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Two Novellas by Jon Fosse

Jon Fosse won the 2023 Nobel Prize for Literature. In stating that, I'm supposing that those reading this might not already be aware of it. That supposition in turn is based on another: that there are a considerable number of people like me who read a lot but aren't necessarily aware of who wins the Nobel and other big prizes every year. 

For my part, I just don't give much thought to those prizes, or, as a rule, to the writers who receive them. This is not any sort of contrarian snobbery. I don't look down on them; in fact I feel a vague and slight sense of shame about my ignorance. It's true that I don't assume that Nobel winners are necessarily the best the world has to offer, but neither do I assume that they aren't. Most of them are probably excellent. It's just that for the most part my literary interests don't take me in the direction of contemporary writing. 

Those interests do, however, take me very much in the direction of writing by Catholics, contemporary and otherwise, and that's how Fosse came to my attention: he is a fairly recent Catholic convert, in spite of being Norwegian. I don't really mean for that last bit to be funny. The Nordic countries went thoroughly Protestant as soon as they had a chance, then even further and faster into secularism than the rest of Europe, and Catholics there have been not just scarce but rare. Still, I wouldn't have gotten around to reading Fosse if it hadn't been made convenient by an online seminar produced by the Global Catholic Literature Project of the Collegium Institute of the University of Pennsylvania, in partnership with Dappled Things magazine. I've taken a couple of these and found them interesting and helpful.

Fosse has published an enormous amount and I would have had no idea where to start with his work. The seminar made the choice for me: two novellas, A Shining and Aliss At the Fire. There were four Zoom sessions taking place on four consecutive Monday nights in March, two each for each of the novels.

It was perhaps a mistake to take the seminar, as I was more interested in other writers at the moment--for instance, Dickens--and had other things going on, including a week-long trip that made me miss the last session. So I didn't really give either the works or the seminar itself as much attention as they deserved. Moreover, the works are rather mysterious, and despite the vigorous efforts of the excellent presenters (who, I must say, made me feel rather stupid with the intelligence and depth of their analysis) I still have only a vague idea of their meaning, and even, in Aliss, of what actually happens. Therefore I am not going to attempt to discuss them in much depth, and am writing this post mainly to point them out and suggest that you may want to investigate them yourself.

A Shining is the simpler of the two. It's even, in a sense, straightforward. I'll give you a lengthy quote from the opening which will give you the flavor of it: 

I was taking a drive. It was nice. It felt good to be moving. I didn't know where I was going. I was just driving. Boredom had taken hold of me--usually I was never bored but now I had fallen prey to it. I couldn't think of anything I wanted to do. So I just did something. I got in my car and drove and when I got somewhere I could turn right or left I turned right, and at the next place I could turn right or left I turned left, and so on. I kept driving like that. Eventually I'd driven a long way up a forest road where the ruts gradually got so deep that I felt like the car was getting stuck. I just kept driving, until the car got totally stuck. I tried to reverse but I couldn't, so I stopped the car. I was sitting in the car. Yes, well, now I'm here, I thought, now I'm sitting here, and I felt empty as if the boredom had turned into emptiness. Or maybe into a kind of anxiety, because I felt something like fear as I sat there empty, looking straight ahead as if into a void. Into nothingness. What am I talking about, I thought. There's the forest in front of me, it's just a forest, I thought. All right then, this sudden urge to drive off somewhere had brought me to a forest.

And it goes on like that. There are no paragraph breaks in its 74 pages. The man begins to walk into the forest. Night falls. It's very cold. He walks a long way, and he encounters a mysterious entity, the Shining of the title. He encounters several people, including his parents, and a man in black, as mysterious as the Shining. And there is what I will call a consummation at the end. The novella can be taken as a mystical or theological allegory (a dark wood and all that), but until I've read it again, which I do intend to do, I don't want to say anything more definite.

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Publisher: Transit Books

Aliss At the Fire is a bit longer and considerably more complex. And puzzling. And as it happens it occupied the last two sessions of the seminar, when I was distracted for one and absent for the other (though I was able to watch a video of the session later). But I think this much is accurate: the people and events are fixed in place but not in time. The place is an old house near the sea, by (in?) a fjord, and its immediate surroundings. Over this place time is sort of...smeared. The place is inhabited by at least four or five people, all members of one family, going back several generations.

The point of view shifts without notice or acknowledgment. The books opens with an "I" who is watching someone--a woman named Signe--in a room in the house. Almost immediately the point of view shifts to Signe's, in third person: "She watches...she thinks...she sees..." Among the things she sees is her husband, Asle. After a few dozen pages there is a sort of pivot and the point of view becomes Asle's. Signe sees Asle and herself at different points in their life together. Asle sees Signe, his great-great-grandmother, Aliss, and several people from the intervening generations. There have been at least two deaths, untimely and deeply lamented, apparently by drowning in the fjord. The overall effect is of a connection, very deep and very much alive, among the persons along the timeline, as if to demonstrate Faulkner's "the past is never dead; it is not even past."

I don't think the "I" reappears until the last line, and if there is any explanation of him or her I missed it (which is possible). I'm tempted to quote that line. But it would be a species of spoiler, so I won't. 

Browsing through the book just now, I noticed that there seemed to be, typographically, no sentences. The narrative goes on for many pages with no punctuation except commas and question marks, and with paragraphs only used to indicate spoken dialog. I was going to say that there are no periods in the book at all, but there are a few. On page 41, more than a third of the way through the book, Asle is seeing his great-great-grandmother, Aliss, roasting a sheep's head at a fire near the shore.

...she moves the sheep's head back and forth, back and forth in the flames. That's Aliss, he thinks, and he sees it, he knows it. That's Aliss at the fire.

Unless I've missed one, that period after "flames" is the first one in the book. There are a few more in that passage, very very few after. No doubt that means something, but I don't know what.

Fosse-AlissAtTheFire

Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press

Giving these books a little attention for the writing of this post has made me see that they deserve more attention than I gave them during the seminar, and are probably better than I gave them credit for. I plan to re-read them fairly soon. 


A Note on Bleak House Editions

When my wife and I moved to a new house in the fall of 2022, we tried to get rid of some of the books that were overflowing, in a very unsightly way, our shelves. That meant books that we had already read and didn't want to re-read, or had not read and most likely never would read, and duplicates. Among the latter were two copies of Bleak House. One was a small, beat-up, and generally undistinguished paperback. The other was a hardback, in perfect condition, of a good size, and nicely printed. 

So that was an easy decision: out went the paperback. 

But six weeks or so ago, when I finally began to satisfy my desire to re-read Bleak House for the first time in roughly fifty years and took up the hardback, I noticed something odd. I had just finished Dombey and Son, which runs to some 900 pages. I was fairly sure that Bleak House was at least comparable in length. But this copy had slightly under 600 pages, though it was printed in a typeface of reasonable size and with comfortable margins. Closer examination discovered this brief and inconspicuous note on the title page: "Arranged for Modern Reading."

The fact that I strongly suspect the internet to be a net harm to society doesn't prevent me from using it and appreciating the fact that it gives me instant access to vast quantities of information. I took a quick look at the Project Gutenberg edition of Bleak House and saw that at least one whole chapter was missing from my copy. Then I poked around for information about this particular edition, published by The Literary Guild, which is a book-of-the-month style enterprise, perhaps meant to be classier. And I found that it is indeed abridged. It is, as I said, a handsome production, with illustrations by Edward Gorey (which may be enough reason for me to keep it). But abridgment of such a novel is unacceptable, indeed a sin, if meant for adult readers.

So I checked out a copy from the local library: the Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition, the illustrations being the originals by "Phiz." I hadn't gotten very far in it before I realized that I wanted to buy my own copy. But the OID is out of print, replaced, apparently, by the edition included in the Oxford World's Classics series. That seemed promising. I was also interested in the Norton Critical Edition, which I've found to be very good, and, having just been reading the Wordsworth NCE, I wanted the paraphernalia of notes, background, and criticism. (I thought it was out of print, as Amazon only offered used copies. But I find now that it apparently is very much alive. At any rate I found an inexpensive used copy in good condition.)

I ended up buying both and would recommend either. Quality and size of typeface are increasingly important to me in my old age, as my vision seems to get a bit worse every year. (And it's not something that can be solved with the right glasses; if I live long enough I'll probably need cataract surgery). Both these are very readable. Norton is still using the typeface they've been using since at least the Norton Anthologies which were my textbooks in the mid-'60s, or at least a very similar one. It's remarkably clear as well as compact.

I'm telling you all this because I hadn't quite realized how much detail I was skimming past and ignoring in reading Dickens without notes.  He assumes we know something about London geography, about the Chancery courts, about details of life in his time which have had little or no presence in ours for the past century and more. There are many words and phrases that are unintelligible to us, or to me at least, and I venture to say most of us. I hadn't realized how often I contented myself with getting the general drift of a sentence or paragraph and moving on without knowing exactly what had been referred to.

Here, for instance, opening the NCE at random, I find this footnote:

  1. A ship that is laid up and out of commission, although still afloat.

The note is attached to this sentence in the text:

The good ships Law and Equity, those teak-built, copper-bottomed, iron-fastened, brazened-faced, and not by any means fast-sailing Clippers are laid up in ordinary.

Without the note, you haven't completely missed the sense as long as you get the general idea that the ships are not proceeding. But you certainly miss some precision and some flavor. 

Both the NCE and the OWC have such notes, footnotes in the NCE and endnotes in the OWC. I prefer footnotes to the constant page-turning required by endnotes. And I prefer the NCE overall. It has much more supplementary material. Some of that doesn't interest me, including 65 pages of textual notes giving every detail of variation between manuscripts of the novel, almost all of them trivial. But there are also, for instance, selections from documents of the time that go into disgusting detail about the filth of some parts of London in the 1840s, and a section devoted to tracking down real-life sources for some of the characters. I did not know that the detestable freeloader Skimpole is, by Dickens's own assertion, a portrait of Leigh Hunt, though I don't know that Dickens thought Hunt behaved detestably. 

Both editions include the Phiz illustrations, but the NCE doesn't have them all. And I wonder about the reproduction of some of them in both. Night scenes are more or less black smears, with little detail visible. But maybe that's my old eyes. Also, the maps are better in the OWC. 

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BleakHouse-NortonCriticalEdition


Dickens: Bleak House

Before I started writing this, I should have gone back to the 52 Authors series and read Stu's entry on Dickens, which is quite good (click here). And I see in the comments this one from me:

Bleak House is one I really want to re-read (in addition to reading for the first time the 60% or so of the novels that I haven't read at all). I read it in my 20s and thought it was great. I have a feeling I'd like it even more now.

Well, that certainly turned out to be true. I enjoyed Bleak House even more than the other Dickens novels I've read or re-read recently: Dombey And Son, Great Expectations, and, perhaps stretching "recently" a bit, David Copperfield. Everything I said about Dickens's work in general in my post about Dombey and Son a few weeks ago applies with even more force to Bleak House. As of now, it's my favorite, and as I very much liked the others that puts it pretty much in the stratosphere of my literary rankings. Now, with a necessarily somewhat smaller number of years remaining before me than I had in my 20s, and with so many books yet unread, I still may revisit this one. That says a lot about the sheer enjoyment I had in it.

Someone, and I think it was T.S. Eliot, said that Shakespeare gives us the breadth of the medieval world, and Dante the depth. A similar thought has occurred to me while reading Bleak House and Dombey And Son: that a division, an assignment of responsibility you might say, could be made between Dickens and Dostoevsky with respect to what I think of as the early maturity of modern man in the 19th century. Dostoevsky is the great prober of the spiritual (and therefore psychological) displacement of that new man. An old friend of mine once observed that most of Dostoevsky's people seem to him to be "just barely sane," and in their extremities of thought and behavior they show us what is only implied and latent in most people. As representatives of their times, they are narrow but deep. The most important of them are intellectuals or semi-intellectuals  or very eccentric in some way connected with the modern crisis. Dostoevsky is almost as much philosopher/theologian as novelist. And he is certainly Dante-esque at least to the extent of presenting an Inferno, with glimpses of Purgatory. 

Dickens, on the other hand, is almost pure novelist, purely a creator of stories and characters, and he gives us an extraordinary range of characters who are ordinary people in the sense that they are mainly interested in going about the everyday business of their not especially reflective lives, whether that business is an aristocrat's concern with maintaining the order and prestige of his little empire or a pauper's desperate attempt to keep off starvation and other miseries. And in doing this Dickens demonstrates the great Christian truth that there are no ordinary people. 

And I don't know of anyone except Shakespeare to whom he can be compared in both those respects, i.e. stories and characters (at least not in English literature--I don't know enough of others to say). Bleak House is in fact a somewhat polemical work, but to the extent that ideas play a role in it they are pretty down-to-earth, not philosophical: an attack on the Chancery courts of the time, and to a lesser degree a sort of exposé of the conditions of the London poor. (Chancery courts were very roughly comparable to what we would call civil law, concerned with contracts of all sorts, including, as in Bleak House, inheritance.) The stakes in a high-stakes lawsuit could be entirely devoured by costs, to the ruin of the suitors and, according to Dickens, the amusement of lawyers and judges. Dickens himself had a pretty unpleasant experience with Chancery, when he attempted to get some money out of people who had printed unauthorized editions of his work. 

Suppose for a moment that those were his primary motives, that Dickens thought, "I really hate Chancery, and I'm really angry at the way lack of decent sanitation forces the poor to live in filth and disease. I think I'll write a novel making these points." It's not a plausible conjecture, because there are too many things in the work that aren't part of any such focus. But just suppose. What he actually produced is no more reducible to a social justice pamphlet than The Brothers Karamazov is reducible to a philosophical one. I don't know that he could have written mere propaganda, at least not in fiction. I think his creative energy would have prevented that; the sense of energy at work is one of the striking characteristics of his work in general, and especially in this one.

The sheer fecundity of invention in plot and character is astonishing. It seems the fecundity of nature, which (to use the conventional attribution of agency) is not content to make a single bird, or even a single type of songbird fit to thrive in the southeastern U.S., but produces millions in the first case, hundreds in the second. So it is with Dickens's characters, who have a distinct "inscape," to use the peculiar term invented by Hopkins which seems to mean an essential self-ness. As Rob G pointed out in a comment recently, Dickens somehow even manages to give every character a distinctive voice. (Surely there are scholarly papers and/or books about that.)

The comparison to Shakespeare extends to the language. Prose, obviously, is more diffuse than poetry, and does not as readily provide the brief quotation that sticks in the memory in part because of its music. But, again, the fecundity is astonishing. Stephen Gill, in his introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition, cites many

passages of amazing complexity and depth, allusive, syntactically agile, multi-faceted, whose exploitation of the poetic resources of the language and the devices of rhetoric offer pleasures as rewarding as any in English fiction.

And, with due allowance for the essential difference, is often as rewarding as poetry.

The plot has distinct elements of the mystery story, including the appearance of a police detective who, though he isn't prominent until quite late in the story, is a very striking character who could easily have ranked with Sherlock Holmes, had Dickens been engaged in that sort of project. This makes me mourn the fact that he didn't live to finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which I have always been hesitant to read because of the inevitable disappointment.

One does have to contend with Dickens's sentimental and melodramatic streak. But even as I type that I am thinking that those terms are pretty elastic, and one person's sentimentality may be another's honest emotion. As with Florence in Dombey And Son, the central female character, Esther Summerson, is somewhat too good to be true. But she is more vivid to me than Florence because a very large part of the book is a first-person narrative by her, and so we have more knowledge of her. The narrative structure of the book is unusual in that respect--part omniscient third-person, part first-person and very limited. Moreover, the third-person narrative is entirely in the present tense, while Esther's is a sort of journal, past tense. 

As has often been remarked, by C.S. Lewis among others if my memory is correct, the characteristic virtues and vices of one historical period often balance those of another. One such virtue that is represented over and over again in Bleak House, and which is little seen and honored in our time, is nobility. Bu that I mean an iron determination to behave with honor, courage, and generosity, to say and do what is true and right and just without regard for one's own preference, ego, and interest. As far as I can tell it is rarely seen in our popular culture, and almost never among our public figures. (Try looking for it in either of our current presidential candidates.) The actual behavior of our politicians may be in practice no different from the reality of Dickens's time, but the fact that the sense of nobility was understood and admired then, while having pretty much vanished in our own time, says something bad about our culture, and good about that of Dickens. As has also often been remarked, nobility is at least as likely to be found among the lowly as among the high, something which Dickens is fond of illustrating. Also, though it is perhaps one of the more masculine virtues, as likely to be found in women as in men.


Wordsworth: The Prelude

I read The Prelude in a Norton Critical Edition collection, Wordsworth's Poetry and Prose. Like all the excellent NCEs, this volume includes a selection of criticism from Wordsworth's own time to ours, or nearly--that depends on what you're willing to encompass in "our time." I was following my usual practice of avoiding talk about the work before reading the work itself. But about halfway through the poem I had to sneak a look at the few pages of Matthew Arnold's criticism included, taken from his preface to a Wordsworth edition. I did this because I had, back in my brief days as a graduate student in English, read a certain amount of Arnold and tended to agree with his critical judgments. And I was not enjoying The Prelude, nor admiring it, as much as I expected to, and wondered whether Arnold had anything to say about it, and, if he did, whether I was going to find myself in uneasy disagreement with him, or supported and pleased by his agreement. 

It proved to be the latter, at least to this extent: 

The Excursion and the Prelude, his poems of greatest bulk, are by no means Wordsworth's best work.

I will lay out my prejudices, negative and positive. First, as far as I can recall I hadn't read any Wordsworth since I was an undergraduate more than fifty years ago. At the time, the early Romantics were not, in general, my favorites, with the major exception of Keats. I liked Wordsworth's short lyrics, but the famous and more lengthy "Tintern Abbey" and "Intimations of Immortality" were pretty far short of knockouts. It seemed then that Wordsworth at length was not likely to be as good as Wordsworth in brief. I suppose there were some selections from The Prelude in my sophomore English textbook, and I suppose I probably read them, but I don't remember them at all.

