Books and Book Reviews: May 2006 Archives

There are really two points to this post. The second is that radionics still exists and is practiced as medicine in some parts of the world. Most interesting. The first follows:

from A Far Cry From Kensington
Muriel Spark

At the time Abigail showed me her Box I was somewhat relieved to find it futile, because, as I pointed out, if the Box could do good it could also do evil. 'It stands to reason,'I said.

'Oh,' said Abigail de Mordell Staines-Knight, "how right you are. But don't let Ian hear you say so. To him it's impossible to do anything wrong with the Box. And in fact, it does nobody harm, let's face it.'

She was a really nice girl in spite of her name. I, too, didn't think you could do wrong with the Box, nor right with it, nor anything.

What I find interesting and worthy of further consideration here is that the ability to do good comes coupled with the ability to do evil. Moral neutrality is moral invisibility and perfect inviability. The only way something can have no moral content is if it is incapable of being used at all, and hence has no content period.

This is interesting to think about. The only object that is outside of moral questioning is the object that is utterly useless to anyone. That is not to say the objects themselves possess morality, but the morality stems from the use of them. If an object can be used and cause good, it stands to reason that it can be misused and cause evil. If an object has no use whatsoever, then it is truly neutral ground. For our present purposes the planet Venus is most likely a morally neutral object. The idea of Venus, however, may not be.

What is remarkable in the passage above is the way that Muriel Spark finds to put a very coherent, difficult, and perplexing question into an amusing scene. This trait, introducing moral complexity, is a key feature of Spark's novels and is one of the things that makes for such compelling reading. One is instructed or persuaded beyond the power of the events in the book alone. In a sense, it is the better part of art to be didactic. Once art has lost its ability to teach, it has lost its ability to mean and it becomes one more useless object. That isn't to say that art is completely encompassed by its didactic nature, but that the teaching element of art is ever-present in any true work of art. If nothing else, art teaches us to see anew. And in that sense Spark's novels are art.

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For one thing, you're probably tired of hearing about her and until I raise a great tide of readership, I shall simply have to continue to regale you with excerpts of her fine works. But for another, there's this:

from A Far Cry from Kensington
Muriel Spark

I had some savings and a small pension, so I had no need to find another job immediately. In the months between my abrupt departure from the Ullswater Press and Martin York's arrest I wasted my time with a sense of justified guilt. I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do. At the same time, the wreaking of vengeance and imposing of justice on others and myself are not at all in my line. It is enough for me to discriminate mentally and leave the rest to God.

'Commercial life cannot be carried on unless people are honest.'But no life can be carried on satisfactorily unless people are honest. About the time that the Ullswater Press folded up I recall reading a book about one of the martyred Elizabethan recusant priests. The author wrote, 'He was accused of lying, stealing, and even immorality.' I noted the quaint statement because although by immorality he meant sex as many people do, I had always thought that lying and stealing, no less, constituted immorality.

I think this character would have looked upon TSO's blog (at very least the title) with some great approval.

What is interesting here is that Spark has done something unusual for her works. The book is narrated in first person by a (so far) very likable narrator. This does not allow her the enormous distance she tends to keep from her characters. Nevertheless, this main character is cool, ironic, and sardonic--looking upon things as from a distance. She is among the more engaging characters in the opera so far.

I'll let you know how she gets on as the story continues. At very least expect a review within a week or so.

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More on Burgess


In an intense desire to practice the discipline of responding only to what is asked and to staying on topic, I excised from a response below a number of comments that I wanted to make public any way. The joy of owning a blog is the ability to do so at will.

In the review of the book 99 Novels I should have added one of Burgess's books to the list he presented. Indeed, the one most people would consider--A Clockwork Orange. Burgess himself, no mean self-promoter, actually suggests this possibility in his foreword, but it is certainly deserving. I think he learned an extremely valuable lesson from Finnegans Wake which he put to good use in the creation of Alex and his droogs.

In addition to his fiction, the literary world owes him a great deal for many works attempting to explain one of the twentieth Century Masters. He undertook A Shorter Finnegans Wake as well as the remarkable Joysprick which is a guide to the language of Finnegans Wake nearly completely encompassed in the title which can be parsed to a German version of Joyce Talk, or Joy talk, or the more priapic connotations that can clearly be discerned in Finnegans Wake.

