Pierre Loti (1850-1923)

Yann Gaos and Sylvestre Moan are cousins aboard the fishing boat Marie, engaged in the pursuit of a school of cod somewhere near the south end of Iceland.  We visit them and three of their co-workers sealed up in the hold of the vessel, the fire warming them and bottles of wine making their rounds.  They are on a short respite from their normal occupations, which are described as line fishing:  numerous hooks on a single line per man.  The fish are detached one after another, filleted, and salted before being stacked in barrels.

A major storm arrives, and the boat is driven before the wind, toward Norway.  The ship weathers the storm, limits out its catch, and starts on the return journey to Brittany.  Once there, celebrations and parties are the rule;  at one, Yann meets Gaud, a local upper-class girl.  They fall in love, but due to class traditions, they cannot associate with each other.  The winter passes, Yann stays away from Gaud, and soon another fishing season begins at the end of March.

Sylvestre has been drafted into the army and shipped to the orient.  He writes home to his beloved Grandmother about his experiences for several months, but the letters cease and it is subsequently revealed that he has fallen from the bullet of an Asian rebel.  Meanwhile, Gaud’s father has died and she discovers that he lost all his money gambling, so she moves in with Grandmother and supports them by her sewing expertise.  Yann, sailing on the Marie near Iceland, has a epiphanic episode while staring at the infinite horizon, and recognizes that he is married to the sea.

Several years pass.  Gaud, deeply in love with Yann, suffers because of his neglect of her, but consoles herself with her duties as a seamstress.  Yann takes to drink and chasing girls, trying to evade his feelings for Gaud, and doing his best to forget his love for her.

One day, returning from the market, Yvonne the Grandmother is attacked by several boys who are tormenting a cat.  She is rescued by Yann, just happening to pass by, and escorted home where he sees Gaud.  She proposes to him and he accepts.  They are married and discover their renewed love for each other.  Soon fishing season approaches and Yann must leave on a newly constructed ship (the Marie was wrecked in a storm).  Gaud watches from a cliff as the fleet disappears in the west, wondering if her beloved will return.  As does the reader (spoiler alert).

The fishermen begin arriving at the end of August, the boats appearing on the horizon one at a time.  Gaud waits and waits…  Finally they’ve all gotten back, all except the one Yann was on.  And it never returns.

Loti’s reputation was based principally on his descriptive powers:  his imaginative and evocative impressions of the ocean in its various moods is remarkable and unprecedented in my experience, anyway.  The last scenes from the movie, “The Perfect Storm” kept coming to mind, with the primitive fishing vessel struggling to climb one of those 100′ high rollers.  In some ways, this is an out-of-date book, featuring emotional description as well as physical portrayals.  It seemed quite poetical, overall.  It was one of those novels that somehow are enjoyed more in remembrance than in actual perusal.  I can’t say i disliked it, but in spite of it’s powerful poetical impact, it was not one of the best books i’ve read.  It’s not very long, though, so might be worth a bit of investigation.

The painting is of Loti, by Henri Rousseau, one of the post-impressionists.  You might recall his jungle pictures of tigers and lions devouring other animals and one unfortunate native.



A. A. Milne (1882-1956)

The author of the well-known Winnie-the-Pooh stories and “The Red House Mystery”, Milne also was contributor for many years to Punch magazine and the inventor of a myriad humorous tales and poems.  This book is a collection of the latter categories.  A few brief descriptions follow:

The Legend of Hi-You, in which a princess marries a pig who is the incarnation of the Prince of Milvania…

Enter Bingo:  the perfectly logical relationship between a teddy bear and a province located in Japan is examined…

The Way Down:  what does a business card sound like when dropped into an elevator shaft from the fifth floor?

The Problem of Life:  how to stage a limpet race while speculating about philosophers on Mars…

A Warm Half Hour:  why, when sent to the market for a bucket of ice, the author returned with a lobster.

The Obvious:  the perils of engraving loving messages on the insides of wedding rings.

A Poetry Recital;  enjoying the versifications of Lord Poldoodle and Mrs. Herrick…

Toby:  introducing a horse with a penchant for biting Colonels and how this led to the avoidance of bicycles.

The Complete Dramatist:  how to write a successful play in spite of Shakespeare and Sheridan

The Arrival of Blackman’s Warbler:  how to become an expert authority on avian populations without actually knowing anything.

A Few Tricks for Christmas:  entertaining an audience with adroit prestidigitation…

The Perils of Reviewing:  establishing one’s literary expertise in spite of not knowing French.

To conclude:                            A Song for the Summer

Is it raining?  Never mind –

Think how much the birdies love it!

See them in their dozens drawn,

Dancing, to the croquet lawn –

Could our little friends have dined

If there’d been no worms above it?

