J.I.M. Stewart (Michael Innes)(1906-1994)

Phil Tombs, a recent trade school graduate and employee of a local machine shop, has just discovered that he’s won 250 thousand pounds on the National Sweepstakes.  It takes a while to sink in.  He lives near Oxford, England, in a lower class housing development, with his aunt, and is a dogged type:  he believes in working and saving and he’s at a loss, initially, about how to invest or otherwise utilize his windfall…  He meets people who want to help;  some sincere and some shady.  One of the first is Jean, with whom he immediately falls desperately in love;  she’s the secretary of the Pools manager who administers the money distribution for the corporation.  He is blown away by her eyebrows, which appear to be one strip of fur above her eyes(i know this sounds like Peg W., but it’s in the book!).  On the train to London, where he travels to inquire about obtaining the check, he meets Mark Thickthorne, son of Lord Thickthorne;  they own extensive estates in a nearby shire.  A rather wild youth with strenuously aggressive convictions, Mark rattles on about the inefficiency of the modern coal industry and his plans to change all that.  In his excited state, he pulls the emergency cord and brings the train to a screeching halt.  The conductor is not pleased.  But Phil physically tackles Mark, and convinces the conductor that Mark was suffering from a mental ailment and was not responsible for his actions.  After a bit of give and take and the sop of a five pound note, the train journeys on with no penalties for the transgressors.  On an earlier trip, Phil had met Peter Sharples, an Oxford student majoring in literature.  They became fast friends, having the same sort of perceptions about life and work.

Phil invites Jean to lunch and they hit it off fairly well.  She is supposedly almost engaged to Sir Aubrey Moore, another student at Oxford, so her availability is open to question, but Phil, having previously met the foppish Aubrey, is not discouraged and looks forward to their marriage as a matter of course.  Upon Phil’s next visit to London, he is accosted while entering Jean’s building by two entrepreneurs who take him off to lunch.  They drive him away in a Rolls Royce, discussing their grandiose schemes for making huge amounts of money, referring to their many important contacts in London financial circles and their vast acquaintance with dragons of industry.  Phil is not taken in.  The two inveigle him into visiting one of their local establishments, one of a series of clubs that they apparently run in an off-hand way.  But Phil soon realizes that they are merely houses of prostitution.  He sees a young girl being treated in an inappropriate manner, loses his temper, beats up the two conmen and is in turn slugged unconscious and dumped by the river.  He wakes up in Jean’s office, having been carried there by the beaters-up;  she is carried away by his injuries and gives him a big kiss.  So Phil imagines that his courtship attempts have met with success.

Later, after Phil has made arrangements for the investment of his funds, he attends a week-end party at a local estate, with a number of high-class socialites and begins to understand in more detail why the English class structure inhibits familiarity and fraternization.  But apparently Jean still loves him, so he leaves fairly content with his foray into the upper echelons and returns to the Thickthorne mansion(he’s been staying with Mark for several weeks) in a cheerful state of mind.  While staying with the Thickthornes, he has realized that they are much more interested in his ideas involving electrical and engineering developments than any of the persons he had conversed with while determining what to do with his new fortune.  The Thickthorne estate consists of a very large acreage with village inclusive, and the family is planning some major alterations having to do with coal gasification and the installation of a network of pipelines to improve the efficiency of delivery of the same:  a sort of pilot scheme to demonstrate a better way of supplying heating to homes all over Britain.

A few days later, Phil travels to London to see Jean and meets Peter Sharples en route. Sharples is rather quiet and non-communicative, leaving Phil in a speculative state.  Peter seems over-intent on reading the newspaper, but Phil shrugs it off until they reach Jean’s office at which point he discovers that the newspaper had just announced Jean’s marriage to Sir Aubrey Moore.  Stunned, he stumbles out of the office and Peter takes him in hand and they immediately leave England and undertake a walking tour for six weeks in Europe.  Upon their return, Phil continues staying with the Thickthornes and decides to attend Cambridge in the interests of studying engineering.

