Saturday, October 21, 2017

Simon Leys and The Death of Napoleon


I have just finished reading three volumes by the late China scholar and essayist Pierre Ryckmans (1935 – 2014), who wrote under the pen name of Simon Leys.  The volumes are his collected essays The Hall of Uselessness, his translation of The Analects of Confucius, and his elegaic novella The Death of Napoleon.  All of his writing is thoughtful and displays an elegance of style reminiscent of fine literature from the late 1800s.

The Death of Napoleon is an alternate history in which Napoleon escapes from Saint Helena and makes his way via a circuitous route to Paris.  Until he can devise a way to get in touch with his scattered loyalists, his meager funds require him to live with a poor widow whose modest livelihood is selling watermelons and cantaloupes from Provence.  Eventually he grows impatient with her incompetent sales methods and applies his intellect to reorganize her business along the lines of a battle strategy.  The novella could easily have veered toward farce at this point. 

Here is Napoleon spreading out a map and then sharing his plan for selling melons in Paris with the widow and her ragtag helpers:


1.  The Time Factor

The heat wave which we are now experiencing does not, on the face of it, favor our campaign, since it makes the melons ripen quickly.  In reality, it also contains an element that could benefit us, one we should exploit to the full, and that is the thirst it creates in the townspeople.  If we act swiftly there is nothing to stop us from turning these weather conditions to our advantage.  Indeed, swiftness of action will allow us to make use of the inherent advantages of the situation (i.e., the increased thirst of potential customers), and to avoid the harmful effects (progressive stock loss through spoilage).

2.  The Terrain Factor

I have no need to remind you that Paris covers a wide area and that we have only minimal forces at our disposal to sweep the field.  An uncoordinated, haphazard effort would therefore be certain to fail.  First, we must determine all the regions where the lie of the land could work against us: long, quiet streets in districts where our column would risk losing precious time and where the ardor of its initial impetus would be dulled without achieving any gain; les Halles, markets, the vicinity of green grocers' shops — all areas where the inhabitants show a stronger buyer resistance because there is so much stiff competition — these various points must be totally excluded from our itinerary [as he spoke, he seized a pencil and, with a decisive cross, eliminated les Halles from the map].  We shall therefore concentrate our strength exclusively in those regions that offer the least possibility of resistance and the best chance of gaining a prompt, significant advantage with the greatest economy of effort — i.e., the zones that present both a maximum concentration of population and a minimum supply level of fruit and vegetables.  As regards the first aspect (population), from now on, we can concentrate on the central districts and mark the most frequently used access routes [the pencil authoritatively circled a wide area in the middle of the map,from which it drew out four or five main approaches].  As regards the second question (finding out the location of fruit shops), it will be imperative to send out scouts to effect a preliminary reconnaissance of the terrain.  This reconnaissance will be carried out at dawn, and will hardly delay the launching of our offensive; it will subsequently even allow us to gain a considerable amount of time, since it will avoid useless counter-marches by immediately enabling us to take up the most favorable positions.

3.  The Human Factor

A.  The enemy.  The extent of their resistance — as I just pointed out — relies on a chain of redoubts places at irregular intervals, which we must systematically avoid; concentrating all our forces in a charge on one of the breaks in this line, we can use this gap to head straight for the soft underbelly of the city.  Once in that central position, we can deploy our forces more or less widely, depending on the conditions of the terrain, so that the areas under our control may be progressively extended.

B.  Our forces.  First, the scouts: for this reconnaissance mission, a few children should be adequate — their lightness and mobility recommend them for this type of operation.  As for the rest, we will form a single column with all the handcarts and even the wheelbarrows at our disposal.  Headquarters will be installed in a cafe in the central zone, its exact location will be decided at the appropriate time  Liaison between headquarters and the various carts engaged in action will also be carried out by the bands of children.


Splendid!  Doesn't this make you want to grab a wheelbarrow and march into battle? 

I highly recommend all of Simon Leys' works.
  

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Autumn Maples


I enjoyed walking in a nearby park this afternoon.  The maples are a dazzling red.


I especially like the contrast between the maples and the evergreens.


Why are there trees I never walk under
But large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?
~Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1892



Monday, October 9, 2017

Before the Storm


Saturday I took advantage of a warm weekend to go hiking at the Centennial Cone Park.  My younger son and I enjoyed a stroll through the rolling hills west of Golden.




Sunday, after hearing that a winter storm was approaching, I took pictures to capture the doomed floral beauty.





I have neglected the blog during the part two months, in favor of catching up on my reading.  I finally finished reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (not to be confused with War and Pizza by Robert Allen).  The celebrated Russian novel had defeated me on a previous attempt decades ago -- I always forgot the names of the many characters and it was too hard to retrace through the chapters to get back in sync.  This time, however, I carefully kept a running list of the major characters, their titles, and their nicknames and never got lost.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Ashley Sterne Advice to the Anxious


This little parody of a domestic advice column was taken from the April 30, 1927 number of the British magazine The Passing Show.

[Note:  Condy's fluid is a common British household disinfectant consisting essentially of an aqueous solution of a permanganate.]


It gives me exceeding great joy, my dear ones, when I have evidence that you regard me not only as your little friend, but as your little guide and little philosopher, too.

I am more happy than I can say that you should invest me (quite rightly), with the knowledge of an Aristotle and the wisdom of a Solomon, more especially in domestic matters in which most members of my sex do not usually shine.

It is, therefore, that what is for the good of one may be for the good of all, that I have purposely refrained from answering by note of hand alone the many letters which have reached me, asking my advice and help on the various problems and difficulties which arise at the annual spring-cleaning, and, instead, have collated the answers here.

I am sorry if, having kept some of you waiting unduly for my replies, you have already blundered through the tiresome business without the advantage of my assistance.  But, fortunately, what I have to say will do equally well for next spring or, for the matter of that, for all time.