Is it murky? What of that,

If the Owls are fairly perky?

Just imagine you were one –

Wouldn’t you detest the sun?

I’m pretending i’m a Bat,

And I know i like it murky.

There’s a sort of class of British humorists including Wodehouse, Milne, Stephen Potter, and possibly C. Northcote Parkinson and more that arose during and after the first World War.  Their humor can be biting but is commonly extremely funny.  Milne’s tales are best when narrated, at least that was the reaction of Mrs. M…



Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870)

Isabella, daughter of the Duke of Arcos, is out enjoying a sunny day with her maid, Pedrilla.  They are intending to rent a boat and sail to the Caprian Isles to eat oranges.  Reaching the beach, they enter into conversation with Tommaso Aniello, a local boatman, and his sister, Jeanne.  The four come to terms and spend a delightful day frolicking on the islands and devouring fruit.  On the way back, a storm arises and Isabella, overcome with fright, throws herself into Masaniello’s arms.  They fall in love.  Back on shore, Jeanne laments that Pietro, her boyfriend, has gotten in trouble with the authorities for fomenting riots and unrest, the cause of which is the excess and unreasonable taxation imposed by the Duke.  Pietro is wounded and on the run from the law.  Jeanne loves Pietro and the two slip out of the city to visit the monk, Dom Francisco, a man of learning and familiar with medicines.  Meanwhile the law has burned down their house, and seized Masaniello’s house and boat, but Isabella buys them back.

Masaniello decides to lead a rebellion and leaves the city (Naples) to search for the leader of the local group of banditti, Corcelli, to enlist him in his revolting plans (haha).  Accosted by lookouts, Masaniello and Francisco are delivered more or less intact into the catacombs underlying Mt. Vesuvius, the home turf of the outlaw clan.  Corcelli agrees to help in the revolt, but wants to plunder the city in the aftermath.  Masaniello agrees to let him do it for one hour, just in order to obtain his help.  Francisco mutters about “greedy despoilers, who grow fat on your substance and drink your tears”.

In the meantime, Don Fernandez with a flotilla of galleons has arrived with a load of gold for Duke Arcos.  Masaniello and Pietro would like to capture the ships and appropriate the gold.  A cohort of Masaniello’s, Gennero, fosters a plan to capture the ship(s).  He and his motley crew hide under a load of hay destined for the flagship, and jump aboard when their boat arrives.  There’s a battle royal which the bandits win, but unbeknownst to them, the captain before surrendering has ignited a fuse leading to the powder room.  Gennero discovers this just in time to leap off the ship with some of his compatriots, but the ship’s company together with the gold and the captain is scattered to the four winds by an enormous explosion.

Back in Naples, Masaniello has aroused the people to the peak of irascibility, and, aided by Corcelli and Gennaro and their adherents, they lay siege to the palace of Duke Arcos.  After sallies from the palace and inroads from the populace, the breastworks are overtopped and the Duke and his minions are captured.  The Duke, wily and untrustworthy agrees to all of Masaniello’s demands, and even to the marriage between his daughter and the leader of the rebellion.  The Duke leaves the palace but makes a last stand in the tower of Castel-Nuovo.  Another siege ensues and only after two more weeks is this edifice taken through the tact and diplomacy of Dom Francisco, who convinces the Duke to surrender.  On the point of leaving, the Duke causes a massive burst of grapeshot to be fired at the opposing crowd, but the fatal missiles pass safely overhead.  Soon after this, he poisons Masaniello just before his wedding, who is only saved by the timely interference by Dom Francisco, who appears with the antidote at the last moment.

Meanwhile, Corcelli, being frustrated in his plan to loot the city, has kidnapped Isabella and Jeanne and demands 60,000 ducats to release them.  They are freed after Masaniello raids the palace coffers and commandeers the cash to give to Corcelli.  With all the problems apparently solved, the wedding finally takes place and the Duke and his entourage are allowed to depart Naples and Masaniello and Isabella are installed as rulers of the city and live happily ever after.

Well, no…  Tommaso Aniello was a real figure and the Napolese rebellion against their cruel Spanish overlords did actually occur in 1647, but the final resolution of the affair was not quite as cheery as Dumas indicates.  But Dumas, being the master of poetic inspiration as he was, tastefully warped the ending into the happy denoument that he favored.  And that would avoid disappointing his readership.  As in his many other works, Dumas’ prose is readable, exciting and replete with frenetic activity.  Fun to read, and recommended…


G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

In somewhat dated English slang, drawing the longbow indicates stretching the truth.  The following series of tales utilizes that reference, describing the adventures of several individually-minded characters and their dealings with society and the government.


