Friday, July 20, 2018

BOOK: J. M. Coetzee, "Waiting for the Barbarians"

J. M. Coetzee: Waiting for the Barbarians. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1999 (first published in 1980). 0140283358. 152 pp.

This book is another welcome piece of evidence for my old theory that Nobel laureates write surprisingly good books. I had heard of Coetzee before but hadn't really been planning to read any of his books; I heard of this short novel of his, first published in 1980, very recently and purely by chance. I was looking for something about Sven Hedin, the famous Swedish explorer of Central Asia from the late 19th and early 20th century, and came across a very interesting article (H. Wittenbert, K. Highman: “Sven Hedin's ‘vanished country’: Setting and history in J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians”; link 1, link 2) about Hedin's influence on the setting of Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. Although Coetzee's book is deliberately vague about where and when exactly it's taking place, apparently he took a lot of inspiration from Hedin's (and other explorers') descriptions of certain areas of Central Asia, especially of the long-ruined city of Lou-lan that Hedin discovered in 1901 near the lake of Lop Nor. At the same time, I guess that another major inspiration for the novel was the way the South African authorities treated the blacks under the apartheid system.

<spoiler warning>

The story is told by a first-person narrator, who like most characters in the story remains unnamed. He used to be the magistrate, i.e. the head of the civil administration, of a small town at the very edges of some unnamed Empire. It used to be quite an idyllic existence — a sleepy, peaceful place (it didn't even have a prison), with not too much work for an administrator like him, so he could spend plenty of time on visiting friends, mistresses (he is an older man and a widower, and doesn't seem to have any children), and on his various hobbies such as hunting, reading “the classics”, and antiquarianism — he likes to conduct excavations in the nearby ruins of an ancient city, and occasionally tries to decipher the inscriptions he found there. (This is probably the point where Coetzee was the most directly influenced by Hedin's discoveries. There is also the more general environmental influence: the area where the story is set seems to be relatively dry, though the settlement itself is in something of an oasis; there are cold winters and hot summers. A “tiger rampant” is mentioned at one point among the symbols of the Empire, which is more or less the only thing specifically linking it to an Asian setting. One thing which somewhat surprised me is that the characters use firearms (of a relatively primitive sort), which felt almost anachronistic since everything else in the novel looks like it could easily have taken place at least two thousand years ago.)

Theoretically, the Empire ends there and beyond it there are barbarians, but they are far from being dangerous raging hordes. They are in fact only small harmless groups of nomads, who trade with the Magistrate's settlement often, invariably get stiffed in the process by the locals who hate them, and yet the never cause any real trouble.

The novel opens at a point when this peaceful existence is coming to an end. Supposedly a major barbarian invasion is looming, and on the basis of this claim some sort of emergency measures have been imposed in the Empire, most of the usual process of law has been suspended and a sort of gestapo-like police organization called the ‘Third Bureau’ is now basically running around with unlimited powers. At the start of the novel, a group of Third Bureau men led by a Colonel Joll has arrived at the Magistrate's settlement, supposedly to investigate the barbarian situation with a view to preparing a subsequent military campaign against them. Joll et al. are invariably grotesquely sadistic and arrogant, their methods of investigation consist more or less entirely of torture and over-the-top brutality, and it soon becomes obvious that far from protecting the Empire from the barbarian threat, they are in fact making the situation worse.

Joll arrests a few barbarians who happen to have been in the vicinity at the time, and tortures them mercilessly to get them to disclose their (obviously non-existent) invasion plans. Naturally, this sort of treatment can only make the barbarians more likely to turn hostile, rather than less. After Joll returns back to the capital to prepare the next phases of the anti-barbarian campaign, it's left to the Magistrate to try picking up the pieces and mending the relations with the barbarians again — after all, it's he and his fellow townspeople that have to actually live next to them.

The Magistrate even takes in a young barbarian woman that has been lamed and partly blinded by Joll and his torturers. Their relationship can, I guess, best be described the way they say on facebook — ‘it's complicated’. At times he treats her as his mistress, at times he just wants to help her recover, and much of the time he himself doesn't seem to be quite sure what he expects from his relationship with her. The novel spends quite a lot of time on these things, which I think goes to show that it's serious literature and not merely an entertaining genre novel. No doubt this is very good stuff for the right sort of readers, but for myself I didn't quite know what to do with most of the Magistrate's internal ruminations on this subject. Fortunately the writer knows how to dose them in moderate quantities so they never get tedious.

After a good few months, perhaps almost a year, the Magistrate decides to take the young woman back to the nearest barbarian encampment, so that she can decide if she wants to stay there (and they can hopefully help her get back to her family) or return to the settlement with him (though it seems that he is growing a bit bored with her). She decides to stay with the barbarians, and when the Magistrate returns to the settlement — the whole journey took a couple of weeks at least — it turns out that things have changed dramatically in his absence. Joll's goons are back in town and they arrest the Magistrate on the suspicion that the purpose of his trip was really to warn the barbarians of the impending large-scale military campaign against them. It is of course easy for them to torture people into providing all sorts of incriminating testimony against the Magistrate, much of it blatantly false, some of it perhaps fueled by honest resentments about his close relationship with the young barbarian woman (and claims that he had been neglecting his administrative work because of her).

The Magistrate demands a trial, but they have no interest in that. They do in fact at times conduct trials of the cangaroo-court type, but under their emergency powers they don't even have to do that, and they simply keep the Magistrate in prison and torture him regularly, presumably for no other reason than that they are evil and that they figure it's the best way to assert their power. This part of the story felt rather nauseating at times, so I think the author did a very good job at conveying how repugnant their behaviour is. I was reminded a little of Orwell here — the purpose of torture is torture, the boot stomping on a human face, etc.

Joll himself is actually away campaigning most of this time, and it's an underling of his named Mandel that runs things is absence. This is in fact one of the very few named characters besides Joll in this book, and I was somewhat surprised by the choice of name. “Joll” sounds vague and nondescript and could be from many parts of the world, but “Mandel” strikes me as distinctly Jewish, which seemed to me to be a somewhat odd choice given the setting of the novel.

As the whole story is told from the Magistrate's first-person perspective, we tend not to hear much about things that he didn't know himself. The details of the campaign against the barbarians are unclear, but evidently it isn't going well. Either a serious barbarian invasion force must have existed to begin with, or (more likely in my opinion) the brutality of Joll and the likes of him must have provoked the barbarians into a serious opposition. Still, we see very little of this supposed formidable barbarian force here. At one point Joll rolls into the town with a dozen wretched barbarian prisoners, and we cannot help realizing that, even if a real barbarian army exists somewhere out there, these people obviously cannot have anything to do with it. They must have been some unfortunates who were in the wrong place at the wrong time and whom he arrested simply as a way to cover up the failures of his campaign. Joll's men proceed to flog the prisoners brutally in the public square (makes you wonder who's the real barbarian here), to much delight of the assembled civilian population, except for the Magistrate, who tries to protest loudly, only to get badly beaten up himself by Joll's goons.

After a while, Mandel releases the Magistrate, perhaps because he figures that at this point this is the best way to continue demonstrating the Third Bureau's power: they are so powerful and the Magistrate so weak that they can afford to let him roam around freely, as a homeless beggar. He slowly re-establishes contact with old acquaintances and finds that people have a good deal of sympathy for him, and dislike for Joll's men, but of course everyone tries to keep their heads down most of the time.

As rumours of the disastrous failure of the anti-barbarian campaign mount up, morale in the settlement grows worse, more and more people leave for the interior of the Empire in search of safety, and Mandel's garrison treats the remaining civilians increasingly badly. The settlement is slowly losing not only its population but also the societal structures that enabled it to function as a town at all. The inn shuts down, the school shuts down, etc. Eventually the garrison leaves as well, ostensibly as a temporary measure, but it's clear to everyone that the Empire is abandoning the settlement due to its inability to defend it. A little later Joll and the tattered remnants of his forces pass through the town as well, in a further proof that their campaign must have ended in disaster. The townsfolk are now left to their own devices, trying to make it through the next winter, cope with the loss of population, carry on farming despite the ever-present barbarian threat, etc. The Magistrate informally takes lead of many of these efforts, thus slipping into something resembling his old role again.

The novel ends before we could see how things will really turn out. Will a large barbarian force eventually turn up and wipe out the town in an orgy of fire and blood? Or has it all been a giant phantasmagoria and will the frontier go back to its sleepy, peaceful days now that the Third Bureau troublemakers are gone? Will the town be able to recover from the loss of population and environmental devastation (the barbarians have flooded some areas by messing with irrigation systems, and Joll's soldiers have burned down other areas ostensibly because they could provide cover to barbarian guerillas)? Or will it enter into a slow (or not so slow) decline and soon turn into a ruin not unlike the one that the Magistrate has had so much fun excavating in the happier days of peace? The last scene is on a sort of life-goes-on note: the magistrate passes by a group of children that are making a snowman.

</spoiler warning>

I really enjoyed this novel, except, as I already mentioned above, for the torture parts, which made me queasy. It raises many interesting questions about civilisation, imperialism, even environmentalism. The settlement in which most of the story takes place was built up by the Empire about a hundred years ago, on land where formerly the barbarian nomads used to graze their herds. It's a story as old as farming (so about ten thousand years) — farmers pushing pastoralists out of their lands. It's despicable, but you can't help feeling a hypocrite for condemning it, since the vast majority of humankind nowadays lives in civilizations based on farming rather than nomadic animal husbandry. Apart from this ‘original sin’, as it were, the townsfolk don't seem like a particularly bad sort, and the Magistrate's description of life in the old days of peace and prosperity seems fairly idyllic, which makes it hard to see the setting up of a town like that as wholly bad. But that's precisely what makes civilization so insidious, of course; its good sides are just attractive enough to easily lure us into excusing the abuse and injustice that inevitably lies at its foundation.

There's an interesting environmental aspect to the story as well, although it doesn't have such a prominent part in it. The settlers have built irrigation systems to support their farming, and this perhaps draws more water than the environment can provide: the water in a nearby lake is turning more and more salty — which is beginning to reach the point where fishing will soon be impossible — and the Magistrate himself observes that sooner or later farming may become impossible as well, and the settlement may have to be abandoned. He points out that the barbarians haven't forgotten that it is a relatively recent establishment, and you can sense that they are hanging around waiting for the settlement to fail due to an ecological disaster so they can go back to grazing their herds in the area again. I imagine the author was inspired partly by actual historical examples of abandoned cities, such as the one near Lop Nor mentioned above, and partly by environmental concerns in his own time (1970s) and place (Africa).

Another intriguing topic that the novel explores is the relationship between the centre and the periphery. The novel here consistently takes place at the very edge of the Empire, and seen from this perspective it almost makes you wonder whether there's any point to the centre even existing at all. There are many vague references to the capital of the Empire, and the Magistrate seems to have lived there himself earlier in his career, but now there's nothing but trouble coming out of there — absurd, dangerous decisions such as the one to impose emergency measures, to let the Third Bureau run rampant, to organize a supposed anti-barbarian campaign even though it is plainly obvious (to people such as the Magistrate, who lives on the periphery himself and thus knows the situation there) that no barbarian invasion is looming (and it must have either been a terrible mistake by short-signed, ignorant leadership in the capital, or a cynical fabrication set up by the Third Bureau itself so they would have an excuse to seize power). The Magistrate himself says clearly enough on a number of occasions that nothing would suit him and his fellow townsfolk better than if the Empire and its capital simply forgot about them and let them keep on living their peaceful, sleepy existence as heretofore.

It's a very alluring idea, though of course one cannot help also being aware of its possible downsides (which the Magistrate doesn't say anything about). Suppose you were to radically decentralize the Empire so that each little settlement (such as the one where this novel takes place) becomes completely autonomous. Would this usher in an era of peace and prosperity, or one of constant internecine warfare? (We all know about endlessly squabbling city-states from various periods of history and various parts of the world, after all.) And then there's trade — a part, at least, of the prosperity of the settlement surely relies on trade with the rest of the Empire; with the Empire gone, wouldn't such long-distance trade links wither and die, leading to a slow decline in the standards of living and indeed in the level of civilization itself? (Isn't this exactly what happened in the (western parts of the) Roman Empire in the late antiquity?) If each settlement were left entirely to its own devices, couldn't the barbarians easily crush them one by one? And in general you need a certain level of population to maintain a certain level of civilization. Could sufficiently wise administrators with a sufficiently broad outlook, such as the Magistrate of this story, be brought up and trained in his tiny frontier settlement? Would the classics that he likes to read be likely to have been written (or even just copied) in it? Or were all these things available only because the settlement was part of a larger political and civilizational unit?

I don't pretend to have a good answer to any of this, of course, and I doubt that the novel would claim to have any answers either. I suppose that, as with many other political questions, there is no simple and elegant solution. Different problems might call for different degrees of integration or decentralization. It's something that people have been grappling with throughout history. Personally I'm afraid that the pressure of economic forces nowadays is pushing us too far in the direction of integration, but then allowing local forces to run rampant in the name of decentralization has its own fair share of problems as well.

Frankly, I think the biggest problem with the Empire in this novel is its willingness to impose emergency measures. This is where all the trouble in this novel starts from. We don't really learn anything much about the politics of the Empire, so it's hard to say what other problems it might have; but we know from history — or, indeed, the present — that republics and more or less democratic countries can also easily fall to the allure of emergency measures. Seriously, if I was every called upon to write the constitution of a country, I think I would insert something like this after every other paragraph: “Oh, and by the way, there will be no emergency measures in this country. Not even if you call them something else. Not even if you think you have an excellent excuse for this. Not even if there are actual physical barbarians running through your parliament building right now and stabbing the deputies with swords while they are trying to carry on with regular parliamentary procedures — no, not even then. In fact, especially not then. No emergency measures for you, full stop. Because fuck you and your poorly-concealed totalitarian impulses, that's why.”

Another question, which is really quite independent of whether your country is an empire or something more democratic, is that of interactions between groups of people at vastly different levels of civilization. If, instead of the tattered bands of barbarian wretches, the Empire in this story were facing another similar empire at the same level of development, they would either have to treat each other roughly as equals in order to trade peacefully, or they would have to go to a real war, a total war that really affects the whole country, and not one of these despicable colonial border skirmishes where the imperialists have a jolly good time brutalizing the vastly smaller, weaker, technologically and organizationally inferior natives. There would be much less room in that kind of world for small-minded sadists like Joll and his cheap acts of torture against hapless random civilians. In any case, in my ideal world, people would simply leave other civilizations alone if there was a mismatch in the level of development. Dealing with a civilization far below yours cannot possibly avoid hurting them, so it would be best to just leave them alone and they will eventually develop on their own terms, if they feel inclined to do so.

That being said, it was in fact very nice to see that the conflict between the Empire and the barbarians in this novel actually ends with a victory for the barbarians. I was a bit surprised by that, but perhaps it is simply informed by the author's experiences. After all, the nineteenth century, when the European colonialists scrambled for Africa and easily lorded it over primitive native tribes, was long gone by the time this story was written; the recent and formative experience for the author must have been the period of decolonization in the mid-20th century, when Empires were collapsing and retreating almost everywhere. The few efforts to prolong this sort of imperialism beyond its alotted historical period simply led to worse and worse forms of abuse and torture, which I guess the author had plenty of opportunity to observe first-hand in apartheid-era South Africa.

Apart from these big political and historical questions, there is also another, more personal side to the novel. The Magistrate is grappling with his relations to women, his growing old, his declining libido, his efforts to understand how people like Joll and Mandel can live with themselves, how the masses of the people can remain silent in the face of their actions and thus in a sense become complicit in them, etc. I'm not really equipped to comment on any of these things, so I'll just content myself with noting that they feature prominently in the novel and will no doubt be appreciated by people who can appreciate this sort of things.

All in all, this was a delightful, if at times very uncomfortable, novel, hard to put down, and I particularly liked the random, serendipitous way in which I had come across it. I wonder how many more gems like this are waiting to be discovered in places where I would never think to look for them because I tend to avoid the work of modern serious authors for the simple reason that most of it is incomprehensible (and hence boring) to me. I can only hope for other such lucky encounters in the future.

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BOOK: Giovanni Pontano, "On Married Love. Eridanus"

Giovanni Gioviano Pontano: On Married Love. Eridanus. Translated by Luke Roman. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 63. Harvard University Press, 2014. 9780674728660. xxvii + 385 pp.

This is the second volume of Pontano's poetry in the I Tatti Renaissance Library — see my post about his Baiae from a few years ago. My impression of this volume is much like of that one: the poems here are pleasant enough, but hardly anything to write home about, nothing terribly stirring here and nothing I'm likely to remember ten years hence.

And I'm starting to get an idea of why this is the case. I like my poets young, dying of consumption, and dipping their quills in their very heart's blood as they write their verses. But Pontano is very much not that — you could say he's the opposite of that. His poems strike me as something that was obviously written by a prosperous middle-aged guy (I cannot help imagining him with a potbelly although I have no idea if he actually had one or not :]), who had a basically stable and content life, a successful career, happy relationships with his wife, children, mistresses, etc. And the poems reflect that; pleasant, but hardly shocking. There's nothing wrong with that, but it isn't quite what I look for in poetry either.

But there is something I should definitely praise about this volume: unlike in the vast majority of the ITRL series, the translations in this book are real poems. They have lines, they even have metre. The only liberty that the translator has taken is to increase the number of lines so as to gain space (p. 334), which is fine as elegies don't rely on having a specific number of lines anyway. As a result, this book was much more enjoyable to read than nearly all the poetry volumes in the ITRL so far. Let's hope for more translations of poetry like this :)

Married Love

The translator's introduction (p. xiv–xv) has a few very interesting remarks about the elegy as a form. To me now the word has some connotations of sadness, but apparently it originally did not, and simply meant any sort of poem written in elegic distychs. They could be on various topics, and many ancient poets (e.g. Ovid) wrote love-poems in this format. However, apparently in ancient times it was unheard of to write elegies to one's wife (as opposed to a mistress), and Pontano was the first poet in history to do so, so that his Married Love is in a sense hugely innovative. I was particularly happy to see a neo-Latin author being innovative because what you usually see in the ITRL is how slavishly imitative of ancient authors they had to be most of the time.

This collection clearly spans a fairly long period of time, and to some extent we can see it as a sort of chronicle of Pontano's marriage and family life. It starts with an epithalamion (wedding-song) for his own wedding (1.2), and towards the end there are two epithalamions for the weddings of his two daughters (3.3–4). There are some nice poems written during his long periods of separation from his family, due to the wars that his employer, the king of Naples, was fighting in the north of Italy (poem 1.7 is particularly nice, wishing for the return of peace so he could go home to his wife again). Occasionally he can be boringly admonitory in giving his wife advice on how to handle the children in his absence (1.9). Eventually peace was concluded and he could return home to his family, which he also celebrated in several poems (2.3–4). There is also a nice sequence of lullabies (2.8–19), though frankly it wasn't quite obvious to me how they would help in getting a child to fall asleep sooner; but then I don't have any experience with children myself. One notable feature of those lullabies is their peculiar fascination with breast-feeding.


I used to think of Eridanus as simply the Latin name of the river Po, and indeed this is mostly what it means here, but according to the translator's note 1 on p. 351 it was originally understood as a mythological river and later identified by various real rivers (most commonly the Po) by various authors.

This collection of poems seems to have been written late in Pontano's life, after the death of his wife. There are a couple of poems addressed to her (2.1, 2.32), and Pontano clearly misses her dearly and is looking forward to being reunited with her in the afterlife. Nevertheless, he took on a courtesan named Stella as a mistress during this period, and probably the largest number of poems in Eridanus are dedicated to her. They mostly struck me as nice but somewhat conventional. One nice feature are the numerous puns based on the fact that her name means “star” in Latin (“Stella, the sky is your native land; from there, you shine brightly”, 1.18.1; “Stella's my torch in darkness that leads to night's delight”, 1.20.1). The punniest poem here, however, is 2.14, about a woman named Ambrosia: “You sprinkled ambrosia, Ambrosia, with your lips” etc.

I enjoyed the juxtaposition of fire and ice in 2.5: “You are the one who sparks in me your torches' flames,/ and you, the same you, freeze my heart with ice” etc. And continuing with analogies from physics, he compares her moods to the weather in the next poem (2.6).

Some of the most touching poems in this series show Pontano trying to cope with the increasing discomforts of old age and loneliness (2.31), especially following the death of not only his wife but their son as well (2.32). He also often defends himself against the idea that it's somehow wrong for an old man to fall in love (2.12, 2.21, 2.24). On one occasion things turn a bit mean as his Stella evidently takes on a younger lover: “You were purchased by the cash/ of an old man, and by a young man's cash,/ my girl. To a young man you'll soon pay back the cash,/ when you are old yourself. [. . .] she who sells in youth,/ in later years will be obliged to buy.” (2.26.30–4)

But there are also many more cheerful and pleasant poems, conveying an image of Pontano enjoying a calm and comfortable retirement in a countryside world of villas, rivers, and nymphs (see e.g. poem 1.40, inviting a friend to dinner at his villa; the whole poem is a lovely catalogue of rustic pleasures, and some of the dishes Pontano mentions are quite mouth-watering: “a tender suckling goat, its first horns showing, stuffed by skillful hand with cherry and with cornel berry”, ll. 27–8). And there are some poems on miscellaneous subjects; I liked 1.41, in which Pontano is trying to console a friend on the death of another friend, who apparently died in war. He recommends him to try to get over the loss by writing poems in praise of the late friend, who is now in a better place anyway. Another nice poem was 2.4, pointing out that unlike Amor, his mistress does not need a bow to shoot arrows at people; she can shoot them from her eyes and cheeks :)

For my collection of suicide-inducing quotations, from 2.22.33–4: “He lives who loves and has possession of his love./ He does not live who love's enjoyment lacks.”

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Sunday, July 01, 2018

BOOK: Simon Winchester, "The Meaning of Everything"

Simon Winchester: The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2093. 0192805762. xxvii + 260 pp.

I've always admired the concept behind the Oxford English Dictionary (and other similar dictionaries of other languages) — to include the entirety of the language, both rare and common words, contemporary and long-dead ones, in all their senses, and with plenty of examples illustrating their use through the centuries. How much more impressive this is than the ordinary sort of dictionaries where commercial and practical considerations dictate what is or is not to be included, and where words that are unlikely to be of use to enough people are simply omitted. And how much more educational, too; each article is a miniature history lesson showing how the senses of a word unfolded over time.

(Another and perhaps less commendable reason why I admire such dictionaries is that I always drool at the prospect of massive, many-volumed works, which such dictionaries of course inevitably are.)

In my ideal world, each language would have such a dictionary, but alas, it seems that relatively few actually do. And in my ideal world each government would pay for thousands of lexicographers to work full-time at producing and updating it, so that the whole thing could be produced in a reasonable time and then constantly kept up-to-date. Alas, in the real world, even in large and wealthy countries, this sort of dictionaries seem to have mostly been produced by small teams and work on them consequently spans over many decades, or indeed sometimes exceeds a century and enters the sort of timescales that we usually associate with the construction of medieval cathedrals.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, once you have such a titanic effort extending over such a long period, enough interesting things are bound to accumulate that you can fill a book along the lines of ‘a history of the making of such-and-such a dictionary’. The present book, The Meaning of Everything, is just such a book about the making of the OED. I have found it to be an extremely enjoyable and readable book, you can really feel the author's great enthusiasm for the OED, and in fact my main complaint is that the book is so short — I read it in two days, and could have done it in one if I had had more time that day.

The author takes a broad view of his topic and thus starts the book with a short history of the English language, with a focus on its notable fondness for borrowing all sorts of foreign words, which has tended to bulk up its vocabulary, especially from the Renaissance onwards. He continues with a short history of English dictionaries, and I was particularly interested to see that the idea of a dictionary such as we know it today seems to have been far from obvious at first. The first early modern dictionaries mostly included just ‘difficult’ words that readers were unlikely to know already, many of them obscure recent borrowings from Latin or Greek that saw relatively little use in practice; and they were explained with no more than a short translation or gloss. It took a while for the idea to emerge of a monolingual dictionary that should include all words, detail the various meanings of each word, and illustrate them with citations from actual use.

The most interesting parts of the book for me were those about the beginnings of the OED and the cultural milieu out of which it arose. Unlike today when most scientific work is done by harried, overworked academics who spend half of their time writing grant proposals, the Victorian age was to a large extent still a time of gentleman scientists, of learned amateurs who did this sort of work in their spare time and often on their own dime. The London Philological Society, founded in 1842, was composed of such people, and it was under the auspices of that society that what was intially called ‘A New English Dictionary’ got started.

It was an enormous task, but the Victorian age seems to have been just the perfect time for it, an age of ebullient optimism and dogged tenacity when people were unafraid to take on enormous tasks and sometimes, often enough, even managed to finish them. As the author points out, this was another side of the same mentality that also led to empire-building, the massive expansion of industrialism, and so on. Although he makes a few bows in the direction of political correctness by emphasizing or suggesting that of course the Victorians were evil imperialists, racists, sexists etc. etc. etc., he clearly also can't help admiring their sheer gumption, and for my part neither can I. I'm glad that they did it back then when it was still possible; I can't imagine that anyone would start such a dictionary today.

(But as the author also points out, part of the reason why they were willing to start their New English Dictinary is that they massively underestimated the amount of work it would take.)

There are a couple of chapters about the early editors of the dictionary, a colourful cast of characters who are not that well-known today. Actually the dictionary got off to a very slow and rocky start. The first editor, Herbert Coleridge (grandson of the poet S. T. Coleridge), was a hard worker but died of consumption at the age of 30, after only a year as the editor; next there was Frederick Furnivall, who was more interested in establishing new scientific societies (pp. 64–5), the company of women much younger than himself, and sculling (the last of these two hobbies he managed to combine; p. 62). Work on the dictionary stalled for something like twenty years and was almost abandoned until the appointment of the dictionary's main and longest-serving editor, James Murray. Among the many impressive characters involved with this dictionary, he is surely the most impressive by far; he was familiar with a stupendous number of languages, dead and alive (many of them quite obscure), he had something like 11 children (who occasionally helped him with the dictionary for pocket-money), and worked for many years as a teacher (while editing the OED in his spare time).

Under Murray the dictionary finally began making steady progress, although it was still much slower than had been initially hoped for. The book gives us an interesting look at the commercial aspects of the dictionary; the Oxford University Press stepped in as the publisher and provided some funding, but was also constantly pestering Murray to deliver as many pages per year as had been agreed upon. We also see a little of Murray's methods of work; he had a kind of shack (which he called by the grand name of ‘the Scriptorium’) built next to his house, filled with shelves of pigeonholes containing the citation slips for words beginning with the letter he was currently working on. One detail that I wasn't expecting is how many letters he wrote, sometimes asking experts for help on specialised subjects, and sometimes asking famous authors such as Tennyson or Browning to clarify what they meant when they used a word at a particular spot in some book of theirs. Apparently Murray would complain about Browning's habit of using words “without regard to their proper meaning” (p. 147), and I was surprised that Winchester doesn't mention the most notorious case of Browning's misuse of words, that of the nuns' twats.

Sadly, Murray did not live to see the dictionary finished, but by the time of his death in 1915 the dictionary had already become something of an institution and there was no doubt that the work would be carried on by others. It was eventually finished, with great fanfare, in 1928. (A full set was sold for 50 guineas at the time, but five years later the price dropped to 20; p. 239.)

This was followed by various supplements, then a second edition, and they're now working on a third. At the time when Winchester wrote this book, they seem to have still had some idea of perhaps publishing it on paper (in something like 40 volumes; p. 249), though I have the impression that they have by now almost completely abandoned that. Unsurprising, I guess; partly it's that looking things up on a computer is so much faster and easier, but partly it must be also that they are selling subscriptions to their website, so instead of buying the dictionary just once you have to keep paying them for as long as you want to keep using it.

Along the way the author mentions many of the minor characters involved in the dictionary, e.g. the ‘readers’ who were looking for interesting uses of words in books and copying them on slips for lexicographers to work on (surprisingly — or perhaps not — some of the most productive readers seem to have been insane in one way or another; p. 197). Some of the people who worked on the OED as lexicographers would later become famous in some other capacity; Tolkien is perhaps the best-known example, but what was new to me was that Julian Barnes also worked at the dictionary at one point (p. 244).

I really liked this book a lot, and would recommend it to anyone who is excited about dictionaries. I wonder if the other similar great dictionaries have similarly interesting histories. Certainly some of them have taken even longer than the OED to complete, e.g. the German DWB has apparently been published from 1854 to 1961, and the Swedish SAOB has been in progress since 1898 and isn't finished yet (Winchester says on p. 140 that the SAOB has been finished up to the letter S; but that was in 2003, and by now they have reached V, so they seem to be making steady progress). Hopefully I'll get to read a bit more about those other dictionaries some day as well.

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BOOK: Simon Winchester, "The Professor and the Madman"

Simon Winchester: The Professor and the Madman: A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. 1998.

Like I guess many other people, I have long been fascinated by the Oxford English Dictionary. How can you not love a dictionary that boldly aims to include all the words, current as well as long-obsolete ones, in all their meanings, describing how the meaning of each word changed over the centuries, and illustrating this with quotations from numerous books and magazines? Thus I found the subtitle of this book very promising — not only does it have the OED, but it promises to combine it with the pleasantly thrilling topics of murder and insanity.

Well, as it turns out, I enjoyed reading this book, but in the end I thought the combination of topics covered in it is somewhat odd. As is well known, a lot of work on the OED was done by volunteers who would carefully read various books, looking for sentences which they thought neatly illustrated the use of a particular word; they then copied these sentences to slips of paper and mailed them to the editor of the OED. Then, when lexicographers wanted to write the dictionary entry for a particular word, they would take the slips for that word, arrange them based on various meanings of the word, and study them to come up with suitable definitions and choose a few of the sentences as examples to include in the dictionary.

One of the most valuable and productive among these volunteer readers was one Dr. William Minor, an American physician and retired military officer; he is the madman from the title of this book, and the book is partly the story of his life and his involvement with the OED, partly the story of the making of the OED itself and especially of the work of OED's long-serving editor, James Murray (the professor from the title of the book). It tends to jump from one story to the other and back as you move from chapter to chapter, which I felt was somewhat disorienting but on the other hand it did help move the story in a roughly chronological manner.

For me, the OED part of the story was the more interesting one, and the chapters about Dr. Minor were a bit less interesting. He was from a fairly wealthy family, his parents had been missionaries in Asia, he studied medicine at Yale and served in the Union army during the U.S. civil war (ch. 3). The first symptoms of his madness started a few years after the war; at the time, it was described as monomania or paranoia, and in modern terms seems to have been a kind of schizophrenia (ch. 11). Nobody quite knew what caused it; it may have been triggered, or exacerbated, by his experiences during the war (e.g. when at one point he had been required to brand a deserter with a red-hot iron; ch. 3). His madness seemed to mainly show itself at night, when he was convinced that enemies are entering his room, hiding under his bed, torturing and harassing him, etc. (e.g. ch. 6); outside of that, he could behave quite normally most of the time. He was retired from the army and travelled to Europe, hoping to calm his nerves by cultivating his artistic interests. Unfortunately, one night in London, his bout of paranoia led him to kill a passing workman, a stoker named George Merrett (ch. 1). Due to his insanity, Minor was found not guilty, but was committed to the recently established lunatic asylum at Broadmoor, where he then spent most of the rest of his life (a few years before his death, he was allowed to move to a nursing home in the States; ch. 11). But he was still receiving his army pension, and this allowed him to live fairly comfortably at Broadmoor, buying and studying rare books, painting, playing the flute, etc. In time he would even reach out to the widow and children of the man he had murdered, trying to help them (ch. 6).

The dictionary part of the story begins with a nice bit about the history of earlier English dictionaries (ch. 4), from their modest beginnings with the 1604 A Table Alphabeticall all the way to Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary about 150 years later. Early dictionaries tended to focus on rare or difficult words; Johnson included common words, and introduced the practice of thoroughly combing over the books of notable authors to collect examples of how a word is actually being used, but even he was mostly interested in contemporary usage. That's where the OED differed, as it proposed to cover past usage as well (words that are no longer in use or whose meaning has changed). As Winchester points out, the scope of the project was stupendous, but the Victorian age was a time of optimism that didn't shrink from taking on such projects. Even so, the first steps of the project weren't easy (ch. 5); the amount of work and time that would be required to complete it were hilariously underestimated; the first editor, Herbert Coleridge (grandson of the poet S. T. Coleridge), died after two years in office; he was succeeded by Frederick Furnivall, who appears to have been a very remarkable character but started to lose interest after a while. That's when James Murray stepped in; he was originally from a modest Scottish family and his formal education had to end early, but he taught himself a prodigious amount about languages and philology, and spent much of his career as a teacher in secondary schools (ch. 2), though eventually his work on the OED became a full-time job.

The two stories begin to intersect somewhere in the 1880s (ch. 6). Murray sent out a call for volunteers to start reading books and mailing slips again, and Minor was among those who responded; that's how they first came into contact. Over the years, Minor became one of OED's most valuable volunteers, sending tens of thousands of slips. He devised his own system of work (ch. 7): he would read up his various rare old books in advance, preparing alphabetically arranged indexes of interesting words and the pages where they occurred; then he would enquire of Murray which words the lexicographers were working on at the time, and use his indexes to prepare and send citation slips for those words.

This fruitful relationship went on for several years and Murray actually had no idea that Minor was an inmate at the asylum: “I never gave a thought to who Minor might be. I thought he was either a practicing medical man of literary tastes with a good deal of leisure, or perhaps a retired medical man or surgeon who had no other work.” (Ch. 6.) He did eventually learn about Minor's situation and from that point often went to visit him at Broadmoor (ch. 9).

The book ends on a somewhat sad note. As the years went on, Minor's madness got worse, his intellectual abilities began to fail, and a new doctor at Broadmoor began to treat him with an increasingly cruel and unnecessary harshness (ch. 10); he was moved to America in 1910 and died in 1920 (ch. 11). Furnivall died in 1910, Murray in 1915, before they could see their great dictionary being completed (ch. 11). I was impressed by the author's efforts to follow the strands of the story as far as they could be; he found a distant relative of Dr. Minor, still living in Connecticut, and he also found the grave of poor George Stoker (Minor's murder victim) in London and investigated the subsequent fate of his widow and children.

All in all, this book was definitely a pleasant read, it is engagingly written and the author made a great effort in researching the various bits and pieces of the story, but I found the parts about the unfortunate life and illness of Dr. Minor a bit glum and depressing, and I couldn't help wishing that there had been less about that and more about the making of the OED itself, which is such a triumphant and encouraging story.

Winchester later wrote another book about the OED, The Meaning of Everything, which sounds even more interesting so I hope I'll read it some day as well.

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BOOK: Coluccio Salutati, "On the World and Religious Life"

Coluccio Salutati: On the World and Religious Life. Translated by Tina Marshall. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 62. Harvard University Press, 2014. 9780674055148. xix + 391 pp.

Salutati was a 14th-century humanist and apparently also a fairly important person in the Florentine civil service, spending several decades as the chancellor of the Florentine republic. He wrote this book at the request of his friend Girolamo who had recently become a monk and then asked Salutati to write him a treatise that would encourage him to persist in his new vocation.

I was rather surprised by this — isn't it a bit late for that? Shouldn't Girolamo have thought this through before he became a monk? Perhaps gone on some sort of trial period first? If you become a monk and then decide that you need someone to write a book to convince you that this was the right decision to make, then perhaps it actually wasn't the right choice for you? And also, why would you ask a literary scholar and layperson (such as I'm guessing Salutati was) to write such a book, instead of a theologian or clergyman?

In the preface to his book, Salutati himself expresses some doubts about whether he is the right person to write it (pp. 5–7), but he persists anyway, as he had made a promise to his friend. As the title suggests, the book consists of two parts; the first part is a long series of short chapters arguing how terrible, sinful, etc. the world (and worldly life) is (and how wise it therefore is for someone, such as Girolamo, to withdraw from it by becoming a monk); the second part praises the religious life, with long chapters on the monastic vows (of chastity, poverty, and obedience), on prayer, humility, etc.


I guess this is not a bad book for the right sort of reader, and I hope that Girolamo got something useful out of it, but for me it was of the least enjoyable ITRL books in a long time. For starters, I found it incredibly soporific; when I tried to read it in the evenings, I would have a hard time staying awake after reading as little as two or three pages.

The only stylistic feature I really liked is Salutati's fondness for long lists of everything that is wrong with the world. As is often the case with such things, he makes the world sound much more wickedly cool than it really is: “For what is this world in which we so greatly delight but the devil's playing field, the palestra of temptations, the workshop of evils, and the factory of vices?” (1.1.2)

“This world, then, is the most unwholesome hold of turpitude, deceptive birdlime, baleful happiness, false joy, empty exultation” etc. etc. etc. (1.1.5; this is the start of a list of almost 30 items, which corresponds closely to the headings of the subsequent chapters of book 1). See also 1.5.8–9 for an even longer list of various crimes and sins that the world is full of (some of the odder entries: scandals, concern for temporal and future affairs, spells, casting of lots, irony, lawsuits :))).

And this is perhaps the best example of this type: “The world is indeed a factory of vices. [. . .] Here are committed acts of pleasurable fornication, deflowering debauchery, violent rapes, acts of incest corrupting reverence for blood ties, adulteries that plot against the nuptial bed, sacrilegious pollution of women dedicated to God, wicked sexual intercourse with contrived sterility, and whatever the monstrous poison of sex excites in us.” (1.5.1) What else can you say to most of that list than: hell yeah, sign me up? :))

Nor is he afraid to lash the excesses of the clergymen of his day: “Don't we see those whom we have as guardians of souls stained by all the offenses of the fetid flesh, shunning nothing base and nothing detestable in order to obtain the offices they desire?” (1.4.4; I love the phrase “fetid flesh” :)) — but the alliteration is a bonus in the translation, and does not appear in the original).


But more importantly, not being religious myself, I found it impossible to relate to Salutati's stiff religious zeal. Although he pays lip service to joy and the like from time to time, the prevailing tone struck me as relentlessly grim and dour. The world is completely sinful and worthless, the devil is preying on you at every step; nor is there anything cheerful about the way he portrays the monastic life, it's a straight and narrow path that you will struggle all the time to stay on. It's tragic that people ended up believing in such things instead of running away screaming the moment anyone came up with such an insane, joyless religion. (Admittedly, perhaps some of this stuff makes sense from the perspective of a monk; if you are supposed to renounce the world, it might be easier to do so if you really believed that it was bad.)

He has a particularly repulsive obsession with submission to god; for example, he keeps arguing that you gain more merit by making a vow and then fulfilling it, than by doing the same thing without having made a vow first, because by making a vow you restrict your future options more (you cannot change your mind later), so by doing this you have surrendered more than if you had not made the vow (and just done the thing the vow is about anyway); 2.6.11–16. On a similar note, he argues: “all who do some virtuous act short of obedience to the divine majesty not only do not earn merit, but even act wrongly; [. . .] all who, for example, accomplish frequent acts of fortitude and temperance only in order to be strong or temperate [. . .] are not even different from the pagan philosophers.” (2.10.18) A christian is no better than the pagans, he says, if “forgetting the God who commands him [. . .] acts not to please or obey God, but only to do something good [. . .] a person is all the worse, the more that [. . .] he does not act as he ought or employ virtues as is fitting, but rather strives against reason to enjoy virtues, which, in thus enjoying them, he may more truly be said to abuse them.” (2.10.20)

If we take Salutati's views at face value — he spends all this time arguing how bad the world is and how meritorious it is to renounce it and become a monk — we could say that the book is at its core a sort of extended advertisement promoting the religious life. But is it an effective one? Is anyone likely to have read it and thought ‘hm, he seems to be on to something, perhaps I should become a monk as well’?

I suspect that, as with many other forms of propaganda, it is likely to persuade only those who were already inclined to agree with it in the first place. Otherwise, I found it hard to imagine what sort of person could be persuaded by his arguments. It makes it harder rather than easier to relate to monks and their decision to renounce the world. In that respect, some of the other books I've read over the years did a much better job, e.g. the semi-autobiographical novels of J.-K. Huysmans, whose protagonist spends a good deal of time flitting around the edges of the monastic world and trying to find some sort of meaning in his life.

But no doubt I am missing the point spectacularly, as usual; the translator's introduction includes a very interesting quote from Filippo Villani, a contemporary of Salutati, who praised the book in the highest terms: “I do not doubt that anyone who listens to or reads the book . . . will retire to the solitary and monastic life” (p. xv).


He refers in passing (2.9.13) to the phrase that we now usually hear as “omnia mea mecum porto”, from which I learned about its origins. Now I see that its wikipedia page gives the same explanation as well.

In 1.17.3, he mentions estimates of the earth's circumference: “as the best geometers, Alphagranus and Campanus have claimed, the earth encompasses and marks out a little more than fifty-six thousand miles on its surface.” The word he uses, miliaria, apparently refers to Roman miles, which the wikipedia says were about 1.48 km long; this gives us a little under 83000 km, about double the true value.

Some interesting, and some dubious, claims about Carinthia from 1.35.13: “the poverty there is stupefying to our own decadence. There, the soil is devoid of vines, besieged by copious snow, and fertile in barney and oats more than corn. [. . .] infants are communally exposed, naked, on straw, as soon as they are born; they become accustomed to frost before they know what it is. So great is the force of custom that they rejoice in a kind of perpetual nudity; they spurn the winds, delight in snow, and in a way surpass poverty itself in harshness of life.”

A small complaint: page headers include just the book number but not the chapter, which makes it annoyingly difficult to find the chapter you're looking for.

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BOOK: "The Battle of Lepanto"

The Battle of Lepanto. Edited and translated by Elizabeth R. Wright, Sarah Spence and Andrew Lemons. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 61. Harvard University Press, 2014. 9780674725423. xxxi + 527 pp.

The Battle of Lepanto was a great naval battle in 1571 just off the west coast of Greece; amazingly, the christian countries finally managed to form an alliance to fight the Turks, and in this battle the joint navies of Venice, the Papal State, and Spain managed to inflict a major defeat on the Turks. Over the next few years, this triumphant success inspired many poems, especially in Italy and Spain (sometimes connected to various public events celebrating or commemorating the battle; p. x). Some of these poems were written in the vernacular languages, but some were in Latin, and the present volume contains 22 poems about the battle that were originally written in Latin. They are mostly by various more or less little known (or, to me, completely unknown) Italian poets, except for one that was from Spain. (By the standards of the I Tatti Renaissance Library, which hardly ever ventures beyond the boundaries of Italy, this is in fact an amazing amount of diversity :] Plus, the Spanish representative, Juan Latinus, gets bonus diversity points for being black and a former slave who eventually became a professor of Latin.) Most were originally published in various anthologies soon after the battle, but one or two were extant only in manuscript until now (p. x).

Most of these poems are relatively short, up to a few tens of lines (the shortest one, #9, is just 10 lines long), and I didn't particularly enjoy those. There is much praising of the various leaders involved in the battle, occasional brief descriptions of the battle itself (as usual, I'm completely hopeless at trying to imagine, based on the description, what the battle was like, etc.). I suppose you had to be there to really appreciate the sense of joy and relief that these people no doubt felt at hearing news of the victory. Perhaps it would help me if the poems weren't translated into prose, but of course they are, like nearly always in the ITRL. Still, I don't deny that the prose here does feel somewhat poetic and I don't wish to suggest that there's anything wrong with the translation. I just didn't find most of the short poems here particularly touching or interesting, that's all.

Of the shorter poems, I liked #10, in which Ali Pasha (the commander of the Turkish fleet, who got killed at Lepanto) shows up in hell (the Greco-Roman one rather than the christian one), “Father Pluto himself convenes a council” (ll. 76–7) of the damned souls there, who then listen to Ali's account of the battle and are inspired to sow discord among the victors as a form of revenge (ll.—138–48). Councils in hell are always a fun concept, I wonder if I should start making a list somewhere; there's Milton's Paradise Lost of course, and Vida's Christiad, Keats' Hyperion, and now this poem here; and no doubt many others.

But there are also a few longer poems, minor epics you might say, going from a couple hundred to a couple thousand lines, and I found those quite a bit more enjoyable than the shorter ones. For the most part, I found their narratives easier to follow, their descriptions of the battle can afford to go into a little more detail and occasionally even begin to exercise a little bit of the storytelling imagination, which results in a much more pleasant read.

As usual with neo-Latin poetry, the authors of these poems were very careful to imitate the work of classical poets, especially Virgil (mostly his Aeneid but sometimes also his other poems); and as usual, the editors' notes point out all these paralells, which I'm sure is going to be very useful for some readers, though not for me. The poets also like to draw parallels between Lepanto and the famous ancient Battle of Actium (12.20–23, 22.985), which was fought a little farther north.

For my part, I couldn't help feeling that this imitative approach was starting to reach some sort of limits in the work of these poets. At some point, you cease being a poet and start being a LARPer. You are no longer a 16th-century poet writing about something relevant to your own period; instead, you're just pretending that you are Virgil, that you live in the 1st century BC, and write about the same things and in the same way as the real Virgil would have done in the 1st century BC. If you showed up in a toga in 16th-century Rome, people would probably say that you're being ridiculous, but here you are doing the equivalent of that thing in poetry.

At some point, the discrepancy between the ancient and the modern world becomes too great and the resulting poetry ends up simply bizarre. I had a similar feeling years ago when reading Camoens's Lusiad, which mixes Vasco da Gama's voyage to India with the usual full panoply of ancient Greco-Roman deities. I guess that by the 17th century at the latest, this approach became untenable and there was no alternative but to abandon neo-Latin poetry and switch fully to the living languages.

We see a similar curious mixture of the ancient and the modern here in the poems about the battle of Lepanto. The Greco-Roman deities make their appearance routinely and without hesitation, and ancient paganism mixes with christianity in the most casual and blasé fashion. There are many references to “the Thunderer”, which sounds like an epithet more appropriate for Zeus or Jupiter than for the christian god, but most of the time they clearly refer to the latter (7.21, 7.55, 11.3–4, 17.148, 20.43); some poets even refer to him as the “ruler of Olympus” (17.124, 22.56; the second of these follows it up with “the true Apollo — Jesus” and “the Catholic Muses”). At one point, the Thunderer sends Venus as a messenger to the pope himself, and the pontiff does not seem to be in the least bit fazed by his pagan visitor :)) (20.65–84)

Similarly, the Turks are referred to at least half the time by terms which seem to have more to do with ancient geography than with 16th-century Turkey: Thracians (6.26, 21.295, 21.411), Scythians (15.33, 17.3, 19.27, 20.69, 20.156, 20.268, 20.454), Parthians (17.156, 19.121, 21.688, 22.46, 22.513, etc.), Getae or “Geets”, as they are oddly translated here (16.195, 19.238, 20.242, 21.413, etc.; this seems to be the same people that Ovid was complaining about in his poems from exile on the coast of the Black Sea in present-day Romania), Cappadocians (21.495, 21.852), Cilicians (21.459, 21.495), Ismarians (11.15, 16.222, 20.168, 21.12), Numidians (21.507, 21.520), Phlegreans (11.1; but this might be a misprint; I can't find anything about Phlegreans anywhere, while the notes on p. 418 mention “Phlegians” or Phlegyae, who were originally a people living in Thessaly).

These names seem to be used haphazardly and indiscriminately, sometimes several different ones on the same page (p. 205), clearly just for variety's sake. The last and longest of these poems often talks about “Turks and Parthians” (22.142, 193, 451, 638–9, 719, 740, 867, 1005, 1125, 1273), but I don't really have the impression that he has any clear idea what the difference between these two groups is supposed to be. On one occasion he even calls them “Persians” (22.1800), and once he refers to Parthian archers and their “accustomed volleys of arrows” (22.1092), just as if nothing had changed since the Greco-Persian wars. He even explicitly connects them to ancient Persians by saying that John of Austria was “destined at birth to fight the Parthians [. . .]; once they destroyed Crassus and the Roman standards, ruling supreme on land and at sea” (22.1433–5). The odd thing about all this Parthian stuff is that Persia wasn't even part of the Turkish empire (see also the notes, p. 417)...

I was particularly suprised by the frequent references to Turks as “Thracians”; most of ancient Thrace lies in areas that can't have been under Turkish rule for terribly long by the time of the Battle of Lepanto.

When referring to specific individuals on the Turkish side, actual Turkish names do seem to be used most of the time, although often mangled nearly (and sometimes fully) beyond recognition. For some reason, the Italian poets seem to be the worst at this; by contrast, in Juan Latinus' long poem (#22), the Turkish names are much less mangled. See e.g. the mini catalogue of Turks supposedly killed by John of Austria during the battle, 20.270–92, and the note on pp. 472–3. Among these is a “Perus”, identified by the notes as Piri Reis. But it probably isn't the one who made the (in)famous map because, according to the wikipedia, he “was executed in 1553”, about 18 years before the battle of Lepanto.

We have a little of the ancient geographical terms on the Western side as well, e.g. there are a few mentions of Illyrians (22.866, 22.1252, 22.1334) and Liburnians (22.913, 22.959, 22.1083), which I guess were mostly from the coastal parts of present-day Croatia (see also the translator's notes on pp. 414–5). And there is one mention of “Allobroges” (21.108), which is apparently meant to refer to the Duchy of Savoy (p. 477); even some people from “the citadel of ancient Monaco” (21.108) participated in the battle.

At times, the heavy use of ancient names and imagery lends a pleasantly epic tone to the proceedings, not entirely unlike the grand conflicts we are nowadays accustomed to finding in fantasy literature. The Turkish sultan is nearly always referred to as “the Tyrant” (8.27, 12.24, 15.178, 17.88, 18.186, 20.37, 21.248, 21.931, 22.175, etc.; “the Tyrant of Libya”, 2.11; “the Tyrant of Asia”, 3.61; “Thracian Tyrant”, 8.10, 20.63; “Ismarian Tyrant”, 21.12; and, surprisingly enough, “the Turkish Tyrant”, 22.1786), and often as the “treaty-breaker” and the like (14.30, 20.22, 20.69–71, 21.55, 21.396), because he cancelled a peace treaty with the Venetians that his predecessor had concluded some time ago.

Meanwhile his enemies are referred to as the “Hesperians”, the people of Hesperia (6.6, 11.2, 16.119, 17.109, 19.51, 21.213, 21.927), sometimes translated simply as “the West” (19.253, 21.171). This, as the wikipedia says, was a term actually used by the ancient Greeks to refer to Italy and/or the western Mediterranean). So you have “the West” fighting a treacherous Tyrant from the east and his cruel captains and hordes — it's almost like the Lord of the Rings :))

I was also impressed by these practices because they are used so consistently even though these poems were written by a number of different poets independently of each other. I guess that to some extent these things were simply in the air, so to speak — part of the zeitgeist; and partly the authors may have been reading each other's work after all.

At times, the poets are even inspired by the success at Lepanto to start dreaming about retaking Constantinople or even Jerusalem (13.92–3, 13.112, 18.186–93, 20.259, 21.907–8, 22.1390, 22.1757–8), but alas, as we know, nothing came of any such plans, and probably those areas are lost to the west for good.

All in all, this book ended up being more enjoyable than it looked like it would be at first. It would be interesting to see a similar anthology of poems written in the living languages; I wonder if those would be more vivid, since the authors didn't have to worry about imitating the work of ancient poets.


Occasionally the poets refer to Mars as “Mavors” in Latin (17.82, 18.98), though it is always translated as “Mars”. I never heard of that name before; it seems that Mavors was originally a separate ancient Latin deity that was later identified with Mars.

There are a couple of (no doubt highly dubious) claims to ancient Roman heritage: Marco Antonio Colonna is described as the “great glory of the line of Aeneas and trusted hope of the Colonna family” (21.94), and elsewhere we encounter “four brothers famous for their lineage and outstanding beauty, descendants of the Cornelii” (21.326).

The aforementioned Colonna “tore out the eyes of the brave young Paralyppus, whose mother bore him after mingling once with Faunus” (20.342–3). Well, you know what they say — sometimes you screw a goat, sometimes a goat(like deity) screws you :P (P.S. “Mingling”? Is that what they call it now? :])

A fine bit of gore from 22.1370–1: “On the decks they trampled the guts, limbs, dislodged eyeballs of soldiers, and oars dripping with blood.” Fighting continues even among soldiers who fall into the sea, and some of them “with severed hands try to reach the prows and (if possible) grasp the galleys with tooth and jaw” (22.1140). There's also “Barbarigo the Venetian, his eye pierced by an arrow” (22.1191).

There are several mentions of culverins (22.1025, 1358, 1538, 1663), which “sank countless ships with sulfurous fire” (22.1098). I didn't know of this weapon before and at first I thought it might be something similar to Greek fire, but as the wikipedia shows, it was simply a kind of cannon.

An interesting incendiary weapon: “Volleys of flaming tow launched with Vulcan's art scatter sparks at the Turks to ignire their ships” (22.1102).

A lovely bit of hate speech from 22.391–3: “Lazy, servile flock, shameful slaves of Selim, devoid of law and morals, leading the life of wild animals, it is right to exterminate them with the sword.” :)))

One poet refers to “the Antarctic land” among the king of Spain's possessions (20.99), but unfortunately this simply refers to the southern parts of South America (pp. 408, 470).

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BOOK: Lorenzo Valla, "Correspondence"

Lorenzo Valla: Correspondence. Edited and translated by Brendan Cook. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 60. Harvard University Press, 2013. 9780674724679. xxii + 417 pp.

Valla was a 15th-century humanist author, whose work seems to fall mostly in the area of philosophy and classical philology. I had read a couple of his books before — first his debunking of the Donation of Constantine and, more recently, his Dialectical Disputations. I enjoyed the former quite a bit, the latter not so much as it was too technical for me, but even in that book I couldn't help feeling that he has a knack for writing in an engaging and enjoyable manner whenever he stepped away for a moment from the more technical philosophical stuff.

So it is perhaps not surprising that I also enjoyed the present volume, containing his correspondence, more than the similar volumes of letters from earlier in the I Tatti Renaissance Library — those of Angelo Poliziano and Bartolomeo Fonzio.

Unlike some of the other humanists, he doesn't seem to have taken any steps to systematically preserve his letters or edit them for publication, so what we have in this volume is a relatively small and more or less random subset of things he had written over a period of many years. One thing that I particularly liked is that it also includes letters to him, not just from him, and in a few cases we are even so lucky that a letter and a reply to it have both been preserved and are included here.


In terms of subject-matter, the letters here cover relatively similar topics as in the previously mentioned volumes by other authors. One frequent topic are Valla's writings and other people's reactions to them; sometimes he sends copies of manuscripts to others, sometimes other people ask for such copies, etc. “I have just finished my book On Dialectic and Philosophy, which none will criticize save those few that regret wasting their time on dialectic.” (#11, p. 67.) I must admit that while reading that book of his I did think that the whole subject is a bit of a waste of time :P

Another topic is business, with Valla writing to current or prospective patrons (#9), sucking up to popes (#5) and cardinals (“I am currently exhausted from writing three letters to as many cardinals today”, 40.1, p. 213), and occasionally writing letters of recommendation on behalf of other people (often impressively glowing ones; #27, 42, 49, 53).

There are a couple of interesting letters (#22, 25) where Valla wants to return to Rome for a visit (he grew up there but later moved to Naples, where he worked for king Alfonso) and is asking for a safe conduct from the pope — apparently his debunking of the Donation of Constantine pissed off the church quite a bit and he was worried that they might prosecute him if he entered the Papal State. But this scandal calmed down after the death of pope Eugenius (p. 330), and we later find Valla living in Rome and evidently on quite good terms with the popes. I guess there was no such thing as tenure back then; there's a letter from Valla to a papal official, asking for clarification whether his teaching job in Rome got cancelled by the pope or not (#50, p. 249).

Due to his reputation as a philologist, people occasionally approached him with questions, leading to some of the more interesting letters in this book. See e.g. #19 with Valla's translation and explanation of a Greek inscription from Naples.


One particularly prominent topic of his correspondence, which is not present to the same extent in the aforementioned volumes by other authors, are his quarrels, which he seems to have been somewhat notorious for. He was by all accounts a very brilliant Latinist, but he also seems to have had a disappointingly strong urge to not only be right, but to prove other people wrong, and to do that in a needlessly combative manner.

“I send you this little work which I have just completed; the subject is canon law and theology, though it contradicts all canonists and all theologians.” (#12, p. 71.)

“Meanwhile I have written on dialectic with the object of humiliating Boethius, among others. [. . .] I criticize Priscian, Servius, Donatus [etc. etc. etc.] — no one escapes.” (17.1, pp. 109–11.)

Probably the longest letter in this volume is #13, in which Valla attempts some sort of self-defense. He argues that he is just criticizing incompetent (mostly recent) authors who deserve it, while upholding the authority of good (mostly ancient) authors; that the ancients themselves did the same — pointing out the errors of their predecessors if there was a good argument for it, etc. But clearly he is one of those who believe that the best defense is a good offense, and he goes all-out on his hapless victims: “[. . .] not one of those I mention can be numbered among even the modestly learned” (13.8, p. 81); later he calls them the “dregs of humanity” (13.10, p. 83) and lists a large number of them by name. “If they [= the ancients] were to rise from the dead and return to life, I think they would be much more savage than I am in correcting these persons who stray needlessly from the footsteps of the ancients” (13.9, p. 83).

Another fine example of his brazen approach to self-defense: “I will readily confess, and actually accuse myself, of giving the appearance of sparing neither man nor god, as Lactantius says of Lucian. Anyone who wants to criticize me will in consequence not lack for material.” (25.2, p. 163.)

One of the few instances in this volume where we have a letter and a reply to it are #29A–30. A humanist named Lauro Quirini took issue with Valla's tendency to denigrate all sorts of earlier authors, and even had the guts to ask Valla for copies of his works so he could scrutinize them further. Valla replies with a hefty dose of rage and concludes by pointing out mistakes in Quirini's letter: “we say ‘on the Ides,’ not ‘on the First Ides.’ I omit your other barbarisms and solecisms. Again farewell.” (30.3, p. 187.)

After all these examples, I had a hard time believing Valla when he says: “I should prefer, in fact, to be and seem a good man than a learned one.” (51.3, p. 265.)

While reading this book, I was often reminded of the famous line from The Big Lebowski: you're not wrong, you're just an asshole. We often find him having quarrels with people that used to be his friends, e.g. Panormita (see #18, Valla even includes two scurrilous poems against him), then Antonio da Rho (pp. 115–9), and later Poggio Bracciolini. The last of these quarrels was particularly intense, with both Poggio and Valla writing invectives against each other. There's an interesting letter from Francesco Filelfo (#51A), who tried to mediate between them and pointed out, very reasonably, how unseemly it is for two grey-haired intellectuals to be bashing each other like that (51A.3, p. 269). There are also a couple of letters (#3A, 17A) from Maffeo Vegio, urging Valla towards moderation: “why do you consider it so important to prolong your grudges, why do you find so much beauty in strife?” (17A.5, p. 119.)


On a less important note, an interesting recurring feature of these letters are comments or complaints about the people that were carrying them. Clearly there was no regular postal service yet in Valla's day, so people like him had to rely on messengers, acquaintances travelling to the destination city, etc. See e.g. #2E (p. 31: “Such is the unreliability, or at least the carelessness, of those disgraceful couriers”), 10.1 (p. 65), 15.2 (p. 103), #29 (p. 177: “to be brief, with the messenger waiting and urging me to hurry up”), 33A.1 (p. 193: “I had resolved to write to you whenever I found a messenger making the journey to your parts”), #50A bis (p. 255: “the messenger is just about to depart, and he has made a nuisance of himself demanding this letter once again”).

An interesting factoid from the translator's notes, p. 385: at some point Valla translated Homer's Iliad into Latin, but changed it “from poetry into the sort of prose associated with the Roman orators”. What a very odd idea; I never had a good opinion of people who translate poetry into prose (which sadly includes a lot of translators in the ITRL series!).

In one letter he complains about “my head, which aches from the wind” (31.1, p. 189). The translator adds in the notes: “Valla is suffering from a colpo d'aria, an ailment unknown outside Italy” (p. 388). I hadn't heard of this phrase before (I see that the wiktionary explains it as “a cold, speficially one caused by bad weather or cold air”), but I am surprised that the translator says it's unknown outside of Italy. The belief that drafts of air can cause cold or headaches seems to be unknown in the English-speaking countries but is widespread in many parts of Europe, as can be seen from e.g. frequent reddit threads on this topic: 1, 2, 3. From what I understand, there is supposed to be no medical foundation for this, but even knowing this there seems to be some sort of negative placebo (nocebo?) effect at work here, such that being exposed to a draft does actually give me a headache, and I wouldn't be surprised if it gave me a cold as well.

A fine contribution to the ‘honi soit qui mal y pense’ category, from a letter from Niccolò Perotti to Valla (43A.1, p. 219): “I may declare with Cicero in his letter to Brutus that ‘I regard epistles as Aristophanus did the iambics of Archilochus: the longer the better.’ ”

It's funny to see what sort of things the popes used to have to deal with. There's a letter from Valla to a papal official, complaining about his living arrangements in Rome: “when I had you intercede with the Holy Father on my behalf, I did so in the hope that you would also get for me the kitchen next to the two smaller chambers [. . .] The beadle is keeping this room for a certain fellow who actually sleeps in the kitchen” etc. etc. (46.2, p. 235). In another letter, this time directly to the pope, Valla is asking for help in assigning a guardian to his orphaned cousins (48.1, p. 243).

In a letter from Niccolò Perotti to Valla, there's an interesting anecdote (52 bis A.2, p. 299) about a certain Tisias who studied rhetoric with Corax and promised him a huge payment if (and only if) he won his first case in court. Corax then sued him, arguing: ‘if I win, he must pay me because the court will have ordered him to; if I lose, he must pay me because this is his first case and he will have won it’. Tisias defended himself along the lines of ‘if I win, I don't have to pay him anything because this is what the case is about and I just won it; but if I lose, I don't have to pay him because our deal was that I pay him only if I win my first case’. A nice paradox, but I particularly liked the court's reply: “A bad egg comes from a bad crow” (p. 301). I was reminded a little of that old xkcd comic where one guard always lies, one always tells the truth, and one “stabs people who ask tricky questions” :))


I think this is definitely the most interesting volume of letters I've read in the ITRL series so far.

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BOOK: Volker Ullrich, "Hitler: Ascent"

Volker Ullrich: Hitler: A Biography. Volume 1: Ascent. Translated by Jefferson Chase. London: Vintage, 2017. 9780099590231. x + 998 pp.

It's been quite a long time since I read Ian Kershaw's two-volume biography of Hitler, so when I heard that a new two-volume biography by Volker Ullrich is in the works and is being praised in similarly high terms, I thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to read it as well. This is volume 1, covering the period up to the outbreak of the war (a slightly different cutoff point than in Kershaw's biography, where volume 1 ends in 1936). It seems that volume 2 will be published in German later this year, so hopefully I'll get to read it in an English paperback edition in two or three years' time.

Naturally one wants to compare the work of these two biographers, but I'm not in a particularly good position to make such a comparison as it's been so long since I read Kershaw's biography. I'd say they are both well written and complement each other nicely. Kershaw famously emphasized the structural aspects of Hitler's rule (and his coming to power), and even went so far as to say that Hitler was completely consumed by his political activity, had no real private life outside politics and was completely uninteresting as an invididual apart from his politics. This is perhaps the most notable difference between the two biographers, as Ullrich includes several interesting chapters about Hitler's personality, his relations to women, and the ‘Berghof society’ — the group of various more or less important people that often socialized with Hitler at his alpine retreat and functioned in a way that reminded me a little of a monarch's court. An interesting factoid: apparently he had an “insatiable appetite for cake and sweets” (pp. 120, 264, 407).

So in this way Ullrich's biography definitely has a few things that Kershaw's doesn't, but the converse is also true. In the earlier parts of the book in particular I had a feeling that Ullrich is moving faster through Hitler's early life than Kershaw did, and in a few places I remembered that Kerhaw's biography had interesting details that are not present in Ullrich's (e.g. the discussion of how Hitler could end up in the Bavarian army in the WW1 although he was an Austrian citizen; Ullrich p. 53; Kershaw, Hubris pp. 89–90). If I had to recommend just one of these two biographies, I don't know which one I should choose; but I think ideally one would want to read both of them.

Something I particularly liked about this biography is that it uses an interesting combination of chronological and thematic arrangement. Many chapters cover a certain topic over several years and thus overlap chronologically with other chapters that cover other topics in the same period; but overall the arrangement of the chapters still proceeds chronologically.

As always with such works, I couldn't help feeling impressed at the enormous amount of books, memoirs, primary sources etc. cited in the endnotes, though they aren't terribly useful for me as a potential source of things to read since they are nearly all in German — even when a book initially appeared in English, Ullrich usually cites its German translation (if available), e.g. in the case of Nevile Henderson's memoir, The Failure of a Mission. In the earlier chapters, I was interested to see a number of references to an English-language book that I have read myself some time ago, namely Where Ghosts Walked by David Clay Large.

One thing that bothers me a little about these historians — I remember getting the same impression while reading Richard Evans's three-volume history of Nazi Germany — is how each of them tends to select a small handful of prolific diarists or letter-writers and quotes their opinions again and again to illustrate how people reacted to some historical event. So whenever the Nazis do something in this book, we get to hear what Victor Klemperer, Harry Kessler, Thea Sternheim, Louise Solmitz (a schoolteacher from Hamburg), or Willy Kohn (a Jewish teacher from Breslau) wrote about it in their diaries, what Bella Fromm wrote in her memoirs, what Elizabeth Gebensleben wrote in her letters to her daughter in the Netherlands, etc. Now, it's not of course a bad idea to illustrate the reactions of the population to an event by quoting from diaries and letters, but one cannot help wondering why that particular group of six or so people should be considered so important that their opinions must be quoted again and again. Of course, it's obvious why — because they wrote down their opinions about a lot of contemporary events and these opinions have been preserved and conveniently published in books, so that a historian can study them and quote them with a tolerable amount of effort. There were probably millions of other people in Germany who also wrote letters or diaries, but those aren't so easily accessible. Still, I couldn't help wishing that a broader range of opinions had been included when quoting diarists and letter-writers. But this shouldn't be seen as a criticism of Ullrich specifically, since the other historians do the same, as I said above.

I have one or two other minor quibbles about this book. One is that there are more typos or misprints than I am used to in this sort of books — in my experience so far, Penguin hasn't usually been that careless. The other minor complaint is that the translator has perhaps been a little *too* thorough in translating from German into English, often preferring to use a clunky English phrase instead of keeping a German word. I found this a little confusing at times, not being quite sure what the very frequent phrase “ethnic-popular” is supposed to mean until I realized it was a translation of völkisch. I think it would have been helpful, when mentioning the English translation of the name of some Nazi institution, event, concept etc. for the first time, to include the German original in parentheses. Also on the subject of translation, I couldn't help being a bit confused at a couple of uses of the phrase ‘to read someone the Riot Act’ (e.g. p. 729). According to the wikipedia, this is a common English idiom, but it felt odd to see it used in the context of Nazi Germany, since the Riot Act is obviously a piece of British legislation rather than German one. But apart from these minor and irrelevant quibbles, I think the translation was fine and very readable.

Another problem is not in any way the fault of the book, but of the subject matter: it's a bit depressing to read about Hitler's rise to power and then about his increasingly violent persecution of everyone and everything that stood in his way. How unfortunate it is that the Weimar Republic had so many enemies in the upper strata of society! It's tempting to fantasize how little it would have taken for things to turn out so much differently. From 1930 or so, the squabbling parties in the Reichstag found it impossible to support any chancellor with a majority of votes, so the chancellors from that point onwards ruled with presidential decrees supported by president Hindenburg (p. 224). The latter was very conservative and not at all keen on the Weimar republic — his ideal would probably be to restore the monarchy — so he appointed various conservatives and nationalists as chancellors over the years, Hitler being the fourth or so of these.

How little it would take to prevent Hitler from coming to power — if Hindenburg had just kept appointing his crusty old barons from traditional conservative parties as chancellors; or if, instead of Hindenburg, there had been a leftist president, they could have social democratic chancellors ruling by presidential decree instead of conservatives and nationalists; or better yet, what if the concept of a chancellor ruling by presidential decree instead of by parliamentary support had not even been included in the Weimar constitution. . .

Or a few years later — how differently things might have turned out if France and Britain had marched boldly across the German border the moment Hitler started violating the treaty of Versailles! Sometimes it feels as if the whole of Hitler's career almost up to the very outbreak of war was nothing but one long series of failures by other people to stop him.

I guess it's easier to say these things in hindsight than at the time they were happening. The problem of how to preserve democracy in circumstances where a considerable proportion to the public seems indifferent to it and some people are even actively hostile to it is as pressing as ever, and I'm a bit pessimistic about whether we have learned anything from the failure of the Weimar republic. We see populists of various kinds coming to power all over the world, and it isn't obvious to me what can be done to stop them.


Here are a few potentially interesting books mentioned in the endnotes, or by people who are mentioned in the endnotes:

  • Martha Dodd: Through Embassy Eyes (1939). A memoir by the daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Germany. Ullrich quotes what appears to be the German edition of this memoir, titled Nice to meet you, Mr. Hitler!.
  • Bella Fromm: Blood and Banquets (1943). Fromm was a Jewish-German society journalist who emigrated to the U.S. in 1938. Ullrich quotes the German edition of her book, Als Hitler mir die Hand küsste.
  • Sir Nevile Henderson: Failure of a Mission. A memoir by the last pre-war British ambassador to Germany.
  • Harry Kessler: The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan, 1918–1937. Kessler was an artist and writer of liberal political leanings, who lived in exile in France after 1933; this selection from his diaries has been waiting unread on my shelf for a number of years. Ullrich often quotes from the 9-volume German edition of his diaries.
  • Sebastian Haffner: Germany: Jekyll & Hyde (1940). Mentioned here on p. 163. The title refers to the two Germanies, existing simultaneously, mentioned by Haffner in his preface: one is “a peaceful, civilized people who are oppressed by their present rulers”, the other consists of “cheering masses at Hitler's meetings”.
  • Dorothy Thompson: I Saw Hitler (1932). A book based on her interview with Hitler in 1931; she was convinced he would become a dictator some day (p. 263).
  • William Shirer: Berlin Diary (1941). The author was a noted American journalist who worked in Berlin from 1934 to 1941; he later wrote a famous history of the Third Reich.

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