Pere Goriot is one of the masterpieces of European literature. It is about an old man, Pere Goriot, and his two selfish daughters, Anastasie and Delphine. Both has used his fortune as a springboard to marry into the aristocracy and milch him dry in the process. The story is seen through the eyes of Rastignac, a young student, who forms an attachment with Delphine. That is all that I am going to tell you about the plot, because you should read the book for yourselves.
There are, however, some things that are noticeable. None of the female characters are particularly likeable, and the pursuit of money seems to be a great part of their motivation. That is certainly the case with Anastasie and Delphine and to a lesser extent, in that she has fewer opportunities, of Madame Vauquer, who owns the boarding house where Goriot and Rastignac live. It has to be said that the men are not particularly likeable either, although the reader does feel sympathy for Goriot and Rastignac. This reflects Balzac’s view of Parisian society post-Waterloo. To say that Balzac was not enamoured of it does not really indicate the sheer scale of his dislike.
Another interesting character is Vautrin, another lodger at Madame Vauquer’s house. He is undoubtedly a villain, and has a habit of taking handsome young men as his protégé and, indeed, was prepared to go to prison so that one of his proteges could escape such a fate. Balzac does not use the word homosexual but it is the clear inference from the storyline. Such things, of course, could only be hinted at in a nineteenth century novel, and only obliquely at that, because the novel-buying public would have been appalled, and it would have been a scandal. It is interesting to see how things have changed since Balzac was writing.
I am not going to say anything more. Balzac does not need me to promote him. If you have not read this novel, then you should. It is as simple as that.
Norman Davies has produced a book that forces us to think about how we think about history. It is lived forwards. We can make guesses about what is going to happen, we can surmise, we can predict, but we do not know. When we study history, however, we look backwards at things that have already happened and we try to make sense of them. Our first mistake is to assume that was has happened was inevitable, and this is not the case. It is possible that William the Conqueror could have lost the Battle of Hastings. What we know is that he did not. That is the case with all historical events, and that is the argument that Davies sets out in this book.
It was not inevitable that any of the kingdoms mentioned in this book had to vanish. The fact is that they did. All the kingdoms that Davies mentions are European, and many of them are from eastern Europe. This is because Davies has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of eastern Europe, as is evidenced by his other publications. It would be perfectly possible to write this kind of book about the pre-Columbian kingdoms of the Americas or the pre-colonial kingdoms of Africa or anywhere else that you care to mention. Davies wrote this book about the vanished kingdoms of Europe because that is the area where he has detailed knowledge.
The kingdoms that he has chosen are Tolosa, Alt Clud, Burgundia, Aragon, Litva, Byzantion, Borussia, Sabaudia, Galicia, Etruria, Rosenau, Tsernagora, Rusyn, Eire and the CCCP. Two of these are, in my view, cheating. Rosenau is the name of a palace and the CCCP was never a kingdom. If the names, however, are modernised it becomes possible to identify where these places are in modern Europe. They are Toulouse, Dumbarton, Burgundy, Aragon, Lithuania, Istanbul, Prussia, Savoy, Galicia, Tuscany, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Montevideo, Ruthenia, Ireland and the Soviet Union.
Be honest. Did you know that there were Welsh speaking kingdoms in Southern Scotland and that Edinburgh is an Anglicised version of the Fortress in the Gorse Bushes (Dineiddyn)? All you have to do is look at Castle Rock and there are still gorse bushes in abundance. Did you know that there was a Habsburg Kingdom of Galicia annexed from the lands of Poland-Lithuania by the Empress Maria Theresa and her son, the Emperor Joseph? Did you know that the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were united under the same dynasty?
Indeed, the whole Habsburg conglomerate of lands came about because of the untimely deaths of members of various royal families, leaving the Emperor Charles V and his brother the Emperor Ferdinand I as heirs to much of Europe. If Elizabeth I had had children, James VI of Scotland would not have become James I of England. It was the chance of royal marriages, and royal deaths, that united Spanish Galicia with Leon and Leon with Castile and Castile with Aragon. It was equal luck that had united Aragon previously with Catalonia, and then with the Balearics.
Tolosa would have survived if the war against Clovis, King of the Franks, had been won. That is true of many of the kingdoms that Davies discusses. If they had not lost battles and wars, the history of Europe would have been different. The point that Davies is making is that all states, all nations are human constructs and that, like humans, they are mortal. Many civilisations have outlived the states from which they originated. The Roman empire has gone. T’ang China is no more. The Achaemenid Great Kings of Persia have been replaced by the ayatollahs of modern Iran. There is no Aztec Empire, no Inca Empire, no Spanish Empire. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland which came into place in 1801 no longer exists. It is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Given what is happening with Brexit, who knows how long that will last?
