Monday, January 25, 2021

Close Reading

 In a letter of January 4, 1950 to Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh wrote of Robert Gathorne-Hardy's book Logan Pearsall Smith that

The only way modern books are readable is by reading them between the lines. I see so many unconscious and conscious dishonesties in the book which is two books put together -- the Boswell and an apologia for his treatment of the final heir.

In the essay "Flashbacks", collected in At Century's Ending: Selections 1983-1984, George Kennan describes his duties in Riga during 1932:

I know the Russian language, and I, with two or three others, go thoroughly and systematically through the Soviet newspapers and magazines, reporting to our government on what they reveal of life in the Soviet Union. It is through these thousands of pages of small-type, poor-quality newsprint that I am obliged to form my first picture of the great Communist country that lies so near at hand and extends so far away to the east. I, like my colleagues, am appalled at the propaganda that pervades every page of this official Soviet literature--at the unabashed use of obvious falsehood, at the hypocrisy, and above all, at the savage intolerance shown toward everything that is not Soviet. ... And I am surprised to find how easy it is, if one looks carefully and thoughtfully, to perceive what does lie beneath these gray and brittle pages, and to realize that the meaning of the propaganda is not in the literal text but in the subtle changes that  occur in it from day to day--changes that every sophisticated Russian knows how to decipher and to interpret, as we ourselves, in time, learn to do.

 In "The Art of Interpreting Non-Existent Descriptions Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page", collected in The Hall of Uselessness, Simon Leys describes the method that made Father Lazlo Ladany's weekly China News Analysis "infuriatingly indispensable" (infuriating not to Leys, but to many of its western readers, who wished to think better of the People's Republic):

What inspired his method was the observation that even the most mendacious propaganda must necessarily entertain some sort of relation with the truth; even as it manipulates and distorts the truth, it still needs originally to feed on it. Therefore, the untwisting of official lies, if skilfully effected, should yield a certain amount of plain facts. Needless to say, such an operation requires a doigté hardly less sophisticated than the chemistry which, in Gulliver's Travels, enabled the Grand Academicians of Lagado to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and food from excreta.    


  1. That George Kennan quote is superb.

    1. Kennan was an excellent writer. His Memoirs 1925-1950 are fascinating, though bulky.