Archive for the 'Books' Category

McCarthy: No Country for Old Men

January 16, 2017

cormac_mccarthy_nocountryforoldmenNo Country for Old Men
Cormac McCarthy
(Vintage, 2005)
309 p.

I’d seen the Coen brothers’ film, of course, and admired it, and was curious to get to know the source. Also, it had been several years since I last sat down with a Cormac McCarthy book — I won’t say that I missed him, exactly, but encountering his voice again — arid, compressed, and bereft of punctuation — was like slipping into a familiar, if thorn-lined, shirt. There’s nobody quite like him.

The set-up is superb: a man out hunting comes upon the scene of a drug deal gone wrong, with bodies and bullets everywhere and a bag of money for the taking. He takes it, and the action of the novel unfolds. It’s a violent and sometimes brutal affair, but it has its moments of humanity as well, especially in the person of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (of whom we hear a good deal more here than in the film adaptation).

In movie circles, Anton Chigurh is sometimes named as one of the great screen villains of all time; it is a testament to Javier Bardem that he was able to bring McCarthy’s character to such chilling life. He’s chilling on the page too, but not, I think, to the same extent, and I found that I had always to call Bardem’s performance to mind to capture his full potential.

Chigurh is a character worth pondering. As usual with McCarthy we are given no insight into his private thoughts; we see his acts and we hear him speak, and that is all. Yet because he is such an unusual character — unusually cruel and inhumane — ascription of motives is more difficult than usual. As a result, Chigurh is perceived as something like a force of nature, or as fate, and he himself seems to agree with this perception, for more than once he speaks about how his actions just happen, or he determines his course of action based on the outcome of chance events — either way, he avoids personal responsibility. Yet, at the same time, he adheres to a certain moral code, or, if that adjective seems abused in this context, then to a code of conduct. Witness his rendezvous with Carla Jean, simply because he had made a promise. And, deeper down, there lurks the question of what motivates him in the first place. It is not lust for wealth, for he surrenders the money without hesitation. Nor does he seem to act from loyalty, for he turns on his employer when his employer turns on him. At best, he might act from a very personal sense of duty, bound by having given his word. But it is hard to be sure.

The book is more than just a thriller or an exhibition of violence. Threaded throughout are observations and reflections, sometimes hard-bitten and always terse, on law, human relationships, and the dissolution of society and virtue. It’s a sad and dark vision, and would be intolerable but for Sheriff Bell, who hasn’t entirely given up hope.

Hawke: Rules For a Knight

January 9, 2017

hawke-knightRules for a Knight
Ethan Hawke
(Knopf, 2015)
172 p.

Stories of knights and ladies have an enduring place in children’s literature. Though they act for better and for worse, there is something intrinsically ennobling about a knight that makes him a suitable bearer of moral instruction. Knights protect the innocent, are loyal to their friends, honour God, fight bravely, and have good manners.

This same tradition of knightly conduct informs this charming little book. Framed as a letter written by one Sir Thomas Lemuel Hawke, a fifteenth-century knight, to his children, it includes a sequence of short meditations on a variety of knightly virtues. There are aphorisms, parables, and brief meditations, none longer than a few pages, and many containing solid moral insight.

To give a few examples: the book opens with a short meditation on the value of solitude, which includes this thought:

“Just as it is impossible to see your reflection in troubled water, so too is it with the soul.”

Or, on gratitude:

“The only intelligent response to the on-going gift of life is gratitude.”

Or, on friendship:

“The quality of your life will, to a large extent, be decided by with whom you elect to spend your time.”

Or, on honesty:

“We are here to grow, and the truth is the water, the light, and the soil from which we rise. The armor of falsehood is subtly wrought out of the darkness and hides us not only from others but from our own soul.”

Or, on courage:

“Anything that gives light must endure burning.”

Similarly, Sir Thomas discusses patience, forgiveness, generosity, justice, discipline, love, and other virtues. Although platitudes do crop up here and there, for the most part I found the book’s advice to be sound, thoughtful, and well-expressed.

The book does fall short in one significant respect: it is a book of immanent ethics, without a transcendent dimension. Even subjects, like “faith” and “grace”, that naturally would lead in that direction are cut short, with predictably feeble results. (Of faith: “Sometimes to understand more, you need to know less.”) In general, the greater the gravity of the subject (“love”, “death”), the less adequate Sir Thomas’ treatment sounds to me. This is not surprising, for these are the most difficult subjects to treat adequately.

Still, there is much solid counsel in these pages, and the book would make, I would think, a splendid and suitable gift for a child of 10 or 12 years old.

**

At the end of the book is an acknowledgements section, and although the list of those to whom thanks is extended includes living people who are, perhaps, the author’s friends, it also includes quite a few dead people whom the author could know only through books. One gets the sense, when perusing the names, that these are, in one sense or another, the author’s spiritual sources, those through whom he has gleaned what wisdom he has. The names are worth pondering:

knight-rules_1
knight-rules_2It would be a good exercise for each of us to compile our own such list of names.

**

Physically, the book is a handsome thing: a gorgeous hardback with gilt lettering and a ribbon to mark one’s place. The paper is sturdy, and the text is graced with numerous pencil drawings of birds; these are a fine addition, for they complement the meditative tone of the book by giving the eye something lovely and delicate to rest upon between lessons. The book is small, perfectly scaled for a child’s hand. The only design flaw is that the author’s name is too prominent on both spine and gilt cover. But this, in the usual course of things, is the publisher’s doing, not the author’s.

Speaking of the author, yes, it’s that Ethan Hawke: novelist, screenwriter, and Hollywood star. There’s a caricature of movie stars as pretty-faced bubble-heads, as men without chests, and it would be contrary to evidence to claim this caricature wholly false, but this little book proves that it isn’t wholly true either. The illustrations are by Ryan Hawke, his wife.

Endo: Silence

January 4, 2017

endo-silenceSilence
Shūsaku Endō
(Taplinger, 1980) [1966]
294 p. Second reading.

“Now a Major Motion Picture,” as they say, and I count myself among those anticipating Martin Scorcese’s long-gestated film adaptation of this, one of the notable, but controversial, Catholic novels of the twentieth century.

I want to discuss some aspects of the novel in detail, and this will involve spoilers. If you’ve not read the novel, you might wish to stop here.

