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Archive for February, 2018

Latest Reviews (27ii2018)

Conteur CompatissantShort Stories, Guy de Maupassant, translated by Marjorie Laurie (Everyman’s Library 1934)

Riff-Raph100 Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces, Gordon Kerr (Flame Tree Publishing 2011)

Fall of the WildA Fall of Moondust, Arthur C. Clarke (1961)

Orchid and OakVine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, W.E. Vine et al (Thomas Nelson 1984)

Hoare HereRisingtidefallingstar, Philip Hoare (Fourth Estate 2017)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Short Stories, Guy de Maupassant, translated by Marjorie Laurie (Everyman’s Library 1934)

Sympathy is an interesting word. It literally means “with-feeling”, that is, sharing someone else’s feelings, while the Latin compassio means “with-suffering”. But both of these words have weaker and wetter meanings in modern English. When I say that Maupassant was a compassionate writer who had sympathy for his characters, you need to read it in the older, stronger senses. He could feel with other human beings, victims and villains, the ordinary and the eccentric, and bring them to life on paper.

But he could do more than that: he had sympathy for, sympathy with, animals too and some of his most moving stories are about dogs, horses and donkeys. One, “Love”, is about a pair of wild birds and the hunters who shoot them. It’s included in this collection, which begins with “Boule de Suif” and ends with “The Horla”. “Boule de Suif”, or “Ball of Lard”, was Maupassant’s early great success. It combines three of his obsessions: prostitution, cruelty, and the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1. The title is actually the nickname of a plump, amiable prostitute who befriends but is then betrayed by the respectable folk who share a coach with her on a journey through occupied France. A Prussian officer wants to sleep with her, but she refuses. He won’t let the coach go on until she gives in. Her fellow travellers force her to do so, then salve their own consciences by treating her like “a thing useless and unclean” when their journey resumes.

It’s one of the longest stories here and also one of the most powerful, finely observed, closely and compassionately written. And it’s echoed by another story, “Mademoiselle Fifi”, which is also about prostitutes and the German occupation. But this time the title is the nickname of a Prussian officer, a sadistic dandy who treats the French with contempt but gets more than he bargains for when he mistreats a young prostitute called Rachel. That name is Hebrew for “Ewe” and Rachel is in fact Jewish, so the revenge in the story has even more resonance now. She stabs Mademoiselle Fifi to death and then successfully escapes. But the story is less successful than “Boule de Suif”. It’s too obviously a wish-fulfilment fantasy and the victim turns the table too neatly on the villain. And if Rachel’s name is intended to be ironic, it’s a literary touch that undermines Maupassant’s realism.

I think I’d read the story before in French, but it didn’t stay with me strongly. Other stories I’d read in French did stay with me strongly, like “Miss Harriet”, about a repressed English virgin who commits suicide far from home, and “The Devil”, about a peasant woman who’s given a fixed price to oversee the final hours of a dying woman. “Miss Harriet” is tragic, “The Devil” tragi-comic, and both are good examples of Maupassant’s sympathy for women and his ability to write about them convincingly. But “The Devil” is also a good example of his sympathy for peasants. As the Roman writer Terence said: Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. – “I am human and I regard nothing human as alien to me.”

But many people can say that: Maupassant was one of the rare few who could translate his sympathy into powerful art, whether he was writing about an Italian widow avenging her only son in “Vendetta” or a French diplomat learning about the cruel fate of “the only woman I ever loved” in “Shali”. That story is actually expurgated: the French original, in 1884, went further than the English translation did in 1934. And Maupassant should be read in the original. As Gerald Gould says in the introduction: “It has been said by one rather acid French critic that one reason English people think so highly of Maupassant as a writer is because his French is so easy.”

That’s right: he writes with the utmost clarity and simplicity, but when I read him in French I have to concentrate, so the meaning blossoms more slowly and powerfully in my mind. That’s why I find myself unable to re-read some of his stories. They’re not extravagantly violent or cruel, but I find them too powerful and too unpleasant. “The Horla” isn’t one of those stories and although it is one of Maupassant’s best, some of its power comes from what you know about its background. Maupassant was beginning to go mad from syphilis when he wrote it. In “The Horla”, the human being he’s sympathizing with is himself. Not long afterwards, he was confined to an asylum. Then he was dead at the age of forty-two. No other writer has written so much so well in such a short life. Some of his best stories are here, but anyone who can should read him in French. He was a genius who combined simplicity with sympathy in a way that no other writer I’ve ever read has matched.

