Archive for the 'Book Note' Category

Wodehouse: Psmith III

June 18, 2019

Leave it to Psmith
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2003) [1923]
288 p.

Wodehousian comedy seems to take place in a world of its own, one sharing certain features with ours but more generously endowed with sunshine, pretty girls, and happy happenstance. It comes as something of a shock — shock before delight, you understand — to find that the walls of this world are permeable, and that if characters cannot actually wander out into our own world, they can at least wander from one story-world to another, and that is just what happens here: Leave it to Psmith narrates what transpired when Psmith walked out of his own sphere and into Blandings Castle.

It wasn’t quite so simple as that, of course, for the course of true fun never does run smooth, but, all the same, circumstance did so contrive that Psmith, having assumed the unlikely identity of a modern Canadian poet, entered Blandings Castle as a guest, intent on wooing the attractive young woman cataloguing the castle’s library, and perhaps — if possible — stealing a £20,000 necklace from the lady of the house.

The action of the story, in fact, centers on this diamond necklace, as the action of Macbeth turns on a handkerchief. We see it hung round Lady Constance’s neck, flung from a window, buried in a flower pot, and stuffed in a bird. Much of the joy of the story comes in the gradual discovery of just how many of the central characters are, for one reason or another, in surreptitious pursuit of that glittering garland.

Speaking of central characters, Wodehouse outdoes himself not only in the quality of his comic characters — Psmith, of course, is a comedic figure of the first rank, but the Hon. Freddy Threepwood is nearly as funny as his name, and even the efficient Rupert Baxter, all unwitting, has his moments of comic glory here, in lemon pyjamas — but also in the number of characters arcs he manages at once, each following their own motivations and intersecting in a variety of hilarious ways. It’s a virtuoso performance.

Leave it to Psmith was to be the last of the Psmith books — I think. So the rumours run. I am in some doubt of the matter, because at story’s end he comes on staff at Blandings Castle, which would seem to portend a return in the next Blandings book, Summer Lightning. However, if it should prove not so, and Psmith passes out of earshot for good, allow me to express my thanks for the happy hours spent in his company.

Old English miscellanea

June 7, 2019

Minor and Miscellaneous Poems
Anonymous
Translated from Old English by Craig Williamson
(U Penn, 2017) [c.600-c.1200]
Roughly 200 p.

Most of the Anglo-Saxon poetry which has survived has done so between the pages of a small number of codices: the Junius Manuscript, Vercelli Book, and Exeter Book, plus the manuscripts which have preserved Beowulf and a few other large-scale works (including a complete psalter in Old English verse). But beyond these major sources there survive a large variety of smaller poems and fragments — even individual lines of verse. The last few hundred pages of this gargantuan gathering of poems are devoted to these survivors. I had thought that I’d glance over them quickly, but in the event I found them fascinating, a kind of curio museum liable to throw up a fresh surprise at every turn, and took the time to read through them all.

They are “minor” poems in the sense of being short, not — or at least not always — of being uninteresting. They include relatively well-known historical poems like “The Fight at Finnsburg” and “The Battle of Maldon” (both of which, if memory serves, Tolkien wrote on), and “Caedmon’s Hymn”, which might be the earliest Old English verse that we have. There are the two hymns of St Godric (which I knew from the gorgeous musical settings by Anonymous 4), a calendar poem that describes the seasons and the annual cycle of church feasts, a set of metrical charms for use against diseases and cattle thieves, and some pious moral exhortations in “The Rewards of Piety” and “Instructions for Christians”. There is also “The Grave”, a ghastly meditation on death and decay, and a set of versified commentaries on Latin liturgical prayers like the Pater Noster, Gloria, and Credo.

Speaking of the Pater Noster, my favourite of these miscellaneous poems was “Solomon and Saturn”, a dialogue between the two named figures as representatives of the Biblical and pagan worlds, respectively. This is a novel idea for a poem, and it is doubly interesting to find that the pagan is Greco-Roman rather than, as one might expect, Scandinavian or Germanic. But the content of the poem is the main attraction: in one especially delightful section Solomon describes the effects of the Pater Noster on the devil. Each letter of the prayer assaults the powers of evil with righteous violence:

Whoever earnestly chants the word of God,
Sings out the truth of the Savior’s song,
And celebrates its spirit without sin,
Can chase away the fierce foe,
The champion of evil, if you use the power
Of the Pater Noster. P will punish him —
That warrior has a strong staff, a long rod,
A golden goad to strike the grim fiend.
Then A pursues him with mighty power,
Beating him back, and T takes a turn,
Stabbing his tongue, twisting his neck,
Breaking his jaws. E afflicts him,
Always ready to assault the enemy.
R is enraged, the lord of letters,
And grabs the fiend by his unholy hair,
Shakes and shivers him, picks up flint
And shatters his shanks, his spectral shins.
No leech will mend those splintered limbs —
He will never see his knees again.
Then the devil will duck down in the dark,
Cowering under clouds, shivering in shade,
Hatching in his heart some hopeless defense.
He will yearn for his miserable home in hell,
The hardest of prisons, the narrowest of homelands,
When those churchly twins, N and O,
Come sweeping down with sharp whips
To scourge his body, afflict his evil flesh.
Then S will arrive, the prince of angels,
The letter of glory, our Lord and Savior —
It will haul the fiend up by his hostile feet,
Swing him in the air, striking the stone
With his insidious head, cracking his cheeks,
Shattering his mouth, scattering his teeth
Through the throngs of hell. Each fearful fiend
Will curl up tightly, concealed in shadow
As the thane of Satan lies terribly still.
(ll.119-155)

And so on. This, I believe, is one of the best things I’ve seen in a long while.

