They Did Not Enlarge The Circle Of Her Acquaintance

Recently I was reading a biography of Jane Austen (review forthcoming) and I found a rather poignant extended quotation about the life and social circle of Jane Austen from her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, who was one of her first biographers:  “Jane Austen lived in entire seclusion from the literary world; neither by correspondence, nor by personal intercourse was she known to any contemporary authors.  It is probable that she was never in company with any contemporary authors.  It is probable that she never was in company with any person whose talents or whose celebrity equaled her own; so that her powers never could have been sharpened by collision with superior intellects, nor her imagination aided by their casual suggestions.  Whatever she produced was a home-made article…Even during the last two or three years of her life, when her works were rising in the estimation of the public, they did not enlarge the circle of her acquaintance [1](141-143).”

For a variety of reasons, this made me feel somewhat melancholy upon reading this.  The biggest reason for this is a certain feeling of empathy.  Despite the fact that Jane Austen lived the life of a spinster writer on the shabby edge of genteel poverty, she wrote six novels that have never been out of print and that are read and regularly turned into profitable adaptations.  During the course of her life she only made about 50£ a year or so from her writings from the time she began to seek publishing for her novels, most of that in the last few years of her life as she finished more novels and began to develop a reputation as a notable novelist.  And yet, as her nephew (who was himself a gentry landowner of considerable local influence) notes, Jane Austen was a literary genius more or less in isolation.  She lived in a small cottage in a small village that no one would care about if she hadn’t have lived there.  She passed her time with relatives who either were nowhere remotely near her level as a creative writer or intellect or who occasionally interfered with her writing process.  She was thoughtful in giving advice to others and in being a good audience for the writing efforts of relatives, but none of her regency writing peers dropped in or sent her a few pounds so that she could go on tour to the Lake District or Scotland or something like that.

I feel a certain indescribable sadness in thinking about how Jane Austen’s genius as a writer, genius that is easy to recognize for all of its irony and complexity today, for the subtlety of her work and her ability to draw great insights out of confined social circles and the very limited social world she and her characters inhabited.  Most writers greatly enjoy the company of other writers and find it easy to socialize with them.  Several of the greatest writers of the 20th century, including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, met several times a week in Oxford and in a local pub as part of a literary club where some amazing works were read, critiqued, and encouraged.  And this is not an isolated circumstance.  Writer’s conventions and circles and clubs are not very uncommon.  Creativity is by no means an easy thing to keep up and even those of us who are more reclusive and less sociable than the average writer still have a social circle, sometimes including other creative people, to encourage our writing and to comment upon what we have written.  To think that Jane Austen had just her own relatives and a few neighborhood women to appreciate her work is an immensely saddening thought.

It is not as if it had to be this way.  Part of Jane Austen’s isolation was no doubt due to the circumstances of her time and social circle.  Living her entire life under the shadow of the Wars of Revolution in Europe, it would have been by no means easy for Jane Austen to have acquired the sort of international group of associates that would have been possible during the Age of Johnson fifty years earlier or the Victorian period of Charles Dickens thirty to fifty years later.  During those times she likely would have been able to travel to France or America to talk to those who appreciated her novels or engage within the salon conversations of a cultured elite of which she would have been an honored part, no matter how genteel her poverty.  As it was, even within her own life, she received (through an intermediary) what amounted to a royal demand by the Prince Regent to dedicate one of her novels to him.  Given that her fame had reached to that level, it is only a matter of time before she would have made some friends among the writers of her time.

But time is not something she had a lot of.  By the time she died she had written six mature novels that remain part of the canon of English literature and whose reputation has only grown in the intervening decades as readers have found more and more to appreciate within Austen’s restrained but talented prose.  Two of those novels were published after her death, revealing the identity of the author to her reading audience as a whole for the first time.  Even in contemporary times it can take a while before a book is viewed as a classic, especially when that book is not an instant bestseller.  Even a writer like C.S. Lewis began seeking to publish his works in the period just after World War I and it was not until two decades or so later that he was recognized as a writer of note within the Christian world.  Jane Austen didn’t have that much time.  Sense & Sensibility, Austen’s first published work, came out in October 1811.  Within six years of her first publication, she was dead and buried in Winchester Cathedral.  She didn’t have enough time to build the word of mouth reputation that would have made her a cherished social fixture among fellow writers.  Even within her short life she had started drawing the attention of other writers, but just barely.  If she had lived longer, she could have been a grand dame of whatever small social circle in Hampshire she wanted to be a part of while enjoying frequent chats with the Jane Austen clubs of the British Isles and around the world, but she didn’t live long enough to reap the fruits of her writing.  And that is a great shame.

