Monday, July 26, 2021

Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804, Volume 2 by Alexander von Humboldt



From the Orinoco to the Amazon and back
Alexander von Humboldt
Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt’s expedition to the New World from 1799 to 1804 was a landmark event not only for the history of scientific exploration but also for the nascent genre of nature writing. Humboldt’s journey to Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Cuba, and Mexico yielded at least 30 volumes of published findings. Most of these books were specialized tomes on botany, zoology, mineralogy, or cultural geography. His Personal Narrative, however, was intended to be the all-encompassing account of the expedition for general readers. In this three-volume work, Humboldt combines copious scientific data with personal reflections on his travels, including numerous diversions into a variety of fields that represent his staggeringly broad range of interests and expertise.

Though the first volume of the Personal Narrative was a fascinating read, the second volume is more enjoyable, for a few reasons. One is that the entire narrative takes place in Venezuela, since the previous volume already covered the journey to get there. Also, the events related in Volume 2 are unified by a single compelling mission. Humboldt and his traveling companion, the French botanist Aimé Bonpland, set out to investigate the rumor of a natural canal, the Casiquiare, that connects the watersheds of the Orinoco and Amazon river basins. The pair traveled 1,725 miles to establish the veracity of this unique geographical feature. In addition, Humboldt’s writing in this second volume is more accessible than that of Volume 1. His prose reads less like a string of empirical data and more like a series of scientific travel essays.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Humboldt production without multiple asides into topics that interest him, often resulting in digressions within digressions. Humboldt, the ultimate generalist, left no field of study untouched in his explorations. He was an expert not only in the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms, but also in geography, meteorology, astronomy, anthropology, linguistics, and the politics and history of South America. The vast range of subjects he pontificates upon include the influence of physical geography on the worldwide development of agriculture, a tree that produces a milk-like sap, the results of his extensive (and dangerous) experiments with electric eels, the unjust treatment of the Indigenous population by the Spanish missionaries, the chemical properties that determine the different colors of water in various rivers and lakes, the history of cannibalism, the truth behind the rumors of a tribe of women warriors (from which the Amazon river gets its name), and one of Humboldt’s favorite subjects, people who eat dirt (a practice more widespread than you’d think). In all cases Humboldt compares his observations in Venezuela with phenomena he has witnessed and studied throughout the world.

One taxing aspect of the Personal Narrative is that much of Humboldt’s text is devoted to geographical information that could better be conveyed through maps—the direction of mountain ranges, the tributaries of rivers, and so forth. The reader spends a great deal of time wading through a jumble of place names and compass points. Perhaps the original editions of the three volumes included a map or two, but you won’t find them in the public domain versions that you can now download for free. If Humboldt didn’t provide maps, he should have, and if he did, then much of his descriptive text is redundant. Even so, Volume 2 of the Personal Narrative is still a wonderful, intellectually stimulating thrill ride through the sun-drenched plains and dense jungles of South America, with one of history’s great polymaths as your enlightened tour guide.

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Monday, July 19, 2021

The Modern Prometheus by E. Phillips Oppenheim



Guilt-ridden romance
E. Phillips Oppenheim
I recently discovered the work of British author E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946) and have enjoyed reading a couple of his books. He published over 100 novels, most of them thrillers involving espionage, crime, or political intrigue, and many of them bestsellers. Other than 
The Great Impersonation, which is probably his best-known work, I really don’t know which of his books are considered his best. So when I decided to read more Oppenheim, I just scrolled through the novels in the Delphi Classics’ Collected Works of E. Phillips Oppenheim and chose one randomly by title. Looking for a shorter work, I settled on The Modern Prometheus, published in 1896. The title intrigued me because it is reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. I did not expect Oppenheim’s novel to bear any similarity to Frankenstein, but it is surprising that the story doesn’t seem to have any relation at all to the myth of Prometheus.

In the opening chapter, we are introduced to Francis Kernham, a reluctant celebrity in his hometown of London. He is a self-made man who has struck it rich digging for gold in a foreign land (the details of his meteoric career are never really revealed). He has returned to London for the first time in a decade, and his primary goal is to track down an old flame. Ten years earlier, Kernham was a struggling writer in a relationship with an equally struggling young actress. He left her to seek his fortune, knowing full well that he was possibly abandoning her to an iniquitous fate, forcing her to capitalize on her beauty and become a “kept woman” (somebody’s mistress) in order to survive. Motivated by both love and guilt, Kernham is now resolved to find his lost lover and face the truth of her unknown fate.

