STRANGE NEWS FROM ANOTHER STAR

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962)

This is a collection of some of his short works published in 1919.

Augustus

Son of a widowed mother, Augustus has not turned out well.  He drinks and chases ladies and leads a dissolute life.  He complains about not being loved and is about to commit suicide. His friend Mr. Binnswanger advises him to try the opposite tactic:  loving others.  He does and drags through life giving aid and assistance to those around him.  A life of poverty and suffering is ending and he visits Mr. Binnswanger for the last time.  Sounds of angel voices and visions of sparks and fireworks and he falls asleep.

The Poet

Han Fook, poet, is about to be married.  On the eve of the ceremony he muses by  the river (in China) and ponders over his reflection.  An old man appears and impresses Han with his poetical insights;  Han follows him upriver to his cave and spends years learning poetry from him.  Growing discontented he travels down to his old village and sees his abandoned bride, fellow villagers, and some former associates.  He goes back to the master’s cave and learns the lute.  Years pass, the master dies and Han, once more studying his reflection, wonders which is the reality.

Flute Dream

A musically gifted young man leaves his girlfriend and parents to travel with an older sailor to ports unknown.  The music becomes darker as time passes.  The master dies and the boy, now an adult, sees his reflection and he has become the sailor.

Strange New From Another Star

A village is destroyed by an earthquake.  A young man volunteers to visit the king to obtain flowers to decorate the many graves.  On the way he stays overnight at a small temple on a hilltop.  A huge bird carries him to another planet where he sees a vast plain covered with ruined buildings and dead bodies.  Arriving at the only tent to be seen in the area, another king tells him of the battle that has just taken place.  Waking up back in the small temple, he continues on his way and eventually is interviewed by his own king and granted a dispensation for decorating the graves of the fallen in his own village.  Later he searches for the temple fruitlessly, as it has vanished.

The Hard Passage

Entranced by the looming mountains, a young person leaves his green and pleasant land to explore the alpine regions.  While passing through a deep, dark, slimy gorge, he passes a tree with a crow in it, singing “Eternity”.  Later on he falls off a cliff and finds himself in the bosom of his family.

A Dream Sequence

The narrator finds himself in a salon without shoes.  Embarrassed, he picks up a loose slipper and hits another man on the head with it.  The salon becomes a large lake near which he’s riding a giant horse.  Rescuing a fair maiden from the water he finds himself climbing the Eiffel tower with his friend Paul.  Looking down he spies numerous girls tight-rope walking between buildings.  Finding himself in a dark murky tunnel, he slithers through the mud until he arrives in a dim room with his sister and her husband, who try to soothe him with music, but he feels lost.  “Tears are the melting ice of the soul”, he thinks as she begins to play the piano.  And “years like snowflakes fall” all around him.  Bound in chains, he chases his mother through the sticky air.

Faldum

The annual fair in a farming community.  A tall dark stranger enters and hypnotizes the citizens by granting their wishes.  Soon everyone had had a wish granted except a boy who wished he was a mountain and a young man entertaining his friends by playing on the violin.  The boy got his wish and the young man received a new instrument.  Then a deep rumbling sound penetrated the area and all the buildings fell down and a mountain took their place.  Over the succeeding years the mountain gradually eroded away, experiencing in the meantime generations of villagers from the neighborhood picnicking and playing on its heights, waters cascading down its flanks, and human enterprises appearing and disappearing as it gradually ground down to a flat peneplain.  Finally the dark stranger reappeared and asked if the tiny remnant of hill had any more wishes.  At the faint answer, the sea washed over the site to the sound of very faint violin music.

Iris

Anselm played in the garden as a child and grew to love Irises.  He thought how wonderful it would be if he could just crawl up into the calyx and rest.  As he got older, attending college, becoming a teacher, he gradually forgot the joy he’d known as a boy.  Meeting a lady named Iris at a party, he fell in love but she refused to marry him unless he could remember that joy that he’d experienced as a boy in the garden.  So he quit his job and wandered for years until, returning to his native village, he discovered that Iris was dying.  Forlorn, he left the town and spent the rest of his life wandering, searching, until one day in a mountainous region he saw a pair of golden pillars leading into a magic garden.  He entered and found what he’d been seeking.

