Archive for the 'Books' Category

Serraillier: The Ballad of St Simeon

February 23, 2017

The Ballad of St Simeonserraillier-st-simeon
Ian Serraillier
Illustrated by Simon Stern
(F. Watts, 1970)
28 p.

The subject of this poem is St Simeon Stylites, who, because “his ways were lonely and he loved God”, leaves ordinary life behind and, of all things, lives atop a pole for most of his life. He suffers exposure to the elements, and the jeers of those below, but he offers counsel to humble souls as well, and when a fearsome dragon threatens the city it is St Simeon whose prayers save the day.

In this large-format edition the poem is illustrated by Simon Stern. The drawings are charming and a bit amateurish, and clearly pitched at young children. Not so the poem itself, I dare say, which seems to me addressed to fairly accomplished readers:

Years Simeon stood, sat, slept
on his pole, communed with God and wept
for the sin-smudged city. Some, not many,
brought him their troubles and he offered
prayers for them but could do no miracle.
How he suffered!
The seasons steam-rollered him. In summer
the flaming sun made him boil
and the pole pain bubble and pop, and
when winter was a turmoil
of flying icicles, in spite of his mother-knitted clothes,
his goose skin hugged his skeleton. So cold was it
that chilblains marbled and the people’s oaths
froze on the air (thawing out in Spring
with a bang).

There are rhymes here, both at line ends and internally, but the rhythm is irregular and a bit tricky, and the poem doesn’t condescend. Somewhat to my surprise, therefore, my 5 year-old son loves it, and has had me read it to him numerous times over the past few weeks. Does that mean I’ve succeeded in finding its music?

As far as the subject matter goes, it’s a good story, and it is well told. Sometimes modern authors treating saints’ lives are tempted to skirt the religious elements, especially when there’s something as distracting as a dragon in the tale, but Serraillier doesn’t do this, and in fact the poem contains Biblical allusions that will render it partly unintelligible to readers without a decent religious formation. A similarly demanding poem, and a poem demanding in a similar way, would probably not be published today in this format. Let us raise a glass, once again, to oldish books.

Benedict XVI: Last Testament

February 14, 2017

benedict-xvi-last-testamentLast Testament
In His Own Words
Benedict XVI, with Peter Seewald
(Bloomsbury, 2016)
xx + 257 p.

This is the latest, and reportedly is to be the last, in a series of book-length interviews which Peter Seewald has conducted with Joseph Ratzinger. The first was The Ratzinger Report, issued when he was Prefect of the CDF, and now, of course, he is our Pope Emeritus. This week marks the fourth anniversary of his resignation from the papal office, and seems a good opportunity to reflect on his life and contributions to the Church.

Given the drama of his resignation from the papacy and the turmoil that has roiled through the Church during Francis’ pontificate, this is a remarkably even-keeled and unsensational entry in the series. They do discuss his decision to resign, putting to rest worries that he was somehow pressured to do so, but for the most part the focus is on Benedict’s biography: his childhood, his decision to become a priest, his theological training, his participation in Vatican II, and his eventual move to Rome. In this sense it retreads, to a certain extent, the ground covered by his memoir, Milestones, but it was good to be reminded of certain details that I had forgotten, or had never known in the first place.

Among these was the surprising discovery that he had had a fairly close relationship with Hans Küng in the early days; they had taught courses together in Tübingen. At that time, they were both considered “progressives”, but obviously their paths parted as the years went on. I was also surprised to learn that when teaching in Münster Ratzinger had been friends with Josef Pieper, meeting at his home, with others, every Sunday afternoon for conversation. I suppose it makes sense that these two great Catholic intellectuals, being contemporaries and both Germans, would know one another, but I hadn’t known it to be actually the case.

One of Benedict’s acts as Pope — one of the more striking and unexpected — was to canonize and elevate to a Doctor of the Church the medieval mystic and composer Hildegard of Bingen. In this interview we learn that he has had a fascination with her since childhood: “The figure of Hildegard always followed me; it was always engaging, always precious to me.”

