CROW: FROM THE LIFE AND SONGS OF THE CROW

I suck at keeping my blog up to date and relevant. So, today, I bring the big guns out with a review penned for a scholarship interview, and for what is one of my favourite books.

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★★★★★

If I had to pick one poetry collection of Ted Hughes and watch the rest of his work burn, I would always pick Crow. This is a black book of carrion in both content and presentation, and it most certainly would not burn if rejected. It would shriek obscenities and tar the immediate surroundings with angry spittle of ink, the throbbing heart within the text still so furiously alive that it would be alarming to witness.

First published in 1970, Crow is a collection of poems centred on the mythical figure of the eponymous bird. Hughes, like Shelley’s Frankenstein, sews together his own monster here, bleeding in various creation myths and folklore into his crow, fleshing out this creature that faces God, Death and nature. This book is littered with hermetic resonances. In the majority of poems, Crow muses, trying to understand his relationship with all three elements. Death trips Crow up in one poem, so Crow is left dangling upside down in the position of the Hanged Man. In another, God tries to teach Crow to speak words, whilst in other poems Crow plays tricks on God in return. Nature violently confines Crow to the earth, standing him off against the sea in one poem, leaving Crow an insignificant speck.

Hughes is well known for his tooth-and-claw poetry. In his first published book Hawk in the Rain, he presents the reader with a variety of animals and takes on the role of a shaman. We see Hughes fastening the strings to affix symbolic masks of each animal on his face. Crow goes beyond this. Though the first Crow poems were a response to Leonard Baskin’s drawings of crows, Hughes carried on writing. Reading the poems in this collection feels as if a crow has taken possession of Hughes’ soul, or maybe Hughes has invited the soul of a crow within his own body, ‘[…] inside him, like a steel spring / Slowly rendering the vital fibres’. The effect produced in tone is that of a damning cry, or an echoing fit of laughter in the darkness. It presents the world at the bleakest moment when a person looks in the mirror to see not himself, but a lurid joker smiling back, goading, “what, are you still here?”

This is Ted Hughes truly savage, and Crow is his gob of spit in the face of man, beauty, God and life. Whereas a hawk is a bird of prey that can be trained to hunt on behalf of man, a crow, in contrast, is popularly regarded as a bird of pestilence; more feral than ferocious. Nevertheless, the crow persists, endures, survives, and cackles heartily regardless of triumph or fall. So does Hughes’ Crow, becoming ‘the hierophant, humped, impenetrable’. Even though the poetic landscape is dark, there are moments of black humour which embody that aspect of resilience we admire. You have to love certain things for their resilience rather than their beauty. A warning, though, if you love for beauty, you cannot love this book.

BONUS MATERIAL:

  1. Am I the only person who can spot crow related references in Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers? Esther Woolfson, Keith Sagan… Remember the jive about there being a set number of pop culture references in Vanilla Sky? Can the same game be made out of Porter’s book with all related references? On that note, if you like this, read Max Porter’s book. If you don’t like this, then still read Grief is the Thing with Feathers. If you didn’t like Grief is the Thing with Feathers then why are you reading this?!
  2. In a previous version of this review, this made up the beginning, and naturally was too unsuitable for a review outside the realm of GoodReads:

Sometimes I feel like I’m the only member of the Crow Appreciation Society in my immediate circle of friends and colleagues. They just don’t get crows/corvids in general, most people don’t. So, off the top of my head, five reasons why crows should finally get a little respect from you peasants:

