Category Archives: History

Tempus, Aevum, Aeternitas: a review of December by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter

This title was published in the original German in 2010 and this English version has been translated by Martin Chalmers and published by Seagull Books.

My Review:
decemberDecember comes from the Latin word decem, meaning ten because in the original Roman calendar December was the tenth month of the year.  When two new months were added to the beginning of the Julian calendar, thus pushing back December to become the twelfth month, no one bothered to change the name.  As the month which concludes the Julian and Gregorian calendar years it is naturally a month of reflection, of looking back, of becoming more aware of the passage of time.  Kluge and Richter use this last month of the year for the inspiration behind their collection of stories and photographs; there is one entry for each day of the month in December and together the writings and art work serve as a philosophical and poetic commentary about time, fate, choice and even love.

The entries or pieces of writing for each day in December are a mixture of short story, poetry and philosophy.  The dates for the entries vary widely, from 12,999 B.C. to 2009 A.D.  Kluge does tend to favor the events of December 1941 and 2009 as many of the entries are set during one of these two years.  My favorite entry is the one for December 18th, 1941 entitled, “A WRONG DECISION IN WARTIME.”  Kluge describes Marita, the wife of the surgeon Dalquen, who had come to Berlin from her provincial town to stay at the Grand Hotel Furstenberg on Potsdamer Platz.  She falls in love with First Lieutenant Berlepsch but refuses to make love to him on that night because she had not wanted to prematurely hasten their relationship by engaging in one evening of unbridled passion.  Kluge writes, “Only three weeks later she would regret her decision.  The young officer fell in the fighting in northern Russia.”  Marita is deeply upset because she did not take the chance to be with the First Lieutenant when she was presented with a choice.  When Marita is faced with the opportunity later in the war to have one night of passion she takes it, and although it is not with Berlepsch whom she truly loved, she does not regret it.  Kluge’s last quotation in this story is very striking:

For one night full of bliss

 I would give my all

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Kluge’s story about Marita and her fallen love brings up many more questions than answers.  Do we live our lives to the fullest and take advantage of every precious moment, whether there is a war or a crisis raging around us or not?  Do we take time to embrace and appreciate those whom we love?  And if we make the wrong choice is it irrevocable? Or can we find a way to learn from our mistakes and move on?

December is the month of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, so the cold and the snow and the shorter days feature  prominently in Kluge’s stories and in Richter’s photographs.  Another story that stands out is the one dated the 20th of December, 1832: “UNEXPECTED CONVERSION OF A HEATHEN.”  Dr. Wernecke has just helped a woman give birth in the village and is setting out through the snow and the woods to go back home.  Kluge writes:

At first he took the path which the villagers, either out of habit or out of superstition, had created as a kind of VILLAGE EXIT INTO DEAD NATURE, because in this hard-frozen winter such a ‘track’ led into nothingness.

As the doctor gets farther along on his snowy journey he becomes increasingly tired and bewildered.  He keeps on moving so he doesn’t freeze but he is becoming tired and disoriented.  The snow and the woods around him are closing in:

The endless expanse of snow produced a certain brightness in the night.  Wernecke could neither say ‘I don’t see anything at all’ nor ‘I see something.’ For that a clue would have been needed, a difference in the monotony of the snow-covered land.

december-2The doctor estimates that he has about four or five hours to live when suddenly he sees a faint, flickering light in the distance.  He isn’t sure if this light is a figment of his bewildered mind but he chooses to follow it anyway.  The light, which is indeed the very thing that saves him, was the lamp of the cathedral verger who at that precise moment was climbing the stairs of the cathedral to ring the nightly bells.

Dull-eyed, Dr. Wernecke nevertheless resolved to trust the light that had soon disappeared.  The light had guided his obstinate heart.  So the doctor found his way to the first houses of the town.

Because the good doctor is saved by this light, he, the “heathen” pays to have an iron lamp installed in the tower next to the bells.  Once again, Kluge poses many deep, philosophical questions with this brief story.  Why do we choose to follow certain paths and not others?  When a light appears in life do we choose to let it guide us, or do we let our obstinate heart convince us to take a less fortunate and unhappy path?  Do we choose to trust and to follow the light like Dr. Wernecke did, or do we ignore it at our own peril?

Each of the 39 photographs in the collection are a variation of trees in a forest that are covered with snow.  The photos are taken up close and give one the feeling of being closed in by the forest and the snow.  Dr. Wernecke’s description of his time in the snow-covered forest, as being able to see something and yet nothing at all, is a fitting description for Richter’s art.  In one picture there is, in the distance, a tiny image of a deer and in the very last photo in the collection a small cottage appears in a clearing through the trees.  Like Dr. Wernecke, can we make our way out of this claustrophobic woods and find that faint glimmer of light?

