MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 14

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

FATHERS AND SONS

Ivan Turgenev, 1862

Franklin Library 1984.  Translated by Constance Garnett.  Illustrations by Elaine Raphael and Don Bolognese.    Half navy leather, embossed in gold, with ridged spine; marbled end papers, gold edges to pages, and satin ribbon.

Is Bazarov a worse case than Raskolnikov?  Bazarov is the bane of us all – the young man who knows better than those who came before him.  He has found out the answer – and there can only be one answer.  So sure is his faith, that he knows that to implement his answer and lift the clouds of bondage and ignorance from the eyes of his countrymen, the end justifies the means.  He is, in short, a fanatic, or zealot – and in Russia he prefigures the horror of Communism.  The commentaries say Bazarov was a nihilist.  I looked that term up in Professor Blackburn’s Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

A theory promoting the state of believing in nothing, or of having no allegiances and no purposes.

When you think about it, if you subscribe to that theory – that you believe in nothing – you are involved in a contradiction in terms.  ‘I believe that I don’t believe anything.’  That is like repudiating Cogito; ergo sum.  But triumphal hell-raisers are not confined by refinement.

Some writers are described as the writers’ writer or the novelists’ novelist – the latter was the term applied by Henry James to Turgenev.  Turgenev has as good a claim as any to the title.  His writing is easy, graceful and detached.  It is not long before you know that you are in the hands of a master.  It’s like getting into a car and realizing that you are in a Bentley.  It comes as a change from those great Russian writers who could explode into exclamation marks at the drop of a hat. 

This uncommittedness was as important in Russia then as it is today.  At that time, Russian fiction was intensely political.  In his Open Letter to Gogol, written in 1847, Belinsky had given a radical creed for the next generation – for the sons rather than the fathers.  It showed the way to would-be revolutionaries.  Dostoevsky read it to a private gathering and was condemned to death.

Turgenev came from a family that at least pretended to aristocratic roots.  There is more than a whiff of condescension is some of his writing.  But Turgenev was nothing if not urbane, and both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky distanced themselves from a man who looked to prefer Europe to Russia.  For his part, Turgenev was close to Flaubert and thought that the other two Russians were too preoccupied with religion.  That looks to us to be understandable, but things got so bad that Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to an uneventful duel.  They did not speak for seventeen years.  Writing in Russia then was combustible.

Turgenev is best remembered, and read, in the west for On the eve and Fathers and Sons.  In the latter, the author, who admired Hamlet, looked again at the inevitable conflict between the generations – that underlies so much of Hamlet.  It is about the personal and political coming of age of two young men – Arkady Kirsanov and Yevgeny Bazarov – and the grief that this brings to their fathers.  A connecting agent in the story – which looks to have been destined for the stage – is an attractive and wealthy widow, Madam Anna Odintsova.  The older generation has what may be called liberal views about the still medieval condition of the serfs in Russia – the Russians were at least six hundred years behind England – but the new generation has lost patience and rejects the lot of them.  As with all annihilators, they are light on about what to put in place after the revolution.  Like our politicians now, they are also shy of hard experience of life in the raw.  Although the author was far from being a radical, the reaction to Fathers and Sons was such that he thought it was as well to leave town for a while.

We are introduced to Bazarov in a sequence that Chekhov would have read.  We are told that he had ‘a special faculty for winning the confidence of the lower orders, though he never pandered to them and indeed was very offhand with them.’ Well, people who profess to love ‘the people’ often go to water or ice if they meet the real thing. 

But Bazarov is not one of those.  He is a young man of science – medicine – and his superiority lies there.  Arkady takes him home to meet his father and uncle.  Before breakfast the next day, Bazarov goes out to collect frogs – for science.  It does not take long for Bazarov to get well and truly under the skin of the uncle.  For Pavel Petrovich, a man who recognises nothing respects nothing.

Pavel Petrovich spoke with studious politeness.  He was secretly beginning to feel irritated.  Bazarov’s complete indifference exasperated his aristocratic nature.  This son of a medico was not only self-assured: he actually returned abrupt and reluctant answers, and there was a churlish, almost insolent note in his voice…… ‘He has no faith in principles, only in frogs.’

This is Madam Odintsova.

Anna Sergeyevna was a rather strange person.  Having no prejudices of any kind, and no strong conviction even, she was not put off by obstacles and she had no goal in life.  She had clear ideas about many things and a variety of interests; but nothing ever completely satisfied her; indeed, she did really seek satisfaction.  Her mind was at once probing and indifferent; any doubts she entertained were never smoothed into oblivion, nor ever swelled into unrest.  If she had not been rich and independent, she might perhaps have thrown herself into the struggle and experienced passion…..But life was easy for her, though tedious at times, and she continued to pursue her daily round without haste and rarely upsetting herself about anything.  Rainbow-coloured dreams occasionally danced before even her eyes, but she breathed more freely when they faded away, and did not regret them.  Her imagination certainly ranged beyond the bounds of what is considered permissible by conventional morality; but even then her blood flowed as quietly as ever in her fascinatingly graceful, tranquil body….Like all women who have not succeeded in falling in love, she hankered after someone without knowing what it was.  In reality, there was nothing she wanted, though it seemed to her that she wanted everything.

Here then is man at home with you and me – and with his pen.  Could Goya have improved on that portrait?  How would this widow react if one of these virile but unworldly young radicals fell for her?

Underlying all this conflict between the generations is a question that immediately came to the fore in France after 1789, but which is barely touched on in this book.  If you are going to rid yourselves of the caste of serfdom, why not get rid of the caste of royalty and the aristocracy?  That is always the big question.  Where and when will it all end?  And, more importantly, how will I be placed when the carousel comes to rest?  In Russia, the crushing answer came with Lenin.

This novel is a graceful reflection on our humanity, and we are blessed to be able to enjoy it and be enriched – even if it does prefigure the misery we are faced with by the Institute of Public Affairs.

This Franklin edition is a joy to hold and read.

Top shelf – Dombey and Son

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

DOMBEY AND SON

Charles Dickens, 1848

Folio Society, 1984.  Bound in illustrated boards and slipcased.  Illustrated by Charles Keeping.  Introduction by Christopher Hibbert.

When I completed my reading of Dickens’ fourteen novels some time ago, I placed my preferences in five categories: First, Tale of Two Cities.  Second, Barnaby Rudge, Dombey and Son, and Our Mutual Friend.  Third, Bleak House, Great Expectations, Nicolas Nickleby, and Oliver Twist.  Fourth, Hard Times, Martin Chuzzlewit, and Pickwick Papers.  Fifth, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, and Old Curiosity Shop.  That list may look eccentric, and it may change according to the time of day, but it does say that not only was Dickens prolific, but that he had a wide range of subjects and the capacity to appeal to very different tastes.

Paul Dombey suffers from the delusion that success in business might lead to a rise up the social ladder.  (Not so – trade, old boy, just trade.)  His single-minded pursuit of money and fame leads him to neglect his daughter, Florence, and then impose a regime on his son and heir that kills him.  His second marriage is just a financial transaction and it fails for that reason.  Nemesis and ruin come in the form of a trusted manager, James Carker – he of the ‘white teeth’, a demonic jerk, straight into the silent movies.  Dombey survives his ruin to be reconciled to Florence in a scene that might resemble the end of King Lear.  All this takes place with a cavalcade of characters some of whom show how a simple life may be the good life.

The novel begins.

Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great armchair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution was analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.  Dombey was about eight-and-forty years of age.  Son about eight-and-forty minutes.

Here is a writer, then, at the top of his game.  The novel ends with Dombey and grad-daughter Florence.

‘Dear grandpapa, why do you cry when you kiss me?’

He only answers, ‘Little Florence!  Little Florence!’ and smooths away the curls that shade her earnest eyes.

The novel is shot through with the ideas and demons of Dickens’ friend Thomas Carlyle (The French Revolution), especially as found in Past and Present, and the objections to ‘Mammon-Gospel’.

We call it a Society; and go about professing openly the totalest separation….Our life is not a mutual helpfulness; but rather, cloaked under laws-of-war, named ‘fair competition’ and so forth, it is a mutual hostility.  We have profoundly forgotten everywhere that Cash-payment is not the sole relation of human beings; we think, nothing doubting, that it absolves and liquidates all engagements of man…

Hell had become the terror of not succeeding, of not making money….

Oh, it is frightful when a whole Nation ….had ‘forgotten God; has remembered only Mammon and what Mammon leads to….Supply-and-demand, Competition, Laissez-faire, and Devil take the hindmost….Moral philosophies sanctioned by able computations of Profit and Loss.

In his illuminating book Carlyle and Dickens, Michael Goldberg said:

Dombey and Son is a sustained and powerful attack on Victorian Mammonism.  It embodies the nightmare vision that Dickens was coming to have of nineteenth century capitalism and his early recognition of its inborn cruelties, its incompatibility with virtue, and its inherent contradictions.  Dickens courageously places at the novel’s centre one of the new financial tycoons and traces the withering effects of business ethics on his sentiments and his humanity.  In the death of his son, as in the moral bankruptcy of Mr Dombey himself, Dickens presents a stark Carlylean parable on the sacrifice of humanity demanded by the money fetish….Finally he uses the corrective values which Polly Toodle, Captain Cuttle,   and Sol Gills offer to the sophisticated sterilities of the Dombey world, to bathe the novel in the gentler perspectives of the New Testament.

To my taste, Dickens is too sloppy with love scenes but wonderful with death scenes.  He is on any view superbly gifted at the crunch.

‘Papa, what’s money?’

The abrupt question had such immediate reference to the subject of Mr Dombey’s thoughts, that Mr Dombey was quite disconcerted.

