Ricochet : word sonnets = sonnets d’un mot

Although the one-word sonnets are defended of being worthy of the name sonnet in the introduction I have some lingering doubts: sonnets have a great many rules, and here there’s only the rule of 14 words, one per line. Perhaps I’m the purist, who thinks that “le terme quatorzain, qui désigne de façon générale tout poème de quatorze vers, conviendrait mieux.” But no matter what you call these haiku-like intensely precise little poems, they’re quite good. The French translation is also outstanding. My favorites are “Sleep” (p. 58), “Substance Abuse” (p. 98) and “Anti-Semitism” (p. 112).

Seymour Mayne, Sabine Huynh (Translator) (2011). Ricochet : word sonnets = sonnets d’un mot. Freely available from http://www.oapen.org/search?identifier=515358.

★★★★

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Magnificent Borderline Puerility: The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is a terrific example of how a bunch of money-obsessed, vacuous, overall completely unsympathetic characters can still combine into an atmospheric, humorous, layered and meaningful piece of writing. Without the always present, borderline puerile ironic undertone this may well have been absolutely terrible. Minor spoilers follow.

Somehow I’d never read The Great Gatsby. Unfortunately it’s constantly and surprisingly ubiquitously referenced, and a few days ago an almost undoubtedly wrong, random Internet comment served as the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was claimed that in Gatsby’s library you could see he didn’t read his books because his bindings were intact. All that tells you is that a person is not an animal. What must’ve evidently been meant is that the pages were uncut, still held together in their signatures. To see an uncut book is a rarity these days, though I find that in my own century-old books often the first few pages remain uncut. In any event, my suspicions were quickly confirmed. Gatsby hadn’t cut his pages, but not a peep about the bindings.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Guy Reynolds (foreword) (2001). The Great Gatsby.

★★★★½

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A Well-Deserved Classic: Van den vos Reynaerde

Van den vos Reynaerde has it all: deception, conflict, sarcasm, violence, (homosexual) innuendo, parody, and black humor. To top it off, it’s even featured on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum — the Papal seal of quality.

Our hero in this epic is Reynaert, a wily fox. Surrounded by nobility and other animals that are lustful, voracious, miserly, and greedy, the basic moral of the story is that you can only be deceived if you’re greedy. The narrator always hints at or even tells you what the result of the next part of the story will be, but it’s all about the how, not the what.

This particular edition is very good. The introduction tells about the various Reynaert stories across Europe, and much more; the text itself seems to have the perfect amount of footnotes to make dictionary use unnecessary, unless you want to know more about the etymology of a word. Generally, though not always, the footnotes call out attention to similar words in e.g. German and English, when clarifying certain words that are no longer in use. The commentary on the text in the back gives much background information on why even seemingly innocent descriptions might carry meaning.

However, I suppose that you might want to try one of the translations into Modern Dutch, even if you’re a native speaker of Dutch, unless Middle Dutch interests you. For that purpose I hope that there’s an edition that puts the original text and the translation side by side.

F. Lulofs (ed.) (2001). Van den Vos Reynaerde.

★★★★★

I originally wrote this review on Goodreads on January 15, 2012.

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Of Horology and Letters

The fashionable thing to do these days would probably be to write a graphic novel based on the epistolary contacts of the Huygens family. Heck, I’d read it. But Lisa Jardine shows that just plain good writing is more than enough to keep you glued to the pages in this page-turner essay collection about archival science. Yes, you read that right, and no, there’s no irony hidden between the lines. Download the open-access book right now (clickety-click) and read chapter 3: “Never Trust a Pirate: Christiaan Huygens’s Longitude Clocks.” You can thank me later.

The first and titular essay is perhaps the worst of the collection, which is not nearly as bad a thing as you might think. Consider, after all, that it was the first essay on which I based my decision to read the rest of the book. A bigger thematic outlier is the final essay, which essentially offers a theoretical framework. This book is a paragon of intimate yet in-depth, meticulously sourced writing. As a bonus you’re given all of the relevant transcriptions in appendices at the end. The only thing which I felt was somewhat lacking, if only in a footnote, was a discussion of the deeper intricacies of the languages used in letter writing. Obviously (courtly) French was in vogue at the time, and I know that you could show off your language skills and appropriate register, but I was still somewhat surprised to see that every quoted intra-familial letter seemed to be in French. To experts I suppose this is so self-evident that it’s not the least bit remarkable. One thing is clear after reading this volume: the North Sea was referred to as the Narrow Sea with reason. England and the Netherlands were closely linked indeed.

