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Posts tagged ‘History’

The Better Angels of Our Nature

the_better_angels_coverThe Better Angels of Our Nature – Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University, and Better Angels is his attempt to chart (and explain) the history of human violence more or less since records began. Pinker’s book is a fairly intimidating prospect at just under 900 pages, but then again it is a monstrously ambitious undertaking, and in fact it’s surprising that he manages to deal with the subject as comprehensively as he does.

The basic proposition is that violence of all kinds amongst humans has been in decline for a very long time. Pinker acknowledges that in absolute terms that hypothesis is plainly wrong, but argues that the statistic that really matters when looking at human violence is the relative chance of a person suffering a violent death at the hands of another person over the course of his or her lifetime. In other words, the question should be: would you rather have a 50% chance of dying a violent death over the course of your life, or a 5% chance? For Pinker, it is the rate of violent death that counts, not the total number of violent deaths at any given stage in history. Looked at in this way, the statistics presented in Better Angels show a clear downward trajectory in human violence across the ages, even when the atrocities of the 20th century (‘the bloodiest in history’) are taken into account. Interestingly, Pinker notes that the absolute death tolls of historical conflicts often tend to be underestimated, or at least not scrutinised in the same way as death tolls for modern wars. Apparently the Mongol conquests in the 13th century accounted for the deaths of around 40 million people.[1] Although that figure must clearly be open to challenge in a way that more recent statistics are not, it is uncontroversial that the Mongols systematically massacred the populations of the lands they conquered. For example, somewhere between 700,000 and 1.3 million people were killed by the Mongols in the city of Merv alone. As well as haggling over statistics, however, what Pinker is interested in doing is exposing the phenomenon of historical myopia that allows people to assess different periods of history through different lenses.

Having engaged in the argument surrounding his central hypothesis, Pinker then spends most of the book explaining what he thinks might be the causes of this long-term decline. He examines the Hobbesian ‘pacification process’ whereby fiefdoms were gradually replaced by kingdoms, thus suppressing localised violence as power came to be concentrated in a sovereign of some sort. He also looks at Norbert Elias’ theory of manners, the so-called ‘civilising process’, which posits that as centralised sovereign authority grew, so too did a system of courtly manners intended to minimise violence and pay homage to the monarch. The latter was in fact considered as part of David Mitchell’s BBC4 series on manners last month, which also featured an interview with Steven Pinker discussing the civilising process and its contribution to lower rates of intra-human violence.

Of all Pinker’s factors contributing to the reduction in violence over time, however, there is one that stands out for the purpose of this blog, and that is reading. In particular, Pinker argues that the revolution in printing, and the expansion in literacy, had the effect of widening people’s perspectives to the extent that they were no longer prepared to view strangers as less human and therefore less worthy of protection:

Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point. Not only are you taking in sights and sounds that you could not experience firsthand, but you have stepped inside that person’s mind and are temporarily sharing his or her attitudes and reactions. […] Stepping into someone else’s vantage point reminds you that the other fellow has a first-person, present-tense, ongoing stream of consciousness that is very much like your own but not the same as your own.”

Pinker then goes further, and looks at the impact of different literary movements across the ages. He notes Lynn Hunt’s observation that the “heyday of the Humanitarian Revolution, the late 18th century, was also the heyday of the epistolary novel.” This was the time of Richardson’s Pamela and Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses doesn’t get a mention for obvious reasons). This was followed by the rise of realism in the 19th century, which was perhaps more closely linked to political movements aimed at eradicating conflict. The causative effect of these literary trends on a global phenomenon like human violence is clearly impossible to know with certainty, but Pinker argues that the “ordering of events is in the right direction: technological advances in publishing, the mass production of books, the expansion of literacy, and the popularity of the novel all preceded the major humanitarian reforms of the 18th century.”

