Seven Short Stories of Franz Kafka

As in the first full week of October, this past week I’ve been reading one daily from The Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka. The seven stories I read are contained in ‘The Shorter Stories’ section of the book, with the typical story being about half a page long. In some ways, the stories this time round were more ambiguous even than last week’s; I still, of course, have opinions on them all. 


The Way Home (Der Nachhauseweg) begins after a thunderstorm. The narrator, on his way home, reflects on how great his life is, he “find[s] nothing to grumble at save the injustice of providence that has clearly favoured [him].” When he gets home, however, he finds himself “a little meditative, without having met anything on the stairs worth meditating about.” At last, he opens the window, letting in the sound of music that is playing outside. 

It is a quite impenetrable little story. When outside the man is happy, overjoyed in fact; inside – in his own home – not so much. He evades, it seems, his meditative state by opening the window – echoing a sentiment from last week’s story The Street Window. Those who watch from a window, it claimed, would find themselves drawn into “the human harmony”. 

Perhaps, too, there is a question about where “home” really is: is it indoors shut off from the world, or outdoors among one’s neighbours? One last thing I think might be present is a sense of boredom in the man’s life. He is fortunate, to be sure, but may lack excitement or challenges in his life – he does, after all, have nothing to meditate about. Can you imagine? 


Passers-by (Die Vorüberlaufenden) was my favourite of this week’s seven stories. It places the reader (“you”) into an imagined scenario: late at night we see two men running, one chasing the other. We do not intervene. The narrator provides possible explanations for their running: “to amuse themselves”, “both chasing a third”, “the first is an innocent man and the second wants to murder him”, “running separately”, “night birds”. 

It concludes with an apparent absolution of the reader’s inaction: “And anyhow, haven’t you a right to be tired, haven’t you been drinking a lot of wine? You’re thankful the second man is now long out of sight.”

Kafka presents a common problem: should we act on incomplete information? If we intervened here, the two men might have been playing, and we would seem a fool; yet, by not intervening, one of the men may have been hurt. It is a problem that I recently had cause to think about. 

A few weeks ago my neighbours, whom I know relatively well, had a slight altercation. Late at night, they were shouting. Banging and crashing followed, things were being thrown. Their child had woken up and was crying. I thought, though, knowing them well enough, that there was little risk of violence toward each other. I was vindicated. Nonetheless, I gave plenty of thought to whether I should intervene; and if so, when? At what point, should we act on incomplete information? 


On the Tram (Der Fahrgast) is another somewhat perplexing story. It begins with the narrator waiting on the tram platform, “completely unsure of my footing in the world.” He is lost, and doesn’t know where he is going in life, “I have not even any defense to offer for standing on this platform… Nobody asks me to put up a defense, indeed, but that is irrelevant.” As the tram arrives, he notices a girl ready to board, “as distinct to me as if I had run my hands over her.” He sees something in this girl that he does not in himself and, after a description of what she looks like, he wonders: “How is it that she is not amazed at herself, that she keeps her lips closed and makes no such remark?” 

It can probably be assumed that the narrator perceived the girl as guided by a purpose, sure of where she was going. Not, like him, on autopilot. Why, then, is she not amazed? My guess would be because the girl, were she the narrator, would say much the same as our current narrator; that she might instead look over and see in the man the same qualities as he discerns in her. It might be that our actions always – or at least, generally – give the appearance of purpose; even if inside we are floundering. 


Victory and fame are shown to have their downsides in Reflections for Gentlemen-Jockeys (Zum Nachdenken für Herrenreiter).  As in Passers-by, the reader (“you”) is placed into the action, as a jockey who has won a race. 

The first downside presented is that every win comes at the losers’ expense: “the envy of your opponents”. Friendships, too, are risked: some have bet on us, our win becomes their win; other friends, though, have not – they feared if we lost it would give rise to anger and affect our friendship – and now you have won and they “have won nothing, they turn away as you pass.” “For many ladies” – and, I expect, many men – “the victor cuts a ridiculous figure… swelling with importance and yet cannot cope with the never-ending handshaking, saluting, bowing and waving.”

Reflections shares, in my opinion, a thread with The Way Home. Here, success is shown to have its disadvantages. In The Way Home, a perfectly comfortable life seems to as well. At least, to me it does. 


The Wish to be a Red Indian (Wunsch, Indianer zu Werden) is the shortest of the seven stories. “If one were only an Indian, instantly alert, and on a racing horse”, it begins, before describing briefly, how one would roam the wilderness. The only meaning I can reckon on is a yearning for freedom, perhaps the romanticisation of the nomadic lifestyle of some Native Americans. Relatively modern contrivances, “spurs” and “reins”, are cast aside; they are not needed. There is a yearning for freedom, but from what? Society, sure. Modernity, too, perhaps. 


At four pages long Unhappiness (Unglücklichsein) is, by a substantial margin, the longest of this week’s stories. It starts with the narrator in some unspecified turmoil, “When it was becoming unbearable… [I] found a new goal in the depths of the looking glass and screamed aloud, to hear only my own scream”. Following that display a child enters his quarters, a ghost child. 

In conversation the narrator is offended by the child’s “impudence”, and cannot understand why it should want to address him that way. “You say your nature forces you to speak to me like that? Is that so? Your nature forces you? That’s kind of your nature. Your nature is mine, and if I feel friendly to you by nature, then you mustn’t be anything else.” This rebuke follows the child’s own assertion that: “No stranger could come any nearer to you than I am already by nature.” 

Having been in the dark, the man lights a candle. Then decides to go for a walk. On the way out he encounters, on the stairs a neighbour, whom he tells about the ghost child. He is sure that it is a ghost, despite not believing in ghosts. His neighbour counsels that, since he does not believe, “you don’t need to feel afraid if a ghost actually turns up.” The narrator, though, explains: “that’s only a secondary fear. The real fear is a fear of what caused the apparition. And that fear doesn’t go away. I have it fairly powerfully inside me now.” 

Parting from his neighbour, the narrator has a final thought. Despite his dissatisfaction with the ghost child, he warns: “All the same… if you steal my ghost from me all is over between us, forever.” Instead of going for a walk (which previous stories suggest might have done him a world of good), “I felt so forlorn I preferred to go upstairs again and so went to bed.”

It is relatively clear, based on the title, just what this story is about. The ghost child is a representation of the narrator’s self – a younger, perhaps truer, self that the narrator has somehow lost. Aging has been a recurrent theme in Kafka’s stories – the world takes its toll. Innocence is lost, we become jaded. Disconnected from the happiness of youth, the narrator must be unhappy; the ghost child represents self-loathing and self-debasement, anger at oneself for not being (able to be) happy. We might be more inclined to interpret this story as not just one of unhappiness, but of depression, I think there is certainly grounds to do so. 

But Kafka has rarely been so plain. In parting from the neighbour, things change somewhat. He does not want his ghost to be stolen. Our unhappiness is ours; unpleasant though it is, it is a part of us. Can we get rid of it? Maybe. Should we? 


Bachelor’s Ill Luck (Das Unglück des Junggesellen) is the last story I read this week and offers the least resistance to interpretation. This little piece is very much about loneliness. The life of a life-long bachelor is set out in unfavourable terms: “It seems so dreadful”. “To become an old man struggling to keep one’s dignity while begging for an invitation whenever one wants… company”; “always having to say goodnight at the door”; “only side doors in one’s room leading into other people’s living rooms”; etc.

There really isn’t much more I can add on this story. I don’t consider that the bachelor’s life has to be lonely, I once had aspirations to it myself. On the other hand, I am married now and have no intention of changing that! 


And that concludes my discussion of the Kafka stories I read last week. As ever, feel free to comment any thoughts you have. (And if any of the stories take your fancy, a quick Google search should give you access.) 

Thanks for reading!!

