Posts Tagged ‘Book review’

The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe, by Richard Scholar, Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 9780199274406

Richard Scholar is Fellow and Tutor in French, at Oriel College, Oxford.

The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe : Richard ...

In the realm of Philosophy ours has been called the age of the method. That is, method as the chosen vehicle with which we locate and explore our understanding of our position in the world.

What is the je ne sais quois? It is the inexpressible, the ‘I do not know what’ of a situation, event, and even, as Richard Scholar shows with Montaigne, of a relationship. Or, if you prefer, it is the ‘I know not what.’ In English there is the phrase he uses as subtitle of the book: a certain something – The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi – Encounters with a Certain Something. This phrase pales against the French, though.

How can we know the je ne sais quoi? We can hunt out its provenance… this, after all, is accepted method. The phrase can be traced back to origins in the Cicero’s example of his use of the expression nescio quid: I do not know what. Richard Scholar qualifies, however: It owns its literary prestige partly to its Latin ancestor and its Romance cousins, but, unlike them, it goes on to establish itself as a vogue-word and an organising topic. (Page 25)

And there we have the tone and tenor of the book. We can trace the literary prestige of the phrase more easily than the vernacular usage. How prevalent was the phrase in ordinary/everyday usage? We would need to see how and if it was used in each and every instance in context, time, speech, manuscript, and print. And so he restricts his search to early modern Europe, examining its use in Montaigne, Corneille, Moliere, Descartes, Pascal, even Shakespeare.

Take those Englishings, above: the ‘I do not know what…’, and the ‘I know not what.’ The second is more succinct, comfortable; is more self-contained-seeming through its use of form. To our ears it has a sound-bite quality to it. The first seems more exploratory, more open, questing. The first expresses a vulnerability towards knowledge, self-knowledge – therefore a vulnerability before a greater, omniscient knowledge. In this way can we extrapolate therefore, a more theistic quality to it, whereas the latter has a more renaissance quality: more au-fait with classical rhetorical forms?
For me this gets to the heart of the question. I use the phrase ‘sound-bite’ etc – it is a contemporary journalistic phrase. Hopefully it will not be known in ten year’s time, as it was not say, twenty years’ ago. It limits. My worry is: do we limit our thinking to what we can only express in words, language? That would be a grievous error. I posit thought as experienced event, full of multiplying connections, and not as ordered and expressible formulation of the event.

Read the excerpt I gave above again; take, for instance, the need of the super-defining Latin writers of the phrase, nescio quid. Something even escapes their forensic practice. In fact, quite a lot did, And this is the fate of so much of our, Europe’s, early heritage, circumscribed by Latin thought, expression, and the vicissitudes of transmission.

In the sixteenth century France, Richard Scholar comments, the phrase became vogue; as with the later vogue for conversatione (see Peter Burke, The Art of Conversation, Cornell University paperbacks,1993:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Art-Conversation-Peter-Burke/)
it spread throughout Western Europe. It changed costume, definition, commercial value, as it crossed cultures.

David M Possner, Chicago University: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/212681, writes: The first part of the book presents itself as a word history: using Starobinski’s notion of the tripartite life cycle of a word — from its emergence as a lexical entity, through a period of currency, to its demise in what Merleau-Ponty calls sedimentation….

And so we have the burgeoning of the great dictionaries at the turn of the seventeenth century. The phrase cannot be so restricted, we find: it retains its ability to disturb, disrupt, by remaining indefinable. And so ‘society’ fights back. We have what is called a parlour game of polite conversation, where the new philosophical writing becomes a polite topic. The game is of nescioquiddity, of applying the phrase to ‘cultured’ phenomena, the world of gentility.

The move from ‘I know not what’, to ‘a certain something’ is a very definite, provocative one. Kant and the Age of Reason are taken wholesale, you might say, and produce their own particular paradigms for conceptualising the essence of the relationship of self and the world.

The phrase throws into relief our relationship with knowledge of the world, of self knowledge, and the relationship between: our basic epistemology.

With this book, and his next, Montaigne and the Art of Free-Thinking (Past in the Present): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Montaigne-Art-Free-Thinking-Past-Present/
Scholar enrolled himself in the realm of histoire des mentalites, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_mentalities
of cultural history’s  investigations.