Whether or not you agree with Pinker (and I think it is difficult to poke many holes in his overall thesis), Better Angels is a fascinating study of history and psychology that deserves to be read by anyone interested in knowing more about what drives people to be violent. The conclusions are overwhelming optimistic, particularly the view that human beings can moderate and control violence. It is not necessarily the inescapable demon that it often appears (and is made out) to be. However, what really sets the book apart is the neutrality of its tone. Whilst Pinker may be a self-confessed liberal, Better Angels is the work of a thoroughly empirical mind, hence the obsession with statistics (which require some effort to process if you are as statistically illiterate as I am, although Pinker suggests that most of us are). Pinker acknowledges this towards the end of the book, and apologises if he seems cold-hearted in the face of reams of statistics on death and destruction. However, he is undoubtedly right that violence does not often get examined with the objective tenacity required of the subject, which is perhaps why Better Angels seems like such a revolutionary tome.

The Editors

[1] Matthew White: “Worst Things People Have Done” (The Great Big Book of Horrible Things).

Book Club Spy Abroad: Edinburgh Book Festival


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Edinburgh Book Festival 2015: Waking the Wuduwasa

The first literary event I attended at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival was a three-way talk given by actor Mark Rylance, writer Paul Kingsnorth, and ‘mythologist’ Martin Shaw, who gave a rolling rambling performance on England in the 11th century. Kingsnorth was promoting his book The Wake, which Rylance has apparently bought the film rights for. It is set in East Anglia in the 1060s and written in an approximation of Anglo Saxon.

Their shared session opened with Rylance ploughing straight into a reading from the novel, which is written in clearly understandable English prose (easier than Riddley Walker, reviewed here recently) but delivered with a mystifying Jamaican tilt by Rylance. A similar premise to Walker, the plot was described as “a post-apocalyptic novel set a thousand years in the past.

Kingsnorth provided some historical context, perhaps to refresh the memories of those people (like myself) who felt slightly rusty on this passage in our nation’s history, but also to animate the stage for the kind of myths he is looking to revive. He opened with England’s foundation myth of the 5th century: after the collapse of the Roman Empire, warring tribes and king Vortiger were under Pictish threat from the North. Vortiger hired German mercenaries – the Angles and the Saxons – who did not know the Romans had once been in residence (this seems hard to believe) and told stories that giants had built the aqueducts.

Once the Germans had overcome the Picts, a giant leap forward to the eleventh century saw England as a rising medieval power on the island of Albion with a centralized monarchy and language. When it came to discussing 1066, Kingsnorth was keen on not rushing straight ahead to the Plantagenets, as History has been taught on the curriculum for a long time, but stopped at this point and asked why it took several hundred years after 1066 before English became the first language of the King, and why the first law of the land, created in 1067, was that all land is first in the possession of the crown. In other words, all land was automatically owned by the King, which is technically still the position in law today. There was also something called a ‘murdrum’ fine, which provided the root of murder as we know it, which you had to pay if you took a Norman’s life.

The effect these two factors had on the English people yielded more interesting results than posing the usual Battle of Hastings questions suggests: the decade after 1066 saw resistance to the new rule across the country. There were pockets of it, of little prominence, as resistance often manifests itself. The Battle of York saw all local rebel factions flee upon William’s approach. He then scorched hundreds of square miles of the surrounding land and killed all the livestock in what became known as the Harrying of the North, which resulted in widespread famine. This was dutifully recorded in the Domesday Book and is still referred to today. It was of course a decision William took in order to ensure rebellion would not be repeated, as well as to flush any remaining rebels out of hiding. He was quoted as saying on his deathbed to (the hardly impartial) Audric: “I fell on the English as a ravening lion…in this way I took revenge…and so became a barbarous murderer…and so dare not leave the crown to anyone but God.”

The main question that actually preoccupied Kingsnorth was clearly what life in England during this period was like, from the point of view of the Lincolnshire Fens farmer of his novel, who is in constant dialogue with the pre-Christian Teutonic gods. In this way the intersection between myth and history remains as knotted and integral as it always was. Picking at this knot with the old stories as a tool is something Kingsnorth is attempting for a part of the country we don’t hear enough about.