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The book is set in the early seventeenth century. We follow Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit priest preparing to depart for Japan, where a severe persecution has oppressed the Christians and led some, including a revered Jesuit missionary, Fr Ferreira, into apostasy, or so the rumours run. Rodrigues doesn’t believe it, and embarks for Japan full of confidence.

He discovers soon enough that the persecution is no rumour, and he and his companion priest, Fr Garrpe, spend much of the first half of the novel in hiding or on the run, ministering where they can to the beleaguered Christian faithful. In the novel’s second half Rodrigues is captured and pressured to apostatize, an act dramatized by stepping on a fumie, a bronze picture of Christ’s face. “Only a formality,” he is told, but clearly not considered such by the people, nor by Rodrigues, who has a special devotion to the face of Jesus.

Silence has been regarded with admiration and suspicion since its publication. It is admired because it is undoubtedly a fine novel: well-written, memorable, and challenging. But many readers, especially Catholics, have found it troubling, and for a variety of reasons.

Some have objected to the dispiriting arc of the story. Why write or read a novel about Catholics who apostatize under persecution? This I take to be a weak objection, for such persecutions, and the very real and human challenges they force on the faithful, are as much a part of our history as any more positive tale, and should we not hold the plights of our beset brothers and sisters close to our hearts as well, even though they fall short? Especially today, when persecution is a real and widespread reality in many parts of the world, we do well not to turn our eyes away.

A more substantive criticism concerns the way that Rodrigues finally apostatizes. He is imprisoned but treated well, while other Catholic prisoners are subjected to brutal tortures, and Rodrigues is told that the torture will stop only if he, Rodrigues, apostatizes. His motive in stepping on the fumie, then, is plausibly not to apostatize, but only to bring relief to those who suffer.

I think this doubt has some merit, and I think it plausible that Rodrigues’ sin is not really apostasy. There is some evidence in the books final pages that he retains his faith, although he lives as a Japanese and has forsaken the duties of the priesthood. But if his sin is not apostasy, it is, on this reading, certainly lying and causing scandal, for by his actions he brings the faith into disrepute and leads others to believe he has apostatized. Rodrigues is not exonerated; his desire to do good by evil means still involves him in evil. He obviously falls far short of the example of uprightness and courage set by, for example, the Roman martyrs, who refused to offer a pinch of incense to the bust of Caesar.

A second, more vexing, element of his apostasy is that in the moments before he tramples the fumie Rodrigues sees the face of Christ urging him to trample it. The passage reads:

The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.

This flirts with sacrilege on Endō’s part, for Christ appears in the role of tempter. In the Gospels Christ comforts sinners with words of mercy and forgiveness, he does not do so prior to the sin, but only after; prior to the sin he urges them to sin no more. And it is not true that Christ came into the world in order to be trampled on by men; he came to save their souls.

Just prior to this dramatic climax, Fr Ferreira tries to convince Rodrigues to apostatize, arguing that trampling on the fumie is “the most painful act of love that has ever been performed,” and that “Christ would certainly have apostatized to help men”. Trampling on the image of Christ is framed as a kind of self-denial, in which Rodrigues is urged to sacrifice that which is most dear to him — his conscience — for the good of others. This, we have to say, is deeply confused. That one should sacrifice one’s conscience as a form of self-denial, doing evil as a kind of asceticism, or even out of love for neighbour, is clean contrary to the moral teaching of the Church, which says both that there is always a strict obligation to obey one’s conscience and that love of neighbour is rightly rooted in love of God and of oneself (which we have on good authority); therefore one could never rightly show love to one’s neighbour by intentionally doing harm to one’s own soul.

These faults, most of which are packed onto just a few pages, mar a novel that otherwise has much to recommend it. I was particularly drawn, for example, to a secondary character, Kichijiro, who apostatizes early on, but who then follows Rodrigues throughout his wanderings and imprisonment, on the periphery, but intervening now and then to help Rodrigues. Kichijiro, we eventually come to learn, is truly repentant for his sin, and seeks to make amends. There were times when I wished I could read his story instead of Rodrigues’; it is a story in which I expect the imperatives of conscience, the horror of sin, and the mercy of Christ would be major themes.

An important question raised by the novel concerns the challenges of presenting the Gospel to a culture that has not heard it before. At first Rodrigues is impressed by the spread of Christianity in Japan following the initial mission of St Francis Xavier. “Our religion has penetrated this territory like water flowing into dry earth,” he thinks. But when he finally meets Fr Ferreira, the latter complains that the Japanese could not truly accept the faith, for when they attempted to adopt it they changed it. He says to Rodrigues:

“But in the churches we built throughout this country the Japanese were not praying to the Christian God. They twisted God to their own way of thinking in a way we can never imagine. If you call that God…” Ferreira lowered his eyes and moved his lips as though something had occurred to him. “No. That is not God. It is like a butterfly caught in a spider’s web. At first it is certainly a butterfly, but the next day only the externals, the wings and the trunk, are those of a butterfly; it has lost its true reality and has become a skeleton. In Japan our God is just like that butterfly caught in the spider’s web: only the exterior form of God remains, but it has already become a skeleton.”

The habits and categories of thought of the Japanese were sufficiently different from those of Christian lands that this mistranslation was seemingly inevitable. Ferreira therefore concluded that missionary work in Japan was pointless. He ought to have concluded that missionary work in Japan must be slow and careful, giving adequate respect to that country’s native culture, and that missionaries to Japan, like himself, must be patient. But the frustration is an understandable one, and the challenge is a real one that the Church must always grapple with.

Another major theme explored in the novel, from which it takes its name, is the silence of God in the face of suffering. Again and again Rodrigues has to confront the fact that he sees the Japanese Christians suffering, sometimes horribly, and yet God seems absent. There is a partial answer to this question, perhaps, in the fact that Rodrigues recapitulates the Passion of Christ in his own suffering — on numerous occasions he notes how one or another of his experiences reminds him of an episode in the Passion — and so Christ is present to Rodrigues in an intimate way, though Rodrigues himself does not see it. But what this story is lacking is an analogue of the Resurrection. Instead, Rodrigues’ commitment dwindles away, the persecution continues, and, in the long run, Japanese Christianity is very nearly exterminated. And this is what actually happened.

The novel is a haunting one. I’d be most interested to hear from others whether I’ve interpreted it sensibly or not.

Favourites in 2016: Books

December 27, 2016

The end of the year is nearly finally here, and, as is my custom, I’m devoting a few days to reflection on the best of the books, music, and films that I enjoyed this year.

