Moonglow

By Michael Chabon

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I am, essentially, an adult toddler.  I sleep whenever and wherever I please (I am particularly prone to falling asleep in moving vehicles); if permitted, I wear pajamas almost exclusively, and I routinely eat Oreos for dinner.

There are very few areas of my life upon which I choose to exercise any amount of discipline at all, but my reading is one of them.  And, like any disciplined person, I have goals which must be met, rules which must be followed.  One of the most important rules is this: if I start a book, I finish it.  It doesn’t matter how long the book is, or how much I hate it, or how bad I believe it to be – if I start reading a book, I must finish.

There are a number of reasons why I do this, why I believe that this makes me a better reader, but the most important is this: you just never know.  Books are like people: they surprise you.  Like people, some seem at first as though they are going to be your great and true friends, and then turn around one day and betray you with their badness.  And, like people, some books make a poor first impression, but turn out on longer acquaintance to be wonderful.

Moonglow.jpgEven allowing for this normal possibility, ‘Moonglow‘ is unusual.  It is rare that it takes me 575 pages to discover that I love a book.  But that was the case with this book, a book that I was only kind of enjoying until, on page 575, I was struck dumb with love, by a footnote of all things.  Perhaps the best way to describe it is: this book ‘When Harry Met Sally’ed me.  I thought we were just friends, and then, one day, on page 575, I discovered that I had loved it all along.

Moonglow‘ is a fictionalized memoir (it’s helpfully titled ‘Moonglow: A Novel’ to help you avoid confusion), an insipid genre which I usually avoid.  I made an exception because, as a younger reader, I really enjoyed a few of Chabon’s novels (especially his most famous, ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay‘, which I believe I read three times between the ages of 12 and 15).  ‘Moonglow’ is the life story of the grandfather of a writer named Michael Chabon, revealed to the narrator in the last few weeks of his grandfather’s life and augmented by the narrator’s own memories and the reminiscences of his mother (oh, is that not clear?  That’s part of what I object to about “fictionalized memoirs”, the fact that they force you to contort in strange ways, to say things like “the grandfather of a writer named Michael Chabon” instead of just saying “Michael Chabon’s grandfather”, because apparently the “Michael Chabon” who narrates this book only shares a strange and mysterious, ‘fictionalized’, resemblance with the “real” Michael Chabon, which is completely daft).

Chabon
Michael Chabon

Lives aren’t really “about” anything, but memoirs are, and ‘Moonglow‘ is about love and horror and madness and war.  It’s about Chabon’s grandmother, the faithful devotion of his grandfather to her and the psychosis which dogged her to her own death, and it is about his mother, the ways in which her upbringing hardened her.  It’s about fear and insanity and the ways in which we can pass these along to each other, in our genes and in our love.

And then, sometimes, at its periphery or in strange, short bursts, it’s about Chabon (“Chabon”) himself.

It is during one of these moments that I realized that I loved this book.  When his mother had a miscarriage, Chabon went to stay for a few days with his grandparents, whose house terrified him at night because of the presence, in a hatbox in the closet, of a set of French hand puppets.  Chabon believed, apparently quite literally, that these puppets meant him harm, and their presence in the house oppressed him (I do not mean to deride this belief in any way – puppets are sinister and I wouldn’t sleep in a room with them now).  Chabon is, nevertheless, quite funny on the point, even while he describes “the raucous voice”, in his imagination, of the puppet telling him that his mother has surely died.

Then, in a footnote, he says,

“I still hear that raucous voice; I hear a hatbox full of voices.  They bubble up from a crack in my brain, dark mutterings, shouts, and low reproaches that fall just short of sense, intruding on my thoughts almost any time I’m alone in a quiet room, working on a task that requires a certain focus – when I’m drawing, cooking, soldering a circuit, assembling a toy.  When I’m writing, I never hear the hatbox voices; I hear some other voice.” (p. 575)

And, when I read that, several things happened to me all at once.

  1. The four lives braided together in this book became, in an instant, one story, blended and coherent and moving, and convincing whether or not they are “true”.
  2. I connected with Chabon the narrator in a way which would not have been possible if he were entirely fictional.  That’s a little convoluted, so let me put it another way: that foot-noted moment, that present-tense interjection, caused me to feel that I understood and cared about the person I believed was the author of this book, in the present, because I believed that he was a real person.  And I believed that because I believed, in some fundamental way, that that footnote was true.
  3. I realized that this is why people like fictionalized memoirs, or faux-autobiographies, or whatever you want to call this kind of book: they allow you to connect with a human story as though it were real without troubling yourself about verifiable specifics.  My heart could hurt for the mad grandson of a mad woman without needing to know whether Michael Chabon is that grandson, because madness is real and inheritance is real, too, and there is a madman somewhere to hurt for.

575 pages is, I am aware, quite an investment to make on faith.  And I don’t mean to imply that ‘Moonglow‘ is boring up to page 575 – it isn’t at all.  On the contrary, it is entertaining and absorbing, well-structured and unusual.  This won’t surprise anyone who has read Chabon’s other books – he’s a very good storyteller, has a real knack for pacing and character.  There was no reason he would not bring these skills to bear on his “memoir”.

If you had asked me on page 574, I would probably have recommended ‘Moonglow‘ in a yeah-why-not sort of way.  I would have said that it was pretty good, not as good as ‘Kavalier & Clay‘ or ‘Wonder Boys‘, but not at all dull, worth the time.

But I wouldn’t have said that it was beautiful, or moving, and now, after page 575, I believe that it is those things.  Or, at least, it is those things for me.

Doctor Thorne and Framley Parsonage (The Chronicles of Barsetshire)

The Chronicles of Barsetshire: Third and Fourth Volumes

By Anthony Trollope

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Doctor ThorneAs I have mentioned before, I have been working my way through Anthony Trollope’s six-volume ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’, reviewing volume by volume.  However, I have decided to combine the reviews of these two books, ‘Doctor Thorne‘ and ‘Framley Parsonage‘, the third and fourth Chronicles respectively, because they are essentially the same novel.

