Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Review: The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, by Rudolf Raspe and everybody else.

The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a book with a confused provenance. It has been attributed to everyone from the German poet August Bürger; the emigre Rudolf Erich Raspe, a club of people including Raspe and Bürger, and even the titular Baron himself. There has even been debate over whether it was originally written in German or English.

As far as I can get the story straight, Raspe wrote a small book containing what are now the first six chapters of the book in German in 1781. He took as his inspiration from Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen , a popular citizen of Bodenwerder who would regale his friends with extreme, over-the-top, clearly impossible recounts of his military actions which he would deliver in a completely straight manner. He did not do this because he expected to be believed but because it amused him to tell ridiculous stories in this manner. It’s unknown how many of Munchausen’s actual tales were retold by Raspe and how many Raspe invented.

In 1786, Raspe, having been disgraced on the continent, was stuck in Britain and stuck for cash so he rewrote his version of Munchausen’s tales. Over the next three years the books were expanded by various unknown hacks and in 1792 a sequel was written, which was also included in my copy of his adventures.

The book starts with Raspe’s chapters. These are mainly sporting events - lots of killing animals, riding horses and having outrageously good hounds. In these chapters he escapes from a lion and a crocodile when the lion pounces into the crocodile’s mouth and chokes it; he punches a wolf in the mouth and turns it inside out, rides another wolf and has his fur cloak bitten by a mad-dog which then turns crazy and eats the rest of his wardrobe. 

Subsequent writers put the Baron further on the world stage - cheeky, tricksy whales; temporary enslavement by the Sultan of Turkey, trips to the moon, riding along the bottom of the sea on a seahorse (with legs), meets Vulcan and Aphrodite down a volcano and has an epic ride around the world on an eagle…and that’s the end of the first book.

I really loved this first book, the Baron is essentially a cartoon character before there were cartoons and as such, he operates completely by cartoon logic. This is Raspe’s wonderful innovation here, the Baron can do anything, achieve anything and survive anything in just the same way as Bugs Bunny - it’s no wonder one of the earliest cartoons was of Munchausen. It also explains the structure of Raspe’s and later episodes, they are all cartoon shorts; quick, visual and a lot of fun.

The next writers take this cartoon logic, have more fun with going to the moon, under the sea and around the world by a massive eagle (which nests in Deptford, who knew?) They also take the Baron and and apply him to (slightly more) real events. These next few chapters reminded me of Forrest Gump a little, the Baron makes a massive impact on history but for the sake of good form lets others have the glory.

The Baron single-handedly lifts the siege of Gibraltar, because he has a fondness for the bravery of the British. In standard history, the siege lasted for over three years and was resisted by General George Eliott, but now we know the truth.

His Polar-Bear killing skills are also the reason That Captain Phipps had to turn back from finding the fabled north-west passage because the amount of skins he carried back made the ship too low to carry on. (Incidentally, that voyage was one of the first that Midshipman Horatio Nelson went on… I was surprised a later writer didn’t go back, add him in and beef up his relationship with Munchausen).

These ‘historical’ parts work well, letting the cartoon figure of the Baron into real events. What is important here is that nothing he does changes history from it’s actual course - it just changes the reason that a historical event turned out the way it is, rather like a good historical episode of Dr Who. When we come to the sequel, the Baron causes things to happen that weren’t in history, thus ruining the fun of having him in a historical event, rather like a bad historical episode of Dr Who. (I’m looking at you, ‘The Next Doctor’, giant cyberman in London…pah!)

Then we have the sequel. The Grub Street denizen/denizens who wrote this had no idea what made Baron Munchausen work.  Instead of having a cartoon’s prerogative to laugh at everybody, it has specific satirical targets. Instead of short, crazy adventures he has one long, sustained one. Instead of going alone and occasionally meeting up with people, he has a retinue. Instead of being of no real nation (but with a soft spot for the British, like The Doctor) he takes his retinue on a mission to colonise the white people of Central Africa, and accepts being a Governor General under the King. His journey has financial backers that he has to make money for - Baron Munchausen, pleasing financiers, it’s not him!… it’s all wrong.