–Check out the previous week’s post: ‘Ten Short Stories of Kafka

**The Complete Short Stories, Franz Kafka (Vintage, 2005) **

Ten Short Stories of Franz Kafka

The past week, I have been reading a story a day from The Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka. I had intended to start reading the book on October 1st, but on that day I thought: “why not wait till Monday?” What better aid is there to procrastination than setting arbitrary start dates? Why better ourselves now when we could wait and make a new year’s resolution

Anyway, I read last week to the point I would have reached had I started reading on October 1st. In other words, I have read 10 of Kafka’s short stories and they are what this post is about. 


The book opens with ‘Two Introductory Parables’: Before the Law (Vor dem Gesetz) and An Imperial Message (Eine kaiserliche Botschaft). 

In Before the Law a man seeking entry to “the law” finds his route blocked by a gate and keeper. Cautioned that, even had he slipped past the gatekeeper, more gates and keepers await beyond, the man waits at the gate’s entrance for the rest of his life. Dying, he asks the keeper why, in all the time he’s waited, no one else has come to the gate seeking access. The gatekeeper explains that the gate was meant for the man alone and when he is dead it will be locked forever. 

In An Imperial Message, the reader is directly involved: “The Emperor, so a parable runs, has sent a message to you… the Emperor from his deathbed has sent a message to you alone.” We learn, however, that the message can never reach us – the obstacles before the messenger are insurmountable. Though the message will never arrive as the parable ends, “you sit at your window and dream it to yourself.”

Both parables feature waiting – and in each there are obstacles that are reminiscent of “waves” in video games. In Before the Law: “From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last.” In An Imperial Message: “still [the messenger] is making his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will get to the end of them; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; he must next fight his way down the stair… the courts would still have to be crossed… the second outer palace… more stairs… and if at last he should burst through the outermost gate… the imperial capital would lie before him…” So, in both, there is the sense that any progress made would be illusory, no real progress at all – change but not progress. 

With those similarities in mind I would interpret the ‘parables’ as being about the pursuit of Meaning in life. Whatever goals we set, whatever we decide will have meaning in our lives, there will always be another gate behind which the elusive true Meaning lies. The message that gives us meaning can never reach us – we have no choice but to make our own, to “dream”. 


‘The Longer Stories’ come next in the book, but I skipped them for now in favour of ‘The Shorter Stories’, which really are very short – ranging from four pages to four lines. 

Children on a Country Road (Kinder auf Landstraße) is told from the perspective of a child, as he plays with others in the vast outdoors – in a time predating tablets and Youtube. Most of the story details the children’s activities – and I don’t have a lot to say about that. It is the final lines, as the narrator and others part ways for home, that Kafka offers an interesting piece of juxtaposition. 

I was making for that city in the south of which it was said in our village: ‘There you’ll find queer folk! Just think, they never sleep!’ – ‘And why not?’ – ‘Because they never get tired.’ – ‘And why not?’ – ‘Because they’re fools.’ – ‘Don’t fools get tired?’ – ‘How could fools get tired?’

The children though, heading home, are not doing so for weariness but for rules: “Our time was up.” They would have played on, care free. Just as the fools do, without cares, lacking awareness of “the real world”, since it is those things that make us weary in an existential sense. That, at least, is how I interpret the story. 


The book’s description says: “Some of [these stories] are well-known, others are mere jottings…” The Trees (Die Bäume), at four lines long, must surely count as a “jotting”. Yet it is beautifully composed and compellingly ambiguous. It compares us (“we”) to tree trunks in the snow, which, though rooted firmly in the ground, appear as if merely propped up by the snow, capable of being toppled with minimal force. An illusion; the trees stand firm. But “even that is only appearance.” 

Like I said, it’s compellingly ambiguous; Kafkaesque, if you will. To me it would appear to say something about the permanence of our beings, our nature as continuing selves. Through memories we have (subconsciously) constructed “who we are”; despite being “constructed” though, the self is impressively sturdy. We can trick ourselves, surrounded by all the other “selves”, that there is a sort of permanence; we speak to Franz and he seems so complete, almost as if he had always been here. Of course, he wasn’t always here and he won’t be much longer. Relative to the age of the universe we were all born yesterday and will all be dead by tomorrow. 


Clothes (Kleider) is about the damage that life does to us all. Just as beautiful clothes come to show permanent signs of wear, we do too. While we have the luxury of changing our wardrobes, we are stuck with our bodies, which sometimes betray us: “sometimes at night… [our faces] seem in the looking glass to be worn out, puffy dusty, already seen by too many people and hardly wearable any longer. In my view Clothes has a similar message as Children on a Country Road, being in the world makes us deeply tired. 


Excursion into the Mountains (Der Ausflug ins Gebirge) is a weird one. The first person narrator laments that “nobody” will help him, “a pack of nobodies.” Then he thinks differently: the individual “nobody” is of no use to him, but “a pack of nobodies would be rather fine, on the other hand.” Had he a pack of nobodies, he imagines, they would all go into the mountains and there live united, happy and carefree. 

Whether it’s completely off base or not, I see echoes of Dostoevsky’s: “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.” The narrator appears to me unhappy with society and the individuals within it, but still craves belonging; he dreams of a kinder society, but knows that such a society could only be composed of “nobodies”. 


Rejection (Die Abweisung) was a story I found both funny and thought-provoking. The narrator asks a “pretty girl” on a date – or period-appropriate equivalent – but is rejected, since he is not famous, strikingly handsome, or worldly: “why, pray, should a pretty girl like myself go with you?” The narrator replies that the woman is none of the things she’s looking for either; in short, he says: “you’re no prize catch, yourself.” The story closes with the woman’s retort: “Yes, we’re both in the right, and to keep us from being irrevocably aware of it, hadn’t we better go our separate ways home?” 

This tosses up an interesting idea about knowing, not only dating, your “equals”: in them, you see what you are. Clearly to that woman, that’s problematic. In a sense, then, she is rejecting self-awareness, in favour of self-deception – much like the reader in An Imperial Message, she is content with dreaming. Here, the reader has to decide whether the woman is right or not. It’s a task muddied by the particulars of the story: I would say she should not reject self-awareness, but is entirely entitled to reject the man representing it. 


The Street Window (Das Gassenfenster) is a strange little advert for – you guessed it – windows looking out on the street. These are indispensable, we are told, to “who[m]ever leads a solitary life and yet now and then wants to attach himself somewhere…”. In looking out of it they are able to retain their independent existence while also being drawn “at last into the human harmony.” 

It’s Excursion into the Mountains and Dostoevsky again. Wanting to be alone but, occasionally, craving other people and a sense of belonging; this story, to me, is about the lonely introvert.


The Tradesman (Der Kaufmann) is narrated by a hard-working small business owner. His work is taking a toll; despite his hard work, he has little; he is “living to work” instead of “working to live”. He wants to break free, to do something fun, but he never has time and must fight the impulse. He taunts the impulse – if he really wanted to free himself, he would just go – and he chastises it – reminding himself that to be free means to be indigent, and quite possibly to be forced into criminality. The impulse passes, the day continues as any other day. 

This is a feeling probably familiar to most of us, being part of the “rat race”. There is something of Hamlet’s dilemma in it; the tradesman may not be optimally happy, but at least he’s surviving; breaking free, though, would mean losing his security in life. He would “rather bear those ills [he has] than fly to others that [he] know[s] not of”. 


Absent-minded Window-gazing (Zertreutes Hinausschaun) is about spring. That is all I’ve got; it just seems to be a “jotting” about how things are different in spring than they were in winter. 


I’m really enjoying digesting Kafka at a measured pace; of the three books I’m reading right now, The Complete Short Stories is the one I most look forward to picking up. What I’ve written above is only my interpretation of the stories; if you have your own interpretations of any of them, feel free to let me know. 

