The Confessions of Young Nero ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Confessions of Young Nero ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Emperor Nero (real name Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) was born in the year 37 AD and died at age thirty in 68 AD. He became the fifth Roman emperor in 54 AD at the age of seventeen.

History for the most part has not been kind to the Emperor Nero. Historians, writing about Nero in the decades after his death, advanced the narrative that he was an over-the-top lunatic, whose cruelty, depravity and sexual excesses brought the Roman Empire to its knees. He reportedly had sexual relations with his own mother, Agrippina, and had her killed five years into his reign. He is believed to have tortured and killed thousands of Christians and earned the distinction of being designated the “Beast” in the Book of Revelations. He had poisoned (or otherwise murdered) anybody who challenged his authority. He spent money lavishly and lived luxuriously. He murdered his wife, Poppea, and then, feeling remorseful, marring a surgically altered boy who resembled Poppea. It might be said that he was a perfect example of the adage: Absolute authority corrupts absolutely.

Nero certainly did have his own mother, Agrippina, killed (as a desperate act of self-preservation), but the rest of the ugly stories about him might only be based on rumor, innuendo and fabricated tales. Historians didn’t like him because he was popular with the common people (but not the aristocrats and the elites). He was an unconventional emperor who engaged in sports competitions, musical performances, chariot racing and other activities deemed unworthy of an emperor.

The historical novel The Confessions of Young Nero, by Margaret George, is an attempt to set the record straight about the real Nero: what he was really like, instead of what his enemies and detractors thought of him and his reign. One of the reasons the common people liked him was because he engaged (at great expense) in many public-works projects, including bathhouses, stadiums, theatres and other entertainment venues. He sometimes gave away expensive “gifts” (including tracts of land and horses) to people who attended sporting events. As an artist (poet and musician), he promoted the arts and public performance. As a military leader (but never on the field of battle himself), he scored impressive victories against foreign enemies, including in Britain and Parthia.

The Confessions of Young Nero is over 500 pages long, but it is only half the story of Nero’s life, told in his first-person voice. The second book, also over 500 pages, is The Splendor Before the Dark. As author Margaret George explains in her lengthy Afterword,   The Confessions of Young Nero is her attempt at an honest portrayal of the life of a fascinating, controversial, long-ago historical figure who has been frequently misunderstood, maligned, and misinterpreted by history.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

Give Us a Kiss ~ A Capsule Book Review

Give Us a Kiss ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Daniel Woodrell’s 1996 novel, Give Us a Kiss, is set in the fictional Missouri Ozarks town of West Table. It is the story of a hillbilly family, and specifically the story of two hillbilly brothers: Doyle Redmond, age 35, and his 39-year-old brother, Smoke. Doyle is the main character in the book and is telling the story in his first-person voice.

Doyle is something of a conflicted hillbilly. He can never get away from his hillbilly roots, but after he left the town of West Table he became something more than a hillbilly: he went to college, became a semi-successful writer with four non-selling books to his credit, and was once married to a striving, snooty bitch named Lizbeth. (The name alone says it all.)

When Doyle returns to West Table after an absence of several years, he embraces all that is hillbilly and all that he left behind (as exemplified by his elderly grandfather, Panda). He moves in with his brother, Smoke, and Smoke’s girlfriend, Big Annie, in their trailer home out in the country. Big Annie has a beautiful 19-year-old daughter named Niagra (after the movie of the same name with Marilyn Monroe). Despite the age disparity (Doyle is 35 and Niagra is 19), we know the two of them are going to be a hot item.

We learn that Doyle and Smoke, in their younger days, were hell-raisers of the highest order and were frequently on the wrong side of the law (typical of their family). Now, as men approaching middle age, they grow a marijuana crop out in the woods where they believe it will never be detected. They nurture the crop until it is ready to harvest and process into saleable pot bricks (with the aid of a trash compactor and large bottles of Coca-Cola). Just as they are ready to sell the crop and get the long-awaited bundle of money the crop will bring, they are betrayed and fall afoul of a nasty hillbilly family called the Dollys. (Murder and Mayhem are the Dolly family’s stock in trade.) The Dollys and the Redmonds have a history of bad blood between them going back many years and several generations.

