the police:

After lunch, as I sit at my desk reading my post, Director Zhang walks in and says, ‘You are wanted at the Public Security Bureau.’ I look round and see two policemen standing in the doorway. It is dawn three days later before I am finally released from the Western District Public Security Bureau. The officer who walks me to the gates says, ‘Don’t look so pleased with yourself. If we want to, we can make you slowly disappear.’

China then, and I believe now, has no freedom of internal travel. To leave Beijing Jian needs introduction papers that he can show to party officials as he travels. He forges some himself (he is after all an artist) and leaves Beijing. Soon after his wife denounces him as a political criminal and denies him access to his only child.

Jian’s journey takes him across China. He visits other artists and writers, stays with them and exchanges letters with friends back home. This is where the book’s key problem lies. There is a certain repetition in Jian arriving somewhere completely broke; getting put up by a friend; observing their domestic arrangements and the compromises they’ve each reached between their art and the state; and then heading on.

That repetitive element meant that there were times reading Red Dust when I quite simply got bored. As a rule, I have no stronger criticism of a book than that it bored me. Even so, I finished Red Dust and I’m glad I did. I think it’s worth reading, and with the caveat that at times it needs a bit of a push to get through I’d recommend it to others.

The reason that I’d recommend it is because it is utterly unsparing in its depiction of China. It captures a street-level ugliness and squalor that makes for difficult reading but at the same time it shows too the beauty of much of China. There is a contrast here between the country itself as a physical place, the character of some of its ordinary people, and against both the intolerance of the state and its officials.

There is sand in the air but the sky is still blue. In the middle of the traffic island a statue of a flying apsara plays a lute behind her back. She twists round with a beatific smile, one leg in the air, as horse-drawn carts, bicycles and buses circle around her. Apsaras are Buddhist nymphs who float through the air trailing garlands of diaphanous silk. Unlike Christian angels, they do not need wings to fly. The bright banner suspended between two telegraph poles behind her says FIRST CHILD: COIL, SECOND CHILD: ABORTION, THIRD CHILD: HYSTERECTOMY. The blood-red characters turn my stomach.

Ma Jian is not a wise traveller. More than once he sets out across a mountain pass or a desert without making remotely sensible preparations, and more than once he comes very close to dying. He runs out of money and ends up doing whatever work he can find, cutting hair in the street or labouring. He has occasional success with women, but his need to keep moving means that he has little by way of solid relationships.

Against this background Jian seeks to find some kind of meaning to his life. He is a Buddhist, and seeks out sacred sites in the hope of finding some kind of inspiration. Mostly he finds priests who charge for photos and either neglected sites or ones overrun with tourists. At one point he comments “When you work for the Party, you have to learn to falsify reality.” He looks for that reality in the wilderness, but finds it is merely uncomfortable, dangerous and lonely.

Jian leaves a Beijing which is a mix of unhappy memories, artistic frustrations and official repression. The desert is filled only with ghosts and fragments of sacred history that he keeps not quite being able to reach or see. He is tormented by the loss of access to his daughter and as his journey continues his friends’ back in Beijing’s lives move on so that he becomes increasingly distant from them. How can you travel like this for so long and remain able to connect with those you left behind?

Ma Jian is a talented writer, and his partner Flora Drew has produced an excellent translation. There are some fine descriptive passages and as I read the book the bad breath, foul odours, filth and squalor were all too easy to picture. It’s not just grime and misery though, there are passages also describing mountains, deserts and also ordinary life which are a pleasure to read.

On the third day I reach Luqu, a small village consisting of a few mud houses scattered along a straight stretch of road. There are trucks parked on the verge and horses tied to posts. I step into the village shop, buy a fizzy orange and sit drinking it on a large sack of flour by the doorway. Tibetan herders stream in to buy chillies, tea, oil, cigarettes. When it comes to settling the bill they empty their money onto the counter, let the shopkeeper take what he needs, then stuff the remainder into their pockets.

In the end though, it is not the description of Tibetan herders that stays with me. When Jian reaches Tibet he finds it ruled by a priest class filled with illiterates many of whom seem to have little interest beyond filling their bellies. He expects something better there than what he left in mainland China, but in both places everyday life is subject to the whims of a self-appointed group that seems both out of touch and profoundly ignorant.