The worst part is when The Baron, as Governor-General of Central Africa, is unpopular with his subjects because he wants to force them to cook their meat rather then eat it raw. The people make satires against him and dejected he goes to a member of his retinue called Hillario Frosticos for advice, and receives it. The Baron does not despair, he does not ask for advice and he certainly never takes it. He should be the madman (with or without box) who does things alone.

(Incidentally, I tried to see where the name Hilario Frosticos came from - a little bit of Googling turned up the name as a villain in some 1950s pulpy sci-fi but not much else.)

Also, the sequel keeps pushing the Baron and his retinue’s mode of transport like it should be funny or entrancing or something. It consists of a sphinx, some huge bulls and giant crickets and the giants Gog and Magog (which were statues on Fleet Street) who pull a life-size, wooden replica of Westminster Hall along. Once might be somewhat amusing, but every time they go anywhere, we have to have the whole description again.

After conquering Africa, building a bridge from there to London, fighting on it with Don Quixote, having a trial to sort out the fight, chasing a bird around the world and defeating the French Revolutionary Congress, the sequel ends - thank goodness.

No prizes for guessing which parts of this book I enjoyed. Baron Munchausen is such a brilliant idea - an eighteenth century superman/popeye/bugs bunny that I am not surprised that so many films, cartoons and other books have been inspired by it. I’m tempted to create some Munchausen fanfics myself.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Bethlem Museum of the Mind - a trip

I seem to be quite obsessed with the idea of delusion and self-delusion, particularly in how a certain level of self-delusion is good for a person can be spill out and become bad. Of my three finished and one un-finished novels, delusion plays a bit part in all.

The first was about a teenage boy who falls in love and takes advice from his imaginary friend, my second about how the population at large delude themselves that there is a suicide disease, the third is about a young man who believes he is the greatest poet who has ever lived and the fourth about a group of people who create delusions in other people using a fantastical machine. Of these books, the third has a number of chapters in 18th century Bedlam, and the fourth is inspired by the delusions of one of the inmates there. So it seemed like a reasonable trip to visit the Royal Bethlem Hospital where they have a gallery and a museum of the mind.

Now in it’s fourth incarnation, the hospital has a collection, which was rehoused last year in the former administrative building and given a huge facelift. 

On entering the building, there was a little shop on the left and an exhibition of artwork by a current service user (as I learnt the phrase is) to the right. I liked the art; some abstract expressionism, some ecological stuff, some notepad doodles - all of it too expensive for my pocket. I particularly liked one called ‘Field’ which was a huge canvas, consisting of many carefully spaced green lines, the notes said they were to remind me to notice each blade of grass and they did.

Into the hallway there’s a grand flight of stairs and flanking the stairs, the ‘Brainless Brothers’. A pair of statues sculpted by Gabriel Caius Cibber (Colley’s dad) representing manic and melancholy madness. Manic is strained, held down by chains but I thought Melancholy has a little smile on his face. His position was later mirrored by Hogarth in The Rake’s Progress. It was moving to see these two figures, formally the symbol of the eighteenth century Bedlam and to consider all the souls that passed under them to their various fates.

Upstairs there was also a choice of gallery to the right and museum to the left. I chose the museum.

It’s not a huge space but it is well used, with many interactive and audio-visual displays that actually engaged and helped the message of the museum, rather than being a distraction. The museum is also displayed in themes; visiting Bedlam, diagnosis/labelling, treatment and recovery. 

 The visiting section had a large screen which mixed historical accounts of visiting Bedlam to modern people talking about going to the new site for school trips, to walk the dog, as patient, as nurse and as museum visitor. It made me wonder whether my visit was any different to those people who want ‘to view the lunatics’ in the eighteenth century. There was also an original Moorfields collection box, a replica of which has received my two pound donation.

The diagnosis/labelling section was all about how naming a mental disorder may go some way to helping, or hindering. There were phrenology photographs depicting what a ‘typical’ melancholy or delusional person should look like, there were Wain paintings of cats that became increasingly psychedelic and may have shown an increase in psychosis and there were three incoming patients books. One from John Munroe’s private madhouse in 1766, one for the 1850s and a blank one that new service users are encouraged to write in on committal.

There was also a large desk with an inset monitor displaying a history of rude names and terms, when you clicked on one, it gave you an etymology. I learned that:

  • Doolally comes from an Indian term.
  • Dotty, from Scotland.
  • Div is English and may come from the word divided.
  • Window-Licker, was the name of an Aphex Twin song from 1999. 