I haven't read a lot of Burgess's fiction, but his contribution and promotion of Joyce's cryptic, comic, cosmic, nightmare of a novel are useful to anyone interested in trying it on for size. And his creation of the cultural icons of Alex and his droogs with their regressive amorality brought to the screen by Stanley Kubrick has added immeasurably to our vista of sociopathy and its discontents.

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Anthony Burgess's idiosyncratic selection of the best works in English since 1939 was written in 1984-1985 and its perspective may well represent the thought of that time. However, what can one say of a book that includes the remarkable (though hardly best-in-show) Keith Roberts Pavane alongside Len Deighton's Bomber and Ian Fleming's Goldfinger. Add to that the fact that one suspects given Burgess's bent that he started the countdown in 1939 simply to include James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake and you have about all the information you need regarding the book.

Nevertheless, if you're looking for something to read and want the opinion of an expert--an eccentric expert, an eclectic expert to be sure, but an expert nonetheless--this is the book for you. Fans of Catholic fiction would be pleased to hear that Burgess includes several Catholic Novelists--some represented multiples times: Evelyn Waugh with Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honor trilogy; Graham Green with The Power and the Glory and the theologically flawed, but moving Heart of the Matter; Muriel Spark with The Girls of Slender Means and The Mandelbaum Gate; Brian Moore with The Doctor's Wife; David Lodge with How Far Can You Go?; Flannery O'Connor with Wise Blood and Walker Percy with The Last Gentleman. Once again, this list says much. Why The Mandelbaum Gate rather than The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; why Wise Blood (admittedly wonderful) rather than The Violent Bear it Away (a much more powerful if more extended exercise in the same direction); why The Doctor's Wife rather than The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne or Black Robe; why The Last Gentleman rather than The Moviegoer or Love in the Ruins? Each decision could so be questioned, but Burgess rarely deals with weighing out why he chose which book, rather he boldly chooses and then gives a brief summary and analysis of the particular choice. It makes for a short punchy book and for an audience that wants to know more about why these works rather than some others.


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Chestertonian Works On-Line


G.K.Chesterton's Works on the Web

I have to admit having not the least trace of enthusiasm for G.K. Chesterton--that gene was simply left out of my makeup. But what nature doesn't provide, perhaps nurture will, so I press on nevertheless.

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What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years? - New York Times

The list is above.

And here's the essay.

I'm ambivalent about such lists and honestly don't know what to make of some of the works appearing on it. I've tried hard to read and appreciate anything by Don deLillo, and unfortunately, it seems beyond me. So too with Blood Meridian and both Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral. I may try them again, but the first venture wasn't fruitful.

I can state without ambivalence that of the books I have read on the list, I have not enjoyed any of them. I may have admired them, liked them, or appreciated them; however, frankly I don't think the Rabbit books are Updike's strongest work. I do hold out hope for Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping which I bought at the same time as Gilead but have not yet read.

What do you all think was the best work of serious fiction in the last twenty-five years? Name a title and give a reason. I'd love to have some suggestions as to what to take up after my Muriel Spark streak fades.

Let me start the ball rolling by suggesting that the Tom More duet Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome would certainly hover near the top of my list--and not necessarily for all the reasons that might normally accompany this judgment coming from a Catholic. Rather, Percy managed the apotheosis of the Southern Gothic remaining completely true to the very roots of the tradition, while still making relevant comment to the world at large on any number of issues. I include both in the same way that Updike's four novels are included as one. They are part and parcel, completing and complementing one another. I think I like Love in the Ruins better than The Thanatos Syndrome, but I do know that the book group I read it with hated it with a passion. That was my first indication that what was present was powerful. Anyway, there's one suggestion to get the ball rolling. I'd love to hear from others.

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The Abbess of Crewe


I had somewhat more difficult a time with this that with the other Muriel Spark I have read and enjoyed. Ultimately, I did enjoy this one, but I was thankful for its brevity. Both Satire and Allegory become tiresome at great length--they are best sustained over a short duration, and this was both forms, which requires even greater condensation.