Oppenheim’s forte may be spy stories and adventure tales, but this is just a romance, and a rather dreary one. It is unclear to the reader why any two people in this novel are in love with each other because we never actually see any of the characters enjoying one another’s company. Though there’s a lot of grandiose talk here about love, the only factors that seem to bind couples together are money and physical attraction. The latter element might be sufficiently captivating for a movie, depending on the casting, but not for Victorian prose. For a novel of this era, The Modern Prometheus is admirably forward in its discussions of premarital and extramarital affairs. This is no erotic thriller that capitalizes on scandalousness, however. The narrative is still hampered by the Victorian code of mores that binds gentleman and ladies. Any sexuality that’s hinted at in the narrative only serves to pile on more guilt.

For the first half of the book, Oppenheim does a great job of keeping the reader guessing as to what exactly is going on between Kernham and his mystery woman. Each chapter ends with a bit of a cliffhanger that makes one look forward to the succeeding chapter. Once the basic premise is revealed and established, however, the novel becomes awfully formulaic and clichéd. In scenes seen countless times in old movies and pulp fiction, the characters all take turns renouncing love in the name of honor.

The Modern Prometheus is one of Oppenheim’s earlier works, so perhaps he was still finding his mature authorial voice. His later works call to mind the thrillers of Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie. Though this novel was a disappointment, I will continue to delve blindly into Oppenheim’s prodigious body of work, where I know there are gold nuggets to be found.
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Monday, June 28, 2021

The Stranger by Albert Camus



A meaningful testament to meaninglessness
Albert Camus, winner of the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature, was born in Algeria to French parents when the North African nation was ruled as a colony of France. Algeria also serves as the setting for his 1942 novel The Stranger. Its protagonist, Meursault, was born in France and has settled in North Africa with his mother. In his adopted homeland, Meursault lives as a Frenchman and only associates with other European settlers. This makes him “L’Étranger”—the French title of the work, which can be translated as the “foreigner,” “The Outsider” (the book’s British title) or “The Stranger” (its American title). Only a few Arab citizens of Algeria appear in the book, and they remain unnamed, referred to only as “the Arab,” thus emphasizing Meursault’s (and France’s) detachment from his colonial home.


Meursault’s indifference, however, is not directed at any particular race or demographic, but rather at the world and life in general, making him somewhat of a stranger to humanity. Under almost all circumstances, he demonstrates himself peculiarly incapable of feeling empathy or emotion, whether anger, fear, or love. Meursault narrates the novel in a detached, deadpan style that almost mocks everything that happens in the plot. He relates his dramatic saga of crime and punishment, love and sex, life and death in short, choppy sentences of bareboned syntax as if he were mentioning the most mundane of occurrences. This linguistic style is aptly evocative of Meursault’s apathetic attitude towards life and the world around him.

Likewise, the universe itself treats Meursault with harsh indifference. As if driven towards an inevitable fate by random variables beyond his control, he commits a crime almost unthinkingly. The circumstances of the crime exhibit some characteristics of self-defense and some of premeditation, leaving the outcome of his trial uncertain. During the actual court proceedings, however, Meursault finds that he is not being tried for what he has done but rather for who he is. The judge, jury, and courtroom crowd judges him for the very unfeeling personality that characterizes his nature. The details of his life are scrutinized as evidence of his otherness, his indifference to the way people are supposed to be, his status as a stranger among normal humans who dutifully love their mothers and worship God. Despite this negative turn of events, Meursault greets this persecution with his characteristic lack of concern, because life really doesn’t matter anyway.

Camus manages to convey all this in a tone that’s relentlessly bleak but with touches of absurd humor. Though Meursault’s narration remains dispassionate for most of the book, the plot does culminate in a climactic outburst, through which Meursault’s (and presumably Camus’s) philosophy of the absurdity and meaninglessness of existence is revealed with harsh and brutal frankness. Even so, this outlook of pointlessness is oddly liberating. The Stranger is one of the twentieth century’s most thought-provoking works of philosophical fiction. It certainly is no “feel-good” book, however, and it makes for a reading experience that’s obviously not to everyone’s taste. If you just don’t “get” The Stranger, then chances are you’re a rather happy, optimistic, and well-adjusted person. Congratulations!
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Friday, June 25, 2021

Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature in Prose and Verse, translated and edited by Paul Selver



Eastern European stories and poems in English translation
Wladyslaw Reymont
As the title suggests,
Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature in Prose and Verse is a collection of short literary works from Eastern Europe. In this context, “Slavonic” means the same as “Slavic.” The book includes selections from Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Serbian, Croatian, and Slovenian authors. This volume was edited by British writer Paul Selver, who also translated all of the works into English. In addition to writing his own novels and poetry, Selver was a multilinguist who also translated German, French, and Norwegian works. He was primarily known for his Czech translations, in particular the works of Karel Capek (who does not appear in this book). This anthology was published in 1919, but the works included date as far back as 1845.

