Archive for the 'Books' Category Page 2 of 4



Czechoslovakian betrayals

Milada Horakova

Czechoslovakians have reason to resent their betrayal by Britain and France at Munich in 1938.  They were betrayed again, by the same nations, when Hitler’s invasion in March 1939 was not immediately resisted by the western allies.  Reading a fine new book by Igor Lukes, it seems these betrayals continued through the post-war period.  Here were three:

Prague was liberated by the Red Army in May 1945.  It could easily have been liberated by US forces, which were closer than Soviet troops, but allied forces were stayed.  Against the advice of the US State Department and the British Government, General Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, declined to liberate Prague, halting allied troops in Pilsen, western Bohemia.    Stalin, who had threatened dark consequences if allied forces advanced first on Prague, found that bellicosity achieved desired ends, a lesson the Soviets would take to heart.

Prior to Yalta, FDR had appointed Laurence Steinhardt (1892-1950) as ambassador to Czechoslovakia.   Steinhardt took months to arrive in Prague, and spent enourmous time out of the country:  From January 1947 to February 1948, he was away from his post some 200 days (Lukes 2013, page 182).  Most of this time, and even for much of the time he was in Prague, he was busy with his corporate law practice in New York, a business he continued all the time he was employed to represent the USA.  He also ignored many conflicts of interest as people and companies with Czech or Slovak connections used his paid legal counsel while he was Ambassador (!) to seek compensation or redress for various policy actions of the Nazi-era and post-war governments.   Steinhardt was rich and socially well connected, and mixed exclusively in similar circles on his apparently rare visits to Prague.  Despite having a good analytical mind, and despite knowing Stalinism well at first hand (having earlier been US ambassador to the USSR), he was singularly ill-informed about events on the ground in Czechoslovakia.   He was consistently and persistently optimistic in his reports back to Washington about the prospects for democracy against the ruthless thugs of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (Komunistická strana Ceskoslovenska, KSC), and their Soviet masters. 

The US mission to Prague included intelligence-gathering agents and groups of various stripes, some of whom were employed by the US Military Mission.  These groups were apparently infiltrated by Czech and Soviet double agents.  (Some, of course, may have been triple agents – really, at heart, working for the US – but likely not all were.)  They were also spied on by all manner of local employees, contacts and passers-by.   Whether or not the US civilian or military employees were working for the other side, most were incompetent and negligent to the point of malfeasance.   As just one of many tragic examples, the key building occupied by the Military Mission had no late-night access, except through a police-station next door.  Late visitors to the mission were thus readily monitored by the Czech secret police, the StB.   Lukes’ book reads, at times, like farce – OSS and CIA meet the Keystone Cops. 

Even after the boost given to the KSC by the presence of the Red Army in Prague in 1945, the coup in February 1948 that took Czechoslovakia from a semi-free country to a police state was not ever inevitable.  The malfeasance and incompetence of US military and embassy officials helped make it so.

Notes:

Not everyone in the KSC was craven or a thug; the party also included some heroes

The photo shows Milada Horakova (1901-1950), brave Czech politician and social democrat, imprisoned by the Nazis and then again by the Communists.  After a show-trial alleging treason, she was executed by Gottwald’s regime on 27 June 1950.  Now in the Czech Republic, this date is an official day of commemoration for the Victims of Communism.

Reference:

Igor Lukes [2012]: On the Edge of the Cold War:  American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague.  New York, NY, USA: Oxford University Press.




Recent Reading 6

Hungarian torn flag 1956 in Budapest

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books:

  • Patricia Anderson [2009]:  Robert Hughes:  The Australian Years. (Sydney, Australia:  Pandora Press.)  A fascinating account of Robert Hughes’ time in Australia before his permanent departure abroad in the middle 1960s, sadly undermined by very poor organization, poor writing, and sloppy editing.  Where was the editor when we learn of a 1958 play written by Hughes, in which the lead “roll” in 1959 is acted by an undergraduate John Bell (p.68)?  And where again when Major Harold Rubin, wounded in WW I,  is  “invalidated” from the army (p. 116)?  But the worst offence against the reader is the book’s poor organization.  Each chapter begins afresh, as if each was a separate attempt to dissect Hughes and his circle, sometimes ignoring what we’d read in earlier chapters, and sometimes assuming we’ve already read to the end the book (or we know what he did with his life afterwards).   A new viewpoint per chapter is not an intrinsically bad way to organize such material, but this attempt is poorly done, as if the writer or publisher had decided to skip the editing stage.   The book embodies a promising idea undermined by poor execution.
  • Rupert Sheldrake [2012]:  The Science Delusion:  Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry.  (London, UK:  Coronet.)  This is a superb book, from one of the great scientific thinkers of our age.   That Sheldrake is not so regarded by many other scientists is indicative of the closed-mindedness of contemporary science, much of it as dogmatic and un-sceptical as any religious cult.  The grand foundation of myth of western science is that every claim and assumption is open to contestation, and by anyone, but the actual practice of most modern science is profoundly opposite to such openness.   This book should be compulsory reading by every trainee, practising, and retired scientist.
  • Robert Holmes [2012]: A Spy Like No Other: The Cuban Missile Crisis and the KGB Links to the Kennedy Assassination. (UK: Biteback Publishing).  This book was most disappointing.  The author has no evidence for his claim that Lee Harvey Oswald was a KGB agent, not even circumstantial evidence.  His claim is based only the thinnest of speculation, about what some KGB people might have been doing talking with certain people they may have met at certain places they may have been visiting for certain purposes they may have had.   In addition, it is sad to report that someone could write a book about the Kennedy assassination without being familiar with much of the contested nature of the evidence on the ancillary events.   Thus, we know that someone calling himself Lee Harvey Oswald visited the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City shortly before JFK’s assassination.   We don’t know for certain that this person was the Lee Harvey Oswald arrested in Dallas for that assassination.  Without that certainty, the main evidence for Holmes’ claim falls away.
  • Vladislav Zubok [2011]:  Zhivago’s Children:  The Last Russian Intelligentsia. (Cambridge, MA, USA:  Harvard University Press).   This is a fascinating and well-written cultural history of the Soviet shestidesiatniki, thepeople of the 60s, and the generation just before them, the people who came of age in the late 1940s and 1950s.   My only very small criticism is that Zubok focuses primarily on the literati, with much less attention paid to the matherati.   But that is a very small quibble on what is a superb book.
  • Anne Applebaum [2012]: Iron Curtain:  The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56. (London, UK:  Allen Lane.)   This is a very fine and interesting book, although not about the subject of its subtitle.   A more accurate subtitle would have been The Crushing of East Germany, Hungary and Poland 1944-56.   The author appears not to have interviewed anybody in Czechoslovakia, for example, whose experiences of the imposition of communism and communist party rule were subtly different to those three countries.   Ending in 1956 means the author is not really able to provide a compelling explanation for Poland’s exceptional treatment by the Soviet imperium — why did Khrushchev give way in the Soviet confrontation with Gomulka in 1956, for instance?   But that is a small criticism of a fascinating book.
  • Charles Gati [2006]: Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt. (Stanford, CA, USA:  Stanford University Press).  This is fine and careful account of the events leading up to and during the 1956 Hungarian revolution, by a someone who was present in Budapest at the time.  The book contains a thoughtful and well-argued political analysis of the alternatives open to each of the main actors during the crisis:  Imre Nagy and his supporters, his opponents, the Soviet leadership, and the American leadership.   It is clear from this analysis that the outcome could have been very different, creating in Hungary a socialism with a human face that would have been acceptable to and accepted by the Politburo of the Communist Party of the USSR.   However, such an outcome may never have been ever possible with these particular actors and their personalities.  I had not realized, for example, how poor a public speaker Nagy generally was, nor how usually indecisive.  It was also fascinating to read of the many public protests sympathetic to the Hungarian revolutionaries that took place in the USSR following the invasion of Hungary.



HoJa do

Howard Jacobson apparently writes comic novels.   I have never found his writing funny, and it often strikes me as being in poor taste.  (A Jewish anti-Zionist group called “ASH”, for example?)  In a review today of his latest novel, Theo Tait puts his finger on what I don’t like about HoJa’s books:

Zoo Time conforms closely to the classic recipe for a Howard Jacobson novel. Take a childless, Jewish middle-aged man, born in Manchester or thereabouts, now living in London pursuing a profession not unlike the author’s:  in the past, we’ve had columnists, cartoonists and academics; this time, he’s a novelist, Guy Ableman. Give him ungovernable romantic urges and a powerful but embattled sense of self-worth: Guy, whose first novel stars a zoo keeper and her lustful monkeys, describes himself as “a man ruled by pointless ambition and a blazing red penis”. Throw in some marital difficulties and outré sexual enthusiasms: this one briefly covers the classic Jacobson kinks – shoe fetishism, oedipal fantasy, and the powerful desire to be cuckolded – but focuses chiefly on Guy’s wish to bed his mother-in-law. Add some agitated discussion of Jewish identity. Then stir it all up with a lot of discourse, and of discourse about discourse. Ensure that the plot is minimal, and largely circular. And there it is, the distinctive feel of Jacobson’s work – like being trapped in a confined space with a particularly garrulous pervert.