*

Beyond these complete poems or substantial fragments, we also have a bunch of really short poems. When Williamson claims to have translated the “complete” Old English poems, he is not kidding. An inscription on a ring, a stray riddle, a metrical phrase carved on a stone cross or casket, a poetic line scribbled in the margin of a manuscript — they are gathered up and set down here. These bits have a certain romance about them; they, and only they, have been spared by the gauntlet of time. In some cases it becomes difficult to decide if something qualifies as Old English verse or not, for in later centuries the line between Old and Middle English became blurry, and the distinction between merely rhythmic prose and bona fide metrical verse can be tricky to descry. When in doubt Williamson has chosen to include it, and I’m glad.

**

Sadly, this browse through the Old English Curiosity Shop brings our journey through the whole surviving body of Old English poetry to an end. It has been a strange and rewarding trek for me through what was, mostly, terra incognita (or whatever the Anglo-Saxon phrase would be), and I am reluctant to let it go. Thanks are due to Craig Williamson for undertaking the massive task of single-handedly translating this marvellous, little-known literature.

I am mindful, however, that during the 18 months that I’ve been a hearth-guest of the Anglo-Saxons, a queue of other big, bulky medieval books has formed on my shelf. Unless I am mistaken they seem to hail from Finland, Iceland, Arabia, and Japan. Decisions, decisions…

Horace: Odes

May 27, 2019

Odes
Quintus Horatius Flaccus
(Wordsworth Classics, 1997) [23-13 BC]
lvii + 282 p.

Horace is one of the authors whom I’ve most looked forward to reading during the Roman reading project in which I’m engaged. I have known him only by reputation; to my knowledge, before taking up this volume I’d never read a line of his poetry.

The Odes are his most famous poems, admired for their graceful artistry. Horace was the master of the polished miniature; the elegant turn of phrase; the marriage of form and content; the personal touch. There are four books, published between 23 and 13 BC, comprising about 100 poems altogether.

Each ode is, as a rule (occasionally broken), addressed to a particular individual: to a friend returned from war, or to a friend who has fallen in love with his servant-girl, or to someone writing a book, or mourning a death, or to an unfaithful beauty. One is addressed to a lute. The subject matter is as wide as the heavens: love, friendship, the vanity of riches and power, the fleetingness of life, the virtues of wine. The tone is largely whimsical and tender, poetry on a small, domestic scale, but not a hint of rusticity. Horace professes a love for the countryside, but his own personality, it seems, was gently urbane.

This is personal poetry, then, far from the high style of epic, akin in some ways to Catullus, but more guarded, using meticulous poetic construction to put a little distance between the finished poem and the poet.

*

Let’s look at a few examples. This volume of Horace that I have been reading is an anthology in which the work of many different translators are combined. Therefore where I quote lines I shall indicate in brackets the name and date of the translator.

A recurring theme is the small ambition of Horace the poet, who is content with a simple, domestic sphere, and whose style is not fit for great matters like war and affairs of state:

Small wits, small themes! I know my humble place,
Nor would the Muse of my unwarlike lyre
Suffer my verse with ineffectual fire
Your fame or Caesar’s to disgrace.
(I, 6) [Edward Marsh; 1941]

*

And as for Caesar — you in your great prose
Will tell his battles better, and display
Proud kings with necks enchained, his vanquished foes,
Led captive down the Sacred Way.

Me the sage Muse assigns an apter part,
To praise your fair Licymnia’s radiant eyes,
Her thrilling voice that lifts you to the skies,
The treasure of her faithful heart;

How all she does becomes her, the swift play
Of parrying wit, the dance of frolic grace
When with the bright-robed girls she takes her place
To hymn Diana’s festal day.
(II, 12) [Edward Marsh; 1941]

Yet this modesty is a subterfuge of sorts, for he does occasionally turn his pen to Caesar’s advantage:

Come then, auspicious prince, and bring
To thy long gloomy country light,
For in thy countenance the spring
Shines forth to cheer thy people’s sight;
Then hasten thy return for, thou away,
Nor lustre has the sun, nor joy the day.
(IV, 5) [Philip Francis; 1746]

This was consistent with his social position; though the son of a freedman, and so not part of the Roman aristocratic circles, his talent earned him a place among the powerful in Roman society. His special artistic patron was Maecenas, Augustus’ adviser and confidant.

In any case, it is equally clear that his quaint subject matter is but a vehicle to greatness of another sort:

Restrain your tears and cease your cries,
Nor grace with fading flowers my hearse;
I without funeral elegies
Shall live forever in my verse.
(II, 20) [Dr Johnson; 1726]

This poetic conceit — that the poet’s immortality, or that of his subject, is assured because of the poetry itself — is familiar from Shakespeare’s sonnets, and I wonder (but do not know) if Shakespeare inherited it from Horace.

The shortness of life is another theme that comes up again and again. It ought to spur us, says Horace, to live each day with determination to wring from it all that it can yield:

Tomorrow and its works defy;
Lay hold upon the present hour,
And snatch the pleasures passing by
To put them out of Fortune’s power;
Nor love nor love’s delights disdain –
Whate’er thou getts’t today, is gain.

