Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

The mid-nineteenth century, mid-European Principality of Grunewald.  Prince Otto has escaped from the group he was hunting with and has forged off on his own, over the boundaries of his own country into that of Gerolstein, a neighboring duchy, somewhat of a rival with Grunewald in a political sense .  The approaching dark finds him on the brink of a small river, bounded by dense pine forests, cheerfully gurgling and foaming its way over numerous waterfalls and cascades.  Idly riding along the bank, he sees a farmhouse in the near distance and decides to spend the night there.  He’s welcomed by an aging farmer and his son, peasants of the soil, embedded in their own ground for centuries.  But they, the Gottesheims, are in a quandary over land taxes, and are afraid of losing the farm through foreclosure.  Prince Otto offers to buy it for four thousand crowns.

Next morning, after a sealed bargain, Otto returns to his palace in Mittwalden, the capitol of Grunewald, to discover that a complicated political situation that has been developing over the last few years, is about to manifest unpleasant results.  Due to his non-interest in governmental affairs, the country has been ruled by Otto’s wife, Serafina, and her buddy, Colonel Gondremark with the result that a healthy revolutionary party has arisen, complaining of excess taxes and the loss of ancient social privileges.  Gondremark’s ambition is to invade Gerolstein and to found his own empire;  to that end he has persuaded Serafina to ramp up the military and to acquire machines of war:  cannon, powder, rifles and ammunition.  She doesn’t really like Gondremark much, but in Otto’s absence and his abandonment of his responsibilities, she finds it easier to believe the Colonel’s soothing excuses and to be carried along with his ambitions.

Otto, belatedly, realizes that his negligent conduct has endangered the state, but his overwhelming feelings of guilt lead him to an unbalanced perception of the situation:  he thinks he’ll just let himself be abdicated and thrown into prison, because that’s what he thinks he deserves.  But his friend Dr. Gotthold persuades him that not taking action is the refuge of a coward, so Otto dissolves the cabinet, foiling Gondremark’s war plans.  But Gondremark persuades Serafina to sign an edict calling for Otto’s imprisonment.

As a sort of side-light, Gondremark’s mistress, Mme Von Rosen is enlisted by Otto to steal four thousand crowns from the state treasury with which to complete the sale of of the river farm from Gottesheim.  Instead of stealing the money, and implicating Otto in treachery, she gives him the money from her own resources.

But Otto is sent to prison anyway by the nefarious plotting of Goldremark, and Serafina, awakening to the deep plots of her co-ruler, runs off into the extensive pine forests surrounding the capitol, gets lost, has an epiphanical encounter with nature, and realizes she loves Otto dearly in spite of his failures.

(Spoiler Alert)  Aided by Sir Crabtree, a passing English naturalist, she and Otto reunite on the road to Gerolstein, buy the farm and live happily ever after.  And a revolution burns the palace to the ground,  Goldremark is severely wounded, and a republic is formed.  Mme Von Rosen, who has been traveling with Crabtree, rushes to the aid of Godremark, whom she really loves, and the two escape across the border to the shores of Bohemia (as cited in Hamlet).

This is not one of Stevenson’s best efforts.  He took a lot of trouble with it, rewriting it three times, and fiddling endlessly with some of the unruly bits.  But the prose is magnificent, especially the descriptions of nature:  the trees, meadows, pine forests, rocky river beds, the sky and the weather.  His description of Serafina’s awakening during her solo trek through the woods is by itself worth reading the book for:  it’s some of the finest nature writing i’ve ever read.  The book mostly suffered from having too much in it, imo.  Creators of posts like this one learn pretty quickly that they can’t include every detail of a book if they are to produce a comprehensible result.  It’s a difficult process to master, and few, including me, can claim to have achieved it.  Writing clearly but not eliminating the interesting side-lights, is an art equivalent, possibly, to conducting a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring without letting the French Horns  drown out the flutes…



George Sand (1804-1876)

This is the story of Etienne DePardieu, narrated by him in the parish of Nohant, France, in 1828.  He was the son of a farmer whose wife died when Etienne was young.  Pere Brulet, his grand-uncle, lived with his grand-daughter Catharine (called Brulette by everyone).  Marie Picot (known as “Mariton”) and her son Joseph also lived in the Brulet household;  she was a sort of housemistress for the old man.  Brulette grew up to be a classy young lady;  Joseph was small and weak;  Etienne was burly and strong.