That is the point. There is no state, no nation that is immortal. It is an important argument, a salutary lesson, and it is one that we all need to consider. This is a very long book, but well worth reading.
This is both a disturbing and a life-affirming book. It begins with the murder of Neil Aggett, a white doctor and trade unionist, by the apartheid security police. There is no other way to describe what happened. Neil Aggett was beaten and beaten badly and was found one morning hanging in his cell. And then it switches to the story of a typical white family in South Africa, not particularly radical, who, by force of circumstances, find themselves in conflict with the apartheid state.
The story then turns to that of an ordinary white South African family, living a comfortable life in the white suburbs. Except that they are different. The father believes in being polite to black people. He is a rising executive in Eskom, the South African electricity supplier, and he has a vision of electricity transforming lives and therefore the country. The wife is very loyal, supporting her husband in his job, and getting involved in charitable work, which eventually leads to her visiting the townships. But the defining experience is that of the son, the author of this book, who is growing up throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s and who is afraid of being conscripted into the army. As he grows older, he becomes more and more determined not to go into the army. This leads to family confrontations, with his parents hoping that he will see the error of his ways. His sister is supportive of him, but is not under direct threat of conscription herself, because she is a woman.
The background to all this is the Sharpeville Massacre, the banning of the ANC and other political organisations, the arrest of Mandela followed by the Rivonia Trial and the crackdown by the South African security apparatus. It does not work. White teenagers have to be conscripted because troops are needed to fight a war on “the borders”. Then, of course, the children of Soweto rose in rebellion on 16th June 1976, and South Africa was not at peace again until the overthrow of apartheid, when the first democratic elections took place on 27th April 1994.
This is the story of how one white family was traumatised by apartheid. It is the story of how a son became involved in white student politics, which led to him knowing of people like Barbara Hogan, Neil Aggett, Auret van Heerden and Liz Floyd, who were detained by the security police and tortured. It is the story of a mother who set up an old people’s home in Alexandra township. It is the story of a daughter who left the country because she could no longer live there, and it is the story of a father who planned to bring electricity to the townships, bringing himself to the attention of the security police.
It is a story in which black people are marginal, but that was typical of white South Africa under apartheid. This book is a true reflection of that society.
There are errors. I doubt that Frelimo, the liberation movement for Mozambique, ever planted landmines in the Caprivi Strip in modern Namibia. Mozambique borders the Indian Ocean and the Caprivi Strip is 900 kilometres away in a country that borders the Atlantic Ocean. It was Sidney Kentridge, not Stanley, who represented the Biko family at Steve Biko’s inquest. That error is only made once, but it is jarring. The Woods family did not fly to Luanda in Angola from Lesotho, they flew to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. I know this because I have held the book signed by Kenneth Kaunda given to Donald Woods at a reception in State House in Lusaka. It is now one of the prize possessions of the Donald Woods Foundation Library in Hobeni, Eastern Cape, South Africa, which I catalogued in 2014.
These are irritating because I cannot imagine that they were mistakes made by the author. But they do not detract from what the book has to tell us about apartheid South Africa. If you want to understand the mentality of white South Africans under apartheid, this is a book to read.
Why am I reviewing a book that was first written down over a thousand years ago, and the stories contained in it are much older than that. It is the source of the Arthurian Romances of European literature. It has inspired authors from Chretien de Troyes and Thomas Malory, through to “The Idylls of the King” by Alfred Lord Tennyson and modern authors such as Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and JRR Tolkien. It is poetic and lyrical, full of adventures, of monsters, witches and necromancers, heroes and villains, and all that you would expect in stories that are a metaphor for life and death.
It was first translated from the Welsh by Lady Charlotte Guest in the nineteenth century, and various translations have been available ever since. This is the Oxford World Classics translation by Sioned Davies and, as far as I can tell, it is excellent.
There is one point that I have to make. You do not have to be able to pronounce the title, the names or the place-names mentioned in this book. I can hear Cymricists throughout the world howling in displeasure at this assertion. But you are reading this book, not reciting it and so the correct pronunciation does not matter. Yes, you will lose some of the beauty of the language, but what does it matter if you cannot pronounce Bendigaidfran (Bend-ee-guide-vran)? There will be one area of enormous difficulty – the name list in Culhwch and Olwen, but you could even ski that as, if you are not a Welsh speaker, you have very little hope of achieving the correct sonorous pronunciation.