Thanks for reading! 

Atomic, Part I: Some Thoughts

Earlier today I finished PART I (‘Mobilisation’) of Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb, 1939 – 49 by Jim Baggott. Departing from my usual way of doing things – if such a usual way exists – here’s my thoughts so far. 

By way of quick review, I’d have to say that – so far – I’m not loving it. I’m not disinterested, not at all. But maybe that’s the problem, I’m “interested” in everything the book has to tell me, but not engaged in it. There is, however, plenty of valuable information. 

The Preface, Introduction, and Part I have taken me from the discovery of fission in late 1938 to the attack on Pearl Harbor (7 December 1941): as Baggott concludes, setting up Part II (‘Weapon’): 

“The Japanese had launched their attack. The Allies declared war on Japan the next day. Germany and Italy declared war on America on 11 December… The war in Europe had now become the Second World War.” 



A COUPLE OF THOUGHTS

Chain Reaction of Inevitabilities 

It seems to me there was a degree of inevitability to proceedings once fission was discovered. ‘Fission’ was the name given (by Otto Robert Frisch) to “the fragmentation of uranium nuclei” when it collides with a neutron, “converting a tiny amount of mass into energy.” 

“Energy”.The discovery of a new source of energy – humans being humans – was inevitably going to lead to: can it be weaponized? That answer being ‘yes’, it was inevitable someone, somewhere would attempt to do so. 

The potential magnitude of such a weapon being clear, it was also clear that “The country which first makes use of it has an unsurpassable advantage over the others.”

And, first country or not: “The most effective reply [to such a weapon in enemy hand’s] would be a counter-threat with a similar bomb”… “The only defence would be deterrence.” 

As soon as fission was discovered – it appears to me – especially in that geo-political climate (but quite likely in any other, too) – a nuclear arms race was inevitable. 


Moral Absolution? 

“How did the world’s greatest physicists… come to build this awful instrument of fear?… How did they come, in the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer, to know sin?” 

Largely – I think – for the reason I just laid out. Inevitability. The “sin” can be understood, but can it be “forgiven”? (Not that I’m blaming anyone, by the way, I’m just riffing on the book’s contents.)

With regards to the Americans, who – spoiler alert – won the race. Can they (and their Allies) be absolved since their enemies included the Nazis? Had they, as Edward Teller put it, an “obligation to do whatever [they] could to protect freedom?”

Do President Roosevelt’s words ring true?: “You who are scientists may have been told that you are in part responsible for the debacle of today… but I assure you that it is not the scientists of the world who are responsible… What has come about has been caused solely by those who would use, and are using, the progress that you have made along the lines of peace in an entirely different cause.” 

That was said before any “nukes” were developed. Is only the user of a weapon morally responsible? — That’s interesting. Does it perhaps depend on the weapon? Does it matter that only a few hundred(?) people in the world could conceivably have figured out this weapon? As opposed to say a sword, which – allowing for a drop in quality – can be crafted by almost anyone?

Another interesting line of thought, that requires a caveat – suppose it were thought that such a weapon was unfeasible: if not outright impossible, utterly impractical. “When the ends are deemed to be improbably achievable or irrelevant, the means become the most important consideration.” Would it be permissible to work towards the creation of a weapon, that you thought could never be realised, if you perceived some potential benefits for scientific advancement in the process? 

Let’s suppose a bit further: would it be permissible, if you thought the weapon could never be, and you turned out to be correct? 


So those are the two main threads I’ve picked up on while reading Atomic. I’m sorry if you were expecting me to answer any of those questions, but I’m not going to – I’m really more of a poser (but not that kind). Maybe when the book is over, I’ll have a go – who knows. If, on the other hand, you have any thoughts feel free to leave a comment below. 

Thanks for reading! 

100 Days of Dante, Week 1

INFERNO, CANTOS I and II

What is 100 Days of Dante? 

For those who have not come across it, 100 Days of Dante is described as: “a collaborative resource aimed at educating and forming readers of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Through videos that explore its literary, theological and spiritual significance, [it hopes] to inspire new and life-long readers to celebrate Dante’s enduring legacy.” 

The 100 days – to reflect the 100 cantos of the poem – began on September 8th 2021, and will conclude at Easter 2022. New videos are released on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. “Questions for Reflection” are released alongside each video. 

I have been following along since the beginning, always with the intention of writing here, but clearly without much regard for actually doing so. I expect to be playing catch up for some time. 

In the inaugural video, Dr. Ralph Wood says: “If we read and heed this epic well it will change our lives.” 


Canto I 

The first Canto begins in the darkness of a “great wood”, Dante is lost. Before continuing any further it is worth considering why the “Comedy” is so called: Wood explains: “for people in the middle ages, stories that begin in darkness and sorrow and sadness; but end in gladness and hope and victory are a far off echo of the Gospel itself… Comedy… opens up to new life.” Which is exactly what we see in the Comedy, it begins in literal and metaphorical darkness, and ends in “divine illumination”. 

The wood is allegorical, representative of sin – and can be taken two ways. Firstly, as representative of personal sin – suggesting it is Dante himself who has “left the proper way”. Secondly, the wood can be read as the sinful times – “degenerate Christendom, or a corrupt Florence rife with private and social vices” (Higgins) – which corrupt the citizens. As Wood points out: “For Dante, salvation in the religious world is inseparable from uprightness in the political realm. Without fair, just government, the people’s moral and religious life will be compromised.”

When Dante “left the proper way”, we are told, he was “so full of sleep.” It was complacency or carelessness that brought him to the dark wood. Later in Inferno, we will find the upper levels inhabited by souls who sinned without malice: who instead surrendered control of their actions to their animalistic tendencies (“appetites”) over their uniquely human ones (“reason”). 

In the sense that the wood represents a corrupt society, it is easy to infer the dangers of “sleep.” History is filled with societies sleep-walking into darkness, and we need look no further than the twentieth century for particularly impactful examples. Before long passivity leads to “just following orders”, which in Dante’s theology would scarcely be an absolution. The message is clear: moral uprightness requires constant vigilance. 

“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” So says Dumbledore. So – kind of – does Dante. He arrives at the foot of a Hill – later described as “the beginning and reason of all joy” – which is “clothed in rays from the planet (the Sun) that leads all others, on any road, aright”. The Sun represents the “illuminating grace and righteousness of the Creator” (Higgins) and will play an important role in Purgatorio. The Hill might represent the “virtuous life to which Dante aspires” (Higgins) – or just hope (Kirkpatrick, following Psalms 24:3, 43:3, 121:1). 

Whether the “virtuous life” or “hope” itself, the Hill – and Sun – give Dante some hope of extricating himself. He begins the climb. But his progress is impeded by three beasts plucked straight from the Bible (Jeremiah 5:6): the leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf. (In Jeremiah, the latter is just “wolf”. What the significance of the change is, I don’t know. But there’s the obvious connection between she-wolf and Rome, which features heavily in the Comedy.) The three beasts are typically understood as representing three sins: lust, pride, and avarice, respectively. 

Of the three it is the she-wolf, avarice, which has the greatest effect on Dante; it is her relentless approach that ultimately forces him “back down to where the sun is mute”. “Avarice, for Dante, characterizes the never-ending pursuit of false and unsatisfying goods” (Kirkpatrick). This includes the pursuit of political status or power; “ambition” of the kind that justified Julius Caesar’s assassination in Shakespeare’s play – “ambition’s debt is paid”. In the fourth circle of hell, we will see Dante considers this the most common sin – “Here the biggest crowd had come together” Canto VII, 25. 