In the course of time, Mariton took a job with old Benoit at the Boeuf Couronne inn, Joseph and Etienne both lived as farm workers and odd job persons, Joseph being rather lackadaisical while Etienne could easily manage the work of two.

After over-imbibing at a local celebration, Joseph wandered off into the woods and got lost.  Etienne looked for him for hours,unsuccessfully.  After midnight, stumbling about in the dark, he began to pick up the faint sound of bagpipes coming from some distance away.  Circling around a large old oak tree, he tripped over something and, at the same time, heard the mysterious tinkling of tiny bells.  Suddenly enormous dark forms rose around him and crashed off through the brush, shaking the earth and reeking of coal dust.  Joseph, who had been the cause of Etienne’s fall, got up from where he’d been sleeping and they both made their way back through the dense forest, eventually arriving safely at home.

Joseph begins to disappear into the woods from time to time, and is occasionally observed sitting by himself tootling on a reed pipe, imitating bagpipe music and inventing his own tunes.  Etienne likes working in the fields and doesn’t think very positively about Joseph’s apparent idleness and ineptitude for physical toil.

One night, as Etienne and his father are sleeping, they hear the sound of tiny bells outside the house.  Etienne jumps out of bed and discovers a large mule rolling around in the oat field, crushing the plants.  With his dog, Satan, he captures the animal and leads him to an adjacent barren meadow, where he finds a herd of mules led by a small horse under the control of Huriel, their owner.  He’s a sort of gypsy who makes his living by hauling coal and iron back and forth through the Berry country (a province in southern France).  And, as Etienne comes to realize, he’s also a master bagpiper.  They come to grips over the damage done to the oat field and, although Etienne is big and strong, the muleteer is stronger;  he wins the fight, but they become friends afterwords.

Meanwhile, Joseph seems to have disappeared permanently, as he has not been seen for several weeks.  Etienne goes off to find him and runs into Huriel’s father’s encampment.  Bastien is a logger and lives in the mountains cutting timber and moving about.  He’s a master bagpiper as well.  Etienne and Joseph stay at the camp for several months, meeting Therence, Bastien’s daughter, and learning the techniques of timber falling and bagpipe playing.  Assorted incidents transpire, altercations with a rival logging outfit and chases through the woods over hills and through streams.  During one mass battle with a group of muleteers, Huriel accidentally kills Malzac, an evil instigator, and immediately decamps, escaping what he regards as certain doom at the hands of the authorities.

Before the fisticuffs, Brulette had arrived, and made herself very popular by helping Therence with household management and pitching in to wash dishes and taking care of clothing repair and the like.  She fell in love with Huriel, but after he leaves, she and Etienne return to Nohant to resume their former occupations.

Time passes, people change, and Huriel, abandoning the life of a muleteer and forgiven for the slaying of Malzac, meets Etienne, Brulette and friends at an old deserted castle to which they’ve come for a short vacation.  Etienne falls in love with Therence, Huriel declares himself to Brulette, and they sojourn back to Nohant.

