Thursday, August 22, 2019

Understanding Talleyrand

Talleyrand Portrait

This August I lost myself in Volume I of Talleyrand's Memoirs. One passage stood out and moved me to tears.

Whether are not you are familiar with the 19th century French statesman does not matter; this passage is worth knowing. It is a rare moment into the heart of the enigmatic Talleyrand who for years has baffled so many historians.

It took place in 1807. By then, as Napoleon's foreign minister, he had long been titled Prince of Benevento and gifted with the principality of Benevento, in southern Italy. He knew how to flatter and reason with the French emperor but there were limits to his influence of which the statesman was well aware.

In that year, Prussia had just been defeated by Napoleon's army. The Prince of Benevento attended deliberations at Tilsitt; these would decide the fate and treatment of fallen Prussia.

It so happens that there is another character in this story. It is Queen Louise of Prussia - that is, Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.

Louise of Prussia

Queen Louise of Prussia deserves another post to herself. She was to die of a mysterious lung illness three years later, at the age of only 34. Centuries later, at the time of the Nazis, she would be revered as the epitome of all qualities that German women should aspire to. But it is 1807 and in this story, she is thirty-one years old and she is in a quandary.

Napoleon, famed for his misogyny wasted no time in alluding to the Queen of Prussia's infidelities - a gross slander given the Prussian King and Queen were very happy in their marriage. Meanwhile, Prussia faced potentially harsh economic sanctions after the war; it was up to the King to plead in favor of his country. But seeing that Louise was several months pregnant, he suggested that his wife should instead plead in favor of her people, in the hope that Napoleon, touched by this charming figure of maternity - one of the most beautiful women of the period - would soften somewhat and prove more conciliatory.

Louise hesitated. Why would she wish to appear before this emperor who had insulted her and placed public doubt on her virtue? She hoped that her husband was right. Perhaps if Napoleon saw first hand how kindly and honorable she truly was, he would retract his poor judgement of her character.

Recalling the events at Tilsitt, Talleyrand writes, "I was indignant of everything I saw and everything I heard but I was obliged to hide my indignation."

When she settled into her apartments at Tilsitt, Napoleon paid the Queen a visit. After flattering her beauty while she tried to pass on to other subjects, Napoleon turned to the King and said "How could you dare begin a war with me, I who had already conquered so many powerful nations?" The defeated King made no answer but looked upon Napoleon severely. It was Louise who replied on behalf of her husband. "Sire, it was permitted to the glory of Great Frederick II, to deceive us as to the extent of our powers; we were deceived; but it was so ordained."

Queen Louise of Prussia 
by Vigée Le Brun, 1801

Talleyrand writes that Louise's usage of the word 'glory' was, in his mind, fortunately placed. He found it superb. Evidently the word was not used to the glory of Napoleon, but rather to another Prussian king from a past century. Talleyrand, never shy of using wit to taunt Napoleon, reveals that he later repeated the Queen's phrase often times, until the piqued Napoleon told him one day, "I ignore what you find so pleasing about the Queen of Prussia's words; you would do well to speak of other things." Typical.

But returning to 1807.  All the efforts that Louise made to obtain concessions for her country were in vain. Napoleon remained inflexible. Losing half of her territory, Prussia was to enter many years of suffering, famine, and the state of things grew so severe that everywhere, women abandoned their children.

But it is Talleyrand's next revelation that moved me.
"I was indignant of everything I saw and everything I heard but I was obliged to hide my indignation. And so all my life, I will remain grateful that the Queen of Prussia, queen of another time, was willing to perceive this."
Willing to perceive - the phrase Talleyrand chooses is so important. One can readily perceive, that is one thing. But to permit oneself to perceive is, in Talleyrand's eyes, to take a step further. If one permits oneself to see, one is willing to go against one's convictions and to combat one's prejudices (in this case, prejudices against Napoleon's foreign minister; against the vanquishing French; against the enemy etc...) For Talleyrand, to be granted this understanding was a precious thing and he felt grateful for it.

He narrates the event at Tilsitt and the sentiments they evoked, in these terms,
"If upon reflecting on my life, many passages are tedious, I recall however with great sweetness the things she had the kindness to tell me, and those she almost confided in me, "Prince of Benevento," she said, the last time I had the honor of escorting her to her carriage, "there are only two people who regret that I came here: it is me and you. You are not upset, are you, that I shall take this opinion back with me?" The tears of tenderness and pride that I had in my eyes were my only response."
Louise had been unsuccessful in her quest and she knew that Napoleon would not help her country. She also still felt the emperor's insults. With those words, she admitted to Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, that she regretted having come to Tilsitt, and she confided also that she could see right through him: that he did not like what he had witnessed, and that he was filled with sorrow for her, and also wished she had not come at all.

When I read this passage, I was astounded by Talleyrand's sensitivity to having been understood. It seemed to him that this understanding, arising from another, especially in this extreme post-war moment, was a rare event, one he deemed important enough to feel grateful for.

But he felt much more than grateful. He was moved by Louise. I absolutely had to write about it and give it the attention it deserved because little or no emotion has ever been reported as having come from Talleyrand.

