Your Blog Post Might Change The World Yet

The SwerveIt’s been an appropriate time to be reading about the way that war and religion – and especially religious wars – have caused more trouble to mankind than just about anything else. In Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer-prize-winning book, The Swerve, he trots us through a couple of millenium of human history in which two very generalized modes of human existence – one based on civilized, intellectual pleasures, one based on the interplay of power and suffering – have come into conflict with each other over and over again. It’s a shame that the gospel doesn’t suggest it’s the geeks that will inherit the earth, as the historical evidence in this book proposes that we’d all be better for it.

The specific focus of the story is one book-hunter, Poggio Bracciolini, who in the winter of 1417 made a spectacular discovery in a German monastery. Looking for lost texts from the classical world, he found a copy of Lucretius’s De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) a book that had been written some fourteen hundred and fifty years earlier. This book was a doozy; it suggested that the universe was not created by the gods, but was constructed from infinitely small particles, that moved about, collided, came apart again. Everything in the world was the result of a swerve, in which one atom swerved into and combined with another, and this in a process of ceaseless, dynamic movement. That swerve ‘is the source of free will’ because it is random and not predetermined, and it also means that the world was not created especially for human beings – it just happened. And so, if all organised religions are just delusions, as Lucretius’s vision argued, and when we die there is no afterlife, then it’s pretty pointless to organise life around our fears of divine judgement. The essential point of existence was to increase pleasure and avoid pain. Lucretius was profoundly influenced by Epicurus, who advocated for a life of simple, immediate pleasures, and not as later discrediting critics argued, for mindless hedonism.

This was dangerously heretical stuff to be broadcast in the fifteenth century. But Poggio was one of the breed of ‘humanists’ who loved and revered the classical world, and who adored books – they were his comfort and his escape from a life that was constantly threatened and full of conflict. Because of his gorgeous handwriting skills, Poggio had risen to the grand position of the pope’s apostolic secretary. It was a good job but a difficult life in a papal court that was riven with corruption. Poggio’s boss, Baldassare Cossa (John XXIII) came from a family whose business was piracy, and that pretty much tells you all you need to know about him. Except, maybe, that at the time Poggio worked for him, there were three Popes knocking about Europe, all claiming to be the real one. (And Cossa had already poisoned a fourth.) Well, this situation was eventually resolved by a huge meeting of the authorities in Constance, Switzerland, to which all the popes (reluctantly) came. The aim was to settle on one pope and also to sort out various issues with heresy – for instance, the intolerable lobbying of church reformer Jan Hus, a Czech priest. Hus repeatedly attacked the clergy for their greed, hypocrisy and immorality (there was a roaring trade in ‘indulgences’ which, if you paid good money for one, would supposedly make the going easier through purgatory). He felt the state should control the church and that laymen should judge their spiritual leaders. ‘An immoral pope could not possibly claim infallibility.’ Well, yikes, thems were fighting words, and deeply unpopular ones. It was very unfortunate that they were mostly accurate and true.

How it all shook down is also very informative. Essentially, realising which way the wind was blowing, Cossa made a run for it and went into hiding. He was tracked down and imprisoned on a count of 70 criminal charges. Ironically enough, he ended up in the same prison as poor old Jan Hus, who had negotiated a safe passage to the conference only to see it blithely ignored. Cossa bought his release, and enjoyed a quiet retirement. Hus was taken to the stake and burned. Poggio, unemployed, decided a little holiday might be the thing, and so, enamoured of Germany and ever more in love with the classical golden age, he went book-hunting.

Greenblatt is – or at least seemed to me – very good on the vast ocean of lost texts that had been created in the classical world but were abandoned and neglected in the Dark Ages, but this has been one of the contentious parts of his book. Thousands of works came out of Greek and Roman philosophy, but since they were mostly written on papyrus, climate and bugs were their major destroyers. However, Greenblatt argues that it was a change in ideology that made the most important difference, and he uses the great library at Alexandria to illustrate his point. This library was essentially a world class university, to which scholars and researchers were invited and where the foundation for calculus, hydraulics and pneumatics and our understanding of the body were discovered. It was a vast treasure trove of learning. As such, it recognised no distinctions in doctrine – all knowledge was valuable. But the Jews and the Christians who lived in 4th century Alexandria were not happy at all – they only recognised the one god, and so this polytheistic environment was anathema to them.

