Currently reading…

Yes, the Proust project continues in fits and starts. I find I can travel over to Proustland and stay for several hours with enormous pleasure, then go elsewhere for a day or a month and return where I had left off to take on that special world once more.  I am now into The Captive – so I have made progress since July. See Proust: visiting a demented relative? Thanks, Kobo – but it does mean I am reading via eBook the old Scott Moncrieff translation. See also: All about the new Penguin/Viking editions of Marcel Proust’s great novel, À la recherche du temps perdu, once known in English as Remembrance of Things Past but now more accurately titled In Search of Lost Time.

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Loved John Lanchester’s Capital. From The New York Times review:

Lanchester, a brainy, pleasure-loving polymath, is a novelist, memoirist and journalist who writes sagely and elegantly about food, family, culture, technology and money. He’s still best known for his delectably wicked first novel, “The Debt to Pleasure,” which blends murder with gourmandise. But he has also written a well-reasoned nonfiction book entitled “I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay,” which closely analyzes the current financial collapse. Now, with “Capital,” he readjusts his sights and zooms out, framing a larger, more inclusive picture that shows how the easy-­money era affected not just greedy speculators but the society that fattened around them.

The fiction I am currently savouring is The Importance of Being Seven, the sixth collection of episodes set in Scotland Street, Edinburgh, by Alexander McCall Smith. I read the seventh one in December: Bertie Plays the Blues. But no matter that I am out of sequence; the delight is undimmed.

Non-fiction just now is A Wild History: Life and Death on the Victoria River Frontier by Darrell Lewis. Tom Griffiths on Inside.Org rates it one of the best (overlooked) books of 2012.

If Ned Kelly had been gentler and more learned but just as much a bushman he might have written A Wild History: Life and Death on the Victoria River Frontier (Monash University Publishing, $29.95). Darrell Lewis’s book is a distillation of bush wisdom and scholarly tenacity, of courageous fieldwork and equally adventurous archival sleuthing, of forty years of learning the country and of a lifetime of listening to history. Lewis has walked the Victoria River District in Australia’s northwest, swum its crocodile-infested rivers, got to know its plants, animals and people, slept under its stars, inspected its caves, recorded its inscriptions on rock and tree, and then pursued its material diaspora wherever it may have migrated. I am reminded of a great landmark work in Australian history, A Million Wild Acres, a book about the Pillaga Scrub by another bush scholar, Eric Rolls. Lewis’s book is full of frontier stories, superbly researched and skilfully told. And the book to look out for in early 2013 is The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts (Cambridge University Press) by Mike Smith. It’s the most important work in Australian archaeology since John Mulvaney’s The Prehistory of Australia (1969).

See also John Rickard in The Australian Book Review:

The Victoria River District is unusual in its lack of family dynasties with roots in the pioneer generation. The early settlers, who were occupying vast tracts of land, tended eventually to sell up and return to something more like civilisation. Lewis puts this down to the harsh climate, and to the remoteness and isolation, which lacked the ameliorating influence usually provided by country towns. With the high turnover of station staff, there has been ‘a weak transmission of local knowledge’. The irony is that Aborigines, who, unlike the settlers, ‘don’t come from somewhere else, stay for a period and then leave’, are actually ‘the “keepers” of much “European” history’. Lewis knows the District’s Aboriginal communities well, and is able to draw on the perspective on European settlement of those who so fiercely resisted it.

Lewis stresses the sophistication of Aboriginal land use, particularly in the deployment of fire. ‘They knew that burning at the appropriate time would promote the flowering of certain plant species, and the growth of particular food plants, or would attract desirable animals to the burnt area, and they knew that if they burnt certain food plants in patches over time, the plants would fruit over an extended season.’ This seems consistent with the argument recently advanced by Bill Gammage in his prize-winning The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (2011), which presumably was not available to Lewis when
he was writing A Wild History

At the heart of A Wild History, however, is a meticulous account of the halting progress of European settlement and the varied opposition it faced from the District’s thirteen or so Aboriginal peoples or language groups…

A Wild History is a fine piece of scholarship, exemplary in its judicious interpretation of both white and Aboriginal oral tradition, as well as the documentary sources. Just as the story begins with ‘the aura about the country’ firing Lewis’s imagination, so at the end it is the landscape, majestic, beautiful, forbidding, that has the last word. Keith Windschuttle could learn a lot from this book.

I doubt KW would, alas – but I have been finding the book quite a revelation.

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from the cover of A Wild History

And then there is William James.

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The Varieties of Religious Experience

A Study in Human Nature

William James

To
E.P.G.
IN FILIAL GRATITUDE AND LOVE

1902

Yes it is dated, but on the other hand what a great classic it is!  Makes you wonder whether we really have learned a great deal that matters since 1902.  I certainly am enjoying this very belated first acquaintance.

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Finished the dvds

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From the first sequence, 18 minutes of video clips. This still is of North Wollongong Beach.