So despite his desire Dante is unable to crest the Hill. Why might this be? Why is Dante’s wish to lead a virtuous life alone not enough to make it happen? Of interest here is a difference in translation (Canto II, 120): in Kirkpatrick’s rendering Dante’s failed attempt on the Hill is simply called a “path way”. But Sisson refers to it as a “short cut”. Whichever is more correct, the latter translation makes a lot of sense. Per Wood: “We will not discover truth, goodness, happiness, beauty, until we know we have lost it.” In this understanding, it is necessary to fully appreciate what it is to be damned before virtue can be attained. 

Dante, indeed, must find salvation by another route. In flight from the Hill and its beasts, Dante encounters Virgil, the Ancient Roman poet. On learning Virgil’s identity, Dante has a bit of a fanboy moment. Virgil first appears as a man “who – long silent – seemed faint and dry.” This must be understood allegorically. Virgil represents reason, or “philosophical wisdom”; he “represents the highest virtues of mankind before the enlightenment of Christianity.” (Higgins). In allegorical context then, Virgil’s long silence is reflective of how Dante arrived in the woods: he’s been asleep at the wheel, failing to adequately exercise reason. 

Dante must go by another way, Virgil says, because “that beast (the she-wolf/avarice)… does not allow others to pass her way, but holds them up, and in the end destroys them.” Virgil offers himself as guide to Dante via the other way; and outlines the journey ahead – through Hell and Purgatory. And though Dante’s journey will go on, to Paradise, Virgil will not – for that leg a “more worthy” guide will be required. 

Though an example of man, Virgil is ultimately lacking – just as philosophical wisdom, in Dante’s theology, has its limits. Virgil is “one of the rebels against His law”, he cannot enter the city of God; nor, generally, can any non-Christian. Dante’s guide through Paradise will be a representative not of philosophical wisdom but of divine wisdom, of faith. 

Naturally enough, Dante accepts Virgil’s offer and the chance of escape from the woods: the pair move on, with reason leading the way. 


Canto II 

Dr. Anthony Nussmeier presents the video for Canto II and, quoting Charles Singleton, says: “The fiction of The Comedy is that it is not fiction.” 

In a way, that’s redundant, the fiction of most fiction is that it isn’t. To some readers, including myself, a journey through the Afterlife must necessarily be fiction. For reading purposes, though, we are supposed to understand that Dante the Poet – prior to writing – really did make this journey as Dante the Pilgrim (an important distinction between the “two Dantes”). 

Important as well, however, even if we do not accept Dante went there, to his mind the Afterlife is very real. He is writing about places he believes exist: in the same way that I might, say, write a story set in Australia. Dante made his own discernment between the literal and allegorical content of the Comedy, which is mentioned by Higgins: literally, the poem is about “the state of souls after death”; allegorically, about “man as deserving the reward or punishment of justice, according to both his merits or demerits in the exercise of his free will.” Make of that what you will. Onward, to Canto II. 

Which begins with Dante the Poet making a “formal exordium”, in which he seeks help from the Muses to guide his pen. Here, the non-fictiveness is suggested: the Poet does not seek creativity but fidelity. His anxieties are those of a prophet, unsure of his abilities to effectively convey the majesty which he must. While the Poet doubts his abilities, the Pilgrim does the same. 

He asks Virgil – who, having written the Aeneid, is an authority on journeys through the underworld – whether “[I am] in spirit strong enough for you to trust me on this arduous road?” Eager though the Pilgrim was in just the last Canto, he is now waylaid by fears – of what lies ahead – and self-doubt. The fear needs no explanation: the man is about to venture into Hell!

While his fear is largely a concern for the future; the self-doubt is more a reflection of the past – it is a question of in whose footsteps he follows. Dante refers to Aeneas, the subject of Virgil’s play: who braved the underworld, foresaw the Roman Empire, and produced the ‘Gens Iulia’ (Aeneas offspring, a line of descent that would include Julius Caesar). [As I understand it, I have not read the Aeneid yet.] 

The way Dante co-opts pagan mythology here and throughout is noteworthy. Again, fiction is not fiction. Instead of the wholesale dismissal of pagan “religion”, Dante assimilates it. If Aeneas went to the Underworld, so be it: but he actually went to the Christian Hell, he was simply unaware of it. Virgil, too, as a pre-Christian, lacked the Christian knowledge to call Hell what it is, but it was still Hell, which (as we’ll learn in Canto III) has “always” existed. 

A second precursor to Pilgrim Dante is Saint Paul. As the Lord’s “chosen vessel” (Acts 9:15), Paul was granted a vision in life of “divine glory” (Kirkpatrick); he was “caught up to the third heaven… caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for man to utter.” (2 Corinthians 12:2-4) 

Dante, understandably, considers Aeneas and Paul tough acts to follow. “But me? Why me? Who says I can? I’m not your own Aeneas. I am not Saint Paul. No one – not me! – could think I’m fit for this.” “If I resign myself to going I fear my journey may be a foolish one…” 

In expressing hesitancy Dante finds himself back where he started, “on that obscure hillside”. Once again, desiring a virtuous life, but lacking the conviction to pursue it further. Sympathising, and hoping to quell Dante’s “cowardice” (or, “ignominious dread”), Virgil recounts how he came to be a part of Dante’s story. Here, effectively, is a flashback. 

In Limbo, the first circle of Hell, Virgil is approached by Beatrice (which, apparently, is pronounced Be-ah-tri-sha). Beatrice will later serve as Dante’s guide through Paradise, the aforementioned representation of “divine wisdom”. Dante himself considered Beatrice “the central figure in the Commedia, and also of his Christian understanding.” (Kirkpatrick). In Limbo, she asks Virgil to help Dante out of his present strife (woods, hill, and beasts), and explains her motive in asking: “Love is my mover, source of all I say.” 

In this episode we see Virgil’s first failure of understanding – for not having “the faith”. He wonders how it is that Beatrice shows no fear in descending from Heaven to Hell. She explains that the suffering and flames cannot affect her by the Grace of God. This idea will extend to Dante in subsequent Cantos, we will see that whatever is willed “up there” will be. 

She further explains what it is appropriate to fear – and, again, I find a contrast in translation interesting. In Kirkpatrick: “We dread an object when (but only when) that object has the power to do some harm.” In Sisson however: “One has to fear only the things which have the power of hurting others…” Granted, the “others” in the latter might be read as “things which can hurt things other than itself”. But an alternate reading: to fear only things which can hurt “others than ourselves” – I think – is more consistent with the ideas of the Comedy as a whole. I don’t, however, claim to know which Dante would have preferred. 

Beatrice then recounts how she became concerned in present events – starting a flashback within a flashback. It is not, it turns out, she alone that wishes Dante’s safe passage. The Virgin Mary herself, “grieves at [Dante’s] impasse”, and brings it to the attention of Saint Lucy. Saint Lucy is the patron saint of eyesight, to whom Dante was particularly devoted (Kirkpatrick). Lucy then speaks with Beatrice, imploring that she help Dante, “who loved [Beatrice] so greatly that for [her] sake he left the common herd.”

“The common herd” can be understood with reference to Dante’s claims already mentioned, Beatrice was the central figure in his Christian understanding, his muse: the Helen Hunt to his Jack Nicholson (“You make me want to be a better man”). It might also refer more particularly, but relatedly, to Beatrice inspiring Dante to move away from the popular poetry of his youth, which glorified “the treacherous doctrines of courtly love” (Higgins) – which, again, will be of concern later in Inferno

Suffice it to say, Beatrice does decide to help, which takes her to Virgil. Virgil, too, agrees to help, which takes him to Dante. And so, the flashbacks both resolve. Before concluding this Canto, a few words on the nature of the relationships between the three heavenly women. Lacking in Beatrice’s telling is any sense of hierarchy – no orders are given. Such will be explored in depth in Paradiso – but from memory: all in Heaven are perfectly in tune with the “divine will”. Orders, therefore, would be entirely redundant: the “divine will” – God being “perfectly good” – always wants what is good. It is enough, for now, to realise that whatever one heavenly being “wants” reflects what all of them “want”. 

