Holidays in the sun 

Have mercy on me, dear reader, for I spent most of today in irons (have I mentioned my hotel used to be a prison?)

I spent hours in irons. But not shackles. Rather, I surrounded myself with Iron, bronze, silver, and marble, too. I made a visit to the Istanbul Museum of Archaeology my first order of business, thinking I’d spend an hour, perhaps 90 minutes there, before revisiting Tokapi Sarayi and the Aya Sofia, maybe pay a visit to that doge interred on the upper gallery. Best laid plans, and all that.

Founded in the latter half of the 19th century to house a number of the palace’s growing collection of sarcophagi, the collection currently spans four buildings, with a prodigious amount of exhibits off limits while engineers shore up the main building against seismic activity.
Given the utterly overwhelming volume of artifacts I saw, I decided to pinpoint three areas where I felt the museum excelled. I qualify that by pointing out this museum doesn’t do anything badly or even merely competently. The labels could benefit from some proofreading, but that detail doesn’t detract from the scholarship, the choice of items on display, or the superb framework the curatorial text lays out for visitors.

I was most interested in two areas when I started exploring — the local Chalcedon Culture that began roughly concurrently with the Hellenic city of Byzantium and pre-Persian (or Parthian) inhabitants, of the region around the Sea of Marmara.
The Chalcedonian aspect of my curiosity they handle extraordinarily well because there’s so much archaeological material right here in town. Since the Chalcedon culture was firmly entrenched from the sixth century before the common era (bce) in the areas between Uskudar and Karakoy on the Asian side, digging the subway endured a wealth of artifacts. 

They coyly hint at the uncertainty of the etymology for the culture, but one can discern that whoever wrote the text sided with the account that the Persian warrior King that defeated both them and Byzantium called their kingdom the land of the blind, joking you’d have to be blind to choose to live anywhere but the promontory currently occupied by the Topkapi Sarayi and the archaeological museum, among other highlights.

Given Istanbul’s location and the trade advantages its position between the Bosphorous and (some ways to the west) Dardanelles, the city has been a sort of grand central station to the Hittites, the Phrygians, and countless others, so my interest in preparthian history is very well served by this museum.

What I didn’t know was that at some point in Istanbul’s inhabited history, both the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea had been fresh water 

That must have complicated trade a little bit, but not enough to dent the city’s trade profile. Interaction with Assyrians, Cypriots, Hellenes, and the Parthians visibly shaped what one sees in the local grave coverings, but it also adds weapons technology, additional materials (like soapstone, alabaster, and eventually marble) to the attention of local artisans. 

What I didn’t walk into the museum expecting was the superb level of granularity that the exhibit on Troy provided. I’ve seen two or three exhibits that focus on what Schliemann did and the mistakes he made (attributing jewelry to Homer’s Troy that belonged to an earlier civilization, to name one), but never have I seen an exhibit which breaks down every layer; details its population and area consumed; described burial methods; discussed their economic position; and described their relations with neighboring cultures.

If I am to be honest with you, the fact is I haven’t done this museum and its four buildings’ contents even remotely well. This complex took me the better part of four hours and I read almost every label. 

I barely scratched the surface. I doff my hat to the curators who’ve assembled this amazing treasury of glass, statuary, jewelry, ceramics, weaponry, and even the oldest love poem!


Dublin Writer’s Museum

Just before hopping on a train to Belfast, my friend Anjili and I ducked into the Dublin Writer’s Museum. Located across the street from Parnell Square, the museum a couple Georgian row-houses. The second house functions as performance space and administrative offices, but the primary building provides a superb glimpse into Ireland’s world of letters. One of the Jameson magnates had an architect elevate the house’s interior to the most gorgeous standards of its time, and the restoration of those finishing touches really complements books, clothes, and artifacts found within (not least, a piano purchased by James Joyce when he wasn’t entirely solvent).

What one derives from this museum, rich in first editions, quirky portraits and mementoes, is a sense of a strong and supportive community for writers that reflects the both the historical traditions of Ireland in general and a very class-based sense of what well-heeled people did in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, if they weren’t off at war, politics, or trade.

