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Tuxedo Park

Tuxedo ParkTuxedo Park: The Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science that Changed the Course of World War II, by Jennet Conant

I have had a latent interest in amateur invention since I first read a book on Sir George Cayley. Cayley was a gentleman inventor, born in 1777  who practised his inventing on an estate in Cumbria that had been passed down through -six- generations of his family, along with his title.


Among his achievements were a fountain pen, a caterpillar track (for gardening), an aeroplane which it seems likely would have flown one hundred years before the Wright Brothers (Cayley died in 1857) had Cayley not half-killed too many of his butlers in prototypes so that none were willing to trial it.

He even confounded office clichés everywhere by literally re-inventing the wheel: using a hub and rim joined by spokes under tension he invented the wheel which is now common to most modern bicycles.

His particular interest in invention stemmed from the early encouragement of his mother. Recognising his ability and his interest in the mechanics of nature she encouraged young George to carry around a notebook and to record his observations. Early examples of his notetaking include a detailed analysis of the wings of a hummingbird – an early sign of his interest in flight.


The story of George Cayley is a seemingly purist tale of personal interest and exploration leading to creation and change. Somewhat luxuriously, Cayley’s explorations of science were disconnected from the market forces driving commercial discoveries and his ideas were permitted to gestate at their natural pace.

The story of Alfred Loomis is quite the opposite. Born to relative but not independent wealth, Loomis attended Harvard and then picked up the mantle of his family’s fortunes, starting out as a lawyer and then shortly after by forming a fund on Wall Street with a cousin and, as you might say, ‘cleaning up.’ Over the period of nine years they bought and held significant if not controlling interests in almost every major utility in America. During the Great Depression, Loomis’ personal wealth increased by nearly fifty million dollars.  

Moving from a largely non-existent, middle class affluence to an extreme of money and influence in his forties, Loomis bought himself the freedom to explore his exuberant scientific interests – including entertaining and sponsoring the greatest scientists of his age, and procuring vast quantities of the most expensive equipment then available to mankind.

His extraordinary intellectual capabilities (which included the ability to play at least two chess games at once with his backed turned to both boards whilst maintaining a lively conversation with his dinner guests) allowed him to pick up a new field of science in a few short months. His incredible financial wealth and broad connections, facilitated the introductions he required to attract the finest scientific talent in each field to his personal laboratory at Tuxedo Park, just south of New York where his voracious appetite for advancement drove great leaps forward in each field in a short space, before his attention to turned to a new topic following which the money, equipment and scientists were parcelled off to a long term home such as Harvard or MIT.

Among his interests (and his most significant discoveries) number a venture into the short wave radio spectrum which led to advances in portable radar such that it could be mounted on ships and aeroplanes, early understandings of brain wave patterns during sleep, advancements in fusion technologies (in particular the cyclotrons capable of generating sufficient voltage to split an atom) that made the splitting of the atom a reality and ended the war.

Having worked with Thomas Edison during World War I, he took to heart Edison’s belief that the US should spend on the advancement of its weaponry in peacetime, in order to have it ready for the arrival of conflict. The pattern of news from Germany in the ‘30s redoubled this conviction in Loomis, in spite of the Roosevelt government’s passive stance towards Hitler. One of Loomis’s first acts of patriotism in this regard was to build a scaled down and improved tank which he used to drive to the train station to collect his guests. Henry Stimson (a long-time friend of Loomis and then Secretary fo State to Roosevelt) reportedly announced “This is how one protects the country” as they drove to the Loomis mansion in Tuxedo.


Tuxedo Park presents Loomis as a dispassionate and deeply scientific man. He seems without vanity and without extremes of emotion; cold yet luminary, his achievements have outlived his name in most areas of his life. This book, Tuxedo Park, is a reminder of Loomis’s incredible potency and yet it is the only mark of his face left on an earth otherwise deeply scarred by some of the most impressive and atrocious discoveries that he was part of, none more so than the atom bomb.

That he has largely fallen from record, a side note in the margins of a colourful and often re-written history of our early twentieth century wars, is a mark of his amateurism. He existed in the margins and that is where he has remained. Yet it is clear that he was not an amateur by any means, not in the romantic sense and certainly not in the derogatory sense. He was a brilliant inventor, a gifted financier and an arch power-broker: perhaps he could not have successfully been one without the others, but it seems doubtful that such advances could have been achieved without that rare and extraordinary blend of skills – advances that stopped the course of a war and changed the world we live in forever. If there was ever an argument for reading in the margins, Alfred Loomis was its embodiment.

The Editors

Pushkin 2: Epic poetry, a love unthinkable, a youth unbearable

 “I am writing now not a novel, but a novel in verse – the devil of a difference. Something like (Byron’s) Don Juan – there’s no point in thinking about publication; I’m writing whatever comes into my head.”

Pushkin writing to a friend, 1823

Eugene Onegin is magnificent. Do not be fooled by Pushkin’s glib suggestion that his poem contains the fleeting fancies of his mind. Written over the course of eight years – started during his exile and finished in the year of his marriage –Eugene Onegin is informally autobiographical, a social commentary and a timeless love story.