Secure those golden early joys
That youth unsoured with sorrow bears,
Ere with’ring time the taste destroys
With sickness and unwieldy years.
For active sports, for pleasing rest.
This is the time to be posesst;
The best is but in season best.
(I, 9) [Dryden; 1685]

Or, again, in an ode addressed to Virgil, he argues that the brevity of life should encourage us not to take ourselves too seriously, but to enjoy levity and folly:

Then leave delays, and gain’s desire,
And mindful of black funeral fire,
Short folly mix with counsels best:
‘Tis sweet sometimes to be in jest.
(IV, 12) [Sir Thomas Hawkins; 1625)

All of this, of course, under the shadow of death, which loomed over all:

One end awaits us all. Our fate
Is fixed. The ferry-boat is sent
To carry all men, soon or late,
To their perpetual banishment.
(II, 3) [John Gielgud; 1951]

*

The indifferent earth, an equal friend,
As willingly opens her wide womb
For beggar’s grave as prince’s tomb.
(II, 18) [Thomas Hawkins; 1625]

**

I enjoyed these poems a good deal. Reading poetry in translation — especially non-narrative poetry — is something of a fool’s game. I cannot name a single poem which has achieved eminence or widespread admiration in the English speaking world that was not originally written in English. Translations, however talented the translator, somehow fail to really take wing. Yet there are wonderfully talented poets in this volume, Dryden and Milton being the most eminent. The reader, if innocent of the original tongue, is unsure whether whatever elegance or artistry they perceive in the translation is a reflection of something present in the original, or not. As such, it is difficult to form any precise view of, in this case, Horace the poet from reading the poems.

Why bother then? In part, I think, because of the personal tone of the poetry, which comes through quite clearly despite the mediating voices. There is a man behind the lines whom we can, in some measure, get to know, whether that man is Horace himself or his artful public persona. The point is that there is a “character” there, who speaks to us across the centuries with a startlingly immediate voice.

Another reason would be simply to appreciate, in some measure, a poet whose influence over subsequent European poetry, and English poetry specifically, has been great. If the translations in this volume are representative (and they are consistent with what I found in the even more extensive collection Horace in English), an interest in re-expressing Horace’s poetry in English forms began in roughly the sixteenth century and has extended up to the present. This is not the same thing, of course, as saying that an interest in Horace began then; educated readers before the twentieth century could, and did, read him in the original, and he has been considered one of the great poets of our tradition since antiquity. Wikipedia has a nice potted history of his reception in European cultures.

*

[Complicated love]
No sooner hast thou, with false vows,
Provoked the powers above;
But thou art fairer than before
And we are more in love.
Thus Heaven and Earth seem to declare
They pardon falsehood in the fair.
(II, 8) [Sir Charles Sedley; 1701]

[The glory of the past]
Time sensibly all things impairs;
Our fathers have been worse than theirs;
And we than ours; next age will see
A race more profligate than we,
With all the pains we take, have skill enough to be.
(III, 6) [Wentworth Dillon; 1684]

[Against riches]
We barbarously call those bless’d
Who are of largest tenements possess’d,
Whilst swelling coffers break their owner’s rest.
More truly happy those, who can
Govern the little empire, man.
(IV, 9) [George Stepney; 1689]

Barzun: Classic, Romantic, and Modern

May 21, 2019

Classic, Romantic, and Modern
Jacques Barzun
(Little, Brown; 1961) [1943]
255 p.

“Romantic” is a complicated word. Even if we use it just in an historical sense, applying to the period covering, roughly speaking, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, what do we mean? Do we mean that it was a period that exemplified

“a return to the Middle Ages, a love of the exotic, a revolt from Reason, an exaggeration of individualism, a liberation of the unconscious, a reaction against scientific method, a revival of pantheism, idealism, and catholicism, a rejection of artistic conventions, a preference for emotion, a movement back to nature, or a glorification of force[?]”

The word has been used to mean these and many other things. (This book has an entertaining chapter in which Barzun does nothing but compile usage examples and try to tease out the implied meaning.) Barzun’s purpose in this book is to clarify our understanding of the romantic period, to defend it against its critics, and, in the process, to set forth a theory of historical development in which romanticism, whether under that name or another smelling as sweet, plays an essential part.

**

Following conventional usage, Barzun takes ‘romanticism’ to refer to a movement in European culture by a group of artists and thinkers whose births fell roughly between 1770 and 1815. We are talking about Blake, Goethe, Keats, Kant, Byron, Schiller, Emerson, Beethoven, Shelley, Schopenhauer, Thoreau, Chopin, and Scott, among (of course) many others. This was a group that was far from united, but Barzun argues that they are all justly ‘romantics’ because of two essential features: first, they understood themselves to be doing something in contrast to the “dissolving eighteenth century”, doing something constructive and creative, in search of new ideas and new institutions; and, second, that they shared a double awareness that man is simultaneous both great and vulnerable, he is “created and limited, a doer and a sufferer, infinite in spirit and finite in action”. These two characteristics Barzun argues are basic to romanticism, underlying the welter of different ideas and forms that sprung from it.

As an effort to find common ground uniting these many different figures, this is worth considering. At the same time, the idea that man is an intersection of the infinite and the finite is hardly an idea distinctive of romanticism. You’ll find it in Dante and Augustine. It is in some sense just a Christian idea. And, indeed, later Barzun argues that romantic life was basically Christian in character, “for it [combined] the infinite worth of the individual soul in its power and weakness, the search for union with the infinite, and the gospel of work for one’s fellow men.” The argument, then, must be not that this duality was unique to the romantics, but only that it exercised a particular influence over their thought.

