Under the Spell of
By Tim and Pauline Carr
(Norton)When we say South Georgia, we're not in Swainsboro or Savannah or Folkston or Oglethorpe (unless they've started breeding macaroni penguins in those places). No, we're talking the Antarctic, south of the Falklands. It's there that winter sets in along about April, and your companions are going to be penguins, white-chinned petrels, caribou, albatrosses, and fat (five-ton) elephant bulls: how would you like to have to mate with a 10,000 sugar daddy known as alpha?
The Carrs lived on South Georgia for five years, mostly aboard their gorgeous Falmouth-built yawl. That's why you got confused with the state of Georgia. The yawl, or you'all, is named the Curlew, and this is their tale of heading south (they had been across both oceans, and through the Mediterranean). It's also a tale of storms and the gorgeous snow-rock islands with names like Bird and Willis and Cooper --- and the relatively large (seventy-five miles long) South Georgia Island.
The narrative is solid --- even the chapter given over to the history of the Curlew piques our interest --- but the prize winners are the photographs: heart-stopping icebergs, deserted whaling villages, chinstrap penguins, seal pups, sheathbills, skuas, penguins --- and our own personal favorites, the Weddell seals with their Brooks Brothers Scot's Weave jackets of gray and white [see above].
Not only are you given a crash course in surviving in a world that damn near did in Shackleford --- you learn that tiny icebergs can destroy a wood hulled yawl like the Curlew, that the elephant-nose bull seal pups can keep you awake all night, that South Georgia is filled with sad momentoes of its time as the whale murder capital of the world (including hulks of several whaling vessels), that king penguins are beautiful and elegant and can dive down as far as 1,000 feet, that there are dandelions on the island (they're wonderful for salad, Pauline tell us --- they grow slower, and are thus less bitter), and finally, wouldn't you guess it? --- the place they stayed most of the time (Grytviken village, pop. two) has a rat problem.On a
(Henry Holt)Minta decided to follow the trail of Lord Byron in his last days, through Italy, Albania, and Greece. He revisits the landscapes of 175 years ago by utilizing Byron's journals, and his poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and the diaries and letters of his friends. Each time, he compares these with what you and I would find today --- for instance, the mountains of plastic and garbage now available to us tourists on many Grecian beaches.
Minta tries to sense Byron's thoughts, moods, and feelings during his first trip to Greece, and his final journey through Italy, ending up in Mesolongi --- where he died of convulsions, fever and, Minta believes, the ministrations of the two doctors who bled him to death (bleeding was a favored cure for illness in the early nineteenth century; the theory was that taking blood would relieve pressure on the heart).
There are some fascinating facts here. That Byron was with Shelly on and off during their last years --- but they didn't much care for each other. That Byron probably spent his first year in Greece deep in --- as the English would have it --- buggery (the code he used in his writings was pl & opt Cs which was taken from Petronius, coitum plenum et optabilem.) That most writings about his last days and death are probably more a reflection of the journal-keepers rather than the real facts. That Byron was not so much a man of action but, contrariwise, a procrastinator --- especially when making up his mind whether to join the forces of revolution in Greece in 1823.
The most interesting parts have to do not so much with Byron, but with the nature of war, and especially the bitter and chaotic war between the Greeks and the Turks. For Byron, and for us, it is hard to decide which side was more repulsive. Both were brutal with prisoners (they didn't take any). Both were fond of murdering women and children. But more appalling, Greek patriots were constantly turning on each other, turning traitor to each other --- warring among themselves as much as against the Turks who had been occupying their land for four hundred years. (The author also claims that "ethnic cleansing" is not so new nor novel to the world in the 1990's because the Greeks and the Turks both indulged in it in the 1820's.)
The biggest problem with this work has to do with Minta. We suspect that he isn't a poet --- at least we have no indication that he knows much about writing poetry. His interpretations of Byron's feelings, moods, dreams, and actions are fatally skewed by this fact, for he relies almost exclusively on the earlier poems --- and journals and letters (both by, to and from Byron and others). What he misses, what any non-creative writer would miss is that Byron was not merely writing journals and letters; side-by-side with these was his poem, the great and wondrous Don Juan. (It is pronounced, by the bye, "Don JUH-uhn." The poet was a bit of an English provincial: he thought all words should be Anglicized.)
To try to figure out Byron's state of mind without taking into consideration the moods, wit, and wry perceptions of this spectacular poem is like trying to take tea without water, indulging in sex without a partner, or making a martini without benefit of olive or Vermouth. Byron is Don Juan. His moods soar with those of his hero; his words --- surely inspired by the gods --- tell of another spirit burning inside of him at the very moment he was moving towards his death as a hero of the war. Minta seems to miss theses exquisite joinings.
He quotes, at one point, Julius Millingen --- one of the doctors who helped do him in --- "that at different hours of the day he [Byron] metamorphosed himself into four or more individuals, each possessed of the most opposite qualities." The poet's moods, like his writings, are splintered for writing demands a union of words in deepest schizophrenia (unless one is writing bad history). Like most of us, Byron would write for effect in his journal, and in letters, would try to shape the opinions of his friends and lovers (as all wordsmiths must) through the use of mood and color and texture of the phrasing. But, as Keats would have it, only in his poetry is the artist true to himself, and one ignores this fact (a 300 pound canary) at his peril.
On A Voiceless Shore is pertinent for what it tells us about one of the master romantics, during his years in England and in Greece. The best parts of it, however, are not about Byron --- but, rather, the vision of the chaos of the Greek Revolution; and, too, the occasional delicious asides from the poet. Who, for instance, is quoted as saying, according to Millingen,
"I especially dread, in this world, two things, which which I have reason to believe I am equally predisposed --- growing fat and growing mad."
(Black Sparrow)Bowles has to be one of the most absurd writers practicing. His characters are awful, worse than Shakespeare's. I mean, who ever would care to hang out with Bowles' Dyer, much less with Macbeth, Lear, Henry IV (Part 1 or 2) --- or even Mr. Worry-Wart himself, Hamlet.
Bowles' novelistic structure is terrible...almost as chaotic as that of his friend William Burroughs. Further, Bowles writes in parody of Thomas Mann: it takes him forever to get the plot line cranked up, and most readers would dump him (and the book) before they reach page 200. Which would be a mistake.
Like Dreiser or Richard Wright, there comes, finally, a terrible inevitability of character and action, the two folding into each other, which makes the concluding part of Let It Come Down a race (the reader wanting it not to end; the author having to stop somewhere or other).
Bowles theme --- in all his works --- is the effect of Muslim North Africa on those of us who come to it from Europe or America (or even Russia). The culture takes us over, penetrates the soul, and, in the process, flays those of us Westeners who dare to try to live through it without being moved.
The crises in Let It Come Down transpires when our dull-dull anti-hero Dyer (note the name) is handed $25,000 to change into local currency and, unexpectedly, chooses to run off with it with the assistance of a young Moroccan by the name of Thami. Majoun and keif --- the classic Moroccan drugs --- turn Dyer around (he used to be a bank clerk) and destroy everyone involved, not the least, his brain and his sense of a cocky Western self.
The most spectacular parts are the vivid, haunting, crazy-making descriptions of a mind out of its mind on powerful drugs. It is as rich and upsetting as one can get using mere words. We suggest that those who want to read this book and understand it fully should take it to Tangier, stoke up on some of the easily available mind-bending chemicals --- and plunge into Bowles fully primed; and (possibly) never return.
--- A W Allworthy