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Dostoevsky's Demons Revisited

As political frenzy revved up over the last year, I found myself wanting to re-read Dostoevsky's Demons, thinking it would offer some insight and perspective on what's happening. Or rather not so much what is currently happening as what has been happening for the past 150 years or so. I had thought on my first reading that I didn't fully grasp it, and hoped it might be clearer on a second reading. As usual I found that it had been longer than I thought since the previous one. I guessed three years or maybe four; it was actually seven.

But looking back at the post I wrote then, I find that it still stands pretty well as a summary of my opinion. So here's a link to it.

What I said then about a great novel being like a symphony that must be heard more than once was certainly proved. I did enjoy the book more this time around, and felt more sure that I understood it. The feeling I described of seeing the people and events as through some kind of fog or smoke was much less pronounced this time, in fact mostly gone. I did, however, again and again find myself thinking of what I had said then, quoting a friend: that many (most?) of Dostoevsky's characters seem "just barely sane." And the funny parts were funnier, especially the meeting of the would-be revolutionaries, which was more or less recognizable to anyone who's ever been around young people full of big ideas about changing the world. And the long rhapsody delivered at the disastrous fete by a windbag character said to have been modeled on Turgenev is flat hilarious.

I also thought of a remark from W.H. Auden which I encountered many years ago in some magazine and no longer remember the context of: that the Russian and American temperaments are more alike than either is like the English. I think that's true. I can't really imagine anyone in Demons transposed directly into an American, but I can easily imagine ones equally crazy in very similar ways.

I read the translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, which was the same one I read before. I had thought about reading the old and formerly standard Constance Garnett one, but a bit of comparison suggested that the differences were not as great as, for instance, those between the recent Undset translations and the older ones.

The change of the title from The Possessed is interesting. I assume it's justified as a simple matter of translation, but it raises a question. The novel bears as an epigraph the story from the Gospel of Luke of the Gadarene swine, possessed by demons who cause them to run down a hill into the sea. Clearly the deranged ideas of Dostoesky's characters, and especially their nihilistic and amoral revolutionary fervor, are the analog of the demons in the story, and those who are driven by those ideas are the swine. The translation of the title therefore is significant: is it a reference to the demons or to those possessed by them? See this brief discussion at Wikipedia. Either works, of course. But there's a difference of emphasis, and on that basis alone I'm inclined to think that "demons" is more appropriate. Or, as some other translators have said, "devils."

I had not realized how many (English) translations there are. That Wikipedia page lists seven, two of them since Pevear and Volokhonsky's in 1994. 

I Judge This Book By the Cover

I was in my local independent bookstore one day last week. I don't go there very often, even though I am happy they've survived and even prospered (though book sales are not their only revenue), and I want them to continue to do so. There just aren't many current books that I have much interest in, so I don't go unless I have some specific reason. I had been there several weeks earlier for some Christmas shopping (which proved to be futile), and discovered that they had a copy of Alfred Corn's new translation of Rilke's Duino Elegies.

I was surprised to see it, as the store's poetry section is very small and not very interesting. And I've been wanting to read this translation, but was in a hurry and there was a long line at the cash register, so I didn't buy it at the time. Figuring, correctly, that it would probably still be there after Christmas, I went back to get it.

I could not miss the many copies of this book, very prominently displayed:


The idea that these two very successful, very rich, very honored, very influential and in Obama's case directly powerful, men are in any conceivable sense "renegades" is just too much. That the title was chosen, and approved if not proposed by the two, reveals the way left-liberal America still sees itself, in spite of its commanding cultural position, as a band of plucky rebels challenging a repressive establishment. I guess that still generates a lot of energy.

A few years ago there was a TV commercial, for what I don't know, which involved an older white man, a stereotypical old-school corporate executive, bragging about getting some sort of special deal (sorry, I really don't have any idea what it was about). He says to a subordinate "It's my way of sticking it to the man." 

"But sir," says the subordinate. "You are the man." Exactly.

Good Omens (TV series)

For many years I've heard the novels of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett recommended, often very highly and sometimes from people whom I know personally and who generally have pretty good literary judgment. I thought I might check them out sooner or later, but they weren't a high priority and I still haven't read anything by either of them. This 2019 TV series, based on a book which they co-authored, seemed like a chance to see what the praise was all about. Pratchett died in 2015, and the series seems to have been entirely under the control of Gaiman, as both writer and producer. 