[1] Quoted from Shields, Carol. Jane Austen:  A Life.  New York:  Viking, 2001.  Print.

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Book Review: Enemies At Home

Enemies At Home (A Flavia Albia Mystery #2), by Lindsey Davis

If the Flavia Albia mystery series is inaugurated with a novel that reflects on the role of gender in dealing with Roman society and its occasional benefits in solving crimes and dealing with other women, this novel presents yet more social issues for the author to deal with when it comes to the problems of slavery.  As an American reader, I am used to dealing with fiction (and nonfiction) that deals sympathetically with the plight of slaves and with the danger that slaveowners faced as a result of their iniquitous tyranny over other men and women and their dependence on such labor at home.  And so it is that the novelist, obviously aware of the massive social issues of the Roman Empire and the fear that slaves would rise up and murder their masters.  This fear was one that all slave societies have possessed, from Nazi Germany and the gulag or laogai archipelagos to the antebellum South.  However much masters may mouth platitudes about the love and trust of their human property, the fear was there that their trusted slaves who bathed them and slept with them and cooked their food and did various other jobs would turn on them.

And that is precisely the mystery we find here.  When newlyweds are found naked and strangled in their beds at night, suspicion immediately falls upon their slaves, who escape to sanctuary.  The local aedile, which perhaps can be considered as a police chief of sorts, if one wants to translate it to contemporary American terms, hires Flavia to investigate the case.  The slaves cast aspersion on a local criminal operation which is told to have robbed the place, but they plead innocence while engaging in gangland violence that attacks Flavia’s uncles, who happen to be both brilliant attorneys and Senators, threatening the wrath of the Roman establishment on generally tolerated local criminality.  And the slaves try to stick to their story even in the face of contradictions and unpleasant realities, until Flavia is able to uncover most of the reality and wrestle with the reality of slavery in the whiny Dromo who follows her around for safety as a temporary body servant.  And, of course, we not only witness Flavia’s insight in solving a theft and series of murders (and a suicide) but also her lapses in judgment that endanger her life.

It is to the benefit of many readers that the author chose to write novels rather than screeds against the injustices of this and every age.  All too often writers assume that others, especially privileged white males who have a fondness for classical Greece and Rome, are the sort of people who need to be attacked for some sort of unenlightened beliefs and opinions about others.  Yet this novel does not attack its reader, but rather exposes the reader to moral complexities, including the way that masters use slaves as concubines to fulfill sexual lusts, and the way that slaves (and freedmen) are often ignorant of what is in their best interests and guilty of acting in ways or encouraging behaviors that threaten such security as they can have in the context of the unjust and unstable systems of slavery that have existed throughout history.  And rather than attacking readers, the author (correctly) assumes that the reader will have a great deal of sympathy for an intelligent but flawed heroine and for slaves who desire dignity but who find themselves imperiled by the system of slavery that denies their humanity and that places them in great harm of sexual and physical and emotional violence at home.  Every master feared enemies at home, but every slave had them by virtue of being a slave.

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Book Review: The Ides Of April

The Ides Of April (A Flavia Albia Mystery #1), by Lindsey Davis

Because I decided to take up a challenge in Goodreads that involved reading mystery novels, I thought I would try to find some historical mystery novels that I had not already read to add to my background in the genre, and I found the eight-novel Flavia Albia series to be worthy of note on a bit of a whim.  As far as whims go, it was a good one, although it did give me plenty of disturbing material to think about when it came to the similarities between the readers and the protagonists of such fiction, and perhaps the writers as well.  At any rate, this book definitely whetted my curiosity for the rest of the series and perhaps even the longer series that this one sprang from, but which will take considerable reading over the course of the next few months, if I choose to tackle it.  Whatever ends up happening in that regard, this book is certainly a worthwhile one to read and it manages to be a compact and deeply interesting tale that demonstrates the immense skill of the author and the fascination of the first century of Roman history for the reader.