Advertisements

2016-09-06-13-39-15

Negative Energy, by Richard Livermore.
24 Essays and Blogs. Elefantasia Press, 2016

ISBN: 976-1911357-17-9                  Price £.7.99 (Postage free in the UK)

The book can be purchased from:
Richard Livermore, 6/1 Jamaica Mews, Edinburgh, EH3 6HN, Scotland, UK.
livermore.chanticleer.richard@gmail.com
http://www.chanticleer-press.com/

 

https://michael9murray.wordpress.com/2016/09/24/book-review-negative-energy/

3 Reasons you should buy this book

This book is a great place for skinny-dipping  in The Western Canon, as Harold Bloom calls it  Swim without prejudice; just your own sweet self.

The book is a great reminder why people are so great when they create.

The book is a treasure-house of known things, things unknown,  and things we thought we knew but didn’t really.

Discover, re-discover, and savour.

If you need any more reasons, then try these:

These are the most stimulating pages you will probably come across… until his next book.

Brain-food here in quantity and quality. Give them a try.

Pages glinting with the riches of a life lived, a life of thought, and a life exploring the limits of life, and beyond.

 

Recommended book.

 

This is a dual Romanian/English publication.
Available from:
Colectile Revistei ‘Orizont Literar Contemporani’, Bibliotheca Univeralis

Effs

There are so many untold stories.

Early mornings I would be waiting, shivering, for the early bus to go to work. One companion of those mornings was a Romanian man. Once he told me, ‘Boating was my life, then. I would have happily spent my whole life sailing on the Black Sea.’
‘One year,’ he said, ‘everyone was issued with iodine tablets. No exceptions; no explanations. That was thought to be sufficient. I remember it; it was 1986. The year of Chernobyl.’

*

Daniel Dragomrisecu has set himself a very important task, in this book. He is rescuing the memories, the works, the reputations of people lost to the old regime. People who fell out of favour. People lost to time’s relentless tumble.
He gives us eight recollections, and revaluations.

Romania.
The Ceausescu regime, with its grand empty palace and boulevard. Claudio Magris, in his book Danube, writes: “Hiroshima” is the name  bestowed by the people of Bucharest on the quarter of the city  which Ceausescu is gutting, levelling, devastating … building his Centre, the monument to his glory.

But what of the starving villages’  untold stories?

What Daniel Dragomirecu has done here is collect together articles and memoirs he has published in newspapers, magazines, journals, and published them in a dual translation book, called Effigies in the Mirror of Time.

Ok, we started with Romania, but we need to narrow-down, zoom-in. Let’s find Moldavia, and in Moldavia, the region of Vaslui. This is the hub for all the stories, the personalities.
How often do we hear or read news from Moldavia?

We have here writers, intellectuals, philosophers, engineers, and a comedy actor: the exuberant, gifted, Constantin Tanese.
This sketch-song of his could well be a timeless anthem:

Nothing has changed / Everything is the same
/ Everywhere the same lies / So what have we done? /
Revenge is plotted behind the scenes / As it has not
been seen before / The country is full of VIPS / So
what have we done? / Our people leave, our people
come! / This is the famous slogan, / We have been
fools to vote again / So what have we done?

The story was that he was shot whilst on stage – he was doing a satire on Russians, the new power. A Soviet officer in the audience stood, up and shot him dead.
Did it really happen? Was that how we wanted him to go?
Or was the end of the great man more prosaic?
Truth and legend, both are necessary, both are stories from which we gain life and sustenance. But truth must take precedence; always.

When communism was abandoned, many here in the West hoped that the best of that regime – or was it the most durable? – would be combined with the best/most durable in the West, to create a better society. The old Marxist dialectic, with its synthesis: how people love to make patterns.
Now, it seems, many feel what they have instead is another lost possibility. Because what modern capitalism has to offer is repugnant in many ways. And durability does not promise anything, either.

In the West these ideas, the dialectic, were never put into practice; we did not witness its effects on people as with the people Daniel here rehabilitates.

Take, for instance, Cezar Ivanescu (1941 -2004). He was an uncrowned prince among academics: Don Cezar. Writer, philosopher, critic, academic par excellence. He was severely beaten in the 1990 Miner’s Strike, and hovered between life and death for weeks.

As a less violent example, take Nicolae Malaxa (1884 to 1965). Born in humble circumstances he grew up and developed an acute managerial sense combined with a dedicated engineering skills. Train engine maker, car engine manufacturer, heavy-engineering magnate. Only to lose it all when all his great enterprises were nationalised under the new regime.
What the man could have done for Romania.