The Abbey of Crewe is in trouble, someone has stolen Sister Felicity's silver thimble in the course of pilfering a stash of love letters in the false bottom of her sewing box. The Newly-elected Abbess of Crewe has her Nuns read from the Bible at the refectory. And after the usual scripture passages, she supplements their meditations with a reading from The Book of Electronics. Cameras, microphones, and bugs are to be found in every nook and cranny of the Abbey, including the poplar-lined lane down which the Nuns stroll in their recreational time. The traditional money-maker for the Abbey, sewing, has been abandoned for the new money maker--the devising and building of electronic devices, principally surveillance devices. One of the nuns is sneaking out at night and spending her time in a dalliance with a Jesuit novice and she comes back to the Abbey to spread the gospel of the love of freedom and the freedom of love. And Sister Gertrude spans the globe ecumenically crushing any practice she doesn't care for--at one point admitting a Cannibal tribe, with dietary dispensations, while crushing a vegetarian heretic sect--one suspects with the aid of said Cannibal cult. All of this right before en election. Sound familiar? Possibly because it is written from the political events of the time (another aspect that can just bore me silly, although it did not do so this time.)

Witty, sharp, satirical, even biting at times--Muriel did not look lovingly upon the characters of her Abbey and she shares them in all of their "splendor"--backbiting, petty, scandalous, scandal-mongering, lustful, disobedient, self-righteous. All of these flower bloom in the garden of the Abbey of Crewe.

Once again the prose is a delight, and I've shared one or two brief excerpts with you. Sister Winifrede comes in for the most biting of the jabs Ms. Spark makes at the characters.The dawn sun shone briefly in the troubled weather of her intellect. (It's a paraphrase, but it gets at the essence of the author's approach.)

The Abbess-to-be of Crewe gives a marvelous speech before the election which encourages the Nuns to be ladies and not the petite bourgeoisie that threaten the very foundations of the monastic order by their insistence on doing things by the book and their indulgence in petty crime and gross immorality.

In short, a magnificent short biting satire, still relevant today, although the figures and meanings need to be transposed a bit--nevertheless, as with any good work, the satire can remain effective even after the inspiring event is in the distant past.

Recommended particularly to people with an interest in politics and satire.

Next up A Far Cry from Kensington.

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A View of Suffering and Joy


from Man's Search for Meaning
Viktor E. Frankl

The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent. To draw an analogy: a man's suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the "size" of human suffering is absolutely relative.

It also follows that a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys. Take as an example something that happened on our journey from Auschwitz to the camp affiliated with Dachau. We had all been afraid that our transport was heading for the Mauthausen camp. We became more and more tense as we approached a certain bridge over the Danube which the train would have to cross to reach Mauthausen, according to the statement of experience traveling companions. Those who have never seen anything similar cannot possibly imagine the dance of joy performed in the carriage by the prisoners when they saw that our transport was not crossing the bridge and was instead heading "only" for Dachau.

Suffering fills the available space. Nearly everyone has had that experience. Whatever cold we have now is the worst cold we have ever had. Whatever sorrow we are experiencing now is the worst sorrow we have ever or can ever endure.

What had never occurred to be is that joy is similar. The joy I feel at this moment is the greatest joy possible and so it is with all possible joy.

God lavishes His gifts in the extreme, not in the middle ground. God does not care for the lukewarm (witness His statement to Laodicea). So rejoice or suffer, but do it all in the fullness of what it is to God, for each is His will and gift for the moment.

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An Abbey in Its Time

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from The Abbess of Crewe
Muriel Spark

"In these days," the Abbess had said to her closest nuns, "we must form new monastic combines. The ages of the Father and of the Son are past. We have entered the age of the Holy Ghost. The wind bloweth where it listeth and it listeth most certainly on the Abbey of Crewe. I am a Benedictine with the Benedictines, a Jesuit with the Jesuits. I was elected Abbess and I stay the Abbess and I move as the Spirit moves me."

One wonders about what she might be talking. Surely we haven't ever encountered anyone who might declare to know more than revealed truth, one who insists that one's own way has been marked out specially by the Spirit so that what one wishes to do is exactly what the Spirit would have one do?

