Chess Story by Stefan Zweig was the April pick for WORD’s Classics Book Group and it was probably the first one that has been well-liked by the whole group (aside from the introduction, which was not liked at all. If you read this book, skip the intro). It’s a stunningly compact book that skips neatly to the heart of the horrors of war, all the while disguised as a vacation story and spy thriller. It reminded me a lot of Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, but has much more of a le Carre feel. If I were a high school teacher, I’d assign it to my students; it’s quick, engaging, and does an incredible job of humanizing history.
As an aside, this continues to be the best-attended year of Classics Book Group since it was founded, I would guess because we are reading nice short novellas all year. Usually we have a great turnout for the first one and then it trails off, but this year we’re staying robust. If you have guilt about not being able to keep up with a book group, this might be the one for you. For May, we are reading The Old Maid, by Edith Wharton.
I knew that lightning strikes about ten million times each day. I knew that at any given moment more than two thousands thunderstorms are crackling across the planet. We can watch them from our satellites and calculate their number. We can estimate the voltage carried by each of the hundred,…
“Dealing with people, my friends, is really nothing more than a question of the price that one is willing to pay. The better you understand life, the more capital you build.”
― Gregor von Rezzori, An Ermine in Czernopol
On December 17, Turkish author Yaşar Kemal will be decorated as a Grand Officer of the French Légion d’Honneur. Kemal received the rank of Commander in 1984. Read his contribution to our Year in Reading series here. (Via HaberTürk.)
And if you were wondering what a Grand Officer of the French Légion d’Honneur does, they get to wear this:
Jenny Diski wrote a review of The Three Christs of Ypsilanti for the London Review of Books. Not only is the book a fascinating look at a unique way to expose patients’s delusions—by putting three men who believe they were Christ in a room together Milton Rokeach hoped they would return to ‘normalcy’ because of the apparent contradiction in their beliefs—but also a document showing psychiatry’s difficulties when doctor’s beliefs are set up as correct and opposite from the patients. Here Diski’s conclusion to her article (shouldn’t be behind a pay-wall):
"[In 1976] Rokeach reread the book with regret. There were, he says, four people with delusional beliefs, not three. He failed to take himself into account, and the three Christs, not cured themselves, had cured him of his ‘God-like delusion that I could change them by omnipotently and omnisciently arranging and rearranging their daily lives’. He came to realise that he had no right to play God and interfere, and was increasingly uncomfortable about the ethics of his experiment. ‘I was cured when I was able to leave them in peace, and it was mainly Leon who somehow persuaded me that I should leave them in peace.’"
Bruce Duffy’s new book Disaster Was My God about Arthur Rimbaud has been getting a lot of attention recently. It was reviewed in The New York Times, and independently a new translation by John Ashbery of Rimbaud’s famous collection Illuminations was published this year as well (the poem Under the Flood was also published in our cousin publication The New York Review of Books).
We wanted to remind everyone, therefore, of Duffy’s first novel The World As I Found It, originally published in 1987, republished by us last year. Hailed by critics as a masterpiece of historical and biographical fiction (Joyce Carol Oates called it “one of the five great nonfiction novels” and “one of the most ambitious first novels ever published”), the book is a study of the intersecting lives of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Betrand Russell, and G.E. Moore as they meet and become friends in Cambridge, and are then broken apart by World War I.
Several years after publishing, Bruce Duffy gave a lecture on The World As I Found It at Stiching John Adams Institut, Amsterdam, and is included in our edition. Here the first few paragraphs:
"Wittgenstein found facts and pictures of facts, immensely mysterious. I must say I do too. Like him, I’m puzzled by how facts and words refer to actual things in the world. And I’m equally puzzled by facts, or statements of fact, that do not refer to reality—by this I mean fictions.