When trying to understand a person it is often insightful to know what it is that moves them, or brings tears to their eyes. I noted that during the entirety of Volume I, Talleyrand remains mostly unemotional. He is overwhelmingly cerebral. He displays warmth during only two instances: when he relates his relationship with the unfortunate Spanish princes sequestered at his chateau of Valençay, and when he narrates his encounter with Queen Louise of Prussia. The latter is the only time he mentions tears.

For Talleyrand, a man of mystery, a man so reserved and elusive that he would often be maligned, nothing would seem so precious than to be perceived kindly despite all appearances. For he was proud, that is certain.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Review: Silent Water by P.K. Adams

Set in the depths of winter, during the Polish Golden Age at the time of the Jagiellonian dynasty, Silent Water is a deeply satisfying and engrossing historical mystery.

Often stellar plots are those that are simple, but richly executed, with penetrating human insights and unforgettable sets. Silent Water falls in this category. The narration is in first person with a tone that often borders on the melancholic, hinting to the tragedies that will soon be revealed.

Newly arrived in Poland, Contessa Caterina Sanseverino is part of Queen Bona Sforza's entourage.  Bringing with her the fashions and social mores of her native Italy, Queen Bona has married King Zygmont I, ruler of Poland and Lithuania.

Wawel Royal Palace, Kraków

Through Caterina's eyes and voice, we are transported to 16th century Kraków in the Wawel Royal Castle.  As Lady of the Queen's Chamber, to her falls the overwhelming responsibility of safeguarding the honour and righteousness of the other ladies of the court - ladies of both Italian and Polish origin. Not an easy task when Lucrezia Alifio is an inveterate flirt, Magdalena Górka is no better, and who knows what the flamed-head Helena Lipińska is up to.

Through Caterina, we learn of the fascinating political climate of the period, and meet wonderfully described characters including the womanising diplomat, Jan Dantyszek. The intrigues at court make for great entertainment and the author has deftly incorporated her knowledge of the culture into the narrative.  One highlight for me was the grand sleigh rides or sanna, on the day before New Year's Eve.

Sanna by Wasilewski Czesław

But over the course of feasting and the traditional celebrations that unravel during Christmas, New Year and the Epiphany, one by one, a series of grizzly murders will rock the royal palace.  Suspicions fly, political conspiracies are on the rise, gossip is ever rampant, a suspect is arrested, and more and more, Caterina is convinced that the imprisoned suspect is innocent. She has her own ideas.

A natural sleuth, Caterina finds herself the primary detective in this series of murders that soon reaches its chilling climax with a suspenseful, Gothic sequence.  For many readers who may guess the 'who' along the way, the conclusion offers satisfaction around the 'how' and the 'why', while posing new and haunting moral questions. 

The female gaze dominates this novel. It is a gaze imbued with the morality and social concerns of the period. Caterina is an observant woman who misses nothing of her charges' flirtations and social games. At least, she believes she has missed nothing. And that is her tragedy.

The author vividly paints the Kraków courtiers together with their costumes and clubs; there is mention of Italian artists invited by the Queen,  Polish writers and academics, including the now famous physicist, Nicolaus Copernicus. It was fascinating to learn just how much influence Italian art and architecture had on Poland at the time of Bona Sforza.

Bona Sforza

The book's portrait of a determined queen was faithful to history. I enjoyed learning about her proposed agricultural reforms and was astounded by her willpower in taking on the remnant Teutonic Order.

The Jagiellonian dynasty is not as well known as the English Tudors or the French Bourbons. Its first ruler, Władysław II Jagiełło - Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland by marriage - defeated the German Teutonic Knights in the 1410 Battle of Grunwald. It is a pity that there are not many authors with the courage to create stories in this unexplored landscape. We are thankful to P.K. Adams.

Battle of Grunwald by Jan Matejko  (1878)

What is worth noting is that Poland is not just underrepresented in historical fiction; its recent economic growth (it is now the 7th largest economy in the EU) has gone unreported despite it being touted by the World Bank as a new "Golden Age".  Personally upon reading Silent Water, I was eager to visit Poland if only to step back in time to that first Golden Age.

I will be looking forward to that, and to the other two books in this series.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Immigrant Tales: From Prussia to Australia

The Charles Dickens

It is mid-July 1877. Henriette Krause is at least seven months pregnant when the Charles Dickens, the three-masted steamer that left Hamburg on April 5 arrives near Brisbane. The ship's 510 passengers have now been traveling for three and a half months. They should be rejoicing upon nearing Australia's shores were it not that many are ill, plagued by typhus and measles. The stench is unbearable.

Henriette is near tears. The stoic endurance that has carried her through the last months is almost exhausted. She longs for space and fresh air, away from the cramped conditions of the ship. She is tired of having to sleep in a 1,8m by 45 cm space alongside hundreds. Her husband, Gustav, is as ignorant as she is about why they cannot disembark. Surely they have not come all the way from their homeland in East Prussia to be barred from setting foot on Australian soil? 
What is taking so long?

Soon the rumours circulate. The captain addresses them. They will be sheltered on nearby Peel Island. The health officer has inspected the ship. He has ordered them to be quarantined.

