Archive for December, 2009

A History of Christianity (Diarmaid MacCulloch)

December 27, 2009


Was this my penitential exercise for Christmas?  Some confusion there, and anyway it wasn’t so bad.  The book has 1161 pages but is an easy enough read.  It  starts with the Greek and Hebrew background from about 1000 BCE, so it’s clear from the beginning that we’re emphasising continuity rather than conflict.  I thought that this pre-Christian section was pretty sound, though someone else might have emphasised differences rather than similarities.  Then  again, the ancient peoples represented here–Greeks, Romans and Jews–were similar to each other and different from other ancient civilisations in not being subservient to a temple/palace complex.

But I was disappointed by the treatment of Russian Orthodoxy–the author seems to have missed the point about it being ‘pagan Christianity’, which is indeed connected with the European Jews ending up in Eastern Europe, since pagan Christians are more tolerant than the other kind.  He also omits the really rather splendid achievement of Russian Christianity in keeping the country at least in principle free from capital punishment for the best part of a thousand years, up to the advent of the Bolsheviks.  He thinks of Mongols and Tartars as being the same people (which is just wrong) and refers to widespread devotion among the Russian masses, when more careful investigators have concluded that they only had a very defective understanding of what Christianity was.

It’s  strange to discern events like WWI and WWII like the confused rumble of waves beating on a far-off shore, reflected only in what pronouncement the Pope did or did not issue.  Clearly MacCulloch does not believe in this God palaver, but does not wish to alienate his potential readership.  If you’re committed to ignoring the truth-value of claims made by Christianity, then the fact that 200o years of it led to two World Wars and the Holocaust doesn’t pose any particular problems,   though of course we don’t really have an alternative non-Christian Europe for comparison.   Still, it’s interesting to see how Christianity, which regards war as deeply sinful, managed to survive the appearance of Islam, where it is more of the nature of a sacrament.

I was interested to see how many of the difficulties of the Western Church at the beginning were connected with not being able to reproduce the subtleties of Greek in Latin, while in the middle I learned some new things:  the difference between Reformed and Lutheran churches, what the Protestants in the US think they are doing, the direful significance of Keswick and Chalcedon.

The observation that Hell has fallen out of favour recently is also interesting–perhaps this means that people in the West have returned to the state of Biblical Judaism, where the Jews were–or at least might reasonably hope to be–masters in their own house, and so didn’t need this afterlife nonsense.

MacCulloch apparently wishes to defend Christianity as a way of allowing people (especially in difficult times) to make choices and make sense of their lives.  He also seems to share something of the American view that Europeans having lost interest in Christianity shows they are decadent, when one might think it more significant that this belief system now enjoys no success where it originated (in the Middle East) and not a great deal in Europe, where it was developed.  But at least he recognises so-called Creation Science as completely vacuous, which is to his credit.

The donnish humour grew a little wearing after a time, as did the reliance on monochrome/polychrome, extrovert, and a few other favourite tropes…

Turner Prize Exhibition, Tate Britain 23 December

December 24, 2009


First of all there was a whale largely hidden behind panels and prints of a chair forming an unknown message from Lucy Skaer.

Then we had Enrico David with an installation that looked very like what you find in your living room if you share a flat with art students, apart from being very much larger.

And if you look carefully, you can see a picture of a man’s bottom…After that, it was the famous gold fresco by Richard Wright, and we considered whether it was a picture embodying site-specific references to Blake (suns and winged creatures) and Turner (seraphic illumination and goldenness) or merely a nice pattern; and took note of the red…patterns…opposite above the entrance doorway.

So then it was Roger Hiorns and the ‘atomised’ aircraft engine that looked to me like the (grey!) sands of time and the things incorporating brain matter.

Then you could watch a short video by each artist, of which three were jolly helpful in explaining what the artist was up to.  And the board outside where previous visitors had posted their reactions was interesting too.

