Saturday, September 25, 2021



Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)

George Bertram, Arthur Wilkinson, and Adela Gauntlet grew up together at Hurst Staple, a small community near the Hampshire border in England.  Adela was an orphan who lived with her aunt;  Arthur's father, a pastor, died early, leaving the manse to his wife, and George lived with his uncle, old George, who had made a fortune in the financial abattoirs of London.  As the three grew up, young George and Arthur remained friends even when they went to Oxford while Adela lived a more or less solitary existence with her aunt.  She had feelings for Arthur, but the two hadn't at this point become more than neighbors.  When the boys graduated from college, George received a double first degree, one of the highest levels of achievement offered, while Arthur only got a second, even though he had studied much harder than his friend.  So Arthur decided to accept the parsonage at Hurst Staple, while George anticipated a blazing career in the high society of the City.  Arthur gradually came to terms with his disappointment and made plans to marry Adela, but since his mother received most of his income, he felt unable to propose, not having the wherewithal to support a wife.

George waffled around for a while, toying with authorship and having a good time.  His uncle wanted him to study law, but George wouldn't commit to that.  In order to give his nephew a broader experience of the scope and vicissitudes of life, he persuaded him to embark upon a tour to the Middle East.  George joined a group of tourists that visited Jerusalem, where he became acquainted with Caroline Waddington, an English orphan accompanying her aunt.  George falls for Caroline and has an epiphantic experience on the Mount of Olives, where he imagined himself walking in the footsteps of Jesus.  But it doesn't last very long, and when he met his father Lionel, he allowed himself to be swept away to the alluring attractions of Constantinople.  Lionel Bertram was in the military.  His job involved traveling to foreign capitals to adjust minor difficulties arising with the locals over British policies.  George soon discovered that his father's real activities were feral, in a financial sense:  he was a spendthrift and a scavenger after all the money he could get his hands on, regardless of the source.  Disillusioned, George returned to London.

Time passes;  George the younger continues undecided;  he tries being an attorney and is unsuccessful, so he writes a short book which achieves a minor bump in the literary market.  He continually sees Caroline, but she is getting tired of his indecisiveness.  When she meets an old school friend of George's, Henry Harcourt, she shares some of her discontent with him.  Harcourt had had a great success at Oxford also, and had striven greatly to make a life as a politician.  He got himself elected to Parliament, and was sanguinely expecting a knighthood in the near future.  And he had also fallen in love with Caroline, mainly because he viewed her as decorative addition to his political and social ambitions.   George is irate at what he sees as disloyalty, and the burgeoning connection with Caroline is shattered.  

Meanwhile, Lionel has arrived in England, in the town of Bath, and is busily worming himself into the social fabric of the feminine social network.  But, mainly because of the interference of Sally Todd, one of the brighter butterflies in the communal meadow, his reputation precedes him, and he finds himself increasingly isolated.  Then old George passes away.  During his last days, there was a gathering of the clan at his mansion, and one of them was Sir Henry Harcourt, who was counting on Caroline inheriting massive amounts of money so he could marry her and pay off his burgeoning debts.  But he's left out of the will, so he returns home and shoots himself.  Arthur finally summons up the gumption to face his mom and appropriates enough money to enable his marriage with Adela to take place.  Lionel gets nothing.  Five years pass and Caroline and the remaining George marry and live fairly contentedly afterwards.

From the bit of research i did, this book was written when Trollope was about half way done with the Barsetshire novels.  Maybe it represented a sort of break from that intensive effort, or, since the main theme of the book was the damage that money and the lack of it can do to all levels of society, he may have wanted to get away from the pleasant rural atmosphere of Barsetshire for a while.  Since he wrote so much, getting up at five every morning to write his books for several hours, maybe he just was trying to change the rhythm somewhat.  I thought this was a pretty good effort, although somewhat ragbaggy in its often unpredictable switches between situations and locales.  But Trollope usually has interesting things to say about the human condition and is therefore almost always worth reading.

Saturday, September 18, 2021



Norah Lofts (1904-1983)

Eleanor of Aquitaine was probably born in 1122, although the date is not a certain one.  She was raised mostly by a religious order, receiving an excellent education to match her superior intellect.  She was fluent in French and Latin at least and later in English, undoubtedly.  In her late teens, she was slated to be married to Louis the King of France, but, being in love with young Richard de Vaux, she resisted until Richard was accidentally on purpose slain by a sword in the back.  After becoming the Queen of France, she had two daughters over the next few years, but was in disgrace through lack of producing a son and heir to the throne.  The Crusades were well underway by this point and Eleanor took part in the second one, acting as one of the leaders of the French contingent.  Unfortunately, while crossing the Phrygian Mountains in central Turkey, the segment of knights with whom she was traveling got too far ahead of the main army, which was attacked and seriously mauled by native Turks.  Eleanor was blamed, partly, for her part in agreeing to outdistance the rest of the army.  When the Crusaders reached Jerusalem at last, she was mildly ostracized from the leadership, and was thus unable to introduce a sane voice into the squabbling disagreements among the other commanders as to their next goal.  Unfortunately the lure of Damascan wealth was too much for the generals to resist and the army spent its strength and power uselessly in besieging that city's walls.