It will be seven more weeks until Henriette disembarks in Brisbane. Finally. She is now almost due to give birth.  Her bones strain under the weight of her swollen belly. Everything is surreal, here, at the Ipswich Depot where her husband enlists for work. The last five and a half months suddenly overwhelm Henriette and she reaches for her belly, gripping onto Gustav. It all comes back to her. What they have just lived. The unrelenting nausea. The monotony mingled with anxiety. She recalls those long stormy days and nights when the ship moaned dreadfully, while her and her companions were cramped in the damp darkness below deck. Their unwashed clothing, long imbued with sweat, dirt and salt, clung to their bodies giving off an inescapable odor that she would always remember; an odor that invited vermin and illness.  Some of their clothes had to be burned at Peel Island because they posed a contamination risk.

But then, a ray of light, a dash of hope. Gustav is smiling at her.  She hasn't seen him smile for months. He tells her that he has found an employment already. How efficient it all is now that they are finally arrived, here, in Brisbane. He is to go west of Toowoomba with his family where he will work as a labourer. The pay is low but he will be given some land to start anew. Their own land.

Their own land. It is a dream.

Henriette is relieved. It is just as well, she sighs.
Only a week later, she will give birth to the child that has journeyed with her all the way from Hamburg to Australia. It is a healthy boy.

Why would anyone go through this? Why? 

It is the question I asked myself. I am both relieved and horrified at this amazing feat. The human capacity to endure astounds me.

Krause family tree

Henriette had several children. The Krause seemed to have kept in touch with the German and Polish immigrant community in Queensland. One of Henriette's sons, Hermann Edward Krause, married Maria Martha Tewes who was herself born of German immigrants.

In turn their son, Allan Krause - my husband's grandfather - would marry a Polish immigrant.  When he died at 65, Allan was a true Aussie. He had enlisted to fight for Australia in WWII and was made a prisoner of the Japanese toward the end of the war. He would be marked by that experience.

My husband's father, Peter Krause, is effectively a mix of German and Polish. Like his ancestors, he is not averse to hard labor, honoring land and its produce, much like generations before him have done. His Australian wife is a tough cookie with an amazing open spirit and an endless curiosity. As a child, daughter of a long-distance drover, she rode to school on her large horse every day. Decades later, she has since travelled to China.

In Tara, in the year my husband was born, the townsfolk are not afraid to confront the tyrannical cops. Even if that means a fighting match. On the night of 19 August 1969,  Peter's wife feels the first pangs of labour. But Peter is not home. He has gone off to fight a cop. They send for him urgently; they come running to the ring and tell him to bloody hurry and that his son is being born. He has to get a friend to replace him in the boxing ring. And that's the climate into which Shane Krause makes his first appearance, some time before midnight.

Peter doesn't know it yet, but that little boy who interrupted his fighting match will grow up to be a screenwriter. 

In the early years of our relationship, Shane Krause would tell me that his last name was Prussian. By Prussian, he meant 'from the German-Prussian Empire' because Krause is a German name after all and one needs to distinguish the German-ruled Prussian Empire from authentic Old Prussia.

Old Prussia and its tribal regions
The region of Pomesania (left) is where the Krause family lived.
At the time they emigrated, it was part of the German-Prussian Empire.
Today it lies in Poland.

The Old Prussians were an ancient Baltic people. Fierce pagan tribes, they were likely extinguished by the evangelising medieval Teutonic Knights and, in later centuries, their numbers would have waned under the wave of migration that swept from Germany into Old Prussian land.

So the last name, Krause, is German. Alas, my wild fantasy of Shane being a direct descendant of some ancient oceanside clan that worshipped pagan deities, and sang deep-throated spiritual melodies like the one in this video, had to be tossed aside.

But my imagination was running wild, fueled by medieval scenes of sword-wielding knights riding from the West into Old Prussia, intent on ridding the land of these detested pagans, with the blessing of the Polish neighbours.  I had a vision that perhaps Krause had been the last name of some Teutonic Knight.

Teutonic Knight
by Andre Mazzocchetti

Picture this. He was a brutal man with noble convictions and let nothing cross what he believed was an honorable crusade. He was there, for sure, when the Teutonic Order defeated the Old Prussian tribe of the Pomesanians, and  when the Monastic State constructed the fortified castle that gave birth to the city of Christburg.

Reconstituted Christburg castle, now in ruins

Oh, it was all so believable and delicious. After all, Gustav Krause who came to Australia in 1877 with his heavily pregnant wife was in fact born in Christburg, today's Dzierzgoń. Surely that was a sign that his family had always been there for centuries? Ever since the time of the knights...

I pleased myself in this titillating fantasy. The idea that my very own Shane Krause was directly related to a Teutonic Knight was a historical novelist's porn.


Who knows the truth. What is certain, is that some German family, perhaps several families, with the last name, Krause, did migrate to the region at any time between the 13th to the 18th century. Over this period, Christburg would be part of Poland for an extended time, hence the Polish name, Dzierzgoń.

By the time Gustav Krause was born in 1847, as far as he knew, his city was part the Kingdom of Prussia.  In this context, Christburg was part of West Prussia. But by 1871, when the German emperor, Bismarck, ruled and the German Empire was formed with Prussia as its leading state, Christburg eventually became part of East Prussia.
[Note: This is the reason why I found genealogical sources contradictory - some sources assert he was from West Prussia while some say he was born in East Prussia. It's all a matter of politics.]

And that's where I dug a little deeper and found the reason why Henriette Krause put up with being pregnant for an excruciatingly long journey.

In his essay on The Prussian-Polish Situation: An Experiment in Assimilation, William I. Thomas delves into Bismarck's policies, and the relationship between the Prussian-Germans and the Prussian-Poles.