Touching briefly on Pushkin Part 1, it is clear that if you read a translated text a good deal of Pushkin’s technical ability and talent as a wordsmith is lost. In particular, feminine rhymes at the end of lines are not easy to replicate without some degree of word replacement. Translating Russian to English requires around one third more words so we also lose some of the acute, direct nature of Pushkin’s text. That is not to say that he is ever verbose or overly wordy, far from it. My copy is the Penguin Classics translation by Stanley Mitchell. Wherever words and phrases are untranslatable, they are often substituted for lines from Pushkin’s contemporaries, idols and influencers; Byron is used often. As a result, the translator appears to have done an excellent job replicating the character and style of the original. One might hope that the author himself might have been proud of the translation. A slight quirk of Eugene Onegin and Pushkin’s work is that French is frequently used for both description and conversation – as was the case amongst the Russian ruling class of the time. This provides an escape route of sorts. On occasion, his characters cannot describe something in Russian or simply prefer to use French. For translation purposes it is beneficial when a romantic language is used in these tricky spots.

Epic poetry is rarely easy to read. This grand literary tradition began as a format for entertaining story telling and an outlet for extraordinary imaginations. It was then somewhat hijacked by the intelligentsia through the middle and industrial ages so as to advance authors’ personal agendas and advertise their intellect alongside the original purposes. A good example of this (very bias, admittedly) theory can be found in Dante’s Inferno in Cantos 4 and 8 where he encounters history’s greatest poets, exposes their limitations through allegory and moves swiftly on. Eugene Onegin is a refreshing diversion from this trend. The tone of the text, narrated by Pushkin himself, is almost chummy. The reader is directly addressed on a frequent basis and the audience’s feelings often anticipated and read out loud. Pushkin demonstrates kinship with his fellow, contemporary poets (some of whom appear as minor characters) and far from exalting his art or his intellect he seems to acknowledge its waning influence:

To Spartan prose the years are turning,
Coquettish rhyme the years are spurning;
And I – I with a sigh confess –
I’m running after her much less.

Pushkin is refreshingly honest and plain in his reflections and descriptions. As a result the reader is favourably disposed to the writer: I have rarely felt more rapport with an author, let alone one nearing their 180th birthday. 

—–

Eugene Onegin is a difficult book to review or summarise without spoiling the plot. The story is not long and moves apace; there are occasions where months pass between stanzas and years pass between chapters. This actually leaves the reader intrigued by what the characters have been doing and how they have been developing rather than encouraging a sense of bewilderment. This pace and the quixotic verse in which it is written yield characters that are more silhouettes than anything else. They flash between scenes giving you glimpses of a dark romance, torment and duty. In many ways, it reads more like a play or indeed an opera.

The two central characters are Eugene and Tatiana. Eugene, a wealthy twenty-something becomes bored with and resentful of Moscow society and moves to his estate in the countryside. Nonetheless he never attempts to rid himself of his dandy habits:

“One can still be a man of action
And mind the beauty of one’s nails”

Unsurprisingly, his fancy ways and disaffected personality do not enamour him to the locals. Still he strikes up a friendship with the youthful, slightly green, poet Lensky who is part of the regional gentry. Through Lensky, Eugene is introduced into local society and, in particular, Lensky’s fiancée Olga and her older sister Tatiana. The elder sibling becomes infatuated with this worldly newcomer and falls into a deep love:

“(Tatiana) Your fate already you’ve relinquished
Into a modish tyrant’s keep (Eugene’s)
Imbibe the magic bane of yearning,
Daydreams will court your every pace,
And you’ll imagine in each place
A tryst to which you’re always turning;
In front of you and everywhere
You’ll see your fateful tempter there.”

Tatiana’s love is rejected. The apathetic Eugene masochistically denies himself pleasure at every turn and refuses to entertain Tatiana’s pleas. His response to her letter of love and devotion is almost as pathetic as it is sad. Through the poem, love letters and responses to them provide the most detailed look into the characters’ personalities. In this neo-classic romance we are forcefully drawn into Eugene’s world of sadness and spurned hope. It is marvellous.

(Spoiler alert!) The damage caused by Onegin’s self-pity continues to the end. He courts jealousy, which ends in him being challenged to a duel by his great friend Lensky whom he shoots dead. Tormented by these events Eugene leaves the countryside and travels. Tatiana is left torturing herself with memories. She frequently visits Eugene’s deserted house to read his books in his study. The hero of the story is truly lethal, physically and emotionally. 

Years later we find that Tatiana has journeyed to Moscow to find a husband; she marries a famed general. She becomes a woman, a paragon of society, embodying truly Russian values and virtues. Gone is much of the simple country girl, replaced by an urbane yet unpretentious princess, the toast of Moscow: “the city’s flower”.

Eugene returns to Moscow following his travels and forces himself to re-enter society circles. He falls in love with Tatiana, his tragic infatuation matching the young girl whom he encountered in the countryside years before. The crushing inevitability of this emotional inversion has the reader squirming with ineffectuality yet slightly rejoicing in Eugene’s plight. It is one of the oldest stories in the book. Eugene writes to his love, he begs her for forgiveness and fulfilment. Tatiana, the once-lovesick youngster, responds and reaches a zenith:

Your heart is honest and I prize it:
And there resides in it true pride
With candid honour, side by side.
I love you, why should I disguise it?,
But I am someone else’s wife,
To him I shall be true for life.”

