Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Honi soit qui mal y pense 2

I just came across [NO, YOU SICK FUCKS, NO!] an eBay auction for a book of poems by Henry Vaughan, a 17th-century metaphysical poet chiefly known for his religious poetry. The title is really splendid:

The Sacred Poems
Private Ejaculations
Henry Vaughan

Well, now we know what he was up to in the privacy of his own home...

By the way, this reminds me of that fine limerick:

There was the old vicar of Lundy
Fell asleep in his vestry on Sunday
      He woke with a scream:
      “What, another wet dream?
This comes of not frigging since Monday!”

Well, as Confucious say, “man who go to bed with sex problem, wake up with solution in hand”...

Sunday, August 28, 2005

BOOK: Robert Browning, "The Ring and the Book"

Robert Browning: The Ring and the Book. Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke. New York and Boston: Thomas Y. Crowell & Company, 1897.

Browning is probably one of the greatest masters of blank verse in English literature, and this is his longest blank-verse narrative poem. It is based on the true facts of a murder and the subsequent trial that took place in Rome in the 17th-century. The basic facts are simple enough and Browning gives them all away in the very first book of the poem; each of the subsequent books is then narrated from the perspective of one of the people involved in the case, and of course each of them views the situation in his or her own way.

This was quite an interesting read, although like many other people I also often wished that the poem had been somewhat shorter; it's over 20000 lines long. Browning is very good at writing dramatic monologue, the text flows very nicely and is highly readable. The poet is very careful about all sorts of little details specific to the narrator of each book, so that each of them stands out as a character different from the others. Thus the narrator of book 2 is obsessed with the unfaithfulness of wives and the necessity of the husband's dominion over his wife; the narrator of book 4 is constantly trying to present himself as clever and keeps on fawning on the aristocratic listeners to whom his speech is being addressed; the lawyer in book 8 keeps thinking about his family and domestic matters, especially his son and the son's eighth birthday. Books 8 and 9 are quite amusing as the two lawyers (one for the defence, one for the prosecution) are preparing their speeches and thinking aloud, partly in English and then translating into Latin on the fly. The murderer, Count Guido, an impoverished nobleman well past his prime, is a most annoying character, arrogant and pompous and he keeps thinking as if the wife had been his property, and seems to think that his cold-blooded and well premeditated murder of her was a reasonable reaction to her imaginary unfaithfulness; he also keeps claiming that the minor religious orders he had taken at some point in the past should be sufficient cause for him to escape the sentence. Hopefully this view of wives as almost property is now gone for good, although jealousy and possessiveness are still common human traits. But anyway the fact is that Guido murdered her and her parents out of greed rather than jealousy.

Here are a few interesting passages from the poem.

That's all we may expect of man, this side
The grave: his good is — knowing he is bad:

This passage (6.142–3) caught my attention because of its grim view of human nature, which is much in agreement with mine. (One thing I disagree with in the above lines, of course, is the implication of a life after death.) I am reminded of the passage from The Brothers Karamazov (book IV, ch. 1), where the monk Zossima says:

Because we have come here and shut ourselves within these walls, we are no holier than those that are outside, but on the contrary, from the very fact of coming here, each of us has confessed to himself that he is worse than others, than all men on earth...

And here's another quote from The Ring and the Book that I can sympathize with:

All poetry is difficult to read.

(This was Pompilia in 7.1144.)

          I wonder, all the same,
Not so much at those peasants' lack of heart;
But — Guido Franceschini, nobleman,
Bear pain no better! Everbody knows
It used once, when my father was a boy,
To form a proper, nay, important point
I' the education of our well-born youth,
That they took torture handsomely at need,
Without confessing in this clownish guise.
Each noble had his rack for private use,
And would, for the diversion of a guest,
Bid it be set up in the yard of arms,
And take thereon his hour of exercise, —
Command the varletry stretch, strain their best,
While friends looked on, admired my lord could smile
'Mid tugging which had caused an ox to roar.
Men are no longer men!

The quote above is from 8.397–413. It's an interesting piece of information, if true; but surely it's patently ridiculous to claim that this sort of “exercise” can have been any use whatsoever. In a real torture situtation, the torturers would not hesitate to ruin his joints, disable him for life, and eventually risk killing him. The varlets certainly didn't dare to go that far, and therefore we cannot reasonably infer that, because he could bear this, he could also bear the sort of torture he would get in a real interrogation.

And in the next quote, 8.1368–72, our family-friendly lawyer is preoccupied with thoughts of dinner:

There is a porcupine to barbacue; [sic]
Gigia can jug a rabbit well enough,
With sour-sweet sauce and pine-pips; but, good Lord,
Suppose the devil instigate the wench
To stew, not roast him? Stew my porcupine?
If she does, I know where his quills shall stick!

Poor woman.

And here's a fine contribution to my growing collection of anti-lawyer quotes: the pope in 10.372–5, fulminating against lawyers and their foul abuse of language.

Therefore these filthy rags of speech, this coil
Of statement, comment, query and response,
Tatters all too contaminate for use,
Have no renewing:

Finally, a splendid piece of sarcasm from 12.182–6:

Or glancing at Saint Mary's opposite,
Where they possess, and showed in shrine to-day,
The blessed Umbilicus of our Lord,
(A relic 't is believed no other church
In Rome can boast of)

Not only does somebody dare to claim they possess god's navel, but the idea that there could exist several such navels in existence is treated as something that could conceivably be true needs to be explicitly denied... :-)

I wonder if there exists an anthology of mentions of preposterous relics and similar relic-related trivia. It would make for pleasantly bizarre reading. Here are a few contributions to the genre:

  • The ones mentioned in my post about Eça de Queiros' The Relic.
  • The piece of charcoal on which St Lawrence had been grilled, mentioned in the Decameron 6.10.
  • The quote attributed to Luther: “How is it possible that Jesus only had 12 apostles, when <number-greater-than-12> are buried in <country> alone!” I searched around the web a bit, but couldn't find any precise reference for this quote. The number is usually 18 but sometimes 23, and the country is usually either Spain or Germany.
  • William in The Name of the Rose (Sixth Day, Prime, p. 425): “I have seen many other fragments of the cross, in other churches. If all were genuine, our Lord's torments could not have been on a couple of planks nailed together, but on an entire forest.”

There is nothing special about the particular edition (Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1897) that I read; I just bought it because it had a few explanatory glosses and footnotes and because a nice copy was offered on eBay for a low price. It has a few plates with illustrations showing various locations connected to the story; they are nice, but nothing terribly impressive; but this must have been a nice feature of the book a hundred years ago when few people could afford to travel to Italy, and when it wasn't possible to see it in numerous TV documentaries like today. The introductory essay by the editors is quite nice. Another nice thing is that the book includes line numbers, which is convenient if you want to refer to a particular passage. The copy I bought has a bookplate of “Mr. and Mrs. E. L. Winterberger” and a gift inscription in beautiful handwriting, “To Emil L. Winterberger | from | One who rejoices in his success. | June 27, 1900.” I'm always interested to see bookplates and gift inscriptions in old books like this. I can't help wondering who Mr. Winterberger was; what sort of success he had achieved back in 1900; what sort of a place was New York or Boston back then, or whatever city he lived in; how many years he's been dead, what sort of people owned the book since then, etc. Books have their fate, as the saying goes; too bad they usually keep silent about it.