Hesse had a background in Eastern philosophy and religion even though he was raised in a pietist household.  His maternal grandparents had been missionaries in Malaya and China but he was raised in an area of Germany near the Estonian border.  Later he became a Swiss citizen.  He was a curious person, studying with Carl Jung and investigating all sorts of religions and philosophies having to do with the meaning of life.  And his search is magnified in his books, although it’s not apparent whether he ever discovered answers that satisfied him.  Unfortunately he never studied much geology or other sciences, so his researches were limited pretty much to the humanities.  He was enamored at one time by Buddhism, and those concepts are reflected in his stories, although it seems that his beliefs ultimately paled into a generalistic frame of mind, centering around a mystical apprehension of deism.  The stories are evocative, though, and well worth reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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TRAVELS IN WEST AFRICA

Mary Kingsley (1862-1900);  edited by Elspeth Huxley

Unhampered by the acquisition of a formal Oxfordian education, Ms. Kingsley was raised in a more-or-less protected environment provided by her globe-traveling father.  She had access to a large library, though, and managed to learn a bit of the German language in her teens.  How such a woman became a well-known African explorer is not as much of a mystery as might be suspected.  Her father, George, was a doctor by education, but a sort of private secretary to traveling royalty by profession.  His two brothers, Henry and Charles, were famous authors, widely known for “The Recollections of Geoffrey Hamlin” and “Westward Ho”, among a profusion of other novels.  So she inherited a kind of genetic disposition toward using her self-confidence and curiousity in achieving her goals.  Maybe.  At any rate she somehow managed to possess herself of an extraordinary amount of grit.

Mary became involved with her father’s investigations into natural history and when both her parents died within six weeks of each other, she decided to explore the environs of west Africa, specifically to search for unknown species of fish.  She stayed initially at several missionary stations while planning her various expeditions up the Ogowe and Rembwe rivers, but later lived in small villages of the Fan people, known for their cannibalistic predilections.

Her first trek was by canoe up the Ogowe river.  With four native oarsmen, she pushed up the river to the Alemba rapids, fighting the fierce current all the way, camping out on islands and experiencing occasionally alarming interactions with the wildlife and natives, not to mention crocodiles, elephants, poisonous snakes, and thornbushes.  Although one of the latter, the Adooma, was highly regarded because the root system was so tough that grabbing its branches while being washed downstream was about the only way to avoid being drowned.  They found a huge cavern, the Boko Boko, which native legends described as a bottomless pit and the home of many devils and ghosts.

After successfully returning back down the river, Mary embarked on a later cross-country voyage to explore the biomes, the local ecology, and to study the indigenes.  She intended to leave the Ogowe and travel north to the Rembwe river, through the jungles and swamps and occasional grasslands, collecting and searching for new specimens of fish and plants.  Members of the Fan tribe, the only inhabitants of the area, accompanied her and aided in communication with some of the isolated groups that had never seen a white person.  The Fan tribes were notorious for their hostility to outsiders.  The different villages moved around a lot, and were quite secretive in their social habits and feeding regimes (being cannibalistic), and tended toward violence when surprised by visitors.  And then there were the elephants, crocodiles, army ants, monster snakes, deadly insects, elephant ticks, leeches, poisonous plants of a great variety, frequent water hazards, not to mention leopards, wild cats, gorillas, etc.

When the exhausted expedition reached the Rembwe, they were lucky enough to encounter a local tradesman who operated a small factory that collected rubber and other local materiel to be sold to other merchants further down river.  He was helpful and arranged for transportation down to Gaboon, a more civilized city sited near the ocean, where Mary and friends could recuperate.

On a later journey, Mary decided to climb Mt. Cameroon, a basaltic volcano some 13,000+ feet high which had never been ascended by a lady, or from the east side.  She hired several natives as guides and assistants but lost them one by one as she intrepidly climbed up the steep rocky slopes from one promontory to another.  The poor guides were afraid of demons and found it difficult to advance without rum.  At the last push for the top, they all waited, poor worn out things, while Mary made her own way through freezing fog and mist, up one wall after another, to what she presumed was the top of the mountain, judging by the beer bottles and litter and a cairn of rocks to which she added a few samples.  The enfeebled porters and guide were in a sad state when she got back down to them and needed feeding and cheering up before they returned to base camp.  But as they reached lower elevations, they recovered quite well.

