Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Posted July 20, 2014 by Don
Categories: Book reviews

There was an Old Lady of Chertsey,
Who made a remarkable curtsey;
  She twirled round and round
  Till she sank underground,
Which distressed all the people of Chertsey.
–Edmund Lear

This is a hybrid work that will be of interest to those who have come to love Tolkien’s own legendarium, indebted as it was to his study of the myths of northern Europe, as well as to those who have a scholarly interest in the Beowulf poem itself.

Tolkien wrote a prose translation of Beowulf for use in his Oxford lectures, but never cleaned it up enough for publication. Included along with the prose translation is a Commentary, also never readied for publication, which Tolkien’s son Christopher has edited for the present work.


The prose translation pales a bit compared to verse translations that are out there, notably the 2000 edition by Seamus Heaney. The Commentary is really the heart of this volume and makes it worthwhile. Tolkien spills a tremendous amount of ink, as only a dedicated scholar could, on the meaning of Old English words and the likely completions of certain gaps in the text. Unfortunately, Tolkien left off the Commentary about two-thirds of the way through the poem. Even with Christopher’s effort to fill up the Commentary with notes from elsewhere, there simply isn’t the kind of attention devoted to the last third of the poem as to the earlier portion. We’ll have to settle for what we have.

The book also contains the “Sellic Spell” (Old English for “wondrous tale”), Tolkien’s attempt to get at the core of the Beowulf story. This is written in prose in both modern English and Old English. Finally, there is a “Lay of Beowulf,” a modern verse telling of the story in a brief ten pages.

For the reader of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, reading Beowulf is a reminder of the source material for Smaug and the Golden Hall of Rohan. Last but not least are four drawings by Tolkien–including, on the cover, a whimsical dragon in a Celtic curl.


Group Portrait With Lady and The Lost Honor of Katharine Blum, Two Novels by Heinrich Böll

Posted July 17, 2014 by Don
Categories: Book reviews, Germany

CECILY.  Horrid Political Economy!  Horrid Geography!  Horrid, horrid German!
The Importance of Being Earnest, II

German novels haven’t done well in English translation. Foreigners may know that the greatest German poet wrote Werther, but it isn’t read and may as well have been a short story or the opera libretto. Only specialists and college students in the Anglosphere know anything about Elective Affinities or Wilhelm Meister.

So, a German novelist, even a Nobel-prize winner, has something to prove to an American audience. Can Böll out-Faulkner Faulkner? Is his Katharine Blum the equal of Leopold Bloom?

Of the two novels under consideration, Group Portrait is much longer and more complex than Katharina Blum–but both use fragmented perspectives drawn together by an anonymous narrator. In Group Portrait, the narrator is called “the Author” or (“the Au.”). He tells little about himself, though his vanity comes through in the telling; he insists on reporting on the circumstances of each interview, for example:

The Au. (who had fallen behind in his research because of the Clay/Frazier fight) felts some twinges of conscience over the financing of his investigations and the related question of how much the income-tax department was bound to lose.

The Au. in this way resembles so many writers of interminable magazine articles of the New Journalism.

Group Portrait is a life story of Leni Gruyten Pfeiffer, born in 1922 in the Rhineland. She attends a Catholic girls’ boarding school, has a hasty arranged marriage to a man whom she doesn’t really care for and who dies on the Eastern Front soon after. Her true love is a Soviet POW, Boris Lvovich, whose connections enable him to mix with the locals. He meets Leni while employed in a local wreath-making operation. At the time of the Au.’s investigations, she is living alone at age 48 in 1970 and is close to being evicted from her apartment.

As the title suggests, the book develops the lives of the other characters as well. Those still living at the time of the Au.’s investigation give interviews, which he describes. There is a List of Characters at the beginning, recalling War and Peace.

In a ridiculous attempt to be dispassionate, the author consults an encyclopedia on the subject of tears, weeping, laughter, bliss, pain, and suffering, to which he then makes reference throughout as T., W., L., B., P., and S. If you dozed off in the original passage, you need to mark it and turn back for reference. (If a reader did such a thing.)