The ephemeral scenes and the mysterious ‘cut-scenes’ provide a dream-like quality to the book. The occasional meetings that the reader has with the characters provide intrigue and engagement in equal measure through the quality of the writing and the timeless yet tough subject matters. For all Eugene’s self-absorption it is hard to dislike him. Tatiana is loveable and Lensky likeable. The characters showcase parts of Pushkin himself and you will aspects of yourself in all of them. Above all else Eugene Onegin is a letter of love and of guidance to the young:

Blest who in youth was truly youthful,
Blest who matured in proper time,
Who, step by step, remaining truthful,
Could weather, yearly, life’s bleak clime
To curious dreams was not addicted,
Nor by the social mob constricted,
At twenty was a blade or swell
And then at thirty married well;
Ridding himself, on reaching fifty,
Of debts and other bills to foot,
Then calmly gaining rank, repute
And money, too, by being thrifty;
Of whom the world’s opinion ran:
An estimable man.

Eugene Onegin is a gift, a brilliant work, and this verse buried deep inside Chapter VIII seems to have been echoed seventy years later by our very own Rudyard Kipling.

Matt Bradley

The Sea Close By

The Sea Close By - Albert CamusThe Sea Close By - Albert Camus

“I grew up in the sea and poverty was sumptuous, then I lost the sea and found all luxuries grey and poverty unbearable.”

So begins one of the most lyrical and beautiful extended metaphors for the well lived life ever written. One long dream-like recollection of many journeys strung together, the passage captures an essential experience of travel: the disconnection from place and possessions caused by the inevitable surrender to elements greater than oneself.

“We sail across spaces so vast they seem unending. Sun and moon rise in turn, on the same thread of light and night. Days at sea, even and indistinguishable as happiness…”

Few stories show the aptitude of prose, in manipulating time and distance as much as conveying meaning, as Camus’s short descriptive essay. Camus’s capacity to travel a vast distance in a sentence – “Beyond, the Ocean lies everywhere, on one side we pass by the Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, the meridians wed the lattitudes, the Pacific drinks the Atlantic … Suddenly, one morning the seagulls disappear. We are far from any land, and alone, with our sails and our engines” – that capacity is equalled only by his ability to stall his prose and capture a single moment of unbridled natural pleasure: “Day breaks over a surging sea, full of steel spangles.”

The seemless shifting from fast to slow and back again transmits the dreamlike state of the traveller as he submits to the spacelessness of travel, the lack of confines, the disregard for direction that comes with constant movement: “Today, on the contrary, I have all the air I need, all our sails slap in the blue air, I am going to cry out with speed, we throw our sextants in the sea.”

His passion for the sea lies in stark contrast to his feelings for the land (“Without space there is neither innocence nor liberty!”). On the land he describes only indifference. The magic of the sea is absent, his attitude to life limp and disaffected (“It is at funerals that I excel myself”).

“Men praise me, I dream a little, they insult me, I scarcely show surprise. Then I forget, and smile at the man who insulted me, or am too courteous in greeting the one I love. What can I do if all I can remember is one image?”

But what is most striking, appealing, is the proximity of Camus’s most vivid passages – his most animate spirit expressing itself in words – when life is at its most proximate to death. The paradox of space and nature, transience and permanence lends Camus’s writing a special poignancy. “Rivers and streams pass by, the sea passes and remains. This is how we must love, faithful and fleeting. I wed the sea.”  His funereal treatment of life on land, in community, shrouds the story in death, but in the rigid social structures that death is lent a futility that is abundantly absent from Camus’s life at sea.

“What man who cherishes the sea and loneliness will ever stop himself from loving the obstinate madmen who, clinging to planks and tossed by the mane of immense oceans, chase after islands long adrift.”

It is in death that Camus paints the happiness of this life, in the refusal to submit to structure, to conformity and instead to follow the winds and the seas, to pass by great continents in a sentence, to marvel at the gifts of the sea and to wish always to return to the sea’s cool grasp and ultimately in his acceptance of death and the sea as the forces of spiritual liberation from man’s own inadequacy of spirit: “If I were to die, in the midst of cold mountains, unknown to the world, cast off by my own people, my strength at last exhausted, the sea would at the final moment flood into my cells, come to raise me above myself and help me die without hatred.”

The Editors

Don Quixote 4: the mirror

“It was a great misadventure for me to run across a man who is seeking adventures.” – a young bachelor of the church injured by Don Quixote

I recently saw a man wearing a t-shirt that read “Smart has the brains, but stupid has the balls.” Which seemed applicable as a description for Don Quixote’s adventuring. In our latest episode, he has stopped a funeral procession of ‘timorous and unarmed’ young men hurrying to an inn far away as the day is getting late, “Halt, O knights, or whomsoever you might be, and give an account of yourselves.”

“We’re in a hurry” comes the reply. So the fearless knight errant of La Mancha, looking to take revenge on behalf of the dead knight he imagines to be carried in the litter behind the group, attacks them with his lance and breaks a man’s leg. “No doubt about it,” says Sancho, “this master of mine is as brave and courageous as he says.”

One of Cervantes’ most enjoyable literary games is the self-referential exchanges between narrator and character; he plays with Don Quixote’s self-perception and the narrative reality of the story: asking Sancho Panza why it was that he chose to describe him as The Knight of the Sorrowful Face, Don Quixote corrects Sancho’s assertion that it is because of “your grace having the sorriest-looking face I have seen,” and instead asserts: “rather the wise man whose task it will be to write the history of my deeds must have thought it a good idea if I took some appellative title as did the knights of the past.” At once ridiculous and insightful, Don Quixote shows a literary self awareness which bears no relation to reality and yet lends to his credibility as a character who bridges the divide between fiction and reality both in personality and in a strange brand of meta-wisdom that can only exist because of the gap between reader, narrator and character, a gap which Cervantes exploits adroitly to turn a ludicrous character into a compelling and occasionally insightful one.

