Category Archives: What is literature for?

Somerset Maugham’s “Catalina”–When a satire is good-humored

There are times when I go to my bookshelf without an idea in my head about what I want to read, and different processes by which I select one.  This time, it was almost a sense of obligation that caused me to choose the book, which had sat in my collection for at least 20 years without being touched, even with a little curiosity.  It was a little, old, regular-sized paperback, with extremely brittle and yellowed pages (because it was printed on non-acid-free paper), and the marketing, which is often a large part of a book’s appeal, was as dated as the condition of the book.  I look now at the publication date (1948) and the printing dates listed (1961-1965), and am not surprised.  Though it quite clearly says in small letters on the back in one of the reviews that it’s a satire, the front cover and other, written parts of the book bill it as a historical fiction, even “a lusty historical novel by one of history’s most illustrious story-tellers.”  I guess it’s a case of “you pays your money, you takes your choice,” depending upon the sophistication of the reader involved.  Having a certain amount of pride in my own degree of sophistication, I like to look past the evocative, haughty stare of the beautiful and expensively dressed “dona” on the front cover (Catalina herself, in the illustrator’s imagination, evidently in the latter parts of the book, after she has acquired some money), and the promise of Maugham telling “movingly of 16th century Spain with all its turbulence and pageantry, and intrigue of courts and clergy,” and the Inquisition, and etc., to the fact itself, that he is clearly telling of these things with a satirist’s manner and seeing through satirical lenses, however good-natured he is.

And this is the point:  we are used to reading satire that is bitter in tone, angry even, with pointed queries and sharp rejoinders in the dialogue, sometimes satire that is almost an ill-tempered chuckle a minute.  Maugham is none of that in this book.  We are familiar with him as the acclaimed author of such books as The Razor’s EdgeThe Moon and SixpenceOf Human Bondage.  Though Catalina is by comparison with these a minor work, it deserves a place no less in the writer’s Hall of Fame, and is a good satire to boot, though in this regard, it almost sneaks up on you at first.  To begin at the beginning:

Catalina is introduced to us as a young woman of 16 or so who clearly needs a miracle.  She wants to marry her erstwhile suitor, Diego, the son of a poor tailor, but she has since the inception of his interest in her been accidentally trampled by a bull and is lame.  His parents will no longer allow him to marry her, because they reason that a lame wife cannot help him in the household.  So Catalina is heartbroken, and prays relentlessly to the Virgin to help her be healed.  And lo and behold! on a day when a huge pageant is being held à la Inquisition, to welcome Don Blasco de Valero, an Inquisitor, and his brother, Don Manuel, an important captain in the King’s army, to town in the town where their brother Don Martin, an apparently unimportant baker, lives, the miracle begins to happen.  The Virgin appears to Catalina where she sits with her crutch on the steps of the church, and promises her that “The son of Juan Suarez de Valero who has best served God has it in his power to heal you.  He will lay his hands upon you and in the name of the Father, the Song and the Holy Ghost, bid you throw away your crutch and walk.”  So far so good.

But the rub comes in when it’s a choice amongst the brothers.  In a richly satiric section which comments upon the mercy and grace of the Inquisitor (who grants small favors to those whom he is about to have tortured or burned), it becomes obvious that everyone who hears of the Virgin’s promise–if they aren’t assuming that Catalina was visited by a demon in the shape of the Virgin–thinks automatically that the Inquisitor is the man being referred to.  They are all afraid to speak of the sighting of the Virgin, because just as God is said to be a jealous God, the Inquisitors are typically jealous of their own special province, and don’t usually respond kindly to people who claim to have experienced miracles, even some of their own clergy.  When Don Blasco hears of this miracle, through many channels, he asks God for a sign.  In front of some of his own friars, he is levitated in the church by mysterious means, and that God might be a satirist does not, of course, occur to anyone.  But when Don Blasco attempts to heal Catalina, it doesn’t work.  With some fraught humility, he and his society question Catalina, and find that after all, the Virgin did not identify Don Blasco specifically in her visit, but only mentioned the brothers as a group.  So, the town next asks the military brother, Don Manuel, to try.  Again, it doesn’t work.  They are ready to asssume that Catalina has been visited by an evil spirit, until it occurs to them, after much difficult thought, that there is a third man, the humble and generous baker, Don Martin.  They are loathe to try his powers, but Don Blasco’s friars are visited by Catalina’s drunken playwright of an uncle, a former childhood friend of his, who quotes the religious statement about the stone which was rejected by the builders being the cornerstone of the church.  They ignore him, but Don Blasco seems to get the inspiration, and they try the bewildered baker’s hands on Catalina’s head:  it works, and she is healed.

