Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881_

Born with a golden spoon in his upper orifice, young Tancred Montacute lived a privileged childhood in the huge mansion of Bellamont, occupying the very large estate of the same name in northern England.  As his grandfather had been a rather exacting and mean-spirited individual, his father was loving and considerate, and highly interested in Tancred’s education, health, and welfare.  After a huge party celebrating his coming of age, Tancred confessed to his parents that he was having serious doubts about philosophy and religion;  that he wanted to travel to Jerusalem to find an angel.  Following the advice of a family friend, his parents decided to let him build his own yacht for the trip, planning thereby to allow enough time to pass to result in the debilitation of their son’s resolution.  The plan worked for awhile.  Tancred got used to engaging with high society in London’s clubs and opera houses, and even fell in fond, if not in love, with one of his co-elitic celebrants.  She showed him a copy of “The Revelation of Chaos”, however, and, as it dealt with the recently notorious theory of evolution, he became alarmed, and precipitously left for the Mid-East.

Staying in the house of Adam Besso, he gradually familiarized himself with the city of Jerusalem and the surrounding environment, taking long walks and breathing in the native culture.  One day he happened upon the Garden of Bethany and fell asleep underneath a palm tree and was awoken by a fair young lady who turned out to be the daughter of his host.  After some conversation, another young person appeared, the girl’s foster-brother, Fkardeen, a wild, thoughtless individual and a prince of Lebanon, whose grandiose schemes for power and wealth kept him in a permanent state of hysterical plotting and up to his eyes in debt.  Later it’s revealed that he had bought 5,000 muskets to foment a rebellion against the Turks and to start a war between the Druses, the Maronites, and numerous other Arabian and Bedouin tribes.  His affairs are so complicated that he has lost track of how much money he owes and to whom he owes it.

Tancred wants to travel to Mt. Sinai as a sort of pilgrimage.  Arranging transportation by camel and accompanied by a few servitors, he’s kidnapped on the way by a huge force of Bedouins led by Amalek, a major player in the intensely intricate politics of the region.  Amalek is in need of rifles, so Fkardeen, newly arrived at the encampment, evolves a plan in which Tancred will pay for the 5,000 muskets, 500 of which will be used to ransom Tancred and the balance will be sold for yet more money to the rebels in Lebanon.  Meanwhile, Tancred, on honorable leave from his kidnappers, journeys to Mt. Sinai, where he meditates on the mountainside and sees an angel.  Because of Fkardeen’s financial manipulations, Tancred is released and returns to Jerusalem, unconcerned as to the probable destination of the aforementioned muskets.

Traveling by camel, Adam Besso and friends journey to Damascus to celebrate Eva’s marriage to her cousin Hillel.  The party is a swanky event with strange and delicate fruits and lush displays of rare and costly jewelry.  Fkardeen uses the time to persuade Tancred to visit his principality in Lebanon, where another feast is held, cementing the loyalties of the many different tribes of the area to the house of Fkardeen.  One of the elements of the latter’s overall strategy is to pay a visit to the kingdom of Ansarey which is ruled by a Queen of unknown connections.  An exceptionally private person, she permits no visitors from the outside world, and is rumored to reserve highly unpleasant consequences for those who enter her country unwarrantedly.  Fkardeen sends her a letter identifying Tancred as a long-lost descendant of her family, and obtains permission for a visit.  She welcomes them and displays her most prized possessions:  Greek statues of Apollo, Zeus, Hera and others which had been rescued from Aleppo many years previously during a war with the Turks.  In fact these Olympic remnants represent the national faith of Ansarey.  Fkardeen wants the help of the Ansarites in fomenting a war with the Turks, as he has wild ambitions of conquering the whole of Asia and wants to begin with the locals.  Tancred goes along with this idea, because due to his revelations on Mt. Sinai, he has imagined the same ambition, only in a religious sense;  he’s convinced that the ancient Hebrews were the legitimate predecessors of Christianity and Mohammedism, and he desires to wipe out all other religions and impose the Jewish creed on the entire world.