The Fens then were very different for one thing, being undrained, wild salt marshes, with a reputation for errant messengers travelling between villages, taking any news with them. One such story was that of a local ruler sending men into the Fens to find the source of its eeriness. There they found a being with long red hair, known as the Wuduwasa; the Wood Worm; the Witch of the Bleak Shore; a Cyclops or “the being that never dries out”. The men took the creature back to their king and built it an iron cage to investigate what gave it such presence. Their torture yielded no results. The king’s dreams started to be affected by the creature, and he gave his wife the key to the cage and told her to keep it in the croft of her hips, before he departed for the hunt. Their son is of course trapped by the creature in his cage, and bargains with him for his release. The prince is given a way to summon the creature before the latter returns to the swamp. The King returns and banishes his son in the same direction, at which point he summons the monster and leaps upon his back. They disappear under the earth and into the darkness of the Fens. Beneath the swamp was a kingdom where the boy spent seven years. Before he leaves, the creature washes his hair in a pool that turns his curls into gold that the prince is warned not to show anyone, unless he cannot avoid it. The story ends with a grand reveal, a reversal of fortune and a lesson, as most stories do.

In 1070 there was the last stand of the warrior band, lead by Hereward The Wake, to resist the Normans from invading Ely on the Fens. The Normans built a giant floating causeway and siege towers but were attacked from behind their own lines by the resistance. In the end Ely was betrayed rather than conquered by a local monk. Hereward escaped, never to be seen again. Perhaps he resides beneath the Fens still, complete with golden curls.

The Editors

Justice for Thomas Cromwell

JUSTICE “Law & Literature” event – 11 February 2015, Great Hall, Middle Temple, London

Three months agCromwello, JUSTICE hosted their third event in what seems to be the increasingly popular “Law & Literature” series, and surely there was no better venue than the Great Hall of Middle Temple for Hilary Mantel to read from her new, as yet unfinished novel, The Mirror and The Light, the third in the trilogy featuring Thomas Cromwell as its protagonist. Up to this point in the series it was noticeable that JUSTICE had carefully selected their authors based on some sort of affinity with the law and, understandably, justice. The first event featured Julian Barnes discussing his novel Arthur & George, which revolves around a well-known miscarriage of justice, and that talk was followed by another given by Robert Harris on An Officer and A Spy, also about a notorious miscarriage of justice (l’affaire Dreyfus). Although the theme of righting wrongs was not so immediately obvious with Mantel’s trilogy of Tudor-age tomes, all doubt was cast aside at the entry to the event, where the title of the reading was unveiled as “Justice for Thomas Cromwell”, slightly giving away the plot of the third instalment in the process. Of course, Cromwell himself was also a lawyer, among many other things it seems, if we are to believe Mantel’s retelling of his life and times as one of Henry VIII’s closest consiglieri.

Mantel’s is certainly not what you would call a booming voice, and the size of the venue meant that the audience had to lean forward as one to catch everything she said. Again, perhaps given the high proportion of lawyers in attendance, she was quick to point to the legal mechanics underpinning the history of the novels: England’s break from Rome was about “jurisdiction not ideology”. In other words, the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church was not about a disagreement over religious doctrine, but rather about sovereignty and the right to self-determination. In that sense, certainly, it could be said to anticipate by half a millennium the current political tussle over the Human Rights Act/European Court of Human Rights, which also seems to have little to do with legal philosophy and everything to do with perceived foreign interventionism and the fact that politicians never like to have their power challenged. I suspect that the organisers of the event at JUSTICE may have made that connection before inviting Mantel to be a speaker.

Mantel said she was less interested in the formalities of history and power than she was in the behind-the-scenes wrangling that actually leads to agreements being reached between kings and countries. To this extent, her interpretation of Cromwell is as the ultimate manipulator of events (almost like a slightly more benign 16th century version of Frank Underwood), whose pragmatism stands in marked contrast to the ivory tower intellectualism of Thomas More. In Mantel’s world, less gets done in the great halls of power than in its courtyards, corridors and kitchens; one would imagine that little has changed over the ages in this regard. However, it is these interstitial spaces between what we know as history that Mantel has made herself master of. It reminds me of something Julian Barnes once wrote about his aversion to famous dates; he said he was less interested in 1492, for example, than 1493 – i.e. what happened when Columbus got back to Europe and took all the credit for finding the new world? The answer is that things continued very much as they had been before, except that the man who actually first sighted America wound up as a gunrunner in north Africa.