I liked this book for several reasons, in spite of the surprising and unexpected ending. Stewart is one of those rare authors who convey character, ambitions, class structure, and personality through the actions of his creations.  Instead of telling the reader what characters are like, he shows their qualities by their behavior.  This is quite unlike the way Reade, for example, develops his novels. Stewart, thereby, instills a kind of reality that gives the reader the sense of having met and lived with real people in actual places.  Under his pseudonym, Michael Innes, Stewart wrote many mysteries featuring Inspector Appleby, which i’ve found, because of his approach to character and plot development, to be splendid reads.  In fact, i think his mysteries are better than his non-mysteries.  He had an interesting life, writing and teaching English lit at colleges and universities in Australia and Britain, and his experience has steeped his work in a sort of lucidity that i’ve rarely found in other writers.  Recommended.



by Charles Reade (1814-1884)

Mr. Vane went to London on business, leaving Mrs. Vane at home to tend the home fires.  He becomes enamored of the stage and Peg Woofington, a rising starlette, in particular.  After attending her performances for several weeks, a chance acquaintance, Sir Charles Pomander, arranges for a visit back stage, where Mr. Vane overhears witty repartee between various old veterans of the stage:  Colley Cibber, Mrs. Bracegirdle, Lord Foppington, Peg Woofington and Mrs. Oldfield.  Vane falls deeply for Peg, especially when he observes her flexible eyebrows.  She is a consummate actress, deft at both male and female roles, and is the possessor of a certain hardness of heart which protects her from stage door Johnnies.  Mr. Vane is a naive sort, and he falls into the schemes of the unprincipled villain, Charles Pomander, who has designs on the person of Peg himself.  Pomander attempts to blacken Peg’s reputation to Mr. Vane, hoping that he will be discouraged in his wild-eyed infatuation.  Unfortuitously, however, he has to leave town for several weeks, thus providing an open field for Peg and Vane to fall in love;  which they do.  An idyllic courtship ensues, Vane and Peg seeing each every day until the evil Pomander returns.  Being in love with Peg himself, he is naturally outraged, particularly because he has discovered that Vane is already married.  He arranges a dinner party to which the principles and the various hangers-on are invited, and secretly also invites Mrs. Vane to drop in…  There is a ruction after she arrives, and a large amount of regret, apologizing and confusion are engaged in, with Mrs. Vane nobly bearing up under the distress.  The denouement is a complex series of disillusionments, paradoxes, and misunderstandings, including a sword-fight and changing loyalties;  all the bewilderments and discombobulations commonly revealed in act four of most 18th century dramas.  At one point, a would-be scene artist is painting an oil of Peg when they party hears footsteps on the stairs.  Peg quickly cuts a hole in the middle of the canvas, sticks her through the hole, and waits until the arrivals enter and begin a conversation regarding the webs of confusion they all find themselves caught up in.  She discovers that Mr. Vane loves his wife more than her, and begins to cry.  After a while the observers note that the picture is emitting tears, producing the expected astonishment on the faces of all involved.

As affairs re-arrange themselves, Mr. and Mrs. Vane are re-united, Sir Pomander is disconcerted and becomes ill and unhappy, Peg pretends like she was making the whole thing up, the scenery painter and his family inherit twenty thousand pounds, and Colley Cibber continues his tirades against David Garrick, of whom he was gigantically jealous.

This was a shorter work by Reade, and it was a novelized version of a popular two act play he had written some years previously, in association with Tom Taylor, entitled “Masks and Faces”.  I alluded above to the wittiness of some of the verbal jousting, but it would be difficult to convey an impression of the total amount of clever and brilliant bon mots produced by the characters, Colley and Peg especially.  There’s a bit of social commentary as the by-play progresses, in tune with Reade’s life-long concern with political and social issues exhibited by the culture of the time.  But overall, it was a very funny and distracting production and somewhat of a surprise, coming as it did from the normally staid Mr. Reade…


Typical Northwest weather:  overcast, damp and dank, tree limbs sagging under a grey lowering sky.  And, of a sudden, it’s all changed:  one week in May, bicycling in the Venice of the West becomes an expedition into a magical botanarium, replete with lawn mowers, weed pullers, weedeaters and, most extraordinarily, masses of color as expressed by the local flora.  Rhododendrons, azaleas, iris, dogwood, roses, magnolias, lilacs and lots more leap out into the path of the astounded cyclist (me), demanding to be taken cognizance of.  The colors are literally undescribable.  Our eyes are accustomed to interpret what they see in terms of the vocabulary instilled in our minds at an early age:  red, green, pink, etc.  But in actuality, floral colors don’t pay attention to what our minds tell us;  they have their own reaction to photosynthesis and water, exhibiting a range of exuberant tints that ignore all definition.  The passing observer sees red azaleas and each color is very minutely different from the one just pedaled past.  And the same for greens:  cedars, Douglas firs, willows, all have their distinctive versions of green.  Hence the cyclist is drowned in a veritable whirlpool of sensation, the eyes and nose are overwhelmed and a certain feeling of helplessness dominates as the images surge through the perceptive faculties like a perambulating rainbow.