There is one other challenge in reading Red Dust that is worth mentioning, besides the occasional feel of repetition I referred to earlier. As discussed above, Jian is very good at description. The problem is that often what he has to describe is horrific. I can’t speak to how true any of the book’s contents remain, well over thirty years have passed since this journey after all. That said, some parts definitely remain distinctly relevant today:

Public executions take place throughout China in the run-up to National Day. I have grown up reading these death notices and have attended several executions. I once watched an army truck stop, a young man called Lu Zhongjian come out, handcuffed, and two soldiers escort him away. When he started to scream, they slung a metal wire over his mouth and tugged it back, slicing through his face. Then they kicked him to the ground and shot three bullets into his head. His legs flailed and his shoe flew into the air. A year later I married his girlfriend. I only found out they had been lovers when I discovered his death notice hidden at the back of Guoping’s drawer.

I’ve omitted quotes about flies crawling from food served in a restaurant, or worst of all about the truly horrific abortion procedures for unmarried mothers.

Even with those omissions, I’ve quoted a lot from this one. That’s partly because of the breadth of territory it covers, partly because I read it on a Kindle and it was a bit too easy to select quotes, and partly because I’m blogging it over a fortnight after finishing it (I find it harder to concisely capture a book if time has passed).

I’m going to end though on one final quote, which I think sums up Jian’s journey. In a Western book of this kind we would expect Jian to have some sort of personal revelation, some spiritual reward. Jian is searching for reality, and so feels no need to provide the reader with any such comforting myth.

‘Sorry, which way is the bathroom?’ I push the table towards Wu Jian and squeeze out. The elderly neighbours are chatting in the cool of the dark corridor. I find a relatively clean corner of the latrines, pull down my trousers and scratch my thighs. A lump of someone’s fresh turd steams by my feet. I look at the city through the cracked window pane, and know that every room is crammed with bodies and each body is dripping with sweat. I feel a longing for the empty grasslands and the cruel deserts. At least the air was clean there. Now that I have sunk into this steaming city, everything seems familiar and ordinary.

Red Dust. While writing this I also found an interesting interview with Ma Jian, which is here.

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Filed under Chinese, Jian, Ma, Travel writing

A ruin admidst ruins

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV, by Lord Byron

Canto IV of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was published some six years after Cantos I and II. During those six years Byron’s style developed, with the result that Canto IV is simply better written than I and II were (III was to be fair also pretty good).

So of the four Cantos this is the most technically accomplished. Unfortunately, it also contains the most references I didn’t get and I read it while feeling a little under the weather. That combination means that this is the best of the cantos, but that I enjoyed it least. So it goes.

In Canto IV Byron drops the Childe Harold persona entirely. He complains in a foreword that all his readers insisted on seeing Harold as just being a representation of Byron himself. That being the case, there wasn’t much point to continuing the character. Byron was right. I’m one of his readers and I saw Harold as Byron. Frankly, I didn’t miss him. Nothing that makes this poem worth reading (and it is worth reading) has anything to do with that unfortunate wight Harold.

Canto IV continues Byron’s mix of political comment, travelogue and ode to the joys of nature. Here he introduces (or reinforces) a theme of feminine grace, but for me the older themes of the passage of time and the folly of ambition stood out more proudly. Byron’s travels now take him to Italy, and there amid its many ruins he contemplates art, nature, love and mortality. It’s heady stuff.

Of all his destinations Italy proves the most inspiring for Byron, as it has for so many of us who’ve been there. From my own experience I know how gazing upon the Roman forum or the Colliseum brings home how fleeting even the greatest of achievements can be. Here’s Byron describing the Rome of his day:

CVII
Cypress and ivy, weed and wallflower grown
Matted and mass’d together, hillocks heap’d
On what were chambers, arch crush’d, column strow’n
In fragments, choked up vaults, and frescoes steep’d
In subterranean damps, where the owl peep’d,
Deeming it midnight: – Temples, baths or halls?
Pronounce who can; for all that Learning reap’d
From her research hath been, that these are walls-
Behold the Imperial Mount! ’tis thus the mighty falls1.