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100 Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces, Gordon Kerr (Flame Tree Publishing 2011)

For me there is a simple test for Pre-Raphaelite art and many of the paintings in this book don’t pass it. The test goes like this: is this art deeply, soul-stirringly ugly and unpleasant on the eye? Are its colours garish and ill-judged, its figures stiff and ungainly, its general air stilted, simpering and sentimental?

If I can say “Yes” to those questions, it’s Pre-Raphaelite art. So Sir John Everett Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents (1849) is Pre-Raphaelite. And Millais’s Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (1849) is too. And Millais’s Ophelia (1851-2) definitely is. And so are William Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd (1851), The Awakening Conscience (1852) and The Light of the World (c. 1852). That last, which shows Christ knocking on an overgrown door, is one of the most famous paintings ever created. For me, it’s also one of the ugliest. Pre-Raphaelite painters often turn flesh and other matter into something that looks like plastic. Here it looks like putrescent plastic.

William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World (c. 1852)

William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World (c. 1852)


But Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat (1854) doesn’t pass the “Yuck!” test so successfully, so it’s not very Pre-Raphaelite for me. Nor is his Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1867). And most of the paintings here by Dante Gabriel Rossetti don’t even come close to passing the “Yuck!” test. He wasn’t a particularly good artist, but he could capture the beauty of female hair, skin, lips and clothing, and even set them glowing, so I don’t like to classify him as Pre-Raphaelite. I don’t like to classify Sir Edward Burne-Jones as that either. He too could capture beauty, though less earthily and more ethereally.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Monna Vanna (1866)


But Rossetti and Burne-Jones were Pre-Raphaelite, the best of a generally bad movement. Anthony Frederick Sandys was technically a better artist than either of them, as he proved with Medea (1866-8), but he couldn’t capture beauty so well. William Waterhouse could, but he definitely wasn’t Pre-Raphaelite. He was neo-classical and skilful and if the two of his paintings included here, Ophelia (c. 1894) and Juliet (1898), don’t seem particularly out of place, that’s because they are far from his best. In fact, I would say that the only masterpieces here are by Rossetti. He was an uneven artist who belongs with the Pre-Raphaelites at his worst and transcended them at his best. Millais never transcended anything. But perhaps Pre-Raphaelitism would have been a less interesting movement if it hadn’t failed so often and so uglily.

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A Fall of Moondust, Arthur C. Clarke (1961)

Nothing dates faster than the future, which is why I think Arthur C. Clarke does indeed deserve to be called one of the greatest science-fiction writers. Despite his cardboard characters and his adolescent psychology, his futures are still plausible, still capable of suspending disbelief, decades after he created them. At his best and boldest, he was a kind of optimistic, neurosis-free Lovecraft: Rendezvous with Rama (1973) has gigantic themes and images, but with irony and understatement too.

Man’s first encounter with an alien civilization doesn’t work the way it should, but that adds to the interest and the fun. Clarke wrote with gusto and seems to have lived that way too. He might have moved to Sri Lanka partly to indulge his paederasty, but he also liked the sunshine and sea he found there. The sea is a frontier, something that challenges and sometimes punishes the men who want to explore and exploit it, and Clarke’s writing is always about frontiers. His characters are always explorers in some way, part of an effort to expand into the unknown. Where J.G. Ballard dove into the head and explored the endless possibilities of mind, Clarke dove out of it, away into the universe, and explored the endless possibilities of matter. A Fall of Moondust is about a very simple form of matter in a very strange setting:

No one could have told, merely by looking at it, whether the Sea [of Thirst] was liquid or solid. It was completely flat and featureless, quite free from the myriad cracks and fissures that scarred all the rest of this barren world. Not a single hillock, boulder, or pebble broke its monotonous uniformity. No sea on Earth – no millpond, even – was ever as calm as this.