Back in Gaboon, Mary spent several months exploring the islands and mangrove swamps of the area, collecting and botanizing and speculating about the local geology, which she seemed to have some knowledge of.  Her descriptions of the local landforms was precise and accurate, citing the deltaic environment and the erosive processes that constituted the basis of the mangrove swamps.  Soon after she arranged for passage back to England, where she achieved a minor species of fame as an explorer and received the thanks of a few grateful ichthyologists for the fish specimens she brought back.

I think she must have been one of the most adventurous and fearless explorers of Africa i’ve ever read about.  I’m familiar with Burton’s descriptions of east Africa and i’ve read
Stanley’s account of crossing through the Congo area and discovering doctor Livingstone as well as some other narrations having to do with discovering the source of the Nile (the tale of the unfortunate John Hanning Speke’s tribulations, for one) , but none of them were any more persistent or courageous in the face of terrible and monstrous obstacles than Mary Kingsley.  She deserves to be better known in the annals of African exploration, imo…  I must confess, i didn’t read about forty pages in the middle of the book, as they were devoted to describing some of the more grisly habits and social behavior of the native tribes.  But the rest of it was quite astonishing.

I have to thank Marian H. at Classics Considered for recommending this most remarkable book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AN ICELAND FISHERMAN

Pierre Loti (1850-1923)

Yann Gaos and Sylvestre Moan are cousins aboard the fishing boat Marie, engaged in the pursuit of a school of cod somewhere near the south end of Iceland.  We visit them and three of their co-workers sealed up in the hold of the vessel, the fire warming them and bottles of wine making their rounds.  They are on a short respite from their normal occupations, which are described as line fishing:  numerous hooks on a single line per man.  The fish are detached one after another, filleted, and salted before being stacked in barrels.

A major storm arrives, and the boat is driven before the wind, toward Norway.  The ship weathers the storm, limits out its catch, and starts on the return journey to Brittany.  Once there, celebrations and parties are the rule;  at one, Yann meets Gaud, a local upper-class girl.  They fall in love, but due to class traditions, they cannot associate with each other.  The winter passes, Yann stays away from Gaud, and soon another fishing season begins at the end of March.

Sylvestre has been drafted into the army and shipped to the orient.  He writes home to his beloved Grandmother about his experiences for several months, but the letters cease and it is subsequently revealed that he has fallen from the bullet of an Asian rebel.  Meanwhile, Gaud’s father has died and she discovers that he lost all his money gambling, so she moves in with Grandmother and supports them by her sewing expertise.  Yann, sailing on the Marie near Iceland, has a epiphanic episode while staring at the infinite horizon, and recognizes that he is married to the sea.

Several years pass.  Gaud, deeply in love with Yann, suffers because of his neglect of her, but consoles herself with her duties as a seamstress.  Yann takes to drink and chasing girls, trying to evade his feelings for Gaud, and doing his best to forget his love for her.

One day, returning from the market, Yvonne the Grandmother is attacked by several boys who are tormenting a cat.  She is rescued by Yann, just happening to pass by, and escorted home where he sees Gaud.  She proposes to him and he accepts.  They are married and discover their renewed love for each other.  Soon fishing season approaches and Yann must leave on a newly constructed ship (the Marie was wrecked in a storm).  Gaud watches from a cliff as the fleet disappears in the west, wondering if her beloved will return.  As does the reader (spoiler alert).

The fishermen begin arriving at the end of August, the boats appearing on the horizon one at a time.  Gaud waits and waits…  Finally they’ve all gotten back, all except the one Yann was on.  And it never returns.

