The Trial

I was browsing through my bookshelves the other day when I came across Franz Kafka’s Diaries. As I flipped through them I recalled reading his book, The Trial, in my university years. Kafka wrote this book in 1915 although it wasn’t published until 1925, two years after he died of tuberculosis. The Trail begins when a bank official, Joseph K, is arrested by two agents from an unknown agency. He is subjected to a tribunal in a neighbour’s house about a crime he never committed then is let free to wait for a summons from the nebulous Committee of Affairs. He receives the summons, goes to a court room in the attic of a large tenement building, but can’t discover anything about his crime or who is in charge of the Committee of Affairs. He consults a lawyer and discovers that he is being accused by a multi-layered, anonymous bureaucracy in which guilt is always assumed by unidentified judges. After several months, two men come to his apartment and take him to a quarry where they stab him in the heart with a butcher’s knife. Joseph K’s last words are, “Like a dog.”

This story had quite an impact on me at the time and for some reason still reminds me of Edward Munch’s painting, The Scream.  It also reminds me of something Malcolm Muggeridge wrote about when he was in Moscow in 1930. Evidently Ralph Barnes, an American reporter, managed to get an interview with someone high in ranks of the OGPU (a Russian secret police organization). Barnes asked the OPGU official why innocent people were arrested in the USSR. The official was overcome with laughter. “Of course we arrest innocent people, he said at last in effect; otherwise no one would be frightened. If people were only arrested for specific misdemeanours, all the others feel safe, and so are ripe for treason.” Muggeridge goes on: “Probably without meaning to he (the official) expounded the central doctrine of every terror, as well as all dictatorial government, so brilliantly exemplified by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and more imaginatively, in Kafka’s The Trial.  

Kafka wasn’t around in 1930, but he did live in Prague, part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire at the time, which was itself a gigantic bureaucratic merry-go- round that collapsed during World War I. So, he intuited what was going to happen in the future. Now nearly a century old The Trial remains relevant. If you read it governments in the Middle East as well as parts of Latin America and Asia may soon come to mind.


My handwriting

Generally my handwriting is almost completely illegible. I am left-handed by nature, but was taught to write with my right hand (nevertheless, my left hand is larger and stronger than my right). Perhaps the early childhood training might have something to do with the obscurity. In order to write legibly I need to go slowly and slant the letters to the right. It’s a cumbersome process, though I have to use it when writing any type of prose - letters, essays, fiction and so on. I envy my friend, Desmond Avery’s script. It’s entirely intelligible and has a quality of fine art to it.

Something different happens when I write poetry. The letters are generally vertical and to an onlooker, likely even more messy than the normal right-slanted arrangement. Yet I can read it. And I feel much more at ease than I do with prose and am receptive to the images and phrases that emerge. It might have something to do with the nature of poetry as more a contemplative art which doesn’t place the same demand on the author to continually lure the reader into turning the page. I can’t really explain it.

The March

The March, by E.L Doctorow, is a novel about General William Tecumseh Sherman’s southern military campaigns following his demolition of Atlanta. The basic narrative is simple – Sherman’s 60,000 or so men battle their way east to Savannah then swing north through South and North Carolina to meet up with General Grant’s army. The March not only emphasizes the carnage of battle, but the often wholesale looting and destruction of civilian possessions and property.  The impact of this on the reader comes from the lives of story’s characters. For example, Pearl, a young girl sired by a white plantation owner and her black mother, watches a Union foraging party take all the food, cattle and crops from the plantation then set fire to the house and other buildings. Pearl finds herself thrust into the swelling procession of other former slaves who are following Sherman’s army. Emily Thompson, a southern woman dispossessed of her belongings, joins the medical staff of Wrede Sartorius, a surgeon in the Union army. Later, she decides to spend her time gathering food for orphaned children in a devastated southern town. Arly, an opportunistic Confederate soldier, hijacks a photographer’s wagon and attempts to assassinate General Sherman under the pretext of taking his photograph. Near the end of the story, Wrede Sartorius is reassigned to the Surgeon General’s office in Washington. He meets Abraham Lincoln, who appears to him as man of humility with, “the weak, hopeful smile of the sick…” Sartorius senses that the President’s humility, “seemed to have been a favor to his guests that they would not see the darkling plain where he dwelled…His affliction, might, after all, be the wounds of the war he’d gathered into himself, the amassed miseries of this torn-apart country made incarnate.”

