The Pope’s Elephant, by Silvio Bedini

Posted January 6, 2016 by Don
Categories: Book reviews, Catholic culture

Und dann und wann ein weißer Elefant.
 —Rilke, “Das Karussel”

Pope Leo X Medici lived like a king, and all the kings of Europe paid him tribute, even from new possessions reached by sail. King Manuel I of Portugal sent a mission to Rome in 1513 led by explorer Tristão da Cunha, who had named south Atlantic islands after himself. In addition to a gold chalice, gold tabernacle, vestments of gold cloth, and an altar frontal  “sewn with countless pearls and precious stones valued at more than 60,000 ducats, ” the mission included a cheetah, two leopards, “numerous parrots,” a Persian horse, and a three-year-old Indian elephant named Hanno.

Just getting Hanno to Rome was a feat of engineering and doggedness. His weight required special hoists from ship to dock and meant that transport by wagon was out of the question. Hanno made the last leg of seventy miles from Porto Ercole to Rome on his own four legs, stopping from time to time to recuperate from the effects of Roman roads on his footpads.

The arrival of Hanno and presentation to the pope became a story of its own. Hanno’s mahout had trained him to bow down low upon meeting Leo, which he did, and then followed up the obeisance with a burst of water sucked up from a barrel, dousing Leo’s courtiers. The pope was delighted.

Hanno settled down into the papal menagerie, where he was the star attraction. At several points, Bedini tries to make the case for Hanno as the pope’s favorite pet, but there’s not much evidence to support that part of the story.

The pope used Hanno at one point to embarrass an unfortunate abbot, Giacomo Baraballo, who was made to ride the elephant in a kind of fool’s parade. This tale was often a chief exhibit to show the hopeless corruption of the papal court.

Unfairly absent from the book’s title is another unusual papal pet described in the book, the pope’s rhinoceros, who also became known far and wide, even becoming the subject of an influential drawing by Albrecht Dürer. There is a novel by Lawrence Norfolk called The Pope’s Rhinoceros, but Bedini doesn’t mention it here.

The book contains several dozen illustrations, including drawings of the animals, portraits, and maps. This is a scholar’s book; it really is upside-down, with the text less of a narrative than a compilation of notes. You like this kind of thing or you don’t. Once I figured out what I was reading, I admired it immensely.


Giacomo Baraballo on Hanno

Giacomo Baraballo on Hanno


Embattled Rebel, by James M. McPherson

Posted December 13, 2015 by Don
Categories: Book reviews

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm. . . .
  –Richard II

This book is a companion to the author’s previous book Tried by War, which focused on Lincoln’s role as a war president. Here, McPherson gives the same treatment to “Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief,” as the subtitle has it.

Davis resigned his post as Senator from Mississippi and came home as a new major general of the Army of the Mississippi. Before he could plan a battle, the Confederate Congress, meeting in Montgomery, unanimously elected him President. His experience as Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce made him well fitted for presiding over the new nation whose chief business would be war.

The focus of this short book (just over 250 pages) is Davis’s furious effort to keep the Confederacy in the fight, despite the overwhelming odds. It’s not a happy story. Egos abound. Portraits of the leading generals pop up every dozen pages or so. You can imagine them in Davis’s nightmares.

There was a Secretary of War in the Confederacy, but Davis performed much of that function himself, partly because the first Secretary, Leroy P. Walker, was useless, but more because Davis couldn’t help himself. Davis planned an “offensive-defensive” strategy–“the best way to defend the Confederacy  was to seize opportunities to take the offensive and force the enemy to sue for peace.”

He got out of Richmond to the battles himself from time to time. He took a train to Manassas in time to encourage some stragglers to head back to the battlefield. The victory was “perhaps his happiest moment of the war.” From then on, there was a barrage of complaints and pleadings from the generals for promotions, reinforcements, and supplies. Sorting out the promotions was not the hardest part. There were few reinforcements and less and less of any supplies.

The author declares in the Introduction, “My sympathies lie with the Union side in the Civil War.” The impression of Davis from this book is someone who gave his all in trying times. There is a short “Coda” that considers some might-have-beens on strategic decisions, ending:

Davis’s relationship with General Robert E. Lee was one of the brightest features of his tenure as commander in chief. The president recognized Lee’s ability and supported the general in the face of initial criticisms. The two men forged a partnership even closer and longer lasting than the one between Lincoln and Grant on the other side. And while the Lincoln-Grant team eventually won the war, this does not mean that the Davis-Lee team was responsible for losing it. For in the final analysis, the salient truth about the American Civil War is not that the Confederacy lost but that the Union won.