So… the flashbacks have resolved, Dante is in possession of the facts: that three great ladies in Heaven are looking out for him. Thoroughly emboldened, he is ready to make the pilgrimage. As Above, “a single will” now informs both he and Virgil; where the latter goes the former must surely follow. They move on, entering “the deep and thorny way.” 

CANTOS I & II Together

The first Canto is often thought of as a prologue to the Comedy. Nussmeier suggests that Canto II is something of an extended prologue. The first Canto is, in some ways, the Comedy writ small – it begins in the darkness of woods and, were it the end, would end in salvation. Of course, it is incomplete – as Canto II so quickly demonstrates. 

Both Cantos represent impediments to success. In the first, the impediments, allegory aside, are external forces – the beasts. In the second, Dante himself is the impediment. In both it is apparent that to live virtuously is not an easy task – it is an active undertaking, one cannot sleepwalk into it, and it requires conviction. 

These particular Cantos present ideas that do not have value only to Christians. While Dante’s goal is the “virtuous life” within those particular parameters, the path he’s on (allegorically) is one that anyone wishing to be a “good person” must also travel. In a recent read, Why the West Rules – For Now by Ian Morris, I was particularly intrigued by a few passages on “axial thought”:

“Axial age writings – Confucian and Daoist texts in the East, Buddhist and Jain documents in South Asia, and Greek Philosophy and the Hebrew Bible (with its descendants the New Testament and the Koran) in the West – became the classics, timeless masterpieces that defined the meaning of life for countless millions ever since. …

“…the classics all agree that their ultimate subject, a transcendent realm beyond our own sordid world, is indefinable… The second thing the classics agreed on was how to attain transcendence… Live ethically, renounce desire, and do unto others as you would have them do unto to you, and you will change the world… The process was always one of self-fashioning, an internal personal reorientation towards transcendence…” 

I’ll leave it there and hopefully be back with Cantos III – V some time soon. Thanks for reading!

—-

I’ve – clearly – been referring to 2 translations: 

  • Sisson (translator) & Higgins (notes), Oxford World’s Classics, 2008
  • Kirkpatrick (translator & notes), Penguin, 2012

The videos (Youtube): 

*Videos also available on 100 Days of Dante website

Lastly, I posted some thoughts I had after first reading The Divine Comedy earlier this year. If you want to have a look at that, the post is here.

What I Read in September 2021

Last month I read four books. It was only in the last week of September that I got back into the habit of consistent reading that has been lacking for some months. I read the following:

  • Why the West Rules For Now, Ian Morris (1- 25 Sep) 
  • The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells (8 – 21 Sep) 
  • Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (23 – 25 Sep)
  • The Spy and the Traitor, Ben MacIntyre (26 – 30 Sep) 

In Why the West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future Ian Morris attempts to answer the titular question. He presents a narrative spanning the entirety of human history because, he argues, only by doing so can we understand why it was “the West” that industrialised and came to “rule the world”. By understanding the “shape of history”, he says, we can also predict how the balance of power might change in the future. 

Morris is particularly concerned with dispelling “long term lock-in” and “short term accident” theories – which argue, respectively, that the West rules because it was destined to – for reasons of innate superiority – or its rule was simply a matter of chance. Neither of these, in Morris’ view, accurately reflect the facts precisely because they fail to consider the whole of history. How successful he is in dispelling either or both is matter for the reader – his ultimate conclusion, though, is that the West rules now because of the interplay between geography and, let’s say, the wheels of history. 

Whatever one makes of the conclusions, the journey is breathtaking. The scope of the book is incredible and for obvious reasons bears comparison to Harari’s Sapiens. From the dispersal of humans out of Africa to the computer age, the book is crammed full of interesting episodes from history, with archaeological insights and documentary evidence into how people lived or might have. Morris’ history is not only of events, but also of thought, and how an age’s dominant thinking influences what they do. Equally, it is not just about history but how we “know” history – or, indeed, how we may not know it. 

This selective history of humanity is utterly compelling from start to finish and whether the conclusion satisfies the reader or not, the way Morris always contextualises the history within his argument is incredible. (5 Stars) 


I don’t doubt that some people will be unimpressed – or, dare I say, offended – when I say that The War of the Worlds was the weakest of the books I read in September. Be assured, though, that that is only a reflection of how great the others were (or, at least, how much I liked them). I probably don’t even need to tell anyone that War of the Worlds is about the invasion of Earth (England) by Martians at the beginning of the twentieth century. 

Wells’ unnamed narrator tells us about the invasion in a fairly matter of fact way that somehow manages to be mostly engaging. “Mostly” except for a noticeable lull in the middle, in which the story seems to be only that “people were fleeing, they fled and fled, they left and right, and up down, such was the carnage that the people did flee,” for several chapters. It does briefly become tedious. But the novel mostly holds up and there is plenty to admire. 

Well’s creativity cannot be ignored. Although much of the content is familiar to a modern reader, it is only because creators for more than a century have been copying – directly or indirectly – Wells; he can hardly be penalised for that. The relative plainness of the narration still gives the reader plenty to think about – the narrator is writing in a post-invasion world and frequent references to this world are intriguing. We ultimately must reflect on how things would be different – and that even more so, perhaps, for readers of the time it was published. 

The England of which Wells writes, prior to the invasion, is one that rules the world. It is one in which ideas of natural superiority, of a “right to rule”, were flourishing. It is an England that rules because it was meant to rule. What becomes of such ideas, then, when a biologically and technologically superior force emerges – does might (still) make right? The reader is presented with a turning point in history, but, a few hints aside, it is for the reader to ponder how it turned. 

War of the Worlds is an essential read for its literary significance alone, but that aside it still holds up as an engaging and thought-provoking story. (4 Stars) 


Perhaps most people reading this will know what Never Let Me Go is “about” – with its sci-fi/dystopia trappings. Still, I do not want to spoil that for anyone in the dark; and, in truth, that is just the dressing on a story about how we live and grow as humans. Ishiguro’s world is different from our own and yet entirely familiar. 

Kathy H. narrates her life from childhood, in the exclusive and secluded Hailsham School, to her adulthood, as a carer. The story unfolds beautifully, in a conversational way, one memory leading and yielding to another – memory plays an important role and the tangents, or associations, perfectly capture the workings of memory. We come to understand that despite being different from us in a major way, Kathy and her peers are broadly the same as us. Their growth echoes our own. 

In the secluded Hailsham the students know of the “outside” but do not know it; in much the same way as the child is disconnected from adult life. On the cusp of adulthood, Kathy moves to the cottages, a buffering zone between familiarity and the outside proper – a place and time from which independence can be grasped, if only it is really desired. Then, in adulthood, lingering questions – How does the past define us? Should we hold on or move on? – and the central problem: the fact of an end. 

The fact of an end is a fact from conception. Yet it is one typically revealed to us incrementally, and through obfuscation. Like Kathy, we are “told and not told”. It is the fact, though, around which we create context for our lives – how we respond to it determines how we live. Coming of age stories – as Never Let Me Go is – deal with the end of youth, but more broadly they deal with “ends” as a concept. Coming to terms with our own ending is coming of age proper. Though there are other prominent themes – othering, for example – it is the question of endings that, for me, dominates the book. 

Don’t expect, because of its “genre”, an action-packed adventure, this is a quiet, reflective novel. It is also a must read. (5 Stars)


The last book I read in September was The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War. I can’t say with any certainty whether it merits that subtitle, I can only say that having read Ben Macintyre’s account I absolutely believe that it does. This is story of Oleg Gordievsky, Soviet citizen, KGB Colonel, and informant to MI6. 