The story is set with an independent youngish widow in her late 20’s seeking business as a private informer.  She finds herself with a bad client whose business ended up killing a small boy.  Then the client ends up dead, which leads Flavia to wonder how she is going to get paid.  Then of course, once other people end up dead of the same reasons, there are fears that a serial killer is on the loose, and we see Flavia’s poor taste in men as well as the trickiness of an intelligent working woman dealing with men who are not always respectful of her insight.  The search for victims leads Flavia and others to seek to determine the common link between them, and also eventually leads her to see herself as the next target of the murderous serial killer, who attacks her in the context of a religious festival that involves the death of foxes, at least one of which she considers as a pet.  The pace is kept up, the novel is full of insightful misdirection, and the climax and denoument are handled with considerable skill and interest for the reader fond of the dark times.

Can a mystery novel like this offer more than merely escapist fiction.  The reign of Diocletian, a time of political paranoia and division not unlike our own, would not immediately appear to be a propitious time to escape to.  The lead character, as an adopted widow born in Britain who survived a tough childhood that included rape, is certainly a character that presents the reader with significant challenges, most notably the fact that she has questionable judgment but high spirits and deep intellect.  The book, and likely the series as a whole, has unquestionably feminist goals–the portrayal of a socially ambiguous heroine who has senatorial and equestrian adoptive family connections but strives to make her own way and live her own life of dignity in the face of a dangerous ruler and the dishonorable position of a working woman and the legal limitations of her gender in the complex Roman social universe make it clear that gender issues are on the table.  But such gender politics as would be intolerable in an essay go down much easier in a well-written historical novel like this one where the reader’s sympathies are engaged with the spunky heroine rather than assaulted with the accusatory language of outrage culture.

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Book Review: The First Prehistoric Serial Killer And Other Stories

The First Prehistoric Serial Killer And Other Stories, by Teresa Solana

One of the thrills of reading good mystery novels (and, as in this case, good short story compilations) is the way that they demonstrate the author’s awareness of a particular location and what its culture and history and geography offer when it comes to crime fiction.  And it so happens that this author is Barcelona’s Best-selling crime writer, which means we get a lot of insight about the complexities of Catalan society as it relates to general shadiness.  If that was the only thing this offered, this book would be good enough, but the author manages to write with a great deal of wit and verve and has a keen grasp of characters who are continually forced to deal with the unexpected.  As an added bonus, not only do we get an enjoyable set of stories, many of which deal with Barcelona, but some of them are connected as well in interesting ways relating to the same set of crimes and characters that really fill out the world of the author nice and would likely make for a worthwhile contemporary Barcelona noir film with highly entertaining elements thrown into the general murder and mayhem that goes on.

The stories offer some surprises.  The first five stories are labeled as Blood, Guts, and Love.  We begin with “The First Prehistoric Serial Killer,” which looks at a detective dealing with a series of connected murders related to troglodyte feminist theory relating to sexuality.  Then comes “The Son-In-Law,” which deals with the attempt to disguise the murder of a wife-beating relative.  After that comes my favorite story of the book, “Still Life No. 41,” where a murdered artist’s own body is seen by mistake by an art museum as an exhibit, at least until it starts to decay.  “Happy Families” tells the story of class-prejudiced ghosts who haunt a family mansion, and “I’m A Vampire,” looks at the humorous and unexpected consequences of ill-timed comparison of someone to a vampire when someone is worried about competition and the suffering his human friends are dealing with.  The rest of the stories are call connected to a set of hits in Barcelona.  “Flesh-Colored People,” which deals with a Chinese-Catalan murder witness, “The Second Mrs. Appleton,” which looks at a British consul and his second wife and their mutual and successful efforts to off each other, “Paradise Gained,” “Mansion With Sea Views,” “I Detest Mozart,” “Birds Of A Feather,” “Barcelona Mon Amour,” and “But There Was Another Solution,” all of which deal with a small and interrelated set of people, and where are a surprisingly large number of dead bodies.

Again, there are a couple of elements that make this collection of stories particularly worthwhile.  For one, the stories themselves shine, as the author shows herself very aware of the need to have distinct and entertaining personalities and plots to drive the reader’s interest.  Here the author manages to summon a diverse set of characters who the reader cares about and put them in crazy plots that don’t have any wasted words and that reach unexpected conclusions.  The other real star of this selection of stories is the city of Barcelona itself and its surrounding areas.  The author shows a deft touch with the political and cultural realities of Catalan life in the Barcelona area, and a skill in turning the complexity of the Catalan situation in Spain into a series of stories that demonstrate the violence and snobbery and corruption just underneath the surface in aa way that makes the mossos, the local police system, appear more than usually incompetent in understanding, much less solving, the violence that is in their midst.