And perhaps one of the greatest gifts of the novel is the reflexive nature of Don Quixote’s delusional self-belief:

“I am, I repeat, he who is to revive the Knights of the Round Table, the Twelve Peers of France, the Nine Worthies, he who is to make the world forget the Platirs, Tablants, Olivants, and Tirants, the Phoebuses and Belianises, and the entire horde of famous knights errant of a bygone age”.

Shortly after this vaunting speech, and in order to prevent his master setting out on his “incomparable and most fearsome adventure” in the middle of the night, Sancho “very quietly and cunningly tied Rocinante’s forelegs together with his donkey’s halter” thus preventing Don Quixote’s departure until morning. Perhaps we all need a Sancho Panza in our lives, to lash our donkey’s legs together when our ambitions begin to overreach our reality.

The Editors

Book Club Spy: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall - MantelWolf Hall - Hilary Mantel

The Book Club spy has been woefully inactive of late, however their swansong was an evening dedicated to Wolf Hall. It is highly unlikely that Don’t Read Too Fast readers will not have encountered this Booker Prize winning novel by Mantel, if they have not yet had the chance (or if they hated it, apparently some history graduates do) then it portrays the fall of Cardinal Wolsely and Thomas More during the rise of Anne Boleyn, from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view.

The novel opens on Cromwell as a boy in Putney being beaten by his drunken father in a rage. Despite being easily big enough to defend himself, he runs away to France.  The first indication of his steely control comes through his explanation for his egress: “I’ve had enough of this. If he gets after me again I’m going to kill him, and if I kill him they’ll hang me, and if they’re going to hang me I want a better reason”. He does not waste words, and is spurred on by logic and calculation, rather than fear.

We next meet him 27 years later, working as Cardinal Wolsely’s right hand.  He is a lawyer, an accountant, and an enforcer with an opaque background as a mercenary and trader. Wolsely teaches him diplomacy (“You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook”) as he already knew money.  Read more

Pushkin 1: Lost in translation?

Queen of Spades - Alexander PushkinQueen of Spades - Alexander Pushkin

The idea of something being ‘lost in translation’ is both strong and valid. Social constructs, vocally embodied in our mother tongues, language and vocabulary, provide a base for communication and understanding between people and peoples. The sheer quantity of meaning, nuance, suggestion, hint, tip and allusion that one can pack into a short written phrase – let alone a spoken one – is remarkable. It is also somewhat inaccessible for those without the necessary tools to perceive this bounty of information. To fully detect and understand these signals takes an upbringing, depth of study or talent, ideally all three.

If you can bear it, the first couple of chapters of the Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature provide a good and relatively deep insight as to the importance of language and delivery in our comprehension of what people are saying and why they are saying it. It is something that might sound intuitive, maybe even obvious, but I would recommend taking a little time to consider it. These, at times subconscious, constructs and the communication (and miscommunication) that they engender are a matter widely studied by International Relations scholars and their importance is ever-increasing along with our evolving and expanding methods of communicating with one another; worldwide.

The ‘translation’ argument is close to its strongest when one considers those authors who are credited with the creation of a language or a domestic literary tradition. English commentaries on Dante’s work frequently mention their inadequacy in interpretation. Those of us in Britain might well think the same if we consider what Shakespeare might be like to read in Italian. These authors’ works have come to embody more than the stories that they tell, they document a context, a history and have bequeathed a style of writing and comprehension that whole nations identify with. This is the case with Alexander Sergeyevitch Pushkin.

Pushkin seems a wonderful character – his life tells a tale that would not be out of place in fiction. He was descended from noble Slavs on one side and Ethiopians on the other. One can imagine that his slightly swarthy looks set him very much apart from his contemporaries in early Nineteenth Century Russia. The effects and affections that a peculiar lineage such as his may have entailed are reflected in his unfinished masterpiece The Moor of Peter the Great.

The Moor of Peter the Great - Alexander PushkinThe young Pushkin had an obvious talent for writing and an open mind he soon found himself falling foul of the Establishment by the age of twenty. He was ‘exiled’ to take governance posts in minor provinces and, luckily for us, devoted a good deal of time to reading and writing. As lives in earlier times often seem to have been lived in fast-forward, Pushkin’s was no exception. By his early thirties he had earned a reprieve to Moscow and married a young socialite called Natalya Goncharova. Only four years later he died, aged thirty-seven in 1837, of wounds suffered in a pistol-duel defending the honour of his bride who had been accused of infidelity.

Pushkin left behind him a legacy. From the age of fifteen he published critically acclaimed poetry, plays and prose. I do not speak Russian, but from what I can read and what people tell me, his writing bound together disparate dialects and literary traditions like no one before him. Furthermore the style and structure of his writing was distinct and immensely influential. His stories are written in direct, pithy tots and tend to centre on a few core personalities. These characters formed the mediums and conduits that would take the reader through lavish environmental detail but also, through their abundant subjectivity, give deep insights into their characters and their perceptions.