Daniel Woodrell is the leading exemplar of hillbilly fiction in American letters. Give Us a Kiss is another fast-paced page-turner from him about rednecks living the hillbilly dream. And aren’t the lives of hillbillies a lot more fun and so much more interesting (as Mr. Woodrell has proved in book after book) than college professors, Wall Street brokers, doctors and lawyers? Those people bore me unto death. Who wants to read about them?

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Hamnet ~ A Capsule Book Review

Hamnet ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

A little background information, please: English playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) lived in the small town of Stratford-on-Avon, a hundred miles or so from London. The business of his family was making and selling gloves. When he was eighteen, he married a twenty-six-year-old woman named Anne Hathaway (1556-1623) who was expecting his child. William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway had three children: Susanna (1583-1649) and twins Hamnet (1585-1596) and Judith (1585-1662). Hamnet died, age eleven, in 1596. The cause of his death is not known. Since the plague was a persistent threat during this period of history, it might be assumed—or has been speculated—that Hamnet died of the plague. Nobody will ever know for sure.

Little is known about Shakespeare’s private life or the life of the family. What is known is that Shakespeare’s profession (playwright, actor and theatre manager) made it necessary for him to leave his family behind and spend most of his time in London. He tried to spend at least spend part of every year with his family in Stratford-on-Avon.

The novel Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a purely speculative historical novel about Shakespeare’s family, mostly minus Shakespeare. While the title of the novel is Hamnet, it is more about Shakespeare’s wife, Anne, who is called Agnes here. (Apparently, as explained in a note at the end of the book, she went by either name.)

Hamnet, the novel, is told from the female point of view: that is, Anne Hathaway’s point of view. There is a lot of material here (female angst) about domestic concerns, raising children, dealing with difficult relatives and having a mostly absent husband. The great man himself is a secondary character in this story. If you’re looking for a book that gives insight into Shakespeare’s life and times, his private life and character, this isn’t it.

With her husband (William Shakespeare) away so much of the time, Anne (Agnes) has a lot of time to be jealous and to wonder what he might be doing (and with whom) in London. At the end of the book, she, along with her brother, Bartholomew, makes a surprise visit to London on horseback. She doesn’t find William at his lodgings, but she is told she might find him at the theatre. It’s providential (and coincidental) that she, an unlettered woman who never understood her husband’s passion for writing, finds him acting in his own production of his new play, Hamlet, as the ghost of the king’s father. She understands, for the first time, the alchemy that occurs from the spoken dialogue that her own husband writes, and how the play is, in a way, a tribute to their departed—and much lamented—son, Hamnet.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Ones You Do ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Ones You Do ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Missouri writer Daniel Woodrell continues his saga of the lowbrow Shade family in the 1992 novel, The Ones You Do. This novel, of course, follows the earlier Shade novels Under the Bright Lights from 1986 and Muscle for the Wing from 1988. These three novels are set, for the most part, in the fictional town of St. Bruno, a small city located on the banks of a large U.S. river. (We assume the river is the Mississippi, although the name is never mentioned; neither is the state that St. Bruno is in.)

The principal character of The Ones You Do is John X. Shade. He is the sixty-two-year old patriarch of the Shade family. He is, possibly, one step up from being a bum. He has ruined his health with alcohol, smoking, and chasing after the ladies. His one accomplishment in life is that when he was younger, he was a competitive pool player. He made his living from betting on pool games and then taking the money from the suckers who played with him. His pool game isn’t what it used to be, however; his hands shake from alcoholism and his eyesight is shot. When he was in his twenties, he married a fourteen-year-old girl named Monique Blanqui (in a shotgun wedding) and fathered three sons (Tip, Rene and Francois) with her, whom he proceeded to abandon to pursue his own selfish pleasures.

Later in life, long after he and Monique are divorced, John X. Shade marries a much younger woman named Randi Tripp. She is a “singer,” calls herself the ‘Bama Butterfly, and is determined to become a big-time singer. She and John X. have a punkish, ten-year-old daughter named Etta, who has a mullet hairdo, a crucifix earring and bizarre makeup.

John X. Shade has been keeping a large sum of money ($47,000) for one Lunch Pumphrey, a sociopathic gunman, in the safe of the bar where he works. To repay John X. for all his failings as a husband, Randi Tripp steals the $47,000 and takes off for parts unknown to pursue her showbiz career. Well, as you might have guessed, Lunch Pumphrey wants his money and his plenty peeved that John X. Shade does not have it in the safe at the bar where he works. He will kill over a lot less.

