Wednesday 27 April 2022

Review: The Heavens by Sandra Newman


I read this book last year and found it very intriguing, as well as a spot-on look at what it means to be a Millennial this days. It's the book that inspired me to make a pile of other time travel books and I think I wrote a decent review - not filler, honestly - I'm not posting filler (mumble, mumble, cough).

The Heavens is a strange mix of time-slip, love-story, dystopia and possibly schizophrenia story but if it’s about anything, it seems to be about the experience of being a Millennial. Born as the cold war ended, growing up in a time of relative peace and prosperity (in some countries anyway) but as we reached adulthood 9/11 happened, the war on terror, the credit crunch and austerity stripping all health and social care. Compared to the optimism we were born to, the world now seems like a dystopia. 

Ben and Kate meet at a party in 2000, but it’s not quite the 2000 we know, the world has had a year without war and the human race seems to have really made a good start at tackling climate change. For much of her life, Kate has had a vivid dream life but now she finds herself going back in time in her sleep and living the life of Emilia Lanier, an Elizabethan poet and possibly Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’.

Every time she wakes up from the dream world, the modern world has started to shift, at first in small ways but these accumulate quickly. What’s more, these shifts are to a world grimmer than the one she remembers, both for her personally and in general geo-political terms. This element was my favourite in the book, seeing how the characters we know have subtly changed in accordance with the world around them. It also means this is a love story where we don’t completely understand the progress of Ben and Kate’s relationship, as it’s rewritten every time she wakes up. At first her friends see her confusion at the world as a quirky ‘Kate’ thing but as things change more, they start to feel she is seriously ill and she is diagnosed as schizophrenic.
Some people read this as a book as one about schizophrenia but if she were schizophrenic, the reality of 2001 would have stabilised once she reached ours, especially as she is declared ‘better’ near the end of the book. As such the world becomes worse than ours; the mental ward with branded clothes and adverts is not our reality, not to mention talk of having launched pre-emptive nuclear weapons and a more draconian version of the patriot act. I think this makes it clear that she has been time-travelling and the world really has been changing around her.

What’s more, she’s not the only time-traveller. Before she met Shakespeare as Emilia, he also time-travelled in his sleep to help the rise in Alexander the Great, who had himself time travelled as Cassandra and seen the fall of Troy. He’s put that behind him now and is working on becoming a renowned writer, which she helps with. In the present day, she also meets José who is also a time-traveller and explains the whole deal. Time-travel was invented in the future but only worked with certain people, it caused a chain reaction that meant that each time-traveller helps the previous one become a ‘great person’ in history and later become one themselves. This has a negative side effect, each time-traveller that becomes a ‘great person’ sours the future and brings the coming apocalypse closer, so while Kate has been helping Shakespeare as Emilia, she’s been making her own present worse.

The solution would be for Kate to break the chain, to not become a ‘great person’, which José fro the future describes as a grassroots leader of some kind of rebellion but at the end of the book, Kate is doing just that, claiming that she can’t save the world so she may as well be happy. I can’t say I thought this ended the book on a hopeful note, by the end. It’s the same whistling into oblivion attitude we’ve all adopted to climate change and other existential terrors, the Millennial non-answer.
As a book, I was gripped by the way Kate’s reality shifted under her and the implications of the form of time-travel though I found the Elizabethan stuff a bit hey-nonny-nonny-ish for my taste. The book successfully encapsulates the feeling of being in a world that looks nothing like (and is far more threatening than) the one we were promised as children and sadly reaches the conclusion of wilful ignorance that seems to be one of the only ways to cope with that.

Wednesday 20 April 2022

Review: The Memoirs of XXXX (Part Three: Johnson and Psalmanazar, a note on the preface)

I wish Johnson has written more about his Grub Street Years. So much about his character in his older, more settled years seems to stem from the unsettled years of hack writerdom. One thing we know is that Johnson made some friendships that seemed baffling to Boswell and those who knew him later. One glimpse at these lesser-known years is Johnson’s biography of Richard Savage, a friendship based on politics and poetry. 

Another strange friendship was his one with George Psalmanazar. Indeed, Johnson describes Psalmanazar in ideal terms, describing him as the best man he’s ever met who “was so well known and esteemed, that scarce any person, even children, passed him without showing him signs of respect”. Johnson, in his later years, was a huge enemy of fraud, being of the team of experts being sent to uncover the truth of the Cock Lane Ghost and being a relentless doubter of the Ossian papers yet he speaks of the Formosan Fraud with nothing but glowing terms. Why is that?