In the cafe downstairs my companions voted in favour of Richard Wright’s work because it was gold, shiny and pretty (but neither wanted to marry him), while I rejected him for being too accessible and Skaer and David for being too art-studenty, leaving Roger Hiorns as my choice.

This Thing of Darkness (Harry Thompson)

December 22, 2009


This is a book of 750 pages about Robert FitzRoy and his voyage in the Beagle with Charles Darwin and what happened to him afterwards.  We also see Darwin separately from FitzRoy, which is probably a mistake.  For the first hundred pages I had a cold and quite enjoyed an undemanding sea story and the lashings of historical detail.  After that my enthusiasm dimmed.

It’s not clear what this thing is.  It isn’t a novel, because the actions of the characters are driven by the need to make them correspond with biographical data, rather than flowing from their own characters and relationships.  And we have to be told about everything that happens, rather than letting a few typical scenes stand for the rest.  It isn’t a biography either, since some episodes are explicitly invented.  So it’s a kind of fictional biography–a fictional biography aimed at elevating FitzRoy with Darwin serving as a mean-spirited foil.

So discussions between Darwin and FitzRoy on the subject of human rights (to express it anachronistically) have FitzRoy the Tory expressing the most palatably liberal sentiments while Darwin is portrayed as representing oppressive industrialists.  Similarly (to take a small matter) Darwin is described as seeking permission for an underling to examine FitzRoy’s meticulously-labelled Galapagos finches (his own specimens not having been properly recorded), whereas historically he seems to have done the job himself.

FitzRoy is portrayed as the enlightened hero (albeit suffering from bipolar disorder) whose every noble inclination–as captain of the Beagle;  Member of Parliament concerned for sailors’ welfare; Governor of New Zealand concerned with protecting the Maori from the criminal depredations of the white settlers; chief of the Meteorological Bureau once more saving sailors’ lives by producing innovative weather forecasts–is thwarted by a combination of bad luck and dark forces in high places.

In fact, a more plausible explanation for FitzRoy’s ill-fortune is the one given by Darwin in the biography by Adrian Desmond and James Moore:  I never in my life knew so mixed a character. Always much to love & I once loved him sincerely; but so bad a temper & so given to take offence, that I gradually quite lost my love & wished only to keep out of contact with him.  Twice he quarreled bitterly with me, without any just provocation on my part.  But certainly there was much noble & exalted in his character.

There are the normal irritating mistakes in language:  FitzRoy refers to ideologies and Darwin thinks of him as a brittle perfectionist (apparently a phrase from Desmond and Moore!)  One gets the feeling that Thompson does not understand that evolution is true, whether he likes it or not.

What does the title signify?

This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine–The Tempest, Act V Scene 1 as the book helpfully tells us.  This is of course where Prospero accepts responsibility for the ‘savage’ Caliban and here it might refer to:

i)    FitzRoy feeling responsible for the ‘savages’ in his charge, as indeed the second voyage of the Beagle (the one Darwin went on) resulted from his feeling honour-bound to honour a promise made to the Fuegians he had collected on his first voyage;

ii)   his feeling that the theory of evolution and undermining of accepted belief was his fault;

iii)  his accepting his mental disorder (but it doesn’t seem the he did so explicitly, either in the book or real life).

And with more of such subtlety and polyvalency, this might have been a much better book…

Tulpan: A Whole Lot Of Nothing In Kazakhstan

December 17, 2009


Lots of steppe in Kazakhstan, some sheep, a few yurts and nobody to marry.  That’s the problem facing demobilised sailor Asa who has come to live with his sister Samal and brother-in-law Ondas and hope for a flock of his own.  But Comrade Boss won’t let him have one until he gets himself a wife, while the only possible candidate within a day’s journey (called Tulpan) rejects him because his ears are too big.  In vain does he produce a picture of the ‘American Prince’ Charles to show that his ears aren’t so big…

Well I know what the Kazakh steppe looks like now, and also that Kazakh appears to be a Turkic language.  But I sympathise with the sheep that having been born there decided to die as fast as possible.  In fact, given the alarming propensity of Kazakhs, sheep and camels–all right, scrub the camels–to wander soulfully around the steppe without any water nearby, I’m surprised there weren’t more fatalities.  And I was worried by the possibility of a happy ending when Asa managed to find the stray ewe and help her give birth to a live lamb, having taken a bloody long time to find out the correct method (shove your foot against the sheep’s arse and pull hard).

