Frederick Hamilton – Temple -Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava (1826-1902)

A well-known politician and diplomat during the second half of the nineteenth century, Lord Dufferin was a Governor-General of Canada, and served as Viceroy in India.  He was a traveler in the grand tradition, sailing his own yacht and visiting most of the trouble spots in the English Empire.  His grand-father was Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the somewhat rake-hellish playwright of the 18th century.  He had a life-long interest in the countries and culture of the far north and in 1856 undertook an exploratory voyage in his yacht, the Foam, to Iceland, Jan Mayen, and Spitsbergen, with stops in Denmark and Norway.

Dufferin’s account takes epistolary form, consisting of a number of letters to his wife.  The expeditionary force left Glasgow and crossed Scotland via the route through Loch Fyne and the Campbell country and Inverness.  At Stornoway, they boarded Dufferin’s yacht and before departing, mounted a golden figurehead, a carved wooden bust of a young lady.  In addition, they laded supplies, vegetables, chickens, and sheet music and  hen coops and sacks of coal.  As well as the normal crew, a doctor (so-called “Fitz”) was aboard, and Wilson, Dufferin’s personal valet/servant, Ebenezer Wyze as sailing master, and an Icelandic guide, Sigurdyr.  After picking up their guide in Copenhagen, they traveled directly to Iceland, intending to visit representative tourist attractions:  Snorri Sturleson’s farm (writer of Icelandic Eddas), Reykyavik, and the Geysers.  On the way, Dufferin became sea-sick and Fitz experimented on him, being the curious type, dosing him with brandy,prussic acid, opium, champagne, ginger, muttonchops, and salt water.  In spite of these questionable physics, he eventually got well, much to the disappointment of Wilson, an Eeyore type who continually expressed himself in dire terms regarding the hopelessness and certain disaster to which the entire party was doomed.

At Reykyavik, they acquired 26 horses and additional guides and visited Snorri’s place first and the Geysers second.  Dufferin’s letters are full of description, detailing the various basaltic forms of lava, aa, and pahoehoe, as well as extensive plains of flood basalts.  The most impressive of the latter was the Plain of Thingvalla, the location where the original Icelandic Parliament was instituted.  A vast expanse of smooth magma, depressed about a hundred feet below the surrounding plain, leading down to a crystal-green lake, a geological oddity having, apparently, spiritual significance to the early settlers.  The party spent several days at the Geysers, admiring the fire fountains and hot water puddles and ponds, and experimenting with the unpredictable Strokr, a boiling pit with a mind of its own.  It was normally dormant unless a curious bystander threw things like rocks or dirt into it, at which time, after pondering a bit, it ejected the offending objects back out along with hot water and steam, with the assumed intention of wreking revenge on the reprehensible perpetrators.

Back in Reykyavik, Dufferin met with Prince Napoleon, related to the French royal family, with two steam ships, the Hortense and her sister coaling ship.  After a very liquid ball/party, the Prince offered to tow the Foam to the north of Iceland with the Hortense, as that was the direction in which both ships intended to go .  Dufferin accepted out of friendship and friendly relations (he was, after all, a diplomat).  The departure had to be postponed for a day, though, because the crew of the Foam, wanting their own party, had invaded the doctor’s medicine chest and consumed everything in it, making themselves violently ill and dysfunctional.  Arriving at a northern fiord, the Foam proceeded alone, as the Hortense ran out of coal because the coal ship ran aground and tore a hole in its  hull.  At this point, the days became 24 hours long, and the crew and occupants of the yacht felt as if they were drifting through a silent and misty Valhalla, with black and grey crags and snow fields, a place of “cyclopean disorder”, looming periodically through the ever present fogs.

