Let Me Be Frank With You (Novel) by Richard Ford, 2014
If a new Richard Ford book calls to you from the shelves, you’d better answer – assuming, that is, that
you care about what’s happening in the upper echelons of the American literary scene.
However, I was somewhat disappointed, on arriving home with this book, to find that it’s not actually a novel, but
a group of four short stories. I usually don’t pick up short story collections. When it comes to choosing a book, I
want a continuous work that will carry me through several days and evenings of obsessing about one subject or story.
It turns out, though, that Let Me Be Frank With You is nearly a novel. The four stories are inter-connected and
they all centre on Frank Bascombe, a character who has appeared in some of Mr. Ford’s previous novels. A former writer,
Frank is now a retired real estate agent, living with his second wife in a small community on the US East Coast. Hurricane
Sandy has just hit.
In the first story, Frank gets a call from the guy who bought Frank’s beach home about ten years ago. The house has
been demolished by the hurricane and now the owner wants Frank to meet him to look over the desolation. The second story is
Frank’s encounter with a woman who shows up at his door one day. She once lived in his house and she has a tale to tell
about what happened there. In the third story, Frank makes a short visit to his first wife, who is in the early stages of
Parkinson’s Disease and is living in a posh seniors’ residence. The thrust of the final story is that a former
buddy of Frank’s is dying and he wants Frank to come and see him.
Whether you like Frank or not, you’re going to get his thoughts and feelings about everything. The title of
the book, then, is quite the pun. There’s no denying that Frank’s becoming something of a curmudgeon at this stage
of his life. He rails against an awful lot of the components of contemporary society. Trends. Fads. Technology. Urban blight.
People’s choices in decor, fashion and cars. Fitness crazes. Diets. Right-wing Republicans. Blogs. His internal grumblings
about all these things being laced with his sardonic humour, there’s lots of social satire here.
And yet, there is a side to Frank that stops you from writing him off as the grumpy geezer. Every now and then, he’ll
make a surprisingly compassionate and sympathetic remark. When the woman wants to come in and look at the house where she
once lived, he tells us why he’s willing to let her do this: "...it’s little enough to do for other humans –
help them get their narrative straight. It’s what we all long for, unless I’m mistaken."
On the way to visit his ex-wife, he tells us about his intention to fall back on what he calls the "Default Self:"
I do this by portraying for her the self I’d like others to understand me to be, and at heart believe I am:
a man who doesn’t lie (or rarely), who presumes nothing from the past, who takes the high, optimistic road (when available),
who doesn’t envision the future, who streamlines his utterances (no embellishments), and in all instances acts nice.
Inside the swanky institution where his ex-wife lives, he’s stopped by a woman who is pretending to be friendly but
who is obviously a security guard checking on him. The situation has Frank on edge. (I was reminded of the scene in one
of Mr. Ford’s novels where Frank is picking up his young son at the huge estate owned by his ex-wife’s new husband.
On the driveway, he has an unpleasant encounter with an officious security guard. The scene gave me the chills.) But suddenly
Frank realizes that this security guard in his wife’s residence is a transsexual. Frank’s resentment at her interference
turns to thoughts about how difficult her life must have been.
More of Frank’s words of wisdom:
- It’s a solid gain to experience significant life events for which no words or obvious gestures apply. Awkward silence
can be perfect.
- She was only being hostile because she didn’t like giving me unpopular news, and this was the way she could do it.
As if she hated me.
- Misery, I’ve learned, doesn’t really love company, just like nature doesn’t abhor a vacuum. Nature,
in fact, accommodates vacuums pretty well.
- Character, to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts. In my view, we have only what we did
yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do. Plus, whatever we think about all of that. But nothing else –
nothing hard or kernel-like. I’ve never seen evidence of anything resembling it. In fact I’ve seen the opposite:
life as teeming and befuddling, followed by the end.
Not much happens in the stories. Events are not the point of them. They’re all about Frank’s attitude to life.
In two of the stories – the one about the woman who formerly lived in Frank’s house, and the one in which the
dying man wants to see Frank – some dramatic elements make them feel a bit like fiction meant to please readers
who want some punch in their reading. But I would not want to have missed reading these stories, thanks to the fascinating
things they have to say.
However, I prefer the inconclusive feel of the other two stories – the one about meeting the current owner of the
demolished home and the one about seeing the ex-wife in her residence. Although each of these pieces ends with a small insight
or a slight gesture of significance, they both convey a sense that life doesn’t allow for many definite resolutions
or answers. Frank actually tells somebody, when they ask about how he arrived at the endings of the books he wrote: "Endings
always seemed pretty arbitrary to me, Eddie. I wasn’t very good at them."
Bertie: A Life of Edward VII (Biography) by Jane Ridley, 2012
We all know what we mean by the Victorian era, thanks to the indomitable and temperamental woman who put her stamp so indelibly
on those times. But the Edwardian period? Most of us have a much vaguer idea of the atmosphere of the first decade of the
twentieth century in the British world. That could be because the ruling monarch at the time wasn’t such a Drama Queen.
One of the most notable things about Albert Edward, the eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, was that there
didn’t seem to be anything very notable about him. He was known generally as an agreeable and pleasant playboy Prince
of Wales, but utterly lacking in any sort of personal distinction, other than his heritage. Some people – Henry James
and Rudyard Kipling, among them – were appalled that a man so bereft of achievement and education could become king.
(He was never known to have read a book voluntarily.) The only things he seemed to care very much about were proper dress
and manners. He could be very persnickety about anybody’s appearing in the wrong uniform or the incorrect apparel.
His lack of outstanding character, however, seems to have become his best feature as king. He was able to be the open-minded,
neutral figure that everybody, on all sides, needed him to be. He was even fair-minded enough to want to squelch the anti-Catholic
rhetoric in his Coronation oath. Since the Pooh-Bahs wouldn’t allow that, he mumbled his way through it as quickly as
possible. On a trip to Europe in 1903, he very much wanted to visit the aged Pope Leo XIII but the British government vetoed
that for fear of virulent backlash among British Protestants. The King’s solution? He visited the pope privately, in
an unofficial capacity. A short time later, the King arrived in Dublin for a visit on the morning the pope had died. When
the King spoke of how much he admired the pope, he had the Irish Catholics eating out of his hand. Another example of his
ecumenical outlook was that, flying in the face of the anti-Semitism prevalent in many circles, he was known to cultivate
Jews as friends.