Loti’s reputation was based principally on his descriptive powers:  his imaginative and evocative impressions of the ocean in its various moods is remarkable and unprecedented in my experience, anyway.  The last scenes from the movie, “The Perfect Storm” kept coming to mind, with the primitive fishing vessel struggling to climb one of those 100′ high rollers.  In some ways, this is an out-of-date book, featuring emotional description as well as physical portrayals.  It seemed quite poetical, overall.  It was one of those novels that somehow are enjoyed more in remembrance than in actual perusal.  I can’t say i disliked it, but in spite of it’s powerful poetical impact, it was not one of the best books i’ve read.  It’s not very long, though, so might be worth a bit of investigation.

The painting is of Loti, by Henri Rousseau, one of the post-impressionists.  You might recall his jungle pictures of tigers and lions devouring other animals and one unfortunate native.

THE SUNNY SIDE

A. A. Milne (1882-1956)

The author of the well-known Winnie-the-Pooh stories and “The Red House Mystery”, Milne also was contributor for many years to Punch magazine and the inventor of a myriad humorous tales and poems.  This book is a collection of the latter categories.  A few brief descriptions follow:

The Legend of Hi-You, in which a princess marries a pig who is the incarnation of the Prince of Milvania…

Enter Bingo:  the perfectly logical relationship between a teddy bear and a province located in Japan is examined…

The Way Down:  what does a business card sound like when dropped into an elevator shaft from the fifth floor?

The Problem of Life:  how to stage a limpet race while speculating about philosophers on Mars…

A Warm Half Hour:  why, when sent to the market for a bucket of ice, the author returned with a lobster.

The Obvious:  the perils of engraving loving messages on the insides of wedding rings.

A Poetry Recital;  enjoying the versifications of Lord Poldoodle and Mrs. Herrick…

Toby:  introducing a horse with a penchant for biting Colonels and how this led to the avoidance of bicycles.

The Complete Dramatist:  how to write a successful play in spite of Shakespeare and Sheridan

The Arrival of Blackman’s Warbler:  how to become an expert authority on avian populations without actually knowing anything.

A Few Tricks for Christmas:  entertaining an audience with adroit prestidigitation…

The Perils of Reviewing:  establishing one’s literary expertise in spite of not knowing French.

To conclude:                            A Song for the Summer

Is it raining?  Never mind –

Think how much the birdies love it!

See them in their dozens drawn,

Dancing, to the croquet lawn –

Could our little friends have dined

If there’d been no worms above it?

Is it murky? What of that,

If the Owls are fairly perky?

Just imagine you were one –

Wouldn’t you detest the sun?

I’m pretending i’m a Bat,

And I know i like it murky.

There’s a sort of class of British humorists including Wodehouse, Milne, Stephen Potter, and possibly C. Northcote Parkinson and more that arose during and after the first World War.  Their humor can be biting but is commonly extremely funny.  Milne’s tales are best when narrated, at least that was the reaction of Mrs. M…

 

MASANIELLO

Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870)

Isabella, daughter of the Duke of Arcos, is out enjoying a sunny day with her maid, Pedrilla.  They are intending to rent a boat and sail to the Caprian Isles to eat oranges.  Reaching the beach, they enter into conversation with Tommaso Aniello, a local boatman, and his sister, Jeanne.  The four come to terms and spend a delightful day frolicking on the islands and devouring fruit.  On the way back, a storm arises and Isabella, overcome with fright, throws herself into Masaniello’s arms.  They fall in love.  Back on shore, Jeanne laments that Pietro, her boyfriend, has gotten in trouble with the authorities for fomenting riots and unrest, the cause of which is the excess and unreasonable taxation imposed by the Duke.  Pietro is wounded and on the run from the law.  Jeanne loves Pietro and the two slip out of the city to visit the monk, Dom Francisco, a man of learning and familiar with medicines.  Meanwhile the law has burned down their house, and seized Masaniello’s house and boat, but Isabella buys them back.

Masaniello decides to lead a rebellion and leaves the city (Naples) to search for the leader of the local group of banditti, Corcelli, to enlist him in his revolting plans (haha).  Accosted by lookouts, Masaniello and Francisco are delivered more or less intact into the catacombs underlying Mt. Vesuvius, the home turf of the outlaw clan.  Corcelli agrees to help in the revolt, but wants to plunder the city in the aftermath.  Masaniello agrees to let him do it for one hour, just in order to obtain his help.  Francisco mutters about “greedy despoilers, who grow fat on your substance and drink your tears”.