There’s a battle between the Pasha of Aleppo and Queen Astarte’s forces and the latter win.  Fkardeen had made promises to Astarte about marrying her and killing Tancred and Eva and assimilating the entire Mid-East region under her sway (Fkardeen is a great liar), but she rejects this idea because she’s in love with Tancred.  But during the battle, Tancred and Fkardeen had been chased back into the desert by the remnants of the Pasha’s army until they were discovered by Amalek and his Bedouins, at which point they all return to Jerusalem to recuperate.  One day Tancred is lolling about in the Garden of Bethany with Eva, and he’s just about to express to Eva his overwhelming devotion and love when a messenger runs up, saying that a ship bearing the Duke and Duchess of Bellamont has just entered the harbor.  The End.

I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Disraeli’s novels, but this one was quite a bit more undisciplined and unorganized than any of the others that i’ve read.  Long tracts of political and religious discussion frequently interrupt the plot line, and it was a puzzle to me as to whether Disraeli was being entirely serious, or engaging in irony to the point of sarcasm at times.  He seemed to genuinely believe that the Jewish people were responsible for civilization and it’s religious components in most of Asia and Europe, but at the same time he occasionally tenders opinions that lead the reader to a contrary conclusion:  that he’s just making up a story and is not serious about the long screeds he’s filled the text with, describing the glory of Hebrew history and the methodology with which the tribes of Israel have had a game-changing effect on the evolution of all modern culture.  Another, possibly minor point, involves the names of the novel’s characters.  Tancred was the name of a king of Sicily in the 12th century and had an eventful reign, fighting wars and fomenting invasions all across the mid-east area;  difficult to believe that Disraeli didn’t choose the name for an ulterior motive.  I suspect the same is true of some of the other names, but i don’t know enough to be specific;  it’s just a feeling.  Disraeli was a brilliant and extraordinarily well-informed politician;  the knowledge he displays in this book suggests that he had an intimate awareness of how the local politics and culture operated in the middle east, and his presentation of a myriad of minute details lends authenticity to his prose and descriptions, even though there’s not an expected ending, and the plot seems designed, at times, by a confused giraffe.  Even so, i sort of liked it, although i don’t think it’s a candidate for a reread.  Ever.



Henry Miller (1891-1980)

In 1939 Laurence Durrell invited Henry to visit him on the island of Corfu.  In spite of the incipient war, the trio (along with Lawrence’s wife, Nancy) had a great time swimming in the ocean, prowling around the small villages, sampling the rough vintages and talking incessantly about writing, politics, and most importantly, the Greek mythos.  Miller was stunned by the physiography of the area:  the constant, brilliant white light that illumined the scenery in a magical way and the islands that appeared to float in air just above the horizon, seemingly just beyond touch.  The very rocks and cliffs held a mystical quality that reverberated with a kind of silent hum, timeless and numinous in their ageless transcendency.  The whole area, to Henry, reeked of history.  He expected to see gods appear around every corner.  In the quiet times, he investigated literature:  the works of Madame Blavatsky, Shakspeare (the Phoenix and the Turtle), the diaries of Nijinsky and some of Knut Hamsun’s novels.

News of the war impinged on their idyll, however, so Henry, Lawrence and Nancy  sailed to Athens hoping to discover what the dangers were and to visit friends.  The Greek army had been mobilized resulting in a plethora of troop movements with the consequential disruption of civilian services and tourist accomodations.  They visited the Acropolis, Eleusis, Poros and other sites, traveling over rocky dirt roads and walking goat trails in the heated, lambent light.  All the time Henry was becoming more entranced with the blue and white houses, the cubical architecture, and the ambient luminescence.  The friendliness of the people in spite of their poverty impressed him greatly, to the point that he ranted about the ubiquitousness and depravity of money and how it perverted the natural instincts of humans to be generous and giving, into stingy cash-hungry automatonic greed.

Henry made some accomplished friends:  Katsimbalis, a poet and former war hero, a compulsive talker with an endless stream of fascinating anecdotes, and Dr. Seriades, another poet, and Ghilka, a local artist.  A quote from Katsimbalis:  “English poetry sounds like wooden money dropping into a sewer.”  After visiting Nauplia, a prison town, they broke away from the Athens area to explore the Peloponnesus, Tiryns, the Mycenaic region and Agamemnon’s tomb.  At the latter, Henry had an epiphanic realization about the attainment of peace and how living in the moment in harmony with the natural world was the sole route to sanity, and that the consciousness supposedly possessed by humans was a nonexistent quality when contrasted with the enormous physical universe.

