A Book with a History

The book is green with golden letters, cloth bound. Sunlight faded the spine into autumnal yellow so that you can no longer make out the title and the author very well. When you open it, the yellowed pages rustle, feeling slightly stiff to the fingers. The title page is followed by the picture of the author printed on smooth, glossy paper that contrasts with the coarser pages that follow it. I turn the pages and think: they don’t make books like this anymore.

And then there’s the way it smells. The smell of decades which lingers on  your fingers even after you put the book down.

The book is Montesquieu’s Persian Letters. The copy I’m holding in my hand was published in Hungary in 1955 and comes complete with an ideologically overloaded preface that teems with phrases like ‘financial bourgeoisie’, ‘sharpening class struggle’ and ‘Marxist-Leninist’ – par for the course in those Stalinist times when even children’s adventure books were tinted by Marxist ideology. On the bottom of the very last page, there’s the faded indigo stamp of the State Book Distribution Company with the address of the bookshop in Budapest where it had been first sold. I found it in a second-hand bookshop in England: my theory is that it was sold to them by a descendant of a Hungarian émigré of the 1956 revolution who can’t read Hungarian.

As luck would have it, I came across the book exactly two days before Christmas and that same day my brother-in-law ordered me the English version from my Amazon wish list. If he had been less quick on the ‘buy now’ button, I’d have had time to remove it.

Clearly I was destined to re-read the Persian Letters of Montesquieu.

You might also like:On Goulash CommunismThe 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents on the National Security Archive

 

The Book Vargas Llosa Dares Not Re-Read

Picking up where I left off on Monday night… that is, the problem of re-reading books.

The Dangers of Re-Reading
Or
The Book Vargas Llosa Dares Not Re-Read

A few days ago on Zenda Libros I read the transcript of a group interview with three authors: Mario Vargas Llosa, Arturo Pérez-Reverte and Javier Marías. One of these I’d follow to hell, another won the Nobel Prize and the third one is still on my to be read pile.

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Last Lines (Últimas líneas)

Some books have unforgettable First Lines – others have unbeatable endings… (And some have both, with some pretty impressive stuff in between.)

Unos libros tienen inolvidables primeras líneas – otros tienen insuperables finales… (Y algunos tienen los dos, con algo muy impresionante en medio.)

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The Power and the Glory

I started to look at photos of the soaring church towers of Spain the other day, thinking of turning them into a photo post, but by a series of those associations that you afterwards can never explain, I ended up with my tattered and bath-soaked copy of Graham Greene’s best novel in my hand instead.

(You’ll have to wait for the church towers.)

The Power and the Glory

I don’t think I’ve taken it off the shelf once in the past twenty-five years or so, and yet I can remember vividly every word of it. Well, almost.

‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps  you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.

(Italo Calvino: Why Read the Classics?)

It’s called The Power and the Glory, and the title is a clear reference to the last line of the Lord’s Prayer. An interesting title because you can read it in more than one way: the spiritual power of the church versus the earthly power of the government, the power of faith and of political convictions, the glory of martyrdom…

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Sun-drenched II

Bank Holiday Monday

The sky is as low and grey as no sky has a right to be on the 29th of May. The only splashes of colour on Trafalgar Square were the high-vis jackets of the far too many policemen in attendance.

And then it rained.

What we need is honey-coloured stone, wide open skies, blinding white paint, the cool azure of the sea, sharply defined shadows… In other words, what we need is:

The Sun

(Click to enlarge.)

Five Short Novels to Read on an Aeroplane

Okay, so your work sucks and you only live for the holidays, right? Or maybe your work is the best thing ever, but even so you do go on holidays sometimes – right? So you need a book to read that’s just the right length for a short-haul flight.

(I’ll let you know my recommendations for long-haul when I’ve managed to get further than three hours’ flight.)

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Lengua e imperio (Language and Empire)

La gloria “será nuestra, que fuemos los primeros inventores de obra tan necessaria”

En 1492, la primera gramática del castellano fue escrito por Antonio de Nebrija (1441-1522), un humanista renacentista español educado en las universidades de Salamanca y Bolonia (Italia). Y ni siquiera era la obra sólo la primera gramática del castellano; era la primera gramática de cualquier idioma moderno de Europa, y punto. La primera gramática del inglés no fue publicado hasta casi un siglo más tarde (en 1586), lo del francés en 1550.

The glory “will be ours, as we were the first inventors of a work so necessary”

In 1492, the first grammar of Castilian – the language better known as Spanish to English-speakers – was written by Antonio de Nebrija (1441-1522), a Spanish Renaissance humanist, educated in the universities of Salamanca and Bologne (Italy). And not only it was the first Spanish grammar; it was the first grammar of a modern European language, full stop. The first English grammar was only published nearly a century later (in 1586), the first French one in 1550.