Why did Samal and Asa talk to each other in Russian if they were Kazakhs?  They both talk to Ondas in Kazakh, though it sounds like Russified Kazakh in Asa’s case.

So at the end Asa goes for a final confrontation with Tulpan, breaks down the door and finds…a goat (a better joke in Russian than in English).  Tulpan’s ma tells Asa she has gone to the city to get an education and a life.  In spite of this excellent example, Asa decides in the end not to rejoin civilisation but instead returns to Ondas in a sandstorm.

Sad.  Or as far as the film goes: boring.

A Christmas Carol Brockley Jack 16 December

December 16, 2009


There’s a story about Wolfgang Pauli and George Gamow going to the zoo once and looking at the bears.  A large she-bear padded up to the door of her cage, fetched the lock a hefty swipe then looked disappointedly at the still-intact lock before sadly shaking her head and padding off.

–That bear reminds me of you, Gamow,–said the elder physicist.  She has a good idea, but she doesn’t follow it through.

That tends to be how I think of  Ebenezer Scrooge.  I also wondered what an adaptation by Neil Bartlett would be like–would there be many new parts for scantily-dressed young men?

In fact it was very well-done, the best thing I’ve seen in this theatre.  Instead of young men, this was a music-based version with the higher voices supplied by characters wearing male attire that bulged somewhat around the chest region, providing part of  a choir that sang the action:

–Scratch, scratch, scratch

–Tick, tick, tick

–Lock, lock, lock.

The adaptation was highly proficient and the economical staging (where, for instance, Scrooge’s bed served as the table for the Cratchits to eat their Christmas dinner off and the Ghost of Christmas Present pushed Scrooge around in a shopping trolley) was extremely effective.

I suppose in form the thing was like an early Aeschylean tragedy, where you had the protagonist (Scrooge) pitted against a chorus from which members would emerge from time to time to play a specific role.  Toby Eddington was very good as Scrooge–even though he didn’t get to sing–and while it would be invidious to single any of the ‘chorus’ out for special praise, Katie Scarfe was very lovely as some of the more romantic female characters.  (Whatever his other failings–such as not being able to write a grammatical sentence in his native language–Dickens could certainly do women.)

The whole was very incisively directed (and designed!) by Kate Bannister.

Well done everyone!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Henrici Wilhelmi Ludolfi Grammatica Russica

December 13, 2009

This is the first Grammar of Russian (as opposed to Church Slavonic) printed anywhere in the world–it was published in Oxford in 1696.  What I have is a facsimile reprint from OUP in 1959.  It’s quarto, so the pages are normal book size (fails to find ruler).

Here’s the frontispiece:

and here’s a page from what is probably the most interesting section, a ‘phrase book’ in Russian-Latin-German:

And here’s what I think it says in modern orthography, with obvious misprints corrected:

Глава 4

Между хосяина и слуги

Кормил ты лошадь

кормил, а еще не напоил

для чево ты не поране встал?

твое здоровье знает, когда ты вчерас домои приехал.

Хотья ты рано спат лежиш, однако ж де некогда прежде седмого часа тебя вижу.

в перед ленив не буду.

для чего ты не топил печь.

As Muckle says,  it has the air of truth.  Presumably ‘твое здоровье…ты..’ reflects a time before the Табель о рангах.  There’s a Russian Wikipedia article about Ludolf here, with links to some more interesting material (such as a .pdf Russian translation of the whole book).

