Friday, December 7, 2018

A Very Thin Book

NYRB has brought out A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary 1939-1940, assembled from the diaries of Iris Origo by Lucy Hallett-Hughes. I do not regret buying the book, but it strikes me as very thin for $15.95-- there are 146 pages, not counting the introduction by Ms. Hallett-Hughes and the afterword by Origo's granddaughter Katia Lysy.  The diary entries are perceptive and well-phrased; one sees how some, perhaps many, Italians thought as Italy drifted towards war; yet the entries are few enough, and I should say that they do not carry the heft of those in War in Val d'Orcia, written when Origo was again a perceptive spectator but also a participant with heavy responsibilities and in real danger. There is little new information in the foreword for anyone who has  read Origo's Images and Shadows, and less for anyone who has read Caroline Moorehead's biography of her. The granddaughter's afterword does have some curious information about Origo's habits of work and her eccentricities.

I wonder whether NYRB might not have done better to bring A Chill in the Air out in a single volume with War in Val d'Orcia, which it has also recently brought back into print. Yet I can see that chronology would demand that the diaries of 1939 and 1940 precede those of 1943 and 1944; and some readers might quit before War in Val d'Orcia, which is by far the more substantial book.

The person who has read either War in Val d'Orcia or Images and Shadows will find A Chill in the Air worth the small price and brief reading time. The person who has read none of Origo's memoirs would do better to start with War in Val d'Orcia, to see why one might wish to read her writings, and then go on to Images and Shadows for a fuller picture of her and her world.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Poet, Meet Pedant

A book club I know read Michael Ondaatje's Warlight, so a copy has been at hand in the living room. The club, I hear, on the whole enjoyed the book. I read in a steady condition of irritation. In this book, Ondaatje seems to prefer the portentous phrase to the accurate one, and his grasp of fact, where I can test it, is shaky. I concede that he may be playing a deeper game that I just don't grasp, but I doubt it. The novel is set for the most part in the middle to late 1940s.

Portentous: the author's mother, having done intelligence work during the war, is said to have listened "with her ears pressed against the complicated frequencies of a radio's headset." I don't know that the frequencies used for transmission were any more complicated than those of other electromagnetic radiation; and in the headphones one heard the frequencies of the human voice, probably simplified through loss in encoding and decoding. (Or one heard Morse, which required only simple frequencies.)

At a slow river, the day after bombs fell nearby,  "the water was flat, undamaged." Without the impulse of wind or a steep enough gradient, water is in general flat. And what can it mean to damage water? One can muddy or pollute water, but I never heard even the foulest rivers spoken of as "damaged".

A character "felt raised a league or a fathom into the air". Which? A league is three miles, a fathom is six feet, so a league contains is at least 2,640 fathoms, more if the miles are nautical rather than statute.

Facts: Early on, one encounters a man known as the Darter: under the nickname "The Pimlico Darter" he had some years before been the best welterweight north of the Thames. I suppose that I could have said with Jake Barnes, "Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title," and forgotten it. But in twenty or so pages, the Darter is described as tall. To box as a welterweight, one must weigh in at no more than 147 pounds. Welterweights are seldom tall as America judges height, or as I suppose England did.

In the Bibliothèque Mazarine, in entering which one somehow "entered the fifteenth century" (Mazarin was born in 1602), a character reflects that he prefers "older maps that are cityless, marked only by contour lines so that they can even now be used for accurate reconnaissance." The oldest maps with contour lines are from the nineteenth century.

An ethnographer (among her other vocations) "had risen into a dark sky infested with other gliders that shuddered in the air as brittle as glass, in order to listen to how porous the wind was and search for rainless light, so they could postpone or confirm the invasion."  How does one grade the porosity of wind, and are the gliders as brittle as glass, or is it the air? The gliders were fragile enough; but I believe that a) the meteorological observations for D-Day were made largely by ships on the Atlantic, and b) the only gliders then in the air in numbers that could could count as "infesting" were not observing weather but carrying troops.

A young expectant mother, reluctant to carry on her work as a waitress, finds work at an explosives plant. (I'm not sure that this is what the medical profession would suggest.) She works near "the Great Nitrator, in which nitroglycerine had been made for two centuries." Nitroglycerine was first synthesized in 1846.

And in general the notions of intelligence and counter-intelligence are silly. British intelligence as imagined by Ondaatje seems to have no idea of compartmentalization, of the sharing of data on a need-to-know basis. The same woman monitors transmissions from allied agents, broadcasts coded instructions, and carries out hazardous operations in the field. Agents knowing a great deal about sensitive operations are allowed to fall into the hands of hostile groups. I could go on, but won't.

Or is this all an elaborate leg-pull? There is nothing wrong with a bit of deliberate, elegant silliness. Yet the masters of that style--I think of Flann O'Brien in At Swim-Two-Birds or Gilbert Sorrentino in Mulligan Stew--make it clearer what is going on.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018


The editors of  Tocqueville's Souvenirs include a note referring to Chateaubriand's memoirs, Book XVI, Chapter 1. Chateaubriand's nephews, orphaned by the revolution, were brought up with Alexis de Tocqueville and his brothers. In mentioning this, Chateaubriand writes
Alexis de Tocqueville traveled through civilized America; I visited its forests.
Am I wrong to detect a hint of competitiveness there?