The spiritual leader of the Christian community, Theophilus, set mobs of Christians onto the pagans, which resulted in riots and mass destruction. Then Theophilius’s successor, his even more brutal nephew, Cyril, demanded the expulsion of the Jews. He came up against an extraordinary young woman, Hypatia, who was beautiful and intellectually gifted. She was the representative of the pagan intellectual elite, most unusually for a woman. Hypatia supported the Jews. And so, Cyril sent out his henchman to whip up a frenzied mob. They pulled Hypatia from her chariot, stripped her, flayed her, then dragged her corpse around the city and burned it. Things were never the same again afterwards, Greenblatt suggests. It was the end of an era – ‘a loss of cultural moorings, a descent into febrile triviality’. Superstition took the place of open-minded intellectual debate.

Now, Greenblatt’s book has been highly criticized for what is seen by some as too great a simplification of the cultural shift, and a disservice to Christianity. You’ll have to read it yourself to see what you think. I felt that he wasn’t arguing that all kindness, pleasure and academic research ended when Europe embraced Christianity; but that it was harder to think clearly with the thumbscrews of the Inquisition hovering at the back of your mind. It seems fair enough to me that Lucretius’s text would be seen as a wildly inflammatory document when set against the reality of fifteenth century Italy. But also, that there might be a small band of brothers who would find its ideas radical but tempting. Greenblatt’s implied claim, that it was the book that tipped intellectual culture towards new, modernist ways of thinking is probably a bit much. But he does make of its life an impressive and highly engrossing story. I knew absolutely nothing about this part of history, and I found it fascinating.

And in the light of recent events, I also found it sobering. I know I bang on here a lot about tolerance and compassion, but I cannot regret it. I don’t think we’ve ever come to terms with the innate violence of human beings, and perhaps most dangerous of all, their fervent desire for retaliation. Across history, this desire has been successfully pitted against thought, consideration and contemplation; we still scorn intellectuals and prize strength and a show of might above all else. This is a very good book for hearing the lessons of history speaking loud and clear to us. Oh wouldn’t it be good if one day, we could finally listen.

Gabriel Josipovici Interview

gabriel-josipoviciI had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Gabriel Josipovici for Numero Cinq magazine; what came out of the weeks we spoke together was a profound, moving meditation on the life of an artist. Josipovici has not had things easy, facing almost a critical vendetta against his works. He’s never really had the renown that he deserves, either. If you haven’t read him, I suggest you start where I did, with the short novel, Everything Passes.

Or of course you could begin with our interview, which you can find here.

Georges Simenon and Inspector Maigret

cellars of the majesticWhen I was first growing serious about learning French, I was advised repeatedly to read Simenon’s Maigret stories. The French was so simple! I was assured, and they were good stories, too. I have no idea why I resisted, sheer perversity, I expect. When I was teaching French, I was often asked if Simenon was one of the 20th century authors I taught – being, I think, one of the few French authors with whom most people were familiar. I did not teach Simenon. In fact, it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I finally read a Simenon novel for the first time. And now it’s taken me an absolute age to get around to reviewing it, though not because it wasn’t an enjoyable experience to read. In fact, I whipped through it in no time, loved it, and wondered why it had taken me so long.