Temporarily alone, Henry visits Crete, where he takes a car trip through the hinterlands to Knossos and Phaestos.  Admiring Sir Arthur Evan’s reconstruction of the royal palace at the first locale, but not overwhelmed by it, he bounces over miles of dusty dirt track to see the second site which is a Greek ruin situated on a mountain top featuring a 360 degree view of plains and mountain ranges.  It’s an awe-inspiring sight which moves him to several pages of flowery prose.  Then he travels to Canea, where numerous official persons clamor for his attention, as an American and an author.  Partly as a result of their culinary recommendations, Henry develops a case of dysentery and is forced to live on soggy rice for ten days;  a guaranteed cure prescribed by the local doctor.

Back in Athens, the war has gained impetus and it becomes evident that foreigners need to leave the country.  But Henry, Lawrence and Nancy make a last trip down to Sparta by car for a farewell visit, in the course of which, Lawrence almost runs them over a cliff and the car’s engine gets drowned in a rain storm.  They return to Agamemnon’s tomb, bent on descending into a magical well leading to a spring of water with mystical traditions.  Climbing down the slippery steps, lit candles in hand, the atmosphere becomes increasingly gloomy and forbidding.  About half way down, the trio,  eschewing Hades, turns around, wordlessly, and leaves the Styx to burble in the dark by itself.  In Athens once more, Henry says goodbye to the friends he’s made and sails to America.

As usual, there’s a lot more in this book than i’ve mentioned:  philosophy, history, and conversations.  It was an enjoyable trip, and it was interesting to observe the byplay between Durrell and Miller.  It was obvious they liked each other a lot.  Henry’s awe and mystical encounters with history are intriguing and enlightening.  He was definitely a person with strong ideas about the wrong paths mankind has been following for the last few hundred years, although it’s difficult to see how things could be otherwise, given the mindsets and attitudes promulgated by our society in general.  He seems to see himself as existing apart from the species even though he has a sense of the commonality that connects us with the universe and the planet.  All in all, it was a good read, totally unlike what i thought it would be like, with no sex or aberrant behavior.  I’ve not read anything else by him and don’t intend to, but i enjoyed this volume quite a bit…  Although i’m still curious as to what Maroussi might be, as it was never mentioned in the text…


Robert Paltock (1697-1767)

Mr. Paltock was rounding the Horn, headed east, when the ship in which he was a passenger was met by a huge dark cloud.  A cannon was fired to disrupt it and it vanished;  at the same time they heard a yell and an indistinct figure plummeted into the sea alongside the ship.  They heaved to and picked him up;  he was an older fellow with a long beard and a lot of wrinkles.  The captain wanted to give him some food and drop him off on one of the local islands, but Paltock said he’d pay his passage.  He’d made a deal with the rescuee to turn his story into a book and sell it to a publisher, and to split whatever profits there might be with him.  Unfortunately, Peter died the same night that they arrived in England.

Peter Wilkins was the son of a farmer who was a participant in the Duke of Monmouth’s pseudo rebellion and hanged as a result.  When Peter was 16, another local land-holder convinced his mother to send him off to school.  By the age of 19, he’d gotten married and had two children, and was in a position to take over some of the duties connected with the institution.  But he was anxious to return to the farm and take over operations, which included inheriting what monies his father had left him.  Unfortunately, his mom had married in the interim and her new husband wrote and told Peter that his mother was dead and there was no money for him.   Chagrined and desperate, he made his way to Dover and got a job as a ship’s steward.  On his first cruise, the ship was attacked by a French privateer and the crew was taken prisoner.  Chained up in the hold for six weeks, they were released after another battle in which the privateer was sunk, but the crew’s chains were knocked off in time, and they pushed off in the gig.  They ran out of food and water and began to eat each other until they were rescued by a Portuguese captain at which point there were only seven of them left.  The new captain hired them as replacements for several sailors that had been previously lost, but after yet another battle, Peter and his friend, Glanlepze were taken prisoner and found themselves enslaved in the interior of Africa.  Two years later, after a couple of escapes and conflicts with the wildlife (lions, mostly), the two were working full time dismantling an old castle, when they managed, along with a collection of imprisoned Englishmen, to steal a ship and elude their pursuers.  Running out of water, they stopped at an uncharted island to replenish supplies;  a storm arose while most of the men were on the island, the anchor cable parted, and Peter and a friend were blown to the south-west, running before the wind on a broad reach, until they noticed that the speed of the ship was accelerating.  On a dark and stormy night there was a horrible crunch and they were thrown out of their bunks.  Running up on deck, they saw that the vessel had managed to wedge itself into a large chasm incised into a huge black rock.  Curious about the cargo, they investigated and discovered that the hold was stuffed full of long iron bars, and that the cause of the crash was undoubtedly magnetic attraction.  Days later, the craft seemed to be permanently stuck so they went exploring in one of the ship’s boats.  Adams was accidently knocked overboard and drowned but Peter continued exploring until he discovered an additional channel penetrating the precipice, several days journey from the ship’s position.  Returning to the vessel, he loaded the boat with supplies and rowed back to examine the passage.  The boat was caught in a race and pulled into the rift, down a waterfall, and through a long series of convoluted tunnels for five weeks, until it was debouched into a large lake.