Today my theme is books. Despite the ever greater difficulty of finding the conjunction of quiet time and consciousness, I had a pretty good year of reading. Where I have included links, they in most cases go to my longer notes on the books in question.

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I noted last year that I had begun a habit of reading a Shakespeare play every month, and I continued that practice this year, with much enjoyment. Inspired by the BBC series The Hollow Crown, I read the second Henriad (the Henry VI plays and Richard III), with all but the last being new to me. Also new to me was the probably-co-authored Henry VIII, along with Timon of Athens and Cymbeline. This last was a delightful discovery, with good characters and lively situations, and I’m surprised it’s not better known. I also revisited a number of the more popular plays, such as Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, and King Lear. I had a really vexing time with Lear, finding it distressingly hard to parse large sections of it, and I’ll need to try it again in 2017, or perhaps in 2027, when I’m not so tired. I also ventured off-stage to a few of Shakespeare’s non-dramatic poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Phoenix and the Turtle”. I recommend them, as they are quite short.

I also said last year that I was going to make a special effort to memorize some Shakespearean passages this year. This did not go well at all.

By way of compensation, perhaps, I read one of the classics of Shakespearean criticism in Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare. The attraction here is not only Shakespeare, but Johnson too, who makes a number of irreverent judgments about the Bard, such as that his plots have easily remediable faults, that he writes poor speeches (!), and that he lacks moral clarity. Johnson thinks Shakespeare a more natural comedian than tragedian, a view with which I have some sympathy. The Johnsonian aspects of the essay touch especially on matters of literary judgment.

Sticking with verse for a moment, I made a brief study of Ovid’s love poetry, reading his Amores, the Ars Amatoria, and the Remedia Amoris. Though I had a good translation (in the sense of enjoyable and smart), this poetry didn’t make a strong appeal to me. The witty and debonair persona that Ovid projects has its charms, but next to nothing really sunk in. I also read, and appreciated, Wordsworth and Coleridge’s famous collection Lyrical Ballads, and, since I received a giant annotated edition of T.S. Eliot’s poetry for my birthday, I spent quite a bit of time with him. I also indulged in some book-length poetry: I staggered, bloodied and bruised, through Piers Plowman, and, since what didn’t kill me made me stronger, I fairly wafted through the Nibelungenlied.

As usual, classical and medieval texts were important to me this year, and I’ve just mentioned a few of them. I re-read Plato’s Protagoras during summer vacation; this is a dialogue that I’ve admired for years, partly for the comical description Socrates gives us of the titular sophist and his acolytes, but mostly for an exchange early in the dialogue in which Socrates counsels young Hippocrates to be careful about what influences he exposes his soul to, for the soul, after all, is not a shopping basket from which items can be removed as easily as added; this good counsel I have long taken to heart in my own conduct, or at least I hope I have. Also, since it had been some years since I read Aristotle, this year I tackled the Politics, and, to my considerable surprise, found it rather tedious. There were some good bits, to be sure, especially in Book VIII, which treats education, but for the most part it went deeper into the policy weeds than I cared to go.

The only other philosophy I read this year consisted of a few books on Heidegger, and I wrote at some length about that encounter at the time. Though I do not feel that I understand him well, I do appreciate that he addressed himself to perhaps the most basic philosophical question (“what is being?”), and that he encouraged his readers to reconsider their own attitude toward the being of the world in all of its apparently gratuitous splendour. That he adopted a phenomenological approach to a deep metaphysical question lends his philosophy a “first person” quality that is attractive, but I confess I remain unconvinced that it is ultimately a fruitful strategy. His exploration of the quality of temporality in human experience, of the way the past and future collide in the lived present, is likewise quite rich and suggestive, and the way he pits the subjectivity of experience against the putative objectivity of a scientific age is audacious. But I think what I appreciated most was his advocacy of a patient, receptive attentiveness to the unveiling of being, to its appearances and surfaces, as a prelude to understanding, for this I think can be naturally integrated into a practice of contemplation and prayer (or so I imagine).

As an adjunct to this Begegnung with Heidegger, I watched a brace of Terrence Malick’s films, and as an adjunct to those I read Peter Leithart’s wonderful book on The Tree of Life, a book that I would warmly recommend to lovers of that film. Leithart brings out a number of themes, and is especially good on clarifying the overall structure, which can be elusive on first (and second, and perhaps third) viewings. He also helped me to better understand and appreciate the final section of the film, which had previously been for me the least persuasive part.

For my Lenten reading in 2016 I took up John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, an artful extended meditation on sickness, both physical and spiritual. Donne’s eloquence is splendid, and the book is justly counted a classic, but I found myself not well attuned to its mood, and it was rather hard going. In contrast, I had a roaring good time with William Cobbett’s History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, a scathing assault on the white-washed historiography of the English Reformation that prevailed in Cobbett’s day. He wrote as a Protestant, but with withering disdain for the lies the English told themselves about their past. Surprisingly, he was more interested in the social and economic aspects of the Reformation than the religious. This was my first encounter with Cobbett, and I found him sufficiently intriguing to pick up Chesterton’s biography, from which I learned a good deal, and which has convinced me to explore his writing more in future. It seems I was rather keen on biographies this year, as I also read Margery Kempe’s fifteenth-century autobiography — the earliest in English — and, stretching the definition a little, Bernard McGunn’s bibliographic “biography” of the Summa Theologiae. Returning to Chesterton, I notice that though last year I read a whole armful of his books I was this year reduced to just two: the Cobbett biography and his travelogue What I Saw in America. The latter is one of his minor works, but still worthwhile, as Chesterton usually is. For more exotic travels I turned to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani, recounting his mid-century voyage around Greece’s southernmost peninsula, an appreciative journey into a vanishing traditional society. Even apart from the intrinsic interest of its subject, this book is a treasure for the mellifluous prose. And I squeezed in Roger Scruton’s Culture Counts, a lesser book than those just noted but valuable for its stimulating ideas about the role of education in modern society and the importance of culture, especially high culture, to a healthy society and a healthy soul. Scruton is one of the conservative voices most worth heeding these days, since, given developments, his unapologetically elitist conservatism is likely to be a precious commodity over the next few years.

A new, or revived, theme this year was reading on physics and related subjects, at a more or less technical level. I thoroughly enjoyed testing my mettle against a set of oral exam questions used in Berkeley’s graduate program, and had a wonderful time exploring a book which tackled modern physics topics using standard techniques of classical mechanics. Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics has been a bestseller, with some warrant, for it gives an elegant overview of the leading accomplishments and challenges in fundamental physics. Straying from my comfort zone, I tackled, with some success and no little appreciation, William Briggs’ Uncertainty, an extended plea for the application of right reason in statistical thinking.

