Monday, March 27, 2006

A minor disappointment

I am very fond of chocolate. As soon as I start a bar of milk chocolate, I can't get myself to stop eating it until it's all gone, the whole 100 g or whatever amount there is. Thus I must avoid milk chocolate at all costs.

Bitter chocolate with a higher percentage of cocoa solids is better in this respect. After I've had a little, I don't really want any more of it because of its bitter taste. I find that chocolate with 60-70% cocoa solids isn't bitter enough to prevent me from wanting more, so I usually end up eating Lindt's 85% chocolate, which is sufficiently bitter that I don't want to eat more than a little at a time.

Well, recently I had the opportunity to buy a bar of 100% chocolate. (Actually the ingredients statement on the packaging says it contains at least 99.99% cocoa solids.) Needless to say, I couldn't resist such a challenge, so I bought it and promptly started eating it, expecting something truly disgustingly bitter.

Unfortunately I was quite disappointed. I really couldn't feel any difference in taste between this and Lindt's 85% chocolate that I usually eat. It would be interesting to perform a doubly blind experiment about this, but I very much doubt I could tell the tastes apart at better than chance level. So I guess there's no reason to want to eat the 100% chocolate, except for the snob appeal, and I fortunately don't know any chocolate snobs that might be impressed by such a thing. :-) Well, at least I won't have to worry about the fact that this 100% chocolate doesn't seem to be available here in Slovenia, and that ordering it from its Italian manufacturer would cost an arm and a leg (something like €70 for twenty 100-g bars).

Saturday, March 25, 2006

BOOK: Roger Casement's "Black Diaries" [1/5]

Peter Singleton-Gates and Maurice Girodias: The Black Diaries: An account of Roger Casement's life and times with a collection of his diaries and public writings. Paris: The Olympia Press, 1959. 626 pp.


Some years ago I came across, an excellent web site with lots of material about the history of imperialism. Among other things, it has quite an extensive section about the Congo; this large country in Central Africa was practically the personal colony of the Belgian king Leopold II for several decades, and he exploited its population mercilessly to gather rubber in the Congolese forests. The atrocities committed by Leopold's soldiers and administrators, and by the companies to whom he awarded concessions to exploit large tracts of the colony's territory, eventually became known to the public and gave rise to a massive movement, with many supporters in various Western countries, that demanded reforms and an end to Leopold's autocratic rule over the Congo. The movement had many notable supporters, e.g. E. D. Morel, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad (his famous story Heart of Darkness is set in the Congo), and Arthur Conan Doyle (see his book, The Crime of the Congo, on the boondocksnet web site). This, I think, is where I first heard of Roger Casement. He worked in the British diplomacy for many years, and among other things he was sent to the Congo in 1903 and published a report about Leopold's system there and its effects on the native population. Doyle mentions him in ch. 7 of his book, for instance.

Some time later, I read another book on the Congo, King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild. I heartily recommend this splendid book to everyone interested in learning more about the history of Leopold's Congo, which is undoubtedly one of the ugliest episodes of European imperialism in Africa. Anyway, this book also mentions Casement's work in the Congo (see esp. ch. 13), as well as, briefly, his later investigation of the Putumayo atrocities, and his support of the Irish struggle for independence.

Then, last November, I accidentally noticed an eBay auction for a 1997 book called The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement, edited by Angus Mitchell. I remembered that I had heard of Casement before, in connection with the Congo, and the book's description sounded sufficiently interesting that I decided to buy it. It contains the text of an extensive diary that Casement kept during his 1910 mission to the Putumayo region in South America. The Putumayo is a tributary of the Amazon; at the turn of the century, the area around it was a kind of no-man's-land claimed both by Peru and Colombia but effectively controlled by neither. In the late 19th century, various Peruvian businessmen/adventurers started moving into that area and forcing its Indian inhabitants to gather rubber for them on terms that were little better than slavery. A stock company was eventually formed to control most of the rubber business in the area; it was traded on the London stock exchange and attracted the attention of British investors (p. 206 in the 1959 Black Diaries). Thus, when reports began to emerge of atrocities in the company-controlled territory, the British government eventually sent Casement (who had been British consul in Rio de Janeiro at the time) to investigate. Another reason was that the company had employed several black Barbadoans; Barbados being a British colony at the time, they were British subjects, and when allegations appeared that some of them had been mistreated by the company, this gave the British government a good excuse to send a diplomat to investigate the situation (ibid., pp. 201–2).

In addition to Casement's journal, Mitchell's book contains a discussion of the other Casement diaries. Casement was a supporter of the Irish struggle for independence, and during the WW1 became involved in the efforts to obtain German support for an Irish uprising against the British (the Easter Rising). He was eventually arrested by the British, found guilty of high treason, and hanged. Around that time, several diaries emerged, supposedly written by Casement during various periods of his life and then found by the police when they arrested him. These “Black Diaries” contained many mentions of Casement's homosexual activities; this, together with various other circumstances, gave rise to a suspicion that they were really forgeries prepared by the British in order to destroy Casement's reputation and prevent him from being seen as a martyr. In those times, many people would have been willing to sympathize with Casement the Irish patriot and would have felt it was wrong to execute him, but for Casement the homosexual they would have felt only disgust and abhorrence.

I haven't read much of Mitchell's book yet; he seems to incline towards the opinion that the diaries were indeed forgeries. But anyway, in the first few pages that I did read, he mentions some interesting details about the publication of the diaries up to that time. At the time of Casement's trial, the British permitted the diaries to circulate just enough to harm Casement's reputation, but otherwise they generally restricted access to them; they likewise prevented the journalist Peter Singleton-Gates from publishing them when he tried to do so in 1925 (Mitchell p. 22; Black Diaries pp. 9–13). “In 1959 the long spell of secrecy over the contents of the Black Diaries was finally lifted with their lavish publication in Paris, outside the jurisdiction of the British Crown, by the Fleet Street newspaperman, Peter Singleton-Gates, and the publisher of censored material, Maurice Girodias.” (Mitchell pp. 21–22.)

The Olympia Press

It was this mention of Girodias that really caught my attention. He was the publisher behind the famous Olympia Press. Based in Paris, he published mostly English-language books which it would have been difficult to publish in Britain or the U.S. without running afoul of their stricter anti-obscenity laws at the time (in the 1950s and early 60s). Many of these publications were simply pornography, but there were also some famous works of literature, e.g. Nabokov's Lolita, Burroughs's Naked Lunch, and several works by Beckett. He also reissued some books by Miller and Durrell; as well as many translations from the French, e.g. works of Jean Genet; the S/M classic, The Story of O; and all the major writings of de Sade.