In Katharine Blum, by contrast, the narrator is invisible, though the various sources of information are identified up front:

  For the following account there are a few minor sources and three major ones; these will be named here at the beginning and not referred to again. Major sources are: the transcripts of the police interrogation; Hubert Blorna (attorney); and Peter Hach (public prosecutor, also high-school and university classmate of Hubert Blorna). It was Hach who–in confidence, needless to say–supplemented the transcripts and reported certain measures taken by the police investigators as well as the results of their inquiries absent from the transcripts: not, we hasten to add, for official purposes but solely for private use. Hach was genuinely affected by the concern and frustration suffered by his friend Blorna, who could find no explanation for the whole affair and yet, “when I come to think about it,” found it “not inexplicable, but almost logical.” Since the case of Katharine Blum will, in any event, remain more or less fictitious, because of the attitude of the accused and the very awkward position of her defense counsel Blorna, such minor and very human lapses in conduct as those committed by Hach may be not only understandable but forgivable.

  The minor sources, some of greater and some of lesser significance, need not be mentioned here, since their respective implication, involvement, relevancy, bias, bewilderment, and testimony will all emerge from the report.

From the first few pages, we learn that Katharine has turned herself in for murdering a man in her apartment on Sunday of Carnival week in 1974 (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday). The story then moves back to the start of Carnival on the previous Thursday to explain how the crime came to be.

Katharine is a twenty-seven-year-old housekeeper for a professional couple, the Blornas–he is an attorney, and she is an architect. Katharine was married for only six months at the age of twenty-one, and then left her husband. She lives alone and is entirely in control of her finances and all aspects of her personal life, emotionally and physically. When at a party on Thursday, she meets a man whom the police have identified as a suspected terrorist.  She is brought in for extensive questioning, which is leaked to the newspapers. Sensational speculation follows about her involvement. (“Katharina Blum, Outlaw’s Sweetheart, Refuses Information on Male Visitors,” is the first headline of many articles that appear between Friday and Sunday.) Eventually, she brings the chief reporter to her apartment and shoots him. The novel was published in 1974, during the time of the Baader-Meinhof Gang (think of the Symbionese Liberation Army and Patty Hearst, also in the news at this time).

Both novels are ironic and careful to avoid any sentimentality. The reader will sympathize with Leni Pfeiffer and with Katharine Blum in their misfortunes, but neither one is Little Nell.

Both involve Church figures–more obviously in Group Portrait, where a nun from Leni’s boarding school is a major influence on her life and an important source of information. Several Jesuits also are interviewed. The author shows no piety of any sort and apparently no scruples in seducing a younger nun and encouraging her to leave religious life.

In Katharine Blum, there are no religious or clergy who play an important role in the story. Katharine shows no interest in the Church (it is not even clear whether she is Catholic or Lutheran–her celebration of Carnival appears entirely secular). Her parents were suspected of heretical or Communist sympathies and became estranged from the local pastor, who is apparently quoted in the wild first article as saying, “I wouldn’t put anything past her. Her father was a Communist in disguise, and her mother, whom on compassionate grounds I employed for a time as a charwoman, stole the sacramental wine and carried on orgies in the sacristy with her lovers.” The Blornas also come under suspicion, and Herr Blorna is almost provoked to violence. Katharina’s mailbox overflows with hate letters.

One learns something of the view of West Germans in the 1960s and 1970s, looking back on the experience of the World Wars (in Group Portrait) and dealing with the confused political present (in Katharine Blum). Both exude the odor of western Europe circa 1970–Danish Modern in a smart apartment block, lust for Virginia cigarettes, and something less than delight with the Turkish guest workers. The humor is of the Cologne variety, neither Southern American nor Irish.




The Weed Agency, by Jim Geraghty

Posted July 14, 2014 by Don
Categories: Book reviews

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow . . .
 –Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”

An economics professor at Virginia co-authored a detective novel, Murder at the Margin, as a way of teaching economics less dismally. The Weed Agency is that type of book, with the subject of the federal bureaucracy. As Geraghty explains in his Author’s Note, there is not a U.S. Department of Agriculture Agency of Invasive Species, but there are (1) the Federal Interagency Committee for the Management of Noxious and Exotic Weeds, (2) the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, and (3) the Federal Interagency Committee on Invasive Terrestrial Animals and Pathogens. So, the AIS could exist without too much stretching.

AIS, the Weed Agency of the title, exists to study and control invasive plant species. (There is no mention of kudzu, a barely forgivable lacuna.)