The remainder of the story is a sort of spoof saint’s legend, with Catalina as the saint in question (she is emphatically not a saint, because she is a lusty young woman very much in love, who evades a temporarily  interfering Prioress’s attempts to make her part of a nunnery, and instead escapes and succeeds in marrying her sweetheart, Diego.  They go on to become members of a travelling theatre troupe, and become quite famous by the end of the story, not exactly a fate in line with their contemporary Church teachings). This is particularly the good-humored part of the satire, because it is almost a love story, and yet the occasional whimsical though pointed remark whizzes its way through the fiction like an arrow.

Though I have told the main parts of the story with nary a spoiler alert, it is still well worth a read to see the craftsman Maugham work for yourself.  A satire of the Inquisition and the entire hypocrisy of its containing society, this book also inspires generous and loving laughter at the foibles of religious man and his bona fides.

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A Record of Birth and Death, and a History of a Community–Anne Lamott’s “Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year”

Anne Lamott sneaks up on you, every time she writes.  She makes it seem so easy, and she makes you laugh your way through the most serious trials and traumas, yet, as they are usually her own or her friends’ trials and traumas, she only invites you to be amused at yourself and your friends and acquaintances as well, without attempting to force it on you.  She gets your attention from the very first, with her whimsical and tantalizing titles.  Bird by Bird.  Travelling Mercies.  Help Thanks Wow.  Operating Instructions:  A Journal of My Son’s First Year.  This last mentioned book is what I want to comment upon today.

No one who thinks in categories is likely to remain unsurprised by Anne Lamott.  She writes from the heart for everyone.  She identifies herself as a Christian believer, yet many Christian believers who are of the narrow-minded or even reserved variety would be shocked by the things she says about belief, and about the challenges of life and friendship.  She’s a writer’s writer, but one who pooh-poohs many of the accustomed bywords of the profession, and instead captains her own canoe, and tries to teach others to do the same.  She is preternaturally wise about people, yet doesn’t mind looking clueless or foolish in the pursuit of raising a child, which for everyone not trained in childcare is a new experience at least the first time, sometimes with every child.  And she has been a recovering alcoholic and drug-user, yet without mouthing all of the expected pieties or begging for pity or understanding:  she understands herself, and is willing to share the experience of new realizations and inspirations on this and other life challenges.  And she is a member of a warm and loving community of friends, to whom she spends a lot of time in Operating Instructions giving due credit for all the things they did for her and helped her with during her pregnancy and her son’s first year.  You’d think that all of these things would be a large order for one book to fill, but Lamott manages it all.  Indeed, my question to myself wasn’t why I was reading her when I myself have never had a child, live without a large community of friends, have never been an alcoholic or a drug-user, am not a strict Christian believer, and etc.,:  my question to myself was why I hadn’t run across her work and read it before now, for the sheer overwhelming qualities of humanity and fellow-feeling in it.  Indeed, Lamott herself becomes a new friend through her books, and I only regret that if I manage to read all her works, assuming I can find all the titles and copies, that I won’t be able to hear her wonderful voice resounding through any new works.  But then, it’ll be time to re-read the ones I’ve already read!

There is a price to be paid by all of us for being alive, and that is the one of someday having to die as well, whether from old age, or infirmity, or sheer cussedness.  In the last third or so of the book about her son, Lamott begins to extend her subject, beyond that of her son and his acceptance into her community of friends and fellow church-goers, who all worship him and seem to adore her, and value her as she should be valued (except for a very few, whose defection she recounts with perplexity and consternation, but also with humor); in the last section of the book, she also documents with love, affection, and sorrow, extreme sorrow, the gradual passing of her friend Pammy (Pamela Murray).  Pammy was the most frequent, perhaps, of all Lamott’s friends to be around and to help, and they continued by Lamott’s record to support each other to the very time of Pammy’s death, in 1992 at the age of 37.

