Monday, December 24, 2012

From trees they came, to trees they return...

With thanks to  Bookshelf Porn for these two holiday trees.

I like this one very much, but you really need something like a law library at hand to pull it off.

This is more manageable for the average reader. Who doesn't live with cats.

Wishing all readers (and cats!) a peaceful, contented and bookish holidays season.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Lockwood Concern, by John O'Hara

Thanks once again to Anthony Burgess and his list of 99 best novels! I had never heard of this title, nor of the author. The Lockwood Concern was the 13th of John O'Hara's 17 novels, published in 1965, but it never received the acclaim (except from Anthony Burgess) of his much earlier works, Appointment in Samarra and Pal Joey.
I tend to view the time I spend with a book as a short-term relationship. Sometimes it ends with a deeply felt promise to meet again, or at the opposite end of the spectrum, it ends in a huff at the end of the first date (a chapter or less).  My relationship with The Lockwood Concern began with a mad thrill  -- that infatuated feeling that I could never get enough.  This led predictably enough to disenchantment and disappointment, but I didn't dump it. I pushed on; the plot threw me enough pleasant surprises to string me along. At the end of the novel, I was ready to say good-bye to it, but with no ill feelings. It's not at all a bad book, but I don't imagine I'll want to re-Kindle our affair.  [Sorry, couldn't resist that.]

The book opens with the construction of George Lockwood's enormous new house and the very high wall surrounding it.  Mr. Lockwood is a man who places great value on privacy.  He has two hidden staircases installed, one going from his bedroom to his library, and the other from the library to the wine cellar.  The Italian workmen brought in from New York and lavishly paid are the only ones involved in the project who know about these staircases. Less skilled and trusted workers lay the bricks for the fortress-like wall with the spikes around its top. What is more deliciously enticing than such great secrets?  Surely Mr. Lockwood has some fascinating concern obscured behind his tall, spiked walls.

That's human nature, isn't it?  We see tall walls and imagine that there must be a magnificent house (or a magnificent something) concealed behind them. We sense that someone is keeping secrets, and we leap to the conclusion that they are salacious, or hideous, or wondrous. Present us with news of a hidden staircase or two, and our imaginations run riot. And there you have it:  the seduction phase of my affair with this book.

As our affair progressed, however, I came to meet not only George Lockwood, but also his grandfather Moses. Moses had killed two men in early 19th-century Pennsylvania. Some said the killings were in self-defence; others were sceptical.  At any rate, his reputation was rather checkered. As he acquired wealth, there were always murmurs of ill-gotten gains and abuse of power. We then meet Moses' son (and George's father) Abraham, who pursues an unspoken but single-minded goal:  He wants to create a Lockwood empire in his small part of Pennsylvania.  He does not wish to join the well-established Mainline Philadelphia elite -- they're already too established.  He wants his corner of the world to be the locus of the Lockwood empire, and his every thought and every action are directed toward this goal.  This, it turns out, is the Lockwood Concern.
Abraham Lockwood, as stated, had heard of the Quaker Concern, and he was aware that his great plans could be called a Concern, but he did not so refer to them, or it. He gave no name to it. A concern. A cause. A campaign. A plan. A strategy. An obsession. A purpose. A mania - it did not matter that he gave it no name. It could have mattered if he had given it a name, since a designation, a definition would have inhibited his actions within the meaning of the name. It was so constantly in his thoughts and took so many forms of action that an action that could be called loving was sometimes followed by an action that could be called cruel, and neither modifier would be applicable to a third action. Since the Concern was Abraham Lockwood's secret it did not need a name.
Abraham's two sons fall relatively complacently into place as the next generation of secretive, dynastic Lockwoods, increasing the fortune but failing to share their father's vision of a local dynasty.  George and Penwood share office space (and a secretary, Marion Stademyer, to disastrous effect) in New York.  They go in on some business deals together, others separately. Their relationship seems rooted in business far more than in blood.

George has a son, Bing, who is tossed out of Princeton for cheating, much to his father's disgust. After a vicious argument, Bing removes himself to California to find his way in the new business of prospecting for oil. Some years later, through a prep school connection, George hears of his son's dazzling financial success, and he greets the news with rancour.
And now George Lockwood was beginning to discover the cause of his forgetfulness. It was not forgetfulness at all. It was hatred, and it had been started with Preston Hibbard's visit, his report on Bing and Bing's wife and Bing's children and Bing's Rolls-Royce and Bing's standing in the Far West. The boy was self-sufficient and had made himself so with no help from the father; and he had made his mark in a kind of existence in which the father could not have survived. George Lockwood had not forgotten his son, but had banished him from his mind, and the son had made him lie to himself. He had not been overcome with desire for Marian Stademyer but by the urgent need to dominate a human being who, being a woman, could give him pleasure in the process. Yet even that was a form of postponement. He now knew that even without the violent consequences of his rendezvous with Marian Strademyer, a meeting with his son was unavoidable - because he would not have avoided it. The Hibbard snapshots had made the meeting necessary. George Lockwood had been compelled to have one more try at dominating his son even though the attempt would end in disastrous failure... The only thing left to save was his position. He had always been a sonofabitch in the eyes of his son. He would maintain that position. His son must be kept from knowing that his triumph in life was also a triumph over his father.
And there it is.  George Lockwood's walls, his hidden passages, his silences and his lies conceal only that:  he's a thoroughly unpleasant, unprincipled and unfeeling man.  There is no mystery.  And in the end, his secrecy and amorality will lead to his death, in a very fitting fashion.  So long, George. I can't say we'll miss you.

Although my initial infatuation was long gone by the end of the book, I admired this novel. I was glad to have met it and spent the time with it that I did. It reflects the desires of people everywhere, not only in America, to achieve a status that their society is reluctant to grant them.  It reflects perfectly the character of its author, who although he achieved a certain degree of literary success, never felt that he got the recognition he so craved.  Brendan Gill, who edited many of O'Hara's stories for The New Yorker, saw clearly O'Hara's distress.
"Oh," writes Gill, "but John O'Hara was a difficult man! Indeed, there are those who would describe him as impossible, and they would have their reasons." Gill indicates that O'Hara was nearly obsessed with a sense of social inferiority due to not having attended college. "People used to make fun of the fact that O'Hara wanted so desperately to have gone to Yale, but it was never a joke to O'Hara. It seemed... that there wasn't anything he didn't know about in regard to college and prep-school matters." Of O'Hara, Hemingway once said, cruelly, "Someone should take up a collection to send John O'Hara to Yale." O'Hara also yearned for an honorary degree from Yale. According to Gill, Yale was unwilling to award the honour because O'Hara "asked for it."
Sometimes we erect walls and build secret rooms simply to house what we feel we don't have.  And to give the illusion that we have something even better.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English, by John McWhorter

So many histories of the English language focus on etymology:  Look at all the fascinating languages from which we've borrowed vocabulary!  I love words. John McWhorter loves words. But a language cannot function on its lexicon alone -- there must be a grammar, or a set of rules to put the words into a meaningful pattern.  English has some fascinating grammatical eccentricities which set it rather far apart from its Germanic kin, and Mr. McWhorter is one of very few linguists to discuss them in terms that a general audience will enjoy.
English's Germanic relatives are like assorted varieties of deer -- antelopes, springboks, kudu, and so on --antlered, fleet-footed, big-brown-eyed variations on a theme. English is some dolphin swooping around underwater, all but hairless, echo-locating and holding its breath. Dolphins are mammals like deer: they give birth to live young and are warm-blooded. But clearly the dolphin has strayed from the basic mammalian game plan to an extent that no deer has.
He starts by examining our 'meaningless do'.  Why do we use it?  Other Germanic languages do not use it. In these sentences, the do has no function, yet it's required to avoid sounding like a foreign tourist, asking "Have you not a passport?" (That would be the exact translation from most European languages.)  When and from where did English pick up this quirk?

The other Germanic languages have grammatical features that English has shed, such as gender and case inflection. When and why did English drop these things when none of its cousins did so?

McWhorter reminds us that when it comes to detective work on ancient grammars, we must accept a certain amount of circumstantial evidence and extrapolation. In early times, reading and writing were limited to the very few educated and clerical men. In England, Christian writing would have been in Latin, although that's not the language the people were speaking. One of our earliest works in Old English, Beowulf, showed a language that "had been jangling with case markers, and nouns had three genders as in Latin, Greek, and Russian."  Where did they go? By the time Chaucer penned The Canterbury Tales in what we now refer to as Middle English, they had vanished.

The Normans, as we know, invaded in England 1066, bringing with them 150 years of Norman French as the official language. Surely the natives continued to speak English at home, but all official documents were written in French.  When English re-appeared, it reflected the spoken language, stripped of its case markers and genders, and with the 'meaningless do'.  How did such massive changes occur over such a seemingly short time? Well, McWhorter says, they didn't.