Falls of the James River, by Benjamin Henry Latrobe (Library of Virginia)

Falls of the James River, by Benjamin Henry Latrobe (Library of Virginia)

Richard Strauss, by Matthew Boyden

Posted November 22, 2015 by Don
Categories: Book reviews, Germany, Music

Großmächtige Prinzessin!

This one is a bit of a mittelbrau work, which gives the reader enough history for some reasonable context and enough of the music to keep track of why Strauss was so important for so long. You won’t find a great deal of harmonic analysis, and the only staff is Richard’s own as he climbs the mountains dreaming of his Alpine Symphony.

The back cover of this edition shows the composer in a friendly handshake with Dr. Goebbels. Strauss accepted the leadership of the Reichsmusikkammer (RMK) apparently without qualms of conscience. His anti-Semitism was not something that he came to late in life (he was nearly seventy in 1933), but was part of his generally comfortable Bavarian way of life, as presented by the author. Still, the biography quotes in full Strauss’s letter to his collaborator Stefan Zweig, in which Strauss wrote, “I pose as President of the Reichsmusikkammer . . . to bring about good and to prevent greater disasters! Simply because I know my artistic duty, I would have taken on this tiresome honorary office under any government . . . . So be good, forget Herr Moses and the other apostles for a couple of weeks, and keep on working at your two one-acters.” The letter was opened by the government, and Strauss had to resign his position in 1935. Yet he kept composing and kept his comfortable villa in Garmisch without much, if any, effort to make life a little easier for those who didn’t have it so easy. When the Americans rolled up in April 1945, he came downstairs to announce, “I am Richard Strauss, composer of Salome and Der Rosenkavalier.” He lost the house for a while during de-Nazification, but avoided trial. An American officer who played in the orchestra back home asked him whether he would ever compose an oboe concerto. Strauss blurted out an abrupt no, but wrote one later, giving the American officer the right to the premiere.

At his funeral, the marcia funebre from Eroica was played, and the Rosenkavalier Trio.

Titian, "Bacchus and Ariadne"

Titian, “Bacchus and Ariadne”

Homer’s Iliad, translation by Alexander Pope

Posted November 5, 2015 by Don
Categories: Book reviews, Poetry

Think of a raked sky-wide Venetian blind.
Add the receding traction of its slats
Of its slats of its slats as a hand draws it up.
Hear the Greek army getting to its feet.

Then of a stadium when many boards are raised
And many faces change to one vast face.
So, where there were so many masks,
Now one Greek mask glittered from strip to ridge.
–Christopher Logue, All Day Permanent Red

It is long past time for an especially daring Regissieur to mount a production of Wagner’s Ring in the style of Peter Jackson’s LOTR films. In that way, the influence of Wagner on Tolkien, as seen by Jackson, comes back to the source material.

Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad is something like that. The weighty preposition of Milton’s epic must have inspired the next century’s poet. He brooded a bit and borrowed the Miltonic style, in couplets this time, to translate Homer. There is no attempt to be too Greek; Roman names are generally, if not always, used. We have Jupiter/Jove and Juno, Venus and Mars, Minerva and Neptune, Apollo, and so on, as well as their nicknames for variety (Cytherea, Saturnia, Pallas). This Penguin edition is massive because it contains Pope’s own commentary on each Book, often with long quotations from prior commentators. In all, it’s something like a Handelian opera; very pleasant and tuneful, and never too insistent.

