Posts Tagged ‘librivox’

Richard F Burton: Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina

September 17, 2019

Many years ago I read Richard Burton’s Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina; recently as I’ve been travelling, I had the Librivox recording to listen to in the car. It is an astonishing work. Burton was a Victorian traveller, a polymath; at school we heard of him because we discovered his translation of the Kama Sutra

Non-Muslims are not allowed into the holy cities of Islam; in Burton’s day, discovery would have meant his death. He took the disguise of an Afghan and performed the Hajj along with many other Muslims, and was not detected. He describes the journey and the places, the food and the people in minute detail, a great achievement given that making notes and sketches and diagrams was a difficult and dangerous undertaking, too, when you are always under the watch of fellow-travellers. His knowledge as detailed in the book is positively encyclopaedic: all the religious sites are there, the practices, rituals and the necessary prayers. I do not imagine anything is missing, at the same time realising that much will have changed in the more than century and a half since his intrepid undertaking. And I do not know if there is a contemporary account to match and equal his.

Why did he do it? Because it was there? Real interest in Islam and the culture and way of life of the desert Arabs and Bedouin is there, and he was certainly not the first to travel widely in those regions; he regularly cites his predecessors. Several times in the Personal Narrative he makes it clear he is a Christian, that is, that he has not converted to Islam. And yet, he performs all the prayers and rites, apparently he was circumcised too; he knew a number of the languages of the region… and he is always reverent and respectful towards the Islamic faith. I am in awe, as well as confused by his motives and beliefs.

I also admire the Librivox volunteers who produced this recording. A number of them are non-native English speakers, which can make for tiring listening and vexing mispronunciations, but many of them make up for it by their familiarity with Arabic, for Burton’s account is peppered with Arabic words and phrases, both in the text and the footnotes, and every one is faithfully retained in the recording, and (to this non-Arabist) seemingly well-pronounced. However, it was Victorian practice when writing about sexual habits and activities to do so in Latin, and I’m afraid the garbled renditions of the volunteers made these possibly interesting extracts unintelligible…

Reflections on utopias (1)

August 21, 2018

I’ve been thinking about utopias again, more specifically utopian novels and their flaws and defects, prompted by what I think I’d have to call the only really religious utopian novel I’ve come across. Driving around the country, I’ve been listening to Aleriel, or A Voyage to Other Worlds, by Wladyslaw Somerville Lach-Szyrma, a Polish-English nineteenth-century writer. (Yes, another of those Librivox audiobooks!) Very briefly, an Oxford student meets a mysterious person whilst travelling in France. He meets him several times in different places, and we quickly get the impression there is something uncanny or unusual about him. He’s eager to travel widely and learn as much as he can, and clearly knows very little about Earth, its people, nations and habits. He effects an almost miraculous, and never-explained rescue of the narrator from the Prussian blockade of Paris in 1870. He’s clearly a very spiritual creature and is given an introduction by the narrator to a friend who is a vicar in Cornwall, and who eventually uncovers the secret, that the mysterious person is a visitor from the planet Venus. Shortly after this, our visitor leaves Earth, after having allowed the vicar a glimpse of life on his home planet. Several years later a detailed communication is delivered, relating Aleriel’s travels to the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and other worlds.

Eternal life?

Venusians live for ever, and spend much time worshipping the Creator in huge temples; they do not know war, violence, famine or poverty, and so Earth clearly comes off pretty badly by comparison. Martians are not eternal, but they have a similar spiritual reverence for the Creator, and have at some point in their past been visited by the ‘Holy One’ who taught them how to live righteously; they have constructed themselves a utopian society of plenty and stability, and once again Earth looks poor by comparison: whilst Martians have heeded the teachings of their Holy One, the implication is that on Earth we have not responded to those of Jesus Christ. This idea of a Creator and a spirituality common to three planets (and, indeed, taken for granted) is quite well developed if a little overbearing and hectoring at times. However, because of the nature of utopian writing, fascinating theological issues that writer such as such as James Blish raised in A Case of Conscience are unvoiced.