The premise is that an angel and a demon who have been on the Earth beat since the Creation (the date of which, we are told, Bishop Usher was actually right about) have become more or less friends and rather comfortable with their 21st century simulated-human existence. The End Times have come, the anti-Christ is to be born. and the final war between heaven and hell is to commence. The pair have important roles to play in all this, but there's a problem: they don't want the world to end. They are pretty content with the way things are. So they set about trying to sabotage the apocalypse, and the whole thing becomes farce in the classic sense: "situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, ridiculous, absurd, and improbable." (Wikipedia) Right off the bat, for instance, they lose track of the anti-Christ, and waste a lot of time trying to steer the development of the wrong child. 

The series did not make reading either of its authors seem more urgent to me, and since Gaiman was apparently in control the blame can't be laid on insensitive TV producers. It's clever, but not that clever; funny, but not that funny. It leans too heavily on hackneyed conceptions of angels, demons, heaven, hell, and God. The last of these, for instance, is heard only as a voiceover (by Frances McDormand) and is the sort of limited wisecracking hardly-God-at-all construct which has been around at least since George Burns did the number in Oh, God back in the '70s. The angel (played by Michael Sheen) is an effete and timid fussbudget, apparently homosexual. The demon (David Tennant) is rich, witty, and glamorous, though most of the other demons are a really nasty lot. The angels are different but not really much nicer, slick inhabitants of a sort of empty white and glass space suggestive of a corporate office, behaving accordingly. Gabriel is played by Jon Hamm, who apparently had a key role in Mad Men, which I have not seen, but I suppose the association added flavor to the role for those who have seen it. 

The whole "isn't religion silly" vein of humor is pretty well played out at this point--"religion" here meaning mainly Christianity, or rather a pop-secular parody of it. People have been doing it for quite some time now, and there's no longer much adventure to be had in satirizing something that was already a parody. With "religion" now generally and openly despised by our most dominant and influential cultural forces, this kind of thing begins to seem like a big exercise in missing the point.

All that said, I did enjoy it, and would sort of half-recommend it. It's very elaborately and effectively produced, and there are a good many funny moments. The cast in general seems to be having a lot of fun, especially David Tennant. And I had fun identifying some of the actors playing characters very far removed from their usual roles. My wife heard a lot of "I know that face/voice, I just can't place it" from me. Anna Maxwell Martin is Beelzebub. Nina Sosanya, whose face and voice if not name will be familiar to people like me who watch a lot of British crime dramas, plays a nun (actually a satanic nun, Sister Mary Loquacious of the Chattering Order of St. Beryl). Miranda Richardson is Madame Tracy, a middle-aged (at least) woman who combines the occupations of prostitute and medium-for-hire. Mirielle Enos, the troubled detective (aren't they all?) of the American version of The Killing is War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The one that took me the longest time to get was an actor whose face I recognized but couldn't place until four episodes or so in: he is Michael McKean, who plays Chuck, the older brother of Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul. He plays one of the last Witchfinders, and gets special credit for being a rare American actor who does a believable British accent. 

Here's the trailer:

Having watched the trailer again, I'll add that there is a definite philosophical or theological kinship here with Wim Winders's Wings of Desire. Worlds apart aesthetically, though. 

Joan Didion, RIP

At this point in my life I find myself sometimes mentally compiling, not a desert island list of books and music, but a nursing home (or, preferably, assisted living) list: the books I would take with me if I had to go live in a very small place with one very small bookshelf. I've actually only read three or four of Joan Didion's books, but The White Album would make the list. Maybe also Slouching Toward Bethlehem. She saw some things that nobody else was seeing in the '60s. And mostly still don't. RIP

In her early years she wrote for National Review, and they've put those contributions online. You can read them here. I haven't read these particular essays, and probably won't get a chance to do so till after Christmas. But if you haven't read anything by her they might be a good place to start. Although I see they are PDFs of scanned copies of old magazine pages, and not all that comfortable to read. 