The 'meaningless do' is found in Welsh and Cornish, a couple of Celtic languages native to the British Isles.  When the Anglo-Saxons invaded, they did not slaughter all the Celts nor even completely subjugate them, and thus, this oddity made its way into English over centuries.  It appeared in writing about a thousand years later, because only then did the written language reflect the popularly spoken one.
However, starting in the Middle English period, when it became acceptable to write English more like it was actually spoken, this would have included not only virtually case-free nouns, but also our Celticisms. Therefore, it is not that Celticisms only entered English almost a thousand years after Germanic speakers met Celts in Britain. It is merely that Celticisms did not reach the page until then, which is quite a different thing. People writing the way they actually spoke. 
Likewise, it took centuries for English to rid itself of the genders and case markers. Where did they go?  Mr. McWhorter suggests that the Vikings axed them. When they came down to the British Isles in their ships, they found the English spoken there to be very complex. What do we do when we can't deal with a complex system of suffixes?  We tend to drop them.  And once again, the spoken language at that time would never have appeared in print, so when Middle English appeared after the 150 years of the Norman invasion, the absence of all those suffixes appears to be a much more abrupt change that it really was.  In the following excerpt, McWhorter uses a lovely analogy to illustrate the limited view of more conventional linguists who insist that the written record is the only acceptable proof of a language's changes over time.  Usually in stultifying academic prose, no less. They want facts, evidence, hard proof. That, however, is the problem with language -- in the absence of sound recordings or written records, we must gather the circumstantial evidence and surmise.  It does not really seem like such a stretch to reach McWhorter's conclusion that the Vikings lopped off all of Old English's pesky suffixes.
When it comes to charting how English got to be the way it is now from what it was in Beowulf, the common consensus is all about describing rather than explaining. "The such-and-such suffix -en eroded into -uh, then x centuries later it is gone entirely except in this document, likely written in a conservative register due to influence from factor y; meanwhile -um eroded into -en; see in Figure 7 how the erosion took place at such-and-such a rate in documents from this region but more slowly in documents from that region . . ." That is, this kind of work shows us what happened decade by decade in the English scriptures. Treating scripture as the only valid or interesting evidence in studying how English changed in ancient centuries risks leaving untold forever an interesting chapter in the saga of English. This is especially unsavory in that treating the peculiarity of Modern English as a matter of chance is like walking past cars parked along a street and happening upon one with the windshield broken in, three hubcaps gone, and no license plates, and deciding that all of this must have happened via ordinary wear and tear. But obviously, someone broke into this particularly smashed-up car. Something happened to it. Attention must be paid. We should report this car. Especially since this happens to be a neighborhood well known as a favored haunt of -- oh, let's just toss the analogy and say Vikings! ...
I suppose we should thank the Vikings for simplifying our language, but in rendering it such a misfit amongst its European relatives, they have made life a bit more challenging for us, as well. McWhorter of course cites Mark Twain's brilliant satire, The Awful German Language, as one example of an Anglophone struggling madly to re-learn the genders and cases that our language shed centuries ago.
English's simplicity is, in terms of explanation rather than mere documentation, weird. It is evidence of a blind-siding by adults too old to just pick up English thoroughly the way children of immigrants do. The Scandinavian Vikings left more than a bunch of words in English. They also made it an easier language. In this, in a sense, they clipped Anglophones' wings. The Viking impact, stripping English of gender and freeing us of attending to so much else that other Germanic speakers genuflect to in every conversation, made it harder for us to master other European languages.
Being very old, Bookface first encountered the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the idea that the grammar of one's language colours one's world view and thinking processes) in her introductory Linguistics course in 1984.  I don't remember the professor endorsing it, but I don't recall her denouncing it, either. McWhorter completely discredits it and yet marvels at its durability.
The hypothesis has .. failed. Repeatedly and conclusively. Decade after decade, no one has turned up anything showing that grammar marches with culture and thought in the way that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis claimed. At best, there are some shards of evidence that language affects thought patterns in subtle ways, which do not remotely approach the claims of Whorf. Yet the Sapir-Whorf idea is cited enthusiastically in textbooks even today, and is a favorite approach to language by journalists. In 2004 a New York Times writer supposed that the language of the Kawesqar tribe in Chile has no future tense marking because, having been nomads traveling often in canoes in the past, they would usually have been so unclear on what was going to happen in the future that there was no need to ever talk about it (!). Never mind that Japanese has no future markers either, and yet the Japanese hardly seem unconcerned with the future.
Whorf, as it turns out, was a fire inspector by day, and an amateur linguist in his spare time.  I don't mean to suggest that such a person has nothing of value to offer.  Einstein, of course, dreamt up his theory of general relativity during his quiet times at the patent office where he worked as a clerk. Unfortunately, Mr. Whorf based his hypothesis on a very limited knowledge of the Hopi language and some very flawed extrapolations from that.  

Why, the author wonders, do we still cherish such a flawed hypothesis, and yet reject the ideas that the Celts and Vikings moulded English grammar, when there is much more substantial indication that they did so? Besides being a thoroughly enjoyable read, this book was an effective prod to ask questions.  Question theories, hypotheses, theses and those who present them. Ask why one language has certain characteristics, and why another does not. And probe your language more deeply than its collection of words.  

Monday, December 3, 2012

Fondling the Details

With thanks to the book section of Flavorwire, who included this in their list of 10 Famous Writers on How to Read.

“In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected. If one begins with a readymade generalization, one begins at the wrong end and travels away from the book before one has started to understand it. Nothing is more boring or more unfair to the author than starting to read, say, Madame Bovary, with the preconceived notion that it is a denunciation of the bourgeoisie. We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. When this new world has been closely studied, then and only then let us examine its links with other worlds, other branches of knowledge.”                                                                    

-Vladimir Nabokov

Saturday, November 24, 2012

4... 5... 6..., by Kuan Guat Choo

I recorded this novel for Malaysian Association for the Blind on special request. It's the third novel by the Penangite author.  It opens during the years of the Japanese occupation, when a Malay farmer goes to check on his Chinese neighbours. He finds their home abandoned, their dogs shot, and he hears whimpering from beneath the house. Cowering there he sees little LiLian, his daughter's playmate, dirty and hungry, with no memory of what happened to the rest of her family.  He takes her home, and as she sleeps, she repeatedly murmurs "Si... ng... lok..." or "four... five... six..." in Hokkien.

Malay House at Balik Pulau,
watercolour by Ch'ng Kiah Kiean
Fearful that whoever killed the girl's family will come to finish the job, the farmer takes her by bicycle to his brother's home in Penang. Othman and Jamilah have no children of their own and are delighted to raise little orphaned LiLian.

Ms. Kuan uses the years of LiLian's childhood and adolescence to paint an evocative picture of life in a Penang kampong during the 1950s, when there was greater harmony between the races and religions as they enjoyed each other's customs and celebrations and grieved together at very different funeral rites. In the 1960s, Li Lian and her closest friends discuss having careers in a way that their mothers never had. Even well into her young adulthood, Li Lian continues to have nightmares, continues to murmur "Si... ng... lok" as she sleeps, although her waking mind has no memory of her original family.

She laughingly accepts the last piece of cake at her friends' weddings, indifferent to the superstition that doing so will render her a lifelong old maid. She doesn't mind, she says, she has a sense that there is a matter that needs to be cleared up before she would marry anyway.  Her plans, however, are disrupted when she falls in love with the Chinese man who has assiduously courted her for three years. She finally capitulates and marries him. As a reader, I began to fear a saccharine happily-ever-after ending with Li Lian's nightmares happily resolving into connubial bliss, but Ms. Kuan isn't a Mills & Boon author. Hours after the birth of her first child, Li Lian has a searing memory of her childhood.

She soon leaves the baby with an amah and goes back to the village where she was born, demanding answers from the Malay neighbour who had found her. At least, when she sees the house again, she remembers how she came to be beneath it, and what she saw when looking out through the front steps.  Her adoptive parents and friends advise her to forgive, to try to forget, to focus on a bright future for herself, her husband and her child, but Li Lian cannot let go of the wartime horror. She cannot find peace until she wreaks revenge. She recalls her Chinese grandfather's motto: Cut grass, sever roots.

This is an excruciating portrait of the lasting wounds that can fester through generations following war. It's also a well-crafted image of the cheerful coexistence between Malaysia's ethnic communities, and I pray that continues and grows.

A captious sort of day

I made the acquaintance of a new word yesterday. At least I don't recall meeting it before. It caught my attention when I was reading John O'Hara's The Lockwood Concern.
"I thought I'd say something to get you into a different mood. You've been very captious since you got here, and I don't enjoy that."
"I'm very sorry, Geraldine."
The Kindle's built-in dictionary defines captious as "tending to find fault or raise petty objections".

Captious cat offers a bit more:

1. apt to notice and make much of trivial faults or defects; faultfinding; difficult to please.
2. proceeding from a faultfinding or caviling disposition, example: He could never praise without adding a captious remark.

What a useful word! I am often captious, and I'd much rather admit to it than to being nitpicky, hypercritical or judgemental.

I like captious. It's a practical and unpretentious word. It seems unbelievable that I'd never seen it before yesterday afternoon, or at least had never noticed it before. Then last night, I was reading Helen Hoover Santmyer's ...And the Ladies of the Club, and would you look...!
Anne, who was in a captious mood that fall, thought, "Another body to act as librarian-for-a-day!" Mrs. Beattie had never volunteered for that chore, but now it would be a responsibility. 
Is this a dazzling coincidence, or is captious a quite commonly used word that I've somehow managed never to notice all these years?  After two meetings in a day, I'm not likely to forget it.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Spire, by William Golding

Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds,
by John Constable
A former colleague once told me that he never reads fiction. His reason? He said that he preferred to learn facts, and fiction... well, fiction is fabrication.

It may well be a sign of my intellectual torpor, but I will never likely reach for a history of the Salisbury Cathedral, nor for any volumes discussing the feats required to erect its 401-foot spire (presently the highest cathedral spire in England). What Mr. Golding gives me, though, is an obsessed cathedral dean, Jocelin, and the master builder he has chosen to do his work, Roger Mason. As the former hauls himself up the scaffolding and ladders into the unfinished spire and sees the countryside for miles around, feeling affirmed that he is doing the work God requested, and as the latter battles his nauseating fear of heights, I realise the enormity of the Spire, in a way that I never could, even by visiting the cathedral and climbing the steps myself, alongside other tourists. Dean Jocelin heard the supporting pillars first scream, then bend. (They are still bent today, bearing the great weight of the spire, added in the 14th century.) The faithless Mason told him the task was impossible, but Jocelin believed that it was ordained by God, physics notwithstanding. These particular characters may not have existed, but someone was driven to build a colossal spire atop this 10th-century church, and it most certainly required mountains of stone, courage and ingenuity to accomplish it. Non-fiction can give us the facts, some more captivating than others, but only fiction can really elicit the emotions -- the vision, despair, fear, rage and elation -- which were all most surely part of every inch of the spire's construction, just as surely as the mortar.

When we look at the soaring spaces of ancient cathedrals and mosques today, it's all too easy to forget that their designers had no computers, and their builders had no cranes. Throughout the novel, Dean Jocelin asks himself and others, "Has it fallen yet?" Roger Mason, the master builder, repeatedly tells him that the task is impossible. As the spire rises, driven mostly by Jocelin's passion -- and his alone, as the other clerics quietly disapprove -- the human toll rises alongside it.
...and when a workman fell through the hole above the crossways, and left a scream scored all the way down the air, which was so thick it seemed to keep the scream as something mercilessly engraved there, he did not wonder that no miracle interposed between the body and the logical slab of stone that received it. Father Anselm said nothing in Chapter; but he saw from the sacrist's indignant stare how this death had been added to some account that one day would be presented.