Lisa Jardine (2015), Temptation in the Archives. DOI: 10.14324/111.9781910634035.

★★★★½

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Multilingual Gezelle Reception in Gezelle vertaald

As something of a cultural edifice in Belgium and a highly regarded poet in the Netherlands, Guido Gezelle should need little introduction. Yet perhaps Gezelle’s dynamic, melodic lyrical poetry from the 1850s deserves more international recognition for being ahead of its time. Some people even go so far as to disparage literature in Dutch, by saying that “Dutch poetry, whether from Flanders or the Netherlands, has a stronger claim to international appreciation than Dutch-language prose” (source, including a nice selection of some translated poems by a variety of authors). For the relevant time period of the the late nineteenth, early twentieth century they are probably not wrong. I can barely stand many a prose classic written in the period of roughly the 1880s to the 1910s myself, although when you compare it to the tedium of a George Eliot or a Thomas Hardy I’d be hard-pressed to say it’s any worse. The real question is, I suppose, whether Dutch literature of the time has anything as wonderful as Henry James.

The Gezelle vertaald anthology brings together some of Gezelle’s pearls, presented in the original Dutch as well as various translations in the neighboring languages of English, German, French… and Latin. An unfortunate shortcoming of this anthology, certainly for an international audience, is that the rights to the English translations by Christine D’haen and Paul Claes could not be secured, but a sampling of those can be found here. Incidentally, a fairly exhaustive list of translations in other languages can be found here, although unfortunately Flash is required.

Following is a list of some of my favorite translations included in this work. Keep in mind that this is not the same thing as a list of my favorite poems in Dutch.

  • “Message des oiseaux” (Boodschap van de vogels), translated by Liliane Wouters, p. 38.
  • “Besuch am Grab” (Bezoek bij ‘t graf), translated by Wolfgang Cordan, p. 55. Oddly enough, I don’t care for this one in Dutch at all. I’m not sure why it works for me in German, but apparently the perhaps even more than usual overt religiosity is not the problem.
  • “Bien plus vaste que ma vue” (Hooger als mijn oogen dragen), translated by Jan Schepens, p. 59.
  • “Cor tuum si patet” (Als de ziele luistert), translated by H. Vroom, p. 61. Admittedly my knowledge of Latin is rudimentary at best, but in spite of what I perceive as a loss in meaning — which could be mine to blame — I enjoy the interaction between the meter and the sounds.
  • “Un vers courait dans ma prière” (Daar liep een dichtje in mijn gebed), translated by Jan Schepens, p. 62.
  • “Weißt du, wie die Winde werden?” (Weet gij waar de wind geboren), translated by Wolfgang Cordan, p. 63.
  • “Le nid de mésanges” (Het meezennestje), translated by Liliane Wouters, p. 74. The joy and soundplay of the original Dutch is wonderfully captured in the French translation by Liliane Wouters.
  • “Le rossignol” (Waar zit die heldere zanger, dien), translated by Liliane Wouters, p. 98. It’s starting to become apparent that I regard Liliane Wouters’ translations highly.
  • “Schnee” (Wintermuggen), translated by J. Decroos, p. 130. I might slightly prefer the German translation.

Tallying up, I would definitely recommend the translation by Liliane Wouters for speakers of French. I also quite enjoyed the selection of German translations by Jérôme Decroos, even though a few years ago I wasn’t particularly enchanted by his German translations of some of Hadewijch’s work in Niederländische Gedichte aus neun Jahrhunderten (1960, p. 43, 44 [Selections from songs 19 and 22]). In the following bibliography I’ll mark the translations I recommend based on my sampling in bold. All in all I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Johan Van Iseghem (ed.) (2003), Gezelle vertaald: een meertalige bloemlezing.