Many here were academics, writers, poets.
We ask now, what is the worth of such work? We ask that because everything now is monetarised, including health-care, basic necessities. Cultural value differs from monetary value; there is also the value of a persons’ life in itself.

And the irony of free-thought. In the context of the early part of last century when these people were young, free-thought still meant mostly left-wing ideas. And so when left-wing ideas became a (supposed) reality, they found themselves once more on the margins. Why was this?
Left-wing practice had its own very special character. Only those who legislated knew what it was; this is a well-known managerial tactic, to keep everyone slightly off-balance.
What was one of Stalin’s first acts as leader? Get rid of all the old Bolsheviks.
The old and out-of-place ideas and idealists had to go. The last thing they needed was free-thought.

Teodar Rescanu (1887 to 1952) was such a left-wing idealist. And writer: it is heartening to see his books being re-discovered.
He was out-of-step with the new regime. He had been imprisoned for his support of the left, but even that did no good with the new boys. He was black-listed, and the ostracism became increasingly brutal as conditions hardened.  Suicide was always an option, and he chose it.

One of the many virtues that stand out among these exemplars, is their dedication to the people, and to the idea of Romania. It almost becomes as if the whole communist experiment has a hiccup in history, a glitch, that all are quickly working at eradicating.
That is, until you see the human dimension.
The people in this book are ones who lost out to that glitch, and the ones who follow – this is especially illustrated in Daniel Dragomirescu’s relationship with Don Cezar, and in turn with poet Ion Enoche – are left to reconcile this loss, and rescue from it a sense of human value.

V I Catarama – it is very hard to find general information on the man. And yet at one time he was an esteemed man of letters, and teacher – an Apostle of Education, as Daniel Dragomisrecu entitles him.
He fell foul of the system in 1958, and was held until 1964. He was the son of a farm worker, a left-wing supporter. It was not enough.
His reinstatement was marginal; he was allowed to teach. Although the continued scrutiny this entailed must have been oppressive.

Ion Enoche is an interesting case: on the fall of the old regime, he still had no place. He had become such a thorough non-conformist he could no longer adapt to any system. Daniel Dragmirescu implies that the over-riding  atmosphere after the fall of the regime was predominantly political, and busy with rebuilding the new Romania.
Enoche could not adapt to this, he was singular, and one-directional; his sole focus was poetry, a poetry cleansed of any politics, official or otherwise.
How was this possible?
Daniel Dragomirescu gives a moment from one of his works:

a poor, bedraggled, and starving Roma woman was riffling through a garbage can
for ‘a ray of sunshine.’

The set up of contrasting elements, and steering of image out of one circumscribed field of imagery towards another, more open and encompassing one, one of human values, is masterly.
It is, still, we could argue, political.
See also:
https://ion-enache.blogspot.co.uk/

Another online source related to this book is:
Ion Iancu Lefter: https://cumpana.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/pagina-121.pdf

*

This is such an important and necessary project.
It only tells a fraction of the story, of course; he acknowledges this.
It is a work of love, as well as rehabilitation.

May I suggest that he follow it up with a companion book, on the subject of notable women?
I would eagerly look forward to such another book.

*

I met a bedraggled man at the bus stop. I knew him vaguely. He had just come from the police station.
My house boat was robbed last night. They were banging on the doors, the sides. They’re a group of Romanians. They’re doing all the house boats.
What did they take?
I had no money or food; they took my chairs. They live over the back, in tents in a quarry. I phoned the police, when they were there. They laughed, Your police are pussies, they said.

It is a small town, and yes, they are pussies. It is a tacit understanding: we don’t do anything too bad, and they don’t come in too heavy.
It’s better that way.
The capitalism may be repugnant, but this works. For the time being.

SELECTED POEMS/POEZII ALESE by Richard Livermore
Copies available from the author, http://www.chanticleer-press.com/contact-page.html
£8.00 each, plus £1.00 p and p

This is a very handsome book.
Printed in Romania as part of their contemporary literature series Orizont Literar Contemporan, the production values are high. This is a book of which to be proud.

The cover carries a copy of a Munch painting, Melancholy. A gloomy subject? But the background colours are lovely: blues, olive, yellows, and a moment of white. The colour scheme of the cover uses this as its base, an overall black is banded with blue, and the main focus of white script.
On the back cover is a photo of Richard. Look closely, here again we see a similar mood, pose, and the colours in the background, out-of-focus, once again capture the overall range of the Munch.