Throughout the novel, Lunch Pumphrey pursues John X. Shade, and John X. Shade eludes him, barely, with his weird daughter, Etta, in tow. A showdown between Lunch Pumphrey and John X. Shade is inevitable and comes in the final chapter. John X. Shade’s family can forget about him showing up for his ex-wife Monique’s birthday party.

The Ones You Do is part crime novel, part Southern Gothic, part small-town elegy, part character study. One of the major themes of the novel is “the way things used to be but no longer are.” As with all Daniel Woodrell’s novels (I’ve read them all at least once), it’s good reading and well worth the time and small amount of effort it takes to read it.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Lolita ~ A Capsule Book Review

Lolita ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1899. He became an American citizen in 1945 and died in 1977. His 1956 novel, Lolita, was a huge success and has earned the lofty number-four position on the Modern Library’s List of the Hundred Greatest Books in English of the Twentieth Century. Some critics consider Lolita the greatest American novel of the twentieth century.

In the language of the 1950s, Lolita was “frank,” “daring,” and even “shocking.” Some even went so far as to label it “pornographic” or “obscene.” What’s all the fuss about, you may ask? The character Lolita (real name Delores Haze) in the novel is an American “nymphet.” She’s twelve years old and is, to put it mildly, sexually precocious, unlike any twelve-year-old ever seen before. She has had sexual experiences with both male and female partners alike.

Well, there wouldn’t be any story in Lolita without the main character in the book, Humbert Humbert. He is a forty-year-old English academic, transplanted to America, who, since his earliest days, has had an intense interest, and attraction to, prepubescent girls of nine to twelve years of age. He is narrating the novel in his first-person voice.

Humbert marries an obstreperous widow named Charlotte Haze. He doesn’t care for Charlotte very much and, in fact, can hardly stand her, but she just happens to be the mother of a stunningly seductive (Humbert thinks) daughter, the eponymous little girl nicknamed Lolita. If you were anybody other than Humbert, you might see Lolita as an uncouth, bratty pre-teen without any attractive or appealing qualities at all, but then, nobody sees her as Humbert sees her. He takes advantage of every opportunity to be near Lolita, hold her in his arms, or come into close contact with her.

He makes the fatal mistake of writing in his diary of his intense passion for Lolita. His wife (Lolita’s mother) finds his diary in its hiding place and reads it. Finally she knows the truth! Distraught, she runs from the house and is struck by a car and killed. Humbert is now Lolita’s “guardian” and may engage with her sexually any time his heart desires, and his heart desires often.

With Mama Charlotte out of the way, these two highly unusual people (forty-year-old Humbert and twelve-year-old Lolita) embark on a year-long road trip, traveling around the U.S. Humbert knows he is a reprehensible man for taking sexual advantage of Lolita. (Though a willing participant, she is still a minor.) Lolita could go to the police at any time and blow the whistle on Humbert, but she knows that, without him, she would be an orphan. This cannot end well.

Some people will still undoubtedly find the subject matter of Lolita distasteful, but it is a book that must be read and experienced for the joy that Vladimir Nabokov seems to take in writing it. He is a master stylist of the English language. He has a penchant for unusual or rarely used words, such as: undinist, logomancy, valetudinarian, lithophanic, caravansary, and selenian. They are all legitimate words but words you might not find anyplace else.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Maltese Falcon ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Maltese Falcon ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

In 1930 San Francisco—that city of hills and fog by the bay—Brigid O’Shaughnessy (if that’s really her name) believes she is in danger and goes to detective Samuel L. Spade to protect her. She’s young and attractive, as you might expect, and Sam Spade knows his way around with the dames. She tells him a story that’s all lies, but it doesn’t matter very much to Sam because she pays him well and he’d like to get to know her better, if you know what I mean.

The truth is, as Sam Spade learns later, the lovely Miss O’Shaughnessy has fallen in with a band of cutthroats and thieves, and she might be the worst of the lot. (“I’ve been bad, Sam,” she says. “Worse than you know.”) Among those posing a threat to her, we have Casper Gutman, the genial fat man who is so corpulent he seems to be made of bubbles strung together. Then there’s Joel Cairo, an effeminate “Levantine” (a person from the area of Turkey or Egypt) who is sweet on Casper Gutman’s gun-wielding psycho named Wilmer.

Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Casper Gutman, and Joel Cairo all want the Maltese Falcon so badly they will kill for it, or do whatever it takes to possess it. Just what is the Maltese Falcon? It’s a foot-high statuette that has been kicking around since the sixteenth century. It’s laden with precious stones, incalculably valuable, and has been covered over with a thick layer of black varnish to disguise what it really is from those who covet it. The falcon was originally intended, all those centuries ago, as a tribute to the King of Spain from a wealthy order of knights, but the King of Spain never received it, and it has subsequently been bandied about from owner to owner in all that time.

So, Sam Spade the detective is drawn into this knotted web of intrigue because Casper Gutman promises him a wad of money if he can deliver the falcon into his (Gutman’s) hands, but also because Brigid O’Shaughnessy is such a tasty dish of femaleness. Has Spade taken on more than he can handle in dealing with these desperate characters? Will he get the money promised him? Will he get the girl? Will the desperate characters get what they want and play nice and go away when it’s all over? Don’t count on it.

Dashielle Hammett, American novelist, lived from 1894 to 1961. The Maltese Falcon is his most famous and best-known work. It is the detective story that has served as the model for detective stories ever since it was first published in 1930. It is so highly regarded  that it’s number 56 on the Modern Library’s list of the Hundred Greatest Books in English of the Twentieth Century. The 1941 movie version, with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, is a perfect example of how a movie should be made from a book. Sydney Greenstreet as Casper Gutman is cinematic perfection, along with bug-eyed Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo. They’ll kill you if you keep them from getting what they want or, at the very least, slip you a mickey, from which you’ll wake up on the floor in twelve hours or so.

Copyright 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Postman Always Rings Twice ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Postman Always Rings Twice ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

James M. Cain was an American author who lived from 1892 to 1977. His 1934 crime novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, is an ironic and steamy (for its time) story of adultery and murder set in a California roadside restaurant. Even though it’s a “genre” novel, it’s ranked number 98 on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred greatest books in English of the twentieth century.

Cora Smith is a self-described “cheap trollop from Des Moines.” She goes to California seeking movie stardom, but when the movies don’t quite work out for her, she marries an older man, an unattractive Greek named Nick Papadakis, who she describes as “smelly and greasy.” Even though Nick doesn’t make Cora’s pulse race, he can provide her with some security, a job and a home. He owns his own business, a thriving roadside diner called Twin Oaks. Cora can work out her life slaving away there, cooking and slinging hash.

Along comes a drifter by the name of Frank Chambers. He is narrating the story in his first-person voice. Frank sees right away that Cora is unhappy; the two of them begin a clandestine love affair. Cora tells Nick she is desperate; she wants out of her marriage with Nick, but if she leaves, where will she go? They decide they will kill Nick and make it look like an accident. With Nick dead, the two of them will be free to sell Twin Oaks and take the money and go away together somewhere.

Frank and Cora plot to kill Nick in the bathtub. Frank will hit him in the head while he’s taking a bath; he’ll go under and drown; it will look like an accident, except that when the time comes it doesn’t go off as planned and Nick is injured. Frank and Cora are badly shaken, spooked at how close they came to committing the crime of murder and being found out. They are relieved that Nick will live and happy that he has to spend a week convalescing in the hospital, giving the two of them the chance to sleep together in the same bed while he’s away.

When Nick returns to Twin Oaks from the hospital, he realizes he has had a brush with death and is once again ready to embrace life to the fullest. He wants Cora to have to baby. In the funniest line in the book, Cora says: “I can’t have no greasy Greek child, Frank.” Murder is back on the table.

The second attempt to kill Nick is successful. This time, it’s an elaborately staged auto accident on a mountain road. Nick dies, but Frank is (unexpectedly) severely injured. When a canny prosecutor learns the facts of the case, he sees through Frank and Cora’s story that it was all an accident and knows that they killed the Greek. He makes Frank and Cora turn on each other.