Which is not to impute saintly qualities to the man. His adulteries and affairs were well known, if not to the public,
then certainly to the upper crust. It seems that his wife, Queen Alexandra, turned a blind eye to these affairs as much
as possible. By all reports, she maintained a romantic love for him, insisting that he was her man, right to the end. As Ms.
Ridley sees it, he was callous and neglectful towards his former mistresses in the early part of his life but he was considerate
towards the mistresses he took on in his mature years. His favourite woman of the moment always had to be invited to dinners
and house parties that he attended, but he insisted that the utmost respect be observed towards Queen Alexandra, acknowledging
her priority in all matters (except as a bed partner).
If the man’s sexuality seems to have been off the charts there may have been reasons in his upbringing. When he was
recalcitrant about his lessons as a little boy, it never occurred to his parents that what he might need was love or affection.
More whippings and sterner discipline were the only remedies they could think of. As a young man, nobody could have felt the
lash of Victorian prudery more directly than Bertie did. (This is the name the family used for him and Jane Ridley uses it
throughout her book.) It’s well known that his mother blamed him outright for the death of his father; she felt that
Prince Albert’s failing health took a fatal turn because he was forced to make an arduous trip to Cambridge in cold
weather to remonstrate with Bertie about his first known sexual escapade.
Once his inclination to sexual profligacy was apparent, it became a desperate project to get him properly married. He agreed
to wed Princess Alexandra of Denmark, the most promising of the candidates presented to him, and he managed to convince himself
that they could love each other. Here’s the fond encouragement his mother offered him on his upcoming marriage:
Poor Boy, who alas! cannot, as beloved Papa & good Fritz [husband of Victoria’s daughter Vicky],
bring "the white flower of a blameless life" to the altar, but alas! must feel when that pure innocent girl looks at you with
her fine eyes, ashamed at your unworthiness – oh! those wicked ones who "robbed you of your virtue" as beloved
Papa said. Oh! That sad stain which grieved your beloved Papa so sorely, so bitterly...let it not be blotted out from your
own conscience but let it be your constant admonition to make up, by a future spotless life, for that
which alas! can never be undone.
I’m guessing that Sigmund Freud might have something to say about the possible results of such obsessive vigilance
on the part of a mother over her son’s sexuality.
One of the many interesting things that Ms Ridley, a professor of history at Buckingham University, points out in her book
is the difference in the projected image of royalty between Bertie’s reign and his mother’s. Largely as a result
of Prince Albert’s influence, Queen Victoria’s intention was to convey the sense of the royals as very much a
family: lots of emphasis on a cozy domesticity in the royal household. After Albert’s death, of course, there was Victoria’s
almost complete withdrawal from the public, what you might call a closing of the curtains around the monarchy: gloom and stodginess
prevailed. When Bertie became king, he threw open the windows, so to speak, to let the sun shine on the monarchy again. He
reintroduced the pomp and the glitter and the glamour. Also, it would appear that he didn’t bother much about projecting
the fiction of the royals as a family just like yours and mine. Family matters were strictly private, in his view.
To say that Bertie was open-minded and fair, doesn’t mean that he didn’t do a certain amount of finagling and
scheming behind the scenes to get what he wanted. He often tried to exert his influence to have his favourites appointed to
government posts. A lot of his struggles with the governments of his day turned on the question of just how much power he
was allowed to wield. The one time when he did defy the government was his 1903 trip to France to try to smooth relations
between the two countries. The government had refused to approve of any such initiative. Bertie planned the jaunt secretly,
so that not even his closest aides knew what was going on until the project was well launched. This led to what became known
as the "Entente Cordiale" between Britain and France. Historians of the period, largely on the government’s insistence,
tended to dismiss Bertie’s role in the matter, but Ms. Ridley says that his efforts did truly pave the way for the eventual
agreement. Another intriguing political situation that the book sheds light on is Bertie’s difficulty of dealing with
his volatile nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II, of Germany. We all know what disastrous results that frosty relationship led to.
If there’s one lesson that I take from the book – and this is probably not the one Ms. Ridley intended –
it’s that being king isn’t necessarily a dream job. True, Bertie’s life was pampered, indulged and privileged.
Yes, he had access to pleasures and perks denied to most of us. But his was a life as fraught with trouble as anybody’s.
Things were always going wrong; he was always being forced by the government to do things he didn’t want to do. He had
a lot of medical bother to endure, even though he supposedly had the world’s best medical expertise on his team. His
coronation was delayed at the last minute because of a ghastly abscess in his abdomen. He was frequently felled by severe
bronchitis, no doubt the result, at least partly, of his ever-present cigars. As for his trouble with mistresses, you could
say that it was all his own fault, but you could also say that, for a man who was given so much opportunity for dalliance,
such trouble was almost inevitable.
Unlike so many biographers, Ms. Ridley doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to prove her earnest intent by noting
every fart and hiccup of the great subject. Her mastery of a massive amount of material is formidable. (I noted one error,
probably an oversight. In one place, Kaiser Wilhelm II is referred to as Queen Victoria’s nephew rather than as her
grandson.) While Ms. Ridley does provide a wealth of fascinating information about Bertie, however, you don’t come away
from the book feeling that you really know the man. Maybe that’s because he directed that so many of his personal papers
should be destroyed; people who valued his friendship mostly burned his letters to them. By contrast, there’s still
the voluminous personal correspondence of his mother for generations still unborn to read. With all its demonstrative underlinings,
the writing conveys the voice of the woman as though she were speaking directly to you. It’s as if we can’t shut
her up this many years later.
No wonder her son had problems.
Holy Orders (Mystery) by Benjamin Black, 2013
Benjamin Black is the pen name that John Banville, the acclaimed Irish writer, uses for his mysteries. (His The Sea,
which won the Man-Booker prize, is reviewed on DD page Nov 28/06.) This book gives us an opportunity to see how a writer’s
work might change in style and/or quality when he moves from the literary genre to the more popular.