‘What is money, Paul?’ he answered.  ‘Money?’…

Mr Dombey was in a difficulty.  He would have liked to give him some explanation involving the terms circulating-medium, currency, depreciation of currency, paper, bullion, rates of exchange, value of precious metals in the market, and so forth; but looking down at the little chair, and seeing what a long way down it was, he answered: ‘Gold and silver, and copper.  Guineas, shillings, half-pence.  You know what they are?’

‘Oh yes, I know what they are,’ said Paul.  ‘I don’t mean that Papa.  I mean what’s money after all?’

‘I mean, Papa, what can it do?’ returned Paul folding his arms…

‘Money, Paul, can do anything.’

‘Anything, Papa?’

‘Yes.  Anything – almost,’ said Mr Dombey.

‘Anything means everything, don’t it, Papa?’ asked his son.

‘It includes it, yes,’ said Mr Dombey.

‘Why didn’t money save me my mama? returned the child.  ‘It isn’t cruel, is it?’

You can’t beat writing like that.  Thackeray threw the book down in exasperation.  ‘There’s no writing against such power as this…It is unsurpassed.  It is stupendous.’

This is a book for the ages – but especially the age when Mammon stomps all over God, and the pinnacle of capitalism surrenders to the Golden Calf.

 

MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 9

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

Doctor Zhivago

Some writers make it feel easy – Grahame Greene.  Some let you know that you might have to dig in and hope – Hermann Melville.  Some come up at you like nuggets from out of rocks – Christina Stead.  Some are brilliant but prone to flash outside the off stump – Balzac.  Some just let you know that they are big hitters – Tolstoy.  Some just end up over the top – Joyce.  Some are all class but leave you wondering what the fuss is about – Flaubert.  Some leave you wondering where in Hell that came from – Emily Brontë.  And every now and then you come across one who very soon lets you know, and makes you confident, that they have real strength and power.  That was certainly the case with Boris Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago – which, to my shame, I had not read before.  I find it hard to recall a novel that is so strong and powerful.

A young boy born into Imperial Russia is abandoned by his father and when his mother dies, he is taken in by a kindly uncle.   The boy, Yuri Zhivago, who is bright and sensitive, grows up to be a poet and a doctor.  (You might think that is an odd coupling, until you recall Keats.)  He marries Tonya, who was also a medical student, and they go out to live in the provinces as the war comes.

Lara is a daughter of a Russian woman married to a Belgian.  When the husband goes, the mother has an affair with a friend of his, a ruthless man of business and politics – the precursor of the oligarch – who proceeds to defile Lara while she is seventeen and still at school.  The mother tries to kill herself, and then Lara tries to kill her lover.  The businessman hushes up the affair and Lara marries Pasha who is deeply engaged politically.  They too go the provinces.  Pasha is thought to have died in the war but he becomes a ruthless killer and a Commissar for the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution under the name Strelnikov.

The paths of Lara and Yuri cross, and they eventually fall deeply in love, even after they find that Pasha is still alive as Strelnikov.  But it is hard to see how they or their love can survive.  It is not just that they are both married – their whole world has been turned upside down by a revolution and a civil war far more barbarous than what France faced after 1789, and which took the French at least a hundred years to get over.  Both Lara and Yuri have what we call baggage that the new regime will reject.  The times are utterly beyond compassion.  If a child goes missing in the country, the parents will fear cannibalism.  The icy egoism of Lenin will give way to the murderous paranoia of Stalin.  Lara and Yuri strive to keep and treasure what humanity is left to them before they get washed away in the maelstrom.  They were not born in the right time or place.

That is a bare outline of a hugely complex story.  The number of characters and the variations in the names make the book very hard to read.  It is at times like separating the threads of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles.  But the effect is nearly overwhelming, because you get this magical blend of sordid reality set against a feeling of remorseless fate.  Even accidents seem inevitable, and the effect is heightened by sudden changes in tempo or revelation.  The result is to make the two lovers ‘star-crossed’ in a manner that was perfected in Romeo and Juliet.  They are helpless victims and they are no less appealing for that.  They are in truth pathetic, and the backdrop for this pathos is the world being turned upside down in the most gruesome way possible.

Here is the author on the new men after the 1917 Revolution.  ‘Commissars with unlimited power were appointed everywhere, people of iron will, in black leather jackets, armed with means of intimidation and with revolvers, who rarely shaved and still more rarely slept.  They were well acquainted with the petty bourgeois breed, the average holder of small government bonds, the grovelling conformist, and never spared him, talking to him with a Mephistophelian smirk, as with a pilferer caught in the act.’  There were a lot of sans-culottes just like that in Paris in 1793.

Here is the apotheosis of the Commissar: ‘For some unknown reason it became clear at once that this man represented the consummate manifestation of will.  He was to such a degree what he wanted to be that everything on him and in him inevitably seemed exemplary; his proportionately constructed and handsomely placed head, and the impetuousness of his stride, and his long legs in high boots, which may have been dirty but seemed polished, and his grey flannel tunic, which may have been wrinkled but gave the impression of ironed linen.  Thus acted the presence of giftedness, natural, knowing no strain, feeling itself in the saddle in any situation of earthly existence.  This man must have possessed some gift, not necessarily an original one.’  This could be Reinhard Heydrich, a brutal Nazi killer, one of the most evil men ever born.  Strelnikov as the Commissar was a brutal killer– but was the husband of Lara evil like Heydrich?  Or Stalin?  How do ordinary people become cold-blooded killers?

The picture of Strelnikov could also derive from Robespierre.  When the pure are corrupted by power, their killing is indeed merciless.  Puritanical killers like Cromwell and Robespierre may or may not have been as brutal as, say, Stalin, but their dead are just as dead.  Lenin would take after Robespierre, and Stalin was Lenin gone rotten.  The book contains slashing insights into the jealous cruelty that is unleashed after centuries of cruel oppression.

There are passages of poetic insight – of a poet.  ‘The cannon-fire behind his back died down.  That direction was the east.  There in the haze of the mist the sun rose and peeped dimly between the scraps of floating murk, the way naked people in a bathhouse flash through clouds of soapy steam.’  Snow is a recurring image.   The hero gets a letter from his distant wife, Tonya.  She says of Lara: ‘I was born into this world to simplify life and seek the right way through, and she in order to complicate it and confuse it.’  As it happens, that is fair – but did it have to happen?  The letter concludes with Tonya believing that they have come for her execution.

Yuri Andreevich [Zhivago] looked up from the letter with an absent, tearless gaze, not directed anywhere, dry from grief, devastated by suffering.  He saw nothing around him.  He was conscious of nothing.  Outside the window it began to snow.  Wind carried the snow obliquely, ever faster and ever denser, as if trying all the while to make up for something and Yuri Andreevich stared ahead of him and through the window as if it were not snow falling but the continued reading of Tonya’s letter, and not dry starlike flakes that raced and flashed, but small spaces of white paper between small black letters, white, white, endless, endless.

Even in translation, that writing has a kind of grace and power that can only come from a writer who is justifiably confident of his own strength.  It is a passage that might remind some of a well-known passage by James Joyce in his story called The Dead.*  This is the kind of writing that annihilates the boundary between prose and poetry.

The book is shot through with writing that could only come from a writer who is happy to back his judgment.  This is how the narrative part of the book ends.

One day Larissa Fyodorovna [Lara] left the house and did not come back again.  Evidently she was arrested on the street in those days and died or vanished no one knew where, forgotten under some nameless number on subsequently lost lists, in one of those countless general or women’s concentration camps in the north.

The author was deeply spiritual in the Russian tradition.  There is an epistle of Paul that said something to the effect that ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’  Pasternak translates that ‘in that new way of existence and new form of communion known as the Kingdom of God, there are no peoples, there are persons.’

This is a proposition that might unsettle a whole lot of people, and it was not well received in some parts of the world.  It is hugely liberating for some – including me.  (What kind of God, anyway, would want to play favourites?)  So is the ethical consequence.  ‘To belong to a type is the end of a man, his condemnation.’  That too is so true.  .The author goes on: ‘If he doesn’t fall into any category, if he’s not representative, half of what’s demanded of him is there.  He’s free of himself, he’s achieved a grain of immortality.’

The author is super-bright, but he knows the dangers of intellectuals finding the answer.  He has Yuri saying this: ‘I think philosophy should be used sparingly as a seasoning for art and life.  To be occupied with it alone is the same as eating horse-radish by itself.’  He got that right.  And he also gets right the fearful impact of the revolution on the lives of persons, and not just peoples.  Lara says this to Yuri.

Is it for me a weak woman to explain to you who are so intelligent what is now happening with life in general and why families fall apart, yours and mine between them?….All that’s productive, settled, all that’s connected with habitual life, with the human nest and its order, all of it went to wrack and ruin along with the upheaval of the whole of society and its reorganisation.  All everyday things were overturned and destroyed.  What remained was the un-everyday, unapplied force of the naked soul, stripped of the last shred, for which nothing has changed, because in all times it was cold and trembling and drawing towards the one nearest to it, which is just as naked and lonely.  You and I are like Adam and Eve, the first human beings, who had nothing to cover themselves with when the world began, and we are now just as unclothed and homeless at its end.  And you and I are the last reminder of all those countless great things that have been done in the world in the many thousands of years between them and us, and in memory of those vanished wonders, we breathe and love and weep, and hold each other, and cling to each other.

This is a novel of immense strength, beauty, and humanity.

Nor had I seen the movie, which is very famous, and, apparently, the eighth most seen movie ever made.  It was a great effort by David Lean to get this complex book on to the screen, and it had to be uncomfortably long.  The stars, Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, shine very brightly, but they have to stand against two of the best screen actors ever, Alec Guinness and Rod Steiger (as the loathsome seducer.)  Steiger is viciously seductive in the power he maintains over Lara throughout the film, and you wonder if she is a kind of allegory for Russia, that just continues to swap real bastards as its rulers.  I might say that for both the book and the movie, Lara was for me the moving force.  It is one thing to be seduced by your mother’s lover while you are still at school – it is another thing to call on a society function on Christmas Eve and try to shoot the bastard.  In some curious way, Lara seemed to me to have a fair bit of Heathcliff in her, but this is not easy to put on screen.  Tom Courtenay is the bespectacled and antiseptic Strelnikov who has the signature line: ‘The personal life is dead in Russia.’