Peter set to work exploring the vicinity.  The lake was surrounded by a vegetated shore fronting on a band of woodlands that shielded a high escarpment.  Finding a cave, he made implements out of wood and stone, built a house against the cliff, probed the mysteries of the local plant and animal life (one of the plants sang to him), and lived alone for a number of years.  One night he heard voices.  Doubting his own sanity, he stayed awake and ultimately realized that the sounds were emanating from the air above him.  He was soon discovered by the flying people, who lived on another island some distance away, but were presently engaged in a seasonal celebration.  One of them fell in love with him, and vice versa, and they lived together in the house that Peter built for 14 years, having 7 children in the meantime.  Peter had learned from his wife, Youwarkee, that the island they were on was called Graundevolet, while the one that his wife grew up on, and which was ruled by her father, was named Normbdsgrsutt.

Eventually, Peter visits his wife’s native land, and through British know-how, revises their political system, their religion, and brings the entire island (which had  been suffering a civil war) under the aegis of one King:  Youwarkee’s father.  He regularizes their commercial system, building manufacturing, mining, and merchandising, until he has been in that country for 35 years.  Since his wife has died and the children are all grown up, he decides to make an attempt to return to England.  The flying people have devised a system by which Peter could sit in a chair which was nailed to a long board, and be flown from place to place through the use of long cords or ropes attached at pivotal junctures to the board.  Thus engaged, the aviating personages, when startled by the cannon of the passing ship, let go of the ropes sustaining Peter’s chair and flew away, allowing him to fall into the drink.  At which point…

I couldn’t help but contrast this fantasy with Defoe’s and Swift’s epics.  Although it didn’t attain the high standards set by those two author’s works, it had a certain attraction of it’s own.  For one thing, it was interesting reading about the cleverness displayed by Peter in building chicken coops, houses, boats, and in fashioning a wide assortment of tools used in his constructions.  It got kind of boring, though, when Paltock allowed his proselytory compulsions to arise in describing how his ideas of religion and politics were better than anyone else’s.  The book was published in 1751 and so far as i have found out, has not been much reprinted;  or very popular, for that matter.  Still, i think it might offer some interest to the itinerant reader who’s attracted to fantastic productions of that era. In some ways, it seemed like another version of Antarctic exploration, essaying a description of the then little known continent.   I couldn’t locate a picture of the author, so I substituted some images from the book of flying people and Peter engaged in a battle during the Civil War.


Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673)

While strolling on the beach one day, a young lady was kidnapped by a nefarious merchant and stolen away in his ship.  The vessel sailed north into the polar ice and all the men froze to death except the lady.  The sunlight became almost unbearable, but she saw that the ship was following a conduit that led to another world, as if two planets were connected by a channel incised in the ice.  Soon after, the ship sank and the lady was rescued by some bears who transported her to their City of Caves.  She discovered that this world was populated by various types of animal-men.  There were bear-men, fox-men, fish-men, fly-men, worm-men and many others.  The fox people carried her from the bear people to the kingdom of green men, who, in turn, transported her to visit the Emperor on his island, Paradise.  The ships in this world were powered by giant wind machines that could be redirected to any point of the compass, and were capable of flattening waves in a storm so as to avoid ship-wreck.

The Emperor’s palace was made of alabaster, coral, amber, gold, silver and every precious stone imaginable;  the architecture was Romanesque, with arches, domes and pillars.  Immediately attracted, the Emperor married the lady.  Her wedding dress was made of thin diamonds and gold.  The marriage took place in the throne room which was begemmed with diamonds of every hue, including brown.