On the other hand, I like the premise of The Prelude: a sort of autobiography in verse. In general (again) the decline of the long poem has been part of the general decline of poetry over the past century or two. By "decline" there I mean specifically the way the word "poetry" has come to mean primarily "lyric poetry"--works of from a few lines to a few pages, and a fairly brief expression of, usually, some personal feeling or insight. The verse drama and the narrative poem of scope comparable to that of the novel are no longer an important part of literary culture, though there are the occasional, and occasionally successful, instances. The Prelude interested me as an attempt to bring something like the personal sensibility of the lyric into a work of ten thousand or so lines (thirteen "books" running between 500 and 1000 lines each). 

If you didn't major in English in college you may not recall (from your required English class(es)) that around 1800 Wordsworth and his friend Coleridge sought to revolutionize English poetry in reaction to what they viewed as the excessive artificiality of most poetry of the time--Pope, for instance. They criticized the elaborate diction and at least implicitly the critical, somewhat detached, somewhat rationalistic approach of that poetry. (See Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes" for a good not-too-long example.) In a sort of manifesto, the polemical preface to their joint publication Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth stated their aim

...to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men....

The "common life" they had in mind was often the truly common, the life of farmers and villagers, not aristocrats, far from wealth, fashion, and London. This produced lyrics like Wordsworth's "Lucy" poems (the first line of this one is its title):

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love.

So much, then, for the state of play. To go straight to the outcome and summarize my reaction: I like the parts of The Prelude where Wordsworth sticks most closely to the ideals expressed in that preface. But there are long stretches where he departs from them, and those I often found dull, or worse.

Several months have passed since I finished reading the poem last fall. In preparation for writing this, I picked it up again and browsed. The opening lines are excellent. The verse is a clear stream, the appeal to the senses and experience direct and persuasive: Wordsworth is enjoying his return to the countryside after a sojourn in London, which he does not love, and the freedom he is about to enjoy for the pursuit of his poetic vocation. But pretty quickly a troublesome sign appears: a lengthy praise of his own creative ambition, which he elevates to a sacred calling:

...to the open fields I told
A prophecy: poetic numbers came
Spontaneously, and clothed in priestly robes
My spirit, thus singled out, as it might seem
For holy services....

I have always disliked, and now detest, the tendency, which began or at least gained prominence with the Romantics, to cast the artist, or rather The Artist, as a quasi-religious figure, set apart from ordinary people by his genius. Eric Gill is generally and justly condemned these days for his sexual abuse of his daughters. That doesn't mean that everything he said was wrong, though, and he was never more right than when he said "The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist."

And The Prelude is full of that sort of thing, and not as general observation but as part of Wordsworth's account of himself,  contemplating the progress of his efforts not just to write but to fulfill a rather grandiose mission which is all bound up with his philosophy. I don't think I can describe the latter, and anyway I don't want to bother. He and Coleridge had lofty and somewhat abstract ideas about mind and imagination that I always found somewhat vaporous, and in conflict with their preference for concrete language and experience in poetry. His diction in those parts also tends, perhaps inevitably, toward the vague and the pompous. The long section, spanning two books, in which he describes his experiences in France at the beginning of the Revolution might have been a vivid story, but lapses often into abstraction and detachment: "I thought this, and I thought that," not necessarily memorably expressed. 

What I find worthy of being called great in The Prelude is the recounting of experiences which are distinctly of the physical world: not mental, not ideas. The relation of those experiences is more potent than his talk about them. I'm regretting now that I didn't make notes, or mark passages in the book, because I can't readily put my finger now on one particularly vivid story of his youthful wandering in the countryside where he grew up: this one involves rowing at night, and feeling something uncanny in the way the crags which, because he is rowing away from them and thus facing toward them, seem to grow taller as his distance reveals more of them. 

When I finished reading The Prelude I turned to some of the sonnets and other shorter poems that I remembered liking long ago. They are even better than I remembered, and are the solid foundation of his reputation. I doubt that I'll ever read the entirety of The Prelude again, but I'll certainly go back to those. There are many that would be new to me, and almost certainly some gems among them.


I Love (Physical) Books

I was going to mention this in the post about Dombey and Son, but it was already rather long: my pleasure in reading the novel was enhanced by the nature of the physical object which contains it. A few years ago I came into possession of several Dickens volumes which, along with a lot of other books, would otherwise have gone to Goodwill (it's a longish story, not important to tell). I didn't look at them very closely at the time, and there wasn't space for them on our shelves, so they went into a closet and didn't come out again until the fall of 2022, when we moved to a new house. Before the move we culled our book collection fairly severely, getting rid of everything that we had read and didn't expect to read again, or figured we would never read. 

I considered getting rid of these, but on finally taking a good look at them realized they were treasures. They are part of a complete Dickens published by Scribner's ("Charles Scribner's Sons") in 1911. And I very much wish I had the whole set. If you want one, Abebooks currently has it available for $500. Which is really a pretty reasonable price, around $14 per volume. When I put it that way, it's actually sort of tempting....

Here are the nine volumes in their new home. The white spots seem to be paint, the work of some sloppy painter of who knows how long ago. It's lamentable that I only have volume one of The Old Curiosity Shop

DickensVolumes

Here are a couple of sample pages from Dombey and Son. The illustrations are the original ones by "Phiz," Hablot Knight Browne, and they're delightful. 

DickensPages

Reading these is a physical pleasure. Splitting the novels into two volumes of four or five hundred pages makes for very comfortable handling and reading, in a typeface and size that are easy on the eyes (an increasing consideration for me), and margins that don't make the pages seem crowded. And because they were printed with real movable type you can actually feel the impressions on the paper: a slight but genuine pleasure. 

I'm not a bibliophile, not any sort of collector. A book doesn't have to have any particular charm or excellence for me to like it. It just needs to be a physical book. Too many of mine are really pretty poor physical specimens, bought used or picked up from library discard shelves. Sometimes these are pretty dilapidated, having permanent marks of their library career, sometimes in the form of those rather ugly library bindings, or defaced by the underlining or highlighting of a student (though more than a few instances of the latter will prevent me from getting the book in the first place). But when I read anything longer than, say, a blog post, I want a book, a book made of paper. 

I know a lot of people find reading on a Kindle or similar device perfectly acceptable, with various convenience factors actually making the electronic device more appealing than a book. But I think I can safely say that I never will do that. I've tried it, and I just don't much like it. I could go into more detail about that, but "I don't like it" is sufficient. It's not just my age, as I know several people of similar age, including my wife, who have made the transition. I have a Kindle Fire but only use it to read journalism and similar stuff online. I once tried reading one of those public domain electronic versions of The Pickwick Papers on the Kindle and abandoned it after fifty pages or so. I look forward to reading the Pickwick you can see in the photo above. 

I do like one thing about a book in electronic form: the ability to search for words and phrases. I have electronic copies, obtained from Project Gutenberg, of both Dombey and Son and Bleak House on my computer, and have used them as, for instance, I did yesterday, to refresh my memory about who Gridley is in Bleak House. But I wouldn't sit and read the novels that way, unless I had no other choice. Which may be the situation someday, but not in my lifetime. 


Dickens: Dombey And Son

On re-reading my post about Great Expectations, I note that I more or less assumed that the reader knows the story, which means that there was a certain level of spoilage in the post. Although it doesn't go into any detail, it does reveal the final condition of the two main characters. I am not going to do that here, so I will be a little vague.

The Dombey with whom this story is concerned is Son. The first Dombey is disposed of in a few sentences, and Son Dombey is already in middle age, with a wife and a daughter and a son who is in the process of being born when the story opens. Dombey and Son is one of the great houses in London's business world; there's even a suggestion that it may be the greatest. Dombey the Second is immensely proud of this, and it is his greatest wish that it continue with future Dombeys rotating through the firm's name. These would of course have to be male; apart from the generally very separate roles of the sexes at the time (or for that matter most times and places), they would, obviously, have to be male in order for the name to remain the same. As there is no question of a daughter succeeding to that headship, Dombey has no interest in his daughter, Florence, who is about six years old when the story opens. "No interest" is putting it mildly, as being the highest point to which his fatherly heart rises. Active contempt is increasingly the case.

And those are the mainsprings of the story, which runs to roughly a thousand pages in the edition I have. As the son, Paul, is being born, the wife, Fanny, is dying, in spite of the motivational speech--"You must make an effort"--given to her by her sister-in-law. Or perhaps it was the motivational speech that delivered the last blow to her will to live, already (so it is suggested) half-crushed by living among Dombeys. Certainly the death occurs in immediate succession to the speech. 

Little Paul is an odd and sickly child. He loves and is loved by Florence. Florence lives partly for him and partly in perpetual desperate hope of being loved by her father, who begins implacably indifferent to her and grows hostile as Paul fails to develop as his father assumes that he will, in fact can hardly imagine that he will not. Mr. Dombey has the royal pride of a pharoah or the Sun King. 

This pride, of course, is not going to lead him to a happy place. It blinds him not only to the love of a daughter whom everyone else can see is an angel, but to the presence within his circle of an Iago, a secret flattering enemy who works toward his destruction. 

If you knew anything about Dickens at all you would suppose, even without looking at the book, that this is going to be a long and complex and often very sad story. And it is, taking place over a period of roughly fifteen years and involving a great many characters. The Wikipedia page for the novel lists a round 50 of them (49 if you don't count Diogenes the dog). Many of these of course have fairly small roles, but every one is rendered with Dickens's astonishing ability to create a portrait with only a few strokes. And the names--did he really just keep an eye out for useful ones, or did he invent some of them? Peps, Pilkins, Pilcher, Pipchin, Toodle, Toots, Tox, Nipper, Gills, Cuttle, Blitherstone, Skettles....

I'm sorry to say, though, that Florence herself is a partial exception to this success, though she is, more than Dombey himself, the center of the story. I mentioned that she seems an angel, and that's the problem. She is so pure, so sweet, so self-effacing, so entirely without fault or resentment, as to seem not quite real, not quite a really living person in the way that other characters are. I don't think this is so much a failure in portraiture, a failure in execution, as a result of a choice made at a level above that, the choice of the kind of person Dickens has imagined. 

The sentimentality of that portrait is not in general an anomaly in the novel. One expects a fair amount of that from Dickens, along with melodrama and implausible coincidences that would be ridiculous in other hands. I accept them as conventions of the times, and they don't diminish--well, not very much--the irresistible power of the language and the narrative. I found myself at times thinking of Shakespeare's astonishing fluency. A descriptive imaginative power far beyond the reach of most writers hardly ever stops and is brought to bear on both great and small moments. In the first paragraph, Dombey is sitting in a room with newborn Son, who

..lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.

This doom-laden figure constitutes the second paragraph: 

On the brow of Dombey, Time and his brother Care had set some marks, as on a tree that was to come down in good time—remorseless twins they are for striding through their human forests, notching as they go—while the countenance of Son was crossed with a thousand little creases, which the same deceitful Time would take delight in smoothing out and wearing away with the flat part of his scythe, as a preparation of the surface for his deeper operations.

And in the third:

Son, with his little fists curled up and clenched, seemed, in his feeble way, to be squaring at existence for having come upon him so unexpectedly.

No sentimentality or far-fetched coincidence can diminish the appeal of such writing.

The sentimentality is often transcended. I'm thinking particularly of the death of one character--no, make that two: the death of Fanny Dombey is handled briefly and with great poignancy. The other is protracted, and has the character drifting slowly out of this life and into another in a way that borders on the mystical. If, or more likely when, this novel fades in my memory into a blur from which only certain scenes stand out clearly, this will be one of those scenes.

Dickens's well-known concern with the wretched plight of the 19th-century urban poor is very present, often with the most furious sarcasm directed at the hypocrisy and indifference of the upper classes. The cast of characters range from those at the bottom who are barely surviving, and that only in constant physical discomfort or worse, to those near the top who are unable to conceive that it is not part of the fabric of nature that those who are below them should serve and honor them. The anger is plain and potent. That much would be, presumably is, applauded by our contemporaries who are advocates for "social justice." But it's strikingly different in that it has no visible ideological component at all. There is nothing abstract about it. Whatever ideas Dickens may have had about changing the situation are not presented. The persons involved are persons with conscience and the ability to act--what we call nowadays "agency." The basic structures of society may seem like the laws of the universe to them, but there is nothing in the way of their behaving well within those boundaries. Some do, and some don't, and it is a clear illustration of Solzhenitsyn's famous statement that the line between good and evil is within every heart. 

I wondered, as I've wondered before without doing anything to turn wondering into knowledge, what Dickens's religious beliefs were. The established church certainly comes off pretty badly, and self-righteous religiosity, though not a prominent element, gets a few knocks here and there. But there is more than one passage where a deep regard for some bedrock of the faith is evidenced:

Harriet complied and read—read the eternal book for all the weary, and the heavy-laden; for all the wretched, fallen, and neglected of this earth—read the blessed history, in which the blind lame palsied beggar, the criminal, the woman stained with shame, the shunned of all our dainty clay, has each a portion, that no human pride, indifference, or sophistry, through all the ages that this world shall last, can take away, or by the thousandth atom of a grain reduce—read the ministry of Him who, through the round of human life, and all its hopes and griefs, from birth to death, from infancy to age, had sweet compassion for, and interest in, its every scene and stage, its every suffering and sorrow.

Dickens himself seems to have felt that compassion and interest. 


A New Poetry Thing: Poems Ancient and Modern

Why "thing"? I couldn't decide on the right word. Calling it a "journal" or "publication" doesn't seem quite accurate, though the former would do. Neither does calling it a "site," as it's one of a great many...things...at Substack.com. It is in fact a Substack entity. Somehow referring to a specific Substack, as simply that: "a Substack," as in Rod Dreher's Substack, bothers me. It's a bit like hearing people say "We ate McDonald's last night."

All right, clearly this is just one of my little quirks. Setting that quirk aside, with an effort, I am referring to a Substack written by Sally Thomas and Joseph Bottum, and it's called Poems Ancient and Modern. (I think that should be italicized, like the name of a magazine.) And it's about poetry. The two authors are themselves poets and impressively knowledgeable and perceptive about poetry. You may recognize Bottum's name as a conservative politics-and-culture writer. I have not read any of his poetry. Sally Thomas is the author of Motherland, a book of poems which came out a couple of years ago and which I love; you can read my remarks about it here.

Every weekday they publish a poem, most old enough to be in the public domain, with a sharp-eyed and informative preface. So far--and "so far" is only two weeks--the range is very great, from the obscure to the famous, from the comic to the serious. Within those ten days we've had little-known poems by little-known poets, well-known poems by well-known poets, and little-known poems by well-known poets. I don't as yet see a well-known poem by a little-known poet but I'm sure that will come. 

I can pretty well guarantee that the commentaries will show you something you might not otherwise have considered about the poems, and very likely add to your general knowledge in some way. If you have much interest in poetry, you should probably do yourself a favor and subscribe. My understanding is that a free subscription allows you to read the posts, while a paid one allows you to join the comments as well. Not to mention supporting something very worthwhile. 

I do have one reservation: a post every weekday is a little much for me. Each one demands a significant degree of attention and of course time, at least more than one would likely give to some internet item of equal length, and with many other things in my life to which I want or must give time and attention, I don't necessarily want to give that much every day to a poem of someone else's choosing, however worthwhile it may be. I am, for instance, just now, on Saturday afternoon catching up with the past week.

Here's the link again: Poems Ancient and Modern

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In case you've ever wondered, I have considered switching to Substack. It's a very nice platform, and might at least potentially attract more readers (though perhaps lose some as well). But if nothing else the lack (as far as I can tell) of a means to import the twenty years of this blog into Substack puts an end to the idea. The only thing that would make me switch to another platform now would be Typepad shutting down, which unfortunately doesn't seem to be a very far-fetched possibility, as it is much less popular than, for instance, WordPress, and no longer accepts new accounts. 

I just did a search for "are blogs obsolete" and got a lot of hits for stories which seemed to answer "no" quite insistently. Well, good, but who cares anyway? I'm pretty obsolete myself. 


Ann Cleeves: Raven Black

My wife and I listened to an audio version of this book on an overnight trip a couple of weeks ago. I picked it from one of several options she gave me (ordinarily she's the one who locates the book and downloads it to her phone) because it is the first of eight novels in a series set in the Shetland Islands, and we've been watching the TV series Shetland, which is based on those books, since it began about then years ago. (I note in passing that this series is only one of several by Ann Cleeves, which come up to a total of several dozen novels, of which the ones I've read are lengthy and complex. I don't understand that level of inventiveness. Granted, Cleeves was born in 1954 and has been at this for a long time. But still.)

We both like the series a great deal, and I recommend it if for no other reason than the gorgeous cinematography of Shetland. So I was curious about the novels. This one is good, an excellent detective story with a complex plot and interesting characters and setting. However, though I am not a connoisseur of detective fiction, and so am subject to correction, I think this one cheats a bit according to what I take to be the traditional rules of the genre. And I can't say any more than that without committing spoilage. 

I was going to remark that Cleeves is not an especially poetic stylist; that is, I didn't find her prose, as a listening experience, noticeably enjoyable for itself. But then I thought that might be unfair: one doesn't, or at least I don't, have the opportunity to savor the language of an audio book, and this is especially true if one is driving a car, as I was for most of this. In that situation I can only try to follow the narrative.

Perhaps if I read her on the page I would have a different view. I tested that conjecture by going to Amazon and reading a few excerpts; it is correct. Here is the opening, poached from Amazon's sample: 

Twenty past one in the morning on New Year’s Day. Magnus knew the time because of the fat clock, his mother’s clock, which squatted on the shelf over the fire. In the corner the raven in the wicker cage muttered and croaked in its sleep. Magnus waited. The room was prepared for visitors, the fire banked with peat and on the table a bottle of whisky and the ginger cake he’d bought in Safeway’s the last time he was in Lerwick. He could feel himself dozing but he didn’t want to go to bed in case someone should call at the house. If there was a light at the window someone might come, full of laughter and drams and stories. For eight years nobody had visited to wish him happy new year, but still he waited just in case.

Outside it was completely silent. There was no sound of wind. In Shetland, when there was no wind it was shocking. People strained their ears and wondered what was missing. Earlier in the day there had been a dusting of snow, then with dusk this was covered by a sheen of frost, every crystal flashing and hard as diamond in the last of the light, and even when it got dark, in the beam from the lighthouse. The cold was another reason for Magnus staying where he was. In the bedroom the ice would be thick on the inside of the window and the sheets would feel chill and damp.

