Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-1944)

Saint-Exupery was a son of an impoverished upper class French family, forced at a relatively early age to support his relations by accepting a series of more-or-less menial jobs.  Shortly after the first world war, he joined the French Army, became interested in airplanes and was able to transfer to the Air Force, where he soon qualified as a pilot.  After crashing a number of times he left the service and entered into a career with the mail service in 1926, carrying the mail from Toulouse to Dakar.

This book describes some of his adventures dealing with natives and finicky airplanes in the Sahara and other places.  Usually flying at night, it was sometimes difficult to tell the difference between landing lights and stars.  He often felt as if he was trapped in a tin box with a couple of dials to look at, while being flung through the air to an unknown and merely probable destination.  Sometimes it seemed as if he was stuck in one spot, with the wind screaming past like a malevolent demon.  Once, during a torrential downpour, he tried to fly under the storm, only to encounter numerous water spouts connecting the clouds and the earth and was forced to dodge between them while only several hundred feet above the ground.  More than once he force-landed his craft because of mechanical failures, and was goaded into developing his philosophical ideas as a result of lying on his back and staring at the stars.   These notions concerned the state of consciousness and the meaning or lack of meaning thereof;  Exupery came to a sort of realization about the impermanence and transience of life, and how chance played such a large role in his occupation as a pilot.

Flying east over the desert just south of the Mediterranean Sea, he and a co-pilot, while attempting a record run from Europe to Saigon,  survived a crash at 170 miles an hour onto a convenient mesa only because the surface was covered with small, round pebbles which acted as a kind of conveyor belt which converted their vertical momentum into horizontal motion as they slid off the mountain into a gulch, destroying the airplane.
According to Exupery, they weren’t lost, they just didn’t have a very good idea of where they were.  They wandered around for miles looking for a village, but finally started walking north-east, where they estimated Cairo might be.  It was only when they’d been without water for two days that they were rescued by an itinerant Bedouin.  Exupery thought that he and the co-pilot had covered about 250 miles altogether, with only one quart of liquid for the two of them.

In a later period, having been transferred to South America, Exupery, flying solo, was caught in a windstorm and blown out to sea for 150 miles.  After fighting the controls for and hour and a half, he was able to maneuver the plane to one side and return to the coast.  Upon landing he discovered that the batteries had been blown through the plane’s roof and that the control cables were almost worn through.  On another occasion, he was forced down on a beach due to a broken connecting rod;  the craft plowed through two sand dunes and ripped off its wheels before coming to a halt.  He was rescued by another pilot, but, temporarily left behind due to weight considerations, found himself alone in a sea of sand with only a curious herd of gazelles for company.

Exupery’s adventures and realizations continued into the second World War, until he was listed as missing after failing to return from a flight over the Mediterranean.  His books are thought-provoking and informative about the early age of flight and the hazards associated with its development.  And the philosophical explorations are intriguing as well, but the main interest lies in the author’s poetical descriptions of the land as seen from the sky, and the sky as seen from the cockpit.  He was a percipient observer, and had a unique and unconventional gift for seeing and describing the world around him.  He’s written other works;  maybe i’ll get a chance to investigate his universe further.




Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)

Mr. Trollope loved to travel and write books about his experiences.  In 1861 he was curious about America, the new country, and how the occupants were dealing with the Civil War.  He and Mrs. T crossed the Atlantic in one of the new Cunard liners and landed in Boston after a short stop in Halifax.  They were met by several friends “that he never knew before”, and wined and dined at several hostelries.  The talk was mostly of politics and the war.  Many of the people they conversed with were in favor of sending the Southern Slaves back to Africa.  Anthony thought that secession would probably occur, and the South would form an independent country, rather equivalent to those states in Europe that had borders in common.  But most of his hosts declared that America would never be divided, and that it was likely that it would expand to occupy the whole continent.

The Trollopes were tormented by mosquitos in Boston, so they took the train to Newport.    They had rather a lonely time of it there, as they were ensconced in a large hotel that had only 25 guests registered, instead of the 66o it had been designed for.  Anthony was also upset because he couldn’t go swimming in the ocean as it was inaccessible from their location.  He loved swimming nude, especially in salt water.  One of the fellow residents he talked to raved about “contractors robbing the army and incompetent generals” wasting the substance of the state.