Two years ago, I read a book about Girodias and the Olympia Press: The Good Ship Venus: The Erotic Voyages of the Olympia Press, by John de St Jorre (1994). As it turns out, it also mentions the publication of The Black Diaries (ch. 10, pp. 269–72), though I had quite forgotten about this fact. Anyway, I strongly recommend The Good Ship Venus to anyone interested in the history of the Olympia Press.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Olympia press books are now valuable collector's items and are considerably beyond my budget. Right now, several copies of the Olympia Black Diaries are for sale on ABE; the cheapest costs $60, but lacks a dust jacket; the others, having jackets, are much more expensive: several in very good condition around $300, and one that's near fine for $750. The book was published simultaneously in Paris by the Olympia Press, in New York by the Grove Press, and in London by Sidgwick and Jackson. The latter two are more affordable, especially the Grove Press one which seems to have been the only one not subject to limitations on the printing run (the London edition was limited to 2000 copies, and the Olympia edition to 1500). However, of the three diaries included in the Olympia edition, the other two editions lack the 1911 diary, which is perhaps the coarsest and most explicit.

Obviously, then, I wanted to get a copy of the Olympia edition; but not if I had to pay $300 for it. But then I looked at eBay and fortuitiously noticed that an auction for a copy of the Olympia edition was just then in progress, and I managed to win it for £50, which is still expensive but manageable, and it looks like a positive bargain compared to the prices asked by the sellers on ABE. Incidentally, I also tried searching for the book on Bookfinder; it's the first time I've used that website, I think, as I usually find ABE quite sufficient for my purposes. It turned out a few more copies of all three editions for prices similar to those on ABE; but it also found something which purported to be a copy of the Olympia Press edition, offered by some German bookseller for €25 or so, which sounds like an amazing bargain. Perhaps there was some mistake, maybe it was a different edition, maybe it lacked a jacket; anyway, I decided I'd try bidding on the eBay auction first. A day or two later, the eBay auction was over, and as I'd won it, I didn't look any further into that Bookfinder hit; a few days later I noticed that it was gone, so I guess somebody else must have noticed that it was a great deal as well.

For a good overview and description of the diaries, see Mitchell's Amazon Journal of Roger Casement, pp. 25–26. Apparently, apart from the three diaries published in the Olympia edition of the Black Diaries, there's another one, also from 1911: “the document that has never been published and is the most explicit and pornographic in its content” (Mitchell p. 26); “A typescript of this diary was not handed over to Singleton-Gates along with the other papers he received from Sir David Thomson. Nothing was known about this document until the first published description including brief excerpts appeared in 1960 in H. Montgomery Hyde's The Trial of Roger Casement. But the published extracts only hinted at the true nature of this document.” (Mitchell p. 35.) It seems to have been published in Jeffrey Dudgeon's 2002 edition of The Black Diaries (according to its amazon page: “For the first time, all Roger Casement's Black Diaries are here published together, including the erotically-charged 1911 Diary”). So I guess that eventually I'll want to read Dudgeon's book as well, and maybe I could have saved some money by not buying the Olympia edition. But then I don't regret having bought it; it's an interesting book, and it's nice to own a book from this famous and fascinating publisher.

[To be continued in a few days.]

Friday, March 24, 2006

Serves you right, you rednecks

From the description of an eBay auction currently in progress:


However, I guess the reasons behind this are rather more prosaic than the first impression made by this bold all-caps statement may lead one to believe. The seller is probably not some blue-blooded New Englander thumbing his nose at the residents of Ohio — the auction description says that the seller himself is based in Ohio, so I guess the reason for not selling within Ohio has got something to do with taxes or regulations or something of that sort.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

BOOKS: Richard Rhodes, "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" and "Dark Sun"

Richard Rhodes: The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986, 1995. 0684813785. 886 pp.

Richard Rhodes: Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. New York: Touchstone / Simon and Schuster, 1995, 1996. 0684824140. 731 pp.

I'm not particularly keen on reading about the history of science and technology (or indeed about technology itself), but the atomic bomb is a sufficiently interesting subject that I decided I wanted to read something about it after all. I've seen a TV series about the development of the atomic bomb several years ago; later, I read Robert Jungk's Brighter than a Thousand Suns. That's a fine book, readable and interesting enough, and only around 400 pages long; it would have been just as well if I had stuck with that and not bothered reading more books on the subject.

But, of course, when I noticed that Rhodes wrote about the history of the atomic and the hydrogen bombs in two much more extensive books, I decided I'd read those two as well. I've found, however, that I'm not really interested in so much detail about this topic. Thus, when I started reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb about a year ago, it was all too easy to be tempted by some other book and lay TMOTAB aside for a few weeks or even months; this happened more than once; more than half a year passed before I finished it, and of course I had no clear conception of the whole story in my mind. I read Dark Sun at a more decent pace over the last month or two. Nevertheless, here I also find myself rather lost among all the events and details. To find my way I'd have to study the book rather than merely read it, and I'm not willing to spend so much effort on a topic that is really only of marginal interest to me.

I don't wish to appear too critical; these two books have many good qualities. They are perfectly decent, readable works of narrative history; the only problem is that keeping track of the wider context would require more concentration and effort from me than I was willing to expend at the time. There are quite a lot of plates, including photographs of several nuclear explosions as well as of a large number of people involved with the bombs: scientists, politicians, military leaders, etc. There's a lot of biographical information about the nuclear scientists. Along the way, Rhodes tells much of the story of the progress of nuclear physics in the first half of the twentieth century. He is also quite good at explaining bits of physics in an accessible way, so that even a reader such as me, with only a very rudimentary knowledge of secondary-school physics, can get a rough idea of how the various bomb designs and the underlying physical phenomena work. And, of course, he is aware that the development of nuclear weapons was only partly about science; the rest was politics, military strategy, and even diplomacy and espionage, and all these things play a prominent role in his two books.

Perhaps what I found particularly boring about Dark Sun is the large amount of information about the Soviet espionage efforts. The Soviet nuclear program was initially under the control of Beria, the somewhat notorious chief of police and the secret services. He wanted to make sure that the Soviet bomb would be designed as quickly as possible, without any blind alleys and failures during development. He knew that the American bomb had worked, but he couldn't be sure whether this or that original idea of the Soviet scientists would be promising, so he insisted that they follow the espionage-obtained information about the U.S. atomic bomb program as much as possible (Dark Sun p. 269). Of course, the Soviets would have eventually designed a working bomb anyway, but the use of espionage has probably speeded this up a bit (cf. p. 162). Nevertheless, the USSR was considerably weaker than the U.S. both in terms of the number of atomic bombs, their yield, and the availability of airplanes that could deliver the bombs to their targets.

Some of the Americans who provided nuclear information to the Soviets were awarded the Order of the Red Star, which among other things entitles the recipient to free rides on the street cars of Moscow. :-) (P. 144.)