I think it is Mantel’s eye for detail and nuance, her ability to humanise historical characters by revealing both their strengths and their weaknesses, that accounts to a large extent for the incredible success of her novels. However, it is also her immense skill at filling in the void between what we think we know actually happened at the time. To this extent, I pity historians of the period who must be unable to read Mantel’s novels without a considerably heftier degree of scepticism.

The Men and Women of Middlemarch: Part 1

middlemarch

I at least have so much to do in unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.”

George Eliot’s Middlemarch, first published serially in 1871-1872, is a work of almost unrivalled complexity set in the Great British Countryside.  AS Byatt has suggested that the title is both a nod to the geography of the novel, and a reference to the first lines of Dante’s Inferno: “In mezzo cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva scura” [“In the middle of the road of our life / I found myself in a dark wood”].  Certainly, the main characters are all beset at various stages in the novel by the obstacles life hurls at them.

Middlemarch was famously the conflation of two separate narratives the author was working on simultaneously: the first, a study of provincial society revolving around the character of Dr Lydgate; the second, a short story entitled “Miss Brooke”, with Dorothea Brooke occupying centre stage.  The resulting dual-protagonist structure of Middlemarch has been a source of confusion for readers and critics ever since, doubtlessly exacerbated by the fact that Eliot did not contrive to have her two main characters end up romantically entwined.  However, to describe Middlemarch in terms of two parallel stories would also be simplistic, there being a huge number of other characters whose separate entanglements are also central to the overall makeup of the novel.  In fact, it has often been noted that the underlying metaphor of the book is that of “the web”, holding the various strands together in an intricately woven arrangement.

Besides Dorothea Brooke and Dr Lydgate, much can be made of Bulstrode the morally dubious banker, Mary Garth the sensible daughter of the local land agent, Ladislaw the principled outsider, and even Mr Brooke the delusional would-be man of politics.  Arthur George Sedgwick, writing in 1973, observed the debate that had already begun to rage regarding the identity of the novel’s true protagonist, noting that some even viewed the town itself as the lead player.  Unfortunately, Mr Sedgwick ultimately appears to have become caught up in Eliot’s carefully constructed web of interconnected plot-lines and overlapping characters:

It would be a mere waste of time to go into a minute criticism of Middlemarch.  The plots are too numerous, the characters too multitudinous, and the whole too complicated.”

He thus concludes as follows:

In the attempt to play the critic of such works as these, one cannot help feeling that to properly analyze and explain George Eliot, another George Eliot is needed, and that all suggestion can do is to indicate the impossibility of grasping, in even the most comprehensive terms, the variety of her powers.”

It is not our intention in this series to get bogged down in a similar state of despair, so we will not be attempting anything approaching a comprehensive analysis of the novel.  Instead, we plan to look at a few of the characters individually, to see what still resonates about them and the way Eliot presents them to us.  The idea is that by putting some of the key character under the microscope separately we might learn something about the way Eliot conceived her characters, both as someone fascinated with the concept of freedom and choice, and more generally with the intertwining paths of human life.

The Editors

Spoken Word: Other Lives – Hilary Mantel in conversation with Harriet Walters for the RSL

Wolf Hall - MantelWolf Hall has just come off the London stage, and it is about to appear on ITV as a ten-part series starring Mark Rylance, adapted for the screen by Mantel, just as she oversaw the stage production. With Bring Up The Bodies finally edging off the bestseller lists, Mantel’s collection of short stories The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is on every top ten list predicting Christmas books. In short, Mantel is everywhere, luckily for us.

Before delving into her latest offering, her appearance in the Union Chapel with Harriet Walters for the RSL is definitely worth mentioning. It was a few months ago now, but the overarching conversation has lingered, centring as it did on the idea of wearing another’s skin on your back. Walters, an established character actress, described having to go “a long way” to meet Lady Macbeth, reassuringly. Mantel, in turn, described the process of acquainting herself with Thomas Cromwell as mediation, or more simply as the process of getting inside a character’s head. The way she explained this was to recall the first moment the reader encounters Cromwell, as a fifteen year-old, bleeding in Putney after a beating from his father. She could hear a voice floating above his head, feel the cobbles beneath his cheek, and taste blood.