He discerns four main phases in the career of romanticism, and it is worth sketching them. The first, from roughly 1780 to 1850, was the heyday of the romantics, during which most of the most eminent figures did their most creative work. The subsequent phases were “efforts at specialization, selection, refinement, and intensification” of the paths forged in the first phase.

The second phase Barzun calls “realism”, which he dates to about 1850-1885. This was an exploration of the political ramifications of romanticism (especially in Marx) and involved a turn toward materialism and coercion, under the tutelage of the physical sciences: “realism meant force without principle, matter without mind, mechanism without life.” It was a simplification of the original complexity of romanticism, but shared the goals of the romantics: “nationhood, social order, intellectual unity, the improvement of the human lot”.

The third and fourth phases were more properly a split, as they occurred simultaneously. One was the symbolist movement originated by the pre-Raphaelites, rooted in Coleridge and Keats, that influenced Debussy, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Whistler. The other was what Barzun calls naturalism, exemplified by Dostoyevsky, Zola, and Huysmans; it was humanistic, and retained an interest in political and social issues that the symbolists largely lacked. Both movements lasted into the early twentieth century but were eventually displaced by “the modern”, about which more anon.

**

Barzun is keen to defend romanticism against its critics, or at least against unjust criticism. Reading between the lines, for instance, I infer that a strand of criticism at the time of writing — during WWII — was that romanticism was to blame for the rise of fascism and totalitarian politics. The idea seems to have been that with its elevation of national, local character and its revolutionary attitude toward social institutions, romanticism enabled or even abetted the revolutionary politics that produced the Russian Revolution and the Third Reich. The charge has a certain plausibility, for the romantics generally lauded both the American and French Revolutions. But Barzun argues that the romantics’ commitment to variety and innovation and their rejection of authority make a poor case for them as nascent totalitarians; for him, “the romantic style of doing things is the precise opposite of the totalitarian”. It is a fair point, yet I am reminded of Eliot’s argument that cultural movements, precisely because of the energies they release, might well tend toward a terminus that achieves the opposite of what they intend. (Eliot thought this true of liberalism.) The course of a cultural and intellectual movement sometimes overflows the bounds foreseen by its founders.

Romantics, in part because of their interest in fable and supernaturalism, were sometimes charged with “escapism”; in the twentieth century Tolkien met with a similar criticism for similar reasons. Barzun vigorously contests the charge; he sees them as unprejudiced realists, like explorers and scientists who opened up new vistas and experimented with different possibilities, all in an effort to adopt forms and subject matter which could convey their meaning. “They tried to meet the claim of every existing reality, both internal and external” and “they admitted the widest possible range of experience as real”. For them, life was the test of thought, not the other way around, and they were willing to stress accepted conventions and push boundaries of good taste in order to clear space for adequate expression of lived experience. With the benefit of hindsight, I think we understand this better today than did their critical contemporaries.

*

The book is not called simply “Romantic”, so let me say a word about the two foils: Classic and Modern. Classicism is the (if I may so say) classic foil for romanticism. Where romanticism is restless, iconoclastic, and questing, classicism values stable norms and social unity, for “no matter how arbitrary, conventions are useful and can be relied upon in proportion as they are held inviolable”. If Berlioz is a romantic, Haydn, I suppose, could be an exemplar of classicism. Societies with a strong classicist tendency are strong on hierarchies and clear social conventions. Barzun is sensible of the appeal and very real strengths of classicism:

It calls for intelligence, discipline, unselfish renunciation of private desires, a sense of social solidarity, and punctilious behaviour towards other members of one’s own caste.

At the same time, classicism has a kind of brittleness that makes it vulnerable. The unanimity it presents can be more apparent than real, imposed by social expectations rather than organically grown. Tumult may be concealed beneath a smooth exterior. When new problems arise classicism has a difficult time adapting.

Romanticism, too, has its weaknesses of course: it is turbulent, disorienting, and disruptive. It may be irrational. Societies which feel a need to break free of the constraints of a classical order may soon enough come to wish it back again. For this reason, Barzun sets forth in this book a theory of social change in which classical periods and romantic periods alternate, like the boom and bust cycle of an economy:

Periods of absorption alternate with periods of elimination; after diversity, simplification. Though both tendencies are at times present together, one dominates. Man explores and is romantic; man wants repose and becomes classical.

The nineteenth century was romantic; the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe were classical; the Renaissance was romantic, the late middle ages were classical. I think we could argue that the High Middle Ages — say, the 12th and 13th centuries — were romantic by Barzun’s definition, with many innovations in literature, architecture, and music. It’s an intriguing theory with a certain prima facie plausibility.

If it were true, it raises a question about our own times: is modernism a romanticism or a classicism? If modernism has yielded to something else — call it postmodernism — is that classical or romantic? Or has something happened to disrupt the cycle?

Barzun was writing in the 1940s, and at that time modernism was still in full swing. It seems he saw it is a defective species of classicism: elite and perfectionist, as classicism often is, but unable to tolerate solidification of any conventions, morbidly self-conscious and distrustful of its own desires, and skeptical. “It looks for certainties, guarantees of permanence and safety without, often, believing that they exist.” It searched for new, unassailable grounds on which to build, but was afflicted by a sense of universal purposelessness. Hardly promising material on which to found a stable social order.