CVIII
There is the moral of all human tales;
Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First Freedom and then Glory – when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption, – barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page, – ’tis better written here,
Where gorgeous Tyranny hath thus amass’d
All treasures, all delights, that eye or ear,
Heart, soul could seek, tongue ask – Away with words! draw near,

CIX
Admire, exult – despise – laugh, weep, – for here
There is such matter for all feeling: – Man!
Thou pendulum betwixt a smile and tear,
Ages and realms are crowded in this span,
This mountain, whose obliterated plan
The pyramid of empires pinnacled,
Of Glory’s gewgaws shining in the van
Till the sun’s rays with added flame were fill’d!
Where are its golden roofs! where those who dared to build?

The theme of liberty is continued, as is that of the folly of ambitious tyranny. Byron reflects on the fate of kings and emperors most of whom end poorly and notes that Napoleon for all his grand goals is now imprisoned. Conquest is pointless because fleeting. When freedom is sacrificed to empire that which is bought has no longevity worth the price paid. The irony is that freedom too is inevitably temporary. As Keynes said, in the long run, we’re all dead.

One of the curious things about the pilgrimage is that although Byron reflects long on mortality and on the passing of things it’s not overall a sad poem. It has much sadness in it. Byron talks often of the transience of human works and in one particularly bleak section he argues that love is as much a passing shadow as ambition or glory. For all that though he finds comfort and joy in the natural world and in the simple act of being alive.

I thought the following passages both distinctly representative of the Romantic sentiment:

CLXXVI
Upon the blue Sympleglades: long years –
Long, though not very many, since have done
Their work on both; some suffering and some tears
Have left us nearly where we had begun:
Yet not in vain our mortal race hath run,
We have had our reward – and it is here;
That we can yet feel gladden’d by the sun,
And reap from earth, sea, joy almost as dear
As if there were no man to trouble what is clear.

CLXXVIII
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more.
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet can not all conceal.

As the Canto draws to a close there is a lengthy and for me moving homage to the splendours of the sea. It’s vastness, mystery and beauty. The Canto ends well, and given its length and frankly for me often challenging nature (I’ll return to that shortly) I found the ending such as to give the whole work a greater satisfaction. There is a sense across the cantos of a work and a voice growing into its potential. The travelogue remains, the arguments about issues of the day, but the focus shifts increasingly towards an awareness of ephemerality and the importance therefore of beauty.

Byron assumed a certain sort of readership for his work, and I am not of that readership. I’m fairly solid as a rule on my classical references but even so there were many here I failed to understand. Particularly in the earlier sections of this canto there were times I could tell something was being alluded to but not what. That I think is a consequence of my education being so different to those he expected to read it when it was published.

Equally, I was challenged at times by the circumstances of my reading. At one point I sought to read it on the train from Folkestone to London. Across the aisle a family sat down, possibly from Porlock, and proceeded to discuss at length the various merits of attractions at the London Dungeon. It’s not clear to me why they couldn’t see both the Bloody Mary exhibit and the Jack the Ripper one, but I do now understand that both have much to recommend them.

I hope they enjoyed it. They seemed nice people and very excited. It’s by no means their fault that Byron struggles to make his voice heard over that of the London Dungeon.

In the end, it’s hard not to be won over by this poem. Byron is a man who thinks nothing of a near-page long digression on the differing backgrounds of gladiators and of how a particular Christian martyr ended the games. Among the romantic philosophy, the politics and the sheer pleasure in his travels there’s sometimes a chattiness which makes Byron just fun to be with. Even through a gulf of time, education and indeed class his charm shines through and it’s easy to see at least some of his allure.

Having now read it I can definitely see why this poem had the impact it did. Despite its challenges it’s often easy to read (and would have been easier in its day); it’s entertaining; it conjures up with great effectiveness distant and romantic lands and takes the reader to them (much as a modern holiday tv show might); for the physical rather than armchair traveller parts could actually be used as a guide book; and on top of all that it has philosophy and reflections on glory, ambition, time and mortality.