This is the first E. L Doctorow novel I’ve read and I find it difficult to say enough about it. He is a terrific writer.


The Fall

One of our oldest stories is that of the “Fall”,  or the separation of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. It is a short story (Genesis: 3) The theologian, Dietrich Bonheoffer, claims that much of it is composed in word pictures. There are two trees in this garden – the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, or Tob and Ra, both early Hebrew words. Tob is often translated as good, pleasing, pleasant, delightful, delicious, happy, glad, and joyful. Ra is bad, evil, disagreeable, displeasing, unpleasant, and harmful. God has forbidden Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge and when they do they are expelled from the garden. They are also separated from the Tree of Life and discover they will die. They will die biologically and also in the sense of separation from the Divine. And they are now imprisoned in a dualistic world where they make every effort to get hold of what they want (financial security, fame, love, good health etc.) and repel what undermines their longings. But the hallmark of the dualistic realm is suffering, suffering from the absence of the desirable and the frequent afflictions of the undesirable.

So, this short story is not an old folk tale or archeological relic, it is the story of the lives we live now. Consequently, the primary purpose of any religious teaching is to aid us in our release from this prison.

Downton Abbey

Like many people I look forward to watching episodes of the soap opera, Downton Abbey. The term “Soap opera” was first used to describe radio dramas sponsored by British soap manufacturers. I’ve always found them boring but I like history and from one perspective the main character in the series is Downton Abbey itself. It represents the extraordinary wealth and political sway that a few hundred titled families once possessed in England. Following World War I, high land and inheritance taxes along with labour shortages made the upkeep of many of these “Great Houses” suddenly untenable.

In any case, now that I’ve watched all the episodes of Downton Abbey currently shown in Canada I’m beginning to see how a “Soap” can be so compulsive. Its structure allows for many characters and an almost unlimited amount of “mini” dramas in one episode. For example, in the most recent one, the aging Sir Anthony Strallan makes a last minute bolt from the altar, leaving his bride to be, Edith Crawley, in terrible despair.  A former maid, Ethel Parks, has fallen into a life of prostitution. The venomous Miss O’Brien, Lady Grantham’s personal maid, utters gangster like threats to the under butler, Thomas Barrow.  Mr. Bates, the Earl of Grantham’s former valet, is still in jail after being accused of poisoning his former wife. The housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, awaits a medical report of possible breast cancer and Mathew Crawley ponders offering his new found fortune to prop up the dwindling finances of the Grantham family.

What will become of Lady Edith and Ethel Parks? Will Mathew save Downton Abbey? What of the fates of Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Bates. What evil is coming the way of Thomas? I find this something like a game of snakes and ladders. Some characters will fall into the snake pit (perhaps only temporarily) and others will find their fortunes in the ascendant. We are caught in a rhythmic cycle of holding our breaths until we can let out sighs of relief. Endless drama. It works. I can’t stop watching.


Steven Pressfield asks some questions of the reader in his book, The War of Art. A few of these include: Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let if gather dust in the attic? Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.

The War of Art is largely addressed to artists and writers – “There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is resistance.” Resistance, according to Pressfield, cannot be seen, touched, heard or smelled, but it can be felt. “We can experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.”

In my experience as a writer, resistance pushes and steers me into reading books, watching television, and reading newspapers. I know writers who would rather vacuum floors and wash dishes than sit down and write. If I’m in the midst of writing a long book demanding weeks or months of writing, I leave the day’s work with the last paragraph and sentence unfinished. The following morning I can finish the sentence and the paragraph and then it becomes much easier to plug into the work. Ernest Hemmingway always used this trick and I read about it somewhere and have used it ever since. It helps me walk through resistance, particularly when I’m writing fiction. I find non-fiction somewhat easier to write. A cookbook, for example can be arranged into particular chapters – meat, fish, vegetables and so forth. I’ve never been able to plan a work fiction further than a chapter or two and, consequently, resistance becomes potent.

Steven Pressfield is a fine author. I’ve read his Gates of Fire, a story about the famous Spartan/Persian battle of Thermopylae and in my opinion it is very good novel.  Here is another Pressfield quote about resistance: “You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Architecture. Ever seen one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say in anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War 11 than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.”

Politics and the English Language

A good friend gave me a copy of George Orwell’s Why I Write a few years ago. There are four essays in it and the one I was drawn to is Politics and the English Language. In this essay, Orwell claims that modern writing, “…consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.’’

He also sets out six rules to guide writers.