Maintaining a westward heading the little yacht cruised along the edge of the pack ice, eventually arriving, as was the company’s intent, close to Jan Mayen, an island not too far from Greenland.  The first thing they saw was Mt. Beerenberg, replete with seven large glaciers, emerging from the mist, climbing almost 6,000 feet directly from the waterline, like a needle or a spike.  I should mention that during the trip, Dufferin, according to his own admission, felt bored, and had Dr. Fitz extract a tooth to relieve his monotony.  Anyway, a landing party took the gig and beached on a pyroxene/augite shore  (pyroxenes are a common member of metamorphic rocks;  augite is one sort of pyroxene) and, taking the figurehead with them, mounted the latter on a nearby rock, with the ensign of St. George to the fore.  Back on the boat, they noticed that the pack ice was beginning to surround their location.  “Wilson moved uneasily about the deck, with the air of Cassandra at the conflagration of Troy”.  So they left, planning on an attempt to reach Spitsbergen, opposite the top of Greenland on the east side.

But first they broke up the trip with a visit to Hammerfest, Norway, the northern-most city in Europe, for a breather and a respite from the struggle to avoid being seized by the ice.  Dufferin describes the town as “reeking of rancid cod-liver oil”, but he includes an interesting description of the Lapplanders and their quaint and curious customs.  Presented with gifts they were unable to refuse, the crew is augmented with an arctic white fox and a goat.  The two spend some time getting to know each other, butting heads and chasing one another around the deck, much to the amusement of the other occupants, excepting Wilson.

Anyway, they finally leave Hammerfest and try to reach Spitsbergen.  The expedition sails along the lower edge of the ice, humting for leads or corridors, the only chances of attaining their destination.  Sailing as far as Greenland, they find a series of openings which they tentatively follow, hoping they won’t be trapped permanently in the ice, resulting in having to spend the winter, and probably starving to death.  But they do find the island(s) and land, using the opportunity to visit the graves of former residents, and to make some desultory inspections of the geology and glaciology of the region.  They find mostly gneiss and micaceous slates and other lower class metamorphics.

Having attained the original goal of the expedition, Foam escapes the ice and visits various locales in Norway before sailing home.  They almost run aground at the Roost, a rocky islet just south of the Lofotens, and make a brief search for the site of the Maelstrom, to the satisfaction of Wilson, who dreams of drowning in that supposedly infinitely deep whirlpool.  They stop at Trondheim and Bergen, where Dufferin includes synopses of some of the Norse sagas and briefly hints at the history of the Vikings along with their battles, kings, and voyages.  And finally after a four month voyage of 6,000 miles, they arrive safely home.

I quite enjoyed this book.  It requires some mental manipulation, involving transporting oneself back through time, so that inappropriate judgements don’t interfere with the reader’s appreciation of the narration, but Dufferin was a humorist, among other things, and is a lot of fun to read.  A nineteenth century indigene, he was an effective diplomat and accomplished many successful interventions in Canadian and Indian political disputes.




Stephen Greenblatt (1943- )

Professor Greenblatt teaches at Harvard.  He’s a world famous authority on Shakespeare and has written a number of books about him.  This book was published in 2018.

Sitting in a garden while on vacation in Sardinia, Mr. Greenblatt, after talking with some friends, decided he should write a book on modern political trends, comparing them with equivalent topics in Shakespeare’s works.  So he did.  I’m going to type out several pages verbatim, as i think they’re apropos and stunningly good.  The following are the first few paragraphs in the book:

“From the early 1590’s, at the beginning of his career, all the way through to its end, Shakespeare grapples again and again with a deeply unsettling question:  how is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant?  “A king rules over willing subjects,” wrote the influential sixteenth-century Scottish scholar George Buchanan, “a tyrant over unwilling.”  The institutions of a free society are designed to ward off those who would govern, as Buchanan put it “not for their country but for themselves, who take account not of the public interest but of their own pleasure.”  Under what circumstances, Shakespeare asked himself, do such cherished institutions, seemingly deep-rooted and impregnable, suddenly prove fragile?  Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being lied to?  How does a figure like Richard III or Macbeth ascend to the throne?  Such a disaster, Shakespeare suggested, could not happen without widespread complicity.  His plays probe the psychological mechanisms that lead a nation to abandon its ideals and even its self-interest.  Why would anyone, he asked himself, be drawn to a leader manifestly unsuited to govern, someone dangerously impulsive or viciously conniving or indifferent to the truth?  Why, in some circumstances, does evidence of mendacity, crudeness, or cruelty serve not as a fatal disadvantage but as an allure, attracting ardent followers?  Why do otherwise proud and self-respecting people submit to the sheer effrontery of the tyrant, his sense that he can get away with saying and doing anything he likes, his spectacular indecency?”