After many centuries of Germans living side by side with Poles, one would expect intermarriage. And that is observable in my husband's ancestors.  Gustav Krause is a fine example of this multi-cultural situation. While his father was a Krause, his own mother with a last name of Reikowski, was Polish. Gustav had also wed Henriette Pukallus, also Polish. It is arguable that while the family spoke German, they most likely spoke Polish and felt partly Polish.

Having established that the family was as Polish as it was German, it really helped to explain why they would wish to leave at this time.

According to Thomas,
"as long as the peasant felt that the [German] government was friendly to him, he paid little attention to agitators. But in 1873 he was attacked by the government. At this point, Bismarck took a hand and decided to force the process of Germanization. He said he was not afraid of the Polish man, but of the Polish woman. She produced so many children. He undertook the task with apparent confidence, but he was profoundly deceived in his judgment of the peasant. He said that the peasant who had shed his blood so generously for Germany was at heart a true German [alluding to the recent Franco-Polish war]. The fact is, the peasant had been gradually losing sight of the fact that he was a Pole and the policy of Bismarck restored to him that consciousness."

Otto von Bismarck

Despite being part of the most powerful empire in Europe, one that had demonstrated its superior military might by recently defeating the French, Gustav and Henriette Krause were not enthused about their new German ruler, and with reason.

During the process of Germanisation, the German language became a substitute of the Polish tongue in the schools. Teachers who had no knowledge of Polish were favoured for employment by the education system. According to Thomas, "at this point the peasant knew that the government was his enemy."

There would be other reforms too, like the systematic purchasing of Polish land by the German government with the intent of settling it with Germans. Construction was also prohibited without a permit, which effectively denied Poles the right to build on newly acquired land, nor build further on the land they already owned.

It is no coincidence that when in 1877, Gustav and Henriette boarded the Charles Dickens, Henriette's brother, his wife and children - all Prussian Poles - were also on board.

Henriette's niece, Ottilie Ward, née Pukallus.
Ottilie Pukallus came to Australia on the Charles Dickens. 
She was then 2 years old.

They were all Prussian Poles who faced oppression by the German government. As a mixed blood person, Gustav Krause had not one culture, but two. With his Polish background and through his Polish wife's eyes, he could see the Polish perspective and identify with it. He could see the writing on the wall. He would have been supportive of leaving.

As for Henriette, pregnant or not, she was getting on that ship. If Bismarck had said that the Polish woman produced too many children, then Prussia was no place for a Polish woman to be making babies.

It was just as well, for in 1907 the German government passed an expropriation act, allowing it to seize any land which the colonisation commission desired but could not purchase. If you were a Pole and refused to sell your land, you were in for a horrid time.

So there you have it. After much research, my Teutonic and pagan fantasies have now long vanished. In their stead, reality - the tyranny of an imperial government intent on Germanisation; the desperate plight of a German-Polish family dissatisfied with their poor treatment and dreaming of a better world. All these things brought me my husband.

After all that, Shane Krause has kept his German name and most people do not know how complex his family's story truly is. On the face of it, he is descended from a “German immigrant". And so in a sense, Bismarck has had his way.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Review: Sultana - The Pomegranate Tree by Lisa J. Yarde

For those with an interest in Spain’s history and who have visited the magnificent Moorish city of Granada, Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree is a must read. It is a compelling and meticulously researched novel that deserves attention.

This is the story of the last queen of Granada, Aisha al-Hurra, the very woman whose son surrendered to the Christian alliance led by King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile; the Moorish ruler, who you may have heard, told her son, “Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.”

The Alhambra, 1999 visit

When I read this quote many years ago, while exploring the wonders of the Granada palace, I longed to learn more about the plight of the kingdom in its last days. Who was this powerful Aisha who spoke so reproachfully to her son? What was her story? I wished that more had been written about this strong woman in the same way the life of her political nemesis, Queen Isabella, had been covered with great detail. This novel answered my wishes and much more.

Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree traces the journey of a wilful and ambitious Sultana, a descendant of the Nasrid dynasty, and her ascent to power as Queen of the Kingdom of Garnatah – or Granada, through marital alliances. From a young age, Aisha demonstrates an innate mastery of political intrigue, an unflinching sense of duty and a profound love of the kingdom. Watching her evolve through the key historical events leading to the fall of Granada is fascinating, and provides a rare glimpse into the lives of Granada’s rulers in that period. The novel is a well-executed biography.

The Slaying of the Abencerrajes
Painting by Mariano Fortuny, 1870
Without revealing too much of the plot, Aisha will face dramatic upheavals in her life, and extricate herself from numerous dangers within the palace and beyond. As a character she was well-rounded and likable, allowing the reader to feel each moment. One particular scene had me gutted, and its aftermath, which dealt with the combined feelings of loss, mourning and revenge, were well-treated. The intrigue around Aisha’s twin sister, Fatimah, the tragic story of Aisha’s mother and the engaging romance with Aisha’s first husband were all fascinating.

The banquet scene, which saw the nobles of the Abencerraje family massacred by Muley Hacén, unravelled with great suspense, and would make a fantastic film sequence.

