Thursday, June 05, 2008

Getting ready

Because it's a mere fifteen hours before I have to leave home for the airport, and because I have had a whole month in which to do the work, I am only now compiling Mac and Windows versions of my database to be released for download from our website. This is an utterly idiotic thing to be doing, I know, because I shall be unavailable for the first week after releasing them. Any problems that might arise will go unpatched, to the great joy of our customers as you can imagine, until after my return. I should really stop this nonsense and get on to more useful things like cleaning and packing. [Updated: the new version has indeed been put on hold.]

Booked flights on a last-minute website again, and once again the cheapest route to London was via Zurich. I'll be landing this time in the new-to-me City Airport in the Docklands, which will be quite exciting. I hope there will be a reasonably convenient bus route from there to the centre, rather than having to take the Tube in.

(Just spent half an hour browsing around satellite photos of London (page titles are all wrong, just ignore them), quite fascinating. I wish that this resource had been available when I lived there, I would have seen — and explored and inhabited — the city quit differently.)

I shall have my laptop with me, e-mail for the answering of, but whether I can get online often and long enough to blog or visit your websites remains to be seen — to say nothing of logging into Second Life. In case I cannot get online, I wish you all a pleasant week, and hope to be back in contact on my return to Stuttgart on Friday the Thirteenth.

But first parallel to all the above, I've been reading a review by Daniel Mendelsohn in a recent "New Yorker" of a new edition of Herodotus' 2500-year-old "Histories" of the Greco-Persian wars, which I have been reading for several weeks now. It's a great review of a wonderful book (though I am reading not the edition in question but an older Penguin translation by Aubrey de Sélincourt), and I recommend both to your attention. Here are Mendelsohn's penultimate paragraphs:
All of which is to say that while Herodotus may or may not have anticipated hypertext, he certainly anticipated the novel. Or at least one kind of novel. Something about the Histories, indeed, feels eerily familiar. Think of a novel, written fifty years after a cataclysmic encounter between Europe and Asia, containing both real and imagined characters, and expressing a grand vision of the way history works in a highly tendentious, but quite plausible, narrative of epic verve and sweep. Add an irresistible anti-hero eager for a conquest that eludes him precisely because he understands nothing, in the end, about the people he dreams of subduing; a hapless yet winning indigenous population that, almost by accident, successfully resists him; and digressions powerfully evoking the cultures whose fates are at stake in these grand conflicts. Whatever its debt to the Ionian scientists of the sixth century B.C. and to Athenian tragedy of the fifth, the work that the Histories may most remind you of is "War and Peace."

And so, in the end, the contemporary reader is likely to come away from this ostensibly archaic epic with the sense of something remarkably familiar, even contemporary. That cinematic style, with its breathtaking wide shots expertly alternating with heart-stopping closeups. The daring hybrid genre that integrates into a grand narrative both flights of empathetic fictionalizing and the anxious, footnote-prone self-commentary of the obsessive, perhaps even neurotic amateur scholar. (To many readers, the Histories may feel like something David Foster Wallace could have dreamed up.) A postmodern style that continually calls attention to the mechanisms of its own creation and peppers a sprawling narrative with any item of interest, however tangentially related to the subject at hand.

Then, there is the story itself. A great power sets its sights on a smaller, strange, and faraway land—an easy target, or so it would seem. Led first by a father and then, a decade later, by his son, this great power invades the lesser country twice. The father, so people say, is a bland and bureaucratic man, far more temperate than the son; and, indeed, it is the second invasion that will seize the imagination of history for many years to come. For although it is far larger and more aggressive than the first, it leads to unexpected disaster. Many commentators ascribe this disaster to the flawed decisions of the son: a man whose bluster competes with, or perhaps covers for, a certain hollowness at the center; a leader who is at once hobbled by personal demons (among which, it seems, is an Oedipal conflict) and given to grandiose gestures, who at best seems incapable of comprehending, and at worst is simply incurious about, how different or foreign his enemy really is. Although he himself is unscathed by the disaster he has wreaked, the fortunes and the reputation of the country he rules are seriously damaged. A great power has stumbled badly, against all expectations.
Indeed. Go read. But don't buy the particular edition being reviewed: the translation is said by Mendelsohn to be awful.

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1 Comments:

Blogger JoeinVegas said...

Oh, a software release just before you go on vacation? Come on now, I don't even put something out on a Friday for fear of weekend calls.

June 5, 2008 at 5:29:00 PM GMT+2  

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