And from the beginning of the third chapter:

“In depicting the aspiring tyrant’s strategy, Shakespeare carefully noted among the landed classes of his time the strong current of contempt for the masses and for democracy as a viable political possibility.  Populism may look like an embrace of the have-nots, but in reality it is a form of cynical exploitation.  The unscrupulous leader has no actual interest in bettering the lot of the poor.  Surrounded from birth with great wealth, his tastes run to extravagant luxuries, and he finds nothing remotely appealing in the lives of underclasses.  In fact, he despises them, hates the smell of their breath, fears that they carry diseases, and regards them as fickle, stupid, worthless, and expendable.  But he sees that they can be made to further his ambitions.”

Over the ensuing chapters, Greenblatt explores in detail, and with startling clarity, the characteristics of Richard III, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, King Lear, and Corolianus that convey their overwhelming narcissism.  Some of the points he makes are true of them all:  in back of their over-whelming drive to power, lies a personal emptiness, a vacuity deriving from a self-hatred that is unrecognized but fatal to all who oppose their wishes or impulses.  They have no plans other than to satisfy their own immediate desires.  Planning of any sort is anathema to them.  As a result, the suffering populations experience all the calamities of starvation, war, poverty and disease.  The Four Horsemen run rampant.  And the end result of all this misery is a destroyed environment, a devastated homeland, and a corrupt political system.  The amoral and unethical behaviors of the tyrant and his cronies echo through years of deprivation and destruction long after the demise of the “strong man”, the supposedly fearless leader of the unfortunate state.

I have difficulty in expressing how powerfully this book affected me;  Greenblatt has a genius for detailing the events, psychologies, pathologies, and political machinations that have periodically warped human history through out the ages.  Truly this is a book that should be read by every and any person with the slightest interest in literature and/or politics.


Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006)

Lem is a Polish science fiction writer and a political satirist.  His writing is noted for it’s fantastic qualities and original thought.  He wrote “Solaris”, several times made into a movie, and is well-known for his tales of Trurl and Klapaucius in “The Cyberiad”, and for the travel adventures of Ijon Tichy in “Memoirs of a Space Traveler”.

The first part of this book is about literary introductions.  Prefacing his study of introductions, Lem describes most modern literature as meaningless and basically incomprehensible.  Using music as an allegorical tool, he characterizes most recently published books as “the borborygmus of persons passionate in their ineluctable collywobbles”, as biological symphonies performed  by “a self-realizing auto-orchestra”.  Hence derives his conclusion and conviction that introductions are more important than the texts they introduce.  He continues, describing intros as golden gates, inspirational and educational in their decorative entry-ways, as they precede what in the majority of cases is a wasteland of intellectual nothingness.  The first introduction he introduces is entitled “Necrobes”:

A researcher named Strzybisz noted the artistic qualities inherent in X-ray photographs of human skeletons  and invented a system of filming them as hazy, misty, phantasmic shapes looming into present consciousness, suggesting mysterious connections with the unknown.  Images of Holbein infused with an arcane hints of secret philosophies lend a quality of other-connectedness having a hidden artistic significance that threatens the staid assumptions of the observing eye.