Both novels are stories of marriage: tales of love-matches made between young people of different classes.  In both cases, the mismatch disfavors the female: a lovely, honorable woman of spotless character but unfortunate circumstance will find herself loved by, and in love with, a man of higher class.  The young man’s family and peer group will be shocked, outraged, by the proposed marriage, and the young woman will be too virtuous to marry against the wishes of his family.  But he, persevering in love and no less honorable than she, will not be shaken off.  The novels tell how these difficulties are overcome.

Doctor Thorne‘ is the story of Mary Thorne, a lovely but illegitimate young woman raised by her uncle, the eponymous Doctor.  Because her uncle is himself respectable, and because he takes pains to hide the tragic circumstances of her birth from the neighbors (and from Mary herself), Mary grows up among the local gentry, the Greshams of Greshambury, beloved by and welcomed among them.  However, as they all reach adulthood, Mary becomes the beloved object of the heir of Greshamsbury, young Frank, and when he declares his intention to marry her, the opprobrium of  his entire family and all of Barsetshire is brought down upon them.

Framley Parsonage‘ is the story of the Robarts family.  Mark Robarts is the Vicar of Framley (a village in Barsetshire).  He has a young wife and the friendship and patronage of his local gentry, the Luftons.  Troubles visit the Robarts in the form of two main plots: one financial, and one romantic.  Mark Robarts runs in a set a little too fast for a vicar; in a moment of social aspiration, he signs a note guaranteeing a loan for a friend, a completely insolvent Member of Parliament, which note will bring shame and near-ruin upon him.  At the same time, his sister Lucy, virtuous and lovely but, alas, without a cent in the world, catches the eye of the unmarried young Lord of Lufton, Ludovic.  When he declares his intention to marry her, the opprobrium of his entire family etcetera, etcetera, you know how this ends.

Dancing Framley
Image from ‘Framley Parsonage’, p. 291

The English novel of marriage is a highly stereotyped genre, and people usually love them or hate them.  I love them.  They are a particular sub-genre of the novel of manners, arch and unsuspenseful.  Everyone knows how they’re going to end; the joy of them is in getting to the foregone conclusions, in witnessing the subtleties, absurdities, minor foibles of this particular set of characters.  These two novels are both totally true to type (with the possible exception of an illegitimate heroine – that seems like a brave choice for its time).  Everyone is good; everyone ends up happy.  Love is requited and virtue is rewarded.  Snide and ungenerous relatives suffer, but only within the tight confines of their world.

But just because two novels have the same plot doesn’t mean that they are equally good.  ‘Doctor Thorne‘ and ‘Framley Parsonage‘ are by the same author, written two years apart (1858 and 1860, respectively), about almost exactly the same thing.  But you know what they say: practice makes perfect, and the latter, ‘Framley Parsonage’, is a much better book.

Proudie Framley
My own beloved Mrs. Proudie, the villain from ‘Barchester Towers’, makes an appearance in both these novels.  Image from ‘Framley Parsonage’, p. 396

First of all, despite the similarities in premise, there are differences in execution.  ‘Doctor Thorne‘ is clunkier; there are enormous and convoluted machinations of plot involved in solving the marital difficulties of ‘Doctor Thorne’ (secret family, sudden and untimely deaths, unlikely inheritances), while the troubles of ‘Framley Parsonage‘ are solved only by the intrinsic kindness and gentle maturation of its protagonists.  It is truer and more likely, and everyone in it is more plausible, less caricaturish.  In order for Frank Gresham to marry the woman he loves, two very rich men in the same line of succession must drink themselves to death within a matter of months; they must also then leave their enormous wealth to a stranger.  These are unlikely events.  In order for Ludovic Lufton to marry his lady, all it needs is for his mother to realize that she wants her son to be happy.

The writing of ‘Framley Parsonage‘ is better, too: it’s tighter, and wittier.  When I read, I put sticky notes over passages that I want to remember, either because they are lovely or funny or wise.  ‘Framley Parsonage’ has eight passages so marked; ‘Doctor Thorne‘ has none.

Alcohol Thorne
The wages of sin: not one, but two men will drink themselves to death in ‘Doctor Thorne’, p. 267

And there is a difference in tone between the two books.  Both novels make moral points: good birth is not virtue; debt is vice, as is drink.  However, ‘Doctor Thorne‘ makes its points more by showing: Mary Thorne is a lovely young woman, and the treatment of her due to her birth is meant to anger the reader.  ‘Framley Parsonage‘ is more didactic, and normally, as the adage goes, it is better to show, not tell, but I think Trollope is an exception to this rule.  He is often at his best, most pithy, most elegant, when he is telling you the moral of the story, or summing up a character, and the best passages of ‘Framley Parsonage’ hew to this:

‘When a man gets into his head an idea that the public voice calls for him, it is astonishing how great becomes his trust in the wisdom of the public.’ (p. 87)

‘A few words dropping from Mr. Sowerby did now and again find their way to his [Mr. Smith’s] ears, but the sound of his own voice had brought with it the accustomed charm, and he ran on from platitude to truism, and from truism back to platitude, with an eloquence that was charming to him.’ (p. 69)

‘One can only pour out of a jug that which is in it.  For the most of us, if we do not talk of ourselves, or at any rate of the individual circles of which we are the centres, we can talk of nothing.’ (p. 110)

‘Such companions are very dangerous.  There is no cholera, no yellow-fever, no small-pox, more contagious than debt.  If one lives habitually among embarrassed men, one catches it to a certainty.’ (p. 44)

These are lovely descriptions, wise words beautifully said.  And ‘Doctor Thorne‘ has no equal passages, which is a shame.  A reader would feel better if the two volumes were more even, better matched; instead, it feels as though Trollope tried an idea, published it, saw the flaws in his work, and took another run at it.

And mediocrity is not the only way in which ‘Doctor Thorne‘ stands alone among the first four volumes of ‘The Chronicles of Barsetshire’: it is also the only book so far whose major protagonist is not a clergyman.  This might seem like a silly point (doctor, clergyman, these really are minor phylogenic differences in the family of English Rural Gentlemen), but, once you’ve bought into Barsetshire, this difference doesn’t seem minor.  The ‘Chronicles’ have been about how these men of the cloth make good lives surrounded by the petty problems of the English gentry – that’s the project of these books, and the further Trollope wanders from that mission, the less well the books hang together.