Inevitably, having finally read Simenon, I became curious to know something about the man. What a life! He published almost 500 novels and hundreds of stories, using many pseudonyms. Born in Belgium, he moved to Paris as a young man where he worked as a journalist, always with a taste for frequenting the seamier side of the city. His love life was particularly energetic. He married and then began a decades long affair with his housekeeper. The second world war intervened and Simenon got himself into hot water over collaboration. I imagine he behaved much like Colette did – with a sort of hard-headed peasant pragmatism. Colette wanted very much to eat, which meant she had to sell her work, and so her basic view was that she would sell it to whoever was buying. Simenon would eventually be sentenced to a five year prohibition on publishing, but it wasn’t observed. Not least because, once the war was over, Simenon took his family to America for a decade. His wife had found out about his affair by now and the marriage was struggling. Simenon promptly began a new affair with the woman he hired as his secretary and they married and had three children during a stormy relationship. In 1955 they all returned to France, and ten years later, Simenon divorced and married again – yet another of his housekeepers. He claimed by the end of his life to have had 10,000 lovers, and that he wrote 60 to 80 pages a day. Judging by his output, the writing claim is probably true.

Inspector Maigret was his greatest creation, his first novel featuring him published in 1931. He would go on to write 75 Maigret novels and 28 short stories. The thing about these novels is that they are very short – 120 pages or so – but they manage to have the same depth as a book of much greater length. I’ve thought for a while that the tendency in publishing lately is to allow books an extra 100 pages more than they need, and there isn’t a better case for concision than Maigret.

In The Cellars of the Majestic, Maigret is called to the discovery of one of the hotel’s guests, strangled and unceremoniously dumped in a locker in the staff changing rooms. The victim is the French wife of a rich American businessman, and certain pressures are brought to bear on Maigret to go easy on the guests. Maigret has no intention of doing any such thing, but once he finds that the husband’s affair with the governess to his children gives him an alibi, Maigret is happy to leave the bourgeois to their own devices. He is, in any case, far more intrigued by the complex workings of the servant underworld in the hotel, and in the sad circumstances of the main suspect for the murder, the hotel’s coffee-maker, Prosper Donge. Prosper is a sad soul, an ugly red-head who lives in a platonic sort of relationship with Charlotte, a lavatory attendant at a nightclub. It turns out that they both knew the murdered woman when they were all working in the South of France. From there, Maigret is hot on the lead of a complicated story of prostitution, blackmail and unrequited love.

It’s hard to put one’s finger on what makes this book tick along so satisfyingly. There’s a wonderful evocation of place and landscape, vivid yet brief; the characters are drawn so sympathetically – at least they are sympathetic in Maigret’s understanding gaze – and the puzzle is convoluted in its unravelling but simple in its solution. The narrative chugs along swiftly, free from padding and all those scenes in contemporary crime novels in which no one learns anything of any note. In a book this size, every scene counts, every encounter progresses the story. And Maigret is a great understated, unshowy performer. Getting older, getting tireder, saddened sometimes by what he has to witness of human lives, but his sharp eye and rapid insight are never in doubt. Yes, perhaps that’s what ultimately makes these stories so comforting – you are never in doubt that Maigret is in control of the investigation and that he will succeed. Much like Hercule Poirot and Perry Mason and Jack Reacher – the foundation stone of the story is Maigret’s unshakeable competence.

Without doubt, I’ll be catching up on more of Maigret’s cases, thanks to the lovely new Penguin reissues. A steadfast hero in a short, vivid, well-plotted story; no wonder they remain classics.

Recent Reading: The Goldfinch, Frances & Bernard, Cop Town

the goldfinchI have stalled in my reading of The Goldfinch at an embarrassingly early part of the book, well, if we are counting in inches, that is. Maybe it’s the fault of the strange combination of part-listening to the audio book, part-reading the wrist-breaking real thing that has left me floating still on top of the story, rather than stitched down into it. But essentially it’s because the next couple of hundred pages appear to be a teenage drink-and-drugs odyssey and I can’t think of anything I’d rather read less. I was going to suggest maybe two hundred pages of unpleasant hospital treatment, but then that would be a book I would never pick up in the first place.