The story revolves around Quirke, a pathologist who conducts autopsies in a Dublin hospital and who is, I gather, a recurring
figure in the Benjamin Black mysteries. In this case, he has been called on to examine the badly beaten body of a young man
found dead in a canal. It turns out that the deceased was a newspaper reporter and that he was an erstwhile friend of Quirke’s
daughter, Phoebe. The attempt to find out what happened to the unfortunate reporter takes Quirke on various treks around Dublin
and its vicinity, often in the company of his friend, Inspector Hackett.
There’s a film noir feel to Quirke’s ramblings. It’s raining almost all the time. And there’s
an odd sense that there’s something fitting about the gruesome culmination of the story, one that doesn’t conform
to the standards of justice and fairness that you expect in a conventional mystery. That’s not what you’re getting
here. True, the question of what happened to the dead man looms over everything and propels the story forward, but we sometimes
follow sidetracks that are more about interpersonal dramas than about the mystery. On that question, there’s no clever
sleuthing. Rather, Quirke moseys around and asks a lot of questions. His peregrinations take him to such disparate venues
as a tinkers’ camp and the headquarters of an order of priests. When the solution to the mystery comes, it’s not
through any amazing detective work, but through somebody’s spilling the beans to Quirke.
In some respects, the writing is definitely better than what you get in the typical mystery. Take this description of a
cop’s frustration with his malfunctioning walkie-talkie. He keeps putting it to his ear and talking loudly into the
mouthpiece, "then holding it away from himself and glaring at it in disgust, as if it were a pet that was refusing to perform
a simple trick he had spent time and energy teaching it." Quirke’s visits to the tinkers’ camp are vivid and convincing.
In those episodes, Mr. Banville gives you something you could never have pictured for yourself; the tinkers that Quirke meets
leap off the page with unique personalities.
And we get a good feel for Quirke’s internal gloom. Here, he’s reacting to a kiss from a woman about whom he’s
ambivalent, to put it mildly:
Perhaps he did not want to be happy. He had little talent for it, that was certain. Besides, happiness was another
of those words, like love, the meaning of which he could never quite grasp. He wanted to tell her all about his vision
of the canal bank in the dark, how all evening since she had arrived he had kept seeing it, and how it filled him with a mysterious
longing. He wanted to make her understand, too, what a danger he was, what a menace, to those who came near him, who tried
to come near him.
On the other hand, some of the writing falls far below the standard that Mr. Banville established in his winner of the
Man-Booker prize. In Holy Orders, he inflicts on us a completely unbelievable and egregiously obnoxious newspaper owner.
I don’t think it’s just because this tycoon is supposed to be Canadian that I found the characterization objectionable.
He’s a boor and an ignoramus who is pressuring his editors to play up the reporter’s murder with invented details
and/or fictional "breakthroughs" in the case. Clearly, Mr. Banville is falling back on the old cliché of so many mysteries: the attempt to build a sense of urgency about the solving of the case. But the scene
is so preposterous that the book would be better without it. We might also have done without a scene featuring a passionate
kiss between two women. As far as we – or they themselves – know, the women aren’t lesbians. The incident
seems to happen just because Mr. Banville couldn’t resist throwing in something that’s a bit edgy in a sexual
Among other faults in the writing of Holy Orders, there is Mr. Banville’s far too frequent reference to people
trembling. On one page, he mentions aspects of this phenomenon three times. I counted at least nine other instances. I don’t
think this happens all that much in real life. It’s just one of those autonomic responses that writers fall back on
when they’re too lazy to express a character’s emotions in any other way. Also, I found that the solution to the
mystery takes us into territory that’s visited too often these days; it harps on a theme that’s becoming too familiar,
even though it does provide a reasonable explanation for the mystery here.
Another question bothered me, although it perhaps wouldn’t trouble regular readers of the Quirke mysteries. I was
puzzled about the era of the story. First there was that cop fumbling with his walkie-talkie. No cell phone? Then there was
the tentative speculation among the various characters as to whether the deceased reporter was "that way," i.e. gay. I’m
wondering: is it just because this is Ireland that people can’t speak candidly about sexuality? Then there was
a reference to a character’s tartan skirt with an ornamental safety pin. And characters constantly lighting up cigarettes
indoors without compunction. Finally came the mention of a typewriter on a journalist’s desk, along with references
to bomb damage still evident in London. Ok, so we’re in the 1950s. I would have welcomed some clarity on that point
near the outset of the book.
The Neruda Case (Mystery) by Roberto Ampuero, 2008; English translation by Carolina De Robertis, 2012.
This is the first of Roberto Ampuero’s twelve novels, all written in Spanish, to be published in English. Mr. Ampuero
is Chile’s ambassador to Mexico; he is also a professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa.
In this book, he casts one Cayetano Brulé in the role of a young man who is from Cuba
but has been living in Chile with his wife. Their marriage is falling apart and Brulé
is at loose ends. It’s the early 1970s. At a swanky party, Brulé is approached by
none other than Pablo Neruda, the Nobel laureate for poetry. Neruda, who has cancer, wants Brulé
to find a doctor he once encountered in Mexico who was doing research on herbs that might cure the disease. Given Neruda’s
persuasive powers and Brulé’s lack of any other occupation, he takes on the search.
To give Brulé some idea of how to go about it, Neruda supplies him with some Inspector
Maigret mysteries by Georges Simenon. Off Brulé goes on his quest. As Neruda changes the
instructions, the original search for the doctor becomes a search for someone else, then someone else again.
The best thing about this book, although not the major component, is the ambiance of Chile in the 1970s. It’s the
time when President Salvador Allende is fending off fierce protest. His opponents on the right believe that his socialist
tendencies are leading straight towards communism; the agitators on the left disparage Allende as only a moderate reformer,
not the revolutionary leader they feel the country needs. In the cities where much of the action takes place – Valparaíso and Santiago – political discontent is at the boiling point. Mr. Ampuero shows how
perilous the situation was for Allende and how the coup that ousted him was almost inevitable.
Another good thing about the book is the character of Neruda. This is an unflinching look at the dark side of a man that
many considered something of a hero, if not a saint. Neruda often makes remarks to the effect that his success and his happiness
have come at the expense of other people. Most notably, those people are the wives and lovers he has abandoned in his egotistical
drive for fame and satisfaction. At certain points through the book, we get a few pages written ostensibly by Neruda, in which
he tells us about his relationship with each of these women. These sections of the book are evocative and very moving.