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On the fiction front I was mostly preoccupied with two authors: Patrick O’Brian and P.G. Wodehouse. I’ve been sailing through O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin stories for a few years now, and, despite a spell in the doldrums, I added a few more volumes this year; if all goes well I should complete the voyage in 2017. I’ve been enjoying these books tremendously, mostly of course on account of the characters, but also because O’Brian is a superb craftsman, with a gift for conjuring up a world that is wholly believable. Not only is the sea-faring jargon delivered with apparent fluency, but O’Brian’s ear for authentic nineteenth-century English is unerring; never does one experience the jarring anachronisms that ambush less able authors of historical fiction. As for Wodehouse, I’ve been prancing my way through the Jeeves and Wooster books, and enjoying every ridiculous minute of it. Wodehouse’s stories are froth, but effervescent froth, and his prose cannot be improved. The long-form stories (rather than the single-chapter short stories) have made the strongest appeal to me, and my favourites thus far have been The Code of the Woosters and Joy in the Morning. Wodehouse wrote about 100 books, so this reading project is going to continue for the foreseeable future.

Although I’ve noticed in myself a growing preference for short books, I did tackle one big book this year: Dombey and Son. I think it is not usually classed with the top tier of Dickens’ novels, but I had a wonderful time with it, and I’d rank young Florence Dombey with his best female characters: smart, winsome, and kind. The comedy of the book is excellent, and the characterization of Florence’s ruthless father I found really effective. Speaking of ruthlessness: I also read Cormac McCarthy’s decidedly un-Dickensian No Country for Old Men. I’m an admirer of the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation, and had been meaning to read the book for several years. To say that I was delighted with it would be inept, but I was pleased to find that the book is thematically even richer than the film, especially on account of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the good man, whose role in the book is wider and deeper than in the adaptation. This is now, I think, my favourite of McCarthy’s novels (though I am far from having read them all).

This year I focused some of my reading on “Catholic novels”, broadly understood. The Knot of Vipers was my first encounter with François Mauriac, a Nobel Prize-winning novelist whom I’ve been meaning to get to know for a long time now. The Catholic element in this story, which is about a spiteful man preparing to disinherit his wife and children, is subtle, but, on reflection, not so peripheral as I had initially thought. It’s beautifully written (insofar as this can be judged in translation) and the characterization is deep and involving. Characterization is not so central to Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World, a nonetheless excellent novel that imagines a future confrontation between an ascendant temporal political power and a beleaguered Catholic faithful. Though it was written a century ago, the spiritual conflict it dramatizes remains pertinent, and the book as a whole has been very well-conceived. Alas, the same cannot be said of Benson’s follow-up novel, The Dawn of All, which imagines an alternate future in which Catholicism is triumphant and informs all aspects of world politics. It tries to grapple with the obligations that come with power, and with their potential to conflict with Catholic commitments to charity, mercy, and peace, but the net effect is weirdly off-putting, and the book seems to me a distinct failure. Rounding out my Catholic novels for the year, I enjoyed Newman’s Loss and Gain, a book that I think is not very widely read, even among those who read Newman, but which is a superb account of what conversion to Catholicism entailed for an educated Englishman in the middle of the nineteenth century, something Newman knew a thing or two about, and something which retains much of its relevance for converts today.

I read some short stories as well, including Russell Kirk’s excellent collection of ghost stories, Ancestral Shadows, which I wrote about at Halloween. Kirk was an intellectual who wrote mostly about politics and culture, but he proved himself a fine storyteller with this set of “experiments in the moral imagination” involving ghosts and other uncanny entities. And, on the recommendation of David Bentley Hart, who called it “the funniest short story in the English language”, I read Max Beerbohm’s “Enoch Soames”, about a third-rate poet who sells his soul to the Devil not, as Faust and Leverkühn did, in exchange for greatness, but merely in exchange for the chance to learn whether he will achieve greatness. It is a good story, though I’d not praise it so highly as Hart does.

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Children’s books

Reading with the kids is a regular part of life in our family, and this year we read quite a few good books. Our toddler was pretty happy with Goodnight Moon and books with pictures of trucks. Our five year old is very much in the picture-book stage, and his favourites this year were Peter Spier’s The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night, an illustrated version of the English folksong, Janell Cannon’s Stellaluna, about a bat raised as a songbird, and Aaron Becker’s marvellous Journey trilogy (which came to a slightly underwhelming conclusion this year with the publication of Return). He has also been enthusiastic about Thornton Burgess’ animal stories; we’ve enjoyed the adventures of Peter Rabbit, Old Mr Toad, and Prickly Porky so far.

With our eldest, now seven, we spent most of the year on chapter books, and the best of them were George MacDonald’s atmospheric fantasy The Princess and the Goblin and Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Indeed, the kids took to Tolkien’s legendarium like bees to honey: they can talk enthusiastically about hobbits, elves, Black Riders, wizards, and rings. We’ve actually taken the plunge into The Lord of the Rings, but in three months have only progressed halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring, so I don’t know if we’re going to have the stamina to see it through to its conclusion.

I also enjoyed a few children’s books on my own. I revisited The Wind in the Willows and loved it as much as ever. I greatly enjoyed Ian Serraillier’s poetic adaptation Beowulf the Warrior, as well as his WWII road story The Silver Sword, and I relished Abbie Farwell Brown’s old collection The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts, first published in 1900. I’ve been meaning to write about these books, but for the most part haven’t got around to it yet.

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And those are the highlights of my year in books. Comments welcome! Tomorrow I’ll look back at my year in popular music, I think.

Benson: Lord of the World

December 6, 2016

Lord of the World
Robert Hugh Benson
(Martino Fine Books, 2015) [1907]
392 p.

A blessing of contemporary secularism is that in its flight from religious faith it has fled also religious rites and devotions. It is true that the French revolutionaries tried to institute secular rites with dignity sufficient to justify their occupation of French churches, but it didn’t last, and since then we’ve seen no sustained attempt to sacralize the City of Man. This is a blessing because it means that those who find within themselves a desire for these natural human things have had nowhere to go but home.

