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review 2018-07-22 23:11
E.M. Forster: A New Life
E.M. Forster: A New Life - Wendy Moffat

Before judging my reading experience of this book based on my star rating, let me say this:

 

This was not a bad book and there are aspects of this biography that provide a valuable insight into Forster's life and work. However, this biography really follows Forster's life from one angle only, depending on what you expect from a biography, mileage on this may vary.

 

Moffat starts the book with an explanation of her approach, which in turn is based on something Christopher Isherwood said when looking at a stack of biographies about Forster:

"Of course all those books have got to be re-written," he said. "Unless you start with the fact that he was homosexual, nothing's any good."

That is, Moffat is quoting from an Isherwood biography by John Lehmann here, and whether this is a true account or was written as a dramatic embellishment, I could not say. 

It does, however, go straight to the heart of Moffat's biography ... and also to one of the criticisms I have.

 

Moffat does an excellent job presenting Forster in the context of his sexuality, or more precisely his initial struggles with it and the immense pressure he felt of not being able to live openly for fear of persecution and, indeed, prosecution. Being a young man at the start of the 20th century, Forster would have only been too aware of the trials of Oscar Wilde and would himself witness the arrest of friends and acquaintances over the decades. 

 

His resentment over not being able to tell the stories he really wanted to tell and over having to work within the expectations of societal conventions lead to Forster stopping to write major works of fiction after A Passage to India (1924). That is, he did write another major novel, Maurice, but insisted that it should not be published until after his death as the story tells of the relationship between two men and he feared the repercussions. (Btw, Maurice apparently includes a game-keeper scene that may have inspired D.H. Lawrence - one of the few people who were aware of the manuscript - to mock it in Lady Chatterley's Lover)   

 

Moffat explores Forster's diaries - including his "locked" diaries, which he also only allowed access after his death - in detail and we do get a clear picture of the anxieties and of the passions Forster had, and Moffat does well to connect Forster's diary entries with the lives of his friends, peers, and with perception of homosexuality in society through the decades. 

 

However, this is also the main point where this book fell down for me. Moffat goes into a lot of detail. Salacious detail. Lots and lots of it. At times, I felt like whole chapters were focusing about who bedded whom more so than Forster's life and work. Rather than developing an argument, it felt like some of the descriptions merely served to provide a sensationalist hook. 

 

I really should have liked this more than I did, but the meandering descriptions of relationships (not just Forster's but also of his friends and acquaintances) made me skim over quite a few paragraphs. There was little point to most of them.

 

The other criticism I have is with Moffat's writing style. It did not work for me. Her narrative sounded dramatised in a way that made the book read more like fiction than non-fiction and some of the descriptions, as a result of the narrations, did not sound factual even tho they may have been. This was not helped by the way that references were not clearly marked in the text. They were there, of course, but I should not have to check the reference section in the book to see if a certain line on a page is actually backed up with a source of research. 

 

All in all, this was interesting, but I would not recommend the book without some hesitation.

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text 2018-07-20 23:07
Back to the Forster Project
Morgan: A Biography of E. M. Forster - Nicola Beauman
E.M. Forster: A New Life - Wendy Moffat
A Passage To India - E.M. Forster

It's been a while since I finished The Longest Journey (still need to write a review) and now that tennis plans are on ice for a bit (because of a pulled muscle) and that work has, not slowed down, but has at least moved past the frantic phase, I feel might get the right time and head-space again to enjoy the next read in my Forster project. 

 

I only have two novels left, the short stories, and Aspects of the Novel.

 

But, I have also found two biographies at the library that looked really good:

 

Morgan is the one which I am really excited about because it was written by Nicola Beauman. She's now head of Persephone Books who publish the most marvellous forgotten women writers of the early 20th century. I'm subscribed to their newsletter and it is the only newsletter I actually look forward to receiving. 
So, I can't wait to read what she has to say about Forster. 
 
The other one, by Wendy Moffat, seems to focus more on just one aspect of his life and how it affected his writing. At least, this is what I got from several reviews about the book and which seemed to shelf it under "gender studies" a lot. 

 

So, without further delay, I am off on A Passage to India

 

(Taken on a trip to Simla a few years ago. The book is not set there, but this is what I picture when reading the book.)

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text 2018-07-18 22:10
Reading progress update: I've read 47%.
The Silk Road: A New History - Valerie Hansen

Here we go again, the book stops at around 67% with the rest being notes and references.

 

Do I keep reading and finish the book or do I want to get a good night's sleep?

 

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text 2018-07-08 16:46
The Sunday Post: Macbeth Country, well more of it... sort of.

Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more.