Peter Hitchens Muses on the Wind

His latest post at The Lamp's blog is a jewel:

What is it about the wind? When I am watching some piece of ancient black-and-white archive film, imprisoned in the time when it was made, a gust of wind will lift a person’s hair or shake the trees in the background, and the whole thing will spring to fierce life. For the moment when the wind blows, it is freed from the past and is happening now. I do not know why. It just is so.

Something similar happens when the wind comes into poetry or prose....

It's not very long, but read it when you're not distracted and are at liberty to take it slowly. As those who have read this blog for a while know, I live on the hurricane coast and am all too well acquainted with truly terrible and dangerous winds. Yet even at times when I've lain in the dark wondering if a tree was going to fall on the house, or the roof come off, I couldn't help feeling, in addition to the fear, a degree of awe bordering on admiration. And I've been close enough to a tornado to hear it, and have seen the damage. Hitchens notes

I was once on a train between Denver, Colorado and Omaha, Nebraska, halted for hours by tornadoes. The small towns through which we crept, when we at last moved, looked as if they had been visited by war.

That's no exaggeration. After one tornado in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1989, I went to help with the cleanup. I saw, among other things, cars that had been picked up and dropped upside down, completely flattening the top, or right-side up, warping the wheels. Not the tires, the solid steel wheels. A wind that can pick up a car and throw it around. 


A couple of other things worth looking at on the web:

Slant Books is doing some great things. Among their recent offerings is a collection of three plays by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. The title play is about a family of Elizabethan recusant Catholics who...well, here's the description:

Shakeshafte imagines an encounter between a young sixteenth century Englishman with a faintly familiar surname and an undercover Jesuit missionary. Two visions of how words change the world collide and converge and slip away again.

You can read an excerpt here. Also, at this link, you can register for a December 28 online book launch for Shakeshafte which will include performance of a scene from the title play and a Q&A with Williams. 


The Friday Links at the Dappled Things blog usually include some interesting stuff. In this case it's all of them. I haven't watched that video about the hermit yet but I intend to. I wonder where Liechtenstein is. 

Not so sure I want to read the entire piece by the young women who says "Over time, though, I outgrew the conversion narrative as a genre." Yeah, I hear you. I'm pretty sick of the one I wrote. 

Olav Audunsson and Undset Translations

I recently read Vows, the title given by translator Tiina Nunnally to the first book in the tetralogy previously known as The Master of Hestviken, called in the new translation simply by the name of the main character, Olav Audunsson. From the book's brief Wikipedia entry it's not clear to me whether Undset gave titles to the individual books, but apparently the English translators and publishers have felt free to choose their own. I will say that the new title of the tetralogy seems more fitting than the old; if nothing else it makes for an appropriate juxtaposition with Kristin Lavransdatter, as both are principally concerned with one character. And as for Vows, it's as fitting a title for the first book as the older translation's The Axe. I lean toward the latter as being a more potent title, and as you know if you've read the book, an axe is a very significant part of the story, but so are vows, at least as much so.

At the moment other books have taken priority over continuing with this one, or four, but I'll get back to it, or them. Right now I just want to say something about the translations. I sat in on a series of online lectures on Vows last month, and Tiina Nunnally also attended. Of course people had questions for her, and one of them was about titles. Nunnally said she didn't care much for the titles of the earlier translations, which she thought overly masculine. Well, I don't especially agree, but I get her point. Her second volume is called Providence; the older title is The Snake Pit--there's clearly a pretty different sensibility at work. Personally I suspect Undset would have favored the concrete title over the abstract, but obviously that's only a guess, and, again, there's nothing inappropriate or unfitting about Nunnally's title. 

The differing titles, though, are suggestive to me of other qualities in the new translation, qualities which make me unable to be as enthusiastic about it as most contemporaries seem to be. Last spring when I was reading Nunnally's translation of Kristin I made a number of comments on the translation question. They're in three different posts, so I'll repeat the main points here. 


Nunnally's prose is certainly simpler and more clear, but it's also without [distinctive ] character. I don't recall encountering anything in this volume which would be out of place in an ordinary magazine or newspaper story of our time. But neither do I recall lingering over any sentence for its elegance or flavor. I won't say it's clumsy, but I won't say it's graceful, either. Maybe I would think the same of the original; maybe Undset wrote a straightforward and not particularly rich prose. 