At some point Mrs. Trollope returned to England and Anthony went on by himself.  The next visit was to Portland, Maine, where T admired the straight streets and the good food, but complained of too much sand on the roads.  He soon boarded the Grand Trunk Railway and traveled west over the White mountains, admiring the fall colors as he went.  At one stop, he rented a pony and rode to the top of Mt. Washington.  Continuing on to Montreal, he noted that Canada seemed less prosperous than America, and that if they had a king, they would be happier and better off.  Stopping in Quebec he deplored the state of the city streets, consisting of either mud or wooden boards with large holes worn in them.  The same was true in Montreal.

Back aboard the train, they passed lovely Massawhippi lake on the way to Ottawa, currently under construction as the intended national capitol city.  He observed that some of the “lower class” members seemed quite rude, but later speculated that this behavior was related to the citizenry’s democratic ideas, showing in an obvious way that equality was the possession of all the people, not just the upper classes.  Stepping off the train at an unspecified station, one of the porters gave him a big smile and tossed his portable desk about seven feet so that it shattered on some rocks.  Irate at first, Trollope ascribed the action as merely a demonstration of the perpetrator’s sense of parity and tried to ignore it.

Toronto had a rather square appearance:  the streets were built at right angles and parallel to each other.  Trollope was troubled by this:  he preferred the style of English villages, with winding lanes and unregulated housing dispositions.  At Niagara Falls, he took a ferry to Goat Island and sat for a long time at the end of it, entranced by the roaring waters and the huge volume of water rushing by.  He thought the Falls the most glorious spectacle on earth.

He traveled by ship to Detroit and was awed by the American penchant for inventing labor-saving devices.  The hot and cold water available in the hotels was remarkable, except that the hot water faucet was so hot he couldn’t turn it off.  Arriving in Milwaukie, he thought it was much more civilized than Detroit.  The population was mostly German and Irish, and they appeared industrious and energetic in exemplifying “frontier mind”:  an attitude of endless ambition and greed for money.  He saw that as the railroads expanded, they opened up more land for immigrants, who avidly took advantage of the increasing availability of opportunities for farming and ranching.  It was quite common for a family to work up a patch of land, with cabin and basic improvements, only to abandon the place and move further west, where the prospect of new horizons drew them with a sort of instinctive magnetism.

Moving on to Dubuque and St. Paul, he commented that westerners didn’t talk, they just chewed tobacco.  He thought the scenery on the upper Mississippi river unparalleled with it’s rolling hills interspersed with pleasant tree-clad valleys.  But he also learned that the Indians, having discovered that the War was draining the local resources and men, used the opportunity to raid and plunder unprotected homesteads and to ambush travelers and supply trains.  But he thought there was a sort of cosmic justice in this, as the local residents were habitually much involved in cheating and swindling each other, as well as the Indians.

Passing through Dixon, Illinois, corn processing complex for the area, he arrived in Chicago, city of “big shoulders” (Sandburg) which even then was the major meat processing center for the area, and continued on to Cleveland.  Here he found decorative tree lined streets and saw the penchant possessed by the city fathers for erecting pretentious architectural novelties:  colonnades, columns, and classical facades.  After Buffalo (grain elevators) he came to West Point, the military school.  He wrote quite a bit about the school, it’s cadets, the requirements to graduate, and the daily grind of the students, which seemed to him inhuman and too draconian for any normal person to keep up with.

Back in New York and with time to rest, Trollope reflected on his experiences thus far and came to some convictions:  the Americans he had seen were pale, skinny, and apparently under-nourished, all of which he attributed to the universal system of heating their house and hotels with hot water pipes.  He had suffered from over-heated rooms during the entire trip and concluded that many of the illnesses and diseases afflicting the inhabitants would be relieved if they’d just turn down the heat.  He thought the chief glory of New York was Central Park.  He could see that although there was nothing much there at present, in the future it would be an immeasurably pleasurable resource and comfort for the residents.  But T was more than a bit irate at the condition and quality of the commuting vehicles.  Trams and horse-drawn carriages were dirty and never on time, the whole industry being in the greedy hands of certain entrepreneurs who ignored the public and grabbed the money.

