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22. Why Read?

I was a sickly child. But I was fortunate in having a mother who was ambitious for me and who had a long shelf for my books built above my bed. I could reach my entire library without having to get up. Nearest to the pillow end were the ten volumes of my Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia. I don’t know who Arthur was, but he did a cracking encyclopaedia. It was not arranged alphabetically but quite arbitrarily, so it was perfect for browsing, rather like the London Library. It moved seamlessly from Mme. Roland ascending the scaffold (‘Oh Liberty! What crimes are committed in your name!’), a line I have never forgotten, through a cutaway drawing of the engine room of RMS Queen Mary to ‘Dusky Beauties’, pictures of women of the British Empire, always naked to the waist and frequently with discs the size of soup plates set into their lower lips, or long sharp pegs through their noses, parallel to the ground, as if they had been ambushed by someone with a bow and arrow.

Solid reading came next with the complete Sherlock Holmes long and short stories and then Conan Doyle’s Historical Romances. I particularly liked The White Company. Next on the shelf came my Arthur Ransome’s packaged by Jonathan Cape in handsome green covers. People call them the Swallows and Amazons books but that title is one of the dullest. Pigeon Post and We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea were my favourites. That reminds me of Enemy Coast Ahead, another great favourite; a shabby little Pan book about Guy Gibson. ‘It takes strength to fly a Lancaster’ it told me. Well, I could imagine corkscrewing the plane in an emergency and spiralling out of those dazzling searchlights. Next would be my Observers Book of Aircraft, small enough to fit in my blazer pocket, but actually I didn’t need it if I was out with my binoculars because I knew every aeroplane in the skies of England at the time. No, its well-executed three-views of the Hawker Hunter, the Avro 504 and the Bristol Brabazon (for example) were a kind of roughage for the imagination; I saw myself in them, or making models of them, or improving on them – another jet here, more sweepback there.

Herbert Ponting’s book about being the photographer on Scott’s expedition to the South Pole didn’t make me want to be an explorer, but may have led to my training as a photographer. There were books that one got out of the library but didn’t own. W. E. Johns’ Biggles books passed the time but didn’t win shelf room. I found books in other peoples’ houses that I would have liked to own. Emil and the Detectives (Kästner) was a joy to me and lives on in my mind 60 years later, and so does an American children’s book called Little Britches. I liked Hornblower and would have adored Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey novels; if only they had been available then! On the bedroom shelf was a curious little Penguin that I liked very much called I Was Graf Spee’s Prisoner, the true story of a merchant seaman whose ship had been sunk by the German pocket battleship. The war had only been over for seven years when I was ten and cast a long, strong shadow. I had two volumes of the government’s propagandist Britain at War series, one RAF, one Royal Navy. I pored over the pictures, but the text was unreadable. H. E. Marshall’s Our Island Story taught me some history and was useful if one had history prep. Also useful for prep was Pear’s Cyclopaedia which I was given every Christmas by an uncle. But this was a dangerous book, for its medical dictionary convinced me that I had a terminal pulmonary tuberculosis and ruined one Christmas as I waited for the blow to fall. If there were other books on my shelf, I have forgotten them. They failed, then, to be memorable and that is the first thing that a good read should be. Why read? Well, why live? Why think? Why dream?

 George Pownall

Spoken Word: Please Write Immediately

The Letters of Gustave FlaubertLove Letters from the poets at the Southbank Centre

As part of their Festival of Love, the Southbank Centre recently put on an event where Ben Lamb, Harriet Walter, Guy Paul, Laurel Lefkow and Jason Hughes read a wide expanse of love letters by writers. This was not an evening exclusively dedicated to romantic love: the letter Ted Hughes wrote to his son was the standout example. 

When Keats wrote to Fanny Brawne before going to Italy in an attempt to improve his health: “I do not write this till the last that no eye may catch it”, eight pairs of ears eagerly caught his wish that: “you could invent some means to make me at all happy without you”. Knowing that no such device exists, he prophetically signs off “I see nothing but thorns for the future”. 

Ezra Pound’s poem “The River Merchant’s Wife” was based on the 8th Century AD Chinese original, and balances nostalgia with imagery in a gently rolling rhythm to set up the first notion of reciprocated love when the future was not so much of a factor:

“You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.

And we went on living in the village of Chokan:

Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.”

The mood veered from rapturous professions of first love between the Brownings “for the first time, my feeling rises altogether. I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart– and I love you too”, to a pregnant widow in 16th century South Korea bidding farewell:

“How did you bring your heart to me and how did I bring my heart to you? Whenever we lay down together you always told me, “Dear, do other people cherish and love each other like we do? Are they really like us?” How could you leave all that behind and go ahead of me?