I remember years ago being shocked by the utopian world of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time because they made the choice to execute people who would not conform to the ways of their perfect society; the Martians do the same…

Kill the misfits?

And so I am back with all sorts of questions that utopias raise, that last moral one in particular. If you have carefully and painstakingly built a perfect society of equality and plenty, based on fairness and sharing and so on, and one or two people refuse to play, and challenge, or behave ‘anti-socially’ and thus perhaps endanger the future of that society, do you have any alternative other than to – in some way – remove such people? Huxley, in Brave New World, could not fully face up to this and their rebels were exiled to various islands where they could be supervised to ensure they did not contaminate the utopia. But if someone really does not want to belong…

The broader picture is that utopias do not do democracy, which we all know from our experience is flawed enough, but is supposed to be the least worst system we have available. Again, if you have constructed a perfect society, why would you give anyone the opportunity to vote against it, and downgrade it? There are arguments current that less democratic, or even authoritarian societies – the Chinese Communist one for instance – may have a better chance when it comes to dealing with the ecological and environmental crises the planet faces, because they can plan and act for the long-term and are not hamstrung by short-term electoral game-playing in the ways that our democratic Western societies are.

Can utopia be a human place, or are its citizens/members inevitably no longer humans as we know them, having lost various rights which we currently imagine to be crucial to our existence and our freedom? Look again at Brave New World, where the problem, it seems to me, is not that society’s control of its members per se, but the fact that a new race has been bred and conditioned, which we would not recognise as human if we met them. Whether or not we might like to live there, and whether or not we could live there, are two additional avenues of speculation. To be continued…

Other Voices of the Great War

April 29, 2018

You don’t need to look far on this blog to be aware of my interest in the First World War. I’ve read many of the great works of literature – poetry, prose and drama – that came out of those tragic years, and I’ve explored some of the sites of the conflict, on the western front at least.

What I’m gradually discovering are the other, smaller voices from those years, that have fallen into obscurity, but that are nevertheless interesting and powerful documents, often with an unexpected immediacy. It wasn’t just combatants from the warring nations who wrote, but civilians, nurses, volunteers: all sorts of people from all walks of life, and their voices are filling out for me the impression of its having been a world war in the sense of involving everyone.

Some of these texts are available in print, some exist online in archives such as Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive, and others have been carefully recorded by the volunteers at Librivox, so it’s clearly not just me who is interested in, and has been moved by, these accounts.

The Martyrdom of Belgium (librivox) is quite a shocking document. Both sides produced a fair amount of ‘atrocity propaganda’ at various times, but this was the report of a commission set up to investigate and document various deeds committed by the Germans as they swept through neutral Belgium in the early days of the war, and it’s the names, places, streets, villages and towns, along with the precise numbers of murdered civilians that appalled me. Obviously the events described pale into insignificance compared with what came later, but there is clear evidence of deliberate targeting of civilians in a bid to terrorise the local population.

The American writer Edith Wharton‘s account of the early days of the war from Paris and her visits to the front lines is fascinating, replete with a sense of immediacy. I’ve written about it before, here.

Nurses were often horrified by what they saw and experienced; Vera Brittain‘s accounts are well-known, but the anonymous Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front is just as powerful, as is Ward Muir‘s Observations of an Orderly (both on librivox).

While I was travelling recently, I listened to E W Hornung‘s Notes of A Camp Follower on the Western Front. He was a civilian volunteer with the YMCA, who attempted to provide comforts for the troops when they were sent behind the lines for rest and recuperation; he spent a lot of time making tea and cocoa, and putting together and running a small lending library for the troops, as well as watching, and having many conversations with men, many of whom he never saw again, because they did not survive. I was reminded of the vital role of people like him when I visited Talbot House in Poperinghe.