One thing that always fills me with sadness when I read about the development of atomic bombs and the like is how nuclear physics, which was such a nice and pure branch of science in the first few decades of the 20th century, was then hijacked by the politicians and the generals, who brought into it all their ugly faults: distrustfulness and an obsession with secrecy, with efficiency and with practical applicability. An important contributing factor, I guess, was that atomic research became so costly that it was impossible to do it otherwise than under government patronage. Another reason was the outbreak of the WW2; I wonder in what ways the progress of nuclear physics and nuclear weapons would have been different if the WW2 had never taken place.

Many of the people mentioned in these books seem quite fascinating, some even admirable; but there are also a few very disagreeable characters. The two that I love to hate the most are undoubtedly Edward Teller and Curtis LeMay. Teller was obsessed with pushing for further development of the hydrogen bomb, and particularly his design of the hydrogen bomb, and generally wanted to have his way in everything. His role in the process that led to the removal of Oppenheimer's security clearance and his position as government consultant also seems fairly ugly (see Dark Sun, ch. 26, pp. 553, 556, 578–80).

LeMay was a general in the U.S. air force; he led the vicious carpet-bombing of Japanese cities during 1945, showing conspicuously little concern for the fate of their civillian inhabitants (Dark Sun, p. 347; TMOTAB, pp. 597–600). In fact the slaughter, though now much more rarely remembered, was fully comparable in scale to that of the atomic bombings: “In ten days and 1,600 sorties the Twentieth Air Force burned out 32 square miles of the centers of Japan's four largest cities and killed at least 150,000 people and almost certainly tens of thousands more.” (TMOTAB, p. 600). “Killing Japanese didn't bother me very much at that time. It was getting the war over that bothered me. So I wasn't worried particularly about how many people we killed in getting the job done. I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal. Fortunately, we were on the winning side.” (Dark Sun, p. 21.)

In fact LeMay was so efficient that he had to be told to refrain from bombing certain cities so that there would be something besides rubble left on which to throw the atomic bombs (TMOTAB pp. 627–8, 639). Later he seems to have done his best to try turning the cold war into a very hot one (Dark Sun pp. 346, 565–6, 574–6), e.g. advising Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis to attack the Soviet missile site on Cuba (which would have been terrible, for it later turned out that the Soviets already had some nuclear warheads on Cuba at the time). “SAC [Strategic Air Command, led by LeMay] airborne alert bombers deliberately flew past their turnaround points toward Soviet airspace, an unambiguous threat which Soviet radar operators would certainly have recognized and reported.” (P. 575.) If the Cuban crisis turned into a nuclear war, there would be hundreds of millions of casualties. “If John Kennedy had followed LeMay's advice, history would have forgotten the Nazis and their terrible Holocaust. Ours would have been the historic omnicide.” (P. 576.) “[I]n 1984, the World Health Organization estimated that a ten-thousand-megaton nuclear exchange would account for 1.15 billion dead and 1.1 billion injured.” (Ibid.)

The Dark Sun ends with a splendid epilogue chapter with many good observations on the role of nuclear weapons in the cold war. Much of the nuclear arms race was unnecessary; even just a small chance of an enemy atomic bomb falling on your country was a sufficient deterrent: “How many cities would a political leader be ready to lose? US leaders were prepared to lose not one, whatever patriotic gore their advisors gushed. If Soviet leaders were prepared to lose one or ten, as self-righeous cold warriors liked to allege, the least deterrent the US marhaled after 1949 never allowed them such a monstrous choice [i.e. as the Soviet Union would not lose one city or ten, but would be completely destroyed by the U.S. response].” (P. 585.)

On p. 588 Rhodes briefly considers the possibility that nuclear weapons might be acquired by terrorists, but thinks it unlikely: they aren't easy to build or obtain, and other weapons are just as suitable for terrorist purposes.

Another nice feature of the Dark Sun is the comprehensive index of names on pp. 671–87. It includes the names and roles of all sorts of people mentioned in the book, and it even includes pronunciation instructions for the Russian and other non-English names.

There are a few interesting remarks on the strength of thermonuclear bombs. Oppenheimer answered in an interview: “Q. Would you have supported the dropping of a thermonuclear bomb on Hiroshima?/ A. It would make no sense at all./ Q. Why?/ A. The target is too small.” (P. 403.) “During the war, Serber remembers, ‘on Edward Teller's blackboard at Los Alamos I once saw a list of weapons—ideas for weapons—with their abilities and properties displayed. For the last one on the list, the largest, the method of delivery was listed as “Backyard.” Since that particular design would probably kill everyone on earth, there was no use carting it elsewhere.’ ” (P. 253.) But later Teller realized there are limits to these bombs as well: “At somewhere around a hundred megatons, he estimates, ‘it would simply lift a chunk of atmosphere—ten miles in diameter, something of that kind—lift it into space. Then you make it a thousand times bigger still. You know what would happen? You lift the same chunk into space with thirty times the velocity.’ ” (P. 402.) See also plates 75–76, which show a Nagasaki-style bomb and a hydrogen bomb superimposed above the skyline of New York. The difference in size is quite impressive.

Ch. 19 of The Making of the Atomic Bomb contains a very fine and thorough description of the days leading up to the Hiroshima explosion and the effects of the bomb on the inhabitants of that city (pp. 714–34). Similarly, Dark Sun has a wonderfully detailed description of the explosion of the Mike device, the first hydrogen bomb, detonated in 1952 above the Eniwetok atoll (pp. 505–11).

At some point during the war, “[t]he United States was critically short of copper, the best common metal for winding the coils of electromagnets. For recoverable use the Treasure offered to make silver bullion available in copper's stead. [. . .] ‘At some point in the negotiations,’ writes Groves, ‘Nichols . . . said that they would need between five and ten thousand tons of silver. This led to the icy reply: “Colonel, in the Treasury we do not speak of tons of silver; our unit is the Troy ounce.” ’ ” (TMOTAB, p. 490.)

The physicist Otto Frisch recalled this anecdote about his friend Fritz Houtermans: “His father had been a Dutchman, but he was very proud of his mother's Jewish origin and liable to counter anti-semitic remarks by retorting ‘When your ancestors were still living in the trees mine were already forging cheques!’ ” (TMOTAB, p. 370.)

A wise observation by Bohr: “It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.” (TMOTAB, p. 77.)

In the index of TMOTAB, von Neumann appears under ‘N’, but in Dark Sun he appears under ‘V’. I suppose the latter is more correct than the former, but what really annoys me is the inconsistency.

At the end, let me stress once again: these are good books, but think very carefully if you really wish to read 1500 pages about the history of nuclear bombs. If not, try something else instead, such as Robert Jungk's Brighter than a Thousand Suns.


  • Russell Brines: Until They Eat Stones (1944). The author had been held in detention by the Japanese, and reports on their morale and determination. TMOTAB, p. 597.