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And that may be the cover. The whole thing in three sections runs to 90 minutes. Using my raw HD footage led to a 4Gig monster which took three to four hours to “cook” one copy. Practicality has led me to back off HD and downsize to avi files. These look not too bad, even on a big screen, and the sound track doesn’t suffer.

Meanwhile, another self-portrait. BTW, I don’t appear at all in the above vid until right near the end. After all, it’s about what I have seen and heard during the year, rather than about me. The Gong looks even more fantastic and fun-filled than it really is, seeing I removed all the pics of grass growing or paint drying! And you will be pleased to know that views from my window are minimal this time…

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And that is really to tell you about the book, which is one of life’s joys at the moment. More about that here later on.

The Cartographer– Peter Twohig 2012

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Linked to book web site.

QI – for Quite Intriguing. It is set in 1959, a year I remember well, but in Richmond and Melbourne with which I am less familiar – though I did know Sydney’s Surry Hills (shades of Ruth Park) at that time. Much in Peter Twohig’s highly imaginative recreation I found chimed well with my memory, though the presence still of World War 2 less so, even if it still astounds me that the war, during which I was born, really was still so close then.

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Anzac drainage tunnel flowing into the Yarra with Melbourne Boy’s High School in the background.

This features in The Cartographer. You may care to click on the image to find out what the tunnels really were about!

An eleven-year-old boy witnesses a violent crime. Just one year before, he looked on helplessly as his identical twin died a violently. His determination that he himself is the link changes his life.

The Cartographer is a captivating novel about a tragic figure in a dark place. The nameless child who tells the story handles the terrors of his life by adopting the strengths of fictional pop culture characters he admires, drawing on comics, radio and television dramas, and movies, finally recreating himself as a superhero who saves himself by mapping, and who attempts to redeem himself by giving up his persona so that another may live again. His only mentors are a professional standover man, his shady grandfather, and an incongruous neighbourhood couple who intervene in an oddly coincidental way. 

In the dark, dangerous lanes and underground drains of grimy 1959 Melbourne, The Cartographer is a story bristling with outrageous wit and irony about an innocent who refuses to give in, a story peopled with a richness of shifty, dodgy and downright malicious bastards, mixed with a modicum of pseudo-aunts, astonishing super heroes, and a few coincidentally loving characters, some of whom are found in the most unlikely places.

See also Announcing: The Cartographer! and How to tell lies from Peter Twohig’s excellent writer’s blog.

Fiction writers are a bunch of liars. I don’t care how well you know them, which monastery they live in, which brand of polygraph they routinely flatline. Those people lie in their teeth. And what’s more, they’re damned good at it. Otherwise, you’d be reading their stories and saying to yourself with each turn of the page, ‘Oh my god, does she expect me to believe this drivel?’

Let me tell you something about the author: she doesn’t have to expect you to swallow it: she knows you will. She knows that you want to believe, that you want to be lied to. That you want to be conned — make that lulled. She knows you because she remembers all the times she allowed some author to enchant her. And how she didn’t want it to stop.

I could have danced all night,

I could have danced all night,

And still have asked for more

And so on.

Just occasionally, in my opinion, The Cartographer goes just that bit too far over the top…. But did I enjoy it? Sure did. And is there a hell of a lot of truth in its lies? Sure is! And the language is generally spot on.

See Patricia Maunder in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Indeed, The Cartographer is a genuinely dark tale at times. Richmond was a dangerous and depressed part of town when Twohig grew up there in the 1950s and ’60s, so placing his child protagonist in the thick of it sometimes reads like a cathartic nightmare. Yet this book oozes gentle humour, particularly through colourful, vintage turns of phrase and the boy’s observations of the adult world, which are either amusingly naive or hilariously on the money. It can also be a disarmingly poignant story.

The Cartographer is a remarkable first novel whose vivid descriptions, original, engaging voice and surprising hero-in-the-rough draws the reader into a labyrinth of danger and discovery.

Back then but in The Gong

This lovely shot appeared in the historical feature in today’s Illawarra Mercury.

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Yes, a C32 – remember them well – passing by Clifton in 1960. Note the Holden. Train travel was quite an adventure still in those days. Sitting in a train like that reading Sherlock Holmes went down rather well.

Robert Hughes “Things I Didn’t Know”–an autobiography

I loved it, enjoyed it in fact more than I did The Fatal Shore. It is monumentally digressive, but I really didn’t mind those journeys – and they are relevant to the man/the voice that emerges so strongly. It seems there was to be a sequel, but that won’t be now, of course. And maybe it’s a generational thing – Hughes was born just five years before me – but I rather agree with what he has to say about the hippies and the 60s.

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A wartime childhood.

This review is a really good starting point.

‘Of course I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense’, asserts Hughes in characteristically combative style:

I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness.  I love the spectacle of skill … I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. … Consequently, most of the human race doesn’t matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights.  I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this.  I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today.