The treatment around Aisha’s real life rival, Isabel de Solis was complex, with a highly satisfying twist. Due to the aura of mystery around de Solis, she became my favorite character. Second place would go to Aisha’s second husband and ruler of Granada, Muley Hacén, who is entirely believable in his romantic and historical behavior.

So much to admire about this beautifully crafted novel. Attention to historical detail is outstanding. The prose and dialogue are evocative and cinematic. Anyone who reads historical fiction for the pleasure of being swept away into others worlds will not be disappointed – the novel paints Moorish Spain with a creative flair that is both enchanting and historically informative.

Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree is a penultimate novel in a mind blowing series of six. Its plot concludes in the year 1482, the year before Aisha engineers her son’s ascent to the throne, leaving no doubt that the final book deals with this and more, culminating in the climatic surrender of Granada.

The Sultana series no doubt crown this trailblazing author as an unsurpassed master for this unique period of history. Thank you, Lisa J. Yarde.

Want more from this author? You can find a past interview with Lisa J. Yarde here.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Review: Quatrevingt-treize by Victor Hugo

“Au-dessus de l'absolu révolutionnaire, il y a l'absolu humain.” 
"Beyond the revolutionary absolute, there is a human absolute."

To me, the above statement perfectly summarises the theme of this amazing book set in France's terror years during the French Revolution.

Written in 1874, Quatrevingt-treize is Victor Hugo's last novel. He was 72 years old when it was published. Consider that Hugo was only 29 when he published Notre Dame de Paris.

In Quatrevingt-treize, Hugo reprises the thorny question of what one should choose when faced with a moral decision. At the climax of this story, three men encounter situations that will challenge their core beliefs. Two of them choose to uphold humanitarian principles over and above any revolutionary concerns-even at the cost of their own lives or mission. The third, however, cannot override his convictions, and as a result, his conscience and his failure to act in a humanitarian manner will lead to his demise.

Illustration for Quatrevingt-treize
by Caumont, Robert (circa 1922 - 1924)

The third man, Cimourdain, also functions as an anti-Javert while meeting the same end as Javert.
At the end of Les Misérables, Inspector Javert, who has shown humanity in letting Jean Valjean escape, will suffer enormous cognitive dissonance; through his lenience, he has acted against the grain of his perceived moral duty and cannot reconcile his benevolent behavior with the opposing rigid lawful attitude. His subsequent suicide is a desperate means to escape from a fraught self-integrity.

On the other hand, in Quatrevingt-treize, the character, Cimourdain does not allow humanitarian concerns overtake duty; but here again, dissonance arises because deep down, his emotional attachment to Gauvain reminds him over and over again that he has made the wrong decision. Facing the impasse between his broken conscience and the duty he was forced to obey, Cimourdain takes the same deathly path as Javert.

Danton, Robespierre, and Marat at the wine shop
Wood engraving by Paterson.

What is revealed in his writings is that Hugo was painfully conscious of moral dilemmas and of the human distress that surfaces when people are forced into a choice that offers no solution - whether the choice is in line or goes against strongly held beliefs. Could this have resulted from his upbringing? I mentioned this before in an earlier post - Victor Hugo's parents could not have been more at odds. Could this tension between opposites have created a domestic climate of guilt where every decision was fraught with anxiety?

It is easy to imagine it. His father, Joseph Léopold Hugo was loyal to the French army. In his earlier years, long before the family lived in Spain where his son spent his early childhood, Joseph Hugo had fought in Western France against Bretons rebels, or Chouans, as these were called. Meanwhile his mother, Sophie Hugo, a Breton royalist from Nantes was firmly against the revolutionaries - she sheltered counter-revolutionaries - like the Chouans.

Or perhaps, the tumultuous times during which the author's parents lived were filled with stories that later inspired Victor Hugo? I noted that while depicting the tragic war and violence pitting Chouans against Republication soldiers, Victor Hugo emerges from his narrator's voice and chooses to remind the reader of Quatrevingt-treize that his father fought this war. It is intimate and marked with emphasis.

No matter its origins or the inspiration behind it, I felt that, more strongly than in Les Misérables, Quatrevingt-treize is the author's attempt to reiterate that we are doomed if we hold on too tightly to our convictions. Fanaticism harms the human soul and the human absolute must prevail.

La Tourgue, 1835
llustration by Victor Hugo for Quatrevingt-treize

The book is beautifully written. Like L'Homme qui rit, each chapter stands alone as a masterpiece. Through Hugo's vivid descriptions, I was fascinated by the landscape of Brittany's forests and the extensive network of subterranean caves, some of which date to the 9th century. I found a book published on this same subject, and which covers the terrain in La Roche-sur-Yon, not far from where my uncle lives today. Curious about Western France's subterranean network, I began to research the underground caves of the Vendée and have since featured these in my historical novel, Julien's Terror.

Beyond the rich historical insights of Quatrevingt-treize and the author's deep understanding of moral conflicts, I enjoyed Victor Hugo's rendering of the Breton culture and his colorful, immersive writing. It was a pleasure to read this book and to rediscover my grandfather's homeland. It was enriching to be inspired and moved by this great author.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Review: The Embroiderer by Kathryn Gauci

James Michener, one of my favorite authors, could have written a tale set in an Ottoman world, for he was fond of complex human identities. He even spoke of mixed ethnicities, for which he coined the term Golden Men in his best-selling novel, Hawaii.