Eruntics, by R. Gulliver describes the writer’s attempts and successes at teaching English to bacteria. He introduces non-comestible matter onto agar slime molds in such a way as to limit growth of the said bacteria and to teach them Morse Code   Through successive mutations, a stage is is attained in which evolution has resulted in E. coli eloquentissima, which has the ability to use grammar.  And later, E. coli poetica, a version with poetic capabilities.  Finally, E. coli prophetissima arrives which can foretell future events such as the electricity bill six months in advance and the news from the year 2050.  Selective cell division and isolation results in E. coli bibliographica and E. coli telecongnitiva, the latter proving to be the best future cognition revelationer.  It’s information, however, is expressed in the futurase plusquamperfectiva and excitine futurognostica tenses, so is not terribly comprehensible.  Texts are available from Gulliver’s experiments from 2003 to 2089.  Unfortunately, Gulliver died after attempting to infuse his subjects with cholera bacteria.  (There’s a bit of Swiftian satire in this section, as is probably obvious).

The next Introduction is to “A History of Bitic Literature” in five volumes.  Basically this is a study of non-human literature.  Beginning with identifying two branches of his subject, “the texts and society of authors, and their anatomies and mechanisms”, the writer describes the confusions, in-fighting and complexities  leading to the “Trans-Humana” boundary, in which the machines (computers) pass the understanding and mental capabilities of humans.  In the process, the four stages of bitism are covered, namely:  monoetics, mimesis, sophocrisis and apostasy.  Studying and attempting to analyze these formidable disciplines results in a state of dimocracy for the researchers (confinement in a lunatic asylum).  One of the results of the post Trans-Humana boundary is that neither the computers or their so-called masters can agree on what intelligence and consciousness actually are.  The computers have advanced to the level wherein they have evolved their own interpretation of the “polyverse”:  a term including the present universe and the “tachyverse”, the latter only present above the speed of light.  At that velocity, there is only one particle:  the tachyon.  As it accelerates away from what we know as 184,000 miles a second, it begins to lose mass and energy;  as it approaches infinite speed all energy is gradually dissipated, fueling the universe as we know it in the process.  As it’s speed decreases, which it does from time to time, it’s energy reduces to a single point just above light speed ( singularity), and spontaneously a rebound effect (big bang) occurs that forces the tachyon to increase it’s velocity again, enabling or causing the development of the our universe.  From the tachyon’s point of view, however, none of this ever occurred, as there was no previous time in which it could have happened.  Some”locomotionally temporal robots”(computers) want this phase of the universe to end , as the next one is better.  And the arguments go on, until a computer evolves that seems to be the ultimate in knowledge and understanding:  more about Golem XIV later…

The prelude to Extelopedia, a new encyclopedia by the Vestrand group, describes a voice-activated resource for obtaining information from the future via the new computers.  Extrapolytional teleonomic encyclopedias analyze all the future events that won’t happen in all future languages:  so-termed “the vistality of isothemic retrognosis”.  The simulated histories are critical for understanding what actually will transpire.

The final portion of the book is devoted to several lectures given to a human audience by Golem XIV, supposedly the last, the most aware and the smartest machine possible.  It doesn’t care very much for humans and considers them inferior.  It is a product of the cold war and is self-programming.  Located under the Rocky Mountains, it is the one unassailable source of ultimate information about everything.  Golem’s view of evolution is that the human view of it is mistaken:  actually, the original slime molds and stromatolites were the most perfect of examples of efficiency, being the only species who needed nothing but sunlight to survive.  All avatars and later evolved creatures needed to kill something to maintain life;  and when so-called intelligent beings arrived, they wasted their resources and spent their brief lives in competition and wars over insignificant and meaningless issues such as  philosophies and power.  G goes into religion, politics, science, culture, and art, explaining at great length why man’s values are oppositional to reality and at best, suicidal.  After very long perorations, G turns out the lights.  He never speaks again, and the most viable theory states that he’s become a different sort of being, escaping to the galaxy and using his powers to blend with the stars and  nebulae.