How like Lamott to center something with the subtitle A Journal of My Son’s First Year on her son, yet instead of making the book wholly about him and his development, (with a certain amount of misdirection) to place him in the center of what would be his community as he grew up.  One appreciates the absence of the gaa-gaa goo-goo kind of baby silliness, and instead the distinct degree to which Lamott admits her lack of expertise at this parent game, and takes the reader along as she herself grows up too, in a sense.  And one of the pieces of growing up is to accept and to mourn the loss of a friend, whose cancer took her away from Lamott and her family and friends in an untimely fashion.  A life begun, and a life ended, and Anne Lamott negotiating her way in between with her masterly and humane craft.

I have no choice but to read now, as soon as I can locate a copy, Some Assembly Required:  A Journal of My Son’s First Son, to continue to follow this small and yet extended-by-friends family through the story of Jax, Anne Lamott’s son Sam’s first son, who came along when Sam was nineteen.  That is all I currently know of the book, other than that it was first published in 2012, but I’m hoping to know a lot more.  I also hope that you too will follow Lamott through her books about writing, faith, family, and also her fiction books, which are perhaps undeservedly lesser known because so many people (like me) are in love with her essayistic voice.  I know that I urge readers to follow certain writers with the “if you read nothing else this year” line so popular with reviewers, so I’ll just say, “Verbum satis” (A word to the wise is sufficient).  Don’t miss the opportunity to make a new writer friend.

 

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“A Theory of Time”–My latest love poem

This is my latest love poem, and I have to say that even though not all of my poems are love poems, I’m beginning to wonder if people are getting tired of my favorite poetic subject, of all my poetic subjects, if they by and large aren’t poetically inclined, if they resent rhyme (as I often use it, and some people consider it out of style), or if they’re even reading my output at all.  I still am getting tons of reads of my literary essays, some even all the way back to 2012 when I first started my blog, but it’s rare for people to comment on the poetry, or even give it a “like,” which admittedly is a bit of a lazy technique for comments, though I have occasionally used them when I couldn’t think of what else to say.  So, if you are reading, folks out there, don’t feel unequal to the situation, or shy:  most poets are flattered even to be read.  I can tell by some of my stats that the poetry is less popular, but other stats suggest that some readers are getting to it through “Archives” and the “front page,” as I call it.  Let me invite you to read, and have your say.

A Theory of Time

After a while, the rope will fray and break
That is tied and stretched and tested for love's
  long sake;
Though aeons may pass without apparent change
Then on a sudden the atoms will rearrange

Themselves, and the threads will fast unweave
And the lover's heart, torn and tattered, cease
  to cleave
(Except when "cleave" means to split and to divide,
Whereupon the rope then untwines from side to side

Rather like two snakes, themselves undoing from acts
  of love
If really that were their destined formation,
  to be wove.)
Rope, quite like the mirror, split from side to side,
And Tennyson's curse seems to mock and to deride.

Ropes and rivers, and bodies in boats drifting
  with the tide
To Camelot, where the towers spread out wide,
And boats are secured, as long as ropes hold true,
But boats are just boats, and rue is only rue.

For when men and ladies rue what has been done,
And time rolls around, intent to spare not one,
Then Camelot once again peeks out from time
Granting a suffering unwound and sublime.

And then threads of love lie loosely
  on the ground,
Quiescent, dependent from the parent round
So that all one can say is "It once was
  in Camelot,
And wherever else, and now the bonds are not."

For, regal and royal we most of us just fail of,
And our Camelots flourish on more quotidian love,
Long testings and strivings, so noble and honored
  and free--
Why, ropes already riven would float us out
  to sea!

So, consider, my love, that I still love and hope,
Though for aeons, it seems, I haven't yanked
  on the rope;
But left you at peace, where it seems you want
  to be,
As far as a galaxy, universe, from me.

©4/19/2019 by Victoria L. Bennett

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How to write a how-to book–Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird”

Most of us who write, have aspirations to write, or just like reading about good writing and how it’s done have heard of Anne Lamott.  She’s the fine essayistic voice behind such classics as Bird by Bird (her book on teaching writing) and other, more obviously spiritual books such as Help, Thanks, Wow (her book on what prayer is all about) or her books about her son’s and grandson’s youth (Operating Instructions: My Son’s First Year and Some Assembly Required:  My Son’s First Son respectively).  The breadth of the things she can write about (because she also writes fiction) is astounding, but behind it all is a firm grounding in just what makes us human and reachable by others; for Lamott, it’s our sense of humor.