  • Gil Elliot: Twentieth Century Book of the Dead (1972). TMOTAB, pp. 102, 778.

  • Robert Guillain: I Saw Tokyo Burning (1981). TMOTAB, p. 590.

  • Knut Haukelid: Skis Against the Atom (1954). Describes the efforts to sabotage the Norwegian hydroelectric plant where Germans might otherwise be able to obtain heavy water. TMOTAB, p. 514.

  • Oscar Jászi: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Hungary. P. S. King and Son, 1924. I'm not sure if it's quite objective, seeing that it was published so soon after the events. Anyway, several of the notable scientists involved in the atomic bomb programme were Hungarians: von Neumann, Teller, Szilard. See TMOTAB, pp. 105, 110–3; Dark Sun, p. 580.

  • Ivan Völgyes (ed.): Hungary in Revolution (1971). TMOTAB, pp. 110–3.

  • Milovan Djilas: Conversations with Stalin (1962). Cited in Dark Sun. Djilas seems to have written several books with interesting-sounding titles; I have to read some of them eventually.

  • Leo Szilard: The Voice of the Dolphins. Short fiction. Dark Sun, p. 582.

  • Stephen Walker: Shockwave: The Countdown to Hiroshima (2005). I bought it in the bookstore in July or August last year. Bizarrely, this UK trade paperback edition (ISBN 0719567734, RRP £12.99) doesn't seem to be mentioned anywhere on; they only mention a different paperback edition, ISBN 0719566266, which won't be published until May 2006 (RRP £8.99). The publisher's web site doesn't mention the 0719567734 edition either. It is, however, mentioned on

    Looking at the size of this book, I can't help wondering if they didn't simply decide, at some point, that the hardcover edition wasn't selling well enough and they would simply take some of the already-printed-but-not-yet-bound copies, bind them as trade paperbacks and offer them for sale at a lower price (but still higher than the later regular paperback edition, which will quite possibly be in a smaller format anyway). But that still doesn't quite explain why it wasn't entered into amazon's database.

    The copy of Jared Diamond's Collapse I bought last year was similarly curious (see my post about it).

Monday, March 13, 2006

Young girls are cheap today...

This article reminds me of the following fine piece of doggerel verse:

Young girls are cheap today,
Cheaper than yesterday,
You get one for a shilling,
One and six for one who's willing,
Pretty girls are a shilling more,
That's two and sixpence for a whore,
Young girls are cheap, cheaper today.

Yet another proof that Life imitates Art! :-)

For the rest of the poem, see this web site, which contains a wonderful treasury of bawdy poems.

P.S. Now that I think about it, another good thing about the poem quoted above is that it gives you an opportunity to practice thinking in terms of British pre-decimal currency... :-)

Saturday, March 11, 2006

KNJIGA: Gogolj, "Večeri na pristavi"

Nikolaj Vasiljevič Gogolj: Večeri na pristavi blizu Dikanjke. Mirgorod. Prevedel Franc Terseglav. Ljubljana: DZS, 1951. 336 str.

Ah, dobri stari komunistični časi, ko je bila DZS še Državna založba, imela zvezdo v logotipu in dejansko izdajala knjige, vredne objave in branja.

Rajnkega leta 1987 (kreh, kreh) sem se prvič naročil [oz. verjetno bolje rečeno: so me naročili :)] na revijo Pionir s podnaslovom „poljudnoznanstvena revija za mladino“. Šolsko leto 1987/88 je bilo menda zadnje, v katerem je izhajal v majhnem formatu (približno 16 × 23,5 cm); naslednje leto so prešli na večji, A4 podoben format, nekaj let kasneje so se preimenovali v Geo in kmalu zatem prenehali ciljati le na mladino; postali so čisto splošnonamenska poljudnoznanstvena revija, kar so še danes.

Prvega ne pozabiš nikoli, je zapisal Slavko Grum v Dogodku v mestu Gogi. In meni je tisti prvi letnik Pionirja vedno ostal v lepem spominu. Zdajle sem po dolgem času spet malo listal njegove številke in se mi bolj in bolj dozdeva, da je bila to res prav dobra revija. Čeprav je bil mišljen kot revija za mladino, se mi zdi velika večina člankov takih, da bi bili še dandanes prav primerni tudi za odraslega bralca. Tudi po razmerju med količino besedila in ilustracij revija ne deluje kaj posebej mladinsko — po mojem je v dandanašnji Gei več slik in manj besedila kot v tistih starih številkah Pionirja.

Pa tudi po raznolikosti tematik ni takratni Pionir nič zaostajal za današnjo Geo, nemara je bil še kakšnega pol koraka pred njo. Tisto leto so imeli kar dve seriji člankov o književnosti. Na eno, „Nenavadni pisci in njihove knjige“ (ki je obdelala Cervantesa, Sternea, Wildea in R. L. Stevensona), sem bil že popolnoma pozabil in sem jo šele zdaj spet opazil ob prelistavanju starih številk; takrat sem bil za tiste članke še premajhen, gotovo so se mi zdeli preveč dolgočasni. Druga serija člankov pa je bila na temo „Grozljive zgodbe“ in je imela članke o Walpoleu in drugih angleških gotikih, pa o E. T. A. Hoffmannu, Poeju, o piscih vampirskih zgodb — in o Gogolju. Mislim, da sem tu prvikrat slišal za Gogolja. Že takrat sem rad bral, četudi bolj šund (no, saj bi še dandanes bolj užival v šundu kot pa v čem kakovostnejšem), zdi pa se mi, da sem imel že takrat po malem tudi nagnjenje do bizarnosti, kolikor je to pač pri tistih letih in pri izboru knjig v lokalni knjižnici mogoče. Vse tiste članke o grozljivih zgodbah sem vzel kot dragocena priporočila, kaj se splača prebrati, in prej ali slej tudi res poskusil prebrati dobršen del tam omenjenih stvari. Z velikim užitkom sem prebral Drakulo in vso Poejevo prozo, kar mi je je prišlo pod roke; tudi Otrantski grad je bil za silo užiten; Hoffmannovi Hudičevi napoji pa so mi bili ob prvem poskusu predolgočasni in nisem prišel daleč — najbrž sem bil še premajhen; precej let kasneje sem poskusil znova: ker mi tista lokalna knjižnica ni bila več pri roki, sem si jih sposodil kar v NUKu in jih potem bral v tamkajšnji čitalnici. Užival sem v romanu, malo pa tudi v pogledu na nesrečnike, ki so sedeli tam okoli mene in se gulili kdo ve kakšne suhoparne blodnje iz svojih enormno debelih in brez dvoma na smrt dolgočasnih učbenikov.

(Mimogrede, v 9. številki tistega letnika, maj 1988, je tudi članek Damjana Ovsca ob izidu Trdinovih Podob prednikov. Ubogi založniki jih še zdaj niso prodali; lani so jih ponujali na Dnevih knjige po 500 SIT in zdi se mi, da se jih tudi v Konzorciju še vedno dobi za ta denar. Res je skrajni čas, da se lotim branja.)