In Lord of the World Robert Hugh Benson imagines a future in which secularism has taken an alternate course, one in which it acknowledges worship as “the deepest instinct in man”, and accordingly adopts for itself the language and trappings of the sacred, while still forcefully setting itself against the transcendent. As one of the priests in the story says, “The world is beginning to range itself against us: it is an organized antagonism — a kind of Catholic anti-Church”, and a formidable one. It is a world in which “natural virtues had suddenly waxed luxuriant, and supernatural virtues were despised. Friendliness took the place of charity, contentment the place of hope, and knowledge the place of faith.” This quasi-religion, which advances under the banner of Humanitarianism, has ambitions to re-make all society in its own image, and it has a familiar ring:

“There shall be no more an appeal to arms, but to justice; no longer a crying after a God Who hides Himself, but to Man who has learned his own Divinity. The Supernatural is dead; rather, we know now that it never yet has been alive. What remains is to work out this new lesson, to bring every action, word and thought to the bar of Love and Justice; and this will be, no doubt, the task of years. Every code must be reversed; every barrier thrown down; party must unite with party, country with country, and continent with continent. There is no longer the fear of fear, the dread of the hereafter, or the paralysis of strife. Man has groaned long enough in the travails of birth; his blood has been poured out like water through his own foolishness; but at length he understands himself and is at peace.”

Or, seen from the point of view of the Catholics in the story:

“It was a world whence God seemed to have withdrawn Himself, leaving it indeed in a state of profound complacency — a state without hope or faith, but a condition in which, although life continued, there was absent the one essential to well-being.”

The novel therefore presents to us a global confrontation between the City of God and the City of Man, the one “telling of a Creator and of a creation, of a Divine purpose, a redemption, and a world transcendent and eternal”, and the other “self-originated, self-organised and self-sufficient”. Representing the ideals and interests of the former is the Pope, John XXIV. (Other Christian groups have, by the time the story commences, either withered under the pressure of Humanitarianism or returned to the Roman flock from whence they first departed.) Representing the latter is Julian Felsenburgh, a politician of consummate artistry and diplomatic genius who has successfully united the world’s principal political powers and seems the embodiment of Humanitarianism’s highest aspirations.

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That, then, is the set-up, but I’ll resist the temptation to say more. I knew nothing going in, and I was glad of that, because the surprising twists and devastating turns caught me off guard. (I really need to find someone with whom to discuss the ending!) Simply considered as a thriller, it is excellent, but it is also more than that, for there is a good deal of rich content in it, and the general conflict it dramatizes on a global scale is one which plays out in each Christian soul. Pope Francis has recommended on more than one occasion that people read it, and, for what it’s worth, I concur.

**

Part of the fun of reading futuristic novels from the past is to see how well the author foresaw the future. Benson did pretty well: he predicted routine air travel (conceived, rather quaintly, as being like travelling by train, but aloft), telephones, and frighteningly powerful military ordnances. More penetratingly, he foresaw euthanasia being a natural concomitant of secular individualism; in his world, “individualism was at least so far recognised as to secure to those weary of life the right of relinquishing it”. “Since men were but animals — the conclusion was inevitable.” But he misses the mark in some cases too: the onset of rapid global communications he does not foresee at all.

**

In summary, it’s a very good novel, highly recommended especially to Catholics. Benson subsequently wrote a companion novel, The Dawn of All, in which he imagined yet another alternative future for the Church. It’s not been as popular as this one, but I hope to read it soon.

Fermor: Mani

November 22, 2016

Mani
Travels in the Southern Peloponnese
Patrick Leigh Fermor
(John Murray, 2004) [1958]
336 p.

This is the first of two volumes Fermor wrote about his travels in Greece mid-century. In this case he was exploring the Mani peninsula, the southernmost tip of Greece. The peninsula is mountainous and has historically been largely separate, culturally and politically, from the rest of the country. At the time of Fermor’s travels it was still a traditional society, with its own dialect, clothing, and culture, into which radio and tourism had yet to make inroads. His travelogue therefore provides a fascinating look at a European society in a state that could hardly be found anywhere else in the modern world.

“Go toward the Good,” one of them said, and the other, “May you have the Good Hour!”

The immobile figures of these two little Byzantines dwindled as we zigzagged downhill. Even at a distance we could sense the wide effulgent gaze which those four eyes aimed from ledge half-way to the sky. They waved when we were just about to dip out of sight. There are very few people in these surroundings, Yorgo observed. “They are wild and shy and not accustomed to talk.” He pointed straight up into the air. The canyon was closing round us. “They see nothing but God.”

Because there were no roads (today there are a few) the Maniot villages were accessible only on foot or by boat; Fermor and his wife did walk a bit, as in the passage just quoted, but for the most part their itinerary involved boating around the perimeter of the peninsula, stopping in villages along the way.

An account of their travels is interwoven with reflections on aspects of Maniot culture — or is it the other way around? We learn about the custom of the blood feud, a cause of much destruction and sorrow; we learn of the not-unrelated Maniot reputation for sung dirges, a skill taught especially to young woman and admired throughout Greece; we learn of the greatest Maniot of the modern era, Petrobey Mavromichalis, who led the war of independence which the Maniots waged against the Ottomans in the early nineteenth century.

The Mani peninsula is not a hub of activity, and among the many pleasant qualities of its people is an appreciation of leisure, which Fermor summarizes thus in his marvellous prose:

One compensation of this kind of travel is the unchartable and unregimented leisure between the rigours of displacement. Letters build their vain pyramids on some table in Athens; weeks pass; their mute clamour dies down unanswered; dust and oblivion enshroud them and the flight of months makes them obsolete and strips them of all but antiquarian interest. This arduous and Olympian sloth is made more precious still by the evidence all round of arduous and boring toil. Here, too, in the absence of lofty theories about the intrinsic virtue of work regardless of results, no northern guilt comes to impair its full enjoyment. Such mephitic ideas cannot long survive the clear and decarbonizing sun.

The Maniots are Christians, but they are also Greeks, and Fermor notes that the old Greek paganism has retained a foothold in the culture, despite the efforts of the Church:

The supernatural ancien régime presented a conundrum to the Early Fathers. When the Fathers came into their own after long persecution in the name of the old gods, they adopted, as we have seen, bold and sweeping tactics. The gods and the more presentable figures were captured, baptized and camouflaged; their headquarters were either wrecked or re-garrisoned by the winners and up fluttered, as it were, the new victorious flag. Some of the dispossessed managed to keep a leg in both camps. Others–insignificant as possible leaders of counter-revolution or totally ineligible–were (as supernatural beings can only be burnt or smashed in effigy) outlawed en bloc. A banished mythology was left to skulk and roam in the mountains, eventually, it was hoped, to die of neglect. But from a mixture of ancient awe and, perhaps, Christian charity, the country people befriended them, and they are with us still.