But this is not the end of the story.  The balance involves a bagpipe contest, an election deciding the leadership of the local bagpipe association, political machinations, daring exploits in the dungeon of a nearby castle, fearsome devils with clutching talons and spiked leather coats, and surprising revelations regarding the parents of various children and adults.  In the end of course, problems are resolved, marriages occur, and rest is provided for the wicked, sort of…

This was the first book of George Sand’s i’ve read.  It was transcribed from the French by an unknown translator:  not listed in the front pages.  I had the sense that the French original might have been more fluid and poetic than the English version.  At times, it felt like a version of TinTin, or Asterix.  The book had a complicated plot, beyond what i’ve suggested above, with more characters, but it was never-the-less fairly easy to follow, and a satisfactory read.  I noticed that Sand had a gift for creating real people.  Meaning that her characters, while not explicitly described in words, came to seem real and material.  I’ve not read too many authors who were capable of this:  almost always, there’s a hint of unreality or two-dimensionality with most literary personae, but somehow Sand seems to have discovered a way to make her people stand out like individuals.  It added a great deal to the story, and to this reader’s comprehension of the various situations and events.


John Milton (1608-1674)

I was just reading some of the delightful letters of Horace Walpole to his various lady and ambassadorial friends.  Reading them is like sitting in an elegant 18th C. drawing room and listening to brilliant repartee from a college professor.  But i have this post to write about Milton’s major effort that i read this last week, so here goes…

Hell is about 24,000 miles from Heaven, according to Milton.  Sitting in a puddle of lava, Satan is whining to Beelzebub about the unfairness of having to live in such uncomfortable circumstances.  The pair fly over to the land, which is a sort of blasted heath made of hot rocks, and are pursued by legions of other demons following their lead.  After much conversation, Satan instructs them to erect a palace and a throne for him to sit in, to regularize their social interactions and establish a locus for future development.  Completing Pandemonium, the name of the city they have just built out of gold, they all celebrate with a marching band and a party until Satan calls for quiet and makes a speech.  He berates Heaven and God and vows revenge, calling for war and justice.  Moloch, Mammon and others all express their opinions during the post-speech assessment, the end result of which is that Satan declares that he’ll visit Heaven himself.  It has become known that God has made the Earth and put Adam and Eve on it, partly to give himself something to do while dealing with Satan.  One of the results of this decision had been a war in which a third of the angels sided with Satan because God wouldn’t honor them like he had his son.  Occupying the northern part of the shell on which Heaven was located (Milton apparently was a follower of the epicyclic theory of astronomy), Satan made cannons with which to bombard Abdiel’s troops (Abdiel was the general angel in charge of God’s army), but after they were employed against the opposition, Abdiel and his host picked up a lot of mountains and dropped them on Satan and his minions.

After losing the war, Satan and company were exiled to Hell.  Satan put into practice his plan of visiting the vicinity of Heaven, managing to open the nine gates of Hell because the gate-keepers were his own relations.  He forged his way through outer space, known as Chaos, dodging aliens and all the bric-a-brac floating around, until, arriving at the outermost shell on which Heaven is located (God lives in a cave, there), he discovered a hole in the shell which allowed him to fly down to earth.

Here, he employs his shape-shifting abilities to wander around making observations, and stumbles upon Eden, which God has made for the abode of Adam and Eve. Turning himself into a snake, he lurks…

Meanwhile, God has sent Raphael down to educate the Edenic pair.  Raphael teaches them seraphic history, and answers their questions regarding the omnipotence of God and how they should be conducting themselves in accordance with his wishes.  Milton, at this point, goes into how Eden was built.  He describes the Tigris river flowing underneath the enclosed valley, and how it’s diverted up through a hill to produce a fountain.  All sorts of exotic flora abound, and trees of all description, including the trees of Life and of Knowledge.  Raphael warns them against eating any fruit because ignorance in this case is better than learning.  He stresses that they owe their existence to God and they should be forever grateful and obedient.

But, as we know, the wily serpent persuades Eve to take a bite and as a result Adam does also, and they’re both driven out of Eden by Michael with his flaming sword.  They feel badly about this, but Michael makes them feel more comfortable with their future by teaching them that after millions of people have slaughtered each other, one will come, the Son of God, who will fulfill the covenant, and thereafter persons will have the opportunity to live in Heaven as angels.