I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to be feeling angry at the insensitive language or impressed at the wide range of linguistic diversity.

There is a little bit about humour theory, a very nice light show with the four humours colour coded and projected, There is also a blank ‘reflection’ space, I didn’t need it because I can reflect in non-designated zones.

The next area is about therapies, this is split into three sections. The first is about restraint, there’s a padded room which was recently de-commissioned and four audios playing from two nineteenth century letters and two modern testimonies. There is also the information that The Royal Bethlem Hospital still has some padded cells in operation. The next cabinet has a selection of restraint devices; from strait-jackets, to manacles and chastity devices. Looking at them and remembering that they were really used to hold people down is a moving experience. Interestingly, these are placed next to examples of chemical restraint and a modern electronic-tag worn by modern Royal Bethlem service users.

Further on there are some electro-shock devices and related paraphernalia together with a documentary about the short term benefits and long term drawbacks of the process. Next to that there are examples of modern arts and craft to show modern therapies.

Finally there is the section on Recovery. This includes ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs and letters from past patients. The final item is a painting called Recovery? which features a very sad face.

That’s when it hit me what had been bugging me. In presenting the museum thematically it seemed that I was being told that eighteenth century madness and today’s mental illness are in essence the same thing and that the treatments today were little more than modern updates of the treatments of the past. Instead of a chronologically based story of the improvement in the understanding of the mind and it’s ailments, the message was that nothing has essentially changed. It was strange, a far more challenging message then I was expecting.

I was thoroughly provoked by my time in the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, I was sad that I was the only one there - you should go, it’s free and can be Oystered from London.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Review: Marcel Theroux, 'Strange Bodies'.

This is a novel published in 2013 and set in 2008/9, which would seem a little too modern for the interests of Grub Street - hold your horses, you’ll see why shortly.

Ostensibly, it’s a metaphysical mystery, rather similar to Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr Y, Dr Nicholas Slopen dives down his own rabbit hole of identity loss and confusion after finding some possibly new letters by Samuel Johnson…. - see, told you this book would be relevant to this site.

Nicholas Slopen is quite the stock character; a lecturer and editor of Samuel Johnson’s letters, who is ashamed of his past, ashamed of his poverty and has a wife and children who are ashamed of him. He matches Ariel Manto in The End of Mr Y, and could fit in any number of David Lodge books. 

In investigating these new Johnson letters he falls into a conspiracy involving eccentric music producers, Russian gangsters, Russian utopians and a mysterious process called The Process. In doing so, he muses on identity - how much it comes from a physical unity, a unity of memory or whether it is just the epiphenomena of words. 

I’m not going to reveal much more about the plot, it had enough twists and turns to keep it lively and Slopen was a critical and interesting enough character to walk around in the head of for several hours - oddly, this aspect of identity borrowing wasn’t really touched on.

I did enjoy the modern London setting; characters watch films at the Prince Charles, buy prints in Cecil Court, mooch around Green Park and go to various pubs I have also been to. I got the sense that, wandering around London in 2009, I might have actually met these characters.

But what really brought the book alive for me was the Samuel Johnson fan-wank.

Slopen is a Johnson fan, and when he reads the possible Johnson letters, he describes them as meeting with an old friend, recognisable by the ‘sinousity of the sentences’ in the same way he recognises the individual walk and shape of a lover. There are a number of other times when Slopen reads Johnson, and Marcel Theroux, the author of this book, describes the feeling of reading Johnson very well.

It turns out the letters are forgeries, written by a man called Jack who believes himself to be (or may actually be) Samuel Johnson. My favourite favourite part of the book is when Jack and Slopen live together for a few weeks and we get to see Johnson navigate the 21st century.

Hanging out with Sammy J in the modern streets of London is a bit of a daydream of mine, I have written a few little sketches on here about Johnson in the modern day and had a number of other scenes planned. I also have, deep in the recesses of my scribblebook, a plan for a novel which engineers Johnson into modern London in a time travel variation of Aristophanes’ ‘The Frogs’

Whether he is watching Brief Encounter, consoling Slopen on his divorce, declaring lamb dhansak ‘a practical joke’ or extolling the delights of melted cheese at a pizza place, the proxy-Johnson is a brilliant character. Theroux takes a lot of the parts of Johnson’s character I planned to; for example, the part when he goes ice-skating and the story I wrote of Johnson at a roller disco both relate to his fondness for ‘sliding’. This vision of Johnson in the modern world also deals with the main problem I had in writing it, and the reason I stopped. Johnson was a man unhappy in his body in his own timeline, it was impossible to imagine his move to the 21st century would cause him more distress - and so it does in this version, Jack/Johnson needing to be medicated and even restrained on a number of occasions. 