I pedaled past an Oregon Dogwood that almost literally bowled me over:  the perfectly symmetrical flower lobes were such a brilliant white that they seemed to inhabit a different reality;  as if they were present not only in my vision, but also in another dimension or parallel universe, suddenly popping forth out of an unknown stratum or crack in the normal but illusive moment.  A field of daisies led the eye up to a vibrant hillside proudly hosting a collection of ancient cedars and firs, and was followed by a patch of iris cunningly serried along the sidewalk.

So, pedaling along in a maze of impressions, i happened to notice that the usual ducks had left the canal that ran along side of the path…  I don’t know whether this was a seasonally appropriate event or the result of depredation from a city backhoe (sometimes officialdom likes to scoop out the bottom of the sloughs, presumably to keep them from filling up with sediments, but also discouraging the ducks at the same time).  When i got to the Megamart and bought the usual snack, i went over and sat down near a local streamlet that was full of paper and empty soda cans.  A flapping, struggling disturbance a little ways down the creek enabled me to spot a brown duck-like fowl leaving the vicinity in a state of alarm.  So apparently the duck race hasn’t left the area altogether, anyway, and are just hiding from the huge conscienceless yellow machines.

In years past i’ve been occasionally subjected to quite a lot of poisonous odors while bicycling through, glyphosate mostly, but this year people seemed to have become educated about the dangers of the product and only a very few hardcases appear to be using it.  Unfortunately the city fathers haven’t taken the warnings seriously:  they use it as weed control in the city parks where children spend a lot of time.  And i observed that where it was applied, fewer boys and girls were playing as compared to years past.  Maybe the authorities view it as a version of population control…  But, abjuring my negativity, i pedal blithely on, immersed in my own world of seething colors and brilliant aromatics.

Back at the library, where i was parked, i sat for a while in the rose garden, pleased to meditate on the vibrant life displayed on every hand, white, red, yellow, (i wondered why there are no green roses…);  the friendly sunshine and the surrounding quiet (something about a quiet garden eliminates intrusive noises by some sort of atmospheric alchemy) lulling into a gnostic state of non-nattering nescience…  After a while, someone snoring woke me up and i lolled back the car and left, unsober with the day’s sensory circus…


Vittorio Alfieri (1749-1803)

Born in Genoa, Vittorio was more or less ungoverned so far as discipline or training was concerned.  He had an entire world of freedom to romp around in, and in some ways this sort of liberty characterized the rest of his life.  Fascinated by the natural life surrounding his home, he was drawn instinctively to horses.  At one point he tried grazing, consuming a fairly substantial quantity of grass.  It came up again, though, perhaps resulting in an early enlightenment experience.  At nine years he was sent to an academy in Turin to suffer the pangs of being educated, a process that he fairly successfully ignored in spite of the efforts of his teachers and the regular application of corporal punishment.  His main drive at the time was to get away from the place.  He ran away several times until he realized he was stuck for the duration.  Gifted with the sort of mind to which memorization comes easily, but real learning doesn’t make much of an imprint, Vittorio managed to pass exams and eventually achieved a Masters degree in Arts.  While in residence at the school, he became interested in opera and drama, writing out translations of Vergil, and began inquiries into the plays of Metastasio and Goldoni.  He had difficulty in concentrating on his studies, however, and, exercising his love of equine activity, he was commonly to be found, when not at his desk, tearing around the countryside with horse and carriage,  alarming the local sheep herders and chicken farmers.  He became interested in French culture, and, after learning the language, read a 36 volume treatise on ecclesiastical history by Fleury, as well as delving randomly into Voltaire and Rousseau.  The Fleury had the effect of instilling a prejudice against religion, perhaps because of the stultifying nature of the content.