He must have slept. If he’d been awake he’d have heard them coming because there was nothing quiet in their approach. They weren’t creeping up on him. He’d have heard their laughter and the stumbling, seen the wild swaying of the torch beam through the uncurtained window. He was woken by the banging on the door. He came to with a start, knowing he’d been in the middle of a nightmare, but not sure of the details.

‘Come in,’ he shouted. ‘Come in, come in.’ He struggled to his feet, stiff and aching. They must already be in the storm porch. He heard the hiss of their whispers.

The door was pushed open, letting in a blast of freezing air and two young girls, who were as gaudy and brightly coloured as exotic birds. He saw they were drunk.

Magnus is a recluse, not exactly mentally retarded but not very bright, and quite eccentric. He is one of the people who will be suspected of murdering one of the girls. And I'll leave the plot at that. It is, as I mentioned, pretty complex, and involves in a great deal of the history of the main characters. I'll probably read the next one, at least, to watch their further development. 

Raven Black

Of course I already had, from the series, some sense of their personalities and background. Naturally I was constantly comparing the book to the series--favorably for the most part. And a few days later we (re)watched the Shetland episodes which are based on this book. Naturally there are major differences, and in general I thought they were justifiable, though I wondered if some of them were necessary or smart. I've often thought it would be interesting to sit in on the deliberations of directors and writers developing a dramatization of a novel. It must be a pretty difficult thing. The necessity of putting everything into action and dialogue would force some changes, obviously. And others might be dictated by practical necessity.

One striking change, though not an important one, is that the main detective, Jimmy Perez, is played by an actor who is the visual opposite of the book's Perez. He is not, as the name might suggest, an imported Spaniard, but a native Shetlander whose ancestry goes back generations. The name is attributed by family lore to a sailor of the Spanish Armada who was shipwrecked on one of the Shetland islands, married a native, and never went home. And in the book his complexion and hair are dark. But Perez in the series is played by a very blond and fair-skinned actor, Douglas Henshall. Plausibility is addressed by a remark that the current Perez must have inherited his appearance from the maternal line of that first marriage.

I assume that change was a simple result of the choice among available actors. Another, which is more substantial and which I would have liked to see in the series, is the switch of the series from winter to summer, which significantly changes the atmosphere (no pun intended)--consider the opening quoted above, which is very much determined by the season and even by the particular night. It also eliminates a fairly large piece of furniture from the story: a sort of Viking Mardi Gras festival, Up Helly Aa, pronounced something like UP-ayly-AH, accents on the first and last syllables. (If you don't already know, look at a map and you'll see why Shetland has a Viking connection.) Much of the story involves this festival, and a general winteriness, and I speculate that the change was due to practical constraints of filming.

There was something a bit disappointing in this audiobook. The narrator seems to be English, and apart from dialogue reads in an English accent. I think all the actors in the TV series are actual Scots, and I missed that in the reading. Even in the dialogue, I think the narrator is sometimes a little off.  He pronounces the name of the city of Lerwick, for instance, exactly as it's spelled: Ler-wick, "Ler" rhyming with "there." Whereas in the series it's something like "Lerrick," rhyming with "derrick." Or even "Lerrig." Or  something closer to "Layrig." I have learned, beginning some years ago when I listened to an audiobook of one of M.C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth mysteries, read by a woman who was either Scottish or very skilled at sounding that way, that I very much like the Scottish accent, especially in a woman. And I would have preferred the woman who did the M.C. Beaton book (possibly Davina Porter, but I'm not sure, as I'm not even sure what the title of the book was), or someone like her. (Beaton's career, by the way, makes Cleeves look like a slacker.)

And there's one thing entirely missing from the book that I like very much about the series:  Detective Sergeant Alison McIntosh, known as "Tosh," played by Alison O'Donnell. She is pretty much my favorite character in the series, because I am delighted every time she speaks. And also by a facial expression she uses from time to time, a sort of grimace in which one side of her mouth turns up and the other down; my wife suggested that she might have been cast specifically to make that face. Perhaps she appears in the later books. You can catch a few glimpses of her in this trailer for the current season, which does not include Perez, because of the departure of Douglas Henshall. I learned from something I came across while looking for a suitable clip that there was a Team Tosh composed of viewers who wanted Tosh to be promoted to Perez's position. Had I known about it, I would have signed up.


Wodehouse: Ring For Jeeves

I think it's been almost thirty years now since I discovered that the works of P.G. Wodehouse are a wonderful anti-depressant, producing a bubbling levity which I have previously described as feeling the way champagne looks. This effect, though, is sadly brief, and I've been a little concerned that, as with alcohol, steady use might reduce it, so I don't read Wodehouse all that often. 

I'm speaking mainly of the Jeeves and Wooster books, of which there are, I think, fourteen; it's a little difficult to fix the number because the U.S. and U.K. editions differ somewhat. Not wanting to go through them too quickly, I haven't read them all. Certainly they will continue to be delightful on re-reading--I've read Joy In the Morning and Code of the Woosters at least twice. But the happy shock of the first encounter with an especially funny bit can't be repeated. 

Lately, however, I've been thinking that this careful husbandry could be a mistake: being pretty old now, I might, if I'm too dilatory, die or be incapacitated with some of the novels still unread. And that would be very regrettable.

So it was time for another, and Ring For Jeeves was the next one in the approximately chronological order in which I've been reading them. Somewhat to my surprise, it doesn't seem to me to be quite up to the usual mark. When I noticed the publication date--1953--I speculated that this slight lessening in quality--and it is fairly slight--may have had something to do with Wodehouse's situation at the time. World War II had left him somewhat disgraced. Stranded in France in 1940, he had made several broadcasts at the behest of the Nazis, and although they were humorous and not political in content they caused Wodehouse to be reviled as a Nazi collaborator, which naturally cast a shadow over the following years. He had begun the previous Jeeves and Wooster novel, The Mating Season, in 1942, though it was not published until 1949. Ring For Jeeves seems to be the first one written entirely after the war. 

It seems to have been an experiment: it is the only novel to include Jeeves but not Bertie Wooster. Perhaps--this is pure speculation--Wodehouse thought the pattern had become a little stale, and wanted to vary it. The novel takes note of its actual situation in time in a way that I don't recall others doing. There is explicit mention that the time is the early 1950s. Television is acknowledged to exist, and even figures slightly in the action, though it remains offstage.

The plot involves the high taxation of the wealthy and the general leveling which were occurring at the time. Bertie is absent because he is at a school in which the aristocracy are taught the rudiments of taking care of themselves in the new order. Jeeves is in the employ of William Egerton Bamfylde Ossingham Belfry, ninth Earl of Rowcester, pronounced "Roaster."  The Earl, who for most of the book is referred to simply as Bill, is the inheritor of a vast and dilapidated mansion, Rowcester Abbey, which he cannot afford to keep up, and which he is desperate to sell. His sister Monica believes she has a likely buyer, a twice-widowed, rich, and still beautiful American woman, who, as the story opens, is on her way to view the place. But there are complications. Of course. And of course they're zany.

In a desperate move to get hold of some cash so that he can marry the young neighbor Jill Wyvvern--one of Wodehouse's delightful down-to-earth and pretty "girls"--Bill has gone into the bookmaking business, at the suggestion and under the direction of Jeeves. Calling himself Honest Patch Perkins, he frequents the race tracks in disguise:  

...in addition to wearing a very loud check coat with bulging voluminous pockets and a crimson tie with blue horseshoes on it which smote the beholder like a blow, he had a large black patch over his left eye and on his upper lip a ginger moustache of the outsize or soupstrainer type.

He seems to have been doing all right until a bet went against him at spectacularly long odds, leaving him owing three thousand pounds, which he does not have, to a Captain C.G. Brabazon-Biggar, a fierce White Hunter stereotype who has spent some large part of his life Out East, with, for some reason, a particular emphasis on Kuala Lumpur. The Captain is also on his way to Rowcester Abbey, in hot pursuit of Honest Patch. And it turns out that both he and Bill have had previous involvement with the rich and beautiful widow. 

Naturally it all gets more and more complicated, with more and more elaborate stratagems and deceptions and narrow escapes when the stratagems go wrong. But it all works out in the end. And Jeeves will be returning to Bertie, who is no longer at the school, under circumstances which I would enjoy relating but must refrain from doing so, for the sake of your enjoyment, on the presumption that you haven't read the book. 

I hope it isn't because I've become jaded that this book seems to sparkle less than others. Bertie's absence is part of that; though Bill is a somewhat similar character, he lacks Bertie's effervescent goofiness. And this makes him less effective as a foil for Jeeves. Perhaps as a consequence, Jeeves himself seems to me a bit overdone. His circumlocutions and literary quotations become at times obtrusive, a little too frequent and lengthy. And I felt that the winding up of the plot threads was a bit rushed. Still, less than the best Wodehouse is very, very good. 

In my limited experience the Blandings books are just as good as the Jeeves and Wooster ones, so I have several of those to look forward to as well. I've only read one novel that was part of neither series, Picadilly Jim, and although it was enjoyable it was not in the class with the others. 

RingForJeeves

The rich widow is interested in psychical research, and is thrilled by the family lore which holds that an old family ghost, Lady Agatha, wife of Sir Caradoc the Crusader, is sometimes seen in the chapel (ruined, naturally).


Louise Perry On The Sexual Revolution

Louise Perry, a British woman whom I'll describe for lack of a better word as a journalist, has recently published a book called The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. I have not read it, and probably won't, not because I don't think it would be worthwhile but because I have other priorities for my reading. She has also published something which I have read: in First Things, a profound reflection on the significance of the sexual revolution (click here to read it) with the somewhat surprising title of "We Are Repaganizing."

I call it surprising because Perry is not a Christian (though First Things of course is a Christian publication), and the essay is a practical defense of Christian sexual ethics. That is, it does not appeal to certain moral principles because they are Christian, but because they produced, over the centuries, a moral revolution, or at least a shift, which Perry approves. She makes points which have been made repeatedly over the past century or two by Christians, but are generally not only not accepted but not even comprehensible to the modern secular mind. For instance, there is the point about abortion and infanticide:

It was the arrival of Christianity that disrupted the Romans’ favored methods of keeping reproduction in check, with laws against infanticide, and then abortion, imposed by Christian emperors from the late fourth century. Christians have always been unusually vehement in their disapproval of the killing of infants, whether born or unborn, and their legal regime prevailed until the mid-twentieth century when we experienced a religious shift that will probably be understood by future historians as a Second Reformation.

(The comparison to the Reformation is not very apt, but let that go.)

And the one about the status and treatment of women:

Paul’s prohibition of (to use the Greek term) porneia—that is, illicit sexual activity, including prostitution—upended an ethical system in which male access to the female body was unquestioned and unquestionable. Whereas the Romans regarded male chastity as profoundly unhealthy, Christians prized it and insisted on it. Early converts were disproportionately female because the Christian valorization of weakness offered obvious benefits to the weaker sex, who could—for the first time—demand sexual continence of men. Feminism is not opposed to Christianity: It is its descendant.

In general, as the title of the piece suggests, she sees modern Western culture as in the process of returning to something like the fundamental assumptions of those Romans who saw no reason why an unwanted infant should not be disposed of. (In passing: it's unusual and refreshing to hear a non-Christian use the word "pagan" in a negative sense.)

It's a somewhat lengthy (for online reading) and very rich statement, and I don't want to leave the impression that those snippets are sufficient. You really should read the whole thing, so here's the link again. One of its themes is the connection between sex and reproduction. The sexual revolution has pretty much destroyed the general sense of that connection. In that it's of a piece with many of our technological triumphs--and it is made possible and sustained by one of those triumphs--which have encouraged us to think that physical reality is not something by which we need be overly constrained. 

In this context I often remember a moment from the 1980s when I worked for a large technology company. Though I tried not to make a show of it, my co-workers knew that I was a Catholic and a "social conservative," as the unsatisfactory term has it. One co-worker who was somewhat younger than I questioned my opposition to abortion. "Why," he asked, "shouldn't I be able to have sex whenever I want to?"--and, implicitly, without caring about pregnancy. He wasn't attacking me. He was genuinely puzzled as to why there should be any limit on his sexual desires. He had completely absorbed the attitude of the sexual revolution--which, I must say, is the more or less natural attitude of the human male. The triumph of the sexual revolution is the extension of that attitude to the female. 

The most basic answer to his question, obviously, is not "Because it's wrong," much less "Because Christianity teaches that it's wrong," but "Because that's not the way sex works." In the normal course of things, there is some fairly strong probability that normal sex will result in conception. And if you aren't prepared to deal with that, you ought not to be engaging in the act. As Garrison Keillor has one of his Lake Woebegon characters say, "If you didn't want to go to Minneapolis, why did  you get on the bus?"

Most people--most women, anyway--in the industrialized world today do prepare to deal with it by means of contraception. But if they don't prepare, or if the plan fails, abortion is the absolutely necessary recourse, the "Plan B," which is the grimly appropriate term for abortifacient drugs. "Just get rid of it." One of the things Louise Perry does in the First Things piece, and presumably in her book, is to investigate that reality with an honesty and clarity rare for non-religious thinkers. Her treatment of abortion is especially strong, mainly by being especially honest.

If the sexual revolution is to be rolled back, if we are to stop thinking as my co-worker of 35  years ago thought, women will have to lead the way. Even setting aside the nature of the male, a man speaking out against that mentality is regarded by many men as a prude and a spoilsport, and by women as an agent of The Patriarchy who wants to return them to The Dark Ages. Or the 1950s, which is about as far back as many people can now stretch their imaginations. 

Here's a thought experiment; I call it that because there is no chance of it ever actual being anything more than a thought. Suppose there were a law requiring that every pornographic film be followed by a scene of a woman giving birth--a realistic scene. I am tempted to answer my own obvious questions about how such a thing could be implemented, but since it is only a thought experiment I'll leave it at that. 

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Louise Perry was also a participant in a debate staged by The Free Press: "Has the Sexual Revolution Failed?" I've been meaning to mention The Free Press for a while. It was founded by a disgruntled New York Times writer, Bari Weiss. She is what was until fairly recently a more or less conventional liberal, but was appalled by the closed-minded and authoritarian progressives who were effectively controlling the Times. I'm not sure whether she left the Times entirely of her own volition or was pushed out, but at any rate she left, and The Free Press began as a Substack called "Honestly." That pretty much sums up her sense of her mission: to stand up for journalistic honesty in both reporting and opinion. In today's climate, that requires an unusual independence of mind, and The Free Press shows that. Its basic orientation is still what I would describe as formerly-conventional secular liberalism (Weiss is legally married to a woman). Obviously I have many disagreements with that mind-set, but the publication is genuinely open-minded and publishes all sorts of people and views. I subscribe to it in spite of those disagreements because I haven't entirely given up hope that our classical liberal order can be salvaged, and this is a worthwhile effort.

If it's not subscriber-only, you can watch the debate at the Free Press site: click here. The video seems to be hosted there, not on YouTube. I just watched the first couple of minutes which sort of disheartened me: it consists of news clips from the '70s and '80s featuring various unpleasant feminists. 


Great Expectations

(If I'm going to assume people know who wrote Dune, I should do no less for this much greater novel.)

I think now that the version of Great Expectations which I read in the ninth grade must have been abridged, as it appeared in our literature textbook along with a number of short stories and poems, and it's not a brief book--not that long as Dickens novels go, but substantial. I also wonder whether it was simplified for us, because there are many passages that would be difficult for most fifteen-year-olds. Nor do I recall the confusion I think I would have experienced in trying to make sense of the locations in and near London which Dickens assumes are known to his readers. But maybe I've just forgotten that.

I do remember the principal characters--the orphaned boy Pip; his shrew of a sister who has grudgingly taken him in, along with her good-hearted husband Joe; the convict Magwich; the half-crazed and vengeful Miss Havisham and her young ward Estella. And I remember the basics of the story. Above all I remember the cold beauty Estella and Pip's hopeless obsessive love for her. I don't know about the average fifteen-year-old, but I at that age was ever ready for and usually involved in some intense infatuation. Pip's condition spoke to my own.

I doubt that I missed the irony of the title. But I also doubt that I fully savored it, because I would not have known that it was a conventional phrase with a more specific meaning than I would have realized. Apparently it referred to the expectation of a substantial inheritance or other gift of money and/or property, and of course would not have had for me the connotations that it did for those accustomed to its everyday use. If there were today (and maybe there is) a novel called Doing Well about a person or family with a lot of money and as much trouble, the title would have a resonance for us which it might not have a century from now, or to anyone who for cultural reasons did not recognize the financial implications of the phrase. (I've heard it said of the Philadelphia Quakers that "they came to America to do good, and they did well.")

But I didn't need that nuance to feel the shock of the difference between what Pip expected and what he actually received. If you know the story you know that the irony twists around again to make the collapse of Pip's expectations the making of him as a man. At the height of his brief ascent, he seems to be turning into an insufferable popinjay. I really didn't remember how he dealt with his benefactor after he learned the truth, and was pleased to find that he rose to the occasion, at great cost to himself.

Great Expectations was right around a hundred years old when I first read it. Now we are both sixty years older, and I've just re-read it for the first time. I like it more now than I did then--perhaps with less intensity, but certainly with more respect. Pip's lunatic quasi-love for Estella no longer touches me as it did, except as a memory of my own youth. More interesting to me now is the Estella who appears in the last few pages, humbled by suffering. And still more interesting is the Estella she might have become: if Pip had married her, would he have found, fifteen or twenty years later, that he had married the temperamental twin of his sister? Or would she have become a solid woman, as Pip became a solid man, a woman whom he would not have loved less as her beauty faded?

Dickens, as you may know, wrote two endings, one happy and one unhappy. The latter was his original intention, but he was talked out of it by Edward Bulwer-Lytton and wrote another, which was the one published. Personally I would like to have them combined. The happy one has a meeting and a substantial conversation between Pip and Estella, and a promise that they will never part; the unhappy one has only a brief encounter, and a parting that seems almost deathlike. I like the conversation in the happy one, in part for the insight it gives into the development of the two people. But a happy ending stains the sadder-but-wiser purity of the condition in which we leave them.

