January 31st, 2009


January Books 19) The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, by Samuel Johnson

I've had this hanging around for ages, and eventually read it last week - it is very short, only 112 pages in my Penguin edition, and the original was only 93. Rasselas, as the title declares, is a prince of Abyssinia, who lives in a happy valley of the kingdom where he and his friends and family are preserved from all disturbing outside influences. With his friend, Imlac, his sister Nekayah, and her companion Pekuah, they tunnel out of the happy valley in search of adventure and take up residence in Cairo. They meet a deranged astronomer, and get him back in touch with reality; they get their adventure when Pekuah is kidnapped by Arabs; but she is rescued without too much drama. At the end of the book, they conclude that their dreams are unattainable and resolve to go back home.

I was interested that the action is exclusively set in Africa. There is mention of Europeans being in Cairo, and this making it a cosmopolitan city, but I don't think we meet any of them. I was also interested that the astronomer character, whose delusion is that he is in sole control of the planets and the weather, is aware of the moons of Jupiter. We are clearly meant to read the African characters as disaffected young English men and women, and that is how they are portrayed (with a touch of Orientalism) in the illustrated editions on-line; I don't think Johnson is really trying to say anything about Africa (though he had translated Jerónimo Lobo's book about Abyssinia twenty-five years earlier).

It's striking that this was written 250 years ago this month, the same year (1759) as Candide, which has a similar basic concept, but the timings I think are such that neither Johnson nor Voltaire can have much influenced the other. It seems to have been the last fiction (indeed, the only prose fiction) that Johnson published. It is somewhat pessimistic but very engaging.

Wii and me

Well, it took me a while to get into it, but I have developed a healthy relationship with Wii Fit. Since the start of the year I have successfully established a routine of doing half an hour on it in the mornings - two yoga exercises, and one fron each of the other three categories - and am at the stage which I never came close to reaching during my flirtation with the gym, where I actually get out of bed looking forward to it, and have missed only one day a week so far. On top of that, I think it is actually doing me some good. I haven't lost any weight - that will take some attention to my diet, I think - but I feel that it's better distributed, and working better for me. (In any case my weight is only a shade above the desirable band.)

Meanwhile we seem to have acquired a number of games for the Wii. Young F kindly got us the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix game for Christmas, and has inevitably spent more time on it than we have (I can't get the levitating to work). He is now campaigning for us to connect the Wii to the internet so that he can do Mario Karting with people round the world. No chance.