The Bigot Question


It is, of course, ridiculous. This whole Tintin affair, I mean, not the impending expansion of your lineage. Perhaps your virtues, and your sensibilities regarding censorship, just decided to skip a couple of generations? Perhaps they are waiting for more suitable circumstances? Speaking of: Is this a bad time in which to be bookish, you think? I rather think not. While I have all the required romanticism about libraries and hooking up on basis of access to rare reading material alone, it is more convenient now. I’ve found things on Amazon and Google Books that I would have had to go through quite unpleasant evenings with semi-senile scholars to get hold of in earlier days. Now, the only unpleasant semi-senile scholar I need to have dealings with is my own gracious self.

I’ve also found that using social media in a clever way (one that Zadie Smith never seems to have found, poor girl. Poor girl who is now doing her level best to ruin it for everybody) nearly eliminates the necessity of the awkward in ones life. It’s the near perfect medium to keep up with casual acquaintances. And being a semi-professional still, as well as semi-senile, I really must entertain a couple of those.

I love the way the ‘w’s in ‘awkward’ crowds the ‘k’, by the way. It illustrates the meaning quite beautifully, does it not? Possibly the ‘c’ and ‘q’ in ‘acquaintance’ accomplish something similar, being in the same linguistic circle of friends.

But I digress. Nothing but, in fact. I digress. That’s what I do. Right: The Tintin question. I hear you and agree, it is quite silly to sue an old racist. Although it’s far from the oldest grudge to be held and kept in mint condition to this day (see practically any current international conflict), the fact that this one is based on a fictional entity, which by its very nature must be prejudiced in one way or another, makes it kind of silly. Kind of, but perhaps not altogether. Books read out of context, and especially without awareness of context, may have very subtle influences on our attitudes and behaviors. If you don’t notice the bigotry in the text (and some people don’t), it may influence them to be prejudiced themselves. If made aware of the source of the influence, the influence tend to subside. Seeing a person of a certain color, sex or what not displaying some undesirable behavior, we become more likely find confirmation of that picture on later encounters. This is a real thing, and probably has a lot greater impact than we acknowledge.

While this makes sense, does it not, if its taken to its full length, it makes reading fiction impossible. Fiction in some sense relies on the “willing suspension of disbelief” and it’s hard to keep that up if every page carries the stamp “THIS IS NOT REALLY HAPPENING”.

Oh, this is a long letter, isn’t it? Well, I shan’t apologize, it is not becoming for a woman of my fair to middling age.

Bigotry has been much on my mind recently. On your recommendation sort-of (because as a semi-senile scholar, I only ever partly listen, and tend to mix advice with things I’ve thought of myself) I re-read Forster’s “Where Angels Fear to Tread” the other day. Going through all the humorous permutations, of course (“Paradise Lost – what Angels Fear to Read” and something about rich men and the eye of the needle “Which Angels Fear to Thread” that I haven’t quite worked out yet, but it’s coming along). It’s a shocking book. Forster is unbelievably rude to Englishmen and Italians alike and there are events in the book you shouldn’t read out loud to your pregnant grand-daughter. Re-reading Forster after a very prolonged absence, I was reminded of something I wrote in an essay as an undergraduate, 40-50 years ago: Forster is like Henry James without a theory of mind. If you cut out all the thinking of a Henry James novel, what you get is a (very boring, mind) E.M. Forster novel. And I very much like my fiction cerebral.

Time for one more? Since we where so impressed by the Booker Prize’s verdict last year, I decided to give the Finkler Question a try as well. “Finkler” is a person, but it is also used as a synonym for “Jew”. It’s about Jews, Jewishness, the in- and out-group perceptions, prejudices, jokes, expectations, desires etc. Mostly about the jokes. It’s a slow starter, but its gathering speed and I’m growing quite fond of it. It may be a result of the mere exposure effect: you come to like the things you spend time with. (Possibly that’s how we’ll get through the Parade. By shutting ourselves in with nothing to keep us company but that book. Our problem is the existence of other books, mainly). The banter is quite good, the sex is a bit on the male-fantasy side but there is always anthropological value in that to, I guess. I’ll write more about it once I reach the end of it.

And thus, I reach the end of this letter. I’ll knit something for your forthcoming progeny. Or buy something, and pretend I did.



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Tintin in the Congo

My Dear, 

I am writing to you from The Pit, where my spirits are currently residing.

My grand-daughter came to visit over the week-end. She’s having a baby, the goose, and wanted to go through at endless length old family albums and dredge the annals for family names. What a bore.