No, zdaj sem tule malo zataval, skoraj tako kot Proust pri svojih magdalenicah. Ampak saj tudi Gogolj vsake toliko časa malo zatava, seveda čisto nalašč — njegov pripovedovalec v tehle zgodbah je strašansko klepetav. Skratka, v tistem Pionirju sem menda prvič slišal za Gogolja; kot se za serijo člankov o grozljivih zgodbah tudi spodobi, je bil poudarek tam predvsem na zgodnjem, romantičnem delu njegovega opusa. Pravzaprav se mi zdi velika sreča, da sem se seznanil z njim na ta način. Zdi se mi, da literarna zgodovina pri Gogolju ceni predvsem njegova kasnejša, realistična dela; v šoli ti govorijo o Mrtvih dušah, pa o petrograjskih novelah, kot je Plašč; mogoče še o Revizorju; ampak to, da je možakar pred tem napisal tri zbirke čudovitih romantičnih povesti o ukrajinskem podeželju in folklori, ti pa komaj povejo. Meni pa je, priznam, tale romantični del njegovega opusa veliko ljubši. To je tisto, kar sem Gogoljevega najprej prebral, in to po večkrat. Malo zatem sem enkrat poskusil brati tudi Mrtve duše, ampak sem bil verjetno spet še premlad zanje in sem jih kmalu pustil, ker so me dolgočasile; prej ali slej jih bom, upam, vendarle prebral, vendar se mi nič ne mudi z njimi. Plašč in še nekaj podobnih novel sem prebral v srednji šoli in so mi bile še kar všeč, ampak mi ni nič do tega, da bi jih prebral še enkrat — razen mogoče ene; naslov sem pozabil, mogoče Portret ali nekaj podobnega, temelji pa na podobni ideji kot Slika Doriana Graya. — Revizor je bil, priznam, zelo zabaven in bi ga z veseljem prebral še kdaj. Ampak ne glede na vse to ni nobenega dvoma, da so mi od vseh Gogoljevih del najljubše ravno pripovedke iz zgodnjega, romantičnega dela njegove pisateljske poti.

Skratka, Gogolj je izdal tri zbirke teh pripovedk, dva dela Večerov na pristavi in nato še Mirgorod; vse troje je prevedeno v tej knjigi. Prevod se mi zdi odličen (kolikor človek pač lahko o tem kaj reče, ne da bi poznal izvirnik); to, da je jezik star petdeset let, mu je pri tem zgolj v pomoč, ni pa v njem nobene od tistih značilnosti, ki gredo človeku pri petdeset let stari slovenščini včasih na živce, ker so že toliko starinske, da te začnejo motiti.

Mislim, da se tem zgodbam marsikje pozna, da je Gogolj, ko jih je pisal, živel ne prav srečno življenje nekje v Petrogradu, v velikem mestu, daleč od rodne Ukrajine in njenega podeželja. Zato ima človek ves čas po malem občutek, da gleda na stvari skozi tenko kopreno, ki jih malo polepša. Vemo, kakšno je videti življenje kmetov pri kakšnem realistu: prestradani so, prezebli in razcapani, noge namakajo v sveže kravjeke, da se malo pogrejejo, po cele dneve garajo kot črna živina, kadar ne garajo, se ga do onemoglosti nalivajo, medtem pa si še utrgajo trenutek ali dva za kakšen prepir, pretep, občasno klanje in pravdanje in podobne reči. No, saj vse to je najbrž res precej bližje resnici kot pa olepšano idealiziranje kmečkega življenja pri kakšnem romantiku; ampak je pa branje takšnih reči potem rado precej duhamorno.

Kakorkoli že, Gogolj ne pretirava z idealiziranjem, ima pa posluh za lepše strani življenja, ki ga pri kakšnem realistu mogoče človek včasih malo pogreša. Gogoljevi kmetje sicer delajo, ampak znajo pa občasno tudi zaplesati in se poveseliti; niso bogati, ampak stradajo pa tudi ne. Niso podhranjeni in jetični, niso ne duševno ne telesno zakrneli, marsikateri med njimi je še celo prav postaven. Jedo kar obilno in sploh ne slabo; Gogolj opisuje celo preproste jedi s takšnim zanosom in navdušenjem, da so se mi ob branju skorajda začele cediti sline.

In potem je tu še narava. Pri kakšnem realistu bi se kmetje zagrizeno in togotno borili z njo, ona pa bi jim le z največjo nejevoljo naklonila tisto borno skorjo kruha in kakšen žakelj ali dva na pol gnilega krompirja. Tukaj pri Gogolju pa — ja, saj poleti je vroče (str. 271), ampak nekako ne dobiš občutka, da bi bilo tako grozno; in ja, pozimi je mraz, pa še kako mraz (očitno drži tisto, kar so nas učili v šoli o kontinentalnem podnebju: vroča poletja in mrzle zime) in sneg mede kot za stavo (str. 114), ampak je videti to bolj zabavno kot pa grozno. In narava je tu videti precej darežljiva, žito in vsakovrstne druge poljščine prav dobro uspevajo. Mogoče ima to kakšno zvezo tudi s podnebjem; Ukrajina je bila, če se ne motim, že od nekdaj rodovitna dežela, zelo primerna za gojenje žita in verjetno tudi za druge oblike poljedelstva.

Že začetek prve povesti v knjigi je tako romantičen, da človek skoraj utone v poplavi pridevnikov: „Kako opojno, kako razkošno je poletje v Ukrajini! Kako utrujajoče tople so ure, kadar blešči poldan v tihem žaru in se zdi, da neizmerni sinji nebesni ocean, ki se sladostrastno boči nad zemljo, poln nežnih čustev spi, objemajoč svojo drago s svojimi zračnimi rokami.“ (Str. 13. Brez panike, saj ni cela knjiga v takem slogu.)

Pa še nekaj primerov: „Glej, glej, je nadaljevala, mu položila glavo na ramo in uprla oči v brezmejno sinje toplo ukrajinsko nebo, ki je bilo zdolaj zastrto s kodravimi češnjevimi vejami.“ (Str. 59.) V dobesednem smislu je to seveda precej trapasto, saj ni razloga, da bi bilo nebo v eni deželi kaj dosti drugačno kot v kakšni drugi. Po drugi strani pa sem prav vesel, ko končno pri nekom vidim Ukrajino v pozitivni luči — drugače človek dandanes, ko pomisli na Ukrajino, pomisli vedno na same slabe stvari: revščina, radioaktivnost, pomanjkanje demokracije, njihove ženske se morajo prostituirati po celi Evropi, itd., itd. Dobro je, če se človek kdaj pa kdaj spomni, da imajo stvari ponavadi tudi svojo dobro stran, ne le slabih.