1.    Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2.    Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3.    If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4.    Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5.    Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6.    Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I am interested in the first of these rules. According to Orwell, “A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand one which is technically ‘dead’ (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power…” He offers some examples: take up the cudgels for, grist to the mill, Achilles’ heel, swan song, etc.

I believe Orwell has it right in his understanding of metaphors. Take two from T.S. Eliot’s, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” and “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas”. Both contain images that momentarily stop the mind. Fresh metaphors also arrest the continuity of the catch phrases which have an ongoing rhythm in what Orwell calls the “gummed together” words already set in order by someone else. I often find this sort of language in the speeches of political and religious ideologists, television journalism and academic periodicals. I believe that it blurs the clarity of innovative thought. Politics and the English Language was published in 1946. In my opinion it is even more relevant now that it was then.

A Ginger Bread House

I was trying to put together a store-bought Hansel and Gretel ginger bread house the other day when I recalled the role that Napoleon Bonaparte played in publication of the Grimm brother’s stories. Bonaparte’s armies occupied Germany from 1806 -1813, something which gave rise to a great deal of resentment among its inhabitants. They were upset when he conscripted their countrymen into his army and took great offence when the French language, as well as French laws and taxes, were imposed upon them in his efforts to create a continental European state.

Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were particularly incensed by all of this. The Grimms were philologists, devoted to the study of German literature and linguistics. In most circumstances they probably would have led quiet and uneventful academic lives. But, in those years the Grimms were young rebels with a cause. They began collecting folk tales. This wasn’t exactly “to the barricades” heroism under gunfire, but it was very important. At that time, Germans were in the growing pains of an identity crisis that was exacerbated by the French occupation, which they felt threatened their indigenous way of life. In 1812, when their Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Nursery and Household Tales) was published, the Grimms saw it as a means of salvaging authentic German culture and self-understanding. According to Jakob Grimm, they sought “in the history of German literature and language consolation and refreshment…from the enemy’s high spirits.” Their motivation was patriotic and the initial edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen was a scholarly and high-minded effort, with a lengthy introduction and complex annotations. It was a serious work for a serious audience.

The Grimms did enjoy some success with their book, but they also received their share of bad press. One reviewer claimed that it contained, “the most pathetic and tasteless material imaginable.” However, a few of their tales, particularly those which featured children suffering badly at the hands of their elders, such as “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” and “Hansel and Gretel,” did seem to catch the public’s attention. J. R. Tolkein once said that folk tales “entered the nursery when they became unfashionable, like old and battered pieces of furniture that are moved into a playroom.” This is an interesting notion, but it doesn’t really reflect the journey of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen. Following the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire and the withdrawal of the French from the Germany, the Grimm’s began to gear further editions of their folk tales to a younger readership. They quickly learned that they were not so much unfashionable, as they were largely unsuitable for an audience of children. They were tales that had been told for generations to adults in barns, kitchens, and back parlours. They were all good stories, but they were also riddled with the lewd and the violent. For example, in an 18th century version of “Little Red Riding Hood” the young heroine ate the flesh and drank the blood of her grandmother, then performed a strip tease for the wolf. Other tales featured incest and child mutilation. Still others hearkened back to dark centuries of poverty and starvation, when infanticide and child abandonment were not uncommon.

“Hansel and Gretel” is one of these latter stories. An early version featured the wife of an indigent woodcutter who connived with her husband to rid themselves of their two children by abandoning them in a dark forest inhabited by a cannibalistic witch. The witch lived in a cottage “made of cakes with panes of pure sugar” that she used as a hunter might a baited trap for small animals. She lured the starving children inside and cast a spell on them. However, the two children, through their own wiles, eventually managed to kill her and return home.

Successive versions of the stories in their folk-tale collections reflect the Grimm’s response to an audience increasingly sensitive to the abuse and public misfortunes of children. Modifications were made in tales involving cruel parents. In “Hansel and Gretel,” “Cinderella,” and “Snow White,” the maternal figure was transformed into a stepmother, a change that distanced the natural family mother from any guilt or possible association with the evil witch. Frightening male figures were also presented in a different light. In “Hansel and Gretel” the woodcutter was cast as a basically good man nagged and deluded by the stepmother. Foreign translations also included these alterations.  The Grimms, however, played no part in the final metamorphosis of their “Hansel and Gretel” tale. This was left to a German composer in the Wagnerian mould by the name of Englebert Humperdinck. (Not to be confused with the romantic crooner from Leicester, England, Arnold George Dorsey of There Goes My Everything fame, who appropriated the Humperdinck moniker for stage purposes). The real Humperdinck seized upon the Grimm’s story and wrote an opera in that name. It was performed in Weimar to great acclaim in 1893.