Nunnally's simplicity certainly makes for an easier read. Archer's prose can be something of a struggle, but I breeze right through Nunnally's without conscious effort. Whether anything is being lost I really can't say with any authority, but as the two sentences above indicate, there are often differences of nuance: "got leave to go" and "was going to accompany" are not interchangeable. 


In poking around on the web for information about the Kristin translations, I've found that it tends to be taken for granted that the new one (Nunnally) is not just superior to the old one (Archer) but has definitively replaced it, liberating a great novel from a terrible translation. Not so fast, I say. There are many reasons to be grateful for Nunnally's, most especially the restoration of some significant passages mysteriously (as far as I know) omitted from Archer's. But I have reason to think that Nunnally's is also some distance from ideal. I will have more to say about this when I've finished the last volume, but consider the bit I just quoted: "Saint Olav had brought Christianity to the valley...." That sounded off to me. I of course have no idea what Undset actually wrote, but I'm pretty sure that medieval Christians in Norway and everywhere else did not use a term like "Christianity." So I looked at Archer, and found that he says that Saint Olav "christened" the valley. Much truer, I'm sure, to the medieval mind.


I agree that Archer's attempt at an antique effect is awkward at best, and not even historically appropriate.  But I'm not content with Nunnally's translation...

I can't speak to the rhythms of Undset's prose--but Nunnally's reads like ordinary contemporary American English. The word "weight" keeps coming to mind: Harbison's description makes me think that Undset's prose has it, but Nunnally's does not. Maybe that's not Nunnally's fault, or only partly; maybe it's just the nature of the language of our time. But it's light, almost breezy in comparison to Archer. There's nothing much poetical, nothing much memorable, in it, and by that I don't mean that I think it should have some kind of ostentatious lyricism (which I don't like), but only that there should be something there which makes us re-read a sentence or a paragraph, not because we want to be sure we understood it fully or for any other, so to speak, practical reason, but because its language pleases and touches us....

By the way, Nunnally's inclusion of passages said to be too sexually explicit for Archer, which of course arouses all sorts of tingles in the typical contemporary critic or reader, turns out to be a big nothing. The differences are pretty trivial, apparently consisting only of a few sentences. I would not have been able to identify the passages if I hadn't seen a review which quoted them side by side.


I couldn't shake the feeling that Nunnally lacks some kind of basic sympathy with Undset's view of the world.  In Olav Audunsson I found something that rather brought this home to me. I neglected to mark the passage, so my quotation may not be precisely accurate, but it's something like "Suddenly the foetus moved vigorously inside her." 

I don't know Norwegian, contemporary or ancient, so I suppose I could be wrong, but I find it hard to believe that a medieval Norwegian would have had such a clinical word, or that Undset would have used it. The earlier translation has simply the natural word, "child." I can't hear the use of "foetus" as anything but an anachronism at least as egregious as "I trow," and moreover reflective of the political-cultural controversies of our time. I don't accuse Nunnally of being deliberately ideological here--perhaps it's just the circles she moves in--but the term is certainly loaded; to say "foetus" instead of "baby" is a deliberate choice for many people, for reasons which I don't need to go into.

So, to sum up: one translation is fusty, giving us an attempt at antique dialog that's really more of the 19th-century than the 13th, like a tea shop in 1900 calling itself Ye Olde Tea Shoppe. (To me it's mainly the dialog in the older translations that often sounds stilted and unreal; the narrative and descriptive passages don't have that problem, and indeed are often richer.) And rightly or wrongly many contemporary readers find it too difficult; one young attendee at that online series I mentioned thanked Tiina Nunnally for "making it possible for me to read Kristin Lavransdatter."

And the other translation is all too much of its time. One owes too much to the 19th century and perhaps earlier, one is too much of the 21st. Why do I harp on this? In part I suppose because I think I may be missing something, that neither translation really does the best possible service to Undset. And even if I wanted to learn Norwegian it's a bit late for me to get started. There will certainly not be another translation in my lifetime, probably not until 2100 is a lot closer than 2000, and who knows what the cultural and linguistic condition of English will be then? 