In this largesse we are frustrated but satisfied in equal measure. Without a native, or extremely educated, understanding of Russian it is hard (or impossible) to properly understand the effect that Pushkin had on his domestic literary tradition. But – the mist important but – we can bask in the gift of his stories and the stories that his life’s work inspired. When I read him, I cannot help to think that his work paved the way and helped to inspire some of the greatest stories that have ever been told: Raskolnikoff and Sonia toiling to a shared peace in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment through to Woland’s message for The Master in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margerita. On a slightly less romantic note, it seems to me that Pushkin and post-Pushkin Russian writing translates incredibly well into English. The characters often demonstrate an eccentricity – a humanity – with which the readers can identify which shines through even in translation. The short sentences and peculiar detail often make for awkwardly humorous moments that the British, in particular, tend to understand and appreciate.

The Queen of Spades is a superb introduction to Pushkin. It is possibly the most famous piece of his prose work. More a short story than a novella, the succinctness and precision with which this mildly-surrealist story does nothing but add to its brilliance. The story hinges on Hermann, an earnest, frugal, German soldier. “The game fascinates me, but I am not in the position to sacrifice the essentials of life in the hope of acquiring the luxuries,” announces Hermann when questioned about his gambling abstinence.

An octogenarian Countess is Hermann’s foil as the story begins. She was once known as la Vénus Moscovite during her days spent racking up insurmountable debt as a twenty-something woman in Paris sixty years prior. In order to pay her debt, the young Countess turned to a society outcast, Count St-Germain, even rumoured to be the infamous Wandering Jew. From this shadowy character she learned a temporal clairvoyance – the next three cards drawn from a pack given a promise that after the trick is used she would retire from betting. Using this magic (and a little financial leverage) she pays her debtors, leads a life of luxury with one vice fewer and had since only revealed her valuable secret to one seemingly random acquaintance (who does not follow the ‘after sales guidelines’ and dies a pauper). And as for a Daily Telegraph Social Sterotype, Pushkin delivers with aplomb: “she was far from being wicked, but she had the capriciousness of a woman who had been spoiled by the world, and the miserliness and cold hearted egotism of all old people who have done with loving and whose thoughts lie in the past…she dragged herself to balls and sat in the corner like some misshapen but essential ornament of the ballroom.”

Hermann is driven wild with intrigue. This promise of guaranteed profit, the holy grail of reward with no risk, is too great a temptation for his financial reasoning and parsimonious leanings. He begins an aggressive and successful, yet silent, courtship with the Countess’ first-maid so as to get close enough to learn the secret of the cards. All this happens in about the space of one thousand words. The rest of the book is taken up with further gambling competitions, a lethal ultimatum, a happy marriage, a mental asylum, dreams and nightmares. It is beautifully wild and chaotic. In this short space alone I can see the blue print for my favourite stories. Motifs of religion and Para-normality alongside the themes of greed, literary tastes of the Establishment, misappropriation, the dangers of civilised and high-society, ordinary citizens as collateral damage are laid out for all to see here and they coarse through the veins of Russian literature since published. And yet for all the complexity, beautiful reflections of the normal, of human eccentricity are provided in the very same words for our more basic amusement and entertainment; the Countess cries: “PAUL!”Bring along a new novel with you some time, only not one of those modern ones, not the sort in which the hero strangles either of his parents or in which someone is drowned. I have a great horror of drowned people.”

Matt Bradley

The Magic Mountain 1: Endings

The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann“You do not stop dreaming because you get old, you get old because you stop dreaming.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I have never been proficient in endings. Unfinished travel diaries, unfinished life projects, the last raspberry in the punnet, the relationship over but not yet ended, the job waiting to be quit, the novel started and browning like an apple core on the side; I am guilty of all and more.

In fact, I do not relish the end but nor do I relish beginnings. I prefer instead to be trapped in the space between places, neither still at A nor yet at B is the state in my mind of the highest enjoyment: happy memories married to yet unspent potential and the thrill of a little uncertainty.

Perhaps then it is fitting that among the shelves of my favourite books is at least one that I have never finished. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann has presented itself to me as an enormous obstacle, the summit of which I have never reached. On three occasions I have set out from the base camp of my Vintage translation – the safe ground of a strong introduction – for the heights and ravines of the text itself.

“We say of time that it passes. Very good, let it pass. But to be able to measure it – wait a minute: to be susceptible of being measured, time must flow evenly, but who ever said it did that? … Our units of measurement are purely arbitrary, sheer conventions.”

My relationship with this book is like this quotation from it. By the conventional unit of measurement of any novel (itself), my reading has been a failure. I have not read the entire unit. But I have relished the many individual units of the book that I have read. I have now bought the book twice, started it three times, given it to charity once and never been less than one third from the end. I always start from the beginning (perhaps that is my mistake) and read until life gets in the way which it all too often does. So for me, this book represents a lifetime project, a secret tryst known only to me (and now you) and the book itself.

Regardless of whether I read to its end or not, The Magic Mountain is a book that I have picked up once and will never fully relinquish, a book that I will continue to read for as long as I have sight and strength enough to do so and even after that, a book whose spine will remain unbent and unchanged by the books that come in between, the books that I read tonight and tomorrow, the books that I eat up hungrily in a single sitting or luxuriate over for an entire weekend. The Magic Mountain and I have a lifetime to eek out – it concealing one third of its story from me, me always relishing the two thirds of pages turned, the one third still ahead, unrevealed – suspended as I wish always to be not at place A nor yet arrived at place B.

So I have begun reading The Magic Mountain once again. Perhaps I will come to feel about this book much as I do about other things (life, love, friendship – things like that), better always to leave one third in the future, unread. This series will track my reading of the book and though I cannot tell you yet where it will end, I can promise you, at least, there will be more.

