La Belle et la Bête – Old as Time

straparola_ritrattoI see the Disneys are dragging out Beauty and her Beast for a new iteration.  It was, of course, ever so, and long before animation and CGI

Scholarly types generally agree that the first iteration of the timeless tale came from the works of Venetian Giovanni Francesco Straparola (1480-1558), a somewhat shadowy figure who thought to follow the success of Boccaccio’s Decameron with a new collection of short stories (the Pig King is the entry in question).  As it happened, he was quite right, and his stuff sold rather well. We may assume he lived happily ever after. As one does in Italy. Continue reading

Stalin’s Englishman

stalins-englishmanStalin’s Englishman, by Andrew Lownie, St. Martin’s Press, $29.99

Andrew Lownie’s biography of one of the Cambridge spy circle has recently caught an answering echo at Cambridge.  Three men prominent in intelligence circles, one of them Sir Richard Dearlove, ex-head of MI5 and master of Pembroke College, have resigned as conveners of the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar.

The trouble specifically was over a digital publishing service which was providing funding for the seminar called Veruscript, founded by one Gleb Cheglakov and his wife Nazik Ibraimova.  Some of those who resigned fear that Veruscript may be a front for Russian intelligence services.  One recent attendee at the regular Friday meetings was Mike Flynn, the Trump nominee for US national security adviser.  What an unseemly to do for Corpus Christi College. Continue reading

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters

the-sixThe Mitford sisters have become an industry.  There are over twenty nine titles concerning them and that does not count their own books- three of them were writers. Only one of them was truly a success, the instigator of the Mitford mythology: Nancy Mitford.

Laura Thompson is contributing her second book to this already crowded section of the biography shelf. The Six, The Lives of the Mitford Sisters is not a straightforward biography.  She has already written about Nancy, Life in a Cold Climate and this is her second attempt at mapping the complicated lives of these siblings only this time by psychological surveillance. Continue reading

Charles Louis Désiré Du Pin (1814-1868): Red Devil

If he doesn’t appear in any of the Flashman books, he should have.  Of all the outrageous soldiers of the 19th century, Du Pin is one of the most notorious and, like Flashman himself, appears to have been everywhere.

He was born at Lasgraisses in the shadows of the Pyrenees,  attended Ecole Polytechnique in Palaiseau and was enrolled as an officer in the French Army.  His first few years were uneventful, but that changed for good once he was sent to Algeria in 1842.  Made a name for himself a year later in the battle of Smalain the 1847 capture of Abd-el Kader, and featured in the panoramic painting of the event of the sort so beloved of the 19th century patriots.  (Full marks if you can make him out.)  Promoted to Major by 1851, he was off to fight in the Crimea in 1855 (French cavalry made no such nonsensical cavalry charge into any valleys of death). Four years later he was in Italy, leading a cavalry division and helping the locals break away from the Austrian Empire.   Along the way he picked up a pair of Legions d’Honneur and and some other decorations for bravery. Continue reading

Karl May, 1842-1912 : Big In Germany

There was a blip on the radar screen with the 2012 centennial of his death, and a few translators have pushed through labor-of-love translations, but on the whole he is still remarkably unknown in America.   This from a man who was the largest selling author in the German language, bigger than Thomas Mann or Erich Maria Remarque, or – well, everyone, really.

So why the indifference?  It’s not as if his work is introspective dark philosophical central European doomsday jobs.  He wrote page turners.  Good page turners.  It can take a little bit to get into the spirit of the thing – we are talking a nineteenth century writer here – but once hooked, you will be hard pressed find the work anything but compelling.  He has narrative drive up the wazoo, and could teach pretty much anyone writing thrillers today a thing or two about action. Continue reading

Anthony Henley (1700-1767): “Dear Sir, Please Go Jump in the Lake”

It is a commonplace that our elected officials do not really have their constituents best interests at heart.   They neither write nor read the legislation they vote into existence, collecting money from the moneyed interests to whom they are in thrall.  Independent minds are few indeed,  court jesters at best, no threat to anyone, really.

But then we tend not to elect people like Anthony Henley.

Henley was the eldest son of his namesake, who was himself a Whig MP, a friend of Jonathan Swift, patron of the Purcells, and said to be a great wit and possessed of a £3,000 a year (on top of a marriage settlement of £30,000) , which benefice came to the son in 1711.  (That’s the father’s picture you’re looking at – I could find none of the son himself.) Continue reading