The next leg of his expedition was through Philadelphia, Cambridge, Lowell, and, finally, Baltimore.  The latter city was Anthony’s favorite of all he’d seen.  It had a sort of English quality and he felt quite at home there.  There were fox hunts and they ate terrapin and canvasback duck.  Baltimore was a southern city, but held the nation’s capitol, and so suffered the presence of Northern troops.  Families were split up and martial law was introduced, to the misfortune of the citizens, who saw their city groan under the iron heel of incompetent generals.  One of them gloated about having enough cannon to level the entire municipality, and was only restrained with difficulty from doing so.

Trollope moved on to Washington DC.  He noted that the whole place was built on a swamp with knee deep mud serving for streets.  Fever and ague were common.  He saw an equestrian statue of General Washington that lurched to one side and the rider seemed drunk.  T did visit Mt. Vernon, which he described as a rather moderate dwelling, undistinguished by any outstanding features.  He admired the Capitol building, lauding its appropriateness for political wrangling, but decried the presence of “huge daubs” decorating the walls:  paintings of assorted politicos.

He toured through Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Lexington, Frankfort, St. Louis and Cairo;  the latter he described as “the most wretched town in America”, partly because he was called at 3:30 AM to catch a train and had to carry his own luggage through the mud and the dark.  After investigating Louisville and Baltimore again, he returned to Boston at last , where he spent a few final days in the company of those who he opined were the most civilized in the country.  He added a list of the talented denizens, including Hawthorne, Melville, and many others.  A few days later he made his way to New York, complaining of the piles of snow inhibiting he entrance to the ferry terminal which he had to forge through to get to his Cunard liner.  Then he sailed, gratefully, one has the feeling, to Liverpool.

I should state that although this volume was a shortened version of the original, it still seemed like a cohesive production.  Robert Mason was the editor and Penguin was the publisher.  I think they did a good job, although it would be entertaining to peruse the original version sometime.  This book was Trollope to a T, with his Tory outlook and prejudices on full view.  Many of his opinions have been belied by the passing years, but Trollope is one of those writers who proffer a subliminal sense of comfort and reliability.  I enjoyed it for the most part, except when he would occasionally rant on about a pet theory or supposition.


George Moore (1852-1933)

Born in a well-to-do Irish family, George early displayed the characteristics which were to govern his later behavior.  Sent away to school, he refused to study in spite of heartfelt persuasion on the part of his teachers;  changing schools made no difference:  George did what he wanted and nothing else.  For the most part this involved reading novels and exercising his mania for horses to the limit of his father’s tolerance.  He was expelled from his last institution at the age of sixteen and subsequently persuaded his parents to permit him to study art in London.  His father died when he was eighteen, leaving him sufficiently well endowed to follow his interests.  He immediately moved to Paris, even though he had no knowledge of the French language.  He made friends and established himself as a habitue of Parisian cafe society, wining and dining with like-minded, artistic souls while attending a series of art studios in pursuit of his ambition to achieve the recognition he felt was due to his painting talent.

In fairly short order, however, he came to understand that his abilities in art were insufficient to provide him with the applause he craved so he began writing poetry and short stories.  He also started to devour philosophical and literary works by Dickens, Kant, Spinoza, and others.  As he learned more, he expanded his associations to include a certain M. Duval, who enlisted his assistance in writing plays.  Duval had collaborated in over sixty produced dramatic works, and tried to interest George in following the same path.  The latter wrote a three-act play and tried unsuccessfully to have it staged in London, but he was more interested in poetry and the works of nascent Impressionistic artists such as Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Gautier and Mallarme.

He became enamored of the works of Hugo and Zola, but he, in due course, characterized the books of the latter as “only the simple crude statements of a man of powerful mind, but singularly narrow vision”.  Pascal, he thought “infinitely childish”.  Balzac was a giant, covering the gamut of human experience with his all-encompassing conceptions.  George maintained that Balzac was superior to Shakspeare in his universal understanding of the human condition.