The two endings have in common a memorable figure: the possibility that Estella now understands (in the happy ending), or will someday understand (in the unhappy one), "what [Pip's] heart used to be." Dickens must have thought that was worth keeping, and he was right.

The 19th century was the great age of both the symphony and the novel, the age which fully defined and perfected them. The latter has fared better than the former since then (or has it?--I'll have to think about that), and Dickens's best work might serve as the exemplar. Yes, Great Expectations, like some other Dickens novels, is often sentimental and often relies on improbable coincidences. But it's a great story, and although it doesn't deal explicitly or directly with the big questions (as, for instance, Dostoevsky's work does), they are very much alive in the plot and characters. There's a strong argument that they should only or mainly be found there, but there are many exceptions. Dostoevsky would not be a great novelist if they were only explicit, and not also implicit; that is, not only also fully embodied.


Dune

Usually when I write about books I put the author's name in the title of the post along with the title of the book. But in a few cases it seems superfluous. Doesn't everybody know that Frank Herbert wrote Dune? Or is the fact that I think so only a manifestation of my own insularity? 

Anyway, he did, and the claim I've seen that it's the most famous of all science-fiction novels is probably correct. Also the greatest? I don't know about that, but I'm not really in a position to judge.

Last February I saw the 2021 Denis Villeneuve movie which dramatizes the first half (roughly) of the novel. The second film was to be released this fall, and I made up my mind to read the book again before then. I was in the midst of doing so when I saw an announcement that the film will be delayed until March of next year. Oh well--maybe I won't have forgotten it completely by then. 

I said "again," and there is a little bit of mystery about that for me. I definitely read it around 1976, for what I think was the first time. But when I was in high school in the mid-'60s I was a science-fiction fanatic, and subscribed to Analog magazine, in which Dune was serialized at the time. As best I can tell from Wikipedia, this was done under two different titles, two years apart. The first, called Dune World, appeared in 1963, in two installments; the second, Prophet of Dune, in 1965, in five (!) installments. I'm pretty certain that was during the period when I subscribed. I even seem to remember this cover:

Analog_March_1965_The_Prophet_of_Dune_Pt._3_29

Yet I have no memory of reading it. If I didn't read it, why not? If I did, why don't I have at least some fragments of memory about it? Is it possible that I found it too complicated and slow-moving and gave up after reading only a little? I won't say that's probable, but it is certainly possible. There is, obviously, no way to answer that question, but it bothers me.

The book is indeed by science-fiction standards, at least those of the early 1960s, complicated and relatively slow-moving. I conjectured in my post about the film that it probably spent more time on spectacular action than the book. That was an understatement. There is in fact not a great deal of action in the cinematic sense in the book. The attack on the Atriedes family, which occupies a significant portion of the film is and is indeed spectacular, happens mostly offstage in the book. There are other such instances. Perhaps this is something of a Star Wars effect. But Dune is definitely not space opera ("a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes space warfare, with use of melodramatic, risk-taking space adventures, relationships, and chivalric romance"), which Star Wars is.

The emphasis in the book is not on action but on a complex web of political intrigue, family and dynastic relationships, religion, ecology, and a sort of psychological mysticism. I won't bother with any further summary. Most people who are at all interested already know the basics of the plot, characters, and fictional world; anyone who doesn't can get plenty from Wikipedia.

That fictional world is a pretty impressive achievement. I don't think Dune is in the same literary class as The Lord of the Rings, but it bears comparison in the complexity and thoroughness of its imaginary world. When I say "bears comparison" I don't mean "is equal to"--on a 1-10 scale, if LOTR is a 10, then Dune is a 7 or 8. As far as I know Frank Herbert did not go so far as to create entire languages (which in Tolkien actually preceded the stories to some extent), nor is the history developed in as much detail, though I would guess that more of it is filled in by the many sequels.

The treatment of religion is also an interesting comparison. As all literarily-minded Christians know, religion does not exist in The Lord of the Rings, and yet the book is profoundly Christian. In Dune, on the other hand, religion is very explicitly everywhere. Yet it is in a sense not religious at all, but a sort of cultural tool, half-manufactured by worldly powers, especially the order of women called the Bene Gesserit who have a plan, implemented over centuries if not millennia, for producing a messiah-sort-of-person by directed breeding. And it's relevant to the book only through its effects on culture, and on behavior in general. Any notion of a transcendent spiritual reality is left very vague and very far in the background.

I recall that when I read the book in 1976 I scoffed a bit at the obvious way much of the culture of its Fremen, inhabitants of a desert planet, was drawn from Arabian culture, or others of the Middle Eastern deserts. That was unfair, and a result of my own ignorance. In those days I did not recognize such words as "jihad"; if I had, I would have realized that the Fremen are not copied from Arab-Muslim cultures, but rather are explicitly descended from them.

Dune takes place thousands of years in the future, when humanity has developed interstellar travel and populated many planets, but all of them began with ours. There are no "aliens" in the universe of Dune; every person is homo sapiens, though some have mental powers developed to a superhuman degree. The interstellar human society has reverted to a basic and ancient tripartite pattern: emperor, nobility ("houses"), and everybody else.

What it does have, which I don't think other science fiction of the time had, is psychedelic drugs, or rather drug: the substance called "spice" which is the foundation of the entire economic and political order. Frank Herbert had obviously had some experience along those lines--or if not, he knew people who did. There is a strong hint here of what would soon become known as the human potential movement. In that respect, as well as in its ecological focus, this strikes me as a very "Sixties" work. If I remember correctly, I first encountered the word "ecology" in Analog or some other sci-fi context. (Why do I remember that, but not whether I read Dune? Memory is a very hit-and-miss thing.)

In spite of what I said about the well-constructed world, I was left disappointed in my curiosity about certain things. In order for an interstellar empire to exist, there must be, one way or another, faster-than-light travel. Most science-fiction at least does a bit of hand-waving to explain this, usually one of the many variants of the "warp drive." Dune does not. The whole economic and political structure of the empire rests on the mysterious drug called "spice" which enables the powers of the monopolistic guild of navigators who alone can pilot interstellar craft. What's involved in that navigation, and how does the spice enable it? The book offers only the suggestion that it has something to do with the perception of possible future events. I suppose it's asking too much to want more information about that, just as it's asking too much to want to know how a warp drive works (though that doesn't stop people from trying).  

And about the famous sandworms: it was only a passing remark in an appendix that answered one question that kept occurring to me as I read, which was "what do they eat?" Answer: "sand plankton." Really? There's enough of that to support creatures that may be a quarter of a mile long and a hundred yards in breadth? Well, okay. But then why do they need all those extremely long sharp teeth? How and why does a plankton-eating creature attack and swallow anything that moves with single-minded intensity? How and why does it swallow a mobile factory or a spacecraft? How does it move at speeds which seem to be at least thirty or forty miles an hour while completely buried in sand?

Maybe I missed some of these answers. Maybe they're answered in the sequels, of which, as I mentioned, there are a lot. Herbert himself wrote five, and his son Brian has co-written, with Kevin J. Anderson, a number of others. I'm not sure what that number is; over a dozen, I think.

All in all, my reaction to Dune is much the same as it was 45 years ago: yes, it's impressive; yes, I enjoyed it; no, I'm not a devotee. I don't rule out reading the first sequel, Dune Messiah, but it's doubtful. 


A Couple of Questions I'm Not Interested in Discussing (Anymore)

Some years back there was, in the comments here, an exchange about the tendency of political and other opinions to harden in older people. If I remember correctly, one person suggested that this was essentially a sort of ossification, with certain opinions becoming so much a mental habit as to become an unchangeable part of the person. There may also have been an implication that it was a form of fatigue or laziness; I can't remember for sure and have not been able to formulate a query that will locate the exchange for me.

But I do remember thinking--I don't know whether I said--that the mechanism is a little different. A few years before he died, when he was getting too old and infirm to sail, as he had loved to do for most of his life, William F. Buckley, Jr. published a column in which he mentioned that he had at last sold his boat, giving it up as "a prelude to giving up everything." (I put that in quotation marks because I remember the words that way, but I could be mistaken. I'm pretty sure I'm not mistaken about the meaning.)

Old age is among other things a process of giving up, willingly or not; of letting go. That, I think, is a factor in the way this  narrowing of opinion happens. You simply recognize that the limits on your remaining time and abilities force you to abandon certain things that you had once done, or wanted to do. And it applies to thought as well as to activity. Perhaps you once had enough interest in the debate about health care, insurance, and so forth to formulate and publish an opinion about it. At a certain age you may, possibly without consciously deciding to do so, put that question among those on which you no longer want to expend your time as the remaining amount of it diminishes. That opinion thus becomes "hardened," not so much because you are obstinate and ossifying but because you no longer devote mental space to it. It's like moving to a smaller house or an apartment: you no longer need or want or perhaps even are able to use and maintain the larger one. 

Here are two matters which have for me passed into that stage of abandonment:

(1) What is conservatism? And its ancillary, what does it mean to be a conservative?

Attempting to define words that are intrinsically--by definition, you might say--impossible to define with great precision can be an enjoyable pastime, and in some instances useful. Discussing these questions can lead to a clarification of one's thinking. But sometimes it's a waste of time. And in this particular case there is, lurking behind the debate, an attempt to draw a boundary which allows one to say "So-and-so is not a real conservative" or "Such-and-such is not real conservatism." Often the word "real" is dropped. A standard of orthodoxy is erected, and some attempt at enforcing it is made. 

On this subject the debate is made even more frustrating by the fact that in this country "conservatism" is usually classical liberalism. Trying to sort it out is tiresome. I've never cared very much about doing it, and now I don't care at all.

Someone once raised his main objection to the whole debate by noting that, for him, the word "conservative" is descriptive, not prescriptive. Exactly. I'm willing to call myself, and be called, a conservative, because the word seems reasonably accurate, both abstractly and practically, as a description of my views. But debating the nature of True Conservatism? In the early days of that recognition I was mildly interested in debates about the definition. By now I think I've heard it all, and I don't care if someone says I'm not a True Conservative. (I especially don't care about the juvenile taunt from progressives who think they've won a victory when you say something that doesn't fit their idea, usually equally juvenile, of what conservatives think.)

And now it's almost crazy to have the debate at all, with the institutions that conservatives wanted to preserve being dominated by progressives who use them to destroy the principles behind them, to keep the name and facade while turning the institution into something else entirely. (Another debate in which I am rapidly losing interest: whether or not that is happening. If you don't see it, it's very unlikely that you can be persuaded to do so.)

(2) What is Catholic art? And the ancillary, what does it mean to be a Catholic artist?

This one's been abandoned for different reasons, almost the opposite reasons, from the previous one. In this case the question is not intrinsically forever unsettled, but pretty definitely settled, and the debate can only go back and forth repetitively over the same ground. Maritain, O'Connor, Percy, and many others have said what needs to be said: Catholic art is informed by Catholic belief but need not and in general should not be didactic. If you want to discuss that further, go ahead, but I'm going to go read or listen to music. 

This crochety post was prompted by an encounter with that second question. Frequently it's accompanied or prompted by a complaint that "There is no [or little] worthwhile Catholic art/fiction/poetry today" or, in question form, "Why is there no [or little] worthwhile Catholic art/fiction/poetry today?" 

Simon Caldwell discussed the matter at The Catholic Herald:

And in the secular culture the Catholic Faith is once again a source of scandal, viewed, in the words of Dana Gioia, the American Catholic poet, as disreputable, déclassé and retrograde. It means that it is nearly impossible today to get a “Catholic” novel published. Mainstream publishers are not well-disposed to books with religious content.

What makes a novel “Catholic”? 

I wanted to stop reading at that point, and in fact only skimmed the rest. I agree with almost everything he says in answer to his question. But do we really need to go over it yet again? Maybe some do, but I don't. And by the way his "nearly impossible" is not true. There is surely prejudice (and more) against visibly Catholic writing in secular literary circles. But if the work is really good it has as much of a shot at publication as anything else of comparable quality. I put it that way because it's surely the case that bad or mediocre work that flatters progressives and pushes their ideas is more likely to be published than bad or mediocre work that pushes Catholic ideas. So write better, Catholic novelist.

In response to Caldwell, Katy Carl, novelist and editor of Dappled Things, wrote an exasperated response, "We still have no Catholic fiction?":

Our time is precious and tragically brief, so I will get straight to the point. The point is that I want ever so gently to suggest, in response to a recent Catholic Herald (UK) piece, that “the time for the 21st-Century Catholic novel” has not only arrived, it dropped its luggage on our metaphorical doorstep a good round number of years ago and has ever since been crashing on our collective couch. It’s time we all noticed. Maybe it would be cool if we brought it a cup of coffee or something.

Last time the Herald got worried about the state of Catholic fiction—a bit less than three years ago, now—I was invited to participate in a response piece that pointed to the actual, vibrant, flourishing state of Catholic contributions to the culture of arts and letters. Since then the picture on the ground has only grown lusher. The truth is that we are living in an explosion of high-quality Catholic fiction being produced in every quarter, by writers from around the world and around the corner.

She goes on to list a number of recent distinctly Catholic works of literature, mostly novels, some published by big-name publishers and pretty well-received. She's right. In this case it's not age, but relative youth, that should leave the debate behind. The time for fretting about the nature of Catholic literature and its current prospects is past. Time to just get on with it. 


A Couple of Things Before the Triduum

A few things I meant to say about The Dry Wood:

I'm not sure exactly what the title means. It's an allusion to Luke 23:31: 

For if in the green wood they do these things, what shall be done in the dry?

That's the Douay-Rheims translation, which is the one Houselander uses, not surprisingly. I admit that I've never been entirely sure what it means. It's part of the warning Jesus gives to the people as he is about to be led away to his crucifixion, a warning that very bad things are coming for everyone. Flammability is one obvious difference between green and dry wood, so maybe "They're trying to burn green wood, so what will they do with dry wood?" is meant.  Anyway the general idea is that bad things are happening now and worse ones are coming. 

Here's what the editors of this edition say about it:

When a perfectly good green tree is burned (that is, when Christ sacrifices himself on the cross), what can the dry wood of fallen and broken humanity expect to find when it meets with fire? Fallen humanity can follow Christ to new life, but only at a price.

Well, that's obviously true, and the novel is very much about suffering, but I'm not totally convinced either that it's the correct interpretation of the words themselves or what Houselander had in mind in using them. I wonder if she meant something a little more specific: that her story describes the kindling of a fire in the dry wood of the people of Riverside. The plot supports that interpretation.

I mentioned the character of Solly Lee, a Jewish businessman who cynically tries to cash in on the popular devotion to Fr. Malone. That is obviously a somewhat stereotypical scenario, though probably, like most stereotypes, having some grounding in reality. But if that sounds like it might be heading toward anti-Semitism, it most definitely is not. The portrait of Solly is rich, sympathetic, and deeply and seriously engaged with his situation as a secularized Jew. To say much more than that I'd have to give away more of the story than I want to.  Suffice to say that it is not a hostile portrait.

*

The Trump indictment is a disaster for the nation. I say that with no sympathy at all for Trump himself. I think I've made my low opinion of him sufficiently clear over the years; search for his name on this blog if you want verification. If this involved a serious crime I would support it. But it's transparently contrived for political purposes, as the basic offenses are not only misdemeanors but misdemeanors for which the statute of limitations has expired, turned into felonies by the charge that they were committed in pursuit of another and so far unspecified crime. Even the vigorously anti-Trump David Frum thinks it's a bad case: 

From the moment rumors swirled that the Manhattan district attorney would move against Trump, many of us felt an inward worry: Did Alvin Bragg have a case that would justify his actions? The early reports were not encouraging. Many Trump-unfriendly commentators published their qualms. Over a week of speculation, though, it seemed wise to withhold judgment until the actual indictment was available to read. Now the document has been published. The worriers were right.

That's from The Atlantic, and I can't read the whole piece because I'm not a subscriber, so I don't know where he goes from there. I am a subscriber to Bari Weiss's Free Press, which has this analysis from Eli Lake; maybe you can read it. After explaining how thin the case is, he says:

All of this raises a question—not just for Bragg, but for the Democratic Party, the online resistance, and the media ecosystem that seems to exist simply to stoke outrage about Donald Trump for its overstimulated, progressive base: Is it worth it? Is the catharsis of seeing Trump indicted worth the damage a politicized prosecution of the former president will do?

Trump is bad, but it's the Democrats' reaction to him that is doing the most to tear this nation apart. Are they willing to do it because they know that Trump's supporters will be enraged enough to make him the Republican nominee next year, and believe they can defeat him? Or is it just the blood lust, the pleasure of humiliating the man they hate so much? (I was very surprised a while back to hear a progressive friend deny that she and others hate Trump. It confirmed my impression that zealous progressives are remarkably unaware of the demeanor which they present to those not of their faith.)

Either way, they are enlarging, possibly beyond repair, the rip in the fabric of our society. They are feeding the divisions that led to Trump's election in the first place. And they don't care. There are tens of millions of decent people who support Trump and believe that the ruling class of this country despises them and wants to render them powerless, or worse. Now you're encouraging them to believe that the law will not protect them if the progressive establishment goes after them. I suppose the Democrats think they can control the outcome, permanently defeating their enemies. And they may be right. But what will be the cost? 

One day, if history is told with any accuracy, they will be held in deserved contempt (along, probably, with Trump himself). But it will be too late to heal the nation. 

On that grim note, I'll sign off till after Easter. 

*

On second thought, I won't leave it on that note. Something reminded me of this picture, taken last fall at a state park in north Alabama. The light was extraordinary and though my phone didn't really capture it, it's still rather pretty.

LightInTrees-WheelerStatePark


Caryl Houselander: The Dry Wood

I thought I was reasonably familiar with Houselander's work, but it came as a surprise to me to learn that she had written a novel: only this one, published in 1947. So when I saw an ad for an online seminar on the book, a joint effort from Dappled Things and the Collegium Institute, I signed up. 

There were four sessions, and of course participants were assigned a set of chapters to read for each session. Being a bad student, I usually just managed to get each week's assignment done in time for the class, except for the second week when I ended up still one or two chapters behind when the appointed hour came. Had I been an actual student, held accountable for not having read quite all the assignment, I would have been tempted to cast a little of the blame on the author, for not having made the story interesting enough. 