Inside we have a Profil cultural, rather than biographical details. The focus is different, away from self, and towards how the writer has responded to place and time. The emphasis is on where self and cultural world interact. This is healthy, and does not engage with writer-status or celebrity.

What we are presented with here is a selection of Richard’s poetry from 1973 up to 2016. It is dual language book, with Ioanna Agafitei translating poems 1 to 12, and Elena Tapean 13 to 29. So, a dual-translator, dual-language book.
Richard certainly puts them through their paces at times. On page 23 for an instance, he gives Ioanna ‘…only when life is a was will it be.’ The poem is written in 5 quatrains with occasional end-rhyme and much alliteration and assonantal play. To cope with maintaining argument and form’s playful use of language, she gives us a 9-line stanza, combining the last two quatrains, and capturing the connotations.

***

If you were to send a message to Romania, knowing what happened in 1989, Christmas day 1989… what would you send? This is a generation on, but the question remains: what would you send?
What we now know of Romania, apart from tennis players, the old guard poets, are EU open borders, workers bringing their own interpretations of what they find here.
What can we say to them? More important, how can we say it, where would be the weighting and emphases fall? This is the West – what stories did they have of us? Officially degenerate, of course.
Whatever it was, it was fairy-tale.
For people to travel all that distance for work here, and to find austerity, closing borders, scratching round for low-paid jobs….
What can we say to them?

And this is where Richard Livermore judged his selection well, for what he sends are messages of recognition, of struggle, disappointment, of the value and worth of the person caught up in the machinery of time and place.

One commentator, Ian MacFadyan, called Richard’s work ‘dark star poems… shot through with bright images of wonder….’ And they are.
In form they are short, rarely over a page in length, and often two or three stanzas each. In structure we find full rhyme, alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme. Rhythmically tight, with not a syllable wasted and yet not stifled by that; the freedom comes from the audacity of image and movement.

They are supple, as well as subtle. If you look for heritage then think of Kant’s antimonies – the form lays down the argument, but then it pivots into an unexpected image, which unlocks its depths of meanings. And as you read you become aware of richness, of exploration, insight, thought. The antimonies give you the argument and conclusion, then present you with an alternative one you had not thought possible.

‘Here we are locked/ in a prison of words’, ‘Here’ begins (did you think of Dylan Thomas?), and ends ‘here life is reprieved.’ How it gets from beginning to end is through the vehicle of language, image and sound. Yet it is aware that this is a vehicle, for it is to the inner movement that our attention is drawn. This is where people meet, in their inner experience of the world, not the immediate-demand response.

We feel locked into our habits, cultures, socially trapped. In ‘Pi’ he writes ‘I know very well/ what  it is to be  Pi/ for they keep reining in// my potential as well.’ Who cannot empathise with that? How can we move from this position? The structure, use of modern knowledge systems, are subject to the mind’s capabilities. Quantum effects, he gives us, open up other possibilities to us.

Yet don’t think all the poems use this stance – there are tender poems, see ‘Engraved In the Stars,’ and poems of mythic proportion, ‘Hidden Agendas,’ and playful poems, and poems of serious play.
There are riches to be found here.

One of the many riches is in the glorious sound textures Richard Livermore creates. How translatable are they? Take, for instance, the following from the first poem, ‘Wind/Vant’:
the burly, brusque bull-whale/ of a wind with it’s buffalo’s/ biffing and bellow, billowing…‘ Notice how the use of the line’s pause steers the rhythm, creating excitement. The translation can capture the checked flow that holds and then lets go, but cannot mimic this alliterative dynamic. Elsewhere the translation gives, rather than takes, texture; in ‘Prophecy’ we have:
What is the cloud doing/ storming the sky/ and why does it want//to bring down the moon… The Romanian has: Ce face norul/ furtuna cerul/ si de ce doreste// sa darame luna –I cannot reproduce the accents.
The line length is shorter, the metre changed, end-rhymes introduced, and the lines’ internal chiming of sounds changed.
The structure on the page informs how we read: this is poem structure, and in each case we read for the line because syntax and rhythm instruct us to do so. I leave out the vexing discussion of whether the translation is an entirely different poem, or an extension of the source-poem.