The book is gripping throughout and as exciting as any fictional spy story on the market. Macintyre takes us from Gordievsky’s early life and recruitment by the KGB, through his disillusionment with the regime and secret opposition, to his interrogation and doubtless imminent execution, to a daring and improbable MI6-aided escape from the heart of Russia itself. It’s an unbelievable story. Equally astounding is the very real impact that Gordievsky seems to have had on how the Cold War played out, were it not for him things could have been very different for all of us. 

Above all, though, it is the human elements that make this book so captivating. What motivates a person to spy on their own country, to be a traitor? What is the toll of living a double life? What meaningful relationships can be formed by someone who cannot reveal their true selves? In short: what price, freedom? Writers of historical fiction would surely envy the way Macintyre seamlessly situates Gordievsky’s own person with a broader global context – it helps, of course, that it’s all true. 

I can understand that some might think of this and books like it as “dad reading!”. But if this is not the type of thing you’d normally read, I can think of no better place to start than with The Spy and the Traitor. (5 Stars) 


The books I read in September really impressed me and without hesitation I would recommend all four of them. Hopefully, I’ll read more than four in October. How was your September? Thanks for reading!

TopTenTuesday: Fall 2021 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

This week’s Top 10 is ‘Books on My Fall 2021 TBR’. 

I am just going to choose the ten books I’m most looking forward to – hopefully – reading in the rest of the year, whether in the autumn or not. Here they are…


TEAM of RIVALS: the POLITICAL GENIUS of ABRAHAM LINCOLN — Doris Kearns Goodwin

Acclaimed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin illuminates Lincoln’s political genius in this highly original work, as the one-term congressman and prairie lawyer rises from obscurity to prevail over three gifted rivals [William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates] of national reputation to become president. … This brilliant multiple biography is centered on Lincoln’s mastery of men and how it shaped the most significant presidency in the nation’s history. 

I’m looking forward to this for no reason other than that I find Abraham Lincoln absolutely fascinating and inspiring. I really should have read this volume long ago, considering how long I have had it. 2021 is the year I’ll finally do so. 


The GOSPEL ACCORDING to JESUS CHRIST — José Saramago

 For José Saramago, the life of Jesus Christ and the story of his Passion were things of this earth: a child crying, a gust of wind, the caress of a woman half asleep, the bleat of a goat or the bark of a dog, a prayer uttered in the grayish morning light. The Holy Family reflects the real complexities of any family, but this is realism filled with vision, dream, and omen. Saramago’s deft psychological portrait of a savior who is at once the Son of God and a young man of this earth is an expert interweaving of poetry and irony, spirituality and irreverence. The result is nothing less than a brilliant skeptic’s wry inquest into the meaning of God and of human existence. 

I’ve previously read about half of Saramago’s reimagining of the life of Jesus, but after stopping to read a different reimagining of the life of Jesus (Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation) it didn’t seem right to continue where I left off nor, at the time, did I want to start again. I know, then, pretty much what the book has in store for me, and know already that I like it. I’m eager to learn how it resolves and what it says about the ‘big questions’ mentioned above. 


S.P.Q.R.: a History of Ancient Rome 

SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us. Covering 1,000 years of history, and casting fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire, this is a definitive history of ancient Rome.

S.P.Q.R. would not, I think, have been something I would have been eagerly anticipating reading at the start of the year. The history of Rome, in truth, never particularly interested me. But reading Cicero and Dante earlier in the year, as well as Why the West Rules – For Now by Ian Morris more recently, has completely changed that. 


WUTHERING HEIGHTS — Emily Brontë

Lockwood, the new tenant of Thrushcross Grange on the bleak Yorkshire moors, is forced to seek shelter one night at Wuthering Heights, the home of his landlord. There he discoveres the history of the tempestuous events that took place years before: how Heathcliff, an orphan, was raised by Mr. Earnshaw as one of his own children. Lockwood learns of the intense and passionate romance between Heathcliff and Cathy Earnshaw, and her betrayal of him. As Heathcliff’s bitterness and revenge are visited upon by the next generation, their innocent heirs must struggle to escape the legacy of the past. Heathcliff’s terrible vengeance ruins them all – but still his love for Cathy will not die..

Simply put, it’s a classic and I like classics. That’s it. I’ve heard people love it, I’ve heard a great Kate Bush song inspired by it, I’ve seen William Wyler’s absolutely beautiful film version of it, and now I want to read it. 


The COMPLETE SHORT STORIES — Franz Kafka

This volume contains all of Kafka’s shorter fiction, from fragments, parables and sketches to longer tales. Together they reveal the breadth of Kafka’s literary vision and the extraordinary imaginative depth of his thought. Some are well known, others are mere jottings, observations of daily life, given artistic form through Kafka’s unique perception of the world.

This will be a welcome change of pace since I haven’t read any short stories this year – well, no short story collection. I’ve also never read Kafka before, so am very much looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about. I’m planning to read these gradually – one story a day. 


The PIGEON TUNNEL: STORIES FROM MY LIFE — John le Carré 

From his years serving in British Intelligence during the Cold War to a career as a writer, John le Carré has lived a unique life. In this, his first memoir, le Carré is as funny as he is incisive – reading into the events he witnesses the same moral ambiguity with which he imbues his novels. Whether he’s interviewing a German terrorist in her desert prison or watching Alec Guinness preparing for his role as George Smiley, this book invites us to think anew about events and people we believed we understood.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the only other work by le Carré I’ve read yet – but I have read that three times, so in that way I’m an admirer. That’s the only explanation that’s really needed to explain why I’m looking forward to his memoir. I’ve been meaning to read something else by him for a long time and just haven’t got round to it. Plus, an appearance from Ben Kenobi himself? Sign me up. 


ATOMIC: The FIRST WAR of PHYSICS and the SECRET HISTORY of the ATOM BOMB, 1939 – 49 — Jim Baggott

Spanning ten historic years, from the discovery of nuclear fission in 1939 to ‘Joe-1’, the first Soviet atomic bomb test in August 1949, Atomic is the first fully realised popular account of the race between Nazi Germany, Britain, America and the Soviet Union to build atomic weapons. Rich in personality, action, confrontation and deception, Jim Baggott’s book tells an epic story of science and technology at the very limits of human understanding.

A fair portion of my reading this year has been ‘Cold War’ focused in which, obviously, nuclear arms played a significant role. In keeping with that theme I’m ready for an in-depth look into the development – and deployment – of these weapons during and after the Second World War. 


The BIG SLEEP — Raymond Chandler

When a dying millionaire hires Philip Marlowe to handle the blackmailer of one of his two troublesome daughters, Marlowe finds himself involved with more than extortion. Kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in.

Firstly, the Humphrey Bogart movie is a classic and I have no objection to reading the book after having seen the film. You simply can’t beat a good detective story and this apparently is one of the greats. Moreover, if that’s true, I plan to read the other books in the ‘Philip Marlowe’ series – so here’s hoping! 


GRAVITY’S RAINBOW — Thomas Pynchon

We could tell you the year is 1944, that the main character is called Tyrone Slothrop and that he has a problem because bombs are falling across Europe and crashing to earth at the exact locations of his sexual conquests. But that doesn’t really begin to cover it. Reading this book is like falling down a rabbit hole into an outlandish, sinister, mysterious, absurd, compulsive netherworld. As the “Financial Times” said, ‘you must forget earlier notions about life and letters and even the Novel.’ Forty years since publication, “Gravity’s Rainbow” has lost none of its power to enthral.

As if that plot description wasn’t intriguing enough, the fact this book was name-dropped in ‘Knives Out’ as one nobody had read – I want to join the ranks of nobody! – and was called “unreadable”, “overwritten”, “turgid”, and “obscene” by the Pulitzer advisory board makes it instantly alluring to people like me. 