The master builder baulks more than once, first ranting then pleading to be let go from this hopeless task. Jocelin likewise pleads and then connives to hold him to the contract, and "the army" of his labourers as well. God has ordained their partnership, and although Roger Mason is an irreverent drunk, he is still the man best qualified for the job. Roger may not hear God's command, but Jocelin intends to convey it.
 "My son. When such a work is ordained, it is put into the mind of a, of a man. That's a terrible thing. I'm only learning now, how terrible it is. It's a refiner's fire. The man knows a little perhaps of the purpose, but nothing of the cost--why can't they keep quiet out there? Why don't they stand quietly and wait? No. You and I were chosen to do this thing together. It's a great glory. I see now it'll destroy us of course. What are we, after all? Only I tell you this, Roger, with the whole strength of my soul. The thing can be built and will be built, in the very teeth of Satan. You'll build it because nobody else can. They laugh at me, I think; and they'll probably laugh at you. Let them laugh. It's for them, and their children. But only you and I, my son, my friend, when we've done tormenting ourselves and each other, will know what stones and beams and lead and mortar went into it..."
The construction of course wreaks havoc in the everyday life of the cathedral. Normal services move elsewhere as the excavations below the floor of the nave burrow into ancient graves and loose noxious odours. Blocks of stone fall from above. And then, of course, there is the noise from the groaning pillars. Alone in the cathedral, Jocelin pauses to question whether those voices and songs and messages are coming from within or without.
Silence from the crossways. He thought to himself: It's not the stones singing. It's inside my head.
The original care-taker of the cathedral, a lame man, is driven away by the taunting of the pack of builders. His wife, Goody Pangall, begins an affair with Roger Mason. Jocelin takes note of this and is horrified, partially because he has been battling his own forbidden attraction to the red-haired young woman. When he realises that her husband has fled and that she is bearing Roger's child, he thinks he must do something to help her. He is, however, distracted by his own process of creation, one with divine parentage. His more human obligations take lower priority.
If she seemed about to come near, she circled him quickly, looking away and hurrying on, head down as if he were an unlucky corner, or a ghost, or the grave of a suicide. But he knew that she was only ashamed with the shame of a deserted woman; and her shame squeezed his heart. But my will has other business than to help, he thought. I have so much will, it puts all other business by. I am like a flower that is bearing fruit.
He sees flashes of Goody's red hair, whether she's actually present or not, representing the mortal temptations that might distract him from his work. As he kneels to pray, however, he feels the "warmth" of the angel at his back, an angel who appears to guide and comfort him with increasing frequency. At the end, we learn that the warmth at his back is a terminal consumption. The angel (and would the sense of a terminal disease not have the same effect?) keeps him on track, banishing the demonic distractions, driving him to complete the spire.
Often, his angel stood at his back; and this exhausted him, for the angel was a great weight of glory to bear, and bent his spine. Moreover, after a visit by the angel--as if to keep him in his humility--Satan was given leave to torment him, seizing him by the loins, so that it became indeed an unruly member.
In one of my favourite images in the novel, Jocelin climbs up into the unfinished spire on a summer night on which the workmen have all quit early. Golding makes only a veiled reference, but it was enough to remind me of the cathedral's proximity to Stonehenge. In the 14th century, it's all too plausible that the Church was still battling for souls with the old ways, and that Jocelin would view his spire as a competitor with the dolmens atop the hill.
He saw a fire on the rim and guessed it was a haystack burning; but as he moved round the rim of the cone, he saw more and more fires round the rim of the world. Then a terrible dread fell on him, for he knew these were the fires of Midsummer Night, lighted by the devil-worshippers out on the hills. Over there, in the valley of the Hanging Stones, a vast fire shuddered brightly. All at once he cried out, not in terror but in grief. For he remembered his crew of good men, and he knew why they had knocked off work and where they were gone. So he shouted aloud in anger at someone. "They are good men! I say so!" But this was only one feeling. Inside them, his mind knew what it knew. "It's another lesson. The lesson for this height. Who could have foreseen that this was part of the scheme? Who could know that at this height the thing I thought of as a stone diagram of prayer would lift up a cross and fight eye to eye with the fires of the devil?"
Mr. Golding does not tie things up neatly at the end of his novel. Roger Mason, now a crippled drunk living above a pub, fails to make peace with the dying and half-mad Jocelin. Goody Pangall has died in childbirth. The spire is unfinished. But we know it will be finished, and we know (unlike Jocelin, who dies asking if it has fallen yet) that it will stand for at least another 700 years. What this novel gives us is the knowledge that someone long ago was consumed -- by madness, piety, grandiosity, or glory -- to build an impossibility of a spire. It was something no average man or woman would have ventured. If I ever visit Salisbury and see the spire, I will see it with proper reverence, because Golding's fictional characters brought the reality of its construction to life. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Celibate, by Michael Arditti

I read a very enticing review of Mr. Arditti's most recent novel, Jubilate, but I couldn't find a copy of it, so I settled on The Celibate, which was his first. What is it about? Sexuality and Catholicism.  And homosexuality, HIV/AIDS, death, and anti-Semitism, with side orders of Jack the Ripper and the Black Plague. Writing a first novel on any one of these themes is audacious -- tackling all of them is an act of literary heroism. Or madness.

The narrator is in fact telling his story to his psychotherapist, whom his superiors at St. Dunstan's ordered him to see when he attacked a fellow ordinand during Mass. This is a young man who takes his religion very seriously, far more seriously in fact than he takes psychology.
I deplore the far too easy analogy between the traditional role of the priest and the current role of the therapist. It can only be made by people who clearly know very little of your profession and less than nothing of mine. You may assuage a troubled mind, but you offer no solace to the soul. 
He comes from a wealthy family, and his speech betrays his top-shelf education and -- despite his best efforts to the contrary -- reveals hints of his inner pain and desperate loneliness. He rambles on about his mother and her twin brother.
It must be marvellous to be a twin: to have another being so attuned to you that he can understand your innermost feelings better than you can yourself. To have someone you can trust as much as yourself, to be your other self, so that the whole of your life can be as harmonious as the resolution of a Shakespearean comedy.
In his early teens, he tells the psychotherapist, he saw his vocation to become a Catholic priest in a flash. He knew with unshakable certainty that this was to be his path, and he'd never swerved from it. It was the fellow ordinand's irreverent interpretation of one of the Gospels that sent him into his blind rage during Mass. He hints that there may have been a somewhat unusually strong emotional bond between the two young men, but the real issue was the blasphemous sermon. Our narrator would have his therapist know that he is asexual in thought and deed.

As his career as a priest is suspended, if not finished, our narrator goes out to minister to the down-and-out on his own, and the first needy souls he stumbles across are young male hustlers. He is appalled that they mistrust him, believing him to be another hung-up, rich john who is just leading them on a merry chase. When one of them, Rees, finally realises the priest's genuine naivete, he takes advantage of it to rob him of his briefcase, which he knows to contain the priest's psychiatric drugs. Initially repelled by Jack, the tough who pimps these young men, the priest falls into a bondage and domination relationship with him, coming face to face with his own sexuality with the aid of pain and humiliation. Not surprisingly, he interprets this as the ultimate abasement and pact with the devil, and he has a breakdown.

When he returns to therapy after his hospitalisation, he announces that he has met a man named Mark and fallen deeply in love. For the first time, he can synthesise love and sex. Mark's ex-lover, Adrian, begins his decline due to AIDS, and the narrator is pulled into the whirl of those who are infected and afflicted. He has also given up his part-time job leading historic tours of Jack the Ripper's London, and has begun instead guiding a tour of the 'plague cottages' in a rural village which was especially hard-hit during the 14th century. (Each chapter of the book opens with his presentation to those on his tour and then resumes with his therapist.) The pace at which that the narrator (who remains nameless throughout) reveals details of his psyche and his past to the therapist rings very true. Odd and tragicomic childhood memories slip out during moments of uncomfortable silence, such as the collision between the young man's Catholic devotions and his very traditional Jewish aunt.
I set up a makeshift altar in my mother's dressing-room where I performed my solitary office every day, until my aunt chanced to discover me. She'd noticed wisps of smoke and was afraid of another fire; I must have been over-enthusiastic in my swinging of the thurible -- or rather the kitchen scales which were standing in for it -- even then. And she... I'm sorry; I know I shouldn't laugh, but from the look of horror on her face you'd have thought she'd seen a ghost. Although I suppose in a way she had. For in the absence of anything tailor-made I was wearing my mother's wedding-dress as a surplice and her lace shawl as a cope. She was appalled by my appearance and still more so when she discovered its purpose. I think she'd have found even transvestitism preferable to transsubstantiation.
Mr. Arditti's past history as a playwright shines through as characters re-enter the story as if cued, often having undergone significant costume changes. Jack the B&D man returns as Krishnan, having found his new spirituality in India. Rees resurfaces with his friend Jason, the lover and care-taker of the narrator's uncle  (his later mother's twin brother), who is now dying of AIDS. This reunion brings another entirely traumatic childhood memory back to the surface. He reaches the stage of forgiveness with unlikely speed and grace, but that's perhaps another mark of the playwright's pacing.

One last character must return to the stage: Jonathan, the priest whose homily inspired the narrator's mad outburst. Jonathan becomes the guide, the mentor who will make the final efforts to heal the jagged wound between the narrator's sexuality and spirituality.  It was not God who proscribed sexuality, he finally grasps, but Augustine. Chastity is no longer prerequisite for holiness.
In the same way I once heard the Archbishop of Westminster claim that every time he saw a mentally handicapped person he knew that he was in the presence of a saint, and I rebelled, since it seemed the most cloying, conventional and condescending kind of Catholicism -- with the inability to doubt an inevitable adjunct of the inability to reason. But I've come to realise that the essence of sainthood lies in the ability to inspire saintliness in others...
I found this a remarkable novel, but so did the reviewers for the Independent, Capitol Gay, and the Catholic Herald. I imagine these three publications find little common ground on most issues, but they were unanimous in their praise for this book.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The History Man, by Malcolm Bradbury

This is another from the list of Anthony Burgess' 99 Best Novels, which I continue to explore with very gratifying results. It's a wonderfully catholic list, the only requirements being that the books are written in English and between the years of 1939 and 1983 (the year in which Burgess published the list).  I appreciate that some of the novels are not the authors' best known, such as William Faulkner's The Mansion and William Golding's The Spire (which I am reading now). Three of Aldous Huxley's novels made the list, but Brave New World wasn't one of them. The list has also introduced me to authors  -- I owe my enjoyment of William Sansom's The Body and Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day to Mr. Burgess' list.  