So begins a memoir in which Hughes’ prime objective is to explore the extent to which his Australianness is the most important thing about him, or only one attribute in an evolving life.  He begins with his elite origins, the grandson of the first lord mayor of Sydney, and the son of a successful lawyer and war hero.  His older brother was a lawyer who went on to be Attorney-General. Growing up in the Sydney of the 1940s and 1950s the young Hughes did not ‘talk Australian’ and was singled out as a ‘pom’ by bullies at the tough Jesuit boarding school he attended. Coming to terms with the strict Catholicism and conservatism of his upbringing is another theme that recurs throughout the book…

…a chapter on London in the sixties which is both entertaining for Hughes’ usually disparaging  thumbnail portraits of leading lights of the underground (Timothy Leary was ‘a coarse, middle-aged Irish whiskey priest’; Jerry Rubin ‘a semi-educated liar with invincible self-esteem, the attention span of a flea, and a disgustingly inflated ego to match’) and disturbing for his account of the disaster of his first marriage to a woman he portrays as emotionally out of control and self-obsessed, who apparently slept with just about every counterculture icon in London at the time.  She was so promiscuous that Hughes believes that Eldridge Cleaver was one of the ‘few male radical celebs with whom, in 1968 and ’69, she had not had sex’.  The role call included Jimi Hendrix,  from whom as a consequence Hughes acquired a case of the clap. ‘I was a cuckold going cuckoo’, he laments, describing at one point how he comforted his wife after her return to their home and young child from one of her regular debauches.  Stroking her hair, he encountered ‘a crusty patch of some stranger’s dried semen’…

Following reviewers through Google I came upon this:

… his first wife, Danne, a hippy dingbat to whom he injudiciously hooked himself during the Sixties. She was, he announces, a ‘white witch’ and living with her was like cohabiting with ‘a deranged alley cat’. Luckily, Danne cannot sue: having converted to lesbianism, she died – grossly overweight, as Hughes ungallantly notes – in 2003. Their only child, a son called Danton, had ‘gassed himself with carbon monoxide from his car in his far older lover’s house’ the year before.

That is all Hughes says about this particular loss, which must have been tragic and tormenting, and the obliquity reveals a blind spot in his character and in his book. He is confessional, having been trained to blurt out his squalid carnal misdemeanours to a priest, but he is rarely confidential. After he has vented his grievance against ingrate Australia, his memoir becomes frustratingly impersonal. He snarls at poseurs like Julian Schnabel and Jeff Koons, whom he has often lambasted before; he fills reams of paper with essays on Leonardo da Vinci and Piero della Francesca that read like extracts salvaged from books he never wrote; he doggedly retraverses his early Italian travels and limply describes Porto Ercole as ‘a huge living postcard’.

A memoir, however, should be more than an anthology of anecdotes or a digest of rankling grudges. ‘Know thyself’, the command of the Delphic oracle, is the autobiographer’s injunction. That self may be one of the very few things that the polymathic, uproariously eloquent Hughes does not know.

Urk!

Much to be preferred is Christopher Hitchens:

…And this is why I stress Hughes’s addiction to understatement. He describes the utter boredom and pointlessness of much of the crash-pad-and-hash life into which he plunged, and it is only his attempt to make light of the experience that shoves it into a piercingly sharp relief. Many people had narrow escapes from the Sixties, when relationships could be dropped and picked up as quickly as callow opinions or tabs of acid, but it was Hughes’s bad luck to form a kind of matrimony with a true drifter and dilettante (and evident sack-artist) who once gave him the very pox that she had caught from Jimi Hendrix. That could be a funny story at some remove: What makes it unfunny is her preference for hard drugs and needles over their only son, Danton Vidal Hughes. This boy later committed suicide. Hughes mentions the death almost as gruffly–and as briefly–as did Kipling in noting the passing of "my boy Jack" in Something of Myself.

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See also: Geoff Dyer, Aussie Brawler (NY TImes); Craig Sherborne, Some Things We Don’t Yet Know: Robert Hughes’s "Things I Didn’t Know"; Peter Craven, Time’s Arrow: An interview with Robert Hughes; Tim Flannery, The Naked Critic: Memories of Robert Hughes; and Fatal Shore author Robert Hughes dies at 74.

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Now I am going to look for Barcelona (2001), Goya (2004) and Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History (2011) in Wollongong Library!

Proust: visiting a demented relative?

I refer to the opinion of Germaine Greer:

If you haven’t read Proust, don’t worry. This lacuna in your cultural development you do not need to fill. On the other hand, if you have read all of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, you should be very worried about yourself. As Proust very well knew, reading his work for as long as it takes is temps perdu, time wasted, time that would be better spent visiting a demented relative, meditating, walking the dog or learning ancient Greek.

In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past, as Proust’s "novel" is variously titled in English, is widely touted as one of the favourite books of the 20th century, second only to The Lord of the Rings. Fans of Tolkien can certainly handle a marathon read, as can Harry Potter addicts; but whether they have stayed the distance with Proust seems to me highly doubtful.