★★★★

Sources of the mentioned translations

  • Cordan, Wolfgang. Guido Gezelle. Rauschendes Ried. Eine Auswahl von Wolfgang Cordan. Oostende: Erel, 1973.
  • Decroos, J. Guido Gezelle. Ausgewählte Gedichte. Paderborn: Verlag der Bonifacius-Druckerei, 1938.
  • Schepens, Jan. Kleengedichtjes. Guido Gezelle. Petits poèmes, traduits par Jan Schepens. Oostende: Erel, 1973.
  • Vroom, H. Centum Carmina quae composuit Guido Gezelle. Latinus versibus reddidit Dr. H. Vroom. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1967.
  • Wouters, Liliane. Guido Gezelle. Un compagnon pour toutes les saisons. Choix, préface et traductions: Liliane Wouters. Editions Autres Temps & Liliane Wouters, 1999.

Other works mentioned

  • Claes, Paul and Christine D’haen.The Evening and the Rose. Poems translated from the Flemish by by Paul Claes and Christine D’haen, Antwerpen: Guido Gezellegenootschap, 1989. – 115 + [I] p., 22 x 13 cm.
  • Decroos, Jérôme. Niederländische Gedichte aus neun Jahrhunderten, Freiburg: Herder, 1960, 320 pp.

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An O is a Full Circle

Although I wanted to like it, The Circle disappointed me. This novel turns out to be a pastiche, a parody without the bite. The plot of the book is obvious from the onset, or at least within the first twenty pages or so. That may not be a bad thing, but the execution is little to write home about. Hypocritical, unsympathetic, two-dimensional everyman Mae represents someone who, after some initial prompting, completely buys into FaceGoogle — pardon, the Circle’s promise of connection. (The Circle acquired Google, Facebook, and a number of made-up companies, so they’re quite explicitly FaceGoogle++.) Perhaps the attack on the artificial type of connectedness is also the part of this book with the most teeth left: about how the illusion of living through others, through images and videos is just that (no matter how great it might be for those who are home-ridden). But you’d do better to read The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster from 1909 instead.

In spite of all that, the book has some amusing scenes. Near the end, the character with the role of the obnoxious, preachy voice of reason is being pursued by drones. As all the little flying nuisances are shouting about how they just want to be friends, the book ventured into proper satire. Had the book been more like that, showing the hilariously wrong consequences of the utopian proposals, I probably would’ve liked it a lot better. However, in the end there was too much fluff and too little of the good stuff.

Dave Eggers (2013), The Circle.

★★★

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Congolese Negroes: Beautiful But Stupid?

Investigating Belgian Colonial Attitudes through Reactions to the Congolese Village in the 1885 Antwerp World Expo

Thanks to its low-frequency, high-quality content, the newsfeed of the Vlaamse Erfgoedbibliotheek (Flemish Heritage Library) is among my favorite library feeds. Where else are you going to find out about awesome stuff like this newly digitized 19th century book about the 1885 Antwerp Universal Expo? My attention was particularly drawn to the fact that the 1885 expo featured a living Congolese display village.

According to the few paragraphs dedicated to the village, this living exhibition was the first of its kind. Exactly what is meant by that remains unclear, keeping in mind that shows like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West certainly precede it. Several Congolese-style huts were constructed for the Congolese people meant to inhabit the exhibit. Following those introductory words it truly starts to get interesting, with a description of the people.

These Congolese certainly form one of the finest African tribes.

The men are handsome, muscular, and they walk straight and firm; the liveliness of their eyes betrays a very great mental activity; the women, much smaller, have a look of great sweetness, and would have given us a fairly high opinion of negro beauties, if it were not for the supreme elegance of their duck walk.

So far, so good, right? It ends with a tasteless racist joke, but all in all it’s not even half as bad as I was expecting. Unfortunately the next paragraph makes a 180° turnaround.

King Massala, who in his country occupied the functions of chieftain of the tribe (or of the village), had in his numerous retinue an interpreter, Congolese like himself, and very fluent in English. That man, the only one with whom it was possible to talk seriously, possessed a remarkable intelligence: his ease of assimilation was such that he understood at the first explanation the goal and the movement of a machine too complicated for a student of our middle schools.

If all of his compatriots are also as happily gifted as him, it will not be difficult to penetrate their country with the civilization of which we are so proud.