I expect Malcolm Bradbury is a familiar name to those in the UK. I sheepishly admit I was thinking of Ray Bradbury, the science fiction writer, when I copied The History Man to my Kindle. This highlights another pro and con of e-books. The con: an e-book has no back cover on which to print a synopsis. The pro: You copy it onto the Kindle and see how it goes. If you love the book, it's a victory, and if you loathe it, the delete button presents itself. I read this novel at Pagoda Rocks in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, and in that setting, its academic satire certainly felt as otherworldly as Ray Bradbury's science fiction. 
Anthony Sher played Howard Kirk in the BBC adaption.
Some of Bradbury's satire is timeless, poking fun at the pomposity and pretensions of academics regardless of century, never mind decade. But who can resist mocking the 1970s? Howard Kirk, the title character, is a delicious, despicable combination of arrogance and self-indulgence.  I admit my own academic snobbery here: Howard Kirk is a professor of Sociology, a field of study which often met with derision from students at my college who considered it a discipline for dolts. If it could even be termed a discipline...  Bradbury's portrayal of the voluble, six-hour department meeting suggests that it surely cannot.

As the novel opens, Professor Howard Kirk and his wife, Barbara, are planning a party with a sociologically interesting petri dish of guests. The setting is to be their multi-storey, previously condemned apartment block in fictional Watermouth (which bears a suspicious resemblance to Brighton). The Kirks moved into it as squatters and later convinced the council to let them stay. Being liberals, the idea of buying property was uncomfortable. When Howard's friend and colleague, Henry Beamish, had taken them around to find lodging, the Kirks' oh-so-liberal sensibilities became evident. 
Now and then Henry stopped the car, and they got out, and solemnly examined a property. Henry's taste in property had been transformed, become rural and bourgeois; he praised, mysteriously, 'advantages' like paddocks and stables. The Kirks stood and stared, peering through trees at hills. Never having encountered a property before, they had no idea how to behave in the presence of one; they knew their radical desires were being subtly threatened and impaired, even though Henry told them what was true, that they had more money now, that a mortgage was a good investment for the advance, that the time in their lives, with a second baby, was here when they should settle down. But down was not where they wanted to settle; a hideous deceit seemed to be being practised; Henry, having already destroyed himself, was seeking to inculpate them too.
The Kirks are not impoverished -- Howard has published two books and assumed his post on the faculty of Watermouth University -- but they are hardly about to become bourgeouis. They must find a way to merge their liberal socialist values with their new income and status. Barbara takes thermos jugs of coffee to the drug addicts in the derelict block next-door, for example.  They don't fit in, either with the vagrants or with the other academics.
Howard's two books being now staple radical documents in that expanding market, their jeans and caftans are rather more expensive than those of most of the people they know. But it is invisible expense, inconspicuous unconsumption, and it creates no distances and makes them no enemies, except for the enemies who were always their enemies. The Kirks are very attractive, very buoyant, very aggressive people, and, even if you dislike or distrust them, or are disturbed by them (and they mean to be disturbing), very good company.
Howard is a creature of his time, a "man of history", using his academic jargon to justify his sexual permissiveness and dismissing traditional marriage as a stultifying example of outdated gender roles. The Kirks shall not be a part of such oppression. (Yet Barbara is often left with the care of the children as Howard pursues his flings with students, many of whom in turn are lured into the Kirk household as nannies and scullery maids.)

The Kirks began their investigation of an open marriage when Howard lusted after students, and a young Egyptian man took a fancy to Barbara. Their explications of this situation differed somewhat.
'I think,' says Howard now, 'the purpose he had in mind, natural enough from his cultural standpoint, was to establish intimacy between the male parties. We have to recognize his culturally determined view of women.'
'My God,' says Barbara, 'he just liked me.'
The beauty of  academic pseudo-science (oops, there's my inner academic snob again...) is that it concocts the vocabulary to justify its every whim.  And moreover, to bash anyone who dares disagree, such as the gentle, more traditional Henry Beamish.
'That's because you're bourgeois now, Henry. You have the spirit of a bourgeois.'
'No, I don't,' said Henry, 'that's nasty. I'm trying to give my life a little dignity without robbing anyone else of theirs. I'm trying to define an intelligent, liveable, unharming culture, Howard.'
'Oh, Christ,' said Howard, 'evasive quietism.'
And the blissfully liberated Kirks... Are they really happy? Bradbury assesses their condition mid-novel and mid-life and arrives at a different adjective.
They have a strong sense of something that was undelivered then, and a hazy dream still shimmers ahead of them: a world of expanded minds, equal dealings, erotic satisfactions, beyond the frame of reality, beyond the limits of the senses. They remain in their terrace house, and they stand somehow still on the fulcrum between end and beginning, in a history where an old reality is going and a new one coming, living in a mixture of radiance and radical indignation, burning with sudden fondnesses, raging with sudden hates, waiting for a plot, the plot of historical inevitability, to come and fulfil the story they had begun in bed in Leeds after Hamid had slept with Barbara. They are busy people.
Howard carries on an affair with Flora Beniform, a colleague who uses her lovers as research fodder. Much as he would like to convince himself that their relationship is a purely physical and cerebral affair, Howard's emotions occasionally slip out and reveal a wee bit of neediness. Flora responds by telling him that she has no time for him next week and then explaining why the traditional marriage -- with the professional husband and stay-at-home wife/mother -- can't work.
'He talks all day to pretty students who know all about structuralism, and have read Parsons and Dahrendorf, and can say "charisma" properly, and understand the work he's doing. Then he comes home to a wife who's been dusting and cleaning. He says "Parsons" and "Dahrendorf", and she says "Huh?" What can he do? He either gives her a tutorial, and thinks she's pretty B minus, or he shuts up and eats the ratatouille.'
Howard Kirk's ugliest side comes out not in response to his female students or colleagues, however, but in reaction to George Carmody, a student who refuses to conform by becoming non-comformist. Carmody is who he is: an unfashionably diligent student, an earnest young man.  
He has changed most, and changed by not changing at all. Here he sits, in his chair, looking beamingly around; as he does so, he shines forth unreality. He is a glimpse from another era; a kind of historical offence. In the era of hair, his face is perfectly clean-shaven, so shaven that the fuzz of peach-hair on his upper features looks gross against the raw epidermis on his cheeks and chin, where the razor has been. The razor has also been round the back of his neck, to give him a close, neat haircut. From some mysterious source, unknown and in any case alien to all other students, he has managed to acquire a university blazer, with a badge, and a university tie; these he wears with a white shirt, and a pair of pressed grey flannels. His shoes are brightly polished; so, as if to match, is his briefcase. He is an item, preserved in some extraordinary historical pickle, from the nineteen-fifties or before; he comes out of some strange fold in time. He has always been like this, and at first his style was a credit; wasn't it just a mock-style to go with all the other mock-styles in the social parody? But this is the third year; he has been out of sight for months, and here he is again, and he has renewed the commitment; the terrible truth seems clear. It is no joke; Carmody wants to be what he says he is.
Howard Kirk simply cannot abide George Carmody. He gives him failing marks, and when the student files a grievance with higher authorities, claiming that Professor Kirk has shown favoritism to the female students with whom he has sexual relationships, Kirk resolves to destroy him. Carmody repeatedly asserts that Kirk is not rejecting his work, but rejecting him as a human being, and none of Kirk's jargon can absolve him of this charge. He has no more success clearing himself of the claims of rampant sexual misconduct, as Carmody and his camera have captured most of them on film.
'An outside eye's sometimes illuminating,' says Miss Callendar, 'and of course, as Henry James says, the house of fiction has many windows. Your trouble is you seem to have stood in front of most of them.'
The novel ends as it began, with a party in the Kirk household, complete with the illicit frolics in dark corners, sodden discussions about socialism, and hands thrust through window panes. There is no such thing as an accident, Howard maintains.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Reef, by Edith Wharton

I've been a devout Edith Wharton fan for decades, so when a fellow book blogger recommended The Reef as Wharton's finest novel, it caught me off-balance. I thought I'd read all her best novels, and I'd never even heard of this one.  I rushed over to Gutenberg and downloaded it.

Now I wish I could remember which blogger had recommended it so passionately, because I'd like to leave a message: Are you mad?  

This is certainly not a bad novel, but it's far from Edith Wharton's best.  The prose falls a bit flat and the plot lacks intensity when compared to her major works, and I find the abrupt ending verging on bizarre.

In the New York City of  The Age of Innocence, the upper-crust's social strictures are palpably oppressive. When Countess Olenska returns to New York from abroad and causes scandal with her trivial missteps, one gets the sense that Europe had ruined her, that New Yorkers disdained Europe as a den of iniquity, or at least impropriety.

The characters in The Reef, set in London and France, are equally stifled and ultimately undone by the prevailing social mores; they're hardly flitting around like carefree Bohemians.  George Darrow meets the recently widowed Anna Leath at a dinner party. He had courted her years before, but she elected to marry another man. She now lives in her late husband's large and somewhat gloomy estate house in rural France with her mother-in-law, their small daughter, and her adult step-son, Owen Leath.  Finding her single, Darrow courts Anna once more. And once more, he struggles to navigate the mesh of mixed messages, unspoken feelings, terse telegrams and maddeningly subtle gestures and hints.

He is about to board the English Channel ferry to visit Anna when he receives a telegram from her, asking him to postpone his visit without proffering a reason.  Frustrated, as he's already taken leave from his work, he boards the ferry regardless, resolved to have a small holiday on his own in Paris. On the ferry, he meets a young woman with whom he'd been slightly acquainted in London, Sophy Viner. Miss Viner's trunk may or may not have made it onto the ferry. Whereas Anna is the picture of dignified elegance, Sophy wears her heart on her sleeve. She makes no secret of the fact that everything she owns is in the missing trunk, and she is distraught thinking that it may be left behind on the pier. Darrow gallantly offers to help her sort the matter of the trunk, and he takes her under his care in the meantime. Sophy does not come from a wealthy background, and misfortune has led her to investigate a new career in the theatres of Paris.

With her own trademark gentility of phrase, Wharton makes it clear that Darrow finds Sophy refreshing. He seems to enjoy her excitement upon seeing Paris for the first time, and he revels in the role of guide as he takes her out to dinner, the theatre, museums and galleries. He intentionally delays her meeting with a family with whom she hopes to stay.