This is Muriel Spark at her most oblique and most perfect. And I will have to absorb the rest of the context to remark upon it with any acumen. But given this early off-the-blocks passage, I have high hopes for a most interesting novel.

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Current Reading List


Man's Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl (Yes, still)
The Abbess of Crewe Muriel Spark
Descent into Hell Charles Williams

On the horizon

Symposium, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, The Hothouse by the East River, and about six others by Murial Spark. Really a favorite among the non-mystery non-SF set.

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The Girls of Slender Means


Kensington between VE and VJ day. Days of rationing and loose living, days of saints and sinners. Meet Nicholas, who when one first encounters him is dead in a foreign land, to all eyes apparently a martyr. Meet Jane who works for a publisher and makes much of her money through forging hard-luck letters to get the signatures of famous people which she sells to a local book-dealer. Her great disappointment in life, a typed note card from GBS who says that because she asks for no money, he will not sign the note, his signature being sometimes worth a few shillings. Meet Selina, a woman of not terribly proper conduct who chants the great chant of self esteem even when everything around her is going up in flames. Meet Joanna who gives elocution lessons, much of her initial work centered around The Wreck of the Deutschland. This is only a small circle of the cast of characters that populates this wonderful, insightful, and incisive novel. If Miss Jean Brodie represents perfection and if perfection must be granted only to one novel, then this one so closely approaches it as it makes for a hard time to distinguish the two in quality. Here is the same large cast and the same message of faith and salvation couched in a new way.

The reader cannot fail to be amazed at the many, many different faces of Ms. Spark as she marches relentlessly toward one goal--a life of meaning, meaning found only in the proper worship of God and the proper service of God--meaning that is without substance outside of the eternal verities.

Highly recommended. If you must read only two Muriel Spark novels, this must be one of them. (Of course Miss Jean Brodie is the other.

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One More on Muriel

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You may be sick to death of hearing about her, so let it suffice to say that I have at least two more that I expect to read and report on (although, depending upon my endurance, I may pursue the rest of the available opus.) Those two shall be a "pair" even if not invested with the same characters (about this latter I do not know)--they are: The Girls of Slender Means and A Far Cry from Kensington I regret I have not looked into Ms. Spark's writing extensively before now.

What is intriguing about Ms. Spark is, like many great writers of the recent past, she takes questions of faith quite seriously. They may not be spelled out word for word on the written page, but every book deals with the themes of morality and religion to a greater or lesser extent. In some, i.e. Memento Mori, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and (so far at least) The Girls of Slender Means it is to some extent the driving force of the narrative. In others, Aiding and Abetting, Not to Disturb, and The Finishing School religion isn't overtly the theme, but it certainly is a powerful element in the overall structure.

We'll see how it plays out in the next couple of books. Regardless of how morality and religion saturated they might be, the crystal-clear clarity and concise, powerful prose of her novels makes her a compelling and serious novelists, even though most of her novels are not dead-pan serious.

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Not to Disturb


Muriel Spark's novel is a perfect compliment to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie because it represents a near-perfect antithesis of everything in that book. Indeed, the title is the antithesis of the entire aim of the novel, from the very first sentence to the last line.

Almost a play, told almost entirely in dialogue, a story is gradually pieced together as one progresses through the books. A distinctly unsavory and unscrupulous "downstairs" staff waits as the masters of the house descend into a destructive spiral. As the action progresses elements are moved one by one into place for the finale and for the future success of the downstairs staff.

Disconcerting, occasionally humorous, bold, and striking. This is a book to blitz through once and savor on the repeat trip. Recommended for fans of Muriel Spark and fans of dark (very dark indeed) comedy.

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie


One of the blurbs on the back of the book raves that Muriel Spark's novel, "Is the perfect novel." And it isn't far from the truth. In that statement it shares praise with Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, which has also been called the perfect novel. It also shares a great deal of the atmosphere of the former novel, though not of the content.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is ostensibly about a very "liberal" and "progressive" school teacher of the 1930s who takes under her wing a group of girls called "The Brodie Set." This group is marked by their inability to blend in with the other girls in the upper form.