In one of the most memorable passages, they pass a famous cave found at the southernmost tip of the peninsula, a cave which is the legendary entrance to the Underworld, through which Psyche passed in her quest for the casket which would restore her beauty, through which Orpheus passed to rescue Eurydice, and through which Herakles dragged triple-jawed Cerberus in the execution of his labours. “There is always something about these earthly identifications with Hades that fills one with awe,” he remarks.

As for Christianity among the Maniots, Fermor found it rich and integrated into the lives of the people, but focused more on practices and rituals than on doctrine. This character he attributes largely to its having passed through a long “Eastern dark ages”, covering the period from the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century until the period of Maniot independence in the 19th century. He writes rather beautifully on the theme:

Long gone were the days when the subtle Eastern theologians could with difficulty make the blunt Western prelates grasp the delicate shades of dogma; indeed the shoe was on the other foot. But the outward observances, the liturgy, some of the sacraments, prostrations, rigorous fasts, frequent signs of the cross, the great feasts of the Church — the cross thrown into the sea at Epiphany, the green branches of Palm Sunday, the candles and coloured eggs celebrating the risen Christ at Easter, the monthly censing of houses, and the devotion to ikons before which an oil-dip twinkles in every house — all this became rigid and talismanic: and so it has remained. Its scope is different from what is usually conjured up in the West by the word “Christianity”; but there is a tendency in the most peaceful nations to identify religion with the tribe and the reasons in Greece are more cogent than most. All the outward and visible signs are there and it would be a bold critic who would unburden them completely of inward and spiritual grace. There is nothing laggard or perfunctory about these signs; they are performed with reverence and love. They have the familiarity and the treasured intimacy of family passwords and countersigns. The day is punctuated by these fleeting mementoes, and pious landmarks in the calendar, usually solemnized with dance and rejoicing, space out the year; with the result that few gestures are wholly secular. They weave a continuous thread of the spiritual and supernatural through the quotidian homespun and ennoble the whole of life with a hieratic dignity.

As in Greek culture writ large, Maniot devotion is heavily invested in holy ikons, and I cannot resist quoting a passage in which Fermor tackles the daunting challenge of describing the style of Greek (well, specifically Cretan) iconography in prose. Quite apart from the interest of his argument, this is magnificent writing:

The detail is subtle and delicate: the cartographic wrinkles and circling contour-lines on the saints’ faces, the line of nose and nostril, the sweep of those hoary eyebrows over each of which beetles an outlined irascible and thought-indicating bulge; the dark and, by contrast, etiolating triangles that project point downwards from the lower lids, the bristling curl of the white locks round foreheads that catch the light like polished teak, the prescribed complexity of their beards cataracting in effulgent arcs or erupting like silver quills from swarthy physiognomies — all of this, on close inspection, proves to be built up of complementary planes of brick red and apple green applied with delicate impressionism to the black phantom of the saint or paladin beneath. The emergence of this dark background under a luminous and fragmentary carapace of skilfully superimposed light and colour…is the earmark of the Cretan mode. I am tempted to relate this very strange technique, especially in ikons of Our Lord, with reasons that are not purely plastic. It calls irresistibly to mind a characteristic passage of St Dionysios the Areopagite: “The Divine Dark,” writes this other Dionysios, “is the inaccessible Light in which God is said to dwell, and in this Dark, invisible because of its surpassing radiance and unapproachable because of the excess of the streams of supernatural light, everyone must enter who is deemed worthy to see or know God.”

[…]

Greek iconography, of all Christian art that includes the outward forms of sacred beings, seems to me to have set itself the highest and most difficult task. […] They sought ingress to the spirit, not through the easy channels of passion, but through the intellect. Religion and philosophy were as inextricably plaited as they had been in pre-Christian times and this was due to the same philosophical temper which had saved Judaic Christianity (a brief and local thing) and made it Greek, then universal. Skilled in the handling of abstractions, knowing that the representation of Christ as God was as impossible a task as uttering the ineffable, they tried to indicate the immediately assimilable incarnation of Christ in such a way that it gave wings to the mind and the spirit and sent them soaring through and beyond the symbol to its essence, the Transcendent God, with whom, as they themselves had defined, He was consubstantial. If they failed in this aspiration it was failure on a vertiginously exalted height.

And, if it isn’t already obvious, travel writing doesn’t often rise to the “vertiginously exalted heights” where Fermor dwells. He is that perfect combination: sensitive, observant, cultured, intelligent, and gifted with a golden pen. To spend time with one of his books is an almost sensual pleasure, so richly and evocatively does he write. I’m looking forward to going to Greece with him again.

***

I’ve just learned, from this essay, that Fermor and his wife actually bought a home and settled in Mani during their later years. It seems the journey recounted in this book made a lastingly good impression.

***

I cannot resist quoting one more passage, simply for its beauty. Here he writes about treading grapes in a Cretan village.

Now and then one finds oneself, in the dilettante fashion of one of Marie Antoinette’s ladies-in-waiting, helping in some pleasant and unexacting task: gathering olives onto spread blankets in late autumn, after beating fruit from the branches with long rods of bamboo; picking grapes into baskets, shelling peas or occasionally, in late summer, helping to tread the grapes. I remember one such occasion in Crete, in a cobbled and leafy yard in the village of Vaphe at the foothills of the White Mountains. First we spread deep layers of thyme branches at the bottom of a stone vat which stood breast-high like a giant Roman sarcophagus; then a troop of girls hoisted their heavy baskets and tipped in tangled cataracts of white and black grapes. The treading itself is considered a young man’s job. The first three, of which I was one, had their long mountain boots pulled off; buckets of water were sloshed over grimy shanks and breeches rolled above the knee. “A pity to wash off the dirt,” croaked the old men that always gather on such occasions. “You’ll spoil the taste.” This chestnut–which I imagine to have existed for several millenia–evoked its ritual laughter while we climbed on the edge and jumped down on the resilient mattress of grapes. Scores of skins exploded and the juice squirted between our toes… In a minute or two a mauve-pink trickle crossed the stone lip of the spout and dripped into the waiting tub; the trickle broadened, the drops became a stream and curved into a splashing arc… We were handed glasses of the sweet juice which already–or was this imagination?–had a corrupt and ghostly tang of fermentation. When the stream slackened, the manhood of the treaders, shuffling calf-deep in a tangled slush by now and purple to the groin, was jovially impugned…. For days the sweet heady smell of the must hangs over the village. All is sticky to the touch, purple splashes and handprints on the whitewash and spilt red rivulets between the cobbles and the clouds of flies suggest a massacre. Meanwhile, in the dark crypts of the houses, in huge grooved Minoan amphorae, the must grumbles and hits out and fills the house with unnerving fumes and a bubbling noise like the rumour of plots, a dark conspiracy of whispers. For as long as this vaulted collusion lasts, a mood of swooning and Dionysiac laxity roves the air.