Accounts such as most of these I’ve mentioned are often effective because they do not benefit from the distance, the passage of time and the hindsight that other, more well-know accounts have: we are reading or listening to accounts where the final outcome is not known, where the writer and their initial readers did not know what was still to come: responses and judgements may have been rendered erroneous or inaccurate by today, but that does not matter: we have a real document from the time, which can still speak to us powerfully, across a whole century…

G H Lewes: The Novels of Jane Austen

April 2, 2018

An essay rather than a full-length book from Librivox this time, but an interesting historical curiosity which I enjoyed. Lewes wrote in 1859, out of a feeling that although many people of his acquaintance had encountered some of her novels, very few of them had heard of ‘Miss Austen’ herself. Partly this seems to have been because very little biographical information about Jane Austen was available, but also because a certain ‘Miss Austin’ was better known at that time, for her translations from the German – of what, we are not told.

This becomes more interesting when we recall that Lewes had a very unconventional – for the time – relationship with Mary Anne Evans, whose nom-de-plume was George Eliot. She also made some translations of German works, and her early novel Scenes From Clerical Life (by Mr George Eliot!) is referred to at one point…

Lewes writes at a time when Jane Austen’s reputation was not established, and he sets out to do this.

Although he deems her a great English writer, she can never be one of the very greatest because of the narrowness of her subject-matter: she produces brilliant ‘miniatures’ but they are not ‘frescoes’… unlike the works of Sir Walter Scott, Austen’s contemporary, with whom she was constantly being unfavourably compared. Who reads Scott nowadays? Lewes also found ‘Miss Bronte’ tedious – he seems to mean Charlotte, since he later imagines that no-one will read Jane Eyre in the future.

He focuses on many aspects of Austen’s writing and craft which delight us nowadays, and which are judged as her particular strengths, and contributions to the genre: her style and use of language, her shifting narrative viewpoint, her comic characters (which he illustrates through detailed references to Mr Collins and Mrs Elton in particular), her close attention to detail and her humour generally. On the other hand, he praises Northanger Abbey highly and marks Persuasion down, which I don’t think chimes with current judgements.

Having noticed that overlap between a judgement from a century and a half ago and our times, I also remarked that completely absent from Lewes’ essay was any reflection on the social criticism implicit in Austen’s writing: critics today are highly aware of what she has to say about the precarious position of single women, women who failed to find a marriage partner, and their limited and diminishing prospects as they aged: what would have become of the Bennett sisters or the Dashwoods if suitable men hadn’t appeared on the scene? What a grim existence faces poor Jane Fairfax…until Frank Churchill does the decent thing. Austen is also aware of the profound social changes taking place in the England in which she lived, the effects of the Napoleonic Wars and the importance of the Royal Navy; some even read significance into her allusions to slavery in Mansfield Park. Clearly, social context – or any kind of context – was not a part of the study of literature in Victorian times.

So, interesting questions are raised about an issue I’ve often reflected upon: reputations, and what works will survive to be read and appreciated by future generations, and we can see that Lewes’ judgement is flawed on several counts, perhaps because he is still too close to those authors and texts about which he writes. It clearly took a good deal of time for Jane Austen to attain her current place in the pantheon of English writers…

Ellis Meredith: The Master Knot of Human Fate

March 30, 2018

The resume of this Librivox audiobook grabbed me, and so I downloaded it to listen to in the car.

A natural cataclysm of some sort – never truly explained or clarified – isolates a man and a woman, who knew each other in their previous existence – on an island some where California and the western US used to be. Luckily (!) everything necessary for their basic survival is on hand…

I was interested to learn about the cataclysm, and was disappointed. I was interested to see how their Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson existence panned out, but, apart from everything going just swimmingly, I learned little. A home and smallholding, conveniently abandoned, was to hand.

I wondered if anyone else had survived. Our heroes hope against hope for a sign, a ship; after a year one appears on the horizon, and they signal to it – perhaps rather foolishly, it might seem – but next morning it is revealed to have been an abandoned wreck, and not even useful supplies can be gleaned from the wreck, as Robinson managed three centuries ago. So they are alone.

