The English-language novel is commonly held to have originated around 1700, with Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688; at 31,000 words it’s a novella by current standards) or Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). It occurred to me that since it’s such a recent thing, I’ve lived through much of its history by now. I’ve been reading English-language novels for about 35 years, that is, 11% of the period.
Let’s say you and your grandma read a new novel that you both like in 2020 when you’re 15 and she is 75. And she shared a new novel with her grandma when she was 15, etc., etc. Then the book you two are sharing now is only the sixth in the chain back to Robinson Crusoe. And we know that the book they shared in 1720 was Robinson Crusoe, because there was no other original novel-length prose fiction in English to choose from then.
The first novella in Swedish is Urban Hiärne’s Stratonice from 1666-68. I discussed it here back in 2012.
I picked up a beautiful edition of an interesting book at the Alfa Antikvariat closure sale in early February. It’s the Swedish edition of Norbert Jacques’s 1921 travelogue Auf dem Chinesischen Fluss, “On the Chinese River”. The Swedish version is titled På långfärd och fest bland kineser, “Travelling far and feasting among the Chinese”. It has not been translated into English. Chinese, I don’t know.
Jacques (1880-1954) was a prolific writer, screenwriter and journalist from Luxemburg. He’s mainly known today for his creation Dr. Mabuse, the villain of three Fritz Lang movies. His legacy is tainted by propaganda that he wrote for the Nazis around age 65 toward the end of WW2, but he wasn’t sincerely invested in Nazism. In fact, his wife for 26 years was the Austrian Jewess Margerite Samuely, and they had two daughters. Jacques’ 1917 novel Piraths Insel features a love affair between a European man and a Pacific Islander woman. And as we shall see, Jacques appreciated Chinese women too. According to Volker Stotz, he managed to be “inconvenient” first to the Nazis, and then to the Anti-Nazi post-war world.
In 1911 the Chinese Empire came to an end in the Xinhai Revolution. The following year, Norbert and Margerite got married and went on a 16-month honeymoon to China, Peru and Australia. The book I’ve read details their trip up the Yangtze River from Shanghai to Chongqing in the autumn and winter of 1912-13. I don’t know why it took eight years for Jacques to publish his account. Of course WW1 must have played a part, but he did manage to publish eleven other books in the interim, including the first Dr. Mabuse novel!
Jacques’s attitude to the Chinese and their culture is complicated, both patronising and slightly awestruck, and certainly intensely curious. Occasionally he waxes lyrical over some vista or building, but he mainly sticks to describing interesting sites and social situations. Me and my wife laughed and cringed though at Jacques’s extremely exoticising and romantic 2½ page description of a young Chinese woman whom he stalked through the alleyways of an unnamed town on 7 December.
“The secret of the Oriental eyes conjured up the riddle of the Oriental Schoß to my imagination, and I followed the foreign one, bound by magic to this coral of the Sichuan town as if under a spell. … A single wish to see, to feel – and then suffer the pain of her insoluble ties to the land and people of the East – To be a melancholy, chaste knight, seeking the path to the Holy Land, pierced by manhood’s eternal never-satisfied longing. Body and soul crucified on the tree of racial separation.”
Jacques went through the Three Gorges, describing lots of places that are now under water. Identifying exactly where he stopped though is complicated. On the one hand it’s made easy by him travelling by river boat all the way to Chongqing. None of the places he visits is far from the river. But on the other hand the identification is made difficult by language. Jacques doesn’t speak or read much Chinese, and the locals don’t speak the national standard Beijing dialect, putonghua. So the names of villages and towns that he records are in local dialects, transcribed by ear by someone from Luxemburg, according to High German orthography. And in the past century, many of the names have changed. This would all have been impossible for me to understand without the aid of Google Earth and Wikipedia. And since there is no map in the Swedish edition I’m reading, I guess most readers at the time would simply have had no idea where in China the guy was.