BarsetshireHowever, frankly, Trollope is a joy to read even when he’s mediocre, and ‘Framley Parsonage‘, at least, was wonderful.  It was witty and warm.   But one of my favorite things about Trollope is that, despite being kind to his characters, he doesn’t at all see the world through rose-colored glasses.  For all the basic and mundane humanity of its story, one gets flashes of steel, and darkness, behind all the Barsetshirian goodness.  And a sharp-eyed realist lurks behind those happy endings, formulaic as they seem.  After all, no fairy tale ends like this:

‘But it was October before Lord Lufton was made a happy man – that is, if the fruition of his happiness was a greater joy than the anticipation of it.  I will not say that the happiness of marriage is like the Dead Sea fruit – an apple which, when eaten, turns to bitter ashes in the mouth.  Such pretended sarcasm would be very false.  Nevertheless, is it not the fact that the sweetest morsel of love’s feast has been eaten, that the freshest, fairest blush of the flower has been snatched and has been passed away, when the ceremony at the altar has been performed, and legal possession has been given?…When the husband walks back from the altar, he has already swallowed the choicest dainties of his banquet.’ (p. 468)

American Gods

By Neil Gaiman

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It’s so sad to see a good premise wasted.

‘Wasted’ is perhaps too strong a word.  It’s sad to see an execution which fails to live up to its premise.

In fairness to Neil Gaiman, this doesn’t always happen because the execution is terrible; sometimes it happens because the premise is so good that almost no execution could justify it.  Sometimes, a premise is so excellent that even a good execution is disappointing.  That’s probably the case with ‘American Gods‘: the execution of this novel is decent, totally solid.  But the premise is awesome, and so decent just won’t do.

American GodsWhen the protagonist of ‘American Gods‘, Shadow Moon (this terrible cliche of a protagonist is one the things dragging down the execution of this novel) is released from prison, he is offered a job by a man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday.  Moon’s beloved wife has just been killed, and, having nothing else to live for, he accepts the strange offer.  As it turns out, Mr. Wednesday is none other than the Norse god Odin, and Shadow is now his body man.  Shadow learns that the gods of the Old World have been carried with each wave of American immigrants to the New.  These transplant gods have been slowly forgotten as their worshippers have Americanized or died and so they are left to wander, shrinking and predatory, in the modern American landscape.  Every manner of mythical or supernatural creature is here: gods, fairies, furies, djinn, leprechauns.  If someone once believed in them, they are among us, scraping to get by.  And they are about to go to war with the new gods, the gods of modernity and technology, to fight one last battle, to see who shall rule America once and for all.

It’s a magnificent premise, and credit should be given to Gaiman for coming up with it at all.  I mean that honestly and without the slightest sarcasm: most writers will go their whole lives without coming up with one story idea that has this much juice.  And ‘American Gods‘ is…readable.  I don’t mean to damn with faint praise – it is a difficult book to put down; the pages seem to turn themselves.

Neil Gaiman.jpg
I’m really not being fair here – there are many pictures of Neil Gaiman where he doesn’t look posed and pretentious (he actually looks rather lovely and likable in most of them), but I’ve chosen this one, from variety.com

And maybe I should leave it there, declare that ‘American Gods‘ is a great beach read and call it a day, but I’m not going to.  Because I have the sneaking suspicion that Gaiman would be offended to hear ‘American Gods’ called ‘beach reading’, or ‘genre fiction’.  I might be wrong, but that’s my hunch.  Perhaps it is the long dream sequences*; perhaps it is the easy metaphor of the old gods battling the new; perhaps it is the pedantic obviousness of the character names (Mr. Wednesday, Shadow Moon), but something tells me that Gaiman has aimed higher than he ought.  I don’t think he meant to write a great yarn; I think he meant to write a Great Novel.  And not just any Great Novel – I think he meant to write a Great American Novel.

Now, it’s not really fair game to blame novelists for what you think they’re going for.  You don’t really know – it’s usually better to take the novel as you found it, not judging it against the novel you imagine the novelist intended.  However, a novelist will occasionally communicate ambition.  They do this any number of ways: explicitly, in interviews, or implicitly, through heavy-handed metaphor or prose, elaborate and abstruse plot.  And when that happens, when you can see the self-satisfaction of the narrator peeking through the finished work, it’s difficult not to hold the it against them.

I think that Gaiman wants to have his cake and eat it.  He’s tried to write a novel that is both cool and deals in Big Important Themes.  It’s really difficult to do (I’ve never done it, for sure), and he hasn’t pulled it off.  Or, rather, he has technically pulled it off, but not well.  His novel is cool, and it does touch on Big Important Themes, but it hits you over the head with them.  You’d be happy riding along on a road trip with some fun old gods, but you will never be allowed to forget that America Is An Immigrant Nation.  You might have enjoyed a neat fight scene among mythical creatures, but, no, this is a battle between The Culturally Rich Past and The Bleak, Impersonal Techno-Modernity.

But, so what?  A lack of subtly isn’t the end of the world.  But really great novels don’t teach you your lesson; they tell you the story which will allow you to learn it.  There’s a big difference between those two things.  And ‘American Gods’ doesn’t really give you the room to discover anything for yourself; the take-home messages are there waiting for you, gift-wrapped, at the door as you enter.

Which, at the end of the day, does not stop ‘American Gods‘ from being enjoyable reading.  It’s a little furry around the edges, a little obvious; there are, honestly, too many dream sequences.  But it’s a fun read, and because reading is ultimately about having fun, ‘American Gods’ is worth reading.  Maybe I’m wrong about Gaiman’s intentions – maybe he wasn’t shooting for Greatness.  Maybe he just wanted to entertain me, and, if that’s the case, he knocked it out of the park.  I was entertained; I was absorbed.  So, don’t punish Gaiman for failing to live up to the goals I imagine he had; read a book that I enjoyed despite that (imagined) failure.  It’s a good read.

And it’s a great premise.

*An aside: it is my personal belief that dream sequences are a sign of weakness in writing; they are self-indulgent and lazy, and their presence in a plot almost always suggests that someone is taking a short cut.  Another plot event like this: secret brother-sister incest.  When two characters who are sleeping together discover that they are secretly related, I know someone in the Writers Room was phoning it in.