‘I don’t see why  words/ should always wait table‘ he writes in ‘Words Running for Cover’, the last poem in the book. Words, language, are the vehicle for exploring self and world, but only a vehicle. Our engagement with, our  living in, the world is the real subject. Always.

This is a book that you will go back to, often, and discover new riches each time.

Warning: Contains Spoilers.

sttrain

This was one of Graham Greene’s first novels to win great acclaim.
Published in 1932, it is still a gripping read. His list of characters is wide, varied, and their depictions, like the overall storytelling, accomplished.

It does have major problems, especially for the modern reader. Remember the date of publication.

It is a classic ‘Orient Express’ story: characters trapped on the great journey to Constantinople, as it was then: a three day journey.
The book opens after the ferry crossing, in the Ostend dock yard, as passengers shuffled through rain to the train. We met there the main characters. The ferry purser wondered after their passing whether a big story had just passed him by. This sets us up: something is afoot.

Passengers joined, and left, as the train travelled through pre-World War II Europe. Chapters take us from Ostend, to Cologne, Vienna, Subotica, then Constantinople.
Who are they? Why this journey?
Graham Greene makes several attempts at giving credible female characters. The best perhaps is Coral Musker. She is a dancer, going the whole journey to join up with the Dunn’s Babies dance troupe. She does not reach there. Her journey was long and winding. The cold, for a start. Her background, for another: remember the date. Impoverished, underfed, thin and alone. Then she collapsed on the train from the cold. Weak heart, the doctor said.
Here we have a story in itself: a dancer, with a weak heart.

She was offered a bunk for the night, she could not afford one herself. She accepted; the man slept outside. In the morning she woke to the implications. There would be a price to pay; this was her life, as accessory, as a woman alone. And yet, we learn, on paying the price it was her first time. The man was aghast, after all, he had expected….
He hoped he had not hurt her – because, of course, at the time he would not notice the pain, blood; he would be enjoying himself.
And here Graham Greene gives her a classic line: ‘Well, it was no picnic.’

There is an anomaly in the story-line: Richard John, the schoolmaster, had joined the train at Ostend. He attended to Miss Musker when she collapsed. And yet he then joined the train in Cologne. Had he got off for a snack, and most importantly, a newspaper? It is not clear; he had been drifting off to sleep at the end of the previous chapter as the conductor announced the station arriving: ‘Koln, Koln, Koln’.

One of Graham Greene’s greatest failings is his naivete in certain matters. One of those matters is Mabel Warren, British journalist, based in Europe. It is she who recognises the person behind Richard John.
The problem here, you see, is that Mabel Warren is gay. A later conversation with her companion journeying to meet her uncle, centres on ‘But what can she do, a woman like that?’
The male prurience.
‘Kissing.’ Answers her companion, ‘Endless kissing.’ This sense of impotence is assumed of gay love.
And yet, it is also in Shakespeare’s Sonnets to the fair youth, the sense of physical need but complete lack of means. Shakespeare, as the 1920s, was fully aware of the possibility of a complete gay relationship.
Graham Greene shows a degree of squeamishness with the physical. He counters this with a slightly over-the-top worldliness; but here, as we see, he was out of his depth.

So, what of Richard John, schoolmaster? And where exactly was he travelling?
He said Vienna, but Mabel’s news nose told her, Belgrade. And his real name was Dr Czinner. A medical doctor, hence his aid to Coral Musker, but one who had realised the people of his country needed greater help than medical. They needed political help.
The threat that was turning Europe upside down was the recently established Soviet Union. It was still  in its internationalism phase.
Richard John/Dr Czinner was returning to head an uprising. Only, it had already happened, and failed, he discovered in his newspaper. And he was trapped on this train heading into who knew what reprisals.
For Mabel here was a front page story.

And then we come to Carleton Myatt. Myatt was travelling all the way, on business. He was wealthy. Well, he would be, because Graham Greene takes every opportunity, and more, to tell us that Myatt is… A Jew.
I expected… I had to check the date of publication several times… that the atrocious Nazi race propaganda was at work here, seeping through into every aspect of professional life. But 1932, and written 1930-1?
Myatt cannot help his race’s splayed hands gesture, we read; he catches himself at it. At the end of the book he is asked to be charitable, he answers to the effect that I am a Jew, Charity is a Christian virtue.
What utter and obnoxious nonsense is this?
So why did he give his bunk, indeed his First Class ticket, to Coral Musker at the beginning? She assumed there was a price. That particular price. Because that was what was expected of a poor working woman. But he did not expect it; companionship would have sufficed. All to do with reading social expectations.
But what did Graham Greene give us with Myatt? A caricatured stereotype. He attempted to get inside the man, but could not get around this gargoyle he had made, and was busy shoring up.
More importantly, why did Myatt pay over the odds for a car journey back to Subotica, to search for her?