His opinions on English writers were just as outspoken:  Meredith wrote “crackjaw sentences, empty and unpleasant in the mouth as sterile nuts”;  W.D. Howells was vulgar and domestic;  Henry James was unreadable (Diane of the Crossways – “when she speaks the utterances are grotesque”);  Stevenson “never wrote a book”(meaning a masterpiece, i guess);  but Walter Pater’s “Marius the Epicurean” was “profound and musical”.  Apparently his favorite author was Joris-Karl Huysmans, a French exponent of Naturalism, and a member of the decadent movement.

Trouble in Ireland required George’s presence, so he left France and spent some time dealing with the unsettled miners and farmers on his Irish estates.  Back in Paris he realized that he had in some respects outgrown his life in the haute monde swirl, so he sold his apartment along with his pet python and canaries and moved to London.  He had forgotten the English language and had to study a lot to regain his command of it, but once he did he began successfully selling articles and essays to the newspapers.

It’s difficult to overstress George’s reactionary convictions.  He seemed to believe that art derived from the dark side of human nature as a sort of antiphonal reaction to evil;  that truth could only be evidenced in relation to its sinister opposite.  Libraries should be abolished, he said, claiming they encouraged censorship.   He continued living in London, writing and publishing poetry and short works and eventually produced a number of novels, of which “Esther Waters” is the best known.  It was patterned after the life of the maid-of-all-work in his boarding house, who lived a life of unremitting toil, laboring sixteen hours a day for skeleton wages.

George moved back to Ireland in his later years, continuing his associations with artists and art.  One of his plays was produced, “The Bending of the Bough”, to moderate acclaim. and he collaborated in other productions.  Several volumes of poetry were published.  He knew Yeats and quarreled with him, resulting in a move back to London, where he lived the rest of his life.

Describing Moore as an effete intellectual would be short of an accurate representation.  My impression is that he was the possessor of a certain amount of talent, but imagined himself as greater than he was.  To quote a familiar expression, he was a classic example of one who was “a genius in his own mind”.  I’ve read Esther Waters and while it was okay, i didn’t think it was any where near the standard of those writers he denigrated.  I wouldn’t exactly declare his work as a waste of space, as he remains an example of a certain sort of figure in literary history, but i’m not too interested in reading any more of his work.

I should note that this book was written when George was in his thirties.  The later particulars of his life come from Wikipedia.


William McFee (1881-1966)

The Gooderich family has problems.  Mr. Gooderich is a mechanic at a factory in Wantage, near London.  Being lonely, he proposes to Mary Higgs, a simple seamstress who’s been led astray by Mr. Royce, Junior.  She, having little recourse, accepts.  Minnie is born six months later and after a quiet childhood, finds work as a retoucher in a local print shop.  But an American concern buys the business and Minnie moves to London in search of work.  She becomes involved with Mrs. Wilfley, an industrious lady who survives by advertising cure-all medicines in the London papers.  Anthony Gilfillan, another advertising designer and promoter, interests Minnie in his prospects and they soon become an item.  She likes being a mistress, and spends the next few years moving from one boy-friend to another.  Eventually she marries a sea captain and renews her association with Mrs. Wilfley, writing blurbs for patent medicines for the newspapers.

Bert Gooderich has no head for learning and is fed up with school.  He has a native talent for leading others, though, as is evidenced by his successful campaigns against local gangs of children, in the ongoing battles between adjoining neighborhoods.  His prowess is noted by a retired colonel who supplies Bert with an introductory letter to the local militia.  Enlisting in the army upon leaving school, he’s killed in the Boer war.

Hannibal is the youngest child, a dreamy, loosely connected waif who lives in “an illimitable ocean of unconscious Being in which he and all things else swim with half blind staring eyes”…  Returning from fishing with his best friend Hiram, he discovers his father drowned in the local creek.  Mr. Gooderich had been oppressed by his stagnant work prospects and, having overly indulged himself at a nearby pub, leaned against a failing bulwark which gave way, precipitating him into the water.