  • Crows can distinguish one human from another and remember their faces. This is my number 1 as it was a hard lesson for me to learn. My dad took me away on holiday when I was six and I thought it’d be really big and clever to lob a cob of sweetcorn at a young crow bullying a sparrow. Not such a hot idea. You might not be able to tell one crow from another and a knock on the chin is just that, but they can tell you apart and are pretty much Liam Neeson from Taken if you mess with one of them. I was chased all afternoon by a whole family of them and couldn’t go outside in that field for the rest of the holiday. Don’t fuck with crows.
  • Type ‘Caledonian crow’ in YouTube and watch lots of videos of crows solve problems in experiments with reasoning and tool-use. There’s also the famous video of crows dropping nuts so cars can smash them open and using the traffic light system to safely collect their goods.
  • Then stay up until 5am watching videos of talking crows. Not just parrots who imitate speech, certain corvids like ravens and crows do as well. I think there actually is a video of a raven saying ‘nevermore’. The one that freaks me out is the injured crow suddenly exclaiming ‘I wanna fly, FLY!’ – don’t watch this at 5am.
  • They’re sly. Crows who have stolen from other crows will hide their food in better places next time. So, basically, you swindle over another crow and then learn from this experience in order to be better equipped in keeping food stores of your own.
  • Not really crow, but still corvid related: magpies (I think) are one of the few animals to identify themselves in a mirror. Maybe it’s because of Lacan’s mirror theory and self-identification as a topic I find this particularly interesting.

(As for corvid facts mentioned above: everything is true and nothing is verified when you research topics at 5am.)

3. I did receive the scholarship for this review.

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THE BRIDGE

 

TheBridge

★★★★☆

The blurb on the back of my copy makes it sound like the opening sequence to BBC’s Life on Mars (to the point I wonder where the inspiration for Life on Mars actually came from):

A man lies in a coma after a near-fatal accident. His body broken, his memory vanished, he finds himself in the surreal world of the bridge – a world free of the usual constraints of time and space, a world where dream and fantasy, past and future, fuse. Who is this man? Where is he? Is he more dead than alive? Or has he never been so alive before?’


Last two lines aren’t as heavily ‘Injury Lawyers 4 U’ as the opening two lines of Life of Mars, but still up there.

Anyway.

I can’t remember what made me pick up this book in the bookshop; it was another Banks novel I wanted to read. I don’t know, maybe I thought of dreams when I happened upon the cover. These days I don’t dream of bridges; I dream of houses and schools I’ve known, the seemingly normal architecture on the outside at odds with the labyrinth of secret rooms and passageways within. Nevertheless, the first recurring dream I had was of walking along the pedestrian bridge over the dual-carriageway near where I lived at the time. No matter how many times I dreamt of that bridge, I was never able to cross it in my dreams, always surprised I could walk across the construction in real life without it crumbling beneath my feet.

The bridge presented in the novel is also constructed in both physical and metaphysical place. The plot is disarmingly easy as you can see above, but the multitude of selves which are addressed fattens out this particular plot beautifully.

It reminded me of Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World for the parallel storylines taking place. Whereas Murakami has two central figures in two distinctly separate worlds, Iain Banks has three worlds which (like Murakami’s worlds) faintly echo in the other. There is the world of Alex which has a fixed time and place that we are familiar with; there is the surreal world of John Orr, and finally the primitive accent-inflected folk tale of the Barbarian. These three stories are told over the course of the novel which is separated into the following chapters: Coma, Metaphormosis, Triassic, Metamorpheus, Eocene, Metamorphosis, and Coda.

The essay I most enjoyed writing in university was one on the nature of the autobiography using Wordsworth’s Prelude as a central text. I could have written a dissertation on it as the subject matter was so interesting to me (couldn’t say so much for Wordsworth himself, I still have dreams convincing people ‘he was a prick! And a bad friend’).

The Bridge reminds me of the essay, bringing to mind what has hold over me regarding the implications of writing an autobiography. When we write our experiences, along with confessing our deeds (for man is a confessing animal as Rousseau says), recording the events which shaped us, justifying who we are now based on our personal history, there is also a lingering half-full/half-empty question that I think on when I read books like this. Is it a division of selves that take place when we write our lives: exactly how far do we separate ourselves now from ourselves past; or is it that in the process of writing our autobiography we pick up, collect and reunite together these selves discarded like skins over our lifetime into a whole being?