As a mystery, however, the book is a complete dud. Brulé does nothing at all in the
way of deciphering clues and making deductions, such as one expects from a good fictional detective. He simply keeps going
from one person to another, asking questions. In almost every instance, the interviewee claims not to have any helpful information
but suggests that Brulé try to find so-and-so, who might be more helpful. Same thing with
the next interviewee. This game of tag has Brulé hopping from Mexico, to Cuba, to East
Germany and to Bolivia, with stops in Chile now and then. On Brulé’s arrival in
each new place, the author needs must drop in a bit of travelogue and a thumbnail sketch of the politics and history of the
region. What little daring Brulé does have to pull off involves hammy stunts like hoodwinking
a gullible doorman. The dialogue is stilted for the most part (possibly the fault of the translator?). Attempts to give the
book a literary spin by means of references to Homer, Virgil and Dr. Shivago fall flat.
Occasionally, Mr. Ampuero has poor Brulé reflect ruefully on the fact that it was much
easier for a detective like Maigret to solve fictional mysteries than it is for Brulé
to solve them in the real world. Perhaps there is meant to be a vaguely comic note in that observation. But I’m thinking:
Do you intend, Mr. Ampuero, that I should forget that your Brulé is a fictional creation?
It seems to me that Mr. Ampuero must be writing for readers who are more credulous or easier to satisfy than I am.
The Examined Life (Psychiatry) by Stephen Grosz, 2013
We humans apparently love hearing about other people’s problems. That’s surely the appeal of advice columns,
gossip blogs and soap operas. The Examined Life, a Sunday Times bestseller, offers a cornucopia of troubled
lives for our fond perusal. In each short chapter, Stephen Grosz, a psychoanalyst based in London, describes a case presented
to him. (Identifying details are changed.) He gives us his first impressions of a patient, some idea of how the therapy proceeded
and its conclusion – if any.
I’m somewhat resistant to the idea of the therapist as guru who sits there and watches the patient squirm until the
soothsayer, i.e. the therapist, elicits the long-forgotten, deeply-buried childhood trauma that explains everything, thereby
dispelling the patient’s anxiety and restoring peace of mind. I don’t think therapy – or life – works
that way. And yet, there is inevitably a certain element of that dynamic in Mr. Grosz’s work, as recounted here. I suppose
we have to accept that. Otherwise, why write about the therapy? If there are no breakthroughs, no helpful insights, then there’s
nothing to report. If the resolutions of the cases sometimes seem a little too pat, too succinct, that could be because Mr.
Grosz is condensing many months, even years, of therapy into a few succinct pages.
There’s a lot of talk about dreams; sometimes the interpretations click for me and sometimes they don’t. Same
with Mr. Grosz’s assessment of his cases: I don’t always get his take on them. I gather that would be ok with
Mr. Grosz. He doesn’t by any means come on as a know-it-all. He admits to frustration in dealing with some of his patients,
his inability to get through to them, to find out what’s really going on with them. He acknowledges that certain
frailties of his may get in the way of therapy. Some sessions come to an end that isn’t really a satisfying conclusion,
more like a drifting away with a lot of questions unanswered. What some patients might need, he realizes, is for the doctor
Among some of the most memorable cases, there’s the guy who constantly talked about an aspect of his life that was
vitally important to him and who, in a final meeting, admitted that that aspect of his life was totally fictional. There was
the young man who cancelled his impending marriage because he was afraid that it might turn out that he was gay – even
though he had never had sex with a man or had any gay fantasies. Regarding another case, it’s tricky to say much without
giving away one of the most startling surprises in the book. Let’s just say there was the patient to whom it seemed
that something terrible happened after some psychotherapy sessions, but who turned out to have faked the event as a way of
shocking the psychoanalyst.
I find one of the most compelling cases to be the one of the nine-year-old boy who was thought by various therapists to
have one or more of the following conditions: Asperger’s syndrome, Tourette’s syndrome, pre-schizophrenic disorder,
manic and psychotic features. The child was extremely violent and hostile. Over time, Mr. Grosz became increasingly angry
about the boy’s spitting at him. Why? Other kids spit at him and he didn’t react so badly. Mr. Grosz went to another
analyst to probe the problem. They discovered that the reason for Mr. Grosz’s anger was that he thought the boy should
be able to stop the spitting. Once he accepted that maybe the boy couldn’t stop it, Mr. Grosz’s anger stopped.
So did the spitting.
Quite apart from his skill as an analyst, one of the greatest virtues of Mr. Grosz’s book is his writing. He tells
these stories with admirable clarity and directness. That’s surely one of the main reasons for the book’s great
success. A reader speeds through it very quickly. If it were possible to say exactly what kind of book it is, I’d say
the motive behind it is something like this: So, you’ve always wondered how psychoanalysis works? Well, these stories
should give you some idea. It’s not a "self help" book but Mr. Grosz does make a few observations that might act
as an inducement to a healthier psychological state for some of us. Here, he’s commenting on our resistance to change:
We are vehemently faithful to our own view of the world, our story. We want to know what new story we’re stepping
into before we exit the old one. We don’t want an exit if we don’t know exactly where it is going to take us,
even – or perhaps especially – in an emergency.
Another observation that has lots of ramifications:
The future is not some place we’re going to, but an idea in our mind now. It is something we’re creating, that
in turn creates us. The future is a fantasy that shapes our present.
Mr. Grosz even offers a tip to other therapists. What can you do about a very irritating patient? See the patient in the
morning, when you’re less likely to be irritated.
The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age (Science) by Richard Rudgley, 1999
In another life, I might have been an anthropologist. I’m fascinated by the ways human societies act. Why do different
cultures adopt different customs and what does the behaviour of pre-historic peoples tell us about ourselves? This book does
provide some insights along those lines but the book’s raison d’etre has more to do with addressing a scientific
Richard Rudgley’s intention here is to disprove the common claim that civilization, as we know it, emerged suddenly
with the invention of writing by the Sumerians and the Egyptians around 3,500 BC. Mr. Rudgley, a social and cultural anthropologist,
goes way back in history to find many examples of human sophistication which show that the emergence of full-blown civilization
was a gradual process and that the lives of our pre-historic ancestors were not simply brutal and nasty.