„Poznate ukrajinsko noč? Ne, ne poznate je! Le oglejte si jo natančno: [. . . sledi dolg odstavek same romantike, pošteno obložen s pridevniki.] Z vseh strani se zasliši veličastno petje ukrajinskega slavčka; [. . .]“ (Str. 63.) „[. . .] edino mesec je bleščeč in očarujoč plaval po neizmernih prostori razkošnega ukrajinskega neba.“ (Str. 85.)

Konec prve zgodbe, „Sejem v Soročincih“, je nekam hecen. Zgodba sama je zabavna, pogosto vesela, konča pa se z eno pošteno poroko in požrtijo. V zadnjih dveh odstavkih pa je sama otožnost: „Hrušč, hohot in petje so bolj in bolj zamirali. [. . .] Ali ne zgine podobno tako iz našega srca radost, ta lepi pa nestalni gost, medtem ko si posamezni glas zastonj prizadeva, da bi izražal veselje? V svojem lastnem odmevu že sliši otožnost in osamelost in jo sprejema z grozo. Ali se ne porazgubijo podobno drug za drugim veseli prijatelji, tovariši naše burne svobodne mladosti in pustijo svojega starega tovariša samega na svetu? Hudo je biti samemu! Težko mu je pri srcu, žalost ga stiska in nikogar in ničesar ni, kar bi mu moglo pomagati!“ (Str. 39.)

Na več mestih v knjigi se tudi vidi, kako so Ukrajinci postrani gledali na Ruse; ne dvomim v to, da so imeli za to dobre razloge, najbrž jim Rusi še tega niso hoteli priznavati, da so Ukrajinci sploh poseben narod; ampak kakorkoli že, zdi se mi pravzaprav precej pogumno od Gogolja, da je tako pisal o tem, saj je konec koncev takrat že živel v Rusiji in pisal v ruščini za rusko publiko. Tule je npr. opomba na str. 18 (ugibam, da je najbrž prevajalčeva, piše pa ne): „Moskale imenujejo Ukrajinci, ki se štejejo za samosvoj narod, Velikoruse, katere s tem priimkom radi dražijo.“ Pa na str. 90: „Drugi pa so dodajali, da je vsak up zaman, če sta kaj ukradla hudič ali Moskal — kar križ naredi čez.“ In na str. 318: „ »[. . .] Kot sem pozneje zvedel, ti zlodjevi Rusi ščurke celo jedo na zeljnati juhi. [. . .]« “

Človek bi nemara pričakoval, da bo družba takihle ukrajinskih kmetov strog patriarhat, v katerem mrki možje neusmiljeno mlatijo svoje žene. Saj verjetno je to v precejšnji meri tudi res, ampak spodbudno pa je, da najdemo tudi nekaj nasprotnih primerov. „Z možem pa se je pretepala samo v rano jutro, ker samo v tem času sta se videla in še to bolj poredkoma.” (Str. 131.) „ »Mati, vaše burkle so očividno iz železa,« je po kratkem molku dejal tkalec in se praskal po hrbtu. »Moja žena je lani kupila na sejmu burklje, ki je zanje dala petindvajset kopejk, pa od daleč ne bole tako ko vaše...« “ (Str. 132.)

Naslednji odstavek s strani 282 se mi zdi lep in tudi lepo ponazarja Gogoljev pripovedni slog v teh zgodbah. Vidi se, da si je pripovedovalec vzel čas in ti stvari res pripoveduje; tega sem vsekakor vesel. „Čudovito mesto je Mirgorod. Kakšna raznovrstna poslopja so v njem! Nekatere strehe so pokrite s slamo, druge s trstjem, tretje s skodlami. Na desno je ulica, na levo je ulica, ob obeh prekrasen plot; na njem so nataknjeni lonci, za njim pa razkazuje sončnica svojo soncu podobno žolto glavo, se smejejo rdeči mak in rumene velike buče. Razkošje!“ Po eni strani je takšen opis seveda nemogoče jemati resno; ko ga vidiš, s kakšnim navdušenjem popisuje tisto revščino in podrtije, se komajda zadržiš, da se ne bi na glas zasmejal. Po drugi strani pa je to njegovo navdušenje nekako nalezljivo; ker te je že spravil v dobro voljo, si ne moreš kaj, da si ne bi rekel, da je neko zrno resnice pa vendarle v tem; da je pravzaprav lepo, da je nekdo zmožen tudi na zakotnem Mirgorodu videti kaj lepega in čutiti ob njem nekaj navdušenja.

En razlog, zakaj tile ukrajinski kmetje pri Gogolju še kar kolikor toliko za silo dobro živijo, je mogoče tudi čisto zgodovinski. Kot pravi prevajalčeva opomba na str. 148: „Zaporožci so bili kozaki, ki so bivali v krajih za številnimi velikimi slapovi Dnjepra tja do obale Črnega morja. [. . .] Tam so kozaki, ki so po vsej Ukrajini uživali posebne pravice kot popolnoma svobodni kmetje, imeli skoraj samostojnost, avtonomijo. Ker so pravice Zaporožcev, ki so bili zelo bojeviti in samooblastni ter so čestokrat zaradi samovoljnih pohodov v tatarsko in turško ozemlje [. . .] imele zelo neljube posledice v diplomatskem pogledu, so carji te pravice bolj in bolj omejevali in skušali zaporoške graničarje uvrstiti v redno vojsko.“ Na str. 68 se kmečki fantje takole zgražajo nad županom: „ »Mar smo mu sužnji? Mar nismo istega rodu ko on? Slava Bogu, svobodni kozaki smo! [. . .]« “

Je pa tudi veliko mest, ki kažejo, da je vsa ta kozaška slava in svoboda bolj in bolj stvar preteklosti, ne pa sedanjosti. Malo je to najbrž zaradi prej omenjenih zgodovinskih dejstev, malo pa mogoče tudi zaradi tega, ker so se romantični avtorji nasploh radi umikali v preteklost. „ »Kakšna radost! Kakšna svoboda! Ko začnem noreti, se mi zdi, da se vračajo slavni stari časi. [. . .]« “ (Str. 68.) „ »[. . .] vse to je pričalo, da je to pravi Zaporožec. To so fantje! To se ti postavi, si pogladi brke, zažvenketa s podkvami in začne! Pa kako začne! Noge plešejo kakor vreteno v rokah urne predice [. . .] duša se je razmaknila in vse potegnila za teboj... Kje so tisti časi! Ni več Zaporožcev!... [. . .]« “ (Str. 88.) „Spočetka je živel kakor pravi Zaporožec: delal ni nič, spal skoraj tri, štiri dni zaporedoma, jedel za šest koscev in izpil v dušku skoraj celo vedro;“ (str. 124). „ »[. . .] Žalostno postaja na svetu; hudi časi se bližajo. O, spominjam se prejšnjih let, živo se jih spominjam — ne vrnejo se nikdar več! [. . .] Kar tule pred očmi jih vidim, kako jašejo mimo mene kozaški polki! [. . .] Oh, nikdar več ne bom doživel take vojske! [. . .] Nobenega reda ni več v Ukrajini; polkovniki in esauli se grizejo med seboj ko psi, nobenega ni več, ki bi nas vodil. Naši plemiči so se popoljčili in postali hinavski; prodali so dušo, ko so sprejeli unijo, židje pa izžemajo ubogo ljudstvo. O časi, časi, minuli časi! Kam ste šla, leta moja! [. . .]« “ (Str. 172–3.) „Najprej je pel o časih, ko sta načelovala kozaštvu Sahajdačni in Hmelnicki. Takrat so bili drugačni časi: kozaštvo je slovelo po vsem svetu, teptalo s konji sovraga in nihče ga ni smel zasmehovati.“ (Str. 186.)