You could say it’s a matter of interpretation. Perhaps this can be read innocuously, but I read it as an expression of wonder at the fact that these people might actually be intelligent. That aside, my curiosity about this particular subject hadn’t yet been satisfied, no matter how interesting as the book as a whole was. This was all they had to say about it? How did the presumably less polished regular press react to Massala? Luckily that question can be answered without even leaving your home. At its simplest you can just toss Massala into the search box over at BelgicaPress.

Pavillon Congolais. Massala et sa suite.

A quick perusal of the results tells us that to be made into a Massala was a cultural reference that any newspaper writer would expect their audience to understand in the 1880s and ’90s. It meant, of course, to be painted black (e.g., Het Handelsblad, 1889-12-17, p. 2 and 1891-03-07, p.1). We also learn of the unfortunate event of Massala’s death in 1895, one of the first negerkoninkskens (little negro kings) to open up his domain to the Assosiation [sic.] internationale, Belgian king Leopold II’s personal exploitation business (Het Handelsblad, 1895-10-25, p.2). Curiously, Massala’s hut from the expo was displayed on the Keyserlei in 1909 for the purpose of colonial week (Het Handelsblad, 1909-06-02, p. 3). But the most interesting article among the bunch that I looked through more or less at random is actually the oldest, from 14 May 1885.

The newspaper opens by saying that one of the group of Congolese answers to the description in a poem by “onze Door” (our Door, popularly known as “den Door”). Theodoor van Rijswijck is a writer who died in 1849, at only thirty-seven years old. He is perhaps best-known for his satirical poems, which served as biting commentaries on the relevant political issues of his day. An example is Santo-Thomas de Guatimala, which deals with a failed Belgian affair in Guatemala. “All who can’t earn their bread in Flanders, because the laws of foreigners hit us so, have the inclination to go to Sint-Thomas.” This refers to an emigration policy to send impoverished Flemish people in that direction, implemented during 1843–1844 by the “foreign”, French-speaking Belgian state. In any case, among all other kinds of ills that might befall you in Guatemala, there is also the local dictator, Carrera.

Ook heerscht daer Carrera, een specie van koning,
Zoo zwart als de satan, zoo naakt als een vorsch;
Die niets dan een suikerkist heeft voor zyn wooning,
Voor rykskroon, een hoed van mahonihout' schors.

Or in an impromptu English translation, where you’ll just have to accept the somewhat awkward second line for the sake of preserving rhyme and meter.

Also there rules Carrera, a species of king,
Black as satan, as a frog naked so stark;
Who has naught but a sugarcase for a dwelling,
For a crown, a hat of mahogany bark.

I imagine that Carrera was called black as Satan because of his many crimes, not because of the color of his skin. But with regard to Massala, Het Handelsblad seems to be of the opinion that inside and outside support each other. “It is him who sold his area to the African Society. In our history we would see him as a kind of traitor; but in the land of little blacks such a sale is not seen as bad, and because it is to our advantage, we find good there what we would find ugly here.” His clothing isn’t up to spec, either.

This Majesty, without pants, is called Massala; he wasn’t wearing any kind of royal cloak when he arrived. On the contrary, he was bundled in old clothing to protect against the cold May weather; but he didn’t lack a certain royal miens. […] Further in his group there are three women, not exactly outstanding in beauty […] and having reached their destination they started smoking like Turks.

[…]

Massala is a well-built guy, whose hair is almost starting to turn gray. […] One of the negroes wore […] a cord around his middle, from which hung a… smoked pipe.

[…]

A peculiarity: the Congo men brought their own fetish, their idol, to protect them in the foreign country. Whether it is a bad or a good god, we do not know. Until now, they’ve been keeping the negroes inside as much as possible; the weather is not favorable to them and they are certainly not fit to stand our climate, just as little as we could stand theirs.

If you want to know more about this subject and then some, there’s a 1993 study available online. It was published in Afrika Focus (Vol. 9, Nr. 3, 1993, pp. 215–237).

Perhaps now you understand why I like books like Anvers et l’Exposition Universelle de 1885. The book itself is of moderate interest, but when you flip through for the pictures and skim the text for interesting tidbits, they provide a marvelous starting point for further explorations of our past.

René Corneli, Pierre Mussely (1886), Anvers et l’Exposition Universelle de 1885.
★★★½

On the Living Congolese Village

Cette exposition, unique en son genre, et dont Anvers a eu la primeur, était organisée sous la direction intelligente du savant général Wouwermans, le sympathique président de la dite Société.