Months later, he finally travels to Anna's estate and finds her as desirable as ever. They seem to have reached the understanding that they will marry and move to South America, where Darrow has accepted another consular post. There are only two matters that Anna feels must settle beforehand. First, she must ensure that she has a reliable governess for her small daughter, Effie. Second, her stepson, Owen, appears to be in love with someone deemed unsuitable, and his grandmother is apoplectic about it. Darrow is dumbstruck to learn that the object of Owen's affections is the current (and much cherished) governess -- Sophy Viner. Sophy is no less rattled to meet Darrow again.

Here begins the intricate quadrille between Darrow, Anna, Sophy and Owen -- all decent, well-intentioned people, very unlike the vicious characters who wreak emotional violence upon each other in The Age of Innocence. Whether Darrow and Sophy had a sexual dalliance is of course never specifically stated, but that detail is all but immaterial -- when their Paris interlude becomes common knowledge, Darrow's insistence that his interest in Sophy was (and still is) avuncular and compassionate does little to mitigate Anna's jealousy and hurt. She is too well-mannered to rant, of course, but she obsesses about the restaurants and museums they visited together and cannot reason her way out of her pain.

Far from being vindictive, Anna tries to maneuver Owen and Sophy to safe places, as well, either together or  individually. In a classic Wharton moment, Anna concerns herself with appearances, only belatedly glimpsing beneath their surface.
She noticed that the girl's unusual pallour was partly due to the slight veil of powder on her face. The discovery was distinctly disagreeable. Anna had never before noticed, on Sophy's part, any recourse to cosmetics, and, much as she wished to think herself exempt from old-fashioned prejudices, she suddenly became aware that she did not like her daughter's governess to have a powdered face. Then she reflected that the girl who sat opposite her was no longer Effie's governess, but her own future daughter-in-law; and she wondered whether Miss Viner had chosen this odd way of celebrating her independence, and whether, as Mrs. Owen Leath, she would present to the world a bedizened countenance. This idea was scarcely less distasteful than the other, and for a moment Anna continued to consider her without speaking. Then, in a flash, the truth came to her: Miss Viner had powdered her face because Miss Viner had been crying.
Although Darrow and Anna make a couple of abortive attempts to carry on, both realising that they love each other deeply, Anna cannot let go of his association with Sophy. In the what passes for an altercation in Wharton's world, Darrow finally confronts Anna with the fact that human perfection does not exist, and her insistence upon it will leave her very much alone on her pedestal.
Finally she brought out: "I don't think I understand what you've told me."
"No, you don't understand," he returned with sudden bitterness; and on his lips the charge of incomprehension seemed an offense to her.
"I don't want to -- about such things!"
He answered almost harshly: "Don't be never will..." and for an instant they faced each other like enemies.
Then the tears swelled in her throat at his reproach. "You mean I don't feel things -- I'm too hard?"
"No: you're too high...too fine...such things are too far from you."
When I see people today behaving badly in public, I think of Edith Wharton's dignified, refined characters. As I finished The Reef, I think dignity, like everything else, can be overdone. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

No More Bullshit, Please, We're All Malaysians, by Kee Thuan Chye

I recorded this book on request for the Malaysian Association for the Blind, and much like Patrick Teoh's Teohlogy, it made me laugh, but more often reduced me to tears of frustration and rage. This is a collection of essays and articles that the author has published throughout the years, all pointed squarely at the insanity and downright wickedness of Malaysian politics.

Some of the most prickly burrs under his saddle-pad:  Malaysia proudly touts itself as a democracy, but all the mass media is government-owned, so opposition candidates have no forum in which to present their platforms.  The current Prime Minister and his staff came up with the vague motto "1Malaysia", ostensibly to promote racial harmony whilst simultaneously promoting policies that deepen the wedges between the races and religions. Politicians are quick to say that to be anti-Barisan (the ruling coalition) is to be unpatriotic, as if the present government is the country.  The minority race-based members in the ruling coalition -- MCA (Chinese) and MIC (Indian) have routinely rolled over and capitulated to Big Brother UMNO, the Malay party, often leaving their constituents with no real voice. The government has politicised the educational system to suit its own purposes, and the laws prohibiting any political activity amongst university students keeps them from either learning about or participating in a genuine political dialogue.

As a non-citizen, I cannot vote, but I dearly wish every Malaysian would read this book before the general election, coming in the next few months. I truly believe that the people of this country can live together peacefully and respectfully. Kee Thuan Chye and his wife obviously hold the same opinion very deeply -- they gave both of their children three names:  one Malay, one Indian and one Chinese.  I also believe his contention that it's often politically useful to keep the races divided and distrusting of each other. I laud the author's courage in publishing this book, and I pray that some of his essays will motivate voters to express their wishes for the future of Malaysia.

The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff

This novel is above all a love ballad sung to a place. The Templeton of the book's title is based upon the author's home town of Cooperstown, New York. Horribly, this numinous little village has come to be associated with the Baseball Hall of Fame, which is an especial travesty -- the assertion that Abner Doubleday invented the sport in Cooperstown (or indeed that he invented it at all) is dubious.  Readers, however, will connect Cooperstown with one of its most illustrious sons, the novelist James Fenimore Cooper, who most assuredly wrote classics like The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans.

I have very intense childhood memories of Cooperstown, so I could not approach this book with much objectivity. Had Lauren Groff merely set a soap opera in this timeless village? Here's the synopsis:
In the wake of a wildly disastrous affair with her married archaeology professor, Willie Upton arrives on the doorstep of her ancestral home in storybook Templeton, New York, looking to hide in the one place to which she swore she'd never come back. As soon as she arrives, though, a prehistoric monster surfaces in Lake Glimmerglass, changing the very fabric of the town. What's more, Willie's hippie-turned-born-again-Baptist mother, Vi, tells her a secret she's been hiding for nearly thirty years: that Willie's father wasn't the random man from a free-love commune that Vi had led her to imagine, but someone else entirely. Someone from this very town As Willie puts her archaeological skills to work digging for the truth about her lineage, she discovers that the secrets of her family run deep when dark mysteries come to light and the shocking truth about more than one monster is revealed.
So like her mother before her, Willie Upton returns to Templeton, somewhat in disgrace. Some of us grew up in small towns and consistently hated them, couldn't wait to get out into the bigger world. Willie didn't chafe at the confines of Templeton until she had left it, but ultimately she too feels the claustrophobia of village life.
And, until I visited San Francisco later, I was grateful to have been raised in my small and beautiful town. Then, when I saw that gorgeous, gilded city under the fog, I regretted Templeton and its tiny ways, its subservience to the baseball tourists that came in hordes every year, its lack of even a decent movie theatre. I regretted San Francisco's transvestites in their lovely clothes, the cafes, the furniture stores with imported Indonesian furniture; I thought I would have been a different person, a better one, had I only been raised in a larger place. Like a fish, I thought, I would have grown to fit my bowl.
As she begins to explore the mystery of her paternity, Willie goes back to one of her earliest known ancestors and the founder of Templeton, one Marmaduke Temple, a character loosely based on William Cooper, founder of Cooperstown and father of James Fenimore.  Marmaduke, like the 18th-century land developer that he was, was a bundle of contradictions:  a slave-owning Quaker who enjoyed liquor and ladies. Er, women.  His prudish house-keeper, with the delightful name of Remarkable Prettybones, does her best to maintain her high opinion of him.
To be sure, all that time I had only been slightly bothered that Master Duke went off to the pubs like a common man, not like a gentleman at all. A mushroom gentleman, they called him, a gentleman sprung up overnight from the dung... Also there was always talk of the little girlies Duke looked upon too favorably, such nasty gossip. The chargirl at the Eagle. The cobbler's daughter, Trixie. Even talk of Rosamond Phinney, the belle, though she was just a slip of a girl at the time, that merciless flirt. The only comfort is to thing that when a man was great as Himself, there would always be talk.
Willie has the good fortune to be descended from the Temples and other luminaries of the town, whose lives were documented, and whose diaries were saved for posterity.  In some cases, where the stories turned especially scandalous, letters and photographs were hidden, but Willie manages to unearth even the most unseemly history in which the "monsters" played a part.  During the great Depression, Sarah Franklin Temple learns from her father that the family is in dire straits.  He had built many of the town's landmarks -- the hospital, the gymnasium on the main street, tennis courts, and the castle-like Kingfisher Tower on a small point of land extending into the lake (all of which still stand in today's Cooperstown). Further, Prohibition is similarly afflicting the town's other great family, the Clarkes, who run a brewing company.  (The Busch family owns homes in Cooperstown, and various landmarks bear their name.)  Poor Sarah consents to marry a flashy, smooth-talking baseball commissioner who concocts the specious connection between baseball and Templeton in order to build his hall of fame there, and not long after giving birth to their first and only child, Sarah sinks into the madness which had been lurking within her, which her parents had genteelly described as "great sensitivity".

And so it goes as Willie uncovers the often unsavoury history of her family and of her village. In separate plot threads, Willie reconnects with young men of her own age who remained in Templeton, and she stays in touch with a beloved university friend now living in San Francisco and battling with lupus. The contemporary story lines felt much less gratifying than her ventures into her history. I envy Willie (and Lauren Groff) her long and well-documented family history in such an historic and magical little town. Willie returns to California at the end of the story and will complete her doctoral programme, but she has cemented her bond to Templeton and clarified it. She will always be emotionally rooted in Templeton, wherever she might live.

I'm still puzzling very fondly over "Glimmey" the Templeton cousin of the Loch Ness monster, who dies very early in the pages of the book, being towed somewhat unceremoniously to the shore of Glimmerglass Lake for inspection and removal to the excited biologists' lab.  Willie sees and touches the dead creature's flesh, and her grieving begins. Part of her has died with the lake's mythical monster which has now proven to be real and sadly mortal. Do we all grow up with the equivalent of Glimmey? Some magical, mysterious, elusive being that makes our village or town or neighbourhood sparkle? Adulthood, I suppose, means the end of the magic, the death of the monster. The lucky ones among us can find a new source of numinosity, just as Ms. Groff at the end of the book gives us a baby Glimmey, swimming about deep under the surface of the lake. (The lake is properly called Otsego Lake, on which my father used to sail his little boat, the Saucy Hound.) We need Glimmey, and we need James Fenimore Cooper and his characters -- we need the history and myths that come with whatever place we decide to call HOME.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dawdling by the Danube, by Edward Enfield

This is a charming little travel book which I found in audio, read by the author. As Mr. Enfield is a retired radio and television presenter, he did a fine job of recording his book, sounding like precisely the sort of older, game, amiable Englishman who would elect to tour southern Germany by bicycle, which he did in 1997 at the age of 68.  As I agree wholeheartedly with the author's assertion that there is no better place from which to see a country than the saddle of a bicycle, I knew he and I would get on well.