It may be as well that Chateaubriand did not live to see Tocqueville's "A Fortnight in the Wilds" published. (Nor did Tocqueville: Beaumont published it in 1860.)  Early on, Tocqueville remarks on how ill Chateaubriand's (and Cooper's) depiction of the Indians fit those he met. To be fair to Chateaubriand, those that Tocqueville met had suffered another four decades of pressure from the settlers. Still, I can believe that Chateaubriand was as imaginative in his account of persons as in his account of the distances he covered.
In any case, Tocqueville and Beaumont undertook some difficult journeys through sparsely settled country. In  "A Fortnight in the Wilds", he tells of a long day of about forty miles from the Flint River to Saginaw, the latter described by his host in Pontiac as "the last inhabited point until you come to the Pacific Ocean."  Getting to the Flint River required forest travel as well, and brought them to a house with a bear chained up outside.

"A Fortnight in the Wilds" is printed in Journey to America. The bulk of the book reminds one that Tocqueville did come to American to visit its civilization, not its forest. But there were plenty of forests remaining between the centers of civilization. Unfortunately, Yale University Press has let it go out of print.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Life Dream

Fifteen or twenty years ago, The New York Times ran a piece by Margo Jefferson. I no longer remember the burden of it, but I remember that she said that she sometimes listened to country music. In talking to friends who knew more about it, who perhaps had grown up with it, she tried to distinguish between the good country music and the rest; but they rejected the distinction. On the other hand these friends made the same sort of distinction in the music that Ms. Jefferson preferred, and she rejected their distinction. (Ms. Jefferson is African-American: how she characterized her preferred music I don't remember.) At the time I thought that I agreed with her about country music and with the country fans about hers, and I quickly forgot about it.

I thought of that this week when I encountered in The Autumn of the Middle Ages, Chapter "Image and Word", the paragraph
Contemporaries who see the works of art being born accept them without question into their life dream. They do not appreciate them on the basis of objective aesthetic perfection, but on the basis of the resounding reverberation within them of the sacredness or passionate vitality of their subject matter. Only when the old life dream is dreamed out with the passing of time, and sacredness and passion have vanished like the scent of a rose, only then, by virtue of its means of expression, that is, its style, structure, and its harmony, does the purely artistic effect of a work of art begin. These elements may actually be the same in both the fine arts and literature, but they may, nonetheless, generate an entirely different artistic evaluation.
In the United States, one need not wait for a life dream to be dreamed out. One can just get in the car and drive twenty miles to find another that displaces it.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Two Writers

In Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle Ages, Chapter 4, The Forms of Love, I noticed the paragraph
Reality is at any time more wretched and cruder than the refined literary ideal of love sees it, but it is also purer and more ethical than it is represented by that shallow eroticism which is usually regarded as naturalistic. Eustache Deschamps, the professional poet, lowers himself in many ballades, in which he has a speaking part, to the most debased transgressions. But he is not the real hero of those indecent scenes, and amongst them we suddenly find a tender poem in which he points out to his daughter the virtues of her dead mother.
In A Skeptic Among Scholars, August Frugé writes of the poet and translator C.F. MacIntyre that
It may be that Mac was wilder in his youth, before I met him, than he was later, but I knew him through most of his time as an outsider. Behind the rebel facade lurked a family man manqué. In his unpublished novel on the life of Tristan Corbière, which he let me read, the sex scenes--based presumably on experiences with female students--were rather unreal, while the scenes of son with parents were truly felt and convincing.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

University Press Week

NPR announced this morning that it is University Press Week. Considering that the week was first proclaimed 40 years ago, I am a bit surprised never to have heard of it. The events listed by the Association of University Presses are out of town, in New York and Miami. I'm not sure how those of us not in those two cities, and not employed in publishing should honor the week. Buying a book or two published by a university press might be a good way. Three days remain in the week.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Par Excellence

The most recent translators of Schopenhauer's On The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason did an excellent job, as far as I can judge. One decision, though, repeatedly caught my eye.

The translators give the original words in footnotes for technical German terms and for quotations from other languages. The former practice is what one could wish for: it is frustrating to read a work of philosophy and have to guess what word in the original an English word corresponds to: does "being" stand in for ens or esse? Does "idea" replace Idee or Begriff? The latter practice does maintain the flow of the argument.

 E.F.J. Payne, the translator of most readily acquired version of The World as Will and Representation simply included the quotations untranslated, then gave his translation into English in a footnote. This meant that one could have as many as three versions on the page, the first two from the original: Greek, since that was the source; Latin, since some of us with Abiturs may have forgotten our Greek, but all can be counted on to remember our Latin; and English in the footnotes for the paying customers. In The Fourfold Root one has only two versions to deal with, one almost always English.

Almost always; for it is an exception that caught my eye. The authors not unreasonably render the Greek κατ᾽ ἐξοχήν as par excellence. Yet to find French words in the text italicized and footnoted with the Greek original looks odd the first time, and funny the sixth. Still, I do realize that par excellence is long naturalized, and I don't know what I'd offer to replace it. Eminently?