Ah well, no matter how you see the glass, whether the question even matters anything at all in the grand scheme of things, Banks’ The Bridge is still brilliant in my opinion and worth reading.

BONUS: If you liked Ballard’s mechanical sex fetish running throughout Crash, you’ll dig the infrastructure inspired sex scene in this book. Promise.

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Women in Translation Month

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This August marks the third annual Women in Translation Month (WITmonth), as introduced by Meytal Radzinski back in 2014.

There is no set schedule of books to read this year, no fixed geographical areas or particular languages that have been highlighted either. So, what exactly are the rules, then? Simply to read women in translation, share books you have read or are currently reading, and to find more women in translation.

Why? Radzinski has compiled a quick series of stats regarding women in translation, and it’s just depressing. To summarise:

  • only ~30% of translations into English are by women writers;
  • (something I noticed when trying to find books to read this month) most of the top publishers of literature in translation publish very few women in translation;
  • (I saw that a lot more university presses/not-for-profit presses offer translated books by women than commercial publishers, but) university presses struggle even more to promote women in translation; and
  • there is an imbalance which exists across many languages and many countries (also evident when I was looking for WIT books to read).

Women in translation deserve a wider audience. I want Ana Cristina Cesar’s poetry translated and published. Wider attention should be given to Israeli poets like Agi Mishol and to under-represented languages/countries in the world. We live in a time where information is so easily accessible, but in searching for WIT books, there is a huge imbalance in readily published material translated for the global market.

 

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So, the 6 books I plan to read for WITmonth:

  • Panty, Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay [India/Bengali – Tilted Axis Press]
  • The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector [Brazil – Penguin Random House]
  • The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa [Japan – Vintage]
  • Cleopatra Dismounts, Carmen Boullosa [Mexico – Grove Atlantic Press]
  • The Swing in the Middle of the Chaos, Sylva Fischerová [Czech Republic – Bloodaxe]
  • 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool, Viola di Grado [Italy – Europa Editions]

Each book is less than 250 pages, published after 2000, no two books have been written in the same language or are written by writers in the same area, and no two/more books have been published by the same publisher.

Will you be reading any books for WITmonth? Will you be updating progress via blog, twitter or Goodreads? Are any interested in having a Goodreads reading group set up devoted to just women in translation? Because I have just created a group…

Bonus material:

First page of results when googling “women writers in translation” yields the following three articles:

“Where”, “where” and “why” – how telling!

In looking for WITmonth books to read, I noticed that independent publishers are the ones actively involved in publishing women in translation. By no means a complete list, some of these publishers include: Pushkin Press, Comma Press, Europa Editions, Peirene Press, Portobello, Deep Vellum Publishing, Tilted Axis Press, etc. Buy from the big corps (books are books are books), but also show love for the indie publishers. They’re all kinds of awesome.

I came across a couple of good lists compiled [x], [x], but the best has to be the master list of WIT books published since 2010 by Katy Derbyshire [x]. All are good starting points in finding new writers.

 

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ANNA KARENINA

 

annaka

★★★☆☆

I haven’t finished everything Nabokov has to say of Anna Karenina, but of what I’ve read so far, this stands out:

Essential truth, istina, is one of the few words in the Russian language that cannot be rhymed. It has no verbal mate, no verbal associations, it stands alone and aloof, with only a vague suggestion of the root “to stand” in the dark brilliancy of its immemorial rock. Most Russian writers have been tremendously interested in Truth’s exact whereabouts and essential properties. To Pushkin it was of marble under a noble sun; Dostoevski, a much inferior artist, saw it as a thing of blood and tears and hysterical and topical politics and sweat; and Chekhov kept a quizzical eye upon it, while seemingly engrossed in the hazy scenery all around. Tolstoy marched straight at it, head bent and fists clenched, and found the place where the cross had once stood, or found – the image of his own self.

The truth that Nabokov speaks of here, the truth he says Tolstoy searches for in his work, is not everyday truth, but immortal truth. If Anna Karenina is centered around this one truth, then to me, it’s also about the fracturing of this truth; the different sects that have broken away but also exist in their own right. The crux of the matter is contracted perfectly in a single remark within the novel: “I think… if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.” Anna’s brother lazily accept truths to excuse his behaviour, Levin struggles in the quest to understand truth and meaning within his life, and Anna is destroyed by her desire to be truthful in a hypocritical society.

The first time I read this book was around the time I read Vanity Fair, and I liked the latter a lot more at that point. Before rereading Anna Karenina this year, all I could piece together from memory was that there was a dippy love affair, Vronsky was a cad, and Tolstoy the preacher of long sermons, literally threw Anna under the morality train for her transgression. There’s still the obnoxious kid in me that will jokingly refer to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary as ‘housewife regret’. This image of the unhappy partner looking to the world outside whilst doing the dishes, all teary, thinking about The One Who Got Away (or for an easy definition: Adele’s discography).

I’ve come to appreciate the book a lot more on a second reading. Vanity Fair is subtitled “A Novel without a Hero”, but now I find that Anna Karenina is more deserving of that title. Not that Tolstoy has purposefully set out to provide us with flawed characters on the verge of becoming caricatures; Tolstoy’s characters here become well-bodied for their failings. There is more to Anna’s husband and Vronsky than what sketch is presented initially, and as events unfolded, the reader’s opinion of them change as well.

For the struggle within oneself which Levin represented (I loved this), I can’t say I liked Levin all too much as a person, though. Levin represents Tolstoy himself, which might be why. Charles Dickens castrated himself to become a character in David Copperfield; Lev Tolstoy seems to have added the inches in moralising sermons within Levin passages. It provoked many a despairing sigh, especially the views Levin had regarding women. However, the last few pages which centered on Levin redeemed most of the previous passages. That last section really is a thing of beauty, up there with Steinbeck’s timshel passage in East of Eden in how it touches the soul. Another triumph is when Tolstoy provides Anna’s thought in a stream-of-consciousness manner. It was exhilarating to read given it jars so much with the omniscient third narration employed otherwise.

The more I dwell on this novel, the more I come to appreciate it. Not so much for the parallel love stories which makes this book accessible and popular across audiences.  I appreciate this search for istina; the desperate need to live honestly, to be governed by love and truth. This struggle which is embodied in both Levin and Anna. We all identify with that. I can forgive Tolstoy the boring passages about farming and rural politics because of this search for truth, how well he writes his characters in pursuit of it.

However, I cannot and will not forgive Tolstoy for actually writing the thoughts of a dog as part of the narrative. 3.5 stars.

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Should I withdraw a gold star from Tolstoy or my son?

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A COUNTRY DOCTOR’S NOTEBOOK

country

★★★★☆

Do I express my thoughts lucidly?
I think I do.
What is my life? An absurdity.
(Morphine)

An absurdity indeed. Do I like going to see the doctor? No. Have I been six times in the last three months? Yes. The moment my son breaks out in a rash it’s a red alert for the family. He isn’t even four months old and he’s so comfortable in the surgery waiting room that he prefers sleeping there to sleeping in his crib, it’s ridiculous. There’s a level of anxiety I now feel going into the doctor’s office because I know she’ll give me this look as to say “what now?” and I’m there like “please, my sister and I like to avoid doctors and dentists for years at a time, I’m not the hypochondriac here… but really, what is this red dot on his stomach?” (No, it’s a real dot this time, not like the “really bad cut” my boyfriend and his dad once panicked over which ended up being a piece of red scarf fluff stuck to his cheek.)

So, doctors and facepalm-inducing patients: this was the second Bulgakov book I read instead of reading The Master and Margarita as I originally (and repeatedly) set out to do [edit: as of 2016 I have finally read this]. This slim volume of short stories mostly relate the narrator’s experiences as a newly qualified doctor assigned to a village practice in the middle of nowhere. It doesn’t disappoint.

There are a fair few funny anecdotal tales which make up the bulk of this book, full of annoying patients (like myself), ridiculous situations, moments of extreme panic and self-doubt on the narrator’s part too. This doctor is fresh out of school, clinging onto academic achievements and really is thrown into the deep end: he isn’t assigned to work in a hospital with other doctors, he is completely alone and in charge of a surgery where he now has to put medical theory to practice for the first time. He’s isolated geographically and socially from city life and peers, surrounded by a syphilis epidemic and villagers so obstinately set in their own ways they sometimes obstruct him from doing his job (which he kind of wants at the start to avoid responsibility). I do think many doctors/nurses would enjoy reading this as they will have been in similar circumstances feeling the same kind of apprehension, misguided confidence/trust and subsequent woe as the narrator feels. I want to write down more about these stories, but I’ll end up paraphrasing them badly when they’re short enough to read anyway.

Given the hypochondriac nature of the family and their fondness for telling anecdotes of similar amusing nature, I asked my boyfriend’s dad (who practically forced mustard-plasters onto my boyfriend when he hurt his back this year) if he ever read this book and what he thought of it. He looked at it nonchalantly, “this is the one with Morphine… no, I don’t like this.” I can understand why to some extent. The last two stories Morphine and The Murderer are sombre accounts compared to the dark comical follies we’re presented beforehand and it turns the mood completely. It didn’t negatively impact my enjoyment when reading though.

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THE BLUEST EYE

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★★★★☆

I finished reading this book yesterday [5th January] and I still can’t believe this is the first novel Toni Morrison wrote. For a first novel it is unafraid, and it’s not the story being told which makes it a great novel, it’s the poetry in the storytelling. The language left me stunned for how beautiful (and natural) it is, there were a number of beautiful lines littered throughout this book. Morrison takes a very uncomfortable and tragic story and immediately strips it of its shock value within the first couple of pages by telling the reader what is going to take place. It doesn’t make the vulgar and perverse moments which are still present more acceptable for the forewarning either, but it means Morrison is able to shift the focus elsewhere so the taboo act which takes place doesn’t become the crutch of the novel to keep the reader interested.

There are big issues in this novel that are unfortunately relevant 46 years later after first being published, some of which hit me personally too. The importance of diverse representation within the media is highlighted in how Morrison tackles the damaging ideal of beauty which is presented to the characters and the responses had in turn. Claudia and her sister resent the popular Shirley Temple beauty ideal with Claudia destroying blonde haired and blue eyed dolls given to her to try find what it is that somehow makes these dolls beautiful. Mrs Breedlove erases herself as a person in response to the beauty ideals encountered when watching Hollywood films, cleaning off the colours experienced which made her feel alive and beautiful beforehand. Pecola, the main character of this story, sees herself completely ugly and only ever redeemed as a person if she incorporates these beauty ideals by having blue eyes. As well as the destructive belief white/cleanliness is better, Morrison also touches on victim shaming as in the end Pecola serves not just as a way for the community to feel better about themselves; it isn’t until the end of the story that we hear her inner voice, and by that time it is fractured completely.

What Morrison gives us is a coming-of-age/coming-to-terms novel relating the formative experiences of her characters and how in each case there is a failure in coming to terms with the events experienced or attitudes inherited. The vivid imagery and poetry woven into the language constantly charms the reader (as is done in Lolita with the same kind of uncomfortable acts that take place), there are different kinds of narration employed throughout so the reader is more able to try understand and humanise these characters despite the transgressions mentioned. There is no simple portrait or explanation given which I like. Nevertheless I think the characters end up representative than fully developed because there are so many issues Morrison wants to tackle in such a short amount of time, so it ends up as a snapshot, a cautionary fable of sorts and an insight into the mindset of a generation. Again, still a devastating story and one which is powerfully told by Morrison.

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(FINALLY) THE MASTER AND MARGARITA

Long awaited, and the first book of 2016 read too.

master

★★★★☆

This review is a bit rough and rushed, but it’ll do for the time being.

It took five serious attempts, four recommendations and two translations over the course of eleven years to finally read this novel. Having now finished it (both translations read simultaneously as well), the beauty of this novel for me isn’t so much the story of Woland, The Master or Pontius Pilate within the book, but more the context/backstory of the book itself.

First some boring backstory of my own M&M reading experience: I’ve had a Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of The Master and Margarita since I was 16 years old when my mum bought me the Penguin ‘Banned Books’ box collection. I never understood why she bought me such a set given that she thought me too rebellious to begin with and would also censor my bookshelves every now and then of books she deemed too explicit (though she left The Complete Marquis de Sade untouched for the entire time I lived with her simply because I think she saw it was The Complete Works of Somebody and only moral upstanding writers could have Complete Works editions made). Each time I tried to read this novel, I’d enjoy it, but I always hit a wall when it came to the end of the third chapter. For some reason, as soon as Berlioz is hit by the streetcar, I just was killed off as a reader as well. I always hit the reading wall and found it hard to continue. Determined to finish reading the other 30 chapters of this novel, I decided to buy the Burgin and O’Connor translation thinking maybe translation had been the problem all along.

So I finally read this over the holiday period and having someone around who had read the novel helped me to break past the third chapter of doom and keep on reading. I’m glad I stuck it out, because The Master and Margarita is worth the hype. The novel itself is made up of three stories; it begins with Satan visiting Moscow during the 1930s to wreak a bit of havoc on the city (especially members of the theatre/literary society), and within the opening chapters Satan introduces us to the second story: Pontius Pilates’ involvement in Christ’s execution. This second story in turn weaves with it the titular story of The Master and Margarita. Along with the topsy-turvy hilarity that ensues in the first part, there are many characters in this novel, some which are memorable and central like Woland’s cronies, others which make just the odd appearance like members of MASSOLIT. In the first part of the book there are a lot of meaningless theatrics, but this is balanced out by the second part of the novel which looks inward, pulling the reader into the world of Satan via Margarita’s involvement and it is the titular characters which unlocks the emotional depth of the novel.

“Manuscripts don’t burn.” Ironically, this novel started off as a burnt manuscript and it is an unfinished novel still with fragmented sentences and unexplained loose ends here and there in the book. Knowing it would never be published, Bulgakov spent years amending and revising parts of the novel up until his death in 1940. In M&M there is a lot of Bulgakov himself in there: his opinions of the literary society at the time, experiences had living in communal flats, stories he heard of crimes and interrogations (all of which he satirizes wonderfully). There is also the personal aspect; his love of music and theatre pervades the writing, there is a sensuality present and what I found particularly poignant was the implied sense of failure he felt as a writer reflected in the characters of The Master and Ivan N. Later on in the novel a character visits a doctor after being told he would die of liver cancer within the year, a little segment added after Bulgakov’s own dealings with his doctor. This novel is very much a living and breathing entity for those small details, some of which Bulgakov finished relating and those which never will be.

M&M was first made available as a censored version during the ’60s and the uncensored version was released in 1973. Earlier on this evening my boyfriend mentioned to his mum that I’d finished reading this book (my boyfriend and his parents hail from Moscow, living just off Patriarch’s Pond), and she told me that when she was younger she was given a typewritten copy of this book on the sly to read within one night before she had to return it (a practice known as samizdat: evading censorship by distributing censored texts), so she stayed up all night reading M&M and copied down passages she wanted to memorise and pass on to other people. She also said that she along with others would copy down different versions of the novel and compare line by line the differences between each versions. That kind of context also makes The Master and Margarita a great read on reflection. If only Bulgakov knew.