No, no -- it's dawdling BY the Danube, not IN it!
This book was also a nostalgic trip for me.  I've never visited Germany or Poland (Mr. Enfield tacks his travelogue of Poland onto the end of his Danube account), so it's not nostalgia for the places, but for the time. In the late 1990s, he claims, Germany was an uncommon tourist destination, at least for English travelers, and this appealed to him:  "There are quite enough Englishmen at home without trying to run into them abroad."  He concedes that not everyone likes to depart the well-beaten path.  His neighbour, for example, had ventured to Turkey and reported,  "Turkey is quite unspoilt, and I won't go back again until they've spoiled it, because as it is now, it's horrible!"

This book made me nostalgic for the days when we read guide books, consulted the helpful people in various tourism boards, and visited the travel agency to buy our tickets.  What's more, we could still hope to go places that few other foreign travellers visited. Mr. Enfield asked the advice of the German Tourist Board staff, and they mapped out an itinerary for him, travelling along the 'Romantische Strasse' between Würzburg and Füssen, recommending routes, restaurants and sights and making hotel reservations for him. Already this very human mode of travel planning seems like a quaint relic now, when most people have taken to booking their own travel  using internet resources like TripAdvisor. And off the beaten track? Forget about it! You can find reviews of Antarctica lodging on TripAdvisor today.

In 1997, however, it's unlikely that Mr. Enfield carried a mobile phone with him as he cycled through Bavaria, leaving him totally free to absorb the beauties and quirks of the German countryside. Serendipity was with him when he arrived at Mad King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein castle late in the day, and the guard let him amble around inside after nearly all other tourists had left. (Ludwig wasn't entirely mad, he insists, just very eccentric and with a poor sense of budgets. His castle-building spree decimated the Bavarian Treasury.)

The section on Mr. Enfield's Polish cycling trip was  no less enjoyable. As I would expect him to do, he always bought the Berlitz tapes to learn at least some rudimentary phrases of the appropriate foreign language before he left home. Polish, however, completely thwarted him:  "It was the most difficult language with which I had ever meddled!" He grumbled that the written words often bore little resemblance to the spoken ones, and many phonemes simply eluded his pronunciation. (By contrast, he did quite well with the German umlauts.) The Poles seemed nonetheless delighted to see him, sometimes cycling alongside him and talking up a storm, seemingly indifferent to the fact that he understood none of it. He described horse-drawn carts full of potatoes, women wearing white head-scarves, and the dolour of Communist-era apartment blocks.

This is not an account of high adventure, or wildly exotic locations, but it's a tremendously pleasant bit of armchair travel.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark

When I reflect on what I learned of European history in my secondary school education in the U.S., I can only marvel at the enormous gaps.  For starters, I came away with the sense that a) Europe is comprised of the 'old countries', much older than the United States, and b) it has existed in its present configuration for many centuries.  The fact that the nations we today know as Italy and Germany, for example, are actually younger than the U.S. came as a shock.

One day I was browsing a list of e-books, and I came across this title. It gave me pause. Prussia. What did I know of Prussia? It was a German-speaking region, but where was it, exactly? Who were its key players? Why does its history end in 1947? I had no idea whatever, and that was simply mortifying.  So I downloaded the book.

Browse the shelves in a bookshop, and you can immediately gauge the thickness of each book. You look at the title, and then you notice that the book is thicker than your thumb is long. You ask yourself, do I really want to read about 800 pages of Prussian history?  With an e-book, however, the length is not immediately evident. I was not in fact really keen on 800 pages of Prussian history, but once I started, I was unwilling to set the book aside. In certain sections, I admit, I honed my rusty art of skimming.

The limited impressions of Prussia I had collected were largely negative: overly regimented, militaristic, misogynist. Mr. Clark provided me with the basis for these stereotypes but also enlightened me about the many ways in which Prussia was a pioneer in democratic, efficient and transparent government, education, and human rights.
Being Australian himself, Clark says, he has no personal agenda to either deride or salvage the Prussian reputation, and he does treat the Kingdom even-handedly.

In its earliest days, Prussia, centered around the Electorate of Brandenburg, was an amorphous entity, a far cry from the distinct character it would assume in later centuries.
Metternich famously remarked that Italy was a "geographical expression". The same could not be said of Brandenburg. It was landlocked and without defensible natural borders of any kind. It was a purely political entity, assembled from the lands seized from pagan Slavs during the Middle Ages and settled by immigrants from France, the Netherlands, northern Italy and England, as well as the German lands.
Austria had its Habsburgs, and Prussia its Hohenzollerns. They shared a language and occasionally got on well together but were more often rivals, jockeying for influence within the larger entity, the Holy Roman Empire. The Habsburgs usually came out on top in this particular power struggle.
How did this unpromising territory become the heartland of a powerful European state? The key lies partly in the prudence and ambition of the ruling dynasty. The Hohenzollerns were a clan of south-German magnates on the make... In 1417, Frederick Hohenzollern, Burgrave of the small but wealthy territory of Nuremberg, purchased Brandenburg from its then sovereign, Emperor Sigismund, for 400,000 Hungarian gold guilders. The transaction brought prestige as well as land, for Brandenburg was one of the seven Electorates of the Holy Roman Empire, a patchwork quilt of states and statelets that extended across German Europe. In acquiring his new title, Frederick I, Elector of Brandenburg, entered a political universe that has since vanished utterly from the map of Europe. The "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" was essentially a survival from the medieval world of universal Christian monarchy, mixed sovereignty and corporate privilege. It was not an"empire" in the modern Anglophone sense of a system of rule imposed by one territory upon others, but a loose fabric of constitutional arrangements centred on the imperial court and encompassing over 300 sovereign territorial entities that varied widely in size and legal status.
Presiding over this variegated political landscape was the Holy Roman Emperor. His was an elective office -- each new emperor had to be chosen in concert by the Electors -- so that in theory the post could have been held by a candidate from any eligible dynasty. Yet, from the late Middle Ages until the formal abolition of the Empire in 1806 the choice virtually always fell in practice to the senior male member of the Habsburg family.
It seems that historians are unable to pinpoint a precise trigger for the Thirty Years' War. In its early stages it seems to have been mostly a conflict between Europe's Catholics and Protestants, but as it involved more and more combatants, additional grievances came into play. The devastation, especially in the Germanic countries, was horrific. Clark suggests that the horrors of this war left the Prussians feeling united against their enemies and especially driven to develop a military to defend them from such hostilities in future. 
During the Thirty Years War (1618-48) the German lands became the theatre of a European catastrophe. A confrontation between the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II (r. 1619-37) and Protestant forces within the Holy Roman Empire expanded to involve Denmark, Sweden, Spain, the Dutch Republic and France. Conflicts that were continental in scope played themselves out on the territories of the German states: the struggle between Spain and the breakaway Dutch Republic, a competition among the northern powers for control of the Baltic, and the traditional great-power rivalry between Bourbon France and the Habsburgs. Although there were battles, sieges and military occupations elsewhere, the bulk of the fighting took place in the German lands.
Throughout Prussia's history, as its territory both grew and shrank, the kingdom's alliances shifted often. Perhaps it most solidly aligned its interests with that of the Holy Roman Empire (if not that of Habsburg Austria specifically). 
The Hohenzollern eagle shown on the ensigns of seventeenth-century Brandenburg always wore a shield proudly adorned with the golden sceptre of the Imperial Hereditary Chamberlain, a mark of the Elector's prominent ceremonial standing within the Empire. Frederick William saw the Empire as indispensable to the future well-being of his lands. The interests of the Empire were not, of course, identical with those of the Habsburg Emperor, and the Elector was perfectly aware that it might at times be necessary to defend the institutions of the former against the latter. But the Emperor remained a fixed star in the Brandenburg firmament.
Prussia started as an ill-defined bloc of land with few if any natural resources, came through the Thirty Years' War badly scarred, and still it grew.
At the close of the seventeenth century, Brandenburg-Prussia was the largest German principality after Austria. Its long scatter of territories stretched like an uneven line of stepping-stones from the Rhineland to the eastern Baltic.