Because Coral, and Dr Czinner, were arrested at an out of the way station near Subotica.
Subotica was just over the border into Yugoslavia/Serbia. Next stop was Belgrade. The military were waiting for him. He saw them coming and slipped a letter to Coral. It was seen.

I suspect we are to read that Coral goes out of the frying pan into the fire, at the end. She is rescued, but by the newly deserted Mabel. Mabel wants the exclusive on the news story, naturally. But she was also quite taken with Coral.
Good luck to them, I say.

And that is an indication of how deeply the reader invests with the characters. So when we get such a crass caricature like Myatt, we either react against book and author, or we wonder about the moral responsibilities of the writer of realist fiction.
The anti-semiticism, I read elsewhere, is to reflect attitudes prevalent in Europe at the time. And yet the internal dialogues Graham Greene gives us is of one who’s very essence is based around this attitude.
Are we to read sociologically, here: is it that it is one’s environment makes one? It is difficult to determine how much of the public attitudes to his Jewishness en route is Greene, and how much observation.
Then what of Graham Greene’s Catholicism? It is shoe-horned clumsily into the story at points, that stretch credibility, like shoe leather. Does it make a fit?

That we are to read it sociologically is backed up by the character of Dr Czinner. He was the one who described Coral as having a bad heart. His reaction we then read in hindsight. She had a bad heart partly through poverty, poor and irregular meals, the circumstances of her trapped position in life. All these had turned him from a doctor to a political fighter.
It is from that initial kindness of his that she took the smuggled letter. She was subsequently held, questioned, and was to be deported. Back to the clamouring for bit parts again at stage doors. As it is….

There are humourous interludes in the book. One led to a brief legal case: was the character of cockney popular writer Q C Savory originally a poke at J B Priestley? He thought so. The character was re-written later.

Graham Greene described the book as a deliberate attempt to make money by tailoring it to popular reading, and film, taste. In succeeded on both counts.
Such a motive does indeed work in your favour sometimes.
We also read here the dangers of courting popular tastes: did Graham Greene reflect what he saw, or further promote bigotry by writing about it so pointedly, and without any form of condemnation? Once again, the question of responsibility.

The writer, publisher and all-round good man Richard Livermore has very pertinent comments to say on this issue:
There is nothing in the rule-books which says that to appreciate a good novel you have to be in agreement with the ideas expressed in that novel. In fact, you can even think the ideas are insane and yet thoroughly enjoy the novel in question. What’s important is the quality of the writing and the presentation of the characters and also the situations within it. Never forget that you are reading a work of fiction and as such it requires a suspension of disbelief. Verisimilitude, or the appearance of truth or reality requires it. Outside of the novel you can be as sceptical as you like, but if the novel holds your attention and makes you believe in it while you are reading it that is all that finally matters. That goes for whether you agree with the point of view of the author or not. Louis Ferdinand Celine was a Nazi, but Journey To The End Of The Night is nevertheless a really good novel.

For more on Richard Livermore, and I urge you to go, see: http://www.chanticleer-press.com/contact-page.html

JUDAS, by Amos Oz, Chatto and Windus, 2014.

WARNING: Contains Spoilers.

A most interesting and intriguing novel.
It is full of story parallels, deft discussion, of sense of place and time. Amos Oz has a wonderful way with description, sense of place, with character, mood.

1
It was the winter of 1959. The setting is as much the major character as the others in the book: it is Jerusalem, just ten years after Independence.
This is the real story.

There is the story of post-graduate student Schmuel Ash, Schmuel had to leave his studies, his finances had fallen through. That is a story in itself. And then there is the matter of his girlfriend: she had left him and gone back and married her previous boyfriend.
Schmuel joined a strange household that provided board and lodging, a little income, for providing in turn company for an aged man, Gersham Wald.
It was an old house, in the extreme west of the city. Also in the house was Atalia. Atalia had married the man’s son; the son died early in the War of Independence. Her father was known as ‘the traitor’. He had been a top Zionist, a member of the council, but resigned at the outset of setting up the State of Israel, for advocating Arab friensship.
His story is most fascinating; he offered an alternative to the State, the possibility of harmony with the Arab population. It was an opportunity missed. Could it have worked?