On y a rassemblé tous les produits de l’Etat libre du Congo : des armes, des outils, des instruments de musique et divers échantillons de l’industrie du pays.

Le visiteur sérieux peut y recueillir des renseignements précieux sur la topographie, l’état actuel de la civiliution et les ressources de ces contrées, hier encore barbares, et auxquelles un généreux courant de civilisation ouvre un avenir de travail intelligent et de prospérité.

Quelques huttes congolaises ont été construites à proximité du Sanitarium et servent de cadre au groupe de nègres qui a séjourné à Anvers pendant l’Exposition.

Ces Congolais forment certes une des plus belles tribus africaines.

Les hommes sont beaux, bien musclés, marchant droit et ferme ; la vivacité de l’œil trahit une activité mentale très-grande ; les femmes, beaucoup plus petites, ont le regard d’une grande douceur, et nous donneraient une assez haute idée des beautés nègres, n’était la suprême élégance de leur marche de canard.

Le roi Massala, qui dans son pays occupait les hautes fonctions de chef de tribu (ou de village), comptait dans sa nombreuse suite un interprète, Congolais comme lui, parlant très-couramment l’anglais. Cet homme, le seul avec lequel il fut possible de s‘entretenir sérieusement, était d’une intelligence remarquable : sa facilité
d’assimilation était telle qu’il comprenait, à la première explication, le but et le mouvement d‘une machine assez compliquée pour rebuter un élève de nos écoles moyennes.

Si tous ses compatriotes sont aussi heureusement doués que lui, il ne sera pas difficile de faire pénétrer dans leur pays, la civilisation dont nous sommes si fiers.

Source: René Corneli, Pierre Mussely (1885), Anvers et l’Exposition Universelle de 1885, p. 158.

On Massala and the Congolese

Het is hij die zijne landstreek aan de Afrikaansche Vereeniging heeft verkocht. In onze geschiedenis zou men hem als een soort van verrader aanzien; maar in het land der zwartjes wordt zoo’n verkoop niet kwalijk genomen, en dewijl het ten onzen voordeele is, vinden wij ginder goed wat wij hier al heel leelijk zouden vinden.

Die Majesteit, zonder broek, noemt men Massala; hij had precies geen koninklijken mantel om, toen hij aankwam. Wel integendeel, hij was in vodden en lompen gedraaid om zich te beschermen tegen het koude meiweer; doch het ontbrak hem niet aan eene zekere koninklijke houding. Overigens, Massala heeft reeds veel met blanken omgegaan, en zal hier en daar zoo al iets gezien hebben van europische beschaving.

Verder zijn er in de groep, drie vrouwen, die precies niet uitblinken door schoonheid; deze waren nogal warm ingebakeld, en op hare bestemming gekomen begonnen zij te rooken als Turken. Deze dames, die hier geen fortuin zullen maken, noemt men Zonimbo, Zola — geen familie van den schrijver van Germinal — Zouboudo en juffer Mabotee; verder telt men drie jongens, een meisje en een taalman, Tatee genoemd, die engelsch en portugeesch spreekt en naar europische manier gekleed is.

Massala is een sterk gebouwde kerel, wiens haar zoowat begint grijs te worden. Men zal wel doen die Majesteit en zijne volgelingen, een warm slaaplijf te geven. Een der negers had eene plaid omgeslagen, doch deze deken daargelaten, bestond zijne kleeding in eenige armbanden, eene koord om het middel, waarin eene… doorgerookte pijp stak.

De groep is in eenen omnibus naar de Boomschepoort gereden. Dat rijden kwam Massala heel koninklijk voor, en hij zal thuis gekomen, den tocht in dezen triomfwagen zonder twijfel wijdloopig vertellen. De vertrekken, waar de negers geplaatst werden, zijn boven de militaire bakkerij uitgekozen, zoodat als het zonneke nu wat wil beginnen te warmen, zij van onder en van boven zullen gestoofd worden.