The Editors

The Literature of Oppression: Part 4

Escape to Hell by Muammar Gaddafi

Before he was trapped in a sewage pipe in the desert, buggered with a length of steel piping and killed by a mob holding camera-phones.  Before the female bodyguards, and the poor schoolgirls, and the secret bedroom to which he took them, with its gruesome gynaecological surgery next-door.  Before he came in from the cold, and renounced nuclear weapons, or shook Blair’s hand to close a deal with BP.  Before Lockerbie, and WPC Fletcher, and the IRA.  Before he was called Mad Dog, or Fuzzy-head, or Abu Shafshufa.  Before he took to wearing a furry ushanka-hat with the ear-flaps tied beneath his chin, before he permed his hair, before he dressed like an African chieftain and carried a fly-whisk.

Before all of that, Muammar Gaddafi wrote a story called ‘Escape to Hell’.  We cannot know for certain precisely when he wrote it – but it was likely in the 1980s, when Gaddafi had already been leader of Libya for fifteen years.  By then, his brand of political ideology was becoming more fixed: a peculiar blend of social conservatism, populism, revolutionary socialism, pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism.  Gaddafi’s literary style was also on display, and it did not receive a warm reception.  His speeches were rambling and awkward, lurching between standard Arabic, his Bedouin dialect, and Berber tongues.  He liked to coin words in Arabic, but these were laughed at by the intelligentsia in Cairo and Damascus.  And he had published The Green Book as a manifesto of his political philosophy – but this was a poorly-written and widely-mocked collection of aphorisms, bought by tourists as a trinket and recited by school-children in a drone.

* * *

Hardly surprising, then, that Escape to Hell did not attract much attention when it was published in 1993 in a collection of short-stories.  In the bookshops of Tripoli and Benghazi, loyal followers might have bought a copy, but even they must have been underwhelmed by the cover: a green field and a bright sun, drawn in childish bright colours.

Gaddafi

 

And Escape to Hell begins, as uninspiringly as its cover, as a kind of Gaddafi memoir.  There are odd allusions to history, to leaders overthrown by their people, but they feel forced and unnatural. But it is also disarmingly honest: Gaddafi describes his fear of the mob, his fear of his father (who beat him), and his loneliness as a poor Bedouin from the desert in smart, urbane Tripoli.

Having rambled for five or six pages, the reader might be forgiven for shutting the book, bored. He might think that, after all, perhaps Colonel Gaddafi just felt unloved, and out-of-place, and scared.  Maybe that explains it all.

The more cynical reader might even dismiss this outpouring as a clever ruse: self-deprecating to appeal to the wealthy burghers of Tripoli and Benghazi who had never really trusted this upstart shepherd’s boy.  “At least,” Gaddafi wanted them to think, “this Colonel knows his place. He seems to have a healthy fear of us, the people — maybe we can keep him in check after all.  Best to stick with him for a little while longer.”

Keep on reading.  It gets much better.  Without warning, Gaddafi drops all the introspection, all the talk about his fears and his father.  His writing comes to life. It is as though Gaddafi has stepped away from the lectern, jumped down from the podium, two steps at a time, run through the auditorium to where you are sitting, grabbed you by the collar and lifted you out of your seat.

Now he is shouting at you with a truer voice, all historical allusion and affected modesty thrown aside. Gaddafi changes tone abruptly; now he wants to tell the story of how he escaped to Hell.  It is the story of a journey into the desert, away from the mob he so fears, and a journey to solitude and tranquility. And it begins with Gaddafi fleeing Tripoli, hounded by the reader, by the mob.

Your very breath bothers me, invading and violating my privacy; it seeks to squeeze me dry, greedily devouring my essence, licking up my sweat and sucking in my breath.  Then it pauses, to give me a short breathing-space, before it attacks me again.  Your breath chases me like a rabid dog, is saliva dripping in the street of your modern city of insanity.  When I flee, it continues to chase me through cobwebs and esparto.  So I decided to escape to Hell, if only to save myself.

This is pretty good writing, at least stylistically.  Indeed, the whole of the second half of Escape to Hell — the description of Gaddafi’s journey to Hell — is better than you would expect.  The odd thing is that, as you read, you find yourself hearing echoes of great European literature.  After all, the journey to Hell — the descent to the Underworld — is a subject tackled by the greatest writers of all, by Homer, Vergil, Dante and many others.  That is not to say Gaddafi ranks among such great writers — only that there is a ring of literary truth in his writing that we also hear in the finest descriptions of Hell.

Reading the passage above, for example, one could be forgiven for thinking of Aeschylus’ play Eumenides (458 BC); of Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, the prince who killed his mother and was pursued for his crime by those hellish demons, the Furies — “Blow forth on him the breath of wrath and blood, / Scorch him with reek of fire that burns in you, / Waste him with new pursuit — swift, hound him down!

Or, having fled Tripoli, take the description of the beginning of the road into the desert. Gaddafi says: “The path to hell is covered with an unending natural carpet, which I walked along merrily and happily.  When the carpet came to an end, I found the road covered with fine sand. […] I stopped to choose the shortest path to take.”  At once, we think of the famous opening verses of Dante’s Hell — “Midway this way of life we’re bound upon, / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, / Where the right road was wholly lost and gone”.

And when Gaddafi says that he has escaped to the desert to flee the hellish, hounding crowds of Tripoli, to escape the mob, we think of the famous line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play Huis Clos, about people locked in a room in the afterlife: “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” “Hell is other people.”