I don’t know what perversity caused our offspring to inherit all the Vicars lack of charm and none of his moral spine – but I do know that as things stand, I wish the whole clan would just leave me alone. They are trite and they chat and they feed me cake. The Vicar could never abide cake, and he never chatted. That is how I could manage to live with the man despite his lack of wit. I find silence as the much preferred alternative in people of scant conversational skills.

I could put it more succinctly: my progeny are of the type to say “oh, so you’re not doing anything right now” when they see you sitting down with a book. Which makes me wish I had the guts to tell them that I have a large, extended fictional family I’d much rather spend my last few moments with. Because let’s face it: I shall be dead soon, and I very much doubt the quality of heaven’s lending library.

Anyhow: just as I was recovering myself with a nice helping of The House of Mirth I was struck down yet again. This time by news from the low countries. It appears that some fellow named Bienvenue has SUED Tintin over his adventures in the Congo, and the way the locals are depicted.

Now, I can’t recall the details, but I assume Tintin in the Congo is filled with rather unflattering images of the Congae – and that it might very well be deemed racist by today’s standards. But My Dear! It was published in anno ages ago, back when people WERE racist. I think our version has been labeled with some sort of warning, which is also absurd. Just imagine the labels that ought to be put on these titles, if that’s how they want to play it…

The Bible – may contain nuts
Hamlet – bathing at own risk
Marquis de Sade – content may be hot

My point being: if we start censoring every thought that has since been revised, we shall be left with very little on our shelves.

Yours, despairing of humanity,


Ps. the Guardian reports on it here.

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Borrowed Paperweight

Apology altogether accepted, and wholly unnecessary. As we know, imitation is the most sincere form of copyright infringement. And to reiterate my claim from an earlier letter: you most certainly would make a great addition to this department. The ability to claim authorship for good ideas is the sine qua non of the successful aging academic. Especially if, in a true Lockean spirit, you mix it with some of your own labour to make it sound distinctly yours. Some vocabulary and context not yet available to the source person, perhaps, and you’re all set. If the source person is also a young person, the sense of recognition will usually blend with the sense that all he or she says, writes and thinks has been thought, written and said by you and everyone else in the field much earlier, and will be taken as a sign that he or she is only just now getting around to it. Still encouraged by being on the right track, he or she will not mind, and you’re safe. Indeed, he or she may even find that adding your name as a source of the idea will help him or her get her point across, borrowing your academic weight. If you are less skilled in all of this, conflicts ensue and that’s a very welcome addition to any department to. If all of this sounds too Machiavellian for you, it probably is, and I exaggerate for stylistic reasons.

Speaking of borrowed weight, I came across an old volume by dear Lady Dora Russell, nee Black, called “The right to be happy” the other day. Containing much of her manifesto-style writing on the subject of uncommon arrangements (“free love” and “open marriages”), it’s unbelievably funny that the name on the cover of this edition is “Mrs Bertrand Russell”.

Reading about their and others’ unsuccessful attempts in the excellent Katie Roiphe’s book “uncommon arrangements” got me thinking that the open marriage seem to play the same role for social relationships that alchemy played for the development of chemistry, and the so called “Hard problem” of consciousness does for the mind sciences. It seems impossible to solve, but it’s so incredibly interesting why it doesn’t seem to work that working it out promises to solve a whole lot of other problems and making things more clear. If the problem has something to do with “human nature”, it might still be a malleable feature of that phenomena, and revealing it would serve more uses than just making open marriages work.

Speaking of (yes, this is a lazy bridging technique, I know) unsolvable problems, I do like your idea of trying to explain just why “Parade’s end” is impossible to read. I’m just a bit afraid that the reason will turn out to imply that there is something wrong with us, rather than the writing. Because the writing, as you may have noticed, is very, very good.

Weighing it in my hand the other day, I started thinking of other penguins I’ve handled. We, me and my brother, used to get penguin paperbacks for birthdays and christmases from an old aunt. Aunt Arctica, we used to call her. Now, wasn’t that very witty of us?




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Semi-Sincere Apologies

My Dear,

So what you are telling me is that you wrote me an observation a few weeks back. That I never responded to your observation at the time. And that I then trounce out the same observation as my own in my last letter to you. (Ref: Afghanistan, Holmes).

Well: all I can tell you is this – consider yourself elevated to the rank of Great Writer! You share among with many of the literary giants the honor of having planted a life transforming idea in my mind that I then completely forget. In fact: I make it a point not to remember good reads – that way I can go back over them as much as it pleases me with ever fresh impressions.

Case in point, besides your letter:

A few years back, having read Disgrace by Coetzee, I was asked by a friend whether I’d recommend it or not. I did – not only recommended she read it, but seeing as she was an avid dog-breeder, I gave her the volume since I was sure it was “one of the most touching stories about dogs I had ever read. Beautiful scenery, and fantastic portraits of the relationship between man and beast”.