About his papacy, which Seewald’s introduction aptly describes as “the great retreat the Church needed, to buttress the interior castle and to strengthen her soul”, his modesty is remarkable — or would be remarkable, did we not already know the man. He reiterates his statement that his election in 2005 was like “a guillotine”, which he accepted strictly from obedience to the Holy Spirit and not from anything remotely like personal ambition. It’s well-known that he repeatedly asked John Paul II if he could retire from the CDF and return to academic life, but his request was always denied. When Seewald asks him what he’d really liked to have done in his life, he answers:

“I would have liked to have worked intellectually more… But I’m nevertheless content with the other turn of events, with what has happened… What I could do, as I said, is something other than what I wanted — I wanted my whole life long to be a real professor — but afterwards I see it was good how it went.”

Understand that by “what has happened” he is referring to his being Pope. This indifference to power is one of the aspects of his personality that endears him to me, and to many others. Another is his self-effacement. When asked to compare himself to St John Paul II, he said, with some wit, “I had a different sort of charisma, or rather a non-charisma”, and when asked, a bit cheekily I felt, how the papacy of Francis “corrects” his own, he answered good-naturedly, averring to his preference for solitude: “Perhaps I was not truly among the people enough”. I wish Seewald had asked the same question the other way around, but he didn’t.

About his resignation, Benedict is straightforward: he was tired, and felt he could not adequately manage the many responsibilities. He recalls, with tears in his eyes, his last day as Pope, being airlifted out of the Vatican while all the church bells of Rome rang out below him.

All in all, the present volume is probably a rather minor entry in this important series of interviews, but it is one of the most personal, and for those of us who feel a filial affection for the man, it is a wonderful opportunity to spend time in his company.

Children’s books: beasts and beasties

February 3, 2017

farwell-brownThe Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts
Abbie Farwell Brown
(Kalavela, 2010) [1900]
146 p.

Teaching children about the saints is a worthy labour, and I take the view that it is good they learn the fancies as well as the facts, because the fancies, too, tell us something worth knowing about kindness and goodness. In stories about saints we imaginatively explore the happy side of life. In this book, first published over a century ago, Abbie Farwell Brown collects two dozen tales about saints and animals. The most famous of these in Christian tradition are undoubtedly those involving St Francis of Assisi, and the book closes with them, but Brown also treats us to tales about St Rigobert and the goose that followed him everywhere, about the fish who built a breakwater to shelter St Gudwell’s hermit cave, about St Launomar’s cow which was stolen but then led the robbers through the dark right back to his home, about St Kentigern who restored a robin to life, and numerous others. The stories are not especially religious in tone or content, except insofar as they are about saints. Two or three of the stories are told in verse. All are gracefully written, and were a distinct pleasure to read. My children concur; I read the stories aloud to them, and they were always clamouring for more.

***

nesbit-itFive Children and It
Edith Nesbit
(Puffin Classics, 2008) [1902]
288 p.

I assumed that the nameless “It” was nameless because frightening, and I wanted to read the book before passing it to my children, just to ensure that it was not too frightening. I needn’t have worried. The It is a cute little creature, with a furry, pear-shaped body, antennae-mounted eyes, and gangly limbs. It is easily annoyed, but harmless — at least in Itself.

But the catch is that It has the power of granting wishes — just one each day, and only until sunset — but wishes nonetheless, and for the children who find It that power might not turn out to be entirely benign. If there were ever a book to illustrate the wisdom of the old counsel to “be careful what you wish for”, this is it.

It’s quite a funny book, in its way, as the children make accidental wishes, or wish without thinking things through, and end up in pickles. I enjoyed reading it, and I think most children would enjoy it too. Of the five children, only the baby emerged in my mind as a really distinctive character. The book is well-written, and not too difficult. Nesbit hints on the last page that more adventures are to follow, and I see that she did write a few more books about the same children.

Although I enjoyed the story, and suggested it to our 7-year old, she abandoned it after a few chapters. This was precipitous, in my view — after all, not every book can be as good as the Magic Tree House books! — but the fault is partly mine: probably I gave it to her too soon.