While the story is largely linear and appears to be the work of an anonymous Omniscient narrator, it is in fact a "limited" omniscient narrator, as the story careens along mostly from one point of view, with bits and pieces out of sequence and time from the other characters. It sounds as though this might create a confusing patchwork, but it does not. Instead we have a robust, multi-layered, amusing, sad, and powerful story of friendship, betrayal, conversion, and transformation.

The book, like most of Muriel Spark's works, is very short, and it is peppered through with delightful absurdities and contradictions of character. For example, while Miss Brodie teaches her girls that "team spirit blurs individuality," she starts the year by posting a picture of Mussolini and his "fascisti" and extols their impeccable timing marching together and working together, almost machine-like.

While the story is named for Miss Jean Brodie, and certainly pervaded by her influence, Miss Brodie is a strangely distant character. We get much closer to one of the girls and learn a great deal about Miss Brodie through her eyes. Interestingly, the author's descriptions of this character lead us to be somewhat ambivalent about her.

It isn't possible to recommend this book highly enough. Spark's observations of Brodie's opinions about religion and about Catholicism in particular, are brilliant and thought-provoking. Her observations of Jean Brodie, who, despite her intentions is actually quite an unpleasant sort of person--unpleasant to the point even of evil, give us pause as we consider the small, unadorned packages in which evil is contained. Those packages, the human heart, are the true territory of the novel, and it is for that reason, among others, that this is "the perfect novel." I plan to read it several more times in the near future because I feel my cursory second acquaintance with the work hardly does it justice.

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In the Discard Pile

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Looking through books that we had multiple copies of, I chanced upon this delightful passage. If I've read the complete book, I have forgotten at this point, but it certainly seems worth reading. I propose a little game. Can anyone name the book from which the passage is taken? While it wasn't a bestseller, it certainly isn't completely obscure, and it is by a writer who has produced a number of quite notable books. This author also wrote some of my favorite books.

In the first place, I suppose, it was my parents' fault for giving me a silly name like Gianetta. It is a pretty enough name in itself, but it conjures up pictures of delectable and slightly overblown ladies in Titian's less respectable canvases, and, though I admit I have the sort of coloring that might have interested that Venetian master, I happen to be the rather inhibited product of an English country rectory. And if there is anything further removed than that from the bagnio Venuses of Titian's middle period, I don't know what it is.

If you're inclined to, answer in the comment box.

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The Prime of The Prime


There is really no point in trying to excerpt anything from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; as truly wonderful as the film was, the book, as is often the case, excels it in every way. There is a tautness to the prose of the book, a tension that does not permit mere excerpting. As I was sharing a passage with my wife, I found what I wanted to share going on and on and on to the point where it would probably make for an excellent read-aloud for the two of us.

What is wonderful is both the sharp satire and the incisive view of the characters--the penetrating depth of observation that allows the writer to make a conclusion and carry the reader along without ever stating the conclusion. What is even more wonderful is that it is about the small-scale battles on the moral front that are fought every day--it is about the small choices and the little things that make a difference in a person and in destiny.

What is remarkable are the simple castoffs:

from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Muriel Spark

Rose Stanley believed her, but this was because she was indifferent. She was the least of all the Brodies set to be excited by Miss Brodie's love affairs, or by anyone else's sex. And it was always to be the same. Later, when she was famous for sex, her magnificently appealing qualities lay in the fact that she had no curiosity about sex at all. She never reflected upon it. As Miss Brodie was to say, she had instinct.

And yet these quick castoffs build into a picture of a character and of Miss Brodie herself.

The novel is narrated in and out of time and while the view seems to be omniscient, we gradually devolve upon one viewpoint character whose transformation from the Brodie days is quite significant in the impact of the story.

I'll write a bit more when I've finished the book, but I can see clearly why this book was a substantial advance in the reputation of Muriel Spark as a novelist. I had forgotten how well-formed it really is, how compelling, and how hilarious and serious.