There are a couple more ingenious plot twists but, suffice it to say, things do not go well for Frank and Cora. There is no happy ending in the noir world they inhabit.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a slice of Americana, a small literary gem from the 1930s. (Never mind that it was naughty enough to be banned in Boston.) The book translated well to the screen in a movie adaption from 1946, with Lana Turner and John Garfield thoroughly believable as murderous lovers.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Brideshead Revisited ~ A Capsule Book Review

Brideshead Revisited ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) was one of the most celebrated English novelists of the twentieth century. His (yes, he was a man) 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited, is number 80 on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred greatest books in English of the twentieth century.

The novel is narrated in the first-person voice of the fictional Captain Charles Ryder. (The subtitle is The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder.) The action extends over a period of about twenty years, from the early 1920s to the early 1940s. As a college student at Oxford in the 1920s, Charles meets fellow student Lord Sebastian Flyte. The two of them become inseparable friends and Charles’s life is changed forever. (It’s always convenient to have a wealthy friend when you yourself come from a family of modest means.)

Charles eventually goes to Sebastian’s home with him, a palatial mansion called Brideshead Castle, and meets his aristocratic family: two sisters, Julia and Cordelia, and an odd older brother named Brideshead, whom they call “Bridey” for short. Charles sees at once that Sebastian and his sister Julia are very much alike, to the point that she almost seems a “female Sebastian.” (This sets up an interesting dynamic with the three of them, especially later in the book when Charles believes he is in love with Julia.)

Sebastian’s mother, Lady Marchmain, lives at Brideshead Castle, but his father, Lord Marchmain, lives elsewhere with a mistress named Cara. Everybody knows that Lord Marchmain despises his wife, but there will be no divorce because they are Catholic. (The question of religion, being a devout Catholic versus being a non-believer, becomes a prominent theme throughout the novel.)

Sebastian’s family, in effect, becomes Charles’s family. Sebastian becomes more and more estranged from his family and descends into alcoholism, while his family members, especially his two sisters and his mother, come to rely on Charles and confide in him. They all do everything they can to curb Sebastian’s drinking, but he is a dedicated alcoholic and nothing they can do will help. He goes to Morocco or some such exotic locale and lives the life of a bum with a male German friend who has a “wound that won’t heal.”

Charles, meanwhile, drifts away from the Flyte family. He marries a woman he doesn’t much like—she cheats on him, he cheats on her—they have two children, and he becomes an architectural painter. He spends several years in South America, painting and documenting the architectural splendors there, and when he comes back, it’s ten years later and he is he is now twenty-nine years old. He has a reunion with the Flyte family and, because he has an unhappy marriage, believes he wants to marry Julia, Sebastian’s sister, whereas before he didn’t like her very much. The insurmountable obstacle to their happiness is religion: Julia is a devout Catholic and Charles a non-believer. They decide they won’t marry after all.

So, ten years farther along, Charles is thirty-nine years old, alone (no wife), lonely, disillusioned and unhappy. It’s the early 1940s, and World War II is raging. As a captain in the British army, he once again finds himself back at Brideshead Castle. The army has requisitioned it as a base of operations for fighting the Germans. When he sees Brideshead Castle again, in altogether different circumstances from when he was a younger man, the happy and bitter memories of the past come flooding back to him.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

A Passage to India ~ A Capsule Book Review

A Passage to India ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

E. M. Forster’s 1925 novel, A Passage to India, is number 25 on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred greatest fiction books in English of the twentieth century. It is set in Chandrapour, India, in the 1920s, during the English occupation of India. As one might expect, India was eager to be free of English domination and declare its independence, which it eventually did.

Adela Quested is an English lady in her thirties who travels to India with an older woman, a widow named Mrs. Moore. Miss Quested is described as plain and physically unattractive. She is the nervous type, inclined to hysteria. She goes to India with the intention of marrying (maybe not) Mrs. Moore’s son, a British government official named Ronny Heaslop. Ronny is very British, lacking in warmth and spontaneity. He follows all the rules assiduously and is overly concerned with “appearances.” (A union between Adela and Ronny sounds like a recipe for misery.)

In India, Adela and Mrs. Moore meet Cyril Fielding and Dr. Aziz. Cyril Fielding is principal at a government-run English school. He is 45 years old and is cynical about the world, but especially cynical about the English occupation of India; he doesn’t like the way most English people treat the native Indians. Dr. Aziz is a young Moslem doctor (most Indians are Hindu), a widower with three small children. He lives modestly in a rundown bungalow because he sends most of his money home for the care of his children (they live with their grandmother). He and Cyril Fielding are good friends.