Dozens of people’s names show up at this museum, folks of whom I either had distantly heard of (like le Fanu) or those I had never heard of, like Kate Reilly. I also wasn’t aware of Oliver St-John Grogarty’s enmity with Joyce, or Joyce’s revenge, or that Behan had a follow-up to Borstal Boy published posthumously.

Most of the curatorial text comes to visitors through handheld sets, keyed to numbers above the display cases. What made these handhelds worth using were the snippets of poetry and prose, sometimes read aloud by the author, to gloss the narration of each author’s contribution to Irish literature. In particular, a recording of Joyce reading Anna Livia Pluribel made my heart skip a beat.

Leaving the museum, I wondered how I had visited Dublin four times before and missed this place. While not the best curated museum I have ever visited, it does possess a cohesive core, surrounded by many original objects I wanted to see for myself (like a phone Samuel Beckettt had, graced with a red button that prevented any incoming calls). Altogether, I found this museum a worthy expense of time and attention.

People of the Book (and scrolls, tablets, etc)

I can’t rightly tell you how I managed to come to Dublin so many times and somehow missed out on the Chester Beatty Library, situated right behind the Dublin Castle, but many people live in Washington, DC, and never ride to the top of the Old Post Office Bell Tower, either.

That saiid, no book-worm, let alone a literature major, should miss Chester Beatty’s collection of books, manuscripts, scrolls, and various samples of writing from around the world. From fragments of Saint Paul’s letters to jade tablets with Chinese calligraphy; from mandalas stitched on silk to vellum lovingly and painstakingly inscribed with Suras or the Gospels, Beatty collected just about anything that could be considered a book. While Judean texts seem conspicuously finite next to the Islamic and Christian examples, Beatty seems to have missed nothing in the Far East, including samples of Jain, Sikh, Hindu, and Buddhist sacred texts.

The collection’s strengths lie in providing both methodological and historical context; both the tools used to fashion these works and the periods in which each type of text evolved receive their due. In particular, a section on the Five Pillars of Islam situate the various Suras and the Hadith adequately to grasp how and why the Quran has remained nearly static in sequence and format as is possible over more than a millennium.

Taken together, Beatty’s book collections, his paintings, and the space they inhabit fall short of inspiring the awe that the Trinity Library’s Book of Kells triggers, but this, rather than seeming a shortcoming, actually benefits visitors. In the resulting calmness, one can actually pause to consider the magnificence of Beatty’s collection and devotion to books.

Museo Xul Solar

A mile’s walk from the zoo, just off Avenida Santa Fe, the Pan Club of artist Alessandro Xul Solar showcases his paintings, his belongings, and an eccentric genius that ranged from mysticism, surrealism, off-beat humor, and a Latin American identity.

A close friend of Luis Borges, he illustrated many Borges novels, as well as putting together off-beat collections like his tempera on paper paintings of zodiac signs (arranged in three paintings of four each); Man Plants (which look more like cats’ heads on tree trunks than men); and a number of landscapes with anthropomorphically rendered walls and buildings so jagged they make the hallways in “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari” seem depressingly mundane.

Xul Solar also collected many things that detailed various forms of mysticism, like elaborately crafted I Ching sets, books of Magic written by Aleister Crowley, and a few astrological relics. This is a small museum, but it’s quirky and I loved it.

Books, books, books!

One good thing about transcontinental travel, you sure get your reading done! Or if not all of it, great swaths of it. For instance, I finished Les Miserables on the plane from Dubai to Delhi, and read Alafair Burke’s Angel Tip, a tautly plotted murder mystery by the daughter of James Burke.

The Burke book was a birthday present from my father, and it was really well chosen. It struck gold in several veins, such as the hardened, pull-no-punches Police Procedural, the excellent character development, the palpably menacing tone several chapters took as the New York cop Ellie Hatcher closed in on a most unlikely and slippery culprit. Sporting more twists than a contortionist trying out the Kama Sutra, this book really stands out from the herd of mysteries. And I read a lot of them.

Les Miserables requires more of an investment of thought and verbiage, not least because Victor Hugo invested time and energy in over a thousand pages of dense and insightful novel writing. The least I can do as a matter of respect is explore a number of things that merit attention. First and foremost, I got a college degree in literature because I love stories. I love hearing them, telling them, reading, and writing them. That Hugo fellow, well he could spin a yarn, and then some.