Here are a few favorite passages. This is Juno’s seduction of Jupiter in Book XIV, which begins as the goddess beautifies herself as well as she can, even calling on Venus to give up her almighty girdle, which no male can resist:

Touch’d with her secret key, the doors unfold:
Self-clos’d behind her shut the valves of gold.
Here first she bathes; and round her body pours
Soft oils of fragrance, and ambrosial show’rs:
The winds perfum’d, the balmy gale convey
Thro’ heav’n, thro’ earth, and all the aërial way:
Spirit divine! whose exhalation greets
The sense of Gods with more than mortal sweets.
Thus while she breath’d of heav’n, with decent pride
Her artful hands the radiant tresses ty’d;
Part on her head in shining ringlets roll’d,
Part o’er her shoulders wav’d like melted gold.
Around her next a heav’nly mantle flow’d,
That rich with Pallas’ labour’d colours glow’d;
Large clasps of gold the foldings gather’d round,
A golden zone her swelling bosom bound.
Far-beaming pendants tremble in her ear,
Each gemm illumin’d with a triple star.
Then o’er her head she casts a veil more white
Then new fal’n snow, and dazling as the light.
Last her fair feet celestial sandals grace.
Thus issuing radiant, with majestic pace,
Forth from the dome th’ imperial Goddess moves,
And calls the Mother of the Smiles and Loves.
How long (to Venus thus apart she cry’d)
Shall human strifes celestial minds divide?
Ah yet, will Venus aid Saturnia‘s joy,
And set aside the cause of Greece and Troy?
Let heav’n’s dread empress (Cytherea said)
Speak her request, and deem her will obey’d.
Then grant me (said the Queen) those conqu’ring charms,
That pow’r, which mortals and immortals warms,
That love, which melts mankind in fierce desires,
And burns the sons of heav’n with sacred fires!

(XIV 195-228)

A fair test of any translation of the Iliad is how the many fights come off–is it just one damn thing after another, or is there enough variety to keep the reader awake? Pope passes this test, as in this telling of one of Hector’s many kills:

As when a lion, rushing from his den,
Amidst the plain of some wide-water’d fen,
(Where num’rous oxen, as at ease they feed,
At large expatiate o’er the ranker mead;)
Leaps on the herds before the herdsman’s eyes;
The trembling herdsman far to distance flies:
Some lordly bull (the rest dispers’d and fled)
He singles out; arrests, and lays him dead.
Thus from the rage of Jove-like Hector flew
All Greece in heaps; but one he seiz’d, and slew.

(XV, 760-769)

In the next book:

In equal arms two sons of Nestor stand,
And two bold brothers of the Lycian band:
By great AntilochusAtymnius dies,
Pierc’d in the flank, lamented youth! he lies.
Kind Maris, bleeding in his brother’s wound,
Defends his breathless carcase on the ground;
Furious he flies, his murd’rer to engage,
But godlike Thrasimed prevents his rage,
Between his arm and shoulder aims a blow;
His arm falls spouting on the dust below:
He sinks, with endless darkness cover’d o’er,
And vents his soul effus’d with gushing gore.

(XVI, 376-387)

Throughout, Jupiter ensures that the Greeks’ victory is never in doubt, but doesn’t come too soon. His messenger, Iris the rainbow (“the many-colour’d maid”), carries his commands to earth:

Now storms the victor at the Trojan wall;
Surveys the tow’rs, and meditates their fall.
But Jove descending shook th’ Idaean hills,
And down their summits pour’d a hundred rills:
Th’ unkindled light’ning in his hand he took,
And thus the many-colour’d maid bespoke.
Iris, with haste thy golden wings display,
To god-like Hector this our word convey.
While Agamemnon wastes the ranks around,
Fights in the front, and bathes with blood the ground,
Bid him give way; but issue forth commands,
And trust the war to less important hands:
But when, or wounded by the spear, or dart,
That chief shall mount his chariot, and depart:
Then Jove shall string his arm, and fire his breast,
Then to her ships shall flying Greece be press’d,
Till to the main the burning sun descend,
And sacred night her awful shade extend.

(XI, 235-252)

Notice Pope’s use of English and very Miltonic sounds in the passage above, as shown below in bold:

Now storms the victor at the Trojan wall;
Surveys the tow’rs, and meditates their fall.
But Jove descending shook th’ Idaean hills,
And down their summits pour’d a hundred rills:
Th’ unkindled light’ning in his hand he took,
And thus the many-colour’d maid bespoke.
Iris, with haste thy golden wings display,
To god-like Hector this our word convey.
While Agamemnon wastes the ranks around,
Fights in the front, and bathes with blood the ground,
Bid him give way; but issue forth commands,
And trust the war to less important hands:
But when, or wounded by the spear, or dart,
That chief shall mount his chariot, and depart:
Then Jove shall string his arm, and fire his breast,
Then to her ships shall flying Greece be press’d,
Till to the main the burning sun descend,
And sacred night her awful shade extend.