Frederick William (1713-1740) held the title of King in Prussia, indicating that the duchy of Prussia had been elevated to a kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire. (In 1772, Frederick II, better known as Frederick the Great, would bear the title King of Prussia.)  Frederick William's ideas of governance struck me as very liberal for his time; he was certainly not the raving autocrat with his ministers that he was with his son. (More on that momentarily.)  He did expect them to work diligently for the people, which Clark terms the birth of the modern bureaucracy, but which I find refreshing. Frederick William also had a charmingly low tolerance for corruption. All in all, I could vote happily for a government like his.
At the apex of the General Directory, Frederick William installed what was known as a "collegial" decision-making structure. Whenever an issue had to be resolved, all the ministers were required to come together at the main table in the relevant department. Along one side sat the ministers, facing them on the other were the privy councillors of the relevant department. At one end of the table there was a chair left empty for the king -- a pro forma observance, since the king scarcely ever attended meetings. The collegial system delivered several advantages: it brought the decision-making process out into the open and thereby prevented (in theory) the empire-building by individual ministers that had been such a prominent feature of the previous reign; it ensured that provincial and personal interests and prejudices were balanced out against each other; it maximized the relevant information available to the decision-makers; most importantly, it encouraged officials to take a holistic view.
On the other hand, the conditions of employment and the general ethos of the General Directory do sound a familiar note from a present-day perspective. The ministers were expected to convene at seven in the morning in summer and eight in winter. They were expected to remain at their desks until the day's work was accounted for. They were required to come into the office on Saturdays in order to check the week's accounts. If they spent more than a certain number of hours at work on any particular day, a warm meal was to be provided at the expense of the administration, but served in two sittings, so that half the ministers could keep working while their colleagues ate. These were the beginnings of that world of supervision, regulation and routine that is common to all modern bureaucracies... 
Service in the General Directory offered fewer opportunities for illicit self-enrichment: a system of concealed supervision and reporting that ran through every tier of the organization ensured -- in theory at least -- that irregularities were immediately notified to the king. Serious offences met with punishments ranging from dismissal to fines and restitutions, to exemplary execution at the place of work. A notorious case was that of the East Prussian War and Domains Councillor von Schlubhut, who was hanged for embezzlement before the main meeting room of the Koenigsberg Chamber.
Here too begins Prussia's significant military history, both in practical terms and in the sense of fondness for military culture.  
When Frederick William came to the throne, the Prussian army numbered 40,000 men. By 1740, when he died, it had increased in size to over 80,000, so that Brandenburg-Prussia boasted a military establishment that seemed to contemporaries quite out of proportion to its population and economic capabilities. The king justified the immense costs involved by arguing that only a well-trained and independently financed fighting force would provide him with the autonomy in international affairs that had been denied to his father and grandfather. Yet there is also a sense in which the army was an end in itself, an intuition reinforced by the fact that Frederick William remained reluctant throughout his reign to deploy his army in support of any foreign-political objective. Frederick William was powerfully attracted to the orderliness of the military; he himself regularly wore the uniform of a Prussian lieutenant or captain from the mid-1720s onward and he could conceive of nothing more pleasing to the eye than the sight of uniformed men moving in ever changing symmetries across a parade square (indeed he flattened a number of royal pleasure gardens in order to convert them for this purpose and tried where possible to work in rooms from which drilling exercises could be viewed). One of the few indulgences in wasteful ostentation he allowed himself was the creation of a regiment of exceptionally tall soldiers (affectionately known as lange Kerls or "tall lads") at Potsdam. Immense sums were squandered on the recruitment from all over Europe of these abnormally tall men, some of whom were partially disabled by their condition and thus physically unfit for real military service.
I spotted one reader review of this book which lamented the paucity of personality profiles, especially in light of the remarkable characters who peopled this history.  I agree, because describing people's quirks  not only makes them more sympathetic but also renders them more memorable. Clark does not stint, however, on the personal life (as much as we know) of Frederick William's son, who would (somewhat amazingly) grow up to become Frederick the Great. The father was a rigid disciplinarian; the son was more inclined to read poetry, play the flute and form an intense friendship with a young military officer who was his tutor. None of these proclivities pleased the Elector.
The cold war that seethed between Frederick William and his own teenage son, the future Frederick the Great, puts all these earlier conflicts in the shade. Never had the struggle between father and son been waged with such emotional and psychological intensity. The roots of the conflict can be traced in part to Frederick William's profoundly authoritarian temperament. Since he himself had always been scrupulously respectful in his dealings with his father, even when he was forced by circumstance to join the opposition party, he was completely unable to understand any form of insubordination from his heir. Coupled with this was a conceptual and emotional inability to detach his own person from the administrative achievements of his reign, so that any failure of deference appeared to place his historical accomplishment, and the very state itself, in jeopardy. It seemed to him that the work he had laboured so hard to complete must collapse if the successor did not share "his belief, his thoughts, his likes and dislikes, in short, if the successor were not his mirror-image". It became clear early in Frederick's life that he would not fulfil these exacting designs. He showed little in the way of soldierly aptitude-- he often fell from his horse and was frightened of shooting. His posture and comportment were languid, his hair messy, he slept late, enjoyed being alone and was often to be found reading novels in the rooms of his mother and sister.
The Habsburgs encouraged the father to marry off the son to one of their princesses. To avoid this fate, young Frederick ran away with his friend, the officer. They didn't get far, and to make his stance perfectly clear, Frederick William required his son to watch the officer's execution. The marriage with the Habsburg princess did go through, but the bridegroom staunchly vowed that he would never consummate the marriage. Given that the marriage remained childless, and the wife turned into an unhappy, bored neurotic, history suggests he made good on this threat. It certainly did nothing to endear the Habsburgs to Frederick, who throughout his reign sought allegiances elsewhere. 
Austria's imperial tutelage over the Brandenburg-Prussian court was thus both a political and a personal reality for Frederick. The crisis of 1730 and its aftermath amplified the prince's distrust of the Austrians and reinforced his cultural and political attachment to France, Vienna's traditional enemy in the west.
As a ruler, Frederick proved astonishingly effective (in my mind, given the trauma of his youth) and less surprisingly, very enlightened.
So visceral was Frederick's need for the company and stimulation of books that he had a mobile "field library" fitted up for use during campaigns. Writing (always in French) was also important, not just as a means of communicating his thoughts to others, but also as a psychological refuge. It was always his aspiration to combine the daring and resilience of the man of action with the critical detachment of the philosophe. His coupling of the two species, encapsulated in the youthful self-description roi philosophe, meant that neither of his roles had an absolute claim over him: he passed as a philosopher among kings and a king among philosophers. ...
The king took his flute-playing seriously. His tutor, the virtuoso flautist and composer Quantz, was paid a salary of 2,000 thalers a year, which placed him on a par with some of the most senior civil servants in the kingdom -- by contrast, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, a composer of infinitely greater historical significance who worked for Frederick as a keyboard player, was paid only a fraction of this sum. Frederick practised and performed on the flute incessantly, with a perfectionism verging on the obsessive. Even during campaigns, his tuneful warbling could be heard at evening across the Prussian encampments. He was also a gifted composer, though his works were competent and graceful rather than brilliant. ...
He was also unusually relaxed on questions of sexual morality. Voltaire's memoirs recall the case of a man who was sentenced to death for engaging in sexual intercourse with a she-donkey. The sentence was personally annulled by Frederick on the grounds that "in his lands one enjoyed freedom of both conscience and penis". Whether or not this story is true (and Voltaire is not always to be trusted on such matters), it conveys an authentic sense of the libertinism that prevailed in Frederick's milieu.
Frederick the Great was the first European ruler to make any effort to limit the use of torture as an interrogation tool -- another facet of his progressive liberality.
Frederick extended this ban into a blanket prohibition, on the grounds that torture was not only "cruel" (grausam) but also unreliable as a means of getting at the truth, since there was always the danger that suspects would implicate themselves in order to avoid further torture.
The death of Frederick the Great in 1768 left a vacuum that proved impossible to fill.
The Frederician system worked well with the indefatigable, far-sighted Frederick at the helm, applying his quick and capacious intellect, not to mention his courage and decisiveness, to the problems that came to his desk. But what if the king were not a genius-statesman? What if he found it difficult to resolve dilemmas? What if he were hesitant and risk-averse? What, in short, if he were an ordinary man? With a monarch like that in the driving seat, how would this system function under pressure? Frederick, we should remember, was the last of a freakish run of abnormally gifted Hohenzollern rulers. Their like would not be seen again in the history of the Hohenzollern dynasty...  "Everything has collapsed into smallness," Count Mirabeau wrote, reflecting on the death of Frederick the Great in 1786.
Rule of Prussia passed to the childless Frederick's nephew, Frederick William II, who was of quite a different character, and was in no way suited to fill his uncle's vacated throne.
The uncle had remained loyal to the values of the high enlightenment, espousing a rigorously sceptical rationalism that seemed old-fashioned by the 1780s. The nephew was a man of his era who took an interest in spiritism, clairvoyance, astrology and other pursuits that would have disgusted his predecessor. The uncle had demonstrated his personal attachment to the ideals of the Enlightenment by joining the Freemasons when he was still crown prince. The nephew, by contrast, joined the Rosicrucians, an esoteric and secretive offshoot of Freemasonry dedicated to mystical and occult pursuits. Frederick the Great had managed, through rigorous economies in all domains of state activity, to leave behind a treasury of 51 million thalers; this staggering sum was squandered by his successor in only eleven years.48 And there were important differences in management styles. Whereas the uncle had constantly controlled and monitored the central executive, imposing his will on secretaries and ministers alike, the nephew was an impulsive, uncertain figure who was easily steered by his advisers.

Meanwhile, Poland declared itself a "free and independent nation", which pleased few Europeans outside of Poland.
In 1788-91, while the Russians were bogged down in a costly war with the Ottoman Empire, King Stanislaw August and a party of Polish reformers had taken the opportunity to press ahead with changes to the political system. The new Polish constitution of 3 May 1791 created, for the first time, a hereditary monarchy and the outlines of a functioning central government. "Our country is saved,"  its authors announced."Our freedoms are assured; we are a free and independent nation; we have shaken off the bonds of slavery and misrule." Neither the Prussians nor the Russians welcomed these developments. The creation of an independent Poland ran against the grain of nearly a century of Russian foreign policy. Frederick William II officially congratulated the Poles on their new constitution, but behind the scenes there was alarm at the prospect of a Polish revival. "I foresee that sooner or later Poland will take West Prussia from us," Hertzberg told a senior Prussian diplomat. "How can we defend our state against a numerous and well-ruled nation?"
So the Russians and Prussians (and a few of their friends) helped to demolish and dismantle the newly free Poland, divvying it up between them. This is a good illustration of being careful what you ask for, however, because Prussia was not necessarily in better circumstances after the fact.
Prussia was now isolated. Over the past six years, it had allied itself with -- and then abandoned --virtually every European power. The king's known predilection for secret diplomacy and chaotic double-dealing left him a lonely and distrusted figure on the diplomatic scene. Experience would soon show that unless Prussia could count on the assistance of a great power in defending the German demarcation line, the neutrality zone was indefensible and therefore largely meaningless. An issue of longer-term significance was the disappearance of Poland from the European map. Even if we set aside the moral outrage committed against Poland by the partitioning powers, the fact remains that independent Poland had played a crucial role as a buffer and intermediary between the three eastern powers. Now that it no longer existed, Prussia shared, for the first time in its history, a long and indefensible border with Russia. From now on, the fortunes of Prussia would be inseparable from those of its vast and increasingly powerful eastern neighbour.