By Sinel’s death I know I am Thane of Glamis;

But how of Cawdor? The Thane of Cawdor lives,

A prosperous gentleman; and to be King

 Stands not within the prospect of belief,

No more than to be Cawdor. Say from whence

You owe this strange intelligence, or why

Upon this blasted heath you stop our way

With such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you.

 

- William Shakespeare - Macbeth (Act I, Scene III)

 

 “I wish the Bard had never written his damned play!

- John Campbell, 5th Earl Cawdor 

It's been a stressful and rather frustrating week at BT HQ last which started with some-Brexit induced admin nightmare, which needed me to seek out the an appointment at Glasgow City Council on Monday because none of the council offices closer to home, i.e. on the other side of the country, were able to offer the required services. This was pretty stressful in itself (had to take a day off work on short notice and nearly panicked when sitting down for getting paperwork checked etc. it looked like I might have misplaced a bit of it ... it did re-appear in a different pile ... but that was one long minute of near panic) but a few days after I received a call from the council officer whose only task in this whole process was to take copies: the copies had turned out blurry and could I "pop in" for another round?

 

Erm, ... no.

 

So, several calls with people on withheld numbers and the local Chief Registrar later, we got another plan of action.

As it turns out, if I had submitted my paperwork a few days later, there would have been no need to trek to Glasgow because my local council will start offering the same admin service on Monday. Monday as in from tomorrow. And by local I mean the council office that is is a 10 minute walk away. But of course this was not announced anywhere least of all on the relevant government websites... GAAAAAHH!!!!

 

Tuesday brought with it a minor surgery - nothing serious, but it needed to be done - which went very well apart from some slight discomfort and the weird experience of asking the consultant to stop telling me in detail what he was about to do. I'm not exaggerating when I tell people that I can't read gory horror stories or thrillers... The descriptions really make me queasy. And as I found out, being at the receiving end of even a minor surgical procedure while being told the descriptions and wherefores of incisions etc. does not make me feel any comfortable at all.

Apparently, my request that the consultant stop the narration and get on with the procedure was unusual and a lot of people want to know the details. Well, each to their own. I now know that I'd rather know the plan step-by-step beforehand but not during.

 

The rest of this week was a bit of a mess really, but not being one for moping about in fine weather (even if I wasn't allowed to play tennis - because sutures...), I figured it was a fine day for exploring a castle that I had not been to, yet.

 

Cawdor Castle, near Nairn in the north of Scotland had been on my list for a long, long time. As some of you may know, I have a bit of a thing for Macbeth - both Shakespeare's version and the historical figure - and one of my other favourite castles to spend time at is Glamis (near Forfar), but I just had not had a chance to make the trip to Cawdor (about 3 hours of leisurely driving in good weather). 

 

It was a fabulous decision. I mean just look at this beauty of a castle:

 

And the inside of it was just so ... let me show you because they had no problems with people taking plenty of photos of the amazing place:

 

 

Just look at them BOOKS! It's a lived in castle. The Dowager Countess does still live there and as one lady-in-a-hurry told me in passing, she does do most of the administration of the castle herself.

 

Also, there was a maze ... with a minotaur. :D

 

 

The castle was built in the late 14th, early 15th century. As the official guide book says:

"A new higher, harder site was chosen (traditionally by a donkey rather than by an architect - creatures with much in common), and as this rocky position was water-bearing yet firm, it could provide both a drinking-well and a strong foundation.

The tall, plain rectangular tower-house consisted of four storeys and a garret, served by a turnpike stair, and with one entrance to the outside world set at upper first floor level: the perfect design to keep out tourists."

So, what's the connection with Shakespeare? 

 

Well, Macbeth (1005 - 1057) was real, but he was not a Thane of Cawdor (nor of Glamis btw.). King Duncan was killed, but he was killed in outright battle by Macbeth's troops, not in his sleep while being a guest under Macbeth's roof. 

 

And as for the roof itself: The play was written in 1606 but not printed until 1632, i.e. after Shakespeare's death. However, the places described in the play were apparently added quite late in the play's publication history. So, can we really know whether the locations in the published versions are the ones Shakespeare intended? 

 

Even if so, Cawdor was not one of them. The play notes Macbeth's castle near Inverness, but this could just as well have meant the original Inverness Castle or another castle in the area - there are several - or it could have just all been invented. After all, it's a play! 

 

Most of all, of course, the possibility of the Cawdor Castle being the location of that gruesome midnight murder that lost King Duncan his life, Macbeth his sleep, and Lady Macbeth her mind, blows up in a puff of smoke when you look at the dates: the castle wasn't built until the 1400s and the previous castle near Nairn (about 5 miles away) was also built over a hundred years after Kind Duncan's death.  

 

So, I get that the Campbells, the owners of the castle, get a bit touchy every time some fan of the play takes Shakespeare's play as historical fact. There should be space enough in people's heads to hold both versions and people should have the critical thinking skills to be able to make the distinction between fact and fiction. Otherwise, we are letting entertainment and propaganda form our opinions and write our history books. 

