Previously, on Star Trek: Voyager… (my take on it anyway).
I’ve just started season 5 so I thought I’d offer some more ruminations.
I continue to love Janeway. I think I particularly love that I don’t always like her and the decisions she makes – she’s allowed to be flawed, and occasionally vicious, and the sorts of things I dislike in other captains: egotistical, mildly imperialist, and so on. I am unconvinced by the number of away missions she herself leads, and especially when she and Chakotay both go. Really? you’re taking your entire command structure to an unknown planet? That seems… unwise. Anyway, “Night” is an amazing episode for suggesting Janeway may not always cope, although the fact that it comes back to her being all self-sacrificial due to guilt was a bit passe. She’s had a few awesome Ripley moments, too, which I enjoyed very much. She can be both a cerebral scientist and a gun-toting soldier.
I have nothing much to add about Chakotay. My love for him remains pure and unsullied. The opening of “Worst Case Scenario” therefore had me very worried, at the idea that he would be a mutineer, although it was clear something hinky was happening… the revelation about the holodeck story and how that all plays out is magnificent. “Year of Hell” was exceptional and I was hugely impressed by the stress everyone, but perhaps especially Chakotay, was put under… although less impressed by the “it was all a dream!” retcon. “Unforgettable” made me deeply uncomfortable because I was never entirely sure that the alien who claims Chakotay used to be in love with her was actually for real. At this point I can absolutely see why there are people who ship Janeway and Chakotay; especially after their little holiday alone on a planet that kept them alive. I am reserving judgement.
I was so sad that Kes left, especially so abruptly. I was particularly sad that it happened literally as Seven of Nine arrived, making it seem like only so many women are allowed to have the screen. Kes had some great episodes – I am very ambivalent about “Before and After”, though: while I enjoyed Kes having centre stage, I was unconvinced by either the Tom or the Harry relationships. In fact I found them a bit squicky. I’m glad the show had a place for someone like Kes, even if she didn’t continue for the whole series.
And so, Seven of Nine. My first question is about how Jeri Ryan felt about acting in a body stocking with her underwear clearly visible. I think she’s fantastic, and working in that sort of situation just makes her even more remarkable. I was grumbling a bit about the costuming and then discovered that apparently her appearance on the show made ratings rise 60% so… yeh. Guess that worked out for the show and Ryan just had to put up with it, right? I think Seven is a fabulous character. I love her development as a character, and as a human; I love her struggle with human inefficiencies, like politeness, which let’s face it a lot of us get impatient with occasionally. “One” was fantastic in the way it examined what it would be like to go from part of the collective to completely alone; almost every interaction between Seven and Janeway is a delight to watch.
“Retrospect” nearly made me stop watching the show. In it, Seven exhibits anxiety during a routine medical, and the Doctor works with her to uncover repressed memories of having been assaulted and Borg nano-stuff taken from her by an alien Voyager is currently trading with. Said trader denies it all, there’s a chase and the trader ends up dying. People start by believing Seven, but then everyone gradually changes their mind. The analogy to rape cannot be ignored, and neither can the all-too-familiar story of a woman’s word being ignored. Seven’s distress is ultimately dismissed. There is no further help for her in dealing with the memories – and even if they’re false, they’re still present and still distressing. All of that is horrifying and basically had me sitting there thinking “this is 45 minutes explaining why #MeToo was necessary.” And then, to top it all off, the show ends with a focus on the Doctor, not on Seven: the Doctor feeling remorseful about trying out his new psychologist subroutine, and “oh no maybe I did something terrible I feel so bad.” So the show manages to make a rape-analogous narrative coming back to being about a man and his inadequacies.
I decided I would keep watching, obviously. And there are a lot of good reasons to do so – not least Seven herself who keeps being awesome (although I am ambivalent about the episode “Drone” where she kinda gets a weird version of the Magical Pregnancy).
I have little more to say about the rest of the crew. Tom manages to be slightly less annoying as things progress although he’s still a pain in the butt; the way he treats B’Elanna infuriates me. B’Elanna continues to be awesome, Harry is fine but rarely stands out, Neelix is never going to be a favourite. I remain keen to watch the rest of the series and look forward to discovering what happens to them all. I assume they get home but I have no idea how!