Mary and her remaining son move to London where she works as a cleaning lady for an uncle.  Hannibal gets into trouble, stealing iron from a blacksmith, but is rescued and provided with a job in a tobacco shop owned by said uncle.  The shop is operated by Amy, the daughter of uncle Brown, and Hannibal serves time there, reluctantly, finding solace in a nearby bookstore and meeting the old, fusty bookseller, Mr. Brober, who recommends books.  Han reads “An Iceland Fisherman” and “Toilers of the Sea”.  Later he meets a sailor who tells him of a job-opening in a steamship about to sail for the East Indies.  Han visits the ship and takes the job.  He’s successful, working hard in the black gang (coal heavers and oilers below deck), and seems to have found his place in life.  After several years of eventful voyaging, including shipwreck and fire below decks, he returns to England to marry a girl he had met on a previous voyage.  He’s not well, having picked up a serious disease in Japan.  Nell, his wife, doses him with a patent medicine (one which his sister Minnie had written the ad for);  he eventually dies, but not before the local doctor tells her that she’s been  (spoiler ahead) providing Han with poison in a bottle, which consists of mercury blended with acids of various sorts and contains lots of sugar to disguise the flavor.  Thus, McFee ties together the threads of consequence, connecting Mary’s illegitimacy, Minnie’s later profligacy, and Han’s inability to parse meaning from the ongoing events which make up his life, concluding with his own death as a result.

By Casuals, McFee indicates not only itinerant travelers on the ocean, but wanderers in the sea of human reality as well.  And as a term referring to the insect world, sometimes. McFee is master of prose, his scenic descriptions and presentations of action and behavior readily evoking images in the mind’s eye.  He wrote over thirty books in his lifetime.  And, having served at sea for over thirty years as Chief Engineer for various shipping firms, he famliar with the particulars of marine engines down to the last nut and bolt.  His references to some of the operations below decks left me (even though I worked as a mechanic in my youth) mystified.  But he has the gift of enthralling readers in spite of the latter diversions.  The main failing in this book, i thought, was in his plotting.  Technically, events followed each other in a logical manner, but the reader’s attention was often distracted by side issues and seemingly unrelated occurrences.  Hannibal was apparently the protagonist, but only after 350 pages had elapsed did he really come to life, with his maturing experiences as represented aboard ship.  Here are some citations i liked:  “Like many inarticulate souls, he was compelled to falsify his emotions by his expression of them”, and “One of the priceless advantages of possessing a small mind is the power to train it upon any problem in a flash”.  While shoveling coal, Han “saw the world in fugitive peeps”.  McFee is an interesting and occasionally scintillating author;  i’ve read some of his other books and will probably read more at some point.



SARAH FIELDING (1710-1758)

After their father died, Daniel, David’s well-beloved brother, forged a new will and left David with 500 lbs, while he appropriated the rest:  11,000.  Their mother was pensioned off with 60 a year.  Daniel made life unpleasant by convincing the servants that it was all David’s fault.  So he walked away, intending to visit his uncle.  Two of Daniel’s servants, John and Peggy, had witnessed the false will, but the uncle got them to confess and thereby retrieved 10,000 lbs. for David.  The latter decides to search for a true friend and perambulates about London having various adventures that discourage him in his inquiries.

He rooms for a while with a jeweler, Mr. Johnson, and soon falls for his youngest daughter but she is greedy and plots with an old ugly Jewish person to rob David.  The latter overhears the plot and, disgusted, leaves.  The pair contract spotted fever and die.  Changing boarding houses every week or so, David encounters the good, the bad and the ugly and is repelled by selfishness, egoistic behavior, stupidity, greed and delusional expectations on the parts of the inhabitants he meets.

Mr. Orgueil (“pride”, in French) offers a respite from wandering for a while, but David becomes depressed with his self-involvement and egoism and leaves, but not until he has an opportunity to visit the playhouse, where he is repelled by the behavior of the audience.  It’s common practice for the fourth and fifth acts of any drama to be interrupted by howls and screams and antic behaviors.  These are econo/political actions intended to obliterate the work of a given playwright, or to curry favor with one critic or another.

Mr. Spatter introduces David into the world of whist and “Conversaziones”.  Gaming is big business in the high society of the time, occasioning the loss or gain of large amounts of money.  High teas are opportunities for socialites to indulge in”ignorant cackle”.  Mr. Varnish shows David that Spatter is a vengeful person and invites him to move into his house.