This second edition of the book also includes, however, an epilogue written in 1960, a vantage point which allowed Barzun more perspective on cultural and social developments after WWII. He discerned two principal lines of development worthy of comment: first, the wholesale rebellion of artists against the Western inheritance, and, at the same time, nearly the opposite movement in the general public, who evinced a fresh desire for “the classics”. Rather than counterbalancing one another, Barzun saw them as working together to destroy the artistic tradition of the past five centuries. The artists were revolutionary, aiming “to produce in man a wholly new consciousness — not a new outlook upon the old makings of life, but a life made of a new substance.” They looked on the artistic heritage with contempt, as an obstacle rather than an inspiration. And the public — well, the public has bad taste, and when their appetite fixes on “the classics” it can only corrupt them. One problem is the cheapening effect of promulgating art through the channels of middle class commerce:

All the new media make arbitrary demands on the materials fed through them… To see the works of the Impressionists twisted into backgrounds for advertising perfume; to hear the melodies of Bach, Mozart, Berlioz, and Chopin rehandled by Tin Pan Alley; to listen to absent-minded hacks giving the lowdown on high art, not solely in blurbs for books and discs, in mass media, or over the air, but also on the walls of museums and in the glass cases of propagandistic libraries — all this is destructive in the same measure that it is communicative.

and another is the sheer abundance of material and ease of access, which sickens and sours the aesthetic sensibility:

Too much art in too many places means art robbed of its right associations, its exact forms, its concentrated power. We are grateful for the comprehensive repertoire which modern industry for the first time puts within our reach, but we turn sick at the aggressive temptation, like the novice in the sweetshop.

In our own time the general public’s interest in classic literature, music, and art has subsided, eclipsed, I would argue, by new media, but the opportunities for over-saturation have only become more common and more tempting.

**

Barzun, even in his epilogue, was writing only at the beginning of the 1960s, and, astute as he was, he seems not to have foreseen the cultural upheavals just a few years in his future. How I wish that he could have written a third edition in, say, the 1980s. It’s pretty clear that the 1960s were, in his taxonomy, a romantic period, with a rapid development of new artistic expressions, and a general breakdown of norms in art, sexuality, and society. Its aftermath is all around us, though I wonder if there are, perhaps, nascent signs of a return to classicism? Many people have documented the marked contrast between the children of the 1960s and the new “millenial” generation, which is more likely to be risk averse, less tolerant of unfamiliar ideas and the free expression of them, and more narrowly moralistic, though its list of sins runs along novel lines. The efforts of the baby boomers, now occupying the heights of power, to shore up their revolution by legal means is also typical, says, Barzun, of classicism, the unanimity of which is more often imposed than grown:

To suppose that one can have classicism without authoritarianism is like supposing that one can have braking power without friction.

We shall see what we shall see. In the meantime, Classic, Romantic, and Modern is a thoughtful and learned reflection on the last quarter-millenium of our cultural history, and remains well worth reading.

le Carré: The Honourable Schoolboy

May 13, 2019

The Honourable Schoolboy
John Le Carré
(Hodder & Stoughton, 1977)
532 p.

It is fair to say that I have next to no idea what happened in this book. I do know — because I read it on the dust jacket — that the story has something to do with George Smiley’s efforts to revenge himself on the Russian spymaster Karla, whom we remember from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but what Karla has to do with what happens in the book is for someone else to answer. I can at least confirm that his name comes up a few times.

The story, insofar as I was able to discern it, concerns the infiltration of an opium smuggling operation into China. Some events take place in Cambodia, and some in Thailand, and others in Hong Kong. I gather that these smugglers are somehow working for Karla for some reason. There is a character whom Smiley is trying to capture — his name is Nelson — and it seems, from the hullabaloo that accompanies his eventual capture, that he is important in some way. Unless I am mistaken, he never appears on the page until the very end, so it is odd that he should be the novel’s focus. Actually, for much of the book I thought he was a child who had died.

There are some characters in the book. An English fellow called Westerby. A woman called Liz. Someone called Drake. Back in England there is a Circus operative called Collins, and he seemed suspicious to me, but that went nowhere. These characters did many things in the book and, by and large, I failed to understand their motives.

None of this amounts to a criticism of le Carré or his book, exactly. He is by reputation a very good spy novelist. He is comfortable with subtlety and elaborate hidden motives, and good for him. This book took the palm for crime novels in the year it was published, so others have appreciated, and presumably understood, it. Meanwhile, I am wondering if I should persist with my plans to read Smiley’s People, the final volume in the Karla trilogy. Nobody likes to feel a fool, much less twice over.

Wodehouse: Psmith II

May 7, 2019

Psmith in the City
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2003) [1910]
208 p.

Psmith and Mike both leave school for a life of responsibility and upward mobility, and, as chance would have it, both land in the postage department of the New Asiatic Bank in London. Hilarity ensues. Befriending their excitable and meticulous supervisor by feigning to share his interest in football, they acquire the leisure to take tea and circle in the orbit of the bank’s manager, Mr Bickersdyke, on whose good will Psmith is intent on playing for his own amusement. Eventually Mike hears the call of the cricket field too strongly and, deserting his post, abandons bank life, Psmith following. In the end, Psmith is bound for Cambridge University, intent on studying law, and offers Mike an all-expense-paid berth at the same in the capacity of his personal secretary. The future is bright.

This was one of my favourite Wodehouse novels so far. Psmith is a splendid character who enlivens every page. Mike, thoughtfully, withdraws to the shadows so as not to distract. The sequence in which Psmith attends a political speech by “Comrade Bickersdyke” and rises to point out Bickersdyke’s appropriation of an episode in Three Men in a Boat was raucously funny. Really delightful.

**

Psmith, Journalist
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2008) [1915]
256 p.