Afterwords, the Empress found time to conduct inquiries on the characteristics of the world she found herself on.  The moon created its own light, and the sun was a large rock.  Eclipses occurred as the result of differing air temperatures.  The stars were extraordinarily bright, hence the tag, “Blazing World”.  Wind was created by clouds falling against each other;  snow resulted from moon glow whipped up with water and then precipitated;  ice was created by excess amounts of salt in the ocean.  The inhabitants possessed telescopes and microscopes with which they could follow the motions of the stars and investigate thousand-eyed flies and the circulation of the blood in insects.  The ocean was salty due to tidal flow scraping mineral salts from the sea bed.

After prolonged interviews with mole-men, ape-men, bird-men and others, she found the worm-men to be the most enlightened.  One of their quotes:  “…  there’s nothing new in nature, nor properly a beginning of any thing”.  They had geological theories about the occurrence of mineral lodes:  gold and silver could be located in temperate zones, primarily, while iron and lead were found in the colder regions.  Ape-men were the chemists.  They had discovered that everything in nature was made of mercury, salt, and sulphur, except a dissenting body maintained that water was necessary for the formation of life.  The Empress came to the conclusion that, “nature is but one infinite self-moving body, divided into infinite parts, with perpetual changes and transmutations”.

Medicine had evolved some interesting theorems.  Apoplexy was the result of a dead palsy of the brain, and the spotted plague was caused by internal gangrene.  But when the Empress suggested that disease was transmitted from one person to another by tiny, invisible bodies, the wisest of the doctors said that was ridiculous.  They had unearthed a prescription for immortality:  an alkahest made from the golden sand found in a certain sort of hollow rock.

There was a long argument between some of the savants on divine faith versus natural reason as regards science and evolution, with the conclusion that “intellect and soul are intricate conceptions of irregular fancies”.  Even so, it was claimed that atoms have souls, and that spirits abound in all spaces. The Empress achieved communication with some of the local spirits and decided that she wanted to make a Jewish Cabbala, at which point they all vanished.  The Empress muttered something about the souls or spirits of the famous being hard to get along with.  She waffled around about the Cabbala idea, changing her mind several times as the actual type she wanted to produce:  philosophical, moral, or political.  The worm-men recommended she enlist the aid of the soul of the Duchess of Newcastle.  Apparently souls are able to travel from one world to another without difficulty.  Soon the Duchess’s soul appears and the first thing she says, when informed of the Empress’s desire, is:  “souls are stupid, just like men”, and goes on to tell the latter to forget the idea, as it’s already been done, and it’s too complicated.

The Empress and the Duchess spend a lot of time conversing;  the Duchess confessing to the Empress that she really wants to become a Princess in her own country.  The two souls flit back to earth, the Empress agreeing to help the other with her ambitions.  But in doing some research, the two realize that it’s a fruitless endeavor, as spirits can have little physical influence over corporeal bodies.  So, after some more consultation, they realize that they can create their own worlds in their own minds, and that this would more satisfactory and easier to achieve, merely requiring the manipulation of rational matter.

With the assistance of other spirits, the Empress creates her own mental world, but has a lot of trouble keeping order:  there are wars, conquests, and inveterate enemies.  She invents submarines to destroy enemy fleets and utilizes firestones( rocks that blaze when wet) and with the actions of fish-men and worm-men, she is able to undermine the opposing forces and attain ultimate victory.  In a victory speech, she says:  “be at peace and don’t fight”.  Then her fleet of ships sinks into the water and sails back to the other world, through the polar channel.

In an epilogue, Margaret declares that the empire she created in her own mind is greater than either Caesar’s or Alexander’s, because no one actually died, but she could rule without contention.

Reading this was a lot of fun.  Ms. Cavendish was the sort of person who had an extremely inventive imagination, and was fearless in her use of it, even in reality.  She was criticized by many of her associates in London society for her bizarre costumes and peculiar behavior.  Pepys and Henry More chastised her, among others, but she was a courageous and bold initiator of woman’s rights.  She wrote and published six books of philosophy.  Virginia Woolf said in one of her essays:  “Though her philosophies are futile and her plays intolerable, and her verses mainly dull, the vast bulk of the Duchess is leavened by a vein of volcanic fire.  One cannot help following the lure of her erratic and lovable personality as it meanders and twinkles through page after page”.  I’d enthusiastically agree with that…