. . . .

The killer for Zoo Time is that Jacobson has a limited talent for invention, and certainly very little inclination for it. As with many authors possessed of a powerful voice, it tends to crowd out everything else in the novel: “A writer such as I am feels he’s been away from the first person for too long if a third-person narrative goes on for more than two paragraphs …” Guy’s every passing thought is generously and sometimes brilliantly transcribed, but otherwise Jacobson seems to have no idea what to do with his stick people, who couple and uncouple, turn gay or Hasidic, to no discernible pattern.”

The problem with a powerful voice, as the novels of Bellow and Roth also demonstrate, is that you only reach those readers who appreciate the persona behind the voice, and who don’t mind being trapped in a confined space with him.   Me? I’ll skip sharing an elevator with Jacobson or Roth or Bellow, and take the stairs, thanks.

POSTSCRIPT (2014-05-18):  Ivan Klima in his memoir, My Crazy Century (Grove Press, London, 2014), writes of meeting Philip Roth in communist-ruled Czechoslovakia in the 1970s:

Philip Roth, the third American prose writer who visited us several times during the first few years after occupation, seemed to me unlike other Americans in one noticeable way:  He was not fond of polite, social conversation; he wanted to discuss only what interested him.”  (Page 308)




Two lists of books

In succession to this post which seems to have originated a meme, herewith two lists of novels – one list influential when younger, and the other later, with influence measured by strength of memory.  In each case, I include a couple of works  of non-fiction, because of their superb writing.

The rules only allow listing of one book per author.   In fact, all the books of some writers would merit inclusion.  In this group, I would include Brautigan, Camus, Conrad, Faulkner, Gordimer,  Ishiguro, H. James, Joyce, Maugham, Perec and Turgenev.

Influential when younger:

  • Albert Camus:  The Plague
  • JM Coetzee:  Waiting for the Barbarians
  • Joseph Conrad:  The Secret Agent
  • William Faulkner:  As I Lay Dying
  • Nadine Gordimer:  Burger’s Daughter
  • Joseph Heller:  Catch-22
  • Ruth Prawer Jhabvala:  Heat and Dust
  • James Joyce:  Ulysses
  • Franz Kafka:  The Trial
  • Arthur Koestler:  Darkness at Noon
  • William Least Heat-Moon:  Blue Highways:  A Journey into America
  • Doris Lessing:  The Diary of a Good Neighbour
  • Thomas Mann:  Dr Faustus
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez:  100 Years of Solitude
  • W. Somerset Maugham:  The Razor’s Edge
  • Herman Melville:  Moby Dick
  • Gerald Murnane:  Landscape with Landscape
  • Michael Ondaatje:  Coming Through Slaughter
  • Bertrand Russell:  The Autobiography
  • Jean-Paul Sartre:  Nausea
  • Mikhail Sholokhov:  And Quiet Flows the Don
  • Alice Walker:  The Color Purple
  • Patrick White:  Voss
  • Yevgeny Zamyatin:  We

Influential more recently:

  • Henry Adams:  The Education of Henry Adams
  • Richard Brautigan:  An Unfortunate Women:  A Journey
  • William Burroughs:  Naked Lunch
  • Italo Calvino:  If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller
  • Robert Dessaix:  Corfu
  • Shusaku Endo: Silence
  • Mark Henshaw:  Out of the Line of Fire
  • Kazuo Ishiguro:  An Artist of the Floating World
  • Henry James:  The Princess Casamassima
  • Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Emperor:  Downfall of an Autocrat
  • Naguib Mahfouz:  The Journey of Ibn Fattouma
  • Norman Mailer:  Harlot’s Ghost
  • Alberto Moravia:  Boredom
  • Georges Perec:  Things:  A Story of the Sixties
  • Antonio Tabucchi:  Pereira Maintains
  • Henry David Thoreau:  Cape Cod
  • Ivan Turgenev:  Fathers and Sons
  • Glenway Wescott:  The Pilgrim Hawk

As these lists may indicate, there are some writers (eg, James,  Turgenev) whom one may only appreciate after a certain age and passage of years.