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1 Corinthians 14:34-35: Let [Your] Women Keep Silent: Part Three

Having previously [1][2] looked 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and discussed its controversial nature as well as its context within the whole biblical view of the public religious role of women, it is now time to turn our attention to the context of the scripture within Jewish tradition, having seen that there is no law in the Bible that forbids the involvement of women in public religious roles, and at least a few examples where this was done for women recognized as judges (Deborah) or prophetesses (Miriam, Huldah, Anna, the daughters of Philip the deacon, etc.).  Was there something in traditional Judaism that was immensely hostile to the involvement of women as religious authorities that would have made it possible for Paul to be responding in his plea for ordered religious matters to be making reference to the Talmud?

The siddur, the Jewish prayer book, includes within it three blessings that Jewish males are supposed to give to express their gratitude for not having been born a Gentile, a slave, or a woman [3].  It is likely that Paul was directly referring to this particular blessing in Galatians 3:28, when he wrote:  “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  The biblical blessing directly repudiates the nonbiblical Jewish one.  It is also quite likely that this blessing was being skewered in the Gospels when Jesus spoke of the Pharisee’s prayer with himself in Luke 18:9-12:  “Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Phariseestood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’”  What we see is that there is a clear biblical tradition–and not only in the New Testament–to be strongly negative of the sorts of biases that encouraged believers to look down on others.  

In addition to this, traditional Judaism of the kind that Paul was familiar with also would have included the separation of women within the synagogue [4] as well as the requirement for services of there being ten Jewish adult men (adult here meaning thirteen years of age or older).  It should be noted that Paul himself did not conduct himself according to these rules and regulations.  In particular, we have already noted in Acts 16 that when Paul went to Philippi, there were initially no men and therefore no synagogue, and so Paul started the congregation of believers there with a group of women who went out to pray by the riverside.  And rather then a requirement of ten men, the Gospels state rather plainly that Christ is present where two or three are gathered together in His name (Matthew 18:20), which marks the smallest acceptable size of a congregation.  Most congregations are larger, and some many times larger, but they can be this small given various circumstances.  We should note that whatever Jewish restrictions existed with regards to women were not ones that Paul would have been willing to view as binding.

It should be noted as well that the hostility to women within traditional Judaism is not something that comes from the Bible.  Indeed, it likely springs from Greek culture, where good women were to be silent and not present when the men hung around to talk about important subjects while being surrounded by servants and hetaerae.  The Bible views men and women as complementary and as partners, but the Greeks viewed the male as being considerably superior to the female in ways that directly attacked the dignity of women as well as the morality of the men.  It is quite possible that the high cultural cachet of following after the heathen culture of the Greeks made their hostility to womenfolk trendy and perhaps it even accounts in part for the reluctance that many people have to hearing serious opinions delivered by women.  And it should be noted that many women don’t like hearing what men have to say (and have coined a word, mansplaining, to refer to it) when it questions their own preconceived notions and prejudices.  As human beings in a fallen world we often find that there is division and conflict where it was intended that we should have a multitude of wise counsel coming from different perspectives to help us all overcome our own personal blind spots.

And so we are faced with a conundrum in that 1 Corinthians 13:34-35 on its face appears to confirm, or is at least interpreted to confirm, with the sort of prejudiced hostility to women that was found in contemporary culture and that the Bible was directly hostile to.  Given the whole biblical context of the view of women as complementary and spiritually as equals and co-heirs in the Kingdom of God, it is clear that this verse does not mean what we think it means.  But we are still left with the question of what it actually does mean.  Far from being a clear scripture that explains the biblical view of the place of women within worship, it is a deeply unclear verse that requires a strong sensitivity to context and the strong possibility that the verse is citing the thoughts and opinions of not particularly converted Corinthian men rather than the thoughts of God mediated through the dictation of Paul, especially when earlier in 1 Corinthians Paul had already stated that women could pray publicly (and thus not be “silent” in services) provided that they wore a headcovering that would show a sign of their acceptance of the authority of their husbands as the head of household.  Given this lack of clarity, even those who sincerely believe that this verse forbids women speaking are not being unreasonable, especially in those cases where they recognize the Bible’s high degree of respect and regard for women.  Nor is it unreasonable when people wonder if this verse was even originally written by Paul given the way that it breaks the flow of a passage that urges all believers to prophesy, which requires public speaking about the Gospel of the Kingdom of God as well as about the meaning and interpretation of the Bible, presumably including both men or women in this wish.  Likewise, we are left with the question of what are we to do about it?  It is to that question that we will now turn.