Lecture night: Pope vs. Hitler

November 16, 2016

The Pius Wars, contesting the role that Pope Pius XII played in World War II, seem to have waned in recent years, but a new book on the subject, by Mark Reibling, has been getting a fair bit of attention. Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler is based in part on newly available documents which reveal not only that Pius XII was aware of numerous plots to assassinate Hitler, but that he actively aided the conspirators and acted as an emissary between them and the Allies.

Though legitimate questions remain, I think, about whether Pius’ strategy of subterfuge and oblique criticism of Nazism (as opposed to open and vociferous opposition) was the wisest course, the evidence marshalled by Reibling should lay to final rest the old accusations that he was secretly on Hitler’s side, as was once claimed.

Here is an extended interview about the book that Reibling gave to NPR:

There is also a television documentary, based on the book, that is quite good.

Briggs: Uncertainty

November 4, 2016

Uncertainty
The Soul of Modeling, Probability & Statistics
William Briggs
(Springer, 2016)
278 p.

Being something of a beginner in the art of statistical analysis, I thought this book on the philosophical and conceptual underpinnings of statistical methods would be instructive, and I was right. I learned so much I’m not sure I want to learn any more.

In a nutshell: Briggs is critical of most of the standard apparatus of statistical methods, both technical and interpretive. Hypothesis testing, regression, data smoothing, quantification of everything, and, above all, p-values he condemns to perdition. The problem is not that such methods have no value, but that they are widely misunderstood and misapplied, with the result that the conclusions drawn from statistical analyses are often either simply wrong or the uncertainty in those conclusions is underestimated (and by an unknown amount). He gives many examples of ways in which standard techniques lead to spurious “significant” results.

By criticizing standard statistical methods, one might get the impression that Briggs’ is a lone voice crying in the wilderness, but he has plenty of citations to offer for most of his arguments. He belongs to an alternate, minority, but not negligible tradition.

Some of the important points he makes:

Probability is logical. Logic concerns relationships between propositions, and so does probability, except that in the latter case the logic is extended to propositions the truth of which is uncertain. This point was made lucidly and rather beautifully by Jaynes, and reading Briggs has made me want to return to that book to read more of it.

Probability is not a cause. Probability can tell us about correlations, but nothing at all about causes. The habit of inferring causes from statistical correlations, absent a corresponding causal model, is a bad habit that leads many astray. In general, uncertainty reflects our ignorance of causes rather than our knowledge of them.

Probability is conditional. Probability statements are always conditional on a set of premises. This is no such thing as Pr(X), but only Pr(X|Y) — that is, the probability of X given some set of premises Y. If the premises change, the probability of X will, in general, change. Thus Briggs, while not quite a Bayesian, does think the Bayesians have it over the frequentists when it comes to the debate over whether probability is objective (ie. out there) or subjective (ie. in the mind). Probabilities reflect the uncertainty in propositions given what we know; they do not exist outside our minds, and they change when our knowledge changes. A corollary is that one should never say, “X has a probability of Z”. Nothing has a probability. Probability does not exist. One should only say, “Given premises Y, the probability of X is Z.”

Probability is often not quantifiable. If we know “Most people like ice cream and Sue is a person”, the probability that Sue likes ice cream cannot be naturally or unambiguously quantified unless the meaning of “most” is clarified. Moreover, it is often a mistake to force probabilistic arguments into a quantified form. Briggs argues that the habit of doing so (as with “instruments” for assessing subjective attitudes about politics or emotional responses to stimuli, for instance) often leads to misleading results and promotes the vice of scientism.

Statistical significance is not objective. No probability model can tell one whether a given probability is significant or not. This is an extra-statistical, and often an extra-scientific, question. Whether it is judged significant is a matter of prudential judgment based on the specific question at issue and the decisions to be made about it. Thus he would like to disrupt the “turn the crank” model of statistical analysis in which “significant” results pop out of the sausage-maker, returning such questions to spheres of deliberation and judgment.

Probability models should be predictive. Briggs’ principal constructive suggestion (apart from shoring up our understanding of what probability is) is that statistical models should be predictive. They should state their premises in as much detail as possible, and should predict observations on the basis of those premises (taking into account uncertainties, of course). If the models fail to predict the observables, they are not working and should be amended or scrapped. As I understand it, he is proposing that fields which lean heavily on statistics should, by following his proposals, become more like the hard sciences. True, progress will be slower, and (acknowledged) uncertainties larger, but progress will be surer and causes better understood.

***

Briggs has some fun pointing out common fallacies in statistical circles. There is, for instance, the We-Have-To-Do-Something Fallacy, in which a perceived imperative to do something about something (usually something political) leads to the employment of some defective or fallacious statistical method, the defectiveness or fallaciousness of which is then ignored. Or the Epidemiologist’s Fallacy, in which a statistician claims “X causes Y” even though X was never measured and though statistical models cannot in any case discern causes. (This fallacy is so-called because without it “most epidemiologists, especially those in government, would be out of a job”.)  Or the False Dichotomy Fallacy, which is the foundational principle of hypothesis testing. Or the Deadly Sin of Reification, whereby statisticians mistake parameters in their statistical models for real things. And so on.

***

Much of this might seem rather obvious to the uninitiated. I’m not an adept of the standard techniques, so I was at times a little puzzled as I tried to discern the particular bad habit Briggs was criticizing. But, as is increasingly appreciated (here and here, for instance), the use and abuse of the standard techniques have led wide swathes of the scientific community into error, most commonly the error of over-certainty, which is actually an uncertainty about what is true. An audience for this book clearly exists.