The explanatory footnotes provided by the editors contain many interesting pieces of information:

“The Romans used to open their Virgil at random for guidance” (p. 154).

Est-est: a wine so called because a nobleman once sent his servant in advance to write ‘Est,’ it is! on any inn where the wine was particularly good. At one inn it was so superlatively good that he wrote Est-est.” (P. 283.) Sounds like a dream assignment... :-)

On p. 342, cubiculum is glossed as “sleeping-room”. I wonder if the poor wretches that inhabit the cubicles of present-day corporations would agree.

On a few occasions the choice of things to be annotated is somewhat surprising; thus on p. 291 we learn that Aristotle was the “celebrated Greek writer on philosophy, ethics, physics, etc., 384-323 B.C.”.

All in all, this book was a pleasant read and I hope to eventually read some more of Browning's narrative poetry.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

BOOK: Eça de Queiroz, "The Relic"

Eça de Queiroz: The Relic. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Sawtry: Dedalus, 1994, 2003. 0946626944. viii + 281 pp.

I am somewhat of a Lusophile, if that's the right term for a person enthusiastic about things Portuguese. It started a few years ago, when my mother went to Portugal for a week to attend a conference, and brought me an Amália Rodrigues CD as a gift, and I found that I enjoy fado music very much. Not long afterwards I stumbled across the Penguin Classics edition of Eça's The Maias in a bookstore. The cover seemed appealing; the blurbs on the back of the book looked encouraging: a grand 19th-century classic of a novel; and the fact that the author was Portuguese was just an extra plus; so I bought it without hesitation, and it was the best read I had had in a long time. Naturally I wanted to read more from the same author, and was happy to find out that quite a few of Eça's works are available in English translations. Since then I've read his The Crime of Father Amaro, Cousin Bazilio and now The Relic. All these four books were really fine realistic novels in the best 19th-century tradition; great to read, with many humorous passages, a touch of scandal every now and then, and above all with a lot of sharp satire and criticism of the backwardness and hypocrisy that pervaded Portuguese society in which Eça lived. I'm definitely looking forward to reading more of Eça's works, as many as I can find in English translation.

<spoiler warning> This book was great fun to read. The central character of the novel is Teodorico Raposo, a young man with a rich but extremely pious and conservative aunt. In the hopes of inheriting her money, Teodorico has to pretend to be just as religious as she, and has to prevent her from finding out about his fondness for drinking and for love affairs. The aunt sends him to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and tells him to bring her some relic from the Holy Land. A curious chapter follows at this point in the book, fantastic rather than realistic, as Teodorico finds himself in 1st-century Jerusalem for a few days, exactly at the time of Jesus' arrest, trial, and execution. Anyway, back in the modern time, Teodorico prepares a nice relic and returns home; when the box with the relic is open in front of his aunt, it turns out to contain (either because of some mistake or as God's punishment for Teodorico's hypocrisy) not the relic but the night-dress of a woman with whom he had an affair during his travels. The aunt kicks him out of the house and Teodorico eventually renounces hypocrisy in favour of complete honesty, and in fact ends up living a good and pleasant enough life, but surprisingly concludes that things could have turned out even better if he had stuck to hypocrisy, if only he had had the presence of mind to come up with the right lie at the critical moment when the box was open and found not to contain the relic. </spoiler warning>

During his pilgrimage, Teodorico is accompanied by a German professor named Topsius, who has all the pedantry (pp. 122–3, 206–7) and pomposity (p. 73) you would expect from a 19th-century German professor. The author greatly enjoys poking fun at this stereotype; thus we head that Topsius wrote a seven-volume work on An Annotated Walk Around Jerusalem (p. 9; see also p. 72); Teodorico sings a fado and Topsius immediately asks if the lyrics are by Camões (whereas they are in fact by some obscure singer from some cafe, whose name Topsius duly writes down, p. 80); Topsius' stinginess (Teodorico gave alms to an old man, and “Topsius added a copper coin which, in Judaea, is worth a single grain of corn”, p. 175). A nice quote from Topsius: “Only the futile marvel at stones!” (P. 180.)

The aunt is obsessed with the concern that somebody who lives in her house (Teodorico or the maidservants) might be having an affair, and is grotesquely examining everybody's rooms, underwear, etc. all the time (pp. 38, 244).

Teodorico's travels in the Near East (in Egypt and Palestine), particularly the part where he finds himself in the 1st century AD, give the author many opportunities to indulge in a kind of “ornamentalism”, prose thickly laden with exotic nouns and sensuous adjectives, the kind that reminded me of Flaubert's Temptations of St. Antony or indeed of Wilde's Salome. See e.g. p. 77, 103. The marketplace, pp. 182–3, is also a staple of the genre, always a splendid opportunity to show off all manner of exotic things (even today, no swords-and-sorcery movie seems able to resist at least one marketplace scene). There is a nice scene of haggling in the oriental style on pp. 170–1.

In a dream, Teodorico has a very interesting conversation with the devil, who notes “how brilliant were the religions of the natural world in Greece, how sweet and beautiful” (p. 86) in contrast to the paleness and obsession with suffering introduced by Christianity (p. 87). I am broadly sympathetic to this argument. It reminds me of Swinburne's lines from Dolores: “What ailed us, O gods, to desert you/ For creeds that refuse and restrain?” Of course the ancient Greek religion shouldn't be excessively idealized either. My impression from reading Homer and various other works based on classical mythology is that the Greek gods were, by and large, an arrogant, stubborn, cold-hearted lot that a human supplicant certainly couldn't simply rely on. Nor did they provide much emotional support; besides, the Greek religion had to carry with it an unbearably heavy baggage of truly ridiculous myths, which can have been taken seriously in the prehistoric times when they evolved, but couldn't have been taken seriously any longer once the people and their society had matured beyond a certain point. This is why so many people abandoned classical Greek and Roman religion in favour of various cults that were spreading from the East in the first centuries AD; cults which provided somewhat more elegant myths, a softer kind of mysticism and better emotional crutches for the believers; cults of which Christianity eventually became the most successful one. This is not to say, of course, that the Christian mythology is not just as absurdly ridiculous as the Greek one; in fact, I would say that Christianity has outdone the Greeks in absurdity, while the Greek religion is better as far as poetical quality and esthetic value are concerned.

There are several hilarious mentions of truly preposterous fake relics. “[C]igar-holders made out of a piece of wood from Noah's ark” (p. 97); “a bit of straw from the crib and a piece of wood planed by St Joseph himself” (p. 109); “a fragment of the water jug with which the Virgin used to go to the fountain; a shoe from the donkey on which the Holy Family had fled into Egypt; and a twisted, rusty nail” (p. 223); and, of course, the crown of thorns made by Theodorico as a gift for his aunt (p. 122), in a box whose nails were taken from Noah's ark (p. 256). Later Teodorico takes up the fake relic business on a large scale, selling as many as fourteen horseshoes and seventy-five nails (p. 266).