A year has passed, and Psmith and Mike have a term off at Cambridge. Mike and the cricket team head state-side, and Psmith follows.

The events of the story take place in New York City, with Mike mostly off-screen. Psmith encounters the Acting Editor of a homely little magazine called Cosy Moments, and, sensing an opportunity for adventure, convinces him to reboot his rag as an edgy political agitator; their cause: the degredations of New York’s tenement housing.

It’s a good premise, giving Psmith scope to talk his way into, and then out of, trouble, in his inimitable manner. The story goes places I’d not have expected, including into the world of boxing, and of gangsters, where Psmith is out of place. I enjoyed the book, but it lacked some of the sparkle of the earlier Psmith stories. It could be that I need to give him a rest for a while, to sharpen the appetite.

White: The Once and Future King

April 29, 2019

The Queen of Air and Darkness
T.H. White
[1939] 100 p.

The Ill-Made Knight
T.H. White
[1940] 200 p.

Candle in the Wind
T.H. White
[1940] 120 p.

When I wrote, with such great enthusiasm, about T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, a friend cautioned me not to expect the same delights from the subsequent volumes of The Once and Future King. He was right. As I was warned, these books lack the sense of happy whimsy of the first, and are, to an uncomfortable extent, quite dark and unhappy in themselves. We know something has changed when, in The Queen of Air and Darkness, the Orkney clan — Gawain, Gaheris, Gareth, and Agravaine — dismember a unicorn, a grisly scene that is played for very dark laughs.

These Orkney knights are central to the second volume, for each is destined to become a knight in the fellowship of knights just beginning to take shape in Arthur’s mind. Arthur has grown to a youthful manhood, and has gone to war against the many intransigent lords in his kingdom, yet all the while he muses on a new ideal: a knight who fights not for conquest or gain, but for justice and goodness.

The dark shadows are brightened somewhat by a comic thread carried over from the first volume involving King Pellinore and the Questing Beast: Pellinore has fallen into unrequited love and lost his taste for questing, but is miserable, and his friends, in an effort to revive his spirits, don a Questing Beast costume which, however, is mistaken by the Questing Beast herself for the real thing, with tragicomic consequences.

The third volume, The Ill-Made Knight, follows the life of Lancelot, the Chevalier mal fet himself, and his complicated relationships with Guinever and Arthur. We know the basic story, but what I appreciated about White’s re-telling — and this was, for me, the best of these three volumes — was the very personal way in which he re-imagined the familiar tales. His is neither an “updating” — although he does allow his knights the luxury of speaking casual modern English when not fighting one another — nor an attempt to create a realistic historical setting, but something quite different: an attempt at realistic psychology within a story that retains its fantastic elements, and one that is fully aware of taking place within a tradition of Arthurian storytelling. (More than once White’s narrator remarks that Malory said X, whereas actually it was Y, or that as Malory already described A there is no need to repeat it.) This personal approach to the Arthurian legends was also there in The Sword in the Stone, but, given that most of that book related stories that Malory left offstage, it was less obvious; in these more famous tales, concerning the famous love triangle, the merits of White’s approach stood out more clearly.

Woven into the increasingly tense relationships of Arthur, Guinever, and Lancelot are increasing tensions within the fellowship of the Round Table. At this point the Round Table has triumphed; Arthur’s shining ideal of knighthood reigns; its enemies have been mostly vanquished. Yet, human nature being what it is, quarrels erupt and dissension threatens. In response, Arthur conceives the Quest of the Holy Grail, an attempt to re-focus the energy of the knights onto a spiritual ideal, an attempt that is triumphantly successful — for a time.

It is in the final volume, Candle in the Wind, that the darkness that has been pushed back by Arthur’s dream returns with a vengeance. Mordred, Arthur’s illicitly-conceived son, accuses Lancelot and Guinever outright of infidelity to the king, which leads to a spiralling series of conflicts, broken trusts, dead knights, and the end of Arthur’s hopes, attended by much mournful meditation on the collapse of the ideals of chivalry and of power restrained by law, ideals which had been premised on the idea that man is basically good. The unavoidable conclusion, in the face of disaster, is that that premise was false. Pelagianism, even when Arthurian, fails.

The tetralogy closes with a winsome coda in which Arthur, amid the rubble of his dreams, asks a young page, Tom Malory, to remember his story and to tell it to others. It’s a cheering finale to a series of books haunted by darkness and violence. If we were to forget for a moment the existence of The Sword in the Stone, these three books would stand as an impressive, personal engagement with the Arthurian legends, although emphatically not for children. Remembering that earlier book, however, they are thrown into contrast and appear too dour and too dark to really love. Alas!

Virgil: Georgics

April 25, 2019

Georgics
Publius Virgilius Maro
Translated from the Latin by David Ferry
(FSG, 2005) [c.29 BC]
xx + 202 p.

Virgil wrote the Georgics a few years after his Eclogues and the two sets of poems share common ground, especially an admiration for rural life. Whereas the Eclogues were structured around rustic characters, the Georgics are much more interested in the nuts and bolts — or, I suppose it would be better to say, the grapes and olives — of farm life, and could be fairly described as outright didactic poems. I was reminded, more than once, of Cato the Elder’s “De agricultura”, not on account of the form, of course, for Virgil is infinitely more elegant, but of the subject matter.