You can see that sad truth now every day in Russia in the ugly face of Vladimir Putin.

*Here is the final paragraph of The Dead, which occurs after the wife of the narrator has just told him in bed that a young man called Michael Fury had in her youth had a crush on her and had died for it.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window.  It had begun to snow again.  He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.  The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.  Yes, the newspapers were right; snow was general all over Ireland.  It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.  It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Fury lay buried.  It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.  His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 4

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

CATCH 22

Joseph Heller

Folio Society, 2004; bound in illustrated boards, slip-cased, colour illustrations by Neil Packer; introduction by Malcolm Bradbury.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.   Orr was crazy and could be grounded.   All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.  Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them.  If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to, but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

If you think that Joseph Heller was a one trick pony, then in my view, you’re dead wrong.  Apart from his other novels, there is his autobiography.  It deals with his life beginning as a son of Russian Jewish parents on Coney Island.  It is a great read, and a fascinating insight into a healthy slice of American social history.  Two things struck me through my reading of the entire book.  One was the candour that the author presents – he carries conviction with everything he says.  This is a writer who confides in you and whom you may trust.  The other was the assurance with which he writes.  Put the two together, and you know you are reading the work of an extremely powerful mind.  That is perhaps not surprising in a man who wrote a novel as strong and famous as Catch 22.

Heller flew fifty missions as a bombardier in the USAF out of Italy in the Second World War.  When he took up writing, he had an unusual model for his novels.  He would begin with the opening line, and not start writing until he had written the last line.  Catch 22 starts this way:

It was love at first sight.

The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

It ends this way.

‘So long, Chaplain.  Thanks, Danby’.

‘How do you feel, Yossarian?’

‘Fine.  No, I’m very frightened.’

‘That’ good,’ said Major Danby.  ‘It proves you’re still alive.  It won’t be fun.’

Yossarian started out.  ‘Yes it will.’

‘I mean it Yossarian.  You’ll have to keep on your toes every minute of the day.  They’ll bend heaven and earth to catch you’.

‘I’ll keep on my toes every minute.’

‘You’ have to jump.’

‘I’ll jump.’

‘Jump!’  Major Danby cried.

Yossarian jumped.  Nately’s whore was hiding just outside the door.  The knife came down missing him by inches, and he took off.

Most humour involves an assault on logic, but you can see how artlessly this writer grabs our attention and doesn’t let go.

Catch 22 is about the efforts of the crews of US bombers in the Mediterranean to remain sane while fighting in the Second World War.  There is a rich treasury of books about madness – like Don Quixote and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and an even bigger treasury of books against war – like The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front – Catch 22 happens to combine the two.

What we have is theatre of the absurd in which farce and tragedy play their parts in very black humour.  Being the Chaplain was not easy with those boys.  Colonel Cathcart – who lives mainly to be celebrated in The Saturday Evening Post – makes a statement that the Chaplain had refused to take part in conducting prayer meetings in the briefing room before each mission.  When an officer relays this allegation to the Chaplain, his response is that Colonel Cathcart gave up the idea himself once he realised enlisted men pray to the same God as officers.  So, the Chaplain is asked if he believes in God.  Of course.  But you told Colonel Cathcart that atheism is not against the law.  It is not.  ‘But that’s still no reason to say so, Chaplain, is it?’  The interview had begun:

Chaplain, I once studied Latin.  I think it’s only fair to warn you of that before I ask my next question.  Doesn’t the word Anabaptist simply mean that you’re not a Baptist?

So, who was the fractious colonel?

Colonel Cathcart was a slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man who lumbered when he walked and who wanted to be a general.  He was dashing and dejected, poised and chagrined.  He was complacent and insecure, daring in the administrative stratagems he employed to bring himself to the attention of his superiors and craven in his concern that his schemes might all backfire.  He was handsome and unattractive, a swashbuckling, beefy conceited man who was putting on fat and was tormented chronically by prolonged seizures of apprehension.

As you may have gathered, his relationship with the Chaplain had got off to a rocky start.  The colonel thought they should have prayers before each mission.  The Saturday Evening Post had a feature of an English colonel doing just that.  In a cut version, the conversation went like this.

‘But don’t give us any of this Kingdom of God or Valley of Death stuff.  That’s too negative’.

‘Save me, O God; for the waters are come into..’

No waters.

‘…there we sat down, yea, we wept..’

No waters.

‘I’m sorry, sir, but just about all the prayers I know are rather sombre in tone and make at least some passing reference to God.’

‘Why can’t we pray for something good like a tighter bomb pattern?’

‘We’ll allocate about a minute and a half…’

‘….it doesn’t include the time necessary to excuse the atheists from the room and admit the enlisted men.’

‘  There are no atheists in my outfit.  Atheism is against the law, isn’t it?’

‘No’

‘Then it’s un-American.’

‘I just assumed you would want the enlisted men to be present, since they would be going along on the same mission.’

‘Well, I don’t.  They’ve got a God and a chaplain of their own, haven’t they?’

‘No, sir.’

‘You mean they pray to the same God we do?

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And He listens?’

‘I think so, sir.’

‘Well, I’ll be damned…..Honestly, now, Chaplain, you wouldn’t want your sister to marry an enlisted man, would you?’

‘My sister is an enlisted man, sir.’

‘Are you trying to be funny?’

‘She’s a master sergeant in the Marines.’

The colonel had never liked the Chaplain and now he loathed and distrusted him.

Groucho Marx and Spike Milligan and Lenny Bruce would relate to this, but this great novel is an enduring reflection on the human condition.  No wonder it took off like a rocket during the Vietnam War and is still going strong after so many more fiascos that have more than a touch of madness about them.

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

CATCH 22

Joseph Heller

Folio Society, 2004; bound in illustrated boards, slip-cased, colour illustrations by Neil Packer; introduction by Malcolm Bradbury.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.   Orr was crazy and could be grounded.   All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.  Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them.  If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to, but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

If you think that Joseph Heller was a one trick pony, then in my view, you’re dead wrong.  Apart from his other novels, there is his autobiography.  It deals with his life beginning as a son of Russian Jewish parents on Coney Island.  It is a great read, and a fascinating insight into a healthy slice of American social history.  Two things struck me through my reading of the entire book.  One was the candour that the author presents – he carries conviction with everything he says.  This is a writer who confides in you and whom you may trust.  The other was the assurance with which he writes.  Put the two together, and you know you are reading the work of an extremely powerful mind.  That is perhaps not surprising in a man who wrote a novel as strong and famous as Catch 22.

Heller flew fifty missions as a bombardier in the USAF out of Italy in the Second World War.  When he took up writing, he had an unusual model for his novels.  He would begin with the opening line, and not start writing until he had written the last line.  Catch 22 starts this way:

It was love at first sight.

The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

It ends this way.

‘So long, Chaplain.  Thanks, Danby’.

‘How do you feel, Yossarian?’

‘Fine.  No, I’m very frightened.’

‘That’ good,’ said Major Danby.  ‘It proves you’re still alive.  It won’t be fun.’

Yossarian started out.  ‘Yes it will.’

‘I mean it Yossarian.  You’ll have to keep on your toes every minute of the day.  They’ll bend heaven and earth to catch you’.

‘I’ll keep on my toes every minute.’

‘You’ have to jump.’

‘I’ll jump.’

‘Jump!’  Major Danby cried.

Yossarian jumped.  Nately’s whore was hiding just outside the door.  The knife came down missing him by inches, and he took off.

Most humour involves an assault on logic, but you can see how artlessly this writer grabs our attention and doesn’t let go.

Catch 22 is about the efforts of the crews of US bombers in the Mediterranean to remain sane while fighting in the Second World War.  There is a rich treasury of books about madness – like Don Quixote and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and an even bigger treasury of books against war – like The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front – Catch 22 happens to combine the two.

What we have is theatre of the absurd in which farce and tragedy play their parts in very black humour.  Being the Chaplain was not easy with those boys.  Colonel Cathcart – who lives mainly to be celebrated in The Saturday Evening Post – makes a statement that the Chaplain had refused to take part in conducting prayer meetings in the briefing room before each mission.  When an officer relays this allegation to the Chaplain, his response is that Colonel Cathcart gave up the idea himself once he realised enlisted men pray to the same God as officers.  So, the Chaplain is asked if he believes in God.  Of course.  But you told Colonel Cathcart that atheism is not against the law.  It is not.  ‘But that’s still no reason to say so, Chaplain, is it?’  The interview had begun:

Chaplain, I once studied Latin.  I think it’s only fair to warn you of that before I ask my next question.  Doesn’t the word Anabaptist simply mean that you’re not a Baptist?

So, who was the fractious colonel?

Colonel Cathcart was a slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man who lumbered when he walked and who wanted to be a general.  He was dashing and dejected, poised and chagrined.  He was complacent and insecure, daring in the administrative stratagems he employed to bring himself to the attention of his superiors and craven in his concern that his schemes might all backfire.  He was handsome and unattractive, a swashbuckling, beefy conceited man who was putting on fat and was tormented chronically by prolonged seizures of apprehension.

As you may have gathered, his relationship with the Chaplain had got off to a rocky start.  The colonel thought they should have prayers before each mission.  The Saturday Evening Post had a feature of an English colonel doing just that.  In a cut version, the conversation went like this.

‘But don’t give us any of this Kingdom of God or Valley of Death stuff.  That’s too negative’.

‘Save me, O God; for the waters are come into..’

No waters.

‘…there we sat down, yea, we wept..’

No waters.