Come to me secretly and show yourself. There is no limit to what I want to say and I stop here.” 

The letter was recently discovered in the couples’ shared tomb.

In case that last veered on the excessively sad, Russell Edson’s letter to ‘Dear Miss’ may be the thing to save you: “I am interested in your mind: will you undress in front of me? Will you permit me the unparalleled pleasure of taking your clothes off? I feel that if I should have my penis in your vagina I should have your love”. Another source of amusement was the sequence of letters from Byron to Caroline Lamb, Clara Clairmont AND Teresa Guiccioli, all professing his undying love with equal fervour.  

The unpeeling and analysis of erotic love, as captured by the written word, was dealt with wryly by Anais Nin in her response to a ‘Collector’ who tried to commission her and Henry Miller to correspond with’less poetry and more sex’, for $1 a page. 

She opens with “We hate you. Sex loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone, when it becomes a mechanistic obsession. It becomes a bore. ”

Her teasing use of the pen as a blade is made concrete as she firmly immolates any commercial relationship with her patron: “We have sat around for hours and wondered how you look. If you have closed your senses around silk, light, color, odor, character, temperament, you must by now be completely shriveled up.”

A personal highlight was Flaubert’s letter to Colet on August 15, 1846 (partly because it confirms that great things DO happen in August, while cities are asleep except for tourists):

“I will cover you with love when next I see you, with caresses, with ecstasy.  I want to gorge you with all the joys of the flesh, so that you faint and die.  I want you to be amazed by me, and to confess to yourself that you had never even dreamed of such transports… When you are old, I want you to recall those few hours, I want your dry bones to quiver with joy when you think of them.”

No professions of love long beyond the reach of the stars or the reach of the moon for Gustave. That magnificent walrus moustache concealed an absolute groover, who paints the superb image of an elderly lady cackling with pleasure over a night of ecstasy decades later.

The Editors

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever?

Your Fathers Where Are TheyYour Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? - Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers is one of a rare breed of American writers (perhaps their leader?) capable of capturing complex emotional states with sophisticated bluntness.

His first book, A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius is the part biographical story of a young man coming of age, discovering the world in the company of his younger brother, for whom he has become responsible.

Those states of responsibility and liminal adulthood are picked up again in Your Fathers. The protagonist, Thomas, seeks to orient himself in the world (”I really am a clean cut guy. I’m just stuck in a tight spot right now”) and establish his sense of self by kidnapping a sequence of characters from his childhood who each represent a cut of the many facets of American hero culture; an astronaut; a retired war veteran-senator with no legs; Thomas’s mother; a teacher; a policeman.

As the story unfolds so too do the personal links connecting each of the kidnapped characters to Thomas, the astronaut was a class mate (”You told me one day you were going to go up in the Shuttle. Remember that?”), the teacher his old maths teacher who held ‘sleepovers’ for his students which Thomas’s mother would send him to. By a coincidence the policeman Thomas kidnaps turns out to have been present at the shooting of a disturbed student, a friend of Thomas’s. The plot falls into place around him like so many shackles.

More importantly, Your Fathers is a song to a generation born into peacetime and expectation. A world explored and conquered, a life cheapened and tainted. A generation, perhaps like all other generations, which looks at its forebears and thinks, ‘you must be joking’ but does not know how to change what they see before them. Thomas approaches his fate with a quixotic mix of action and resignation: ”After I took the astronaut, I figured I only have a certain window before I’m caught or found or something else happens to me, so I thought I might as well get it all figured out in one fell swoop.”

Eggers carefully stretches the boundaries between flippancy and premeditation (”You were the guy who came to the house to rewire the phones?”) demonstrating Thomas’s enormous capacity for positive action and crushing it against what on occasion seems like mental illness, but too often presents itself as the manifestation of the selfish modern cult of consumerist self-discovery in which everything, including the lives of others, are fodder to fill a yawning need for validation: ”But just yesterday, with the astronaut, I felt like I was on the verge of something, I was breathing better. And I know you’ll help me even more.”

Your Fathers deals with a very modern strain of issues of the self. A generation of disaffected young people, alienated from their peers, from the structures of social validation, born into expectation and abundance to which they feel an entitlement even when they lack the personal skills to access it. Written entirely in dialogue, it is a book which embodies the dysfunctional intergenerational dialogue that our society of abundance has fostered and created – a fierce, clear window into a world still being created.

