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Letters

Vol. 29 No. 16 · 16 August 2007

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Cherishing the Leper

It seems likely, as Michel Lechat writes, that Yonda was not the kind of leper settlement that Graham Greene had been looking for (LRB, 2 August). Greene’s treatment of leprosy in A Burnt-Out Case is in many ways anachronistic, as the missionary and leprologist Robert Cochrane remarked when he reviewed the novel in 1961. A Burnt-Out Case looks back to a time when the leper offered the would-be saint the possibility of martyrdom, as its references to Father Damien, the now canonised martyr-priest of the Hawaiian leper colony on Molokai, indicate. Lechat’s fictional other, Dr Colin, remarks that Schweitzer attracts the type who ‘would rather wash the feet with their hair … than clean them with something more antiseptic’. Cherishing the leper, once a mark of sainthood, has become suspect. In the world of the modern leprosarium, as described by Lechat, the danger has gone out of leprosy. Greene’s novel both accepts and regrets this. A Burnt-Out Case has it both ways, exploiting the dread of infection that leprosy has traditionally provoked while presenting a modern leprosarium concerned with curing rather than loving the infected.

I’m not surprised that Greene didn’t like Lechat mentioning Conrad to him. Greene insisted that his Congo was ‘a region of the mind’, but it is clear from both novel and journal that this region is being shared with Conrad. As he travelled upriver, repeating the journey made by Conrad in 1890, he was reading Heart of Darkness and there are traces of Conrad’s story all over A Burnt-Out Case. Fundamentally it offered Greene a narrative structure – the river journey with its stations, the quest for meaning or salvation – that he could use and ironise. But the influence of Conrad created problems. Leper settlements were no longer necessarily among the dark places of the earth, and Yonda, as described by Lechat, certainly wasn’t. But the insistent parallel Greene makes between Querry’s emotional and spiritual numbness and the condition of the leper threatens to reduce the settlement to a place of extremity in which Greene’s hero seeks to recover his ability to feel and suffer. Indeed, Greene’s reassurances to Lechat that he merely wanted the leper settlement as ‘background’ underlines this point. It also recalls Chinua Achebe’s objection to Heart of Darkness: ‘Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind.’ Achebe’s criticism seems more pertinent to A Burnt-Out Case: Greene works much harder to establish sympathy for Querry than Conrad ever does for Kurtz.

Rod Edmond
University of Kent, Canterbury

Tut, tut

Michael Dobson wonders whether ‘the RSC has ever performed Shakespeare’s plays in the versions given’ in the new RSC Shakespeare ‘or … ever intends to do so’ (LRB, 10 May). The RSC production of Richard II currently being performed in Stratford-upon-Avon is, like the new complete works, based on the 1623 First Folio text rather than the first quarto (1597) of the play. In the case of Richard II, the Folio is essentially a reprint from the third quarto (1598), which was a reprint of the second quarto (also 1598), which was a reprint of the first quarto. The linguistic distortions that result from this policy are just as Dobson feared. Returning from banishment before the expiration of his sentence, Bolingbroke tries to pacify York with an oily ‘My gracious uncle …’ York’s angry response is the manifestly incomplete ‘Tut, tut, grace me no grace, nor uncle me’ given in the Folio, rather than the quarto’s chiasmic ‘Tut, tut, grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle’ (II.iii.86). When presented with the body of Richard near the end of the play, Henry IV is made to object that the murderer has ‘wrought a deed of slaughter … upon my head’, as the Folio says, instead of the quarto’s more meaningful ‘thou hast wrought a deed of slander … upon my head’ (V.vi.35-36). Having taken a public vow to kill the enemies of the commonwealth, and efficiently carried it out, Bolingbroke is hardly likely to mind being associated with slaughter. But slander, a besmirching of reputation, strikes at monarchial legitimacy and is central to the action of this play and of both parts of Henry IV. The dogma of trusting the Folio except where its readings are quite impossible – the policy followed by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen in The RSC Shakespeare – on this occasion lumbers the actors with a debased third-generation copy of the script.

Gabriel Egan
Loughborough University

Benjamin’s Briefcase

Jeremy Harding recounts the story of Lisa Fittko’s attempt to smuggle Walter Benjamin out of France in 1940 (LRB, 19 July). In 1979-80 I was on a year’s sabbatical at Stanford University, and became very friendly with the physicist Leo Stodolsky and his wife, Catherine. Fittko was Catherine’s aunt, and when I met her one night for dinner at the Stodolskys she told me of her life in prewar Germany as an active Communist. We discussed the role of intellectuals in the Party, and the conversation soon moved on to Benjamin. She told me the story of the journey to Portbou, and mentioned the black briefcase which, Benjamin had told her, contained a manuscript more important than his life. After hearing this, I wrote a long letter to Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin’s closest friend and a trustee of his writings. He then asked Fittko about the briefcase and told her that to his knowledge the manuscript supposedly contained in it had never been found. Scholem subsequently persuaded her to write her memoirs. The chapter on Benjamin was first published with Scholem’s introduction in the journal Merkur in October 1982.