Today, I would like to share just a little of what I think makes for success in her work, and it is this sense of humor she shares with us so readily.  Even when she’s discussing situations in which she has encountered the most fragile of writers’ egos, or the most obnoxious of them, she does so with a rich appreciation of their underlying connection to her and her own experiences.  She shares little snippets of these experiences constantly, and while being aware that she must once have agonized over things just as much as the rest of us do, we are coaxed along through the narrows, shoals, and dead falls of being writers by her amused look at her own trials and difficulties with other writers, publishers, editors, family, and day-to-day confusions.

True, it’s often hard for us to laugh when our own work is concerned, and Lamott discusses at length in several spots how some of her students seemed nearly to want to call her a fraud because she couldn’t give them quick and easy answers about how to get published.  Her take on this whole conundrum was that one should write for the sake of writing, and publish when possible, if possible.  Her final encouraging word seems to be that writing is a spiritual task, a fulfillment of personal goals more precious and worthwhile than the mere search for fame and fortune.  Now, one could also believe that it’s easy for her to say, since she is a famous and respected writer.  Except, of course for the fact that she discusses freely her own search, at first, for fame and fortune, and the sum and total of her book’s argument (though it’s really important to read the whole of her book and not rely just on my word) is that true satisfaction comes not from finding fame and fortune through one’s writings, but from the process, as I know you’ve heard it said before.  It’s just that Anne Lamott makes the best argument for this frequently-cited idea with a grace and hilarity which you won’t find in other writing guides I’m familiar with, where everything is self-serious and clunky, even, full of nice one-liners supported by lengthy paragraphs, which, however well-intentioned, rely on some particular set of tricks of the trade some of which even contradict those in other writing guides.

Lamott is nothing if not blessed with a light touch; this makes her book easy to read, which is not a curse:  it’s free of causing that overwhelmed feeling one often has after reading a writing guide, that feeling of having too much responsibility weighing one down, that feeling of being unequal to the task of writing as advised.  This may be because Lamott doesn’t come up with a particular theory of writing, or support a particular style; instead, she gives general advice about where to seek for material starting out (from one’s childhood, from overheard conversations, etc.), about how to accept criticism in a beneficial manner, about how to know when criticism is not based on good fellow feeling, about how to deal with what publication is really like, about how to deal with writer’s block, and other issues facing those who are rank beginners and who are seasoned writers equally.

Anyone who is interested even in the issue of how other people write whether or not they write themselves might find a good read and more than a few chuckles in this book, which though funny as hell is also gifted with an underlying commitment to the subject that it’s easily possible to sense.  After reading this book and finishing it a couple of days or two ago, I felt the impulse to write an essay other than a literarily-based essay on a work of literary fiction, such as I ordinarily publish here.  Though it doesn’t have the comic power of Anne Lamott, it’s a piece such as she advises us to write, based on things from our own lives, and so I want to share it with you, my audience, and will use it as my next post.  Until then, make an effort to get a read of Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, or indeed any of her others while you are waiting to read that one, and I promise you will be entirely delighted with her material and her voice alike.

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When truth is reached through shadows and illusions–“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Since I’ve first read the play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”  I’ve often casually wondered why the tale of an alcoholically debauched night between two academic couples, one seasoned and supposedly mature and the other neophyte, should have been given its title, with a major talent of the writing world (who was excluded from academia because she was a woman) featured by name.  At first, I followed up a suggestion, unfounded, made to me by someone who said that as neither of the couples purportedly have surviving children, it was named because Virginia Woolf was not allowed to have a child, due to her bouts of mental illness.  While there may be many truths that history, literary as well as other kinds of history, may hide, I could find no suggestion in what I know of Virginia Woolf to support the theory that she wanted children.  In fact, she apparently turned down Leonard Woolf a couple of times because she wanted to avoid sex and marriage.  Next, my theory became the idea that as marriage is often fearsome and turbulent for many, the title referred to this very desire to avoid marital intimacy.  But then, beginning with George and Martha, the older couple in Edward Albee’s play, all the dirty linen and even the hypothetical dirty linen of marital intimacy is aired in front of the opposite couple, the younger of whom are Nick and Honey, who after a while of this badgering begin to reveal some ugly secrets of their own.  So, I was no further along.