Sometimes I make myself feel guilty about my book choices. Occasionally it’s the actual type of book – although that’s less common since I taught myself to (generally) not be embarrassed about romance fiction. More often these days it’s about re-reading. Because how can I consider re-reading when there are books I own that I haven’t read yet??
2020 involved both a fair bit of guilt and a fair bit of “need comfort, shuddup brain”. I got to December and really wanted to read a certain trilogy but realised I had already comfort-re-read it that year. I found something else that was reassuring to read instead.
This post is brought to you because I just finished re-reading the Ancillary trilogy by Ann Leckie. It was the fifth time I had read Ancillar Justice, and the fourth time for Ancillary Sword and Mercy. (I seem to have not read Sword when it first came out, or something??) And there are still things that I had forgotten – details that delighted me again – and bits that I had forgotten. And along with all of that, the magnificent reasons why we – I – re-read: the comfort of knowing that the writing will be good. That (in this instance) things will work out ok, despite the dramatic and serious problems. That even though I’ve forgotten details, I know in the back of my head these are books that I have enjoyed and will continue to enjoy. I inhaled them, once again.
The fact that Breq refers to everyone as “she” because there’s no gendering in her language struck me again, not least because I remember it being one of the big issues everyone brought up eight years ago when it was published; this sort of recursive thinking is also part of the reason for why re-reading is fun – you get to reflect on your initial reflections and see how things have changed. I admit, I did once again find myself sometimes wondering about the gender of different characters, just like every other time, and then reminding myself that the point is it literally doesn’t matter. I was also massively struck, once again, by the imperialism and colonialism aspects – Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire now contributes to the dialogue on this issue in fascinating ways that I still haven’t sat down to fully analyse.
The part that got me more this time is the delightful almost-domestic aspects that contrast spectacularly with the empire-threatening aspects. Breq and Seivarden’s relationship – its development, its purpose, the difficulty both of them have with it; relationships between crew and ship; and the actual familial relationships too. I find I am becoming more interested in exploring ‘found family’ in fiction, and I’m intrigued to realise how often this is part of the narratives I already enjoy.
This will not be the last time I read this trilogy and I am almost excited for future-me that I get to come back again.
(After finishing Mercy I then spent about an hour and a half faffing around trying to figure out what to do next because my brain really wanted to start re-reading Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, and I felt too guilty to consider it. Then I finally gave in. And Ninefox Gambit is just mad, wonderful, brilliance (and I had completely forgotten how it opens). )
I read a very abridged version of Beowulf ages ago. I’ve watched that appalling Christoper Lambert film, because Christoper Lambert, but I haven’t seen the Angelina Jolie one. And most recently I read The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley and fell madly in love with it (it’s roughly a modern imagining of the poem).
Then I heard Headley had done a translation of Beowulf. And then I listened to The Writer and the Critic talk about both Headley books, and they reminded me to buy the translation. Of course, after watching The Dig, it was finally time to read it.
What an absolute joy.
The best way to give you a sense of how Headley has approached the translation is to use the example that a lot of people have pointed to, and with good reason: her translation of Hwaet. This word has been translated several dozen different ways over the years. It’s kind of a placeholder “pay attention!” word; I use ‘so’ and ‘all right’. You might use ‘look’, or archaically ‘lo’, or ‘behold’. Headley? Oh, she uses “Bro”.
Translation is always of its time, even if you’re trying to be anachronistically archaic. Headley has fully embraced the fact that this was published just into the 21st century, so there’s supermodern language – stan and swole and hashtag: blessed – that sometimes feels startling but always appropriate. Simultaneously, she has totally gone in for the ideas of rhythm and rhyme and alliteration found in the original:
The nails were notorious, hard as though
smith-forged, and the heathen’s hand
was callused as a carpenter’s, weathered
by work and warring (lines 985-88).