It is not a page-turner. In fact, after the first week's reading I said to myself This is not a novel at all, but rather a lyrical meditation on Christian themes. But "novel" is a very, very broad category, especially since sometime in the 20th century when the kind of fiction known (at least by its practitioners and fans) as "experimental" stretched the concept so that it could include almost any non-factual prose of sufficient length. For that reason among others I won't push my initial reaction.

But I can't escape it entirely. The Dry Wood is certainly a novel by any reasonable definition; the  question is whether it's a good one. Answering that question obviously requires some reasonably definite idea of what a novel is and what makes a good one. Now, having finished the book and given it some thought, I've come to this relatively firm conclusion: it's not all that good a novel, but it's a very good book. 

It is a story, and it has a cast of characters who do one thing and another. Still, my description of it as a lyrical meditation on Christian themes is justifiable. It comes across to me more as a sort of tableau, a series of pictures, than as a flowing stream of narrative. And the pictures are accompanied by words which are often...well, it's hard to find a word that doesn't have at least slightly negative connotations, at least with regard to a novel. "Preachy" is obviously negative, but not unwarranted. "Didactic" is only a little better. "Homiletical," maybe. Somewhat abstractedly theological, anyway. But whether the negative suggestion is deserved depends very much on what the author is trying to do. I think these qualities are best considered not as a fault in a novel but as a virtue in the sort of book this is. 

I think it can be compared to a couple of C.S. Lewis's books: The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. Both these have the fictional elements of plot and character, but as far as I know they are not generally called novels. The Dry Wood is far more a novel than either of them, but it has in common with them that neither plot nor character is as finely and elaborately drawn as we expect in a novel, and like them it exhibits, contrary to standard fictional advice and practice, at least as much tell as show.  Yet those of us who like the Lewis books don't regard their un-novelistic qualities as defects; we're judging them by a different standard. 

I suppose I'm dwelling so much on this in part because I keep imagining what an ordinary secular-minded reader would make of Houselander's novel. In fact one of the questions proposed for discussion in the seminar was whether one would recommend the book to such a reader. My immediate reaction, thinking of several people I know who are anywhere from indifferent to hostile to Christianity, was an immediate and definite no. Perhaps I'm underestimating them, but I can only envision them dismissing the book as preaching, and that mainly to the converted. The homiletic element is deeply and often mystically Catholic, engaging and moving to one who sees the world in much the same way, dismissable as misty nonsense by one who does not. Someone in the seminar made me laugh by calling some passages of the book "spiritual purple prose." I think Flannery O'Connor would not have liked it; she thought even Bernanos's Diary of a Country Priest too heavy on ideas. 

The basic situation in the novel is this: the saintly priest, Fr. Malone, of a parish in a poor dockside London neighborhood called Riverside has just died. Members of the parish, including Fr. Malone's successor Fr. O'Grady, believe that Fr. Malone was (is) in fact a saint and are caught up in a fervent desire to see a miracle which can be attributed to him. To this end they come together in a novena asking him to save the life of a child, Willie Jewel, who is beloved by the whole community. Born with birth defects that will prevent him from ever walking or speaking, but always smiling and responsive, and now apparently declining toward death, he has been taken to heart by the community as a sort of little Christ of their own, a Christ-child who embodies the suffering of their own impoverished life while seeming to transcend it, and to whom they can bring little things that please him. 

The story of the novel is essentially the progress of that novena and its effects on the relatively large cast of characters: Willie's parents; the agnostic physician Dr. Moncrieff who thinks Willie probably should not have been born at all; the young ex-Communist convert Timothy Green (he's the one who first made me think of The Screwtape Letters); Rose O'Shane, a fading beauty with a drinking problem; Solly Lee, a Jewish tailor and businessman who attempts to make a good sum of money off holy cards featuring Fr. Malone; Carmen Fernandez, a beautiful young woman more or less the kept lover of Solly Lee; the wise Archbishop Crecy, unsure of how far the enthusiasm for Fr. Malone ought to be allowed to go; Monsignor Frayne, a somewhat too urbane convert from the Church of England.

Those who are acquainted with Houselander's work will find familiar themes, most notably the idea that every person is Christ, fully alive in some, struggling to be born in others. There's also the sympathy and indeed love for the poor, and the necessity of the embrace of suffering. And skepticism, tinged with ridicule, of rich Christians who think they can drop in now and then and improve the poor, of activist Christians who believe that what the faith needs is a Movement led by the talented who can make it more attractive to the world. The book is not heavy on humor, but it does have some funny moments, and some of them are at the expense of these last two. 

A taste of both the style and the sensibility of the book is in order:

The sun was going down when Father O'Grady reached the Jewels', and in the warm light the man and woman looked as if they were made of bronze. But Willie, even in this light, was a child of ivory.

He was as fair as his parents were dark, and his fairness, with its contrast to his own flesh and blood, added to the unspoken and perhaps unrealized impression among the people that there was something supernatural about the child. An innocent, who is visibly destined to die young, could not fail to have a certain radiance for people of simple faith. A little creature shining as purely from the waters of Baptism as on the day when they were first poured on him, and soon to be in the blue fields of Heaven. But when, as in Willie's case, such a little creature also suffers, and suffers with a smile on his face, then indeed it is hard to measure the awe, the sense of mystery, with which poor people approach him.

For those without the means that riches give for hiding, drugging, and disguising sorrow, or the ways that more sophisticated people have of finding at least temporary escape from its realization within themselves, suffering is not in itself a thing to be dreaded, as it is dreaded by those who imagine themselves to be more fortunate....

Those who suffer always are the aristocracy of the poor. So Willie Jewel was unique in the love and reverence of the people of Riverside. Not indeed that they wanted to see a child suffer, but they did want to be constantly easing his suffering, bringing him their gifts, seeing his sudden radiant smile, and a flush of pink on his white face. They came to him as simply as the shepherds did to the Child in the manger: not exactly glad that their God shivered in human flesh and lacked all things, yet glad that, since He chose to need, He needed the gifts that they had to give....

Remember, by the way, that Houselander had been among poor people and been poor herself, so this is not sentimentality--or if it is, it has a solid core. If you think some of it is a bit much, especially in a novel, well, I sympathize with you. But I repeat: this is a good book, a book I will re-read. And though I don't know what  a reader who is unfamiliar with Houselander would think of it, I'm fairly sure that those who do know her other work will find it worthy to stand with the rest. Possibly--just possibly--an evaluation of all her work would put this one at the top, as it brings together all her themes very powerfully.

This book is one (the first?) in a series from Catholic University of America Press called Catholic Women Writers. Its aim is to re-publish works by Catholic women writers who have been neglected, or in some cases neglected works by writers like Muriel Spark, who have received fairly wide attention. The series is edited by two academics, Bonnie Landers Johnson and Julia Meszaros. Dr. (I assume) Meszaros was the presenter for two sessions of the seminar, and on the basis of that I am very happy to say that all is not lost in academia. 

I should mention, too, something very dear to my old-fashioned paper-book-loving heart: the physical production of the book is lovely and should be durable. At my age that latter quality isn't so important to me personally, but if anyone wants to read my copy after I'm gone it should be in good shape.

Houselander-TheDryWood


Dune (the 2021 film)

I have now, as I mentioned a week or two ago that I was planning to do, seen Dune, the recent one directed by Denis Villeneuve. I enjoyed it, enough that when someone suggested watching it again I was quite willing. It's very impressive visually, and I don't mean by that to suggest mere spectacle, though it has plenty of that. It's rich and often beautiful in the same way that many scenes in Villeneuve's Arrival are (and sometimes horrifying, which Arrival never is), and I was reminded of Arrival almost immediately in the opening scene of Dune. Villeneuve likes to make his alien technology mysterious, curvy and vague rather than angular and coldly mechanical, as in Star Wars

Taken entirely on its own terms, as a film, it's very successful. Even at two-and-a-half hours it didn't seem too long. Compared to something like Star Wars or one of the Marvel movies, it's slow. But it's still full of action, perhaps to a fault; I say that because I'm pretty sure that it glosses over the complexity of the book in favor of action--battles and such.

Before I say more I should say that I read the book more than forty years ago, in the mid- or late '70s, and don't remember it in any detail. But I do remember that it's a big novel with a lot of detail about its invented cultures and peoples. And there's not much of that detail in the movie. I noticed especially the one-sentence explanation of the importance of "spice," a drug necessary to the whole economy of the empire depicted in the book: that it helps spaceship pilots "to find a safe path between the stars" or something like that. Well, I remember enough of the book to know that that hardly begins to touch the nature of the stuff, which gives its users very extraordinary mental powers. I won't attempt to say more because I don't remember much more, but it's an extremely important part of the story. 

We all know that it's more or less intrinsically impossible to do real justice to a big novel in a movie, even a two-and-a-half hour one, or even a five-hour one--this is only the first of two planned movies. So I don't say that this is really a fair or valid complaint, only that there is a lot missing, and, as with the Lord of the Rings movies, what's missing is important, and can only be gotten by reading the book. Which I plan to do in the fairly near future, at least before Part Two is released, currently meant to happen this fall. In fact I think the desire to (re)read the book is the strongest effect that the movie had on me.

What should I say about the actors and, given the strangeness of the world depicted in the movie, the combined ability of the actors, the director, the cinematographer, and the costumers and others to make the characters believable? Well, they all worked, though I thought some worked better than others. For at least the first half of the film I thought Timothée Chalamett seemed too frail, even weak, to be Paul Atreides, the central character. But that may have been deliberate, as he began to grow and strengthen throughout the film. I must say I was reminded of the generally disliked portrayal of the young Anakin Skywalker in the generally disliked film (whichever one it was) where he grows into Darth Vader. I hope that impression won't continue in the second half. 

I'll mention one actress and character who struck me as especially good: Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, Paul's mother. Her full name is Rebecca Louisa Ferguson Sundström, and she's a mixture of Swedish and British ancestry. As Paul's mother, she is appropriately warm and empathetic. As a member of the mysterious and powerful quasi-religious Bene Gesserit, she is, when the occasion calls for it, fierce and hard, bordering on scary. I suppose she has some Viking ancestry. She would make a good Kristin Lavransdatter.

Oh, and Stellan Skarsgård is completely unrecognizable as the evil, repulsive, and Jabba-the-Hutt-level obese Baron Harkonnen.

It occurs to me that Villeneuve also directed Blade Runner 2049, which I have also seen, and I wonder now why I never thought of it while watching Dune. I found it disappointing, but that was mainly for reasons having to do with the way it developed the original story. Maybe it would be worthwhile to see it again, focusing on the visuals. 

I wonder, not for the first time, why science fiction depictions of the far future seem almost instinctively to turn to empires, emperors, nobles and noble families, knights and ladies, and swordfights. Is it because there is something archetypal in them? Or are they just a cultural memory that keeps coming back because it offers dramatic possibilities that democratic thinking does not?

And it's a little curious that Frank Herbert (author of the book(s)) incorporated so much of Arab/Islamic culture into the native peoples of Arrakis, the desert planet of the title. His biography at Wikipedia doesn't mention any acquaintance with them, but I remember noticing it when I read the book, and it's certainly present in the movie. And in the score, by Hans Zimmer, full of drums and ululations. It struck me as good but a little overdone. It's probably just as well that I didn't hear it in a theater, at the over-the-top volume levels which have become normal there.

DuneSpaceship2

This is, obviously, not on Arrakis, where most of the story takes place, but on Caladan, the home planet of the Atreides clan.

Ornithopter

My wife thought the ornithopters were really cool. 


Sally Thomas: Works of Mercy (and one or two other things)

I've been meaning to mention this novel, and putting it off because I felt that it deserved a fuller treatment than I had time to give it. But today I'm giving up. I have a busy few days coming up, and rather than put it off again I'm just going to say a little and then direct you to more extensive reviews.

"On Mondays I cleaned the rectory for the good of my soul." The speaker is Kirsty Sain, a widow in her...well, I'm not exactly sure about her age, but let's call it early elderly, as she seems to have been an adult in the early '70s. The next sentence suggests the way the story is going to open out from this simple and even dull routine: "I did it, too, in those days, for the good of Father Schuyler, who was young and untried." As the story goes on she's going to be called upon for the good of several others, including a most unlikely cat (but don't worry, this is not a cutesy cat story).

The rectory belongs to the small Catholic parish in a small North Carolina town in which Kirsty has lived for many years, for most of her adult life, but where she has never entirely fitted in: "stranded on the wrong side of the world," she says of her arrival there as a newlywed. She had grown up in the Shetland Islands, and I have to say I was initially puzzled by that as a fictional choice; it seemed arbitrary. But it works, the stormy, isolated, half-Nordic environment of one of the smaller islands prefiguring the isolation of her life in the U.S.: married, but childless as a result of a disaster in her youth, since her husband's death almost entirely alone, and not uncomfortable that way.

I was happy, or something like it. All my life I had lived among people. Now, although perhaps my days sound dull, I was well enough satisfied with my own company.

There is nothing very dramatic in the way she is slowly drawn out of that somewhat isolated self-sufficiency. Small occasions in which she is needed arise, and she responds, somewhat passively, somewhat resignedly, maybe reluctantly but not unwillingly. One such is her involvement with an anarchic Catholic family with children of such number that Kirsty has difficulty fixing the exact count in her mind. This family encounters great suffering, which Kirsty cannot undo or heal. But she is stalwart in doing what she can. 

Before I turn this over to serious reviewers, I have to say that this is one of those books where the simple act of reading, sentence by sentence, is enjoyable. I cannot say that about, for instance, Dostoevsky (though maybe that would be different if I could read Russian). Kirsty's narration is often wryly funny, often poignant. Her account of being photographed for the parish directory:

On my appointed day, I had shown up in a spirit of grudging resignation, to be jollied intolerably by the photographer and to enter my name and address on the appropriate paper form. In that issue of the directory you can find me still, looking every inch the retired lady berserker, my faded hair standing out in puffs either side of my face. My expression betrays the itchiness of my best moss-green wool dress and the lameness of the photographer's jokes. I am recorded in those pages as the worst species of witch, who eats children for breakfast and enjoys every mouthful.

The "berserker" reference is to her northern ancestors.

And another thing: one of the great pleasures of Sally Thomas's book of poems Motherland is her skill with the visual. (I wrote about it here.) That's very present in the novel:

The October days looked caught in amber. Amber was the color of the land as it rose and fell beneath the high, dry sky. At night the moon rounded and rode above the soft edge of the trees, breathing its calm blue light. The word at this time of the year felt enormous, tall and wide and empty. 

Works of Mercy

It's from Wiseblood Books, by the way, who are doing great work, and if you want to buy it you might want to order it directly from them.

Those more serious reviews:

Joan Bauer in Tiny Molecules

Tessa Carman in Plough

Fr. Dwight Longenecker in The Imaginative Conservative

Aarik Danielson in Fare Forward 

*

I had never heard of the first and last of those two publications. The last one, Fare Forward, is intriguing. The phrase is from the "Four Quartets," and the magazine is 

a Christian review of ideas founded in 2012 by a group of young Ivy League graduates. Trained by our time in the campus journal movement (now known as the Augustine Collective), we set out to start a publication that would be creedally orthodox, intentionally ecumenical, politically unaffiliated, and welcoming to all readers, regardless of faith or lack thereof.

Good for them. I cannot help saying that any group calling itself a "collective" is automatically a little suspect and/or ridiculous in my eyes. But they're young and probably don't have the same associations with the word that I do. 

*

Another note on Big Star: I listened, not very attentively, to Alex Chilton's solo album Like Flies On Sherbet. I'm not sure whether my impulse to give it a fair chance (i.e. several hearings) is strong enough to overcome my wish not to hear it again. Either way, I can't imagine that it could ever be anything but a big disappointment compared to Third / Sister Lovers or for that matter the other two original Big Star albums. AllMusic says it "isn't quite the car wreck it once appeared to be." Praise can't get much fainter than that. 


Orwell: Animal Farm

Somehow Animal Farm escaped from the boxes where most of my books still reside, and I picked it up and started reading it on a whim. I had read it in high school and not since. I don't recall having a very strong opinion or impression of it, beyond the obvious satirical-polemical intent. And it's referred to often enough in political discussions that I didn't feel like I needed to re-read it. After all, it's a pretty slight book, once and maybe still favored for book reports by un-bookish students. How much more can there be to it than the grim news that revolutions, in this case a clearly left-wing revolution, can turn repressive? (I imagine everyone knows this, even if they haven't read the book, but just in case you haven't: it's a sort of allegory in which farm animals stage a revolution, drive out the human farmer, and set up a regime which quickly turns into a new form of oppression in a very Soviet style.)

It's better, both funnier and sadder than I expected. The justification for the revolution, the genuine oppression to which it's a response, is made clear. The rebellion begins with a stirring--really--and presumably sincere speech from an old pig, but he dies soon afterwards, and the revolution is made by others. The animals, both as species and as individuals, are sketched in a way that makes me think Orwell had a fair amount of knowledge of and sympathy for them, especially the horses.

Several pigs--Snowball, Squealer, and Napoleon--are the clever scoundrels who take advantage of the revolution to rule others for their own benefit, though Snowball is subject to a Trotsky-style expulsion and thereafter blamed for everything that goes wrong. I don't know whether it's true or not that pigs are actually quite intelligent--what little contact I've had with them argues against it--but that of course does not in the least prevent them from acting in the way that has caused us to make "pig" an insult. 

The dogs are loyal but malleable, and loyal to the wrong person, soon becoming Napoleon's bodyguards, enforcers, and executioners. The cat (singular) looks out for number one. There are three horses, two big draft horses named Boxer (male) and Clover (female), and Molly, "the foolish, pretty white mare who drew Mr. Jones's trap." Boxer is pure nobility, "as strong as any two ordinary horses put together," and not only a more productive worker than anyone else, because of his strength, but more diligent as well. But he's not very smart. He believes everything the pigs tell him, even when he thinks it doesn't really sound quite right, and his response is always a resolution to work harder. So he works himself nearly to death, and then is despicably betrayed. Molly only cares about sugar and ribbons for her mane, and is soon lured back to human service. 