Barchester Towers (The Chronicles of Barsetshire)

The Chronicles of Barsetshire: Second Volume

By Anthony Trollope

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Barchester Towers‘ is the second novel in Anthony Trollope’s ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’.  The first, ‘The Warden‘ (reviewed here), is the short little tale of Septimus Harding, a kind-hearted Anglican clergyman, and how he came to resign his post as warden of Hiram’s Hospital.  The end of ‘The Warden’ found Mr. Harding poorer in his income but clearer in his conscience, and his beloved daughter Eleanor married to John Bold, the man who unfortunately instigated Mr. Harding’s removal.

As I mentioned, ‘The Warden‘ was low-stakes and leisurely, a sweet story about sweet people who all mean well.  There were no villains, and no true fools.  It was difficult to sustain a sense of outrage against anyone when Mr. Harding himself couldn’t, and no character who would not be welcomed to tea by any other.  Everything ended well, and everyone was forgiven.

This second novel is made of stiffer stuff.Barchester Towers

Barchester Towers‘ opens with two deaths.  The Bishop Grantly of Barchester has died; he was the best friend of Septimus Harding, and the father of his son-in-law, the Archdeacon Grantly of Plumstead.  The Archdeacon was a figure of minor dramatic tension in ‘The Warden’ – he will become a hero in ‘Barchester Towers’.  He is married to Mr. Harding’s elder daughter.

Meanwhile, John Bold, major protagonist of ‘The Warden’ and married to Harding’s younger daughter Eleanor, has been summarily snuffed out between books.  I’m not sure that we are even told how he perished; all that matters now is that Eleanor is a young, attractive widow of means, vulnerable to the unscrupulous.

And the unscrupulous are upon us.  ‘The Warden‘ was villainless; ‘Barchester Towers‘ has two villains, both brought by the new Bishop of Barchester: the unctuous and despicable chaplain Mr. Slope, and his patroness, the over-zealous, over-bearing harridan wife of the new Bishop, Mrs. Proudie.

Proudie Slope
A moment of dramatic tension between Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie: “May God forgive you, madam, for the manner in which you have treated me,’ said Mr. Slope, looking at her with a very heavenly look.’ (p. 450)

Barchester Towers‘ ostensibly continues to follow the travails and fortunes of the Hardings: whether Mr. Harding will be re-appointed to the wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital and whom Eleanor will remarry.  However, the novel’s heart really lies in the battle between it’s two new Goliath’s: Archdeacon Grantly and Mrs. Proudie.  They are the standouts here, the best-drawn characters by far, and clearly the favorites of their author.  Take, for instance, this quietly magnificent passage about Archdeacon Grantly:

‘Now there was something peculiarly unorthodox in the archdeacon’s estimation in the idea of a round table…He connected them with what he called the nasty new fangled method of leaving a cloth on the table, as though to warn people that they were not to sit long.  In his eyes there was something democratic and parvenue in a round table.  He imagined that dissenters and calico-printers chiefly used them, and perhaps a few literary lions more conspicuous for their wit than their gentility…”A round dinner-table,’ said he, with some heat, “is the most abominable article of furniture that ever was invented”.’ (p. 180)

Or this aside about Mrs. Proudie:

‘It is ordained that all novels should have a male and a female angel, and a male and a female devil.  If it be considered that this rule is obeyed in these pages, the latter character must be supposed to have fallen to the lot of Mrs. Proudie.  But she was not all devil.  There was a heart inside that stiff-ribbed bodice, though not, perhaps. of large dimensions, and certainly not easily accessible.’ (p. 227)

These are expert characterizations: efficient and droll.  Trollope lives in his characters; in fact, he has imagines them so richly that he has come to love them.  I think that is why (by his own description above) he writes no truly evil villains: he can’t write someone and not forgive them, not offer them redemption.  But this emotional investment means that he is really at his best when he leans into character development, when he gives his characters time and space to display themselves and all their strange idiosyncrasies fully.  This makes him less quotable than other writers of his ilk, though he is just as witty; he only occasionally produces the arch epigrams for which English writers are so well known. When he does produce them, though, they are excellent:

‘There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilised and free countries, than the necessity of listening to sermons.’ (p. 53)

‘A man must be an idiot or else an angel, who after the age of forty shall attempt to be just to his neighbours.’
(p. 328)

However, despite the fact that ‘Barchester Towers’ has both heroes and villains, it doesn’t have much in the way of plot.  As mentioned above, there is the minor drama of Eleanor’s second marriage; there is the vague menace that she will be somehow tricked in marrying the odious Mr. Slope, but no one believes that she will and no one (including, I suspect, Trollope) really cares.  Most of the action of the book centers around the goings-on of our two new villains, Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie, their clerical battle with the Archdeacon, and their integration into the quiet community of Barchester.

This plotlessness didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the back.  In fact, I liked ‘Barchester Towers‘ a lot more than I liked ‘The Warden‘.  The first was a very earnest book about goodness and conscience; the second is a book about manners, and wickeder entirely.  ‘Barchester Towers’ is the funnier of the two, by far, and has the superior cast of characters.

Which is not to say that it lacks sweetness.  While ‘The Chronicles of Barsetshire’ are satires, they are very gentle, and they are, after all, about a group of English clerics endeavoring to do their best.  And Trollope himself is prone to small moral excursuses which, in my opinion, are humane and charming:

‘How much kinder is God to us than we are willing to be to ourselves!  At the loss of every dear face, at the last going of every well beloved one, we all doom ourselves to an eternity of sorrow, and look to waste ourselves away in an ever-running fountain of tears.  How seldom does such grief endure! how blessed is the goodness which forbids it to do so! ‘Let me ever remember my living friends, but forget them as soon as dead,’ was the prayer of a wise man who understood the mercy of God.  Few perhaps would have the courage to express such a wish, and yet to do so would only be to ask for that release from sorrow, which a kind Creator almost always extends to us.’ (p. 25)

BarsetshireThere are six Chronicles; I am now through one third by volumes (though, like all good series, each volume is longer than the previous, and some of the later volumes are pretty honking big).  I really did likeThe Warden‘, but ‘Barchester Towers‘ has drawn me all the way in, won me over completely.  I’m enjoying my time in Barsetshire; I’m ready to go back.

Seveneves

By Neal Stephenson

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It’s been a long time since a book has upset me this much.

I mean that as a compliment.  Novels elicit a very few, predictable emotional states from me: intellectual appreciation, amusement, the fun of learning something new, and sometimes, when they are really excellent novels, anger or sadness at the unfairness of the world, the cruelty of people.