[3] See, for example:

[4] See, for example:

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On February 12, 2019, a lengthy naming dispute was ended between what is now called the Republic of North Macedonia and the Republic of Greece over the naming of the country.  For almost three decades the two countries have been in a state of serious disagreement over the name of a small and poor and landlocked country that gained its independence in the general collapse of Yugoslavia.  The area itself has been fought over by many peoples and not only consists of a large number of Macedonians (themselves a South Slavic people, at least linguistically) and Albanians, but was also one of the causes of wars in the 19th and early 20th century in which the Macedonians were considered by Bulgaria to be their own ethnic kindred and a legitimate part of their own nation and in the 20th century received an identity of their own and finally a nation-state of their own.  No longer do we have to watch international scenes like the Olympics where this nation is called by the awkward acrynom FYROM in order to appease the interests of Greeks who refused to let the republic be called simply Macedonia.  Now the fact that the nation is called North Macedonia will lead to the obvious question of where South Macedonia is, and the answer is that it is in Northern Greece.

It may be of some surprise that the unity (or lack thereof) of the territory of Macdonia has been an international incident.  The ancient Greekish kingdom of Macedon itself was a somewhat peripheral realm to the Greeks, seen as not fully Greek and not fully civilized, and its rise in the fourth century had dramatic consequences for the rest of the civilized world thanks to the military exploits of first Philip of Macedon and then his son Alexander.  Later on, during the rise of the Roman Empire, Macedon was eventually conquered in the second century BC by the Roman Republic and it was proposed to split up Macedonia into four provinces, which prompted a futile rebellion by the people who insisted on being put together as one province.  And so they were.  In our times, Greek and Slav can be at peace only if the area of Macedonia is viewed as sundered between the two linguistic and cultural regions and not unified under the rule of a small and obscure state.  Each age must find its own way to navigate concerns of identity and peace between quarreling parties.

It is not only in areas of international diplomacy where the issue of deadnames is particularly important.  Identity can be a serious issue.  Organizations and companies regularly change their names when their old name has suffered disrepute and they no longer want the baggage associated with that previous name.  In June of 2018, pharmaceutical giant Bayer purchased Monsanto and informed the world that they were going to drop the company’s infamous name, which has become associated with bullying tactics as well as a general lack of legitimacy in its aims and goals to pervert creation for their own corporate profit.  Let us note in many cases that the change of names does not signal that the company plans on behaving differently in the future, only that it wishes for a clean slate and not to be judged for the sins of its past.  The claiming of a new name tends to carry with it the desire to obliterate the past and to consign it to oblivion, and those who have changed their names and claimed a new identity are often hostile to being reminded of the past, and do not have a willingness to own up to that past.

So it is no surprise that our culture’s obsession with identity politics has led to problems regarding the naming of people.  In some areas it is considered a criminal offense to call someone by a previous name.  Before he gave himself the name of Muhammad Ali, the boxer was known as Cassius Clay.  Is it wrong to acknowledge him by the name he was given at birth?  Do parents have a right to name their children and have that name be a permanently valid identity, or is an identity only valid that is accepted and chosen for oneself?  In the realm of countries, we have seen that even sovereign nations do not possess unilateral names to call themselves what they wish, but those names must be recognized and negotiated over.  The fact that companies may want to dodge an acknowledgement of past wrongs by changing their corporation names is something that is such a disreputable concept that it was made fun of by one of the lamest songs of the 1980’s (Starship’s “We Built This City”, for the record).  It should be noted, appropriately enough, that the band Starship was itself the third iteration of a complex family of bands that had originally been known as Jefferson Airship and then Jefferson Starship.

In practice, therefore, the question of deadnames is something that requires a great deal of negotiation, not something that our current generation of identity politics-obsessed people is well-equipped to handle.  If who we are is to have any sort of stability over time, and if our identity is to have any legitimacy, then that identity must itself recognize the past as well as the present and future.  We may be better than we once we.  We may have faced various struggles and difficulties, and done things that we may not feel very well about now, but if we are to be acknowledged as people of honor and decency and worth, we must acknowledge not only who we are at present and what we want to be and do in the future, but the whole course of our existence.  To cast aside the past as a deadname that is not be referred to on pain of civil and criminal damages is deeply unjust to the cause of the truth.  This is true whether the party that wishes to bury the past is someone who claims to be transgender or a company that does not want to acknowledge or address past wrongs that besmirched its reputation.