The prose section of this volume includes short stories, brief essays, and a couple of one-act plays. A few recognizable names appear in this volume. The great Russian master of short stories Anton Chekhov provides a finely drawn comical tale, “In a Foreign Land.” Polish Nobel Prize-winner Wladyslaw Reymont is represented by a scene excerpted from his novel Promised Land. Polish author Boleslaw Prus’s story “From the Legends of Ancient Egypt” calls to mind his novel Pharaoh, set in the same era. The rest of the names on the table of contents will likely be new to the vast majority of English-language readers. The better entries include Czech author Jan Neruda’s “The Vampire,” which is not the horror story its title implies, but it does deliver a surprisingly morbid ending. Polish writer Wiktor Gomulicki’s portrait of an aged farmer is the literary equivalent of a gritty Gustave Courbet painting. Ukraine’s foremost poet of the 19th century, Taras Shevtchenko, tells his own story in an autobiographical essay written for a literary journal. Reymont’s selection is the best in the book, but if this were a short-story Olympics, the Russians would take the gold with strong showings by Chekhov, Dmitri Merezhkovsky, and Fyodor Sologub.


The latter half of the book is devoted to poetry, about 130 pages worth from the authors of seven nations. Almost all are written in rhyming verse, with Selver doing his best to preserve the rhyme schemes in his English translations. Many are romantic evocations of nature typical of the late 19th century. The more interesting selections deal with subject matter unique to the authors’ nationalities and ethnicity, the most obvious example being Czech poet Petar Preradovic’s anthemic “To Slavdom.” Shevtchenko’s poem “If Lordlings, Ye Could Only Know . . .” depicts a hellish view of serfdom. Petr Bezruc, in his series of poems, laments the plight of the oppressed Silesian Czechs. One surprising entry is Czech poet Antonin Sova’s “To Theodor Mommsen.” Rather than a tribute to the German Nobel laureate and classical historian, Sova’s poem is an extended insult that attacks Mommsen as the “arrogant spokesman of slavery.”


Classic Slavic literature is hard to come by in English translation. Selver’s welcome anthology does the valuable service of introducing the British or American reader to many hitherto unfamiliar authors. He even includes helpful mini-biographies of each writer. If you discover authors you like here, however, it may be impossible to find further samples of their work in English. Overall, the good and bad entries in this volume average out to a middling collection. Those with an interest in Eastern European culture, however, will appreciate the bits of history, artistic heritage, and national customs revealed in these stories and poems. Because of the large quantity of verse, it will especially appeal to readers who enjoy poetry.


Stories in this collection
(Also 130 pages of poems, not listed below)

In a Foreign Land by Anton Chekhov
My Life by Dimitri Merezhkovsky
The Tiny Man by Fyodor Sologub
The Demigod by S. N. Sergeyev-Tsensky
Autobiography by Taras Shevtchenko
The Ploughman by Wiktor Gomulicki
From the Legends of Ancient Egypt by Boleslaw Prus
Chopin by Stanislaw Przybyszewski
In the Old Town at Lodz by Wladyslaw Reymont
Sonia by Jan Svatopluk Machar
The Vampire by Jan Neruda
The Advent of Spring in the South by Arne Novák
June (play in one act) by Frána Srámek
The Latin Boy by Simo Matavulj

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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Growing Soles: A Ninety-Six Year Journey Around the World by Micae Martinet



Circling the globe on foot in 1920 and 2016
I first encountered the name Hippolyte Martinet while doing genealogical research. He is a distant cousin of mine; we share some Belgian ancestors. Whereas my Belgians settled in Wisconsin, Hippolyte’s grandfather settled in New Orleans, where he fell in love with a mulatto slave, purchased her freedom, and married her. Both of Hippolyte’s parents were free Blacks with one-quarter African ancestry, making him one-quarter Black as well. While the circumstances of Hippolyte’s birth are quite interesting, the circumstances surrounding his death are even more so.

