Monday, December 28, 2020



Alessandro Manzoni  (1771-1825)

Trans. Archibald Colquhoun

November 7, 1628.   Father Abbondio, sixty years of age, is traipsing down a mountain trail, headed home when he's accosted by two bravos.  (This takes place in Lombardy in northern Italy.)  A "bravo" is a sort of hanger-on, or private soldier that relies on and does the bidding of a territorial Count or Don.  In this case, the two baddies tell the good father to postpone or cancel the proposed marriage of Lorenzo and Lucia, as Don Rodrigo has an interest in the lady.  Abbondio is upset.  He's naturally reticent and fearful, and doesn't want to ignore his responsibility, but on the other hand he's deathly afraid of whatever revenge the Don might have in mind if he doesn't co-operate.  So when he talks to Lorenzo that same evening he hints that it would be a great idea if the couple were to postpone the rites.  They are flabbergasted.  Lorenzo is a parent-less silk weaver, a skilled occupation, and at first he doesn't know who to turn to.  His potential mother-in-law suggests he consult with the attorney, Doctor Quibble-Weaver, which he does, but attains no satisfaction.  In fact the lawyer kicks him out of his office.  Later Renzo discovers that he's a toady of the Don's.  So the mother of Lucia next suggests they all go to see Father Cristoforo, an influential religious figure with a reputation for correcting injustices.  Cristoforo pays the Don a visit at which he notes the presence of Quibble-Weaver and a table full of rowdy and insulting minions.  They laugh and point him toward the door.  Rodrigo senses that there is opposition to his intentions and decides to kidnap Lucia.  At the same time, Agnese, Lucia's mom, figures out a way to fool Abbondio into performing the ceremony by using a little known clause in the civil code.  They try their ploy on the same night that the bravos plan their nefarious deed.  Abbondio is aghast at what Agnese wants him to do and begins yelling which alarms the night watchman who starts ringing the church bell to wake the village.  People leave their houses and run around the streets scaring each other with imaginary disasters and phantoms.  Meanwhile the two baddies have ransacked the house, looking for Lucia, but find nobody home, so they make tracks out of town.

The three, Lucia, Renzo and Agnese visit Cristoforo for advice.  He counsels them to leave town for a while.  The two ladies travel to the Monza Convent near Milan for refuge and Renzo goes to Milan itself to ask Fra Bonaventura's opinion on what to do.  Renzo arrives during a bread riot and due to overindulging in vino and expressing himself too outwardly, is arrested by a couple of police persons but manages to escape.  He makes his way out of Lombardy and gets a job in a cousin's silk factory in Bergamo.  But he can't return to Milan because the authorities have blown his involvement in the riot way out of proportion and are actively searching for him as one of the ringleaders.  Lucia, due to the conniving of Rodrigo's uncle, is fooled into taking vows to be a nun.  Still hungering for her person, Rodrigo talks to another relation who is entitled by the author, "Unnamed", probably because he resembles a genuine figure in history and whose relatives he doesn't wish to get in bad with.  The Unnamed pulls strings to get the head abbess of the convent to send Lucia out with a message for a non-existent person and more bravos capture her and take her to the Unnamed's castle in the mountains.  Unnamed has led a life of cruelty, greed and immense criminal activity, but seeing the poor unhappy Lucia locked up in one of the cold stony castle dungeons causes him un-looked-for misery.  So over night he changes into a benevolent, helpful soul, willing to do anything to help anyone.  Federigo Borromeo arrives at the village below the Unnamed's castle.  He has a national reputation as a wise, kind soul who is possessed of bounteous generosity.  He arranges for Lucia to enter the service of a local member of the nobility where she'll be safe from the devious lust of Rodrigo.

Lorenzo has gotten tired of not knowing what happened to Lucia or where she is, so, receiving a letter informing him that she is in the convent, he journeys to Milan to find her.  Unfortunately the plague has arrived and people are dying by the thousands.  It was brought by the 27,000 remaining survivors of the Thirty Years War in Germany who, with nothing else to do and no prospects, decided to invade Italy.  Renzo explores Milan, looking for his Betrothed, and finally hears that she can be found in the lazaretto.  This last edifice is a huge fence structure just outside of the city filled with shacks and temporary housing and at this point houses somewhat more than 10,000 ailing sufferers.  Lucia is there helping out where-ever she can and Renzo eventually finds her.  They  both have contracted the disease but survived.  They return to their village and are married by Abbondio, but since Renzo has prospects in Bergamo, they sell their holdings in the village and move there, where they live happily ever after and have lots of kids.

