30 July 2021

The Power and the Glory

The Power and the Glory

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the third time I have read The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene, which is set in Mexico in the 1930s, when the Roman Catholic Church was being persecuted by the revolutionary Mexican government. This story is about a priest on the run from the police, knowing that if he is caught he will face a firing squad. 

The previous time was nearly fifty years ago. Though I remembered the main plot outline, I had forgotten many details. This time I read it soon after reading two others by the same author, Stamboul Train, and The Quiet American, and I think this one is by far the best of his novels.

Perhaps because I was more familiar with it I noticed different things about it on the third reading. The first thing that struck me was the quality of the prose, which struck me as much better than the other two books, and also better than most other fiction I have read recently.

When I first read it at the age of 22 I was quite harsh in my judgement on the whisky priest protagonist. His last thoughts recorded in the book were an admission of failure.

He felt only an immense disappointment that he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him, at that moment, that it would have been quite easy to be a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew that at the end there was only one thing that counted -- to be a saint.

Any my main thought when I finished reading the book was "What a pity that he missed it, that he didn't show a little self-restraint, a little courage.

But reading it when older, I see it differently. We can only ever come to God empty-handed. And God can use even our failures. Everything that we do that is worthwhile is the Holy Spirit's work, and all that isn't is our interference. 

Also, since becoming Orthodox I tend to see things a bit differently. In the Orthodox Church the Sunday after Pentecost is All Saints Day. Being a saint is the effect of the Holy Spirit in the life of a person. We also, soon after Pentecost, celebrate the fathers of the various Ecumenical Councils. It is the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that makes these things possible. 

And for Orthodox Christians, the primary sign of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit is not, as it is for Pentecostals, speaking in tongues, but the acquisition of a merciful heart. And this is what struck me most on this third reading of this book -- that the whisky priest, whatever his failings, acknowledged those failings, and acquired a merciful heart.

So at this reading I came to a different conclusion: he didn't feel like a saint, and just for that reason he was one.

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21 July 2021

On The Road With Al and Ivy: A Homeless Literary Chronicle

I never much liked the published version of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, but the original "scroll" version, described in this blog post, sounds much more interesting. I'll be on the lookout for a copy. On The Road With Al and Ivy: A Homeless Literary Chronicle: On The Road With Al and Ivy: A Homeless Literary Chronicle - May 2021:
In 2009, the unpublished 1951 version of Jack Kerouac's book, "On The Road" was released and gave many of the admirers of the 1957 version a chance to revisit the work and it's legacy.

Allen Ginsberg, the legendary Beat poet and close friend, felt that the 1957 version of the book had removed much of the "mad energy" and life of Kerouac's story. Which is true, the Original "Scroll" version, which was typed out on eight long sheets of drafting paper and taped together into a single scroll, differs in some important ways.

The 1957 version was toned down, particularly in sexual details like the sexuality of some of the characters and all of the people in the book were given fictitious names. Which given the straight laced atmosphere of the 50s era, wasn't surprising, and using the real names of living persons can make any book risky to publish.

The Original Scroll (like it's later published version) had an episodic approach to story telling, moving from one scene to another as it appeared in Kerouac's head, as opposed to events tied to a linear time frame. He spends time in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, yet describes very little of what he saw. Days or weeks are often covered with a single sentence, yet many pages are devoted to conversations with a friend or friends, and if he's waiting for money to come via mail (or wages on payday), he'll just skip over to it's arrival and then the narrative becomes full again.

The first book of Jack Kerouac's that I read, back in 1960, was The Dharma Bums, and I liked it a lot better than On the Road and indeed most of his other books. When I first heard of Jack Kerouac, he was presented to me as a pilgrim of the Absolute, and a symbol of a counterculture. I could find those easily in The Dharma Bums, but not so easily in On the Road. But perhaps reading the original scroll version will give a different view.

16 July 2021

New meanings for old words: Based

I knew what "based on" meant, but then I started seeing some strange usage of "based" on social media. People started talking about things being "based" off, or just "based", and I didn't know what they were talking about. 

I asked on the question & answer site Quora, but no one there was able to tell me. I then asked on Twitter, and Duncan Reyburn kindly gave me the answer:

'Based' is almost equal to Heidegger's notion of authenticity. It's a complement[aic], usually meaning something like 'courageous or not caring what others think'. The opposite of 'based' is 'cringe'. 'Based off' (usually with an 'of') at the end is just bad English for 'based on'.

