Tell Them Of Battles, Of Kings and Elephants *

2356412883.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Book #99: ♫ Parle-leur de batailles de rois et d’éléphants / Tell Them Of Battles, Of Kings and Elephants* by Mathias Enard ★★★★½
Source: Municipal Library
Edition: Audiolib (2011), Unabridged MP3 CD; 3h20
Awards & Distinctions: Goncourt des lycéens (2010)
Goncourt Shortlist (2010)
Original publication date: 2010

I picked up this amazing little book because it came highly recommended in a “best of” directory consisting mainly of French writings (La bibliothèque idéale RTL edited by Bernard Lehut); it has not been translated into English yet, but it can only be a matter of time given it won a prestigious French literary award, its vastly famous protagonist—the artist Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, aka Michelangelo—and the compelling premise that the great Italian Renaissance master had made a trip to what was then known as Constantinople in 1506 after being invited by Sultan Bayezid II.

Portrait_of_Sultan_Bayezid_II_of_the_Ottoman_Empire

8th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Bayezid II (1447 – 1512)

From a few verifiable facts, Mathias Enard has weaved a highly poetic tale on the premise that following the Sultan’s invitation, (which Michelangelo’s famous biographer Giorgio Vasari noted in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects), the great master did in fact accept the invitation and spent three months in Constantinople to present plans for a bridge connecting the Eastern and Western parts of the great capital. Sultan Bayezid II has been mostly forgotten by history, but it seems he was a great visionary who promoted learning, fine arts, poetry and earned the epithet of “the Just” because of the smooth running of his domestic policies. Among other things, he organized the evacuation of Jewish and Muslim Spanish civilians who were evicted from Spain as part of the Inquisition, and granted them full Ottoman citizenship. Bayezid II was keen to have a bridge designed by one of the great Italian Renaissance masters, and asked Leonardo da Vinci to submit his designs first. This drawing is still in existence today, but it seems the proposed bridge was deemed impossible to build with the technology available at the time and it was rejected by the Sultan’s engineers, after which Bayezid II turned to Michelangelo.

The story he weaves here begins with Michelangelo’s arrival to Constantinople in May 1506, where is he given shelter by an Italian merchant and greeted by one of the Sultan’s protégés, the Ottoman poet Mesihi of Pristina. The two men couldn’t be more different; Mesihi, though now still considered as an important contributor to Ottoman letters, having died young in an impoverished state and total obscurity, while Michelangelo went on to become rich and famous and died towards the end of his ninth decade. Mesihi enjoyed much food and drink, and openly courted both men and women, while Michelangelo was of an ascetic nature, refusing all drink and eating little. But here Enard imagines the two men developing an unlikely friendship and the poet introducing the renaissance artist to a performer of great beauty and indefinable sex during one of their outings. The language is sublime, and we are privy to some of Michelangelo’s actual correspondence with one of his brothers, which Enard has translated into French for his book.

As for the intriguing title of the short novel, the author took the sentence from Rudyard Kipling’s preface of Life’s Handicap, a short story collection. This preface contains a fictive conversation between Kipling and “Gobind the one-eyed”, a holy beggar, who explains the art of telling stories:

“Tell them first of those things that thou hast seen and they have seen together. Thus their knowledge will piece out thy imperfections. Tell them of what thou alone hast seen, then what thou hast heard, and since they be children tell them of battles and kings, horses, devils, elephants, and angels, but omit not to tell them of love and suchlike. All the earth is full of tales to him who listens and does not drive away the poor from his door. The poor are the best of tale-tellers; for they must lay their ear to the ground every night”.

Such a beautifully told tale that it’s well worth reading twice in a row.