Central to it all though is Byron himself. A romantic outsider striding through semi-ruined landscapes, contemplating beauty and brooding on past glories. It’s a figure, an image, which remains powerful today. Even Edward Cullen, the vampire from the Twilight books, is his descendant. For Byron the greatest thing his poem had to show was nature itself. For the reader it is Byron that is the true hero.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. I’ve linked to this before, but here‘s a nice article on the whole poem by someone better educated than I to speak to it. It includes a nice excerpt from Canto IV and there are some other excellent excerpts in the comments.

1. The Palatine is one mass of ruins, particularly on the side towards the Circus Maximus. The very soil is formed of crumbled brickwork. Nothing has been told, nothing can be told, to satisfy the belief of any but a Roman antiquary.

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Filed under 19th Century, Byron, Lord, Poetry, Romantic Literature, Superfluous Man, Travel writing

Where rose the mountains, there to him were friends

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto III, by Lord Byron

Romance, war, nature, love, mortality, current affairs, sightseeing tips and parental love. Lord Byron gave his readers good value in his poems.

I wrote here about the first two cantos of Byron’s epic poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The third canto opens with a brief recap reminding readers what the poem’s all about and reflecting on the passing of time since the first two cantos. It then turns to the more interesting subject of the battle of Waterloo and from there to wider thoughts of the relationship of man with nature and the freedom he can find in it.

The Waterloo sequences are impressively crafted. Byron takes an incident of a ball the night before the battle and contrasts it over a number of stanzas with the slaughter of the field the next day. The whole sequence underlines the youth and life of those who fought – what they left behind both at the ball and on the field. It’s powerful material which is diminished by me carving out small excerpts, but for all that it’s worth giving a taste of it:

XXII
Did ye not hear it? – No; ’twas but the wind,
Or the car rattling o’er the stony street;
On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing Hours with flying feet –
But, hark! – that heavy sound breaks in once more,
As if the clouds its echo would repeat;
And nearer, clearer, deadlier than before!
Arm! Arm! it is – it is – the cannon’s opening roar!

Byron knew men who died at Waterloo and speaks of them here. He visits a friend’s grave and writes of what he finds. He sees glorious men, but not glorious deeds. Fame and ambition for him merely drive men to pointless ruin. Those who follow great leaders are brought only to destruction.

Against all this there is an alternative. Byron sees the pursuit of worldly wealth and recognition as meaningless and inherently doomed (as well he might, being born to both). Nature is greater than man’s efforts, and through nature man can find happiness. There is a feeling throughout the poem of the transience of our works and the permanence of nature’s (not god’s, Byron invokes him occasionally but his atheism still reads clearly through the text). Here Byron transitions from the Napoleonic theme to the natural:

LVIII
Here Ehrenbreitstein1, with her shatter’d wall
Black with the miner’s blast, upon her height
Yet shows of what she was, when shell and ball
Rebounding idly on her strength did light:
A tower of victory! From whence the flight
Of baffled foes was watch’d along the plain:
But Peace destroy’d what War could never blight,
And laid those proud roofs bare to Summer’s rain –
On which the iron shower for years had pour’d in vain.

From there it’s on to solidly Romantic territory. Life is short and hell is other people. Few things are more enjoyable than wandering around the countryside gazing at the landscape.

Back in February I read von Eichendorff’s Memoirs of a Good-for-Nothing. One of my favourite scenes was where a group of itinerant musicians revealed that they loitered on mountaintops waiting for passing English lords who were pausing to admire the view. Once they spotted one, they’d pester him with music until he paid them to go away. I’m guessing a lot of those English lords would have had a copy of Childe Harold on them.

LXXI
It is not better, then, to be alone,
And love Earth only for its earthly sake?
By the blue rushing of the arrowy Rhone,2
Or the pure bosom of its nursing lake,
Which feeds it as a mother who doth make
A fair but froward infant her own care,
Kissing its cries away as these awake;-
Is it not better thus our lives to wear.
Than join the crushing crowd, doom’d to inflict or hear?

LXXII
I live not in myself, but I become
Portion of that around me; and to me
High mountains are a feeling, but the hum
Of human cities torture; I can see
Nothing to loathe in nature, save to be
A link reluctant in a fleshly chain,
Class’d among creatures, when the soul can flee,
And with the sky, the peak, the heaving plain
Of ocean, or the stars, mingle, and not in vain.