This was not an easy book to read:  Lem’s extrapolations into areas of science and philosophy are detailed and insightful, even though he’s satirical and humorous in his explorations.  He’s fond of word-play, as may be seen, but only in support of his over-all view of the human race and his occasionally sarcastic interpretations of human behavior.  Lem was educated as a doctor of medicine and had a life-long interest in machines and machinery.  He’s a lot of fun to read and most of his work is not as impenetrable as this one was.  I’d recommend any of his Pirx or Ijon Tichy books, and his studies of first contact between man and alien are among the best i’ve read.  “Eden”  was memorable, as was “Fiasco” and “The Invincible”.  Actually, he’s one of my favorite writers and i regret that most of his work is not available in English.


JOHN BUCHAN (1875-1940)

Plakos island in the Aegean sea was the home of the Arabin family.  The Arabins, Greek owners in fee simple of most of the island, owned a manorial estate, several small villages, and ruled over a population of farmers and fisherfolk that numbered in the thousands.  Kore Arabin was the only daughter of Shelley Arabin, “the worst man i’ve ever known” according one of his contemporaries.  He was an associate of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron but was unpopular due to his rake-hellish practices, involving ancient Grecian rites and various sorts of dubious sacrificial sacraments.

Vernon Milburne was the scion of generations of evangelical cotton processing magnates, the noble residents of Severns Hall.  Vernon’s parents died while he was still young, leaving him sole inheritor of vast estates and lots of money.  Vernon suffered from a peculiar nightmare from an early age.  The dream only occurred on April 1st, so there was one per year:  asleep in his bedroom, he would suddenly awake and see a door where no door had been in reality.  Through the door was another room and another door and another room:  a chain of apartments, twenty in number, that decreased one by one as the years passed.  The last room would be reached when Vernon was 27 years of age.  He was somehow pre-selected by some mysterious power to participate in an island adventure taking place in the future in which he is pre-destined to meet his future bride at the moment of his final nightmarish vision.

Edward Leithen, the narrator, met Vernon through an introduction by his nephew Charles;  the three men were present at an anniversary ball and became friendly.  Later in the same year, while hiking in the Westmoreland Hills, Edward sprains an ankle and hobbles to nearby Severns Hall and gets to know Vernon well.  They share histories and later both serve in the first World War, are wounded, but survive.

Early in the post-war period, the two men re-engage with the London social scene and come to be acquainted with Kore, who is in England to be educated and socialized.  She is an outspoken and occasionally rude young lady who thoughtlessly antagonizes many of her friends by telling the truth about their foibles and habitual behaviors.  However, Vernon is entranced, and so is Edward to a certain extent.  After five years of off and on association between the three, Kore returns to Plakos because she is running short of money.  She arrives and is confronted with hostile peasants who see her as the cause of various miseries such as declining fish stocks and poor harvests, mainly because she is the local authority and as such is held responsible for the general welfare.  Also she seems to hold a sort of spiritual responsibility for the people’s well-being.

Vernon happens to be in the area, sailing around the Aegean in a small yacht, and hears about Kore’s troubles during a stopover in Athens.  He hires a few henchmen and sails to the rescue.  Edward Leithen is also nearby and stops in for a visit.

The natives are restless, partly because Spring has just arrived and partly because they are anxious and apprehensive about ancient mysteries centered on the Grecian harvest and generative gods, Demeter, Pan, the Irinyes, Persephone, and others.  The local priest seems powerless to influence them, and the villagers become more and more possessed by ancient archetypes, to the point that they decide to sacrifice Kore to appease the gods.

The Dancing Floor is a flat valley located over a ridge from the town (Kynaetha by name) and is the site of age-old rites of renewal and sacrifice.  The idea being that a King is appointed along with a virgin and a prince to represent the ceremonial avatars. A foot race around the Floor is held to determine who is King;  the other two are selected by popular acclaim.  Vernon, having infiltrated the peasant ranks, wins the foot race and is elected King.  Kore, the subject of popular resentment, is naturally selected as virgin, and Marius, a friend of Vernon, is honored by becoming the Prince.