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in a paragraph. . .

from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Muriel Spark

Then suddenly Sandy wanted to be kind to Mary Macgregor, and thought of the possibilities of feeling nice from being nice to Mary instead of blaming her. Miss Brodie's voice from behind was saying to Rose Stanley, "You are all heroines in the making. Britain must be a fit country for heroines to live in. The league of Nations. . . " The sound of Miss Brodie's presence, just when it was on the tip of Sandy's tongue to be nice to Mary Macgregor, arrested the urge. Sandy looked back at her companions, and understood them as a body with Miss Brodie for the head. She perceived herself, the absent Jenny, the ever-blamed Mary, Rose, Eunice and Monica, all in a frightening little moment, in unified compliance to the destiny of Miss Brodie, as if God had willed them to birth for that purpose.

She was even more frightened then, by her temptation to be nice to Mary Macgregor, since by this action she would separate herself, and be lonely, and blamable in a more dreadful way than Mary who, although officially the faulty one, was a least inside Miss Brodie's' category of heroines in the making. So, for good fellowship's sake, Sand said to Mary, "I would be walking with you if Jenny was here." And Mary said, "I know."

The novelist says nearly nothing at all about Miss Jean Brodie and yet reveals everything in the course of this. In a very real sense, Miss Jean Brodie is an antichrist because she usurps the place at the head of the body, and this usurpation is accompanied by all the features of any coup--cold-bloodedness, cruelty, and a sense of superiority.

With short deft strokes we are given a clear image of the lay of the land and of the reign of Miss Jean Brodie. And it isn't a comfortable picture because it is very easy to place ourselves in the picture are Miss Brodie, Sandy, or Mary. Like Sandy, we aspire to good but never make it there because one voice or another draws us back to the ultimately self-centered reality we've fabricated, and so the cycle of cruelty continues.

Amazing the way in which the truths of Christ are explored and spelled out in fiction, is it not?

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Aiding and Abetting


Muriel Spark's second to last opus is a bit of a disappointment compared with the sparkling and incisive The Finishing School. I wonder if part of the difficulty was that this book was based on two true stories, welded together to give us the narrative of the novel.

And the narrative itself is a bit disappointing--Lucky Lucan, a wealthy member of British Minor Nobility twenty years ago (or more) killed his nanny and attempted to murder his wife. That's the backdrop, and the story concerns Lucan visiting a psychiatrist who used to be a false stigmatic, and Lucan who is not Lucan posing, and Lucan running away from two people tracking down Lucan, and so forth. There were some amusing moments, but little in the way of insight into character or meaning. There was a long chain of obsession with blood that led absolutely nowhere.

[Note: if you intend to read the novel and are already familiar with the works of Evelyn Waugh, the following paragraph contains a spoiler.]

Finally, the end comes abruptly, as is de rigeur for Spark's novels and when it comes it is essentially cribbed from her friend and mentor Evelyn Waugh (see Black Mischief.)

Overall, because of the relatively plodding place, the lack of the usual Spark charm, and the lack of any character of interest, I would recommend the work to Spark completists only. If you are first dipping into Spark, you would be better off with Memento Mori, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or The Finishing School.

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Reading List

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Muriel Spark

Man's Search for Meaning Viktor E. Frankl

Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer Thomas Dubay

Descent into Hell Charles Williams

Coming up:

Throne of Jade Naomi Novik

Map of Bones James Rollins (Unfortunately attempting to ride the DVC popularity wave, which is a shame because Rollins is so much more accomplished a writer)

Not to Disturb, Girls of Slender Means, Loitering with Intent, and A Far Cry from Kensington Muriel Spark

The Essence of the Thing Madeleine St. John

Overall, I'm trying to be more cognizant of and careful regarding my choices in reading. While it may be entertaining, I would also like a goodly portion of it to be somewhat more edifying than my usual reading list. Not all of these books qualify; however, many do and the ones that do not provide a sort of "palate cleanser" before the next course. Too much weighty stuff tends to shift the balance.

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A most profound and powerful book, perhaps the most important book by a psychologist in the twentieth Century (yes, I'm including Fraud, uh Freud.)

I was reminded of my desire to take it up again and at the end of his Preface, Rabbi Kushner gives me cause:

from Man's Search for Meaning
Victor Frankl

We have come to know Man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.