The hens and cows mostly do as they're told, most of their attention absorbed by the production of  eggs and milk, and aroused to anger only when that is interfered with. One rooster becomes a gaudy sort of mascot for the pigs, marching at the head of parades. An old donkey named Benjamin is the only one who seems to see what's happening, but he's a cynic and doesn't do anything about it. 

And then there are the sheep. Next to the pigs, the sheep are the worst. They are fools, the useful idiots once praised by Lenin (or one of those guys). Having reached the limits of their intelligence in learning to repeat "Four legs good, two legs bad," they bring to an end any meeting of the community in which disagreement with Napoleon is expressed, or seems about to be expressed, by drowning out with their chanting of their six words the voice of anyone whose speech threatens to be "problematic," to use a word favored by our own sheep. I never have thought very highly of protests that involve marching and chanting simple slogans. And now whenever I see a crowd of students shouting down a speaker I'll think of those sheep.

It's really quite brilliantly done, and might have remained popular even if it had not remained relevant. The probably-most-quoted bit from the book has been on my mind lately: "All animals are equal. But some are more equal than others." Examples of this syndrome appear in the news every day. There are the many politicians and officials who, during the COVID pandemic, laid stringent restrictions on the rest of us which they felt free to ignore.  There are the wealthy climate activists who demand sacrifices of us while showing no inclination whatsoever to stop flying around in private jets and in general living at the upper end of wealth and privilege. And there is the current flap over the illicit possession of classified documents by important politicians: from what I've read, immediate dismissal and loss of security clearance is the least that would happen to an ordinary government employee who so much as leaves the building with classified documents, and jail would be a definite possibility. (Maybe you remember the case of Sandy Berger, who just flat-out stole classified documents, for reasons which as far as I know have never been definitively revealed, and who actually had his security clearance restored after a three-year suspension.)

But these are just more or less typical human behavior: one set of rules for the rich and powerful, another for the masses; business as usual. So comparisons to what's happening today are loose. Certain parallels are clear, but we've had no revolution, and comparatively little physical violence. What strikes me most in the way of resemblance to our own situation is the conversion of falsehood into truth. I say "conversion" instead of "substitution" because that's the real difference between totalitarianism and ordinary lying. I said many times during the Trump administration that those who took his blatant falsehoods as a sign that we had entered 1984 territory had either not read the book or did not understand it.

What makes the regime of 1984 so powerful and frightening is that it has the power to make you acquiesce in its lies. The pigs rewrite their own history, and punish anyone who tries to point out the change. If someone tells you an obvious transparent lie, and you know it's a lie, you can ignore him or scoff at him or point out the lie or whatever else suits you. But if he has the power to destroy evidence of the truth, and not only to punish you for contradicting him, but to force you to say you believe him on pain of losing your livelihood, or worse, you are in a very tough position. Today's progressives are much more willing and able to do this than Trump ever was or could dream of being, given the forces opposing him. The offense, which would be a crime if the progressives had their way, of "misgendering" is maybe the best example, but there are many others.

*

The adventure of the Chinese ballon (sounds like a Hardy Boys title) made me think of this song.

 


Dixon; Shakespeare

Dixon, as you will have guessed, is Franklin W. Dixon, the author's name on the cover of the Hardy Boys books. He did not actually exist, at least not as the author of those books, which were a group effort, and not always the same group. Usually there was at minimum an outline written by one person and a manuscript produced from the outline by another. You can read an overview of the various people involved here, and details of who did what in each book here. It was all done at the direction of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Knowing that, you won't be surprised that the same company produced the Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, Bobbsey Twins, and other similar books. Goodbye to Carolyn Keene.

All of that suggests something less than a sincere creative effort on the part of a Mr. Dixon, and I'm glad I didn't know that when I was ten or twelve years old and discovered the books.

I used to spend the night sometimes at the home of my maternal grandparents, and the little room I slept in had a bookshelf which held a number of books belonging to my uncle Al. He was the youngest of three, and only a dozen or so years older than me. I had been sleeping in that room for a while but apparently had not thought the grown-up-looking books would be of interest to me until one day I picked up one with the intriguing title of What Happened At Midnight. I was quickly hooked, and eventually read all of the two dozen or so on the shelves in that room. As best I can remember in consultation with a chronological list of the books, I read every title from the first, The Tower Treasure, published in 1927, through The Sign of the Crooked Arrow, published in 1949 (though of course I had no idea of their order of publication, or interest in it, but just picked up another when I finished one). 

It seems there were at least two that I took home and never returned: The Disappearing Floor (1940) and The Clue of the Broken Blade (1942). How they managed to stay with me from my late teens  until now is a mystery. Perhaps they didn't stay with me; perhaps they just stayed at my parents' house for over thirty years and I appropriated them when they moved in 2000.

A few weeks ago, partly because those two books had surfaced even though most of our books are still in boxes after moving (awaiting final determination of bookshelf placement), and partly with the thought that it might be a pleasant exercise in nostalgia, I decided to read one of them and picked up The Clue of the Broken Blade.

What a disappointment. The book is colorless and lifeless. Frank, Joe, and their father are blanks. The prose is not just wooden but ill-made, like furniture banged together crudely from the pieces of a shipping pallet. The plot seems barely coherent but that may be partly my fault, as I chose to read one chapter a night in bed, when my mind is pretty sluggish at best. I could not find in my reaction any trace of the enjoyment I had at twelve or so, or even a perception of the reasons for it, even though if no longer operative, as might happen with an old episode of Gunsmoke. I must have thought the story was exciting and suspenseful, and I know I liked what Frank and Joe represented, and wanted to be like them. Maybe, just maybe, if I had not been reading when drowsy, I would still have felt some sense of the mere what's-going-to-happen appeal of the plot. But the best I can do is assume that I must have felt it at the time. 

The most I can say in favor of the book is that the simplicity, naivete, sincerity (by which I mean the absence of irony), and absence of vulgarity were mildly refreshing in contrast to much or most of what's offered to, or pushed at, young people today. But it's so very unreal--and maybe that sheds some light on what's happened over the past half-century. 

*

At the opposite extreme: two unrelated incidents caused me to watch a 1980 BBC production of The Winter's Tale. First, a recent issue of The New Criterion includes an article on that play by Anthony Daniels. He's always an interesting writer, but although I had read the play some years ago (twenty or so, maybe?) I didn't remember it very clearly, and I didn't want to read the article without better knowledge of the play. And my Shakespeare is still packed away in one of a dozen or so large heavy boxes stacked in a hallway, and I don't know which one. 

Second, a comment on some post somewhere online informed me that subscribers to the BBC's streaming service, BritBox, have access to the BBC Television Shakespeare, which includes essentially all the plays--thirty-seven of them, and I say "essentially" because there is apparently still some scholarly disagreement about a couple of them. I had not known that the series even existed, much less that I had access to it. 

So I immediately looked for, and found, and watched, The Winter's Tale. I cannot overstate how much I enjoyed it. I was almost rapturous. The marvelous Mozart-like flow of language was a non-stop pleasure. It was just as well that I didn't have the text handy, with notes, because I would have been constantly stopping and starting the film to figure out some knotty figure or to explain an unknown or obsolete word or usage. After twenty minutes or so I decided to just let those go by, since I could follow well enough without them, and surrender to the flow. 

And the story: this is a late play, and it seems to share with The Tempest a sort of mellowness, neither tragedy nor comedy, and it ends with events described by that term Tolkien gave us, eucatastrophe. The "catastrophe" part of that, as we commonly use the word, is applicable: it could almost be termed violent in its reversal of what came before. And a critic could fairly call it dramatically unconvincing, or worse. 

Moreover, the play is oddly constructed, and fairly criticized for that. It's in two parts, and the first part is a sort of mini-Othello story, the second part a sequel which takes place some years later, and redeems the tragic first part. This makes for something of a stitched-together quality, and it can't be considered one of Shakespeare's best. But I was greatly moved by it, and will certainly turn to it again. I guess I'm something of a pushover for a story which has that general arc. I like to think that's because it is fundamentally true to...well, I shouldn't say "true to life," because in general use that  phrase implicitly refers to earthly life, but true to the deepest realities. At any rate I was greatly moved, and will certainly turn to this play again. 

And I hope this video will continue to be available so that I can turn to it. A list of the play's productions (on Wikipedia, I think) called this one "orthodox." That's probably not meant to be a compliment, but it's fair enough: there is nothing gimmicky about the production, nothing that smacks of someone trying to put his own personal stamp on the work, or to render it somehow more fitting or engaging or palatable to a contemporary audience. In this case "orthodox" means excellent acting and appropriate, fairly simple, stylized but unobtrusive staging. I could quibble with this or that detail of either, but it would be just that, quibbling. 

Somewhere online in the past day or two I saw an advertisement for a Shakespeare in modern language. Well, it's true enough that in many cases the plot alone of many of the plays, and the plain matter of much of the dialog, has plenty of appeal. Still, that seems like Raphael in monochrome. 


What Is Actually Happening: 2023

The collection of writings by Alfred Delp, S.J. which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago has a long introduction by Thomas Merton. I'm not a Merton enthusiast, having found what I've read of his work (not all that much) a somewhat mixed bag, but this essay, dated October 1962, is excellent.

Fr. Delp reminds us that somewhere in the last fifty years we have entered a mysterious limit set by Providence and have entered a new era. We have, in some sense, passed a point of no return, and it is both useless and tragic to continue to live in the nineteenth century.... [T]here has been a violent disruption of society and a radical overthrow of that modern world which goes back to Charlemagne.

Now, sixty years after Merton wrote this, roughly eighty years since Delp wrote, the truth of these words is hardly arguable. The end of the Christian era and its impending replacement by something yet to be known had already been a frequent topic of notice and speculation since sometime in the 19th century and has continued ever since, so neither Delp nor Merton can be credited with any unusual insight on that point alone. The difference between them and, say, Matthew Arnold ("two worlds, one dead") or Yeats ("what rough beast") was that they were seeing the likely shape of the new age: violent totalitarianism.

Delp was, naturally, speaking mostly, and with the utmost personal concern, of Nazism and the devastating war it had brought upon the world. And much of Merton's essay takes up a similar theme. After quoting Delp that "Modern man is not even capable of knowing God," Merton says:

In order to  understand these harsh assertions by Fr. Delp we must remember they were written by a man in prison, surrounded by Nazi guards. When he speaks of "modern man," he is in fact speaking of the Nazis or of their accomplices and counterparts.

Delp and Merton both feared that violent totalitarianism might be the most characteristic face of the new age, though both were wise enough to see that it was only the face, and that the inner nature of the thing involved, in fact required, a revolution in the idea of what human life is, what it is for, and what it can be. 

The Soviet Union continued to carry the totalitarian banner until 1990. And when it fell there was a sigh of relief: that danger had been quashed, maybe or even probably forever, and modernity, understood as a general application of classical liberalism, was free to continue on the wide bright road illuminated by the twin beacons of Science and Freedom. But liberalism had either turned into or been replaced by something else: the same philosophical or religious disease that had produced fascism and communism, the faith and hope that mankind (or, in the case of fascism, a certain subset thereof) can achieve self-salvation by transforming the immanent world.

This involves the liberation of mankind, either collectively or individually or both, from the limitations which thwart us. It requires, first, liberation from God, who always in one way or another says "Thou shalt not" to something that man deeply wants to do. And then it involves all other constraints once thought (still thought by many) to be an essential part of the way things are, not subject to removal. These include, especially include, physical reality. As for moral reality--well, is there any morality apart from that which produces a result which makes us happy? And don't trouble yourself too much about analyzing the nature of happiness: how can it be anything but a condition of comfort in both mind and body? And every person will have his own view of what that entails.

In apparent, but not actual, contradiction, this total liberation requires molding and controlling people to make them fit inhabitants of the new age. If it doesn't begin with explicit totalitarianism, it eventually arrives there, because people won't naturally become what the ideology requires that they become. The fanatical progressivism that has seized so much of our culture is of this cloth. At bottom it's of a piece with fascism and communism, in that it is an attempt to create a new humanity. It isn't very violent now and may never be, because it exercises so much power without violence, and is steadily gaining more. If it can, for instance, close off certain important lines of work to anyone who dissents from its program, or shut down the public expression of dissenting views, it doesn't need violence. (If you think it isn't working on those and achieving some results, you aren't paying attention.)

I'm hardly the first or only person to make these basic observations. I'm working up to saying two things:

1) We can now see pretty clearly the shape of the new ideal of civilization that is replacing the Christian one. And we can see that it is in essence a product of the same force that produced fascism and communism, even though progressivism, loathes the former and doesn't take the crimes of the latter very seriously, and in principle abhors violence. But compulsion may be exercised without violence. Relatively non-violent totalitarianism--"soft totalitarianism," as some have called it--may succeed where violent hard totalitarianism failed.

2) The thing that I refer to as a "force" is the spirit of Antichrist. I've never been one, and still am not one, to make judgments about whether we are or are not in the end times. Maybe we are, maybe we aren't. And I don't claim that we are now or soon will be under the rule of the Antichrist. What I think is pretty clear is that the spiritual driving force of the current effort to remake humanity is the same one that will become or will produce, if it hasn't already, the Antichrist. "You will become as gods." It may not be the regime of the actual Antichrist, but it is of the Antichrist.

Rod Dreher recently quoted a letter of Pope Benedict

We see how the power of the Antichrist is expanding, and we can only pray that the Lord will give us strong shepherds who will defend his church in this hour of need from the power of evil.

In short, this is What Is Actually Happening, and it's important that Christians recognize it and have no illusions about it, especially as the humanitarian aspects of the Antichristic spirit are often superficially similar to Christian ethics. The essential difference is that the former always points and leads away from God, where the latter always points and leads toward him.

*

These thoughts were provoked not only by Delp and Merton, but by a remark in a fascinating book which I recently began to read: Jacques Barzun's history of the modern world, From Dawn to Decadence. This was another case when I picked up a book from the library discard shelf, let it sit around for a couple of years, and then, when I moved recently and had to pack up the books, considered giving it back to the library. But I leafed through it, read the opening pages, and decided to keep it.

The book begins with the Protestant revolution. In discussing Puritanism, Barzun says this:

Revolutions paradoxically begin by promising freedom and then turn coercive and "puritanical," to save themselves from both discredit and reaction.

Is that the meaning of the frenzied efforts by fanatical progressives to restrict any and all speech that contradicts their views or even causes them distress? Many institutions and areas of life are now well under their control, but there is certainly reaction. Maybe the intensity of the effort to suppress it is indicative of a grip not yet as tight as it wishes to be.


Ronald Blythe: Akenfield

Akenfield, subtitled Portrait of an English Village, is a book I've wanted to read for thirty years or more, and have finally done so. I first heard of it in the old Common Reader catalog, a treasure killed or at least assisted toward death, I assume, by the Internet. The catalog was published by and for book lovers, and was itself an excellent read. (I first heard of Alice Thomas Ellis there as well.) I fear too many of its readers were like me, reading the catalog avidly but not ordering from it very often. In my defense, I had much less free cash in those days.

Ronald Blythe was the subject of one of the first entries in the 52 Authors series here: Week 9. Akenfield is a famous book, but I'm not sure it's Blythe's most famous. That might be Word from Wormingford, one of several collections of weekly columns he wrote for the Church of England's Church Times. (I'm just guessing about that, on the basis of which books I've seen discussed.)

I don't recall ever having heard the term "oral history" before some time in the 1970s, but the thing certainly existed, and Akenfield, which was published in 1969, is a prime example. It is in a sense slightly misleading to call Blythe its author, because most of it is the transcribed voices of the people who live in Akenfield, a pseudonym for the village in which Blythe lived.

All the facts about the economy, the population, and social life of Akenfield are drawn from a village in East Suffolk; only the names of the village and the villagers have been changed.

Blythe, then, was not a journalist who dropped in to inspect colorful rural life and went back to the city or the suburbs to write about it. He was writing about a place and people he knew intimately (though that is perhaps not the right term for his relationship with some of the very reticent people). He was in his forties in 1967 when he decided that the changing culture of the village was worth documenting--what it was changing from, what it was changing to. The former, as has been the case for more than a century now, was fast passing out of living memory, with whole trades, such as thatcher, and the knowledge and skills involved in them ceasing to exist. So he talked to, or rather listened to, dozens of people, from the elderly to teenagers, to assemble this absolutely fascinating picture of a place and a culture. His introductory commentaries on the interviews are a pleasure in themselves, rich in both perception and quality of writing. 

I wonder how many of us mentally prefix the word "quaint," or at least some unarticulated sense of that idea, to the phrase "English village." I've begun to have a grudge against the word. I hear people apply it to any place or structure that doesn't look like it was newly erected in and for suburban sprawl. By now the word is not all that far removed from "cute." It's usually, among other things, patronizing, with suggestions that the thing so described is somehow removed from "the real world."

I can imagine someone approaching this book and thinking, if not in so many words, that he is about to view a picture of something quaint. Picturesque. Charming. And so forth. Well, it may in some ways merit those terms, but not in any sense akin to that of another that sometimes goes along with them: idyllic. There was nothing idyllic about the agricultural life which was still, in 1967, the foundation of Akenfield and which not so long before had been more or less the entirety of it. It was a hard life in its nature, and was often made much harder by injustice, by landowners who held more or less life and death power over farm workers, literally working men to death at times in a condition of near-slavery. The first section of the book is called "Survivors." Here is the first voice, a seventy-one-year-old farm worker describing the situation ca. 1910:

It must seem that there was war between farmers and men in those days. I think there was, particularly in Suffolk. These employers were famous for their meanness. They took all they could from the men and boys who worked their land. They bought their life's strength for as little as they could. They wore us out without a thought because, with the big families, there was a continuous supply of labour. 

Neither Blythe's villagers, nor Blythe himself when he introduces their commentaries, shies away from these dark things. The very long hours of very hard labor were rewarded with bare-subsistence poverty. There was vast ignorance, there was stifling insularity. And there was often a great and quite understandable eagerness to escape the village which seemed defined by those things. 

I'm over-emphasizing the negatives here, in an effort to knock away any expectation that the book is anything less than clear-eyed and hard-headed about rural English life between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, that it is in the least sentimental. But that is far from the whole story. For all the hardship described, there is in fact a great deal of charm in the picture, the deep charm of stable and deeply-rooted human ways. And what comes through in one interview after another is that most of these people are or were in touch with reality, especially the reality of the human connection to the earth, in a way that few of us are now, especially younger people. And it gives them an elemental wisdom hard to find and maintain in the whirlwind of distraction that is contemporary culture.