As I mentioned above, one of Eça's main goals in this book is satirically criticizing various faults of Portuguese society. Thus we find Teodorico saying to a prostitute: “If ever you come to my country [...] girls like you are well-treated there, given respect, they get written up in the newspapers, they marry landowners...” (P. 107.) Surely this cannot have been intended by the author as anything other than a swipe at a society in which landowners marry women of light reputation. However, I must say that I disagree here with Eça's implied assumption that something is wrong with a society that treats prostitutes with respect and does not stigmatize them. In fact I think this is much preferable to treating them as outcasts. As for the marriage of a landowner and a prostitute, surely if anybody ought to feel he/she is marrying below his/her level it is the prostitute, who has been making her living in an honest way in a difficult enough job, while the fat rich bastard of a landowner probably rakes in bucketloads of money from his rents and hasn't done a day's work in his entire life. It's he that ought to be ashamed of himself, not she of herself.

“The Pharisee never viewed other than with rancour the Roman aqueduct that brought him water, the Roman road that carried him to other cities, the Roman baths that cured his rashes...” (P. 128.) This reminds me of Reg from The Life of Brian: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” However, if we laugh at Reg when he says this, it suggests that we believe that Roman occupation of Palestine was acceptable because it brought certain types of progress. This argument, of course, is very popular with imperialists of all periods and from all parts of the world (think of the European colonization of Africa in the late 19th century, for example). I can't possibly approve of that. If you want to let a foreign country benefit from your knowledge and experience, that doesn't mean you have to occupy it, station your army there and start exploiting it and collecting taxes. If they hadn't been occupied by Rome, the Palestinians would eventually achieve progress on their own, without having to lose their independence and risking the loss of their identity. Or, as Seneca writes of the Britons under Roman occupation (Agricola 21): “All this in their ignorance they called civilisation, when it was but a part of their servitude.”

Curiously, in the chapter that takes place in the 1st-century Jerusalem, Teodorico mentions cigarettes several times, although they feel like a jarring anachronism; I can't help thinking that this must be deliberate, but I don't see why the author thought it necessary. Pp. 144, 178, 209; and a watch on p. 210.

Although Teodorico's sudden, unexplained move into the 1st century AD (and later back into the 19th) is fantastic, his brief stay in 1st-century Jerusalem is in fact presented in a fairly realistic way and we get to see the events connected with Jesus' arrest, trial and crucifixion in a relatively sober and reasonable way, just as such things might have really happened. Thus see pp. 165–8 on the political and religious background of Jesus' sentence; pp. 172–5 for a slightly different view of the expulsion of merchants from the temple; why the people wanted Barabbas to be pardoned, pp. 176–7; a mundane explanation of the “resurrection”, pp. 214–15. P. 200 seems to be a nice variation on the “cessation of the oracles” motive. This reminds me that I would like to read, at some point, some sober book written by some reasonable historian (preferrably one who doesn't take any religion in the least bit seriously) about the last days of Jesus as a historic event rather than an event with a religious significance. I'm sure that some such book must exist, but I'm not aware of any at the moment. But then I'm in no particular hurry to find it; I'm not interested in biblical history anyway. The ancient Hebrews were just a tribe of shepherds after all, a tribe like thousands of others all over the world; if it hadn't been for the fact that one of them, by a stroke of good luck, later ended up becoming the founder of a major world religion, we wouldn't be making all this fuss about them nowadays, and more than we do about the multitude of other obscure tribes who existed contemporary with them.

To conclude, I would like to recommend everyone who isn't averse to reading 19th-century novels to give Eça a try. The main reason why he isn't better known is surely in the fact that the wrote in Portuguese, which is a relatively obscure language. If he had written in one of the major languages, he might be just as well known as Flaubert or Zola.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Honi soit qui mal y pense

From Mark Cocker's review of Piers Moore Ede's book Honey and Dust in The Guardian, Saturday, July 16, 2005:

Moore Ede's affair with a hazily sketched nurse-cum-lover, Joan, is poorly handled.

In cases like this, I always wonder if the writer (and/or editor) really wasn't aware of the snickering he was about to induce in immature readers such as myself, or if he was but decided he didn't mind. Well, at least the above sentence must be good for attracting more traffic via the search engines. :-)

Saturday, August 13, 2005

BOOK: Robert Harris, "Fatherland"

Robert Harris: Fatherland. Arrow Books, 1993. 0099263815. xiii + 386 pp.

Ah, the joys of pulp fiction. The main reason why I don't read it is that I enjoy it too much. I could just wallow in it for days on end like a pig in the mud. Being a bit of a snob, I don't want to waste my brains and time on trivial literature like that, so I prefer to read nonfiction or, when fiction, the sort of fiction that I (the damned philistine that I am) don't understand very well and shouldn't read anyway if I had any sense. But, anyway, every now and then I read something pulpy anyway and, feeling as it does somewhat like a forbidden pleasure makes it only sweeter.

Although I consider myself a fairly avid reader, it rarely happens to me that a book enthrals me to the point of interfering with other life activities. This book is one of the rare exceptions. I started reading it late in the afternoon and would have finished it in one sitting, except that by approx. 2 AM I calculated that it would probably take me another two hours to finish it and I wasn't terribly enthusiastic about the prospect of going to sleep at four in the morning, so I postponed the last 100 pages or so until the next day. In short, I rarely feel that a book is really “unputdownable”, but this book really is one of them.

The story by itself is basically a gripping crime story/thriller and is very well-written to the point that there is practically not a single boring page in the whole book. But the main charm of the book, for me at least, is not the story itself but the world in which it takes place: one in which Germany largely won the second world war in Europe. Harris is very skillful at showing us some new detail every now and then, and I was constantly curious about what would turn up in the next few pages.

The point of departure from the real timeline is in 1942, with the German army suceeding to separate the Soviets from their oilfields in the Caucasus; without oil, the Soviets lose the war in the same year. Britain surrenders in 1944 thanks to a strong blockade by German U-boats; Churchill flees to Canada. The U.S. defeats Japan using the atomic bomb, but Germany acquires the atomic bomb in 1946 as well and a cold war develops between Germany and the U.S. (pp. 85–86). A low-intensity war continues in the Urals, on the border with what's left of the Soviet Union (p. 86); partly because of Hitler's idea that a permanent war will prevent the German people from growing “soft”, but at the same time it seems that the war is genuinely not going well for Germany (p. 164). The U.S. “have been allies of the Russians during the past twenty years” (p. 211), supplying them with “money, weapons, training” (p. 239); the U.S. support of Russia is also the reason why Germany won't use nuclear weapons in its war against the Soviets (p. 209). Efforts towards a detente between Germany and the U.S. are being made, however (p. 239), and the U.S. president Joe Kennedy (JFK's father), pro-German, isolationist, appeaser, and anti-Semite (pp. 120, 310), is about to make a state visit to Germany.

Stalin's various crimes, the purges, the gulags, etc., were highly publicized by the Germans for their propaganda value (p. 211); the mass murders carried out by Germany, of Jews and other undesirables, were of course kept secret by the German authorities; but the people also cooperated in a way, by never trying particularly hard to be concerned about where their erstwhile Jewish neighbours and acquaintances have been “resettled” to (p. 212). Some eyewitnesses of the horrors in the German East did manage to escape beyond the Urals, but their reports were dismissed as communist propaganda (p. 210).