I feel rather churlish in complaining about translations that certainly involved an amount of labor and knowledge that I can't really imagine doing and possessing, and which may very well have, as the person I quoted above said, "made it possible" for people who otherwise would not have known the work of a great novelist to do so. I really am grateful for that. It's just...well....

By the way, the earlier translations of Kristin and Olav are not by the same person. One is Charles Archer, the other Arthur Chater. But they are similar, though I think Chater's has less of the questionable antique in the dialog. 

A Perfect Recording?

Benjamin Britten: Serenade for Tenor Solo, Horn, and Strings, Op 21; Les Illuminations for Tenor Solo and Strings, Op. 18.
Peter Pears, tenor; Dennis Brain, horn; The New Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eugene Goosens. London LL 994

Clearly, the use of the word "perfect" requires some justification and explanation. What I mean is that this is great music, performed and recorded in such a way that I can't really imagine it done better. If you don't care for Britten's music, or for these particular pieces, then obviously this can't be considered a perfect recording. But I do like the music, very much. And the performances seem to me to be perfect in the sense of being ideally suited to the music. And the sound is about as good as one could expect for 1944, when this LP was issued; moreover, it has a living quality which can be absent from more technically sophisticated recordings. (It's from the Fr. Dorrell trove, by the way, described in this post.)


Whenever I talk about classical music I feel obliged to note that I am no judge of performances. If it's devoid of obvious mistakes, I think it's ok. Still, I think this one is ideal, even though I suspect that someone really knowledgeable about singing might find some things to criticize in Pears's performance. I at any rate find his performance here very effective.

Is it great music, in the sense that, say, the Goldberg Variations are great music? Perhaps not. On second thought, in fact, I'll say no, I don't think it is. But I'll let critics of the future worry about Britten's place in the tradition. It's distinctly "modern," although not defiantly so; it demands no theoretical knowledge or an ear that's capable of tracking a twelve-tone motif (if that's the right word). What I mean is that it's accessible to me, and I think to anyone, in the sense that it isn't abstract--atonal and dissonant.

Les Illuminations is a set of prose poems (a dubious term, but never mind that for now) by Rimbaud. I was in a mild sort of way an enthusiast for his work in my youth. If I spoke French I might have been more enthusiastic, but at any rate I was drawn to his quasi- (or proto-) surrealist visions. Here's a sample, from "Cities," one of the pieces Britten sets:

Cities indeed! This is a people for whom those Alleghanies and Lebanons of dream were staged! Chalets of crystal and wood that move on invisible rails and pulleys. Old craters circled by colossi, and palm-trees of copper roaring melodiously in flames. Feasts of love resound, on canals that hang there behind the chalets. The hunt of chimes cries in the gorges. Guilds of gigantic singers flock among robes and oriflammes dazzling as the light on the summits.

Britten uses seven of these in his work, with a sort of refrain drawn from one of them, "Parade": "I alone hold the key to this savage parade." Fortunately I still have the New Directions translation that I bought when I was in college, and it includes the French. You really need something like that to fully enjoy the work, unless your French is good enough that you can understand the sung text. You can read the entire work in English at this useful site, Poetry In Translation

The other work, the Serenade, is also a setting of poems, this time in English and by several different poets. One of them, the poem of Tennyson which we know as "Blow, Bugle, Blow" is titled "Nocturne," but really the whole thing is a nocturne. The opening horn solo almost inevitably and irresistibly evokes sunset, and all the poems are related to evening and night. I haven't made up my mind yet which I like best (not that I need to), but I think most people would find the eerie "Lyke-Wake Dirge" among the most striking of the settings.

Thanks to YouTube, you can hear this work, and even hear this recording, so I don't need to try any harder to describe it.

(If you are reading this months or years after I posted it, you may well find that the video is gone. That's the way it is with YouTube.)

Henry James: The Portrait of a Lady

This was another one of those unplanned reading detours that I mentioned earlier. I went to the shelf intending to re-read Dostoevsky's Demons (the novel formerly known as The Possessed), maybe in the old Constance Garnett translation, since my previous reading was the newer one. I'd been thinking of re-reading it, although it hasn't been that long since the last time, because of its relevance to what's going on politically and culturally now.

