Regarding Christopher Hitchens’s ‘Washington Diary’ of 20 August: yes, it’s true that the argument among the Democrats about moving to the centre was first won by Truman, but that battle was (literally) fought again in Chicago in 1968, when the Democrats nominated Johnson. We Democrats love to re-fight old battles, no matter how bad for us or the nation. As a political scientist, I am (unfortunately) forced to agree with Professor Fair’s prediction of a Bush victory. My model, however, emphasises such factors as white-collar unemployment (unusually high) and thus yields a prediction of the narrowest possible Bush victory: 50.01 per cent of votes cast and only 275 electoral votes. Remember, you heard it here first.
US Institute of Peace, Washington DC
I have become a little tired of British reviewers moaning about translations because they’re American. Whenever there’s real ground for complaint, it’s actually something other than the American provenance. For example, everything specific Patricia Beer says about the translation of Tatyana Tolstoya’s stories (LRB, 20 August) suggests she simply thinks it inept. Nothing is worse than a publisher’s attempt to turn American English into British (or vice versa): the job is always botched. Nor do I believe Ms Beer finds American English so very alien. (Shock, horror! The whole of this letter is written in broadest American.) She seems fully fluent in it.
But perhaps not. And perhaps not in the British variety either. She asks: ‘Surely the plurals of “memento mori” and “lazybones” cannot be, respectively [sic], “memento mori” and “lazybones”?’ Well, yes, they can be and are – on both sides of the pond. Since literally ‘memento mori’ means ‘be mindful of dying’ and ‘lazybones’ means, um, ‘lazy bones’, it’s hard to imagine any other possible plural for either.
Franco and the Falange
In his review of my biography of Gerald Brenan (LRB, 20 August) Ronald Fraser writes: ‘In the light of Brenan’s path-breaking history of modern Spain it is sad to note that his biographer slips up on some elementary facts of the same historical period.’ So eager was your reviewer to make me slip up that it seems he was forced to ignore what I had written. ‘Franco a major in 1936!’ is his first excited discovery. The relevant sentences in my book (on pages 300 and 301) are as follows: ‘A Major Franco, prominent in its [the Tercio’s] formation in the Twenties, had designed its uniform …’
The second, dealing with events in 1936, reads: ‘The moment the Popular Front won in February, the generals (including the now-promoted Major Franco) …’ One would have thought this clear enough, but Fraser now leaps into exclamation marks a second time. ‘The Falange no longer identified as a Fascist movement!’ This is slightly more complicated, as Fraser would have found had he paid more attention to my text (footnote, page 307). It is so obvious that the Falange was a Fascist movement that it did not and does not need stressing. But at its inception in 1933 it was more interesting than that. Its founder, José Antonio Primo de Rivera – ‘a young Andalusian of charm and imagination’, as Brenan wrote – certainly had right-wing, extreme nationalistic goals: but he was also strongly influenced by the Anarchists, wished to socialise the banks and the railways, and advocated radical land reforms. What happened was that Franco, his movement intellectually empty, took over the Falange – and soon perverted and degraded any of José Antonio’s aims that were genuinely visionary.
I included this brief analysis in my book partly because it is interesting, and partly because it was an aspect that Brenan, with typical fairness, drew attention to in The Spanish Labyrinth.
Unfortunately it is not necessary to imagine Flaubert writing historical romance, in the sense to which P.N. Furbank refers (LRB, 20 August), nor to yearn for a novel on the Punic Wars: Salammbo fills both bills. It also supports Henry James’s view, since it is certainly an amazing tour de force, and just as certainly complete humbug. Worse, it is boring humbug, even if it tells us what to think about Hamilcar Barca. The historical novels of Alexandre Dumas may also be humbug, but they prove that a writer of genius can simplify back with complete success, and produce books which are popular, but not cheap. Even he failed with the Revolution: his novels of that period, the latter part of Joseph Balsamo, Ange Pitou and the saccharine Comtesse de Charny, are amongst his least successful. Anatole France caught the atmosphere of the Terror with Les Dieux ont soif, precisely because he chose a small canvas, and reduced its figures to the personal.
Balzac wrote historical novels. Was not Carlyle’s French Revolution a historical romance? Generalities about genre do not apply to genius.
The French Revolution was one of the most important events of recent European history, but to describe it as one of the most horrible events in history is an exaggeration of staggering magnitude. In terms of those killed, the Revolution could not compare with a battle of any size: Michelet recalled that the number executed in Paris during the whole of the Revolution did not make up one-fortieth part of the French and Russian troops killed in the Battle of Borodino before Moscow in 1812: figures vary according to source, but there were probably over seventy thousand dead in that extremely bloody encounter. There is no generally-accepted figure for the total number of victims of the Revolution. Between April 1793 and July 1794, the period of the Terror, the guillotine in Paris claimed 2625 lives. Even if the total for the whole of France and for the whole period were ten times that, it would barely exceed a reasonable-to-low estimate (say, twenty-five thousand) of Parisians summarily executed when government troops put down the rebellion of the Commune in 1871 – an event of which we rarely hear mention.
Since then. Hitler and Stalin have massacred on a scale undreamt of by past tyrants, but approached more recently by the Khmer Rouge. Every innocent victim of tyranny is one too many, but we should keep some sense of proportion, even in judging horrors.
Leslie Wilson’s diatribe against my review of Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (Letters, 10 September) is sensibly argued, and all I feel like saying in answer to it is that it did not take me by surprise and was indeed the reaction I half-expected to provoke. I honestly tried to be generous towards Mantel’s novel, though I did not like it; and the remark I most stand by is the one that Wilson does not comment on: ‘Why does it all have to be so amusing?’ Ultimately, that is to say, my complaint was not about ‘truth’ but about tone.