This is, admittedly, a very tough-minded view.  Yet let us consider that the desire to escape the deeds of the past and the acquisition of new identities is not only a desire of the present generation.  Those who might be unhappy about being asked to accept their full past behavior, including behavior they currently regret, can be comforted by the example of the apostle Paul.  In Acts 26, we find Paul having to answer for what must have seemed the billionth time his own past life as a persecutor of Christians, which he greatly regretted after having had his Damascus conversion to Christianity, after which he became a very persuasive spokesman for the faith.  We find him addressing his unpleasant past in Acts 26:2-11:  ““I think myself happy, King Agrippa, because today I shall answer for myself before you concerning all the things of which I am accused by the Jews, especially because you are expert in all customs and questions which have to do with the Jews. Therefore I beg you to hear me patiently.  My manner of life from my youth, which was spent from the beginning among my own nation at Jerusalem, all the Jews know.  They knew me from the first, if they were willing to testify, that according to the strictest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.  And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers.  To this promise our twelve tribes, earnestly serving God night and day, hope to attain. For this hope’s sake, King Agrippa, I am accused by the Jews.  Why should it be thought incredible by you that God raises the dead?  “Indeed, I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  This I also did in Jerusalem, and many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.”  Paul goes on to explain his conversion and the change of life it entailed.  But let us note that Paul did not seek to hide his previous identity or the deeds he did, nor did he show himself angry when he had to repeatedly discuss his past life and how he changed from the past to the present.

After all, genuine conversion of any kind requires a drastic change from the past to the present.  Who we are now can only properly be seen from the context of the journey we have traveled from the beginning of life, from the experiences we have had, from the trials and struggles we have overcome, from the backgrounds we have either followed in or rejected, from the places we have known and how they have shaped us for better or worse.  If we are people of honesty and integrity, we will acknowledge the full extent of that course of life, even those parts which are less than flattering to ourselves, as part of the acknowledgement of what has shaped us to help form who we are today.  We cannot trust the identity of someone who has placed a great deal of their lives in secret and pronounced it a crime to investigate and uncover that past.  If people or institutions wish to be viewed with respect, that respect is earned through candor and openness about the past, including past identities and past identity commitments.  To hide a past identity is to admit that we are not people worth trusting with hearts and reputations and honor.  Rather, the identities we claim for ourselves must be negotiated in a world where not everyone is going to be favorable to our claims.  That is as much a fact of reality as any deadnames we or Monsanto might want to leave behind.

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Book Review: If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, by Italo Calvino


I might never have read anything by this author had I not seen a blurb for this book in a collection of great books I read over a decade ago.  And there are few books that I have read that are more Nathanish in the best possible way.  Not everyone will appreciate this book, but over the course of around 250 pages of fiction the author manages to deal with a suite of interrelated problems in a way that seeks to turn the author’s novel into a multilayered experience that wrestles with the question of the relationship between the author and the writer, the barriers to communication faced by readers, the struggles for intimacy between writers and readers and between readers and other readers who happen to read and enjoy the same books, and the author manages to do this without writing an interminably long and tedious essay but through the medium of writing a daring and experimental novel that consists of beginnings.  Even the book’s ending is a meta-ending in that it calls attention to a reader finishing the novel that the reader is himself (or herself) finishing at the same time.  As a combination between a brilliant if insanely complicated novel and a reflection on the task of communication that goes on between writers and readers, translators, textual critics, and governments, this book succeeds on all levels.

Again, though, this book is not a simple or straightforward read.  On one level, this book consists of twelve chapters that are interlaced with the beginnings of ten books.  As it so happens, the first of those ten books purports to be If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino, and thus the author makes the first layer of reality in having himself as a character and his own novel as a fragment within the course of the larger novel.  And we never move beyond the beginning of any of the ten texts that are discussed in this book, for various reasons.  Indeed, the effort on the part of the anonymous everyman reader to get to the bottom of the frustrated lack of closure to texts ends up involving him in obscure institutional politics, a relationship with a female reader who ends up being deeply involved in the efforts of a malicious publisher who wishes to disturb her by communicating with her through the sort of books she enjoys reading which he has mangled up.  The reader finds himself wrestling with questions of politics and the computational analysis of books to understand the mind of the writer through word counts and dealing with imprisonment in a nation where no one can be trusted and where censorship leads to imprisonment–a land not so unlike some I have visited and which have tormented my sleep.  And in the end, happily, for this is a novel, the reader’s search for closure and intimacy leads to a marriage with the female reader, and to the deserved happy ending the reader seeks.