A twenty-first century reader would wonder about the possibility of emotion and sexual attraction between them, isolated for the duration. Clearly they were fond of each other in their previous world, and they do grow closer. They realise that they may be the only humans left alive, and reflect on whether they have a duty to continue the species. And they engage in interminable religious and philosophical discussions about this, and about what faith their putative offspring should be raised in…. Everything is sauced and spiced with liberal doses of nineteenth century religion (the novel was written in 1901); they must be sure they ‘love’ each other and have absolutely no doubts about what they are about to undertake, before they devise a wedding ceremony for themselves, and she happens to find an old wedding-dress in a trunk.

And then the story ends.

Reader, do not waste your time either reading or listening to this book: it really isn’t worth it. Maudlin, tiresome and sentimental, it should have stayed forgotten. Librivox and Project Gutenberg do a great job of restoring access to forgotten literature of the past, but this one could have quite well stayed lost, I think.

John Howell: The Life & Adventures of Alexander Selkirk

October 7, 2017

life_adventures_alexander_selkirk_1301Daniel Defoe‘s novel The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is generally acknowledged to have been the first novel in English. Published in 1719, it is based on and inspired by the sojourn of a Scots sailor and buccaneer, Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years voluntarily marooned on the island of Juan Fernandez, off the coast of Chile.

Defoe was also a journalist, and certainly succeeded in making his fictions appear to be factual, as did many writers in those early days of the novel, when this new form was gradually being developed and its potential discovered. A Journal of the Plague Year reads convincingly as an account by someone who lived through the London events of 1665, yet Defoe had not even been born in that year. And Jonathan Swift went out of his way in 1726 to try and lend verisimilitude to the far more outlandish Gulliver’s Travels.

It’s clear that Defoe would have had access to accounts of Selkirk’s stay on the island, which is quite sketchy, but mentioned many of the things that Defoe was skilfully to develop and enhance: the need for shelter, how to feed and clothe himself, fear of strangers landing on the island and capturing him – though, of course, Defoe makes the strangers savages and cannibals rather than mere French or Spanish sailors – and the comfort brought to a solitary man by his faith in God. Defoe’s hero remains on the island for far longer, and is assisted by the shipwreck which provides him with all sorts of useful supplies and equipment that Selkirk never enjoyed; his stay on the island lasts over twenty years, and he eventually gains the companionship of the faithful Friday… you can see how a novelist puts his imagination to good use with his source material.

John Howell, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, thoroughly researched Defoe’s source material, tracing Selkirk’s life and interviewing surviving relatives, as well as mining archives of obscure magazines and other publications; in this relatively short account – an excellent Librivox production – he gives us all the material with a commentary. No aspect of Selkirk is left untouched, and we have clearly laid before us the bare bones from which Defoe worked to produce his masterpiece. If you’ve enjoyed Robinson Crusoe, you may enjoy this…

Edith Wharton: Fighting France

September 29, 2017

51zB99-bd4L._AC_US218_Another very interesting Librivox find: despite having taught Great War literature for years, I do keep coming across interesting finds. I’ve never felt moved to read anything by Edith Wharton but downloaded this a while ago. Apparently it was a best-seller during the war years.

An American by birth, she was living in Paris when the war broke out, and describes the scenes in there at the time, as well as her own impressions and reactions. Her account covers roughly the first year of the war, and in 1915 she embarked on a tour of the Western Front from Dunkerque to Belfort, with some official help; aided by her connections, she was one of few foreigners allowed to travel like this. I have the impression that the French wanted the right kind of message to get back to the USA, and her narrative is also spiced with stories of German atrocities. She got to visit Verdun, and various other places now part of the history books including Ypres and Dunkerque; she got taken to front-line trenches, watched bombardments, and did seem to have been in one or two slightly hairy situations, saw parts of Lorraine which had been re-captured from the Germans, dined and conversed with French troops and officers… All very different from the ways in which reporters and journalists are handled in war situations today!

It’s a relatively short book, only six chapters, the last of which sums up her impressions of France, the French, and their efforts thus far. Hindsight is always a wonderful thing: clearly the dreadful grind of the later years was still to come, when such journeys could not have been undertaken, and there is also a certain freshness and innocence in accounts written while the war had not reached its end. On the other hand, there is no indication of the horrendous French casualties in the early months of the war when they threw everyone they had at the Germans in a desperate attempt to halt their advance. A very interesting read, or rather, listen.