While living with Varnish, he meets Cynthia, the product of a hypocritical family;  when the father dies, she’s left penniless so she takes a position with a rich heiress and they tour Europe.  Cynthia becomes a virtual slave, working her fingers to the bone and not getting paid for it.  She escapes and David helps her find refuge with a cousin in the country outside of London.  He leaves Varnish’s house due to the latter’s lack of compassion for the human condition and decides to investigate the lower classes, since the upper ones seem so cold blooded and cruel.

He meets Camilla and Valentine, starving in an attic, and the three, having much in common, move into an apartment together.  Their story involves a scheming step-mother, Livia,  and her evil plots to turn the father against the children and thus acquire all his money.  They suffer greatly until rescued by David.

Meanwhile Cynthia’s cousin dies and she’s left with 30 lbs.  She takes coach to London together with three fellow travelers:  a social butterfly, a cleric, and an atheist.  The coach rolls over and the atheist breaks a leg.  The cleric offers her marriage and she becomes disgusted and decides never to talk to men for the rest of her life.  But once in London, she happens to meet David again and moves in with him and Camilla and Valentine.

The four fellow-roomies meet other distressed persons, Isabelle and Dumont among others, and hear their sad stories, having mostly to do with greedy parents and lost children, featuring varying amounts and types of hypocrisy that end in death or bereavement and/or  poverty.  But ultimately, David falls in love with Camilla and Valentine falls for Cynthia and they all get married.  This is the end of the book as originally written but there’s another addendum added at a later date which is entitled “Volume the Last”.

This final section details the actions of a false friend who helps a lawyer steal all David’s money.  There’s an explosion that burns down the house inhabited by David and Camilla.  The other two have emigrated to Jamaica, where their hopes of successful farming come to naught:  Valentine dies of yellow fever and Cynthia returns in time to alleviate the poverty that David and his wife have fallen into as a result of the trickery of lawyers and local land owners.  (spoiler ahead)  David and Camilla’s children have died one by one and soon Camilla passes as well, leaving only David and Cynthia to comfort each other.  But soon David dies also, and book ends.

This could almost be termed as a picaresque novel.  It bears some similarities to Sarah’s brother’s style, especially to “Tom Jones”.  The progress of events is serial in nature, but mainly communicated through the experiences of narrators in the plot rather than through the train of circumstances that Tom himself undergoes.  It gets confusing at times, with characters appearing, disappearing, and surfacing again.  And although the presentation of universal hypocrisy in the society of the time is effective, it does get tedious after a while…  But apparently it was a very popular book at the time.  Sarah went on to write a couple more novels and a children’s book, “The Governess” which was widely accepted.  It was an interesting read in that Henry’s faint image could occasionally be discerned peeping through the interlaced textual presentation, as if approving the progression of the narrative.  Henry was a well known judge and presumably he and his sister discussed London society and it’s relation to morality and the law upon occasion…  at least that’s the feeling i got…


Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

This book is a sort of melange of anecdote, adventure, and philosophy,  and a paean to the beauty of water.  Conrad alludes to the difficulties associated with sailing in tall ships all over the world, from Australia to America and beyond.  The dangers of landfall and departure are referred to as real and nerve-wracking, what with variable winds and tides and the perilous peregrination between reefs, sandbanks and shoals.  On one of his first voyages, he managed a tricky departure from Bangkok which elicited a wry comment from the chief mate:  “You always do seem to get out of a mess somehow”.

Conrad considered sailing in wind-propelled craft an art, not a skill.  The latter term was reserved for steam ships, which required no knowledge or awareness of water or wind, just the ability to shove a motor-driven barge in a given direction.  Manning and controlling a full sweep of ship-borne canvas in storm and calm, estimating tidal forces and achieving the optimum balance between speed and safety required many years of experience and study.

Sometimes ships have, seemingly, minds of their own.  Once, when Conrad first commanded a ship, he attempted a fancy and daring approach to a mooring that was just  to leeward of a Dutch brig anchored near shore.  Because his vessel didn’t immediately answer to the helm, one of the ship’s spars accidentally poked a hole through the spanker (an aft sail ) of the intervening boat.  Embarrassing.