‘I’m sorry, sir, but just about all the prayers I know are rather sombre in tone and make at least some passing reference to God.’

‘Why can’t we pray for something good like a tighter bomb pattern?’

‘We’ll allocate about a minute and a half…’

‘….it doesn’t include the time necessary to excuse the atheists from the room and admit the enlisted men.’

‘  There are no atheists in my outfit.  Atheism is against the law, isn’t it?’

‘No’

‘Then it’s un-American.’

‘I just assumed you would want the enlisted men to be present, since they would be going along on the same mission.’

‘Well, I don’t.  They’ve got a God and a chaplain of their own, haven’t they?’

‘No, sir.’

‘You mean they pray to the same God we do?

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And He listens?’

‘I think so, sir.’

‘Well, I’ll be damned…..Honestly, now, Chaplain, you wouldn’t want your sister to marry an enlisted man, would you?’

‘My sister is an enlisted man, sir.’

‘Are you trying to be funny?’

‘She’s a master sergeant in the Marines.’

The colonel had never liked the Chaplain and now he loathed and distrusted him.

Groucho Marx and Spike Milligan and Lenny Bruce would relate to this, but this great novel is an enduring reflection on the human condition.  No wonder it took off like a rocket during the Vietnam War and is still going strong after so many more fiascos that have more than a touch of madness about them.

MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 1

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

A FAREWELL TO ARMS

Ernest Hemingway, 1929

Franklin Library, 1929.  Bound in quarter leather, ridged spine, with embossed title and filigree; cloth boards patterned.  Illustrated by Bernard Fuchs.

During the Second World War, British trains carried a message (one that Wittgenstein cited): ‘Is this journey really necessary?’  Try as I might, I find it hard to put this question behind me when reading Hemingway.  He could certainly write; he was a natural; but did he have anything to say that was worth listening to?

A Farewell to Arms is set on the Italian Front during World War I.  An American volunteer ambulance officer falls in love with a British nurse.  In the meantime, we are exposed to the horror and futility of war.  But what does it matter if two outsiders have their ups and downs during war?  The novel draws on many experiences of Hemingway in the war, but we are spared that obsession with manliness that cost so many women so dearly in the course of Hemingway’s life.

The beginning of the novel is often quoted to show the spare style of the author.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.  In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.  Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.  The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

For some, this will be like a mix of Debussy and Auden.

There are passages about the war.

I did not say anything.  I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression in vain.  We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them on the proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory, and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it……Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.  Gino was a patriot, so he said things that separated us, but he was also a fine boy and I understood his being a patriot.  He was born one.

Well, whatever else a patriot might be, you are not born one.  You have to accept moulding and pledge active loyalty and devotion.  The narrator has learned the horrors of war from being involved in one, even if not as a fighting man, and a citizen, and therefore potential patriot, of any of the nations involved.

But less than twenty pages later, we get this from an American volunteer dealing with Italian soldiers – quite possibly conscripts.  They appear to be deserting. The American tenente orders them to come back.  They said he had no authority because he was not their officer.

‘Halt,’ I said.  They kept on down the muddy road, the hedge on the other side.  ‘I order you to halt,’ I called.  They went a little faster.  I opened up my holster, took the pistol, aimed at the one who had talked the most, and fired.  I missed and they both started to run.  I shot three times and dropped one.  The other went through the hedge and was out of sight.  I fired at him through the hedge as he ran across the field.  The pistol clicked empty and I put in another clip.  I saw it was too far to shoot at the second sergeant.  He was far across the field, running, his head held low.  I commenced to reload an empty clip.  Bonello came up.

‘Let me finish him,’ he said. I handed him the pistol and he walked down to where the sergeant of engineers lay face down across the road.  Bonello leaned over, put the pistol against the man’s head and pulled the trigger.  The pistol did not fire.

‘You have to cock it’, I said.  He cocked it and fired twice.  He took hold of the sergeant’s legs and pulled him to the side of the road so he lay beside the hedge.  He came back and handed me the pistol.

‘The son of a bitch,’ he said.

There you have that stern spare style.  ‘I shot three times and dropped one.’  Just as if he were shooting wooden ducks on a conveyor belt at the town fair.

But what has happened here?  An American is there in Italy as a volunteer ambulance man.  He is there to save people, not to kill them.  But he is concerned that soldiers – ‘real soldiers’ – are deserting ‘his’ side.  They are in truth showing a feeling to war that the narrator has just embraced.  He assumes the authority, which is challenged on obvious grounds, to order them to stop, and then he fires at them.

Whatever you might think of this, how do you describe ‘finishing’ the wounded man – who was born to some mother and who may leave a wife and children – as anything other than vicious murder?  Where does that leave the hero and narrator – or the author, who goes on as if nothing had happened out of the ordinary?  Was Himmler or Heydrich so clinical in describing the murders that he participated in?  How many novelists do you know who would be content to leave all this up in the air?

The child of the union is stillborn.

It seems she [Catherine, the nurse and mother] had one haemorrhage after another.  They couldn’t stop it.  I went into the room and stayed with Catherine until she died.  She was unconscious all the time, and it did not take her very long to die.

……

‘It was the only thing to do,’ he [the doctor] said.  ‘The operation proved – ’

‘I don’t want to talk about it’, I said.

‘I would like to take you to your hotel.’

‘No thank you.’

He went down the hall.  I went to the door of the room.

‘You can’t come in now’, one of the nurses said.

‘Yes I can I said’, I said.

‘You can’t come in yet.’

‘You get out’, I said.  ‘The other one too.’

But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good.  It was like saying good-by to a statue.  After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

‘Like saying good-by to a statue’?  Is that all he has to show for the loss of his lover and mother of his child?

Sparseness in writing is one thing; being antiseptic is another; but heartlessness is altogether something different.  It is not then surprising if some readers – including me – are left cold, and fearing that they have just seen a victory of technique over humanity.

Why then is this book here?  This is a lovely and readable edition (even if the illustrations are awful); I have greatly enjoyed parts of this and other books by this author; and the acknowledged contribution of Hemingway to the literature of the twentieth century is such that it would have been churlish to have omitted him from a book such as this.

Here and there – Jude the Obscure

 

Jude Fawley is thoroughly decent.   He also wants to become learned and respected.  But he has doom written all over his face, and much more stridently than had either Romeo or Juliet.  He is at first seduced and then conned into marriage by Arabella Donn.  Arabella is anything but decent.  She is a tart who shoots through.  Jude then falls for his cousin, Sue Bridehead.  There are at least two problems – his marriage to Arabella, and the family relationship.  And Sue.  What is she about?  That is what the book is about.  Throughout my reading of this novel, a song my parents loved, I think sung by Eddie Cantor, kept on resurfacing.

If you knew Susie, like I know Susie,

Oh, Oh, what a gal!

There’s none so classy

As this fair lassie…..

You can see Thomas Hardy as the link between George Eliot and D H Lawrence.  There are also many times when this novel reads like Days of Our Lives.  And toward the end, a mordant slice of Wozzek hits you smack in the face from nowhere.  At times I wondered if the author’s mind was too fast for his pen.  The changes of tempi for the various star-crossed lovers can be very unsettling.  There are times, too, when you think that you may be watching a puppet show predestined by the coolest Calvinist.  Is Jude too innocent and vulnerable?  Is Arabella too predictably devious?  And will the mercurial Sue ever find peace?  And then there are times when the book just sounds alarmingly modern – and worlds way from Dickens

This is the start of Jude’s problems.

That night he went out alone, and walked in the dark self-communing. He knew well, too well, in the secret centre of his brain, that Arabella was not worth a great deal as a specimen of womankind. Yet, such being the custom of the rural districts among honourable young men who had drifted so far into intimacy with a woman as he unfortunately had done, he was ready to abide by what he had said, and take the consequences. For his own soothing he kept up a factitious belief in her. His idea of her was the thing of most consequence, not Arabella herself, he sometimes said laconically.

When Hardy spoke of Sue – and he should have known her – he referred to ‘the elusiveness of her curious double nature.’  She says she loves Jude but she has a hang-up about sex – or men generally.  Consequently, the two ‘lovers’ devote time and love to each other – without getting it off.  If Jude was bloody frustrated, so was I.  Sue was in mortal danger of being branded a teaser, but the strain on our credulity, or patience, can be severe.

You may often think that this was a book just written for Bette Davis – who made all those films that left you wondering why people wanted to torture themselves over ‘love’- with oodles of exclamation marks.

‘Yes… But Sue—my wife, as you are!’ he burst out; ‘my old reproach to you was, after all, a true one. You have never loved me as I love you—never—never! Yours is not a passionate heart—your heart does not burn in a flame! You are, upon the whole, a sort of fay, or sprite—not a woman!’

Jude has a philosophical disposition; in another life he may have been right into bondage.  And not many stonemasons can reel off Aeschylus.

‘Nothing can be done,’ he replied. ‘Things are as they are, and will be brought to their destined issue.’

She paused. ‘Yes! Who said that?’ she asked heavily.

‘It comes in the chorus of the Agamemnon. It has been in my mind continually since this happened.’

‘My poor Jude—how you’ve missed everything!—you more than I, for I did get you! To think you should know that by your unassisted reading, and yet be in poverty and despair!’

After such momentary diversions her grief would return in a wave.

(The ‘this’ is the Wozzek interlude.)

In the Preface, Hardy said that a German reviewer had said that the heroine – Sue Bridehead –

…..was the first delineation in fiction of the woman who was coming into notice in her thousands every year – the woman of the feminist movement – the slight, pale ‘bachelor’ girl – the intellectualized, emancipated bundle of nerves that modern conditions were producing, mainly in cities as yet; who does not recognise the necessity for most of her sex to follow marriage as a profession, and boast themselves as superior people because they are licensed to be loved on the premises.  (Emphasis added.)

