Review: The Rings of Saturn

I received an email notification yesterday that the due date for this book did not automatically renew – I suppose someone else had a hold on it – which bumped it up my reading list, though I still had plenty of time, given how quickly I read and that it’s Summer break right now. Yesterday evening I meant to read for a bit and then watch a movie: instead I finished the book.

The Rings of Saturn (Die Ringe des Saturn) is a recent (1995) masterpiece from German author W. G. Sebald. (The W. G. stands for Winfried Georg – one wonders what his friends call him but authors are entitled to initials in these circumstances.) I am not in a position to comment on the original but Michael Hulse’s translation work – although apparently supervised by Sebald himself – deserves commendation.

The work is framed by a trip – mainly walking – along the Suffolk coast, a year or so prior to the book’s publication. The sights and events of the trip serve as prompts for discursions on all manner of topics from herring fishing to Belgian colonialism. As nearly as I can tell, there are no fictions perpetrated, though the selection of facts is Sebald’s and to actually verify his accounts would require duplicating his research. The tone seems to owe much to Thomas Mann, although something indefineable makes me suspect Sebald was also familiar with Izaak Walton.

Like much of Mann’s writing, this is not a cheerful work. The overall effect is much like listeing to a sad old man yarn in a tavern. Sebald presents an occurrence of illness – apparently mental – as the impetus for beginning the book. With much of the other introductory material it is then dropped and never mentioned again, but melancholy – as his Victorian biographical subjects might have said – pervades the work. Those subjects seem also on reflection – although it does not obtrude often – to have been selected at least in part through some fascination on Sebald’s part with real or suspected homosexuality. As the account wanders on, dreams and dream-imagery, often bordering on nightmares, occur with increasing frequency. Even real happenings – assuming them actual – become odd: it is really quite strange as an American to find ghost towns (or the next thing to them) in Auld England.

But in fact, while evidently written with elaborate care, the end of the book is not quite satisfactory. The trip never quite wraps up; its events become confused in the narrative – as I said, this is clearly deliberate – with those of an earlier visit; the final digression as written evidently relates much more closely – as it touches on Germany itself – to Sebald’s own concerns than it does to the history of the area he has toured through, which is a marked departure from the majority of the book.

The work demands re-reading but not, perhaps, very soon. I find on proof-reading I have not even mentioned the work of Thomas Browne – another framing device which, apart from Browne’s interest in (and creation of) the fabulous I do not profess to understand.

Review: Ellison’s Invisible Man

Reading Invisible Man produced an odd sort of emotional whiplash. Ellison’s prose is wonderful, and the reader is brought to identify with the struggles of his protagonist, who is misled by a series of abusive, hypocritical, or simply thoughtless superiors – as might happen to anyone. But Ellison, being and writing a black man in America, constantly considers not only his individual circumstances but his – or the character’s – role in relation to the racially-defined classes of his America and the power relationships – equally hypocritical socially as individually where we have said “all men are created equal”.

The emotional difficulty is this: Ellison’s wonderful prose creates identity between his narrator protagonist and the reader. But much of the tenor of discourse about racism today suggests that the identity is false – that for a white reader to perceive an identity with a black author’s concerns, especially about race, is not possible. I don’t believe this myself – Seneca’s dictum that “nothing human is foreign to me” is the right approach – but it colors the cultural atmosphere from which I read. That we all can identify with Ellison’s lament is in fact the point, and what makes the additional abuses heaped on his narrator’s life purely by an accident of skin color so horrific.

“Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.” So Ellison writes in the epilogue, and a lovely thing it is to have said. But I am not sure if Ellison believed it; and his protagonist surely does not. Or, does not at the end; or, has found the certain defeat too certain, and is content to abandon humanity. Society having failed to respect his manhood – having failed, in the metaphor begun in the title, even see his humanity – one can only pity the descent of gullible youth into paranoia or perhaps insanity; the novel is a classic tragedy in somewhere between three and five acts depending on your inclinations.

Ellison’s writing is magnificent, and I highly recommend this book to any mature reader prepared to deal with a certain amount of obscenity, not so much of language but in fact of scene, both sexual and otherwise.