In 1920, at the age of 41, Hippolyte Martinet decided to walk around the world, barefoot, relying on the kindness of strangers. Having previously moved to Washington State, he set out from Seattle, marched to New York, and then took a ship to England. After hiking across 16 nations in Europe and Asia, he died of malaria in Yunnan, China. Growing Soles, a book on Hippolyte’s life and travels, was published in 2020. The author, Micae Martinet, is Hippolyte’s great-grandniece. Not only has she researched the story of her great-granduncle’s epic walk, but she and her husband Doug also set out to complete Hippolyte’s journey from his burial site in China to Hong Kong, which would have been Hippolyte’s departure point back to Seattle. The chapters frequently hop back and forth between Hippolyte in the 1920s and Micae in 2015 and 2016. Growing Soles thus combines a historical biography that brings to life this unique figure from a century past with a personal memoir of the author’s own travel adventures in China.

Hippolyte is a fascinating character, but there isn’t a whole lot of information available on him—just a few articles, a few letters, a few documents, and a few photos. Micae Martinet has certainly done her due diligence in the research department and reprints what she has found in the book. She has also done a great deal of historical research into the events that were happening at the time Hippolyte passed through the places where he walked. This adds valuable context to his travels, particularly in regards to issues of race, class, and labor unrest during the 1920s.

The majority of the book, however, is about the travels of Micae and Doug as they finish the last 1,200 miles of her great-granduncle’s walk. One learns a bit about Chinese culture from Micae’s experiences, but for the most part this is a memoir composed of personal anecdotes about hiking and roughing it on the road. Recurring topics include Asian bathrooms, food and hotel accommodations, Micae’s medical problems, and run-ins with the Chinese police. At times she digresses into other trips she has taken abroad. As a curious traveler myself, I admire Micae and Doug’s adventurous journey and sometimes envied their off-the-beaten-path view of a foreign country. Often, however, the monotony of following one highway for over a thousand miles did not seem like the most enjoyable or educational way to experience an exotic land.

I read this book because I wanted to learn more about Hippolyte, so I was attracted more to the history than to the memoir. I did find much vicarious interest in Micae’s contemporary travel narrative, but I would have preferred more content on Hippolyte’s era. Still, this is likely the most comprehensive source of information on Hippolyte and his walk, and for that I greatly appreciate Micae Martinet’s efforts in researching and writing this valuable account. It is a fascinating story that deserves to be read.
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Monday, June 21, 2021

The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck



Scientific expedition with Walden-esque philosophizing
When John Steinbeck was beginning his career as a writer, he befriended a marine biologist named Ed Ricketts who had established a laboratory in Monterey, California. Ricketts was the basis for the character of Doc in Steinbeck’s novels Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. In 1940, Steinbeck accompanied Ricketts and a small crew of workers on a specimen-collecting expedition to the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California, between Baja California and mainland Mexico). Steinbeck wrote up a narrative account of this journey, which was first published in 1941, accompanied by Ricketts’s scientific data. In 1951, a few years after the death of Ricketts, Steinbeck’s account was separated from the scientific findings and published as The Log from the Sea of Cortez. This later edition opens with an extended eulogy/biographical sketch of Ricketts, written by Steinbeck, followed by Steinbeck’s record of the expedition.

Due to frequent references to Charles Darwin and The Voyage of the Beagle, one gets the impression that Steinbeck modelled his account after that earlier expedition narrative. The Log is written in the first-person by Steinbeck, usually employing the collective “we.” One very odd aspect of The Log is that Steinbeck never mentions Ricketts, as if he weren’t even on the boat. A few of the crew members are named—Tiny, Tony, Tex, and Sparky—but none of them ever really rises to the level of an individual character. Steinbeck has no qualms about taking some literary license with the narrative, inserting his personal reflections and emotional impressions, but the lack of any substantial characters renders The Log oddly impersonal, as opposed to the biographical chapter on Ricketts, which is entirely personal.