I was left wondering, why did Theroux choose Johnson for this book? The theme of identity was tackled by him, but not really one of his most prominent themes. Why not ‘resurrect’ a writer of travels like Swift, or an envisioner of the future like HG Wells, or one of the Russian writers that were regularly referred to? I think part of it is material, we already have a solid picture of Johnson in Boswell and his own works and it is easier to feel we have ‘met’ Johnson then other, blurrier figures. There is also Johnson himself; solid, wise and empathetic - that is irresistible. 

Thursday, 31 March 2016

A little video clip.

I was looking at videos of Adam Phillips, a child psychologist and writer and was most intrigued by the title of the book 'Going Sane'. 

There was a documentary made of the writing of his book, where he is interviewed by Melvyn Bragg, who I find is pretty good at wheedling out good answers. 

Here is a clip that explains his view of what the new writer ought to be in the 21st century.

I found it interesting. (Though scratchy audio with poor sibilants).


'The true aim of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.'
Samuel Johnson

Monday, 21 March 2016

Austen's Juvenilia at the Dr Johnson reading circle.

This post starts with a confession. Previous to reading Jane Austen’s Juvenilia for the Samuel Johnson Book Club, I’d never finished an Austen novel. I’d dallied with Pride and Prejudice but starting it on the night-bus home from a drum-n-bass club underneath Leicester Square (I received some strange looks from the bouncers after they found it in my pocket).

I also have to confess that the copy I bought (containing both Austen and Bronte Juvenilia) wasn’t complete, more embarrassing because the editor of the Cambridge edition of the Juvenilia was present…I was very intrigued about diving into the unknown. He told us how the books were discovered, that various manuscripts were flogged off by impoverished members of the Austen family, finding there way into the British and Bodleian Libraries, who guard their precious works very closely.

After reading the Juvenilia (or what I had of it) I was delighted to discover how very funny I found it. As the writing grew more sophisticated, the humour was less sharp (and far less silly) but it remained throughout and I was far keener to pick up an Austen book again. These earlier works are stripped down, they are short novel parodies that especially burlesque the sentimental novel. There was something about the works that reminded me very much of ‘Modern Novel Writing,’ a work by William Beckford (of Vathek fame) who created a sentimental novel by chopping up other sentimental novels and recontextualising them. We had great fun sharing our favourite absurdities; those crying themselves to death, those running mad and those falling in love with every person they meet.

One of the highlights of the evening was a group reading of the play ‘Mystery’. (Full script here https://www.janeausten.co.uk/the-mystery-an-unfinished-play). In this short piece, the audience repeatedly finds itself just at the end of something interesting. As short as the play is, it’s a wonderfully sustained joke and there were many laughs in its short time. 

We also discussed the issues of editorship, many of us having suffered from overzealous editors who feel the need to explain even the smallest and most obvious details. We wondered about the impact of the internet on those styles of editorship, where simple details can be looked up.

The evening went by very quickly, and we again bundled off to the pizza place to surprise the waiters with our fruity choices of pizza.

Next week, we flex the biceps and carry the weight of Boswell as we discuss his meeting with Johnson.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Roy Porter on the Enlightenment

Just a teeny note here.

I was mooching around on the BBC's brilliant (and very wide ranging) series of discussion shows, 'In Our Time'. In one of them, Roy Porter is discussing his book. It is free to listen on the BBC iplayer and the link is here.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Review: The Song of Roland

This is romantic, epic and very, very silly.

Although the Eighteenth Century may be a big passion of mine, I have to admit myself interested in more things then I have time or energy to pursue. One of these interests that has been bubbling up the ranks has been in chivalry and chivalric romance.

