Tuesday 10 July 2012

Summer Reading

I have been asked about summer reading which I have previously covered but this is difficult because I haven't been very lucky with books recently. For a start I think I will stop reading historical novels. Their plot-lines are of necessity wooden and inefficient because they have to follow the historical record while as history they are obviously unsatisfactory because, well, what they say is largely made up and not true.

I have already damned with faint praise Victoria Hislop's The Thread about early 20c Greece (see here) but I have now been further disappointed by two fictional accounts of Shakespeare.

Warwick Collins' The Sonnets is a mercifully short but grindingly contrived novelette "explaining" the boring "mysteries" behind WS's sonnets (you know, all that stuff about the "dark lady" etc) which are extensively quoted to pad out the book. The "explanation" is completely unbelievable.

Robert Winder's The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare describes production of a lost play about Henry VII (the Welsh king who is a favourite of mine and of the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il - see here). But this plot is also completely unbelievable and, worst of all, the final 100 pages comprise the text of the play which you have to read in order to solve a central riddle in the book. Now I like Shakespeare but reading his plays, as opposed to seeing them on stage, is a dispiriting experience (and the cause of millions of children shying away from the world's greatest playwright - something everybody seems to agree about but nothing is ever done) but reading Winder's feeble pastiche is just torture and, after all that, the answer to the riddle turns out to be predictable and banal. You have been warned, although this book has been widely praised so what do I know?

As an aside it is interesting to note that both books make use of the idea that Shakespeare was caught up in politics and espionage. This seems to be yet another effort to make WS more "interesting" instead of recognising what is obvious to anybody not obsessed with conspiracy theories. He was quite a boring businessman who lived an unexciting but successful life and retired into bourgeois comfort back in Stratford just as soon as he had made enough money. This humdrum reality is seemingly too much to bear for some people, just as others cannot bring themselves to believe that a person who went to grammar school and not to university could write plays.

So what to read? I am now half way through a marvellous history of the Mediterranean, The Great Sea by David Abulafia, which is a delight. He even manages to make the early history interesting (so often sleep-inducing because based on tiny variations in dull pottery and the like). He also sweeps aside the daft theories which pollute history-writing and exercises a refreshing common sense which completely convinces. My understanding of the classical world has always been based on colourful mythology (Homer) gradually transforming into plausible history (Herodotus) and on to first-hand accounts (Xenophon) and eventually to the whole corpus of history, poetry, letters, etc as the focus moved over to Rome. But Abulafia has opened my eyes to the surprisingly clear evidence for what happened in prehistory and its remarkable fit with the mythology (short of the literalism of Schliemann and similar fantasists). It really feels like my whole understanding of my chosen educational field - classics - has widened massively. But the book is definitely not just for classicists: it is a demanding read but absolutely accessible as I am finding as the time line moves into eras about which I know little.


Not that I am that hot on classical history. I recollect being taught by one of Prof Abulafia's predecessors the late, great Professor of Ancient History John Crook who challenged our tutorial group to name the date of the forming of the Delian League. Answer came there none and, correctly suspecting our ignorance might run deep, he asked for the date of the Battle of Salamis (the classical equivalent of asking for the date of the Battle of Hastings). Silence. "Oh well, no matter," sighed the world-famous leading authority on fifth century Athens "It all happened a long time ago".


480 BC (I looked it up on Wikipedia).