The second part of the book entitled, “CALENDARS ARE CONSERVATIVE” contains various discussions and meditations on calendars, time, and the passage of time.  One passage in particular caught my attention because of its reference to Latin words for time.  In “Tempus, Aevum, Aeternitas’, an Islamic astrophysicist from Bangladesh and a European ambassador who is a medievalist are discussing different kinds of time by using the Latin names for them.  TEMPUS is time associated with the clock, with checking our watches, it is earthly time that we are always fighting against.  AEVUM, however, is celestial time, experienced only by the angels or other celestial beings.  In Latin it can be literally translated as “Time regarded as the medium in which events occur, indefinite continuous duration, the time series.”  It is oftentimes translated as a “span of time,” a “generation,” or an “age.”  Finally AETERNITAS is brought up by the scholars which, they argue, is the sense of time experienced only by the highest divinity.  It is translated as “infinite time,” eternity,” or “immortality.”  This tricolon crescendo of time presented by the men makes us step outside ourselves and think about time as something other than that ticking clock on the wall or that alarm that wakes us up or that watch which is constantly staring up at us from our wrists.

Seagull Books has published another extraordinary, thought-provoking, beautiful book.  This book is worth owning not only for the literature, philosophy and poetry contained within, but the beautiful prints reproduced on glossy, heavy weight paper make it a very special piece.

About the Author:
Alexander Kluge is one of the major German fiction writers of the late- twentieth century and an important social critic. As a filmmaker, he is credited with the launch of the New German Cinema movement.

About the Artist:
Gerhard Richter is one of the most respected visual artists of Germany, and his seminal works include Atlas (1964), October 18, 1977 (1988) and Eight Grey (2002).

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Filed under Art, German Literature, History, Literature in Translation, Seagull Books, Short Stories

Review: Boswell’s Enlightenment by Robert Zaretsky

My Review:

Boswell's EnlightenmentThe 10th Laird of Auchinleck is best known for his comprehensive biography of Samuel Johnson; but James Boswell was an important and interesting figure in his own right.  This book is essentially an account of how Boswell becomes The Boswell we are more familiar with–the writer, the biographer, the lawyer.  This book reveals to us a Boswell who thought deeply about religion, the afterlife and the immortality of the soul and who sought out the greatest thinkers of his days and questioned them relentlessly about these topics.  Zaretsky’s brief biography is an account of Boswell’s Grand Tour of Europe from 1763-1765 as he interviews great men in an attempt to probe the depths of his own soul.

Zaretsky first describes Boswell’s Calvinist roots which laid the foundation for his struggle with religion, worship and the immortality of the soul.  Boswell was born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland where his parents were very traditional followers of this Christian sect which believed in a harsh and vengeful God.  The long Sundays spent in devotion to such an ever-watchful deity had a lasting influence on Boswell’s psyche.  When he graduates from university and his father expects him to study law, Boswell wants first to travel around Europe and have conversations with the world’s leading Enlightenment thinkers.  Boswell actively pursues and interrogates the likes of Johnson, Rosseau, Voltaire, Wilke and Paoli.

There are some interesting themes that Zaretsky notes about Boswell’s life during this period, the most important of which is his constant battle with melancholy.  When Boswell meets Johnson in London, the two men bond over their respective bouts of depression.  Boswell is constantly plagued by a type of pensive sadness concerning his life and the course which it ought to take.  During these low periods he indulges in two forms of “medication”: drinking and sex.  The self-medication and depression become a cyclical pattern because the more depressed he feels the more he drinks and has sex; after a night of extreme debauchery Boswell has feelings of dread and guilt which further launch him into a depression.  Zaretsky points out that even much later in life, when he is settled down with a wonderful wife and five children he continues to wrestle with these demons.

The most entertaining encounters that Boswell has during his travels are with Rosseau and Voltaire.  At this point, both writers are carrying out reclusive lives as feeble, crusty old men when Boswell overtakes them.  And overtakes them he does as he shows up on both men’s doorsteps and insinuates himself into their homes.  He questions both men about religion, life, and most importantly the immortality of the soul.  Zaretsky provides us with a general overview of Rosseau’s and Voltaire’s important ideas and how these ideas have an impact on young Boswell.  Rosseau is a bit more affable with Boswell and is entertained by Boswell’s gregarious and affable personality.  But neither philosopher is able to give Boswell satisfactory answers about the role of God in this life or what will happen to his soul in the next.