She gleefully relayed Christopher Hitchens’s review of Wolf Hall (“you would never know it was written by a woman”) as a testament – as well she should – of how naturally she occupied Cromwell. She clearly delights in living unlived lives by writing as a man, much as she did for Robespierre in A Place of Greater Safety. She wears their skins well and has done it often, so she knows what it requires, and is conscious that if you encounter the actor playing Cromwell five minutes after the curtain, you cannot be entirely sure if they have yet made the “perfect conversion”. Something of the public Croydon’s thuggish self may remain, before the private core of the actor manages to reassert itself.

The power of the play (it will be impressive indeed if this translates to the small screen) is that watching it makes Cromwell inhabit the present, walk in your line of sight and live, of course, if only for a while. The two women agreed that when it really works, the production “pins you to the heartbeat and to the breath”. This would be harder for a more thoroughly cerebral Machiavellian character, perhaps, as Cromwell lashes out – lightning quick – to strike Wolsey; he paces, looms and threatens. Exposition and rubbing one’s hands together in a sinister fashion alone will not get it done.

Given that Mantel is a pleasure to watch as well as to read – she beams and laughs, and seems to enjoy herself – sinister is the word that describes some of her rawer home truths (“ultimately, we are all just alone in the dark”) as well as the creeping feeling of dread from reading her recent collection of short stories. She described on stage the presence of an unarticulated secret – like Bluebeard’s locked room – in a novel, and how this can change with contextual climate. For Wolf Hall, she cited the preconception of people who tend to watch Henry VIII as a wife killer, because this is how the Tudors are taught in schools. We learn his list of wives with the song in order to remember how they snuffed it, rarely dawdling on his accomplishments in poetry, music or foreign policy, let alone his relationship with the Privy Council.

In the same way, every story from The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher carries a patina of dread. While it is not as overt as the corpse stashed beneath the coffee table in Rope, it is much more than something stuck in one’s tooth or a fingernail split to the quick. Some of the stories are more overtly macabre, and ‘Harley Street’ is just plain upsetting as one cannot help but speculate it is based on Mantel’s own delicate health. They are all funny. On finishing the title story, however, it is difficult to shake that feeling of something starting to turn on a muggy day, or indeed get rid of the sand concealed under one’s own skin, like the rhino in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories.

The Editors

25. Why Read?

“Why Read?”

You can rely on reading.

Lots of the other things that you can do to pass your time and have fun are out of your control. My favourite television programme has ended and there probably won’t be another series because not enough people liked it (which means they must have been stupid), but with a book, it’s just you and the book. It doesn’t depend on anyone else’s point of view – once it’s there, no-one can change that.

In the same way, when I read, no-one is making their mind up about the appearance, setting or accent that characters have: everything comes out of my own brain. If you go to the theatre, or to the cinema, then lots of that has already been done for you. Even if you don’t think that that lady looks like Medea, that’s bad luck because she’s already in it and that’s who you’re going to see. I didn’t think Percy Jackson would have an American accent, but he did in the film and now that’s the voice I hear in my head when I read the books.

Reading allows me to make my own mind up about everything, and make my own decisions: there’s just me and the writer’s words – and that’s how I think it should be. That’s why I read.

William Kelly, age 11

“Why Read?”

I read me because it enables me to go back in time and experience what other people with different standards of living experienced.

I find it really interesting to read about things that I don’t understand, because then I’ll know about it, and that knowledge will never leave me – I even know about the Stone Age now, and that’s not the sort of thing that comes up in conversation, but it’s good to know, because now I’ll never wonder what happened in the Stone Age. I’ll know.

Some of the most amazing people in history wrote their autobiographies, so you don’t have to think what they MIGHT have thought: you can read their actual words. People like Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Julius Caesar (and some baddies as well) wrote about what had happened in their lives, so when I read about them, I know they’re telling the truth and that they haven’t got it wrong.

Alexander Kelly, age 10

“Why Read?”

Reading lets impossible things happen to you.

You can be in the story, with the characters, not just watching the story like you would do on television, but actually being there. Even if you don’t know people exactly like in the story, or know the places that they’re talking about; when you read, it’s like you do know those things.