At times, though, his digressions wore me down. Not because they were distractions from the plot (though that did bother me sometimes) but because they oozed treacle. Were he alive, I might shake my finger at him and say, “Victor, I don’t like your tone!” By turns preachy, smug, overly pious, and too snooty for me, his tone sabotaged the populist and revolutionary fervor he aimed to convey in his writing. Having commented on that, however, let me call out some real highlights.

Hugo’s intricately detailed breakdown of the Battle of Waterloo THRILLED me. I never knew it was so nail-biting and dependent on so many quirky variables. I’d give that account A for verisimilitude. I also loved the indictment of the monastic orders and their anachronistic attempts to cling to an age that didn’t need them anymore. I don’t agree, of course, having attended and benefitted from a Benedictine school a century and a half later than the era of Hugo’s diatribe, but I enjoyed the zeal with which he denounced false piety and power-mongering monks. Oh yes, I have met them!

A final and most crucial (if olfactorily awful) digression emerges in the chapters about Parisian sewers, their history, and architecture. What a palpably squelching inferno Valjean braved! And at the end, to find first Threnardier, and then Javert? Man, that truly adds up to a pile of crappy luck!

Like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, I enjoyed Les Miserables precisely because it didn’t breeze through the story with Hemingway’s brevity or Alain Robbe-Grillet’s frustrating dismissal of plot; rather, he stretched out his legs and romped through half a century of revolution, class warfare, romance, and sociologically apt observations. Not my favorite book, but I rather enjoyed reading it.

Now I’m about a third of the way through a rather engaging Swedish mystery called Killer’s Island. Written by Anna Jansson, the narrative handles multiple perspectives without feeling stretched too thin in characterization or gimmicky in technique. When Police Officer Maria Wern makes her way home one night, she chances upon some thugs battering a kid. Her interference lands her in the hospital, but more sinister crimes lurk ahead. I love the Scandinavian murder mysteries for their atmospheric and fatalistic tone, and this one looks like one of the best so far.

Broken Harbor

Reading Broken Harbor, Tana French’s fourth novel, I find wonder whether She always had a darkness in her — the wrenching and exquisite sense of dread that permeates the prose in all four books — or whether it comes from living in Dublin.

Not Irish by birth, she was born in the united states and traveled the world. Her schooling, though – she studied Drama at Trinity – I could see how that might have affected her vision. Not that the Irish have a monopoly on darkness in their literature — its the flavor of the darkness that I relish. This, after all, is the home of Bram Stoker, of the Firbolg and the Tuatha Danaan, to say nothing of Emer, pursuing her Cuchulainn in the underworld to save his life. No, the Irish don’t own the Darkness, but they’ve branded it quite well.

It particularly works well in their Police Procedurals; Declan Hugest’ Ed Loy and Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor have long entertained me, but lately, I’ve tended to regard them as warm-up acts for Ms. French. That’s not fair — both are good stylists and superb story-tellers — but Ms French’s works hit me with visceral impact, deep and lasting.

What to say about the latest novel by Ms French? An unkind skeptic could accuse her of mastering a formula — a police detective takes on a routine case, only to learn its particulars slice through his or her professional reserve and change forever the way the detective sees oneself, the job, and the people all around. Such an accusation would miss what makes Ms French so disturbingly brilliant and memorable.

As Broken Harbor reminds us, something In the Woods, The Likeness, and Faithful Place also keep at the forefront of our mind, all murder is intimately and obscenely personal. Murder reminds us of the control we struggle to maintain over our impulses, the good and bad judgment we have exercised with long lasting impact, and the fact that we all die — not a little, either — when those close to us die before their time.

Any death — be it borne of wasting illness, suicide, or foul play — not only diminishes us, it offends our very souls. Ms French’s characters all tend to wrestle with themselves on matters of order and decency, matters of class and identity, but above all, questions of faith in our goodness. Murder tends to place a rather large lens over those questions, Ms French reminds us, and we ignore them at the peril of our decency and well-being.

Broken Harbor pushes these struggles to the fore, as narrator Mike “Scorch” Kennedy takes on a case where a seemingly perfect family is found savagely assaulted in their McMansion home by the seaside. The housing development where their McMansion rapidly deteriorates has a new name (“Brianstown,” presumably a reference to the king that vanquished the Vikings before being slain at Clontarf while praying), but Scorch remembers the beach behind the Ocean View development for Intensely personal reasons. Those reasons will gloss and shape his investigation in myriad ways, and they shape and drive our personal investment in this book’s outcome.