There are several notable observations to make on this work.  Milton demonstrates almost scientific thinking when he underlines the events of his story by citing referents from Greek mythology, to which he is careful to allude in support of his narrative.  It is as if he wants to substantiate his history by using the  known authorities of the past to emphasize the truths that he’s promulgating.  The only difference between his methodology and that of science, is that science is built on verifiable data, not the works of ancient authors.  (This consideration might only be important to those who like playing with real, physical objects, like rocks and trees, but it is not intended to offend those who believe in the reality of imagination…).  Milton’s prose is astonishing, both for its lexigraphic comprehension, and its occasional density.  He apparently had a dictionary in his head as well as an encyclopedia.  It’s incredible how a blind person could have ever created such an amazing and complicated work of art.

In many ways, this long poem is an introduction to both the poetical imagination of the 18th C., and to the powerful influence that the preceding English Civil War had had on Milton and his society.  Images of cannon and explosions, ranks of armed warriors, ranks of soldiery, all find a place in the descriptions of the conflicts described as taking place on the outer shell of Heaven.  And Milton displayed familiarity with current astronomical thought, as well, referring to the planets (seven of them), and theorizing about celestial mechanics and the purpose of galaxies and the Milky Way (the latter being the freeway Satan built to convey his army to the Solar System).

I found this to be, not fascinating, but intriguing in its descriptions, poetic fluidity, and highly original construction.  I don’t think i’d wade through it again, buy i might try his “Paradise Regained”….  it was quite a trip…


Helen Thayer (1937-….)

She was born in New Zealand and was introduced to outdoor physical activity by climbing an 8,000 foot mountain, at the age of 9, with Edmund Hilary (of Everest fame).  At 13 she became entranced with Mongolia and the Gobi desert, but waited 50 years to explore it.  In the meantime she walked all over the earth, including a solo trek (with a doggie) to the magnetic north pole wherein she learned how to deal  in a civilized fashion with polar bears.  When the opportunity arose at last, she and her husband Bill spent a year driving around Mongolia just to get acquainted:  arranging for camels and visiting herding families and learning about the required regulations and permissions.  They sort of had to bribe/persuade the official in charge of internal exploration, mainly because of their ages:  she was 63 and Bill was 74!

To make things worse, after the trip was all set up for the next year (2001), the couple was rear-ended on a freeway in Seattle and they both suffered traumatic and rather severe back and neck injuries.  Not wanting to forgo the ambition of a life-time, Helen started rehabilitation immediately and refused to abandon the idea of walking across the Gobi desert.  Eventually she was able to walk with the aid of two trek poles and they forced themselves to continue with their plans.

The pair arrived in Ulan Bator to keep an appointment with a local pilot (a bi-lingual Mongolian), who flew them to the western border.  The plan was to walk in stages:  at three pre-arranged locations, the pilot was to meet them and re-supply them with food and water.  The total distance they walked was 1600 miles from the eastern to the western border, and the rendezvous points were about every 500 miles or so.  There was a short period of adjustment during which the Thayers and their companions (Tom and Jerry) got used to each other, but after that they all worked more or less effectively as a team.

In spite of their injuries, they averaged about 20 miles a day, later increasing that to about 25 although at times due to lack of water (at one point Tom felt like having a roll and broke most of the plastic jugs the water was in, leaving them with only four gallons to cover about a hundred miles) they covered almost fifty miles in a 24 hour period to avoid dying from thirst.

The terrain ranged from sand and rock to gravel and mud, with occasional mini-oases with minimal vegetation which sometimes held a small amount of water.  There were mountain ranges to cross, wind-storms to weather, and lots of snakes and scorpions, not to mention nasty border guards.  They traveled close to the southern border for quite a while as it was a more accessible route.   The border was closely monitored by the Mongolians partly because of smugglers and partly because Mongolia and China didn’t like each other very much.  Border forts were about 100 miles apart and patrols connected them on a scheduled basis.  At one point Helen and Bill were arrested as spies and were threatened with jail until Helen lost her temper and chewed out one of the officials for being so disrespectful to their elders.  Apparently the tactic was effective, because the chagrined officer wrote them a permission slip that allowed them access to forts and trails all along the border.