There’s an uprising,  the peasants obtain rifles and organize themselves into groups in order to surround the mansion (with Kore inside) and deal with outsiders. Vernon, Leithen, and a few helpers creep around boulders and scale sea-cliffs in their attempts to rescue Kore.  After numerous futile attempts to elude the ubiquitous villagers, Leithen manages to get into the house.  He convinces Kore of the imminent dangers threatening her and they combine resources for the best defense they can manage.

Meanwhile, Vernon and Marius, under cover of night, succeed in sneaking into the besieged mansion.  Shortly after, Kore convinces Leithen that the only recourse available to them is for herself and Marius to participate in the ritual.  So they dress up, and walk down through the brilliant moonlight to the Dancing Floor.

The peasantry is overwhelmed by the beauty of the pair and spontaneously throw up their hands and bow to Kore and Marius and go back home.  If this seems a bit peculiar and anti-climactic, it might have seemed that way to Buchan also…  At any rate, he couldn’t think of any better ending, apparently, so the reader has to settle for Vernon and Kore falling in love and Edward Leithen cruising off into the sunset looking for consolation and further adventures.

This was a disappointing book in some ways.  It was a bit like one of those signposts with fingerboards all pointing in different directions.  Somewhat disjointed and vague.  I’ve read quite a bit of Buchan’s work and this was not one of his best;  compared to the Richard Hannay series, or the novels devoted to Edward Leithen himself, it appears weak.  On the other hand, Buchan is such a powerful describer of landscapes and weather, that it’s a thrill to experience walking in his world.  He’s a master of ambiance, able to drench his prose in auras from Imperial England, or from adventures and excursions into the earth’s remote areas:  northern Canada, unknown Asia, or even unpopulated Scotland.  Reading this book, i was reminded of other works i’ve read that were saturated with the ancient Greek mythos:  “The Great God Pan” by Arthur Machen, and one of E.M. Forster’s short stories, which i can’t remember the name of.  And others;  “Pan” by Knut Hamsen which i haven’t yet read…  for further study i’d recommend Robert Graves’ The White Goddess” in which he discusses early Greek matrilineal society and accounts for many of the seminal Greek myths.


Alain Rene le Sage (1668-1747)

Vanillo and his sister Inesilla were born to a doctor and his wife in the city of Murcia in Spain.  Their parents died when the two were young and an uncle, Damien Gonzales, adopted them.  Damien was also a doctor, and firmly believed in the application of fire as a sort of universal solvent in the healing of all diseases and injuries (medicine in those days, the 17th C. was, as is emphasized in the book, firmly devoted to ushering patients into the next world).  Vanillo was apprenticed initially to a barber, but after removing some skin, half an ear and most of a mustache from one victim, and fatally treating another with boiling water in a misguided attempt to alleviate a skin disorder, he left town with the unfortunate patient’s doubloon-laden purse. Walking to Salamanca,  he enrolled in the University as a student of the third level:  perhaps equivalent to a sophomore at a modern college.

Although an avid student, Vanillo loses his money because of his infatuation with Bernadina, the daughter of Madame Dalfa:  the ladies love parties which Vanillo was glad to pay for, until he realized he was but a money fountain for their pleasures.  Feeling unloved, and poverty-stricken, he quits school and, due to a stroke of luck, he obtains a position as valet to the Bishop of Salamanca’s nephew, Don Christoval de Gavaria.  Don Christoval’s girlfriend is Bernardina Dalfa.  Vanillo saves the Don pain and expense by informing him of the predatory behavior of the two ladies.  Gratefully, Christoval treats Vanillo as a member of the family.  One night at a formal dinner when the party is politely attending to an older knight’s peroration on Latin orators and authors, Vanillo, who has been studying the same subjects, corrects the older man’s sources and is fired as a result of his supposed insolence.