By the time the author of the savagery revealed on the first page becomes clear, not a single character has gone unscathed — nor the reader, either. That’s SOME story, coming from a country famous for them. Ms French’s novels prove one hell of a ride — taken as a nascent body of work, she looks ready to push the Police Procedural to new and uncharted literary heights.

a collision of texts

Not surprisingly, my trip to Iceland inspired me to reacquaint myself with Asgard and that lot. I recalled that long ago, when I first got my kindle, I plumbed Amazon’s Public Domain collection and downloaded George Webbe Dasent’s book Popular Norse Tales.” I started reading it months ago but got sidetracked. This morning, I started reading it anew and realized I had stopped during a rather ponderous introduction by the editor (I didn’t call him the author, because to my knowledge, Snorri is the first writer to collect these stories).

I remember thinking the language antiquated, the rhetoric stentorian, and the views put forth even worse. What you get from a five and a half hour airplane fliught, however, is thge focus and patience to read what you never would at home. Over the course of several pages, as the pious English protestant heralds the One True Religion and how it replaced the quaint pagan beliefs of those Norsemen who settled in Iceland, I wondered if I could finish this introduction.

At some point, however, I realized the editor must have more than a little sense of humor. Writing between 1817 and 1896, he lists all the major philological arguments and theories on how various folk stories made their way to us through totally different channels, and then proceeds to knock down these arguments with examples of stories and tropes which contradict this smug theory or that hypothesis. After a while, he focuses solely on the tales of the Aesir and returns the theme of Christianity’s replacement of the old stories. At first you think, oh christ, another self-satisfied protestant, boasting how his people vanquished both those pesky heathens and the wicked Catholic Church.

Indeed, it seems he’s going in that way, touting the replacement of war-like qualities with love-your-brother kumbayah drivel. But wait, now he’s pointing out that the Christians have not only NEVER successfully vanquished Odin, et al, he points out that the Christians first tried to strong arm the heathens, and then coopted their Gods and stories (nothing we didn’t know), and over the course of several pages makes the case that Christianity has totally forgot its focus, while the teutonic peoples who never entirely relinquished Odin and his lot (and he includes both the English and Irish here), have a pretty good idea of what their values are, thank you very much. He then shifts to women and points out how, through Freya, trading, and even warfare, the Norse stories provided a cooperative role for women, one the Church just shut down and replaced with passive roles. From there to witchcraft and the Christian hatred of cats, he doesn’t have to reach far to make the case that The Church didn’t necessarily offer a better vision for all. He then asks the rhetorical question, surely the Reformers did better and provided a better model of Christianity than the Pope’s church?

No joy there, he concedes: the lutherans and other reformists took up the torch abd persecuted witches, so-called heretics, and anyone else not toeing the line with as much zeal, if not more, than the Inquisition (remember, he’s writing in the late nineteenth century, so no Monty Python jokes to be found here; sorry). He also points out that the one area where all religions and cults have overlap is the treatment of the Divine by ordinary mortals when the former mingle among the latter in disguise. Here, too, he finds the Christians wanting in charity and gracious welcomes, and wonders iif something wasn’t lost when the Norse Icelandic settlers agreed to adopt Christianity.

I haven’t finished the introduction yet, but its humor, anomalies, and the sheer surprise of discovering a screed from the Victorian era that doesn’t toe the line really threw me. I thought it particularly amusing because I resumed reading it five minutes after finishing HG Wells’ The Time Machine. Whoa, what an artifact of satire that proved to be! I had no idea (because I’d never read it when it was assigned in secondary school) how political the subtexts were.

The two works, written within a quarter century of each other, reminded me that the precedents set at Þingvellir reached far beyond simple legislative innovation, and it’s no accident that many of the Edda texts preserved were transcribed from the oral tradition by Snorri, a lawyer at that Parliamentary party. What I get from reading these two in conjunction is a reminder how transcribing laws to ensure judicious and fair treatment of all usually ends up triggering the transcription of folklore, and that process, while necessary, usually inflicts casualties on canons.