The MOONSTONE — Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone, a priceless Indian diamond which had been brought to England as spoils of war, is given to Rachel Verrinder on her eighteenth birthday. That very night, the stone is stolen. Suspicion then falls on a hunchbacked housemaid, on Rachel’s cousin Franklin Blake, on a troupe of mysterious Indian jugglers, and on Rachel herself. The phlegmatic Sergeant Cuff is called in, and with the help of Betteredge, the Robinson Crusoe-reading loquacious steward, the mystery of the missing stone is ingeniously solved.

About The Moonstone, I know only the vaguest details. For instance, that it’s the first ‘detective’ novel – which is probably my main attraction to it right now. Honestly, I am as excited for this as several others not listed here and probably slightly less than anything listed above – but I needed 10, and this is my 10th. 


So those are the ten books I’m most looking forward to reading in the rest of the year. If you want to take part in Top Ten Tuesday, check out the link at the top of the page – or, if you prefer, just let me know what books you’re excited to read in the comments. 

Thanks for reading! 

Six Future Rereads

Despite being embarrassingly behind on my reading this year, and knowing that can only be remedied by actually reading, I have become expert at putting off today what I can do tomorrow – and tomorrow and tomorrow. Thus, instead of reading, I present this post.

Procrastination aside, a constant threat to my reading plans, to which I have not yet yielded, is the allure of re-reading. Oh, how some books call out to me. “Mark, read me again, you know you like me, why risk being disappointed in something new?” Here, then, are 6 books that I am eager desperate to reread. 

These, for the record, are all books that I have previously read only once. So, despite feeling that I am always on the verge of rereading Lolita, A Single Man, and Crime and Punishment – my canonical favourites – they will not be discussed here. Except for that brief mention, of course. 


The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

The Stars My Destination is a science-fiction take on Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, which I haven’t read. Stars, though, is absolutely exhilarating, I devoured it two years ago and have since recommended it countless times to anyone who’ll listen. Its immediate effect was to demonstrate how much I’ve potentially missed out on having read so little sci-fi – Hitchhiker’s Guide being, probably, the only notable example. I’ve since purchased quite a few to fix that oversight, but have yet to read most of them. Whenever I reread The Stars My Destination, I intend to do so alongside its inspiration (The Count); my own hype for this indefinite date is very high. 


The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis

I had desperately wanted to read The Last Temptation for years before finally getting to it, and good grief was it worth the wait. Translated from Greek, the language is utterly beautiful, lyrical, it flows from the page, and the story itself – a re-imagining of the life of Christ – nothing short of captivating. Jesus in Kazantzakis’ telling is thoroughly humanised and all the more impressive for it. I think I can safely say, based on how much I had wanted to read it and how I felt once I had, that this book fulfilled – exceeded – my expectations more than any other book. Ever.

Here’s a fun fact: One of the books I plan to read this year, if my plans get back on track, is José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. I purchased that book specifically because the bookstore did not stock The Last Temptation. I read the first half at the time, but had ordered the latter from Amazon – the temptation, when The Last Temptation arrived, was too great and The Gospel was cast aside in its favour. 


Lanark: A Life in Four Books by Alasdair Gray

In a recent “tag” post, I suggested there were two reasons to reread a book: to relive it or to reevaluate it. Lanark, unlike my previous two picks, is firmly in the latter category. The book is a true behemoth of Scottish literature, the best of the twentieth century according to Iain Banks; a “shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom” according to Anthony Burgess, who also called Gray “the best Scottish novelist since Sir Walter Scott”. I was so primed to be blown away by Lanark and then… I wasn’t. It had a strong start, but then, I felt, it fizzled out, it went in directions that I was not enamoured of, I just didn’t get the appeal. I hated that, and I want to be wrong; and so, I have to give Lanark another chance. 


Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt

Back now to books I want to relive and my first non-fiction pick. Hannah Arendt’s account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the primary organisers of the Nazi’s “final solution”, in Jerusalem, 1961 had me hooked from start to finish. In truth, I can’t remember exactly what gripped me, whether it was the subject, the writing, or Arendt’s philosophical points on “the Banality of Evil”. I assume, though, that it was all three and more. Though the subject is grim, I am so looking forward to revisiting this one; I like grim. 

Also, some friendly advice: read Eichmann in Jerusalem rather than watching any of the several films about the events. I’ve seen a few of them – perhaps all of them – and none come close to the book. If you haven’t read the book, read it, you (probably) won’t regret it. 


Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Despite not paying much attention to new releases, hype trains, and the like, Sapiens, I know, was quite the sensation. I loved it. It would have been one of those non-fiction books difficult to not put down, had I not read it at work, where I had lots of downtime, but not so much that I could give it the attention it really deserved. So, with Sapiens there is some crossover between the desire to relive and to reevaluate. 

I can also see that to my reasons for rereading I can justly add a third reason: to recap. Since, though I do want to read Sapiens again for its own sake; the urge would not be so pressing – I would not be desperate to do so – were it not for my also wishing to read Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, the sequel. It makes a lot of sense to recap Sapiens especially considering the minimal attention I was able to give it before – before reading the follow up.


East of Eden by John Steinbeck 

Lastly, but not leastly, is East of Eden. It was only in April of this year that I read the book for the first time, and from the very moment of finishing it I have wanted to read it again. In fact, I wanted to read it again before I had finished. In common with other books mentioned here, I truly “lived” this book, it took hold of me and did not let go, and it had not let go even weeks after I read the last page. I savoured this book, I prolonged my reading of it; the characters, the themes, the writing, everything was, to me, flawless. It was my first Steinbeck, and while I will be reading others, I will not feel the slightest bit of guilt in rereading this before trying anything else by him.


There you have it, the six books that I am particularly excited to reread. I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the above – since, obviously, there’s no risk you’ll spoil them for me. Also, what are some books you’re looking forward to rereading? 

Thanks for reading! 

Tory MPs and the Vaccine Passport

This wonderful clip about vaccine passports appeared on the news the other day, and I was so glad that someone had posted it to Youtube:

‘Number 10 [Downing Street, Prime Minister’s headquarters] was trying a passport system at the gate here, when they had a reception for Tory MPs, you had to show your QR code. The Tory MPs just stood there and said, “Well we’re not coming then. ” And Number 10 folded.’

I’m rarely able to muster any respect for Tory MPs, but this impressed and amused me.

Some Thoughts: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’

Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is unusual in that it drew my attention pretty much around the time of its release, in 2018 (though, of course, I didn’t read it until now). That’s unusual because (a) I don’t keep up with book releases, I have little idea what’s been recently released and even less of an idea what is soon to be. More unusual still because (b) it’s true crime, in which I have minimal interest. I’ll read true crime, but it’s not my passion. 

What I think probably drew me to it was the subtitle: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer. True to that, the book is arguably as much about McNamara as it is about the ‘Golden State Killer’, and by extrapolation all those who spend their free time collecting and connecting disparate clues in the hopes of achieving that Scooby-Doo moment: “unmasking” the killer. 

What follows should not be considered a review or even a summary, it’s just a series of thoughts. But I do recommend I’ll Be Gone in the Dark to anyone willing to enagage with such subject matter. 


The ‘Golden State Killer’ committed (at least) 13 murders, 50 rapes and 120 burglaries throughout California in just 12 years (1974-86). 

He was a part of a wider phenomenon: “US crime rates show a steady rise in violent crime throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, peaking in 1980. [Martin Scorsese’s] Taxi Driver came out in February 1976; the bleak and violent film was hailed as an encapsulation of its time, to no one’s surprise.” Within that increase in violent crime, the 1970s saw the beginning of what crime historian, Harold Schecter called ‘the golden age of serial murder’. (1: Here

That phenomenon in the late twentieth century changed the rules – or seemed to, at least – and suddenly, it could happen anywhere, it could happen here. “Stories of growing up in Sacramento,” where the first three GSK attacks took place, McNamara writes, were “a tangle of sweet and scary, small-town postcards with foreboding on the back.” The activities of GSK and others changed “people’s relationship with nature”, they changed people

‘Taxi Driver’ may well be the perfect encapsulation of its time, as a whole. But this new fear in suburbia has, I think, a better cinematic encapsulation. Released in October 1978, “three days before” a GSK attack, was John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’. It’s a movie of considerably less “depth” than ‘Taxi Driver’, but is at least equally influential cinematically. While it requires no recap, its simplicity makes it easy to do: masked killer stalks babysitters in suburbia. 