At the age of fourteen, his father having passed on when he was only one year old and his mother having remarried, he inherited a substantial fortune.  But it was in the custody of a trustee, and Vittorio received a modest allowance;  this didn’t cause him to learn the conservation of resources, however, and he was continually driven to beg for advances due to his inordinate appetites for horses and travel.  After graduation, he embarked on a multi-year course of travel in which he visited France, England, Germany, Sweden, Russia, the Baltic countries, and Spain.  When he left the academy, he had been suffering from a sort of anomie, not having the capacity to learn, understand, or develop any interest in the subjects he had begun to study while in school.  He traveled in this state and didn’t start to recover his normal intellectual pursuits until he was 21, when he attained access to his entire fortune without the  intermediacy of a trustee.  He was chagrined to have only two languages at his command, French and a barely sufficient Italian, as he had decided to write poetry, and these lingual limitations hampered his progress.  So he spent several years achieving a mastery of Tuscan (apparently the most fluent and liquid of the Italian tongues) and in the interim improved greatly in his production of acceptable sonnets and plays.  By the time he had reached the age of thirty, he was an accomplished poet and had produced a number of plays.

While residing in Florence, he happened to meet and fall in love with Louisa Stolberg, the wife of Charles Stuart, the Young Pretender, as he was known.  Charles was the grandson of James the Second, and a Scottish alternative to the Hanoverian dynasty.  After the “Forty-Five” (the battle of Culloden, which resulted in the deaths of most of the Scottish Lords of the time), he spent most of his time in Europe, and he was in Florence at the same time as Vittorio.  Vittorio met him and saw a drunken, dirty oaf with an enchanting wife.  Mrs. Stuart and he got together frequently and soon began an association that lasted off and on their whole lives.  They couldn’t, because of popular disapproval, live together and Louisa spent time in a convent, but after Charles’s death in 1788, they established a manse in Alsace and lived there contentedly.  Vittorio’s literary output was inspired by his love for Louisa;  when they were apart he drifted into an unproductive fugue state, feeling sorry himself and totally incapable of writing a line.  But by the time that their relationship became regularized, Vittorio had written an untold number of sonnets and short prose works, nineteen tragedies, and was engaged in bargaining with Diderot in Paris and Beaumarchais in Germany for the printing of a complete edition of his works.

At this period, Vittorio and Louisa were living in Paris (V hated the place:  he said it was dirty, smelly, and overcrowded) and they saw the first aerostatic experiments:  the first two balloon ascents with a pair of aeronauts in each basket.  Vittorio also observed the initial stages of the French Revolution, although he wasn’t much affected or moved by what, he being an upper-class personage, he regarded as the turgid fluctuations of the unwashed proletariat.  Pursuing his normal routines, he was taken aback, however, in 1793, when a friend advised him to get out of town pronto.  Fortunately, he and Louisa took the suggestion and as it occurred, they were the last foreigners to escape just before the edicts of the Reign of Terror became effective.  Even so, at one point their carriage was overwhelmed by  a mob of revolutionaries and they only managed to escape by Vittorio jumping out of the carriage and waving his passports around above his head and yelling in a very Italian and vigorously vehement fashion that he would have the law on the “tigermonkeys” if they didn’t let him pass.  Which eventually they did.  They drove to Calais and on to Belgium on their way back to Italy, and settled down in Florence where they invented a version of domestic content that satisfied them both.  A long period of productivity ensued for Vittorio, seeing the production of many more dramas in which he commonly played one of his own characters.  In his later years, he struggled valiantly to learn Greek and after several years attempted his own translations of the Iliad and the works of Terence.  As well, he developed a taste for satiric literature and published seven short epistolary diatribes on various irritating subjects.  Florence was occupied by French troops twice while they lived there, the last time after the battle of Marengo, which saw the couple trapped in their own house for a time;  eventually they were permitted to go shopping and travel, enabling them to experience a certain amount of freedom.  One of the last characteristic actions of Vittorio, just before he died, was to have made a jewel-encrusted collar with the numbers of his varied works, tragedies, poetry, and translations, engraved between the sparklers, which he intended on wearing when in public locales.  Louisa continued living until 1824, engaging in various endeavors and interfacing with shakers and movers of the time.  She came to know Napoleon and dabbled in politics a bit.

I really enjoyed this book.  Although i had to leave a lot of Vittorio’s adventures out of this short review, he led a very strenuous life.  It would not be out of hand to cite the “Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini” as a reasonable comparison.  V’s personality was not as crazy as Benvenuto’s, but he definitely had a large degree of Latin excitability in his nature.  He loved horses all his life, perhaps more than people, and stretched his own capacities well beyond what might be considered normal to maintain what he saw as freedom from tyranny, which he observed to be present in almost all human politics and environments.  Freedom and horses to him had an innate relation, perhaps offering a whimsical doorway into the understanding of his nature.  I liked the book, although it did get a bit tedious on occasion, and I whole-heartedly recommend it if any other copy exists, which maybe it doesn’t…