***

grahame-windThe Wind in the Willows
Kenneth Grahame
Illustrated by Arthur Rackham
(Everyman’s, 1993) [1908]
249 p.

Kenneth Grahame lived what seems a rather ordinary, if perhaps unhappy, life: his mother died when he was young, he was unable to attend university and worked his whole career in a bank, and his only child was sickly and committed suicide as a young man. Yet Grahame gave the world one of the great classics of children’s literature, a book so replete with humour and fresh adventure and beauty that it rejoices the heart of the reader each time it is opened. Would that we all could give such a gift.

The book is widely beloved and hardly needs me to praise it. I will just say that as I read it this time I was as dazzled and charmed as ever. It was wonderful to see Mole and Rat again, and I relished the chance to exclaim again over the foolishness of Mr Toad. Most of all, I was grateful for the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”; one doesn’t expect the numinous to come shimmering through the pages of a children’s book about talking animals, but there it is, luminous and alluring.

I am sorry to say that I have not read any other of Grahame’s books. He wrote two memoirs of childhood — The Golden Age and Dream Days — both of which were well-regarded when published (and both of which I own). I’m going to make an effort to read them sometime soon. The man who writes The Wind in the Willows is a man worth getting to know.

Byron: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

January 26, 2017

childeChilde Harold’s Pilgrimage
George Gordon Lord Byron
(Oxford, 2008) [1812-18]
188 p.

She walks in beauty, like the night, and my ignorance of the life and poetry of Lord Byron is rather like the night too: dark and comprehensive. Nonetheless I took up this long poem with considerable interest. I’d come across excerpts from it here and there in my readings about Rome, and I thought I’d take a closer look to see what else, if anything, the poem has to say about the Eternal City.

That’s a narrow keyhole through which to approach a fairly wide-ranging poem, which recounts the travels of one Harold, a young and dissolute Englishman, as he rambles across the European continent. He lands first in Spain, makes his way east, stopping in Albania, and Greece, and eventually comes to Italy, where he visits, among other cities, Venice, Florence, and, yes, Rome.

The poem is allegedly based on Byron’s own European travels, which he undertook in the years 1809-11.

Harold is melancholy, undisciplined, and a rake:

Few earthly things found favour in his sight
Save concubines and carnal companie,
And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.
(1, II)

In other words, we have here a Byronic hero, such as he is, and the poem, which was the first to bring Byron wide fame, is a notable example of English Romanticism in full flower. (Note that it was published just a few decades after the famous volume by which Wordsworth and Coleridge are said to have inaugurated Romanticism in England.) We find, for instance, the characteristic Romantic sense of the sublimity of Nature:

All heaven and earth are still—though not in sleep,
But breathless, as we grow when feeling most;
And silent, as we stand in thoughts too deep: —
All heaven and earth are still: from the high host
Of stars, to the lulled lake and mountain-coast,
All is concentered in a life intense,
Where not a beam, nor air, nor leaf is lost,
But hath a part of being, and a sense
Of that which is of all Creator and defence.
(3, LXXXIX)

I was surprised to find that the anti-hero of the poem, whose brooding self-consciousness and jaundiced eye are supposed to seduce and repel us at once, was not so brooding, and especially not so jaundiced, as I had expected. When he comes to Greece, for instance, he is overwhelmed by the solemnity and glory of what once was, and says:

Where’er we tread, ’tis haunted, holy ground;
No earth of thine is lost in vulgar mould,
But one vast realm of wonder spreads around,
And all the Muse’s tales seem truly told,
Till the sense aches with gazing to behold
The scenes our earliest dreams have dwelt upon:
Each hill and dale, each deepening glen and wold,
Defies the power which crushed thy temples gone:
Age shakes Athena’s tower, but spares gray Marathon.
(2, LXXXVIII)

and then cries out with sincere admiration:

Yet to the remnants of thy splendour past
Shall pilgrims, pensive, but unwearied, throng:
Long shall the voyager, with th’ Ionian blast,
Hail the bright clime of battle and of song;
Long shall thine annals and immortal tongue
Fill with thy fame the youth of many a shore:
Boast of the aged! lesson of the young!
Which sages venerate and bards adore,
As Pallas and the Muse unveil their awful lore.
(2, XCI)

One has the distinct impression that Harold counts himself among the youth filled with Greece’s fame, himself a pensive pilgrim honouring the remnants of its splendid past.