Comments: Giles’ Six Old English Chronicles

I picked up this set of translations by J. A. Giles, some-time fellow of Oxford’s Corpus Christi college, in a used bookstore at some point. I’ve tagged this post “comments” rather than “review” because I my own lack of expertise and the nature of the compilation make the traditional review all but impossible. If I were either a fully-trained and practicing Latinist, or an authority on British history, I might be able to form more definite conclusions.

The six works included are translated from Latin originals, and mention in some form the invasions of Saxons et al., although beyond that I cannot conceive what particular theme was thought to unite them. I have no standing to dispute Giles’ claim that they are “all of essential importance to those who like to study history in the very words of contemporary writiers” – a noble goal – and yet the erratic arrangment of the resulting book leads me very much to doubt Gile’s primary claim was scholastic. I suspect, in fact, that he began the project as a dabbling in his spare time and eventually published out of vanity, or – less believably on the basis of likely sales – monetary need, or the request of some superior that he publish something, or that of students that his expertise be preserved.

My chief grounds for this suspicion are as follows:

  1. The apparent absence of any additional editing beyond Giles’ own. George Bell and Sons (the credited publisher) seem to have faithfully set the text they were sent, ignoring such howlers as the fact that the six chronicles are listed in a different order in the preface than the title page and the actual book.
  2. The openly amateur nature of the translation at times, most notably Ethelward’s Chronicle. The Latin, however corrupted, can hardly justify the choice to neither translate nor leave in the original text in several places. Similarly, the spurious account attributed to a “Richard of Cirencenster” has an absolutely muddled – and extensive – set of footnotes, some of which are evidently the original “translator”‘s and some of which must be Giles’ own, but I am unable to tell reliably which are which. Finally, Giles openly admits he had recourse to older translations, and in places as much as states he simply copied them, perhaps adjusting archaic language, when he thought they were already good enough.
  3. Giles himself seems undecided whether his work is driven by scholarship or interest. His preface takes pain to clarify his disbelief in Geoffrey of Monmouth and “Richard”. But the footnotes to Geoffrey are for the most part as painstaking in detail as for the works more “historical” to his own view, only occasionally protesting how vehemently he believes in its inaccuracy. He is inclined to believe Geoffrey at least thought his own sources were historical. Giles seems to encourage the reader to supposing that Geoffrey’s source may have been an expanded version of Nennius, whose work he is oddly content to take as fully historical, at least in intent, merely noting known inaccuracies despite the two telling remarkably similar stories. Geoffrey he seems to suspect of indulging a patron. Similarly, while he states in his preface that is “Richard” entirely spurious, he appears to actually suspect that that work is less fabrication than compilation, noting that much of it is copied or corrupted from Roman historians, chiefly Caesar – that in fact the only false representation may have been the pretense of the “discoverer” having knowledge of a specific original author. The “Iter”, or a record of travels (commonly kept, it appears, by Roman tax and military officials), Giles in fact excerpts entirely from “Richard”‘s narrative and treats as a completely legitimate copy of some other, otherwise unknown, source.

As regards the translation itself – at least where, as in parts of Ethelward and occasionally Geoffrey and Nennius, he does not just give up – he appears to have done a rather good job, at least in capturing author’s different tones, and also in presenting a unified voice for each, despite his own use of older translations. Ethelward’s is primarily genealogical, apparently sent in several installments to a relative married to some German king, and cramped by overly stylized familial affections. (The other works suggest it would be possible to figure out which king, and Giles thinks he’s worked out the right one, but I leave that aside for now.) Asser’s Life of Alfred is straightforward and inspiring, and if the reader does not quite believe all the legends I am not sure whether to blame Asser, Giles, wisdom, or a cynical age. Geoffrey is purely exciting, if incomprehensible in places, mainly due to the Merlinic prophecies. Gildas’s work is less history than sermon, and I recommend it – if not necessarily in this edition, which might be hard to find – to anyone as a corrective measure for today’s necessities. He was a man willing to blame his own “side” for their predicaments and chastise kings for their sins – a practice which seems to have eventually gotten him exiled to France.