The author’s ear for comedy, practiced over the last decade in his regular postings at National Review Online, serves him well in the back-and-forth among AIS members and between them and the members of Congress who, from time to time and never with success,  threaten to close the agency down or slow its rate of growth. Geraghty tracks the growth of AIS by setting out the national debt and AIS budget numbers at the top of each chapter. There’s nowhere to go but up.

The story begins in February 1981, when Nicholas Bader, a zealous staffer of the new Reagan administration, visits the Agency with news that he plans to get it shut down. The Administrative Director, Adam Humphrey, is ready and deftly deflects Bader’s battle-ax with a story about Soviet plans to destroy American crops with the “Halogeton” weed. The novel even reproduces part of the report over several pages of text, reproducing the bad copy quality of 1981 and plain Courier font. (It’s a small disappointment that the book does not include any other mock memos, though there are several footnotes to the text to show where Geraghty is relying on real events.)

From there, it’s a tour through political Washington from the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress to 9-11, the War on Terror, and the Obama administration. In a hilarious scene recalling all the glory of the Newt Judges You Tumblr, Newt’s threat to shut down the Agency reverses course when a staffer is able to razzle-dazzle him with the promise of an Agency webpage.

In a subplot, Ava Summers, the technology systems analyst who so impressed Newt, heads out to Silicon Valley to make some quick money but blows up in a dot-bomb and finds her way back to Washington and the Weed Agency, which is still going strong.

Bader returns to the story when he is elected as a Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania, and his climactic showdown with Humphrey is appropriately portentous and ridiculous at the same time.



Francis of Assisi, by Augustine Thompson, O.P.

Posted May 12, 2014 by Don
Categories: Book reviews

When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.
–Joseph Brodsky, “December 24, 1971

This is probably not the book to pick up if you don’t know much about St. Francis of Assisi. Thompson’s goal was to get past the pious legends and evaluate the facts of the saint’s life as well as can be done eight hundred years later: “We are fortunate to have a great mass of stories, anecdotes, reports, and writings about Francis dating from his own century, most of which scholars now consider in some or all respects ‘legendary.’ This life is the first sustained attempt in English to treat these medieval sources for Francis in a consistently, sometimes ruthlessly, critical manner. The goal is to reveal, as much as we can, the man behind the legends.” There is a “Franciscan Question,” not unlike the search for the “historical Jesus,” and Thompson devotes a ten-page essay in the notes to the state of the question.

Thompson does not rule out miracles. Though the Wolf of Gubbio is mentioned only to say that he won’t be mentioned (not even as a metaphorical brigand and “wolf,” as some now argue), miracles do appear, most notably the stigmata, which were witnessed by many. Unlike the marks on St. Padre Pio, the stigmata on St. Francis actually resembled nails protruding from his flesh. Thompson also recounts several stories of physical and spiritual healings brought about by Francis.

The book is best in the first chapters on the early life of the saint and his seemingly involuntary accretion of a movement around himself. Finding refuge  in abandoned churches and chapels, the Franciscans took on the cleanup of these holy places as their calling. They called out “Peace and Good” to all they met, and this caused some dispute over whether it was a blessing and whether they were qualified to give it.

Francis himself, in his stubborn devotion to the hard demands of the Gospel, was the rule for the rest before there was a Rule for their order that was not yet an Order. The original “rule” was the result of sortes biblicae–picking three verses from the Bible at random: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mk 10:17-21) “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.” (Lk 9:1-6) “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross and follow me.” (Mt 16:24-28)

Yet Thompson sees Francis as a man of the Church without question and orthodox. The pilgrimage to the court of Innocent III by Francis and his first followers resulted in their being tonsured, Thompson concludes, so that the Franciscans were clerics early on. There is no question in Thompson’s account that Francis was ordained a deacon and served the liturgy with devotion, saying his daily Office.

He seems to have had no talent for organization or desire to be a leader of a growing movement; others whom he attracted had those gifts, such as Brother Elias, appointed by Francis as superior (though Francis continued to give direction). It was normal in religious orders to be vegetarian, but Francis would not impose this on his brothers. Rather, he saw greater virtue in eating what was available and put before you, as if abstaining was a kind of epicurianism. An episode, either inspiring or horrifying, involves Francis demanding to be disciplined for eating meat, though it was not against the rule. His “superior” tearfully followed through with imposing the penance that Francis demanded–leading Francis by a rope into the crowded main piazza of Assisi, where he piled ashes on the Saint’s head and Francis confessed his fault in public.