Boswell then moves on to Italy and eventually Corsica where he meets two very different types of men. John Wilkes, the libertine politician, is a free-spirited thinker who embraces life for all it is worth; he, too, loves to drink and whore around but he is unapologetic about his behavior.  Wilkes dismisses Boswell’s questions about religion and mortality and tells Boswell to stop being so serious and to embrace life.  While Boswell is with Wilkes he lets loose with wild abandon as his days and nights are taken up with talking to his friend, drinking and sexual promiscuity.

Sometimes funny, sometimes serious, but always well-written, Boswell’s Enlightenment has given me a much greater appreciation for Johnson’s biographer. Boswell is plagued with self-doubt and depression yet through all of his low points he continues to contemplate the importance of this life and his possible annihilation in the next.  This book covers only a brief span in Boswell’s life, but I enjoyed it so much that I purchased a copy of Boswell’s diaries so I can learn more about this fascinating, Scottish laird.

About The Author:

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French History at the University of Houston.

 

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Review: Greenery Street by Denis Mackail

The purpose of my blog has been to connect with like-minded readers and share great books.  This title was recommended to me by one such like-minded reader whose recommendations of books for me always seem to be spot on.  For a full list of wonderful titles from Persephone Books please visit their website: http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/

My Review:
Original-Greenery-Street-cover-422x600Greenery Street is the perfect place in London for the blissfully happy newlyweds with its “thirty-six narrow little houses.”  The street is so charming that every couple moves in with the intention of staying there forever, but as soon as the first baby arrives each couple realizes that Greenery Street is too small to contain a growing family.  This book treats us to the first several months in the life of the charming and adorable newlywed couple, Ian and Felicity Foster.

Ian and Felicity’s courtship and engagement is not an easy road for them especially since Felicity’s father, “Old Humphrey” objects to his daughter’s marriage.  It’s not that he doesn’t like Ian, but it just seems to him that Felicity would never have to do something as complicated as getting married and leaving home.  Old Humphrey is famous for dodging touch decisions and he does this by getting a fever and having to lie in bed for several days whenever a pivotal moment in life arises.

Some readers might this this book mundane since it is the chronicle of a happy marriage.  Mackail’s sense of humor and witty dialogue make ordinary matters like shopping, having lunch, dealing with the servants and paying bills funny and entertaining.  Ian and Felicity are so nice and polite of a couple that when their servants are taking advantage of them and drinking on the job, they can’t even bring themselves to fire them.  The house-parlor maid, who is particularly cranky and awful at her job, is affectionately and secretly called “The Murderess” by the newlyweds.

I was truly delighted by the happiness of this couple and the little ways in which they found to show their love and devotion to each other.  Felicity waits eagerly on their little balcony everyday to greet Ian when he gets home; Ian apologizes and soothes Felicity even when he is not sure what he has done wrong; Felicity secretly sells her grandmother’s pearls when she wants to pay the builder’s bill and not worry Ian over money.

I highly recommend GREENERY STREET as a charming, witty and well-written book.  I could not put this book and read it in only a few sittings.  I am eager to read other titles from Persephone Books.

About The Author:
Denis MackailDenis Mackail was born in Kensington, London to the writer John William Mackail and Margaret Burne-Jones, daughter of the painter Edward Burne-Jones. Educated at St Paul’s School, Hammersmith, he went to Balliol College, Oxford, but failed to complete his degree through ill-health after two years.

His first work was as a set designer, notably for J. M. Barrie’s The adored one and George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1914). The outbreak of World War I interrupted this promising start, however, and Denis, not fit enough for active service, worked in the War Office and the Board of Trade.

In 1917 he married Diana Granet, only child of the railway manager Sir Guy Granet, who was a director-general for railways in the War Office. The couple had two children, Mary (born 28 March 1919) and Anne (born 12 January 1922) and lived in Chelsea, London. It was the necessity of supporting his young family that led Denis to write a novel when office jobs became insecure after the end of the war.

With his novel published, his first short-story accepted by the prestigious Strand Magazine and the services of a literary agent, A. P. Watt, Denis was soon earning enough from his writing to give up office work. He published a novel every year from 1920 to 1938 and among his literary friends were P. G. Wodehouse and A. A. Milne.

During the 1930s Mackail lived at Bishopstone House, Bishopstone near Seaford, Sussex

As therapy from a nervous breakdown, Denis agreed to write the official biography of J. M. Barrie, which appeared in 1941. He went on to produce seven more novels and some books of reminiscences, but after the early death of his wife in 1949, he published no more and lived quietly in London until his death.

 

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Review: In These Times – Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 by Jenny Uglow

I received an advanced review copy of this book from the publisher.