Nennius is, as mentioned above, an earlier and more sober Geoffrey, though even he is hardly contemporary with the events he details: claiming to write in 858 AD. Giles states that various other authorities suggest alternate dates differing by up to a hundred years on either side – but on what grounds are unclear, as in date-keeping in their own time the chroniclers are rarely off (from our own estimates, or at least from Giles’ footnotes) by more than ten years, if that. “Richard” I suspect really is a spurious character, as he represents himself as a monk cribbing notes together in spare time and much reprimanded for such worldly pursuits by a superior – but I, like Giles, would like to think the actual collection of partial sources probably did exist somewhere, perhaps crammed on the back shelf of an abbey library, then abducted and subsequently forgotten for a hundred years by some Tudor lordling, finally being brought to light by some over-clever younger son. Giles does not illumine us as to who foisted “Richard” on the public, and I am not now in the mood to ruin my supposals by searching the internet.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery from these chronicles was the realization that Kipling’s would-be emperor Maximus, supporting character in the Roman portion of his Puck of Pook’s Hill, was an entirely real person – and if Kipling idealized him, perhaps not unbelieveably so, and his faults in Puck are his historical ones, if not all of them.

I would have gotten a better understanding from reading through with a map of Britain to hand: though it might not have resolved all difficulties, as the British geographers’ sense of place grows steadily more absymal as they get farther from Wales and Cornwall; the Saxons are as bad moving away from London; the number of towns no longer in existence or doubtfully identified or both is enormous; and Roman numerals, as Giles explains (for once quite clearly) are notoriously unreliable to read and copy and read again.

Altogether a fascinating volume to read, as the length of these comments may suggest, and the works – even Ethelward – are likely deserving of further attention and one can only thank Giles for introducing them, despite my intention to look for other editions next time.

Review: The Brothers Karamazov

Earlier this year I undertook to re-read Dostoyevkey’s rather long novel. In theory I had gotten through it before, although it took a few tries, so I knew what I was getting into and I took precautions: I made sure I would in fact read it within a month or so, and made sure to get from the library the newer translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, rather than attempt the slog through the older one again. As a matter of fact I had virtually no recollection of the text after the first hundred pages or so.

The book remains a puzzle. The beginning is a terrible bore; the end is a terrible muddle; and the events in the middle are simply terrible. The story is – as the introduction suggests – clearly unfinished at the end of this one volume, which makes it hard to judge where the plot might have gone next, but this is then the only judgment to pass on the novel: incomplete.

The opening third of the book seems to set up a philosophical contrast. The elder Zosima with his advice of love and humility, to – in the more Biblical phrase – carry other people’s burdens, to consider oneself a sinner, the sinner, is contrasted with Ivan’s proud supposal in the mouth of the Grand Inquisitor that in organizing society a class of overlords could carry sin, could take away guilt, from the masses. As a protest against God, Ivan’s description of the suffering of children is much more effective; placing his Inquisitor knowingly in the presence of Christ the claims of saving society amount to blasphemy, a claim that men could do what the Christian faith says Jesus has done already.

But it is hard to see how this in any way relates to the actual plot, such as it is; and in contrast to either philosophy’s grand intentions, Zosima’s disciple Alyosha accomplishes nothing of note, while Ivan for all his posturing can only be said to flee impending unpleasantness. One could perhaps wonder from the ending whether Dostoyevsky was preparing or implying something like the parable of the two brothers – the one who claimed obedience and did nothing, while the other who refused his duty actually carried it out.

On this point is rather obscured in the actual plot – by “plot” I mean the things that happen, as opposed to merely being talked about: jealousy, murder, flight, guilt, arrest, trial. Dostoyesky tells it rather well, only this is where things are left unfinished. Alyosha’s side-quests – well, one doesn’t expect all parts of a real life to fit together neatly, but other than the fact that Dostoyevsky’s narrator has decided to tell about a whole family it’s rather unclear what they have to do with anything, and if two brothers get such detailed treatment of their activities why not the third? It’s all rather tangled to contemplate.