Soon afterwards, the European members of the force left by boat to return home.  Louis of France then divorced Eleanor ostensibly for not producing a son and not too long afterwards she became somewhat enamored of the Henry II, the Duke of Normandy.  They were married, and upon the death of King Stephen, he became the King of England.  The next few years were mainly taken up with uniting the kingdom under one ruler.  There were around 1100 separate baronies in the country at that time, and all of them spent their time and substance fighting with one another.  Henry succeeded in eliminating most of the petty infighting and through his superior resolve and with his seasoned armed force, managed to unite the country, more or less.

Henry was not a very loyal husband.  He had lots of mistresses and when one of them died, he accused his wife of poisoning her and sealed her up in Winchester Castle.  The real reason, probably, was actually because Eleanor wouldn't agree to allow Henry to depose her son Richard, who was at that time King of Aquitaine.  Henry wanted to remove Richard because he was too good of a tactician and also because he wanted his other son, John, the King of Ireland, to take his place.  The politics of that time were just as involved and contorted as they are today.Anyway, Eleanor spent the next fifteen years in durance vile, so-called, in a cold cell with minimum comforts and clothes.  

Meanwhile, Henry had his own problems.  One of his best friends, Tom Beckett, a sort of Catholic functionary, had done very well in the priesthood and after many years, had been promoted to be Archbishop of Canterbury.  He was ambitious and wanted to spread Catholicism throughout the kingdom and be head of the entire business.  Henry didn't like this too much.  There's no evidence that he said, as Shakspeare would have it, "will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest?", but shortly after, Tom was found dead of multiple stab wounds.  Henry was not a person with very many limits on his personal behavior.  As Ms. Lofts stated once, "Henry's reaction to weakness is to stomp on it".

Henry finally died and Eleanor was released from her cell to become the reigning regent of England and Aquitaine for several years.  The book ends with her in charge and Richard once more in the Holy Land, trying to "free" Jerusalem.

The novel/history was well written.  There was a lot of invented dialogue, of course, but most of it seemed to mesh with the actual facts pretty well.  It was all in English of course, when people of the day actually spoke French or a version thereof - Aquitainian?  The ending was a little abrupt.  Eleanor lived for another twenty years or so.  She helped free her returning son from the prison in which he was incarcerated near the Danube, then moved back to her beloved Aquitaine, living peacefully until she passed away.  Back in England, Richard was about as pugnacious as his father, spending much of his energy and substance in wars with France.  He died in a small siege in that country at the early age of 41.  Richard, Eleanor, and Henry II are all interred in the same place:  the abbey of Fontrevault in France.

I liked this novel quite a bit even though it was a bit dated.  Ms. Lofts is a smooth writer, and this work blends the historical record nicely, logically segueing from one episode to another.  Sort of like lolling about in a canoe on a quiet lake in the sunshine, to be metaphorically extreme, haha...

Friday, September 10, 2021


Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006)

The above pictures are there just to represent the type of unusual mind possessed by Dr. Lem.  These two books describe the adventures and mishaps in the life of Pirx as he graduates from the Space Academy and pursues his career in exploration and colonization of the planets in the Solar System.  "The Test" describes how Pirx flubs his final test while graduating, piloting a ship from initial take-off to the moon, but how everything, accidentally, turns out perfectly in spite of his ham-fistedness.  Each tale in the balance of the book and its successor features a new predicament for Pirx to either solve or muddle through.  There's an ongoing atmosphere of sardonic humor permeating many of the early stories, but as Pirx and the reader grow with experience, the tales magically evolve into subtle analyses of human nature and its relation to the utter strangeness of outer space.  

Several of the stories in the first book  are basically mysteries.  In "The Accident", Pirx is sent to the far side of the moon where two scientists have died under mysterious circumstances.  The descriptions of walking across the surface and through boulder fields and craters are superb, as if Lem himself had actually been there and was merely recording his own experiences.  When Pirx arrives at the remote station after doing a bit of lunar mountain-climbing, he manages to make sense out of the various electronic clues left by the late victims, and to solve what seems to be a series of nonsensical events. 

 In fact, as Pirx ages and the tales become more sophisticated, the relations between robot and human become more important.  Prejudice is examined, amorality plays a role, and the history of anti-android bias is educed.  

Lem doesn't just pontificate about what he thinks human attitudes and morals should be, he arranges his plot structures to show what happens under circumstances that bring out latent, instinctive convictions lurking in the human psyche.  In "The Inquest", an advanced android, the equivalent of a human being, controls an accidental mishap in order to alter the fabric of civilization so as to favor the ascendancy of robots in the future.  During an attempt to deposit satellites in the rings of Saturn, one of them is stuck in the ejection slot while being fired out, and the resulting forces endanger the ship.  Pirx calculates the android's intentions and is able to explicate his behavior.

And in the final story, "Ananke", the force of psychological conviction leads to a major disaster on the surface of Mars, when a 1/4 mile long freighter crashes into the planet.  The predisposition to detail has led the designer of the on-board computer to over-program the security protocols of the computer so it gets overloaded while trying to land the ship and literally dithers its way into a major cataclysm.

I've read most of Lem's work, i think, and i have the greatest respect for his penetrating and adept intelligence, as well as his underlying humor and wisdom.  There is a lot of techno-babble included in the context which might put some readers off, but Lem's intentions and perceptions are spot on as regards the human race and its behavior.  I'd recommend these books to any person interested in experiencing what it might really be like to explore other planets in the near - or remote - future.