In the meantime, Don Fernandez with a flotilla of galleons has arrived with a load of gold for Duke Arcos.  Masaniello and Pietro would like to capture the ships and appropriate the gold.  A cohort of Masaniello’s, Gennero, fosters a plan to capture the ship(s).  He and his motley crew hide under a load of hay destined for the flagship, and jump aboard when their boat arrives.  There’s a battle royal which the bandits win, but unbeknownst to them, the captain before surrendering has ignited a fuse leading to the powder room.  Gennero discovers this just in time to leap off the ship with some of his compatriots, but the ship’s company together with the gold and the captain is scattered to the four winds by an enormous explosion.

Back in Naples, Masaniello has aroused the people to the peak of irascibility, and, aided by Corcelli and Gennaro and their adherents, they lay siege to the palace of Duke Arcos.  After sallies from the palace and inroads from the populace, the breastworks are overtopped and the Duke and his minions are captured.  The Duke, wily and untrustworthy agrees to all of Masaniello’s demands, and even to the marriage between his daughter and the leader of the rebellion.  The Duke leaves the palace but makes a last stand in the tower of Castel-Nuovo.  Another siege ensues and only after two more weeks is this edifice taken through the tact and diplomacy of Dom Francisco, who convinces the Duke to surrender.  On the point of leaving, the Duke causes a massive burst of grapeshot to be fired at the opposing crowd, but the fatal missiles pass safely overhead.  Soon after this, he poisons Masaniello just before his wedding, who is only saved by the timely interference by Dom Francisco, who appears with the antidote at the last moment.

Meanwhile, Corcelli, being frustrated in his plan to loot the city, has kidnapped Isabella and Jeanne and demands 60,000 ducats to release them.  They are freed after Masaniello raids the palace coffers and commandeers the cash to give to Corcelli.  With all the problems apparently solved, the wedding finally takes place and the Duke and his entourage are allowed to depart Naples and Masaniello and Isabella are installed as rulers of the city and live happily ever after.

Well, no…  Tommaso Aniello was a real figure and the Napolese rebellion against their cruel Spanish overlords did actually occur in 1647, but the final resolution of the affair was not quite as cheery as Dumas indicates.  But Dumas, being the master of poetic inspiration as he was, tastefully warped the ending into the happy denoument that he favored.  And that would avoid disappointing his readership.  As in his many other works, Dumas’ prose is readable, exciting and replete with frenetic activity.  Fun to read, and recommended…

TALES OF THE LONGBOW

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

In somewhat dated English slang, drawing the longbow indicates stretching the truth.  The following series of tales utilizes that reference, describing the adventures of several individually-minded characters and their dealings with society and the government.

 

1)   The Unpresentable Appearance of Colonel Crane:

We’re introduced to the Colonel, a quiet resident of a quiet English village, staid, undisturbed, and tranquil.  Crane lives in a modest home with a vegetable garden tended by an associate, a former military colleague.  One morning, before attending church, the two held a brief conversation concerning early tomatoes, when the Colonel snatched off his hat, jammed it onto the head of a scarecrow and beat it several times with his cane.  He obtained a large cabbage and hollowed it out with his pocket knife and stuck it on his head, then strolled down to the clerestory.  The townspeople he passed greeted him a little queerly, but without loud outcry or comment.  Emboldened by the calm reaction to his chosen item of attire, he proffered marriage to his next door neighbor and was accepted.

2) The Improbable Success of Mister Owen Hood:

We see Mr. Hood quietly fishing on an island in the upper Thames river.  On the opposite bank, a fair maiden appears, pale and fairy-like with a bouquet of blue irises.  She accidentally drops the flowers into the water and Owen jumps in, swims across, retrieves them and gives them back to her.  Later, Hood, having fallen in love with Elizabeth Seymour, notes that her father’s estate has been sold to Dr. Hunter, who in turn has  constructed a factory on the site at the request of his friend, Low.  Once in operation, the industrial edifice is observed pouring dark streams of an unknown substance into the river and emitting noxious clouds of irritating smoke.  Shortly afterwards, Hunter is running for Parliament;  carried away by his apparent enthusiasm, Hood organizes a torch parade the night before elections.  The processional marches down to the river, where Hood throws his torch in and the water immediately catches fire.