There are four poems, or, it may be better to say, four divisions of one poem. The first is about agriculture: the sowing of crops, anticipation of storms, harvesting. The second is concerned with tree husbandry: types of trees, planting of trees, types of soil, grafting, and harvesting of fruit. The third transitions to the care and breeding of farm animals, both the nobler kind (horses and cows) and the more ignoble (goats, sheep), with an extended section on plague and diseases that can beset herds and flocks. The fourth, and for me the most enjoyable, is about bee-keeping.

We all know Virgil as the author of Aeneid. I must say that few things seem more unlikely than that he, our great epic poet, should, apart from that monumental achievement, be known for writing humble farm poems. It is as though a scriptwriter for a television nature program should then write “Hamlet”. Yet it is apparently so. Probably I am underselling Virgil’s accomplishments in these earlier poems, which I expect are exquisite in the Latin, and in which there is more going on than mere exposition, but, nonetheless, the contrast between this and that is striking.

Further to that point: my handy little Student’s Guide to Classics argues that the Georgics are actually comparable to the Aeneid in their exploration of “optimism about man’s ability to create order and pessimism about the disorder caused by his passions and appetites”. I would concur, at least, with the judgment that the creation of order is a major preoccupation of the poems. I’m unconvinced that the poems are especially focused on “passions and appetites” as sources of disorder; to my mind, they represent disorder as inherent in the natural world, from which order must be wrested.

A feature of these poems that particularly attracted my attention was the interplay in them of the quotidian and the sacred. Virgil may be describing something quite concrete and ordinary, like pruning a vine, but an attending god is rarely far off. Throughout the poems, tales from Greek and Roman mythology are interwoven with technical descriptions of farm management. The effect of this is, of course, to elevate the dignity of the farmer’s work, presided over so attentively by the gods, and also to convert the poems themselves into a celebration of Roman greatness in and through the primary Roman virtues, which since at least the time of Cincinnatus had been rooted in rural exemplars.

The presence of gods and heroes in these poems is especially striking in the fourth Georgic, which contains a long section relating the tale of Aristaeus (the Roman god of bee-keeping) and Proteus, during the course of which Proteus tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. It was here, in what is a very beautiful interlude, that I heard for the first time in these Georgics the voice of Virgil the epic poet. For all I know, it may have been on the strength of this very section that Virgil was chosen by Augustus to write the Aeneid.

Speaking of Augustus, he is everywhere in these poems. They open and close with references to him, whom Virgil portrays as the great patron of peace, and numerous deferential and laudatory remarks are made about him throughout. Thus the poems have a political dimension that sometimes feels merely sycophantic — emperors will be praised, after all — but sometimes seems more. The fourth Georgic, again, is interesting from this angle: in it, the bees are governed not by a queen but by a king, which makes me wonder whether we are to read this paean to the virtues of the hive as an allegory of the Roman empire? Or could it simply be that Augustan-age melittology was wayward in certain respects?

*

Virgil’s principal influences in these poems are Hesiod and Lucretius, both admired for their careful descriptions of natural phenomena. The Georgics have been read regularly between Virgil’s time and ours, albeit much less widely than has Aeneid. The first English translation was John Dryden’s, in 1697, and the poems enjoyed a heyday (or maybe a hay-day) of popularity in the eighteenth-century, with over 20 English translations published in that century alone. They inspired a modest echo in an English tradition of agricultural poetry, now dead, and were an influence on agrarian political and social movements at around the time of the American founding. The Wikipedia page is quite good at tracing the influence they have had.

It would have been nice to read Dryden’s translation, but for years I’ve had this David Ferry translation on my shelves and I decided the time was ripe to finally take it down. Ferry has rendered the poems into iambic pentameter, giving them a stately feel, and, like the Latin original, does not bother with rhymes. His English, however, is a good deal more verbose than the Latin (which in this edition is printed on the facing page), often running to at least 50% more lines. But this, I believe, is common in translations from Latin, and not counted a fault. I found Ferry quite good, in general, and excellent in the fourth poem, where his lines took on an aptly honey-golden sheen.

O’Connor: The Presence of Grace

April 15, 2019

The Presence of Grace
And Other Book Reviews
Flannery O’Connor
Edited by Carter W. Martin
(University of Georgia, 1983)
189 p.

Flannery O’Connor didn’t leave us many books, and to find another, even if minor, is a joy. This volume gathers together over 100 short book reviews which she did for Catholic diocesan newspapers in Georgia between 1956-64. I believe the existence of the book is not very well known, even among her admirers.

Many of the books she reviewed were ephemeral; indeed, it is a little dispiriting to think that she invested so much time in reading books which nobody reads anymore. An occupational hazard, perhaps, for book reviewers, but who among us, in all soberness, does much better? Yet part of the attraction of this book is that she does, every so often, write about an enduring book — novels by J.F. Powers, Evelyn Waugh, or François Mauriac, for instance. It is here that one leans forward to hear what she had to say.

Most of the books were non-fiction, and, given the publications for which she was writing, it was natural that they had mostly to do with Catholicism. Among the “big names” whom she reviewed were Louis Bouyer and Romano Guardini; she knew quality when she saw it. I was a little surprised, I admit, at the praise which she lavished on Tielhard de Chardin, whom I know was making waves at the time, but one hardly expects Flannery to be susceptible to hype. Nonetheless, she considered him “a great and saintly man” whose mind “dealt in immensities” and whose books would “probably have the effect of giving a new face to Christian spirituality”. Following his censure by the Holy Office in 1962 she conceded that his books were “incomplete and dangerous,” but her admiration for his person seemed undimmed. I don’t know much about de Chardin, I admit, his star having faded in the meantime, and quite possibly her assessment of his personal merits was just.