So I post this in case anyone else was wondering what these expressions meant. 

"Based" looks as though it might be quite a useful word, but I'm not sure about "cringe". Cringe is what I do when someone utters opinions that are not based. Perhaps the older "politically correct" is more appropriate there -- uttering opinions because you think it is politic to do so because you fear the power of those who hold them. But yes, that is cringing too. 

"Based off" is somewhat different. I did know the meaning of "based off", it's just that people seemed to be using it in contexts where it made no sense. Something could, for example, be "based off the coast of Italy", meaning that it was based on an offshire Island somewhere. Back in the 1960s there were pirate radio stations based off the coast of Britain, on ships out at sea. In those contexts the usage makes sense, but in the ways I have seen it used in social media recently it did not. Unless "off" is the new "on" -- "Turn off the light -- it's too dark to see in here.". 



02 July 2021

She plays with the darkness

She Plays with the Darkness

She Plays with the Darkness by Zakes Mda
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Zakes Mda tells the truth about southern Africa, in that he gives a good picture of life and what makes people tick in various parts of the subcontinent; in this case, Lesotho. People sometimes distinguish between "character-driven" and "plot-driven" novels, and this one is definitely character driven.

The protagonists are the ambitious materialistic Radisene, who is always pursuing get-rich-quick schemes, and his mystical rather other-worldly sister Dikosha. They grew up in the mountain village of Ha Samane, and Zakes Mda paints a picture of village life which one cannot help but feel is authentic (Mda, though born in South Africa, grew up in such a village in Lesotho when his parents became political refugees). Like most small rural communities, Ha Samane thrives on gossip, and everyone knows everyone's business, with the exception of Radisene, who moves to the capital Maseru as soon as he leaves school. And Dikosha, who lives in a world of her own, with people of the past.

There are other memorable characters too. There is Sorry My Darlie, the professional soccer player who incites Radisene's envy and ambition with his affluent lifestyle, but he is also consumed by a hopeless unrequited love for Dikosha. There is the policeman, Trooper Motsohi, whose fortunes rise and fall usually in opposite cycles to Radisene, and also with the political changes in Lesotho, which are punctuated by coups. So when Trooper Motsohi is in the ascendant, Radisene's fortunes decline, but when the wheel turns their positions are reversed, and as the story progressed I was constantly reminded of the Tarot card of the Wheel of Fortune, which seemed to apply to the lives of many of the characters.

I remember the 1970 coup in Lesotho, when Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan, on discovering that he had lost an election, got the army to seize power and keep him in power. At the time we thought it was Greek-style democracy, as a group of colonels had seized power in Greece three years earlier in similar circumstances. This was featured in the film Z. A couple of years later the same thing happened in Chile. There was a saying, "Where there's a coup, there's a Colonel" and we used to speak of "Colonelissimo in Excelsis Leabua Jonathan". But what we didn't realise at the time was the extent of repression of the the ordinary citizens of Lesotho, which Zakes Mda brings out in his book.

It is a rather sad book, as we follow the lives and fortunes (and misfortunes) of the main characters, but also there is the feeling of life going on, seed-time and harvest, births and funerals, continue as people appear on the scene and depart.

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01 July 2021

Puck, plague and history

King Of Shadows

King Of Shadows by Susan Cooper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A surprisingly moving story about an orphan boy actor who is magically transported 400 years back from the 20th century to the original Globe theatre, where he performs in A Midsummer Night's Dream which he had been rehearsing for in his own time) and meets William Shakespeare himself.

This was the third book by Susan Cooper I'd read in the last couple of months, and I liked it a lot better than her The Dark is Rising. It invites comparison with another book I read not so long ago -- Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill -- see my review here.  

Both books feature Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream, and in both books children are plucked out of their own time into the past and discover something of past history. But I think Susan Cooper tells a better story, and tells it better than Kipling. I think Kipling's Kim is far better than his Puck of Pook's Hill, and have read that several times, but Kim is a spy story and a Bildungsroman, not fantasy.

King of Shadows also features bubonic plague, and reminded me of another historical fantasy book that featured that, which seemed appropriate reading for our times of quarantine. For more on that, and other plague-time reading, see Physical distance and social proximity in a time of plague.

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