In “Alice in Wonderland”, I think Alice is me, and that those things could actually happen to me in real life. Even if there are things that seem impossible (like girls turning into kangaroos in “The Wind on the Moon”), when I read it in a book, I don’t think it’s fake or unrealistic: I think that there’s a world where it can happen and does (under certain circumstances). When I read these stories, I think that these places are lovely places to be, and that the things that are happening are lovely things to happen. It brings a huge amount of pleasure into my life and allows me to relax in silence, and if I couldn’t read I’d miss all the worlds, the lives and the people in the books who have come to life as I have read about them.

Nina Kelly, age 10

 

La Serenissima

5369757294_fbefe6e16dWatermark, Joseph Brodsky

A History of Venice, John Julius Norwich

Having read your entry of September 17th entitled “We are here” you have emboldened me to provide a similar two-for-one contribution. I must admit that I have not, until recently, been a great lover of fiction in its broadest sense. I tended to read for fact – and as there is so much of it that I do not know I was content on my course. Recently things have changed. I am now pursuing a business degree and I do nothing aside reading for fact. At times it feels as though I am a good way through Harvard Business School’s oeuvre, which is neither true nor entertaining for the most part. My summer break gave me some much needed time and space for escapism. A late summer started with The Master and Margarita, regressed to The Idiot and then brought me to A History of Venice. Why the curious final stop? There are many reasons but possibly the easiest to describe is that I have completely fallen in love with the city. At first sight I was besotted and, having been lucky enough to live in Italy for a year, my feelings have deepened in exponential proportion to my many visits more recently. I understand that this is rather tragic (colloquial). Anyway, as anything that I love, I tend to like to learn as much as I can about it/them so that I can make the most of the relationship.

A History of Venice is a (rather lengthy) history book detailing the very beginnings of La Serenissima, The Most Serene Republic of Venice, in the 8th century through, Doge by Doge, to its forced conclusion at the end of the 18th. Whilst I understand that this might not be the standard content discussed on your site I can only encourage friends and acquaintances to read a chapter or two the next time you are in a suitable bookshop.

As a clear lover of the City and its history Norwich charts a purposeful course through time. Reflections on the city, the character of the inhabitants, aggressors in the form of Spaniards, Milanese, Holy Armies, Genoese, Neapolitans, Florentines, Hungarians, Austrians, Ottomans and French are treated with utmost objectivity and as a result this book is an absolute pleasure. This history is no indulgence for its author, it is written with the reader’s education in mind at all times and as a result it achieves its aim with aplomb. Not only is this achieved but it is also written rather beautifully. Norwich writes in classic British prose whilst never being verbose. Nor does he allow himself lengthy digressions into architecture, art or beauty where accusations of pomposity would be easy to level. That being said he does allow flashes of humour, certainly enough to enliven the read at more academic moments. In response to the secret expedition to Alexandria in order to steal the remains of Mark The Evangelist, Norwich proposes that “history records no more shameless example of body-snatching; nor any – unless we include the events associated with the Resurrection – of greater long term significance”.

In fact this book is so well put together that by the time that you reach Part Four: Decline and Fall your spirits sink with the book and with the city. As she loses Cyprus and Crete as colonies you are resigned as a reader to the conclusion. Then at that conclusion, Norwich’s excellent description of Napoleon’s schadenfreude toward La Serenissima leads you to yearn for the end, you imagine that your feelings are closely aligned those of oligarchic states creaking under the weight of wealth, loose morality, laziness and corruption that it experienced in its dotage. The author asserts near to the end that Venice “like any great beauty, she was acutely conscious of the effect that that beauty had on others; and she used it to the full”, and through his skilled commentary that beauty continues to bewitch the reader. Or at least it did me.

Following Norwich’s tome, I took on the altogether easier challenge of reading Brodsky’s Watermark. This book is a collection of short stories, a poem or any other classification that one would care to make. At a length that would make Of Mice And Men look like a leviathan it contains brief thoughts, reflections and anecdotes from the author’s many winters spent in Venice. Similar to Norwich, but very much like me, he is a clear lover of the city although no historian. A good proportion of the focus, if not all of it, is on the city’s effect on the eye and the eye’s metaphysical significance in its role as conduit-in-chief to its beholder.