And even though Frankl quotes Nietzsche approvingly, he earned the right, and by quoting, in some small part redeemed much of Nietzsche's awful thought--thus turning a cause of the Reich against the Reich.

This journey is harrowing, and it is even more harrowing because it could have been avoided and the author could have left and gone to America. But, to quote his own preface:

The question beset me: could I really afford to leave my parents alone to face their fate, to be sent, sooner or later, to a concentration camp, or even to a so-called extermination camp? Where did my responsibility lie?. . . this was the type of dilemma that made one wish for "a hint from Heaven," as the phrase goes.

It was then that I noticed a piece of marble lying on a table at home. When I asked my father about it, he explained that he had found it on the site where the National Socialists had burned down the largest Viennese synagogue. He had taken the piece home because it was part of the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. One gilded Hebrew letter was engraved on the piece; my father explained that the letter stood for one of the Commandments. I asked, "Which one is it?" He answered, "Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land. " At that moment I decided to stay with my father and my mother upon the land and to let the American Visa lapse.

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Muriel Spark Strikes Again


While I don't find Aiding and Abetting as out-and-out funny as The Finishing School, there are moments.

from Aiding and Abetting
Muriel Spark

A young bespectacled lay brother bade them to wait a minute. Joe had telephoned in advance. Sure enough, Father Ambrose appeared as if by magic with his black habit floating wide around him. You could not see if he was thin or fat. He had the shape of a billowing pyramid with his small white-haired head at the apex as if some enemy had hoisted it there as a trophy of war. From under his habit protruded an enormous pair of dark-blue track shoes on which he lumbered towards them. As he careered along the cold cloister he read what was evidently his Office of the day; his lips moved; plainly, he didn't believe in wasting time and did believe in letting the world know it. When he came abreast of Lacey and Joe he snapped shut his book and beamed at them.

The story of Lord Lucan, a man who killed his nanny and attempted to murder his wife, who fled the scene and was reported being seen in various corners of the world thereafter, Aiding and Abetting is based on two true stories. The second is the story of a false stigmatic turned psychiatrist to whom Lucan comes to talk. Then there's the chase sequence. I'll fill you in when I've completed the entire work in the next day or so. Then it's on to a large number of Spark's books obtained from the local library. They're all VERY short, so they shouldn't take long to read at all.

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Dove Descending

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How is the Holy Spirit like a German Luftwaffe Bomber? What exactly is "Little Gidding" or "The Dry Salvages?" What does that Greek stuff at the beginning of Four Quartets mean and how does it relate to the rest of the poem?

Thomas Howard has produced a superb introductory commentary to one of the great poems of one of the most difficult poets of the 20th Century. As an introductory commentary there is much that is missing here, much knowledge that is presupposed, things not explained that might well help more, and as though in a math book many , "proofs left to the student." Which is not to suggest that there is anything lacking here. In fact, these seeming drawbacks encourage the reader to think through the poem and to consider the aspects of the poem on their own. In conversation with Dr. Howard, one pulls out of oneself the ability to interact with the poetry. Where Dr. Howard is silent on a point, the reader can fill in the blanks.

For example, throughout the entire commentary very little is made of the symbol of the rose that recurs. Now, the author might argue that this is because Eliot did not use symbols in that way; however, Eliot was well aware of the multiple symbolism of the rose, and most particularly aware of this in the poetry of his near contemporary William Butler Yeats. However, Howard makes mention of the rose without pointing out that the rose has been a symbol from the beginning of the Christian era for Jesus Christ. Only when the reader realizes this does the end of "Little Gidding" begin to really shine--

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well.
When the tongue of flame are in-=folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
and the fire and the rose are one.

These are lines that would take pages upon pages to really unpack. But one clear sense of them is to point toward the trinity. The Crowned knot of fire/the fire/and the rose could easily be seen as the three persons of the trinity, for when the flame is in-folded and the fire and the rose are one, we become aware of the unity in trinity. Eliot is also referring to other things happening through the poem, through time, and in the human spirit.