But I have to confess getting into my seventieth year now while remaining to this point a Proust Virgin! Thanks to eBooks (Adelaide University) I now have the whole thing – free — on computer and Kobo. Yesterday I took the plunge.

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Sample:

I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and so effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognised their voice the spell is broken. We have delivered them: they have overcome death and return to share our life.

And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?

I think I am hooked. And one virtue, for me, of the eReader is that the Himalayas I am now ascending seem less daunting somehow screen by screen. Why, I am 20% through Swann’s Way already!

And even if the interviewer seems to be stoned:

There is a very handy cheat page in Wikipedia.

Critical reception

In Search of Lost Time is considered the definitive modern novel by many scholars. It has had a profound effect on subsequent writers such as the Bloomsbury Group. "Oh if I could write like that!" marveled Virginia Woolf in 1922…

Literary critic Harold Bloom wrote that In Search of Lost Time is now "widely recognized as the major novel of the twentieth century."  Vladimir Nabokov, in a 1965 interview, named the greatest prose works of the 20th century as, in order, "Joyce’s Ulysses, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Biely‘s Petersburg, and the first half of Proust’s fairy tale In Search of Lost Time." J. Peder Zane’s book The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, collates 125 "top 10 greatest books of all time" lists by prominent living writers; In Search of Lost Time places eighth. In the 1960s, Swedish literary critic Bengt Holmqvist dubbed the novel "at once the last great classic of French epic prose tradition and the towering precursor of the ‘nouveau roman’", indicating the sixties vogue of new, experimental French prose but also, by extension, other post-war attempts to fuse different planes of location, temporality and fragmented consciousness within the same novel. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon has called it his favorite book.

Proust’s influence (in parody) is seen in Evelyn Waugh‘s A Handful of Dust (1934), in which Chapter 1 is entitled "Du Côté de Chez Beaver" and Chapter 6 "Du Côté de Chez Tod." Waugh did not like Proust: in letters to Nancy Mitford in 1948, he wrote, "I am reading Proust for the first time …and am surprised to find him a mental defective" and later, "I still think [Proust] insane…the structure must be sane & that is raving.")

Since the publication in 1992 of a revised English translation by The Modern Library, based on a new definitive French edition (1987–89), interest in Proust’s novel in the English-speaking world has increased. Two substantial new biographies have appeared in English, by Edmund White and William C. Carter, and at least two books about the experience of reading Proust have appeared by Alain de Botton and Phyllis Rose…

Orientalism? Maybe, but so what? A good read still…

I really did enjoy something unexpected from Gutenberg in the past few days, a novel by this person:

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Akbar.

An Eastern Romance.

By
Dr. P. A. S. van Limburg-Brouwer.
Translated from the Dutch by
M. M.
With notes and an introductory life of the Emperor Akbar,
By
Clements R. Markham. C.B., F.R.S.

London:
W. H. Allen & Co., 13 Waterloo Place.
Publishers to the India Office.
1879.

Markham is indeed also an interesting forgotten figure:

Sir Clements Robert Markham KCB FRS (20 July 1830 – 30 January 1916) [below] was an English geographer, explorer, and writer. He was secretary of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) between 1863 and 1888, and later served as the Society’s president for a further 12 years. In the latter capacity he was mainly responsible for organising the National Antarctic Expedition of 1901–04, and for launching the polar career of Robert Falcon Scott

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Of course in these PoCo days post-Said we not only do not know who any of these people are but are convinced we are so much wiser and more virtuous than they ever were because they are all damned Orientalists, you know, and slavering racists and grinders-down of The Other with not a thing to say to us any more…  Well, yes, Akbar has its moments – like anything written before around 1970 – where one cringes at some naive bit of “race” theory. They were all into it back then, though it wasn’t always malicious or even maleficent! But it now seems as ugly as a really bad tic.

However, does that holier-than-thou pose we now so unreflectively adopt – thanks to Said and others – cut us off from what often is really there and indeed was in its day well in advance, even progressive and not to be despised by 21st century upstarts like us? I’d say “pygmies” like us, but that no doubt offends some residents of regions around the Congo….

Now this novel is a romance – and not always in the best sense, as it has its melodramatic very stagey side of course. But hey, the 1870s?

Petrus Abraham Samuel van Limburg Brouwer was born in Liège on 15 November 1829. His father, Petrus van Limburg Brouwer (1795-1847), was the first to use the full surname Van Limburg Brouwer. Initially, Petrus senior studied medicine, taking his doctor’s degree in 1816 and thereafter setting himself up in practice. However, he had already been fascinated by the classics during his student days and in 1820 he took a second doctor’s degree, this time in classical literature. He continued studying the classics and was appointed associate professor in the faculty of arts at Liège in 1825, a chair he lost, as a Northern Netherlander, as a result of the Belgian Revolution in 1830. In 1831 he was appointed professor at Groningen, where he taught general and Roman history and was also made librarian of the university. He published on classical literature and history, as well as on Dutch literature. He also wrote some belletristic work, of which Het leesgezelschap van Diepenbeek (1847) in particular was widely read…