The Thayers were in constant pain during the entire trip due to the automobile accident in Washington.  They told stories to each other and sang songs to distract themselves from the agony they were suffering.  They almost abandoned the trek several times, but couldn’t bring themselves to leave.  Quite a few times they managed to rest for a day or so at the gers they encountered.  A “ger” is a Mongolian tent-like structure  used by the nomadic families as a movable house.  It contains everything the natives need for maintaining their lives and caring for their sheep and/or goat herds.  Helen had acquired a little of the Mongolian language the year before, so they could relate to the people fairly well, but to be sociable, both had to drink fermented mare’s milk and consume various sorts of soup made out of sheep fat and occasionally rotten sheep meat.  Once Bill had to dash out of the ger to barf.  The Mongolian family found that to be riotously humorous.

They kept to their plane-meeting timetable pretty well, only once missing their pilot  by about a day.  But at the very end, when they were walking night and day with very little rest for several days, and they had finally reached what they thought was their goal, a rider dashed up with a message from the pilot saying that he couldn’t land at that particular spot and would they please walk another 90 miles farther east.  So, dogged, single-minded and tenacious, they summoned up what blood they had left and forged on and finally arrived at last, very close to the eastern border.

This was an exciting story.  I’d never heard of Helen Thayer until i read this book.  She and her husband have operated an adventure out-reach business, leading tours and mini-expeditions, giving lectures and promoting physical health for some decades.  They have a farm near Seattle, and travel widely.  Lately they’ve been involved in charitable work in Africa.

The account was well-written and exciting, to the point that i was encouraging them to quit because of the difficulty and pain they were experiencing, but i was compelled to trek along with them because they were so courageous and determined.  I’d recommend any book written by Ms. Thayer:  she’s an accomplished author and had interesting views on the environment and popular mores of the Mongolians.


Lytton Strachey (1880-1932)

He was the son of a soldier, Richard Strachey, and one of ten surviving siblings.  His first thirty years were spent in struggling with the English educational system, surviving bullying as a child and prejudice (due to his tall lankiness and squeaky voice) as a college student.  He graduated from Trinity, Cambridge and was awarded a Medal in English Verse.  He lived for a while in London in rooms and varied his urban experiences with occasional trips to the country, staying with friends.  He was instrumental in the establishment of the Bloomsbury group, and published essays and reviews in magazines and newspapers.

“Portraits” is a collection of mini-biographies, intended to elicit the characteristic personality quirks of a few historical authors that interested Strachey, and to proffer basic interpretations of their works and beliefs.  He discussed 18 figures, of which I’ll give a brief summary of five or six:

Sir John Harington (1560-1612)  was a wit, a scholar, a poet, and an inventor.  His life at Queen Elizabeth’s court consisted of amusing her and her ladies-in-waiting with jokes and humorous aphorisms.  Sometimes he was rebuked for being overly Rabelaisian.  After joining Essex’s disastrous campaign in Ireland, he suffered the Queen’s ire as a result of the former having knighted him without her permission.  He happened to be in the room when Gloriana unleashed one of her temperamental storms, and was scared out of London and back to his estate Kelston, where he spent most of the ensuing years.  He, in an idle moment, invented the toilet, being possessed of some mechanical talent.  And this invention proved to be a ticket restoring him to the Queen’s favor.  The remaining years were more sober, devoted to religious observance and staid occupations.