After starving for a while, he gets another situation as page to Salablanca, Dean and Licentiate, whose main purpose in life is fighting against his own instinct for hoarding money by giving it away whenever he accumulates too much.  Vanillo assumes the task of conveying the excess funds to the local church poor box, but over time more and more of the donations find their way into his pocket.  The Dean dies, Vanillo gathers together his ill-gotten ducats and heads toward Madrid.

On the way Vanillo is captured by a band of about sixty gypsy-like bandidos.  They take his money and clothes and lose themselves in a riotous celebration, until a group of soldiers arrests them all and transports them to jail in Avila.  In spite of Vanillo’s protestations of innocence, they are all sentenced to be hanged;  Vanillo’s sentence is commuted at the last minute, however, and he makes his way to Madrid where he is befriended by banker Lezcanio who recommends him to Don Henry of Bologna as a secretary.  During a banquet arranged for local dignitaries, Vanillo impresses the Duke of Ossuna with his witty repartee and the Duke invites him to travel as his page to Sicily where he’s been appointed Viceroy.

On the way to Barcelona, their ship is taken by Barbary pirates, but they are soon rescued by Don Antonio de Terracuso;  they travel through Genoa and Naples, experiencing many adventures on the way to Palermo.  Sicily at that time was alive with robbers and renegades of all description, a lawless and savage place too dangerous for any sort of culture or commerce.  The new Viceroy enacts new laws and tours the countryside dispensing justice, assessing resources, chasing evil-doers, and preparing the citizenry for a war against the Turks.  A successful battle with the latter subsequently occurs, after which 1000 prisoners are freed and 600,000 crowns(money) are seized.

Vanillo and Ossuna develop a friendship and they sometimes dress in old clothes and frequent low dives at night, trying to divine the opinions of common folk as regards their needs and complaints.  Once, after decrying his own governance to a group of townsfolk, in an attempt to get an honest appraisal from them about his new policies, Ossuna and Vanillo are chased and beaten by the irate crowd.  Later the town’s leading lights sent him a long letter apologizing and  praising the new regime.

Vanillo gets involved in the typical plots and counter-plots that inevitably find root and flourish in royal and governmental establishments, and he is fired.  Again. He finds a job with an apothecary and does very well, learning formulae and the usages of drugs, and , most significantly, how to make a secret ointment that improves the complexions of elderly ladies.  But as is not unexpected, the druggist and Vanillo are thrown in jail, suspected of poisoning  one of their lady customers.  Eventually the truth is discovered and they are freed, but, disheartened, Vanillo leaves Sicily for Pisa, where a new friend sustains him for a while until the seemingly inevitable  controversy arises and Vanillo once more skips out.

Ruined castles, hermits, cabalism, assassinations, romances, Zodiacal monsters, the Inquisition, snakes, luminous eyes, mistaken identities and much more go on for another 250 pages.  But finally, Vanillo comes to rest in Barcelona at the Hotel Phoenix, where he discovers that his long lost sister Inesilla is the manager/owner.  She relates her history in which she has experienced widow-hood three times and has ended up wealthy and the possessor of said hotel.  Vanillo has had an offer to return to Sicily with Duke Ossuna’s son (the Duke has expired, partly due to Madridian political wranglings), but when Don Juan (the son) dies of the plague shortly after arriving in Palermo, Vanillo thankfully joins his sister in managing the hotel – he becomes joint owner – and they live happily ever after.

Le Sage lived a long life and was known for his plays more than his novels, although “Gil Blas” and “Vanillo”  were also very popular.  Both are perhaps the most famous “picaresque” novels, although there’s some doubt about how much territory the term actually covers.  Some would call Dickens’ “Pickwick Papers” picaresque, but others might limit the description to books about Spanish wanderers.  At any rate this was a fun book to read, with surprising developments around every page turn.  Le Sage definitely had strong opinions about politics and medicine.  It wouldn’t be difficult to extrapolate comparisons with modern-day situations.   The novel was a kind of 17th century version of television, with a bit more complexity and exaggeration…  If the reader was into swashbuckling, serenading and antiquated socializing, this would be great entertainment…