The above paragraph, by the way, is indicative of the fact that reading the Introduction to this book is highly recommended. You could, of course, go straight into the poem – of course you could. For me, though, knowing about Headley’s approach to the whole concept of translating this thousand-year-old poem, how she considered language and the gendered problems with considering Grendel’s mother, deepened my appreciation for her word choices and the entire enterprise.
The poem Beowulf centres, mostly, on the hero Beowulf, who slays the “monster” Grendel, and Grendel’s mother when she seeks vengeance… and he then goes on to be king for decades (that bit’s largely skipped over in the poem), before battling a dragon when he’s too old for that kind of shit. So in a sense it’s a heroic poem. On the podcast Backlist, though, the claim was made that it’s the original horror story too – Grendel coming in the night to kill men in their sleep, and no one can stop him. There’s also the aspect that it’s a meditation on the notion of kingship, and heroism, and masculinity… honestly there’s a reason that there are many dozens of translations and endless journal articles. There’s a lot to talk about.
I’m not a massive reader of poetry, so if you’re put off by the poetry I would say this one is worth a go. The ideas, the language – it’s just enchanting. And I would also recommend doing it the way I did: give yourself a couple of hours and read the whole thing straight through. You get into a rhythm with the language, you get into the zone of the Danes and Geats being all macho, and you follow the thread of Beowulf from hero to death.
I’m so glad Headley was convinced to do this.
Every now and then I fall into reading one of those stranger-in-a-strange-land books, where some person goes to live in a foreign-to-them country and has amusing experiences. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable about this genre – although I’ve never read one that goes out of its way to exoticise the locals, there’s still a potential voyeurism or paternalism that makes me wary. However, I truly loved Under the Tuscan Sun, and Driving Over Lemons was also a delight. The thing that makes me a bit less uncomfortable about these is that they’re white Brits or Americans moving to Europe… which somehow feels less likely to be fraught than, say, a white Brit or American moving to Thailand, or Nigeria. In my mind, that seems much more likely to go difficult places.
Anyway: when I came across A Year in Provence in a secondhand shop I couldn’t remember if I’d read it – surely I had! it’s a classic! – and then I read the first bit and realised nope, never have. Thus, bought.
And it is a delight. I can see why it’s become such a popular book (although I am deeply unconvinced about watching it as a tv show). The style – that Mayle goes through a calendar year, basically following the rhythms of the seasons and how that affects the way farmers, in particular, live – is deeply affective. Yes, there are bits where Mayle is getting amusement out of locals’ quirks; it never feels to me that it’s malicious, and I hope that’s not just me being naive (although that’s possible). It is, of course, a deeply romantic view of living a provincial life. Part of this is the time in which it’s written – the late 1980s – and that feels like (is, I think) a completely different world. And partly this is Mayle’s love letter to his experiences. He doesn’t completely sugarcoat his life – the exigencies of getting labourers to finish their work sounds excruciating – but the humour and general love of life that he exudes makes reading about it just a dream. Also ohmygoodness the FOOD.
I didn’t know there was a sequel, until I found it, soon after reading the first. It’s different in style – I guess repeating the calendar idea wouldn’t have worked. Basically the first thing he opens with here is the fact that the first book made him famous, to the point where strangers would turn up at his door demanding an autograph – and in some cases just wander into his house. Who does that?! I quite liked that he reflected on the consequences of his work – makes it seem more real, in some ways. Again, there’s a lot about food, and that’s completely fine with me. There’s a lot about the house, and local experiences. It’s… cosy. Delightfully cosy. And it makes me wonder whether anything like this life still exists in Provence; my guess is no. Maybe other parts of France?
Living like Mayle is, of course, a fairly affluent choice; most of his neighbours are farmers, working very hard for their bread, while (if you’re being mean) Mayle is a dilettante gentleman-farmer doing whatever he likes. But if you read this as a semi-fantasy, which I think is how I approached it, they’re lovely books. I understand there’s a third book, too; one day I’ll find it.