Partly this is due to my attempt to read Don Quixote as a young teen. I never finished the book but always had a desire to - in preparation for this, I have been working myself up, reading the words that inspired that story. As part of this I read a very entertaining abridgement/translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso that made the top spot in last year’s favourite books list.I thrilled at that book’s high-jinks, daft capers and cartoon/superhero heroics and wondered about the source for such things.

Ariosto took inspiration from two great chivalric traditions, the ‘Matter of Britain’ and ‘The Matter of France’. The first is better known today, it charts the actions of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table and often feature wizards and fairies. The other is the doings of Charlemagne and his knights, the key source of these stories being The Song of Roland. 

Written some time in the tenth century it tells of Roland (later Italicised as Orlando), Charlemagne’s nephew and best knight who is put at the end of the column and betrayed by Ganelon to King Marsile and the Moors of Spain. Roland, 12 great knights and the wise Olivier are attacked by hoards of Paynim (or foreigners). Instead of calling for help on the Oliphant, a war horn, Roland fights on, killing hundreds. Only at the last minute does he call for help, blowing on the horn till his lips and temples bleed and summoning Charlemagne who arrives too late to save Olivier, the bishop Turpin or Roland. Charlemagne then wages war against the Moors and has Ganelon’s body torn in four by horses - there is even a sequel teased by Gabriel telling Charlemagne to get going and fight somewhere else.

First thing was, I was surprised at how short it was. My copy of the unabridged Song is 121 pages as opposed to the abridged Furioso’s 500. The other surprise was the lack of supernatural elements, that very lack making the over-the-top actions of the ordinary people all the more strange and cartoonish. It makes the reasons behind character’s actions seem completely daft… Ganelon betrays a huge chunk of his army in order to get back at Roland for a perceived plot. Roland chooses not send for re-enforcement (and destroy the Muslim army) because it would insult his heightened dignity. Roland’s wife just ups and dies as soon as she hears Roland is dead. All sort of actions make no sense.

The goofiness of the text is not helped by Leonard Bacon’s translation. There is an old fashioned, rather camp quality to the writing. A knight’s armour is described as ‘becoming him well’, and the Muslims shout the frightening ‘What ho, ye Frankish villains, ye shall joust with us this day’ and another time explaining that they fight ‘right fiercely’. A number of times people are also ‘beat nobly in the face’. 

My absolute favourite, which made me laugh out loud is when Roland’s friend has been killed and he described it as something which, ‘sore irketh me’. Another time a knight rides to a friend with four lances stuck in him, and the other knight says, ‘I deem thou hast been in a fight’.

There are many people who are killed by having a sword driven through their helmet, hat, ‘mighty hair’, body, saddle and horse….. there must be about twelve people being spit in half in this way. Some eyeballs are burst out, a few brains ooze from helmets and many people are struck through with banners. 

Another strange detail is the extremely ornate description of swords and armour. There are named swords, ‘Joyeuse’ - belonging to Charlemagne and ‘Durendal’ - Rolands’ sword which contains half a cathedral’s worth of reliquaries in it. Another odd detail is how many helmets are gem encrusted, or made of gold. Gold swords would seem daft to me, but almost everyone in this has one.

Finally in the funny stuff is Charlemagne. He does quite little and is always described in the same way, namely - he has a white beard. Almost every action of Charlemagne is playing with his beard in some way. It is often described as a flower for some reason. I can’t work out how a flower resembles a beard at all. Very close to the beginning of the text we get this quote,

‘Aye plucked he with his fingers at the beard on lip and chin; 
And the tears came into his eyes, he could not keep them in.’

I understand that he's supposed to be playing with his beard in sadness, but to me it just sounds like he is plucking his beard and nose hairs, and it’s making him teary - just as you would be if you picked your nose hair.

I have to say that mostly this book made me laugh. There is no wonder that this leads to Don Quixote, it’s a farce to begin with, but there were some lovely lines in the poem, and I’ll leave you with those.

‘High were the peaks about them, and dark the vale and black,
Sombre the rocks about them, and terrible the track.’

‘The sun broke on them splendid, and fair the morning came;
There was no bit of armour but was blazing in a flame;
And to make it more glorious a thousand horns blew clear,’

‘Mighty was the battle and furious the fight.
Fiercely the Franks stuck into it in their anger and their might.’

‘Darkling are all the summits and very great and high,
And deep are all the valleys and the streams run swift thereby.’