On happiness (or contentment)

March 9, 2017

51s1OWZlFDL._AC_US218_One of the things that I find myself thinking quite a bit about as I grow older is happiness. Or perhaps I mean contentment, I’m not completely sure. And for me it’s quite a simple thing, a lot of the time. It involves lying comfortably on the sofa, reading a good book. There’s a glass of good beer on the table, and music playing, probably Bach, Beethoven or Chopin. The iPad is next to me, should I need to check something, or look something up about what I’m reading.

And that’s it. Except, not really, because being here in this state of contentment comprehends the people, the family and the achievements and satisfactions that have accompanied me to this place where I am today, and the feelings and loyalties they inspire, too.

The idea of contentment doesn’t seem to figure that prominently in fiction, at least not what I’ve come across. Hermann Hesse’s Siddartha is an interesting case, a fictional narrative that imagines the life and spiritual journey long ago, of a man – is he the Buddha? I don’t know; perhaps; it doesn’t actually matter. In his story we see him achieving what he thinks is happiness or contentment a number of times, and subsequently realising that it was not, that something was still lacking and it was time to move on to the next part of the search. It’s a short, tenuous book which is actually better listened to in the librivox recording, if you have the time.

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One of my all-time favourite novels, to which I return every few years, is Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life. A sailor returns from the Great War to Germany, and quickly realises that he cannot fit back into the life he is expected to. So he ups sticks and leaves everyone and everything behind, and disappears into the forested depths of East Prussia, where he comes to find peace and contentment totally cut off from the world, living on a small island in a lake in the middle of nowhere. He makes no demands on anyone or anything, but he’s not a hermit, for he has a loyal companion and is tolerated by the owner of the estate in whose lands the island and lake lie. It’s a slow and lyrical novel – how I wish I could read it in the original German: I’ve tried but it is beyond me – and it’s gradually pervaded by the sense of a man at peace with himself and the world, genuinely happy. And yet, we know and can sense that lurking in the distant background is the gathering storm that will shatter and destroy everything. I find the novel astonishingly powerful.

When I think about the various utopian novels I’ve hunted out and read, I’m quite struck by the fact that I don’t recall much happiness or contentment in them, despite the genre and my expectations of it. If I feel anything about William MorrisNews From Nowhere, W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, or more recently, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, I have a sense of worlds which strive to be fair to everyone, which provide a sufficiency for everyone, and there is a general sense of satisfaction about them, but it doesn’t really go any further or deeper than that. Maybe a utopia is inevitably general because it has to convince us that the whole world is perfect; what I want to read is an interesting story set in a utopia, but I suspect that here is where the stasis of utopia might let down the necessary dynamics of a good story. And coming back to happiness and/or contentment, which was where I set out from, I also feel that is an individual matter, rather than a general one.

My A-Z of reading: A is for Audiobook

October 10, 2016

(An occasional series)

I was very sniffy about audiobooks when they first came out; I couldn’t see why one would want to listen to someone reading a book rather than read it oneself. And, listening to text read aloud takes so much longer than reading it silently to oneself. I suppose I couldn’t visualise situations where I’d make use of audiobooks.

Then I ended up with a drive to work for a number of years, half an hour each way. As I grew older, I tired of listening to news bulletins, and Radio Three’s programming became less and less attractive. I came across a reference to the librivox website somewhere and began exploring, downloaded a favourite novel or two, and never looked back.

I discovered Naxos Audiobooks, too: higher-quality, commercial recordings of real favourites like Sherlock Holmes, Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Paradise Lost. And, now that I’m retired, and regularly go off for solo driving adventures, I can listen to a lot more. Since I can actually ‘read’ a book whilst driving, I can get through more books than previously, which is clearly a good thing.

I choose carefully. Sometimes it’s difficult and obscure stuff that I’d probably get a headache actually reading – The City of God by St Augustine, or JosephusWars of the Jews are a couple of examples. Here, the text does come at you more slowly, so you have time to think about it, and it doesn’t matter if you miss a bit because you’re concentrating on the road; it’s not quite the same as skim-reading, or skipping pages. Other times, it’s old favourites I have loved for years; I can never tire of any of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and the Naxos recordings are first class. The familiarity is there, so I can concentrate on different aspects of the stories. Occasionally it’s something completely new, perhaps impossible to track down in print: there is some wonderful travel writing, and some gripping personal accounts of service in the Great War available from librivox.

And this is where I get something I’d never imagined I would, before I got into audiobooks. Particularly if the recording is a good one (and not every librivox one is), it’s possible to listen out for nuances of style, a writer’s particular vocabulary, how s/he constructs sentences. Yes, you can do this with a printed book, too, but it’s a lot easier with an audiobook. Reading the Qur’an, for instance, I found pretty challenging, but listening to an English version was much easier, because that holy book was written to be recited… And listening to Milton’s Paradise Lost – another stunning Naxos recording – I can sink into the beauty, the complexity of the verse, the breadth of the vocabulary, the invented words, the rhythm. Truly magical.

George and Weedon Grossmith: Diary of a Nobody

September 17, 2016

51qjywbue3l-_ac_us160_This semi-humorous Victorian work conceals quite a hefty punch behind its deliberately understated exterior. I first came across it at school and enjoyed it then; I think it’s the first time I’ve been back to it, whilst on a recent touring holiday, courtesy of the excellent Librivox website.

For a couple of years Charles Pooter keeps a diary of his life beginning from the day he and his wife Carrie move into their new rented house in Holloway; they are soon joined by their (for Victorian times) raffish son Lupin who has been ‘let go’ from his job with a bank in Oldham. Charles has a job with a broking firm of some kind in the City, and is moderately successful. They both have a group of rather dull and sometimes boorish friends and relations.

If everything so far sounds almost deliberately dull and boring, that’s because surely it’s meant to. The adjective, ‘pooterish’, has passed into the language. The family is very petty bourgeois in its tastes, lacking in wit, liveliness, interests, not wanting to offend anyone, or to be offended. No-one has an interesting or original thought in their head… The most enterteining and subversive moment of the novel comes when the Pooters somehow end up at a social occasion where the guest of honour is an American writer who deliberately challenges his hosts’ attitudes, beliefs, and everything they do and stand for – no doubt in the stereotypically rude and outspoken American fashion that people used to condemn in Victorian times – and Charles Pooter, to his horror, finds himself acknowledging the truth of what the guest is saying and agreeing with him! Fortunately, this wobble is only brief, and our anti-hero shakes off his temporary rebellion and returns to normal.

What is really challenging about The Diary of a Nobody, what makes is so very different from that other gem from those times, Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, is that the Grossmiths inevitably get their reader reflecting on her or himself: we come to realise, as we mock the Pooters for their tedious ordinariness, that there is some, if not a lot, of that ordinariness in our own lives, no matter what story we may tell ourselves and others about how interesting and exciting our lives are. For do not we live in ordinary houses, often in suburbs, where we wrestle with the daily chores of shopping, tradesmen, making the house into a nice home, whilst dealing with our awkward children? And are not our values, beliefs and attitudes replicas of those with whom we spend our time? Are we really any different from the norm, or are we kidding ourselves?

If what we seek in our lives is contentment, and surely there is nothing wrong with that as a goal, then the ending of the book is comforting, as Mr Pooter gets a promotion which means he will be financially secure for the rest of his life, and his son lands a decent job. But it’s also very scary: where is the excitement, the adventure we feel we need?

The other wonderfully subversive thing about the book is its indirect challenge to the realist fallacy, that idea that fiction or cinema or television can ever portray our existence in a ‘true to life’ or realist fashion, rather than cut and edit for the sake of plot and excitement: The Diary of a Nobody really does consist of all that tedious stuff that has to be left out of so-called realist works to make them bearable: no-one in War and Peace argues with the butcher’s boy, moves a boot-scraper, paints the stairs, gets lost in a cab, or any of a host of other unbelievably dull and tedious things; here they do. God, it’s boring, and the scary thing is, it could be us…

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