Many years ago I randomly came across a book by Tim Severin – I think it was either his Jason or his Ulysses voyage. I was immediately in love: this was a man who takes a mythical journey, makes a ship according to what can be understood of the shipbuilding techniques from the time of the myth, and then sets out to recreate said journey. His point being to see what’s feasible, and to investigate to what extent aspects of the original journey can be matched up to what can be seen today (where ‘today’ is the 1970s, mostly).
Ever since that first encounter, I have sporadically checked secondhand shops to find more Tim Severin books like that first one. I’ve found a few – one of his first travelogues is following the tracks of Marco Polo by motorbike, undertaken long enough ago that he was able to get through Afghanistan but not into China. And just this year I finally came across The Brendan Voyage.
I had never heard of St Brendan and the stories about him and a few monks going to sea in a leather boat (a currach), and visiting various islands, on a voyage lasting months – in the 6th century AD. Severin does a good job of recounting the key points of the story, to give an indication of what he’s trying to emulate.
The first step must be to make the boat, and that in itself is a feat: he literally wants to go sailing in the Atlantic in a boat basically made of leather. Wooden struts, yes, but the hull just… cured leather. Before any construction, therefore, there’s research into what sort of leather and how it can work. Honestly I loved the story of the voyage, but I also really enjoyed the story of just finding the people to make the boat in the first place.
Clearly, the boat is eventually constructed, and the small crew sets out. And here I really appreciated Severin’s skill as a narrator: he doesn’t try to give a day-by-day account, when that’s not necessary. Instead, he gives a great sense of the overall vibe of the thing, and it’s genuinely gripping. After all, the boat is tiny, and we are talking the Atlantic here. As with the Jason and Ulysses stories, Severin is interested to see whether their journey can match up some of the odder, more mythical aspects of the Brendan story, and in many instances I think he makes a fair case. There is no doubt that the achievements of that little boat are remarkable – and show what could have been done by an even more experienced crew, back in the day.
Last year, I got to fulfil one of my longest-held, quite esoteric, dreams.
I got to visit Sutton Hoo.
I have been fascinated by this place for longer than I can remember. It’s the site of a ship burial and other grave mounds from the Anglo-Saxon period, and the origin of some of the most beautiful archaeological pieces dug up in England. Every time I’ve been to England I’ve wanted to visit, and it’s just never worked out. But this time – this time I made it work.
Making it work wasn’t easy. We had to catch two trains – one from Cambridge to Ipswich, and then another to Melton, the closest station. Except on the day we were travelling, our train to Ipswich was cancelled, so we caught a train to Ely in order to get a different train going to Ipswich. Ely is in the completely opposite direction from Melton. All of this took a bit over 2 hours.
Notice I said “we”. For reasons that are still beyond my ken, my friend living in Cambridge decided to accompany me, as did her somewhat-bemused husband whom I had known for exactly seven minutes at this point.
From the Melton station it’s about a half-hour walk to Sutton Hoo. Through a village, and then along a main road with dubious pedestrian access. But then… oh, then.
You see this, a replica of the ship that was buried. And you see the visitor’s centre with its replicas of the great treasures – all of which are now in the British Museum, because the original owner of the property made them a gift; which means I’ve seen the helmet and the shield and every else a number of times. But now I was actually there, where they were found. It’s fair to say my friends thought I was a bit off my nut.
Usually, I understand, visitors get to go up an observation tower, to see the grave mounds from on high. But this was unavailable on the day we visited. Instead, we got to walk amongst the grave mounds themselves – something that is usually not allowed, and won’t be allowed again. So that was remarkable. The whole setting is remarkable, and glorious. And I finally got there.
All of this came back to mind when I watched The Dig on Netflix. I was astonished, to be honest, that the story of an archaeological dig got made into a film with relatively big names – Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan – and has had a fair bit of press. Maybe here in Australia I don’t appreciate that the British public actually does know about the finds there? I also didn’t know there was a novel about it, which is the source material for the film. They couldn’t film at Sutton Hoo – it’s open all year – but it certainly felt to me that they recreated the area well. And I know that aspects are dramatised; much of the personal friction is narrative rather than history. But the fact that they showed archaeologists being meticulous – no Indys here – and the excitement about tiny pieces of iron or gold was just wonderful. The entire film, in fact, is beautifully made. And the story, too – a meditation on death and the place of humans in history and the cosmos (the Fiennes character, Basil Brown, is also an amateur astronomer… well, “amateur”; he wrote about astronomical maps and atlases). The events are very consciously placed in the eve of WW2 – there’s constant reference to war coming, men being called up, and so on – which adds that extra layer of immediacy, needing to get on with things, and also of extraordinary events occurring: the find, and the war. Plus the illness of Edith Pretty, instigator of the whole dig.