3)  The Unobtrusive Traffic of Captain Pierce:

Colonel Crane and Mr. Hood, who has married Elizabeth Seymour, are enjoying an English breakfast of bacon and eggs in a scenic local pub.  During a conversation the landlord bemoans the fact that bacon will no longer be locally available, as the county officers have outlawed pigs as being germ carriers.  Enter Norman Oates, an American pork magnate who has finagled the contract for selling American bacon to the local inn-keepers.  Political machinations are in the process of being condemned by the three friends, when they spot a strange apparition approaching in the sky.  Upon closer examination, they see that a Zeppelin decorated like a pig is floating in from the west coast.  Soon pinkish objects are ejected and can be seen drifting down, suspended beneath parachutes.  They are pigs.  Some time later, after the animals have been captured and penned, Captain Pierce, former military pilot, arrives hand in hand with the innkeepers’s daughter.  Due to the Captain’s graphic and heroic efforts, Oates’s underhanded conspiracy is foiled.

4)  The Elusive Companion of Parson White:

Wilding White is a licensed and accredited parson assigned to a small district in the west country.  His house is perched on the boundary of the local Baron, who is intent on driving White from his house.  Each time the domicile is attacked, White moves it to a new site.  The three friends, Crane, Hood, and Pierce, try to visit him one day, and, walking over the moor, spot his house in the distance.  But the closer they get, the farther away the abode seems to be.  They give up.  The next day, a White Elephant sale is in process at the local parsonage, and  White arrives, riding a white elephant.

5)  The Exclusive Luxury of Enoch Oates:

This episode details the events leading up to the formation of the Longbow League, the membership including the above persons and in addition Enoch Oates.  There’s a certain amount of railing against corporate practices and how they ruin the countries and societies that they are imposed upon, but the distinctive tale of this chapter is the story of how Mr. Oates made his millions by creating silk purses from pig’s ears.

6)  The Unthinkable Theory of Professor Green:

Out for a walk one day, the four members of the Longbow League espy a large cannon jutting out from the window of a small farmhouse.  Upon closer examination, the gun turns into a telescope.  Professor Green, noted astronomer, is living a retired existence because his theory of the universe has been derided by official academia.  He believes that what we see is the opposite of what it actually is, that we are living on the inside of a sphere instead of the outside of one.  Joining the others in their walk, “every now and then he looked at the ground and frowned as if he did not like it”.  Captain Pierce engages to keep the Professor out of the reach of the men in white coats by flying him around from place to place in his airplane.

7)  The Unprecedented Architecture of Commander Blair:

Enoch Oates has donated his vast territorial holdings to the farmers who occupy the land. The latest government, including the previous plotters, Low and Hunter, has devised a plan to nationalize the whole country.  Oakes addresses the evil-doers, mentioning that in the States, they would be lynched for trying it.  The idea is that large land-owners would be paid for their holdings and then reimbursed for taking care of them.  Commander Blair registers his disapproval by constructing a castle-shaped balloon and distributing leaflets country-wide, claiming that if the government was going to acquire the land, he was going to  claim the air, as no else had put in a bid for it.

8)  The Ultimate Ultimatum of the League of the Longbow:

War is started between the agrarian community and the manufacturers, partly because one of the latter tried to bribe the workers in a munitions plant to work for less recompense by giving them a champagne party with champagne bottles filled with water.  Commander Blair and his cronies hole up in the Welsh mountains where they invent various and original devices for defeating the standard ground forces of the enemy.  Many of them involve the creation of various sorts of balloon.  But the war is finally won during a battle against the parliamentary army by utilizing the whole of a forest as catapults:  each tree is bent over, loaded with rocks, garbage, and dirt and it’s all flung at their opponents at once.  The country returns to “three acres and a cow”, a phrase that conveys Chesterton’s feelings about land-use.

