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Archive for December, 2013

Latest Reviews (23/xii/2013)

Men, Mountains and Mega-TherionsHimalaya: The Exploration and Conquest of the Greatest Mountains on Earth, general editor Philip Parker (Conway 2013)

Shifting and ShapingThe Metamorphoses of Ovid, translated by Mary M. Innes (Penguin 1961)

Warrior with WordsConan the Indomitable, Robert E. Howard (Orion Books 2011)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of Himalaya edited by Philip ParkerHimalaya: The Exploration and Conquest of the Greatest Mountains on Earth, general editor Philip Parker with foreword by Peter Hillary (Conway 2013)

A book with spectacular images and spectacular stories. In the nineteenth century, early mountaineers confronted and conquered the Alps. Then they looked for new challenges. They found them in a much higher and much harder mountain-range lying to the north of India:

For thousands of years the Himalaya has captured the imaginations of explorers, writers and those who have lived among this spectacular, remote and often dangerous landscape. This is a land that demands superlatives – it is the highest mountain range in the world, one of the youngest mountain ranges in the world, home to all of the world’s independent mountains exceeding 8,000 metres (26,246 feet) above sea level, the “eight thousanders”, and some of the greatest river systems on earth. (ch. 1, “Anatomy of the Himalaya: The formation and topography of the range”, Madeleine Lewis, pg. 13)

Opposite that description is one of the spectacular images: a satellite photo showing India colliding with Eurasia to throw up the crumpled band of the world’s highest mountains. The collision has taken place over millions of years, creating a patchwork of blue ocean, green and brown lowlands, and white mountains. Himalaya means “Snow-Abode” in Sanskrit, the ancient Indic language that inspired European scholars to discover the common roots of two linguistic outliers separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years: Icelandic, spoken on a cold island in the far north, and Bengali, spoken on a warm delta in the deep south.

This book is about a parallel exploration by incoming Europeans: of geography, geology, ethnography and the limits of their own biology. Orography, or the mapping of mountains, is part of geography, but Europeans had to climb a psychological barrier before they became true orographers. For example, one of the first great explorers of Tibet was the Italian missionary Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733). For him, the Himalayan mountains were “the very picture of desolation, horror and death itself” (ch. 3, “Early Travellers and Adventurers: The Himalaya to 1815”, pg. 41). As Stewart Weaver, the author of that chapter, remarks:

It is clear that in 1715 the romantic appreciation for mountain glory had yet to take hold of the Western imagination; the Himalaya was a desolate and fearful obstacle to be crossed out of missionary necessity, perhaps, but otherwise to be strenuously avoided. (Ibid.)

Mountaineering rose in Europe as religion declined. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Divinity retreated and humanity advanced, climbing to new heights in all kinds of ways, from science to music. Vivaldi and Mozart didn’t write music to conquer mountains by; Beethoven and Wagner did. This spirit of adventure – or hubris – was European and the older idea that climbing a mountain is sacrilege has kept Europeans off the top of a mountain even more challenging than Everest: Kangchenjunga. The British mountaineers George Band and Joe Brown could have been the first, but refrained from climbing the last few yards to the very top: the leader of their expedition had “promised the Sikkimese authorities that they would not step onto the summit out of respect for Kangchenjunga’s status as a holy mountain” (ch. 8, “The ‘Golden Age’: 1953-1960”, pg. 147).

That was in 1954. Forty-nine years earlier, in 1905, another Briton had made an attempt viâ the notorious “Yalung Glacier”. He became much better-known in other fields: mountaineering is not how Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) made his notorious name. But he confirmed his courage and daring in the Himalaya, having climbed extensively in the Alps, and fully deserves the sidebox he receives here as a “Mystic, poet, magician, pansexual and Satanist” (ch. 5, “The Opening Phase”, pg. 62). After all, he was “part of the first serious attempts on K2 and Kangchenjunga” and “identified the route that would eventually be used in the conquest of each mountain” (ibid.). “Eventually” is the operative word: Crowley and the expedition-leader Oscar Eckenstein shared an “iconoclastic contempt for the ‘stuffy’ Alpine Club”, but “once again, accomplished Alpine climbers” proved “unprepared for the scale of the Himalaya” (pg. 61).

No-one had thought to use “supplemental oxygen” in the Alps, for example, but it began to seem essential in the Himalaya: “at the top of Mount Everest there is approximately one-third of the oxygen available at sea level” (pg. 63). There were debates about the propriety of its use, just as there had been about the use of crampons and other climbing aids in the Alps. One thing was a big argument in its favour: death. People have regularly died of altitude sickness in the Himalaya. Avalanches, rock-fall, cold and disease take an even heavier toll: four men died during Eckenstein’s and Crowley’s attempt on Kangchenjunga. The great Austrian Hermann Buhl (1924-1957) died in the Himalaya too. He had solo’d Nanga Parbat and was making an attempt on “the neighbouring peak of Chogolisa” when he and his companion Kurt Diemberger were forced to retreat by a storm “when only 305 metres (1,000 feet) below the summit” (ch. 8, pg. 131). During the ascent, Buhl “fell to his death through a cornice”.