This statement, half way through the book, gives a clear summary of his thinking:
In short, we find that historical civilisations do not represent a quantum leap away from the savage, muddled and ignorant
societies of the Stone Age, but rather an elaboration, an accumulation and magnification of the insights and creations of
their prehistoric ancestors.
Along with various kinds of writing from pre-history – markings on stones and bones, for example – Mr. Rudgley
presents evidence that complicated surgery, requiring detailed knowledge of human anatomy, was performed successfully. (Not
reading for the weak of stomach.) Fine figurines, showing considerable artistic skill, have been found in Paleolithic sites.
Hunting by our pre-historic ancestors, says Mr. Rudgley, required as high a degree of intellectual activity as that practised
by Sherlock Holmes and his ilk. Carvings have been found which appear to represent a scientific understanding of the phases
of the moon. Elaborate funeral rites show that pre-historic humans had thoughts about what we might call spirituality. Statuary
featuring elaborate hairstyles shows a Paleolithic concern for fashion. There is even evidence of something like a Stone Age
Certainly, Mr. Rudgley convinces me that these earlier humans deserve more respect than they usually get from us. But I
don’t find Mr. Rudgley’s argument as gripping as he seems to think it should be. Perhaps this sort of thing can
be riveting only if you are one of the parties who has a stake in the controversy over the date for the first appearance of
civilization. Indeed, Mr. Rudgley often refers to scientists who refuse – on ideological grounds – to accept the
position he’s presenting. To them, it’s unthinkable that our Paleolithic predecessors could have had anything
like the sophistication of brain function that we recognize as uniquely human.
Because this controversy runs through the book, you’re treated to a great deal of scholarly settling of scores. In
keeping with academic practice, this is always done with a great show of politeness and deference. And yet, the scholars sometimes
can’t help letting venom seep into their remarks. You get the impression that a lot of academic prestige is at stake.
The question comes to mind: is it about trying to arrive at the truth or about squelching the other guy? I’ll give the
scientists credit for being concerned about truth ultimately. But there’s clearly a lot of ego involved.
Sometimes, it seems to me, Mr. Rudgley is taking such complicated steps in this academic dance, that he trips himself up.
Here he’s talking about how traditionalists are threatened by the theory that there could be an ancient script pre-dating
the commonly accepted ones. This, he says, would cause a tremendous upheaval in the thinking of the traditionalists. "It would
mean rejecting the notion that the ‘high’ civilizations (using the word in its more traditional and ‘acceptable’
sense) of the Near East some 5,000 years ago did not invent writing but were preceded in this breakthrough far earlier and,
worse than that, by ‘barbaric’ Stone Age Europeans." Shouldn’t the sentence read: "It would mean accepting
the notion that....."? Mr. Rudgley’s whole book is about trying to get the traditionalists to accept this very theory.
In another passage, Mr. Rudgley is talking about estimates of the earliest dates for the use of fire by hominids. "Current
opinions range from about 1.7 million years ago down to far more conservative estimates that challenge the notion that even
the Neanderthals did not have a straightforward mastery of fire." If they are "conservative" estimates, i.e. estimates that
put the mastery of fire much closer to our own time, then it seems to me that the sentence should say that these estimates
are challenging the notion that Neanderthals did have a straightforward mastery of fire.
In a discussion about "grave goods," i.e. those trinkets and tools that accompanied buried humans, Mr. Rudgley says that
one study of the Middle Paleolithic period showed that only males, and not females, were buried with such loot. A couple of
paragraphs later, he says that the prevalence of grave goods in some upper Upper Paleolithic burials shows that they were
female burials. Huh? The logic, if there is any, escapes me. Perhaps some qualifying info was inadvertently deleted
from the text.
While most of the book amounts to a steady plod through lots of scientific research, the part that I found most enjoyable
was the section about pre-historic life in the Americas. Mr. Rudgley presents all the evidence for the claims that humans
may have peopled these continents well before the normally accepted date of about 12,000 BC. It appears now that most scholars
are willing to push the date back a few thousand years. Claims that it could go back much further are still highly controversial.
Maybe this section read so well for me because the process of discovery and debate feels like an on-going saga.
Or maybe it’s just that it’s all about my own stomping grounds.
Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune (Biography) by Christoph Wolff, 2012
In this book, Professor Christoph Wolff, of Harvard, looks at Mozart’s last four years, with the intention of dispelling
the notion of a sort of autumnal, elegiac quality hanging over that time. Many commentators have thought they detected premonitions
of death in Mozart’s final works but that’s a lot of hooey, according to Professor Wolff. He ably demonstrates
– certainly to my satisfaction – that, right up to those last weeks in 1791, Mozart was barging full-steam-ahead
with no thought of winding down. Indeed, the title of the book is taken from a letter in which Mozart was crowing about his
appointment to a court position in 1787. From that point on, it was onward and upward as far as Mozart was concerned.
The first part of the book consists mostly of dates and figures, by way of showing how busy Mozart was and how much money
he was taking in. (Much of it went to pay off his gambling debts.) The material can be a little hard to digest, not least
because Professor Wolff doesn’t follow a strict chronological order in his discussion of Mozart’s hectic life.
But the overall picture emerges clearly: a man in his prime who was enjoying the fruits of what seemed like unlimited
When Professor Wolff gets into an analysis of the music, his writing often becomes stodgy, as in this passage comparing
Mozart’s Requiem and his motet, Ave Verum:
Though the Requiem is a much larger piece, more differentiated in gestures, polyphonic textures, and integration of both
retrospective and decidedly forward-looking elements, it took the Corpus Christi motet, its redefinition of the proportional
and functional relationship of a vocal setting with its instrumental accompaniment and its novel stylistic orientation as
a point of departure for further refinement in terms of scale and contrapuntal technique.
This arch tone affects several detailed dissections of Mozart’s compositions. (Disclosure: I skipped some of this.)