The success against Poland boosted Prussian confidence and was soon followed by a ghastly defeat by Napoleon's troops at Jena.
The Prussian army had not merely been defeated; it had been ruined. In the words of one officer who was at Jena: "The carefully assembled and apparently unshakeable military structure was suddenly shattered to its foundations." This was precisely the disaster that the Prussian neutrality pact of 1795 had been designed to avoid. How did it come about? Why did the Prussians abandon the relative security of the neutrality pact to wage war against a French Emperor at the height of his powers?
One survivor of this abysmal campaign was Carl von Clausewitz, who went on to write the classic book (still studied in contemporary military academies), On War.  His philosophy is far from that of mindless subordination to the military hierarchy. In fact, it sounds surprisingly humane and intelligent.
The most influential expression of this sea-change in values was Clausewitz's On War, an encompassing philosophical treatise on military conflict that remained unfinished when the author died of cholera in 1831. In Clausewitz's typology of military engagements, soldiers were not cattle to be herded across the battlefield, but men subject to the vicissitudes of mood, morale, hunger, cold, weariness and fear. An army should not be conceptualized as a machine, but as a conscious willed organism with its own collective "genius". It followed that military theory was a soft science whose variables were partly subjective. Flexibility and self-reliance, especially among junior commanders, were vital.
At the same time, Wilhelm von Humboldt (brother of explorer and naturalist Alexander) revamped the Prussian education system with a philosophy that sounds stunningly modern. Fellow Europeans at the time were amazed that Prussia, renowned as an authoritarian culture, could espouse such a liberal system for education.
For the first time, the kingdom acquired a single, standardized system of public instruction attuned to the latest trends in progressive European pedagogy. Education as such, Humboldt declared, was henceforth to be decoupled from the idea of technical or vocational training. Its purpose was not to turn cobblers' boys into cobblers, but to turn "children into people". The reformed schools were not merely to induct pupils into a specific subject matter, but to instil in them the capacity to think and learn for themselves. "The pupil is mature," he wrote, "when he has learned enough from others to be in a position to learn for himself." ...
by the 1840s, over 80 per cent of Prussian children between six and fourteen were attending primary schools, a figure unmatched anywhere in the contemporary world except for Saxony and New England. Literacy rates were correspondingly high. Prussian education was noted and admired abroad not just for its effectiveness and near-universality of access, but also for the liberal tone of its institutions. ...
American educational reformer Horace Mann visited Berlin, he was surprised to observe that school children in Prussia were taught to exercise their mental faculties for themselves by teachers whose techniques were anything but authoritarian. "Though I saw hundreds of schools and tens of thousands of pupils," Mann wrote, "I never saw one child undergoing punishment for misconduct. I never saw one child in tears from having been punished, or from fear of being punished."  Liberal visitors from Britain frequently expressed their surprise that such a "despotic" political arrangement should have produced such a progressive and open-minded educational system.

Even the Iron Cross, perhaps one of Prussia's most iconic symbols, had a very democratic award system.
Nothing better encapsulates the demotic quality of Prussian wartime mobilization than the new decorations created to honour distinguished service to the fatherland. The Iron Cross, designed and introduced on the initiative of the monarch, was the first Prussian decoration to be awarded to all ranks. "The soldier [should be] on equal terms with the general, since people will know when they see a general and a soldier with the same decoration, that the general has earned it through merit in his capacity, whereas the soldier can only have earned it within his own narrower sphere."
The progressive thinking that was enlivening the Prussian military and educational systems was, however, not making its way into the home. If they didn't invent the slogan Kinder, Küche, Kirche -- indicating that women's place should be limited to children, church and kitchen -- the 19th-century Prussians surely grew to embrace it.
The patriot philosopher Fichte had been arguing since the late 1790s that active citizenship, civic freedom and even property rights should be withheld from women, whose calling was to subject themselves utterly to the authority of their fathers and husbands. The gymnastic movement founded by Jahn in 1811 was centred on esteem for a putatively masculine form of physical prowess, as was the aggressive patriotism of the poet and nationalist publicist Ernst Moritz Arndt. In the same year, a circle of patriots gathered in Berlin to found a Christian-German Dining Society whose statutes explicitly excluded women (along with Jews and Jewish converts). Among the society's early cultural events was a lecture from Fichte on the "almost unlimited subjection of the wife to the husband". But the wars sharpened these distinctions and etched them more deeply in public awareness. The equivalence established here between masculinity, military service and active citizenship would become steadily more pronounced as the century progressed.
Heinrich Heine was also on the receiving end of increasing social repression in 19th-century Prussia. 
The first Prussians to welcome him home were of course the customs officials, who made a thorough search of his luggage. In a sequence of sparkling quatrains, Heine evokes his experience at the Prussian border:
They snuffled and burrowed through trousers and shirts
And handkerchieves -- nothing was missed;
They were looking for pen-nibs and trinkets and jewels
And for books on the contraband list. You fools!
If you think you'll find anything here
You must have been sadly misled!
The contraband that travels with me
Is stored up here, in my head!
So many books are stacked in my head -- A number beyond estimation!
My head is a twittering bird's nest of books
All liable to confiscation!  
It would be absurd to deny that these verses captured something real about the Prussian state. The oppressive, humourless and pettifogging engagement of the Prussian censorship authorities with political dissent was widely lamented by freethinkers across the kingdom.
Sadly, the heavy-handed Prussian government had now begun issuing chauvinist directives insisting that Army officers not dance the tango or any other foreign and similarly scandalous dance steps. Advances in their military training, however, continued unabated and to great effect. In 1866, Prussia made short work of its centuries' old rival, Austria, in a brief skirmish grandly called the Austro-Prussian war. 
Between 1862 and 1864, while the Austrians cut their annual expenditure on target practice, relying instead on shock tactics, the Prussians introduced an extensive regime of marksmanship: infantrymen were trained to use their weapons at all ranges, educated about how to use their sights to compensate for the arc of a bullet and required to keep a record of their success or failure in a ‘shooting log’. Here, the military command could reap the rewards of Prussia's exemplary education system. Without the kingdom's exceptionally high rates of literacy and numeracy, a regime of this kind would have been impossible. All of this implied the cession of a much greater level of autonomy and self-governance to the rank-and-file soldier than was the norm in Europe's mid-century armies. The new Prussian infantry were -- in theory at least-- professionals, not cattle to be herded in the direction of the enemy by their officers. 
On 22 July 1866, Emperor Franz Joseph capitulated to the Prussians. The Austro-Prussian war was over, just seven weeks after it had begun. The Austrian Emperor was spared any annexations, but had to agree to the dissolution of the German Confederation and the creation of a new Prussian-dominated North German Confederation to the north of the river Main. Prussia secured carte blanche to exact annexations as it pleased in the north, with the exception of the Austrians' faithful ally, the Kingdom of Saxony. Schleswig and Holstein were annexed, along with part of Hesse-Darmstadt and the entirety of Hanover, Hesse-Kassel, Nassau and the city of Frankfurt. 
Finally, at long last, in 1871 came the Federation of German States, in which Prussia was a large and dominant but not sole participant. And the federation was not an entirely comfortable arrangement -- Bavaria and the other southern Catholic areas chafed against the belligerance and Protestantism of Prussia and the north.  
With the formation of a German national state, the Prussia whose history we have traced in this book came to an end. Prussia was no longer an autonomous actor on the international stage. It had to learn to inhabit the large and ponderous body of the new Germany. The demands of German nationhood complicated the inner life of the Prussian state, amplifying its dissonances, disturbing its political equilibrium, loosening some bonds while reinforcing others, bringing at once a diffusion and a narrowing of identities.
Now Otto von Bismarck predominates, while Chancellor of the German Federation, he was first and foremost a Prussian. This is one character that I wish Mr. Chase had painted with a bit more of an artistic brush. I'd have liked a more nuanced glimpse into his character. On the other hand, maybe he was nothing more than a bullish thug. One day maybe I'll pick up a biography and dig more deeply into his personality. (I mentioned this thought to a friend, who heartily advised against it. He referred to a biography of Bismarck by Jonathan Steinberg, whose characterisation of the Chancellor, he maintains, is all one needs to know: “a self-centred, neurotic, corrupt, vindictive, treacherous, unprincipled, despotic, gluttonous ingrate, and a habitual liar to boot.”)
...rebellious behaviour triggered outbursts of vengeful fury from Bismarck."From the Russian border to the Adriatic Sea," he told a Prussian cabinet meeting in the autumn of 1871,"we are confronted with the combined propaganda of Slavs, ultramontanes and reactionaries, and it is necessary openly to defend our national interests and our language against such hostile activities." Hyperbolic to the point of paranoia, this imagined scenario of Slavic-Roman encirclement revealed the depth of Bismarck's anxieties for the new Prussian-German nation-state. Here again was that paradoxical sense of fragility and beleagueredness that had dogged the Prussian state at every phase of its aggrandizement.
In the relationship between chancellor and Emperor-king, it was generally Bismarck who had the upper hand. William I did assert himself on occasions, and he was no "shadow figure", but he could generally be pressed, bullied, blackmailed or cajoled into agreement with Bismarck on matters of importance. William I had not wanted the war against Austria and he disapproved of the chancellor's political campaign against the Catholics. When there were disagreements, Bismarck could unleash the full force of his personality, hammering his arguments home with tears, rages and threats of resignation. It was these scenes, which the Kaiser found almost intolerable, that moved him to make the famous observation: "It is hard being Emperor under Bismarck."
One final anecdote in the book gives us the early 20-century view of Prussia/Germany as a culture that is enslaved to authority and, in particular, the power of the military uniform.  A middle-aged ne'er-do-well named Voigt bought a Prussian Army uniform in a second-hand shop. Disguised thus, he ordered some enlisted soldiers to follow his orders. This motley troupe went to a municipality and demanded of the authorities there that they hand over the town's funds, which they did. Voigt was captured shortly thereafter, and the municipal funds returned, but the incident became fodder for stage comedies and jokes all over Europe.  
At one level, of course, this was a parable about the power of a Prussian uniform. Voigt himself was an unimpressive figure whose appearance bore all the marks of a life spent in poverty and confinement -- a police report based on witness accounts described the hoaxer as "thin, pale, elderly,stooped, bent sideways and bow-legged". It was, as one journalist remarked, the uniform rather than its weatherbeaten inhabitant that carried off the crime. Seen in this light, Voigt's tale evokes a social setting marked by a servile respect for military authority. This message was not lost on contemporaries: French journalists saw in it further evidence of the blind and mechanical obedience for which the Prussians were famed; The Times commented smugly that this was the kind of thing that could happen only in Germany.
So there, in a nutshell (in my version) or in a steamer trunk (in Christopher Clark's case), is the history of Prussia, a nation that started from little, achieved much, and has since ceased to exist.