This is a very brief synopsis of this quite long book.  It's pretty famous, having been translated into many languages, and in some respects lives up to its repute.  Manzoni was not a very focussed author;  he rambles a lot in the book, citing histories and statistics and going into detail about the plague in 1630 and the bread riots leading up to it.  The description of the plague and its progress rivals that of DeFoe in his "Plague Year".  His forte is in character analysis and presentation.  He successfully and in very convincing style gets into the motivations and feelings of Lucia and Lorenzo in particular, although he's not so successful in conveying the reason's for the Trumpic rationales of Rodrigo and the Unnamed.  The latter twopretty much just appear to be mindless goons out for whatever they can steal or whoever they can dominate.  And the overnight rehabilitation of the Unnamed is not very believable.  Still, it was an interesting book because Manzoni was a curious person:  the sort that gave the impression of having the potential of becoming a friend or charming dinner companion.  He was probably a fascinating conversationalist and undoubtedly knew a lot about Italian history.

Saturday, December 19, 2020



Charlotte Dacre (1771-1825)

The time is the late fifteenth century.  In Venice, Italy, the di Loredani's are throwing a fete to celebrate Victoria Loredani's birthday.  The Marchese di Loredani had married his wife, Laurina after her having been his mistress for several years.  They had two children, Victoria and Leonardo, who had been brought up haphazardly, and had their characters formed, perhaps adversely, by the proud and pugnacious society of the time.  Affairs of honor, and lax conditions of morality were the prominent features of the somewhat degraded upper classes, the members of which spent most of their time verbally sparring in their constant attempts to establish their superior dignity.  Sometimes they used knives, or swords.

A stranger arrived uninvited at the party.  Charismatic and handsome, Count Ardolph soon attracted the interest of Laurina and the two arranged for a meeting after the celebration.  Ardolph was a veritable Don Juan and Laurina fell madly in love with him.  The Marchese and the Count met on an afternoon stroll, fought with knives and the former was fatally stabbed.  Ardolph persuaded Laurina to run away with him, and Victoria went with them.  Leonardo was disgusted by the whole business and left town for parts unknown.  A villa in the remote hills, Monte Bello was rented by the absconding party and they lived there in isolation, spending much of their time dealing with and participating in affairs organized by the local criminal element.  The presence of Victoria was an inhibition on their illicit activities, so they took her to stay with Signora Modena in Treviso, an unpleasant, rather sadistic old lady who kept Victoria locked up in her room for the most part.  But with the help of a servant girl and the luster of a gold ring, she managed to escape the old crone's clutches and return to Venice.  She had fallen in love earlier with Count Berenza, a Venetian she had met in Monte Bello, and was mad to see him again.  When she arrived, Berenza locked her up in a room and tried to educate her as he was more interested in her brains than her body.  To wit:

"Such was the determination of the reasoning philosopher, whose delicate and fastidious mind made its own food, and took for ever a pleasure in repining upon itself."

In a confused exchange, another interested party, Megalena Strozzi, hires an assassin to kill Berenza because she resents his supposed taking of Victoria as a mistress.  One night Victoria hears a disturbance in Berenza's bedroom and she enters just in time to keep him from being stabbed although she herself is stabbed in the arm.  It turns out that the stabber is her brother Leonardo.  Leonardo, after he fled Venice, found refuge with the Zappi family near Naples, but Zappi's wife fell in love with him so Zappi kicked him out.  After several adventures, including working as a gardener for old Nina, Leonardo returned to Venice where he was befriended by Megalena.  After the assassination attempt, Megalena and Leonardo run away to the island of Capri.

Five years later, Victoria is still living with Berenza when the latter's brother arrives for a visit.  Victoria immediately falls madly in love with him, but he doesn't care.  Driven to desperation, she tries to get Henriquez to pay attention to her but he's already enamored of Lilla, the daughter of a Venetian patrician.  Victoria doesn't know who to kill first:  "dark and dreadful are the intricacies of the human heart".  One night she has a dream in which a tall dark stranger, Zofloya, guides Victoria to a chapel where she sees Lilla die and be replaced by herself,Victoria, and Berenza falls down covered with blood and Henriquez turns into a skeleton.