Some of the material is so esoteric and abstruse that you have to wonder whether the purpose of the analysis is to help people
to appreciate Mozart's art or to show how brainy the analyst is. To give Professor Wolff the benefit of the doubt, I
will say that it’s possible that his comments will be helpful to people who know Mozart’s music as intimately
as he does. I did get something out of his discussion of The Magic Flute; that could be because I’m fairly familiar
with the work. I was intrigued by ProfessorWolff’s claim that the opera shows the influence of the unusual setting and
form of the motet Ave Verum, which Mozart was working on at the same time.
Lacking the musical erudition that would make the book fully satisfying, I was still able to appreciate some references
to Mozart’s connections with other composers. I hadn’t known that he had considerable exposure to the J.S. Bach
school of musicians in Leipzig and that the results showed up in the use of counterpoint in Mozart’s later compositions.
It was also fascinating to learn that Mozart had borrowed a few motifs from Handel for his Requiem.
Mainly, it was the relatively scarce notes of "human interest" in the book that appealed to me. I did not know that Mozart’s
ear – we’re talking about the physical one attached to the head, not the musical one in the brain – was
unusual in shape, almost, one might say, deformed. That could be why many portraits show Mozart’s hair covering his
ears. Professor Wolff points out that it was Mozart’s widow, Constanze, who first referred to him as a "classical author,"
long before it became common to refer to his era as the "classical" period of music.
One of the most interesting interpersonal notes had to do with a patron and friend of Mozart’s, Prince Carl von Lichnowsky.
They’d travelled together and the prince had loaned Mozart lots of money. Latterly, the prince launched a suit against
Mozart for the recovery of outstanding debts. The suit was unsettled at the time of Mozart’s death and the prince dropped
it. Professor Wolff suggests that it was perhaps because of guilt about his treatment of Mozart that Prince Lichnowsky subsequently
became a great supporter of another up-and-coming composer: Ludwig Von Beethoven.
Patrick Leigh Fermor (Biography) by Artemis Cooper, 2012
I’d never heard of Patrick Leigh Fermor until The New Yorker made favourable mention of this biography. The
part of his story that makes him notable begins in the early 1930s, when he was an under-achieving eighteen-year-old, partying
his way around London while entertaining aspirations of being a writer. For lack of any other clear objectives or goals, he
decided that he would trek from the Netherlands to Istanbul and write about it. As Ms. Cooper tells it, he had set out intending
to walk the distance but it developed that his journey was something more like what we think of as a backpacker’s progress.
He did walk a lot but he also accepted rides on barges and trains, as the occasion demanded. He slept in shepherd’s
huts, monasteries, castles – wherever people would take him in, and he made voluminous notes of his impressions along
On that first journey, Paddy (as Ms. Cooper calls him throughout) let himself get caught up in the campaign of the royalist
forces against the attempted revolt by republicans in Macedonia. Come the Second World War, he became an officer in the Irish
Guards. One of his most famous escapades was during the German occupation of Crete, when he led a team that kidnapped a German
general and, by stealth and derring-do, took him as their captive to Egypt. The adventure was written up by Billy Moss, one
of Paddy’s team members, in a book that was the basis for the movie Ill Met by Moonlight. Dirk Bogarde played
the part of Paddy.
Throughout his long life, Paddy met a great many people – many of them rich and famous – who welcomed him into
their circle. He was charming, good looking, fun and very entertaining (except for the few people who found him a blowhard).
Ms. Cooper makes the point that one thing that endeared him to his hosts was that he was insatiably curious about the background
of every family he visited. He would sit entranced for hours as his hosts regaled him with family stories. After these long
sessions, he would secrete himself in a library where he could bone up on local lore and teach himself some of the language
of the region. He was eventually fluent in several languages. His reflections on his many travels resulted in some acclaimed
books, as well as countless magazine articles, book introductions, and such. He’s best known, though, for the trilogy
of books that he wrote, in later years, about that memorable trek from the Netherlands to Istanbul. (The third book in the
series, published posthumously, was put together from Mr. Fermor’s notes and sketches.)
Clearly, Mr. Fermor was a man worth knowing more about. But I wasn’t able to read continuously through this biography
for more than 200 pages. I skipped through the remaining two hundred, sampling passages here and there. The problem is that
Ms. Cooper’s account of Paddy’s life amounts to a dizzying recital of names and places. Every few pages, you’re
meeting a slew of new people; it’s impossible to keep track of, or care about, them all. You have to wonder if Ms. Cooper
is afraid of offending any of them by leaving their names out. When she has a sustained narrative about a particular incident
– such as the kidnapping of the German general – she serves the material well. But the peripatetic quality of
Paddy’s life inevitably intervenes and off we go again to new people and new places.
For example, the following paragraph is about his visit, with Joan Rayner (she eventually became his wife) to a village
in the Rhodope mountains, near the border between Greece and Bulgaria:
The Pomaks are a Slavic group of Sunni Muslims, supposedly converted to Islam by the Ottoman Turks; and there are Pomak
communities in Bulgaria, Macedonia and western Thrace. The Pomak language has elements of Greek, Bulgarian and Turkish, but
only the women speak it. Their host, Daoud Ali-Oghlu Mehmet, spoke Turkish and Greek, and lived in a traditional Pomak house,
with great flat slabs of stone on the roof: conventional roof tiles simply blew away. Paddy and Joan sat on woven homespun
rugs on the floor with their host, hand-rolling excellent tobacco into cigarettes and drinking endless cups of coffee. Daoud
and his friend Suleiman were happy to talk about the Pomaks, who call themselves Achriani – as in Agrianes,
an old Thracian race. Daoud told him the story of the Prophet Nüh Ali es Salaam (Noah),
and – in a lowered voice – about the civil war. The Reds had looted his house, taking wheat and corn, destroying
jars and looms. He also hated the bandits who roamed the mountains, who he said were all Bulgarians. Paddy and Joan slept
that night on the floor of Daoud’s house, wrapped in blankets.
This passage, including quotes from Paddy’s writings, tells about a return visit to Hungary:
He flew to Budapest, hired a Volvo, and drove all over the Great Hungarian Plain. ‘Most of my halts were at places
I had stayed at of old, a series of minor Bridesheads really...’ At Körösladàny, where Paddy had stayed in the spring of 1934, he met Johann
(Hansi) Meran, the son of the house: Hansi had been twelve and Paddy nineteen, at the time of his visit. Count Meran had spent
ten years in Siberia after the war, and returned to marry a girl in his home village and to till the communally owned fields.
