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Letters

Vol. 30 No. 16 · 14 August 2008

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Situation Vacant

Thomas Jones’s Short Cuts about employment opportunities with MI6 reminded me of a US government job posting I found recently on Craigslist, the online classifieds service (LRB, 17 July):

Pashto Interpreter (Cuba). Immediate search for Top Secret/SCI cleared (or eligible) linguist/interpreter who speaks the Pashto language for ongoing work in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Must be a United States citizen. Competetive [sic] compensation. Full benefits, travel and housing included. Please reply with an email immediately if you would like to apply.

So, MI6 advertises in the Economist and the CIA advertises on Craigslist; MI6 requires British citizenship, the CIA US citizenship; MI6 works ‘in an international environment’, the CIA handles all travel and housing; MI6 has ‘almost a family atmosphere’, the CIA is focused on ‘ongoing work’ (presumably as part of a team, which is very important to Americans). MI6 entices candidates with talk of integrity and national security, the CIA offers a good salary, exotic travel and benefits; MI6 is more direct, whereas the CIA will attract only respondents willing to answer shadowy requests. Nothing betrays that this CIA ad is a CIA ad, but it provides a wonderful opportunity for anyone expecting and accepting that America will be continually and indefinitely surveying, seizing, transferring, imprisoning and interrogating people. Who would not be keen to get involved in such work? Anyone interested should email job-721578652@craigslist.org.

Joseph Szczekoski
Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania

To Chto Bylo On

Richard Pevear is right to say that Anthony Briggs’s translation of ‘to chto bylo on’ as ‘what was left of him’ does not accurately render Tolstoy’s description of the corpse of the old prince Bolkonsky (Letters, 19 June). But he is wrong to say that his own awkward ‘the women washed what had been he’ is the solution to the problem that this phrase presents for translators. Constance Garnett and Louise and Aylmer Maude solve it with ‘the women washed what had been the prince.’ Pevear has promoted his and Larissa Volokhonsky’s wooden translation of War and Peace by claiming that it offers an exquisite rendering of Tolstoy’s own tin ear. Isn’t it time to examine – rather than to swallow – this claim?

Janet Malcolm
New York

Obama Myopia

I was disappointed that Eliot Weinberger resorted to a tactic much employed by Obama supporters in the last weeks of the US Democratic primaries (LRB, 3 July). Weinberger writes:

Hardcore Clinton supporters saw the race in terms of gender, and blamed her loss on the sexism of the media and of the general public. But again, the lines of division were generational … women under 40 voted for Obama. Younger women in urban America are now better educated and earn more than younger men. They’re filling the executive positions and clearly do not believe that Clinton is their only hope of seeing a woman president.

While the statistics Weinberger quotes apply only to younger urban women in a particular section of the workforce, his argument does not: the reasoning of his paragraph implies that women under 40 voted for Obama because they have achieved parity with (if not superiority to) men in the workplace, and therefore do not see the election of a woman president as a significant achievement. Thus, the ‘hardcore’, elderly Clinton supporters who continue to see things in terms of gender and sexism, are represented as fundamentally out of date, using a feminist lens that is no longer relevant.

This is disappointing not least because it is so disingenuous. Even if we consider only the matter of wage parity, is Weinberger really unaware that last year women still earned only 80 per cent of what men earned in the United States, or that, since the Equal Pay Act of 1964, the gap has narrowed on average only half a penny a year, from a starting point of 59 per cent in 1963?

Jane Elliott
University of York

When the Floods Came

James Meek discusses Severn Trent’s seeming ignorance that the waterworks at Mythe, near Tewkesbury, were prone to flooding (LRB, 31 July). Around ten years after Mythe opened in 1870, the first edition of the Ordnance Survey County Series maps appeared, with flood plains marked on them as ‘Liable to flooding’. This warning was removed from OS maps after 1948, probably in order not to prejudice land values. If this had not happened the Environment Agency would not have had to make its own flood-plain maps and Severn Trent might have got the point before it was too late.

Colin Cohen
Barford St Michael, Oxfordshire

James Meek’s description of the privatisation of the water industry as a ‘chronicle of defeat for the notion of public service’ is spot on. It brought back some sour memories for me. It had started so well. After watching England win the World Cup on the Saturday, I started work on the Monday for one of the local authorities that ran its own sewage treatment works (there were more than a thousand of them at the time). After a few years I moved to another works whose effluent was so clean you could barely measure the pollution in it. Unfortunately, politicians must meddle, and when governments want to take powers away from local authorities they form bodies like the ten regional water authorities (quangos whose remit included water supply) set up in 1973, which in turn facilitated the privatisation of the industry in 1989. My demise had come earlier, in 1984. Malcolm McMurray, a retired Severn Trent manager, told Meek that ‘the Thatcher government deliberately starved the water industry of cash.’ That certainly reflects my experience: when I left my quango, the four posts immediately below mine were vacant.