The familiar story of Francis and the Sultan receives delicate treatment. In Thompson’s view, Francis escaped death because he was careful never to speak ill of Islam in his preaching to the Sultan, but only positively preached of Christianity. Others stepped over that line and did not return.

The text barely exceeds 140 pages, and the notes are just as long. Another pass by an editor would have been useful, as some stories are repeated apparently without purpose.


Assisi roof (Wikimedia Commons)

Assisi roof (Wikimedia Commons)

The Great Debate, by Yuval Levin

Posted March 26, 2014 by Don
Categories: Book reviews

How so e’er, my man
Shall reade a piece of VIRGIL, TACITUS,
LIVIE, or of some better booke to us,
Of which wee’ll speake our minds, amidst our meate . . . .
–Ben Jonson, “Inviting a Friend to Supper”

I have an edition on the shelf that packages Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France with Paine’s Rights of Man. This is a natural pairing, especially for the classroom, to compare and contrast. This book by Yuval Levin provides a discussion of the writings of Burke and Paine, not only the Reflections and Rights of Man, but also Burke’s letters and speeches and Paine’s Common Sense.

Burke is often invoked by contemporary American conservatives as their inspiration, but Levin makes clear that Burke never renounced his Whiggery. Recoiling emotionally from the cold logic of the French Revolution, Burke attempted most famously in the Reflections, but also in his letters, speeches, and other works, to articulate a political philosophy of small “c” conservatism–appreciating what the culture had inherited because it was inherited, while admitting incremental change where necessary. Paine, on the other hand, was ready to make a new world order and had no patience. They are the bookends of American revolutionary thought and practice–America continued the legal system and terminology that had come with Englishness (did the courts of the Revolution consider themselves bound by a Gallic Rule in Shelley’s Case?), even keeping the outlines of the colonies for the new states, while at the same time breaking the claims of the British Crown. Contrast this to France, where units of measure were digitized, provinces were suppressed in favor of departments, and for a time, even the days of the week and months of the year were relabeled. The American method never let the novel entirely have its way.

What may be new to the reader familiar with the major works is the personal relationship between the two men, who if not friends, were at least well acquainted and exchanged some correspondence. Paine, especially, wrote several articles that were specifically in response to Burke. In Levin’s telling, despite the chasm that yawned between them regarding how the world was and should be, they got along tolerably well, and each maintained some esteem for the other. Levin holds them up as an example to the talkers of today–it may really be possible to have great disagreements without wishing the other person the worst. As for the substantive influence of his subjects, Levin writes that the Democrats have more of Paine in them than the Republicans do of Burke.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the book resembles a Ph.D. thesis between covers, what we used to call a “close reading of the text.” Levin needed to put Burke and Paine in context for their own times (with discussion of other contemporary philosophers and politicians, which he never really does in any detail) and today (which he finally does in the last chapter). This is disappointing, in that Levin’s articles are always very good. Expanding to book length requires other kinds of writing–the digression, the colorful anecdote, varying tone to maintain interest, etc.  He lets loose a bit in the footnotes, where there is some textual discussion, though not quite in a law-review style.



The End, by Ian Kershaw

Posted March 16, 2014 by Don
Categories: Book reviews

It was not dying–no, not ever dying;
But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,
And the cities said to me: “Why are you dying?
We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?”
–Randall Jarrell, “Losses”

This book does not look at the big picture.

Taking Nazi Germany as the historical subject, The End chronicles its last ten months, from the attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944, to the imprisonment of Reichspräsident Dönitz and his cabinet on May 23, 1945. Germany is the center of gravity of the story, so that what is outside (the strategy and tactics of the Allies, the hardships of civilian populations in occupied countries, even the casualties of the opposition) gets no treatment. Looking at Nazi Germany as a dying entity, this book examines how it died and what it pulled with it on the way down.

Hitler’s determination not to repeat the “stab in the back” of World War I, along with the decision of the Allies at Casablanca to accept nothing but unconditional surrender, meant that the last year of the war was especially deadly. Kershaw calculates that 49 percent of German battlefield deaths occurred during the last 10 months of the war. At the very end, German casualties numbered 300,000-400,000 per month.