It was a sea of dust, not of water, and therefore it was alien to all the experience of men; therefore, also, it fascinated and attracted them. Fine as talcum powder, drier in this vacuum than the parched sands of the Sahara, it flowed as easily and effortlessly as any liquid. A heavy object dropped into it would disappear instantly, without a splash, leaving no scar to mark its passage. Nothing could move upon its treacherous surface except the small, two-man dust-skis – and Selene herself, an improbable combination of sledge and bus, not unlike the Sno-cats that had opened up the Antarctic a lifetime ago. (ch. 1)

There you can see Clarke’s greatness as a science-fiction writer. He took his scientific knowledge and created something new but entirely plausible from it: a sea of dust where a ship called the Selene sails for the entertainment and edification of tourists. It’s a frontier, a new place for man to test his engineering and his ingenuity. And the test gets very big when Clarke arranges for the Selene to sink. I won’t describe how he does it, but again he’s creating something new but entirely plausible from his scientific knowledge. His stories often creak psychologically and sociologically, but they’re always technically solid.

And he can mix macrocosm and microcosm. When the Sea of Thirst gapes and gulps down the Selene, her captain Pat Harris is overwhelmed by a childhood memory:

He was a boy again, playing in the hot sand of a forgotten summer [back on Earth]. He had found a tiny pit, perfectly smooth and symmetrical, and there was something lurking in its depths – something completely buried except for its waiting jaws. The boy had watched, wondering, already conscious of the fact that this was the stage for some microscopic drama. He had seen an ant, mindlessly intent upon its mission, stumble at the edge of the crater and topple down the slope.

It would have escaped easily enough – but when the first grain of sand had rolled to the bottom of the pit, the waiting ogre had reared out of its lair. With its forelegs, it had hurled a fusillade of sand at the struggling insect, until the avalanche had overwhelmed it and brought it sliding down into the throat of the crater.

As Selene was sliding now. No ant lion had dug this pit on the surface of the Moon, but Pat felt as helpless now as that doomed insect he had watched so many years ago. Like it, he was struggling to reach the safety of the rim, while the moving ground swept him back into the depths where death was waiting. A swift death for the ant, a protracted one for him and his companions. (ch. 2)

Death will be protracted for the crew and passengers of the Selene because they survive submersion, but have no way of making contact with the outside world: the dust, “with its high metallic content, was an almost perfect shield” for radio waves. So nobody knows what has happened to them or where they are, and for a time it seems as though nobody ever will. Then a clever but socially clumsy scientist discovers a way to detect the Selene. Rescue gets under way above the dust while the social dynamics of living entombment work out below it. Clarke is much better with technology than he is with psychology and the social side of A Fall of Moondust isn’t what makes it worth reading. There’s some disturbing and even disgusting sexism: one of the passengers is a trouble-making “neurotic spinster”, for example – and yes, Clarke actually uses that phrase.

And the private technology of the novel, as opposed to the public, is no good. In fact, the private technology is non-existent. The trapped passengers ward off boredom by pooling their reading matter: “the total haul consisted of assorted lunar guides, including six copies of the official handbook; a current best seller, The Orange and the Apple, whose unlikely theme was a romance between Nell Gwyn and Sir Isaac Newton; a Harvard Press edition of Shane, with scholarly annotations by a professor of English; an introduction to the logical positivism of Auguste Comte; and a week-old copy of the New York Times, Earth edition.”

The story is set in about 2040, but Clarke didn’t anticipate iPads and Kindles, so A Fall of Moondust is a curious mixture of visionary and vapid. You could see it as a thought-experiment: what happens scientifically and psychologically when a ship is submerged in a sea of dust? His science works well, whether the Selene is overheating or suddenly and almost fatally settling deeper in the sea. And there’s a characteristically clever and concise Clarkean touch right at the end, when the Selene has been successfully evacuated:

“Is everyone out?” Lawrence asked anxiously.

“Yes,” said Pat. “I’m the last man.” Then he added, “I hope,” for he realized that in the darkness and confusion someone might have been left behind. Suppose Radley had decided not to face the music back in New Zealand…

No – he was here with the rest of them. Pat was just starting to do a count of heads when the plastic floor gave a sudden jump – and out of the open well shot a perfect smoke ring of dust. It hit the ceiling, rebounded, and disintegrated before anyone could move.