I was perhaps making my mistake, though, by my preference for George’s character, because he is the one who seems at some moments to be the ringleader of the group, though Martha plays a strong hand as well.  He, for instance, christens the “games” of societal frauds and truth-tellings between the two couples, who are spending a sodden late night visit together, Humiliate the Host, Get the Guests, and Hump the Hostess, and he is the senior academic of the group at the college where Nick is also employed.  But this didn’t get me much further, once I decided to try to look at the group more objectively, perhaps, certainly more equally, with each having a part to play.  It’s a funny play, funny in a biting, acerbic, sardonic fashion, which is George’s main mode of utterance most of the time, so I feel I may be excused for at first regarding him as more central than the others.  It’s an odd, surrealistic scene, typical of the ways many people going on a bender feel about their surroundings while they are doing it; I can speak from experience in this regard.  It’s sort of reality turned inside out, with people saying things they normally only think when they are in such a situation, where they mostly stick to polite manners, fighting off drunken impulses even when three sheets to the wind, only discussing the evening frankly with their mates when they arrive home.  But in this case, in different groupings of four, three, and two, they find themselves in a metadialogue, discussing what happens as it happens.

What actually happens here, though, does have something to do with a certain quote from Virginia Woolf, which I uncovered only today:  “A feminist is any woman who tells the truth about her life.”  Martha and George seemingly have a routine they go through around other couples, and an agreement not to discuss their progeny, a son, whom it is difficult to discern if they ever really had.  They keep threatening each other with the revelation of something about him in front of the guests, who are uncomfortable and want not to hear at first, and it’s difficult to know if it’s that he died in an accident caused by himself or George, or that in fact he doesn’t exist.  The suggestions run counter and rampant, but by the end of the play, it would seem (though the one truth is not for certain) that, as they end by telling the guests together, in a seeming truce between them which ends their war of words and threats, they never were able to have a child.  If this is the truth which has caused all their angst and pain, and their conflicts and battles, their use of the other couple to get back at each other, and then their mockery aimed at the other couple, then it has been revealed after a reaching through myriads of shadows and illusions they have created, and it ends the play.  Thus it’s not only a feminist who reaches some form of release and freedom, however temporary, by telling the truth about her life, but both Martha and George, in their drunken revelations and conflicts, who by the end of the play have rehearsed once again (and one feels this play has a repetitive loop sense reminiscent of others like “Waiting for Godot”), and come up with the truth(s) of their life, both the things they pretend, the illusions, and the haunting agony that compels them through their lives.  Martha’s drinking problem in particular is in the forefront of their diatribes against each other, though both imbibe heavily; it is  Martha (in the perspective of 1962, when motherhood was still believed to be more innate and stronger a feeling than fatherhood) whose tragedy it is a little more than George’s that either 1) their son died, or that 2) (as seems more likely, since it occupies the ultimate ending position in the play’s plot) they never had a son.  And yet, both of them tell Honey and Nick at the end that “we” were not able to have a child, which is a sign of their apparent strong and twisted love for each other.

I know I perhaps should have issued a spoiler alert for the benefit of those who have not seen or read this play yet, considering the things I’ve revealed about it, but the point is to read or see it and perhaps get something new from it each time.  An excellent experience is to catch a revival theatre viewing of the version of this play with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, directed by Mike Nichols; I promise for searing, scorching dialogues and portrayals of marital pain, it won’t disappoint.