The book corrects some matters of conventional wisdom. Dönitz was a devoted Nazi, not a mere career Navy man doing his duty. The picture emerges of a large portion of the Wehrmacht officer corps who, having taken a personal oath of allegiance to Hitler (and seen the reaction to Stauffenberg’s July 20 attempt), never seriously considered insubordination. It was only when the Red Army was about to overrun their men and Hitler was giving nonsensical orders without any realistic view of the battlefield situation that any of the generals would seek a modification of orders from Berlin.

Most strikingly, the book lowers the deaths from the fire-bombing of Dresden on February 13-14, 1945, from 250,000 to perhaps 25,000. The larger figure originated in Nazi propaganda: “Goebbels magnified the number of victims, by the simple device of adding a ‘0’ onto the official figure. Instead of 25,000 dead–itself a vast number–Goebbels created a death toll of 250,000. From horrific reality, he created even more horrific–and long-lasting–myth.” In and endnote, Kershaw describes an historians’ commission that came to the 25,000 figure in 2010, agreeing with the official investigations of 1945-46.

The totality of the German state was devoted to the war effort and would not cease until Hitler was dead (and not even then). No one was allowed to slip away from his ranks, no matter how close an overwhelming invading force may have been; no civilians could put out a white flag to try to protect themselves from the opposition; no mercy could be shown to prisoners, taken on the road by their jailers for no coherent purpose, except that they might be useful some day; no criticism of the Führer would stand. To all such sensible ways of dealing with the coming end, the response was a “flying” (summary) court-martial and prompt hanging for the servicemen, and a bullet in head for the civilians.

To his credit, Kershaw addresses the obvious objection that The End focuses disproportionately on the hardships borne by the Germans themselves in the war’s last year, when they were entirely to blame for the war itself. He does not give them that way out, observing that many of them accused themselves and could say, “We had it coming for what we did or let happen.”

Nazi snare drum


Mozart, by Paul Johnson

Posted February 23, 2014 by Don
Categories: Book reviews

Don Giovanni, thou hast me invited
To come to supper tonight,
The rum the rumdum.
Ulysses, “Lestrygonians”

“Too many notes” was the notorious critique of The Abduction from the Seraglio by Emperor Joseph II, but this book avoids the error of most biographies nowadays of trying to cram in all history surrounding the subject. Johnson takes only 131 pages to cover the life. The book is a bit padded out by an Epilogue by the author’s son, Daniel Johnson, on “Mozart in London.”

There is a short index and a “Further Reading” page, but no bibliography. This is a confidently written essential life set down by someone with his own strong opinions about his subject.

The Mozart in these pages is a working man first of all–or once he grows up, anyway.  A childhood spent touring royal capitals with his sister, Nannerl, and his father, Leopold, soon becomes a professional’s very busy career. Mozart didn’t stop for long. An assignment to the Archbishop of Salzburg was unhappy, and Mozart got away from his difficult boss as soon as he could.

Mozart had to work to keep himself and his family above water, so his legendary fecundity was a blessing there. Johnson notes that Mozart had a confident religious faith and regularly composed pieces for holidays and name days of his family. It is our loss that Mozart lived to be only thirty-five, but Johnson sings no dirge, noting that because Mozart began composing at age five and never stopped, we have thirty years of constant production from him, which is more than we have from many composers who were with us longer.

Mozart’s achievement in opera is amazing to Johnson because there was so little in his background to show that he would have any interest or skill in the form. Yet Don Giovanni, Figaro, and Cosi are central to the modern repertory. Each of the six major operas (also The Abduction, The Magic Flute, and Tito) gets little more than a page in the biography, so it may be my imagination, but Johnson seems not to have The Magic Flute as his favorite.

Other interesting details include the fact that Mozart preferred the viola to the violin for his own playing, but had difficulty with it because his arms were too short. Johnson also pooh-poohs the old tale that Mozart was poor all his life, explaining that a “shortage of currency in specie” made a certain amount of debt inevitable at this time. Johnson vigorously defends Mozart’s wife, Constanze, against the charge that she dissipated his funds: “Indeed most of the over two thousand books [sic] written on Mozart, when they have mentioned her at all, have taken an unfavorable view. The evidence is slight.” (Again, there is no bibliography.)

This is a book that you might want to read with YouTube open nearby, so that you can sample K. this or K. that as Johnson effuses over each work.

Score from The Abduction from the Seraglio

Score from The Abduction from the Seraglio


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.