Were his recommendations to be followed, he argues that the effects would be

a return to a saner and less hyperbolic practice of science, one that is not quite so dictatorial and inflexible, one that is calmer and in less of a hurry, one that is far less sure of itself, one that has a proper appreciation of how much it doesn’t know.

But, on the other hand, it would reduce the rate at which papers could be published, would make decisions about significance matters of prudential judgment rather than scientific diktat, and would make scientific conclusions more uncertain. He is fighting an uphill battle.

Briggs is an adjunct professor at Columbia, and has done most of his scientific work in climate science (and is, as you would expect, skeptical of the predictions of statistical climate models, which provide a few of his case studies). He seems to be something of an atypical academic: this book, for instance, includes approving reference to Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and even John Henry Newman (whose Grammar of Assent he cites as an example of non-quantitative probabilistic argumentation). It’s quite a rollicking read too. Briggs has a personality, and doesn’t try to hide it. Personally I found the tone of the book a little too breezy, the text sometimes reading almost as if it were transcribed lecture notes (I make no hypothesis), but overall the book is smart and clear-eyed, and I’m glad to have read it. Now back to Jaynes.

***

I found a good video which illustrates the problem with relying on p-values to determine statistical significance. When I consider that many of the findings of the social sciences are based on this criterion I’m not sure whether to cringe or weep. No wonder there is a replication crisis. Witness the dance of the p-values:

Here is a short video illustrating why it is reasonable to doubt the putative findings of many (and perhaps most) published research papers employing statistical methods. This argument and others are set forth in detail by Ioannidis.

Kirk: Ancestral Shadows

October 31, 2016

kirk-ancestral-shadowsAncestral Shadows
An Anthology of Ghostly Tales
Russell Kirk
(Eerdmans, 2004)
410 p.

Russell Kirk is remembered principally for his writings on politics and culture; I expect that even many of his admirers might be surprised to learn that he wrote fiction, and genre fiction at that. My own knowledge of Kirk has been entirely at second hand, but I had seen one or two appreciative references to these ghost stories, and when the opportunity arose I snatched them up.

I am glad that I did so; they are wonderful. I have made it my habit over the years to read ghost stories (or other macabre matter) during October, and I’ve roamed through classics from H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Oxford Books of This-or-Frightening-That, and whatever else I thought might qualify as (s)cream of the crop. I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed none of those more than I’ve enjoyed these. Kirk’s stories are intricate, original, eerie, and, best of all, superbly written (as the back-cover blurbs from T.S. Eliot, Ray Bradbury, Madeleine L’Engle, and Thomas Howard attest). Kirk brings a sense of atmosphere to his tales, and atmosphere is critical for ghost stories.

I’m no taxonomist of supernatural fiction, but I am told that these are “Gothic” tales; I’m not sure why. They are scary, but outright malevolence is rare, and gore pretty much absent. Kirk himself, in an epilogue to this collection, calls them “experiments in the moral imagination,” and that gets nicely at part of their appeal. The stories couch their uncanny elements within a moral and even a metaphysical framework; haunting spectral presences are here often manifestations of an underlying order rather than disturbances of it. This is perhaps especially so of my favourite of the stories, “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding,” in which an ex-con finds himself caught up into an eerie supernatural encounter as an unwitting agent of justice. It’s simultaneously unsettling and genuinely tender. Its companion piece (and a number of these stories are paired with others sharing the same characters), “Watchers at the Strait Gate,” is also surprisingly touching.

Of the 19 stories collected in this volume, there is naturally some variation in quality. In the earlier stories he sometimes has a tendency to introduce political polemic, scoring points against urban planners and other bureaucrats whom, I gather, gave him nightmares. This I found a bit distracting, but it was less prevalent in the later tales. Also I must admit that I did not finish one of the stories, “The Reflex-Man of Whinneymuir Close”. Its epigraph is from Robert Kirk’s Commonwealth, and it is written in a seventeenth-century Scottish idiom to match. Nothing wrong with the story, so far as I know, but I grew impatient with the style and abandoned it. Mea culpa.

But overall this was a very enjoyable collection, warmly recommended to give you chills.

Mauriac: The Knot of Vipers

October 24, 2016

The Knot of Vipers
François Mauriac
Translated from the French by Gerard Hopkins
(Capuchin Classics, 2010) [1932]
208 p.

By reputation one of the great Catholic novels of the twentieth century, this is a richly rewarding study of a man whose soul has, on his own testimony, become a “knot of vipers”, and an account of the slow process by which that knot is loosened.

The novel begins with Louis, an aged Frenchman approaching death, writing a last epistle to his family. Many years before, it seems, his pride had been wounded by a passing comment made by his wife, and for his whole life he has nursed a grudge which has caused his soul to fester with barely concealed hatred. Now, in a final act of revenge, he hopes to ruin his wife and children by bestowing his family’s considerable fortune on one of his illegitimate children whom he hardly knows.

Louis writes to explain himself to them — the entire book is the text of his long letter — but in the process he finds that he is explaining himself to himself as well, and, perhaps simply from relief of speaking about his grievances, or perhaps because he gradually sees his own motives more clearly, or perhaps for some deeper reason, hidden from view, he finds in the course of his writing his vengeful delight dissipating, replaced, to his great surprise, by something approaching its opposite.

It is tempting to see the novel as akin to Brideshead Revisited insofar as it traces the delicate action of grace in a soul, but this might be pushing too hard. Although it is sometimes called a “Catholic novel”, there is in fact relatively little Catholicism in it — Louis has little interest in religion apart from its value as a topic on which to taunt his devout wife — and his transformation is a moral conversion rather than an overtly religious one. Even just as such, it is a tricky thing to manage, and on this first reading my main concern about the novel is that Louis’ change of heart, when it comes, comes a little too hastily and without adequate preparation. But this is a provisional judgment, for the psychology of the main character is so subtle and richly developed that the apparent fault may well rest with me, the insensitive reader.

It is hazardous to venture comments on style when reading in translation, but I was impressed by the quality of the writing. I relished Mauriac’s ability to set me down in a particular time and place, giving the story enough space to settle into a moment: looking out a window at night, or awaiting the onset of an approaching rain storm. At times I felt I could almost breath the same air as Louis.

This novel, in the same (and only) English translation, is also sold under the title Vipers’ Tangle. I prefer that title, as being punchier and having more poetry in it, but it seems that the edition I read has given the original title (Le Nœud de vipères) more straightforwardly. Oddly, my edition nowhere gives the name of the translator, Gerard Hopkins (not to be confused with the poet).