The Prince – Niccolo Machiavelli

Not as sinister as it has been made out, case of Richard III-ing at work?

For the record, I am reviewing the latest Oxford World Classics edition, with notes and translation done by Peter Bondanella and an introduction by Maurizio Viroli.

Okey dokey, let’s get a few things out of the way: Machiavelli is in no way some sinister, conniving advocate of tyranny as the Platonic ideal of leadership. It is a deliberately pragmatic, cynical and – in places – sarcastic analysis of what an invading/ascending Prince (used to mean leader, not in strictly royal sense) should do to retain and consolidate that power in their principalities, using years of political experience at the top of the Florentine Republic and examples from recent and ancient history to back himself up. I repeat, this is not an ideal world scenario – it is a reaction to the situation in which Machiavelli found himself in. That situation was that the Medicis had taken back Florence, after they had been booted out by a period of Republic, Machiavelli had lost his position at the top of Florentine government, been arrested and tortured and seen the Republic he had helped build turn back into a dictatorship; “the Prince” that he addresses is none other than Lorenzo de’ Medici. I think The Prince is sheer pessimistic sigh of “so this is how it’s going to work from now on, then?” If you want Machiavelli getting idealistic on us, then try Discourses on Livy.

Having said that, Machiavelli was a clever bugger. There are political leaders today which would benefit from following some of the advice, David Cameron for one would have been well-advised to have made himself more feared than liked by his back-benchers – whom, in case you don’t know, like to make trouble for him on a regular basis. (Incidentally, this puts Machiavelli against conventional wisdom of the time, which said the opposite. He reasoned that people will more easily betray someone they like, rather than someone who puts the fear of God into them). Equally, Louis XVI could have avoided the Revolution if he’d heeded Machiavelli’s advice that it is better to take the people’s side against the nobility, rather than the other way round; on the grounds that there are more of them and it is their support which gives you your authority, whereas the nobility can be taken care of relatively easily in comparison – by removing their privileges etc – and are a walking liability to the Prince.

The Prince is an extremely concise and lucid book, the translation in this edition is equally so – a quality rarely found in Renaissance classics. Yes, it is Machiavelli and not just Bondanella’s translation that’s clear; I know this because no translator, however good, has ever been able to make Tolstoy lucid. Machiavelli assumes a short attention span and accordingly gets on with it, telling his historical examples as if they were merely anecdotes to back up a point that he was making to a friend over dinner, and never dwelling on a subject longer than necessary. It’s also Italian History 101, as all of his contemporary examples link up to form the recent collective bloody history of the disparate duchies and city-states.

5 out of 5, the notes are actually invaluable, the translation’s good and the content is pretty damn sly and very well put. Old Mackers was a master of rhetoric, and likes to use my favourite rhetorical device – chiasmus – from time to time, so I’m inclined towards him on the grounds of sheer flair. All the same, a state run precisely like this book doesn’t bear a lot of  thinking about. I’m sure that’s partially the point.

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Brixton Beach – Roma Tearne

Self-conscious to the point of awkward.

We follow the trials and tribulations of Alice Fonsenka and her family through political upheaval and personal tragedies in 1950’s Sri Lanka , to cold London and a struggle to find self-expression and retain cultural identity that takes us up to 7th July 2005. It’s a classic example of the current batch of post-colonial  fiction.

It was interesting to approach this from the angle of  an inhabitant of an island that rarely teaches its own history properly, never mind anyone else’s; it’s a dilemma which all writers of post-colonial fiction will face eventually – the audience’s lack of shared history. Funnily enough, the sections of the story which directly deal with the roots of civil war and the realities of the nascent  Tamil – Singhalese conflict are probably the most successful. These are the bits that ring true emotionally, whereas for the rest of the book Tearne remains largely divorced from her protagonists – as if rather apathetic to their fates, (Alice’s childhood and adult-life – most of the book – are almost non-events).  More importantly, these moments of injustice are handled casually – rather than with bombastic flourishes of righteous anger – as though Tearne is shrugging and saying: “So what? It’s not ideal, but it happens everyday”, which emphasises the cruel and casual nature of what is depicted.