So, what are these stories about? They are the tales of heroes. There is the story of the meeting of Pwyll with the King of the Otherworld, and how this leads to his meeting and marriage to Rhiannon and the birth of their son, Pryderi. There is the story of Bendigaidfran’s invasion and return from Ireland, and of how his head comes to be buried in London for the protection of the Island of the Mighty (Ynys Prydein). There is the story of the enchantment of Pryderi and his mother, Rhiannon, and how they are released. There is the story of how Gwydion gains a wife, Blodeuedd, for Lleu Llaw Gyffes, despite the curse of Gwydion’s sister, Aranrhod, which results in the tragedy that is the basis of Alan Garner’s “The Owl Service”. And so, it goes on with the seven subsequent stories, which are about Arthur, his knights and his court.
These are magnificent stories and this is a very readable translation. The fact that they were originally written in one of the less well-known European languages is no reason to deprive yourself of the richness of these stories. Wallow in them and enjoy them.
This book has been sitting in my “To Read” pile for some time and, I am ashamed to say, that it was the recent death of the author that prompted me to tread it. That is a shame because it is an excellent book.
It is about Skaaha, the Gaelic, possibly Pictish, woman warrior of Irish mythology. I should explain immediately that the spellings used by Janet Paisley are anglicised to help her readers to be able to pronounce the names and the Gaelic spelling, as written down by Irish monks a thousand years after the possible events is Sgathach or Scathach. Her sister’s name, Eefay is really spelled Aoife, and the same applies to many of the names of the other characters in the book. The only name that we know to be real is Cartimandua, but that is a Latinised version of a Celtic, possibly proto-Welsh, name. There is no evidence that Skaaha actually existed apart from the mythological poems of the Ulster Cycle But that is the case with all pre-Roman Celtic societies. Celtic society was not literate. It did not produce written records.
But this does not matter. This is not a history. It is a work of literary imagination, a story, a prose poem, an entertainment. It is something in which we know that the Celts excelled. Their enemies, the Romans, tell us this. Also, there is the evidence that two of the greatest Latin stylists, Virgil and Livy, came from Gallia Cisalpina, the Celtic lands along the Po Valley, south of the Alps. We do not necessarily have to believe everything that the Romans allege about Celtic drunkenness and licentiousness, as this was the Roman excuse for conquest, bringing “civilisation” to savages. It is, however, reasonable to assume that they had a totally different culture to that of the Romans.
This is the basis from which Janet Paisley starts. She creates a wholly believable culture in which women could be warriors or blacksmiths, in which they shared husbands, in which marriage was not for life, and in which women were held in high repute. We know this because Cartimandua was the Queen-Regnant of the Brigantes at the time of the Roman invasion, and Tacitus tell us that it was the public whipping of Queen Boudicca of the Iceni, and the rape of her daughters that led to the revolt that nearly drove the Romans from Britain. Although this is not a history, it does use what historical evidence is available to make sure that the story is believable.
And what a story it is. It is straightforward adventure thriller. Will Skaaha and Eefay survive the machinations of the villainous Queen Mara? Will the chief Druid, Suli, an old blind woman be able to guide Skaaha through the perils surrounding her? Will Skaaha sleep with Ruan the Druid or Fion the warrior? Or both? Will the enemy raids along the coast be successful? Or will Skaaha fight them off? It is an exciting tale, and you do care about what happens to the protagonists.
But it is also a tale about Celtic mythology, about the celebration of the great festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasa (spelled Lunasa in the book) and Samhain (spelled Sowen). Of course, we have no idea how these festivals were celebrated. We can guess that Beltane was a fire festival because “tan” means fire in Welsh and we know the times of year at which they were celebrated. Indeed, we still celebrate May Day (Beltane), Lughnasa (Lammas), Samhain (Hallowe’en) and Imbolc (Winter Solstice) to this day. We do not know what happened even though the Romans tell us that they got drunk and had sex. Janet Paisley creates a believable spirituality for these festivals. That, in itself, is remarkable.
I do have some quibbles. In one scene, an eagle catches a rabbit in its claws. A hare would be plausible, but a rabbit in pre-Roman Britain is simply inaccurate. There are arguments about whether it was the Romans who introduced rabbits to Britain after the conquest of 43AD or the Normans after 1066, but it does not matter. There were no rabbits in Britain at the time that the story is set.