I do actually think that’s well written and I know exactly what he means. That said, it’s hard for me now not to imagine von Eichendorff’s musicians creeping up behind Byron as he contemplates those high mountains. The irony of course is that von Eichendorff’s philosophy itself spoke to the beauty of nature and the importance of living within it rather than chasing ambition.

That’s the trouble with philosophy. It may be deep, it may be true, but comedy has it on the ropes inside five rounds.

Canto III draws to a close on a highly personal note. The canto opens with a dedication to Byron’s daughter Ada. As the readers of the day would have known, his marriage had ended in separation with Lady Byron taking their daughter. The saddest part then of the poem comes as Byron reflects on how much he misses and loves his child. Here’s one final excerpt taken from that section:

CXVI
To aid thy mind’s development, – to watch
Thy dawn of little joys, – to sit and see
Almost thy very growth, – to view thee catch
Knowledge of objects, – wonders yet to thee!
To hold thee lightly on a gentle knee,
And print on thy soft cheek a parent’s kiss, –
This, it should seem, was not reserved for me;
Yet this was in my nature: – as it is,
I know not what is there, yet something like to this.

I suspect the mountains were poor compensation for that loss.

1. Ehrenbreitstein, i.e. ‘the broad stone of honour,’ one of the strongest fortresses in Europe, was dismantled and blown up by the French at the truce of Leoben. It had been, and could only be, reduced by famine or treachery. It yielded to the former, aided by surprise. After having seen the fortifications of Gibraltar and Malta it did not much strike by comparison; but the situation is commanding. General Marceau besieged it in vain for some time, and I slept in a room where I was shown a window at which he is said to have been standing observing the progress of the siege by moonlight, when a ball struck immediately below it.

2. The colour of the Rhone at Germany is blue, to a depth of tint which I have never seen equalled in water, salt or fresh, except in the Mediterranean and Archipelago.

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Art, Glory, Freedom fail, but Nature still is fair.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Cantos I and II, by Lord Byron

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is travel writing in the form of epic poem, a guide for the aristocratic tourist to carry with him across Southern Europe, with diversions into contemporary politics, thoughts on mortality and complaints about British looting of Greek artefacts (Byron’s not a fan of Elgin).

It’s surprisingly fun, once you get used to the style, with Byron’s own footnotes dotted through the text – filling in bits of colour or recommending the best angle to approach a particular view.

Childe Harold, in the first two cantos at least, is really just a framing device. He’s a “shameless wight” who has “spent his days in riot most uncouth” who leaves England because although just in his 20s he has “felt the fulness of satiety”, in other words he’s bored with his “concubines and carnal companie, And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.”

Driven by ennui, Childe Harold goes travelling, and once he does we barely hear of him again, he’s referred to on occasion to remind us it’s his story, but in the main it’s Byron addressing the reader directly, Harold almost forgotten. That means this is an epic poem largely without characters and without plot, it’s a good job Byron’s easy to get on with. It’s no surprise though that Byron’s contemporaries thought that Childe Harold was a thinly disguised self-portrait.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was published in three parts, Cantos I and II in 1812, Canto III in 1816 and Canto IV in 1818. The first pairing made Byron famous in his own day, apparently it’s III and IV where this talent truly shines though and it’s those for which people mainly still read the work today.

Anyway, back to the poem itself. I’ll come to the subject of style shortly, but first here’s an example pair of stanzas discussing sights to see while in Portugal:

XX
Then slowly climb the many-winding way,
And frequent turn to linger as you go,
From loftier rocks new loveliness survey,
And rest ye at ‘Our Lady’s house of woe;1
Where frugal monks their little relics show,
And sundry legends to the stranger tell:
Here impious men have punish’d been, and lo!
Deep in yon cave Honorius long did dwell,
In hope to merit Heaven by making earth a Hell.