Kathryn Gauci's The Embroiderer has much of the Golden Men in it - but here though, we should speak of Golden Women. Eleni Stephenson, the first woman we meet in the novel, is after all an impressive blend of Greek, French, Russian and English. Meanwhile, her Greek heritage bears an undeniable Ottoman influence.

James Michener never wrote The Embroiderer. But he could have. It is perfect.

A vivid, cinematic tale, The Embroiderer is a richly woven family saga beginning during the Ottoman Empire through to its downfall and ending in the 70s. On the light side, it is a tale that travellers and those who seek culture, and oriental history will love. But it is also a tale of love, survival, loss, revenge, and the search for one's identity. It unravels the lives of four passionate women: Eleni Stephenson, her aunt, Maria, her grandmother, Sophia, and her great-great-grandmother, Dimitra.

Most of the story centers on the talented and shrewd Sophia who lives in the cosmopolitan Smyrna (modern day Izmir) during the early 20th century. Following in the footsteps of her embroiderer grandmother, Dimitra, Sophia runs a successful fashion boutique catering to an elite clientele, both Turkish and Greek. In a world where both Greeks and Turks have over centuries, inherited deeply felt resentments, Sophia becomes swept up in a complex and dangerous political climate, spanning the Balkan Wars, the Great Fire of Smyrna, the genocidal crimes that pitted Turks against Greeks and Armenians, and the dramatic emigration of Greeks from Turkey to Athens.

Through Sophia's life, we meet a vast cast of touching and fascinating characters. Even the minor characters are so well-portrayed that their fate keeps the reader interested.

Both Dimitra and Maria were intriguing to me. Dimitra was my favorite character because of her enigmatic and old world quality. As for Maria, given the hostility and romantic disappointments she had to face in her life and her desire to be loved and admired, I thought that her psychology was well-executed.

The Embroiderer was a fantastic, entertaining read with much depth. There is never a moment where the story loses momentum or wavers. There are two mysteries to keep one reading - what happened to the baby we learn of in the first chapter? And will the fortune-teller's prediction come true and how? Yet even without those two questions, the reader is enthralled by this hybrid Ottoman-Balkan world of romance, glamour, espionage, political turmoil and family drama.

When dealing with the political, The Embroiderer offered a well-balanced view of both Greek and Turkish sides, never judging or aligning itself to an ideology. It was more focused on the theme of revenge. Revenge is explored both at the individual level and on a mass social level. Both times it is portrayed as senseless, a series of actions that reap no rewards. The rich quote that accompanies this theme opens the story, and resurfaces later, where it makes a high impact.

Smyrna by Ahmet Ziya Akbulut

I learned so much from this novel. After reading it, my mind wandered to Smyrna and what it must have looked like before the Great Fire. I read up about the great famine that overtook Greece during World War II - a part of history I ignored and which this story touches on. The author's knowledge of the secret societies was intriguing while the historical detail on the whole was exceptional without being overwhelming or tedious.

Kathryn Gauci is a gifted storyteller whose passion for her subject showed. I am ever grateful that she has penned this masterful tale. Some stories change you. This is one of those.

Turkish Cafe in Smyrna 
by Johann Michael Wittmer the younger

Monday, March 11, 2019

Review: Falling Pomegranate Seeds by Wendy J. Dunn

They say good writers are those who can reach the reader's heart. Wendy J Dunn possesses this gift. Few novels have moved me to tears. Hugo's Les Misérables is one of them. The last time I cried was after reading Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Marina.

Falling Pomegranate Seeds achieved to do the same.

Set in Spain at the time of Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand's reign, and covering key historical events, from the fall of Granada, Christopher Columbus' funding and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Falling Pomegranate Seeds is a touching account of Catherine of Aragon's childhood told from the perspective of her educator, Beatriz Galindo. A scholar, and one of the most educated women of this period, Beatriz is tutor for the family and advisor to the Queen. The novel ends as Catherine - Catalina, as she is called in her home country - departs for England to be wedded for the first time, leaving the reader eager for the novel's sequel.

The novel is an intimate journey into the heart of the House of Trastámara, recounting its joys, conflicts and sorrows. We are there, in their bedroom, their hidden world. We feel what they feel. The novel unfolds with beauty, its descriptive passages artfully woven rendering each scene as vivid as though it were a painting.

There is no mistaking the emotional trauma suffered by this fascinating royal family and Wendy's superb writing plucks at every heart string and unravels every secret. On two counts we witness marriage and romantic love thwarted by betrayal and then tragic loss. The selfish and scheming, King Ferdinand, tormented by his more powerful wife, is also a lustful beast. Queen Isabel, burdened by royal duty is at once frightening in her determination against Jews but also pitiful in her recurring mother's loss. Princess Joanna's relationship with her father speaks of abuse and dysfunction. It is a disturbing dynamic which, for those aware of Joanna's future fate, remains psychologically satisfying. We also see the seeds of Catalina's religious piety and her inner strength.

Characters are revealed in all their complexities and inner conflicts as when Catalina unveils her father's true motives and temporarily despises him only to cherish him later. But most of all, it is Juan who, at least for me, steals the light. The young prince - a poet, free-spirit and gentle soul who was never to be king, is captivating and utterly lovable. It is he who had me weeping.