Speer's various proposed megalomaniac building designs have actually been constructed in Berlin. This involves a huge triumphal arch with names of three million fallen German soldiers written on the walls (p.&nbps;24) and a great hall, 250 m tall with a dome 140 m in diameter, large enough for 180000 people, “the only building in the world which generates its own climate” (pp. 28–9)... There's a good observation about this obsession that everything must be larger than comparable things in other countries: “Even in victory, thought March, Germany has a parvenu's inferiority complex” (p. 25). “The regime closed churches and compensated by building railway termini to look like cathedrals” (p. 163). A large new airport has been built near Berlin (p. 191). Dozens of huge memorials have been erected in the East to commemorate “the Germans who had died [...] for the conquest of the East&rdquo (p. 379). Germany and the Germans are enjoying “the cornucopia of Empire”, imports from all parts of Europe (p. 39), foreign servants and employees (p. 164). German historians are busy writing an immensely detailed history of the war in the East (p. 47).

The eastern territories that had been taken from the Soviet Union during the war are slowly being colonized, but those areas are still poor and unstable (p. 51, 239). The Germans of South Tyrol have been resettled to the Crimea (p. 40). “From here, trains as high as houses, with a gauge of four metres, left for the outposts of the German empire” (p. 30). This is an interesting idea; however, given that no trains of a similar size have been actually built anywhere else, I wonder if even a victorious Nazi Germany would have thought it necessary to construct them. Would there really be so much rail traffic?

Göring died in 1951, Himmler in 1962 (p. 86); the latter was succeeded by Heydrich, who had survived the failed assassination attempt in 1943 (p. 230).

“Countdown to Tokyo olympics. US may compete for first time in 28 years.” (P. 39.) Speer mentions that Hitler once told him that after 1940 all the olympic games would take place in Berlin (see e.g. Gitta Sereny's biography of Speer). Well, I guess he could occasionally be persuaded to humour his Japanese allies and let them organize the games once in a while.

The twelve Western European countries (Portugal, Spain, France, Ireland, Great Britain, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland) have been connected into a European community under strong German influence; “German was the official second language in all schools”; German goods of all kinds are exported into these countries, and Germans visit them as tourists (p. 201). (“The British, French, and Italians will do what we tell them. Australia and Canada will obey the Americans.” P. 185.) The flag of the EC is just as in real history, twelve golden stars on a blue background (p. 46); and Beethoven's ninth symphony is the European anthem (p. 40). “[E]very country on the continent accepted Reichmarks, it was Europe's common currency” (p. 198). Luxembourg was annexed by Germany; Austria, as well as the whole of Eastern Europe, were of course also part of Germany (p. 201). Only Switzerland remained a neutral country; Hitler had originally planned to occupy it, but the onset of the cold war intervened and both sides found it useful to keep Switzerland as a neutral no-man's land (p. 202) and banking centre (pp. 217, 219–20, 225). “[T]he burghers of Zürich worked hard for their money — twelve or fourteen hours a day was common” (p. 204). We aren't told about the fate of south-western Europe; I guess those countries would still be German satelites under the rule of more-or-less autocratic leaders (the likes of Horthy or Antonescu). China is apparently still independent of foreign influence; p. 185.

Britain (led by King Edward and Queen Wallis) is on friendly terms with Germany (p. 40). There is an “SS academy in Oxford” (p. 183). Churchil lives in Canada now, as does Queen Elizabeth, who “claims the English throne from her uncle” (p. 209).

Photocopiers are rare in Germany, and tightly controlled to prevent the multiplication of subversive literature (p. 245).

It is also interesting to imagine how the face of Nazism would slowly evolve in the decades after the war. The profile of the typical low-echelon Nazi evolves: “by the 1950s, the beer-hall brawlers had given way to the smooth technocrats of the Speer type — well-groomed university men with bland smiles and hard eyes” (p. 91; see also pp. 350–2). The disaffection and rebeliousness of the younger generation is mentioned, similar to the way it actually took place during the 60s. See e.g. p. 40, 155, 236. A “group of young Englishmen from Liverpool” is having a concert in Hamburg (p. 40; see also p. 198). “The permissive 1960s were showing a strong increase in such sex crimes” as homosexuality and abortion (p. 97); the signs of a nascent sexual revolution.

A few glimpses of art that was considered orthodox by Nazi standards are on pp. 182 and 184.

Goebbels is still in charge of the film industry and uses his position to sleep with young actresses; p. 64.

The book is divided into parts, one part for each day; each part begins with an epigraph or quotation (always a real one, not a fictitious one, if I understand correctly). Interestingly, the one on p. 369 is from Baedeker's guide to the Generalgouvernement. I remember that I once saw this curious 1943 guidebook on eBay. I'd be surprised if there were many German tourists going to the Generalgouvernement in 1943, but at least you can't say that Baedeker isn't thorough and up-to-date. Needless to say, there were no subsequent editions. I'd be curious to see it, but it is usually too expensive, and my ability to read German is much too limited to be able to read a book at a normal speed. But I sure wonder how it portrayed the horrible mess that was German-occupied Poland. Or did it pretend that everything was quite normal, and focus only on the churches and the tombs of kings, and report on where the good hotels are and where one can get one's shirt starched, and so on?

See also: the Wikipedia article about Fatherland.

Friday, August 05, 2005

BOOK: Oscar Wilde: "Poems and Poems in Prose"

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Volume 1: Poems and Poems in Prose. Ed. by Bobby Fong and Karl Beckson, introduction by Ian Small. Oxford University Press, 2000. 0198119607. xxxii + 333 pp.

Since one would quite clearly have to be stark raving mad to buy a book such as this one, I feel I need to begin this post with some sort of explanation how it came to happen. My first contacts with Wilde were reading a translation of Salome in the third year of secondary school, and then The Picture of Dorian Gray in English a year later. I thought Salome was curious and in a way fascinating, and I liked The Picture of Dorian Gray a great deal; so when a year or two later I noticed in a bookshop an inexpensive paperback volume of what promised to be Wilde's collected works, I bought and read it without much hesitation. I found that I really enjoy Wilde's writing; I felt that he often manages to put his thoughts into really beautiful language without having to resort to obscure words that would make his writings difficult to understand. However, I also found that the paperback edition I had did not really contain his collected works; comparing its contents with the Wilde e-texts published by Project Gutenberg, I saw that my book is missing at least a couple of plays (The Duchess of Padua and Vera, or the Nihilists) and several essays. (Some time later I saw that the publisher of that paperback volume had meanwhile published an expanded edition which contains the above-mentioned plays; I forget whether it also contained the essays.) Another problem with my one-volume paperback copy of Wilde's “collected” works was that it contained no notes or commentaries of any kind, and I'm the sort of person who very much appreciates the kind guiding hand of an editor or commentator.

