Yes, I know; it sounds like the title of a grade school textbook from days gone by. But adventures there have been lately, largely due to the increasing dominance of the e-reader in my life. (I use the Kindle app on my iPad.) The intense gratification I experience upon the instantaneous acquisition of texts is simply delicious! I used to be a compulsive impulse book buyer. Now I am an equally compulsive content downloader.
One of the results of this obsessive behavior is the bloating of my Kindle Library. Every time I visit that virtual treasure trove I am once again amazed at what’s in there. Sometimes I have no memory of adding a particular title – or titles. Sometimes I think I read a book in hard copy, only to find that its electronic doppelgänger happily residing in the Kindle Library.
It is important to note that the titles currently appearing on my ‘device’ represent only a small fraction of the vast number currently to be found in my Kindle Library. Even so, what’s on the device at this time rather overwhelms and chastens me. Some of these titles I’ve yet to really look at. Others I’ve looked at and not wanted to pursue. Some of those looked at titles I do want to pursue – just not right now….
There are some items on my Kindle App that do not reside in the Kindle Library and never will. These are the Free Samples that you can get from the Kindle Store. If you’re not sure if a book is for you, being able to sample some of it can be most helpful. You can get some sense of both style and content. For instance, I recently encountered a review by Jessica Mann of a mystery called The Cornish Coast Murder. Written by John Bude, this novel was originally published in 1935. It’s part of a series of re-issues called British Library Crime Classics. The sample I downloaded contained an excellent introduction by Martin Edwards, who himself is not only a fine author of crime fiction but has also made it his business, via his blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name, to bring worthy older crime fiction titles to the attention of avid readers.
Here’s how the first chapter of The Cornish Coast Murder begins:
THE Reverend Dodd, Vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Cliff, stood at the window of his comfortable bachelor study looking out into the night. It was raining fitfully, and gusts of wind from off the Atlantic rattled the window-frames and soughed dismally among the sprinkling of gaunt pines which surrounded the Vicarage. It was a threatening night. No moon. But a lowering bank of cloud rested far away on the horizon of the sea, dark against the departing daylight.
The Vicar, who was fond of bodily comfort, sighed with the profoundest satisfaction. Behind him a big log fire crackled in the open hearth. A reading-lamp cast an orange circle over the seat of his favourite chair and gleamed, diluted, on the multi-coloured book-backs which lined most of the room. In the centre of the hearth-rug, placed with exact precision between the two arm-chairs, was a small wooden crate.
The Vicar sighed again. All was exactly as it should be. Nothing out of place. All ambling along just as it had done for the last fifteen years. Peace, perfect peace.
Meanwhile, my reading has become increasingly scattershot. I often have five or six books on the go at the same time. (This is partially, but not entirely, due to compulsive downloading.) One of those books is, in fact, Dead Woman Walking, a most absorbing novel by Jessica Mann, the above mentioned reviewer. Having so much enjoyed A Private Inquiry by this author, I was eager to plunge into her latest work.
Some of the other books I’m reading:
Just barely into it. I was reading a library copy and knew that I’d never finish it that way, so it’s been downloaded. I started reading it again from the beginning. Romer’s work opens with an inquiry into Egypt’s predynastic history. We literally journey back to the dawn of civilization via a book that’s both laden with dense detail and beautifully written.
This is one of those novels that you begin reading and your first thought is…Oh, this again. Older man in position of authority, younger woman subject to that authority, the enclosed claustrophobic setting of an academic institution….Well, okay, the premise is anything but original. But I’m liking the urgency and desperation of the first person narrative. And I confess to being fascinated by tales of obsessive desire. (Also I love the Halls-of-Ivy cover image.)
This is a book I dip into from time to time when I need an art fix. I love the way Camille Paglia writes about these works; she veers from intellectual rigor to esthetic rapture, with stops in between for more measured analyses. And bless her, she’s given me the excuse I need to place some of those glittering images in this post.
Paglia is especially eloquent when writing about the art of antiquity:
Ghosts carved out of time. Egyptian art is a vast ruin of messages from the dead. Clean and simple in form, Egyptian painted figures float in an abstract space that is neither here nor there. The background is coolly blank. Everything is flattened into the foreground, an eternal present where serenely smiling pharaohs offer incense and spools of flax to the gods or drive their chariot wheels over fallen foes. Hieroglyphics hang in midair, clusters of sharp pictograms of a rope, reed, bun, viper, owl, human leg, or mystic eye.
The Charioteer of Delphi represents a stillness of perception, a peak moment where an exceptional person has become a work of art, the focus of all eyes, human and divine. He embodies the Greek principle of kalokagathia, “ the beautiful and the good,” which saw virtue and physical beauty as inseparably intertwined. The Greeks defined existence as a struggle or contest (agon) that tested and built character. To strive to be the best was a moral duty. Life was a perpetual game or race, with little hope of rest. The mad motion on the dirt track may be forgotten for an hour, as the winner humbly accepts his tributes. But victory is as transient as a young man’s perfect beauty, which the Greeks described as a flower that blooms and vanishes.