But for reasons unknown I found myself hesitating and thinking instead of Henry James, and that I would really like to read one of his full-length novels; I've only read his shorter works, and most of those were many years ago. So I picked up The Portrait of a Lady, which I think someone recommended to me relatively recently.

I very much enjoyed it, but at the same time I found myself thinking fairly often that I could really see myself coming to dislike Henry James. More about that in a moment.

Daisy Miller was one of those shorter works that I read long ago, no doubt as a class assignment. I don't remember much about it except that it was described as the encounter of a lively and somewhat innocent or naive young American woman with the staid and perhaps even corrupt, or at least cynical, traditions of Europe. Actually I think there was sort of a hint of salaciousness in that description--perhaps it was on the cover of the book and was an attempt to deceive a bookstore customer into thinking that it was something racy, which I feel pretty confident in saying it is not.

Anyway, The Portrait of a Lady might get a similar one-sentence blurb. The lady of the title is a young American woman, Isabel Archer, who comes to England full of a desire to see and experience as much of life as she can. (That is not to be taken as it might in today's culture, as suggesting wild adventures with sex and drugs and so forth. I doubt that Henry James would treat it that way even if he were writing today.) And she becomes ensnared in the machinations of profoundly duplicitous people. But it is not Europe, or at least not Europe alone, that's to blame: those people are also Americans, though tenuously, having been born in America or of American parents in Europe, but having spent most of their lives in Europe. Maybe James intended some sort of point about the mixing of the cultures, I don't know.

Isabel is like some of the female protagonists in Austen and Eliot (George): an attractive young woman with a great seriousness of purpose and an intense consciousness of personal integrity, impatient with the conventional dishonesties and compromises of social life. And of course she has suitors, and the question of whom she will marry is a major component of the plot. She has a cousin, male, of somewhere around her own age who is enchanted with her at their first meeting (and thereafter), but apart from their kinship is not eligible as a suitor because he is dying slowly of tuberculosis. For those reasons he exercises real love--the desire for her good--in the only way he can, by wishing and doing for her what he can, which is considerable, to bring about the conditions for her flowering. The working out of his beneficent intention drives the crucial developments of the story.

The reader likewise wishes the best for her. Henry James is not known for his page-turner plots, and this one certainly moves slowly, but the sense of movement builds, and by the time I was within a hundred or so pages (out of nearly 600) of the end I didn't want to put the book down. And I'll leave my remarks about the story proper at that.

One of the vague impulses that made me think of Henry James when I was heading for Dostoevsky was a sudden desire for some really well-crafted, very highly polished, even ornate, prose. And of course I got that. But if there is such a thing as prose that is too well-crafted, there is a lot of it in Henry James. And that touches on my reasons for saying that I could imagine coming to dislike him.

The long and tortuously complex sentences can be annoying. They seem forever trying to get at the last, least, most subtle and evanescent nuance of meaning, in the service of detecting and extracting the last, least, most subtle and evanescent nuance of character and intention. I was occasionally defeated by this, and forced to admit that I really did not know exactly what had been communicated in a conversation (and the book is largely conversation). There were times when the characters have clearly understood some subtlety about which I was not at all clear, and that the exchange was in effect an act as decisive as a slap in the face, but which left me not entirely sure what the act had been--as if the slap had taken place offstage, and I could only infer it by the changed relationship, and even there the change was often quite subtle.

James has a penchant for compounding negatives which sometimes got on my nerves.

It is not to be supposed that he was unaware that he could not fail to deny that the intimation that her remark displeased him was not indelicate.

I made that one up, obviously, and I don't think James actually ever puts together more than three, or maybe four, negatives. And it's justifiable, as a means of suggesting a very slight nuance. But it is a habit that is occasionally annoying and/or amusing. If he talked in anything like the way he wrote, he must have been maddening sometimes. Sometimes his work seems like a huge complex flower grown on the moon, with a stem that can't support it in earthly gravity.

Another thing that bothered me, and one I'm a little embarrassed to confess: these people are for the most part the truly idle rich, and I guess there is enough little-d democrat in me that I now and then I found myself thinking along the lines suggested by snarky remarks about first world problems: "Get a job!"