Well, a few years later, I noticed that OUP was about to start issuing a new scholarly edition of Wilde's collected works, apparently in a large number of volumes, with the first volume to contain Wilde's poems. According to one website the book was to be around 500 pages long, according to another around 300 (the latter figure turns out to be correct); in the one-volume paperback I had read, Wilde's poems only occupied approx. 120 pages. Apparently then this new edition would have lots of notes and commentaries. And I remembered that Wilde's poems certainly bristled with Greek words and obscure classical references where some notes would be very welcome indeed. The book cost £60, which I thought an atrocious price; it certainly is such compared to the ordinary trade books, but as I later found out, these kind of prices are sadly quite common for this kind of publications by academic presses. Well, I'm somewhat obsessed with the notion of collected works: if I'm trying to read somebody's collected works, I'm really unhappy if something is missing. So a pedantic scholarly edition would be just the perfect thing to go for, but the problem is that these editions often run into many volumes and are terribly expensive. But here, as the edition of Wilde was just getting started and only the first volume had been published, it seemed like a good opportunity to buy them one at a time as they would become available, which might make the whole thing manageable. And I felt that Wilde was perhaps one of the few authors on whom I was willing to spend that kind of money. I hesitated long enough that the book briefly became marked as unavailable in the on-line bookstores, which alarmed me considerably, but soon afterwards I found that it was merely being reprinted. When the second printing became available, the price rose to £65 and I decided to order a copy without further hesitation. When the book arrived, I was shocked to see it had no dust jacket; I thought that the bookseller had cheated me out of it, but later I bought volumes 2 and 3 of the series from a different on-line bookseller and they also arrived without dust jackets, so I'm guessing that OUP simply no longer issues dustjackets with books of this sort. The world is truly going to the dogs. Anyway, I'm still a little frustrated that I have the second printing rather than the first; if I notice a fine copy of the first printing at a reasonable price from some second-hand bookseller, I might even consider buying it. But I shouldn't complain too much; at least I got the book for £65. In the subsequent years the price seemed to get higher and higher every time I looked at OUP's website, and currently they want £85 for it. Volumes 2 and 3 of Wilde's collected works, which have been published earlier in this year, cost £80 and £90, respectively. Whoever is setting these prices clearly ought to be tarred and feathered. Of course, since I already had volume 1, it was not so hard to persuade myself that I ought to buy volumes 2 and 3 as well, and the cheapest way I could find was $140 apiece from Barnes and Noble (actually $126 with their member discount). Volume 2 basically contains two versions of De Profundis, and volume 3 contains two versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray. I tremble at the thought of the number of volumes necessary to publish Wilde's collected works at this rate; ten, perhaps fifteen? And how high will the prices get by the time we reach the end of the series?

Anyway, this is the long and sordid story of how I, who really have no business reading, let alone owning, a scholarly edition of somebody's collected works, ended up buying and reading Volume 1 of Wilde's collected works. Now I must admit that apart from the horrible price and the lack of a dust jacket, the book is really very good. It has a very nice introduction which discusses the role of poetry in Wilde's career; he published quite a few poems in various middlebrow magazines during the 1870s, but when he first collected them in a book (in 1881), they came under the scrutiny of serious literary critics who compared them to the work of established poets and weren't that impressed by them (p. xxi). In fact Wilde borrowed so much and so often from other poets that some have gone so far as to accuse him of plagiarism (p. xxii). (He also often borrowed from his own works; I remember that I noticed many instances of this when I was reading the above-mentioned single-volume edition of his works.) The introduction contains some very interesting observations on the economic aspects of publishing in that period: “price effectively defined readerships and therefore canons of taste” (p. xii), and the introduction then goes on to compare the prices of the periodicals in which Wilde's poems were initially published and the price of his 1881 collection, and concludes that the periodicals were in the middle-price range while the 1881 book was more expensive and therefore put the poems in the hands a different audience with different tastes and expectations. The introduction also mentions the prices of various books; it seems that the range of prices was much higher than nowadays. Wilde's 1881 book of poems cost 10s. 6d., while two of his books of stories cost just 2s. and 5s. respectively (p. xii). Salomé was even more expensive — 15s. (p. xix). And by the 1890s a fashion arose for expensive, handsomely produced books in limited editions that attracted a certain kind of connoisseurs not so much by their literary value as by their rarity and material quality (p. xx). Wilde's poem The Sphinx was published in an edition like this in 1894, and copies of the large-paper edition cost as much as £5. 5s. (p. xviii). Wilde, although he was interested in the literary value of his work, also “kept a sharp eye on the commercial values normally associated with the mass media” (p. xx).

The editorial commentaries on the poems are also quite useful, and contain translations of foreign phrases, explanations of allusions to classical mythology, the editors also point out passages where Wilde borrows something from an earlier author, etc. The text of the poems also contains a critical apparatus, which I ignored as I am not interested in these things.

In fact the commentaries sometimes suprised me by explaining something that I'd expect to be obvious to everyone (even me), such as what a ladybird is (p. 264). I also think that, if they have the balls to charge £60 or £85 or some such hideous sum of money for the book, they should at least have hired a reasonably literate typesetter/editor and a more pedantic proofreader. Centuries are treated very unkindly in this book; thus we read about the “martyred St Sebastian (c. ad 3)” (p. 236), learn that Sappho and Alcaeus lived in “6 bc” (p. 237), Sappho was in fact born “in late 7 bc” (p. 264), and “the Greeks had fended off the Persian invasion in 5 bc” (p. 249). There seem to be several curious inconsistencies in the spelling of Greek words, many of which I suspect to be misspellings (but I can't be really sure because I never learnt Greek); examples of this are in note 50–1 on p. 232, and the inconsistency between “πόντος ἀτρύγετος” (p. 28) and “Πόντος Ἄτρν´γετος” (p: 240).

As for the poems themselves, they are just as lovely as when I first read them in that one-volume paperback of Wilde's works some seven or eight years ago (eeek, writing things like this makes me feel old and decrepit). One thing that is perhaps a bit different is that I've read some Swinburne in the meantime, and thus some of Wilde's poems that are really heavily influenced by Swinburne no longer seem quite so exciting since I've been able to see that it wasn't really Wilde but rather Swinburne who first came up with that sort of thing, and in much larger amounts as well. But nevertheless there are many very pretty poems in this book. Here are some of my favourites: #1 “Ye shall be gods”, #4 “Requiescat”, #9 “La bella donna della mia mente”, #19 “The Little Ship”, #32 “The Grave of Keats”, #41 “Ave Maria Plena Gratia”, #53 “Nocturne”, #74 “Γλυκυπικρος Ερως”, #80 “Sonnet to Liberty”, #98 “The Harlot's House”.

There are a few very nice immitations of popular ballads. According to the editors' notes, Wilde was influenced by Rossetti in this aspect (p. 265). I haven't read much Rossetti yet, but I loved Swinburne's immitations of the popular ballads (The Witch Mother and The Bride's Tragedy are my favourites), as I did the popular ballads themselves. Wilde's immitations are: #10 “Chanson”, #14 “The Dole of the King's Daughter”, and #56 “Ballade de Marguerite”.

There are a couple of nice pastoral poems; #13 “She stole behind him where he lay”, #105 “Canzonet”.

Several of the poems are impressionistic. I'm not terribly fond of impressionist poems, as nothing ever happens in them, and the impression by itself usually doesn't mean much to me. However, some of them are beautiful just the same: #85 “Impression du Matin”, #108 “La Dame Jaune”, #109 “Remorse (A Study in Saffron)”.