MRS. AMELIA GUNN (Gunnersbury)  -- Can I tell you how to make soft soap?  My dear lady! what a ridiculous question!  Didn't you listen to what I said just now about Aristotle and Solomon?  Very well, then?  I cannot tell you how to make soft soap, because I don't know.

What precisely is soft soap?  Is it that stuff which looks like vaseline?  If it is, why not use vaseline for whatever it is you want to use soft soap?  To save the time of both of us, I may add that I can't tell you how to make vaseline, either.


MRS. AUGUSTA PECK (Peckham) -- Dear, dear!  However did  you manage to get tomato ketchup stains on the drawing-room carpet?  The best way to remove them is, of course, to cut the stained part clean out of the carpet.

Alternatively, they may be burned out with strong sulphuric acid, or you can stain them a different colour by pouring neat Condy's fluid over them.


MRS. MATILDA WIMBLE (Wimbledon) -- If the inside of your grand piano is so dusty and dirty as all that, I should strongly recommend you to flush it well out with a few buckets full of hot caustic soda solution.

If the instrument has no hole in the bottom where the pedals fit in, and consequently no orifice through which the liquid can escape, I am afraid that you will have to turn it on its back and let it drain.

You must then take it into the garden and allow it to dry in the sun.  On no account should you dry it before the kitchen fire, as doing so would certainly spoil the delicate mechanism.



MRS. EUPHEMIA BALL (Balham) -- Personally, I should advise you to have your chimneys swept upwards, instead of downwards.  The soot is then pushed out of the top of the chimney, whence it conveniently falls on to the roof, and is thereafter dissipated by the wind.

This method obviates the necessity for covering up the furniture, and saves all that nasty mess in the fireplace which sweeps invariably leave.


MRS. SOPHIA CRICK (Cricklewood) -- Your carpets must either be drycleaned with a cloth-ball or wet-cleaned with a tea-leaf.  On no account must they be beaten.  Corporal punishment for carpets was abolished by the Kindness to Kidderminsters Act of 1926.

But why not white-wash them?  A white-washed carpet looks awfully smart, and brightens up the dreariest room.


MRS. HEPHZIBAH MORE (Moreton-in-the-marsh) -- Well, of course if you must live in a marsh, you must expect your cork bath-mat to get damp occasionally.

It may be dried, however, by impressing it upon a sheet of blotting-paper, or if more convenient, by fanning it with a warm fan.


MRS. ELIZA GRIM (Grimsby) -- Those spots of beef-dripping may be dislodged from your bedroom mantelpiece by heating the mantelpiece red-hot when the dripping will first liquefy, and then turn to steam.  The steam should then be carefully blown out of window with a pair of bellows.


MRS. SARAH MACCLES (Macclesfield) -- The finger-marks on your lacquer cabinet can be removed with a coarse file, and the marks of the file can be erased by rubbing vigorously with emery-paper, and the marks of the emery-paper by rubbing even more vigorously with sand-paper, and the marks of the sand-paper by rubbing with pumice-stone. and the marks of the pumice-stone by scraping with the rough edge of the lid of a pineapple tin.

You need not worry about the marks of the tin, as by this time you will have made a hole right through the side of your cabinet.


MRS. MARTHA GIGGLE (Giggleswick) -- Yes, rather!  I can tell you how to clean the holes in your hammock.  Mix in a saucer a pint of sweet oil of bitter almonds, a bottle of ink and a pound of walnuts.  Add water to taste, and stir till the walnuts are dissolved.  Then squirt the mixture through the holes, one at a time, with a hypodermic squirt, taking care that the liquid does not touch the strings, as it is highly corrosive.


MRS. HANNAH SWAFF (Swaffham) -- The ink-stains on your dining-room ceiling may be successfully hidden by covering them with ceiling-wax.


MRS. ELIZABETH LAZENBY (Pickhill) -- No, madam.  Frightfully sorry and all that, but I must decline to tell you how to pickle spring onions, as they have nothing whatever to do with spring-cleaning.



Sunday, July 30, 2017

Rocky Mountain National Park




Yesterday I traveled to the Rocky Mountain National Park to enjoy a hike.  The overall drive time was 5 hours, but my hiking time only amounted to 3 hours.  My typical measure of recreational efficiency is that I should spend as much time recreating as I do traveling.  Therefore, I need to arrive earlier next time and get in five hours of hiking (or drive to the park like a maniac).

The park was so full of tourists that no more cars were allowed in.  Therefore, I took a shuttle to a park-and-ride depot and then a second shuttle to the Bear Lake trail head.

Here is a map of the day's itinerary.



Bear Lake is a favorite of older tourists -- a maximum of scenery in an easy half mile walk around the lake on a well-maintained trail.



I then headed to Nymph Lake.  I saw no nymphs -- neither insects nor mythological deities.  But the lake itself was lovely.  Here is a section of the lake covered by pond lilies.



Next I walked about a mile to Hiayaha Lake.  My brochure said nothing about a treacherous field of boulders on the way to this lake.  Some of the boulders were the size of a car; others the size of
a washing machine.  I gingerly made my way over and around these obstacles and was rewarded with the sight of a splendid lake with emerald water.


I highly recommend a visit to this wonderful national park.


Saturday, July 22, 2017

At the Farmer's Market


A pleasant bike ride this morning led me to the farmer's market -- always a cheerful place.


Next to my bike rack was parked a Smart Car impersonating a Mercedes.  The owner was wearing the uniform of the old geezer who wants to be considered quite a character: a short-brimmed straw hat, a plaid shirt, suspenders, and high-water pants.  He apparently claims to be a tango dancer.  I have my doubts that he has successfully danced a tango this century.