1)   The Unpresentable Appearance of Colonel Crane:

We’re introduced to the Colonel, a quiet resident of a quiet English village, staid, undisturbed, and tranquil.  Crane lives in a modest home with a vegetable garden tended by an associate, a former military colleague.  One morning, before attending church, the two held a brief conversation concerning early tomatoes, when the Colonel snatched off his hat, jammed it onto the head of a scarecrow and beat it several times with his cane.  He obtained a large cabbage and hollowed it out with his pocket knife and stuck it on his head, then strolled down to the clerestory.  The townspeople he passed greeted him a little queerly, but without loud outcry or comment.  Emboldened by the calm reaction to his chosen item of attire, he proffered marriage to his next door neighbor and was accepted.

2) The Improbable Success of Mister Owen Hood:

We see Mr. Hood quietly fishing on an island in the upper Thames river.  On the opposite bank, a fair maiden appears, pale and fairy-like with a bouquet of blue irises.  She accidentally drops the flowers into the water and Owen jumps in, swims across, retrieves them and gives them back to her.  Later, Hood, having fallen in love with Elizabeth Seymour, notes that her father’s estate has been sold to Dr. Hunter, who in turn has  constructed a factory on the site at the request of his friend, Low.  Once in operation, the industrial edifice is observed pouring dark streams of an unknown substance into the river and emitting noxious clouds of irritating smoke.  Shortly afterwards, Hunter is running for Parliament;  carried away by his apparent enthusiasm, Hood organizes a torch parade the night before elections.  The processional marches down to the river, where Hood throws his torch in and the water immediately catches fire.

3)  The Unobtrusive Traffic of Captain Pierce:

Colonel Crane and Mr. Hood, who has married Elizabeth Seymour, are enjoying an English breakfast of bacon and eggs in a scenic local pub.  During a conversation the landlord bemoans the fact that bacon will no longer be locally available, as the county officers have outlawed pigs as being germ carriers.  Enter Norman Oates, an American pork magnate who has finagled the contract for selling American bacon to the local inn-keepers.  Political machinations are in the process of being condemned by the three friends, when they spot a strange apparition approaching in the sky.  Upon closer examination, they see that a Zeppelin decorated like a pig is floating in from the west coast.  Soon pinkish objects are ejected and can be seen drifting down, suspended beneath parachutes.  They are pigs.  Some time later, after the animals have been captured and penned, Captain Pierce, former military pilot, arrives hand in hand with the innkeepers’s daughter.  Due to the Captain’s graphic and heroic efforts, Oates’s underhanded conspiracy is foiled.

4)  The Elusive Companion of Parson White:

Wilding White is a licensed and accredited parson assigned to a small district in the west country.  His house is perched on the boundary of the local Baron, who is intent on driving White from his house.  Each time the domicile is attacked, White moves it to a new site.  The three friends, Crane, Hood, and Pierce, try to visit him one day, and, walking over the moor, spot his house in the distance.  But the closer they get, the farther away the abode seems to be.  They give up.  The next day, a White Elephant sale is in process at the local parsonage, and  White arrives, riding a white elephant.

5)  The Exclusive Luxury of Enoch Oates:

This episode details the events leading up to the formation of the Longbow League, the membership including the above persons and in addition Enoch Oates.  There’s a certain amount of railing against corporate practices and how they ruin the countries and societies that they are imposed upon, but the distinctive tale of this chapter is the story of how Mr. Oates made his millions by creating silk purses from pig’s ears.

6)  The Unthinkable Theory of Professor Green:

Out for a walk one day, the four members of the Longbow League espy a large cannon jutting out from the window of a small farmhouse.  Upon closer examination, the gun turns into a telescope.  Professor Green, noted astronomer, is living a retired existence because his theory of the universe has been derided by official academia.  He believes that what we see is the opposite of what it actually is, that we are living on the inside of a sphere instead of the outside of one.  Joining the others in their walk, “every now and then he looked at the ground and frowned as if he did not like it”.  Captain Pierce engages to keep the Professor out of the reach of the men in white coats by flying him around from place to place in his airplane.

7)  The Unprecedented Architecture of Commander Blair:

Enoch Oates has donated his vast territorial holdings to the farmers who occupy the land. The latest government, including the previous plotters, Low and Hunter, has devised a plan to nationalize the whole country.  Oakes addresses the evil-doers, mentioning that in the States, they would be lynched for trying it.  The idea is that large land-owners would be paid for their holdings and then reimbursed for taking care of them.  Commander Blair registers his disapproval by constructing a castle-shaped balloon and distributing leaflets country-wide, claiming that if the government was going to acquire the land, he was going to  claim the air, as no else had put in a bid for it.