Steinbeck was not attempting a strictly scientific narrative here. The official catalogue of species was up to Ricketts. Nevertheless, most of the content of Steinbeck’s account is scientific in nature, though written for more of a general audience like the readers of National Geographic rather than the readers of, say, The Journal of Marine Biology. Steinbeck describes each of the stops made by their boat, named the Western Flyer, to collect specimens among the tidal pools along the gulf shore. He also lists the species of marine animals found there, explains some of their distinct characteristics, and describes the crew’s methods of collection. Beyond the zoological content, Steinbeck provides a nautical travel narrative detailing weather activity, ports of call, and coastal terrain, as well as scenes of shipboard life, drinking bouts, and the crew’s adventures on shore. He also adds a great deal of interesting detail about the Mexican peoples they encountered along the way.

From a literary standpoint, the most valuable passages in the book are what might be called Steinbeck’s philosophical digressions, which in some sense resemble those of Henry David Thoreau in his nature memoir Walden. While observing the fishes and marine invertebrates of the Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck frequently extrapolates theories about human nature and society through the lens of Darwinian evolutionary biology. One extended digression in particular, on teleological thinking, is largely the philosophy of Ricketts, the mentor, as distilled through the literary voice of Steinbeck, his mentee. As in Walden, such lofty asides really elevate The Log from a simple wilderness memoir to an inspirational literary work. The adventurous reader will envy the crew of the Western Flyer for their freedom of wanderlust and the intellectual excitement of their discoveries, but it is Steinbeck’s thought-provoking musings on the universe at large that will compel the reader to return to the book for future perusals.
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Friday, June 18, 2021

The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick



Cracking the ancient Mycenaean code
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, archaeologists working in Greece discovered a number of clay tablets inscribed with a previously undiscovered system of writing. Caches of these tablets were found primarily at two sites: the Minoan palace of Knossos on the island of Crete, and the Mycenaean city of Pylos on the Greek mainland. Eventually linguists and archaeologists established that the writing dates to around 1450 BC. The script was dubbed Linear B (as opposed to Linear A, an even earlier script). From the 1930s to the 1950s, many philologists tried unsuccessfully to decipher this writing, until British architect Michael Ventris discovered the key to cracking the code. Tragically, Ventris died soon after, in his mid-thirties. In his book The Decipherment of Linear B, first published in 1958, classical linguist John Chadwick, who collaborated with Ventris on the decipherment, tells the story of how this ancient writing system was discovered and decrypted. I am reviewing the Second Edition published in 1967.


When first encountered, any unknown script presents two main problems: First, is it a pictographic, alphabetic, or syllabic script, or a combination of the above? Second, all scripts are meant to represent a spoken language, but to which particular language does this script correspond? In the case of Linear B, it might very well be a language that no longer exists. Egyptian hieroglyphics were deciphered with the help of a bilingual text, the Rosetta Stone, but for Linear B there exists no such bilingual text, so the investigators basically had to start with nothing. Ventris and others began this daunting task by looking for familiar syntactical patterns in the texts and comparing them to languages from roughly the same time period, such as Etruscan, Cypriot, and Hittite. Ventris finally cracked the code when he proved that the characters corresponded to an early form of Greek.

Though Chadwick, along with Ventris, published several articles and books intended for specialists in the field, he states in the introduction to The Decipherment of Linear B that this book is intended for a general reading audience. While this is certainly an authoritatively informative book on its subject, Chadwick is not entirely successful at making this topic accessible to the lay reader. To tackle this book, one not only needs to have an avid interest in the ancient Greek world but also a fairly firm knowledge of linguistics. In explaining the decryption process, Chadwick goes into a level of detail that often surpasses the layman’s comprehension. One editorial choice that really makes this book user-unfriendly is that, due to difficulties in typesetting, the bulk of the text does not reproduce the Mycenaean words in the Linear B script in which they were actually written. Instead, Chadwick uses a system of numerals assigned to each character. Thus, the notation 08-60-02-15-04-13-06 may signify the word for “chariots.” Page after page of these numbers is enough to drive the reader nuts. The volume does, however, include 17 figures that illustrate the actual Linear B characters, including a comprehensive numbered syllabic chart (see below).

The tablets found at Knossos and Pylos were not literature, but rather lists of commodities. Still, as Chadwick interprets them, these tablets reveal a surprising amount of information on ancient Mycenaean life, including governmental administration, taxation and tribute, religious practices, the organization of military units, and ancient armaments. This window into the past is the most fascinating aspect of Chadwick’s book. The process of decipherment itself does not make as captivating a story as the decipherment of the Mayan language, as related by Michael Coe in Breaking the Maya Code, but anyone interested in ancient languages, particularly of Greece, will certainly find much intellectual stimulation in Chadwick’s insider account.

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