‘With him, visiting from Vienna, was his sister Marcsi..."Do you [remember] that table," she said, pointing to a rickety
Biedermeier affair. I said no. "You sat writing in a big green book, all the morning. We used to peep round the library door"...It
was all very moving.’ He slipped over the wall of O’Kigyós, the house bristling
with turrets and finials in whose courtyard he had played bicycle polo with the Wenckheims. It was now a school, but the gardens
were well kept, and the old Slovak gardeners still remembered the Wenckheims with affection.
Too much information! It appears that the author has fallen in love with her subject so devotedly that she can’t
get an objective view of what’s important and what isn’t. By way of comparison, I’m thinking of Jane Ridley’s
biography of King Edward VII of England (also reviewed on this page). Ms. Ridley’s biography of the monarch is much
more readable. Perhaps that’s because his life was more grounded, more rooted. No matter how far his story roams, it
always comes back to his home in England and his importance to the nation. Unfortunately for Ms. Cooper, her subject was constantly
on the move, never having a home base or a clear role except during certain short periods. Perhaps it might have made the
biography more readable if she had tried to focus on the essence of the man’s life, without so much slogging through
the day-to-day minutiae.
The people whose names were left out might have been miffed but I would have been grateful.
The Best Man to Die (Mystery) by Ruth Rendell, 1969
It’s getting so hard to find good mysteries these days, that it sometimes seems like a good idea to fall back on
one of the classic authors of the genre. This item happened to provide a few hours of pleasurable escape during some
We open one evening in the village pub in Kingsmarkham, where five or six guys are toasting their buddy who is going to
be married tomorrow. But the marriage is postponed when one of the guys is found next morning floating in the stream with
his head bashed in. Chief Inspector Rex Wexford, of course, is called in to sort things out. The plot becomes nicely complicated,
various threads coming together to create quite a tangle. One of the most interesting elements concerns a woman who has wakened
from a coma following a car accident. Her husband and daughter were reportedly killed in the crash but she insists that that’s
not what happened. The sections dealing with this woman seem like something from a novel much better than the typical mystery.
At first, the car crash seems to have nothing to do with the dead man found in the stream but, this being Ruth Rendell’s
work, you can bet that there will be a connection.
The actual solution to the mystery is ingenious, although it does involve the understanding of some intricate manoeuvers
of vehicles, which are difficult to follow if you don’t make a chart of what happened. This isn’t the first appearance
of Inspector Wexford but it’s one of the early ones. I’m surprised to see that Ms. Rendell has portrayed him as
being a huge guy, almost elephantine, and ugly to boot. That’s not the way I remember him from the later books. He’s
also something of a brute, not hesitating to bully witnesses and suspects. Is it possible that Ms. Rendell made him more genteel
with the passage of time? Speaking of time, there are some echoes of the 1960s that strike a corny note now. Wexford’s
daughter uses the term "groovy" at one point and her dear old dad is utterly flummoxed when she shows up one day in a fancy
The one aspect of the book that I found almost intolerable from today’s point of view was the blatant class consciousness.
Wexford has occasion to visit a suspect who happens to live in "Council housing," as the Brits say. First, the author is looking
down her nose at the fact that this man and his wife happen to have a lot of children; Ms. Rendell can’t mention the
fact without a sneer. And her description of their living conditions reeks of snobbery. She can’t say anything about
the place except that it’s dirty, smelly and grubby. Even the creases in the wife’s white plastic purse are greasy.
She drops cigarette ashes all over the place while changing the baby. Plates of congealed gravy and chips loom large. I’m
willing to grant that some people live in such insalubrious circumstances. But I think if an author were not blinded by such
a strong sense of superiority, she would be able to see that there might be something sympathetic about these people and that
not everything about them could be so repulsive.
Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (Art History) by Ross King, 2002
Ross King did such a superb job with his 2006 book, The Judgement of Paris (reviewed on DD page Jan 30/08),
that I figured this earlier book would be a good bet. It is. With his trademark scholarship and finesse, Mr. King weaves together
a complex tale of personalities, politics, science and esthetics to make a book that, contrary to what you might expect of
a book about art, amounts to something of a page-turner.
One of the most fascinating things about the artwork on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is that it almost never happened.
Michelangelo Buonarotti didn’t want the job. He had already been commissioned by Pope Julius II to sculpt a splendiferous
tomb for the pontiff. Michelangelo had had tons of Carrara marble for the project shipped to Rome. But the pope suddenly changed
his mind. He wanted Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the chapel instead. Michelangelo, however, considered himself more
of a sculptor than a painter. (He was famous for his Pietà and David.) Besides,
he hadn’t had much experience with the fiendishly difficult technique of al fresco painting, i.e. painting on
But the pope’s demands could not be ignored. The work on the chapel ceiling began in 1508. Even when it was well
underway, Michelangelo tried to quit. Mildew and other physical degradations were ruining the work. Michelangelo told the
pope the project simply wasn’t possible. The wily pontiff, however, sent an expert to examine the situation and the
verdict was that Michelangelo and his helpers from Florence simply didn’t understand the climatic conditions, nor did
they grasp the proper use of the available materials in Rome. Once those matters were cleared up, Michelangelo was forced
to get on with the job.
You may know all this but several aspects of the story were new to me. For instance, the fact that Michelangelo’s
wasn’t the original design for the ceiling. The first decor for that part of the building, when it was officially
opened in 1483, had been an array of gold stars against an azure background. But the ceiling had cracked, as had some of the
walls, due to the building’s location on marshy ground. Now that the damage had to be repaired, the pope felt it was
time for new artwork overhead. For the main section of the ceiling, the pope proposed a series of interlocking geometric figures.
Michelangelo took a stab at some drawings in that genre but he quickly came to the conclusion that such a pattern for the
ceiling would be a poor show. This seems to be one of the few instances where the imperious Julius II didn’t insist
on his own intentions but merely shrugged and told the artist to get on with whatever plan he judged best.
Why did Michelangelo choose mostly scenes of violence and turbulence from the Old Testament, rather than the gentler New
Testament subject matter? Because his religion leaned towards the vengeful concept of the Deity. Michelangelo was a big fan
of the fire and brimstone preaching of the notorious Giorlamo Savonarola, who was always threatening people with horrible
calamities from heaven unless they amended their ways. That was more or less Michelangelo’s world view. Hence his focus
on scenes like the flood, Noah’s drunkenness, the crucifixion of Haman and the like.
In terms of artistic approach, it was, of course, the nude human body, especially the male version, that most interested
Michelangelo. He took every opportunity to pack his scenes with writhing, contorted human figures. It was interesting
to me to learn, according to Mr. King, that Michelangelo didn’t have much time for landscape. The background in the
Garden of Eden – of all places – is simply a stretch of green broken by a rock. Michelangelo was one of
the first artists, says Mr. King, to depict God as the white-bearded old gent in the sky. Previously, God was usually pictured
as a younger man.
There is a certain irony about the image that has become the token of the whole work for many of us – the reaching
out of God’s and Adam’s index fingers towards each other. Adam’s hand, as we see it, isn’t the hand
that Michelangelo painted. His version of Adam’s hand had begun to deteriorate shortly after it was painted; another
artist had to re-paint the hand. Mr. King also has something to say about our interpretation of the gesture. We tend to think
it means that God is bestowing the spark of life on Adam. That, says, Mr. King, is a fairly recent reading. One early commentator
opined that God was shaking his finger at Adam, warning him about what he could and could not do.
Of course, Mr. King needs to disabuse us of many other common misconceptions about Michelangelo and his work. Most notably,
the myth that Michelangelo lay on his back to paint the ceiling. In an early bio of Michelangelo, a writer said that the artist
worked resupinus, i.e. "bent backwards," but the word has often been mistranslated as "on his back." In writings of
his own, Michelangelo made it clear that he was standing and leaning back while painting, with his beard pointing to heaven.
(Pace, Irving Stone, author of The Agony and the Ecstasy.) Mr. King also makes it quite clear that, contrary
to the popular notion, Michelangelo did not paint the ceiling in celestial solitude. He had lots of assistants working with
Mr. King also challenges the common assumption that Michelangelo was gay. It is true that he wasn’t known to have
any romantic or sexual interest in women. And he did develop a powerful infatuation for a young Roman nobleman, one Tommaso
de’Cavalieri, whom he met around 1532. Michelangelo wrote many loving poems to de’ Cavalieri. But there is no
evidence that the relationship was ever consummated sexually. All we know for sure about Michelangelo’s attitude to
sex is that he was not keen. On that subject, he advised his pupil Ascanio Condivi: "If you want to prolong your life, practice
it [i.e. sex] not at all, or the least that you can." Michelangelo believed that sex wore a person down, leading to aging
and disability. When he was accused of portraying Mary as too young in his famous Pietà,
Michelangelo’s defence was that, because Mary never had sex, she would have remained young and fresh looking.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Michelangelo was skeptical about sex. It doesn’t sound like he’d have
attracted many partners. He acknowledged that he was ugly, with his squashed nose and his jug ears, and he had no qualms about
picturing himself that way as a minor character in some of his paintings. Worse still, he didn’t believe in washing;
he, along with his father, believed that washing wasn’t good for the body; you could allow yourself to be rubbed, but
not washed. And you couldn’t say that Michelangelo was endowed with winning ways. He was grouchy, pessimistic, inclined
to complain and suspicious of people.
The one cliché about the artist that this book tends to confirm is the image of the
genius who struggles mightily in the face of terrible odds to complete the great work that is bursting to come forth from
him or her. Michelangelo was constantly beset by troubles with assistants and materials. His father and his four brothers
kept presenting big problems for him to solve. (His mother had died when he was six.) As the successful member of the Buonarotti
family, Michelangelo was expected to bail them out of all kinds of troubles, financial, legal and personal. His letters to
them seethe with exasperation and frustration.
But it may have been the pope himself, Michelangelo’s patron, who was the biggest thorn in his side. The two men
had once been friends, but after the debacle of the tomb, Michelangelo was wary of the guy. He kept having to hound the pope
for overdue payments that he needed to keep his assistants on the job and to buy materials. It wasn’t easy to draw Julius’
attention to artistic matters since he was so busy with his military campaigns to win back disputed papal lands.
One of the virtues of Mr. King’s work is that it situates some of the other greats of the Renaissance art world vis
a vis Michelangelo. In 1504, he and Leonardo da Vinci were hired by the government of Florence to provide frescoes for two
walls in a council room in the Palazzo della Signoria. Each of the artists was supposed to decorate a wall that would face
the wall decorated by the other man. Both works would depict famous battles. What heightened the competitive aspect of the
project was the fact that the two men were known to have little respect for each other. The frescoes for the palace walls
were never completed but we do have some preparatory sketches of Leonardo’s plan. Michelangelo, for his fresco of The
Battle of Cascina, had completed a cartoon, i.e. a detailed drawing on paper that would be transferred to the wall. Although
it was destroyed, we have a copy of it made by a student of Michelangelo’s.
During the time of Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel, the up-and-coming Raphael Santi was working on frescoes
on the walls of the papal apartments. When the first half of the chapel ceiling was unveiled for public viewing, Raphael was
one of the eager viewers. His own painting soon showed the results: more sculpted, more muscular human figures. It was said
at the time that Raphael tried to steal the commission for the finishing of the chapel ceiling away from Michelangelo.
Perhaps Raphael saw that the chapel work would provide greater exposure for an artist than would the work on the papal apartments.
While Mr. King doesn’t give much credit to this supposition of Raphael’s scheming against Michelangelo, it was
clear that Michelangelo didn’t trust this young upstart.
After four years of work, Michelangelo finished the chapel ceiling in 1512. (He returned to the chapel in 1536 to paint
The Last Judgement on its altar wall.) Soon after the completion of the ceiling, it became something of a reference
text for artists in the western world. Copies of the paintings were made available for study; it’s known that Rembrandt
van Rijnn owned a set.
Sometimes you wish Mr. King had arranged all this information differently but it’s such a massive amount of material
to assemble that you have to be thankful that he has taken on the monumental task. I sometimes had trouble following
his explanations of physical things – like the architectural details of the chapel or the chemical processes involved
in al fresco painting – but Mr. King’s enthusiasm for the subject and his mastery of the material
carried me through in spite of these quibbles.