Watermark-Cover

I allowed myself to read some criticism of Watermark. In fact I sought it out primarily as I have so many conflicting feelings about the book. To some, the historical and cultural errors of the date of the aforementioned body-snatching and references to churches as cathedrals is enough to denounce the content. Other readers take issue with the uninitiated attacks on Ezra Pound, his widow or indeed the fairer sex in general. That being said, the majority clearly support and appreciate these candid and at times beautiful tales of a great writer in the greatest city.

Watermark is the antithesis of A History of Venice. It is pure indulgence, unadulterated dogma, subjectivity and frequent portentousness: “My notion of Eden hinges on neither weather nor temperature. For that matter, I’d just as soon discard its dwellers and eternity as well. At risk of being charged with depravity, I must confess that this notion is purely visual, has more to do with Claude than the creed, and exists only in approximations. As these go, this city is the closest”.

I asked myself why I should bother reading another man’s thoughts on Venice. Well, Brodsky’s are certainly better articulated than mine even if he was writing in his second language! Whilst his arrogance (he suggests that Watermark’s publication might have profound impacts on Venice’s success as a tourist destination) is at times insufferable, there are enough splendid passages to keep the reader interested. There are a beautiful couple of pages where, beginning from the Book of Genesis, he deduces in mock-scientific logic a true quality of the city:

‘And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ to quote a famous author who visited here before. Then there was that next morning. It was Sunday, and all the bells were chiming…I always adhered to the idea that God is time. Or at least His spirit is. I always thought that if the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the water, the water was bound to reflect it…It is as though space, cognizant here more than anyplace else of its inferiority to time, answers it with the only property time doesn’t posses: with beauty. And that’s why this water takes an answer, twists it, wallops it and shreds it, but ultimately carries it by and large intact off into the Adriatic.

Whilst this rambling, at times repulsive, little book with its terribly abrupt conclusion may not exactly endear the author to its reader, it contains some of the wonderful thinking and writing that in conjunction with a visit to the city (preferably in Winter) is an essential companion. And if you find yourself disliking Brodsky too much, you can at least comfort yourself in the knowledge that he was no prophet. His strong assertions in the book about the financial health of Kodak and of the prospect of the Biennale and Venice as a center for modern art have proved to be embarrassingly incorrect.

 Matt Bradley

We are here

Corporation Changed the World  One Fat Englishman, Kingsley Amis

The Corporation that Changed the World, Nick Robins.

Reading more than one book at a time is generally something to be avoided. It requires headspace, discipline and tenacity to successfully pull yourself to the end of two books at the same time.

It suggests that at least one of the two books you are reading has failed in its challenge to hold your attention in harness to the end.

In the midst of just such an interesting but not arresting history of the East India Company (which had become boring by flacid moralising about the credit crisis in the context of the East India Company’s torturous past), I picked up a copy of Kingsley Amis’ One Fat Englishman and started reading until I had finished it.

One Fat Englishman is a funny parody of the jagged alignment of English and American societies in the 1930s.

It captures a peculiar strain of post-colonial, post-prandial, pre-coital Englishness, presented in the form of Roger Micheldene; erudite, scholarly, over-sexualised literary bully.

one-fat-englishman

In the context of the bloody and atrocious history of the East India Company spun out by Nick Robbins in The Corporation that Changed the World, Roger Micheldene is a neat illustration of the fallen glories of empire, the bloated culture of expectation that bred arrogance, atrocity and eventual atrophy in what Robins describes as the then most powerful corporation in the world.

In Robins’ book, it was the ingestion of swathes of African and Indian territory by the East India Company its body corporate, the allocation of local taxes to company shareholders, that led to the savage scale (and scale of savagery) that occurred on both sides during British rule in those territories.

Roger Micheldene combines vanity, territorial sexuality and, like the East India Company before him, a penchant for territories which rightfully belong to others.

Amis’ descriptions of what one dustjacket reviewer calls ‘bad behaviour’ (and which others might describe as adultery, piggery and bullying) may stem from his own personal experience. They may stem from imagination. They may stem from ambition. Wherever they stem from it makes no matter.