For example, early in the book the honeymooners go up the “Jangtse” from “Hankau” (Hankou, a precinct in modern Wuhan) to “Jotschau” (modern Yueyang), where they take off up the major tributary “Siangkiang” (Xiangjiang) for an extended stay in “Tschangscha” (Changsha). Then they return downstream to Yuejang, but this time Jacques refers to it by the name of its harbour area “Tschenlingschi”, Chenglingji. There they turn left and continue up the Yangtze.
Here’s an interactive map of Jacques’s travels. Upstream from Fengxiang Gorge the stops become much more frequent. The book shifts from general description to diary form already at Yichang on 25 November, but only from 3 December, at Fengxiang, does Jacques acquire the habit of asking and recording what most places he visits are named. It’s clear that during final editing several years later in Germany, he can no longer identify small Chinese riverside towns whose names he may have heard only once and didn’t record.
I enjoyed the book, which offers a window into the astonishingly archaic China of 100 years ago. The Last Emperor has just been deposed and republican soldiers at city gates check to see that nobody who enters is still wearing the long braid of the former Manchu overlords. And in Changsha, perhaps Norbert Jacques bumps into a bookish teenager from the Fourth Normal School – a boy named Mao.
Here are my best reads in English during 2018. The total was only 39 books (when 40-45 is my normal number), mainly because I slogged through a lot of borderline-bad Swedish paperback novels. They became my lot in life for months after the local historical society gave me a book token for a shop that hardly stocks any English titles. Even giving them each a 50-page chance was quite the chore.
Seven of the books I read were e-books. Find me at Goodreads! Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year?
Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah, Vol 2. Richard Francis Burton 1857.
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. H.P. Lovecraft 1927.
Maskerade. Terry Pratchett 1995.
Guys and Dolls and Other Writings. Damon Runyon.
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Mark Levinson 2006.
Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. Michael Chabon 2008.
The Brothers Cabal (Johannes Cabal #4). Jonathan L. Howard 2014.
The Men Who Stare at Goats. Jon Ronson 2004.
Salt. Adam Roberts 2000.
A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton. Mary S. Lovell 1998.
Air. Geoff Ryman 2004.
A Meeting with Medusa (The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, #4). 1960s.
Diamonds Are Forever (James Bond #4). Ian Fleming 1956.
The Door into Summer. Robert A. Heinlein 1956.
The Innocents Abroad. Mark Twain 1869.
Pistols at Dawn: a History of Duelling. Richard Hopton 2007.
I’m reading Naomi Novik’s excellent recent novel Spinning Silver, which deals with Jews and Christians in a fantasy version of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, apparently in some equivalent of the 16th century.* Much of the plot and recurring themes in the book revolve around money lending and the re-payment of debts. There’s also evil ice faeries, fire demons and spell casting in it. I’ve never read any Jewish historical fantasy before, and I was curious to learn what Jewish readers think about it. So I googled “jewish news review novik spinning”.
The first surprise was pleasant: I had to scroll through lots of general secular news and reviews sites before I found one with a specifically Jewish perspective. This book enjoys wide exposure (including 22,000 ratings on Goodreads.com). The second surprise was less fun: when I finally found what I was looking for at the Jewish Review of Books, the reviewer Michael Weingrad turned out to be a nationalist grinding his historical axe.
This guy complains that the Christians in this fantasy novel aren’t mean enough to the Jews. He’s unhappy with the degree to which some families from either group are willing to co-exist in a friendly manner. He states incorrectly** that Novik’s fantasy Jews don’t speak Yiddish. “Novik has stocked her book not with anything resembling historical Jews and Christians but with 21st-century secular liberals who have no commitment to group identity in the first place. … none of Novik’s main characters, Jew or Christian, express any attachment to peoplehood, religion, or nation.”
Weingrad’s take on the book is exactly like complaining that since Tolkien’s hobbits are a fantasy version of Victorian Englishmen, The Lord of the Rings is crap because it doesn’t deal with the downsides of colonialism. Spinning Silver does refer repeatedly in passing to pogroms, but Weingrad apparently can’t enjoy (grimly) his Jewish historical fantasy unless it focuses on anti-Semitism in dirty detail, plus some faeries, demons and spells.