On the other hand, for various different reasons, books by the following authors do not speak at all to me.

  • The family Amis
  • Saul Bellow
  • The family Bronte
  • Peter Carey
  • David Caute
  • George Eliot
  • Richard Ford
  • Graham Greene
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Howard Jacobson
  • Thomas Keneally
  • Iris Murdoch
  • Anthony Powell
  • Marcel Proust
  • Philip Roth
  • Tom Sharpe
  • Anthony Trollope
  • PG Wodehouse
  • and many more.

For some of these authors, the issue may be a generational one:  for example, I know of no members of late Generation Jones or later-born readers who appreciate that early-Baby Boomer obsession, A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell’s long-winded novel sequence.   Added 2013-02-12:    The age threshold of my personal sample is confirmed by that of Max Hastings, writing in 2004:

Anthony Powell’s fan club, always far smaller than that of his contemporary Evelyn Waugh, will continue to shrink as admirers die off and are not replaced.  Nobody whom I know under 40 reads his books, while Waugh’s position as the greatest English novelist of the 20th century seems secure.”

Of course,  not everyone shares my low opinion of Roth’s work.




Recent reading 5

A list, sometimes annotated, of books recently read:

  • Richard Bassett [2012]:  Hitler’s Spy Chief.   New York: Pegasus. A biography of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr.  This book appears to be a reissue (also revised?) of a book  first published in 2005.  The subject and argument of the book are fascinating, but sadly this is not matched by the writing, which is just appalling.The first problem is with the status of the book.  The inside cover pages say “copyright 2011″, and “First Pegasus Books hardcover edition 2012″, yet the Acknowledgements section is dated 2004.   Various references to contemporary events throughout the book also indicate a date of writing of around 2003 or so.   The front section contains a “Preface to the American Edition”which is undated, but cites letters written in 2008 and 2009.  The author’s sloppiness with dates is manifest throughout the book, and it is often very hard for a reader to determine exactly which year events being described actually happened.A further great sloppiness concerns the use of names – many people, like citizens of Indonesia, appear only to have surnames.   Later references will often find a first name attached to the surname – is this the same person, one wonders?  It is as if the author assumes we know as much as he seems to know about minor Nazi officials, and temporary clerks in MI6.The book actually reads like the author’s narrative notes for a book rather than the book itself, with much background information missing or assumed to be known by the reader.   Is this his first draft perhaps, ready for editing?   How could one write on the topic of German foreign intelligence in WW II without discussion of the XX Committee, for example?    Admittedly, the author does make one single reference to this operation (on page 280, out of 296 pages of text), but with no explanation of what the committee was doing or an evaluation of its work, and not even a listing in the index.    And given the author’s argument that Canaris was an internal opponent of Hitler from before the start of WW II, then an analysis of the alleged success of the XX operations in outwitting Nazi intelligence is surely needed here.  Was Canaris complicit in these operations, for example?   Especially if, as the author believes, Canaris met with his British opposite number, Sir Stewart Menzies, during WW II.And like a person too eager to please, the author’s sentences run on and on and on, with clause after subordinate clause, each introducing a new topic or change or direction, or dropping yet another name, in some drunken word association game.    Where were the editors when this book was submitted?  On vacation?  On strike?   Reading the book requires a reader to fight past the author’s appalling prose style to reach the interesting content.    Sadly, Admiral Canaris still awaits a good English-language biography.
  • Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman [2012]:  Spies Against Armageddon:  Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. Levant Books.
  • Milton Bearden and James Risen [2004]: The Main Enemy:  The Insider Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB.  Presidio Press.
  • Natalie Dykstra [2012]:  Clover Adams:  A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.   An intelligent and sympathetic life of Marian (“Clover”) Hooper Adams (1843-1885), pioneer of art photography, wife of Henry Adams, and a daughter of transcendentalist poet, Ellen Sturgis Hooper.   She was a friend and muse to Henry James, and a distant relative of the step-family of George Santayana.
  • Archie Brown [2010]:  The Rise and Fall of Communism.  Vintage.
  • James Douglass [2008]:   JFK and the Unspeakable:  Why he Died and Why it Matters. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
  • Sidney Ploss [2009]:  The Roots of Perestroika:  The Soviet Breakdown in Historical Context. McFarland and Company.
  • David Maraniss [2012]:  Barack Obama:  The Story.  Simon and Schuster.
  • Ben MacIntyre [2012]: Double Cross:  The True Story of the D-Day Spies.  London: Bloomsbury. Reviewed here.
  • Colin Eatock [2009]: Mendelssohn and Victorian England.  London: Ashgate.  A detailed and comprehensive account of Mendelssohn’s visits to England (and his one visit to Scotland), and his activities, musical and other, while there.
  • George Dyson [2012]:  Turing’s Cathedral:  The Origins of the Digital Universe.  Allen Lane.   A fascinating account of the involvement of the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) in Princeton, NJ, in the early development of scientific computing, led by that larger-than-life character, Johnnie von Neumann.
  • Gordon Brook-Shepherd [1988]: The Storm Birds:  Soviet Post-War Defectors.  Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • Neil Sheehan [2010]:  A Fiery Peace in a Cold War:  Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon. Vintage Books.  A fascinating history of the US inter-continental ballistic missile program in the 1950s, told through a biography of one of its parents, USAF General Bennie Schriever.    It is easy to forget how much practical expertise was needed for successful missile and satellite launches, as with any new and complex technology.   As a consequence, we forget how few of the early test launch attempts were successful.  The Vanguard 3 rocket, for example, launched just 3 satellites out of 11 attempts between December 1957 and September 1959. (Vanguard was a USN project.)