In tone, half the book one gets details of thought and conversation but nothing happens – even things that do “happen” are buried under the tide of philosophic reflections; while in the other half – the half, or not quite, in the middle – lots of things happen with virtually no comment at all. The book is not quite the one thing or the other, and leaves the reader confused. None of the main characters are admirable, but their vices are too petty to themselves to pitiable to be really villainous. The philosophy is unclear and in any case lies dead on the page. Other than an account of what we’d mostly like life to really not be like – despite a creeping suspicion it often is – it’s not clear to me what exactly one is supposed to get out of this book.

The Worst Honor Harrington Book

I’ll start with the warnings.  First, this is a rant, and it’s a rant by a fan.  There will be spoilers.  Second, this is not actually about the worst Honor Harrington book (that I’ve read), which is Cauldron of Ghosts, but that’s properly a side story and not the main line.  And if I think David Weber’s been letting Eric Flint influence the main story too much, let alone the side story that’s mostly Flint’s own creation and responsibility, well, that’s not really the point here either.

Third, this isn’t really even about my complaints about certain ‘verse-building choices – the addition of treecat sign language, the title character’s developing psychic empathic powers, or even (since it doesn’t even show up in the book in question) the use of Mesan nanotechnology as a deus ex machina whenever Weber or his co-authors write themselves into a corner that requires something really implausible to get out of.  Or occasionally something really implausible to set up future conflicts.

No, this is about the problems with War of Honor, in which a number of David Weber’s authorial weaknesses combine in unfortunate ways, as well as one gigantic mistake by his characters that even Weber’s having them point out as a mistake they made doesn’t keep it from being a major problem with the plot.

I’ll get this major plot hole out of the way first.  The climactic battle only works out in Harrington’s favor because a heavy reinforcement for her understrength Manticoran force is sent to her unofficially from Grayson.  Yet the opposing Havenite fleet commanders knew the reinforcements were missing from their normal post on a “training” mission, and never even ask if the destination (or exercise area) is known.  And these are supposed to be the smart opponents, not the dumb ones that have been thinned out over the course of the series.  Of course these mistakes do happen in war – but this one is just a little too convenient, made in the execution of a plan that’s supposedly been worked over with several of the proverbial fine-toothed combs.  It sours the taste of the final victory – and piling on another improbable scouting coincidence that let Harrington know a surprise attack was coming and set a trap only makes it worse.

So the plot, as it concerns Harrington, has a rather hollow core.  But if the only problem were the military implausibilities, it could be shrugged off.  The history of military operations is in some respects nothing but a collection of really stupid decisions from people who should have known better, or others who just got absurdly lucky, from Carrhae to Agincourt to Midway.

No, what really grates is the Manticoran politicos.  For a change, the opposition parties (from the perspective of most of the main characters) have charge of things – and there’s not a reputable viewpoint among them.  Which, from Weber, whose work is distinctive in large part because of his dedication to presenting antagonists as openly – and mostly fairly – as possible, is an awful falling off.  His Havenite oligarchs that we start the series with are hardly sympathetic, but they’re as invested in trying to control the tiger they’re stuck riding as merely continuing to make a profit – not nice people, but not abnormal, and unsentimentally aware they’re stuck with a poor system, as far as they can see – or dare to see, at least.  His first batch of revolutionaries are presented symapthetically, even though their behavior is modeled on some of the worst excesses of the French and Russian revolutions.  The rather blatantly named Rob S. Pierre, in particular, is a fairly well-done portrait of an extremist with good intentions trying to deal with the results of his own initial success.

Of course one can write a series in flatter tones, with villains and heroes plain to see if not quite color-coded.  But that’s not Weber’s reputation: so when that’s the tone for the heroes merely domestic antagonists (while the foreign enemies and allies retain their respectful presentations – mostly), the book as a whole is jarringly out of place in the series – or the series as it was to that point.  As noted in passing above, I think Eric Flint’s influence as a co-author has had an over-simplifying effect on the series (to say nothing of Weber, partly because of Flint’s side series, ending up having to write himself out of a hole dug by not wrapping up the story where he originally intended).  But Flint writes openly uncomplicated stories with over-the-top hijinks: by way of cheap comparison, he plays Errol Flynn to Weber’s Humphrey Bogart.