8)  The Ultimate Ultimatum of the League of the Longbow:

War is started between the agrarian community and the manufacturers, partly because one of the latter tried to bribe the workers in a munitions plant to work for less recompense by giving them a champagne party with champagne bottles filled with water.  Commander Blair and his cronies hole up in the Welsh mountains where they invent various and original devices for defeating the standard ground forces of the enemy.  Many of them involve the creation of various sorts of balloon.  But the war is finally won during a battle against the parliamentary army by utilizing the whole of a forest as catapults:  each tree is bent over, loaded with rocks, garbage, and dirt and it’s all flung at their opponents at once.  The country returns to “three acres and a cow”, a phrase that conveys Chesterton’s feelings about land-use.


This was a very witty and funny book.  Of course it reeks with Chesterton’s opinions and his outlook on social and philosophical issues, but he’s such a wonderful writer that the perusal thereof is a joy and a delight.  Highly recommended if you can find a copy…


Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881);  trans. Constance Garnett

Arkady Dolgoruky was the illegitimate son of a wealthy Russian land owner named Aleksei Versilov.  His mother was married to Makar Dolgoruky, a serf on the estate, and a husband much older than his wife.  Versilov traveled a lot and, taking advantage of the social injustice prevailing at the time, took Sofia with him.  Arkady was left at home and only saw his biological father once, at the age of ten, before he was sent to an academy in Moscow.  After graduating from school, he moved to St. Petersburg at the behest of Versilov, who, subsequent to suffering financial losses, wanted his son present partly because of guilt and partly because Sofia wanted to see her son again.

Arkady is soon embroiled in sundry social entanglements which, as he is more or less ignorant of the complexities of personal relationships, cause him a lot of soul-searching and misery.  He’s quiet and shy, and easily embarrassed, and easily stumbles into pitfalls that more his sophisticated associates have learned to veer away from.  Among these are  the mishandling of relationships between his father and his various former and current lovers, allowing himself to be entrapped into excess gambling, leaping to conclusions based on insufficient evidence, and, most disastrously, mishandling private letters that reveal intimate details concerning his father, his cousins and uncles. He feels ashamed a lot, but clings to his “idea”, an ambition that arose during his unhappy school years having to do with asceticism and the accumulation of vast amounts of wealth in emulation of the Rothschilds.

One of his schoolmates, Lambert, a bully and criminal, learns about a letter telling the story about several unsavory incidents in Versilov’s past and he tries to inveigle Arkady into a blackmail plot for 30 thousand roubles.  Various incidents occur, including a brief stint in jail, a fall off a high cement wall, fisticuffs among a few of the more brutal characters, wailing and bemoaning of diverse fates, actual and feared, and the overconsumption of champagne and associated beverages.  In addition, Arkady wants to challenge one of Versilov’s enemies to a duel, only discovering at a later date that neither of the involved parties was very intent upon shooting the other.  At an earlier date, another letter had been the source of trouble between several cousins.  One of them wanted to marry the father of the other one, apparently for mercenary purposes although the accusation was vehemently denied.  The two letters become somewhat conflated, causing a riot of confused interactions, ending up with a climactic meeting between Lambert and Katerina Nikolaevna, the one demanding roubles from the other.  Versilov dashes in, grabs the pistol out of Lambert’s hand and hits him over the head with it, then shoots himself in the shoulder while struggling with Arkady, the old Prince Sokolovsky is rescued by Arkady’s half-brother, and Lambert runs off.

There are so many plot twists and developments in this book that the above just touches a couple of the events.  There are about twenty five characters to keep track of and I confess I lost my way several times.  But the main features are the psychology of Arkady and how he deals with the nonsensical world around him, and how he ultimately is able to grasp a few branches extending out over the raging river of the deranged community that surrounds him.  Supposedly, this, as well as being one of the last novels Dostoevsky wrote, was a fairly autobiographical description of his adolescence.  It has a certain ambiance of reality about it even though it seems fantastical:  the desperate search for money and the extreme behaviors that arise from the same are not too different, i intuit from following the news, than what happens in urban life today.  Mankind is and has been always about the same, apparently.

I read a lot of Dostoevsky when i was young, all of them translations by Constance Garnett.  She lost her parents at a young age and married Edward Garnett, the son of Richard Garnett who was the Keeper of Printed Materials at the British Library.  Edward was a publisher and their son David was an author and a biologist.  Ms. Garnett’s translations are not perfect, but they are very readable and comprehensible.  I’ve tried a couple of modern versions, but was not very impressed with them;  a bit too colloquial, maybe…  If i was starting this novel again, i’d make a family tree before i began, inserting the names and their relationships to each other as they appeared;  that would have prevented a lot of head-scratching…