Geoffrey Hawthorn’s interesting piece on Ayrton Senna’s death (LRB, 9 June) suggests that recent rule changes in Formula One may have contributed to his accident. No one who works in Formula One would agree. To say of the banned electronic devices, ‘without them, even in the most skilled hands, the cars can easily go out of control,’ is quite simply wrong. Before the devices were invented, the difficulty of controlling a car was determined by its design and set-up. The same remained true with the devices in place and is still true now they have gone. The devices just added another dimension.
It is not true to suggest that cars without active suspension, traction control etc are intrinsically difficult to control. There was no sudden drop in incidents when the electronics came in. All that happened was the cars went faster, which is why the devices were fitted in the first place. Ayrton Senna won three world championships without electronic devices. To attribute his accident to their removal is a bit of post hoc, propter hoc.
The rule changes were not introduced to stop Williams’s domination – in fact most informed opinion believed the changes would help Williams by increasing the importance of engine power. The new rules were intended to stop the evolution of cars which would largely drive themselves. Such cars will be available in the next thirty or so years for road use, but would have been with us much sooner in Formula One. They would, we thought, destroy Formula One as a sporting contest. It was best to stop them at a very early stage.
On the roads, the more driver aids a car has and the better it holds the road, the safer it will be – provided it is driven responsibly. In competition, the reverse is true. Success depends on driving at the limits of performance of both car and driver. Electronic driver aids and better road-holding raise these limits. Higher limits mean higher speeds so that when the car crashes (which it will, sooner or later, as a result of driver error or mechanical failure), it does so at higher speed. In racing, driver aids do not help the driver avoid errors, they merely raise his personal limit and thus the stakes.
President, Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, Paris
Edward Said’s irritation at Edmund Wilson’s anti-Arab leanings (LRB, 7 July) is quite understandable but they were common among American liberals of the Fifties and Sixties. As a European at Harvard in the mid-Fifties, I was appalled at Americans’ complacent ignorance of things political outside the US. I met Wilson a couple of times at Poggioli’s house in Cambridge. Most of the time he talked about 19th-century pornographic literature. On both occasions, he downed a lot of whiskey, keeping the bottle handy, under his own chair.
It has always seemed to me that Wilson’s reputation as a critic was vastly exaggerated, in spite of the great influence he could swing in the editorial and academic world; and that large sections of his Axel’s Castle, notably the chapters on Proust, are just bunk. As to his controversy with Nabokov, it was difficult not to side with the author of Lolita. Wilson’s notebooks, important as they are as period pieces, reflect his prejudices, as well as his ignorance of everything that was not American. He wrote a lot about European literature but to the end of his life he saw Europe from the viewpoint of a 1930 American radical, never taking pains to understand what had really gone on, what was now going on, there. Hemingway, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald could do better.
To an Italian, an irritating feature of Wilson’s notebooks is his constant mispelling of Italian words and his incapacity to get straight information on the people he writes about. Most of the time, his editors are just as bad as he was and Mr Dabney, who edited The Sixties, is no exception. Here are a few items from Dabney’s ‘Biographical Notes’, at the end of the volume. Elsa Morante is described as an ‘Italian author known for her short novels’. Miss Morante’s first novel, Menzogna e Sortilegio, is 800 pages long; L’isola di Arturo, 370 pages; La Storia, 1200 pages. Dominique de Roux, ‘critic and head of the French publishing house Gallimard’, never worked for Gallimard. He was the editor of the small, avant-garde publishing house L’Herne. Towards the end of his life he associated himself with Christian Bourgois, the director of the publishing house that still bears that name. Ignazio Silone’s family name was Tranquilli, not Tranquillo. In his youth, he was something more than ‘a leader of the Communist Party’: he was one of its founders. Etc.
Mr Dabney’s are minor errors, however, in comparison with those of Leon Edel, the editor of the other volumes of Wilson’s notebooks. Authors change sex in Edel’s footnotes (Paola Monelli, instead of Paolo, The Forties); family names are seldom spelled correctly (Mussolini’s mistress was not Clara Patacci but Clara Petacci, The Forties). Sometimes people play roles that are totally imaginary: Enrico Mattei did not become ‘a powerful industrialist’ (The Forties) in post-1945 Italy, but was the powerful manager of ENI, Italy’s state-owned oil concern. Etc.
Is the number of human beings who are dead greater than the number who are alive? Jenny Diski (LRB, 23 June) asks an important question. The answer, by most estimates, is no. For the first time in human history the living outnumber the dead. In the last few decades the scales have shifted: now we outweigh the ancestors. This may be why we are in so much trouble.