Highly, highly recommended as a film. And if you are in, or can get to, England – go visit Sutton Hoo.
I have loved every book of the Wayward Children series to date. Some more (Down Among the Sticks and Bones), some a bit less (In An Absent Dream), but all together they’re just… a marvellous addition to my literary world.
Across the Green Grass Fields continues this. It’s not what I expected: it’s a standalone story, certainly fitting into the overall idea of the series but not into the narrative structure – there are no familiar characters or settings, although I hope they will recur. So that was a surprise, but also I shouldn’t have been that surprised at McGuire doing something different. It also means that a reader who hasn’t come across the series before can read it with no hesitation.
As a girl, I was convinced that the girl-world was largely divided between the horse-girls and the dolphin-girls. Neither was necessarily better, but it felt like they were distinct groups. (I was a dolphin-girl. Ask me how bitter I was to discover that marine biologists spend most of their time looking at plankton, not swimming with cetaceans.) Regan Lewis is a horse-girl, through and through. She loves horses more than she likes most people. She’s happy when she’s with them. Which is good, because like many girls she has to deal with unhappiness when she’s around so-called friends.
Reading that part of the story was a bit uncomfortable. I didn’t experience the total drama and tragedy that Regan does, but aspects were definitely familiar from my childhood, and I’m not at all interested in going back there thankyouverymuch. Anyone who says your school days are the best days is a liar or has a very bad memory. Or possibly a very lucky boy.
This is a Wayward Children story. I knew Regan would eventually find herself confronted with a door, and she would go through that door, and there would be an astonishing world on the other side. Given Regan’s passions, it’s unsurprising that her world is the Hooflands. Every mythological creature you can think of with variations of hooves: they live there. And everyone in Hooflands knows what humans are for…
One of the things that always makes McGuire’s writing powerful is the way she writes about “diverse characters”, and look I feel stupid even pointing to this because it should just be obvious that people with a variety of genders/ physical appearances/ sexualities/ etc etc etc should be represented in fiction, and presented as humans, but of course that’s still not the case. So knowing that McGuire does do that, and treats all of her protagonists the same, is refreshing.
This was not quite what I was expecting – I hadn’t realised it would be so standalone. I might have been a little less eager had I known that, to be honest. But it’s still a Wayward Children story: it’s beautifully written, it’s an engaging narrative, and the characters are ones I want to keep coming back to.
I am accustomed to not being completely up to date, but some might say this is ridiculous…
The only Star Trek I have watched in full is Star Trek: Discovery. (I’ve also seen all of the movies, though.) This isn’t for any specific reason; The Next Generation was on tv too late when it was first on, and I don’t even remember DS9 or Enterprise being on tv. The original series was also not accessible on tv, as far as I can recall, when I was a kid. I think Voyager must have been on tv but looking at the dates, I can see it was the end of high school and then uni for me – and most of that time I didn’t have access to a tv that I could watch whenever I liked.
Anyway. Here we are. I now have Netflix, and time when I want to knit and therefore watch something undemanding, so… Voyager it is. I’ve just finished season 2.
Janeway: I mean. Of course. I didn’t know she was a science officer! That’s so cool. I love that she likes going down to Engineering and still getting into the science. I love that she is complicated and sometimes makes decisions I don’t approve of. Her hairstyle is outrageous and must take ages to do every morning. I love that eye-roll every time the Kazon make disparaging remarks about women. And I love that no one on the ship ever questions that a woman can be captain. I remain unconvinced about her choice of sleepwear.