But it is rare that a novel makes me feel the way ‘Seveneves‘ has: dreadful, afraid, oppressed, a little grief-stricken, and, I think, even rarer that the novel should be End-of-the-World science fiction, a genre which normally moves me little*.  Most apocalypse scenarios are far-fetched MacGuffins; they have very little emotional resonance in of themselves, at least for me.  You are meant to care about the characters – the apocalypse is there only to put them in extremis.

SevenEvesBut ‘Seveneves‘ is different.  The premise of this novel is that, one day, one normal day, in our world in our reality, a rapidly moving cosmic event, perhaps a small black hole, causes the moon to shatter into seven large pieces.  The pieces have the same center of gravity as the intact moon, and so remain in orbit around the Earth.  As they begin to collide with one another and fragment, astrophysicists figure out that their collision and fragmentation rate will accelerate.  Eventually, the pieces will begin to fall to Earth in an ‘Hard Rain’; they will super-heat the atmosphere, setting it alight, killing all life on Earth and boiling the oceans.  At the time of the initial event, the Hard Rain will begin in approximately two years.

Seveneves‘ is the story of humanity’s preparation for the Hard Rain, its desperate attempts to put as many people on the International Space Station as possible, and the sequelae, in space, of the extinction of life on earth.

Stephenson
Neal Stephenson

I’ve been trying to figure out why ‘Seveneves‘ is so effective.  It isn’t because it’s perfect.  Neal Stephenson has great strengths as a writer, and some weaknesses, most of which are on display here.

For example, he has trouble with endings, and the ending of ‘Seveneves‘ is emblematic: the book wraps up suddenly and anti-climactically after nearly 800 pages of vividly-imagined plot, as though Stephenson, after saying what he wanted to say, got bored and wandered away from his writing desk.

And not all of it is equally well-imagined.  Stephenson loves physics and engineering: there are pages and pages of loving, fastidious descriptions of orbital mechanics and robotics programming, so long and so detailed that they come to feel almost punitive.  No detail of physics is left unelaborated.

However, much of the second half of the book hinges on a small miracle of biology taking place, on a revolution in gene-editing technology which would require that genes work entirely differently than they, in fact, do work in real life.  The future of humanity relies on, and cannot be understood without, this miracle, but it receives only a paragraph of Stephenson’s attention.  He doesn’t even posit a mechanism of action – he simply asserts that genes work this way, and that scientists may manipulate them thus, with such and such results.

It goes like this:

“…the point is that I can get a digital record of its DNA.  Once that’s in hand, it turns into a software exercise – the data can be evaluated and compared to huge databases that shipped up as part of the lab.  It’s possible to identify places on a given chromosome where a bit of DNA got damaged…It is then possible to repair those breaks by splicing in a reasonable guess as to what was there originally…if it’s a disease – something on the books, defined in the medical literature as such – I will fix it…Once all that is done, each of us gets a free one…one alteration – one improvement – of your choice, applied to the genome of the fertilized ovum that will grow into your child.  And your child only….So, Camila, if you think it would improve the human race to get rid of its aggression, why then, I will search through the scientific literature for a way to reach your goal genetically.” (p. 552- 562)

Habitat Ring
A graphic from the novel – you can see that, when he cares to, Stephenson really thinks things through.

Maybe it’s because biology is my day job, but this unevenness bothered me.  The point of hard science fiction (well, one of the points) is the science; to just gloss over the parts you’re not interested in so you can rush back to describing robot movements cheats the reader.  This is especially glaring when they are crucial to the plot, when they represent far and away the most important scientific advance depicted in your science fiction book!

But this unevenness doesn’t blunt the emotional effect of this novel, which springs, I think, from two things:

  1. There is something viscerally upsetting about the disintegration of the moon.  The effect on the reader of imagining a moonless earth is primitive and unsettling and super-effective.  And Stephenson achieves it with very little fuss – there are no long passages of devotional description of the moon, no exploration of its place in our cultural imagination.  The novel begins when the moon ends, and, like the old cliche, you discover that you had been unaware of what you had until it was gone.
  2. According to Stephenson’s premise, humanity has two years in which to confront its own annihilation.  Some authors would have taken that opportunity to show a depraved humanity, a burning, anarchic world, man’s heart of darkness let loose.  Stephenson does not, and the mostly calm manner in which his world walks towards its own destruction is more affecting than mayhem and evil could have been.  Most people continue to live lives which very much resemble their old lives, but why?  What meaning can your routines possibly have when, in the near future, you and everyone you love will die in flames?  For that matter, what meaning do they have now?

I didn’t enjoy this book – that verb is inappropriate.  In fact, I spent much of it in the grips of a morbid agitation, unable to relax or be cheerful.  But I was completely glued to it; all my free time went to reading it.  If you’re looking for a feel-good romp, this is not your book.  But if you’d like to be freaked out, to work hard for the privilege of being unsettled, if you want to spend some time absorbed in a genuinely dark, movingly dark, future, this is your book.

*Although, now that I think about it, the only book which has unsettled me in this way in recent memory is, weirdly, also sci-fi: ‘The Reality Dysfunction‘, by Peter Hamilton, which describes a vision of the afterlife which made me want to run screaming into the nearest church.

The Warden (The Chronicles of Barsetshire)

The Chronicles of Barsetshire: First Volume

By Anthony Trollope

All Posts Contain Spoilers

I have been longing for a project lately.  I want a long, slow walk through a complete world.  I want to immerse, to invest, in something.  I want to climb a mountain, literarily speaking.

And so, recently, when I was in my favorite used book store in Boston, Brattle Books, and saw a complete Folio Society printing of Anthony Trollope’s ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’, you may appreciate how I felt: as though my mountain had chosen me.

BarsetshireThere are six Barsetshire novels: ‘The Warden‘, ‘Barchester Towers‘, ‘Doctor Thorne‘, ‘Framley Parsonage‘, ‘The Small House at Allington‘, and ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset‘.  Anthony Trollope is right in my sweet spot: prim, English authors whose novels satirize polite society in impeccable prose (don’t I sound fun?).  Once one of the most famous authors in the English-speaking world, he seems to have been largely forgotten.  When I told even my bookish, nerdy friends what I was planning to read next, the modal response was, ‘Who?’.