La gramática de Nebrija /Nebrija’s Grammar. (Biblioteca Gonzalo de Berceo) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

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Don Quijote de la Mancha

En un lugar de la Mancha…

When I picked up El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha by Cervantes last week and opened it on the first page (okay, in my edition that would be page 113), and read,

En un lugar de la Mancha,

de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo…

In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen…

 …I felt the heady effect of a sudden shift in time and space: all at once I was somewhere in La Mancha, under a harsh sun, confronting whitewashed windmills.

Somewhere in La Mancha… Cerro Calderico, near Consuegra. Photo by Manuel via Flickr. [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

(Cervantes once looked at these.)

—¿Qué gigantes?—dijo Sancho Panza.
—Aquellos que allí ves —respondió su amo— de los brazos largos, que los suelen tener algunos de casi dos leguas.
—Mire vuestra merced —respondió Sancho— que aquellos que allí se parecen no son gigantes, sino molinos de viento…

“What giants?” said Sancho Panza.
“Those thou seest there,” answered his master, “with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long.”
“Look, your worship,” said Sancho; “what we see there are not giants but windmills…

It is not often that you pick up a book – no matter how old, how famous – and you’re transported with such urgency before you even finished reading the first half sentence. But the unassuming En un lugar de la Mancha… must be the most well-known and memorable first line in Spanish-language literature – ever.

Somehow it doesn’t quite work the same way in other languages.

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Return from Spain

Sunset over Seville

Perhaps that is the travellers deepest melancholy, that the joy of return is always mixed with a felling that is harder to define, the feeling that the places you have ached for since you first saw them simply went on existing without you, that if you really wanted to hold them close you would have to stay with them for ever. But that would turn you into someone you cannot be, someone who stays at home, a sedentary being.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

The paradox of travel.

The Art of Zurbarán

In the Museum of Prado in Madrid and the Museum of Fine Arts in Seville you can see a number of paintings by the 17th century Spanish painter, Francisco de Zurbarán. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall ever having heard Zurbarán’s name when I was in school, although admittedly art history was no longer part of the grammar school curriculum by then.

The first time I took notice of Zurbarán was, in fact, in the Prado, seven years ago now – I must have seen him in the National Gallery in London before, but the National Gallery is so vast and so full of masterpieces of all styles that I passed him by. The Prado was different. Not that it’s short of masterpieces from all over the world, mind, but I went there specifically to look at Spanish paintings. I wanted to see Goya and El Greco and Velázquez… and while doing so, I came across Zurbarán.

Saint Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 – 1664), National Gallery, London (NG230) [CC BY-NC-ND 4.0]
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Time and Chance Happens to Them All

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, a novel about the 18th century collapse of a bridge in Peru in which five people were killed, is neatly bracketed by the opening and the closing chapters titled, respectively, Perhaps an Accident and Perhaps an Intention. The titles refer to the question that the Franciscan monk who witnessed the disaster was wrestling with: why did those particular five die? Brother Juniper expanded a great amount of effort and energy in trying to find the answer (but if you want to know what he came up with, you’ll have to read the book).

Vanitas (Adriaan Coorte) Photo by zullie via Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-SA 2.0]
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The Battle of Salamis: Retold in Poetry II

While Byron chose to tell the story of the Battle of Salamis short and sweet in The Isles of Greece – which, by the way, is part of a much longer poem, Don Juan -, the Athenian playwright Aeschylus wrote an entire play based upon it.

ὦ παῖδες Ἑλλήνων ἴτε
ἐλευθεροῦτε πατρίδ᾽, ἐλευθεροῦτε δὲ
παῖδας, γυναῖκας, θεῶν τέ πατρῴων ἕδη,
θήκας τε προγόνων: νῦν ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀγών.

O children of the Greeks, go,
free your homeland, free also
your children, your wives, the temples of your fathers’ gods,
and the tombs of your ancestors: now the struggle is for all things.

Aeschylus: The Persians

The Battle of Salamis According to Aeschylus

Can you imagine telling a story, with your audience hanging upon your every word, breathless with excitement or moved to tears – although they had heard the story many times before and know the final outcome? Because that’s exactly what Ancient Greek playwrights had to do; and Aeschylus pulled it off beautifully with The Persians.

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The View from the Ivory Tower

Should we admire or despair of those single-minded people who dedicate themselves to the pursuit of a pet obsession? Who put what we’d consider a ‘normal’ life on hold to disappear into the wilderness spending years in research?

I’m talking about the likes of Milman Parry, who traipsed around the remote mountains of pre-WWII Yugoslavia for a decade, recording folk songs in an attempt to gain an insight into the oral tradition as surviving since the time of Homer… Or Walter Muir Whitehill, who, similarly obsessed, spent nine years in Spain at around the same time, discovering and cataloguing Romanesque churches in the most godforsaken locations. (Both Harvard academics, I notice.) I came across this second one, Muir, while reading Roads to Santiago by Cees Nooteboom.

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