It is an ironic expression of current problems that Paul Delany – an English émigré to Quebec of some vintage, now working 3500 miles away at Simon Fraser University in (English) Vancouver – can write a full-length essay on Mordecai Richler’s Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! (LRB, 20 August) without ever once directly mentioning Canada’s ‘First Nations’, the Indian peoples and the Inuit. One of the key elements in the ‘crisis of legitimacy’ that is currently being experienced in Canada (as evidenced in the quite extraordinary level of ennui being reported in every national poll with respect to the established political parties and political leaderships) is surely the exhaustion of the idea of Canada as a fiefdom simply for the Anglophone and Francophone élites.
Canadians in all parts of Canada, and also those living abroad, are sickened by the unending constitutional conferences, focused only on the division of the spoils between English Canada and Quebec, and are increasingly interested in listening to other voices – particularly where such voices (like that of Elijah Harper, the Cree Indian and Manitoba MP who ‘talked out’ the Meech Lake Agreement in the Provincial Parliament in June 1990) give expression to other values and other political or social possibilities. Harper’s speech to the Manitoba Parliament insisted on the claims of the aboriginal peoples, unrecognised in existing constitutional debates, to be a ‘distinct society’, and was delivered with great calm and deliberation, a feather held high as a symbol of such identity. In calling for respect for the land and for nature, it resonated to an altogether different, but still powerful, conception of Canadianicity from that which has been dominant in the era of Brian Mulroney – and it was a speech which attracted great admiration across Canada.
To hear the voice of the aboriginal peoples in Canada is to hear tales of repression and exclusion by English Canadians, but also, quite vitally, by Quebec – a province which has insistently characterised itself over the years as an oppressed minority. One of the most unpleasant recent examples was the armed siege of the Mohawk reservation at Oka, just outside Montreal, during July to September 1990, arising, it should be remembered, out of the attempt of a local town council to extend a golf course – in this case, onto sacred Mohawk burial ground on the Kahnesatake reservation. The routine racism of the Quebec Provincial Police vis-à-vis the aboriginal peoples was quite evident at Oka, and has been widely observed within Quebec in recent years. But many observers suspect that the belligerence exhibited by the QPP may be symptomatic of a larger problem in respect of multicultural openness and tolerance within Quebec, which Mordecai Richler smells out in terms of anti-semitism, but that does not stop there. Certainly, this is an issue which ought not to go unremarked in a review like that provided by Paul Delany, which is so generally uncritical of Quebeckers’ desires to be ‘masters in their own house’.
The sorry truth may be, however, that neither Richler (in lamenting some aspects of a failed bilingual, federal Canada) nor Delany (in his sanguine acceptance of disunity and the break-up of Canada as a nation) is really addressing the key issue in that part of the world. In the light of the firming-up of the Free Trade Agreement struck by the Mulroney Government with the United States and Mexico, institutionalising democratic representation of non-élite minority groups in general, not only in the territory we have been used to calling Canada, but throughout the North American continent, may be what really matters.
University of Salford
I am unreservedly grateful for the generosity and good humour in Mary Beard’s review of Origins of the Sacred (LRB, 20 August), but a little perplexed by her tendency to kiss and kick, to reclaim with one hand most of what she has given with the other. For example: if my Greek meditation, like that of my fellow blasphemer Martin Bernal, does, in fact, manage to deliver a significant blow (‘very heavy artillery indeed’) at the patriarchal warrior myths that still befog important aspects of our imaginative life, it is probably more than a ‘blown up version of E.R. Dodds’; and if in the monkey section I manage to persuade her that boring old brachiation is not boring at all, then surely she should have been willing to stay with the argument as it speculates on the hominid darkness, instead of half-reluctantly waving farewell with ‘Mad it may well be …’
Well, better mad than bad, I suppose. ‘Unnervingly Victorian’, on the other hand, though not very kindly meant, I shall take as a compliment, and cheerfully accept the comparison with Frazer. There have of course been some changes since The Golden Bough came among us: the cold bath of Modernism has tightened our prose somewhat, we now know about the sex life of chimps, as Beard says, and some of us have even heard the odd rumour about the sex life of women.
But other things have not changed: like Frazer, we are still dismayed by the dissociation of sensibility that has been crippling the Western mind since the Renaissance; and like him, some of us still think the remedy is to be sought in a story that does justice both to our primitive past and our scientific present – which is why I propose Darwin as the figure around whom we must gather for a pow-wow. Or put it this way: Frazer’s idea, which was fashioned mostly by Wordsworth, was that the revolution we long for must reach well past the Roman Republic to the truly ancient springs. Add to this our idea, call it (for brevity’s sake) ‘feminism’, and stir.
It may be, as Beard says, that the time for such epic reconciliation is ‘long past’, but only if we continue to cede what is left of our ground to the ubiquitous thought-police and their ‘Hush hush, whisper who dares, there’s no point at all in saying your prayers.’
University of Essex
Bit of both
In an otherwise acceptable and interesting review of Robert Gittings and Jo Manton’s recent book, Claire Clairmont and the Shelleys, it was irritating to find Paul Foot referring three times to ‘John Gittings,’ but once, correctly, to ‘Robert’. Was this poor sub-editing, or simply carelessness on the part of the reviewer?
Uplyme, Lyme Regis, Dorset
In the interests of brevity, clarity, accuracy and the comfort of your readers, you should consider editing all communications from Fiona Pitt-Kethley down to their essentials: namely, ‘I am an egotistical monomaniac. Take notice of me.’
Simon Fraser University,