The story hops uneasily between an impressionistic Sri Lanka which is portrayed as a sort of technicolour Eden with major issues left behind by the British and wet, cold and monochrome London (what British post-colonial novel is complete without a Grey Britain passage?) for the first two thirds – and suddenly creating a decidedly sunnier London for the final third in order to smash it apart during the pages which take place on 7th July 2005.

Meh… 2.5 out of 5. Some of it works quite well, the first chapter is really quite promising and some of the character-work on Alice’s mother is very well done; but the trouble is that it feels as though Tearne loses interest in the book and only decides to try to pick it up again in the final third, only to find that it is too little too late. A major problem this leads to is that Tearne doesn’t really attack anything from a new angle: Spices, colours, saris, heat, beaches, cold Britain, the struggle for integration, the inspirational teacher etc. are all very old ground now in post-colonial fiction and if you’re going to use them you need to be damned sure that you can carve a new path on old ground. I couldn’t help thinking that Brixton Beach didn’t do anything that Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things or Meera Syal’s Anita and Me didn’t do better first.

Over and out.

Shakespeare – Bill Bryson

A Shakespeare biographer that acknowledges that you can’t make any grand assumptions, – praise the Lord!

This remarkably lucid and readable biography of Shakespeare begins with Bryson telling us that the first thing you need to know about Shakespeare, is that it’s impossible to know almost anything about Shakespeare – heck it’s even impossible to say definitively what he looked like; but that doesn’t mean that we’re completely in the dark. Bryson takes us through the cogs and coils of Elizabethan and Jacobean history, pointing out precisely where Shakespeare fitted, or was reputed to have fitted, in the grand scheme of the age.

In a way, this book is as much a biography of Shakespeare academics as it is one of the man himself. For instance, the chapter on the so-called “lost years” ends up being more about the theories that academics have conjured from the air and the spectacular feats of contortionism required to make them work, rather than newly- posited theories of his own. Nevertheless, even if Bryson manages to destroy the “Shakespeare was a Yorkshire Catholic” theory with the minor matter of the fact it doesn’t fit in with the chronology of what we can definitely say about him, we as readers still end up learning lots of useful and juicy little titbits about English Catholics of this era. Later on, as relevant to the time in Shakespeare’s life, Bryson reveals more about the academics that have either theorised or bought more to light about about this shadowy figure – and a lot of them cut singularly screwed-up, tragic figures.

Whilst this is generally a very good and even-handed account of the life and times of William Shakespeare, the main problem I have with this book is that it falls into the trap of previous biographies, that Bryson avowedly wishes to avoid in the Introduction, namely that of making assumptions about the kind of man Shakespeare was based upon his writing.  To assume that Shakespeare was “kind” or “liberal-minded” or “generous” based on the work he left behind is as laughable in its presumption as one academic’s declaration that Shakespeare was crippled, based on a somewhat literal-minded approach to the sonnets. Shakespeare might have been all of the above – you never know; but doing a subject like English you must always be very careful to not mix up the author with their work. Thomas Harris, author of The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon, might be very good at writing serial killers and psychopaths but it doesn’t necessarily follow that he is either. This wouldn’t be such a problem, but Bryson bases some of his rejections of certain theories purely on what he has divined about Shakespeare’s character.

For the record, I too believe Shakespeare was a liberal-minded chap – like hell I can prove it without a TARDIS, though. Anyway, that aside it’s an extremely good overview of the history of Shakespearean scholarship and a great place to start if you’re studying the subject and need a starting point with Bryson’s own commentary on some theories, or to find other academics to cite in their essays. It also contains some of the best counter-arguments against  Baconism/ Oxfordism/what-a-load-of-old-balls-ism that you can hope find concisely and non-angrily put.

I’ll go with 4 out of 5 on this one. Hey, where Shakespeare is concerned nobody’s perfect – but you should at least avoid falling in the hole that you pointed out to your companion.