All is speculation.

Schmuel’s dissertation topic was Jewish Views of Jesus. His research led him to believe that Judas was the only true believer in Jesus, the one and only true Christian. All the other disciples had denied him at that crucial time. All but Judas. Yet Judas was the cause for all future anti-semitism. Judas was the true believer, yet also the traitor.
Like Atalia’s father.
What is suggested here, is that it is possible her father’s ideas for co-habitation, sharing, were the true ones.
All is speculation.

Jerusalem in winter.
It rained nearly every day; it was bitterly cold at times. Schmuel walked the night streets constantly, sometimes with Atalia, often alone. They walked through Gehenna: We’re in hell, he said to her. Aren’t we always? she replied. They went up on Mount Zion to catch the sunrise, it was bitterly cold; a soldier was on guard at King David’s tomb. He had been there all night.
Shots rang out: there was always a sniper over the border hoping for a lucky hit, no matter what time of night or early morning. And there were borders everywhere in the city.
We are constantly made aware of the barbed wire, the nearness of borders, the ruined Arab villages.

There are presences, missing, but brooding constantly: the son and the father, Micha and Abravanal. And of course over all there was the living presence of David Ben-Gurion, and his vision of the Israeli State. Like the Christian Trinity.

Over all is winter, and its sense of aridity. This sense grows throughout the book: Atalia and Micha had no children; Gersham Wald’s child Micha was dead. The way he died, Atalia found out much later and by accident, was horrific; she could never shake it. Neither she nor Gersham could sleep at night afterwards.She could never have another lasting relationship. Schmuel’s own relationship, and it is hinted also with his family, had broken irreparably and thrown him back into his self-enclosedness, as epitomized by this household he had retreated into.
We see this in the Socialist groups Schmuel was a part of at the university. They would meet and have discussions at the workingmen’s café, and yet the closest they ever came to the working people a table or two away was to timidly ask for a light.
Part and parcel of all this in the novel’s context is the image of Abravanal,  Atalia’s distant and unapproachable father, whose message could have saved all, and yet who neglected his family: the universal that fails the personal.
And so we come to the present state: Gersham Wald, Schmuel’s aged companion, speculates and argues fruitlessly and endlessly with old sparring partners over the phone every day. All is arid, without fruit, without a future.
This is also a metaphor for embattled Jerusalem, surrounded by enemies. The mood only lifts once Schmuel leaves the city.

We can read this as the State of Israel itself, surrounded by enemies, without friends or allies, or  recognition. A State completely cut off from all, and friendless.
The State of Israel, 1959.
2
All through the book Atalia is described as eminently desirable, yet unattainable. She is a strong woman, a property owner, and works for her living. Is she Israel in potential, with their lost future?
This could be a criticism of the book. Atalia must always be dependent on male interest, she cannot live for herself. They flock around her; every reference to her by others and the author is coloured by this. Amos Oz is trying to write a strong independent woman character – is it the society he places her in, she is part of, or is it the author’s opinion also, that she cannot be allowed her own place in the world? Her missing partner always throws an imbalance to her existence. Is Israeli culture so inflexibly male-dominated?

On one level this is a story all about alpha males: Avaranal was ousted, and so turned bitter and retreated into himself. David Ben-Gurion won the narrative-of-the-State contest. Atalia can do little but serve the failing father.
Schmuel is an interesting foil, he is passive, and has a carer personality, he learned to his surprise. To Atalia he becomes another male to be cared for as he fell badly, and was laid up for a couple of weeks. Her response to this is not resentment, for she is intrigued by him, his passivity, and also his enthusiasm.

On another level the book is all about Big Narratives. they figure prominently. It was when Schmuel espoused his theories that his previous girlfriend had taken him to bed; it was when he told Atalia of his thesis that she responded. Avaranal and Gersham Walt were tied together not just as fathers in law, but over the theory of the State of Israel. All their fates, Micha as well, are all bound up in David Ben-Gurion’s theory of the State.