She came back and asked me if I was off my rocker. Her personal appraisal of terrible rape-scenes and general moral decay was that it was not the most flattering of pictures of the dog industry.

Me, I had no recollection of any of the horrid bits, and since Disgrace is made up of exclusively horrid bits, it seems I had constructed an entirely different story in my mind. Full of tropical helmets and velvet eyed spaniels, it seems.

Or to abbreviate the start of this letter: oops.

As for promising some sort of criticism of Holmes after the weekend, ditto oops. You see, I am finding old Sherlock quite unbearably dull and have given him up in favour of another man: Richard the third. As portrayed by Josephine Tey in The Daughter of Time.  This is one book I don’t want to spoil for you if you haven’t read it yet (but it did come out back in 51 so I am rather supposing you have) so I won’t mention anything about the glorious plot.  What I will do however, is wax lyrical about the TYPE of reading it forces me to do: wikipedia in hand.

You see, The Daughter of Time assumes knowledge in the reader of our history, namely, the history of Richard III, his times, and his father’s times. Now I for one am more than a little bit rusty on this subject. Normally, not knowing anything about a subject might be a bit of a hindrance when it comes to getting on with your reading. But this is written in such a captivating manner as to make me greedy for more information. So far I have googled approximately 15 historical personages – and this is only half way through what is really rather a slim volume.

My knowledge is growing exponentially. It makes me feel as though I am accomplishing something. I finally understand the charms of non-fiction writing – and it is a very light-hearted piece of detective fiction that is showing those charms to me.

I very much look forward to having to do it all over again next week…

But however, I shall not discard Holmes completely. I fact, now that I know I can look forward to writing one of those really killing reviews that are always the most fun to read, I find myself suddenly motivated to finish it off. Perhaps that is how we should approach Parade’s End also: with a view to being able to analyze how come it’s so unreadable.

Or was that another one of your ideas just stolen?

My very best love and blushing cheeks,


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A study of the upper case scarlet letter

You dear old thing!

Yes, I believe I mentioned the Afghanistan thing in my letter of the 27th of september, prompted by the fact that the Beeb (that’s what they call the BBC, madam) put their entire remake of Sherlock in present day London starting from that parallel. Noteworthy to, that they had the poor doctor (not as blubbering a buffoon as the old Nigel Bruce character who played against Basil Rathbone’s sharp-as-a-shark-attack Sherlock) blogging, rather than submitting stories to the Strand.

As it happens, I’m doing a complete re-read of the entire outre oeuvre this autumn, since it seems to be the only re-reading I’m capable of performing parallel to my duties as reluctant lecturer. I did something similar last summer, when I needed to finish that book, and could only bring myself to read the lightest of fiction. I ended up reading nothing but Wodehouse and the result was the most frivolous academic prose ever to hit an academic press.

Speaking of which: “we always argue from the idea that certain texts transcend time and are just as important today as when they were first written”. Do we, now? It’s true that some texts seem to age remarkably well. I always tell my students that with very few adjustments, basically anything by John Stuart Mill could be submitted to a present day academic journal and be accepted for publication without hesitation. Whereas work by, say, Nietzsche, if submitted would be viewed as a practical joke, as a not very successful attempt at another Sokal-hoax. The difference, in short, is clarity. If the style has that quality, it is likely to survive the test of time, I think. And Conan Doyle’s style certainly does.

That being said, time is flawed as a test, as it brings with it many opportunities to taint the evidence. That being said, I remember the current constant secretary of that bunch of swedes who determine what people will think they ought to read for christmas saying that all literature should be put in quarantine at least until the author is dead before critics should be allowed to have a go. Reception theorists, I gather, would disagree. Or would they? Perhaps they wouldn’t, seeing how a proper view of a work of literature must await the occurrence of some literary and social impact to have taken place.

Anyway: I’m eager to see what you come up with, and to compare notes on our dear consulting detective.

The books are piling up (on top of, I fear, our little project). I found a rather marvelous looking penguin edition of two out of three volumes of Waugh’s “Sword of Honor” trilogy in a used book store the other day. And then a fellow blogger, the Book slut reminded me of Henry James’ “Washington Square” (Have you ever been? There’s always a jazz-combo or two, made up of NYU students, playing. Presumably to drench out the sighs and internal monologues made vocal from the haunted James’ house), so now I need to re-read that to. It will make for an interesting perspective on the suffragettes in “Parade’s end”. Or it would, if I were ever to return to that book.