I think the biggest clue to Johnson’s respect for Psalmanazar can be found in preface to the memoirs, a thirty page essay on redemption and the pursuit of a Godly life. It’s essentially a sermon and it reads a lot like Johnson’s writing. Psalmanazar uses the very Johnsonian technique of threes, putting three supporting points into a long sentence to create a full argument. The rhythms are like a Rambler essay with their very controlled movement between ideas. His use of alliteration, talking about ‘passions and prejudice’ sound like Johnson and he even does the classic Johnson move of using metaphors with strong verbs, like when he described life as ‘wading into a stormy sea.’ Honestly, the preface reads like vintage Johnson. 

What’s more, the ideas are very Johnsonian. The beginning of the preface is about how he has been conducting his turn to God. He disputes the claim that such belief can be sustained on reason alone and that to follow a Godly life, there needs to be an element of faith as human reason is not strong enough to sustain it. This sounds very much like Johnson’s own doubts of the strength of human reason when faced with human passion and links to Johnson’s strong belief in hope and faith as a way to keep strong and good. 

Psalmanazar talks about how making the decision to lead a good life and commit to God is a good one but making that commitment is the job finished. A person needs not to be complacent and to remain ever vigilant that they are continuing on the right path. This also seems like very Johnsonian advice, ever mindful of human weakness, he believed that a person should check on themselves periodically and keep relationships in good repair. Similarly, both Johnson and Psalmanazar would sit and write formal prayers on feast days, fast days and on days of personal significance.

Psalmanazar also talks about how he is to live in hope of redemption and strive for the best without the certainty that he’d done enough to fix the mistakes of his past. Johnson similarly was very concerned he might not have done to be in God’s good books and could only hope.

It could be that the two discussed religion and writing, it’s almost certain they did. Reading Psalmanazar’s preface it doesn’t seem impossible that he rubbed off on Johnson a little and that the younger Samuel took Psalmanazar’s example as he wrote his own works. The similarities could also be that they both were fans of similar work, both found William Law’s ‘A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life’ important in their religious development. For Johnson, who’d taken to mocking christianity in his teen years, it was the book that set him back on the path of Christianity and for Psalmanazar, it was the book that helped him turn a wish to change from his days as a fraud into practical action. 

In my reading of Psalmanazar’s Memoirs, I expected the details of the fraud to be the part that most engaged me, however it was the second part, detailing his life in Grub Street that grabbed me more and also the preface - the preface is a mini marvel.

Wednesday 13 April 2022

Review: Memoirs of XXX by George Psalmanazar (Part Two: Descent into Grub Street)

When we last left George Psalmanazar, he’d been discovered by a shady Scottish clergyman who’d coached him in how to keeping his story straight, baptised him into the Church of England and declared to British society that he was a Formosan. 

It’s not that Psalmanazar was completely believed, there were numerous debates. One was at the Royal Society where Edmund Halley tripped Psalmanazar up with facts and logic, asking him a question about how the stars would look and pointing out that Psalmanazar’s answer couldn’t be the case. However, Psalmanazar was a great improvisor by now and said that in his part of Formosa, the people lived underground and saw the stars through angled chimneys that changed the view. This claim about living underground also explained why he was pale with blonde hair, only poor Formosans lived outside and tanned. One of the biggest doubters was a French Jesuit who’d been to Japan and people were more invested in not believing the Jesuit than they were to doubt the Formosan. 

Psalmanazar was also helped in his deception by the truly peculiar accent he’d picked up in his travels, which made him sound like he was from anywhere and nowhere. Another help was Psalmanazar’s invented Formosan language, which he’d become very fluent in, translating the Anglican Book of Common Prayer into it to present to the Bishop of London. It’s since been lost and if anyone has the patience and know-how, it’d be a great thing to forge a copy. I’d love a furore about a forged copy of a fraudulent document, it’d be great.

Another factor that helped Psalmanazar’s deception was the fact that there was no greater purpose behind it. He wasn’t a deep-cover operative for the Catholic church designed to make the Anglicans look silly, nor was he connected or supported to any other cause. He was simply an imaginative young man who, through a series of daft circumstances, found himself trapped in the persona of an exotic traveller and newly Christian convert. He says that he already felt things had got too far at this point but he was too deep into the deception to back out. 

One of the rules he set himself was to never change anything he’d previously stated about his past or his supposed country of origin. For this reason, he’d now established that most Formosans lived underground where they were naked except for a gold plate over their genitals, that the men were polygamous and the husband was allowed to eat wives that strayed. He also found himself committed to the ‘fact’ that Formosans committed a great deal of human sacrifice. So much sacrifice that the more canny mathematicians in the audience wondered how the population grew at all, leading to more claims about the fecundity of Formosan women. These tales eventually went into his book An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan which he wrote in Cambridge whilst supposedly preparing a course in Formosan language for future missionaries. Even there he added more deceptions, sleeping with his candles burning so it looked like he worked all night as well as all day. Later in his life, he was glad that the stories he’d constructed were so ludicrous as it would make them more obviously false to future readers.