V zgodbah večkrat nastopijo tudi nadnaravne sile, predvsem hudič in čarovnice. Rezultati so včasih grozljivi, še bolj pogosto pa zgolj smešni; da se jih ugnati, če človek ve, kako. Prizor, v katerem možakar igra karte s trumo čarovnic in drugih peklenskih spak (str. 92–4), je sijajno slikovit in ne zaostaja dosti za prizorom plesa v Burnsovem Tamu O'Shanterju. Kovač v „Božični noči“ vraga kar zajaha in z njim poleti v Petrograd (str. 128). Vrag in čarovnica kot dva stara zaljubljenca: str. 119. Študent v „Viju“ pa uspe čarovnico, ki ga je bila prej jahala po nebu, tako premlatiti s polenom, da revica kmalu zatem umre (str. 235). „ »[. . .] Vidiš, pri nas v Kijevu so vse babe, ki branjarijo na trgu, same čarovnice.« “ (Str. 262.)

Od bolj grozljivih povesti sta mi bili najbolj všeč „Vij“ in „Strašno maščevanje“, od bolj romantičnih pa „Majska noč ali utopljenka“ in „Božična noč“. Fascinantna in precej drugačna od ostalih (predvsem resnobnejša) pa je povest „Graščaki starih časov“, o idiličnem življenju starejšega zakonskega para („Če bi bil slikar in bi se namenil ovekovečiti na platno Filemona in Bavcido, bi si ne izbral nobenega drugega modela ko njiju dva“, str. 202) z otožnim, žalostnim koncem, ko mora mož zadnjih nekaj let med ženino in svojo smrtjo preživeti sam.

Mimogrede, nekoč je tale moj izvod knjige očitno pripadal nekemu Svetopolku Miklavčiču. No, to se vsaj še nekako za silo ujema z dejstvom, da gre za knjigo ruskega avtorja — si predstavljate, da bi dali otroku takšno starosvetno slavjanofilsko ime, iz katerega se že na daleč vidijo kosmata ušesa, platnena obleka, veveričje kože in vse ostale praslovanske parafernalije, on pa bi potem odrastel v bralca kakšnih mehkužnih francoskih ali bognedaj celo nemških romanov? Skratka, to ni problem. Problem je, da je imel možakar očitno zelo posesiven odnos do svojih knjig. Če bi si omislil okusen ekslibris, mu tega še ne bi preveč zameril. Če bi se nekam na naslovno stran lastnoročno podpisal, bi to tudi še nekako razumel. Ampak on si je dal narediti žig s svojim imenom (ne s podpisom, ampak z imenom, stavljenim v čisto navadnih, puščobnih sans-serifskih črkah) — pravzaprav dva različna žiga. Enega, večjega, je pritisnil na začetku in na koncu knjige, drugega, manjšega, pa dvakrat nekje vmes. S štampiljko, tem odurnim pisarniškim pripomočkom, nad knjigo — grobo, neokusno! Mislil sem, da se tako spozabljajo le v knjižnicah. Naj bo gospodu Svetopolku tale odstavek v trajno sramoto in zgražanje. Upam, da se mu bo, ko bodo pajki premlevali tole stran, malo kolcalo, če je še živ, oz. da se bo malo obračal v grobu, če je že umrl.

Kaj naj rečem za konec? Precej mogoče je, da sem pri razmišljanju o tej knjigi pristranski, ker mi pač zbuja nostalgične spomine kot ena od prvih knjig, za katere se spominjam, da sem jih prebral, pa niso eksplicitno otroška ali mladinska literatura. Ampak ne glede na vse to: tole so presneto dobre kratke zgodbe, pogosto zabavne, včasih grozljive, zapisane pa v tistem dobrem starem pripovedovalskem slogu, ki je tako lepo cvetel v devetnajstem stoletju, v dvajsetem pa ga je visoka književnost tako neusmiljeno izruvala in zavrgla — slogu, pri katerem si pripovedovalec vzame čas in ti zgodbo dejansko pripoveduje, kot bi jo pač pripovedoval človek človeku tam nekje ob kakšni peči v rajnkih starih časih, ko so ljudje še posedali za pečmi in si pravili zgodbe. In kdor ima, tako kot jaz, rad romantično književnost, naj se spomni, da romantika niso le Byron in Lermontov in podobni tiči (pa čeprav sta mi oba našteta zelo ljuba pesnika); romantika je tudi zgodnji Gogolj in je vsekakor zelo vreden tega, da človek poskusi prebrati tudi njega.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

eBay shamelessness

From the description of an eBay auction currently in progress:

You are about to bid on a rare copy of the famous book, SEX by MADONNA! This was a limited release in 1992 and never reprinted. This is copy number 0209633 (as shown on back cover) of only 1,000,000 published.

“Rare copy” — yup, there are only 120 copies currently on sale at ABE. And it's ‘limited’ to a mere million copies... :-)))

Still, the seller at least had the decency to start the auction at $25, while the copies offered on ABE all seem to cost $100 or more.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

BOOK: Bertrand Russell, "Autobiography" (cont.)

Bertrand Russell: Autobiography. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. 041522862X. xv + 742 pp. (Initially published in three volumes, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1967, 1968, 1969.)

[Continued from part 1 and part 2.]