Henny Gurland, another of the refugees in the party that Fittko led through the Pyrenees, wrote a full report to Adorno about Benjamin’s death. She does not mention the manuscript or the briefcase. Nor, apparently, does Carina Birman’s memoir, which continues the story from the day after Fittko had left the party to return to France. My personal impression was, and remains, that Fittko’s account of Benjamin and his briefcase is reliable. The briefcase must have been removed and the manuscript destroyed by whoever found it immediately after Benjamin’s suicide.

Chimen Abramsky
London N6

Anything but Shy

Thomas Laqueur was wrong to say that Paul Weiss became the first Jewish tenured professor at Yale in 1946 (LRB, 7 June). The linguist-anthropologist Edward Sapir was brought from the University of Chicago to Yale in the 1930s and made a Sterling Professor. Laqueur was not wrong about the anti-semitism, about which Sapir privately commented on several occasions.

Norman Zide
Chicago

Our Man

Tariq Ali places words in my mouth that I never spoke (Letters, 2 August). Not only am I unaware of a so-called ‘second meeting’ between Sergio Vieira de Mello and George W. Bush, but I simply would not have spoken of my friend in that way, and that too just a few weeks (not months, as Ali says) after his death. Sergio had told me of a request from Kofi Annan, his boss and mentor, that he felt he could not refuse; Annan had wanted him to go to Baghdad for six months, he had reluctantly offered two, and the pair had compromised on four. That the US, and notably Condoleezza Rice, wanted Sergio to be the UN representative was widely rumoured, but I have no reason to believe that he was directly pressed by Washington (even less by President Bush personally). Certainly Annan bitterly blamed himself for sending Sergio to his death. Knowing Sergio as I did for a quarter-century, I believe he was impelled by the sense of duty that had always characterised his willingness to take on hazardous and far-flung assignments, often at a moment’s notice. I would be grateful if those who wish to sully his memory would not ascribe words and opinions to me that I have never uttered.

Shashi Tharoor
New York

Lone Voice

Tariq Ali’s observation that ‘the French voted against the European Constitution without the support of a single daily newspaper or TV station’ is incorrect (LRB, 21 June). The national daily paper L’Humanité campaigned vigorously against it.

Christine Lindey
London SW1

Masterwork

Robert Alter criticises Karel van der Toorn’s argument concerning the possible collaborative origins of the Bible on the grounds that psychologically sophisticated plot turns and resonant verse would be beyond a ‘scribal school’ (LRB, 19 July). In fact, many oral traditions have yielded written material of the highest order through transcription, and the more functional the scribe the better. Lady Gregory sometimes diminished the Irish cycles by imposing her own judgment. The Grimm brothers did a better job of keeping out of the tales they collected, and the result is a stark, strange record of the traditional experience of the otherworldly. Grimm’s fairy tales are burnished by hundreds of retellings and reimaginings, and although individual minds were no doubt responsible for particular details, the power of the versions we know today is the result of a process which allowed only the most telling of these haphazard additions to survive. Such collaborative processes are not only capable of producing outstanding literature but may even favour the production of works capable of ‘spiritual’ import.

Peter Burgess
Sos, France

Obscene Child

Sheila Fitzpatrick mentions that Stefan Zweig was among those fascinated by the apparent contradictions in Mozart’s character (LRB, 5 July). Although Zweig wrote what might be called psychological biographies of a good number of historical figures, he never attempted one of Mozart. Instead, he concentrated on collecting documents relating to significant moments in Mozart’s life. Zweig owned four of Mozart’s letters to his cousin Anna Maria, to whom he gave the nickname ‘Baesle’, but published only one of them. It is not fair to say, as Fitzpatrick does, that his privately issued edition of the letter of 5 October 1777 is ‘expurgated’, since it includes a complete facsimile of Mozart’s tiny but very clear handwriting, as well as a transcription and Zweig’s commentary. He gave copies to a number of friends, including Richard Strauss and Freud. An elegant reproduction of the pamphlet was published last year in Vienna – a facsimile of a facsimile.

Arthur Searle
Framlingham, Suffolk

Sheila Fitzpatrick says that ‘revolutionary France provided the first official recognition of authors’ rights in 1791.’ In fact the United States Constitution, Article I, §8, clause 8, commonly called the patent and copyright clause, empowered Congress to enact such recognition and the first copyright statute was enacted on 31 May 1790.

David Whalin
Annandale, Virginia

Slips

In his review of my edition of A.E. Housman’s letters, Frank Kermode makes one implicit criticism of the editing when he wishes for ‘the omission of many plainly unnecessary notes explaining that when Housman wrote “don’t" he meant “don’t"’ (LRB, 5 July). That first ‘don’t’ should be ‘dont’, and the reason my notes correct such (surprisingly frequent) slips is, as I explain, to show Housman as less rigorous when writing informally than his scholarly reputation might suggest. I also state that ‘it is a consideration too that unrecorded inaccuracies can be mistaken for misprints or the editor’s errors.’ Thus, when Kermode himself records that Housman’s edition of Juvenal was published ‘“for the use of editors"’, ‘editorum in usum dedidit’, ‘dedidit’ should be ‘edidit’, and I am left wondering whose error that is.

Archie Burnett
Boston University

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