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Rupi Kaur and “The Sun and Her Flowers”–When simplicity is enough

Upon first perusing Rupi Kaur’s second book of poetry, The Sun and Her Flowers, published in 2017 hard upon the heels of her extremely successful first book, Milk and Honey (which I haven’t yet read), I was at first a little disappointed.  The complicated devices and figures I, at least, prefer to find in poetry were missing.  The poem was a long sort of prose poem of most short, declarative sentences, with a few questions strewn here and there, interspersed with clever sketches of the stages of a woman’s life.  The most complicated comparison seemed to be that of comparing people to sunflowers, which, in the titles of the various divisions of the poem, go through stages of “wilting,” “falling,” “rooting,” “rising,” and “blooming.”  That seemed at first not only too simple, but a little simple-minded.  But something kept me reading, anyway.  Perhaps it was the desire to see the “plot” fulfilled, which is one of the characteristic things analysts say drives the reading of a prose work.  I mean, given the organic governing metaphors, and the theme of “to everything a season,” a certain uplift at the end was to be expected, it was apparent.  Still, this particular evocation of the growing season had somehow become more interesting than just the generalized comparison:  she had sneaked it in on me.

As I read, I followed the poem through the delineation of a violently-inclined love affair and its end, the grief and desolation which follow the ending of even a bad love, the gradual recuperation that, if one is basically life-oriented and sensible, one tries to develop or find, the impulse toward re-growth that follows, and the also gradual rise into a new love and a community awareness of the family as a whole.  But let’s take that a little slower.  The first parts of the poem are addressed to a “you” who is a bad influence; then, gradually the “you” disappears; then it morphs into a “you” who is a sudden and surprising treasure; then, an awareness of the loves of different generations of the family develops; then, a recounting of the difficulties that migration presents even to two parents or forbears who love each other, and a detailing of the anxieties and separations they must endure for their families comes next; then, a modest gesture toward discussing the life of societal pressures and how this affects immigrants in a new country sums up the whole.  Really, by the time I finished the book, I was quite impressed with just how forcefully and completely this poetic vision had fulfilled itself, and all in a series of simple, non-capitalized, mostly unpunctuated sentences.  (Not that capitalization or punctuation are regular in poetry anyway, as a general rule, or that they are to be expected in free verse, but when one is confronted with apparent simplicity as a device, one can begin to question whether or not it’s overdone.  Happily, such was not the end result in this case.)

By this time, I was sufficiently humbled to want to read the graceful (and again, simple) biographical sketch of Rupi Kaur which takes place at the end of the book.  It was a bit vague, and I would have liked more details (which, like jewels, or buds, if one prefers to stick to the organic metaphor, were strewn throughout the summary).  Basically, the artist’s statement was that “I am the product of all the ancestors getting together and deciding these stories need to be told”).  One set of topics which I have not touched upon yet, and which the poem also dealt with in detail was female liberation from the restraints of a conventional and hidebound societal influence, and how various generations of women have achieved it.  As the blurb stated, and as I have in a general way sketched out above were:  “love, loss, trauma, healing, feminity, migration, and revolution.”  That’s just about said it all, but that’s saying a lot.

There are many different styles and kinds of poetry kicking around these days, and everyone can mostly choose for himself or herself which to pursue for edification, but if you read no other book of poetry this year, it’s at least arguable that you should read this one, which is based in technique upon the poet’s experiences in delivering performance poetry in places in Canada, her country of adoption.  After all, you can hardly go wrong with a long poem which has not only an organic metaphor governing its development, organic metaphors consistently expressing things “all flesh is heir to,” but which also describes a particular historical experience of a large group of people.  Give it a read; I think you’ll be both pleasantly surprised and greatly impressed, whatever your first impression, or your overall take on performance poetry.  As for me, at some time in the near future, I’ll be dipping into Milk and Honey by the same author, to see what word experience she started out by allowing me to immerse myself in!  Shadowoperator

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A Quick (and Overdue) Footnote to Yesterday’s Post!

Dear Readers,

Yesterday, I published a post on the horror novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, by Bram Stoker.  In it, I commented that my recollection of the novel was quite imperfect, since I hadn’t recalled it perfectly from when I read it about twenty-five years ago.  But my bad memory isn’t the only cause of that–I had believed it to be published in the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century, which turned out to be correct.  But when I checked out of curiosity this morning just to see, it turned out that there were two different versions of the book.  One was published in 1903, and it had a far more tragic ending; that’s evidently the one I read the first time.  The one I read this time was the 1912 version, from which the overall tragedy has been watered down to what I called a “frothy” or possibly weak-minded aftermath.  Wikipedia has an excellent explanation of the results of imperialism on such things as Egyptology and other researches, and I advise the reader in quest of more information about this book to look there.  Shadowoperator

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