Some of the highlights from the numerous letters included in the book:

  • A completely bizarre letter from Russell's friend Gilbert Murray, editor of the book series which also included Russell's Problems of Philosophy. He pretends that the publishers are taking Russell's rhetorical questions and philosophical examples seriously: “Messrs Williams and Norgate [the publishers] will be glad to meet Mr Russell's wishes as far as practicable [. . .] About the earwig, for instance, they are ready, if Mr Russell is inconvenienced by his suspicions of its presence in his room, to pay a rat-catcher [. . .] to look for it and make sure [. . .] Mr Russell's further complaint that he has not the acquaintance of the Emperor of China cannot be regarded by Messrs W & N as due in any way to any oversight or neglect of theirs. Mr R should have stipulated for an introduction before signing his contract.” (P. 225.)
  • A few curious letters from Georg Cantor, in delightfully quirky English. “I am quite an adversary of Old Kant [. . .] yonder sophistical philistine, who was so bad a mathematician.” (19 September 1911, p. 227.) “[I]n this quarrel [with Poincaré] I will not be the succumbent.” (Ibid., p. 228.) “You must know, Sir, that I am not a regular just Germain, for I am born 3 March 1845 at Saint Peterborough, Capital of Russia” (19 September 1911, p. 229.) Cantor had hoped to see Russell during a visit to England, but unfortunately had to return to Germany sooner than he had planned because of news of his son's illness.
  • Letter of introduction for Norbert Wiener, who later became a famous mathematician. This letter was written by Wiener's father, a professor at Harvard, to ask if Norbert could study under Russell at Cambridge. The letter spends a good deal of time enumerating Norbert's many intellectual and academic accomplishments. “In philosophy he has pursued studies under Professors [6 surnames follow] at Harvard and Cornell Universities.” Russell adds in a footnote: “Nevertheless he turned out well.” (P. 233.) See also pp. 219–20 for more poking fun at Harvard professors.
  • An absurdly florid, ceremonious, pompously formal letter from ‘The General Educational Association of Hunan’, inviting him to visit their region. “We beg to inform you that the educational system of our province is just at infancy [. . .] so that the guidance and assistance must be sought to sagacious scholars.” (Pp. 369–70.) This reminds me somewhat of the style of Nigerian scammers (“I crave your distinguished indulgence”)... :-)
  • Letter from cousin Claud Russell, commenting hilariously on the Treaty of Versailles and on European imperialism. It seems that Germany had not returned certain astronomical instruments to China, as it was required to: “Perhaps you might suggest to your friends in China the occupation of Swabia or Oldenburg to secure its enforcement. I must say, however, in fairness to the Treaty of Versailles, that you do it less than justice. You have overlooked article 246, under which ‘Germany will hand over to H.B.M.'s Government the skull of the Sultan Mkwawa...’ ” (P. 380.)
  • A letter from and to a journalist, preparing an “article on the subject of parasitic nuisances who bedevil authors” and asking Russell for “an account of your grievances”. Russell's answer includes a number of funny examples (pp. 415–16). I'm very curious what the resulting article was like.
  • A letter from Malinowski: “On the occasion of my visit to your School I left my only presentable brown hat in your anteroom. I wonder whether since then it has had the privilege of enclosing the only brains in England which I ungrudgingly regard as better than mine;” (p. 434).
  • A letter from Will Durant, who later became known as the author of the bestselling series of books on ‘The Story of Civilization’. In this somewhat pompous letter from 1931, Durant asks: “I am attempting to face, in my next book, a question that our generation, perhaps more than most, seems always ready to ask, and never able to answer — What is the meaning or worth of human life?” (P. 443.) He continues with a long jeremiad suggesting that the progress of science and technology has deprived people of the sense that life has a meaning; “the greatest mistake in human history was the discovery of truth” (p. 444); truth “is not beautiful, and did not deserve to be so passionately chased”; it merely robbed us of comforting delusions. He ends the two-page letter with a list of the books he has written, of academic titles he holds, and of the people to whom he is sending this letter (a bunch of presidents, prime ministers, notable scientists, artists, etc.). Russell deflates this pompous windbag with a splendidly terse five-line reply: “I am sorry to say that at the moment I am so busy as to be convinced that life has no meaning whatever [. . .] I do not see that we can judge what would be the result of the discovery of truth, since none has hitherto been discovered.” (P. 445.)
  • A letter from J. B. S. Haldane about the ‘language’ of the food dances by which bees describe the location and type of a food source to other bees (p. 585).
  • A certain H. McHaigh wrote to complain about Russell's voice, ending with: “When, or if, you ever entertain shame and self-disgust (and I pray it may be soon), I suggest that you gather and destroy every sound-record of your voice: you owe that reparation at least./ God help you./ Yours truly/ H. McHaigh.” (P. 586.)
  • A funny exchange of letters between Russell and another aristocrat, Lord Russell of Liverpool. The latter writes: “I am forwarding the enclosed as Monsieur Edmund Paris, and he is not alone, has got us mixed up. The first paragraph of his letter refers to you. The others are for me and I shall be replying to them.” (P. 622.) They ended up by sending a joint letter to the editor of The Times: “In order to discourage confusions which have been constantly occurring, we beg herewith to state that neither of us is the other.” (P. 623.)
  • From Max Born, praising his History of Western Philosophy: “I have been tortured at school with Plato, and I have always thoroughly disliked German metaphysics.” (P. 630.) No wonder then that he enjoyed Russell's History.

Other letters from notable people: Tagore (pp. 230–1); Francis Younghusband (p. 271); E. M. Forster (pp. 311–2); Toynbee (pp. 675–6); Einstein (pp. 446, 551–3).

This is a fairly long book with lots and lots of interesting passages. Russell is quite an admirable person in many ways. Not only he maintained his humane and progressive opinions throughout his life, but he was willing to actively promote these opinions and try to do something good for humanity, even at the age of ninety years and more. Even though much of his anti-nuclear work seems to be an obscure footnote to history given that his efforts were ignored by the governments of the great powers (and also given that the cold war is now over); even though many of his plans and efforts seem utopian; I cannot help admiring his persistence, his determination, his willingness to persevere in believing that humanity is not mired beyond help (pp. 527–8). And, not least of all, there's the wonderful clarity of his prose. This is certainly a book well worth reading, despite the occasional boring passage.


  • Especially in the inter-war years, Russell wrote quite a lot of books aimed at the general public. Some of the titles mentioned in his autobiography sound interesting: What I believe (p. 412); Power, a new social analysis (p. 432); The Conquest of Happiness (p. 440).
  • I'd also like to read some of his fiction eventually. He mentions two or three collections of short stories: Satan in the Suburbs (p. 525); Nightmares of Eminent Persons (p. 527); Fact and Fiction (p. 528).
  • Books about nuclear war. Neville Shute: On the Beach (p. 602). Herman Kahn: On Thermonuclear War (p. 638).
  • On p. 673, there's a letter from Russell to Miss Alice Mary Hilton, thanking her for sending him a copy of her book on Logic, Computing Machines and Automation. I am fond of automata theory, so this sounds like a possibly interesting book to read.
  • Constance Malleson: In the North, Autobiographical Fragments in Norway, Sweden, Finland: 1936—1946. She and Russell were lovers for some time. I found this book mentioned in her Wikipedia page.