What is fascinating about Amis’ book, when compared with Robins’ book, is that they both tap a vein of fuck them all imperialism which is quintessentially Anglo-Saxon but where Robins has tried at length to document it from the outside and failed, Amis has written a short book about drinking and adultery and encapsulated colonialism in 160 pages.

The Editors

Beware of Pity

Beware of Pity - DontReadTooFast.comBeware of Pity – Stefan Zweig, translated by Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt

“How do I define history? It’s just one fucking thing after another” – Alan Bennett, The History Boys

At first glance, Zweig sets out in this his first and only novel to beat up the notion of pity. The issue for Zweig is that pity (which in the book is really weakness) is at the root of all ills in the narrative. Set against the backdrop of the fall of the Habsburg empire the novel pits Lieutenant Toni Hoffmiller against the emotional minefield of a 17 year old girl, crippled by illness, motherless and over-indulged by her millionaire widower father. Starved of love and drifting on the fringes of social acceptance, the girl is not a piteous creature except in as far as her almost psycopathic desire to walk without crutches colours and ruins every aspect of her life.

There is a shallow gloss of inevitability to the events of the novel; the girl, Edith von Keksfalva, falls madly, punishingly, in love with the young Lieutenant Hoffmiller who naturally, on account of the girl being unable to walk, cannot consider returning her feelings.

Yet the ending is far from inevitable. The girl has psychologically crushed by the social implications of her state, but she is still capable of enjoying, still capable of living an intense and rich life driven by passions. A fact which comes as a surprise to the narrator and seemingly the other characters: “From every direction long lines of people moved forward like dark caterpillars through the waving gold of the fields, and just as we drove through the – not altogether clean – main street, scattering in alarm a flock of cackling geese, the droning of the bell ceased. Mass was about to begin, and surprisingly enough, it was Edith who impetuously demanded that we should all get out and attend it.”

Pity is characterised in the novel as the Old Man of the Sea – a djinn in the tales of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights who dupes a young Samaritan into carrying him on his back out of pity before clamping his legs around the young man and making him a beast of burden. This character, pity, is intended to be the motor of the narrative and Hoffmiller is the young man, a slave to this notion ptiy – the guiding djinn by which the narrative is focused, refined, the prism through which the narrative is revealed to the narrator.

Pity, the narrator would like us to believe, is the silent voice of truth, recounting the story from a long time distant. Instead, Zweig’s narrator reads, like an old man justifying past ills to his audience, blinded by guilt, explaining the world to future generations in justification: history, as it were, being written by the victor. It is a masterful act of writing by the author, projecting his meaning through the smoke screen of the narrator.

“For the first time in my life I began to realise that it is not evil and brutality, but nearly always weakness, that is to blame for the worst things that happen in this world.”

What the prism of Hoffmiller’s narrative reveals most clearly, however, is that it is not pity that is to blame for the cacophanous mess that is the ending of this novel. It is the paucity of a system ascribing strength to some and weakness to others on physical appearance.

On the one hand, Hoffmiller engages himself to the girl out of pity and then denounces her out of cowardice to his fellow officers; his brothers in arms alongside whom he was expected to fight and perhaps to die. On the other hand, Edith declares her love for Hoffmiller against the dam of social pressure –  out of a surge of strength, an outpouring of love, and then she kills herself in a lonely and terrifying leap to the ground. Which is the piteous, which the courageous?

It is not pity that the novel lances but cowardice. Hoffmiller’s military prowess, born, he suggests, out of a desire himself to be dead, is a source of shame to him. He ascribes it to pity with so much emphasis that it cannot convince. Or as he says himself: “There was no one to accuse me, no one to judge me. I felt like a murderer who has buried the corpse of his victim in a wood: the snow begins to fall in thick, white, dense flakes, layer upon layer for months. He knows this concealing coverlet will hide his crime, and afterwards all trace of it will have vanished forever. And so I plucked up courage and began to live again. Since no one reminded me of it, I myself forgot my guilt. For the heart is able to bury deep and well what it urgently desires to forget.”

The Editors