The book was a success, running two editions quite quickly, but Psalmanazar didn’t get rich off it. As interest in him waned, he tried to patent a white form of the black lacquer known as Japan-ware but it didn’t sell. He also took to painting fans with fake Formosan scenes but they didn’t take off either. This was his dark times where nothing went right for him and. “I seldom failed at reaping some pungent shame, mortification, or disgrace, where I expected approbation and applause,” - we’ve all been there. In the end he descended into the anonymous depths of being a Grub Street hack.

I imagine most readers find the end of this book ‘the boring bit’ but for someone with an interest in the lives of Grub Street, I actually found it the most fascinating part of the book. Psalmanazar, always interested in languages, taught himself Hebrew, partly by hanging around East London synagogues. He wrote a tragi-comic play in Hebrew which, unsurprisingly, didn’t do very well. Later he wrote a sequel to Pamela and sent it to Richardson who described it as, ‘ridiculous and improbable’. (I imagine it’d have been very entertaining though).

Psalmanazar took part in a number of larger projects, including  A General History of Printing and a number of chapters for A Complete System of Geography, where he wrote about the real Formosa and, for the first time, admitted his fraud in print. The last twenty pages of the book are about his involvement in the Universal History, a huge multi-author attempt to write a history of everywhere, everywhen. We get as real sense of the bickering and in-fighting that went into a project like this, and a real sense of what it was to be a Grub Street hack, slaving everyday on one of the many big anthologies that were the key staple for many writers. Psalmanazar was given a number of chunks to write but his biggest, and the work he was proudest of, was his history of the Jewish people. Presumably he was chosen because he could read Hebrew. Unlike other writers on the project who were late with deadlines or didn’t do the research, he wrote his chapters on time and with great diligence. Also, unlike the writer of the Roman sections, he didn’t try and take up more than his space. Psalmanazar is polite about his colleagues but it’s clear that whoever wrote the Roman sections really pissed him off. For the first part, the un-named writer clearly thought his topic the prestigious section of the book and handed in too much, at the detriment to the other sections. For the second, the writers had made an agreement that where a conflict happens, the history of that conflict would be written by the person writing the history of the location of that conflict. The Roman writer ignored this, butting his elbows into the other people’s history when the Romans invaded and, in the case of the Jewish Wars, doing it half-arsedly.

The book then cuts off at the end of this section without a conclusion, I imagine he died before he could finish it.

I read these memoirs expecting to find a cheeky little trickster who enjoyed his scam and had lots of fun, instead I found a man deeply sorry for his imposture and deeply driven by a religious need to atone for that. The book has a heavily moral tone throughout but it comes across as deeply felt, this is no ‘sorry/not-sorry’ type of books but a true confession of a man who, I think, didn’t do much that was wrong. His life could be seen as one with the high-point of his entrance into England and a slow decline after but that’s not how it seems reading him. He talks about his Hebrew studies like a giddy fan, delighted in the new vistas of knowledge opening to him and about his hack writing as a good piece of solid work he can be proud of. He’s far prouder of his Jewish history than his fake Formosan one and if he did suffer from hunger and discomfort in his Grub Street years, his long life and positive attitude did not show it. He seems happiest as an anonymous yet diligent writer and that’s quite cheering.

Next week I want to talk about his connection with Samuel Johnson.


Wednesday 6 April 2022

Review: Memoirs of XXX by George Psalmanazar (Part One: The Road to Britain)

I first heard of George Psalmanazar the same place I heard of Robert ‘Romeo’ Coates and William McGonagall, Banvard’s Folly by Paul Collins. I was also aware that the young Samuel Johnson was friends with him during Johnson’s Grub Street years. My interest in him was re-ignited when I read a number of books and saw the film about Princess Caraboo - both were claimed to be foreigners from distant lands and both created their own distinct writing styles and languages to convince others of their foreignness. The main difference was, Psalmanazar wrote his own confession.