But along the way, the author has brought up all kinds of issues and barriers to understanding that take place when it comes to writing and reading.  For there to be genuine intimacy between writer and reader there has to be trust that the publishing and (perhaps) translation of the text are faithful, and that there is something worth reading and enjoying in the text.  Furthermore, the enjoyment of texts involves one in questions of politics involving the body of literature that one is writing and involves one in intimate relationships with communities of readers who have their own thoughts and opinions and interests.  At any step along the way there are ways that this intimacy can be derailed by the inability to read a text, the lack of interest in reading through the possession of an agenda or an ax that one has to grind, and the fact that there are aspects to a book and layers that a reader simply may not pay attention to.  The novel has suspense, sex, intellectual humor, and despite its complexity it manages to be deeply, even obsessively, interested in the way that writers and readers relate to each other and appreciate the texts that form the basis of their relationship with each other and with other readers.  And what is more Nathanish than this obsessive interest in communication and intimacy and everything that imperils both of them?

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Book Review: Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino

This is an odd book, but it’s an odd book in the best possible way.  Set in the past, specifically during the time of Marco Polo and his travels to the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan in what is now China, this is a volume that explores the reality and imagination of cities.  The titular invisible cities are generally imaginary in nature, and there is both enough variety in the cities being described and enough coherence in the frame story that weaves the stories of these cities together to make the book a fascinating exploration of urban life as imagined by a very odd and very obviously urban Italian.  The author seems to hint that whatever sameness we feel about our cities is due to either a failure of observation in seeing what distinct and quirky elements are there or a failure of imagination in picture the diversity of cities that could possibly exist and settling for imitations and copies of other cities rather than the forming of unique and individual forms.  Either way, this book suggests that if we fault cities for being too dull and monotonous that the fault lies in ourselves and that we could have it better if we wanted it to be.

The book itself is a short one of a bit more than 150 pages.  The book is divided into nine parts, each of which begins and ends with a dialogue of some kind between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in which the Mongol emperor seeks some level of certainty about his struggling emperor and cannot manage to keep up with the fecundity of Polo’s imaginative description about cities that are hidden, continuous, connected to the sky and the dead, thin, related to eyes and desire and signs and trading and names and memory.  Over 50 cities are imagined by the author, each of them told in a short series of passages that is a page or two (or sometimes a bit more than two pages) long, giving some sort of fascinating hint as to what the city is like with Polo ultimately being unable to truly understand the cities but at least glimpsing their nearly infinite variety and Kublai Khan being unable even to grasp this, not even able to guess where Polo would go next or create a city that Polo had not seen or imagined before.  The result is a fascinating book about the problem of cities and of human life as a whole.

Of course, this book does not discuss cities perfectly.  There is no discussion here of the New Jerusalem, as all of the cities discussed are flawed cities with human failings, some of them endless cycles of rises and falls, some of them a certain je ne sais quoi that allows them to be remembered by people but ultimately forgotten by the earth.  In some of the discussions the author’s displacement of the time of the story in the past allows him to imagine Marco Polo as a prophet telling the future of cities that are seemingly shapeless like Tokyo and Los Angeles and to make some sly jokes about his own future as a prisoner having his stories recorded by the slightly unreliable author of adventure stories who happens to be in the same cell.  In some cases, some of the details the author makes have puzzling and humorous resonance the author could not have known about, like his reference to a city where women walk pumas on leashes, which the author may have viewed scenes like the “Starboy” music video where the singer walks a panther of some kind on a leash.  Regardless, though, there is much to ponder about and much to enjoy in this book and in its portrayal of cities and their importance to us.

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Book Review: Why Read The Classics?