Most books, when you hit a dull patch, you can think to yourself, oh well, thirty pages tops and then we’ll be past it. Not this one. And whilst Donna Tartt’s writing is fine (somehow I remember The Secret History as much better written, but that could just be the work of unreliable memory), she’s only going to tell me what happens, in minute detail. If I thought it was the kind of writing that would be rich in psychological insights and what events mean, I might be more interested. But The Goldfinch so far has been a novel of painstaking description, with a faint fairy-tale quality to the story and its characterisation. I never had the least interest in drink and drugs as a teenager, and I have even less now. I don’t enjoy skim-reading and I’m not sure I have the stamina to plough through what lies ahead. I don’t want to give up, and yet I don’t have much interest in continuing.

frances and bernardOn a happier note, Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer was pure delight. An epistolary novel set in the 1950s, we follow the correspondance between novelist Frances Reardon and poet Bernard Eliot, who have recently met at a writing commune. Bernard has now gone to Florence to finish his book, whilst Frances has returned home to Philadelphia to write hers. Shortly they will both end up in New York. Bernard is attracted to Frances because of her devout religious views and her upright, stern moral demeanour. Bernard is a Catholic in love with ecstasy in all its forms and he is drawn to Frances’ gravitas, as an anchor, perhaps, to his volatile and fierce emotions. They are unlikely friends and even less likely lovers, not least because Frances is determined to remain single and avoid the complications of domesticity that might ruin her work.

But Bernard is a big heart and an outgoing spirit; he loves easily, deeply, magnetically. The downside of this is an inevitable mental fragility, and before long his letters will grow wilder and a spell in an institution is inevitable. Frances values their friendship by now and assures him that she is not afraid of him (Frances would not want to be afraid of anything), and almost against her will she is drawn closer to his vulnerability.

The writing in this novel was just exquisite. It’s a brilliant character portrait of two very different writers and of an unexpected and awkward relationship that nevertheless has moments of sublime grace. Given that she has two writers engaged in a battle of wits and wills, Bauer can just have fun with their voices, which she most certainly does. Apparently, the couple is loosely based on Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell. I would not have guessed this myself and I don’t think it matters much one way or another to know about the biographical background. There is a great deal of chat about religion, though, which might strike secular readers as unusual. But it echoes and questions the way art can become a religion – this in a very subtle way – how passion is necessary in one form or another though we might make very different uses of it. I think it’s fair to say I enjoyed every sentence of this one.

cop townAnother book I enjoyed, from the opposite end of the reading spectrum, was Karin Slaughter’s latest novel, Cop Town. Set in the 70s in Atlanta it’s essentially the story of new recruit to the force, Kate Murphy and the woman who gives her a helping hand on her traumatic first day, Maggie Lawson. Maggie has grown up in a police family and, against just about everyone’s wishes, joined the force alongside her brother, much beloved ex-football star, Jimmy, and her brutal, misogynist Uncle Terry. Terry represents everything the white male police force is about; he despises women, he despises foreigners, and he has no respect for the law when it’s in his own hands. When the book begins Jimmy’s partner, Don, has been the latest victim of a cop killer wreaking havoc in the city. The force is on red alert, determined to mete out its own justice to the killer when they find him. With a black mayor and a black head of police, times are changing, and the old boys have no faith in the authorities, which is rich given that Uncle Terry’s planted evidence on their last conviction caused the case to fall through.

Into this ugly regime stumbles Kate, a widow whose husband recently died in Vietnam. She is well-spoken, attractive, and Jewish; she’s also lived a gentle life up until now. Oh boy, is she in for a nasty shock. What Karin Slaughter does so brilliantly in this novel, as well as in the best literary fiction, is recreate the conditions of the 70s that we all have convenient amnesia about. It’s a man’s world, in which women need to shut up and stop asking stupid questions, and anyone who isn’t white and American needs to remember their place. Her description of the bad side of town is particularly hard-hitting too. Whilst a lot of novels depict places you might actually want to visit, Cop Town makes a reader feel very relieved to be safely in the new millenium. An excellent novel about how we used to be, but a violent and graphic one, be warned.