Probably my favourite poem in the whole book was #55, Charmides. I'm afraid it must be a very bad poem since I enjoyed it so much, but I won't let that trouble me. (By the way, Wilde seems to have thought it one of his best poems; p. 261.) To me it was quite simply the most drop-dead gorgeously beautiful poem I have read in a long, long time. Some passages seemed to be literally oozing aestheticism out of every line, and reminded me of Chapter 11 of The Picture of Dorian Gray, except that they were even more beautiful because they were in verse. And I was extremely glad to see that the story had a reasonably happy ending (at least as far as anything involving mortals in the world of Greek mythology can be considered to have a happy end). Charmides' lust for the beautiful statue of Athena in the first part of the poem is also quite fascinating; heck, if molesting statues had been at least half as fun in reality, I'd probably be doing it myself. [However, maybe we shouldn't take the issue of statue molestation too lightly; remember the cautionary example in Prosper Mérimée's Venus of Ille. :-)] I was wondering if the fate of Charmides after his encounter with Athena's statue should be taken as a warning against the excesses of intellectualism (what with Athena being the goddess of wisdom and all), but then the poem is so full of physical love that I doubt that such a metaphorical reading is appropriate. Incidentally, Wilde also seems to have had quite a bit of fun describing the beauty of Charmides himself; perhaps this is due to Wilde's homoerotic feelings, although there isn't any homoeroticism in the poem itself. For me, however, the most beautiful stanzas in the poem were the ones near the end, when Charmides and the Dryad meet in the underworld and finally get the opportunity to consummate their passion. Lines 649–53 are a very nice poetic description of an orgasm. Another beautiful and extremely poignant passage is ll. 523–34 about the sadness of dying a virgin. And there are several other wonderful lines and passages scattered throughout the poem. It's days like this when I realize what keeps me persisting in reading poetry. Of the poems I read, there are many, perhaps a strong majority, that I simply don't understand; then there are many that I find boring; but every now and then I come across some absolutely priceless gem of a poem, such as this one, that makes it all worth the trouble.

[Incidentally, is it still “pygmalionism” even if (like Charmides in the poem, but unlike Pygmalion) you didn't make the statue by yourself? Wikipedia recommends a more neutral term, “agalmatophilia”, instead. But this word is horrible on several counts: it's one of those big Greek compounds that look like they were designed explicitly for the purpose of frightening people who don't understand any Greek, and in particular this is one of those words that seem to cry out “beware! sick perversion ahead!” It's true that “-ism” has a poor reputation these days, but “-philia” has an even worse one. Sadly, we live in a time when sexual perversions are considered even worse than ideologies (which is what most isms are), even though the latter tend to be far more murderous while practically all of the philias are essentially harmless.]

I just have one tiny little complaint about Charmides: when he is washed ashore, he has been dead three days (l. 360), and yet the Dryad spends the whole day next to him, talking and thinking he is merely asleep and would wake presently... Not that I object to a bit of necrophilia; in fact, seeing as he's been dead for three days, a bit of haut goût is perfectly appropriate in the work of a decadent poet; but still, this is not necrophilia. She isn't attracted to him because he is dead; she's attracted to him because she thinks he isn't dead. But this is completely unrealistic; there's no way she could avoid noticing that he is dead, especially if he's been dead for so long.

Wilde also wrote a few poems in prose, which are also quite nice. My favourite is #115, “The Does of Good”, where Jesus walks around doing good deeds to people, but they all go on to do something else than what he would have liked. (Reminds me of this comic.)

Another wonderful poem is #118, “The Sphynx”. The poet is sitting in his student's cell (l. 162) and the vision of a sphinx, or perhaps a cat (l. 7), sends him off to a muse about all sorts of delightful and exotic things. The remainder of the poem is a veritable cornucopia of orientalism, purple, musical, heavy with aestheticism, full of exotic words, etc., etc. At the end of the poem he tries to shoo the sphinx away and recover his christian beliefs, but this sounds somewhat half-hearted after all his enthusiasm in the previous 150 lines... This is really the perfect poem to have been originally published in a precious and elaborately produced limited edition, as described in the editors' introduction on p. xiii.

Finally, there's #119, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, which was and remains one of my favourite Wilde poems. Although I must admit that there are several passages that I simply don't understand (what the heck does he mean by “Each man kills the thing he loves” etc.?), and I know that e.g. Yeats criticised it savagely in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, yet I enjoy this poem greatly every time I read it.

In conclusion, although I know that Wilde is nowadays chiefly known for The Picture of Dorian Gray, for Salome, and for his comedies, I recommend everyone who likes literary aestheticism to give his poems a try as well.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

BOOK: J.-K. Huysmans, "The Oblate"

J.-K. Huysmans: The Oblate of St. Benedict. Translated by Edward Perceval. Sawtry: Dedalus, 2004. 1873982577. xi + 310 pp.

A few years ago, I was browsing in a bookstore and noticed a Penguin Classic with the interesting-sounding title Against Nature. I pulled it off the shelf and read the blurbs on the back cover. Do you remember how, in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian receives at some point as the present a book which completely fascinates him, leading to his years and years of decadent and aesthetic preoccupations which are then charted in the fantastic Chapter XI of that novel? It turns out that, although Wilde did not state the title or author of the book which Dorian receives as a present, he did have a particular book in mind; as he told later during his trial, it was A Rebours (Against Nature) by J.-K. Huysmans.

A book that comes with a recommendation like that is a book that I simply have to buy and read. Which I did, and was duly fascinated by this “breviary of decadence”, what with all the gems, the orchids, the perfumes, the gold-encrusted turtle, the wonderful chapter on the decay of Latin literature, etc., etc. The book also helped me understand somewhat better a question that had been puzzling me ever since I had learnt about the usual periodization of literature in secondary school: the period of realism and naturalism in the mid- to late-19th century was followed by the fin-de-siecle, the “new romanticism”, with its various new phenomena such as symbolism, decadence, and so on. How could a period be so completely different from the preceding one? How was such a break possible? What did this look like in practice? Did all the authors simply sit down one fine day and decided “let's start writing, from this day on, in an entirely different way from the way we've been doing until now”? Of course this is silly; but how did it actually happen? Well, this book by Huysmans is in a way a splendid illustration of how such a transition may have taken place. Against Nature is certainly very much a fin-de-siecle work; but all Huysmans' previous works were sordid naturalist pieces in the manner of Zola. In Against Nature you can still see the same studious spirit of naturalism, except that its efforts have been directed towards fantastic rather than realistic topics. Each chapter of Against Nature chronicles some new obsession of the book's central character, and each required Huysmans to study the technical literature of some new field, which he duly did with all the usual Zolaesque pedantry, and the resulting text bristles with lists of obscure details and impressive-sounding technical terminology. As it turns out, Huysmans kept these naturalistic instincts throughout the rest of his literary career; all of his subsequent novels are similarly full of passages where the author shows off his mastery of impressive amounts of completely irrelevant details from a multitude of fields. Anyway, all of this is an illustration of how one particular author made the transition from naturalism to the fin-de-siecle. As we can see, the gap between one period and the next was not nearly so great as I formerly imagined, and the transition was fairly smooth (which is not to say that Against Nature didn't cause a big stir when it was first published in 1884).

