Recent reading and thoughts by Grant Agnew

Hi Queer Readers,

Back in July I dipped into one of my favourite books: The Italians, by Luigi Barzini.  Although some of the details are a bit dated now, the book as a whole is as relevant as ever.  With the Italian Film Festival coming up, this book would be a very useful bit of background reading.
In July, for some reason I can’t remember, I wanted to remind myself of what Barzini had to say about Macchiavelli.  He denounces Macchiavelli as a sentimental, idealistic dreamer; he has much more time for Guicciardini.  That prompted me to re-read  The Prince  for the first time in decades, and yes, Barzini was right about him.  So of course I immediately got hold of Guicciardini’s  Ricordi  (= Maxims and Reflections) and read that too.  It’s just a collection of short paragraphs on random subjects and so not very satisfying as a whole, but yes, it’s much more realistic than Macchiavelli.
For a coherent, overall and truly cynical view of politics, try  The Dictator’s Handbook  by Bruce Buena de Mesquita and Alastair Smith.  Most of the examples in it are American, but they’re easy to understand and the general principles involved are universal.  For those who’d like a rather frightening insight into what Australia has just been saved from, try  The Anatomy of Fascism  by Robert Paxton  and  The True Believer  by Eric Hoffer.   All three are not very long and are easy reads, by the way.

But I digress.  There was a reference in Guicciardini to something which looked interesting in the Roman writer Tacitus, so I got bought the Penguin Classics versions of  his  Annals  and  Histories.  Now I know why my Ancient History teacher at school had avoided the part of the curriculum for which Tacitus was required reading.  The really fruity bits in Tacitus’ books were lost centuries ago, and what is left is thorough but d-u-l-l.  At times I felt that I’d rather read the phone book.  This was a surprise to me because I’ve always liked ancient literature — the wild passion of the Greek plays is stunning, and some of the historical works are just great to read (The Twelve Caesars  by Suetonius leaves modern scandal sheets for dead).
Some Byzantine literature is also most engaging.  No hatchet job of today can compare with  The Secret History  by Procopius, and the histories of Michael Psellus (Penguin: Fourteen Byzantine Rulers)  are not much milder.  Those who’d prefer something like Robert Graves’  Claudius  books are in luck.  Graves also wrote  Count Belisarius, which is about the rule and then reign of Justinian (518-565 AD), the last great Roman Emperor and/or the first great Byzantine one; take your pick.  There is a good popular history of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich, by the way, which brings the whole 1100 years to life.

But I digress again.  After Tacitus I needed  something light, and I came across a recorded version of  You Wouldn’t Be Dead For Quids  by Robert Barratt, one of Australia’s most prolific authors.  His works are  NOT  great literature, but they truly evoke an era now past.  Barratt’s feel for the texture of everyday life is extraordinary; his characters are utterly believable.  Unfortunately, stories about the life of a bouncer at an illegal casino tend to acquire a certain sameness after the first couple of brawls and dodgy deals.  I’m listening to this book in bits and pieces on my car CD player; perhaps this is the only way not to let Barratt’s thoroughly ordinary style get you down.

Grant Agnew.

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