The novel came out in 1894 – to uproar – but that absolute blinder of a line was written in 1912:….‘because they are licensed to be loved on the premises.’   That was when women were trying to come out – amid the blood and guts of a fearful partition.  And that I think is why the story of Sue Bridehead is so hard and chancy.  She was some sort of assault pioneer, and that sort of soldier takes heavy casualties.  Coming out, like breaking up, is hard to do.  Had a woman written this book, it may have been called Sue the Obscure.

For all its problems – especially for a bloke in this century – this book is an engrossing read.  And I have a soft spot for it for another reason.  It was the favourite book of the late John Arlott, a cricket commentator whose voice could be recognised instantly across the oceans, and who loved to get very deep with a bottle of red in his hand.

 

 

MY TOP SHELF – 47

MONSIGNOR QUIXOTE

Bodley Head, 1982; rebound in quarter mustard morocco, with gold on mahogany title, and coloured boards.

For how long, he wondered with a kind of fear, was it possible for that love of his to continue?  And to what end?

The late Graham Greene was a fluent and prolific writer who was received into the Catholic Church.  Who better to write a soft, elegiac novel on the strains in the relationship between God and us?

Monsignor Quixote is a tribute to the first novel, Don Quixote, and it comes to us with the throwaway softness of the Eine Kleine Nachtsmusik of Mozart.  Its hero is promoted to Monsignor in ludicrous circumstances.  Like his namesake, he sets out on a quest.  His companion, whom he addresses as Sancho, is a former mayor who is a communist.  Their relationship is as full and touching as that between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Father Quixote is a humble priest in El Toboso near Valencia.  He has a burned out little car, a Seat 600, that he calls Rocinante in memory of the horse of his ancestor.  He does not get on with his bishop, who asks how a priest could be descended from a fictional character.  ‘A character in a novel by an over-rated writer called Cervantes – a novel moreover with many disgusting passages which in the days of the Generalissimo would not even have passed the censor.’  The bishop, of course, has never read the book.  He just started the first chapter and glanced at the last – ‘my usual habit with novels’.  The bishop also takes the view – that we might find unusual in a Spaniard – that ‘men of Father Quixote’s class have no ancestors’.

Our hero was therefore full of trepidation when an Italian bishop pulled up in a flash Mercedes that was refusing to go any further.  But the Bishop of Motopo is very different.  He is offered lunch and ‘an unimportant wine’, and the bishop offers a reply for the ages:  ‘No wine can be regarded as unimportant, my friend, since the marriage of Cana.’  This bishop admires Don Quixote.  When told of the attitude of another bishop, he says:  ‘Holiness and literary appreciation don’t always go together.’

The father fixes the Mercedes – in truth he just puts some petrol in it.  The bishop is both moved and impressed, and the promotion follows later to the disgust of the bishop of the now Monsignor.  As the Italian bishop settles into his revived Mercedes, he says ‘there are no birds this year in last’s year’s nests’.  He confesses that he does not know what the words mean ‘but surely the beauty is enough’.

In his affront at the promotion of his lowly subordinate, the Spanish bishop decides that El Toboso is too small for a Monsignor and sends him out to the world.  And the Monsignor recalls the time when he had diverted an Easter offering to a charity for the poor in prison when the custom had been that the local priest had trousered that portion.  ‘The Bishop had called him a fool – a term which Christ had deprecated.’  Our author is not pulling punches.

The Monsignor and the ex-Mayor set out while swapping stories of traitors – Stalin and Judas.  The Mayor, after vodka, says that the Soviet cosmonauts have beaten the endurance record in space but in all that time they have not encountered a single angel.  Here is a sample of their conversation – this time with Manchegan cheese and wine.

‘A few million dead and Communism is established over nearly half the world.  A small price.  One loses more in any war.’

‘A few hundred dead and Spain remains a Catholic country.  An even smaller price.’

‘So Franco succeeds Torquemada?’

‘And Brezhnev succeeds Stalin?’

‘Well, father, we can at least agree with this: that small men seem always to succeed the great and perhaps the small men are easier to live with.’

‘I’m glad you recognise greatness in Torquemada.’

They laughed and drank and were happy under the broken wall while the sun sank and the shadows lengthened, until without noticing it they sat in darkness and the heat came mainly from within.

Again:

‘Then why not call me comrade – I prefer it to Sancho.’

‘In recent history, Sancho, too many comrades have been killed by comrades.  I don’t mind calling you friend.  Friends are less apt to kill each other.’

We remember that Don Quixote is set around conversations between its two leads.  When our latterday pair arrives at Madrid, the Monsignor declines staying at the Palace Hotel to the disgust of the Mayor who then takes the Monsignor to the ecclesiastical tailors to get his purple socks.

His heart sank as he took in the elegance of the shop and the dark well-pressed suit of the assistant who greeted them with the distant courtesy of a church authority.  It occurred to Father Quixote that such a man was almost certainly a member of Opus Dei – that club of intellectual Catholic activists whom he could not fault and yet whom he could not trust.  He was a countryman, and they belonged to the great cities.

The svelte assistant offers cotton socks and the Monsignor says that he wears wool.  The assistant regards the two shoppers with ‘deepening suspicion’.  As they leave, the Monsignor says to the Mayor that the assistant was probably with Opus Dei and the Mayor says, ‘They probably own the shop’.

The two of them ‘killed’ two bottles of wine over lunch, and the Mayor recalled a discussion with Father Herrera who has been installed in his place, and who gets on with the bishop and who is looking to shaft the Monsignor.  Father Herrera had expressed a preference for the Gospel of St. Matthew.  It has, apparently, fifteen references to Hell.   The Monsignor says that ‘To govern by fear … surely God can leave that to Stalin or Hitler.  I believe in the virtue of courage.  I don’t believe in the virtue of cowardice’.  Sensing a kill for heresy, Father Herrera asks the Monsignor whether he questions the existence of Hell.

‘I believe from obedience, but not with the heart.’

The discussions of religious faith and political faith run deep.

‘We can’t always believe.  Just having faith, like you have, Sancho.  O, Sancho, Sancho, it’s an awful thing not to have doubts.  Suppose all Marx wrote was proved to be absolute truth and Lenin’s works too.’

Again:

‘And now you have a complete belief, don’t you?  In the prophet Marx.  You don’t have to think for yourself anymore.  Isaiah has spoken.  You are in the hands of future history.  How happy you must be with your complete belief.  There is only one thing you will ever lack – the dignity of despair.’

Father Quixote spoke with an unaccustomed anger – or was it, he wondered, envy?

The Mayor leaves the Monsignor in ignorance to settle into a brothel for the night:

‘It’s really very wrong of me to laugh.  But I just thought:  what would the Bishop say if he knew?  A Monsignor in a brothel.  Well, why not? Christ mixed with publicans and sinners.  All the same, I think I’d better go upstairs and lock my door.  But be prudent, dear Sancho, be prudent.’

‘Where are you going, Father?’

‘Off to read myself to sleep with your prophet Marx.  I wish I could say goodnight to you, Sancho, but I doubt whether yours will be what I would call a good night.’

They had encounters with the Guardia as well as the hierarchy of the Church.  The Bishop has to confront the Monsignor with his scandalous misdeeds, such as being seen at a house of blue movies.

‘Stay where you are Monsignor’, the Bishop said.  (He rolled out the title Monsignor with an obvious bitterness.)  He took from his sleeve a white silk handkerchief and dusted the chair beside the bed, looked carefully at the handkerchief to see how far it might have been soiled, lowered himself into the chair and put his hand on the sheet.  But as Father Quixote was not in a position in which he could genuflect he thought it was permissible to leave out the kiss and the Bishop, after a brief pause, withdrew his hand.  Then the Bishop pursed his lips and following a moment’s reflection blew out the monosyllable:  ‘Well.’

Father Herrera was standing in the doorway like a bodyguard ….’

The Bishop says that ‘the Church always struggles to keep above politics’ but confirms that the shop assistant in Madrid was with Opus Dei.  But when the Monsignor says that Marx had defended the Church, the Bishop leaves in disgust saying that ‘I cannot sit here any longer and listen to the ravings of a sick mind’.

There is another exchange between the Mayor and the Monsignor on faith and doubt.

‘We quoted Marx and Lenin to one another like passwords to prove we could be trusted.  And we never spoke of the doubts which came to us on sleepless nights.  I was drawn to you because I thought you were a man without doubts.  I was drawn to you, I suppose, in a way by envy.’

‘How wrong you were, Sancho.  I am riddled by doubts.  I am sure of nothing, not even the existence of God, but doubt is not treachery as you communists seem to think.  Doubt is human.’

Their last adventure involves Mexicans who are fleecing the flock.  They carry out a plaster cast of Our Lady for the poor people to pin money to.

Father Quixote gazed up at the crowned head and the glassy eyes which were like those of a woman dead and neglected – no one had bothered even to lower her lids.  He thought:  Was it for this she saw her son die in agony?  To collect money?  To make a priest rich?

The Monsignor does not doubt that this is blasphemy:

‘Put down Our Lady.  How dare you’, he told the priest, ‘clothe her like that in money?  It would be better to carry her through the streets naked’

He starts ripping notes off and there is a fight and then a riot such as may have followed when another holy agitator evicted the money men from the temple.  The Mayor says, rather unhelpfully, that ‘You can’t start a revolution without bloodshed’.  (Earlier he had said that the ‘Trappists are the Stalinists of the Church’.)

The Monsignor is hurt and they seek sanctuary with the Trappists.  At the small monastery there is a Professor Pilbeam who comes from Notre Dame University in the US.  The Professor specialises in Descartes, who said that the mind is very separate from the body.  This turning point in European thought comes up just as we are getting ready for the soul of the Monsignor to leave his body.  But the Professor is only a nominal Catholic for whom Cervantes is ‘too fanciful for my taste’.