Spoilers, pretty quick:  Soon Zofloya in person is a constant visitor at Berenza's palace.  He is ostensibly a servant of Henriquez, acquired in Spain when Zofloya was taken captive in the Spanish/Moorish wars. He's a master of secret medicines, an artist in "the morbid refinements of a sickly fancy".  Wearing a white turban, a lot of gold rings and staring at her with lambent dark eyes, Zofloya persuades Victoria he can help achieve her wildest dreams.  He gives her some poison which she uses on Berenza.  He ails and suggests they move lock stock and barrel to a castle he owns in the Apennine mountains where his health might improve.  Once there, Berenza eventually dies, but Henriquez is still in love with Lilla to Victoria's teeth-gritting rage.  So with Zofloya's help, again, they kidnap Lilla and chain her up in a cave in the mountains.  Henriquez is fading away for love for her, so with the aid of Zofloya, Victoria plies him with eye-altering drugs so that he thinks she's Lilla.  They have a nice time together until the dope wears off, then, seeing that his inamorata is not Lilla but Victoria, he falls on his sword, killing himself.

Victoria dashes out and runs to the cave, where she frees Lilla, stabs her, and throws the body over the cliff.  Time passes and a scene opens with Zofloya and Victoria standing on a precipice in the Alps (near Mt. Cenis, actually).  There's a lot of thunder and lightning and the two are accosted by a band of banditti who take them to their lair:  a cave located in a deep canyon.  They are captives but are not treated harshly;  they are under a sort of parole and can walk outside occasionally.   The chief and his  wife wear masks, but Victoria recognizes them anyway.  One day a traveler enters the cave dragging an abused lady with him.  The chief knows him and immediately sticks a knife in him and rescues lady who is his mother, her captor being the Count Ardolph.  She dies soon after and they discover that the Duke of Savoy is on the way with a band of troops to wipe out the bandits.  The chief, Leonardo, and his wife, Megalena, stab themselves and there's a huge earthquake which kills a lot of the bandits.  Zofloya grabs Victoria during the ruckus and takes her to another peak and reveals himself to be Satan, and laughing gleefully while the lightning rages with red light, he throws her over the cliff.

I have to say, regardless of the dated textual material and plot, that Ms. Dacre was a master of prose, in my opinion, anyway.  She had a very large vocabulary and really knew how to use it.  I felt shivers traversing my spine several times while reading some of the more horrifying episodes, in spite of the somewhat, or altogether, "Perils of Pauline" ambience.  She wrote in a time when ladies were not supposed to do that sort of thing, but not only made a success of it (she wrote other books, also), but carved out a path for other literarily inclined women to follow.  I don 't know if any academic studies have been made of her ouvre, but it would be fresh territory for some grad student to investigate...  

I should also say that the main gist of the book had to do with chains of circumstance:  how a single action (in this case, Laurina's decampment with Count Ardolph) led to a whole series of dire events and deaths, with both her daughter and son falling into undisciplined and baneful situations, not to mention Laurina's own demise.  Surely Ms. C meant all of this as an object lesson, but her perhaps overly pedantic purpose was alleviated by the beauty and effectiveness of her prose...  I should also add that the reason i got this book in the first place was that it was supposedly a favorite of Shelley's.  How or if it effected him and his complicated affairs with the opposite sex is open to question...

Sunday, December 13, 2020



P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975)

Richard Usborne (1910-2006)