(Something should be said here about the rhymed couplet, so very Eighteenth Century. Pope is magisterial indeed. Once the ear hears what’s going on, the form does not intrude. The rhymes almost always work out. There is at least one instance of world/hurled, which elsewhere might be painful, but is hard to blame in this book, given the topic. That important English word world is notoriously hard to rhyme.)

While Achilles is on his way to Troy to find Hector and destroy him, the river Scamander itself appeals to him:

O first of mortals! (for the Gods are thine)
In valour matchless, and in force divine!
If Jove have giv’n thee every Trojan head,
‘Tis not on me thy rage should heap the dead.
See! my choak’d streams no more their course can keep,
Nor roll their wonted tribute to the deep.
Turn then, impetuous! from our injur’d flood;
Content, thy slaughters could amaze a God.
In human form confess’d before his eyes
The river thus; and thus the Chief replies.
O sacred stream! thy word we shall obey;
But not till Troy the destin’d vengeance pay,
Not till within her tow’rs the perjur’d train
Shall pant, and tremble at our arms again;
Not till proud Hector, guardian of her wall,
Or stain this lance, or see Achilles fall.

(XXI, 231-246)

Perhaps it is the structure of this edition, with Pope’s one-paragraph summary (“Argument”) at the head of each Book, and then lengthy notes (“Observations”) following, but the massiveness of the story is unavoidable. This Iliad is a kind of library of storytelling.


Quaker Guns at Manassas

Quaker Guns at Manassas

An Irish Journey, by Sean O’Faolain

Posted October 30, 2015 by Don
Categories: Book reviews

–What funnel? asked Stephen.
–The funnel through which you pour the oil into your lamp.
–That? said Stephen. Is that called a funnel? Is it not a tundish?
–What is a tundish?
–That. The . . . the funnel.
–Is that called a tundish in Ireland? asked the dean. I never heard the word in my life.
   — from A Portrait of the Artist

This is the travel book of a proud Irish liberal going clockwise around the island, political divisions disregarded, circa 1939-40. Without a motor home, he stays at “old Irish hotels” and provides color and commentary on the folks he meets. The author is the dominant personality in the book, since his only traveling companion is the watercolorist Paul Henry, who contributes some hazy images, but keeps quiet. The coming war rumbles in the background.

O’Faolain is a little amused and impatient with his countrymen of the south. He likes their old ways, comfortable as an old coat; but wishes they’d go ahead and get up to date. He has repeated encounters with booksellers and librarians who are too cautious. Early bluster from a member of a temperance league, who is appalled that Limerick pubs stay open at all hours, is an amusement, but the author sees such a “puritan” as an essential character of the island, tolerable as long as he does not dominate.

His account of Cork, his home place, is especially passionate: “There is only one tune for Cork. It is one of those towns you love and hate. Some wag said that in Cork you do not commit sin; you achieve it. You do not, likewise, enjoy life in Cork; you experience it.” And later: “Exiled Corkman, never come back! If you do return you will find that it is like meeting a woman whom you had loved long ago. She is now fat and cosy and contented. She sits among the crockery with her children, her husband, and her admiring relatives about her, and all her wild dreams are dead. She invites you, old lover, in her bright breaking voice to sit and eat. But she does not understand your frown because she has forgotten the agony of her youth and yours.” An “eighteenth-century Whig” thrashes Pius XI for Quadragesimo Anno and pines for a dictator. The author’s own feeling is clear enough, but even he quotes market prices for eggs, mutton, and potatoes, and monthly housing rents, and wonders how the people get by. The integrated circuit assemblies were still to come.

“The truth about Killarney is simple. It is a tourist town badly run.”

He has no sympathy for the British influence in the Six Counties of the North, though he protests that no real conflict exists between Orange and Green on the level of man-to-man; it seems that the governments are to blame. He does his best to find “Native Ireland” where he can, but “there is one thing to be said in favour of Belfast–you can get out of it quickly.” Literary opinions dominate at the end, when he returns to Dublin, whose best literary days were behind it already. Yeats had just died, and Joyce would follow him soon.


Paul Henry, "A Connemara Village" (National Gallery of Ireland)

Paul Henry, “A Connemara Village” (National Gallery of Ireland)

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.





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