Chakotay: one of the aspects that is sometimes good, and sometimes cringeworthy, is the way Chakotay is treated. I love that he is of Native American heritage, that he embraces that heritage – and that he is shown to have had difficulty with it as a child – and that no one ever has an issue with it. I don’t love that his heritage is exoticised more than anyone else’s background is (no comments about being part human, part Klingon, for Torres); I am uncomfortable about some of the things that seem stereotypical to my eyes (but I’m Australian, so maybe I just don’t know enough?). I did love the moment that Chakotay thinks Tuvok is giving him a bow and arrow and is acerbic about his people never having used them (and then Tuvok shows that he’s Tuvok and says the bow is for himself…). ANYWAY: I love Chakotay. A lot. I love his calm, I love his humanity and generosity, pretty much everything.
Paris: urgh. Just like another Paris I could mention. Has had a few redeeming moments, I guess, but I do not love this character. I’m told this is a common attitude. And apparently he gets better? We’ll see.
Neelix: as for Paris, although possibly more annoying. I’m prepared to put up with him since it means we get Kes.
Tuvok: I really like Tuvok. I assumed I would since I’ve liked basically every Vulcan I’ve come across (yes, even Sarek, in a stay-over-there, I’ll-just-watch kinda way). Tuvok’s complexities are a delight, and I always enjoy the calm manner in which he smacks all the emotionally crazed beings down. When I first saw the episode name ‘Tuvik’ I was dreading it, because I assumed that the combination of Neelix and Tuvok would be played as a farce… instead it turned out to be one of the most complex and thoughtful episodes to date. I choose to think that’s mostly because of Tuvok.
Kes: sometimes a bit too on the sappy end for me, but overall – what a delight. Calm, thoughtful, generous; I like when she gets a real storyline but I’m happy whenever she turns up, even simply as the Doctor’s adjunct.
The Doctor: his attitude still annoys me but as a stereotype of a physician, you have to admit that it’s accurate. I have been fascinated by the way his personality has been allowed to develop as he’s been compelled to interact with people far more than his programming ever intended.
B’Elana Torres: another of my favourites. Not least because her engineering talk with Janeway allows some episodes to pass the Bechdel test, which is always a pleasure. Another complex character who gets to be competent, honest, thoughtful… the episode where the human and Klingon aspects were divided was fascinating.
Harry: not my favourite character, but not for any specific reason. He’s had some great narratives, and I do enjoy his ingenuity. I also appreciate the diversity his presence brings to the bridge, and the humour. Sometimes he even manages to tone down Paris. Not often, though.
I found this book in a secondhand shop, in the travel writing section, when I was well in the mood for reading travel narratives. I figured a travel book that also discussed ancient history and mythology would be right up my alley. Unfortunately, the shop and the blurb are both a bit misleading: while Slattery does include some travel as part of the book, this is much more about having adventures in reading and thinking about ‘the ancient world’ rather than the travel itself. So that was one disappointment.
Overall, I think I mostly enjoyed the book. As that statement suggests, I am ambivalent – was while reading, still am. On the one hand, the cover irks me. It’s so … unnecessary. I assume part of the point is to make the mythology and history seem more real, vibrant, and let’s face it alluring, than might otherwise be supposed. But the original sculptor was already all about the male gaze and sexualising the statue; adding the tan lines feels gratuitous. And then there’s the fact that half her face is chopped off! There’s also the fact that Slattery’s whole purpose is to extol the benefits of reading ‘the classics’ and that access to such things should be available to all (in opposition to the old English-style curriculum where only toffy boys got access to Latin and Ancient Greek). In theory I have no problem with teaching about Stoicism and so on. But the problem starts when you then move further along that line and suggest it’s the only history worth knowing. Slattery doesn’t do that, but it’s a not hard to take his arguments and get to that point. It is, of course, largely male-dominated… unless you’re talking about Aphrodite, or throw in a brief reference to Sappho or Penelope.