*Proposed translation for the English title

Rich, Dark and Fascinating

f82e1d6edf8d49759716a676a51444341587343♫ Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth ★★★★½
Source: Audible.com
Edition: Blackstone Audio (2014), Unabridged MP3; 19h26
Original publication date: 2012

Partly based on the true life story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force—a cousin of the Sun King, Louis XIV—who was banished from the court of Versailles by the King for a series of scandalous affairs to live in a nunnery, this book interweaves her own life story with the fairy tale we’ve come to know as Rapunzel. According to Wikipedia, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, or Mademoiselle de La Force, was a French novelist and poet, and her best-known work was her 1698 fairy tale Persinette which was adapted by the Brothers Grimm as the story Rapunzel, though it seems this story originally came from an Italian folk tale which Mademoiselle de La Force would have had no way of becoming acquainted with, and Kate Forsyth uses her ample skill as a novelist to suggest how this now famous fairy tale might have been transmitted to her.
Marquise-de-Caumont-La-Force-by-Francois-Hubert-Drouais
When Charlotte-Rose arrives at the convent where she is to spend the rest of her life locked up and isolated from the rest of the world, she meets with a harsh and brutal reception. Stripped of her luxurious court garments and shorn of her cascading locks of hair, then systematically bullied by her overseer, she is eventually taken under the wing of an old nun, Soeur Seraphina, who comforts her with an old Italian folk tale about a young girl who was taken from her parents because her father has stolen a handful of bitter greens; before little Margherita was born, her mother nearly died during the pregnancy because she was unable to eat. At her request, her husband stole a handful of herbs from the garden of the renowned courtesan next door. According to the story, Selena Leonelli was a famous courtesan in the Venice in the 16th century, the favourite model of a great painter, and by that point also a powerful witch with dark powers. When she catches Margherita’s father stealing the herbs, she threatens him with declaring him to the authorities, the punishment for theft being the cutting off of both hands. A bargain is made, and so the parents must agree to eventually give their daughter away. On her seventh birthday, Margherita is taken away, first to a convent to receive a proper education and then into a tower where she is shut off for years, her only visitor being Selena Leonelli on monthly calls and blood rites. There are monstrous secrets hidden in the tower, which has no doors nor stairs, and Margherita must drag around yards of hair which the witch uses to climb up to the only window every month, and the only company the girl has the rest of the time is her own beautiful voice to distract herself, with the hope that someday somebody might hear her and come to her rescue.

Kate Forsyth has a gift for storytelling and we get a narrative from three points of view: there is Charlotte-Rose, locked away in the convent and looking back on her youthful follies and excesses; Margherita in her tower, becoming a woman and looking back on her childhood while learning to outsmart a powerful witch; and Selena Leonelli, telling her own fascinating life story starting in the plague-ridden Venice of the early 16th century and explaining how and why she became Margherita’s jailer. The long narrative of her life is perhaps the most fascinating of all.

I haven’t yet read Angela Carter, and looking forward to redressing that omission, but from the descriptions I’ve read about the way she retells fairy tales, it seems Kate Forsyth has also adopted a very modern, adult and feminist point of view which is rich, dark and fascinating. Certainly miles away from the Disney folks and their ilk. A thrilling book with which to start the year, and heartily recommended.

Five Stars for this Gem

0385509634.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_♫ The Ruby in Her Navel
by Barry Unsworth ★★★★★
Source: Audible
Edition: AudioGO (2007), Unabridged MP3, 12h22
Awards & Distinctions:
Booker Prize Longlist (2006)
Original publication date: 2006

This book by the fine historical novelist Barry Unsworth is set in 1149 Palermo, Sicily, where power struggles between East and West have left King Roger hard pressed to maintain his throne. Both the Pope and the Bishop of Rome refuse to recognize his rule, and Conrad Hohenstaufen (ruler of the West) and Manuel Comnenus (ruler of the East) are threatening to invade Sicily to secure their powers. Palermo has always been tolerant to various ethnic communities, but a Christian group is making false accusations against Muslims, Jews, and other “outsiders” to take over power.

