LRB Cover

Send letters to:

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London WC1A 2HN
letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and work and home telephone numbers.

Letters


The Beauty of Hedgehogs

Looking at the ‘audacious’ publicity vision of the completed Millennium Dome which accompanied Iain Sinclair’s exhaustively (and agreeably) hostile account of the project (LRB, 2 October), I was nonplussed to find it repeatedly referred to as a ‘Teflon Hedgehog’. A hedgehog projects an energetic, deep curve against any horizon, to say nothing of the wickedly lively face jutting out at one end, and the dense texture of rippling spines covering all the rest. Hedgehogs are beautiful. No: another image altogether, virtual not natural, sprang to my mind, even before I started reading. It was the sight which met the eyes of Gregor Samsa on that fateful morning when he found himself transformed into a gigantic cockroach and tried to come to terms with what he saw – the ‘domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments’, the ‘numerous legs which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk’, and so on. The more I ponder it, the more appropriate does Kafka’s image of the utterly alienated seem as the shape with which to greet the dawn of the third millennium.

Annemarie Heywood
Windhoek, Namibia


Sympathy for the Devil

‘Both critics,’ Michael Wood writes in his review of the translations of The Master and Margarita (LRB, 16 October), ‘say that Bulgakov knew that manuscripts do burn, as he had burned some of his own’ – a reference, presumably, to Bulgakov’s burning of his diary in 1929. Bulgakov himself probably had in mind Pushkin’s half-successful attempt to burn the compromising Chapter 10 of Eugene Onegin, an attempt which has left us with only one complete verse and only the first four lines of most of the others. But enough remained to hang him had the authorities been so inclined – and enough was lost to give his readers chagrin. But there is a further twist to the story that Michael Wood does not mention and one which, in happier circumstances, Bulgakov would have enjoyed. Although Bulgakov burned his diary, the KGB had, unknown to him, already photocopied it and stowed the copy away in their archive, where it was found, sixty years after the burning, by Vitaly Shentalinsky. A course of events confirming Bulgakov’s view of the devil as a ‘force forever intending evil, yet ever doing good’.

David Longley
University of Aberdeen

Am I alone in finding the two translations Michael Wood reviews so unpleasant? Much of the time they read as if the translators only had a second-hand knowledge of English. Even allowing for the fact that familiarity acclimatises, I am much happier with Michael Glenny’s 1967 translation. At hundreds of points it is Glenny who scores. Simple things like the opening chapter being called in Glenny ‘Never Talk to Strangers’ – the natural form of the parental admonition – whereas Penguin’s translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, give ‘Never Talk with Strangers’. There is also the apparently perverse word choice of both the Penguin and the Picador versions: ‘a cavalry ala’ against Glenny’s ‘a squadron of cavalry’, for example (the only meaning for the word ‘ala’ in both my paper and CD-ROM dictionaries is ‘a membranous outgrowth on a fruit’). Which reads better: ‘how about the price of a drink’ (Glenny) or ‘how about a little pint pot’ (Pevear and Volokhonsky)? And how about ‘bending double’ (Glenny) as opposed to ‘mugging’ (Pevear and Volokhonsky)? Mugging?

Conrad Cork
Leicester


Nussbaum v. Unger

Peter Singer’s response (Letters, 16 October) to my review of Peter Unger’s book is strange, for he defends the aspects of the book that I praised and says nothing in defence of those that I criticised. I did not hold the non-originality of Unger’s examples against him, I simply pointed it out. I said that Unger’s ‘discussions of the distinction between duties to rescue and duties to aid, and his general diagnosis of irrationalities in our thinking about people at a distance, are both ingenious and cogent,’ and added that ‘Unger is a resourceful thinker who complicates the examples in interesting ways and adds others of his own.’

My complaints against the book lay elsewhere. I objected to Unger’s crude discussion of philosophical method, to his failure to grapple seriously with the arguments of others, to his failure to engage with non-utilitarians or to defend his own narrow utilitarian framework, and, especially, to his total failure to confront institutional and political issues that must be taken account of in any good analysis of duties to aid. I mentioned seven questions, all commonplace in recent political philosophy, that need to be addressed in any such work, and noted that Unger is silent about six of them. The non-addressed questions include such basic ones as: what would a good theory of global justice look like, and how would it describe the basic entitlements of individuals and nations? What should be the goal of our efforts: to maximise the sum of satisfaction? To maximise human functioning and capability? To maximise the access of individuals to certain basic resources? To ensure to as many people as possible a certain basic level of satisfaction, or of capability, or of resources? To maximise the situation (on any of these dimensions) of the least well off? (Those are two of the six.) Unger makes claims that he cannot make plausibly without consideration of such familiar questions.

Unger makes, very seriously, a practical recommendation – we should all give most of what we have to Oxfam – that, if followed, would be disastrous. This fact is hardly irrelevant to the assessment of what he has accomplished. Philosophy of this sort cannot afford to be naive armchair rumination. Irresponsible speculation brings philosophy into discredit in just those circles where good philosophy may possibly do some good (a fact that Singer, a practical philosopher very concerned with fact, must know well). Even when ideal theory is in question, philosophy must confront economic and political realities. Many fine modern writers on international justice and the relief of hunger are aware of this. Unger is not.