Worst of all, however – though it’s only a tiny detail in one sense – is that War of Honor begins in the middle of a truce, and despite these open villains taking charge of Manticore’s government, and being presented quite early as perfectly willing to present a selective view of diplomatic correspondence for public – or even wider private – consumption, Weber can’t quite bring himself to have Manticore commit the final falsifications of correspondence that bring the war raging back.  Instead it’s pinned for plot purposes on Haven’s new Secretary of State and his staff.  Now said official is ambitious enough for any three normal people, but that’s par for the course among politicians even in this universe.  But it’s never convincingly explained exactly what he thinks he’s getting from the changes made – which are not specified.  (And, to put the side-stepping cherry on top, in the sequel he’s conveniently discarded before the question can be forced in Haven of what exactly the diplomatic responsibilities are between President and Secretary of State – as what he’s guilty of – that we’re told about – is more or less making changes without informing the President.)

Fortunately for Weber, the next two volumes published in the Honorverse were side stories – one Flint’s creation, the other Weber’s own idea to continue the story after the main plot wrapped up – and much lighter in tone, so that when he got around to finishing At All Costs, the volume that was supposed to wrap up the main story – even if it had in the meantime been dragged much closer chronologically to the other now-continuing intended-to-be-sequel series than Weber had planned – I at least was ready to see what happened without too much trepidation and the bad taste of this one rather forgotten.  But it’s a really bad taste.

Book Review: David Weber and Linda Evans’ Hell’s Gate

Or, “how not to establish a scenario”.

David Weber, author of various mostly best-selling science fiction and fantasy series, is an author whose work is one of my guilty pleasures.  His writing is not particularly good, but it is not offensively bad, either.  His ideas are often quite interesting, although he could use an editor, or at least a backspace key.  He has several personal hobby-horses, a few of which carry over from one series to another, but in the main they make for more thoughtful (and sometimes more realistic) story-telling than you often get from your average popular sci-fi hack.

Probably the most dominant theme in much of Weber’s work is the idea of shared humanity – that good guys and bad guys can be found everywhere, on the “right” and “wrong” side of war, pursuing honor or shady personal gain for good reasons or bad, with good cause or shoddy excuse.  If the extent to which he hammers this point home has fallen off a little bit in his latest Honorverse books, it may simply because he managed to write himself past his original plot.

However, Hell’s Gate – not a book featuring starships, or people named Honor – is not one of his better efforts.  I can’t say how much that may be the co-author’s fault, as I’ve never read any of Evan’s own work.  The long-winded fake tech details are noticeably mostly lacking, which is, I think, a good thing here.  The writing is not particularly worse than his usual.  The characters are the usual mix of intriguing and somewhat cliched but redeemable, Weber’s version of a white knight, and various cardboard extras.  The plot, though…

As might be guessed from the title (after you found out it wasn’t a novelization or re-setting of Thermopylae), the book is about the launching of a massive war between two industrial (more or less) era civilizations.  It should surprise no reader of Weber’s work to find out that he tries hard to sell the war’s beginning as basically due to an accident.  What does come as a surprise is that almost everyone on one side is either incompetent, cowardly, pliable, or conniving, at least at what Weber likes to call the “pointy end” of the action – while the other side, one book in, is made up almost entirely of intelligent, well-meaning, implausibly successful people.

Now, either one of those is a plausible enough explanation for starting a war.  A mess of accidents between possibly well-meaning but definitely suspicious people who don’t really understand each other?  Sure.  A military run amok without adequate supervision, with nefarious dudes promoted to places they shouldn’t be, running into new worlds to conquer?  Sure.  (Though over-sanctifying the other side might still be a mistake.)  But they’re not particularly compatible premises, especially when the author is trying hard to establish his usual point of view – explaining or sympathizing with every character’s point of view.

In fairness, I find Weber’s talent for showing motive – and using personal motives and behavior as a driving force – compelling enough that I will probably track down the sequel at some point.  Weber and Evans have managed to compile some fairly interesting characters, and it’s possible that the White Knights may lose some luster once things get more heated.  But the book itself I give a D.  Maybe a C-.  Maybe.