Martin Ward
Northampton

True Crime

In her review of Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Bee Wilson states that Whicher arrived at Road Hill House ‘too late to view the evidence fresh’ (LRB, 19 June). In fact, he arrived too late to view much evidence at all; a considerable amount of it, including bloodstains on door jambs and a bloody female undergarment, had already been destroyed. The Wiltshire and Somerset police told Whicher nothing of these losses, so that he had to reason from false because incomplete premises. Wilson gives the impression that Whicher correctly solved the case, even though it ruined his career. A more critical reviewer would have noted, in Summerscale’s account, a fudging of the distinction between forensic truth and narrative truth. As Summerscale states, Whicher was a ‘reader’ of clues and character. Given a flawed text, he derived a flawed reading, and catalysed his own suspect’s development into a maker of fictions. Like all great fictions, Constance Kent’s was deeply felt to be true – an imaginative vision. In the United States, we have had such an epidemic of confessional imaginative visions that they have acquired the status of a psychological phenomenon: False Memory Syndrome.

Wendy Walker
Brooklyn

Which Reader?

Jacqueline Rose seems unsure about the identity of the ‘reader’ referred to in the title of Bernhard Schlink’s novel, but it cannot easily refer to anyone except the narrator, since the original, somewhat untranslatable title, Der Vorleser, means ‘a male person who reads aloud to someone else’ (LRB, 31 July). When I read the novel, I hadn’t the faintest idea where the initial encounter between the narrator and Hanna would lead. It would be nice if others could have this experience too, but what chance is there of editions/ translations unfestooned with blurbs about guilt and concentration camps?

George Schlesinger
Durham

Homobesottedness

Mark Engel rightly objects to Peter Green’s practical explanation of the pork taboo in Leviticus as a protection against trichinosis (Letters, 3 July). Yet when Engel elaborates on Jewish dietary law he endorses another equally implausible proposition, taking for granted the religious view that Talmudic precepts derive directly from the Torah. The kosher rule that prohibits the eating of dairy products and meat together does not logically follow from the injunction in Exodus. The latter proscribes boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, but allows cooking the kid in the milk of another she-goat, or in ewe’s milk or cow’s milk, not to mention the laying out of a platter of cheese and pastrami, where nothing has been cooked in anything. The Talmudic ban extends to chicken and dairy, although birds don’t produce milk and no confusion can exist between their flesh and red meat. These puzzles were acknowledged by the young traditionalist rabbis I knew as a child, who revelled in challenging each other and their mentors to pyrotechnics of casuistry. The failure to find a satisfactory answer does not suspend the duty to comply, however, because traditional Judaic practice proceeds not from reasoned deduction but from cumulative historical authority.

The Exodus proscription may have derived from sectarian boundary-setting against groups that cooked spring kid in milk as a festive food with a ritual dimension. There are many recipes for meat cooked in milk or yoghurt in the Middle East, and the name of a Lebanese version, immos, implies that the young animal is cooked in its own mother’s milk (Claudia Roden calls this ‘rather tragic’ in A Book of Middle Eastern Food, and mentions its clash with Jewish dietary law). The Talmudic texts, composed during the third and fourth centuries CE, represent a different cultural environment; the sages who laid down the roots of historical Judaism in this period were attempting to establish a bridge to their biblical heritage, not always successfully. The fathers of Christianity and, a few centuries later, the jurists and legend-writers of Islam, attempted the same thing. As Engel says, neither kashrut nor reactions to homosexuality can be explained by practical concerns, but it should be added that the rules of kashrut do not support the interpretation that Talmudic Judaism is grounded in the Torah any more profoundly than these other two religions are in their scriptural heritage.

Mahir Saul
Urbana, Illinois

Marathon Men

In his piece about Richard Cook’s biography of Alfred Kazin, Keith Gessen corrects Cook’s New York geography, and so perhaps will not mind being corrected in turn (LRB, 19 June). Anyone attempting to find the George Washington Bridge at 186th Street will be sorely disappointed; it is about half a mile south at 179th Street. The walk Gessen mentions, from Kazin’s apartment at 111th Street to the bridge, is a distance of around three miles (there are about twenty blocks to the mile), a straight shot on Broadway, taking about an hour at a brisk pace.

Fred Schwarzbach
New York

Fore!

One of the most likeable things about the pieces that appear in the LRB is that, if you liken them to golf shots, once airborne they seldom stick as closely as they might to the fairway. I would never have thought of likening them to golf shots at all had it not been for an advertisement in the last issue for a book that its publisher claims brings ‘golf, philosophy and poetry together’ (LRB, ). It’s clear that this is the volume those of us who have failed over very many years to find inner peace as we thrash our way past and all too often into the hazards yawning on every side on the local links have been waiting for. Except that the ambiguity of the ad makes me wonder whether the book is aimed at helping golfers to improve their game by making them more philosophical, or helping non-golfers to improve their lives by learning what makes golfers tick.

Patrick Ainscough
Southport, Merseyside

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