Thurstan Beauchamp narrates this story. He is a young man still, the son of a Norman knight and a Saxon mother. He works in the Diwan of Control, the central financial office at the palace, where his employer is Yusuf Ibn Mansur, a Muslim man with political savvy and of unimpeachable honesty who is willing to help Thurstan become influential if he can avoid falling into one of the dangerous political games the various factions are playing against each other. Traveling throughout Europe as “Purveyor of Pleasures and Shows”, Thurstan finds a group of five Yazidis, including Nesrin, a belly dancer with uncommon talent, and immediately hires them to come to Palermo to perform for the king. He is drawn to Nesrin’s great beauty and allure, but things take yet another turn when he meets again with the Lady Alicia on the same trip, once his great love when he was still a boy and she then just a girl also. Now she has returned from the land of Jerusalem as a widow of considerable wealth and power, and she seems just as taken with Thurstan as he still is with her, when he finds his love for her has not abated over the years.

We learn early on in the novel that Thurstan’s most cherished dream has been to become a knight and fight in the crusades, as his father has done before him, though this opportunity was taken away from him just when it seemed about to be realised. Now with Lady Alicia’s return on the scene and the considerable influence of her relations, many opportunities beckon. The novel builds up at a moderate pace, all the while filled with period details which inform us about aspects of daily life in 12th century Palermo. Thurstan, narrating in the first person from the vantage point of a period after the events have taken place, is a personable main character, whom we cannot help but empathise with, though he makes many grave gaffes and mistakes, and much as his naïvety and youth show he has yet much to learn and ought to know better, we see the events though his eyes before he had gained the advantage of hindsight, so that the reader is offered only glimpses of the whole, until a complex mystery is revealed.

A jewel of a book which I can’t wait to reread to pick up on all the fine intricate details I may have missed upon first reading; I also loved Andrew Sachs’ narration in this audio version; a well-earned five stars for this gem, which only makes me want to read yet more of Unsworth’s wonderful prose. Lucky for me, I still have his 1992 Booker Prize winner Sacred Hunger and it’s follow-up, The Quality of Mercy, as well as The Songs of the Kings, all historical fiction novels also, as well as the travel memoir Crete to look forward to in my vast personal reading and listening library. It’s not unlikely I may end up trying to get hold of everything Unsworth has written in his long and fruitful career, during which he published a total of 17 novels, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times.

Friendship Across the Class Divide

90fe459fa16fd4d597235456a51444341587343The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters ★★★★⅓
Source: Audible
Edition: Penguin Audio (2014), Unabridged MP3; 21h28
Original publication date: 2014-09-16

London, 1922. Frances Wray and her aging mother have been living together in their large villa in Camberwell, a district in south London, all on their own, ever since Frances’s two brothers were killed in the war, her father’s death following shortly after, leaving both her mother and her in reduced circumstances, when it was discovered Mr. Wray had made bad investments and had left his widow and daughter with debts to pay. They’ve had to let go their servants, which is bad enough for ladies of their genteel standing, but worse still, this has left Frances no choice but to take on all the hard chores of keeping house herself, which is something too shameful to reveal even to their closest relations. Barely able to eat their fill, they’ve decided to take on paying guests; the word “lodgers” will not enter their vocabulary, for they refuse to think of themselves as landladies, something too common to consider without evoking disturbing feelings. Then Lily and Len Barber erupt on the scene. They’ve arrived a little bit later than planned with all their possessions, ready to move into the top floor, which Frances has cleared, moving her mother into what was once the dining room downstairs, and only keeping her own bedroom up next to what will be the Barber’s quarters. Leonard Barber is a clerk at an insurance company, a redhead, cheery and rather loud, while Mrs. Barber seems quite young, early 20s, very pretty but obviously done up and just slightly vulgar with the bright colourful clothes and clinking accessories she wears, and soon too the decor comes to resemble her personal style, which isn’t exactly to Frances’s liking. Frances is dismayed by all this; she has long ago resigned herself to her life as a spinster and life-companion to her mother, even though she is still only twenty-six, expecting few pleasures and deriving satisfaction from her responsibilities and the familiarity of the grand old house and neighbourhood she has grown up in. But the Barber’s arrival brings many changes, and after the initial resistance, Frances finds herself caught up in a whirlwind, not the least of which starts with the unlikely friendship she develops with Lilian Barber across the class divide.