“What the devil was that?” said Lawrence. (ch. 30)

If you want to know what it was, you’ll have to read this book. And I can recommend it. Clarke was not a great psychologist or a subtle wordsmith, but he was a great science-fictioneer. This book published in 1961 still retains its scientific and technical interest more than half-a-century later. A Fall of Moondust isn’t his best work, but it’s impressive all the same.

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Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, W.E. Vine et al (Thomas Nelson 1984)

Grafting Greek onto Hebrew is rather like grafting an orchid onto an oak. But that’s what happened when the writings of a new religion were added to the Jewish scriptures to create the Christian Bible. Hebrew and Greek are very different languages grammatically, phonetically and alphabetically. As I said: orchid and oak. But those differences, and that disjuncture, make the Bible more interesting.

This is a good book for studying the differences and the disjuncture. Millions of people have done so down the centuries, but most of them have been driven by one of the most powerful of human fuels: ego. As an atheist, I’m motivated by an interest in linguistics and history. Which means I’m not particularly driven. The Bible is a fascinating and highly influential text, but studying it seriously demands more time and attention than I’m prepared to give. So I like dipping into this book, not dedicatedly delving:

MOTH

sēs (σής 4597) indicates “a clothes moth,” Matt. 6:19, Luke 12:33.¶ In Job 4:19 “crushed before the moth” alludes apparently to the fact that woolen materials, riddled by the larvae of “moths,” became so fragile that a touch demolishes them. In Job 27:18 “He buildeth his house as a moth” alludes to the frail covering which a larval “moth” constructs out of the material which it consumes. The rendering “spider” (marg.) seems an attempt to explain a difficulty.

MOTH-EATEN

sētobrōtos (σητόβρωτος 4598), from sēs, “a moth,” and bibrōskō, “to eat,” is used in Jas. 5:2.¶ In the Sept. Job 13:28.

As you can see from that, the Greek of the New Testament is set in the context of the Septuagint. The Hebrew of the Old Testament, on the other, is set in the context of what you might call the Semitic sea:

SWORD

hereb (חֶרֶב, 2719) “sword; dagger; flint knife; chisel.” This noun has cognates in several other Semitic languages including Ugaritic, Aramaic, Syriac, Akaddian, and Arabic. The word occurs about 410 times and in all periods of biblical Hebrew.

YEAR

šānāh (שָׁנָה, 8141), “year.” This word has cognates in Ugaritic, Akaddian, Arabic, Aramaic, and Phoenician. Biblical Hebrew attests it about 877 times and in every period.

But the Semitic sea was also a pagan sea: there’s a disjuncture here not only between Hebrew and Greek, but also between monotheism and polytheism. Everything in the Jewish scriptures, from the alphabet and the stories to the vocabulary and the verse, has roots in pagan, polytheistic culture. But Judaism slashed and severed, setting itself apart and creating something very powerful and perhaps very pernicious. The Bible is big in every way and this book is a gateway to its greatness.

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Risingtidefallingstar, Philip Hoare (Fourth Estate 2017)

The best thing about this book is, I was disappointed to learn, the photo by Mary Martin on the front cover. The black clothes, the scarlet cap, the bursting wave in the distance and the blurred, jumping feet: it’s intense, instantaneous art. If the text had lived up to it, this would have been a very good book. But it doesn’t live up to it and I’d call it good only in patches. Robert Macfarlane, who’s included in the “Thanks” at the end, is better at turning his encounters with earth and sea into digressive, rambling, allusive and anecdotal literature.

That’s what I’ve found, anyway. Hoare’s prose seems a bit stiff and constrained. I don’t find it easy to read and I wish I did, because he has some interesting ideas and writes about some interesting people, all the way from Wilfred Owen and Stephen Tennant to Sylvia Plath and David Bowie. And there are interesting black-and-white images to accompany everything. That’s why the lack of an index is such a serious flaw: when a book is full of information, it should have sign-posts.

But the lack of one sign-post is a good thing. Hoare is homosexual, but doesn’t write about being so here. He isn’t self-obsessed: he’s sea-obsessed. He describes swimming in the sea again and again in this book and he tries hard to make his writing into a swirling, surging sea of sounds, sights and symbolism. For me, he fails, but the effort was worthwhile.

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