Yes, I’m still on the little books – well, I do like things which are small but perfectly formed!! Ampersand, as well as kindly sending me “The Sisters” plus two other lovely book in the classics range, have also provided a further two classics – not an obvious pairing of authors, perhaps, but both remarkably entertaining and thought-provoking!

The Battle of the Books by Jonathan Swift

Swift, of course, is the author of “Gulliver’s Travels” (which has a significant part to play in part one of the Utopia documentary – probably still on the iPlayer, if you haven’t caught it yet) and he was very well-known for his satire. “Battle” is often appended to “A Tale of a Tub” but here gets to stand apart and be appreciated in its own right. The dispute in question is between Ancient and Modern literature, and Swift took up his pen in defence of Sir William Temple (for whom he was working as a secretary). Temple had written an essay on the subject, declaring that the Moderns were merely standing on the shoulders of giants, and much controversy followed. Swift took things a little further, however, and his imagery of Ancient learning encased in books chained down in libraries certainly had me grinning.

Now, it must be here understood, that ink is the great missive weapon in all battles of the learned, which, conveyed through a sort of engine called a quill, infinite numbers of these are darted at the enemy by the valiant on each side, with equal skill and violence, as if it were an engagement of porcupines.

Charles Jervas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The book is full of humour and allegory, parodying heroic works, but with the books mustering their forces and leading the battle. The concept of a book of Homer astride a horse, slaying authors and critics left and right, is certainly fun, but like all satire Swift has many layers to his work. Inserted into the middle of the story is a parable of a bee and a spider; the former gathers from nature and creates something new like the Ancients, whereas the spider absorbs and regurgitates (often unpleasant substances) like the Moderns. Modern critics were included in with the latter, and so Swift was presumably aiming his satire very specifically…

It’s all great fun, and a reminder what a wonderful writer Swift was. Definitely worth checking out!

The Stories and Adventures of the Baron d’Ormesan by Guillaume Apollinaire
Translated by Elliot Koubis and Iris Colomb

Apollinaire is, of course, best known for his poetry (and I’m *still* convinced I should have a collection of his works in the house somewhere). However, until I had a look at the Ampersand site, I don’t think I was aware that he’d also written prose; and this collection brings together all of his short stories about a very slippery character known as the Baron d’Ormesan.

Guillaume Apollinaire [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

The Baron started life as a classmate of the narrator; however, he reappears in the latter’s life reinvented as the Baron d’Ormesan with a rather intriguing career. His apparent occupation as a tour guide is in fact a kind of flaneury, maybe even an early form of psychogeography, although it isn’t long before the Baron’s criminal tendencies show through. He continues to flit in and out of the life of the narrator in ever more outlandish forms with a series of  adventures culminating in an almost sci-fi tale of holographic projection – which is rather the undoing of things. The interim stories take in thieving, murder and cannibalism and the larger than life character of the Baron is very, very entertaining.

… I thought about this long-lost friend, whose habits and imagination, although invariably unsettling, had always captivated my interest. The fondness which had drawn me to him when he was my fellow classmate at school, and his name was simply Dormesan; the many times we met and I was able to appreciate his peculiar character; his lack of scruples; a certain chaotic erudition, and a most agreeable kindness or spirit; all of these things made me feel, occasionally, something akin to a desire to see him again.

As I was reading these stories, something was niggling at my brain; and I eventually realised there was an elusive quality about them that was vaguely reminiscent of Blaise Cendrar’s “Dan Yack” stories: the fantastical exploits, the lack of morality in the main character, the ever-more extreme escapades as the book went on. And interestingly, when I had a little search online it appears that the men were indeed acquainted… Maybe the times conspired to have a certain kind of story coming to the fore, and it seems that Cendrars also influenced Apollinaire’s poetic style too ! Who knew? (Well – not me, obviously….)

These two lovely little editions from Ampersand really did make fascinating reading. I love being able to read obscure classics which have slipped out of the mainstream, and both Swift and Apollinaire are fine authors. If you haven’t already checked out Ampersand I’d highly recommend their books – both aesthetically and for the content! 🙂

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