After this positive experience with Against Nature, I naturally wanted to try reading some more of Huysmans' works. Là-Bas, or The Damned in Terry Hale's recent translation, was next. It was OK, though nowhere nearly as fascinating as Against Nature. Just as in the latter, there wasn't much plot; the main character, a man of letters named Durtal, is working on a biography of Gilles de Rais and dabbles a little in contemporary occultism and satanism. This was curious and interesting in a way, as were the disquisitions on campanology and undoubtedly many other fine topics which I have by now entirely forgotten; but all in all, this book was hardly anything to write home about. Nevertheless, when I saw that Huysmans later wrote three further novels which chronicle Durtal's subsequent path towards religion and spiritual redemption, and that all these novels are in many aspects autobiographical and reflect Huysmans' own experiences, I decided to try reading them out of curiosity, despite the boring-sounding theme of the books.

These three novels are En Route, The Cathedral, and The Oblate. None of them has much of a plot; in En Route, Durtal briefly retreats into a Trappist monastery; in The Cathedral, he stays at Chartres and explores its splendid old cathedral; and in The Oblate, he becomes an oblate affiliated with a Benedictine monastery. The books mostly consist of endless monologues and discussions involving Durtal and various clerical figures (priests and monks). Durtal is particularly keen on art, especially medieval religious art, and we get to hear as much as anybody could possibly wish about all sorts of Christian symbolism in art, architecture, plainsong, botany, liturgy, medieval mysticism, etc., etc. All of these things are in a way interesting, but in a way they are also mind-numbingly boring. If I had ten lifetimes to spare, I wouldn't mind dedicating one of them to an exploration of these topics; but with only one, I'm fairly glad that I finally reached the end of the Durtal novels.

One aspect of Durtal's journey that I find particularly unsatisfying is that, in a way, it looks to me that he took the easy way out. He disliked the modern world, with its sordidness and alienation and so on; fine, so do I and undoubtedly a large number of other people. But what is his solution? Simple and trivial: become religious and let God sort things out. And, for good measure, retreat to a monastery as well. Sure, it's easy to stop worrying about this world if you think that there's a life after death and that indeed only the afterlife really matters. I'm not being quite fair to Durtal, because his journey is not as easy as this criticism of mine might imply; as the books show, finding religion was an honest and considerable effort for him. But still, this is no solution; it feels like cheating. It's just as if, when you don't know the answer to a question, you make an answer up and somehow delude yourself into thinking that this has got to be the right answer. To propose a return to good olde religion as a way to address the problems of the alienated and perplexing modern world might have seemed like a serious proposition a hundred years ago, when Huysmans was writing his novels; but surely nowadays this seems merely silly. As an example of how to respond to the modern world, Durtal is practically completely useless. How the heck could I take up religion? Whom would I be fooling? Not myself, that's for sure. But I suspect that even in Huysmans' time, few of the people afflicted by the fin-de-siecle malaise would have been seriously able to contemplate following the example of someone like Durtal (or indeed like Huysmans in real life) and taking up religion.

It was nevertheless interesting and impressive to observe how much of everything there has been accumulated in the Catholic Church during the two thousand years of its existence: knowledge, history, art, books, people, symbolism, there's just so much of everything. There's no end to the fascinating procession of obscure books and authors cited by Huysmans or his literary characters; no end to the endless array of saints, mystics, prelates, monks, priests, artists, theologians; no end to the innumerable symbols, rituals, traditions, regulations. Much though I dislike the church, and worthless though all these things seem to me, nevertheless I must admit: the church has been gathering moss for two thousand years, and it has a mighty impressive accumulation of moss to show for it. I don't like it when people take religious doctrines seriously, or when they allow the church to wield an influence in the real world; but if these undesirable things could be somehow prevented, I think I could easily become an admirer of the church as a supremely useless and delightful creation of the human mind. In these two ways it truly vies with philosophy and art (and is far ahead of science, which is seriously lacking in the uselessness department). Indeed one of the few reasons to be optimistic about humanity has got to be the fact that it has been able to spare some time from its sordid everyday life and dedicate it to these completely worthless intellectual pursuits in entirely imaginary realms. As Wilde said, “the only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely”.

Since I've been reading Huysmans at a rate of approx. one novel per year, I don't remember any details from the novels I've read so far, except for The Oblate which I've just finished reading. So, here are a few more comments specifically relating to The Oblate.

At the time when The Oblate was being written, a new law was passed in France which required religious associations to register with the government and to apply for permission to continue their activities. This appears in the background throughout the novel (see Terry Hale's introduction, p. viii, and e.g. pp. 157, 188–92, 200–3, 218, 246–8, 260–1). Apparently the “culture wars” between the conservative/clerical and the progressive/liberal/etc. sections of society were quite fierce in France at that time.

The monastery to which Durtal had become attached as an oblate decided to move to Belgium rather than comply with the new law. In the last few chapters of the novel we get a few glimpses of the problems involving their relocation (pp. 246, 259, 266–8; see esp. moving the library, pp. 267–8), and the scene when the monks leave by train is quite touching (pp. 289–90).

It seems that Huysmans himself maintained quite strongly conservative pro-clerical opinions by this time. He seems regrettably inclined to see freemasons, socialists, and Jews at work behind all the problems that the catholic church had been facing in recent times; pp. 37, 128, 202, 288. In the novel, the peasants living in the Dijon area where the story takes place are often portrayed in a very negative light due to their republican opinions and their lack of religious fervour (pp. 16, 26). On p. 26 he blames this on the influence of politics on the peasants. (And on p. 279: “Almost all of them were Socialists”.) If this is true, I find it a most impressive achievement. Of all social classes, none consists of worse hidebound conservatives than the peasantry; almost everybody else can eventually be freed from the shackles of religion, but the peasants will always stubbornly persist in the ways of their ancestors. If the French republican politicians of the late 19th century indeed discovered a way to convert the peasantry to anti-clerical sentiments, this is an achievement quite beyond compare. How they managed to do it is beyond my comprehension. I can only wish that something similar could be done in this country, where religion has proved regrettably stubborn to 45 years of communist oppression and is rearing its ugly head again now that communism is over.

Huysmans is also critical of the French catholics in general, including the priests and monks, for their weakness and for not standing up to the new anti-clerical legislation (pp. x, 202, 264–5). Durtal says on p. 202: “As for the Catholics, you know as well as I do, what utter fools and cowards they are.” In fact he refers to catholic members of the parliament, but I can already see that this sentence will be great fun to quote out of context. :-)

Another minor subplot in the book concerns the rivalry between the monastery and the local parish priest; see e.g. pp. 15, 141, 162–7.

The novel also includes a few interesting minor characters, e.g. the female oblate Mlle. de Garambois, noted for her obsession with good food (pp. 58–9, 299) and her choice of clothing colors based on each day's liturgical characteristics (p. 220, 248), as well as her frequent but good-humoured bickering with her uncle M. Lampre.

There is an interesting discussion between Durtal and his housekeeper on p. 12, which illustrates that obtaining all the necessary provisions for running a household may have been a fairly nontrivial thing at the time, something that required planning and sometimes extra effort. Some things could be bought in the local village, but many required a train journey to the nearby town of Dijon. I found this interesting in contrast to the present-day situation, when everything is easily available from gigantic supermarkets that have sprung up around every corner, and when housekeeping seems to be a largely trivial matter (but then I'm probably not sufficiently involved in it to be able to appreciate all the complexities involved).