The cynic will say that Gaddafi has cribbed these allusions from European literature - so much for the illiterate, small-time country boy we encountered in the first half.  Gaddafi was cunning; more clever than he seemed; he must have been pretty well-read.  But, sneers the cynic, Gaddafi was no writer — The Green Book, and all those mad, rambling speeches are proof enough of that — so he can hardly be expected simply to have chanced upon the same turns of phrase as an ancient Greek dramatist, or a Renaissance poet, or an existentialist playwright. No, he was just a cheat, using high literature to make his point, turning beauty to his foul ends.

I disagree.  It is true that the second half of Escape to Hell is more convincing than the autobiographical first.  Whatever his ultimate goal, by describing his escape to the tranquility of the desert, Gaddafi expresses far more eloquently his fear of the Libyan people than he does in the prosaic first half of the story, where his openness and honesty is so earnest that even the most naïf reader must suspect its authenticity.

Instead, the journey to Hell rings true.  Gaddafi finds in the desert a lonely serenity, far away from the city — “How beautiful hell is compared to your city!”, he tells the reader.  I have heard this sentiment expressed by many who have been in the deserts of the Middle East. From young Egyptians fleeing smoggy Cairo for a weekend’s camping under the stars, to an Omani fisherman who liked nothing more than taking a trip into the desert and away from the treacherous sea. After he had crossed the sands of the Empty Quarter with tribesmen of the Rashid, the greatest British Arabist of all, Wilfred Thesiger, wrote something remarkably similar:

When I first entered the sands I was bewildered by the utter unfamiliarity of my surroundings and frightened by the feeling that I had only to be separated from my companions to be completely lost in the maze of dunes. Now, like any Rashid, I regarded the Sands as a place of refuge, somewhere where our enemies could not follow us, and I disliked the idea of leaving the shelter the afforded.

It is for this truth — both literary and simple — that Gaddafi’s description of his journey to Hell is so powerful. It is for this reason that Escape to Hell is good writing.

* * *

In Escape to Hell, Gaddafi journeys into the desert to flee the mob of Tripoli. He would do so again.  In 2011, when the tide of the civil war in Libya had turned against him and the rebels were in Tripoli, Gaddafi gathered his bodyguard and drove out to the sandy wastes, back towards Sirte, his hometown in the desert.

One can imagine that, driving through the sand-dunes in a small convoy, far away now from the shells and the bombs, Gaddafi felt again the calm about which he wrote in Escape to Hell.  Then, ambushed by rebels on the desert road, his followers were killed and Gaddafi was dragged from his hiding-place in a sewage pipe.  There, in the sands, Gaddafi met his end at the hands of a mob.  He had tried to escape, and now he is in Hell.

 George Richards is a writer covering Middle Eastern affairs.  Follow George on Twitter: @gergis

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the RyeThe Catcher in the Rye - J. D. Salinger

“A liar tied up in truth / Enough for a lifeline” – Bonnie Bishop in The English Journal, November 2003

I had always held The Catcher in the Rye in mind as an archetypal coming of age novel which I had never read. It sat, on the bookshelves of my mind amongst Italo Calvino’s “Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them.” The name Holden Caulfield familiar, like an old acquaintance whose face has been forgotten.

Occasionally, I have the the feeling when reading a book for the first time that subconsciously I must have been saving it as a reward for myself. Regardless of the occasion, I look out especially for books with which I can identify. Something in Holden Caulfield’s outlook strikes a chord with me, though his experience of teenage life is far removed from my own.

Caulfield’s aggressive, often shrill, dislike of ‘phonies’ is interspersed with intelligent, charming observations which do not give him up for his naivity: ”The thing is, it’s really hard to be roommates with people if your suitcases are much better than theirs.”

The genius of his character is his ability to extrapolate universals from the very limited and apparently immature perspective of his own experiences. His extrapolations are lampoons to the impulse to generalise – reflecting his naivety yet seemingly drawing out insightful conclusions despite his narrow experience; the privileged son of a wealthy ‘corporation lawyer’ (“boy, do those guys really haul it in”).

His insatiable understanding of the complexity of others, coupled to an inability to concentrate on any topic or person for a protracted period produces these perfect polished lines setting out the many injustices of American society in the 1940s: “I hate it if I’m eating bacon and eggs for breakfast and somebody else is only eating toast and coffee.”

Caulfield’s love of “a swiss cheese sandwich and a malted milk” is also strangely similar to some later iconic American sociopaths (Clarence Worley in True Romance: “I could eat a horse if you slapped enough ketchup on it”) of which he seems to be one. The honesty of Caulfield’s attitudes to food and drink pre-figures Tarantino’s tight characterisation of Worley’s almost psychotic relationship with food and eating (a relationship most explicitly plaid out in one of the most violent scenes of the film in which Worley is out ordering a chicken sandwich while his girlfriend is beaten half to death in their hotel room by a brutish James Gandolfini).

The brevity of the book and the flex and slap of the prose belies the complexity of its writing, the delicate and indelicate leitmotifs (“Old Gatsby. Old Sport. That killed me … I was waiting for old Luce”), the clever patterning, the five years of writing that makes Holden Caulfield one of the best and most brashly defined characters that I can recall reading since I first read Anthony Burgess’, A Clockwork Orange.