Sir James Piper, Chancellor of the Exchquer, is disgruntled.  His sister Brenda has made arrangements for them to visit Blanding Castle for a summer soiree, thus bringing to naught his hopes of fishing in Scotland during his vacation.  What's more, he has to take his stepdaughter, Victoria, along with him to get her exposed to some decent people.  And he knows that his nemesis, Sergeant Murchison, will be trailing along with his eyes open for villains of all stripes who may harbor resentment against the Chancellor for any one of a number of reasons.  Other persons belonging to the Threepwood tribe will be present:  Florence, the dowager-in-charge, Diana Phipps, her divorced sister, together with Rollo the son, and probably Galahad will show up in case there are situations to resolve or spare champagne to absorb.  James and Galahad are former members of the Pelican Club, no longer extant, which in former days was a riotous center for wildly uncivilized goings-on, like bread-throwing contests, and marathon wine-bibbing, not to mention undisciplined skirt-chasing.  Clarence, Lord Emsworth, (the freeholder in residence)is "up to his collar stud in the Slough of Despond", mainly because he wants to hire a painter to make a portrait of the Empress, his prize-winning pig, to hang in the art salon even though Florence is dead set against it as being crude and offensive.  Florence and her sisters (all eight, or sometimes ten) are all possessed of stares capable of inducing panic in the hearts of any normal person, particularly if there are intentions or activities anticipated as being against the comportment of members of the upper classes.  Victoria is the niece of Galahad, and as he is interested in her welfare, he begins plotting to assist her romantic designs on Jeff Bennison, a painter with whom she has struck up a friendship.  Jeff taught art at a girl's school run and operated by another Threepwood sister, Daphne, who has just, as the story opens, fired Jeff for, according to Threepwood standards,  moral decrepitude.  Florence dislikes Jeff as well, having discovered at an earlier date that his father Arthur was an inveterate swindler.

As the opening scene presents itself, we see Lord Emsworth "drooping over the Empress's sty like a wet sock", because he can't find a painter who will do a picture of his prize-winner.  Galahad steps to the fore, however, and arranges for Jeff to be invited to the party under a different cognomen.  An ancillary person, Claude Duff, had something to do with Jeff being fired, but he's invited also, as a friend of Daphne's.  Freddie Threepwood may appear at some point, although that's not clear at this point.  Freddie has gotten rich in America as a member of the staff of Donaldson's Dog Joy, a johnny-come-lately nouveau riche corporate entity, with fingers in the purses of English as well as American pet owners.  During a break in the festivities, Galahad meets Chancellor Piper in a local saloon and he confesses his long ago love for Diana and the impossibility of proposing to same because of the eternal indefatigable presence of Murchison.  The latter, by the way, is in love with one of the Blandings maids, Marilynn.  Galahad is not bashful about either his exploits or his problem-solving capabilities.  "I was one of those young men my mother always warned me against".  He is not dissuaded by discovering that Clarence hates Jeff's (now known as Smith the portrait artist) father because he once bilked him out of two thousand pounds.  Finding out that Freddie is in an immediate state of arrival, he side-tracks him and convinces him not to come because he's afraid that Freddie the loud mouth will wreck his plan to marry Victoria and Jeff and James and Diana and Murchison and his maid, and another couple I lost track of.  

Beach (the butler)accidentally locks Jeff out of the house on the first evening and the latter, determined to get in, in order to assuage the feeling of Victoria who's upset because Jeff won't elope with her because he is supposed to paint the Empress, climbs up to an open window (Victoria's as it were) and falls into Victoria's burglar trap:  a collection of golf clubs, cricket wickets, assorted lacrosse cudgels, and several soccer balls.  Claude has stated his love for Victoria, so Jeff is in a condition of distress.  Murchison arrests Jeff(Smith) in the hall because he thinks Sir James is in danger.  Daphne arrives and is about to identify Smith as Jeff;  meanwhile Lord Emsworth is singing a ditty in the piano room about how Americans eat jam with peanut butter.  Brenda and Daphne corner Beach and are trying to get him to oust Smith, and...  the story ends.

It was very unfortunate that P.G. passed on before he could finish this, his last book.  His more or less official biographer and Scholar, Mr. Usborne, adds all of Wodehouse's notes at the finish of the text, and sums up what was most likely the termination of all the plot complexities: four marriages and some sort of solution to the Empress's artistic debut, presumably.  There were eight books written about the Blandings group and their travails, of which this was the last.  They're perhaps they best anxiety relievers ever published;  every stock market entrepreneur or corporate lackey needs to have the complete set to hand with immediate access.  They're even great for the literary itinerant of advanced age, determined to unravel and hack out in some sort of presentable form a precis and/or  indicator of academic worth intended for a peripatetic book blog, haha...

Sunday, December 6, 2020



John Taylor, 1580-1653

In 1618 Mr. Taylor left London on July 14, beginning what he claimed to be a walking trip to Scotland and back.  He took a horse along, but apparently used it just to carry his personal effects.  And he had some money, he just said he didn't use any of it.  He was popularly known as the "Water-Poet", because of his attempt, which he stated was successful, to row 40 miles down the Thames in a paper canoe.  He cheated a bit, though, as he took along nine bladders filled with air for additional support in case his vessel sprang a leak.  Which it did, the bottom falling out after several miles.  Anyway, the first day of walking saw him arriving at The Saracen's Head in Islington.  As was to be his normal means of monetary support, he got one of his friends to foot the bill.  He must have been a personable sort of man, because he had friends all along his route.  Frequently he'd stay at one of their manors for a short period, and accept the services of a guide to the next patron's residence.  The first few days of walking were difficult, due to sore legs.  He said, "My legs I made my oars and rowed by land".