Even the guy who is said to have "no money" seems never to have hit a lick at a snake, lives in "an ancient villa crowning an olive-muffled hill," and has an envied collection of the sort of expensive and exquisite bric-a-brac--china and such--that Henry James characters tend to have collections of, and of which I have no doubt that James himself was a connoisseur.

Connoisseurship, whatever its object, is something which we are likely to admire a little (at least) in ourselves but to disdain a little (at least) in others--effete and, we suspect, very likely affected, if not fraudulent. I had the latter reaction to the kind of exquisite, snobbish, and expensive tastes exercised by some of James's characters. But however much James himself may have had the same proclivity, he sees that to extend it to people and to become a connoisseur of human specimens, not in their fullness but insofar as they may be possessed and cause their owner to be admired as a man of wealth and taste, can be monstrous.

Still: underneath all the artifice, all the human virtues and vices are still there. The beast in the jungle, to borrow the title of another James work which I have not read, is very much alive in the mansions, palaces, and parlors of these highly privileged people who live a life of artifice such that we, or at least I, can hardly imagine being able to bear.

One final mild reservation: the story ends on what struck me as a slightly strange, decidedly modern, note of liberation, something at least hinting at the follow-your-heart liberationism that flowered (so to speak) in the 20th century. Well, it is modern, in the broad sense, so I shouldn't be surprised, but I didn't really expect it of Henry James.

The_Portrait_of_a_lady_coverCover of the first edition, from Wikipedia

A Note On Dashiell Hammett's Novels

I feel like I should like Dashiell Hammett more than I do. Back in the '70s sometime I discovered Raymond Chandler and pretty much fell in love with the kind of detective story that he wrote: "hard-boiled," but with a vividly poetic streak. And I expected to like Dashiell Hammett just as much. I think I had already seen the famous movie of The Maltese Falcon, and one of the Nick and Nora Charles "Thin Man" movies. I suppose I was thinking that Hammett would be much like Chandler, and very much in the Humphrey Bogart, film noir style of The Maltese Falcon.

I consider Ross Macdonald the great master of this style, and I think it was before I had read Hammett that I came across something by Macdonald which seemed to say that Hammett's work was superior to Chandler's. (I put it that way--"seemed to say"--because it was a long time ago and I'm not certain where I read it.) So around that same time I read, if I remember correctly, The Thin Man and The Glass Key, and was somewhat disappointed. They were good stories but they didn't have the mood and color of Chandler, much less of Macdonald, and nothing close to the psychological depth of the latter. Considering my respect for Macdonald's opinion, I figured it was my problem, that I was missing something that he saw.

Some years later I acquired a one-volume collection of Hammett's novels (there are only five), and quite a few years later--within the last twenty years--I finally gave him another try and read Red Harvest. Again I was disappointed. It was a wild story, involving a sort of labor-related gang war in a Western town. But it didn't strike me as being anything very special from the literary point of view. I can read Chandler and Macdonald over and over again, but I've never reread Hammett.

A few weeks ago, having some kind of inclination to try again, and wanting to read something relatively undemanding, I read The Dain Curse, and once again failed to sense the genius that some apparently see in Hammett's work. In fact for somewhere around half of it I was mildly annoyed. It was written as a four-part magazine serial, and it shows. Each of the first two parts is a story that more or less stands alone. Crimes occur, and the detective--the nameless employee of the Continental Detective Agency, the "Continental op[erative]"--solves it instantly and to my mind not always plausibly on the basis of a few details.

It's a story of complicated evil deeds, and an interesting set of puzzles, but it didn't engage me much beyond the basic what-happens-next narrative pull. I've never cared much about the puzzle-solving element of detective fiction, and I didn't get very involved with the characters, or get any sense of, for lack of a better term, philosophical depth that I find in Macdonald and Chandler, though to a lesser degree in the latter.

So I remain unappreciative and unenthusiastic about Hammett. Next time I get the urge to read something of this sort I'll revisit one of those I read in the '70s--or The Maltese Falcon, which may or may not be a revisiting. I'm embarrassed to say that I honestly can't remember whether I've read it. I sort of think I have, but if I did the movie, which I've seen at least twice, has overwhelmed it in my mind.


This is not the edition I have. This is the Library of America edition. Maybe if I read this one I'd be more impressed.