His body has never been discovered. The body of George Mallory (1886-1924), another famous Himalayan casualty, was discovered in 1999 after lying on Everest for seventy-five years. Had he reached the summit? And if he did, how did he feel? Sometimes conquest isn’t satisfying. In this chapter, another spectacular image shows a bearded mountaineer sprawling on a rock-outcrop above a sea of clouds and a near-vertical snow-slope. It’s described like this:

Bill Tilman takes a precarious rest on … Nanda Devi during his 1936 ascent of the mountain. When he and his summit partner Noel Odell reached the top, Tilman’s initial euphoria was followed by melancholy. As he later wrote, he had a “feeling of sadness that the mountain had succumbed, that the proud head of the goddess was bowed”. (ch. 6, “Himalaya Between the Wars 1919-1939”, pg. 79)

And yet Tilman was a “famously taciturn misogynist”: the psychology of mountaineers is another part of why mountaineering is so interesting. Mallory may have conquered Everest in 1926; Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay definitely did in 1953, but Hillary didn’t ask Norgay to photograph him on the summit. The only photos of the moment are of the Nepali, not the New Zealander, apparently because Hillary didn’t want any taken of himself. Quixotry or modesty aside, it was an appropriate partnership: one by one, the Himalayan peaks have been conquered by combining European psychology with Nepali physiology. The environment of Europe has created human beings who want to climb very high mountains and the environment of Nepal has created human beings who can carry supplies in thin air.

This book also covers the medicine of mountaineering: the effects on the human body of thin air and low temperatures. Nepalis are adapted to both: they’ve evolved the right kind of lungs and blood to live at high altitude. That’s why they were hired as porters by the unadapted outsiders from Europe, who were sometimes killed by the challenges they set themselves. But there’s another kind of biology in the Himalaya, and another mystery. Crowley was To Mega Therion, or “The Great Beast”. But does another great beast live in the Himalaya: the Yeti? Probably not: bears seem to explain all the stories, tracks and hair-samples.

And the chances that there’s really something mysterious there dwindle by the year: Himalayan mountaineering is increasingly crowded, increasingly bereft of solitude and glamour. Everest is becoming strewn with rubbish, for example, and the climbing challenges of the Himalaya are increasingly contrived: not first ascents, but new routes, new methods, new times of the year. Sic Transit Gloria Montis – “So Passes the Glory of the Mountain”. But this book explains that vanishing glory and opens a window on a fascinating region of the earth, describing history, humanity, geology and technology, and displaying everything from multi-coloured Tibetan script and glaring death-gods to awe-inspiring walls of sun-slanted ice-rock and Aleister Crowley outside a tent.

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Front cover of The Metamorphoses of Ovid translated by Mary M. InnesThe Metamorphoses of Ovid, translated by Mary M. Innes (Penguin 1961)

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is one of the foundation-stones of European literature and it’s bad that I took so long to get around to reading it. What’s lost in this prose translation is the sinewiness and concision of Latin verse; what survives is the skill and intelligence by which Ovid wove dozens of disparate stories of transformation into a coherent whole. One story triggers or swallows another as gods and mortals turn into stars, stones, flowers, trees, animals, birds, fish and even more. The phantasmagoria is heightened by the beauty and strangeness of the classical names: Lilybaeum; Phaethon; Narcissus; Tmolus; Tlepolemus; Mygdonia.

Some of the scenes — Hercules’ fight with the centaurs, for example, or the house of the goddess Rumour — are uncomfortably vivid and realistic; others have all the beauty and strangeness of the names that flash through them like shafts of lightning. Latin is supposed to be enjoying a modern revival, but even if it weren’t Ovid’s final boast is safe in the hands of a translatrix as good as Mary Innes:

quaque patet domitis Romana potentia terris,
ore legar populi, perque omnia saecula fama,
siquid habent veri vatum praesagia, vivam.
(Liber XV, lns 877-9)

Wherever Roman power extends over the lands has subdued; people will read my verse. If there be any truth in poets’ prophecies, I shall live to all eternity, immortalized by fame. (Book 15)

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Front cover of Conan the Indomitable by Robert E. HowardConan the Indomitable, Robert E. Howard (Orion Books 2011)

This collection contains probably the best Conan story, “The Scarlet Citadel”, and certainly the longest, The Hour of the Dragon. It was also one of the last: the Texan Robert E. Howard would kill himself a few months after the final part appeared in the April 1936 issue of Weird Tales. He was only thirty, which means that he may one day have had more readers than he lived seconds (60 x 60 x 24 x 365 x 30 = 946,080,000). If re-readers count towards the total, he’ll get there a lot quicker: Howard is a writer you can return to again and again. He’s one of the Weird Tales Big Three with H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. He’s the least intelligent and imaginative of the three, but he’s a better writer than HPL and a more stirring writer than CAS:

“Again, nay!” snapped Tsotha, swinging down from his horse. He laughed coldly. “Have you not learned by this time that my brain is mightier than any sword?”