Why Read The Classics?, by Italo Calvino

As is often the case with writers, Italo Calvino was both the writer of classic works as well as a reader and a literary critic of them as well.  These three roles of reader, writer, and book reviewer, are pretty commonly united within people of an artistic but also critical bent.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, this book seems aimed at an audience that loves not only the writings of Calvino himself, but also the Italian perspective on the classics that this book represents.  The author addresses other cultures and the writings of other cultures and shows himself to have been a deeply and widely read person, which makes a great deal of sense.  After all, one of the not very often openly admitted reasons that one reads classic literature is so that one may right better, and one of the consequences of reading a lot of classical literature and possessing some degree of literary talent is writing classics for oneself, and one of the results of being a literary person who reads a lot of classic works is the phenomenon of intertextuality, where one’s writings serve as a conversation with previous writings that future authors may take up, a subject of great interest to the author, and to many readers as well.

This book of about 250 pages or so consists of thirty-six essays of literary criticism that Calvino wrote (in Italian, originally) that have been translated for English-language readers.  The book as a whole is a meta experience in that the author originally wrote in Italian about books that he had often read in translation (sometimes from English), and the reader of this book is reading about these reflections on books translated back into the English.  Some of the books the author talks about are undisputed classics, as when he writes of Homer, Xenophon, Ovid, Galileo, Cyrano de Bergerac, Hugo, Stendhal, Hemmingway, and so on.  Other works the author deals with are certainly literary fiction but not necessarily classics recognized the whole world over, which includes many of the Italian, and more recent, authors that the writer discusses.  The author’s thoughts are generally deeply connected to his own writings, and in talking about how writers play with the reliability of the narration and the structure of their novels and with the importance of relationships and political commitments and morality, the author is revealing more about himself than he often is of the texts he is talking about, because what interests him about the classics are often those areas that he deals with in his own fiction.

This is the way of writers, though.  As book reviewers and/or literary critics, what we notice in a book or what we choose to address relates to our own perspectives and our own approach.  For example, Calvino’s definition of classics includes poetry and prose and drama, speculative fiction and scientific writing, mostly Western classics but also Persian writings from a polygamous standpoint.  There are definitely some weaknesses in the author’s writings, as he shows himself interested in questions of class and politics but without an interest in religion or the morality that comes from revealed texts.  For him, his interest in writers who dealt thoughtfully with religion is limited to the cleric as a profession and not to the moral elevation that comes from internalizing standards of moral behavior.  Likewise, the author’s interest in science is often connected with an interest in magic and fantasy, and with the search for power and insight through science, rather than having a viewpoint which is rationalistic.  Be that as it may, Calvino is an interesting writer even where one disagrees with him or where one’s own interests in the classics somewhat diverge.

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Deus Vult

Not too long ago I decided that it would be a good idea for me to increase my knowledge of the Templars, a knightly organization which achieved a great deal of popularity during the Crusades and then was suddenly crushed by the greed of the French king and the cowardice of the Pope in failing to defend a loyal order of knights.  The wealth of the Templars and the fact that they were a creditor of the French kingdom made them vulnerable, especially given the fact that the crusaders had been driven out of the Middle East during the preceding decades by the resurgent Mamluk forces.  Those Templars who were not tortured to death with false accusations of base and immoral conduct ended up being merged into the Knights Hospitaller.  Although many people may not have heard of this name, it is possible that one might know of them by their current name of the Knights of Malta.

Why would we know them?  As it happens, the Knights Hospitaller were noted as a small crusading order that was nonetheless capable of defending areas against the Muslims.  After being defeated in Cyprus they went to Rhodes and successfully defended that in 1480 against a massive attack by the Ottomans before being defeated in 1522 and then moving on to Malta, where they successfully defended the Maltese from the Ottomans in 1565.  Despite the fact that Napoleon conquered Malta in 1798 on his way to Egypt and Great Britain conquered it soon afterward, the Knights of Malta remain an important player internationally, being a recognized organization that has some important diplomatic ties around the world.  Only recently, the Knights of Malta have had some problems.

It is perhaps unsurprising that their problems revolve around the pope, and the fact that their order’s leadership has been pressured by the pope.  Like knightly orders in general, the Knights of Malta (along with the Templars and others) has a colorful history, but their efforts to remain a sovereign order that is nonetheless loyal to the Catholic Church has always presented it with a bit of difficulty in that the Catholic Church has not always respected its efforts to remain sovereign.  Let us not forget that this same tension is what destroyed the Templars, given that they were vulnerable because of their military weakness and wealth and the fact that they were creditors and rulers do not like being in debt to others.  It remains to be seen whether the Hospitallers will be able to rise again as a sovereign order or whether their current leadership crisis will make it impossible for them to maintain the influence they have maintained as an order.  Only time will reveal what God wills, though, I suppose.

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