But then I’m a 21st-century secular liberal who has little commitment to group identity. I sincerely believe that the world needs a lot less less attachment to peoplehood, religion and nation. I should probably have googled “progressive jewish news novik spinning”. And I recommend the book.
* There’s tobacco, so after 1492, and Lithuania is still independent, so before 1570. But even impoverished peasants drink tea, which wasn’t available to the imperial Russian court until 1638.
** Chapter 18. Wanda, a poor Christian teen who probably speaks fantasy Polish: “I thought at first they were just talking so fast that I couldn’t understand, but then I realized they were saying words that I didn’t understand at all, mixed up with words that I did know.” And in chapter 21, “… I did not care anymore that I did not understand what they were saying.”
In the past decade I’ve been reading Ian Fleming’s novels about James Bond. I recently finished the fourth one, Diamonds Are Forever. The first four novels were published, one each year, from 1953 to 1956. Thus they pre-date the movie franchise, which began only in 1962: here Bond is still exclusively a 1950s spy novel hero.
Fleming writes beautifully, with part of what makes the novels so good being the loving descriptions of consumer goods: clothing, cars, weaponry. Bond wears a fedora, and in Diamonds, he sleeps in long pantsless silk night shirts. In Live And Let Die, he appreciatively rides a late-1930s Cord that would look roughly like the car pictured above. In Diamonds, he has lunch at a rural American highway diner where he thinks the jukebox looks like something out of science fiction. Not, obviously, like quaint 1950s design.
Bond must be in pretty bad shape from substance abuse: he drinks hard liquor constantly and smokes three packets a day. In Live he asks HQ for diving gear. They send it over and helpfully add a box of amphetamine pills. After a week of physical exercise, Bond prepares for a dangerous underwater mission by swallowing speed down with whiskey.
I was surprised to find that Bond hardly performs any independent action in Diamonds. He just goes where people tell him to go and follows orders. The secret agent is no more than a convenient observer of various milieux that Fleming wants to describe: diamond smuggling, horse racing, a Las Vegas casino (reminiscent of Casino Royale), a Western ghost town. Indeed, the year after the novel appeared, Fleming published a non-fiction book on diamond smuggling.
In Diamonds, when the first piece of violent action happens (51% of the way through the book), Bond is immobilised in a medicinal mud bath coffin and is barely able to even be a spectator, let alone do anything. 63% into the book, Bond himself comments angrily on his own passivity! And when a few pages later he finally does something, it’s barely a blip: Bond plays some high-stakes roulette against orders. Then he goes back to being a passive victim of his circumstances until the last few pages of the novel when he saves his love interest from the villains – a reaction more than an action.
There’s a recurring masochistic fantasy in these novels, where Bond is immobilised and tortured in ways that would never happen to Sean Connery’s Bond. We’ve already noted the mud bath coffin, where Bond is made to witness torture. In Casino, the villain ties Bond to a chair and whacks his balls with a carpet beater until the agent passes out! And in Diamonds, two villains don football boots and kick the helpless Bond systematically until, again, he loses consciousness. When he wakes up he can barely crawl across the floor.
Fleming came of age in the 1920s. The novels pre-date the Swinging Sixties and the Sexual Revolution: Bond is not a particularly active or promiscuous lover here. Weeks pass where we have no hint that he is going to bed with anyone. He ogles (and Fleming lovingly describes) women here and there, but when he finally does get intimate with a woman he likes to spend months with her and contemplates marriage even before they go to bed the first time (Casino, Diamonds).
On Friday the Fantastika 2018 scifi con opened, conveniently located half an hour’s bike ride from my home, and I moderated a panel on Ursula LeGuin with my old friend Florence Vilén, Saara Henriksson and Markku Soikkeli. My wife came home from China, and two friendly con-goers that I know from my years teaching in Umeå stayed in our guest room.