Before he was twenty-one he had taken his doctor’s degree in law, cum laude, at Groningen. He departed for Amsterdam where he joined the editorial board of De gids in 1854, a position he retained until 1865. In 1855 he declined a professorship at Groningen. From 1856 onwards he worked at the General State Archives in The Hague, in which city he also took up residence. He accomplished important work at the General State Archives, by arranging various archives and publishing several text editions, especially in connection with collections relating to the Dutch East Indies. He was a regular contributor to the liberal cultural periodical De Nederlandsche spectator from its very first issue in 1860. He was a member of parliament from 1864 to 1868; a freethinker when it came to religion and philosophy, in politics associated with the liberalism of Thorbecke. He published on a wide variety of subjects. His first article about the Dutch East Indies appeared in 1860. In the course of time this was to prove his major subject; he became increasingly interested in the language, literature, philosophy, art and society of the Hindus, especially in relation to the history of the Indies. Van Limburg Brouwer was a member of the board of the Royal Institute of Linguistics, Geography and Ethnography of the Dutch East Indies. His scholarly studies of the East inspired him to write his only novel, Akbar (1872), which turned out to be quite popular because Van Limburg Brouwer had the knack of blending academic knowledge with the products of his own imagination. The book gives an impression of life in the Indies at the time of Emperor Akbar (1542-1605), the third and most important Mogul emperor of India who brought his empire to great prosperity. He proclaimed his own religion, in which he wanted to unite the essence of all religions. Van Limburg Brouwer’s novel gives an idealised picture of Akbar’s life…

Here is a sample:

“So you are going to leave us again, worthy Father?” said Akbar, as the Jesuit was ushered into his presence.

“I must do so, Sire,” answered Aquaviva; “our Provincial summons me back to Goa. But I cannot depart without expressing to your Majesty my heartiest thanks for the honour and favours that have here been shown us, though I hesitated to ask an audience after your serious and bitter loss. A worthy man, a true friend, and a faithful servant was Abú-l Fazl, and the memory of such a man is certainly a comfort in the midst of the sorrow that his loss causes. But,” added he, after a moment’s pause, “this would not be to me a sufficient consolation.”

“Not enough!” repeated Akbar in surprise. “What more would you demand?”

“I should wish for the certainty that he died with a purer soul, and with happier expectations than was possible.”

“Abú-l Fazl,” answered the Emperor, in an earnest but calm voice,—“Abú-l Fazl was as pure of soul as any of yours can be, without saying more, and he died as I would wish to die.”

The Jesuit waited, expecting Akbar would add something more, but he was silent; and the tone of his reply clearly showed that to ask for further explanation would be imprudent.

“Do you expect to return soon?” asked Akbar, after a few minutes silence.

“That will depend on the orders I receive,” answered Aquaviva. “So far as I am myself concerned, with sorrow I am compelled to confess that my mission here has been a failure.”

“How a failure? Have you not received here the fullest protection, and been shown all respect and fitting honour? and have you not enjoyed the most complete liberty to preach what you will, and to convert whom you can? Do you reckon that as nothing? Here, where a few years ago, under my predecessors, any preaching of your doctrines would have met with the punishment of death.”

“Sire,” answered the Padre, “we should indeed be ungrateful did we reckon such important privileges as nothing. Yet I must repeat that our mission is a failure as respects its principal object. You know well with what glorious hopes we came to Agra; the reverent interest you took in our holy writings, and in the ceremonials of our Church, had filled us with hope that in the end the light of truth would sink into your noble heart and deep-thinking mind; we had hoped, and almost expected with certainty, that the Church of Christ would greet in Shah Akbar one of, if not the most famous of her sons. These hopes and expectations we cannot now flatter ourselves were anything but idle; so, cannot we say with truth that our mission has failed in its highest aim? Still, it may be that here and there in our teaching there are difficulties which your philosophers cannot now solve, which closer study and research will throw light upon. I think of the great benefits that the Church has showered upon the West, and which would not here be wanting did she possess like power.”

“With reason,” said Akbar, “you now leave on one side the real dogmatical questions, for about them we shall never agree, and for the moment I feel no inclination for their discussion. You speak of benefits; I believe, willingly and with reason, that your Christian doctrines have done much for the world—more, perhaps, than any other religion—in the application of the principles of universal love of our fellow-men, and self-sacrifice; however, as we have already shown you, this is not exclusively taught by your doctrines, which, if they have done much good, have also done much that is evil. Have you not introduced the greatest intolerance that the world has ever known? Have not you, you priests, in the West exalted yourselves to tyrannize over the consciences of your fellow-men? Have you not doomed hundreds and thousands to the stake because they differed from you on some point of faith? And you call these benefits! Then, indeed, you have strange ideas of doing good; and your love for your fellow-men is of a strange kind. Tell me,” he continued, turning a penetrating look on Aquaviva, “tell me, how would you treat me, Akbar, whom you now honour so highly, were I a Christian subject of one of the princes who obey your commands? Would you not thrust me into a dungeon, and, if I remained hardened in my unbelief, deliver me to a judge to be condemned to the fire and stake?”