The book starts with Psalmanazar’s will, where he entrusted his executors with a number of papers, some work on the Hebrew language and his memoir. He hopes the publication of the papers will pay off any remaining debts and also the cheapest funeral possible, desiring to be buried in ‘the common burying ground, and there interred in some obscure corner of it’, ‘performed in the lowest and cheapest manner’ and without a coffin. These instructions may be reflective of his financial situation, his guilt over his imposture or even for a slightly more ghoulish reason. Before this quiet burial he wishes that his body be ‘kept so long above ground, for as long as decency or conveniency will permit’, in other words, till he is not fresh enough to be taken by bodysnatchers. The formally famous Formosan fraud may well have been a tempting proposition to a resurrection man and keeping the body out for a while before dumping it quietly and unmarked in a common grave may have been the best preventative.

The work proper starts with a lengthy preface, which I imagine is often skipped over but I found a fascinating piece in itself. What starts as an account of his state of mind in beginning his memoirs becomes a sermon about the possibility of repentance and change. These ideas feel honest and are beautifully expressed, it seems he felt real shame for his lies and that they’d been eating him up inside his whole life. One of the reasons he wanted the memoirs published posthumously was the embarrassment of admitting that he’d lied about who he was and been believed by some truly good people whom he couldn’t face. He seems more repentant than his acts really deserve, as most of the public would have either forgotten about him or remembered the brief Formosa craze as a fun memory.

It’s also in the preface where he talks about his drug addiction. That he first took Laudanum to look cool and debonair, finding that he was pretty resistant to its more pernicious effects. When asked about his habit in the past, he’d recommended taking it with orange juice, having heard that the acid dialled down the mania but maintained the high. He recounts how he tried to go cold-turkey, which was okay in the summer but he found hard in the winter. In the end he settled on twelve drops (just under a grain of opium) in a mug of punch at the end of a long day writing. He claimed this not only kept him going but may be responsible for his good health, after all, he did die at the age of eighty-four.

Psalmanazar fails to give the main details of his life in the memoirs. He never says exactly where he was born and grew up (though it’s supposed somewhere in the Gascon region of France) or what is actual name is. He says this is so that his family would never have to hear of his shame. He does say that his father was of a noble family that had lost its fortune and had gone to Germany to seek work while he stayed at home with his mother. 

A bright child, Psalmanazar took to Latin very quickly and was soon at the top of the top class, outperforming students twice his age. Given this aptitude, his mother sought places to further his education. The first was in a private school where the tutor was very knowledgeable about logic but found it harder to lecture on metaphysics or ethics. However, the tutor was really taken by the young prodigy and signed papers to say he had passed the courses, which allowed him to go to university at the age of sixteen. University was very different and there were no allowances given to his youth or the gaps in his knowledge, which made him give up on them. His later self declares that he was lazy and proud, the two faults which were to drive his life. Even at this later date, he mainly blames the teachers and institutions he fell into for not helping or inspiring him to do better - which to be fair is pretty much my feelings about my own university experience. (Though I am aware that this is quite a childish notion for both Psalmanazar and I to have held, if we had both been less lazy or proud, we could have worked harder).

Psalmanazar wanted to return home but was in no financial state to do so. He hit upon the idea of playing a pilgrim, stealing a staff and cape from a church and forging a document that said he was an Irishman on his way to Rome. He then specifically begged clergymen and monks in Latin, telling of the persecution he endured back in the home country. By doing this, he managed to get back home and then, on his mother’s recommendation, to go all the way to Germany to see if his father could help him. Unfortunately, his father was in no real state to lend any assistance but advice, telling him to go to Holland, where his skill with Latin would open tutoring jobs. Having a few near misses with his Irish persona, he altered the document to say he was Japanese and then created his own constructed alphabet, which he grew very fluent in. 

His journeys didn’t turn out as he wished and Psalmanazar found himself in military service, though never in active duty. He noted the rowdiness of the soldiers, was horrified at their swearing, drunkenness and assignations with prostitutes. For a while he kept the lie that he was a converted Japanese person but began to have more fun pretending he was not a christian. He claimed to worship the sun and even wrote a whole prayerbook in his invented language. The joke for him was that despite being a ‘heathen’, he lead a more Godly life than the christians around him, he also enjoyed it when clergymen tried to convert him as his previous studies allowed him to walk theological rings around them.

One such clergyman was Alexander Innes, a Scottish padre attached to a Dutch legion. Rather than try to convert Psalmanazar, he got him to translate the same part of Horace into his fake language twice. When these two ‘translations’ were obviously different, he didn’t immediately expose Psalmanazar but told him to be more careful. The two constructed a plan to ‘covert’ and baptise Psalmanazar into the Anglican faith and to use this as a way into British society. Thus Psalmanazar was given the first name George and his nationality became Formosan (from Taiwan) as it was an even harder place to disprove.

In part two, Psalmanazar's adventures in England