Ps. Translation wise, I found it enjoyable reading two translations simultaneously as I feel like I would have missed the point of some passages if I only stuck to one translation. For instance, even pedantic little things like ‘MASSOLIT’: written as an acronym in Burgin and O’Connor’s translation which worked better for me as a reader (English variant would be ‘LOTSALIT’) than written down as ‘Massolit’ in P&V translation. Burgin and O’Connor described the character Ivan N. by the Russian name ‘Bedzomny’ as given by Bulgakov (P&V’s translation referred to him as ‘Homeless’) which I liked, but then failed to relate the humour of MASSOLIT member’s names in the main body of the text. A member is referred to ‘Sladkin’ in the B&O version, but in P&V translation they’ve translated this as ‘Sweetkins’ which is funnier. The notes and introduction/afterward to both editions were incredibly useful though.

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THE PRELUDE

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★★★☆☆

As much as I respect this text (and I do, it should be read), I have always said from the moment I finished reading that Wordsworth here is like a child constantly kicking away the ball he keeps bending over to pick up.

Currently reading Brodsky and this line from his Less Than One essay really sums up Wordsworth’s autobiographical quest and does it more justice than I’ve snarked for the last five or six years: “As failures go, attempting to recall the past is like trying to grasp the meaning of existence. Both make one feel like a baby clutching at a basketball: one’s palms keep sliding off.”

That’s it. The Prelude summarised in one line.

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IBN FADLĀN AND THE LAND OF DARKNESS: ARAB TRAVELLERS IN THE FAR NORTH

[written December 2015]

ibn-fadlan

★★★☆☆

Arab travellers and Vikings coming together… sounds like fiction (and Crichton did create a decent story out of this premise in Eaters of the Dead), but not the case. This book compiles accounts by Arab travellers detailing various Turkic people who populate northern regions where the nights are so short “there is no time for the water to boil before the dawn prayer.”

Both introduction and appendices to this book should be read as they give greater context and information regarding the travellers, the Khazars, the Rus, the Samanids and the fur trade in general. Ibn Fadlan’s travel account takes up the majority of this book, and there is also a big section regarding a later traveller called Abu Hamid who keeps mentioning his concubines and does a Byron in trying to take a Greek girl back home with him. He writes a lot about Gog and Magog, and so do other writers included in this collection, from description of the people to the wall itself that contains them, etc. which is fascinating given this isn’t a real place or people as such. Out of the various writers included, only Masudi’s writings were very satisfying to read and I’ll probably read more of his work if I ever come across them.

I really did enjoy ibn Fadlan’s account the most though, not just because it truly was interesting and informative to read (his is the only written account of a Scandinavian Viking funeral), but it was also hilarious. This is a pious man, educated theologian, fastidiously clean and he is from a civilised world travelling to insure that the practical laws of Islam are imparted to the newly converted tribes in the North… and he just runs into horribly dirty people again and again. He writes as impartially as he can, but he is just so horrified by these uncivilised Turkic/Rus people especially when it comes to hygiene and modesty.

There are so many Ibn Fadlan Astaghfirullah moments, but here are a select few from quickly flicking through the book:

“We took every precaution against [the Bashghirds], for they are the worst of the Turks, the dirtiest and the readiest to kill. When one of them meets another, he cuts off his head and carries it off with him, leaving the body. They shave their beards and eat lice. A man will pursue one through the seams of his coat and crack it with his teeth. We had with us a man of this people who had converted to Islam and who served us. One day, I saw him take a flea from his clothes and, after having crushed it with his fingernail, he devoured it and on noticing me, said: ‘Delicious!’”

“[The Rus] are the filthiest of creatures. They do not clean themselves after urinating or defecating, nor do they wash after having sex. They do not wash their hands after meals. They are like wandering asses.”

“One day, we went to the home of one of [the Ghuzz Turks] and sat down. This man’s wife was with us. As we were talking, she bared her private parts and scratched while we stared at her. We covered our faces with our hands and each said: ‘I seek forgiveness from Gd!’”

Ahmad Ibn Fadlan’s journey summarised:

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