XXI
And here and there, as up the crags you spring,
Mark many rude-carved crosses near the path:
Yet deem these not devotion’s offering –
These are memorials frail of murderous wrath:
For wheresoe’er the shrieking victim hath
Pour’d forth his blood beneath the assassin’s knife,
Some hand erects a cross of mouldering lath;
And grove and glen with thousand such are rife
Throughout this purple land, where law secures not life.2

It’s easy to picture some young man on his own Grand Tour holding a copy of that while climbing up that path, annotating the margin with his own observations. If you scroll down to where I’ve put the footnotes below, you’ll see too how Byron’s footnotes work with the text, expanding it, adding asides, generally making it all a bit more lively and personal. Half the fun of Childe Harold is the footnotes, which incidentally makes it very important which edition you get as most don’t bother including them. I’ll link to the edition I recommend at the end, but I would say this is a time not to go with Project Gutenberg or any print on demand versions, which generally only have the poem itself.

As the poem continues, Byron continues to guide us along his travels, he visits sites of great battles, talks about French aggression towards the Spanish and the Ottoman occupation of Greece, he penetrates the Albanian interior and meets the famous Ali Pasha. It’s often glamorous stuff, written about in a frequently world-weary tone – a combination which must have been irresistible to the less travelled people of his day. Hell, it’s hard to resist now.

Here Byron writes about the battle of Talavera, then recent current affairs rather than history. Byron later lent critical support to the Greeks in their war of independence against the Ottomans, so he wasn’t a pacifist, but as the following stanzas (and his subsequent reference to the troops as “Ambition’s honour’d fools!”) show he was deeply sceptical to claims of the glory of war:

XL
By Heaven! it is a splendid sight to see
(For one who hath no friend, no brother there)
Their rival scarfs of mix’d embroidery,
Their various arms that glitter in the air!
What gallant war-hounds rouse them from their lair,
And gnash their fangs, loud yelling for the prey!
All join the chase, but few the triumph share;
The Grave shall bear the chiefest prize away,
And Havoc scarce for joy can number their array.

XLI
Three hosts combine to offer sacrifice;
Three tongues prefer strange orisons on high;
Three gaudy standards flout the pale blue skies;
The shouts are France, Spain, Albion, Victory!
The foe, the victim and the fond ally
That fights for all, but ever fights in vain,
Are met – as if at home they could not die –
To feed the crow on Talavera’s plain,
And fertilize the field that each pretends to gain.

One of the surprising things about Childe Harold is how modern many of its sensibilities are. Byron is passionate about freedom, democracy, rights of self-governance. His sympathies lie with people who wish to run their own lives, and against those who wish to conquer others. He’s angry at bigotry and sceptical of religion, at times openly atheistic and though he tolerates various faiths it’s clear that as a rule he doesn’t see much to choose between them. If it wasn’t too modern a term, I’d call him a humanist:

III
Sun of the morning, rise! Approach you here!
Come – but molest not yon defenceless urn
Look on this spot – a nation’s sepulchre!
Abode of gods, whose shrines no longer burn.
Even gods must yield – religions take their turn:
‘Twas Joves – ‘tis Mahomet’s – and other creeds
Will rise with other years, till man shall learn
Vainly his incense soars, his victim bleeds;
Poor child of Doubt and Death, whose hope is built on reeds.

IV
Bound to the earth, he lifts his eyes to heaven –
Is’t not enough, unhappy thing! to know
Thou art? Is this a boon so kindly given?
That being, thou would’st be again, and go,
Thou knows’t not, recks’t not to what region, so
On earth no more, but mingled with the skies?
Still wilt thou dream on future joy and woe?
Regard and weigh yon dust before it flies:
That little urn saith more than thousand homilies.

What’s perhaps less modern is a definite pastoralism, a romanticism (but then of course he is the great romantic hero). Men’s lives are short and petty things, empires fall, glory is lost in the dust of the battlefield, gods are barely longer lived than those who worship them, but nature remains. In nature there is a solace that cannot be found elsewhere, a cleansing balm, reconnection with nature lends perspective and a deeper enjoyment than is available in any lehman’s bed.

The romantic movement is not one I’m strong on, but I do understand that it elevates nature, the concept of the fall remains from Christian thought but is recast as a fall from a natural rather than divine state. Our civilised aspects divorce us from that which is most true (Chateaubriand is big on this). That theme runs through these cantos too. Harold, Byron, is jaded by pleasures at home and unimpressed by martial scenes and great deeds, but solitude and contemplation of the natural revives him:

LII
Ne city’s towers pollute the lovely view;
Unseen is Yanina, though not remote,
Veil’d by the screen of hills: here men are few.
Scanty the hamlet, rare the lonely cot:
But peering down each precipice, the goat
Browseth; and, pensive o’er his scatter’d flock,
The little shepherd in his white Capote3
Doth lean his boyish form along the rock,
Or in his cave awaits the tempest’s short-lived shock.

