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

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

Abul Tayyeb al Mutanabi (915-965): The Would-be Prophet

The desert knows me well,
the night and the mounted men.
The battle and the sword,
the paper and the pen.

The Wall Street Journal last Saturday did an appreciation of Firdausi, author of the Persian epic the Shahnamen Book of Kings.  He’s a well enough known name (that is to say, I’ve actually heard of him), but who is the best of the Arab poets?

Short answer is, Al-Mutanabi. Continue reading

Maria Leontievna Bochkareva (1889-1920): Womens’ Battalion of Death

The recent graduation of three women in the Marine Infantry School revives the whole women in combat issue, and invariably commentators have brought up the story of Soviet women in WWII and their military accomplishments.

There was in fact precedence from the First World War.  Not just individual women (there were several of those), but the entire First Women’s Battalion of Death.  The crew was the brainchild of a blooded veteran of the eastern front, one Maria Bochkareva.

She was a peasant woman of Novgorod with a history of unfortunate choices in men. She married at fifteen and when he became abusive, dumped him for companion number two.  He was exiled to Siberia for criminal misbehavior, she dutifully walked off to join him. And when he repeated the pattern, and became abusive, she dumped him as well and headed back west.  Besides, there was a war on and she wanted to do her bit. Continue reading

Lucy Stone (1818-1893) – By Any Other Name

Well the next thing I had to do as to join the Lucy Stone league, so that I could keep my own maiden name after matrimony.  Because a girl’s name should be Sacred, and when she uses her husbands it only sinks her identity.  And when a girl always insists on her own maiden name,  with vialents, it lets people know what she must be important some place or other.  And quite a  good place to insist on an unmarried name, is when you go to some strange hotel accompanied  by a husband. Because when a room  clerck notes that a girl with a  maiden name is in the same room with a gentleman, it starts quite a little explanation, and makes a girl feel quite promanent before everybody in the lobby.

But Dorothy said I had better be careful.    I mean, she says that most Lucy Stoners do not really worry the room clerck, because they are generally the type that are only brought to hotels om account of  matrimony.  But Dorothy  said that when Henry and I waltz in and ask for a  room with my maiden name the clerck would probably take one good look at me, and hand Henry a room in the local jail for the Man act.  

But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, Anita Loos  (all spellings utterly sic) Continue reading

Bibi-la-Purée (1847? – 1903) The Last King of the Latin Quarter

“It will come as a shock to every Englishman who has studied in Montmartre to know that the famous Bibi la Puree has been locked up for forgetting to pawn some clothes of a brother bohemian and putting them on himself.  The downfall of this strange character, with his long hair and historical looking clothes, dates from the night when poor Paul Verlaine, the decadent poet, took him home and housed him for a few days.  The poor fellow came back severely stricken with poet mania and has never done a stroke of work since, and never will.  I believe he belongs to one of the most aristocratic families in France.”

The Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality, Volume 38, May 7, 1902

Well, that would be a “no” on most points.

Continue reading

Harry Crosby (1898 -1929): Rich and Different

Mrs. Allen contends that the let-it-all-hang-out generation of the sixties was not all that revolutionary and really was not a patch on the nineteen twenties.

Reading the life of  Harry Crosby, I’m inclined to agree with her.

Short version, he was a connected Boston boy of privilege gone to the bad.  He prepped at St. Marks and was to go to Harvard (of course), but he found the lure of World War One more attractive and so went off to join the American Field Service Ambulance Corps. Not exactly soft duty – he was nearly killed by an artillery shell, for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Continue reading

Gladys Towles Root – (1905-1982): One Instead of Five

On the American east coast, the gold standard for radical lawyer has always been William Kunstler,  classic show-boater and last best hope to the downtrodden and damned.

No surprise that the west coast should one-up him in the person of Gladys Towles Root.

She got into the mouthpiece business decades before the notion of women lawyers was credible – Adam’s Rib was nothing to her.  Having endured law school and passed the bar, she was unable to join any firms in California.  The woman thing again.  Nothing daunted, she hung out her own shingle, a few blocks away from Skid Row and waited for trade. Continue reading