I did not, though, hate the book. There were some really interesting bits! I liked the discussion of Apollo and Delphi and Pythia and Dionysus – although I feel Slattery missed an opportunity in not discussing the possible origins of Apollo and Dionysus, given Apollo is thought to have originated as an Eastern god, and Dionysus as more solidly home-grown ‘Greek’ (for all the problems with that word in the ancient world). The chapter about Ithaca was probably my favourite because it conformed most to what I was expecting, and wanting at the time: Slattery on Ithaca itself, and musing on The Odyssey, and the archaeological evidence for Odysseus on Ithaca, and how modern inhabitants feel about it.
I feel that this book probably only works for someone with at least some basic knowledge of Greek myth – although maybe I’m wrong, and Slattery explains things well enough for the complete novice. My knowledge of Stoicism and Epicurean ideas has never been that thorough and he does explain those in a way that I could understand.
As well, the book’s only 15 years old but I’m just not sure that it would get published today – in fact I was surprised to see that it came out in 2005, because it felt… older. And I think the lack of women has a lot to do with that. Plus, Slattery makes a case that the ancient Greek world had many things we value today – religious tolerance, being cosmopolitan, what he calls “Homeric impartiality” (the fact Hektor is the greatest hero in The Iliad despite not being Greek, and I am completely unconvinced about this demonstrating impartiality). Therefore, “we” can learn from the classics. I am unconvinced, even after reading the book, that that’s true. Partly because of the completely different contexts, and partly for vaguer feelings that this logic just doesn’t quite follow.
I have no idea why I bought this book, or when. I assume that I thought it was mostly about Lenin, and how he got to the point in April 1917 that he arrived at the Finland Station in Petrograd and revved up the Bolsheviks to commit further revolution.
It does have that. But a lot of the book is about the development of revolutionary sentiment more broadly in Europe in the 19th century… or the consequences of revolution… actually, thinking back, it’s a bit confused. And apparently it’s a great classic, which… I am unconvinced by. Maybe I’m out of the appropriate context to really appreciate it.
Turns out the book was written in 1940, which is all sorts of interesting given that it’s by an American, during World War 2 (although before American involvement), and before the Cold War. This date also means the style is not quite what I am used to, and therefore not always enjoyable or easy to read. And there are some seriously cringeworthy aspects too, like Wilson’s insistence on attributing certain things to a stereotyped national character, in both appearance and personality. And the worst times he does this are in relation to Jewish people – Marx, and Trotsky. I found it deeply distasteful; I can’t imagine what it would be like as, you know, a Jewish reader. (Well, I can; if you are Jewish, probably don’t read this.)
The first part of the book focuses on some French authors, the only one of whom I’ve heard of is Michelet. It examines their attitudes towards the French Revolution and suggests the ways that the 19th century changes how many French regarded their first revolution. I’m really not sure what the whole point of this section was, in retrospect. It was interesting to learn that attitudes changed, but I don’t really see how this led to the development of socialism. This development is the focus of the middle half, and was genuinely interesting – I think socialism is one of the most interesting of political ideologies and the different ways people have thought about it and considered its real-world application is fascinating. There is, of course, a significant amount of space devoted to Marx and Engels. I actually knew very little about the two men and their working relationship so that aspect was revelatory – Engels compelled to work as a bourgeois manager basically to support Marx! Marx a deeply unpleasant fellow (this does not surprise me)! I started getting my hopes up that Wilson wold give me a good overview of Marx&Engels’ communism; and while I do now understand the issue of dialectic materialism (… well, ish), without a more thorough grounding in Hegel I’m still in the dark about some of the finer points. As are most people, I think. Possibly including Marx.
The final section of the book is about Lenin and Trotsky (Ulyanov and Bronstein). I don’t know too much about the early lives of the men, so that biographical aspect was again quite interesting. Wilson was surprisingly favourable towards Lenin – the introduction to the book makes excuses for this, pointing out Wilson’s lack of access to sources given when he was writing, and providing some examples of Lenin being a right horror, as balance. I did not, in the end, feel like I got much more of a grasp of Lenin and Trotsky’s politics, which is interesting to reflect on.
I think I’m ok with having read this, having already read a lot around both the French and Russian Revolutions. I won’t be recommending it to anyone, though, except for historical reasons – that is, understanding what someone in 1940 thought about it all.