As tutor to Beryl Graves’s children in postwar Deya, Martin Seymour-Smith (Letters, 23 June) was not well-placed to know what happened at Stowe in the late Twenties. Nor at Cambridge thereafter. Nor at Reeves family tennis parties at Amersham in the early Thirties. Intimacy with Robert Graves should have told him that Reeves, when visiting Deya in summer 1935, took ten of Harry Kemp’s poems to show to Laura Riding. These were published in Epilogue (Spring 1937). It should also have told him that Kemp visited Graves in Deya in the mid-Fifties.
On 10 June an 11-foot sculpture was erected in the headmaster of Stowe’s garden. It commemorates James Reeves, but its donor, Harry Kemp, could not attend since he was in hospital. The Reeves quotation was used out of context to refer to Kemp.
Edward Wilson (Letters, 7 July) describes as ‘mistaken’ my view that Isaac Watts’s speaking of Christ’s blood as a crimson robe derives from ‘the idealising and yet sensuously saturated art of the Counter-Reformation’. On the contrary, he says, ‘the image is actually from Isaiah 63.1-3’ in the Authorised Version. But ‘derived from’ is not the same as ‘originates with’. And in any case the person in Isaiah whom Wilson calls ‘Christ’, asked why his garments are red, replies that he will wrathfully tread his people ‘and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.’ Watts, who certainly knew the Scriptures as well as Wilson does, explicitly excludes this far from Christlike blood-bespattered figure when he writes ‘His dying crimson, like a robe’. For him in his poem the blood is that of the crucified victim, not of any victims that he may be thought to have slaughtered. What Wilson calls ‘the image’ in fact (‘actually’) comprises two images, mutually incompatible. Similarly, though less flagrantly, the lines quoted by Wilson from George Herbert’s ‘The Sacrifice’ refer to the robe (Matthew colours it scarlet, in Mark it is purple) which the mocking soldiers put upon Christ, only to strip it from him before he went to crucifixion (whereas in Watts the real or figurative robe is worn on the Cross). Again, ‘the image’ turns out to be two distinct images, though Herbert to be sure tries to conflate them. Red, scarlet, crimson, purple – the words may be interchangeable in some contexts, but not in poetry. Purple, the imperial colour as in ‘Vexilla Regis’, points to an aspect of Christ that Watts will make much of elsewhere, which here by using ‘crimson’ he excludes. Wilson, accusing me and Margaret Doody of looking no further back than to the 18th century, is right insofar as we have learned to be warier than he is of using words like ‘actually’.
In refuting me on the matter of James Joyce’s first language, Liam Mac Cóil (Letters, 23 June) falls into the old trap of confusing an author with one of his characters. Stephen Dedalus may resemble the youthful Joyce in many ways but he is still fictional. Despite his (Stephen’s) emotional statement – English ‘will always be for me an acquired speech’ – the fact remains that Joyce was born to an English-speaking family in an English-speaking society, and when he wrote he wrote in his native tongue, not in an acquired one. Mr Mac Coíl’s melodramatic vision of Joyce ‘squarely and without whingeing’ facing the issue of whether to write in English or another language (presumably Irish) is simply nonsense.
I make no criticism of Salman Rushdie and his impressive work, but it is wrong to claim, as Mr Mac Coíl and Sadik Al-Azm apparently do, that Rushdie’s writing in English about Islam and Islamic society parallels Joyce’s writing in English about Dublin and the Ireland he grew up in. The equation does not exist. Rushdie’s Islam was not couched in English. Joyce’s Dublin was.
Mr Mac Coíl also says it was disparaging for me to call Irish the language of Ireland’s traditionalists, but what else is it? Traditionalists say Ireland is a bilingual country, and they have the road signs to prove it. But while Irish-speaking pockets may still exist in the western counties, in my visits to Ireland I have never come across anyone (except an immigrant from Spain) who did not speak English as a first language.
Like a flag or an anthem, Irish may be a revered symbol of an independent Ireland, but it is not the language of the country. I went to Mass in Bray, near Dublin. The Mass was in Irish, which made me chagrined, for I felt my assumption that Irish was not really spoken in Ireland was, after all, wrong. But when the priest paused to make parish announcements to the congregation, he spoke in English. Afterwards I asked a woman on the steps outside if all Masses in that church were Irish.
‘No,’ she said. ‘This is the only one.’
‘Ah,’ I said. ‘I understood every word.’
‘Did you?’ she said, unamused. ‘Well, I didn’t, and I was born and raised here.’
Obviously not a traditionalist.
Tuckahoe, New York
Parsippany, New Jersey
My letter of 7 July took on faith J.M.C. Burton’s account (Letters, 7 July) of Heinz Lettau as Rommel’s chief meteorologist responsible for D-Day forecasts; but faith has been shaken. My friend Dr Paul Frenzen tells me that, according to Lettau’s son, Heinz’s quite different charge in the spring of 1944 was forecasting low-level winds affecting V-1 bombs aimed at London.
Trinity College, Cambridge