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Knox Brothers

My attempts to impose some kind of order and method on my reading never last, and the reason is usually that some stray impulse seizes me and I pick up a book that was not in line to be read, sometimes not even toward the end of that line but rather in the "someday" or even the "maybe someday" category. This book was one of those. I don't even remember why I picked it up, except that it was lying conspicuosly on the shelf out of place and on top of a stack. Probably I was looking for another book when this one caught my eye.

Anyway I didn't need to read very much before deciding to continue.

I didn't know that there were four Knox brothers and that they were all remarkably gifted. I think I had heard that Ronald had a brother who was an Anglican clergyman, but that was all. They were, from oldest to youngest, Edmund, Dillwyn, Wilfred, and Ronald. Edmund was a writer, chiefly satirical I think, and was associated for much of his life with Punch, including a stint as editor. Dillwyn was a classicist and, during the 20th century wars, a cryptographer. Wilfred was an Anglo-Catholic with a very strong commitment to the social justice efforts of the Church, a fairly rare combination I suspect, at least in that he didn't just talk social justice but also acted vigorously for it.

And Ronald--well, any Catholic who has an interest in that very rich vein of English Christianity that flowered from the late 19th century until the middle of the 20th knows who Ronald is. He, as I implied, was the reason I had any interest in this book at all, but the other three proved to be as interesting as he, in their general capacity as human beings rather than as a result of their fame.

But the reason I didn't put the book back on the shelf after browsing it for a bit had at least as much to do with the quality of the writing as with my interest in the Knoxes. It's a very well-crafted piece of literature in itself. I was vaguely aware that there is an English novelist named Penelope Fitzgerald, but had never read anything by her, and certainly had no idea that she was the niece of Ronald Knox: Edmund Knox was her father. She was a late bloomer as a writer--published in 1977 when she was 60, this was only her second book, and the novels came later.

I can't tell what Fitzgerald's own religious views are, but she is certainly both knowledgeable about and sympathetic toward those of her two committed uncles. The other uncle seems to have been agnostic if not atheist, and if there is any mention in the book of her father's religion it's not much emphasized. Their father was also an Anglican clergyman, eventually a bishop, but of very Evangelical convictions, and the Catholic sympathies of two of his sons were a great disappointment to him.

While they were growing up these two brothers had been about as close as age permitted, and Ronald's "going over" to Rome was as big a disappointment to his Anglo-Catholic brother as to their father. It meant not just a theological divergence but a rupture in the family, and was very painful to both. I admit that I previously had almost no sense of what Ronald Knox was like as a person, and the effect of this and many other aspects of his life naturally shed light on his work.

Fitzgerald is straightforward in her affection for all four brothers, and the book is a warm tribute. She keeps herself out of it as a character--apart from the foreword, I'm not sure that the word "I" occurs in the narrative. Only if you happened to notice that Edmund was the only one of the brothers to have a daughter would you realize that when it is related that Ronald said this or that "to his niece" it was said to the author of the book you're reading. Yet the whole thing is suffused with a personal warmth, as promised in the preface:

In this book I have done my best to tell the story of my father and his three brothers. All four of them were characteristically reticent about themselves, but, at the same time, most unwilling to let any moment pass without question. I have tried to take into account both their modesty and their love of truth, and to arrive at the kind of biography of which they would have approved.

When I was very young I took my uncles for granted, and it never occurred to me that everyone else in the world was not like them. Later on I found that this was not so, and eventually I began to want to make some kind of record of their distinctive attitude to life, which made it seem as though, in spite of their differences, they shared one sense of humour and one mind.

We, as well as they, are well served by her book. Recommended enthusiastically as a completely fascinating picture of a fascinating family, as well as the now-vanished culture they inhabited.

The Knox children lost their mother early, when Ronald was four. In discussing their father's need to remarry and the kind of woman whom he could marry, Fitzgerald notes that "She would have to be vicarage born and bred." A whole way of life, now presumably unknown to anyone living, is implied in that.

Addendum: I had totally forgotten and had to be reminded by Janet that Marianne had contributed a piece on Penelope Fitzgerald to the 52 Authors thing we did in 2015. It's really good. Click here.