Even loading a cargo could result in hazardous circumstances.  When he was supervising  the lading of one of his ships, he erroneously judged the center of gravity of the cargo, which caused violent yawing and pitching all the way to Samarang.  The action was so bad that several 3″ manila lines parted just as a result of the jerking and swaying.  The crew was irate and most of them spent lots of time being sea-sick.  When they reached their destination Conrad was hit in the head by a wobbling spar and spent 3 months in hospital.

Another experience involved Conrad serving as first mate aboard a ship sailing home to England under a series of gales that prevented them from taking sextant readings for a full week.  Traveling under dead reckoning and nearing what they thought might be their destination, the captain asked Conrad what he thought their position might be, mainly in order to have someone else to blame if things went south.  At that moment their only remaining sail blew out of its bolt ropes (sails were attached to ropes on the outside to give them shape and strength) at the same time that the weather finally lifted to reveal them just offshore of the Isle of Wight.

Conrad had an epiphany once about the uncaring nature of the oceans and fragility of human life.  They were sailing in the North Atlantic when a lookout spotted a tree just over the horizon where no tree should have been.  Investigating, they discovered a foundering Danish brig, dismasted and sinking rapidly.  Upon rescuing the nine remaining crew, who were exhausted from manning the pumps for days on end, they all watched from the deck of their own ship as the derelict gave a gurgle and slowly sank out of sight.  Conrad suddenly realized that the sea was like a mirror that reflected human activities, hopes, fears, dreams, and realities, without prejudice, sense, understanding, or significance.  It was the beginning of his later conviction that the universe and life were the same and indivisible, that they were all drifting in an eternal void toward an unknown goal and not in any real sense, independent entities.  He said:  “Already I looked with other eyes upon the sea.  I knew it capable of betraying the generous ardour of youth as implacably as, indifferent to evil and good, it would have betrayed the basest greed or the noblest heroism.  My conception of its magnanimous greatness was gone.  And i looked upon the true sea – the sea that plays with men till their hearts are broken, and wears stout ships to death.  Nothing can touch the brooding bitterness of its soul.  Open to all and faithful to none, it exercises its fascination for the undoing of the best.  To love it is not well.  It knows no bond of plighted troth, no fidelity to misfortune, to long companionship, to long devotion.”  Conrad used personification a lot to describe the ocean in its many different moods.  It wasn’t clear by the end that he ever really was able to regard it in a totally objective manner.

The book ends with an anecdotal story about smuggling and the consequent evasion of customs ships.  It’s not clear whether Conrad was a smuggler (although nowhere does he say that he wasn’t), but the conclusion of his story involves crashing their little ship into a Mediterranean rock on purpose to confuse the pursuing authorities by causing it to suddenly vanish.  After rowing ashore, Conrad says farewell to his smuggling associates and apparently abandons crime.  The main character in the story, and Conrad’s friend, resembles Peyrol, the protagonist in Conrad’s “The Rover”, a story with a similar plot about a retired seaman and a desperate gamble to escape the revenuers.

In some ways i found this the most interesting book of Conrad’s i’ve read.  It’s uneven:  he sort of wanders around the planet, describing in a desultory way the varying places he’s had adventures in and devoting a lot of print to descriptions of the ocean in its geographical and climatic variations.  But he comes closer to portraying his own states of mind than in any of his other works that i’m familiar with.  I’ve read in other places that he was quite morose in his later years and i assume that was a result of his thinking about man and his relation with the universe.


Isaac Disraeli (1766-1848)

My edition is the sixth, published in 1824, in three volumes.  This is a collection of anecdotes, obscure historical events, little known authors, and even littler known  books.  The Disraeli family left Italy around 1750 and settled in the Netherlands.  Isaac emigrated to England toward the end of the century.  He had a well-founded reputation as a scholar, linguist, and pursuer of minutia;  he lived simply, and was kind to his wife and children.  These short essays were published in small literary magazines and periodicals.  Here are some of the more interesting subjects and factoids i found:

Before 1440, all books were in manuscript.  Richard de Bury bought 40 books from the monastery at St. Albans for 50 pounds of silver.  He wrote Philobiblion in 1340;  it’s a description of his library and included information on preserving and accumulating books.  At the time, the state library of France consisted of 20 volumes.  There were more books available by the middle of the next century.  The Duke of Bedford purchased 900 of them from Charles V of France at that time.