As our Don Quixote moves towards his end, he calls for Mambrino’s helmet and he says to the Mayor:  ‘I don’t offer you a governorship, Sancho.  I offer you a kingdom – Come with me and you will find the Kingdom.’  He recalls saying, as if in a dream, ‘Bugger the Bishop’.  ‘Et introibo ad altare.’  The Monsignor raises an invisible Host and says to Sancho:  ‘Companero, you must kneel Companero.’

Suffused in benevolence, the novel ends this way:

The Mayor didn’t speak again before they reached Orense; an idea quite strange to him had lodged in his brain.  Why is it that the hate of a man – even of a man like Franco – dies with his death, and yet love, the love which he had begun to feel for Father Quixote, seemed now to live and grow in spite of the final separation and the final silence – for how long, he wondered with a kind of fear, was it possible for that love of his to continue?  And to what end?

This all comes down to us apparently effortlessly, the work of a very refined mind and of a very gifted writer, a lilting and humane meditation on the place of doubt and faith in politics and religion, but more importantly on the place of friendship here on earth.

The novel is also a salute by an English writer to the place that Don Quixote holds in the life of Spain.  No other novel – not even War and Peace or Ulysses – stands so high in shaping the life of the nation that gave birth to its author.  Only the Iliad and Ulysses of Homer have reached so high.  But like all of the great works, this little novel is universal in its appeal.  There are very few books that end with a tear and a smile vying for eminence on the face of the reader.

MY TOP SHELF -44 ABSALOM, ABSALOM!

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

ABSALOM! ABSALOM!

The Southern Classics Library, 1978; fully bound in brown morocco, with gold inscriptions, raised spine, marbled endpapers, and silk ribbon.

-You are my brother.

-No I’m not.  I’m the nigger that’s going to sleep with your sister.  Unless you stop me, Henry.

There is something spare, dark and elemental about the great novels of William Faulkner, and Absalom, Absalom! is a masterpiece of a novel.  It is a novel told through voices built up like a Bach fugue, but at its heart is a Greek tragedy – a house subject to a curse that runs through the generations until a kind of moral equilibrium obtains, and it’s time for a new cycle.  Faulkner may have shared the human failings of Fitzgerald and Hemingway – for both booze and skirt – but for me his offerings are so much more substantial.  Ask not who the more clever writer was, but who had the deeper insight into the human condition.  Absalom, Absalom! was written by man from the Deep South – Oxford, Mississippi – but it is not just about the South or, for that matter, the American Dream – it is about us, all of us.  That is what makes it a truly great novel, a work of very high art.

William Faulkner was raised in Mississippi.  He started writing as a poet and wrote short stories throughout his career.  He had a lifelong battle with the bottle.  He may also have lost count of his affairs.  He also wrote for the screen.  When he first went to MGM – a contract worth $500 a week in 1932 – he told them that he wanted to do either Mickey Mouse or newsreels, ‘the only movies I like’.  He worked with Bogart and Bacall on The Big Sleep.  He once had a long discussion with Howard Hawks and Clark Gable about literature.  Gable asked him to nominate the kind of writing that Gable might read if he wanted to become literary.  When Faulkner responded, Gable asked him if he was a writer.  Faulkner replied that he was, and asked Gable what he did for a living.  His best known novels include The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Sanctuary and Go Down Moses.  Greek tragedy recurs throughout his work which is frequently described as either Gothic or apocalyptic.

The story of Absalom, Absalom! is told through different voices, in a narrative more layered than those of Conrad, and people and events are seen in different lights, and through different prisms.  It can be very difficult to follow, and you should make full use of the chronology at the back.  But the fugal structure is essential to reflect our partial and fragmentary understanding of our past and our condition.  The plot unfolds through three extended conversations.  The differences in the recall of the narrators, and their perspectives, give you a sense of walking around the main characters and events.  You reach the story in the same way that you peel an onion.  To quote our management speak, the reader gets to take ownership of the problems.  In reading the book we seem to participate in its construction.  We become part of the story, although the process of reading it is both hard and wearing.

This is the first sentence.

From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father called it that – a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being  flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.

Miss Coldfield sat there –

Sitting so bolt upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation invoked, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust.

Writing like that is not taught – it only comes from someone who has insight and the gift to express it – and the courage to keep going.

This version of the American dream starts in the Appalachians where people were equal, and noone looked down on anyone, except the Indians, and ‘you only looked down at them over your rifle sights.’  It was different in the Tidewater.  People were measured by their skin colour and their land.  As a young man, the hero, Thomas Sutpen, goes up to a big white house with a message from his lowly father, and he is turned away from the front door by a black butler.  He goes to Haiti to make his fortune, but colour gets in the way even there.  He returns to carve out his revenge on this slight to his manhood.  He is innocent in the sense that Oedipus is innocent – he does not know what fate awaits him.  With ‘innocence instructing him’ he resolves that ‘you got to have land and niggers and a fine house to combat them with.’  He strikes into the jungle like an Old Testament prophet in a tale told with language to match that scars the page as Thomas Sutpen wounds the earth.

Out of the quiet thunder-clap he would abrupt (man-horse-demon) upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a school-prize water color, faint suphur-reek still kin hair clothes and beard, with grouped behind him his band of wild niggers like beasts and half-tamed to walk upright like men, in attitudes wild and reposed, and manacled among them the French architect, with his hair grim, ragged, and tatter-ran.  Immobile, bearded and hand-palm lifted the horseman sat; behind him the wild blacks and the captive architect huddled quietly, carrying in bloodless paradox the shovels and picks and axes of peaceful conquest.  Then in the long unamaze Quentin seemed to watch them overrun suddenly the hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth and drag house and  formal garden violently out of the soundless Nothing and clap them down like cards upon a table beneath the up-palm mobile and pontific, creating the Sutpen’s hundred…

This attempt to forge a mighty dynasty involves, almost by definition, what the Greeks called hubris, and the unfolding of the curse that Greek tragedy, in the form of nemesis, puts on the House of Sutpen is what the novel is about.  You can gauge just how lethal and Greek that curse was from the Freudian inscription at the head of this note.  The rise and fall of the House of Sutpen might be thought to mirror the rise and fall of the Old South itself.  At the end, the final narrator is sitting in the ‘cold air, the iron New England dark’, and he is asked why he hates the South.  The book ends with these words: ‘I don’t.  I don’t!  I don’t hate it!  I don’t hate it!

The hero has no room for God.  He has no room for women either. One item that is missing from the novel is a contented woman.  The function of a woman in this patriarchy is to produce a male heir.  That way Sutpen can cheat God if not death.  The Haitian wife is discarded because her disclosed colour took her out of the design.  Once Ellen has produced the heir, she flits around like a useless butterfly and expires after being cheated of being at her daughter’s wedding ‘at the absolute flood-peak of her unreal and weightless life’.  The mother of Clytie does not even get a name.  Rosa is offered marriage conditional on producing an heir.  Milly Jones is treated as being worth less than a horse.  At least Clytie gets to burn down the mansion and the son who would have been the heir as she incinerates herself.

The contempt for humanity does not therefore stop at negroes and Indians.  This is how the three castes of women are described:

… the virgins whom gentlemen some day marry, the courtesans to whom they went while on sabbaticals to the cities, the slave girls and women upon whom the first caste rested and to whom in certain cases it doubtless owed the very fact of its virginity – not this to Henry, strong blooded, victim of the hard celibacy of riding and hunting to heat and make importunate the blood of a young man, to which he and his kind were forced to pass time away, with girls of his own class interdict and inaccessible and women of the second class just as inaccessible because of money and distance, and hence only the slave girls, the housemaids neated and cleaned by white mistresses or perhaps girls with sweating bodies out of the fields themselves and the young man rides up and beckons the watching overseer and says ‘Send me Juno or Missylena or Chlory’ and then rides on into the trees and dismounts and waits.

So, the world of Sutpen is one of stolen people, stolen land, and abused people.  He knows it is a jungle.  He has taught himself to put a bullet through a playing card while cantering on his horse twenty yards away.  That keeps the whites at bay.  He wrestles with the ‘niggers’ to show that he is boss. Presumably he tumbles a nigger occasionally for practice – they, like the courtesans, are the guardians of white female purity.

Here is the doomed pride of the hero.

‘You see, I had a design in my mind.  Whether it was a good or a bad design is beside the point; the question is, Where did I make the mistake in it, what did I do or misdo in it, whom or what injure by it to the extent that this would indicate….

The mistake of the hero in the design was to think that he could impose it and himself on the world.  White freedom meant black subjection, and Sutpen brings with him his own caste system, and he is haunted by crossings of the boundary in his past.  All that talk by Jefferson about all men being equal was phoney.

In Light in August, Faulkner boasted that he had created a Nazi before Hitler did.  In her fine book on this author, Carolyn Porter said that ‘Light in August is an angry novel, angry at the people who succumb to the comforts of hatred and the titillations of violence’  The author is ‘so infuriated at the spiritual poverty informing the hunger for violence at the heart of the society he is portraying.’  Well, our novel is at a different, and possibly deeper, level.

The hero of Absalom, Absalom! brought his doom upon himself by trying to play God, and in the end, all that is left is an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

William Faulkner was as elemental in his reading as he was in his writing.  He took with him wherever he went a one volume Shakespeare and he read Don Quixote once a year.  Absalom, Absalom! is a great big bloody red diamond of a book.

At the end of King Lear, these lines occur:

……we that are young

Shall never see so much nor live so long.

At the end of this great novel, one of the narrator’s, Quentin Thompson, says ‘I am older at twenty than a lot of people who have died.’

 

MY TOP SHELF – 43 – The Leopard

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

THE LEOPARD

Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Folio Society, 2000; bound in red cloth with red slipcase; translated by A Colquhoun; illustrated by John Holder.

But I’ve still got my vigour; and how can I find satisfaction with a woman who makes the sign of the Cross in bed before every embrace and then at the critical moment just cries ‘Gesummaria’?