Akenfield is not explicitly philosophical at all. There is hardly a trace of abstraction in it, but nevertheless it forces one to think about what it means to be human, and whether our luxurious culture makes us less so. How is it that the life depicted here seems to have a depth that can't be found, or at least is hard to find, in a world of advertising and sensational entertainments, that in fact seems to be mocked by them?

Flight from the real is now the single most striking feature, the most ardently pursued goal, of life in our culture, at least for certain prominent and often dominant elements of it. There seems to be a fair number of smart people--"smart" in the sense that they would score well on an intelligence test--who believe that it's possible and desirable to escape entirely from the physical by some technological means. I don't think it's at all unfair to call this insane, even if we set aside the fact that what goes on inside a computer is as physical as what goes on at a construction site. The invisibility of the electronic allows these same smart people to believe that it's something different, something disembodied, more like the mental.

Suppose it were. Suppose it were possible and desirable to live a purely mental existence. Suppose even that it could be supported by technology. We have no technology which is not directly dependent on machinery, whether mechanical or electronic, which in turn had to begin with the stuff of the earth and with physical labor, and which could not continue functioning for very long without physical maintenance. There is no path, even in theory, by which we can sever this dependence. I doubt that anyone interviewed for this book would entertain that sort of delusion for a moment. Maybe "sanity" is the most important idea here, the most essential of the things of which it reminds us.

Akenfield_1024x1024

This very nice 2015 edition, published by New York Review Books, includes an insightful introduction by Matt Weiland which mentions a 2004 sort-of-sequel, Return to Akenfield, by Craig Taylor, in which he visits the village and interviews as many of the people from Blythe's book as he could find. It's probably interesting, at least, and maybe very good in its own right. But somehow I don't really want to read it. 


Two Three By Chandler

Between trying to get settled in a new house, the Thanksgiving gathering and feast, and a bad cold, I haven't had any time and not much inclination for writing over the past four or five days. The cold is a bigger factor than perhaps it should be, as it's been accompanied by a fairly bad headache which makes me want to avoid exercise of both mind and eyes. But it's better today, enough for a brief post, at least.

The term "cozy mystery," or simply "cozy," refers to a species of detective fiction in the Agatha Christie mold: low in violence and other sensationalism, set in a small community, with an amateur detective. If you've read any Christie at all, or similar others (and who hasn't?) you'll understand the term (and probably already know it). The cozy usually depicts a decent and orderly world, and the killer or killers is/are not terrifying psychopaths or habitually violent. It doesn't usually give you the feeling that you're looking into the abyss; the orderly world is not deeply shaken by the crime, and order returns.

I'm not particularly drawn to the cozy mystery, but I get the appeal. And the detective stories I like most serve a similar purpose for me. It sounds absurd to suggest that there is anything cozy about the worlds of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald's work, but there is something in my attraction to it that's similar to the appeal of the cozy. In Chandler especially it's a dark and violent world, and there isn't so much a breakdown of order as an established and conquering disorder into which the detective forces a very limited and often unwelcomed ordered space. And in both writers there's a pervasive melancholy with a romantic streak, a sense of the world as a fundamentally sad but beautiful place. That's the cozy-ness of it for me, and it's enabled by the knowledge that, unlike some contemporary crime fiction, there is not going to be a sudden injection of truly sickening violence, the kind of thing that will disturb me to the point of not wanting to read further. (That's probably a sad testimony to our culture's increased tolerance for realistic depictions of violence in books and film--and to mine.)

When we were packing up books to move a few weeks ago I held back The Midnight Raymond Chandler because I wanted, in the midst of all the stress, the kind of "comfort reading" I'm talking about. It's a collection containing several novellas and two full novels. I read the first piece, "Red Wind," a fairly early novella which, I just realized, is a Marlowe story which preceded Marlowe--that is, he first appears by name in The Big Sleep in 1939, which was after "Red Wind." But he's essentially the same character. 

"Red Wind" begins memorably:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.

Crypto-Marlowe goes to a bar where the only other customer is a man who seems to have been drinking there for some time. A well-dressed man walks in and asks if anyone has seen a woman, whom he describes. The drunk...well, I'll let Chandler describe it:

[The newcomer] took three or four steps and stopped, facing the drunk. The drunk was grinning. He swept a gun from somewhere so fast that it was just a blur coming out. He held it steady and he didn't look any drunker than I was.... The drunk's gun was a .22 target automatic, with a large front sight. It made a couple of hard snaps and a little smoke curled--very little.

"So long, Waldo," the drunk said.

That's how they wrote 'em for Black Mask, where the story appeared. The story that unfolds from there involves a woman who is still pining for her first love, and who talks of him and that love in almost mystical terms which it is possible that they do not entirely merit. 

Then I skipped to the last work in the volume, The Long Goodbye, which is also the last novel Chandler wrote, published in 1953, and was a little surprised to find in it another woman speaking in much the same way of the same sort of lost lover. It's a big part of the plot in both works, and it makes me think that there was something in Chandler's life that made it an especially powerful device for him.

As far as I can remember I read The Long Goodbye once long ago, probably the early 1980s or maybe late '70s, and not since. It's as good as I remembered, though I can't say that this reading confirmed my opinion from back then that it's my favorite, since it's been more or less as long since I read the others. Suffice to say that it has all the vivid California color, romance, sleaze, and sadness that one expects of a Chandler work. 

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.... There was a girl beside him. Her hair was a lovely shade of dark red and she had a distant smile on her lips and over her shoulders she had a blue mink that almost made the Rolls-Royce look like just another automobile.

I don't recall that Marlowe explains what he was doing at such a ritzy club. The "girl" with Terry Lennox is his wife, who disdains him and, when he slides out of the Rolls onto the pavement, drives away without him. Marlowe rescues him, gets to know him a bit, likes him a bit, and they have a sort of friendship that mainly involves meeting now and then for a drink. Then Lennox's wife, who, not surprisingly, was chronically unfaithful to him, is murdered, and he, the obvious suspect, disappears. And it seems for a while as if that little story is over and apparently unrelated to what comes after, in which Marlowe gets mixed up with an alcoholic novelist and his wife, but of course it isn't.

I'm quoting this passage not because it's important to the story but because I like it so much; it's a good instance of Chandler's skill:

I hit the office about ten, picked up some odds and ends of mail, slit the envelopes and let the stuff lie on the desk. I opened the windows wide to let out the smell of dust and dinginess that collected in the night and hung in the still air, in the corners of the room, in the slats of the venetian blinds. A dead moth was spread-eagled on a corner of the desk. On the window sill a bee with tattered wings was crawling along the woodwork, buzzing in a tired remote sort of way, as if she knew it wasn't any use, she was finished, she had flown too many missions and would never get back to the hive again.

There is a twist in the denouement which struck me as implausible. Very implausible. In fact there are several incidents in the plot which struck me that way, but only the last one broke through the suspension-of-disbelief threshold. You might suppose--at least I did--that the title is just a way of referring to death, like calling it "the big sleep." It doesn't, though, at least not primarily; it's more poignant than that. 

The Blue Dahlia is a 1946 movie for which Chandler wrote the screen play. It's Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, and William Bendix again, this time Bendix playing a good guy but still a somewhat unbalanced one, due to a brain injury in the war. 

Three newly discharged veterans return home--to Los Angeles, of course. One of them is married, and after a couple of farewell drinks he leaves the others and seeks out his wife. She is not at all glad to see him; she has been living a life of partying, drinking, and infidelity. (That kind of betrayal was apparently not as rare as one would like to think.) He leaves, determined to have nothing more to do with her. Sometime in the following hours she is murdered, and of course he is the prime suspect. (As this pattern occurs in The Long Goodbye, it's worth noting that the film came first.)

As a whodunit puzzle, and just in general as a movie, it's very good, definitely one to see if you like this type of thing. Somehow, though, it didn't engage me as strongly as some others in this vein; not as strongly, for instance, as Detour, maybe because it isn't as noir. And it isn't a Philip Marlowe story; the hero is somewhat on the vague and ordinary side in comparison, but then he's not a detective, either, just a good man with a bad wife. 

Maybe it should have been in color. The effect of the blue dahlia is rather lost in black-and-white.


Goodreaders on The Summerhouse Trilogy; More Noir

Lat week when I wanted to check certain details about The Summerhouse Trilogy but didn't have access to the book, I looked around on the web a bit for reviews or summaries which might help. I didn't find any, but I ended up looking through all the reader comments at Goodreads. Most were positive, and at least one reader says that she reads the book every year. But the negatives...well, they say much more about the reviewer than the reviewed.

Some seem not to have paid very close attention, as the full story is not "retold" in the three sections, but rather revealed gradually and cumulatively. Unless my memory is wrong, which it could be, or I missed something, the most startling bit is not revealed until the third section. But these folks didn't get it. Or maybe they're just that jaded:

I could have done without the third re-telling of the story.

I had hoped this final chapter would shed some light on things, but it really didn't. I wish I had given up after the first chapter spent time with a book I enjoyed.

And these two people, especially the second, seem to be the sort for whom anything not of the present day and culture is for precisely that reason dull and irrelevant:

Depressing first section in a supposedly funny British satire on trite callous middle class values.

Gah. This book did not age well at all. It was awful and prehistoric.

I don't see exactly how "callous" comes into it. I do have some sympathy for those who found the book dull, as much of it is subtle and without visible drama. Several readers complained about Margaret, the miserable girl of the first section--"a dishrag," one said. That's not unjustified, but it's an aspect of Margaret's problem. Still, these three apparently would have preferred a romance or thriller: 

A perfectly adequate, well written, thoroughly dull book. Not even hashish, sex and suicide could save this book from the monotony of the characters.

I am still reading this book, which is a book club nomination. It is awful! The characters are extremely unlikeable (except for Aunt Lily, and that is only because she is intoxicated most of the time and wears garish clothes). Even the dog has no name. It is the most uninspiring, slow moving, non-interesting book I have read.

Blecchhhh! I can't believe I finished reading this book, or that anyone would think it was interesting enough to make a movie out of! I hated it to the very last page.

At least that last one did push through every hated page.

This one I rather liked, and would suggest to the reader that she keep thinking about the book:

The author is an English Catholic whose work I’ve seen compared to that of Flannery O'Connor. She does not provide a nice, tidy, Christian ending or even tidy Christian answers. If I had read this book in my youth, I think I might even have interpreted it as anti-Christian.

*

Detour is an excellent example of the noir genre, apparently considered one of the classics. It has a pretty simple plot, which makes it different from many of its type. A famous story has it that William Faulkner and another writer working on the script for The Big Sleep were puzzled by a plot point and asked Raymond Chandler for clarification--and he didn't know, either. 

A young man and a young woman are working together as a night club act in New York. They plan to be married, but the young woman leaves for Hollywood, hoping to become a star, and the young man stays behind. (It isn't entirely clear to me why he didn't go with her, but never mind.) Later he decides to follow her after all, and begins hitchhiking across the country. He gets as far as Arizona when he gets a ride from a man in a big expensive car. Thus begins the detour. 

Detour

It's a low budget movie, starring people I hadn't heard of before (Tom Neal and Ann Savage), and it's not much more than an hour long, but it really works. 

*

I'm often struck in these older films by little things indicative of the degree to which many things have changed since the films were made. Many big things are striking, too, of course, but I mean the almost trivial ones. When was the last time you heard someone say "Give me change for a dime"? Or one which I think I may have heard as a child or a teenager, but which has disappeared for very good reason: "That's white of you." I mean that it's disappeared as a compliment. You may still hear it today, but if you do it will be  as an insult. 

Before the young man leaves for California, he calls his girlfriend. Remember long-distance calls? His brief New York-Los Angeles call costs him five dollars. That's eighty-two dollars in today's money, according to this site, which says that the dollar has lost 94% of its value since 1945. That sounds like a catastrophe, doesn't it? 

Another phrase you don't hear anymore: "sound as a dollar."


Alice Thomas Ellis: The Summerhouse Trilogy; A Couple of Noirs

I'm going to be more brief than this book deserves, because it's been several months since I read it and I want to refresh my memory about certain things, but I've just moved to a new house and almost all my books are still in boxes awaiting the resolution of questions about bookshelves. And I have no idea which box this book is in.

I think it was Charlotte Bronte who said of her sister Emily's creation, Heathcliff, that she was not sure that the creation of such a being was morally justified. I had a somewhat similar thought about Lili, the central character in this book. When I say that she is central I don't mean that she is what we usually call "the protagonist," that it is her fate which mostly concerns and engages the reader. But she is central in that she is the agent whose powers of action cause so much else to happen, or, more importantly in this case, not to happen: this is the story of a wedding that does not take place. And she is in a sense more than the others: not only her human self, but the expression, at least, of a powerful, mysterious, and fundamentally unholy force. If "strong female character" is one of your criteria for value in fiction, you'll certainly get your money's worth from this novel. 

In fact it is effectively an all-female cast of characters, though not all are strong. There are men present, but they're more or less stupid, unfortunate necessities. The book is not so much a trilogy as a trio of novellas (or three very long chapters) telling one basic story from the point of view of three different women. The three narrators are all very much a part of each other's lives, and the contrast between what each sees and assumes about the others, and the others' inner life, is striking--as striking as it probably would be in life. It's a technical tour de force, the points of contact among the narratives polished and precisely fitted. I recall one brief incident in particular, involving a dog's attention to a woman's foot, which is very different and rather more significant when seen for the second time and from a different point of view. 

The first section, The Clothes in the Wardrobe, takes us into the mind of Margaret, a young woman who is about to be married. The marriage would be against her will except that she doesn't seem to have much of a will. She has suffered a romantic and religious trauma which has sent her into despair, including the specifically theological sense of that word, resigned and indifferent to the pressures exerted by her mother and the suitor, a boorish older man, Syl. Significantly, Margaret's narration begins with a description of Lili. 

The second book, The Skeleton in the Closet, is the viewpoint of Syl's mother, Mrs. Munro, a somewhat embittered older woman who doesn't think a great deal more of Syl than does Margaret. Alice Thomas Ellis is not the only novelist to give us strikingly different views of a character from outside and inside, but the movement from the first section to this one is a particularly effective turn. Margaret has had much to say about her future mother-in-law, most of it negative and also inaccurate, and we are a little surprised--well, at least I was--to find her so different, and so much more sympathetic. She thinks Margaret is making a mistake. But she is as weary of and resigned toward the troubles of others as she is of her own.

The Fly in the Ointment gives us Lili as she really is and not as we have been seeing her through the eyes of Margaret and Mrs. Munro. She is among other things the sort of person who is often described, with a touch of envy, as a free spirit, or, with a touch of dread, as a force of nature. She is also more or less amoral in many ways. But it is she who not only sees the disaster into which Margaret is sleepwalking but acts to prevent it. I think I can promise you that you won't forget what she does.

When I finished this book I made this comment in an email to a couple of friends:

My reaction is a kind of astonishment, not 100% positive. I read the last paragraph, closed the book, and said "Golly, what a book." Not "golly" but "gah-LEE," the "golly" of someone coming out of a storm shelter after a tornado and taking a look around. 

This was a reaction not only to the closing incident but to the whole thing, superbly executed by an intelligence that sometimes seems a little malicious. The atmosphere is so full of feminine resentment, suspicion, and struggle that I found myself wondering if this sort of thing is what goes on in the minds of most women most of the time. There is an almost cold, almost merciless quality about Ellis's intelligence and wit (there is a fair amount of humor here). I keep the word "almost" because there is more than cold clinical skill at work. The quality which makes me think "merciless" is an unflinching willingness to see these people as they truly are, to let them, so to speak, get away with nothing. And in the end there is mercy, though it comes in such a manner as to lead one to the old question about good coming from evil. This is a religiously grounded work, but, like Flannery O'Connor's and in some ways even more so, hardly comforting. At least two reviews that I came across used the words "witch" and "witchy" of the author, and I can see why. 

*

For various reasons, none especially good but some better than others, I've gotten almost entirely out of the habit of watching serious movies. My Criterion Channel subscription has gone mostly unused for months, and I've wondered whether I should keep it. But they're calling this month "Noir November" and are running a number of noir titles which piqued my interest. 

The 1942 adaption of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key is a good one, starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd. I admit that I have a thing for Veronica Lake. After watching it I would have immediately picked up the novel, because I want to know whether the somewhat happy ending is Hammett's or not; I suspect not. But that book is also packed away.

The plot is complex, as one expects of Hammett, and the film is more genuinely dark than some of its kindred, especially in the sequence where the hero, Ed Beaumont, is held captive and beaten repeatedly by thugs. It's rare in these movies to see a depiction of the effects of violence that's remotely plausible. Beaumont is beaten almost to death, and we believe it. Far from bouncing back with a band-aid or two on his face, he spends a significant amount of time in the hospital. I have a vague childhood memory of William Bendix as a likeable cloddish sort of guy in a TV series called The Life of Riley, so it was a bit of a surprise to see him as a malicious brute. 

I also watched Call Northside 777 and This Gun for Hire. The former is not really noir, but it features Jimmy Stewart as a reporter trying to exonerate a man convicted of a murder he didn't commit. The latter stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake again, so is automatically appealing to me. It's based on a Graham Greene novel, modified for an American audience in the midst of World War II, and maybe a notch below The Glass Key as a film--less plausible on the whole, for one thing--but still very worthwhile for those who like this sort of thing. And anyway, Veronica Lake. 

VeronicaLakeImage swiped from this site which sells prints. I'm not usually drawn to the Hollywood Blonde types, but there is something about her that charms me. 


Wright Thompson: Pappyland

Subtitle: "A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and the Things That Last"

If you have any contact at all with whiskey and the many types and brands of it, you've probably heard of a bourbon called Pappy Van Winkle. When someone gave me this book for Christmas of 2020, "heard of it" was all I could say--I recognized the name, and was aware that it is absurdly expensive, running into the thousands of dollars per bottle. I assume that bottle is at most a liter, maybe only 750 milliliters. (I would prefer that it still be quarts and pints. That's not a view that I can defend rationally, but I like the old quirky measures.)