And did you realize it’s been 50 years since the ban was lifted from Lady Chat? The attempt to steer the connotations of the F-word in that book did not turn out too well, which means that the expected reception/response at a re-read (or a first read, if you’re young, or was prudish 50 years ago) is of a giggling, rather than a blushing, kind.

I send you a hug and a cup of tea as big and warm as a blanket sufficient to keep the november cold at bay.


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It’s Elementary!

My dear,

I will lift my nose (dripping like the November rain) from the books for just a minute to let you know I have had a rather exciting idea. First the background.

As a little girl, I was given a Sherlock Holmes book. I do not remember which one, but the cover was very gruesome indeed. An exceedingly ill looking man, in darkness…well you can imagine the kind of thing.

Being too young at the time to have learned the importance of not judging a book by its cover, I let my fears rule me and never read the thing. And nor did I ever later.

This morning though, I was hunting through the library in my slippers for some cold-friendly reading, and stumbled on the complete works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I brought it, and a hefty cup of lapsang, to bed with me – where we are now spending the day in utmost harmony. Now we are nearing the point.

On page 24 of Penguins complete edition, you will find the following quote:

“Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his writs are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.”

As I read this, I thought – why, that could easily have been written today. (Because of the Afghanistan reference, you see).

And then I’ll admit I thought – why, I wish there was writing of this standard being written today.

And then for the really interesting thought – why, for all intents and purposes, for me it might as well have been written today.

You see, as we discuss the classics and so forth, we always argue from the idea that certain texts transcend time and are just as important today as when they were first written. But can this really be so? Is it from some dyed-in-the-bones quality of the text – or has the patina of a long line of loving readers and quoters added something to the experience? If the classics were new publications – would they still pack the same punch?

Now, this is one area of literary theory where we should be able to carry out scientific experimentation. Here’s how:

I will read the Study in Scarlet. I will disregard its actual date of publication, and imagine for myself it was written by, say, a friend of that god-awful Stieg Larsson we discussed a few weeks back.

Then, I will write a review – and send it to you, naturally. If the book holds up, my criticism should be fawning. If it is not fawning, we will know that, at least in this case, a percentage of the worth of Sherlock Holmes is the associations built up over time by a large readership.


Your Rose

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Reasons for reading

You would be a welcome addition to this department, Dear. And it is even conceivable now, since we no longer need to worry about that husband of yours as a devastating, possibly deal-breaking, spousal hire. You know about those, don’t you? In order to lure some particular academic prize-specimen to your department, you sometimes need to arrange a position for his or her spouse, who might not always quite merit it. It’s a deplorable but highly effective practice. It is not uncommon that two people in a relationship both think that the other is the spousal hire. Arguments may ensue. Terrific scenes may take place.

Speaking of what young people today (or twenty years ago, who can keep track?) would no doubt call “the Bloomster”, let’s just say that when Aristotle wrote about happiness as akin to the “Bloom on youth”, he certainly wasn’t referring to this wet blanket of a person.

I agree with what you say and, if I may, would like to take it further (or just as far as you did but in other words). For every reason for why you might read, there is a number of alternative approaches. This is particularly true if the object is to be interesting at dinner parties, as you would presumably have to be original in some regard to achieve the effect (unless you are at one of those parties where it suffices to have an opinion at all, or to have read a book. But you do not frequent those, do you?).

The project to read and read in a certain fashion in order to be amusing or able to take part of and contribute to conversations always strike me as a difficult one. One may read what everyone else already have, and try to have interesting opinions about that. Which is good, because they will know what you talk about, and you may offer new perspectives on it. Hard, because you have to somehow conjure up those perspectives. Alternatively, you may contribute by having read something that no-one else has. But why would they bother about that? Well, one reason is if the book is one they believe they ought to have read. Actually reading “Finnegans Wake” or “The Makings of Americans” makes you an instant expert on things your peers wish they’ve made it through first. Not only can you contribute insight they may then use to give the impression that they’ve read it to. No, more importantly: you, basically, win. The true conversation artist/bully is the one who can take any book not read by the others and by offering a view make them think that they ought to have read it or at least known about it. For full on mastership, do this with a book they have already read and make them realize they should re-read it.

I have some additions to make to your list:

Reading in order to avoid speaking to people on the bus. This is best done fervently, I find.

And, more to the point for our little venture:

Reading in order to stop the pile of books bought but not yet read from toppling over.

We need, in fact, to make another list of books and reasons, namely the list of books that you haven’t read and the many reasons why you haven’t, and possibly shouldn’t. We might find the end of our parade on that list to.

Are you quite well now, Dear? It certainly sounds that way, and I very much hope so.

your one and only


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