BOOKS READ NOVEMBER 2017
Marcus Tullius Cicero [also known as Tully], On the Good Life, translation and notes by Michael Grant; Preface by A C Grayling, London, The Folio Society, 2003.
Cicero (106-43 BC) was a Roman orator, statesman and man of letters. He studied law, oratory, philosophy, and literature and his political career reached its height when he became Consul (one of two military and civil leaders of the Republic) in 63 BC. Thereafter his political fortunes declined in spite of his great favour with the people, because of his opposition to the dictatorship of Sulla, both Caesars and Pompey’s faction as well as the two triumvirates. After several speeches in the Senate in which he criticized Mark Antony (the “Philippics”) he was murdered by Antony’s soldiers as he tried to escape after the formation of the second triumvirate of Mark Antony, Lepidus and Octavian
Cicero had arguably a greater influence upon the history and development of European literature and ideas than any other prose writer. He was also, even though he lived before Christ, a significant influence on Christian theology. The Platonic designation of δικαιοσυνη (righteousness) as one of the four cardinal virtues (Wisdom, Temperance, and Courage or Fortitude, being the others) had a decisive and lasting influence on the whole subsequent history of the word in the usage of Greek philosophy, and of all those moral systems which have their roots in that fertile soil….We have to remember that the Middle Ages derived one half of its list of virtues through Cicero from the Stoics and Plato…[W Sanday and A C Headlam, Romans ICC, Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1911 (1895) p29].
The Folio edition contains the following works by Cicero all in the form of imagined conversations between Roman scholars, lawyers, oraters and political figures from previous ages.
Discussions at Tusculum: Book V.
On Duties: Book 11: Service.
Cato the Elder: On Old Age.
Laelius: On Friendship.
On the Orator: Book 1: Speech and SocietOn the State: Book 111: The Ideal Form of Government and a fragment of Book V1: The Dream of Scipio.
I do not read Latin but apparently Cicero’s Latin was famous for its beauty and deeply influenced the written style of the Renaissance through Petrarch and had a rebirth in the C18th. This translation by Michael Grant is clear, fluent and easily understandable. I found Cicero to be highly moral, “Christian” before Christ in the area of upright behaviour and remarkably helpful especially his writing about old age and also on friendship. On the negative side he can be somewhat overblown, repetitive and tedious and, in some of his definitions or oratory, perhaps writing in praise of his own gifts. 4 stars
Karen Blixen: The Illustrated Out of Africa, London, Cresset Press, 1985 (1937).
This is a gorgeously illustrated edition of Karen Blixen’s story of the coffee plantation she supervised for over twenty years in the Ngong Hills overlooking Nairobi in Kenya. Known today perhaps largely through the much loved 1985 Sydney Pollock film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, this illustrated edition was clearly created in 1985 to bounce off the release of the film. The superb illustrations include many archival photographs of key people in the story as well as a wonderful set of paintings of Kenyan wild life and scenery by a range of artists.
Karen Blixen was a Danish author and adventurer who also wrote under the pen names Isak Dinesan (English speaking countries) and Tania Blixen (German speaking countries.) Both Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast were made into Academy award winning motion pictures.
Out of Africa was originally written in Danish and rewritten in English by the author for the English speaking market. The result is that her already evocative and poetic, not to say mystical style of writing has in addition a sort of exotic European accent which adds to the beauty, sense of calm and deep meditatory impact of her words which I eventually found quite mesmerising.
An accomplished shooter in Denmark, Blixen married her Swedish cousin Baron Bror von Blixen-Fenecke and his family backed the creation of the coffee plantation in Kenya. Her arrival in Nairobi as a barrenness created quite an impact in the expatriate community. In the event the plantation was located too high in the hills for ideal coffee production and never really succeeded in making enough money to survive. In addition Bror was a serially unfaithful husband and infected Blixen with syphillis which required her to return to Europe for treatment for a time and left a permanent impact on her health as well as ending her marriage after ten years.
In the movie much is made of her relationship with Denys Finch Hatton, Etonian cricket champion and internationally regarded sporting star, big game hunter and safari expedition leader and pioneer African aviator. The book, however, focusses on Blixen’s relationship with the farm, the environment, the wild life and her impressive and insightful relationship with the natives who worked on the plantation and other cultural and tribal groups. These included Swahili speaking Kikuyu, the nomadic and warlike Masai, Indian and Arab traders, the Somali servants, German settlers, the English aristocracy and Roman Catholic and Scottish Protestant missions. In addition the book chronicles the complex impact of World War 11 on the German and British settlers in Kenya and Blixen’s courageous part in this war.
Although revisionist commentators today see Blixen as simply one more out of touch Colonial imperialist this is not the impression to be gained from the narrative which speaks to the deep love and concern she had both for the country and its wildlife and for its native born inhabitants. Books and literature were precious to her and to Hatton in this lonely twenty one year sojourn and her wide ranging philosophic approach to life went well beyond the strict Unitarian Christian upbringing of her youth. I found this to be a heart-warming and emotional read, very hard to put down. 5 stars.