The Editors

The God Argument

 GraylingThe God Argument – A.C. Grayling

Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” Mark Twain

With the carnage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still looming behind a fragile ceasefire, and with ISIS still rampaging their way across northern Iraq, now seems like a good time to talk about atheism. A.C. Grayling’s short book is essentially a step-by-step guide to giving up religion, with absolutely no ground conceded to my kind of wishy-washy agnosticism. Grayling takes us through each of the main arguments for religion before savagely but politely uprooting them and tossing them aside. The second part of the book is then a celebration of humanism, which is the author’s preferred alternative to God.

The book is chiefly memorable for the way in which Grayling goes about his business of dismantling preconceptions regarding religion, basically doing a lot of the intellectual groundwork that most of us can never summon the energy for. A particular favourite of mine is the manner in which he illustrates the nature of proof via Carl Sagan’s story of the invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire – the lesson being that an inability to invalidate a hypothesis is by no means the same as proving it true. The implications of this are twofold. Firstly, that redefining religion to fit modern science smacks of inconsistency. Secondly, that not being able to disprove the existence of something does not make the odds of its actual existence 50-50, as is sometimes assumed when we say we can’t know with absolute certainty that God does not exist. Grayling points out that this is exactly the same as saying we can’t know that fairies, goblins, unicorns or mermaids don’t exist, but we usually reconcile ourselves to the extreme improbability that they actually do.

More important than the powerful logic Grayling deploys in his favour, however, is the fact that the author is clearly motivated by a genuine preoccupation with the effect of religious belief in the world, and not by a proselytising desire just to make sure everyone agrees with him. I say this is important because I think a lot of atheistic thinkers get caught in the proselytising trap, Richard Dawkins being chief among them. This is, of course, not to say that they are necessarily wrong, but that the way in which they put forward their case harks back to a manner of ideological persuasion we might normally associate with religious preaching, not the opposite. In other words, more or less impartial observers of the religious debate, myself included, need to feel that it is more than a frenzied bout of intellectual masturbation – the stakes may be high but I have always preferred Sartre’s approach, which is to say that even absolute certainty of God’s existence wouldn’t deprive you of responsibility over your own actions (i.e. it should make no difference to how you choose to live your life).

Unfortunately, the reality is that organised religion does make a difference, and for the most part it makes a difference in a profoundly negative way, as has been made abundantly clear to everyone over the past few weeks. Grayling is uncompromising in setting out exactly what he finds distasteful about religion, from its fundamentally divisive nature, to the way it perpetuates itself by targeting children for indoctrination. The latter point is one that bears remembering – no one chooses which side of the wall they are born on.

The Editors

A life in books

StonerStoner – John Williams

This is a book about a man, William Stoner, who enters the University of Missouri at the age of nineteen to study agriculture and never leaves. It charts his progression from undergraduate student to professor of English literature within the university, depicting the trials and tribulations of his professional and family life. Ostensibly, it is not a book that tells a particularly interesting story, certainly not an extraordinary one in any case. Nor does it go into any particular detail about the focus of Stoner’s career as a student or as a teacher of literature; I can’t remember the period or any of authors he specialises in. And yet, Williams manages to convey an irresistible sense of the joy of Stoner’s vocation, starting with a vague awareness of his calling through to the publication of his first text. In fact, the most striking thing about the novel is the way it moves seamlessly through the protagonist’s life, stopping carefully to consider some of the key moments in it, but at all times adopting a detached perspective.

It is this detached perspective that allows the author to capture the vagaries of human life so convincingly, successfully mixing a sense of fatalistic abandonment with an appreciation of Stoner’s stoicism and ability to take stands on matters of principle. He has to make several difficult decisions, including to stay at the university to study literature rather than return to his parents’ farm as originally planned: “If you think you ought to stay here and study your books, then that’s what you ought to do.” However, despite these fleeting instances of self-determination, Stoner’s control over his life is limited in the extreme, as tends to be the case with every life when looked at in retrospect. Similarly, his contact with the outside world, and with history generally, is described in terms of transient encounters: the First and Second World Wars and the Great Depression appear indirectly through other characters rather than as characters in themselves.

Perhaps it is the book’s grasp of the ephemeral that leads many to the conclusion that this is a melancholy novel about a thoroughly downtrodden individual. In many ways that assessment is correct, but it fails to do justice to the full extent of the novel’s scope. For starters, Stoner lives a life of relative comfort and is a man who loves his job. Williams spoke as follows of his protagonist: “I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing.” There is no doubt that, despite some moments of intense conflict and sadness, Stoner’s is a full life, which is more than most will experience. Williams manages to convey this in a thoroughly original manner, and it is a book that haunts the reader long after it has been put down.

The Editors

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

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