In fact throughout the poem Harold shows a real desire to admire the great monuments, and to commune with the great tradition on which he has been nurtured. He is no mere tourist, no cynic in such matters. In comparison to twenty-somethings whom I have known, he comes across as positively effusive in his earnest praise:

Italia! too, Italia! looking on thee
Full flashes on the soul the light of ages,
Since the fierce Carthaginian almost won thee,
To the last halo of the chiefs and sages
Who glorify thy consecrated pages;
Thou wert the throne and grave of empires; still,
The fount at which the panting mind assuages
Her thirst of knowledge, quaffing there her fill,
Flows from the eternal source of Rome’s imperial hill.
(3, CX)

I hear in such verse more humility and sincerity than ironic sophistication. I may even say that I found in Harold, at least at such moments, an echo of my own feelings towards the European past, which is my cultural inheritance, and which I have laboured, here and elsewhere, to appropriate. This has been rather gratifying, not only inasmuch as Harold provides me with an eloquent — an, if anything, too eloquent — expression of my own feelings, but also inasmuch as it allows me to imagine myself a Byronic hero, a wholly unlooked-for denouement!

***

As to Harold’s sojourn in Rome, it was indeed the highlight of the poem for me (“O Rome! my country! city of the soul!”), and I cannot resist quoting some of my favourite stanzas. There may be no better image of the spirit of Romanticism than that of Byron — sorry, I meant Harold — standing in the moonlight gazing at the ruins of the Colosseum:

But when the rising moon begins to climb
Its topmost arch, and gently pauses there;
When the stars twinkle through the loops of time,
And the low night-breeze waves along the air,
The garland-forest, which the grey walls wear,
Like laurels on the bald first Caesar’s head;
When the light shines serene, but doth not glare,
Then in this magic circle raise the dead:
Heroes have trod this spot—’tis on their dust ye tread.
(4, CXLIV)

Here he wanders a bit north, into the warren of cobble-stoned streets of Old Rome, emerging into the piazza before the Pantheon:

Simple, erect, severe, austere, sublime—
Shrine of all saints and temple of all gods,
From Jove to Jesus—spared and blest by time;
Looking tranquillity, while falls or nods
Arch, empire, each thing round thee, and man plods
His way through thorns to ashes—glorious dome!
Shalt thou not last?—Time’s scythe and tyrants’ rods
Shiver upon thee—sanctuary and home
Of art and piety—Pantheon!—pride of Rome!

Relic of nobler days, and noblest arts!
Despoiled yet perfect, with thy circle spreads
A holiness appealing to all hearts—
To art a model; and to him who treads
Rome for the sake of ages, Glory sheds
Her light through thy sole aperture; to those
Who worship, here are altars for their beads;
And they who feel for genius may repose
Their eyes on honoured forms, whose busts around them close.
(4, CXLVI-CXLVII)

Does your heart beat high? Do you feel nobler, even taller? Later he goes across the Tiber to St. Peter’s. Earlier in the poem he had let drop the casual anti-Catholic sentiments of an ordinary Englishman:

But here the Babylonian whore had built
A dome, where flaunts she in such glorious sheen,
That men forget the blood which she hath spilt,
And bow the knee to Pomp that loves to garnish guilt.
(1, XXIX)

but confronted with the glory of San Pietro he seems to forget himself:

But thou, of temples old, or altars new,
Standest alone—with nothing like to thee—
Worthiest of God, the holy and the true,
Since Zion’s desolation, when that he
Forsook his former city, what could be,
Of earthly structures, in his honour piled,
Of a sublimer aspect? Majesty,
Power, Glory, Strength, and Beauty, all are aisled
In this eternal ark of worship undefiled.
(4, CLIV)

As he ponders it, walking beneath its sublime canopy, he senses the challenge it poses to his own soul, and he struggles to rise to it:

Not by its fault—but thine: Our outward sense
Is but of gradual grasp—and as it is
That what we have of feeling most intense
Outstrips our faint expression; e’en so this
Outshining and o’erwhelming edifice
Fools our fond gaze, and greatest of the great
Defies at first our nature’s littleness,
Till, growing with its growth, we thus dilate
Our spirits to the size of that they contemplate.
(4, CLVIII)

Who among us, confronted by a great work of art, has not experienced, or at least wanted to experience, such a thing? Even granting that an aesthetic experience is not the highest experience one might hope to have in a holy site, it’s nothing to sneer at.

I suppose I risk giving a lopsided view of the poem. It’s not all Rome, not all Italy. He doesn’t like Spain so much. And much of the poem is brooding, especially on the personal wreckage he left behind in England. But I came to the poem with something particular in mind, and I departed well-satisfied.

**

A word about the technical aspects of the poem. As is evident from the sections I’ve quoted, it is composed in Spenserian stanzas: ababbcbcc in iambic metre. It is a long poem, with nearly 500 such stanzas, split into four cantos of uneven length, and a few interpolations of verse in other metres and rhyme schemes. The poetry is astoundingly accomplished, technically. I haven’t actually tried it, but I imagine I’d have a horrendous time trying to produce even one such stanza of non-doggeral verse. To have the facility to write stanza after stanza, expressing and developing thought along the way, is a remarkable gift.

***

For my own benefit, I here append some other of the stanzas I appreciated most:

[Lament over Greece]
When riseth Lacedaemon’s hardihood,
When Thebes Epaminondas rears again,
When Athens’ children are with hearts endued,
When Grecian mothers shall give birth to men,
Then mayst thou be restored; but not till then.
A thousand years scarce serve to form a state;
An hour may lay it in the dust: and when
Can man its shattered splendour renovate,
Recall its virtues back, and vanquish Time and Fate?
(2, LXXXIV)

[The natural beauty of Greece]
Yet are thy skies as blue, thy crags as wild:
Sweet are thy groves, and verdant are thy fields,
Thine olives ripe as when Minerva smiled,
And still his honeyed wealth Hymettus yields;
There the blithe bee his fragrant fortress builds,
The freeborn wanderer of thy mountain air;
Apollo still thy long, long summer gilds,
Still in his beam Mendeli’s marbles glare;
Art, Glory, Freedom fail, but Nature still is fair.
(2,LXXXVII)

[Rome and Italy]
The commonwealth of kings, the men of Rome!
And even since, and now, fair Italy!
Thou art the garden of the world, the home
Of all Art yields, and Nature can decree;
Even in thy desert, what is like to thee?
Thy very weeds are beautiful, thy waste
More rich than other climes’ fertility;
Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced
With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced.
(4, XXVI)

[Praise of Tasso]
Peace to Torquato’s injured shade! ’twas his
In life and death to be the mark where Wrong
Aimed with their poisoned arrows—but to miss.
Oh, victor unsurpassed in modern song!
Each year brings forth its millions; but how long
The tide of generations shall roll on,
And not the whole combined and countless throng
Compose a mind like thine? Though all in one
Condensed their scattered rays, they would not form a sun.
(4, XXXIX)

[Laocoon]
Or, turning to the Vatican, go see
Laocoon’s torture dignifying pain—
A father’s love and mortal’s agony
With an immortal’s patience blending:—Vain
The struggle; vain, against the coiling strain
And gripe, and deepening of the dragon’s grasp,
The old man’s clench; the long envenomed chain
Rivets the living links,—the enormous asp
Enforces pang on pang, and stifles gasp on gasp.
(4, CLX)

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.

*

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.

**

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.