This beautiful little book was written by a Sicilian prince about a Sicilian prince who had to come to terms with a failure by God, a failure by his wife, and the end of his caste.  It is a beautifully elegiac period piece about old Sicily and the impact on it of Garibaldi.  It is a free standing masterpiece.  It owes nothing to Joyce or Proust.  It is at once plain but eerily nostalgic.  Like the Kesey novel, a great book led to a great film.  It starts this way.

‘Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.  Amen.’

The daily recital of the Rosary was over.  For half an hour the steady voice of the Prince had recalled the Sorrowful and the Glorious mysteries; for half an hour other voices had interwoven a lilting hum from which, now and again, would chime some unlikely word; love, virginity, death; and during that hum the whole aspect of the rococo drawing-room seemed to change; even the parrots spreading iridescent wings over the silken walls appeared abashed; even the Magdalen between the two windows looked a penitent and not just a handsome blonde lost in some dubious daydream as she usually was.

That evening, Prince Fabrizio would call on his favourite courtesan, for reasons suggested in the citation, and take the family priest, a Jesuit, into town to accompany him.

A protégé of the Prince falls in; love with the daughter of a very vulgar new man on the make, and they will marry and fuse the classes.  In the wonderful Visconti film, Burt Lancaster plays the prince; Alain Delon the young lover; and Claudia Cardinale his wife to be.  There are great set pieces in the book and the film.  There is the visit to the country estate of the prince, and a mansion so vast that people get lost.  There is the hunting sequence where the prince unburdens himself to one of his men – and then, in a reversion to feudalism, locks him up to prevent his revealing a secret.  There is the ball and a supper.  The film does not treat of the very moving two last chapters.

The author’s princely house had gone broke in two generations.  The aristocrats elsewhere had been more roughly handled a lot sooner.  Lampedusa never left his house without his copy of Shakespeare in his bag.  He kept The Pickwick Papers with him to comfort him on sleepless nights.  He regarded The Charterhouse of Parma of Stendhal as ‘the summit of all world fiction.’

Here is another more or less random sample of the soft and lovely tone of this book.

He got up and passed into the dressing room.  From the Mother Church next door rang a lugubrious funeral knell.  Someone had died at Donnafugata, some tired body unable to withstand the deep gloom of Sicilian summer had lacked stamina to await the rains.  ‘Lucky person’ thought the Prince, as he rubbed lotion on his whiskers.  ‘Lucky person, with no worries now about daughters, dowries, and political careers.’  This ephemeral identification with an unknown corpse was enough to calm him.  ‘While there’s death there’s hope,’ he thought, and then he saw the absurd side of letting himself get into such a state of depression because one of his daughters wanted to marry.  ‘Ce sont leurs affaires, après tout’, he thought in French, as he did when his cogitations persisted in playing pranks.  He settled in an armchair and dropped into a doze.

The book caused a sensation in Sicily when it was published not long after the death of the author in 1957.  A Cardinal of Palermo thought that it was one of the three factors that had led to the dishonour of Sicily – the other two were the Mafia and a social reformer.  I suspect that the author would have sympathised with the German scholar who said that the Sicilians had perfected the Counter-reformation – the problem was just that they had never experienced the Reformation.

E M Forster called The Leopard ‘a noble book’.  He said that it was not an historical novel, but ‘a novel which happens to take place in history.’  It does in truth deal with issues we all face, and it does so in a way that is almost musical or painterly.  Like the movie, it is something I can and should enjoy at least once a year.

 

MY TOP SHELF – 38 – War and Peace

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

38

WAR AND PEACE

Lev Tolstoy

 

London, Macmillan & Co Ltd, Oxford University Press, 1943; subsequently recovered in half morocco in red with gold title and humps on spine, and cloth boards.

You die and find it all out or you cease asking

With a phrase unusually pregnant with meaning even for Shakespeare, a character in Measure for Measure is described as ‘desperately mortal’.  The characters of War and Peace come down to us in the same way – but, more: somehow they come to us as desperately human.  This novel of about 1,300 pages has two leading characters, but most of the action comes from three Russian families.  Although we are occasionally let in on the French side, and Napoleon himself has a substantial role, this is a Russian novel where the author refers to the Russians as ‘we’.

The three families of Russians are aristocrats.  We meet one peasant at the end, but no merchants or professionals.  When it comes to leading or expounding a point of view, we hear only from the men.  We are therefore looking only at a tiny part of the Russian nation, perhaps not one in a thousand.  Tolstoy was a Russian count and most of this novel is about Russian counts (or countesses) or better.  To adopt an observation of another author, the second title of this book may have been: ‘All aristocrats are spoiled; some are more spoiled than others’.  But for all that we see a pageant of all humanity unfurling before our eyes in a way that may only ever have been matched in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire of Edward Gibbon.

Count Pierre Bezuhov is the central figure in the novel.  He moves among the three families and across the lines of the two armies.  In many ways he is like a one-man Greek chorus.  He was the illegitimate child of an old rake who was legitimated at the very end so that he could inherit a very wealthy estate.  That is how the novel begins.  Pierre was not raised in or for the purple.  He is gauche, but acute of mind; he cares little about the social niceties that everyone else cares very greatly about; and you might say the same about money.  He has a very simple faith, but for most of the novel he lives under the impression that he can by the power of his mind arrive at the answers to life’s questions.  His quest for such an answer is at the base of the novel.

Pierre, like Prince Andrey, talks a lot to himself.  These speeches are their soliloquies.  In the BBC production, they are voice-overs.  They are as integral to the novel as the soliloquies are to Hamlet.

Let us refer to some of the problems of the novel.  Tolstoy the writer had a lot of form for going on at length about what would then have been called ‘philosophical’ issues.  In this novel he goes on a lot about the determining factors of military movements.  Most of this seems to be undertaken with a view to belittling Napoleon.  The fashion one hundred years ago for engaging in this kind of ‘philosophising’ was much more in favour then than it would be now.  Most of this kind of talk will be likely to bore people now, and readers are advised to skip through it.  Flaubert complained to Turgenev about the essays of Tolstoy: ‘He repeats himself!  He philosophises!’  That hectoring tone has crept into the novel.

There is perhaps something of a similar problem with Natasha.  She tends to be altogether too gushing for modern tastes (as might Anya be in The Cherry Orchard).  But we do need to remember that she does start off as a closeted fifteen year old child who is expected, at least in some respects, to play the part of an adult.  The novel also has some of the attributes of 19th century novels, like two bad guys who are really just caricatures of bounders or cads, and a liking for coincidence.

For all that, the novel in spite of its length is extremely readable.  It does not have anything like the boring excursions that you come across in Les Misérables, or Moby Dick, or that some even find in Don Quixote.  With a modicum of application, the ordinary reader should not have much difficulty in completing reading this book in, say, a fortnight.  When they have done so, they will know that they have read what many people in the world regard as the greatest novel ever written.

Let us remember that we are dealing with a world that is completely beyond our comprehension.  The Tsar had absolute power.  The Russian people had no history of trying to contain that power.  The doctrine of the divine right of kings was well and truly alive and well.  It follows that they were still living with serfs, or white slaves.  Serfs could be worth less than dogs.  In the course of a hunt, Nikolay Rostov enquired after a black and tan bitch owned by another hunter.  The hunter said he had acquired the bitch a year before for three families of house serfs.

So, the world of Russia then – during the wars against Napoleon – is utterly unlike any world that we have known.  The Russian aristocracy was trying to ape European civilisation, and particularly that of France, by speaking French, but in many ways their customs will seem as comprehensible to us as the customs of the blackfellas that were practised in this country one or two thousand years before the white people arrived here.  To make the comparison more local, Russia in 1812 had much more in common with Persia than with France or Germany.

The book has set pieces dealing with both war and peace: the two major battles of Austerlitz and Borodino are covered in great detail; there are two famous ballroom scenes; a scene at the opera; an extended account of a wolf hunt; and, for action between war and peace, a duel.

At times, the commentary has an El Greco lightning-strike scale of illumination.  While Moscow was waiting for the French, the population descended to animal lawlessness with scenes like those in Paris at the height of the terror.  In one of them, Tolstoy reflects unmistakably on the Passion.  The Governor of Moscow, Count Rastoptchin, hands one suspected traitor over the mob.  ‘You shall deal with him as you think fit!  I hand him over to you!’  The resulting massacre is bestial, and resembles in part the September Massacres in Paris twenty or so years before.  As the Governor goes home in his carriage, an asylum spills out its lunatics:

Tottering on his long, thin legs, in his fluttering dressing-gown, this madman ran at headlong speed, with his eyes fixed on Rastoptchin, shouting something to him in a husky voice, and making signs to him to stop.  The gloomy and triumphant face of the madman was thin and yellow, with irregular clumps of beard growing on it.  The black agate-like pupils of his eyes moved restlessly, showing the saffron-yellow whites above.  ‘Stay!  Stop, I tell you!’ he shouted shrilly, and again breathlessly fell to shouting something with emphatic gestures and intonations. 

He reached the carriage and ran alongside it.

‘Three times they slew me; three times I rose again from the dead.  They stoned me, they crucified me  …  I shall rise again  …  I shall rise again  … I shall rise again.  My body they tore to pieces.  The Kingdom of Heaven will be overthrown  …  Three times I will overthrow it, and three times I will set it up again’, he screamed, his voice growing shriller and shriller.  Count Rastoptchin suddenly turned white, as he had turned white when the crowd fell upon [the victim of the mob].  He turned away.  ‘Go, go on, faster!’ he cried in a trembling voice to his coachman.

We read novels for the insight we get from writing like that, not to read tracts about theology or politics.