Trollope
Anthony Trollope

Part of the problem is that he wrote a lot – something north of 45 novels – and they all tend to blur together.  He is most famous for his two series, ‘The Chronicles of Barsetshire’ and the Palliser novels, and for the single novel, ‘The Way We Live Now‘.  ‘The Chronicles of Barsetshire’ are the thing for which he was first known, and ‘The Warden‘ therefore his first commercial success.

The Warden‘ is our introduction to Mr. Septimus Harding.  He is the warden of Hiram’s Hospital, which is an almshouse endowed hundreds of years before by one John Hiram.  The endowment (this is important) is meant to support 12 bedesmen which the community selects.  It also provides for the wardenship, which when the novel begins supports Mr. Harding very comfortably, to the tune of 800£ per annum plus his lovely house, where he lives with the younger of his two daughters, the cherished Eleanor.

The WardenTrouble arrives on the scene in the person of John Bold.  Bold is a handsome young man whose independent means allow him to zealously pursue the interests of the poor, and he has decided that it is a scandal that the warden of Hiram’s Hospital should have 800£ a year – surely, Hiram intended his bequest to be split more equitably between the warden and his bedesmen.  To that end, Bold initiates a legal examination of Hiram’s will.

This is deeply distressing to the clerical residents of Barsetshire.  The archdeacon, who is Septimus Harding’s son-in-law by his elder daughter, feels that the entire Church of England is under assault, and wades into very polite battle.  Mr. Harding, on the other hand, is upset not by the threat to his living, but by the idea that he has been profiting by that to which he was not entitled.  He is sent spinning into a moral crisis which is only exacerbated by the fact that his daughter Eleanor is in love with John Bold.

Pages
What an orderly little world.

The second loveliest thing about ‘The Warden‘ is the way in which the stakes feel simultaneously so low and so high.  Barsetshire is a fictional place, but it is deeply plausible.  It is also completely coherent: the people within it are imperfect but well-meaning.  They may be officious, misguided, or bombastic, but they will never be evil.  It is an impossibility here.  Thus, while our protagonists experience this kerfuffle over Hiram’s bequest as a moral emergency, and while you feel for them in their extremis, you are aware that it is not an emergency, not really, that whatever the outcome, Barsetshire will endure.

The first loveliest thing about the novel is the language.  Trollope is especially good at wielding that peculiar weapon of English satirists: parsimony, the gift of saying a great deal in very few words.  It allows him to describe people or situations perfectly, as here:

“Dr Grantly is by no means a bad man; he is exactly the man which such an education as his was most likely to form; his intellect being sufficient for such a place in the world, but not sufficient to put him in advance of it.” (p. 40)

Or here:

“And with a volley of impassioned love, John Bold poured forth the feelings of his heart, swearing, as men do, some truths and many falsehoods; and Eleanor repeated with every shade of vehemence the ‘No, no, no,’ which had had a short time since so much effect; but now, alas! its strength was gone.  Let her be never so vehement, her vehemence was not respected; all her ‘No, no, no’s’ were met with counter asseverations, and at last were overpowered…and so at last, all her defences [sic] demolished, all her maiden barriers swept away, she capitulated, or rather marched out with the honours of war, vanquished evidently, palpably vanquished, but still not reduced to the necessity of confessing it.” (p. 137)

I’ll throw down this bet: fifty bucks says that there is no better, pithier encapsulation of the tricky ardor of men than “swearing, as men do, some truths and many falsehoods”.  Or a better description of the moment you know you’re going to say Yes and not No than that you “marched out with the honours of war, vanquished evidently, palpably vanquished, but still not reduced to the necessity of confessing it.”

The Warden‘ is the shortest of the six volumes; some of the later volumes could easily be used to club someone to death.  But I’m excited – I think I’ve chosen my project well.  Barsetshire is low stakes, but it suits me: a small, ordered, and lovely world, where the troubles of men are worked out under an unsparing, and yet ultimately forgiving, eye.

The Man in the Iron Mask

By Alexandre Dumas

Translated by Jacqueline Rogers
All posts contain spoilers.

The Man in the Iron MaskThis book is badly named.

For starters, it is not about a man in an iron mask.  A man fitting that description makes a brief appearance, but he is largely peripheral to the plot of this book.

Also, ‘plot’ is perhaps too strong a word for the structure of this novel.  If a plot is a central story which involves and therefore justifies the characters and which resolves in a climax, then this book lacks one.

French-CoverThis is partly because ‘The Man in the Iron Mask‘ is not meant to stand alone as a work of literature; it is actually the novel-length epilogue of ‘The Three Musketeers‘, and rather than tell the story of a man in an iron mask, it is meant instead to wrap up the tales of the four men who formed the heart of that story: Aramis, Athos, Porthos, and D’Artagnan.

This novel opens in the Bastille with Aramis, who is meeting with Philippe, a young man who had been imprisoned eight years earlier but committed no crime.  Aramis, now the Bishop of Vannes, tells this young man that he is the secret and identical twin brother of King Louis XIV of France, imprisoned and doomed for his resemblance to the King and, crucially, for his equal claim to the throne of France.

Aramis proposes to spring this young man and replace Louis.  Philippe understandably agrees, and, with very little effort, Aramis effects the miraculous escape.  The King is at Vaux for a party thrown by his minister Fouquet.  There, the switch is accomplished with no trouble whatsoever, via a bed which can be levered down through the floor into a cave (sure, of course).  Louis is sent to the Bastille; his brother put on the throne, no one the wiser.

So far, this will all be at least somewhat familiar to anyone who has seen the movies.  But, now, things take an odd turn, pacing-wise.  Aramis tells Fouquet his plan; Fouquet is appalled, loyal to the old King, he rushes to the Bastille, frees Louis, and reveals the imposter.  Louis comes face to face with his brother, quails, and orders him banished to an island prison and locked in an iron mask.  D’Artagnan himself bears the prisoner thus.

You are now about 50% of the way through the novel.  If you are like me, you will spend the rest of the book waiting for D’Artagnan to realize that he has chosen wrong, supported a wicked king, and finish what Aramis started.

Man in the Iron Mask
Perhaps you were expecting something like this.  This is a completely different story.