In terms of readability, it’s fair to say it took me a while to adapt to the style of the work. For the first hour or so I was aware of the structure of the poem, I was thrown by lines not scanning as I expected, part of me still working out the rules. You may find the same if you try it. It’s worth sticking with though, because after I pushed myself through that barrier, it became natural, it flowed. Now, when I read it, I read it as easily as prose, but that didn’t happen straightaway. Poetry is its own language, the rewards are there but I found I had to invest a little time learning how to get them out. It’s best if you’re not already used to reading this sort of work to bear that in mind, have a little patience and persist a little longer than perhaps you might otherwise be inclined to.

Stylistically, well, I’m not versed enough in poetry to talk effectively about technique, but it’s fair to say he wrote better later. This is good, it flows well and the imagery is sometimes striking, but it lacks the power of those parts of Cantos III and IV I’ve looked at. In some ways that makes it an excellent entry point to Byron’s work, it’s good enough to show his talent but doesn’t spoil you for the better works to come.

In the end, this is a warm and human work. It’s chatty, in the footnotes, and its descriptions of Southern Europe are interesting and entertaining. Some of the asides are lost on me, I’m just not as familiar with the Napoleonic wars as people who lived at the time obviously would be, and I don’t have the richness of Classical education Byron assumes in his readers, but I found that if I didn’t worry about getting every reference it didn’t matter – I got enough to make it still rewarding. It’s also a fascinating insight into a world at times very different to our own (at one point Byron falls into a fever, and credits his recovery to his guards holding off his physician at knifepoint so preventing the likely lethal treatment of the age), and at other times strangely familiar:


Or Wahab’s rebel brood who dared divest
The prophet’s4 tomb of all its pious spoil,
May wind their path of blood along the West;

The edition I have is a Penguin Classics imprint, containing a wide range of his poems, not just Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. It’s edited by Susan J Wolfson and Peter J Manning, and is up to Penguin’s usual high standards. As I’ve said a couple of times now, the footnotes and endnotes are essential, here they’re reproduced in full, as they should be. I’ll be reading Cantos III and IV, from the same edition, in the coming month or so. Byron spaced them out, I’m comfortable doing the same.

Child Harold’s Pilgrimage. There’s also an excellent article about the poem here.

1. The convent of ‘Our Lady of Punishment,’ Nossa Señora de Pena, on the summit of the rock. Below, at some distance, is the Cork Convent, where St Honorius dug his den, over which is his epitaph. From the hills the sea adds to the beauty of the view. – [Since the publication of this poem, I have been informed of the misapprehension of the term Nossa Señora de Pena. It was owing to the want of the tilde, or mark over the which alters the signification of the word: with it, Peña signifies a rock; without it, Pena has the sense I adopted. I do not think it necessary to alter the passage; as though the common acceptation offered to it is ‘Our Lady of the Rock,’ I may well assume the other sense from the severities practised there. – Note to 2nd Edition.]

2. It is a well known fact, that in the year 1809, the assassinations in the streets of Lisbon and its vicinity were not confined by the Portuguese to their countrymen, but that Englishmen were daily butchered: and so far from redress being obtained, we were requested not to interfere if we perceived any compatriot defending himself against his allies. I was once stopped in the way to the theatre at eight o’clock in the evening, when the streets were not more empty than they generally are at that hour, opposite to an open shop, and in a carriage with a friend: had we not fortunately been armed, I have not the least doubt that we should have ‘adorned a tale’ instead of telling one. The crime of assassination is not confined to Portugal: in Sicily and Malta we are knocked on the head at a handsome average nightly, and not a Sicilian or Maltese is ever punished!

3. Albanese cloak.

4. Mecca and Medina were taken some time ago by the Wahabees, a sect yearly increasing.

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Filed under 19th Century, Byron, Lord, Poetry, Romantic Literature, Superfluous Man, Travel writing