For the first half of the novel, we are very much observing a rather slow-paced women’s domestic fiction kind of story, which is all about nuance and minute detail meticulously and beautifully observed, bringing the house and it’s residents and their interactions vividly to mind. But there is passion and plenty of excitement too, which will probably keep the general fiction reader going. By the time the mid-point is reached, suddenly events take a big dramatic turn. I won’t reveal the exact nature of these events to avoid any spoilers, but suffice it to say there is a crime which is transformative both for the characters and for the novel itself, which now moves from the domestic to a more public realm. Now the law and the police are involved, a scandal erupts in the newspapers, there is a famous court case, and the tension keeps mounting, and through it all, Sarah Waters keeps us wondering about the fate of our main protagonists.

I thought this was a great read, and part of the enjoyment for me was actress Juliet Stevenson’s impeccable narration, during which she gave each character a very distinct personality and voice and truly made you the reader actually live through the entire experience more vividly than I know I would have, had I merely read the words on a page with my limited imagination. I found some parts were a bit slow, and some were repetitive and maybe unnecessary and made the novel overly long, but these were balanced by great story elements and some surprises thrown in. I can’t say I’m overly fond of romance in any form, and that aspect of the novel, which is rather an important one, as the plot basically evolves around that theme, was extremely well executed, though I was still made uneasy by the actual sexual elements, though these will no doubt tantalize many readers. In all, definitely a worthwhile read and a very well executed novel.

All You Ever Wanted to Know About Fans

ebe9ad16d94aa71596877676777444341587343Book #175:  The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann ★★★½
Source: Amazon Daily Deal
Edition: Ecco (2012), Kindle Edition, 433 pages
Original publication date: 2012

A young man called Emil Larsson decides to seek for help when he is told by his boss of a new policy wherein he needs to find a wife in short order to keep his post as a bureaucrat. He puts his hopes in a French-born fortune-teller who goes by the name of Mrs. Sophia Sparrow, known to give counsel to King Gustav III himself, over the course of eight days she sets out a spread of eight cards, known as the Stockholm Octavo, which are to indicate to him the eight people who are to help him along his path to fulfilling his future. But young Emil Larsson can’t be sure who the eight are, and he gets lost amid the turmoil of late 18th century Stockholm, when the whole Western world is rocked by the revolution in France, and King Gustav III of Sweden is at pains to try to save Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette from the guillotine, and his own skin as well from the plots and conspiracies surrounding him. Among young Emil’s eight individuals is a baroness, knows as the Uzanne, who with her connections might well lead him to his future wife. But the Uzanne is a dangerous woman and has a singular obsession with hand-held fans, which she collects in the hundreds and which she claims to manipulate with such skill that she is able to perform magic with them. The Uzanne has one goal in mind, which is to bring down King Gustav, and before he knows it, Emil Larsson is involved in a plot which suddenly has much further ramifications than the need to find a wife so he can simply hold on to his post as a sekrétaire and his satisfying life of drinking and playing at cards.

This novel held promise for me. I’m a great lover of historical fiction for a start, and this story is based on true events and dangerous times: the plots against King Gustav III of Sweden and his eventual maiming by a gunshot in 1792, leading to his death when his wound got infected less than two weeks later (though here his death is attributed to other factors). The character of Mrs. Sophia Sparrow, who in the novel is obsessed with the King and acts as a foil of sorts to the Uzanne, is based on the real-life Ulrica Arfvidsson, a famous medium of the Gustavian era, who had more or less predicted to the King the attempt on his life. Engelmann devotes much of the narrative to the fans themselves, so that they become a character in their own right, what between the Uzanne and her obsession with one particular fan from her collection called Cassiopeia which she loses at cards and is then willing to literally kill for in order to reacquire, and a fan-maker from France called Nordén and his Wife who are also part of young Larsson’s eight. I found this focus on fans interesting at first, but the problem I ended up having with the book is that, unlike Karen Engelmann, I haven’t grown up admiring a collection of folding fans as she has, and they simply seemed to take up too much room in the narrative, so that what already seemed like a difficult story to keep together, considering the wide cast of characters encompassing various story tangents, became unwieldy. There were plenty of interesting details and incidents to keep going, but none of the characters felt especially well developed or seemed to want to lift off the page, and the whole felt somewhat disjointed, much as Emil Larsson’s quest appeared to fall flat in the end. But then, I don’t seem to take to devices in novels, and just as I didn’t appreciate the astrological aspects in Eleanor Catton’s Luminaries, I found the aspect of the Octavo spread distracting and perhaps didn’t read into it as much as another more discerning reader might have.