On Saturday morning I fed my Umeå friends breakfast and then we went to the con where I gave a talk about Medieval castles. Thence back to Fisksätra for the annual International Festival, where I spent the day manning the Labour Party’s tent and canvassing for votes. Then back to the con and sit on a panel about empires in scifi and fantasy with the charming Linda Carey and my old friend Anders Blixt, moderated by my friend Hans Persson, had dinner with my old friend Erik Andersson and gave him an interview for the Fandompodden podcast. And back home to water the garden.
On Sunday morning I fed my Umeå friends, cycled back to the con, attended Hans’s geocaching meetup in front of the venue, bought some used paperbacks (Ryman’s Air, Roberts’s Salt, Reynolds’s Revelation Space) and listened to an interview with Mike Carey, a lovely man whose fine novels about Felix Castor the exorcist I enjoy (Aard regular Birger Johansson gave me those). Then I cycled back home, went skinny dipping in our nearby lake with my wife, napped for almost two hours, and drove the Labour tent & sundries back to my workplace. After dinner my Latvian Viking reenactor friend Artis Aboltins, who is visiting Stockholm for work, came by for coffee and sandwiches and to pick up a table he’d ordered for his sailing boat.
Oh, and Junior texted me that he’d namedropped me when talking to archaeologists at Slussen’s Open Day on his way to the Scifi Book Store, and my excellent Syrian driving pupil Obaida passed his driving test. ❤
All very good stuff! Dear Reader, what did you do?
Here are my best reads in English during 2017. My total was only 35 books, because I read several very long ones and slogged through a lot of borderline-bad reading matter, prominently among which I must sadly mention the Hugo-nominated fiction. I don’t believe in good taste, but I can tell you that I don’t share the taste of the Hugo-nominating majority. And I won’t be reading another Hugo packet!
Ten of the titles were e-books. Find me at Goodreads! Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year?
The Umbrella Man and Other Stories. Roald Dahl 1982. Neatly constructed 40s & 50s stories of suspense, but with a note of cold misanthropy.
Behind the Castle Gate: From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Matthew Johnson 2002.
The Fear Institute (Johannes Cabal #3). Jonathan L. Howard 2011. Cabal the Necromancer goes to Lovecraft’s Dreamlands.
Creating Freedom: Power, Control and the Fight for Our Future. Raoul Martinez 2016. A lot of interesting Leftie ideas but too long-winded and extremely negative in its view of present affairs.
The Secret Life of the Georgian Garden. Kate Felus 2016.
Some Remarks. Neal Stephenson 2012. Essays and talks, many of them from the 90s.
All These Shiny Worlds: the 2016 ImmerseOrDie Anthology. Ed. Jefferson Smith 2017.
Lovecraft Country. Matt Ruff 2016. A present from Birger! This enjoyable collection of Lovecraftian novellas and short stories is set in 1954 and revolves around a group of African Americans. But it is under-researched historical fiction. I would have enjoyed it even more if the author had tried to write dialogue that was realistic for that time and ethnic group. Everyone speaks like a white 2017 sci-fi fan. And very few societal concerns of 1950s USA are touched upon beyond the strongly emphasised racial oppression. (I also read Victor LaValle’s Hugo-nominated novella The Ballad of Black Tom which is similar, but didn’t like it as much as Ruff’s book.)
Pandora’s Star. Peter S. Hamilton 2004.
Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016 with a Journal of a Writer’s Week. Ursula LeGuin 2016.
Collected Short Stories vol. 1. William Somerset Maugham 1951.
Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. Mary Roach 2016.
The Investigations of Avram Davidson: Collected Mysteries. 1956-86.
The Boy On The Bridge. Mike Carey 2017. More fungal zombies!
Brothers in Arms (Vorkosigan Saga, #5). Lois McMaster Bujold 1989.
Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. Stephen Jay Gould 1989.
Artemis. Andy Weir 2017.
We Are Legion (We Are Bob). Dennis Taylor 2016.
Midnight’s Children. Salman Rushdie 1981.
Wish Lanterns. Young lives in new China. Alec Ash 2016. Interleaved mini-biographies of six Chinese people born 1985-90.