Aan dat goed verwarmde vertrek is eene verandah, waarin zijn, als de zon ook warmte geeft, de frissche lucht komen inasemen. Rooken (cigaren en pijpen) is een groot genoegen voor allen. Overigens zijn die negers niet lui; integendeel, zij zijn altijd met iets bezig. De hutten, die zij in de Tentoonstelling zullen bewonen, ten minste bij dag, hebben zij zelf gereed gemaakt, en zij zullen ook zelf opslaan.

Een bijzonderheid: de Congo-mannen hebben hunnen fetiche, hun afgodsbeeld, meêgebracht, om hen in het vreemde land te beschermen. Of het een kwade of een goede god is, weten wij niet. Tot nu toe houdt men de negers zooveel mogelijk binnen; het weer is voor hen niet gunstig en zij zijn zeker tegen ons klimaat niet bestand, zoo min als wij tegen het hunne.

Bij deze Tentoonstelling zal men de voortbrengsels voegen van Congo-land, die op last van den Koning der Belgen zijn bijeen gezameld. Deze zullen vereenigd zijn in een gebouw, dat te Braine-le-Comte gemaakt wordt. Het is een model van de zoogezegde – standplaatsgebouwen,– die men in Congo opricht.

Source: “De negers van Congo,” in: Het Handelsblad van Antwerpen, 15 May 1885, p. 1.

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Je suis faite comme ça

La première partie de ce livre était vraiment intéressant, à propos de sa jeunesse et la deuxième guerre mondiale. Le milieu tourné parfois dans un grand mot de remerciement, que je trouvais un peu ennuyeux. La fin ramassée à nouveau, par exemple révélant qu’elle a eu deux avortements. Juliette Gréco est une personne très intéressante, et elle fait de bonnes chansons. « Sans musique, pas de vie. »

Juliette Gréco (2012), Je suis faite comme ça: mémoires.

★★★½

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Prince of Persia (2008): A Very Decent Platformer

The 2008 reimagining of Prince of Persia is much better than the Sands of Time. The platforming is on the whole more graceful, there aren’t as many fights, those that are there are aren’t nearly as annoying, and it looks fantastic.

By default the characters voices are barely audible over the music. It’s possible that this is an issue with the French localization, which I played to increase my exposure to the language, but I had to turn the music down quite a bit. The localization was well done and there’s quite a bit of backstory and banter, provided you actively look for it with the left trigger.

My biggest gripe with the game are the fights. For some reason it insists on not telling me the easy to remember A/B/X/Y controller buttons, but to work exclusively with the colors. Even having finished the game, I can still only just about place blue. Occasionally the fights look quite epic, but mostly they turn monotonous. Luckily you can end about half the fights quickly by pushing your adversaries over the edge, and many semi-random spawns you can even prevent from appearing at all if you get there fast enough.

There are a few puzzles to be solved, but there’s really only one or two that I had to reflect on for a minute. This game is all about the platforming. One thing I love in that regard is that the levels become quite different after defeating the local boss, enabling you to discover the beautiful areas all over again while collecting (obligatory) orbs.

Another review mentioned there’s a missing DLC and that this leaves the story unfinished, but actually I was very pleasantly surprised by the indeterminate ending. I fear a DLC could only detract from it.

Oh yeah, one last thing. That not being able to die thing you might’ve read about this game is complete bogus. Especially as you progress there are plenty of annoying opportunities to have to have to redo larger amounts of jumping and running just because you mess up near the end. Only you get a helping hand animation instead of gruesome death porn.

★★★★☆

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Down With Democracy

The first few pages were interesting. That’s what the first few pages were. The rest of part one was a veritable bore, in spite of the chopped up narrative, never living up to what seemed to be its promise. Most memorable was the misspelling of rijsttafel as rijstaffel. Was it on purpose? Does it mean anything? Does a rice table undermine the grand narrative in ways the rest of the book tries but fails? Part two and three decided to change into something akin to a normal narrative, but that didn’t improve the book any. Still, at least my enjoyment of the book oscillated by this point, perhaps even with a vaguely upward trend.

In the end, Democracy is a quick, boring read with a mildly interesting ironic narrative gimmick. The constant false starts and repetitions are presumably meant to undermine the grand narratives of modernity, those of the American democracy in particular. Instead we get a dull soap opera with lifeless characters dressed up in a thin veneer of literary play.

Joan Didion (1984), Democracy.

★★½

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