I found the NY Times review pretty great: Eight Degrees of Separation 

Engrossed in 16th Century Murder Mysteries

f001035b372b141596944436967444341587343Dissolution by C. J. Samson ★★★★½
Series: Matthew Shardlake (1 of 5)
Edition: Vintage Canada (2012), Kindle eBook, 464 pages
Original publication date: 2003

When Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer at the employ of Thomas Cromwell is ordered to investigate a murder in a Benedictine monastery, he finds he is quickly enmeshed in a mystery that just keeps getting more complex, more tangled up and more dangerous day by day. Cromwell, known as a harsh master and a tough man to please, expects to get a quick resolution to avoid having to relate the incident to King Henry VIII, as the details of the crime are sure to greatly displease the monarch. The year is 1537 and England is in the midst of Reformation; the Catholic religion, which had been practiced in England for countless generations is now out of favour, ever since King Henry decided to divorce himself from the Roman Pope and declared himself the head of the Church of England, to enable him to rid himself of his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn in accordance with his pious beliefs. At this time, Anne has been gotten rid of well over a year ago—a beheading which Matthew was ordered to attend much against his will—and Henry’s third wife Jane Grey has just died in childbirth. King Henry’s men, all ardent Reformers, with Thomas Cromwell at the helm as vicar-general, and the newly formed Court of Augmentations (created expressly for the purpose), are busily closing down all the smaller monasteries to replenish the royal coffers and take over land which is to be given over to prominent landowners as royal favours. But Henry VIII and Cromwell’s sights are now set on the large monasteries, from which there are countless riches to be gained, and the monastery of Scarnsea on the Southern coast of England is their next target. The political situation is fragile however, and the king’s men are in no position to force the monks to abandon their holding as they’ve done with the smaller monasteries, since a revolt in the North has forced them to reconsider their strong-arm tactics, and they must employ finer stratagems now to encourage the abbots to give up the monasteries willingly.

The royal commissioner recently sent to investigate Scarnsea has just met with a most violent murder on the premises, and Master Shardlake is expected to find the culprit and conclude the business his predecessor was sent there to take care of. Of course, he fully expects to be met as an unwelcome guest at the monastery; as the vicar general’s man, he has unrestricted access and can question anyone he likes to enable him to find means to put all the monks and their servants, who have been living in the monastery in luxury and comfort for hundreds of years, out on the street. So he is all too aware that he and his assistant, the young Mark Poer, are putting their lives at risk in a place where a murderer has already dared to strike off the head of his predecessor, all the more so when other suspicious deaths take place and a long-dead corpse is discovered. Shardlake, as an ardent reformer, has his share of preconceived notions to contend with before he can see past his prejudices against the Catholic papist traditions of the monks and recognize when he is being told the truth and given clues he should attend to.