Literary criticism was , initially, pursued with emphases on revenge and conspiracy as authors fought to maintain a toe-hold in the early publishing environment.  Sarasin’s Sello’s essays in the Hebdomadary Flame were replete with “acidity and salts”.  Bayle was a bit more discrete;  he wrote 36 volumes of criticism in the period leading up to 1678.  Le Clerc was the author of 82 volumes, and Beausobre and L’Enfant translated 50 books of German criticism.  The first British Journal devoted to review and criticism was the “Monthly Review” which appeared in 1749.

Manuscripts were valuable at the time and hunters of them rummaged through the garbage cans of Europe for them.  Poggio found a copy of Aretino on Quintillian in the trash can behind a monastery.  One of Petrarch’s favorite books was Cicero, “On Glory”.  It was stolen, plagiarized, and destroyed by a visiting monk.  Another copy has never been located.

Robert Cotton, an early enthusiast, was visiting his tailor one day and noticed him using a piece of parchment for patterns.  It was one of the few remaining original transcripts of the Magna Carta.

Isaac noted that even early Classical authors could be rancorous:  Homer apparently stole part of his work from Suidus and Syagrus.  Plutarch intensely disliked Herodotus, Plato and Aristotle spent much of their time warring against each other as well as against other local scholiasts.  Josephus was a tool of the Roman state, tuning his writing to support the persecution of Jews and Christians.  Thomas Aquinas was regarded by some as one of the dimmer bulbs in the Christian world of the time.  He said angels were made of thick air.  A contemporary regarded his efforts as “cobwebs of sophistry”, full of “captious logic”.

Poets and writers were often seriously poor:  Camoens walked and begged for ten thousand miles before expiring.  Tasso had to borrow from friends to finish his “Jerusalem Delivered”, Corneille starved to death, Dryden sold 10,000 verses for 300 lbs., Purchas, author of a book of travels, was jailed for debt.  An early inventor, Marquis of Worcester, was ignored by Charles II:  he, according to Disraeli, invented the first steam engine (aside from Hero of Alexandria, that is).  Simon Ockley, orientalist, was happy to be in prison.  He said it was quiet and the food was better than that available outside.  Boethius and Grotius  agreed with him, both of them producing major works while incarcerated.

Some of the activities engaged in by writers and philosophers to relax were notable:  Richelieu used parkour, jumping up walls and fences, Tycho Brache made laboratory instruments and ground lenses, Samuel Clarke leaped over tables, Buffon and Evelyn were avid gardeners.  Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly was written as a sort of relief from his serious researches.

Vaucanson was an early genius, unrecognized in his time.  As a child, having observed a clock pendulum. he intellectually analyzed its construction and built his own.  Later he made many robots and simulacrums, like his flute-playing automaton.  When Ariosto finished his Orlando Furioso, he submitted it to the local Cardinal who sent a note back:  “Where the devil did you get all this stuff!”

The Countess of Pembroke told Chaucer she admired his silence more than his wit, but Addison was criticized for never saying much at all while in society.

Isaac included a long section on the Talmud, mostly recording his astonishment at some of the things it contained:  data on efficient gardening, divorce reasonable if the lady of the house burned the soup, and quite a bit about the incredible scholasticism  the “chop logic”,  as regards the minutia of life.  Some of Sancho Panza’s antics in “Quixote” are taken directly from the Talmud.

This is not a book to breeze through:  it’s one of those, like the Encyclopedia Brittanica, that is more suitable for quiet, reflective investigation than for perusing on a weekend.  or two.  But it’s quite intriguing.  It’s sort of like eating chocolate chip cookies:  it’s hard to know when to stop.  The writing style is fluid and readily intelligible.  This edition has 500 pages in the first volume alone, every one of them crammed with fascinating detail as regards the little-known corners of history.   I hope to get to the other two volumes fairly soon.  Isaac wrote “Calamities of Authors” as well.  They’re all available on Gutenberg.