A Serious Man

December 13, 2009


When I arrived (late) there was  some Vorspiel going on about a Jewish couple in Eastern Europe either entertaining a dybbuk who has wandered in from a snowstorm or stabbing an innocent rabbi, depending on which way you want to look at it.  And the husband sums it up by saying We are doomed now.

Then after the credits the film switched to following the life and misfortunes of Larry Gopnik, an assistant professor waiting on tenure at the local university.  We are apparently in the Mid-West in the late 1960s. Larry has a medical and his doctor (who smokes) tells the non-smoking Larry he in in fine physical shape.  His wife Judith say she wants to leave him for Cy Ableman, his son plays around, the mentally-disturbed brother living in his family home causes legal difficulties through illegal gambling and homosexual solicitation.  Everything is costing a lot of money and Larry has to pay for it all–a Korean student offers him money to improve his grade–Cy Ableman gets killed in a car accident and Judith wants Larry to pay for his funeral.

Things seem to be looking up when the local Jewish community (must be Orthodox, since they say HaShem for God) attend his son’s bar mitzvah and Larry’s professor says he has been granted tenure.  Then Larry looks at a legal bill for a long time and finally changes the Korean’s grade.  At which point the doctor rings him and says he must come urgently to review his X-rays (and he *must have* lung cancer following the smoking thing at the beginning).  So he’s been like Schrodinger’s Cat (which he lectures on at one point) all this time, and now his wavefunction has collapsed?  Cancer obeys classical mechanics, but in a film what it is depends upon seeing it

So was this the Book of Job?  HaShem tests Larry and after he has acted righteously  (even failing to get off with Mrs Samsky) extends his grace in the form of tenure, and then condemns him to death after he takes the bribe?  When Larry and Cy Ableman are involved in simultaneous but separate traffic accidents Larry survives–he is actually engaged in rejecting Clive Park at the time–while Cy perishes, after he has lured Larry’s wife away and sent the university anonymous letters denouncing him.

So what’s with the Vorspiel then?  Deuterоnomy 14:something (14:12?) says that fathers shall not be executed for the sins of the sons, nor sons for the sins of the fathers.

There are three scenes where Larry goes to see rabbis of increasing seniority without receiving useful guidance.  Larry should look at things a different way; maybe HaShem couldn’t be understood; the rabbi was too busy (thinking).  Surely in real life a rabbi would want to see both husband and wife and emphasise the sanctity of family life, or indeed summon Judith for a disciplinary interview on this very topic.  In fact, this *must be* a joke like the ‘non-smoker/lung cancer’ one since from what I know Orthodox rabbis are notorious for their keenness to involve themselves in the family lives of their charges.

Or maybe the point is that everything’s just fucked up, as with the dentist who found Hebrew letters signifying Help me Save me on the inside of a patient’s teeth.

Or perhaps we need to draw practical lessons:  Larry should have immediately shoved the dubious approach from the Korean student up his management’s arse (which is what they’re there for), while Judith should have realised that she’d married an academic and of course he’d spend the evenings marking….

Wagner: Quite Nice Really

December 12, 2009


Sir Charles Mackerras, conductor
Christine Brewer, soprano
Philharmonia Orchestra

Royal Festival Hall, Thursday 10 December

Richard Wagner:

1.  Excerpts from ‘Tannhauser’ 2.  Prelude and Liebestod from ‘Tristan und Isolde’  3.  Excerpts from ‘Gotterdammerung’

To begin at the beginning:  Sir Charles Mackerras got a tremendous round of applause for still being alive, and the Philharmonia players (I was sitting in the front row) had the air of people placing entire trust in their commander.  And the Tannhauser extracts were good–Mackerras levered himself from his stool at the more…erect..moments.  Then we were into the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, where the Philharmonia played lustrously and Christine Brewer sang nicely (but was sometimes downed by the orchestra), but I did wonder about having the very beginning and end without any of the middle–sometimes `in these performances the soprano can suggest all that has been omitted by her acting, but not here I think (think because I couldn’t see her from my position).