I’d seen many glowing reviews for this book and the Matthew Shardlake series in general, but am glad I followed my instincts and decided to put it off until I’d learned about the major players in King Henry’s time and understood more about the political and religious situation of that particular period covered in the book. Reading Hillary Mantel’s excellent Wolf Hall with the assistance of a tutor on Library Thing who is extremely knowledgeable about that period, followed-up with Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which treats specifically on Henry Tudor’s displeasure with Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell’s efforts to eliminate her so the monarch could move on to Wife Number Three, proved to be just the kind of high quality literary background that helped me appreciate this historical crime novel all the more. I also found reading this as an eBook very practical, as it made googling particulars and looking up biographical details on wikipedia available at the touch of a button, but that being said, I don’t think deep historical knowledge is necessary to enjoy this series, with its countless atmospheric details which plunge you right into the 1530s and a fast-paced, complex yet riveting plot that certainly kept this reader completely engrossed and barely able to put the book down. I’ve been told by fans of the series that the Matthew Shardlake books just keep getting better and have now moved on to book 2, Dark Fire, which is proving equally captivating. In fact, I think I’ll go and read a few more chapters now, and am already hoping Sansom puts out more sequels to keep me going for a good long while!

Short and Bittersweet

0393067203.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Coventry by Helen Humphries ★★★★
Edition: W. W. Norton & Company (2009), 1st American Ed, Hardcover, 192 pages
Original publication date: 2008

I read this book in just two sittings—yes, partly because it’s short, but also because it made for compulsive reading and was very difficult to put down. It’s my first book by Helen Humphreys, and I think the others currently on my wishlist will end up on the TBR sooner rather than later. Two women and a young man are at the heart of this novel which mostly takes place during one terrifying night, during the worst and most destructive of a series of German blitzes on the city of Coventry, UK, this one occurring on November 14th, 1940. Our first glimpse of Harriet Marsh, the lead character, is when she is perched on the roof of Coventry cathedral on firewatching duty just before the bombs start raining down. As a woman, she shouldn’t really be there, but she’s replacing her injured neighbour that night, which is how she meets the young Jeremy Fisher, another firewatcher who, unbeknownst to her at this point, will end up spending the better part of the night with her, as they both try to reach their homes, which are located close to each other and where Jeremy hopes to find his mother Maeve. As they make their way through the city, the are forced to walk through the burning inferno that Coventry has become, with the constant pounding of bombs, buildings toppling at every moment, trying to help victims who are instantly buried in the detritus in front of their very eyes, and hoping not to get exploded to bits themselves or to find their homes annihilated either. Harriet had already lived through the First War twenty-six years earlier, to which she lost her young husband, both only eighteen years-old and just married at the time. He’d gone missing and probably killed a few weeks after he’d enlisted and left for the front on September 1914, just one month into the war, and Harriet has never gotten over the grief of her loss. He’d only had the chance to send her one letter, and she’s held onto this relic like a talisman ever since, and when the novel begins, she is convinced that this second war with the Germans can’t possibly have such a devastating impact on her as did the Great War. But in this she is mistaken of course, and at that point she can’t possibly know that Jeremy is the son of a woman she’d casually met 26 years before, on the very day she’d seen her newlywed husband off at the train station.

I found this short review by the Guardian, which I thought did a better job at resuming the book than I ever could, though I should say that it’s written from the perspective of a British person who is familiar with the history of the war as it happened in her own country, unlike myself, to whom the events of that night were formerly mostly unknown and therefore did not seem quite as inevitable, which took nothing away from the story—quite the contrary in fact:

“To set a character on the roof of Coventry cathedral on the night of 14 November 1940 leaves no doubt about the path the narrative will take. The inevitability of the firestorm sounds ominously from the first sentence of Coventry, but Helen Humphreys makes of that certainty a subtly crafted, surely paced novel. From Harriet Marsh looking up at a “bomber’s moon”, we slip back to a meeting between her and another young woman on a tram at the outbreak of the first world war. Long before either Harriet, Jeremy, the young man with whom she shares firewatching duties, or his mother, fleeing the desperate bonhomie of drinkers in a pub cellar, realises, the reader is aware that the bombing of Coventry will tie up the loose ends of that earlier encounter. Bleak images of death are counterpointed by moments of escape. As Harriet and Jeremy pick their way through collapsed buildings and burning streets, a fleeing horse embodies the possibility of survival. Coventry hauntingly depicts the nightmarish power of chance.” (Isobel Montgomery, The Guardian, 12 September 2009)