Martha Nussbaum
University of Chicago


The Casement Affair

Colm Tóibín, in his interesting discussion of Roger Casement’s Black and White Diaries (LRB, 2 October), leaves out two additional reasons for believing that the Black Diaries with their account of homosexual activities are genuine. One is that in New York in 1914, Casement employed a young companion, Adler Christensen, a Norwegian sailor. Christensen went with him to Germany and remained with him for the next two years until he left on his last secret journey to Ireland. It was not unusual in those days for a man of means to employ a manservant to travel with him, but Casement was not wealthy, Christensen had no experience as a servant, and his behaviour in Germany was such that the German authorities found him an embarrassment. The second is that Casement was addicted to writing. As a British consular official he wrote two or three dispatches a week of several thousand words and ten and twenty-page letters. He wrote countless articles and poems, under a pseudonym when he could not use his own name, published and unpublished. If such a man had a secret life, with passions and excitements that he could not reveal, it is very likely that he would record them.

Norman Moss
London W12


Who was Henri Perron?

R.W. Johnson asserts that Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins contains a ‘barely disguised and hostile portrait’ of Camus (LRB, 16 October). Beauvoir herself invariably denied that the character of Henri Perron was intended to resemble Camus. She claimed that Perron, along with the novel’s other main protagonist, a woman, represented particular aspects of her own personality and that superficial resemblances such as his appearance and profession could apply equally easily to some of her other acquaintances in the arts and media. As Beauvoir was quite capable of being disingenuous, her denial doesn’t have to be accepted at face value. Nevertheless, the background and attitudes she gives Perron are very different from those of Camus, particuarly Perron’s critical sympathy for the Communists and the fact that at the close of the novel he returns to a political alliance with them. On these grounds her denial is probably to be taken seriously. If, on the other hand, her model was Camus then the assertion that it is a ‘hostile portrait’ is nonsense. The novel is written partially from Perron’s point of view and presents him as a principled journalist and writer trying, though with difficulty, to come to terms with the politics of post-Liberation France – which does indeed make it unlikely that Beauvoir, given the hostility with which she came to view Camus, was thinking of him when she created the character.

Willie Thompson
Caledonian University


Hero of Neutrality

As Owen Bennett Jones’s piece on Switzerland (LRB, 21 August) makes clear, neutral is no longer synonymous with clean, right and law-abiding. Neutral countries are supposed to breed neither heroes nor villains, but Switzerland did manage to have one hero, in the very unlikely person of Paul Grüninger, who in 1938 was the chief of police in the Canton of St Gallen, which shares a border with Austria. After the Anschluss Jews were very eager to get out of Austria, but the official Swiss response was to close the border and deny them admittance to Switzerland. Paul Grüninger chose instead to falsify the admittance applications of anything between six hundred and three thousand Austrian Jews by back-dating the applications to the period before the border was closed. As he said at the time, he could not live with the policy and valued morality above bureaucratic orders. In 1939 the 48-year-old police chief was fired from his job and a subsequent judicial procedure stripped him of all pension rights. He died in 1981, and after many unsuccessful attempts on the part of those who felt he had been wrongfully treated, the St Gallen Government finally granted him a complete rehabilitation in 1995.

Tony Woolfson
Zurich


Stingless Drones

‘How,’ asks Helen Vendler (LRB, 16 October), in a thorough demolition job on Andrew Motion’s new biography of Keats (and with reference to the ‘Ode to Autumn’), ‘can Motion have been persuaded to think of the bees as exploited and overworked labourers? Can a poet so misread another poet? And if so, why?’ The answer to these questions seems to be simple. Surely he was ‘persuaded’ by yet another poet’s ‘Song to the Men of England’, also written in the year of Peterloo, and evidently with direct reference to the massacre:

Wherefore, Bees of England, forge
Many a weapon, chain and scourge,
That these stingless drones may spoil
The forced produce of your toil?

It’s not surprising, perhaps, that this rousing proto-Marxist agitprop should stick in Andrew Motion’s mind, as in many others.

Christopher Small
Edinburgh


Pooka

Frank Kermode (LRB, 16 October) laments that his reading of Peter Carey’s novel required ‘what one hasn’t got: a dictionary of 19th-century underworld slang’. I am surprised he has managed so long without something I have always considered good value. ‘Bilboa’ is explained in both Partridge’s Dictionary of Historical Slang and in the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (reprinted by Follet in 1971). ‘Esclop’ appears only in Partridge and neither refers to ‘racehorse’ or ‘pooka’ (‘pooja’ being nearest, and not far from his guessed meaning). I hope Kermode is not without Gamini Salgado’s Cony-Catchers and Bawdy Baskets, with its wealth of 16th-century roguery.

Paul Eustice
Worthing