Having made the acquaintance of this small group of English people, Dr. Aziz wants to treat them to a picnic at the famous Marabar caves. At great expense, he arranges the food and train transport, and sees to all the details of the outing, including elephant transport from the train to the site of the picnic. After seeing one of the caves, Mrs. Moore becomes tired and decides to rest in the shade while the others see the other caves. That leaves Adela and Dr. Aziz alone in the caves, along with the guide.

A little while later, Adela runs out of the caves, disheveled and hysterical. She claims that Dr. Aziz assaulted and attacked (insulted or violated her) her in the caves, the details of which remain vague (not exactly attempted rape, but something less). This sets the stage for an ugly legal battle between the British and the native Indians, bringing to a boil all the ugly racial tensions that exist between the races. The English naturally believe in Dr. Aziz’s guilt, while his Indian friends all stand beside him and maintain his innocence. Alone among the English, Cyril Fielding believes in Dr. Aziz’s innocence.

A sensational trial follows, during which conflicting testimony is given. The question becomes one, not of guilt or innocence, but of racial allegiance: Who are you going to believe, based, not on the evidence brought out in the trial, but on the race of the two principal parties involved?

A Passage to India is a great classic novel that has stood the test of time. It is still relevant today, not at all dated or stale, nearly a hundred years after its publication. It’s a book I first read many years ago and find it well worth another look. The excellent 1985 movie version directed by David Lean captures the essence and the nuances of the novel.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Sun King ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Sun King ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

King Louis XIV was born in 1638 and became king of France in 1643 at age five. He remained king until his death in 1715. His reign of 72 years and 110 days is the longest reign in history for any European monarch. Beginning in 1682 and for about the last 32 years of Louis’s reign, the Palace of Versailles (about twelve miles from Paris) was the seat of French government and the home of the king, his family and the French court.

Louis XIV himself built the Palace of Versailles, starting with a small chateau with a moat, into the most lavish palace in Europe. It remained the seat of French government for over a hundred years, until the beginning of the French Revolution. Today it still stands as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

Louis XIV was anointed by God, or so he believed (and so did everybody else). He was God’s representative on earth. People stood in awe of him; even his own children trembled in his presence. He was a tyrant when he needed to be, but he also had a more human side. He loved and hated in equal measure.

The Sun King by Nancy Mitford is an account of King Louis XIV and his life in the Palace of Versailles, his family and associates, his enemies, his weaknesses, his foibles, his hunting and eating habits, his mistresses, his children (legitimate and otherwise), his wars, and his political successes and failures. He was called the Sun King because he chose the sun as his personal symbol.

The Palace of Versailles was, at any given moment, home to hundreds if not thousands of courtiers, servants, hangers-on, members of the royal family and others. People were always seeking the gain the King’s favor. Most of the jobs in the palace, down to the most menial, were held by members of one family, from generation to generation. These positions were lucrative and much desired.

Life wasn’t always wonderful for the people living at the Palace of Versailles. Many people died young. Infant mortality rates were high. The King himself fathered seventeen children; ten of them died in infancy. Doctors were, at best, barely capable and many were incompetent. No matter what the illness, doctors “bled” the patient, which proved to be largely ineffective. People died of “stone” (kidney or gall). Smallpox was a constant threat, even among the highborn. The king himself had surgery for an anal fistula, without, of course, any anesthetic. He survived it, without complaint.

No matter what was happening in their lives, no matter what tragedy befell them, these lords and ladies loved to go out hunting. Pity the poor stags and other animals that lived in the woods nearby.

The Sun King is mostly fascinating reading. The narrative bogs down, in my estimation, when the focus is on politics and the political rivals of the king. It is sometimes hard to keep all the names straight because different people are referred to at different times by different names. There are so many children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, friends and enemies of the king (some with unpronounceable and forgettable names) that we don’t always know who’s who, no matter how carefully we’re reading. For example, Mme. de Montespan (sometimes referred to as Athenais) is the King’s longtime mistress. Then the King marries Mme. de Maintenon. Montespan and Maintenon are both prominent characters in the King’s life and their names are almost interchangeable. Such is history.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp