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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BOOK: Birger Dahlerus, "The Last Attempt"

Birger Dahlerus: The Last Attempt. Translated by Alexandra Dick. London: Hutchinson, [1948]. 134 pp.

For some reason, I'm deeply fascinated by the diplomatic lead-up to the two world wars. All those notes going back and forth, diplomats and politicians meeting and talking, scrambling madly in desperate attempts to preserve peace — efforts which you know in advance to be doomed to fail. It makes for intense, exciting, dramatic reading.

It's interesting how differently the historians treat the two world wars in this respect; for the WW1, they write entire books about the July crisis, the period between the assasination of Franz Ferdinand and the actual outbreak of the war. But in the case of the WW2, they seem to be much less interested in this stuff, perhaps because they figure it's pointless to study those diplomatic manoeuvres anyway since they genuinely had no effect on anything. After all, Hitler was determined to keep moving from one territorial acquisition to another no matter what, there was no way that diplomacy could stop him from doing that, and he only used diplomatic moves to try to mislead the western Great Powers and discourage them from intervening.

Whatever the reason may be, the fact is that of the three histories of Nazi Germany that I've read so far — Shirer, Burleigh, Evans — the only one that treated the diplomatic prelude to the WW2 in detail was Shirer, i.e. the one that all the historians turn up their noses at, never failing to point out that he was a mere journalist and never forgiving him for his tendency to present his history as a straightforward narrative of facts rather than filling it with academic masturbation about historiography, the various internal squabbles between historians, and so on.

Shirer's book has a couple of longish chapters about the frantic diplomatic activity in the last weeks of peace and the first days of the war, and it was probably there that I first heard of Birger Dahlerus. He was a Swedish businessman who had strong ties to both Britain and Germany, and tried to help preserve peace in the late summer of 1939 by acting as a sort of unofficial diplomatic go-between. The present book, The Last Attempt, is his account of these efforts, written in 1945 after the war was over.

It's a short book but quite an interesting read. In March 1939, when Hitler broke his previous promises with regard to Czechoslovakia and occupied the rest of that country, Britain and France issued guarantees to Poland, hoping thereby to dissuade him from making any similar aggressive moves against Poland as well. But Hitler doesn't seem to have been deterred, and presumably thought that in the end they would let him get away with it (and limit themselves to toothless diplomatic protests), as they had done so many times before. So, in the summer of 1939, the Nazis were busily manufacturing a crisis in their relations with Poland, triggering incidents, making threatening speeches, filling their media with furious allegations of supposed mistreatment of the German minority in Poland, etc. By then it must have been a familiar story to everyone in Europe, as they had employed the same tactics against Czechoslovakia less than a year before, and similarly a little earlier against Austria as well. It was not hard to guess that territorial demands against Poland would soon follow, with threats of war if they were not met.

Dahlerus, observing this crisis developing, realized that the Nazis must have thought that Britain would not stand by its guarantees to Poland, a view which he considered disastrously mistaken — from what he had seen of the opinions prevailing in Britain, he was sure that Britain would actually take its guarantee seriously this time. He thought that if only somehow the Nazi leadership could be made to understand this, through direct talks with the British, then peace might still be preserved. He started by organising an informal meeting between a group of British businessmen (his acquaintances) and several German officials (including Göring), held in early August at the country estate of Dahlerus' wife in northern Germany (pp. 36, 43). This went promising enough and was supposed to be eventually followed up by more serious talks involving diplomats, but there were delays and then the crisis intensified quickly over the next few weeks (p. 48). Most of the book then deals with the last week of August and the first days of September, when Dahlerus was flying furiously back and forth between Britain and Germany, hardly ever slept, visited embassies and foreign ministries a number of times, often sneaking in and out by side entrances to evade the press reporters, and was occasionally even so bold as to make suggestions to the diplomats as to what their next move should be (p. 97). On the night of August 26/27 he even met Hitler, who came across as not entirely sane (“Hitler continued as though in a trance [. . .] His eyes were glassy, his voice unnatural”, p. 63; “I realised that I was dealing with a person who could not be considered normal”, p. 71).

Dahlerus' main contact on the German side was Göring, whom he had known since 1934 (pp. 18–9); Dahlerus thought that Göring was in favour of peace and could perhaps influence Hitler in that direction, while some of the other leading Nazis, notably Ribbentrop, were consistently pushing for war (p. 20). “At a meeting in October of the same year, Goering had told me that Ribbentrop had tried to arrange for my plane to crash” (p. 94).

Of course, in hindsight we know that all these efforts were doomed to fail. Hitler had decided some time before that he would occupy Poland (as far as the line agreed upon in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) at the end of August, no matter what; from his perspective the only purpose of diplomacy at that point was to try to discourage Britain and France from helping Poland. As Dahlerus says in a postscript added to the English edition of this book, Göring was in on these plans as well (as it turned out during the Nuremberg trials), so Dahlerus had been merely a naive, unwitting dupe in their game all along (pp. ix, xii).

So I found this book to be a very interesting look at the last days of peace in 1939 from a perspective slightly different than that of historians and of the official collections of diplomatic papers. It is also, perhaps, a sobering look at the consequences of an amateur private individual trying to meddle in diplomacy. One small downside of the book is that it ends on September 4, very soon after the outbreak of the war, so it doesn't describe Dahlerus' later efforts — according to the Wikipedia page about Dahlerus, he made further attempts to encourage contacts and negotiations between Germany and Britain in September and even October 1939 (by which time Poland had been fully occupied). In any case, he must have been extremely naive if he thought that anything could still be done by negotiation at that point. Hitler's idea of a negotiated peace would be to promise a status quo in the west while getting a free hand in the east, while for Britain the first requirement of any peace would be that Germany had to withdraw from Poland. There's no way they could have come to a compromise.


Soon after the outbreak of the war, several countries published selections of diplomatic papers that tried to present the events in a way that justified their side of the war. I read the first couple of the following but not the rest:

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Sunday, June 03, 2018

Spam of the month

More like spam of the quarter, to be honest, if not of the year. I don't get as much funny spam as I used to — either the glory days of the Nigerian scam e-mails are long gone, or the spam filters are getting better — probably the former :) Nevertheless, recently I got the following masterpiece.

Good day.

Dont consider on my illiteracy, Im from India.

Don't worry, my criminally-minded friend! You have just the perfect mixture of illiteracy and stiff pomposity that is practically the job requirement of a scammer :)

We put mine virus on your device.

How very intriguing. On the one hand, using “mine” instead of “my” lends the text a delightful touch of archaism, but on the other hand I think that even centuries ago it would not have been used like this unless the noun after it started with a vowel. . .

Then I pilfered all personal data from your OS.

LOLOLOL “pilfered” :))) I can only imagine that the author started his career as a street urchin, a little scamp who made his living as a pickpocket before he progressed to sending scam e-mails.

Withal I received some more then just data.

Ohhh yeah, first “pilfered” and now “withal”. . . keep doing this, I'm almost there. . .

The most entertaining compromising which I stole — its a record with your wanking. I installed malware on a porn page and after you loaded it. As soon as you selected the video and tapped on a play, my malware instantly loaded on your system.

I love the sudden transition from the old-fashioned formality of the previous sentences to the plain, honest directness of “wanking”. Good job! And I'm particularly impressed that you managed to do this on a computer with no camera. You might want to patent this fabulous new technology, it would probably make you more money than sending scam e-mails :)

After setup, your front-camera shoot the video with you self-abusing,

Ah, there he goes, switching into Victorian schoolmaster mode again. By the way, on the subject of “self-abuse” vs. “wanking”, I recommend this hilarious comment from an old blog post (jeez, the sort of things I find buried in my memory :]. . .).

moreover I saved precisely the porn video you selected. In next few days my malicious software grabbed all your social and work contacts.

I can practically see your software twirling its moustache and rubbing its hands evilly :))

If you want to erase the records- pay me 510 euro in Bitcoins.
I provide you my Btc number — [redacted]

Sure, bitcoin may have its advantages, but I can't help feeling that some of the old charm of these scams is gone now that they aren't using Western Union wire transfers any more.

You have 22 hours to go after reading. When I see transaction I will eliminate the videotape in perpetuity. Otherwise I will send the video to all your colleagues and friends.

Far be it from me to tell you how to run your business, but it might be better to get people to pay you to avoid receiving a video of me wanking :))


Definitely one of the funniest pieces of spam I've had in a long time. The prose is not quite as purple and orotund as in the better sort of Nigerian scammers, but where it really shines is its choice of diction, where I suspect Indian English is unparalleled. You can't help feeling that these people learnt English back in the days of queen Victoria, found that they liked it just fine as it was, and decided never to change anything subsequently. Thus you end up with them using words like “pilfered”, “withal” and, best of all, “self-abuse”. . .

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

BOOK: Oscar Wilde, "Historical Criticism Notebook"

Oscar Wilde's Historical Criticism Notebook. Transcribed and edited by Philip E. Smith II. Oxford University Press, 2016. 9780199688012. xxxiv + 255 pp.

I think I first heard about Wilde's Historical Criticism a few years ago when I read volume 4 of the new Oxford edition of Wilde's works, edited by Josephine Guy (see my post from back then). It's a relatively little known essay that he wrote towards the end of his student years, entering it into a prize competition in the hope that it might be a stepping-stone towards an academic career, but this didn't work out so he ended up becoming a famous writer instead. Nor did I care terribly much for the essay itself, as I found it a bit too technical for my liking.

The present volume was published a few years later and contains the text of a notebook kept by Wilde while he was working on that essay. (I couldn't help but think of the phrase ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel’ when I heard about this book. A notebook kept while writing a student essay? Let us hope and pray that Wilde's shopping-lists have not been preserved.) It's fairly rough, mostly consisting of incomplete fragments of sentences, occassionally things being crossed out or inserted, etc. Whoever has typeset this book has gone to a lot of trouble to imitate the arrangement of things in the manuscript by a careful use of spacing, various rules and lines, etc.; and they even included the photographs of a few pages to give you an idea of what the original looks like.

Reading Wilde's text in this book was an odd experience because it's so fragmentary. It gave me a feeling of vagueness, perhaps something like one might get from reading something very (post)modern and avant-garde where even the finished product is deliberately maintained in a fragmentary state :) I guess that this stuff is interesting not so much for the sake of the contents themselves but as a chance to see the writer at work, take a peek behind the scenes so to speak. He seems to have initially generated very rough and incomplete fragments of sentences, disjointed and with major parts missing, and then gradually connected them into normal prose in subsequent passes through the essay. I remembered reading a few years ago in the very interesting book Oscar Wilde's Profession that “[i]t's as if Wilde's very creativity itself was manifest via the composition of small, discrete units” (see my post from back then). The fragmentary nature of the text in his notebook here seems to be a good confirmation of this.

I was wondering if there is some way I could profit from his example, but I doubt it. When I write these blog posts for example, I mostly write normal sentences from the start, even if I sometimes go back to them later and try to improve something. I can't quite see how I would generate such rough fragments first and then use them to form sentences later. But clearly his system was well suited to how his creativity worked, since the result, as we can all see, is that he wrote a lot of very lovely prose.

What I found more interesting than Wilde's notebook itself was the commentary by the editor, Philip Smith. I couldn't help admiring the obviously enormous amount of effort that he must have put into this book. Judging by the photographs of the manuscript pages, deciphering Wilde's handwriting can't have been all that easy to begin with; and then he has gone to the trouble of identifying, for each fragment in the manuscript, which passage of the finished essay it corresponds to. The contents of this notebook cover about half of the material in the finished essay, suggesting that Wilde may have had a second notebook that has been lost (p. xix). Sometimes several separate passages in the notebook correspond to the same passage in the finished essay, as Wilde reworked his initial rough fragments into something more closely resembling normal prose such as would eventually appear in the essay. There are also a few things in the notebook that Wilde did not include in the final version of the essay, e.g. a discussion of Tacitus (p. xxvi).

The editor has also identified the exact sources of various quotations that Wilde includes or alludes to in his notebook. In this sense his commentary could be seen as a supplement to Guy's commentary to Historical Criticism, and in a few cases he even points out things that Guy's commentary has missed or got wrong (see e.g. notes 8, 14, 150). At times I couldn't help thinking that it would have been better if, instead of publishing this notebook as a separate volume, Guy and Smith had joined forces and published the notebook and the finished essay together. In its present form, the notebook published as a standalone volume will probably be of interest to very few people. I would certainly never dream of buying it or reading it if it wasn't for my determination to read the Oxford edition of Wilde's works, to which the present volume could perhaps be thought of as a sort of supplement (although formally it isn't a part of that edition).

One thing I found interesting is how heavily the editor's commentary relies on digital resources — scanned copies of 19th-century editions on Google Books and the Greek classics from the Perseus digital library. One downside of this is that a lot of very long, very ugly Perseus URLs are included in the text here. I don't think there's any way around it, but URLs do look hideously ugly in print. After all, they were never meant to be printed much — in a normal HTML document you usually only see them when you move your mouse over a link or something of that sort.

This book also has a lovely light blue dust jacket. I'm pointing this out because the volumes from the Oxford edition of Wilde's works do not have dust jackets. I'm so disappointed. Clearly the publisher is still capable of producing dust jackets, so why don't those other volumes get them? . . .


There's a very interesting remark from Horst Schroeder quoted on p. xvi, arguing that Wilde might not have submitted the Historical Criticism essay to that competition at all, because it is “such a manifestly incomplete paper and in such a poor outward form at that”.

An interesting quote from Ernest Renan's Vie de Jésus: “One is of one's century and one's race even when one protests against one's century and one's race” (p. 150, n. 8).

A wonderful quote Historical Criticism, included here on p. 155, n. 39: Wilde mentions the “spirit of exclusive attention to form which made Euripides often, like Swinburne, prefer music to meaning, and melody to morality”. I haven't read any Euripides, but how very well this description suits Swinburne! And I loved his poetry for just these reasons :)

As an example of the attention to detail in this book, the editor has even provided footnotes describing Wilde's doodles in the margins of the manuscript. “In the center of the double space below the line Wilde has drawn a cartoon side view of a banded snake.” (P. 14.) I couldn't help chuckling at the thought how it would have been if someone edited some of my college notebooks in the same way. I'm still rather proud of that drawing of a mouse screwing a cat... :P

There is one odd detail on p. 133. Wilde, discussing Plutarch, says that “[h]e trusts not to mere rumour, for no historian is more careful than he in making use of ancient monuments and inscriptions of Greece with which if except Persians, no one was more familiar than himself”. Why would you expect Persians to be unusually familiar with Greek monuments and inscriptions? Did the Persian army feature a prominent contingent of antiquarians when they fought in Greece? By coincidence, this passage occurs on one of those few pages of the notebook of which this volume includes a photograph, also on p. 133. Wilde's handwriting seems to me to be a bit unclear at this point, but I can't help wondering if the word in question isn't meant to be Pausanias rather than Persians. You would expect the famous geographer and travel writer to be more familiar with monuments and inscriptions than a bunch of hairy foreign soldiers.

Wilde refers several times to the idea that the task of historical criticism is to discover some sort of general laws and principles that govern history (p. 109). He mentions that “while the conceptions of Law and Order have been universally received as the governing principles of the phenomena of nature in the sphere of physical science, yet their intrusion into the domain of History, and the life of man, has always been met with a strong opposition” (Historical Criticism, quoted here on p. 199, n. 321).

I think he's on to something here. In one of the first history classes in secondary school, when we learnt what history as a branch of enquiry is trying to do, discovering laws of the development of human society was definitely mentioned there as one of its main goals. I suspect that the ancient historians whom Wilde discusses in his essay would also agree that this is an important goal.

But on the other hand, I later got the impression that historians nowadays mostly shrink from actually doing this like vampires from sunlight. They used to do this — Toynbee comes to mind — but nowadays it's only outsiders to the field of history that dare to attempt it, people like Jared Diamond or Steven Pinker, and whenever anybody tries anything of that sort, a hundred thousand angry pedants rise up, each with his “well, actually”, eager to point out this or that of the countless little inaccuracies that one is bound to commit if one attempts to generalize history, deduce any sort of general laws or observations from it, and treat it as anything more than just one damn random contingent thing after another.

I suppose that this is a sort of immune reaction to the tendencies of airy-fairy generalists to spin whatever theory they fancy and shoehorn actual historical facts into it as needed, but I can't help feeling that the reaction goes too far into the opposite direction. If you aren't allowed to generalize from history, why on earth would you even investigate it? You might just as well read a novel then — or the phone directory.


  • Philip E. Smith II, Michael S. Helfand (eds.): Oscar Wilde's Oxford Notebooks: A Portrait of a Mind in the Making (1989). Mentioned here on p. xvi. A similar book containing some of Wilde's other notebooks. Apparently there is also a “Philosophy Notebook” that is still in the process of being edited for publication, at a speed that strikes me as not merely glacial but positively geological (p. viii here).
  • Julia Brown: Cosmopolitan Criticism: Oscar Wilde's Philosophy of Art (1997). Mentioned here on p. xxix, n. 11.
  • Iain Ross: Oscar Wilde and Ancient Greece (2013). Mentioned here on p. xxxii.
  • John Addington Symonds (tr.): Sonnets of Michael Angelo Buonarroti and Tommaso Campanella (1878). Wilde quotes from one of Campanella's sonnets (p. 207, n. 364).

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BOOK: Oscar Wilde, "The Short Fiction"

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Volume 8: The Short Fiction. Ed. by Ian Small. Oxford University Press, 2017. 0198119593. cvii + 521 pp.

This volume contains all of Wilde's short stories — the two collections of fairy tales, as well as the slightly more ‘realistic’ stories such as The Portrait of Mr. W. H. and the ones in Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories. It's been quite a long time since I've last read any of Wilde's short stories, so this book was a very enjoyable read. I had mostly forgotten what the stories were about, so they were for all practical purposes almost completely new to me now. There is a lot of diversity here in terms of style and subject matter, but pretty much every story here was enjoyable in its own way.

I remember reading somewhere that Wilde was very good at presenting very different faces to different segments of the market, and the short stories in this book are a good example of that. (See also p. xlvii in this volume for interesting remarks on the market for fairy tales in the 1880s and '90s.) On the one hand you have the fairly traditional-looking fairy tales for children in The Happy Prince and Other Tales, often with a very blunt and obvious moral lesson and in many instances relying surprisingly heavily on christian religious ideas, much more so than I would expect from someone like Wilde. On the other hand you have the fairy tales in A House of Pomegranates, which, as Wilde himself said (pp. xlviii–xlix), were aimed more at grown-ups than at children. Moral lessons are much less prominent here (perhaps with the notable exception of The Star-Child), and the focus is on showcasing Wilde's decadent sensibility and bathing the reader's mind in a thick soup of adjectives. And on the third hand there's Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories, written in a more realistic style and set amongst the same sort of rich high-society people as Wilde's comedies (which he wrote a few years later, and for which he occasionally re-used quips, phrases, character names, etc., as is pointed out by the editor's commentary in this volume).

A Fire at Sea

The book starts with a tale I had never read before — Wilde's translation of Turgenyev's A Fire at Sea. I vaguely remember that I once read something about Wilde's translations from Turgenyev, and wondered how he did it without speaking any Russian. Well, it turns out that Turgenyev spent the last years of his life in France, living with a French woman, and he dictated this story to her in French so she could write it down (p. 291). So Wilde had to translate from French rather than from Russian.

This story didn't feel very Wildean to me, but felt very much like a work of Russian realist literature, so I'm guessing he did a pretty good job as a translator. What I've read of Russian realism so far was more or less entirely novels (mostly those by Dostoyevski, but also Tolstoy's War and Peace and Turgenyev's Fathers and Sons), so it was interesting to read a short story in that style for a change. I could easily imagine this sort of thing appearing as an episode in one of the long novels that Russian realist writers liked to write.

The story involves a shipwreck on a relatively short voyage in the Baltic. I liked this line where the narrator, having just reached the shore, watches the ship burn to ash: “ ‘Is this all?’ I thought, ‘and life itself — what is it but a handful of ashes strewn on the wind?’ ” (P. 9.)

The Happy Prince

The titular Prince is actually a statue. His eyes are precious stones, there's also one on his sword-hilt, and at his request, a Swallow distributes the gems to the poor people of the city. This turns out to be quite a big sacrifice; the Swallow was supposed to migrate to warmer climes, but distributing the Prince's gems takes him so long that winter comes and the Swallow freezes to death. Meanwhile, the statue, now devoid of its ornaments, ends up looking so unimpressive that the townsfolk decide to dismantle it without any further ceremony. No good deed goes unpunished :P Wilde isn't, I think, much of a person for happy-endings when it comes to fairy-tales.

There are many moving portrayals of poverty in this story, and the Prince's charity is commendable, but as usual in such situations, I couldn't help feeling that charity is the wrong way of trying to do anything about poverty; obviously the only thing that could actually make any difference in the bigger scheme of things is structural change — social reforms, preferably putting an end to capitalism, etc. I think Wilde was perhaps vaguely aware of this in The Soul of Man under Socialism, but there isn't any trace of it in this fairy-tale. But I shouldn't complain too much, as social and economic reforms are hardly the sort of thing that would fit into a fairy-tale.

One thing that surprised me (pleasantly) about this story is how much of the decadent sensibility there is in it, even though it isn't really supposed to be one of his explicitly decadent works. The Swallow describes Egypt, where he intends to spend the winter, in richly exotic terms that would not be out of place e.g. in The Sphinx or in some of the more purple parts of Dorian Gray.

The Nightingale and the Rose

This seems to be somewhat of a recurring motive in this book: someone makes an enormous sacrifice, and the world doesn't care one whit (we'll see it again in The Devoted Friend). A poor student wants to go to a dance with a rich girl, but she demands a red rose from him; the nightingale wants to help, but the nearby rose-bush has only white roses; but its rose will turn red if the nightingale impales itself on one of the rose-bush's thorns to the point where the thorn pierces the bird's heart. The nightingale agrees to do it, resulting in one of the most touching passages in this volume. It is always very affecting when someone dies while singing, and I was reminded of Tennyson's Lady of Shalott, dying in her last song while floating on her boat. Well, here the nightingale dies, the rose turns red, but it's all to no avail. The rich girl has changed her mind and went dancing with someone else, and the student throws the rose away and forgets about the whole thing.

This struck me as a rather grim ending of the story. I suppose that the lesson is supposed to be not to make pointless, enormous sacrifices for people who won't appreciate them, and that's surely very reasonable, but if so, then the message was somewhat undermined by the fact that the nightingale's act of sacrifice is described in such moving terms.

The Selfish Giant

This was a pleasant enough story, especially since it has a happy end, unlike so many others in this book. The Giant initially acts like the stereotypical grumpy old man telling those damn kids to get off his lawn — all he needs is a rocking-chair, a ketchup-stained wifebeater shirt, and perhaps a shotgun — but eventually changes his mind when he realizes that since there are no children playing in his orchard, spring has started to avoid it as well and he now has eternal winter in it. The smallest and weakest of the aforementioned children turns out to be none other than Christ himself — I winced a little when I got to that part, as I really wasn't expecting such conventional religious sentiments in something written by Wilde. But I shouldn't complain; I imagine that by the standards of Victorian-era fairy-tales, the amount of religion in Wilde's stories is probably rather mild.

The Devoted Friend

Well, there's a difference between being devoted and being a spineless fool, but that never seems to occur to the protagonist of this story. Hans is a poor farmer whose neighbour, a rich miller, professes great friendship for him, but never actually does anything for him, while constantly requesting all sorts of favours and goods from poor Hans. The latter never says no and eventually dies by drowning in a swamp while running yet another errand for the miller.

While reading this story, I wanted to scream in rage at the smug, self-satisfied, fat bastard of a miller, but occasionally also at the spineless Hans who should have stood up for himself early on and then none of this would have been happening in the first place. As a result, I thought that this tale is a bit short on likeable characters. Obviously we sympathise with the poor Hans, but we cannot help wishing that he weren't quite such a pushover.

The Remarkable Rocket

This was a pleasantly silly tale. The eponymous Rocket has a very high opinion of itself, on which it is happy to expound at interminable length in conversations with other bits of pyrotechnic equipment as well as anyone else in its general vicinity, but the poor thing ends up being thrown away and eventually going off without even being seen by anyone. Obviously it's meant to be an example of what not to act like, but the whole thing is so silly that you can't really dislike the Rocket. When such an insignificant thing takes itself so seriously, it ends up being funny rather than annoying. The editor's notes point out some interesting ideas on what may have inspired the story; the Rocket could very well have been inspired by Wilde's rivarly with Whistler (p. 365), and the conversation between the various rockets in the beginning of the story has some vague parallels with the conversation between pots in Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat in Fitzgerald's translation.

The Rocket is a veritable fountain of delightfully outrageous epigrams: “I am always thinking about myself, and I expect everyone else to do the same. That is what is called sympathy.” (P. 42.) “Why, anybody can have common sense, provided that they have no imagination.” (Ibid.) “The only thing that sustains one through life is the consciousness of the immense inferiority of everybody else, and this is a feeling that I have always cultivated.” (Ibid.) “Indeed, I have always been of opinion that hard work is simply the refuge of people who have nothing whatever to do.” (P. 46.)

Lord Arthur Savile's Crime

Apparently palmistry or cheiromancy was ‘trending’ (as we might say nowadays) at the time Wilde wrote this story, and this gave him an inspiration. He was even interested in it enough to ask a cheiromantist to prepare a horoscope for his newly-born son (p. 317). Anyway, Lord Arthur Savile is a rich young man of the sort that appear as protagonists in so many of Wilde's works. A cheiromantist looks at his palm and predicts that he is going to commit murder at some point. Lord Arthur is planning to get married soon, and decides that he wants to get this unpleasant business of murdering out of the way before he gets married. He tries to poison an elderly aunt, but she dies of natural causes without taking his poison. He makes contact with anarchist terrorists and sends a bomb to another relative, but it fizzles out pathetically. Eventually Lord Arthur, quite desperate by now, simply murders the cheiromantist and then gets married happily.

I really enjoyed this story. Its great charm lies in the fact that it tells the whole absurd tale with a completely straight face. The idea that murder is morally wrong, or that Lord Arthur might, perhaps, just plain choose not to commit it, is scrupulously avoided. Thus, murder becomes simply funny, like a harmless lark, and we can have a good time following the failures of Lord Arthur's increasingly desperate plans to murder someone before he has to postpone his marriage yet again.

The Sphinx without a Secret

This is one of the shortest stories in this volume; not a bad story, but nothing to write home about either. The Sphinx of the title is a woman who is so keen to have something secret and mysterious in her life that she actually rents a spare apartment and occasionally there, with the air of great secrecy, only to do nothing but sit there for a while and then go back home. I suppose you could say it's a study of a curious mental quirk. I was reminded of the cargo cults of the Pacific islands; perhaps she hopes that mystery will come into her life if she starts to act as if there were some mystery in it already. Plus, the story is perhaps an extension of the familiar idea that women's nature is inscrutable and hard for a man to understand. Wilde would later reuse the idea of “sphinxes without secrets” in The Picture of Dorian Gray and in A Woman of No Importance (p. 342).

The Canterville Ghost

This is perhaps my favourite among Wilde's short stories, and certainly the funniest. A rich American family buys an old castle in Britain, haunted by the ghost of a medieval knight. The ghost has reduced many people into gibbering nervous wrecks over the centuries, but now the tables have turned; the Americans don't take him in the least bit seriously, the bloody stains that he likes to leave around are easily dispatched using modern chemical products, the children of the family play pranks on him mercilessly, etc.

I suppose that there must be a lot of stories based on the ‘culture clash’ of Americans and Europeans in the late 19th century (see also the editor's commentary, p. 349), but I haven't read much in that vein so far and this one has the added bonus of the paranormal element, so it was really great fun to read. Here are two of my favourite examples:

“Many American ladies on leaving their native land adopt an appearance of chronic ill-health, under the impression that it is a form of European refinement, but Mrs. Otis had never fallen into this error.” (P. 83.)

From a conversation between the ghost and Virginia, the American girl (p. 97): “ ‘I don't think I should like America.’/ ‘I suppose because we have no ruins and no curiosities,’ said Virginia satirically./ ‘No ruins! no curiosities!’ answered the Ghost; ‘you have your navy and your manners.’ ”

On a more serious note, you can't help feeling sorry for the poor ghost, who ends up being just another victim of modernity and progress, and who looks less and less like a fearsome paranormal entity and more and more like an unfortunate and increasingly pathetic actor who has a hard time facing the fact that his career on the stage is coming to an end. It was good to see that the story has a reasonably happy end.

One thing surprised me about the editor's notes to this story. Mr. Otis is described as “the United States Minister” (pp. 82, 87, 89, 90), and the notes interpret the word “minister” in the sense of a clergyman (p. 347). But clearly Mr. Otis is very rich (as he has bought Canterville Chase; p. 82), he got married to “a celebrated New York belle” (p. 83), he seems to be involved in politics (“My father will be only too happy to give you a free passage, and though there is a heavy duty on spirits of every kind, there will be no difficulty about the Custom House, as the officers are all Democrats”, p. 97) and is writing a book about the history of the Democratic Party (p. 94). I have a hard time imagining that a person like that would have become a clergyman (and why would he then move to Britain?). Nor does the story ever show him doing any sort of work that you might associate with a clergyman. Surely a more likely explanation is that “minister” refers to a diplomatic representative? American plutocrats don't usually become clergymen, but they do sometimes become diplomats. Admittedly, this theory also has a downside: the U.S. did not have a minister in Britain, but an ambassador (i.e. a higher-ranking diplomat). (See also my post about vol. 6, where a similar situation has occurred as well.)

The Model Millionaire

The title is a bit of a pun. A painter hires a grizzled beggar-man to pose for him as a model, but later it turns out that the beggar was really an eccentric millionaire, who appreciates having been treated kindly by the painter and gives him a lavish gift in return. Thus he is not only a millionaire model, but a model millionaire (p. 110). This was a pleasant story, but a very short one. As the editor's notes point out, it may have been inspired by one of Wilde's journalistic pieces about artists' models (p. xx).

The Young King

I really enjoyed this story. The old king dies and the only successor is his grandson from an illegitimate relationship, who has been brought up by a poor adoptive family. He is now brought to the court and preparations for a coronation get underway. At first he is fascinated by the splendour and luxury of the court, but then a series of dreams reveals to him the costs of this luxury: poor people toiling away to make the precious items he would use in his coronation ceremony. He decides to reject all this and proceeds towards the coronation in the simple peasant garb that he used to wear until a few days ago. The noblemen around him are shocked and almost revolt at the sight of this, but when he gets into the cathedral, his staff bursts into bloom, a light from above shines upon him, etc., and the archbishop can only conclude: “A greater than I hath crowned thee.” (P. 122.)

Much like before, I couldn't help wincing a little when the religious element came into plain view like this, but I have to admit that it fits well here and isn't really bothersome at all. It was also nice to see that Wilde allowed a happy end here and resisted the temptation to spoil it somehow like in so many other stories in this book. This story also has many other things to recommend itself: a touching sympathy with the toiling masses of the poor people (although, again, without an awareness of the structural aspects of poverty) and lots of wonderfully purple passages describing the king's riches and the exotic places whence they came.

The Birthday of the Infanta

Some of the characters in this story were apparently inspired by some real Spanish royalty from the early 17th century (p. 385), but judging by the editor's notes, these correspondences between the story and historical persons don't actually go very deep. In any case, not very much happens in this story. The Infanta is a very spoilt princess and as part of her birthday celebrations is going to be entertained by the antics of the Dwarf, who has the peculiar characteristic of not only being grotesquely misshapen and disfigured, but also of being completely unaware that he is in any way abnormal. People laugh at his antics, but he innocently thinks that they are laughing with him rather than at him. But then at some point he looks in a mirror and slowly realizes that the monstrosity staring back at him is none other than himself. He dies on the spot, of a broken heart, and neither the princess nor anyone else is the least bit sorry about him.

I don't much like sad tales with a sad end, and this is very clearly one of them. My favourite part of the story is the moment when the Dwarf starts looking at himself in the mirror and slowly realizes that it's him. It reminded me of a similar moment in H. P. Lovecraft's delightful short story The Outsider, but I think Lovecraft did it better: he provided a better excuse for why the protagonist hasn't seen himself in a mirror before, and the moment of recognition is more sudden and comes as a surprise to the reader as well, not just to the protagonist.

Apart from that, as I said, not much happens in The Birthday of the Infanta and much of the story is mostly about Wilde exhibiting his usual luxuriant decadent prose, this time with more of a Spanish flavour which is otherwise not particularly common in his work.

The Fisherman and His Soul

This story is an interesting and, to me at least, original take on the old question of what to do about the human soul. The protagonist is a poor Fisherman who falls in love with a Mermaid, but cannot follow her into the sea because his soul gets in the way. So he is determined to get rid of it — not to sell it to the devil or anything like that, he simply figures he doesn't need it and wants to let go of it. He is completely cheerful and light-hearted about the whole thing, which was really refreshing to see considering that getting rid of a person's soul is usually portrayed very differently, as a serious and momentous act and usually as a part of a transaction with the devil. Anyway, after some trouble our Fisherman gets help from a witch who gives him a magical knife with which he can cut off his own shadow — and this, as it turns out, is his soul.

He goes to live in Y'ha-nthlei the sea, very happily, with his Mermaid, while his soul wanders around on land. They still meet and talk once a year, and the soul tries to tempt him into allowing it back. He is not impressed by offers of wisdom or riches, but eventually agrees to re-unite with his soul when it promises to show him some women who have feet and thus can dance, unlike his Mermaid. But it turns out to have been a ruse; his soul became rather evil in those years of wandering around without a heart, and it even tempts him into committing some crimes. He also finds that he cannot detach himself from his soul a second time. He returns to the sea shore and lives there as a hermit for a few years, hoping to see his Mermaid again; but he doesn't, until the sea washes her dead body ashore, and then he promptly drowns himself too.

This isn't a bad story, but I don't quite know what to make of the religious symbolism in it. Too much of it feels like one damn random thing after another. Why would it be regarded as wrong for the fisherman to give up his soul? Clearly the mermaid isn't evil, and he is genuinely happy while living with her; there's no reason why anyone should object to anything here. Why would he even have to give up his soul in order to go live with her? Having detached his soul once and later rejoined it, why can't he detach it again? We don't really see any convincing explanation of all this, there's just one dour old priest who repeats unconvincing old dogmas — the merfolk don't have souls, they are damned, you shouldn't interact with them, etc.

I could sort of understand objecting to e.g. a person selling his soul to the devil. But here, where the fisherman gives up his soul with no evil intention, and he obviously lives happily and harmlessly without it, there's really no reason why he should be punished with all the trouble that afflicts him in the later parts of the story.

And the whole idea of detaching oneself from one's soul isn't explored thoroughly enough in this story. We see no change of any kind in the fisherman while he is detached from his soul. He is obviously and in every sense still the same sort of person as before. What was the soul for anyway? And why then is it such a big deal if he gives it up? Clearly we are dealing with a very unsual conception of the soul here. The usual idea is that the soul is the part of a person that gives him or her life, and without which you are just a corpse. Or there's the voodoo idea that the soul (one of them, anyway) is what gives you personality and individuality, and without it you're just a living corpse — a zombie. But in this story none of these interpretations make sense.

The Star-Child

I didn't like this story as much as some of the others in this collection. The protagonist was found as a baby on the site of a meteor and adopted by a poor woodcutter; he grows into a beautiful but arrogant young man. Eventually a poor and ugly beggar-woman shows up, claiming to be his mother, but he sends her away. For this he is suddenly struck with ugliness and remorse, so he decides to go looking for her and ask her to forgive him. After several years of wandering and tribulations, he finds her and it turns out that he is actually the heir to the throne of a great and rich city, which he then proceeds to rule as a wise and good ruler. Wilde, as if afraid of such a conventional happy end, cannot help adding a twist: the the Star-Child dies after ruling for only three years, and “he who came after him ruled evilly” (p. 193).

I suppose the obvious moral lesson of this story is that one should be kind and charitable to people in need, but I couldn't help feeling that this worthy principle is rather undermined by the absurd, extreme lengths to which this story tries to drive it. For instance, a random beggar-woman shows up and claims to be your mother. Sure, you shouldn't be arrogant towards her — but would it really be unreasonable to ask for some more proof that she really is who she claims to be? And would it be unreasonable to say that, if she is proposing that you should follow her into a beggar's life, that perhaps you would actually prefer to keep on living with the poor woodcutter and his family, who may be poor but are still a damn sight better off than a destitute vagrant?

And later in the story, when the Star-Child is enslaved by an evil magician and sent to fetch him pieces of gold from a forest each day, on pain of horrible punishments if he fails to bring the gold — well, every day as he is returning with the gold, a beggar asks him for that piece of gold — would it really be unreasonable for the Star-Child to then say: look, I already gave you a piece yesterday, it should last you for several days, if I give you today's piece as well my master will kill me, am I really the only person in this town from whom you can get alms, etc. (Or, to be honest, why doesn't the Star-Child simply escape when his master sends him on these stupid gold-fetching quests?)

Anyway, I suppose that these sorts of things are considered normal in fairy tales, and perhaps that's fine if they are aimed at children, but in this one I found them fairly annoying. But perhaps it's unreasonable to expect psychological realism in a fairy tale.

The Portrait of Mr. W. H.

This is a curious combination of a story and an essay, and much of it felt like something that would fit better into something like Intentions than among Wilde's short stories. The essay side deals with a subject with which I have so far been almost completely unfamiliar, namely the background of Shakespeare' sonnets. Evidently they have been inspired by certain real people that he knew and various events in his relationships with them, but not much can be said with certainty about the real historical facts behind this. The detail that particularly interests Wilde here is the identity of a Mr. “W. H.” to whom many of the sonnets are dedicated. Unsurprisingly, numerous people over the centuries have come up with various theories about who W. H. was, and many of these are mentioned in passing by Wilde or by the editor's commentary (which is impressively detailed and exhausted, as always in this series). The theory discussed by Wilde here is that W. H. was a boy actor named Willie Hughes who worked in the same theatrical company as Shakespeare. Judging by the way Wilde presents this, it seems like a charming theory that elegantly explains many details from the sonnets — the problem is just that there's no solid evidence that Willie Hughes ever even existed in the first place. The theory is supported by more or less plausible speculation, often resting on the appearance of the words hues and hews in the sonnets, which could be interpreted as a punning reference to the surname Hughes.

The way Wilde presents this theory is to embed it into a story. I rather liked this story because of the intricate way in which belief in the theory jumps from person to person, almost a bit like an infectious disease. It involves three people: Cyril, Erskine, and the unnamed narrator of the story. Cyril comes up with the theory and describes it to Erskine, who finds it intriguing but insists that some solid evidence of Will Hughes' existence must be found before the theory can be published. When he and Cyril, after much effort, fail to find any such evidence, Cyril even goes to the length of commissioning a forgery — a portrait ostensibly of W. H. — to convince Erskine that the theory must be true. By chance, Erskine discovers that it was a forgery, whereupon Cyril committs suicide. Erskine does not believe in the theory at this point, but tells about it to the narrator of the story, who then catches the bug, as it were, and spends a lot of time and effort on developing the theory and finding additional supporting evidence. He finally sets all this out in a letter to Erskine, hoping to convince him that the theory is true — and what do you know, the belief now jumps to Erskine. The narrator stops believing the theory as soon as he posts the letter, but Erskine is completely convinced by the letter and now starts trying to convince the narrator as well. A few months later, Erskine dies abroad, of consumption, but tries to leave the impression that it was suicide due to not being able to convince the narrator that the theory is true. The narrator inherits the forged portrait and is thenceforth content with the somewhat more moderate view that “there is really a great deal to be said” (p. 258) for the Hughes theory.

I rather liked this story, but didn't care much for the Hughes theory itself, or the parts of the story where it is discussed at great length, with countless quotations from Shakespeare's sonnets and the like. Perhaps I would care more about it if I had got around to reading his sonnets at some point. I read Spenser's sonnets many years ago and liked them a lot, but for some reason never really got into Shakespeare's, of which I read only a very few. In any case the impression I got was that there simply isn't enough evidence to say anything solid about who exactly W. H. was (or the other people behind Shakespeare's sonnets, for that matter), and I'm not really interested in delving into various theories about it if they cannot hope to be more than merely speculative.

Incidentally, this story has an interesting publication history. Wilde first published it in Blackwood's Magazine in 1889 (p. liv), and then started working on an expanded version, which was supposed to be published by the Bodley Head. This publication was delayed, partly because Wilde was slow at finishing the manuscript and partly because the two partners that ran the Bodley Head had a falling out and started dissolving the partnership (p. lxx); and by then it was 1895, and the Wilde trials made his name toxic to most of the British public, making it pretty much impossible to get the longer version of the story published. It was eventually published in 1921 by Mitchell Kennerley, a former employee of the Bodley Head (p. lxxiv) who it seems somehow got ahold of Wilde's manuscript. This version is even available on

Both versions are printed here in volume 8; the longer version is about twice as long as the original magazine version. The difference is mainly due to more discussion of the sonnets (and quotations from them) in the middle part of the essay. For me, this was in any case the least interesting part of the essay, so I liked the shorter version better.

A curious factoid from this story (p. 234): “Elizabeth had issued a commission authorising certain persons to impress into her service all boys who had beautiful voices that they might sing for her in her Chapel Royal”.


I was amazed to see how poorly preserved some 19th-century magazines are. The editor says that it was impossible to find a copy of the original versions of The Sphinx without a Secret, which appeared in The World, May 1887 (p. xciv), and of The Young King, which appeared in the Lady's Pictorial, Christmas number 1888 (p. xcv). :(

The editorial commentaries in this series always err on the side of explaining too much rather than too little (not that I'm complaining about that), and the present volume has a couple of nice examples: the editor thought it necessary to gloss “faggot” (in the bundle-of-sticks sense, of course; p. 313) and “Stars and Stripes” (p. 351; the editor mentions that there are fifty stars, and I was actually a bit surprised that he did not mention that there would have been fewer in Wilde's time :)).

There's a very interesting discussion on the emergence of the London high society in the 19th century (and its decline in importance in the early 20th) in the editor's comments on pp. 304–5.

I was surprised by the editor's explanation on p. 335 that “Nihilism was a Russian terrorist movement aimed at the overthrow of the Tsarist state.” I always thought of nihilism as merely a philosophical position, something mostly about being unable to consider things truly meaningful (a problem that has been afflicting myself for quite a long time now), but now I was interested to learn in the wikipedia that there was in fact also a minor Russian revolutionary movement by that name.


What to say at the end? I really enjoyed reading Wilde's short stories again after all this time. And the editorial commentary is excellent, as always in this series. According to the OUP's web site, the next two volumes are coming out in October this year, so I can start drooling in anticipation already :)


  • Jarlath Killeen: The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde (2007). Mentioned here on pp. xi, xvi. “Killeen tends to treat the tales as a body of disguised commentary on contemporary Irish politics, explaining that Wilde's attraction to the ‘short story’ as a form [. . .] may have originated in his membership of a society (that is, Dublin society) ‘whose entry into modernity was problematised by disruptions such as those caused by colonisation’.” Sounds a bit far-fetched but perhaps interesting :)
  • Anne Clark Amor: Mrs Oscar Wilde: A Woman of Some Importance (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1983). Mentioned here on p. xv, n. 7.
  • H. Montgomery Hyde: Oscar Wilde (1975). Mentioned here on p. xv, n. 7.
  • Constance Wilde: There Was Once: Grandma's Stories by Mrs Oscar Wilde (London: Ernest Nister, 1888); A Long Time Ago: Favourite Stories Re-told by Mrs Oscar Wilde and Others (London: Ernest Nister, 1892). Two volumes of tales by Oscar's wife, mentioned here on p. xxii, n. 18.
  • Franny Moyle: Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde (2011). Mentioned here on p. xxiii, n. 19.
  • George Sandulescu (ed.): Rediscovering Oscar Wilde (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1994). Mentioned on p. xxx, n. 25.
  • Anne Markey: Oscar Wilde's Fairy Tales: Origins and Contexts (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2011). Mentioned here on p. xlvii, n. 74.
  • Geoff Dibb: Oscar Wilde: A Vagabond With a Mission: The Story of Oscar Wilde's Lecture Tours of Britain and Ireland (London: The Wilde Society, 2013). Mentioned here on pp. lxxxv, 359. Sounds interesting; working as a travelling lecturer was the first stage of Wilde's public career, before he settled into journalism and fiction writing, so it would be good to read more about it.
  • Joseph Bristow and Rebecca N. Mitchell: Oscar Wilde's Chatterton: Literary History, Romanticism, and the Art of Forgery (2015). Mentioned here on p. 410. Wilde wrote a short biography of Chatterton, Pen, Pencil and Poison (see my post about vol. 4).
  • Alan Sinfield: The Wilde Century (1994). Mentioned here on p. 413. I love wild/Wilde puns in book titles.

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