Perplexed, the Jesuit drew back. Such a question he had not expected; and what could he reply? Certainly it could not be denied that in all probability Akbar would be so treated were he in the situation he imagined.

“Sire,” at last he stammered, “that is not the case; and how can Akbar, the mighty Emperor of Hindustan, think of himself as the subject of one of our princes?”

“Certainly it is not so, fortunately for me! but your answer shows that my hypothesis was well grounded. Now another question: what would you do with me, Emperor of Hindustan, as I am? You wish me to be as one of your princes, who are submissive to your orders, and to use me as a tool for the maintenance of your clerical tyranny. Naturally you are very anxious for my conversion. Well, I tell you, once for all, you will never see it; not even if I entirely accepted your Evangelists, and were really publicly or privately to embrace them. I could have nothing to do with your present Church, well knowing what fatal consequences to a State would follow on its monarch taking such a step.”

“Then,” said Aquaviva, “nothing remains to us but to pray to our Lord that He by a miracle will bring about that which our zealous and feeble efforts have been unable to accomplish. And this prayer, I feel certain, will not remain unanswered. Reflect, O powerful ruler, that against Him the great of the earth are as nothing, and that He can punish those who withstand Him. He, and He alone, will triumph, and the gates of hell will avail nothing against the rock of Peter, while Christ and His Church will endure until the end of the world.”

“That may be your affair,” cried Akbar, losing a little of his usual patience; “mine is to watch over the liberty and rights of my people, and to defend them against you, as against the mullahs or priests of any other creeds. Remain here, or go, as it best pleases you; preach as seems good to you, and build churches. You shall enjoy the same privileges as Muhammadans in their mosques and Hindus in their temples. There is, however, one warning which I must give you: the moment I find you attempt to introduce any persecution amongst your converts or others, as already has been the case on the coast of Malabar, that moment shall you be banished from my kingdom, never to set your foot within it again.”

I honestly believe this book assumes a new relevance in our post-9/11 world.

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The tomb of Akbar

From PBS:

During Akbar’s reign, the Mughal empire tripled in size and wealth. Akbar had created a powerful army and instituted effective political and social reforms. By abolishing the sectarian tax on Hindus and appointing them to high civil and military posts, he was the first Muslim ruler to win the trust and loyalty of his Hindu subjects. He had Hindu literature translated, participated in Hindu festivals, and realizing that a stable empire depended on strong alliances with the Rajputs, fierce Hindu warriors, he married a Rajput princess.

Akbar was truly an enlightened ruler, a philosopher-king who had a genuine interest in all creeds and doctrines at a time when religious persecution was prevalent throughout Europe and Asia. Understanding that cooperation among all his subjects – Muslims, Hindus, Persians, Central Asians and indigenous Indians – would be in his best interest, he even tried to establish a new religion that encouraged universal tolerance.

Akbar was strong-willed, fearless and often cruel, but he was also just and compassionate and had an inquiring mind. He invited holy men, poets, architects and artisans to his court from all over the Islamic world for study and discussion,and he created an astounding library of over 24,000 volumes written in Hindi, Persian, Greek, Latin, Arabic and Kashmiri, staffed by scholars, translators, artists, calligraphers, scribes, bookbinders and readers.

Manifesting the ancestral love of the arts on a monumental scale, Akbar filled the landscape with walled cities of royal pleasure and comfort, designed to dazzle the native rajas and advertise the glory of his reign. In the lovely capital city of Agra, Akbar built his remarkable Red Fort beside the Jamuna River. Part fortress, part palace, its construction proceeded at a hectic pace, and in eight years of frenzied building, more than five hundred graceful pavilions and sumptuous residences – adorned with exquisite carvings, lattice and pierced-stone screens,wall paintings, canopied roofs, carved brackets and pilasters – were created within the massive red sandstone walls to accommodate his considerable court. And Agra became the repository for all the wealth and talent of one of the most extensive empires in the medieval world.

This video is eccentric in some of its choices of image, but does provide a pretty good overview of Akbar – who was, remember, a contemporary of Elizabeth I – and beside him the Virgin Queen pales somewhat.

This document (PDF) has some interesting cultural information about The Netherlands in the 19th century.

Around 1900, Buddhism enjoyed a hitherto unknown popularity in Western culture. The ‘light of Asia’ cast its rays over Europe and North-America, where many came under  the  spell  of  the  person  and  teaching  of  Buddha.  Buddhism  proved  a  great source  of  inspiration  for  artists,  men  of  letters,  liberal  Christians  and  freethinkers. Knowledge  of  Buddhism  increased  considerably  in  the  Western  world  during  the 19th century, partly through translations of its key texts. German philosophers such as  Schopenhauer  and  Von  Hartmann  also  contributed  to  the  spread  of  Buddhist ideas,  in  keeping  with  their  message  of  pessimism.  Hence  it  was  with  some justification that the century was labeled ‘the century of Buddhism’ (Ernest Renan).