You will wait in vain.  The rest of the novel will be spent following the four musketeers to their deaths, both dismal and heroic.  Nothing more will be heard of the imposter King after his fresh imprisonment; he will presumably spend the rest of his wretched life in the iron mask.  It is weird, and anti-climactic, and, frankly, sort of pointless.

Perhaps the least satisfying part, from a narrative point of view, is the character of Louis himself.  I longed for him to be a villain, but he wasn’t – he was merely a king.  He has moments of juvenile, petty vindictiveness, but he also moments of strength, maturity, and mercy, and is eventually reconciled even with Aramis, who had him imprisoned overnight in the Bastille.

All this ambivalence of plotting would be easier to bear if ‘The Man in the Iron Mask‘ were beautifully written, but it isn’t.  Of course, it’s never really fair to judge a book’s language by its translation, but ‘The Man in the Iron Mask‘ is so ornate and highfalutin that it’s really quite arduous to read.  There are a lot of exchanges like this:

“You intend to look after me, then?”

“Yes, monseigneur; I do, upon my honor.”

“Upon your honor? Ah! that is quite another thing.  So I am to be arrested in my own house!”

“Do not say such a thing.”

“On the contrary, I will proclaim it aloud.”

“If you do so, I shall be compelled to request you to be silent.”

“Very good! Violence toward me, and in my own house, too!”

“We do not seem to understand each other at all.  Stay a moment; there is a chessboard there; let us play, please, monseigneur.”

 

“Monsieur D’Artagnan, I am in disgrace, then?” (p. 161)

And these are meant to be normal conversations – this is everyday discourse.  The whole book is like this!

Things are made even less clear by the fact that all the major characters (except the King) have about eight names.  Aramis, for example, is the Bishop of Vannes, Monsieur d’Herblay, and the General of the Jesuits.  Add to this that they all refer to each other not by their names but as Monsieur and you’ll see that much of the dialogue is incoherent.

idumasa001p1
Alexandre Dumas: Doesn’t he look verbose?

One does begin to suspect that Dumas is being paid by the word – nothing that could be said in ten words is said in fewer than a hundred, and there are entire sub-plots which are no more than cul-de-sacs, and therefore completely unnecessary (and, as with Moliere and the artists’ house, completely unintelligible).

But, of course, amidst all these words, it is almost a statistical inevitability that there would be moments of sublimity, and there are certain high emotions which are, perhaps, best expressed in fruity, Baroque French. Take, for example, the moment when Athos bids farewell to Raoul, his son, forever:

“Athos sat on the mole, stunned, deaf, abandoned.  Every instant took from him one of the features, one of the shades of the pale face of his son.  With his arms hanging down, his eyes fixed, his mouth open, he remained one with Raoul – in one same look, in one same thought, in one same stupor.  The sea, by degrees, carried away boats and faces, until men were nothing but dots; loves, nothing but memories.” (p. 285)

For some authors, these lovely moments are worth bad plot.  And it may be that Dumas in his stronger books is also worth it.  I really enjoyed ‘The Count of Monte Cristo‘ (even though that also had some odd plot choices) and I would want to read ‘The Three Musketeers‘ before I form a firmer opinion.  But ‘The Man in the Iron Mask‘, at least, is emphatically not worth it.

A Handful of Dust

By Evelyn Waugh

All posts contain spoilers.
Waugh Collection
My Waughs

Evelyn Waugh has always epitomized, for me, the kind of arch, precise English literature which I love most in the world.  His best books, ‘Brideshead Revisited‘, ‘Scoop‘, or ‘The Loved One‘, are masterpieces of dry, unsparing social observation.  ‘Scoop‘, for example, is satire, dark and snide, but ‘Brideshead‘ is more complicated, and more melancholy, a story about love and its slow dissolution.

It’s my opinion that ‘A Handful of Dust‘ is not one of Waugh’s best, but Waugh is like sex, or Graham Greene: even when he’s mediocre, he’s still the best thing going.  It’s the story of the happy but boring marriage of Tony and Brenda Last, which becomes disrupted when Brenda begins an affair with the deeply ordinary and romantically unconvincing John Beaver (who lives with his ghastly mother).A Handful of Dust

A Handful of Dust‘ is a novel of social and moral derangement.  Set after the First World War, the population of this novel have lost an essential decency, and so, under their lovely English manners, they act with complete ethical incoherence.  Waugh often imbues his novels with this sense of polite dissonance, which, when it works, makes them bleak and devastating in the best possible way, but, when it doesn’t work, makes me feel vaguely panicky.

My sense of foreboding is learned, because in many (most?) Waugh novels, people meet terrible ends, and they meet them unremarked and unmourned.  Waugh, better than anyone else, captures for me the sense of unreality which must have characterized life in Europe after World War I: all the daily motions, the little rituals of life, undercut by a sense that you might be swallowed up at any time by a chaos unimaginable by your father’s father.  People pretended to get back to normal, but how can you be normal when you know that life is meaningless?  And how can life be anything but meaningless, when you have watched most of the young men of your generation ground into muddy, disintegrating death by the machine of total war?

Waugh communicates this meaninglessness by the juxtaposition of his fine manners with the complete amorality of his universe, all of which is explicated in his punctilious prose.  His characters inflict grave injury on each other in the calmest manner, and I think it is this calm which makes me so anxious when it goes awry.  I’m not sure that the characters in ‘A Handful of Dust‘ are well-elaborated enough to carry his nihilism, so their bad behavior simply feels unrelenting.

However, at the end of the day, I don’t read Waugh for his characters; the point of Waugh is his beautiful language, and he can always be counted on to serve up some consummate prose.  And, in fact, the same emotionlessness which makes his characters hard to bear makes his writing effective and funny; his flat affect is what makes him so droll.

For example:

“Aunt Francis, with acid mind, quickly discerned the trouble and attempted to reassure her, saying, ‘Dear child, all these feelings of delicacy are valueless; only the rich realize the gulf that separates them from the poor.'” (p. 71)

Or:

“The fourth weekend after Brenda’s departure from Hetton was fixed for Tony’s infidelity.  A suite was engaged at a seaside hotel (“We always send our clients there.  The servants are well accustomed to giving evidence”) and private detectives were notified.  “It only remains to select a partner,” said the solicitor; no hint of naughtiness lightened his gloom.  “We have on occasions been instrumental in accommodating our clients but there have been frequent complaints, so we find it best to leave the choice to them.'” (p. 157)

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Evelyn Waugh: It would be difficult to look more English.