Michael Myers, said “masked killer”, is named in the film, but his victims don’t know it. Apart from one they are oblivious to his existence until the very last moments of their lives. The one, the survivor, Laurie, doesn’t know his name either: to her, he is “the boogeyman.” To Michael’s psychiatrist, the killer is more akin to a force of nature, evil incarnate. Near the beginning of the film Michael escapes from a psychiatric institution, Loomis, the psychiatrist cries: “He’s gone from here! The evil is gone!” (Yes, by all indications he’s a terrible psychiatrist.)

Sequels aside – the film ends the same way, Laurie survives the night of terror but “the evil is gone”, and he could be anywhere, he could be here. The viewer is left without resolution, the credit* for the masked killings is given not to Michael, but to ‘The Shape’. 

To moviegoers it must have hit uncomfortably close to home; exactly where it was supposed to. There were other ‘shapes’ out there, real ones; who, like Michael, left behind them victims, survivors and terror. In the absence of their true names they too were given monikers. The ‘GSK’ was one of these shapes – he was ‘the East Area Rapist,’ and ‘the Original Night Stalker’. Decades later, still elusive, still haunting, a new name, coined by McNamara, the ‘Golden State Killer’. 


What is it like to be “haunted” by one of these boogeymen? Some readers, I’m sure, will know personally. McNamara – and the title – uses the term “obsession”, but I feel “haunted” is as accurate. She recounts being told: “…you’ve got to watch out, to take care of yourself. Or it can consume you.” 

Later, she tells us about her 8th wedding anniversary: “I realize later that for two years in a row my wedding anniversary gift has been, in some way or another, about the [GSK]. But that’s not even the most telling sign of how much he’s come to dominate my life. That would be the fact that I’ve forgotten to get Patton [Oswalt, husband] as much as a card.” 

Earlier, she wrote: “Him. The third person at every interview I conduct…” Reasonable, the interviews being about him, but we get the sense that’s not all, as the anniversary scene and others suggest. The ‘shape’ had become a third person in her marriage, he perhaps went shopping with her, and, probably, while she wrote about him, the ‘shape’ was peering over her shoulder. 

The ‘shape’ of a man, incomplete for the lack of a face. The need for a face – and name – “haunted” McNamara: “He loses his power when we know his face.” 

How many times did she think that – at last! – she had seen his face? 

“… falling for a suspect is a lot like the first surge of blind love in a relationship. Focus narrows to a single face… No amount of information on the object of your obsession is enough. You crave more. Always more… You engage in wild confirmation bias. You project. A middle-aged white man smiling and cutting a cake… on Facebook isn’t celebrating his birthday, but holding a knife.” 


I’ll Be Gone in the Dark ends with an epilogue, ‘Letter to an Old Man’. It reads like free verse poetry and was one of my favourite parts of the book. 

Did the old man without a face read it? It can’t be ruled out. Criminals return to the scene. They reveal themselves when they ought to remain hidden. “One victim’s phone range twenty-four years after her rape… It was you… I imagine you dialing her number, alone in a small, dark room… the only weapon left in your arsenal, the ability to trigger terror with your voice.” The former brother-in-law of the GSK remembered: “He actually asked me about it once… He said: ‘What do you think of that East Area Rapist? What would you do [if you met him]?” (2: Here)

It is no stretch at all to think he might have read this book about him, nor is it much to suppose that other similarly defective human beings read about themselves. If he did, he would have been confronted with his future: 

“One day soon, you’ll hear a car pull up to your curb, an engine cut out. You’ll hear footsteps coming up your front walk… The doorbell rings… This is how it ends for you. “You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,” you threatened a victim once. Open the door. Show us your face. Walk into the light.” 

McNamara died before seeing his face. But we can, if we choose. We can see his face and we know his name: Joseph James DeAngelo. He was “unmasked”, arrested in 2018 and convicted in 2020. Michelle McNamara was right, the ‘shape’ that had terrorised a state had, with the addition of chains and the accumulation of age, become powerless. 


*Literally, in the film’s credits.

Links

1: ‘Why Were There So Many Serial Killers Between 1970 and 2000 – and Where Did They Go’ -RollingStone 

2: ‘Brother-in-law of Golden State Killer suspect reveals former cop asking him about the case years ago’ -DailyMail

**All other quotes from ‘I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’, Michelle McNamara (2018) -Goodreads**

The Seven DEADLY Sins Tag

I saw this tag over at The Corner of Laura and really liked the questions. Unfortunately, Laura tagged “anyone who loves learning about queens” and I… don’t, particularly. So I’m basically stealing. 


GREED: What is the most expensive book you own? What is the least expensive book you own? 

The most expensive books I own are law textbooks – because academic works are extortionate! I’ll differentiate though the required reading from the ones I chose to get, and the most expensive of those was A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. I aim to pay as little as I can and have no interest in special editions or the like. 

As for least expensive there are plenty of options. Ignoring free e-books, I frequent a nearby charity shop that sells two books for £1 – so I have plenty of 50p books. I also still have a few from a different charity shop that, back in the day, sold them for 25p. One such 25p book was Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut. 


GLUTTONY: What book(s) have you shamelessly devoured many times? 

I’ve said it before, there is one book that I have read far more than any others. Helped, in part, by its slimness, but also because it is one of my all-time favourites. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. I’ll never tire of it. 


SLOTH: What book or series have you neglected out of sheer laziness? 

Honestly, there isn’t a book I’ve neglected from laziness. I don’t consider reading a chore, after all. Instead, the book I’ve had the longest and not yet read – always being enticed by something else – is T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Next year for sure! 


PRIDE: What book(s) do you bring up when you want to sound like an intellectual reader? 

This is difficult as I never try to sound like anything but me. That said, I think I could, if I wanted, bring up some books I’ve read this year. Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (that title alone!); Dante’s Divine Comedy; Aristotle’s Politics; Cicero’s Republic; etc. Really, though, being an intellectual is surely less about what you read and more about how (or perhaps why) you read. 


LUST: What attributes do you find most attractive in your characters? 

I don’t really – to my knowledge – have a type of character I gravitate toward. As long as they are well realised. Since I have no answer here, here’s a bonus thought I scribbled down the other day while brainstorming – on what makes a good villain (character-related, see, I’m not entirely mad): 

“A great villain is one that challenges the reader’s (or viewer’s) own moral intuitions. They are either so abhorrent that we condone treatment of them that we normally would not. Or they are disconcertingly “right” and cast doubts on our own moral reasoning.”

It’s not perfect, it’s just a thought. 


ENVY: What books would you most like to receive as a gift? 

Boring answer: any. 

Boringer answer: I’d love it if someone bought me Volumes 2 & 3 of Charles Moore’s Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography. I got (and read) the first volume when it arrived in paperback years ago but still haven’t bought (or read) the others! 

Actually, “any” has a caveat, I would not like anyone to buy me a hardback. I would resent that, better that they had bought me nothing at all than a hardback. 


WRATH: What author do you have a love-hate relationship with? 

None – I care more about books than authors and expect perfection from no-one. 


That was fun – if anyone wants to buy me those Thatcher books… Anyway, wouldn’t it be cool if someone made a similar tag for the Seven Virtues – Chastity, Temperance, Charity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, and Humility. Not me, but someone could.

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