The  interest  in  Buddhism  may  be  placed  within  the  broader  context  of  the academic interest in non-Christian religions, in the same way as on the more popular level  we  note  that  interest  in  other  religions  and  world  views  is  accompanied  by enthusiasm for the so-called ‘new mysticism’ and things exotic. In those circles people liked to think of Buddhism as the ‘religion of the future’. 
In the Netherlands, too, Buddhism attracted attention. An early 19 th -century representative  of  the  interest  in  Buddhism  is  the  well-known  learned  Mennonite preacher  Joost  Hiddes  Halbertsma,  whose  treatise  Het  Buddhisme  en  zijn  stichter (Buddhism  and  its  founder)  appeared  in  1843.  Although  subsequent  endeavours  by P.A.S. van Limburg Brouwer to bring Buddhism to the attention of the Dutch public only met with a lukewarm reception, this changed around 1880, partly also because of  the  propagandist  efforts  by  the  liberal  Samuel  van  Houten  and  the  modern theologian Hayo Uden Meyboom. In the early 20th century the ‘hype’ surrounding Buddhism reached its climax. Information on this Eastern religion was diffused not only  via  academic  treatises,  but  also  via  public  lectures  and  cheap,  popular  tracts. The influence of Buddhism was also reflected in the arts and in literature…

Freebies again–and pretty good they are too

No relation. Well, given that the Whitfields I spring from seem to have left England in the 17th century…

Handsome chap though.

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See the reviews.

Here is my new-found English cousin on The Sexist, Racist & Homophobic Comedian:

Have you heard the one about the non-heterosexual gentleman from Pakistan and his mixed race, differently-abled mother-in-law?”

I haven’t used the same vernacular as the old school comedian would have done, but I think you can do the reverse translation yourself. These comedians offered a brand of comedy drenched in misogyny and xenophobia, which to their less than educated minds were two small Greek Islands frequented by the holidaying Princess Margaret and her ‘gardener’, Roddy Llewellyn.

The late Bernard Manning was a good case in point. Here was a comic with brilliant timing and delivery, a natural funny man, but whose material was mined from the depths of prejudice and small mindedness. If he had used his undoubted talents to turn the comedy back on to himself, who knows, he might have been a national treasure. Well, maybe not a national treasure, more a national three-penny bit found on Southport beach by a geek with a metal detector, but he wouldn’t have been as reviled as he became.

To be fair, it’s easy to sit in judgement by taking current socially accepted values and applying them retrospectively to a time when there was less tolerance and understanding. Indeed, in the era when this brand of humour was at its peak, homosexuality had not long been legalised, sexual discrimination was not unlawful, and racial bigotry was endemic. It was little wonder that the humorous machinations of a few bawdy comedians were not judged to be overstepping the mark.

But as the generations replenished one another, and society became more open-minded and inclusive, these comedians found themselves out of step with large swathes of public opinion. Unable to change with the times, their material became polarised and more extreme as a consequence. Misinterpreting the new mood as ‘political correctness gone mad’, their place in the mainstream was taken by the new breed of alternative comedian, and the old racist, sexist and homophobic comic was relegated to the sidelines forever, retreating back to the social clubs and out of the public consciousness.

We now live in an age where we don’t laugh at someone’s sexual orientation, race or gender; we look at the differences and laugh at them, so that we are all laughing together. Even so, humour will always have the power to offend and that’s probably a healthy thing. I’ve certainly lived a life where I’ve put that strategy into everyday practice with a metronomic regularity.

There are plenty of boring people in the world, carrying a permanent visage as if somebody has just stuck a wasp up their arse, and these individuals need to be occasionally shaken from their miserable dispositions. Hopefully, if you have inadvertently used a wasp’s nest as a cushion, this book will have helped.

Even if you’ve remained po-faced as you’ve read these pages, I will take some literal consolation from your inferred opinion that this book is one big joke.

He has also written Balls: “An irreverent and informative look at the history of the sixteen football teams that played at the 2012 Euros. It is a journey across Europe and the World that takes in the sights of glory, humiliation, politics, war, visionaries, parochialism, corruption, gamesmanship and pies. If you like football, you will love this book. It is complete and utter Balls!”

In both I become aware at times that I am after all NOT English, but there is enough left over in both books – more than most of both in fact – that I can relate to here in Oz, and time and again I laughed out loud.

Now to Canada and Lenny Everson, poet and novelist. Mount Moriah had me in stitches at times.

The few who listened to Copeman were too young to influence the seniors who chummed with politicians and who had one eye on their pensions. These guys lived in the certainty that if anything like a bombing happened, they could fire some of the young agents (or Copeman, who wasn’t young but should have been) for not warning the administrators more clearly and forcefully.