 

This was a very witty and funny book.  Of course it reeks with Chesterton’s opinions and his outlook on social and philosophical issues, but he’s such a wonderful writer that the perusal thereof is a joy and a delight.  Highly recommended if you can find a copy…

A RAW YOUTH

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881);  trans. Constance Garnett

Arkady Dolgoruky was the illegitimate son of a wealthy Russian land owner named Aleksei Versilov.  His mother was married to Makar Dolgoruky, a serf on the estate, and a husband much older than his wife.  Versilov traveled a lot and, taking advantage of the social injustice prevailing at the time, took Sofia with him.  Arkady was left at home and only saw his biological father once, at the age of ten, before he was sent to an academy in Moscow.  After graduating from school, he moved to St. Petersburg at the behest of Versilov, who, subsequent to suffering financial losses, wanted his son present partly because of guilt and partly because Sofia wanted to see her son again.

Arkady is soon embroiled in sundry social entanglements which, as he is more or less ignorant of the complexities of personal relationships, cause him a lot of soul-searching and misery.  He’s quiet and shy, and easily embarrassed, and easily stumbles into pitfalls that more his sophisticated associates have learned to veer away from.  Among these are  the mishandling of relationships between his father and his various former and current lovers, allowing himself to be entrapped into excess gambling, leaping to conclusions based on insufficient evidence, and, most disastrously, mishandling private letters that reveal intimate details concerning his father, his cousins and uncles. He feels ashamed a lot, but clings to his “idea”, an ambition that arose during his unhappy school years having to do with asceticism and the accumulation of vast amounts of wealth in emulation of the Rothschilds.

One of his schoolmates, Lambert, a bully and criminal, learns about a letter telling the story about several unsavory incidents in Versilov’s past and he tries to inveigle Arkady into a blackmail plot for 30 thousand roubles.  Various incidents occur, including a brief stint in jail, a fall off a high cement wall, fisticuffs among a few of the more brutal characters, wailing and bemoaning of diverse fates, actual and feared, and the overconsumption of champagne and associated beverages.  In addition, Arkady wants to challenge one of Versilov’s enemies to a duel, only discovering at a later date that neither of the involved parties was very intent upon shooting the other.  At an earlier date, another letter had been the source of trouble between several cousins.  One of them wanted to marry the father of the other one, apparently for mercenary purposes although the accusation was vehemently denied.  The two letters become somewhat conflated, causing a riot of confused interactions, ending up with a climactic meeting between Lambert and Katerina Nikolaevna, the one demanding roubles from the other.  Versilov dashes in, grabs the pistol out of Lambert’s hand and hits him over the head with it, then shoots himself in the shoulder while struggling with Arkady, the old Prince Sokolovsky is rescued by Arkady’s half-brother, and Lambert runs off.

There are so many plot twists and developments in this book that the above just touches a couple of the events.  There are about twenty five characters to keep track of and I confess I lost my way several times.  But the main features are the psychology of Arkady and how he deals with the nonsensical world around him, and how he ultimately is able to grasp a few branches extending out over the raging river of the deranged community that surrounds him.  Supposedly, this, as well as being one of the last novels Dostoevsky wrote, was a fairly autobiographical description of his adolescence.  It has a certain ambiance of reality about it even though it seems fantastical:  the desperate search for money and the extreme behaviors that arise from the same are not too different, i intuit from following the news, than what happens in urban life today.  Mankind is and has been always about the same, apparently.

I read a lot of Dostoevsky when i was young, all of them translations by Constance Garnett.  She lost her parents at a young age and married Edward Garnett, the son of Richard Garnett who was the Keeper of Printed Materials at the British Library.  Edward was a publisher and their son David was an author and a biologist.  Ms. Garnett’s translations are not perfect, but they are very readable and comprehensible.  I’ve tried a couple of modern versions, but was not very impressed with them;  a bit too colloquial, maybe…  If i was starting this novel again, i’d make a family tree before i began, inserting the names and their relationships to each other as they appeared;  that would have prevented a lot of head-scratching…