Or, in what is my favorite sentence from the novel:

“All over England, people were waking up, queasy and despondent.” (p. 16)

Sentences like that, presented almost entirely without context and yet elegantly encapsulating an entire worldview, are why I love Waugh, why I will always read him, and re-read him.  For dismal precision, he has no equal.

The Aeneid

By Virgil

Translated by Robert Fagles

All posts contain spoilers.

AeneidI know that I’m not supposed to admit this, but I don’t like ‘The Aeneid‘.

Obviously, this is my problem; I am aware that this qualifies me a philistine.  The great minds have, through the ages, cherished Virgil.  Propertius, another Roman poet, wrote upon the publication of ‘The Aeneid’, “Give way, you Roman writers, give way, Greeks/Something greater than the Iliad is being born” (2.34).  Dante included Virgil as his guide in ‘The Divine Comedy‘.  Dryden dedicated his own translation of ‘The Aeneid’ to “those Readers who have discernment enough to prefer Virgil before any other Poet in the Latine Tongue”.

Nevertheless, despite these excellent references, I just don’t like ‘The Aeneid‘.

virgil1I hadn’t read an English translation of ‘The Aeneid’ since high school, and I’d been wondering whether, perhaps, my initial aversion to it was a maturity problem, whether ‘The Aeneid’ is something only adults enjoy, like drinking espresso or discussing property values.  It’s not uncommon for me to find that, upon re-reading, I really like authors or books I loathed when I was younger, and I hoped that ‘The Aeneid’ might be one of these.

It isn’t.  I’ve just re-read Fagles’ translation, and I didn’t enjoy it any more this time around than I did when I was sixteen, and I think I’ve figured out why.

1. Aeneas is lame. 
The Aeneid‘ is often paired with the two great Homeric epics, ‘The Iliad‘ and ‘The Odyssey‘.  It really shouldn’t be: it has a different author, writing from within a different civilization, in a different language.  The comparison is particularly invidious when it comes to main characters: Achilles and Odysseus are much richer and more complex than Aeneas, who is ever-noble, ever-handsome, ever-brave, ever-pious, and ever-victorious.  All his misfortune is the result of the personal animus of the goddess Juno, who doesn’t dislike him per se, but all Trojans (since Paris dissed her way long ago); he is essentially a victim of divine racism.  But he himself is personally flawless and so narratively dull.

2. Virgil is unsexy.  
One of the perks of taking Latin in school is that you get to read more dirty poetry than the kids who take Spanish.  Almost all of the Roman poets wrote about sex; many of them went out of their way to cram raunch into verse where it wasn’t necessary. Horace, for example, wrote about 9,000 odes that all go approximately like this:

Spring is here, the young tree is all green.
New buds are springing out everywhere.
Its flowers bloom; birds sing in its branches.
But soon it will be winter; the leaves will shrivel and brown,
and no one’s going to want to fuck that tree then.

Virgil

Virgil is the exception: there is depressingly little sex in Virgil.  In the entirety of ‘The Aeneid‘, there’s only one sexual encounter, and Virgil can’t even bring himself to describe it – he describes a metaphorically significant thunderstorm instead.  His prudishness is a real joy-killer, especially in light of the fact that…

3. The plot of ‘The Aeneid‘ is boring. 
I’m sure that I’m coming across as something of a blunt instrument, but this third point is incontrovertible.  The plot of ‘The Aeneid’ is not scintillating – it isn’t character-driven, it isn’t sexy, the conclusion is announced at the beginning, and the pacing is atrocious.  The most interesting section, Aeneas in Carthage and the tragic fate of Dido, is elbowed into one book (not coincidentally, the book with the only sex).  Several books, however, are given over to the battles for Italy, which sounds interesting but aren’t.  Instead, the battles read like a very violent roll call: Bob cleaves the head of Sam, and is then stabbed by Frank, who is in turn disemboweled by Andrew, who falls off his horse and is smooshed by John, &c.  It’s difficult to make extreme violence boring, but Virgil manages it.  It’s not all, perhaps, his fault (‘The Aeneid’ is, of course, unfinished; Virgil died before he could complete it), but that doesn’t make it any more fun to read.

There are wonderful parts; there are parts which are transcendent, but they are almost all short sections of incredible linguistic beauty or rhetorical power.  For example, when, before she kills herself, Dido curses Aeneas’ descendants:

Cayot Death of Dido
‘The Death of Dido’, by Claude-Augustin Cayot, from the Louvre

“And then to any Power above, mindful, evenhanded,
who watches over lovers bound by unequal passion,
Dido says her prayers.
…”That is my prayer, my final cry – I pour it out
with my own lifeblood. And you, my Tyrians,
harry with hatred all his line, his race to come:
…No love between our peoples, ever, no pacts of peace!
Come rising from my bones, you avenger still unknown
…Shore shall clash with shore, sea against sea and sword
against sword – this is my curse – war between all
our peoples, all their children, endless war!” (Book IV, 651 – 784)

Two thousand years later, every person who has had their heart broken will still understand this passage.

Or Virgil’s description of the gates of Hell:

 “There, in the entryway, the gorge of hell itself,
Grief and the pangs of Conscience make their beds,
and fatal pale Disease lives there, and bleak Old Age,
Dread and Hunger, seductress to crime, and grinding Poverty,
all, terrible shapes to see – and Death and deadly Struggle
and Sleep, twin brother of Death, and twisted, wicked Joys
and facing them at the threshold, War, rife with death,
and the Furies’ iron chambers, and mad, raging Strife
whose blood-stained headbands knot her snaky locks.” (Book VI, 312-320)

(If you doubt the mighty influence of Virgil, perhaps this second passage reminded you of another:

 “Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom.” (‘A Christmas Carol‘, Charles Dickens))

It is for passages like these Virgil is so beloved, and they are magnificent.  But there’s a lot of dry, poetical bullshit to get through to achieve them, a lot of Aenean virtue, a lot of sailing, lots of lists of dying men you’ve never met and won’t remember.

And I know that the failing is mine, but I wish I’d re-read ‘The Iliad‘ instead.