There had been agents who had predicted acts of terror and who had been clear and forceful. But then, if the act hadn’t happened, even if because the police had headed it off after a hint or two, the agent who had done the prediction was forever a wolf-crier who would be the subject of derision and chuckling sarcasm at department meetings ever afterwards.

Which described the fix Copeman had got himself into. He’d connected a Saudi of middle-class heritage with a group of mad mullahs, and had followed the lead right to a pile of dynamite and a backpack. But the connection wasn’t provable in court, it turned out, and although the police had moved in a day before the backpack was to generate a bus station full of shredded Canadian flesh, that saved a few lives, but it didn’t get anybody convicted. A few people had taken a hint and decamped for their mideast homelands, and Copeman became a guy who predicted a bombing that didn’t happen.

Which is why he was in a small, windowless room, which he shared with the department’s Gestetner machine. Only the fact that nobody used the Gestetner any more kept Copeman’s sanity. And the fact that he had a cheerful apartment overlooking the Rideau Canal to go home to. That and his collection of leaves.

Copeman collected leaves and conifer needles as a hobby, and it had kept him from going round the bend when his girlfriend had become a friend of a politician in Ottawa, spending more bed time in the back of the parliamentary block than in Copeman’s place. Maybe she had a fondness for guys with two legs.

So he spent his days now chasing down bad leads and bugging every mosque in Ontario. Which was a topic of endless meetings and updates for his bosses, this being a sensitive project politically.

He also handled information and payments to five different people who were willing to keep track on their Muslim brethren for a weekly payment. Or at least they said they were trying to keep crazy people from tarnishing the name of Islam. He suspected that at least one wasn’t delivering, but it was hard to be sure of which one. They all gave reports that sounded the same: a few annoyed people but no one about to blow things up.

Copeman knew that was possible, but the Americans were sure that someone, somewhere, was planning to teach Canada a lesson. A loud lesson. And humoring the Americans was essential.

Anybody with half a brain could figure that the security service had undercover contacts all over the place and had microphones anywhere two people might gather to bow towards Mecca.

He’d got onto the Dayton Block only because Haski, the tailor from Yemen, had attracted the attention of the CIA and military intelligence. With the destruction of Haski’s cousin by the CIA (via the drone aircraft), the CIA either had to admit someone had made a mistake, or they had to make sure Haski’s cousin was covered with suspicion. Option B seemed the best bet, and had become as standard with the CIA as it had with the NKVD in the old Soviet Union.

Knowing, as they did, that Haski’s cousin had just borrowed the wrong car to drive into town, they weren’t really concerned about Haski, but procedures had to be followed. So, for the first time, they followed procedures, asking CSIS to investigate Haski.

Copeman’s bosses knew about CIA cover-your-ass operations, so they assigned the investigation to Copeman. He was wise enough to see through that, but he’d just learned from a contact that Aklif, the owner of Corner Convenience, was from Afghanistan and might be an object of suspicion. Actually, Aklif had nothing more explosive in his shop than a dropped Pepsi can, but two Muslims in one building constituted an item to be investigated.

He knew nothing about the two brothers upstairs from Aklif, nothing about the alien in the back apartment, and nothing yet about Poe the poet or Agnew the agnostic. He had much to learn.

He set off for Waterloo on the 15th of March, to see if he could make up a report that would keep him employed for a few months more.

Finally, an Australian writer: Colin Falconer.

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Full of really interesting items, but my Kobo Reader gives up on it after page 48 for some reason. No problem with Calibre on the computer though.

Everything you’ve ever heard about Mexico City is true. The city contains roughly the same population as the whole of Australia and twice as many cars as people. They say that one day walking in the streets of El DF is equivalent to smoking a pack of forty cigarettes.

I was there for a week a few years back to promote a book I had written about the conquest of Mexico. I had not read the book myself on anything except my laptop and the Australian edition was still in editing. So it was slightly surreal to fly halfway across the world and discover it has been a bestseller in another country for weeks.

The central figure of my story was a Mayan princess called Malinali (better known in the west as Malinche), Hernan Cortes’ lover during his ‘entrada’ in the early sixteenth century. My book speculated about her life, her motives, her role in the defeat of the Aztecs and most especially, the precise nature of her relationship with the great conquistador.

Well. You wouldn’t think the Mexicans would care anymore, would you? The woman has been dead for half a millennium and her name is almost unknown outside of Mexico.

But they do care; they care a lot. It was why almost every newspaper and magazine in the city wanted to talk to me.

They care so much, in fact, that at times I was being interviewed by three journalists at a time because there was not enough time to schedule everyone. Not all of the journalists liked the book; halfway through one interview a journalist threw his manbag at me and said he was offended by my interpretation of Malinche, a woman he and many Mexicans regard as a traitor of the first rank. She is responsible for selling out Mexico and consigning her nation to catastrophe and slavery, he said. Well, perhaps. But there’s two sides to every story.

Finally he stormed out of the office.

I didn’t read the review but I got the impression that I wouldn’t be able to use any quotes on the cover of the reprint.