My other quibble is that Janet Paisley says, in the Author’s Note, at the end of the book that these islands were called Alba (Scotland) or Albion (England). She ignores the Welsh word Prydein completely although this is clearly the word from which the Romans derived the name of their province, Britannia. As a Welshman, I find it rather tiresome and annoying to be written out of our history, our shared history, in this way. There is clear evidence that Welsh was spoken in Scotland. Place names using the word Aber (confluence) give it away, as in Aberdeen, Aberfeldy, Aberlour and Abertay, give that away. So does the use of the word Strath for valley. The Welsh word is Ystrad, and refers to a wide valley.
None of this distracts from the sheer pleasure of reading this book, and that is exactly what you should do.
If anyone is going to write a novel based on the South African security services during apartheid and since the first democratic elections in 1994, Barry Gilder is a very good candidate. He spent years working for the ANC Intelligence services, and then in the amalgamated intelligence service of the newly-elected Government of National Unity under President Mandela. This is a man who knows what he is talking about. And he is very clear in his Author’s Note: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.”
This is true. The whole story is based on a premise, a rumour which, as far as I am aware has never been proved. It is said that President Nelson Mandela was given a list, by the National Intelligence Service (the South African equivalent of MI5) naming all the apartheid agents in the ANC. It is also alleged that President Mandela was so magnanimous that he did nothing with the list, if it existed. If this is true, it would be for the very good reason that the source was tainted and that none of the information could be trusted. The list, if it exists, would have been written with the intention of sowing distrust and destroying reputations.
It is also true that the “Sunset Clauses” left dedicated supporters of apartheid in post, and in roles where they could do damage. There is no doubt in my mind, as a long-standing anti-apartheid campaigner who has visited South African many times since the ANC Solidarity Conference in 1993, that this has been happening. One of the key chapters in the book, Chapter 25, describes Mandela arriving at the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg to acknowledge the ANC Victory in the first democratic election in South African history. He talked about the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP)and was quite clear that no-one could participate in the Government of National Unity if they were opposed to that plan. I remember this very well. I was there. It was a very sobering moment. That very evening, I had been arguing with ANC friends that they would have to defend the RDP because it was all that they had got, and that it would be attacked from the very outset. It was. The attack came from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and the RDP was watered down to the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) plan, and that also proved too radical.
So, the premise of this book is that old, retired, loyal ANC members from the Intelligence Services are asked to investigate the existence of the List, and come across some terrifying information about how the tentacles of the apartheid state have reached into the new democratic regime.
The story is carried along by the sympathetic characters that we meet and, indeed, it is supposed to be written by Jerry Whitehead, an ANC intelligence officer who rose to be Deputy Director General of the post-apartheid intelligence service. I am tempted to imagine this Jerry Whitehead as the Barry Gilder character, if only for his intimate knowledge of Kilburn, but the caveats of the author, quoted above, have to be born in mind. It would be wrong to seek to identify each character with a real person, and given the denouement we can only hope that this is not the case.
This is a story that will have chills running up and down your spine. Gilder shows how easy it is to entrap someone, to corrupt them. There is a chilling scene where Gilder shows the apartheid security police relaxing at a braai (barbecue) and I know that the attitudes of white South African right-wings males have not changed. I have sat through braais like that. Gilder shows that the British security police were keeping a watchful eye, both to ensure that nothing untoward happened and to collaborate with their anti-communist allies in the South African security. He shows that agents in the National Intelligence Service were planning for change because it was obvious that apartheid was unsustainable. The system had to go but white privilege had to be maintained. This is what is at the heart of the planning by Otto Becker, in the book. And I am sure that it was at the heart of the planning of many white South African bureaucrats in the years of transition from the mid-1980s to the years following the 1994 elections.
Whilst this is a novel, it dissects a frightening truth. This is a truly disturbing story.
I have one quibble. Salusbury Road in Kilburn is not mis-spelled. It is not named after Salisbury, but rather after the Salusbury family, Welsh gentry who were cousins by marriage of Elizabeth Tudor. Katheryn, Lady Salusbury, was the daughter of Sir Roland Velville, the only illegitimate child of Henry VII. She was the richest heiress in Wales and her money was used to acquire lands in, I believe, Kilburn. This matters because it is the kind of mistake that an intelligence officer should not make. The assumption about the mis-spelling however is that of Jerry Whitehead not Barry Gilder.
This is an extraordinary book, a revelation. Please God, do not let it come true.