Eliot's Four Quartets is one of the last masterpieces of modern poetry. It is crammed full of meaning, and freighted with thought that is far beyond most of us. This commentary serves to help open up the compressed language and introduce the timid reader of poetry to one of the great Catholic works of the century. I can truly say that this work stands up to those more accessible, and exceeds them in many ways when the reader allows it to unfold in a leisurely fashion and considers all of its aspects.

Too often we see the short span of a poem and think that we can sit down and read it as we read a novel. But the reality of poetry is that it is condensed beyond any measure of the prose in a novel or short story. Eliot's relatively short poem is the equivalent of reading a moderately long novel; and yet because it seems so short, we're tempted to rush through to the meaning, as though it would be standing, naked and lithe at the finish of the poem. But meaning is constructed throughout, and the only meaning at the end of the poem is that derived from the proper reading of it. Dr. Howard's book gives every reader the opportunity to open up one of the great works of modern literature and to spend time dwelling on and in the meaning of it. For this alone, Howard deserves accolades. But add to that the charms of Dr. Howard's own prose and his reticence in spelling out every single possible variant reading and meaning, and you have a restrained, sustained reading of the poem that is enough and not too much. Dr. Howard gives us a springboard--the reader must execute what dive he or she will in the course of reading.

I cannot encourage everyone enough to give the book a try. But it, get Eliot's poem and read them together--reading through a section of the poem, and then a section of the commentary, and then rereading the section of the poem with the information gleaned from the commentary. It might take as long to read as a novel of moderate length (as I implied above), but one would finally be doing justice to the complexity and beauty that Eliot has wrought in this magnificent poem.

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Reading Howard's wonderful Dove Descending, I am reminded of how much goes into the art of poetry--every ounce of the life of a poet, and all of the skill that goes into summoning words into living, meaningful, vibrant representations of what is in the poet's head. Eliot was one of the last to write truly meaningful "exterior" poetry. After him a seemingly endless parade of posturing, grinning, self-aggrandizing, self-destructive confessional poets who have as their wares only themselves and their numbingly wearing and wearying dreary dull lives. (Any life lived where the sole object of attention is that person in the mirror who hates me is not worthy of the word "life.") Eliot is one of the few with something important to say. And this is what I both love and hate about Eliot. Unfortunately, there are times when he is all too aware that he has something to say. And sometimes it shows.

But putting that aside for the moment. This morning opening up Howard I tripped over a passage that sent me back to the poem leading me to share with you this marvelous sentence.

"Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter."

It is literally dropped in from nowhere at the end of East Coker, and it is a magnificent and true observation. Love is only love when the self is out of the equation. That can only happen when here and now cease to matter. Howard makes the point a different way:

from Dove Descending
Thomas Howard

But what is this about love being most nearly itself when her and now cease to matter? Just that. The man in whom love has been perfected is at home in any place (here or there) and in any time (now or then). He has gone beyond the futility of nostalgia and wistfulness. He is as fully at peace under the lamplight as he was under the stars with his new beloved. No lamenting a lost youth for him. There is a time for this. It is appointed. The wise man of Ecclesiasitcus has already told us so.

(With that last sentence, I'm a little confused, perhaps because I don't know Ecclesiasticus the way I ought, but isn't it the wise man of Ecclesiastes who told us that "there was a time for every purpose under heaven?")

Selflessness allows the person to range freely and comfortably through time and space. No Billy Pilgrim here with the vertiginous careening through Trafalmadorian interference. Even unstuck in time, the person in whom love is perfected is not disoriented by where or when. Because the where and when is eternal. When love is perfected on participates fully in the life of God and thus partakes of eternity while here on Earth.

So once again, I encourage you all--all you fans of Flannery, you champions of Walker, you admirers of Waugh and friends of Spark; in short, all you who love and support Catholic literature--seek out Eliot's poem (you can find it on the web, if you don't care to embarrass yourself with pretentiousness in a library) and read it. And if it makes no sense, read it again. And if there still isn't an inkling, do Ignatius Press and Mr. Howard a favor and buy the book. You really will be glad you did.

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Present Reading


Aiding and Abetting Muriel Spark

Dove Descending Thomas Howard AND
Four Quartets T.S. Eliot

Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer Father Thomas Dubay

Descent into Hell Charles Williams

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from May 2006.

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