My Review:
In These TimesUglow’s book is a comprehensive social history of Britain during the period of the Napoleonic Wars.  She makes extensive use of letters, journals and diaries from different social strata; we are given a first hand account of life in early 19th century Britian from clergymen, farmers, bankers, soldiers, mill owners and aristocratic women.  The only class from which we do not directly hear are obviously the illiterate poor.  But that is not to say she excludes them entirely; we are given descriptions about workhouses, wandering homeless and bread shortages from the diaries of the middle and upper  classes.

We do learn about the famous players in the wars like Pitt, Nelson, King George III, Wellington and Napoleon himself.  But they are not the focus of this history.  One will not find military battles, biographies of famous generals or copies of treaties in this book.  But the reader will discover how the daily lives and routines of British citizens were affected by this prolonged and costly war.

Uglow’s chapters are organized by themes and topics that occupied British citizens at home while soldiers were elsewhere in the world fighting the French.  At the beginning of the war, fear of invasion is a constant threat.  In order to make themselves feel more secure, local towns formed their own militia and proudly did drill practices in case the enemy ever landed on their shores.  We hear from coopers, bankers, shoemakers, farmers and men from all walks of life who were eagerly getting ready to defend their own borders from the likes of the French.

The themes of many of the chapters are related to money and economics.  Banking, bread prices, the running of mills and the national debt were all affected by the wartime economy.  Thousands of soldiers had to be given uniforms, shoes, and weapons.  The government had to pay for all of these supplies so taxes were constantly being raised.  The farmers felt a great impact from the demand placed on them for supplying food to the army and navy.  Farmer Randall Burroughes reports in his journal that he is dedicating the use of more and more land for planting oats and wheat.

The greatest strength of this book is Uglow’s extensive use of diaries, letters and journal entries that are woven throughout her narrative.  William Harness, who is serving in the British navy, writes longingly to his wife and children whom he is away from for extended periods of time.  He laments missing his children growing up and sharing in their childhood milestones.  Bessy, his wife, writes him back tenderly with news of home and their blossoming brood of children.

Randall Burroughes, a tough but fair old farmer, keeps a detailed journal which catalogs weather patterns, crop rotations, farm workers, and soil conditions.  He is the perfect example to remind the reader that, despite the fact that a global war is raging against the French, ordinary people are still farming their land, attending balls, gossiping and going to church.

In the Autumn of 1813, Uglow describes Napoleon’s defeat through the diary of John Oakes: “two Great Battles…at which The French and her Allies were totallyl routed, 30,000 taken Prisoner and 35,000 Killed & Sick taken. Bonaparte made his Escape wh. a party of Cavalry to Erfurt.”  Political and military events are recorded in the diaries of British citizens alongside weather reports, births, deaths and other family news.

This book also gave me a better appreciation for some of my favorite books that are set in the 19th century.  The chapter on “British Tars” chronicles in great detail the fear of the press gangs as they lurked around the British seaside looking for able bodied men to kidnap and force into naval service.  This reminded me of the vivid scenes in Gaskell’s Silvia’s Lovers in which one of characters is taken off by a press gang and not heard from again for years.  The discussions of the superior British navy and the opportunity for men to advance and get rich from prize money reminded me of Captain Wentworth in Austen’s Persuasion.  In the chapters about the brief pause in the war, the Peace of Amiens, Uglow describes the extended travel vacations that were enjoyed by the aristocracy; in the summertime a favorite destination was the Lakes region of Britain which, of course, reminds us of Lizzie’s journey with her aunt and uncle through this part of the country and her accidental meeting with Darcy.

Some of the transitions between topics in different chapters were rather abrupt.  A few times I became very interested in a particular story and the author would abruptly move on to another topic.  For example, the chapter “Going to the Show,” which describes the elaborate celebrations for the Jubilee of King George III and the types of theatrical events staged during the war, ends with an odd and out of place description of Napoleon’s separation from Josephine.

Overall, this is a comprehensive tome that will be appreciated by a wide variety of readers.  Those who take pleasure in British history, and social history in particular, will revel in the extensive use of primary source letters and journals.  Those who are fans of Austen, Burney and Gaskell will enjoy learning more about the time period in which their favorite books are set.  And finally, those who enjoy a well-written, thoroughly researched and interesting history will not want to miss reading IN THESE TIMES.

About The Author:
UglowJennifer Sheila Uglow OBE (née Crowther, born 1947) is a British biographer, critic and publisher. The editorial director of Chatto & Windus, she has written critically acclaimed biographies of Elizabeth Gaskell, William Hogarth, Thomas Bewick and the Lunar Society, among others, and has also compiled a women’s biographical dictionary.

 

 

 

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