Doña Beatriz de Galindo

Falling Pomegranate Seeds is also the story of humanist and writer, Beatriz Galindo who for years suffers torment at the hands of the King and conceals her secret from the Queen for fear of losing her employment with the family she has learned to love.

Falling Pomegranate Seeds is well researched, but its historical details are carefully chosen while its creative liberties only make the novel more enjoyable, letting the reader speculate over truth. Through Catalina's schooling and the reflections of Beatriz, the novel also explores the literature and thinking of the period and achieves to paint Beatriz as a profound and intelligent woman.

But feeling remains the motor for this novel. There are passages that will remain with me always. I wait eagerly for the other books in the series and recommend this book highly for Tudor fans with a genuine interest in Catherine of Aragon's life.

The trial of Catherine of Aragon
Maybe in Wendy J. Dunn's future books...

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Review: A Drop of Ink by Megan Chance

I don't want to give too much away so I will talk about feelings rather than plot. When I finished this wonderful book, I felt both awe and sadness. 

Awe - from the writer's talent and the original convolution of ideas in ways one did not suspect. 

Sadness - as though something had been ripped from me and left behind a deep loss, a longing, a feeling of the unresolved. 

A Drop of Ink culminated into a haunting, magical end but the ride was both powerful and illuminating.

For those who write, for those who are fans of Mary Shelley, for those curious about writers and their frustrations and for those who pine for a nostalgic bygone era, this book is exquisite.

A Drop of Ink stands out as a superbly crafted story for this very reason: speculating on what could have been...and offering us a glimpse into this possibility through imagined characters. Again, without giving too much away, the characters mesmerise in their resemblance to that first quintet who met 60 years prior in the very villa where Frankenstein was penned - Lord Byron, Dr John Polidori, Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and step-sister, Claire Clairmont.

The original writers - Percy and Mary Shelley and Lord Byron

This novel is an unusual and at first, unsuspected, love story thwarted by class differences and ambition. At first, the stage is set, like an almost comedic Woody-Allen-does-Switzerland with its insufferable characters, each with their own flaws and eccentric manners or moods. Then as one scratches the surface and the engaging plot unravels, the emotional entwining is revealed and multiple facets emerge in each character.

I most identified with the passionate Vanni (based on the real life John Polidori) - I thought he was remarkably well defined, with reactions and emotions so vivid they seemed to match my own, achieving to complete a well-drawn and believable character. Toward the end of the book, I became haunted by what would become of him.

John William Polidori,
physician to Lord Byron and writer

Megan Chance is a wonderful writer in a way that is unique and difficult to describe. A Drop of Ink unravelled at an intensely emotional pace. It brought forward many questions about the original quintet and offered consolation to a tragic real life ending. It was perfect.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Review: Insatiable - A Macabre History of France by Ginger Myrick

My first meeting with Marie-Antoinette was at age eight upon reading Alexandre Dumas' excellent Le Chevalier de Maison Rouge.

While I felt sorry for the sad lady in the prison du Temple, I wondered at length why anyone would grow so in love with her to the point of staging the intricate Carnation Plot and endangering the lives of many to rescue her.

From then on, I read many books about Marie-Antoinette, and while each time I grew more sensitive to her plight and more unsettled at her terrible fate, I still could not understand the romantic infatuation with the Queen.

Well, Insatiable changed my feelings. I absolutely loved Ginger Myrick's characterisation of Marie-Antoinette. This book is in essence a biography of her life set in a horror paradigm. I loved it.

Everything about this novel was not only painstakingly researched and fascinating, but the prose was also immensely enjoyable. 

The macabre aspects were stylish and suspenseful. (The key and secret passage escape scene had me on the edge of my seat - so to speak!) In short, I loved the author's deft merging of the horror and historical genre. The paradigm was well staged with great attention to detail which rendered it quite plausible.

Yet the true strength of this book's horror dimension is not that it plays an added entertaining role, but rather that it achieves an unsettling social commentary in an almost satirical manner. As the novel progressed into the well-known reign of Terror, the story's supernatural horror elements became overshadowed by the horrors of reality. It was reality, not fiction, that gutted me. And here lies the social commentary - during certain historical events, we witness human horror on such unprecedented scale that one might wonder whether these might as well have resulted from macabre supernatural forces.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

This is one of my favourite novels about the french revolution.

Review: Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I like that, Zafon, after luring me deep into the grim entrails of Gothic Barcelona - from its macabre mansions with their secret tragedies of years long past, to its cavernous streets shrouded by heavy rain and misty lights, and deep down into its hellish sewers, until I came face to face with the Devil himself - I like how, Zafon, all along, had the vision to finally bring me home, out of the surreal, beyond his circus world with its freakish characters and its forbidden games against Nature, so that before I could realise what I had just learnt, about life, about death, gone was the suspense and there was only awe, acceptance and tears. 

A master storyteller.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Review: Armadale by Wilkie Collins

I adore this book. Perhaps more than The Woman in White which is a tale of crime and mystery, something Armadale is not, despite initial appearances. Here, I focus on the main female character.

What began as a complex tale of friendship and revenge turned out as quite the love story. It moved me.

For all her conniving, her devilish mind and revengeful streak, Lydia Gwilt's character transformation took my breath away and was splendidly executed. I felt every part of her psychological journey; it was real, and it spoke volumes for Collins' understanding of the contradictions in the tormented female mind. 