That's not the manufacturer's price, which is high but not really out of line with other top-shelf brands--from $70 to $300. But the distillery doesn't make very much of it, and there is an insane secondary market, in which those same bottles go for multiple thousands.

I don't believe "insane" is an exaggeration. To object that it can't be worth that much is irrelevant. Where money is concerned, "worth" is purely a matter of what someone is willing to pay, and that is probably not, or not only, a direct correlative of anything that could be considered an objective quality. Whether the taste of this whiskey is vastly better than that of other similar ones is probably not the determiner of that number. There are clearly elements of status, conspicuous consumption, and Rene Girard's "mimetic desire" involved.

But anyway: this book is the story of the family that produces Pappy Van Winkle, and it's an interesting one. The family have been making whiskey for generations, and they are actually named Van Winkle: this is no bogus corporate personality invented by marketers. In 1893 "Pappy" himself, Julian Proctor Van Winkle Sr., went to work for a distillery which he eventually bought. The enterprise had a hard time of it for part of the 20th century when big corporations started buying out all the smaller distilleries. There was an interim when the family had been defeated and were out of the business altogether, but the third generation, Julian III, got back into it and took it to its present place in the sun.

It's a story of craft, tradition, and family, not necessarily in that order, and especially appealing to anyone who cares about the effort to preserve the integrity and quality of a craft against commercial profit-above-all pressure. It's not a dry narrative, but a personal and almost memoir-ish picture of the Van Winkle family, especially Julian III, the culture surrounding Kentucky whiskey, and the author's own story, his family and their troubles. (It won't surprise anyone that I did not recognize his name, but Wright Thompson is a well-known sports writer.) I won't claim that it's great literature, but it's well-written, and I think even someone with little interest in the subject of whiskey would find it enjoyable.

And naturally it has a good bit to say about the nature and pleasures of good bourbon. Along with the book, I was given a bottle of very good bourbon called Larceny. Coincidentally, someone else gave me another good bourbon, this one having another crime-related name: Conviction, because the distillery is housed in a former prison. These gifts--the whiskeys themselves, and the lore in the book--caused me to pay attention to bourbon in a way that I never had before. I've been pretty much indifferent to the quality of whiskey, and in fact for many years the only one I kept on hand was Old Crow, which is near, though not at, the bottom of the list of quality in bourbon. That was partly for sentimental reasons, as my father drank it.

Well, now I know that there really is a difference, and that I really like the good stuff. Here's what I've learned to do: pour a small amount, a shot glass or so, of bourbon, and dilute it with a little water: a splash, as they say, or, if you want to be more precise, maybe a tablespoon. You want just enough water to reduce the immediate burning sensation, which gets in the way of the taste. It doesn't take much water, and too much will ruin it. Well, ok, maybe "ruin" is overstating it, but the result will be...watery. Puny. It won't work in the way I'm about to describe. Take a sip and just let it sit there in your mouth. Swish it around a bit. The flavor sort of blooms into this delicious golden vaguely sweet, vaguely spicy sensation--I always think of vanilla--and when you breath that flavor floats all the way up into your sinuses, deliciously. I can't go into the kind of detail about the taste that connoisseurs do--notes of this and that, finish, etc.; my palate is not that refined, nor is my vocabulary. Suffice to say that it's very pleasurable, and not all bourbons give the same pleasure.

I never could decide whether I liked Larceny or Conviction better, but both did far better in the above procedure than Old Crow or even Jim Beam. After Maker's Mark was discussed here a few weeks ago, I decided to try it, and bought a 375ml bottle, which represented a fairly small investment. I still have a little of the Larceny left, so I did a comparison. I like Larceny better, and it's around the same price as Maker's. But I don't think it's as widely distributed. It's only been intermittently available here.

And by the way: maybe the best whiskey I've ever had, certainly that I've had recently, is Jameson Black Barrel. Jameson is Irish whiskey, one of the two big names, along with Bushmills. I've heard that Jameson is favored by Catholics, Bushmills by Protestants. I don't know if that's true or not, and I don't care. I tried both a while back and wasn't enthusiastic about either. Jameson Black Barrel, though, is a higher-quality Jameson, too expensive for everyday, but my wife gave me a bottle last Christmas. It's really something--even richer than the good bourbons I mentioned, and with a quality that my wife, not a whiskey enthusiast, described accurately as "buttery."

*

That was only meant to be 500 words or so, and then I was going to say more about the Vatican II question (failure or not?). But I'll have to postpone that again.

*

It was the week after Thanksgiving when I saw him again. The stores along Hollywood Boulevard were already beginning to fill up with overpriced Christmas junk....

--Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye, 1953

I sure wish they still waited that long.

 


Carl Trueman: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

Subtitle: "Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution"

It's always true of human societies that serious and seemingly, perhaps actually, insoluble problems exist, but there are degrees, and it's more the case now than ordinarily. It's not always the case that an entire civilization plunges, as ours has done, into ideas and behavior that are obviously self-destructive and can only result in decline, possibly collapse. In some ways these are even manifestly crazy, in the sense of being fundamentally at odds with reality.

Those who recognize and are properly alarmed by this are frequently engaged in a somewhat desperate search for a solution, usually at least partly political, because our culture is now very heavily politicized. But I don't think our problems can be solved in any decisive way. I don't see how the plunge can be stopped, because the most powerful elements of society are passionately committed to it. We'll just have to ride it out and hope that it won't be fatal (whatever that might mean).

Obviously there is much that can be done here and now to slow it down, at least, and to ameliorate the harm being done. And I admire those doing the difficult work of--to choose one example--resisting the teaching of sick ideologies to school children. Nor is the organized political opposition insignificant or (entirely) ineffective, flawed though much of it is. More power to all of them.

But I've lost much if not all of my interest in talking about solutions. What interests me more now is the question of how we got here. Or, more accurately and importantly: where the hell are we? What exactly is going on? Philip Rieff's Triumph of the Therapeutic shed a great deal of light on those questions. In this book, Carl Trueman brings Rieff's insights, published almost sixty years ago, and those of others into the present. The others are, principally, Alisdair Macintyre and Charles Taylor. And now I'm going to have to read them, too.

If you want to understand why this thing that we call the culture war is so intractable, you might read part 1 of Trueman's book. (It's probably in your local library, as it's in mine and I live in a fairly small town.) There he lays out the situation: the fundamental difference is between those who view the human situation as fundamentally a matter of finding and accepting one's place in an objective external order, usually (maybe necessarily?) a sacred order, and those--the more representatively modern school--who see the individual as more or less creating or inventing himself, and, as a natural corollary, wishing or demanding that the world accommodate, or be subjected to, the self. When the two parties disagree, as they now do

...there is no real argument taking place. There is no common authority on which they might agree to the terms of debate in order to determine exactly what it is they are debating. The one looks to a sacred order, the other to matters that do not rise above the concerns of the immanent order.

If there is no reasoned debate, there can be no reasoned compromise, only a stalemate of warring armies. And that's probably the best we can hope for in the near future.

The rest of the book traces the development of this contemporary concept of the self, and the social and political implications of it. First came Rousseau's assertion that man is "born free but everywhere in chains," the chains being or at least beginning with the degrading and corruption influence of Society. From there to the sexual revolution and its current phase is a grimly fascinating story, running through Freud, Marx, and 20th century figures such as William Reich and Herbert Marcuse, and summarized in these two passages:

...the rise of the sexual revolution was predicated on fundamental changes in how the self is understood. The self must first be psychologized; psychology must then be sexualized; and sex must be politicized.

To follow Rousseau is to make identity psychological. to follow Freud is to make psychology, and thus identity, sexual. To mesh this combination with Marx is to make identity--and therefore sex--political.... To transform society politically, then, one must transform society sexually and psychologically....

"The personal is the political," said the feminists. I always took this to mean that, for instance, when a husband leaves his socks on the floor, and his wife picks them up, a significant political event has occurred. And I think they did mean that. But Trueman demonstrates that it also means something much larger, something absolute, something bigger than anything else in the minds of the sexual revolutionaries (a category which includes a large subset of progressives but not all). This is the long-developing revolution which became a truly mass movement in the late 1960s, and is now, as is often observed, in effect a militant religion. Its strictures were foreshadowed by Reich, who believed

...that the state must be used to coerce families and, where necessary, actively punish those who dissent from the sexual liberation being proposed. In short, the state has the right to intervene in family matters because the family is potentially the primary opponent of political liberation through its cultivation and policing of traditional sexual codes.

All this seems to me essential for understanding what's happening, which is to say that this is an essential book if you want that understanding. It is not the only pathology at work, though. Trueman does not deal with directly political problems, chief of which in my opinion is the mysterious apparent death wish of a large segment of Western culture, the hatred and repudiation of its own past and ferocious denunciation of those who persist in valuing its traditions, especially of course its religious tradition, and who refuse to make the expected acts of repudiation. There is probably a connection between this and the hypertrophied narcissism described by Truman, but I'm not sure what it is.

Trueman-RiseAndTriumpOfTheModernSelf

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I was going to say more about Vatican II and the article by Larry Chapp to which Marianne linked in the comments on the previous post, but I'm in the process of moving (not far, still same locale) and both time and internet access are limited. Next week....


The Son Avenger, and Other Things

One of the blog-related matters I've been wrestling with is that I've gotten way behind on discussing recently-read books. Part of the reason for that is plain old procrastination, with my own personal twist: anything, especially a writing task, that seems likely to take more than, say, fifteen or twenty minutes keeps getting put off: I don't have time to do that right now, I'll do it later. I'll have more time after I get [random thing] out of the way. And pretty soon half a dozen or so such tasks have piled up, while I attend to a series of things that at least in theory should only have taken a few minutes each. Here, I think, is the one that's been in that backlog the longest.

I finished The Son Avenger, the fourth book in Sigrid Undset's Olav Audunsson tetralogy, several months ago. It is very much a worthy finale to Olav's biography. The title I'm using is the one chosen for the Chater translation, which is the one I read, and I don't know whether it originated with Undset or was approved by her. In any case, it (the title) is very apt. I'm not giving away very much if I say that the heart of the story is a murder committed by Olav early in his life, kept secret and unconfessed out of concern for the effect its revelation would have on those whom he loves and for whom he feels responsible. The title suggests the way that dilemma is finally resolved, and what I think of as the holy irony of it.

I'll repeat what I've said before: this is a great novel, and Undset is a great novelist. I don't use the word "great" in the casual sense in which I would say, for example, that Revolver is a great album. I mean a kind of greatness that should stand for centuries, and probably will.

I don't now what the title of this volume will be in the Nunnally translation. It appears that the third volume was (or is to be) released only this month, and I can't find any mention of the fourth on the publisher's web site. It will probably be a single word, in line with the titles of the other three: VowsProvidenceCrossroads. These are defensible titles, but I prefer those of the old translation: The AxeThe Snake Pit; In the Wilderness. The difference is a good instance of my reasons for preferring the older translation: to my taste it is, to pick one of several possible words, richer. A post from November of last year, "Olav Audunsson and Undset Translations," goes into more detail on that question. 

Still, I don't think the new translation (or that of Kristin) is bad, and it seems to have brought new readers to Undset's work, which is a very good thing. And what very great deal of hard labor it must involve.

(Yet I cringe when I recall Nunnally's use of "fetus" when a character feels an unborn child kicking in her womb. There is a phrase used by people in the book to refer to the unborn, presumably an idiom of the time or at least appropriate to it, which a translator can hardly avoid: "the one under my [or her] heart." Or, when a character is suspected but not known to be pregnant, someone says that "she does not go alone." I'm not mentioning this as a political complaint; it's a literary one. "Fetus" jars. It's out of place. It would be like Olav riding off to a council of landholders saying that he's going to "network" with others.)

Here are links to posts about the second and third books: The Snake PitIn the Wilderness. If I wrote about the first one, I can't locate the post now.

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I promise I am not going to give in to the temptation to talk about politics regularly, but I am getting this off my chest:

Let's stipulate that Donald Trump is a bad man and was a bad president. I think the opposition to him, which has aptly been called deranged, and the four-year-long refusal to accept the results of the 2016 election did more harm to the country than Trump himself did. Still, I believe what I said in 2015: I think he has a screw loose. And I think that without all the frenzy on the part of the opposition his presidency would still have been, overall, a mess. 

Granting that, I cannot take seriously the political judgment of anyone who doesn't see that Biden is at least as bad, as a man and as president. The blogger Neoneocon summed him up some time ago: not very smart, not very honest, not very nice. That's clear, has been for most of his career, and continues to be demonstrated at least once a week. 

I'm not going to bother laying out the evidence. I've pretty much given up trying to argue about things that are a matter of simple observation. From the moment he took office, Biden has been maliciously, dishonestly, divisive, slandering the very large number of Americans who don't support him, and engaging in the most inflammatory rhetoric of racial hostility since George Wallace. And unlike Trump, who had most of the ruling class and the federal government in particular against him, Biden has them on his side, giving him a degree of power, official and unofficial, that Trump never came close to possessing. 

At this point, anyone who doesn't see this is either a very partisan Democrat or just not looking, perhaps too embubbled in the media environment designed and maintained to suppress everything that doesn't serve the progressive cause, or maybe just too appalled by Trump to see things clearly. I have a certain amount of sympathy for that last one--Trump often was and is, so to speak objectively appalling. But it still constitutes a failure of judgment. 

Just this past week Biden was caught, when he didn't know he was near an active microphone, saying "Nobody f***s with a Biden." That sounds like the voice of a long-successful criminal, suggesting a long history of misdeeds. That's the real Joe Biden. Kindly old Uncle Joe is as much a public relations creation as Ronald McDonald. 

And what did he, and/or the staffers who set it up, believe his Sith Lord speech would accomplish? If Trump had engaged in this kind of authoritarian theater the shock and horror might have produced actual fatalities among those suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome. 

BidenAsDarthSith

This complaint is prompted in part by the evidence of serious corruption involving the Biden family, and the almost complete ignoring of it by the mainstream press. See this National Review story, which ends:

The evidence is that we’re living in an age of deep, dangerous, and pervasive corruption, and most of our institutions are either silent, indifferent, or complicit. This cannot end well.

*Journalism2


Nietzsche, The Atheist Who Didn't Flinch

...the Enlightenment effectively tore out the foundations from under the polite bourgeois morality that it wished to maintain. You cannot do this, says Nietzsche. You have unchained the earth from the sun, a move of incalculable significance. By doing so, you have taken away any basis for a metaphysics that might ground either knowledge or ethics.... The cheerful and chipper atheism of a Richard Dawkins or a Daniel Dennett is not for Nietzsche because it fails to see the radical consequences of its rejection of God. To hope that, say evolution will make us moral would be to assume a meaning and order to nature that can only really be justified on a prior metaphysical basis that itself transcends nature, or simply to declare by fiat and with no objective justification that certain things we like or of which we approve are intrinsically good. 

--Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

I haven't finished this book yet, and will probably have more to say about it. But it's actually better than I expected--not that I didn't expect it to be good, but it's both wider and deeper than I thought it would be. 


More Rieff (3)

A brief but telling few paragraphs on the situation of Christianity in the new culture:

What, then, should churchmen do? The answer returns clearly: become, avowedly, therapists, administrating a therapeutic institution--under the justificatory mandate that Jesus himself was the first therapeutic. For the next culture needs therapeutic institutions.

After quoting a writer of the time, John Wren-Lewis, who dismisses all the actually religious aspects of religion, Rieff continues:

[Wren-Lewis] understands that churchmen will be able to become professional therapeutics "only if they break away radically from almost all, if not all, of their traditional religious pursuits." Here speaks the therapeutic, calmly confident that community life no longer needs "some supposed plan underlying experience," that is, no longer needs doctrinal integrations of self into communal purposes, elaborated, heretofore, precisely through such "supposed plans."....

Both East and West are now committed, culturally as well as economically, to the gospel of self-fulfillment. Yet neither the American nor the Russian translations of the gospel can be transformed into a spiritual perception.

Nor does the present ferment in the Roman Catholic Church seem so much like a renewal of spiritual perception as a move toward more sophisticated accommodations with the negative communities of the therapeutics. Grudgingly, the Roman churchmen must give way to their Western laity and translate their sacramental rituals into comprehensible terms as therapeutic devices. (p. 215)

That was 1966. The so-called "spirit of Vatican II" and many other developments would soon prove Rieff's prophetic insight. Clearly a great many Christians, clergy and other, have taken this path toward the therapeutic, not so much by a conscious decision as by having absorbed the view of the surrounding culture, that Christianity is essentially a sort of local  or specific implementation of a presumed general drive toward self-enrichment. 

Wren-Lewis took an interesting turn later in life after a near-death experience, becoming a believer in a kind of transcendent consciousness. 


More Rieff (2)

To end the spiritual impoverishment of Western culture, Jung recommends the following: that the rationalist suppression of myth and of other manifestations of the unconscious need mitigation, but not by a new theology or new dogmas; rather, by a therapeutic release of the myth components from the collective unconscious. The neurosis of modernity is defined by Jung as the suppression of precisely those irrational components. Therefore, Jung is recommending an essentially private religiosity without institutional reference or communal membership for the individual in need of an integrated symbolism....

In other words, "spiritual but not religious." In essence, this is a fairly common observation, though we usually hear it praised rather than viewed with Rieff's dry skepticism, and where it's criticized, not so precisely. What follows, though, is a little surprising:

This, then, is a religion for heretics in an age where orthodoxy no longer serves the sense of well-being. Jung's is a literary religion that demands more imagination than faith, more magic than science, more creativity than morality. Jung never analyzes the social structures within which all creative symbolisms occur. Indeed, he seems unaware of social structure. His psychology of the creative unconscious is remarkably old-fashioned, a secular version of the theology of the Creative Person which forms the central pillar of the huge and variegated growth we know today as Protestant theology. (p. 114)

My emphasis. I assume he's referring there to liberal Protestantism. It certainly doesn't seem to describe fundamentalist-evangelical Protestantism, at least not of Rieff's time. But I have the impression that the therapeutic mentality has made great inroads there in recent years, in what's been called "moral therapeutic deism." 

Oh look: MTD has a Wikipedia page