The photo shows the Mercury-Atlas and Gemini-Titan rockets at Rocket Park in New York City (courtesy of the NY Hall of Science).




Shadows

Writer Pico Iyer tells of his life being shadowed by – followed and pre-figured by the spirit of – Graham Greene, here. I’m no fan of Greene’s writing, but the shadowing I can appreciate. Many writers have spoken of similar shadowing and even possession – William Burroughs, Patricia Highsmith, Hilary Mantel, for instance. Highsmith’s Ripley, she came to feel, was a real spiritual presence, existent outside her books and her imagination.




Faded colored notebooks

The Grauniad celebrates a half-century of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook by asking various writers what they think of it.  The book is appalling, and one hopes will be forgotten before another half-century elapses.  In her earlier novels and subsequently, Lessing is one of the best writers in English of any century – gripping narratives, superbly-judged choices of words, inviting and compelling voices, and a sharp observational intelligence.    The Golden Notebook, however, is our Doris off her game.  Self-indulgent, overly-long, poorly-structured, apparently unedited, it is a mis-mash of different stuff that looks as if it were put down once in a hurry and then, it seems,  never re-read.  To this reader, the book appears as some random ideas for a novel, or perhaps several, which were never reworked coherently:   Clip some jottings together, put a cover on them, and call it post-modern -  that should work.   If art really is the doing of all things with artlessness, as Piet Hein once said*, then this book lacks even an attempt to be artful, as if the author was taking the michael, or worse.

 

* FOOTNOTE:

There is but one art,
No more, no less:
To do all things
With artlessness.




Visitations to a writer

Recently-deceased Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi, author of that subtle novel of political intrigue under totalitarianism, Pereira Maintains, writes about the visitation he received which inspired the novel, here.  How sad that the name of the brave Portuguese journalist whose death inspired the novel should be unmentioned by Tabucchi.

Dr Pereira visited me for the first time one September evening in 1992. In those days his name wasn’t yet Pereira. He still didn’t have distinct traits, he was rather vague, elusive, hazy, but he already nurtured the wish to be a protagonist in a book. He was only a character in search of an author. I don’t know why he chose me to tell his story. One possible hypothesis is that the month before, on a torrid August day in Lisbon, I too had made a visit.

I vividly remember that day. In the morning I bought the city’s daily newspaper and read an article about an old journalist who had died at the Santa Maria Hospital and whose remains lay in state at the hospital chapel. I shall discreetly avoid any mention of the deceased’s name. I shall say only that he was someone with whom I had a passing acquaintance in Paris, in the late 1960s, when he, a Portuguese exile, was writing for a Parisian newspaper. He was a man who had plied his journalistic trade in Portugal during the 1940s and 50s under Salazar’s dictatorship. And he had managed to ridicule the regime by publishing a savage article in a Portuguese newspaper. He naturally encountered serious problems with the police and was subsequently forced to choose exile.