The Humperdinck opera features a poor broom maker and his wife, a caring woman suffering the travails of poverty. She is the natural mother of their two children, and, one day, asks them to go to the woods to pick strawberries. When they do not return, both parents become distraught and run out to search for them. Meanwhile, the children have been netted by the witch, who casts a spell on them and begins to fatten Hansel for the table. However, Gretel tricks her and pushes her into her oven. Then, she uses a magic wand to release other children who were under the witch’s spell. At this point the parents rush in and the father sings:

     Now you see the finished plot.

     How the wicked witch was caught.

     Lost her head, now she’s dead,

     Turned into gingerbread….

     Heaven has a hand to lend.

     Wicked deeds will have an end.

The Humperdinck version of “Hansel and Gretel” absolves the parents from anything resembling infanticide or child abandonment, a transformation critical to family sensibilities. It is also in accord with an “Alice in Wonderland” view of the tender innocence of children that surfaced during the latter half of the 19th century and was used very effectively in popular Victorian advertisements for such things as soap and butter. Humperdinck made one other critical change. The witch’s cottage was no longer built of bread and cakes. To the delight of gingerbread bakers everywhere it was made of gingerbread, chocolate, and sugar candy. The roof was covered in Turkish delight, the windows sparkled with white frosting, and the chimneys were made of red peppermint. Furthermore, in a remarkable, semi-religious transfiguration of the diabolical into the edible, the witch turned into gingerbread when she was pushed into the oven!

Englebert Humperdinck was to write several other operas, none of which are particularly memorable. However, his “Hansel and Gretel” met with great success wherever it was played, and it eventually catapulted the gingerbread house into the Christmas orbit, where it has remained ever since, a glittering talisman of Holiday charm and parental devotion.


John Le Carre

Having reread John Le Carré’s highly successful, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, I’ve come to some conclusions about his literary career. His first espionage novel, Call for the Dead, was followed by a crime story titled, A Murder of Quality. Both feature his well known character, George Smiley.  The Spy Who Came in from the Cold has Smiley in a peripheral role, but the story includes a lot of espionage techniques (which are always absorbing for readers of spy stories), and its main character, Alex Leamas, has a sinister counterpart in the East German Intelligence Service by the name of Hans–Dieter Mundt . Le Carré’s next three books were less successful. One of them was a dreary romance novel.

His next book, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy came out in 1974 and was even more successful than The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. There are significant parallels between the two novels. Le Carré resurrected George Smiley, (a more subtle and complex man than Alex Leamas) as the lead character in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. It also has a great deal of espionage tradecraft along with several minor characters that are fascinating in their own right.  But the brilliant addition is the insertion of Karla, George Smiley’s malignant, shadowy, archenemy.  John Le Carré’ is a fine prose stylist and he creates wonderful characters. However in my opinion it is the virtually primordial struggle between Smiley and Karla, mirroring to a large degree the protracted conflict of the Cold War, which sets this story, along with his two succeeding Smiley novels, The Honourable Schoolboy,

On Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth

The other day I came across Thomas De Qunicey’s On Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth. I remember reading this essay in high school. I don’t recall what my response to it was at the time, but I found rereading it interesting.  It begins: “From my boyish days I had always felt a great perplexity on one point in Macbeth. It was this: - the knocking at the gate which succeeds to the murder of Duncan produced to my feelings an effect for which I could never account. The effect was that it reflected back upon the murderer a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity …”

Further on in his essay, De Quincey attributes this “peculiar awfulness” to a dramatic technique employed by Shakespeare: “Another world has stepped in; and the murderers are taken out of the region of human things, human purposes, human desires. The murderers, and the murder, must be insulated – cut off by an immeasurable gulf from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs … Hence it is that, when the deed is done … and the knocking at the gate is heard … the reestablishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live first makes us profoundly sensible to the awful parenthesis that has suspended them.” In other words, the audience is drawn into an abnormal world of darkness and blood and the simple knocking at a gate ignites an awakening to the “peculiar awfulness” that has taken place. This implies that we can only really know the full reality of an experience when are both inside and outside of it. De Quincy’s insight is in his understanding of its use as a type of literary sleight of hand.