Schmuel’s thesis got to the point where he thought Judas was only the only disciple who truly believed in Christ’s divinity. He engineered the crucifixion, in Jerusalem, as incontrovertible proof. It failed, he thought.
On the level of parallels, we see here that Avaranal’s ‘dream’ of co-habitation, harmony, like the love that Christ preached, as ultimately failing also.
Which leaves them with… a moment-by-moment piecemeal arrangement, peace and war: and hoping the peace lasts longer than the fighting.
But the heart had gone out of it: on the ruined Arab village there had been attempts to build a hall. It was unfinished, restarted and again unfinished. The heart, the sense of reconstruction, had gone out of it.
3
Reading through online reviews of the book I was amazed at the intemperate language  used; it was downright vicious in places. Many clearly had no idea of the aesthetics and concerns of novel-writing, they were using their platform to hit out at the author. He was accused of being a neo-Marxist, or anti-Zionist, of giving the State of Israel a bad press, of toadying up to anti-Israeli Western media. A traitor.
That is what the book is about, that word Traitor. It can be a product of hindsight, of present actions; it can also, the book claims, have positive intent that is turned by events.

All this is very much the battened-down attitude of a State under attack: there can be no nuanced, open discussion; there can be no questioning voices.
There is a similar attitude in Russia at the current time.
These are the tactics of States still fighting for their legitimacy. How long will it take?
All the more imperative to open those discussions, questions, nuances now.

See also: Days of Ziklag, by S Yizhar, 1958.http://www.ithl.org.il/page_14274

see also What is Happiness/Wat Is Geluk?

http://derrenbrown.co.uk/

Derren Brown, the magician, mentalist, entertainer, has recently published a new book: Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine, Bantam Press, September 2016.

A Sunday newspaper reviewer of the book that I read was being either deliberately obtuse, or just plain ignorant in his write-up.

If I was to ask you what you thought of happiness, 10 to 1 you would say something like I did: something to do with fun, friends, good times.
Lack of worries comes into it. Control of one’s life is not something occurs immediately, but it is what it mostly amounts to also.  And also, as the current mood has it, of giving up that control if the fun-factor is high enough.
In other words our ideas of happiness are mostly tied up in the life-style tropes that ads feed us. At the heart of the marketing is this equation:

Happiness = Wealth, Youth, Health
In that order.

We can only be happy if we have plenty of money.
We can only be happy if we are young.
Health, well, we need that to do and enjoy all the extreme sports, the trail hikes, the yachting? we see as necessary to be happy.
Because happiness is, to use a metaphor, about bungee jumping into excitement, extreme experiences. Preferably somewhere sunny, hot: a tropical setting.

So, what did Derren Brown say happiness is? The reviewer pinned it down as something like ‘constant contentment.’
Couldn’t be more different.
All excitement – slippers and cocoa.

Derren Brown wrote how he hates being a magician – he has seen the reception side of trickery and it’s no fun. He hates the big production showman deals. He admires the skill, the craft, oh yes, but it’s the message. Or the lack of message. The message is usually Admire Me! Or production-line entertainment.

Derren Brown is a thinker; for him everything must have a meaning, a purpose.
His latest shows in particular, have all been to do with empowerment. That is, empowerment of people, ordinary people: the passive audience, who have stumped up the money for the travel and the show.

In his latest show MIRACLE, he implores the audience to consider their moment in time, their uniqueness; to consider the miracle of their genetic heritage and the millions of risks and successes throughout millennia that have led from the beginnings of life itself, to themselves at that precise moment. How they are all part of that.
It is, he says, miracle on miracle we are here , and also here now in this theatre.

For Derren Brown happiness is not what we have been sold.
We desperately need another narrative than the one we have taken on board without realising, and on which we still base our ideas of fulfillment, success, happiness.
He wants to provide an alternative narrative.

His narrative is by no means The Answer.
His narrative is meant as a corrective to the Wealth,Youth, Health equation.

Happiness is not about spending loads of cash.
Happiness is not all about running around on tropical beaches.
Happiness is not about being a morally vacuous and patronising vacationer, in places where locals are in awe of out Western ways, our wealth. OK, that last bit’s mine.

The narrative he is putting across could well be the one we need most in post-Brexit Britain.
It is about valuing what we have, our uniqueness, our quirkiness, our ‘character.’
It is appreciating what is in front of us, around us, here, now.
And it is not about hopelessly, endlessly yearning  for that other that costs so much in money, air-pollution, and political and cultural harm to other countries. And that bit’s mine, too.

Derren Brown’s book is about the need to re-evaluate, re-think, re-consider ourselves, our lives, our communities, our world, and our places in the world.