 

Oh, hang on, ... that's already happened, ... and is still happening.

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text 2018-07-01 00:02
Reading progress update: I've read 7%.
The Silk Road: A New History - Valerie Hansen

I have only just finished reading the Introduction but I can already say that Hansen's book is far more engaging, focused, and informative than the disappointing tome by Peter Frankopan I read a few weeks ago.

 

This promises to be a good source on the history, geography, and trade along the Silk Roads.

 

Edit: This is an example of the type of information that I was missing in Frankopan's book:

The first written description of the Silk Road trade concerns Zhang Qian (d. 113 BCE), a Chinese envoy from Chang’an to Central Asia in the second century BCE, during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (reigned 140–87 BCE). The emperor hoped that Zhang Qian would persuade the Yuezhi people, living in the Ferghana region of modern-day Uzbekistan, to ally with the Chinese against their common enemy to the north, the Xiongnu tribal confederation, based in modern-day Mongolia.

   The earliest surviving account about Zhang Qian was written at least 150 years after his trip and does not provide many basic facts about his journey, such as his exact itinerary.

   It is clear, though, that Zhang went through Xiongnu territory on his way to the Yuezhi. The Xiongnu imprisoned Zhang, and it took him about ten years to escape. Nonetheless, he still proceeded to visit the Yuezhi. On his return, sometime around 126 BCE, he gave the emperor the first detailed information the Chinese received about the different peoples of Central Asia. Zhang Qian was extremely surprised to discover that Chinese merchants and trade goods had preceded him to Central Asia. In the markets of Bactria, in modern-day northern Afghanistan, Zhang Qian saw bamboo and cloth manufactured in the Chinese province of Sichuan, several thousand miles away. The Chinese goods must have traveled overland.

   After Zhang Qian’s return, the Han dynasty gradually extended its control into the northwest. By the end of the second century BCE it secured the Gansu corridor and Dunhuang. Each time the Chinese army conquered a new region, it constructed beacon towers at fixed intervals. If a disturbance occurred, the soldiers guarding the beacon tower lit torches to alert the men in the next tower, and so on down the line until the news reached the first garrison that could dispatch troops to the troubled area. In addition to the beacon towers, the Han military also established garrisons in the newly conquered territories. Documents in the form of bamboo slips recording army purchases of clothing and grain from the local people have been found at Juyan (Ejina Banner, Inner Mongolia, 90 km northeast ofJinta County, Gansu) and Shule (near Dunhuang and Jiuquan, Gansu).

   The largest cache of early documents from the Silk Road was excavated from just such a Chinese garrison at Xuanquan, located 40 miles (64 kilometers) east of Dunhuang. A square dirt wall, 55 yards (50 meters) on each side, surrounded the complex, which had a stable for horses on its southern edge. Officials traveling on government business were entitled to get fresh mounts at the garrison, which also functioned as a postal station. On the northern and western edges of the enclosure were waste disposal areas; the western garbage pit extended 1.3 yards (1.2 m) underground at its greatest depth. The 2,650 artifacts from the site included coins, farm tools, weapons, iron cart parts, and utensils such as combs and chopsticks, as well as foodstuffs like grain, garlic, walnuts, almonds, and animal bones.

   There are more than 35,000 discarded documents from the Xuanquan site: 23,000 wooden slips with Chinese characters on them, and 12,000 bamboo slips trimmed to size, apparently intended for later use. About two thousand of the slips bear dates between 111 BCE and 107 CE, the years when the garrison was in use.

  The slips are written on wood and bamboo because paper was just spreading to Central Asia at this time. Invented in China during the second century BCE, paper was first used as a wrapping material and not for writing. The official histories record, for example, that in 12 BCE a murderer used poison wrapped in paper. Some of the earliest paper scraps found at Xuanquan, dating to the first century BCE, also bear the names of medicines, confirming the early use of paper as a wrapping material.

  Not until four centuries later, in the second century CE, did paper come into widespread use as writing material in China. It took even longer for paper to replace wood and bamboo as the most common writing material along the Silk Road. Because paper was always expensive, people wrote on other materials like leather and tree bark. The documents at Xuanquan consist mostly of wooden slips tied together to form bunches (much like a placemat made from Popsicle sticks).      The documents from the Xuanquan site include much everyday correspondence among the officials stationed at the Xuanquan postal station and other nearby locations, notices of new edicts issued by the emperor, announcements of runaway prisoners, and private letters. The scribes at Xuanquan distinguished among different types of wood: they reserved higher-quality pine for imperial edicts and used poplar and tamarisk, which warped easily, for routine documents and correspondence.

 

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