The end both saddened and satisfied - Lydia achieving to redeem herself through it. Despite forgiving her, the two main male characters were found lacking in the end, especially Midwinter for his lack of introspection. One is left feeling that Lydia loved him more than he ever did. 

I can't help wonder whether Lydia would have at all carried out her designs had she found Midwinter more responsive in love, less preoccupied with his writing and if he had ceased brooding obsessively over his friend's safety. By the same token, would Lydia have perceived herself lacking in Midwinter's eyes, would she have felt as sensitively about his behaviour if she had not been plagued by the knowledge of her past deeds and doubted her own morality. 

The question of the self-fulfilling prophecy is vivid here. That is the tragedy.

Review: Anastasia by Colin Falconer

I loved this book. French author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote that perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. Colin Falconer's Anastasia is a slim book that recalls the very best masterpieces. For me, it is now a modern classic. 

I am passionate about the Russian Revolution and the murder of the Romanovs but what initially drew me to this novel was promises of time travel to 1920s Shanghai, Berlin and New York. I was not disappointed. Colin Falconer's wonderfully scribed vivid descriptions transported me to the bars and nightclubs of Shanghai with its expat soirées and its seedy Triad underworld, before sweeping me away to the sexual decadence and currency collapse of Weimar Berlin. Soon after, I was indulging in London's tea houses and flapper period, casting an uneasy eye on rising unemployment, before finally leading a ritzy life in 5th Avenue New York prior to the Wall Street collapse. 

If all this travel wasn't enough, Colin Falconer also managed to paint glimpses into Lenin's Russia and make poignant observations on the Revolution's disappointing aftermath.
In this passage, the main character, journalist Michael Sheridan, travels to Petrograd (now St Petersburg) where he attempts to uncover evidence to prove that the love of his life is or is not the late Anastasia Romanov. Michael's visit to the room where the Romanovs were murdered is particularly harrowing. I was left with a feeling not evoked by other novels dealing with the same subject. 

In his depiction of all cities, I loved the author's keen eye for the tragic pantomimes of excess and how these are often bound to chaos and misery. Even his female character, Anastasia, assuming she were a Romanov, would embody the idea of aristocracy toppled by Revolution; wealth's sudden descent into poverty. 
Through conflicting desires, Anastasia strives to survive, reminding the reader constantly of the fine line between fortune and destitution.

I whizzed through the suspenseful second part of this book which saw Michael putting on his ruthless journalist cap and going to war with the very scum of stockbrokers. With the aid of an unlikely ally, he uncovers a stunning revelation filled with political intrigue about the fate of the Romanov fortune. 

This is a fantastic novel packed with social insights; it combines elements of romance, mystery and intrigue. Highly recommended.

Review: Spirit of Lost Angels by Liza Perrat

I loved this book and highly recommend it to those who wish a glimpse of the poorer classes on the eve of France's revolution. It is a passionate and well-told story of survival and of overcoming obstacles faced by every day French women in the late 18th century. 

But it is much more - it vividly depicts Paris during that period, with a keen knowledge of the city's geography and of the injustices which saw the classes pitted against one another. It is also a mystery - where the main character's integrity comes under question. And last, it is a triumphant affirmation of the bond between women and of the power some women can have to better the lives of their sisters - a theme not often explored.

The main character is Victoire, a young woman from the country, who suffers tragic losses, mistreatment, betrayal, imprisonment, and as a mother, the worse tortures of the mind. Perhaps it was the author's background in nursing but I felt that the passages depicting Victoire's growing emotional instability during a difficult period in her life, were believable and evocative. I enjoyed the medical attention to detail around Victoire's ordeal and her dramatic passage into the very darkness of Paris. 

Jeanne de la Motte 
painted by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Without spoiling it for readers, I want to say how much I enjoyed the entertaining and saucy intrigue which begins with the appearance of Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy in the story. Though I had read about l'Affaire du Collier and the scandal it created around Marie-Antoinette, I ignored much about Jeanne. The adventuress can be credited for much of the spice and reversal of fortune injected into this wonderful tale. I love when authors take daring approaches to speculative history and this was perhaps my favorite passage in the book. 

One detail that stood out for me is the author's sensitive attention to nature, a considerate touch given the main character's country origin. Nature's presence is pervasive in this novel, not only through weather and its effects on crops and the socio-economic upheavals of the time, but also through what the main character glimpses from her surroundings, as these reflect her mood and consciousness. 

Victoire's touching letters to her daughter Lucie, her beautiful and enterprising relationship with her husband, Armand - who was my favorite character - gave much heart to this novel. The love of a mother shines in many passages. 

In all, a well-researched and highly enjoyable read.

Review: Habibi by Craig Thompson

Exquisite storytelling. 

Craig Thompson has a gift for conveying complex emotional messages through images alone. One can guess at his vision, which is one of tolerance, understanding and peace, and is delivered subtly in delightful images, always with compassion for his characters; compassion for people in all walks of life. 

I was highly moved and entertained by this wonderful tale of love and life. Aside from the original narrative, both the novel's intriguing non-linear progression and its subtle humour offer compelling reasons to keep reading. 

Craig's artwork sways gently between the divine and the erotic. I had never read his other book, Blankets; it was Habibi's cover and the beautiful Islamic calligraphy of the cover's interior which drew my eye. 

I had to own Habibi! I was not disappointed.