I knew that after 1974, when Portugal returned to democracy, he went back to his country, but I didn’t meet him again. He wasn’t writing any more, he had retired, and I didn’t know what he was doing for a living. Sad to say, he had been forgotten. In that period Portugal lived the restless, convulsive life of a country that had rediscovered democracy after 50 years of dictatorship. It was a young country, led by young people. No one remembered an old journalist who had resolutely opposed Salazar’s dictatorship in the late 40s.”




On Monty

Montgomery Clift is one of the silver screen’s greatest actors.  I have written before about his intensely-naturalistic speaking style, with its pauses and false starts and mid-sentence hesitations and apparently improvised modifications on-the-fly.    To speak as he did, in so many films, showed that this speaking style was probably not an artefact of all the screenwriters involved, especially when so few other actors in these or other films of the time spoke like that, but instead evidence of his own great intelligence and superb ear for speech.

Amy Lawrence has now written a fascinating book on his screen acting across his career, analyzing in detail what he did and how, and how he achieved his effects.  By studying his own, hand-annotated personal copies of film scripts, for example, she is able to identify his particular contributions to the scripts and the dialogue of the films he acted in, and is able to demonstrate the artistry and diligence behind his naturalistic speech.   And to show it, in many cases, as his personal artistry, as he worked to revise and rewrite dialog that was often originally stilted or unnatural.

By careful exegesis, Lawrence is also able to debunk some myths.   Clift’s shambling, addled performance as a courtroom witness in the late Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), for example, is usually presented as evidence of the drug and alcohol addictions he is supposed to have succumbed to following his near-fatal car accident in May 1956.  This accident destroyed his face and left him in pain, taking pain-killers and drinking.   But, as Lawrence demonstrates, his court-room appearance in the 1961 film shows many of the same personal characteristics and mannerisms of his court-room appearance in A Place in the Sun, filmed in 1951 - “tightening his fists, flexing his fingers, pushing against the armrests with his elbows” [Lawrence, p. 212].   Clearly, the origin of Clift’s witness-box performance is not drugs, but acting chops.  Speaking of the character played by Clift in Nuremberg, she says:

Peterson’s gestures are emphatic, not neurotic, but combined with his broken syntax and repetition of sentence fragments, Clift clearly suggests in his performance that the character is not in control of himself.  But the actor is.  When we see the recurrence of these gestures across time and roles, before and after the accident, it seems reasonable to call them choices characteristic of the performer.  Clift is not a mess; he plays one.” [Lawrence, p. 213]

Lawrence also notices how Clift, throughout his career, often acts with his back to the camera, either fully or partially.  These episodes usually signal that he is engaged in some intense, interior, psychological reaction to some event or person, as if he could better tell us what he is thinking by not showing us his face.   That he would even try to do something so counter-intuitive, let alone that he usually succeeds, demonstrates the great actor Clift was.

I had only one, very small quibble with Lawrence’s book.  She describes (on page 63) the scene in The Big Lift (1950) when Clift’s character, about to receive an award for helping in the Berlin airlift, turns and sees for the first time that the official award-giver is a beautiful woman.   Lawrence does not describe Clift’s eyes as he suddenly sees this woman:  his pupils dilate widely as an expression of his character’s plain delight. We know of course, that the actor Clift must have practiced and rehearsed this dilation until he could undertake it at will.   But knowing this fact increases our admiration for his acting skills, since it shows the dedication and diligence he brought to the task.

Clift’s acting art was artless, and like all artlessness, took immense preparation, intelligence, practice, and persistence to achieve.

Reference:

Amy Lawrence [2010]: The Passion of Montgomery Clift. Berkeley, CA, USA:  University of California Press.

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The writing on the wall

Over at Normblog, Norm tells us that he wants his books and not merely the words they contain.   We’ve discussed this human passion before:  books, unlike e-readers, are postcards from our past-self to our future-self, tangible souvenirs of the emotions we had when we first read them.   For that very reason – that they transport us through time – books aren’t going anywhere.  It’s a very rare technology indeed that completely eliminates all its predecessors, since every technology has something unique it provides to some users or other.   We could ask, for example, why we still carve words onto stone and why we still engrave names onto rings and pewter mugs for special occasions, when the invention of printing should have done away with those earlier text-delivery platforms, more expensive and less portable than books and paper?