War?  No sane person writes a book about war that is pro-war.  Sane books about war are anti-war.  Homer began the tradition with the Iliad and War and Peace is its apogee.  The novel is an attack on everything that Napoleon stood for – his doctrinaire aggression and his doctrine that one man – a hero – can create history.  Here is the most polite thing that Tolstoy ever said about Napoleon:

A man of no convictions, no habits, no traditions, no name, not even a Frenchman, by the strangest freaks of chance, as it seems, rises above the seething parties of France, and without attaching himself to any one of them, advances to a prominent position.

Bulky, slow, modest, determined, devout, one-eyed old Kutuzov is the real hero of the novel.  Kutuzov has God, but he is down to earth.  He is not into theory or even strategy.  On the eve of Austerlitz, Kutuzov addresses his staff:

‘Gentlemen, the dispositions of tomorrow, for today indeed (for it’s going on for one o’clock), can’t be altered now’, he said.  ‘You have heard it, and we will all do our duty.  And before a battle nothing is of so much importance …’ (he paused) ‘as a good night’s rest.’

We may be confident that Kutuzov had the view of the impossibility of military science that Tolstoy attributed to Prince Andrey.  ‘How can there be a science of war in which, as in every practical matter, nothing can be definite, and everything depends on countless conditions, the influence of which becomes manifest all in a moment, and no one can know when that moment is coming.’

This plain view of soldiering is like the view that Pierre came to hold over our understanding of what matters most.  It is attained not ‘by reason, but by life’.  That view in turn is very much like the view of the great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes when he said that ‘the life of the law has not been logic but experience’.  General Kutuzov was no theorist.

Above all, Kutuzov looked after his men.  This wise old soldier knew that the geography and climate could see Napoleon off (just as they would see Hitler off).  Why spill Russian blood for the sake of it to supplement the work of God?  A commander of the German school wanted Kutuzov to take a stand at Moscow.  This is how the good old man dealt with the bullshit.

‘The holy and ancient capital of Russia!’ he cried, suddenly, in a wrathful voice, repeating Bennigsen’s words, and thereby underlining the false note in them, ‘Allow me to tell your Excellency that that question has no meaning to a Russian.’  (He lurched his unwieldy figure forward.)  ‘Such a question cannot be put; there is no sense in such a question.  The question I have asked these gentlemen to meet to discuss is the question of the war. The question is: the safety of Russia lies in her army.  Is it better to risk the loss of the army and of Moscow by giving battle, or to abandon Moscow without a battle?  That is the question on which I desire to learn your opinion.’  He lurched back into his low chair again.

The role of Kutusov should be studied by all those commanders who believe that they have the brains and the toys that take them beyond the reach of the eternal verities.  Kutusov was a supremely good, lovable hero.  Accordingly, to show the gratitude of Mother Russia, he was in victory stripped of his command by an inbred fop who could not have fought his way out of a wet paper bag.  This is irony.  It may not be irony of the tragic kind, but Tolstoy revels in it, as well he may, and he lays it on with a trowel.

Prince Andrey was hardened by the battle of Austerlitz where he was badly wounded.  On the eve of the battle of Borodino, Prince Andrey has a remarkable conversation with Count Pierre.  Sporting coaches might wish to commit parts of it to memory.

‘But you know they say’, he said, ‘that war is like a game of chess.’

‘Yes’, said Prince Andrey, ‘only with this little difference, that in chess you may think over each move as long as you please, that you are not limited as to time, and with the spirited difference that a knight is always stronger than a pawn and two pawns are always stronger than one, while in war a battalion is sometimes stronger than a division, and sometimes weaker than a company.  No one can ever be certain of the relative strength of armies.  Believe me’, he said, ‘if anything did depend on the arrangements made by the staff, I would be there, and helping to make them, but instead of that I have the honour of serving here in the regiment with these gentlemen here, and I consider that the day really depends upon us tomorrow and not on them…  Success never has depended, and never will depend on position, on arms, nor even numbers; and, least of all, on position’.

‘On what then?’

‘On the feeling that is in me and him’, he indicated Timohin [his Major] ‘and every soldier.’

Prince Andrey glanced at Timohin, who was staring in alarm and bewilderment at his Colonel….‘The battle is won by the side that has firmly resolved to win …’

What counts is the feeling that is in me and in him.

Two other comments on the war.  When standing outside Moscow – this ‘Asiatic city’ – Napoleon observed that ‘a city occupied by the enemy is like a girl who has lost her honour.’  As the French soldiers dispersed in the city, they went from being an active menacing army to being marauders.  If Mr Bush and Mr Blair had taken notice of these two simple truths before sending their armies into Baghdad, they may have saved their armies a lot of lives, and themselves a lot of embarrassment.  Nor did Napoleon pause to explain why he was surprised that he was not welcomed in Moscow – it is, after all, rare for a girl to welcome the man who has just raped her.

Prince Andrey sure knew how to unsettle his friend Count Pierre.  When, near the end, Pierre asked one of his old retainers if he still wanted freedom, the answer was in substance: ‘What on earth for?’  But the answer of course would have been different if the question had been put by old Prince Vassily Bolkonsky.  Tolstoy, too, was an abiding liberal.  He could afford to be having been born a Count into a family of 800 serfs.

Well, what then of Pierre and his quest for the one logical answer to all of life’s mysteries?  Pierre had formed a view that he should kill Napoleon.  He did not reach that position in the way that Dietrich Bonhoeffer did when he resolved to try to kill Adolf Hitler.  Pierre had devised some bizarre formula in a naïve belief that there must be a given logical or even mathematical answer.  He eventually came to rest with the simple view that God is everywhere and that we must take life as it comes.

In accordance with the text, Pierre learns his lesson not from logic but from life.  Ostensibly it comes to him in talking with a peasant, Platon Karataev, but the truth is that it comes to him during his imprisonment.  Over a period of time, he actually gets to live with the unwashed.  It would be like someone brought up in the landed aristocracy in England and kept on the estate or at an elite boarding school and then being dumped in the ranks in the navy.  You may as well land him on Mars.

In the course of his journey, Pierre delivered himself of an observation which for many is their favourite part in the book.  ‘You die and it’s all over.  You die and find it all out or you cease asking.’  Pierre thought that this proposition was illogical, but it appears to us to be spellbindingly logical, one of the very few propositions about the afterlife that is sane, sensible and apparently logical.  If you combine with it the insight of the ancient Greeks that you do not live to see your own death, you have the basis of a tolerant view of the meaning of life, or at least one that suggests that we should be tolerant of the views of others.  Bravo, therefore, Pierre!

Kutuzov was the hero of the Russians’ defeat of Napoleon.  Zhukov, greatly admired by Eisenhower, was the hero of the Russians’ defeat of Hitler.  At the end of that war, which the Russians refer to the Great Patriotic War, Zhukov was stripped of his position as commander-in-chief.  The man responsible was called Stalin.  He had more power than any of the Tsars had and Stalin killed more peasants than any Tsar did.  Millions more.

If you go to Moscow now, you will see why they refer to the Great Patriotic War.  On the way in from the airport, there is a monument to ‘where we stopped the fascists.’  It is not far from the Kremlin.  If you visit the Kremlin you may get a guide who will say, without mentioning any names – ‘That is the gate he came in on’ and ‘That is the gate he went out of.’

I want to end this note on this wonderful book by looking at one of its more famous incidents, one so faithfully shown in the BBC series.  It is in Book 12 Chapter 3.  Napoleon’s army is occupying Moscow.  It is executing Russian trouble-makers.  A group is marched to a field.  Pierre hears officers talking of whether the prisoners would be shot separately or two at a time.  Pierre listens and watches in horror as the prisoner are shot in pairs.  ‘On the faces of all the Russians, and of the French soldiers without exception, he read the same dismay, horror and conflict that were in his own heart….The fifth man was the factory lad in the loose cloak.  The moment they laid hands on him, he sprang aside in terror and clutched at Pierre.  (Pierre shuddered and shook himself free).  The lad was unable to walk….When he understood that screaming was useless, he took his stand at the post….and like a wounded animal looked around him with glittering eyes.’  He was not dead when he went into the pit.  A French sharpshooter lingered over it.  ‘This one, a young soldier, his face deadly pale, his shako pushed back, and his musket resting on the ground, still stood near the pit at the spot from which he had fired.  He swayed a like a drunken man, taking steps forward and back to save himself from falling’  An old NCO dragged the soldier off.  The crowd dispersed. ‘That will teach them to start fires,’ said one of the Frenchmen.’

I said that I would come back to the way that the German occupying army shot the French historian Marc Bloch during World War II.  According to the very complete biography of Bloch by Carole Fink, on the night of 16 June 1944, at about 8 o’clock, 28 prisoners of Montluc at Lyon were assembled from various cells and hand-cuffed two-by-two in an open truck that was escorted by German officers and subofficers with aimed tommy guns.  They went to the Place Bellecour which was then the Gestapo HQ.  They were there insulted by a drunken German officer who bragged that London would be destroyed by the V-1.  They then drove along the Saone to a meadow surrounded by trees at a place called La Rousille.  They were then unloaded in batches of two-by-two and shot at close range by uniformed soldiers with machine guns.  A survivor said that Bloch at the last moment comforted a frightened young man by telling him that the bullets would not hurt.  Bloch was reported to be the first victim to fall.  As he did, he cried ‘Vive la France!’

According to Carole Fink, there were two main differences in the executions imagined by Tolstoy and those recorded in history.  The Germans circulated and delivered the final fatal shots to the head, but they did not bury the evidence – they just destroyed the evidence of identity, and hurried off.  Tolstoy had said: ‘They all plainly and certainly knew that they were criminals who must hide the traces of their guilt as quickly as possible.’  Tolstoy could say that of his murderers because he was their creator.  We do not know what was in the minds of the German murderers because we are not God.

As it seems to me, we have in Tolstoy a writer with a genius for artistic imagination and an insight into the human condition that we do not expect to see outside of God.