And yet, The Catcher in the Rye is really an innocent novel, a coming of age tale about a sixteen year old boy who can’t keep himself in a school for longer than a year. The worst violence of the book is really a drunken Caulfield, clutching his stomach, pretending to have been shot, shouting down the phone to Sally Hayes at two in the morning – the child Holden playing gangsters and the adult Caulfield chasing after women: ”They got me, Rocky’s mob got me. You know that? Sally, you know that?”

But it is not the innocence or naivety of the action in The Catcher in the Rye that is reminiscent of the clearly violent A Clockwork Orange or even of True Romance. It is the cold and violent use of the English language (“that really killed me”) and the lightning strikes of annihilation directed at the other characters in the novel that makes Caulfield’s performance so potent, cynical and entertaining: “She was dating this terrible guy, Al Pike … he was always hanging around the swimming pool. He wore those white Lastex kind of swimming trunks, and he was always going off the high dive. He did the same lousy old half gainer all day long. It was the only dive he could do, but he thought he was very hot stuff. All muscles and no brains.” His rasping assassinations inflected with his childish and incisive observations (“Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell.”) make this one of the most enjoyable books I have read in months, reading each sentence like cutting with a well sharpened knife.

Caulfield seems to roam from one place full of phonies to the next. He is both attracted to the places that they are attracted to and repulsed by their presence in them (“It’s one of those places that are supposed to be sophisticated and all, and the phonies are coming in the window”). Much more, it seems, he is a stranger in the place of his own existence. Someone who is not yet accepted, or who does not yet accept himself – personification of that difficult journey out of adolescence, always approaching adulthood, retreating into childhood. This apparent uncertainty lashes out at the other characters he encounters, blind always to his own issues (“Stop screaming at me please,” she said. Which was crap because I wasn’t even screaming at her.”) he attacks the many flaws of others in place of addressing his own – an intelligent and childish prism through which to view 1940s New York – a delightful one.

The Catcher in the Rye has created a new category of books for my my mental shelving, one which it is leading by a mile: The Books You Have Recently Read And Now You Want Everybody To Read Them.

The Editors

Building Things

Smart People Should Build ThingsSmart People Should Build Things - Andrew Yang

My not now so recent change in career sparked a new drive for information in me. Entering a new line of work reopened the pores of my professional curiosity, and working in an otherwise undefined, unregulated, undocumented and as yet largely unformed industry in a company that had not previously existed, even more so.

Information in the law is readily, though not freely, available. Reading into the profession is so important that young lawyers are sent to law school for two years before they start working but no such study is available for those starting out in young technology companies.

So where to look. A quick Google search for ‘starting a business’ produces 1,050,000,000 pages of information about leaving a job and starting out on your own (or joining in with someone who is doing the same). They will point you to Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup or the The Startup Owner’s Manual as being biblical texts in the world of high growth startups. Many others will try to convince you that for a monthly fee of only fifteen dollars, they will show you the keys to  unlock incomes in the thousands per week from only a few hours of effort (probably from setting up just such websites).

It may not take you long to find the works of Tim Ferris, his ouevre of ‘four hour’ books, textbooks defining the many ways in which you can do anything you want much faster than you think if you think about the effect of your actions rather than the effort of them (the ‘Pareto chop’). A treasure trove of short cuts, high tales and more than a dash of charlatanism, it made an enjoyable seed for the dream bed of my career change from the law, even if it is hard to trust a man who preaches the four hour work week and works sixteen hours a day.

Eric Ries’ works set out a methodology for developing an idea from scratch. Like most of the books in this category they preach common sense, but when common sense is the know-how of the industry, it is reassuring to see it printed up and labelled as a text book occasionally. Follow Eric Ries, don’t follow Eric Ries, it doesn’t really matter but you will probably last longer if you do as he says (and does). His core principle is a straightforward one: rapidly experiment with one eye on the rate at which you are spending money. You may ask why anyone would have to write that down but unfortunately it is.

My route into this particular genre of literature was more mundane than most being via the management pages of the FT in which Luke Johnson (a serial entrepreneur who began his career by building up the Pizza Express chain of restaurants) writes a weekly column.

His pieces are heart-felt and engaging, much like his book Start It Up which sets out no methodology but is an unabashed call to arms for anyone thinking about starting a company. Every other page of the book is a full page quotation affirming the decision of anyone thinking about starting up a business (or pretty much doing anything else).

After one column I emailed him to ask, ‘when is the right time to leave the law and set out on my own’, to which he replied ‘Seize the day, Luke’. One of the kindest, shortest and most memorable emails, I have ever received.

Another writer, who has recently published his very charming book, Smart People Should Build Things is Andrew Yang, a one time New York corporate lawyer. He lasted about as long as I did in the law before turning his attentions to startups, working in a number of different as he puts it ‘low paid’ jobs before founding his own tutoring agency and selling it in his mid-thirties at a healthy profit.

He now runs a not for profit organisation called Venture for America which specialises in placing young, budding, would-be-entrepreneurs in startup companies in deprived areas of America such as Detroit. A great idea and an excellent book – what appeals the most about Yang’s style is his honesty. Aside from the apparent immodesty of the title, he writes not as Tim Ferris superhuman who has ‘hacked life’, redefined wealth, reclaimed time and made himself into the examplar of ability in every jurisdiction of existence, but instead he writes with the wary encouragement of a person who didn’t like being a lawyer, turned down short term success and made a life for himself not dictated by others. Not a work of literature, but I will come back to, many times again.

The Editors

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