Consider the phrase ‘the present king of France.’ France, of course, has no present king. The words make sense, but they conjure a nonexistent person, a linguistic unicorn. Yet how strange when you think about it, that we can talk about this royal personage, can even play with his nonexistence, For instance, we can s
Yes, we know Ray Bradbury’s birthday was yesterday. But still, this is one of our favorite introductions in the series, from John Collier’s Fancies and Goodnights:
“I always wanted to dine with John Collier so I could ask him, ‘What is your secret, how do you do that?’
My great opportunity came when I was invited to a Christmas-week dinner over in the Hollywood hills.
Ordinarily I might have turned the invitation down, for it was from a lady I hardly knew who would surround me with strangers.
‘You must come,’ she said. ‘Mr. and Mrs. John Collier will be here.’
‘Yes!’ I cried.
I went and the dinner was fine and I sat across from Collier and his wife, questions trembling on my lips.
But Mrs. Collier chatted during the cocktails, recalled travels with the salad, journeyed on with the main course, and was still not finished during dessert, which was followed by further recitations near midnight.
Finally, near twelve, the Colliers prepared to leave.
Still lecturing to one and all, Mrs. Collier led John to the door where he turned, smiled, and opening his mouth to speak.
At last, I thought. Now.
‘Merry Christmas,’ John Collier said and went out the door.
Now we’ll never know.”
Today is the official Bad Poetry Day, and what better way to celebrate that with a poem from The Stuffed Verse: An Anthology of Bad Verse. There are plenty to choose from, but we thought we might share the title piece, written by one of favorites poets, William Wordsworth:
The Stuffed Owl
[This is taken from the account given by Miss Jewsbury of the pleasure she derived, when long confined to her bed by sickness, from the inanimate object on which this Sonnet turns.—W.W.]
WHILE Anna’s peers and early playmates tread,
In freedom, the mountain-turf and river’s marge;
Or float with music in the festal barge;
Rein the proud steed, or through the dance are lead;
Her doom it is to press a weary bed—
Till oft her guardian Angel, to some charge
More urgent called, will stretch his wings at large,
And friends too rarely prop the languid head.
Yet, helped by Genius—untired Comforter,
The presence even of a stuffed Owl for her
Can cheat the time; sending her fancy out
To ivied castles and to moonlight skies,
Though he can neither stir a plume, nor shout;
Nor veil, with restless film, his staring eyes.
Today in 1858 E. (Edith) Nesbit was born. Here’s how Gore Vidal described her in an article written in The New York Review of Books in 1965:
"Born in 1858, Edith Nesbit was the daughter of the head of a British agricultural college. In 1880 she married Hubert Bland, a journalist. They had a good deal in common. Both were socialists, active in the Fabian Society. Yet the marriage was unhappy. Bland was a philanderer; worse, he had no gift for making a living. As a result, simply to support her five children, Nesbit began to write books about children."
We have recently republished The House of Arden, which Vidal considers one of her best works: “In The House of Arden a contemporary boy, Edred, must be tested before he can become Lord Arden and restore the family fortunes. He meets the Mouldiwarp (a mole who appears on the family coat-of-arms). This magic creature can be summoned only be poetry, freshly composed in its honor—a considerable strain on Edred and his sister Elfrida who have not the gift.”
But Nesbit has never had the recognition in the U.S. that she had in the UK. Here’s Vidal again on the subject:
"I do not think it is putting the case too strongly to say that much of the poverty of our society’s intellectual life is directly due to the sort of books children are encouraged to read. Practical books with facts in them may be necessary, but they are not everything. They do not serve the imagination in the same way that high invention does when it allows the mind to investigate every possibility, to free itself from the ordinary, to enter a world where paradox reigns and nothing is what it seems to be; properly engaged, the intelligent child begins to question all presuppositions, and thinks on its own….As it is, the absence of imagination is cruelly noticeable at every level of the American Society, and though a reading of E. Nesbit is hardly going to change the pattern of a nation, there is some evidence that the child who reads her will never be quite the same again, and that is probably a good thing."