He passed through the lines of the pikemen, and the giants in their steel caps and mail brigandines shrank back fearfully, lest they so much as touch the skirts of his robe. Nor were the plumed knights slower in making room for him. He stepped over the corpses and came face to face with the grim king. The hosts watched in tense silence, holding their breath. The black-armored figure loomed in terrible menace over the lean, silk-robed shape, the notched, dripping sword hovering on high.

“I offer you life, Conan,” said Tsotha, a cruel mirth bubbling at the back of his voice.

“I give you death, wizard,” snarled the king, and backed by iron muscles and ferocious hate the great sword swung in a stroke meant to shear Tsotha’s lean torso in half. But even as the hosts cried out, the wizard stepped in, too quick for the eye to follow, and apparently merely laid an open hand on Conan’s left forearm, from the ridged muscles of which the mail had been hacked away. The whistling blade veered from its arc and the mailed giant crashed heavily to earth, to lie motionless. Tsotha laughed silently.

“Take him up and fear not; the lion’s fangs are drawn.” (“The Scarlet Citadel”, 1933)

Like Alistair MacLean, Howard is good at describing violent action and at painting powerful word-pictures. The wizard’s full name is Tsotha-lanti, which is an unusual invention for Howard: unlike CAS and HPL, he usually drew on real history and mythology for his names. This is part of why “The Scarlet Citadel” is probably the best Conan story: its wizard really seems part of a mysterious ancient world, many thousands of years before the present. It’s a pity the story contains borrowed names too: Set, Ishtar, Rinaldo, Pelias and so on. “Conan” itself is taken from Irish history, for example, in tribute to part of Howard’s own ancestry. Like his talent, his early suicide and his popular appeal, Howard’s ancestry links him to Kurt Cobain, the lead singer and guitarist in the band Nirvana. And would Howard have been a rock-musician if he’d been born later in the twentieth century? Maybe. He’s certainly contributed to rock music: by helping to shape sword-and-sorcery, he influenced heavy metal and its imagery.

His stories have the incongruity of heavy metal too: heavy metal uses advanced technology to sing about sword-and-sorcery, Howard used modern English to write about sword-and-sorcery. His archaic vocabulary is decorative, not fundamental, and his prose is too direct and efficient to truly evoke otherwhen and elsewhere:

Through the black arch of a door four gaunt, black-robed shapes had filed into the great hall. Their faces were dim yellow ovals in the shadows of their hoods.

“Who are you?” ejaculated Thutothmes in a voice as pregnant with danger as the hiss of a cobra. “Are you mad, to invade the holy shrine of Set?”

The tallest of the strangers spoke, and his voice was toneless as a Khitan temple bell.

“We follow Conan of Aquilonia.”

“He is not here,” answered Thutothmes, shaking back his mantle from his right hand with a curious menacing gesture, like a panther unsheathing his talons.

“You lie. He is in this temple. We tracked him from a corpse behind the bronze door of the outer portal through a maze of corridors. We were following his devious trail when we became aware of this conclave. We go now to take it up again. But first give us the Heart of Ahriman.”

“Death is the portion of madmen,” murmured Thutothmes, moving nearer the speaker. His priests closed in on catlike feet, but the strangers did not appear to heed.

“Who can look upon it without desire?” said the Khitan. “In Khitai we have heard of it. It will give us power over the people which cast us out. Glory and wonder dream in its crimson deeps. Give it to us, before we slay you.” (The Hour of the Dragon, 1935)

The Hour of the Dragon would make a good computer-game: it’s a detailed but fast-moving quest-story, with Conan pursuing the great gem that has resurrected an evil wizard from the far past. But if it were made into a computer-game, I wouldn’t want to play it. Writing is still the strangest and most mysterious of the arts: black marks on white paper can conjure an infinite variety of sights, sensations and emotions. Hour isn’t concentrated Conan like “The Scarlet Citadel”, but it’s a lot of fun and I enjoy it every time I re-read it. Howard doesn’t transcend his genre, so he can’t be placed at the level of Clark Ashton Smith. And he didn’t have Lovecraft’s subtlety, invention or sly humour, so he never wrote anything to match “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or “The Call of Cthulhu”. But he deserves to be one of the Weird Tales Big Three and this collection proves it.

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