While waiting for the second half I noticed that all of the female players were wearing high heels, and in some cases pretty uncomfortable stilettos.  We had Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, The Death of Siegfried, Siegfried’s Funeral March and Brunnhilde’s Immolation Scene and again without context it all lacked colour and meaning somehow.

So, that Wagner–quite nice and even a bit frisky in places, but nothing to get overly excited about…

Buying books in Russian

December 5, 2009

See fuller version; I’ve left this one here for the sake of the comments.

As with buying books in general, there are two possibilities here: online and in person.


Again there are two possibilities: businesses in Russia and outside Russia. For online bookshops in Russia, you can usefully start with findbook , which will automatically search the catalogues of 27 online booksellers.  (But some will not send books outside their own city, never mind abroad.)

Of these, I normally end up using out of inertia, though I’ve also used in the past.  I’ve not had any trouble with either of these, though it is interesting to note when someone has handwritten your address and a private return address and stuck on a load of stamps, presumably to make it look like something not worth stealing.  (Update:  I’ve now completed a successful purchase from labirint as well.)

In general, I find that airmail postage and packing to the UK costs a bit more than the book itself.  All of these online stores have a lot of books in their catalogue that they turn out not to have at present on closer inspection, so you need to be a little bit careful.

Outside Russia, there are many shops that sell popular Russian books to the diaspora, but I don’t think I’ve used any that are still in existence.

If you want academic-type books, mippbooks can be very useful, especially since an awful lot of books are printed with very small print-runs so they disappear rather quickly.  I’ve used them with success.  There’s also PanRus, which appears to do the same kind of thing but more expensively, and Natasha Kozmenko–I’ve not used either of them.  Or if you want to search in mainstream booksellers as opposed to specialist Russian ones, you can brave the mysteries of differing systems of transliteration and try bookfinder .

Then there is Thornton’s and also Marijana Dworski Books, who are very helpful and often have interesting Russian or Russian-related books.

In person (starting from London, England)

The traditional place to start would be Grant & Cutler, where they have a variable selection of Russian books on offer (been looking rather tired recently).  And now there is also the Russkiy Mir place in Goodge Street which looks promising, but I’ve yet to find anything I wanted to buy there.  It’s located in a basement underneath a sex shop, and while I’m not saying that you have to go through the sex shop or anything–they’re completely separate businesses–you might wonder about the sheepish-looking men hanging around outside. Anyway, they now seem to have a separate website here for online sales.

Russkiy Mir shop and next door

Then some large shops like Foyle’s will have a modest number of Russian books, while the Russian/Baltic groceries you find around the place have a few thrillers…


I usually do the following:

i)    look on findbook to see if the book I want is generally available;

ii)   if not, try mippbooks;

iii)  if that doesn’t work, transliterate it into bookfinder;

iv)  if that doesn’t work, try Google (both Cyrillic and transliterated).

There’s surely more to be said on this topic–comments will be welcome!

Moliere Finborough Theatre 3 December

December 5, 2009


Dull dull dull dull.  This play–which is supposed to represent Moliere’s status of endangered court favourite as a parallel to author Mikhail Bulgakov’s difficult position in relation to Stalin–completely failed to make any impression on me (but the audience members with loudly-expressed respiratory conditions did).

As Moliere, Justin Avoth was clearly the same age as the putative grand-daughter Armande (Antonia Kinlay) he was going to marry, even if he did limp a bit.  Nor was there any feeling of the demonic energy of  man who could do such a thing; and indeed write, rehearse and present a play in a fortnight.  And Gyuri Sarossy did not give any impression of an absolute monarch deigning to amuse himself with a dubiously-worthy subject for a moment or two.

A lot of care had been lavished on costumes and props, but the actors could or would not pronounce French titles properly, which made for a strange situation when King Louis expressed himself in the French of Stratford-atte-Bowe.

Ben Warwick was effective as the evil Archbishop, and so was Kett Turton as the disloyal Moirron.