John Aubrey (1626-1697) lived in the pre-Newtonian years, identified by Strachey as “a curious twilight period” before the onset of what might be regarded as the modern era.  He was interested in archeology, antiquities of all sorts, science, ancient civilizations, and old literature and arcane knowledge.  He was the first to realize what Stone Henge was; this led him to study other archeological remnants in southern England.  He was one of the first members of the Royal Society.  But he was absent-minded and rather flighty.  Born with money, he managed to lose it all in unfortunate investments and law suits by 1670, and depended upon his many friends and associates for a subsistent living.  His most well-known achievement was his Brief Lives:  short descriptions of scientists, authors, and engineers from all over Britain.  It remains an important resource today.

James Boswell (1740-1795) was “an idler, a lecher, a drunkard, and snob.”  He was a sort of toady, without the redeeming qualities of self-respect or shame.  And an extraordinary biographer and author.  His work on Samuel Johnson is recognized as possibly the most important in literary history, but he interviewed and wrote on many well-known personalities of the time.  He became quite close to Rousseau, knew Lord Chatham and Pitt, General Paoli, Sir David Dalrymple, and many others, and spent way too much time drinking in riotous company.  In his spare time, he made a stab at establishing a law practice in London, and had ambitions of parliamentarianism, but his energies were too much expended in chasing celebrities and ladies to settle into any sort of steady pursuit of a real career.  Johnson liked him, though, and between the two of them, they wrote two accounts of northern tours that are delightful and perceptive.

Mary Berry (1763-1852) was a well-loved friend of Horace Walpole.  She and her sister Agnes lived next door to Strawberry Hill, Walpole’s estate, and when he was older, seventyish, his greatest enjoyment was sitting before the fire on a winter’s eve, exchanging stories and jokes with Mary and Agnes.  They are mentioned in Walpole’s “Reminiscences”, along with many of the tales of societal misconduct and unfortunate mesalliances with which Horace had been familiar in his earlier life.  Mary and her sister went on a European tour and happened to travel through Paris in revolutionary times;  Horace worried about them.  But he didn’t know until later that they both had fallen in love;  one with a general and the other with a wealthy young cousin.  Neither affair resulted in marriage, but the happy trio beside the fireplace at Strawberry Hill never was re-established.  Horace passed on, but the sisters, painting and socializing, lived on.  Mary became a lion of sorts in their particular circle, and evolved into a match-maker, manager and arbiter of local fashion.  Agnes became dimmer as she aged, deferring to Mary’s intelligent direction of their financial and social affairs.

Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) was born under a lucky star.  He inherited a small income and  spent his early life in study.  He became a Catholic at Oxford and when his father sent him to Switzerland to get straightened out, he was taken on a tour of Italy, where, standing on Capitoline Hill, viewing Rome laid out before him, he had a sort of epiphany:  suddenly understanding that writing a history of Rome was what he had been born for.  He spent the remainder of his life writing tome after tome;  the six volumes were completed only a few years before his death.  There are two remarkable features of his work:  the quality of the writing and his selection of historical events.  The writing is balanced, elegant, and eminently readable.  In fact he was an important influence on the future development of English prose.  And the books themselves, due to the intelligence and delicacy with which episodes and events were selected, had a flow that carried the reader along, connecting fact to fact in a stream of words, like trucks cruising down a freeway.  Edward’s later life became more social, and his rotund figure became a familiar sight at theaters, clubs, and salons in the London of the time, as he basked in the general appreciation and recognition of his genius.

Lytton had an unusual perception into the background and motivations of the characters he chose to write about.  He obviously sympathized with many of their foibles and looked kindly upon their errors and missteps.  His compassion shows through even with subjects he’s not enthusiastic about, like Voltaire and Rousseau.  His writing style owed much to Gibbon’s:  he seems to have studied the latter’s sentence structure to some effect, as can be upon occasion perceived by the alert reader.  Strachey and Gibbon have both meant a lot to me in the past, and i hope to have time to revisit them in the future.  The other Portraits are as interesting as the ones i’ve chosen above;  but the latter are more apt to be familiar to postees…