Life wasn't always predictable, however.  Suffering from sore feet on his way to Daventry, he was looking forward to enjoying a jug of beer supposedly left for his refreshment by the local land-owner, but when he got there he found that interested parties had drank it.  Occasionally waxing poetic, he described a night in a field as a bed of soft rushes with a star-studded ceiling for a roof.  On the way north, he traveled on the west side of the Pennine mountains, thus passing through Coventry, Manchester, and Carlisle, then over the Highlands to Edinburgh.  By the time he reached Manchester, he had had to have his horse reshod twice, for some reason;  maybe the first blacksmith didn't do a very good job, as he wasn't getting paid for his work...  Beyond Carlisle it rained a lot and that made the river crossings somewhat dicey.  In Lancaster he was jailed for two days at his own request, just to stay out of the perpetual rain.  Finally reaching Sir John Dalston's estate near the Scottish border, he stayed long enough to dry out, and then, with a guide, waded a quarter mile across the river Esk.  Scotland he found to be somewhat lacking in the nature of its creature comforts.  At one primitive croft he stayed at, the owners insisted on him sleeping in the single bed in the establishment.  The experience introduced him to "Irish mosquitos" (bedbugs).  The guide that was along with him slept on the floor and a pigeon resident in the rafters relieved itself on his face.  In the morning they walked 21 miles to Blythe, wallowing across the Annan river in the process.

His legs were even more sore by the time he arrived at Edinburgh, and he was grateful to fall into the hands of some of his friends.  He toured Arthur's Seat while he was there.  There was a cannon mounted on the upper deck that was so large in diameter that he could crawl into the bore.  He said his companion did also, at the same time, but it was a tight fit.  It had been used to shoot fire balls at the enemy.  Taylor stayed with the Lord of Leith for a while and was happy that the noble gave him eleven shillings.  While staying with the Earl of Culross, the owner talked him into touring his coal mine.  They got into a boat and paddled out to a tower protruding from the sea.  Climbing up and into it, they descended down below the sea bottom into a tunnel that was a mile long and was lit with torches.  Water seeped in through the oozy ceiling and there was a sort of semi-automatic bucket chain to get rid of the excess.  Taylor said he was glad to leave.  

Later, he spent time with several of the Lairds in the Highlands, observing their hunting parties and social gatherings.  The former were arranged to suit crowds of a hundred or more members of the nobility and their retainers.  Shooting parties were shepherded up into a previously selected locale, usually a valley or glen, where villeins had rounded up herds of red deer for the pleasure of their masters who would bang away at them, killing a hundred or more as a rule.  Then the party would return to camp and eat too much and get drunk.  On the way back to Edinburgh, Taylor met the playwright Ben Jonson at Leith.  Jonson was on a trip to visit some of his relatives, and also to drum up some support, probably monetary, from some of his admirers.  Taylor spent quite a bit of time with James Acmooty, the owner of Bass Island, and when James offered to accompany him on his way back to London, he accepted the generous offer.  So the return trip was made considerably less arduous than the previous section had been.  Basically they traveled from one castle to another, with predictable aid and resources each step of the way, arriving in the Capitol on October 15.

This account was written in a rather messy iambic pentameter to begin with, but soon degraded into a kind of doggerel short hand.  Not that it wasn't pretty interesting, especially when Taylor was describing some of the events he was involved with, but the traveling itself was pretty much left to the readers imagination.  Taylor was a popular person in the urban culture of the time, and he knew most of the artistic personages that lived in London, including Shakspeare, Jonson, and many others.  His account of his walk is worth reading, if only because it pretty effectively imparts the social atmosphere of that time and location.  I definitely got the impression that artists of all types, poets and playwrights in particular, could be pretty rowdy.  But it was strange, i thought, that Taylor never said why, exactly, he was trying to do the walk without money.  Maybe it was just a publicity stunt, exactly the sort of thing one would expect that sort of personality to dream up...