Laocoön’s blank, tormented face seems to ask whether an ethical standard exists in the universe or whether the gods too are subject to impulse and caprice. It prefigures the agonized expression of the crucified Christ in medieval art, when he asks why God has forsaken him. The juxtaposition of beauty and horror in the Laocoön is close to decadent. It forces a mixed response of attraction and repulsion on the viewer. In late phases of culture, basic survival needs have been met, but the spiritual life is in disorder. The Laocoön represented a time very much like our own , when civic and religious traditions were breaking down and when nations felt they were in bondage to a host of intractable problems, slithering and ungraspable.
Finally, I am still enthralled by They Were Counted, the first volume in Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy. Recently, when I saw I was nearing the end of the book, I felt panicky – I don’t want it to end – ever! Fortunately, there are two more volumes; I hastily downloaded the second. Such a relief. I simply must know what’s going to happen to these people; I am so immersed in their lives….
Of course, in a larger sense, I already know what will happen. These novels are set in he early years of the twentieth century. History is about to come down on these folks like a hammer. But the ultimate fate of unsuspecting – or in certain cases, all too suspecting – individuals in the story is yet to be determined.
Meanwhile the lives of the characters, filled with political intrigue and thwarted love, go relentlessly forward. Some of what Banffy describes seems almost petty, yet it still fascinates . I’m thinking in particular of a dastardly stratagem practiced by an unscrupulous head butler on a lady’s maid in one of the aristocratic households. The scenario was like something right out of Downton Abbey.
On the other hand, there is much rapturous description of the countryside surrounding Denestornya, the estate of one of the novel’s main characters, Balint Abady:
The young man reached the bank of the millstream near where the outer wooden palisades had once stood. He crossed over what was still called the Painted Bridge, even though every vestige of colour had long since disappeared, to the place where the wide path divided and led either to the left or the right, while ahead the view stretched across the park interrupted only by the clumps of poplars, limes or horse-chestnuts. In this part of the park the grass was quite tall, thick and heavy with dew. It was filled with the feathery white heads of seeding dandelions, with golden cowslips, bluebells, waving stalks of wild oats and the trembling sprays of meadow-grass, each bearing at its extremity a dew drop that sparkled in the sun. So heavy was the dew that the grasslands, as far as the eye could see, were covered with a delicate shining liquid haze. For Balint this pageant of wild flowers….
So magical and mysterious, so still and yet so full of resurgent life, did the meadow seem that Balint stopped for a moment to contemplate its mystery, and wonder at the fact that even the distances did not seem real and stable and fixed. The park seemed to have no end but to continue for ever into the distance as if it comprised the whole world and the whole world was the park of Denestornya and nothing else. As Balint stood there, motionless, rapt in a new sense of delight and exaltation, seven fallow deer appeared slowly from a group of pines. They were wading knee-high through the morning haze, two does with their fawns and three young females, and if they saw Balint they did not take any notice of him but just walked quietly and sedately on until, after a few moments, they disappeared again into the shadow of the trees. Their sudden appearance in the distance in front of him, and just as sudden disappearance a moment or two later contributed strongly to Balint’s sense of wonder and enchantment.
As is obvious from the above passages, the writing and by implication the translation are superb. One of the translators is Katalin Banffy-Jolen, granddaughter of Miklos Banffy. She and her fellow translator Patrick Thrusfield were awarded the Weidenfeld Prize for translation, presented in 2002 by Umberto Eco. A wonderful essay on They Were Counted may be found on the blog The Reading Life. In it, the blogger mentions that the entire trilogy runs to over 1500 pages. I’m so glad! (And remember, this is the person who frequently expresses her frustration with long books.) Banffy himself actually called the trilogy The Writing on the Wall. When a person is said to have seen the handwriting on the wall, he has supposedly been granted a glimpse of what the future will bring. It is a glimpse filled with foreboding. So you can see why the phrase is so apt for a work set in the final days of the of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
(The reference is to a scene in the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. In the midst of King Belshazzar’s feast, a disembodied hand appears and writes a message in Hebrew on the wall of the banquet hall. The Hebrew is usually transliterated as Mene, Mene,Tekel, Upharsin. The translation usually given is “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting,” or words to that effect. A truly frightening message to get from G-d the Father. I interpret it to mean, Clean up your act – or else….
This has always been one of my favorite Bible stories.)
Reading Mikos Banffy is much like reading Tolstoy’s great epics, although there are some differences. Banffy has a wry sense of humor that manifests itself from time; admittedly, this is not a quality usually ascribed to Tolstoy, unquestionable genius though he was. The blogger at The Reading Life expresses surprise at the “sexual explicit” passages in They Were Counted. I think I would call them sensuous rather than sexual, but they’re there all right, and they’re pretty frank, and they surprised me too.