A salutary feature of the book is that it can disabuse us of fond imaginings that Catholic life before Vatican II was sunshine and roses. Her general view of American Catholicism in relation to the wider culture was that it was narrow and fearful, and not particularly distinguished, “having compromised with the secular in everything from doctrine to decoration”. One is tempted to say, as a rejoinder, “Miss Flannery, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet”, but, still, the point she makes is worth hearing.

Much of the fun of the book is in the jibes and barbed praise which she bestowed on books and readers. Of one book she writes that

This book is well worth reading for its virtues and we have its faults to thank for its being read so widely.

And of best-sellers in general she muses that

The best seller list is a standard of mediocrity through which occasionally a work of merit will slip for reasons unconnected with its quality.

A review of a biography of St Catherine of Siena begins in this way:

The signs and wonders that increased the faith of the 14th century will very generally have the opposite effect on that of the 20th, and this biography of St Catherine, written by her confessor, Blessed Raymond of Capua, can very well have the effect of inspiring the reader with a genuine repulsion for the saint.

or, commenting on the jargon in a book about education, she writes that

…the reader, unless he is a student of education and thus habituated to such, will quit the book half way through, with the thought: if they do this to the language, what do they do to the child?

*

Most of the reviews are brief; just a paragraph or two, though occasionally we get a page or two. I could learn something from her about the soul of wit. They are arranged chronologically, and are interspersed with letters between Flannery and the diocesan papers’ editors on book-related matters; her personal voice comes through more clearly in the letters, and one can’t help missing her.

***

[On a wordy volume of unadulterated wisdom]
The ideal form for unadulterated wisdom is the aphorism.

[On Catholic imagery]
The images absorbed in childhood are retained by the soul throughout life. In medieval times, the child viewed the same images as his elders, and these were images adequate to the realities they stood for. He formed his images of the Lord from, for example, the stern and majestic Pantacrator [sic], not from the smiling Jesus with a bleeding heart. When childhood was over, the image was still valid and was able to hold up under the assults given to belief. Today the idea of religion of large numbers of Catholics remains trapped at the magical stage by static and superficial images which neither mind nor stomach can any longer take.

Stoppard: The Hard Problem

April 8, 2019

The Hard Problem
Tom Stoppard
(Faber and Faber, 2015)
76 p.

Tom Stoppard has always had a reputation as a playwright with an intellectual bent, bringing science and philosophy to the stage in a way that is accessible to audiences and infused with personal significance for his characters. The Hard Problem, his first play in nearly a decade, continues this tradition, though perhaps not as successfully as in earlier plays. The “hard problem” is the famous problem of consciousness: both whether and how conscious experience can be given a scientific explanation.

The play’s central character is Hilary, a young brain science research scientist, who has been well catechized. She knows that science is the privileged means of knowing the world and ourselves, that we are material in every aspect of our being, and that there are no mysteries in the world, but only problems to be solved. The trouble is — and this is what makes her an interesting central character — she doesn’t believe it, and is adept at ferreting out the cracks in the explanatory facade. She asks awkward questions. She calls bluff. She even prays.

The “hard problem” of consciousness is hard for a variety of reasons. One is that there is an explanatory gap between the kinds of entities that science deals with and the phenomena of first-person experience. One can know everything there is to know about the neurobiology of how photons of a particular energy incident on retinal cells trigger electrical signals to certain regions of the brain, but nothing in that body of knowledge tells us anything about what it is like to experience the colour blue, nor is it clear how knowledge of matter — which, according, at least, to the reigning scientific paradigm for the past 500 years, is defined to be essentially mathematical in structure and devoid of all mental properties — ever could tell us anything at all about conscious experience, or indeed why it ever could or would produce something like conscious experience in the first place. Given our understanding of what matter is, we can’t get there from here.

I am sorry to report that Stoppard does not solve “the hard problem” in the course of the play. Nor, to be honest, is the play much concerned with the problem of consciousness in particular. It comes up now and then, but the play’s interest is more broadly in whether scientific claims to complete or exclusive explanatory authority are justified. Are we really convinced by the portrait science paints of us? Thus in addition to the problem of consciousness, the play devotes quite a lot of time to the “problem” — for Darwinists — of altruism, and hints here and there at deeper problems posed by moral claims in general, which creep into our thinking and acting, and into the very practice of science itself, in ways that are subtle and often overlooked. In one funny scene Hilary asks an atheist character to pray for her, and, when he protests that doing so would compromise his moral and intellectual integrity, she asks, rather pointedly, “And that’s a problem, is it?” It is amazing how bags of chemical reactions get uppity when provoked.

The play therefore takes a refreshingly unorthodox approach to its subject matter. I note with pleasure that a review of the play at New Scientist complains of the “great shame” that Stoppard is interested in “what he sees as the limitations of science”. Clearly he’s doing something right. That said, the philosophical wealth of the play is more pauperish than princely. Even within the ambit of “the hard problem”, there is so much more that might have been said — about the common view that consciousness is like software running on brain hardware, for instance. And the play leaves untouched other aspects of mental life at least as difficult to account for in materialist terms, such as intentionality and even conceptual thought itself.

However, a play with a running time of 90 minutes cannot do everything. Its main purpose, of course, is to tell a compelling human story, and Hilary’s story, leaning heavily but effectively on dramatic irony, was interesting to me, and if the play raises provocative questions along the way, and does not presume that the received answers are the right ones, so much the better. Tom Stoppard hasn’t let me down yet.