There is a fascinating legend about the Persian king Chosroes, who apparently lost his mind at some point and went to considerable lengths to have himself worshipped as a god (he even had constructed a “firmament” of his own, a large domelike structure with moveable parts to represent stars and planets). Pp. 18-21.

On criteria when considering new candidate monks: “ ‘Godliness, saintliness even, may disappear; but stupidity, never! That is the one thing that remains!’ ” (Pp. 43–4.)

Ouch: “taste of sugared turpentine” (p. 55). I had no idea that turpentine was meant to be tasted, let alone sugared. But now I find in Wikipedia that it “was once the preferred means of treating intestinal parasites”. For some reason, I can't shake off the association that sugared turpentine should go very well with battery acid. A veritable feast. :-)

On pp. 241–5 there is a religious meditation on sorrow, and it contains the following passage (p. 242) which I think is a wonderful example of how well decadent sensibility goes with fervent catholicism: “He took upon Himself the sins of the world, and, having embraced Him, she [i.e. the Virgin] gained a grandeur that was never hers till then. So terrible was she that at her touch He swooned. His Agony was His Betrothal to her./ She filled His cup with the sole blandishments that were hers to offer—atrocious and super-human torments; and as a faithful spouse she devoted herself to Him and never left him again till the end.”

Another great quote for taking out of context: “The fact is that everything is going to the dogs,” said by Durtal on p. 245. And he has another paragraph in the same vein on p. 286, a very fin-de-siecle thing on the complete bankruptcy of modern civilization (“Everything is going to rack and ruin”). There's more of the same on p. 288; lots of plague and putrefaction.

Holy sheet! No, I didn't misspell it. It's mentioned on p. 258: “the Holy Winding Sheet”. Sounds like something in which you would wrap the Holy Hand Grenade...

“ ‘[...] how incomplete your Breviary is in some respects! It mentions only a few of your Saints; what about Saints like Austrebertha, Walburga or Wereburga—where are they?’ ” (P. 259.) Indeed. Whoever's fault this omission is, I hope he fries in hell for depriving the readers of the breviary of the opportunity to laugh at absurd names like Austrebertha and Wereburga.

There is a very interesting conversation on pp. 269–71, where one of the monks is wondering if, as far as ensuring his own salvation was concerned, going to the monastery wasn't rather like taking the easy way out, compared with the effort it would have required if he had decided to stay in the world instead, or even if he had become an ordinary priest.

“[H]e used to read, and read, but never digested what he read. His poor brain was a tangled mass of doubts and scruples;” (p. 298). Sometimes I wonder if this doesn't apply to me as well, especially the part about not digesting what I read.

Here is a brief index to a number of curious topics mentioned in the book (many of them in a fair amount of detail): liturgical garden, p. 53; pharmaceutical plants, p. 55 (a paragraph on p. 55 shows that decadence is still going strong: Durtal's garden-arranging efforts remind me a lot of the various pursuits of des Esseintes in in A Rebours, except that the latter was wealthy and could thus afford to be more extravagant); legends of celandine, p. 57; graisserons, i.e. rillettes of minced goose, p. 58 (the name, like all names of French dishes, sounds exceedingly fancy; but judging from the descriptions I've found on the web, I doubt that I would enjoy this dish); ceremony in which a novice oblate receives his habit, pp. 63–65; the church of Notre Dame at Dijon, p. 70–75; a comparison of English and French Benedictine liturgy, p. 76; hermits and recluses, pp. 85–92 (“St. Lucipius, by way of penance, bore on his head an enormous stone, which two men could hardly lift”, p. 86); the monks' self-criticism sessions (p. 95; communists would be delighted :-)); history of oblates, pp. 96–107; the monks “should never eat the flesh of four-footed animals” (p. 111; I couldn't help imagining herds of cows and pigs with amputated legs); on the extremes of fasting, p. 112; “ ‘These dispensations [...] are amply justified by our weakened constitutions and by our sedentary life of study, which one could not lead on a diet of vegetables and water’ ” (pp. 112–13; obviously, if one were instead to spend the entire day ploughing or chopping firewood, meat could be easily dispensed with; a couple of rotten carrots and a swig of stale rainwater would be amply sufficient for the whole day); Durtal inveighs against the lack of mysticism in modern-day catholics, pp. 117–18; “Whatever fools may say about the Middle Ages, that period was not one of prudery” (p. 136); the martyrdom of Benignus, the apostle of Burgundy (pp. 142–3; quite an impressive performance); the Dijon museum, pp. 150–6; perpetual prayer (different monastic orders pray at different hours, and at any given moment somebody somewhere is sure to be praying; p. 184); books of hours, p. 209; dyes used by medieval illuminators, p. 210 (says Durtal, “Ah, what a delightful frail, blue-eyed, golden-haired little girl was Illumination, who, in giving birth to her big daughter Painting, was fated to die!”); wine, p. 216; Sluter's sculptures at Dijon, pp. 222–8; botanical garden at Dijon, pp. 229-30; life of Sluter, p. 231 (“For the sum of forty gold francs [...] the monastery gave him, for life, the use of a room and a cellar for himself and a servant” and four rolls of bread per day; depending on the weight of those coins, it sounds like an excellent deal compared to present-day rents and gold prices); importance of oblates for religious art, p. 232; ideas for a colony of artist-oblates, pp. 233–40; the béguines, p. 234; a meditation on sorrow, pp. 241–5; liturgical pedantry, pp. 249–51; liturgical calendar, pp. 252–9; ceremony of taking the habit, p. 272; feet-kissing, p. 273 (for another splendid feet-kissing scene, see Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, ch. VI, p. 386 of the paperback edition).

By the way, I had a curious incident when ordering this book via amazon.co.uk. Their web site said they have the book in stock and can ship it in 24 hours. But when I placed my order, I noticed that £2 had been added to the costs of my order because the book is supposedly one of those hard-to-find ones where it takes them up to 6 weeks to find the book and they charge £2 extra for it. And indeed the book's web page immediately also reflected this supposed new status. However, the book was then actually dispatched the next day and reached me in a little less than a week, as is usual when I order from the UK. I guess I must have been the victim of some sort of quirk in their software; perhaps the copy I ordered was the last one they had in stock, and any subsequent copies would indeed have to be ordered from the publisher; but their billing system must have seen only the updated “hard-to-find” status of the book rather than its previous “ships in 24 hours” status (which is the one that actually applies to the copy that I ordered). A further consequence of this imaginary hard-to-find status of the book is that they refused to ship it together with the other books I had ordered at the same time; hard-to-find books are always shipped separately. Thus I had to pay a few more pounds because the books were sent in two shipments rather than in one. And, seeing that the order would be shipped to Slovenia, amazon.co.uk helpfully added Slovenian VAT to the price of the books. Damned EU! All in all, what I paid for the book was practically twice its original list price. Grrrr.

Also by the way, here is Oscar Wilde's opinion on En Route (written in a letter to Robert Ross, 6 April 1896; published in Ross's 1908 edition of De Profundis; see also Wilde's collected works, vol. 2, Oxford, 2005, p. 321): “En Route is most overrated. It is sheer journalism. It never makes one hear a note of the music it describes. The subject is delightful, but the style is, of course, worthless, slipshod, flaccid. It is worse French than Ohnet's. Ohnet tries to be commonplace and suceeds. Huysmans tries not to be, and is.”