Vol. 46 No. 8 · 25 April 2024

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Is it even good?

Brandon Taylor’s proposal that Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels should be read not in publication order but in a sequence dictated by the fictional lives of their protagonists owes much, as Taylor acknowledges, to Ernest Vizetelly (LRB, 4 April). But Vizetelly’s priority was to market the translations of Zola’s novels. By grouping them in mini-series, he hoped to counter resistance to purchasing the lot. Zola’s focus on the twin branches of a single family is ostensibly unifying. The characters who recur, however, offer only the illusion of a seamless biographical narrative. Zola’s copying of their physical features from an earlier novel is deceptive; their portrayal is always subject to the imperatives of the novel in hand, even to the extent of a radical recasting of their traits. The most extreme example is the last-minute invention of Jacques Lantier for La Bête humaine, prompted by the realisation that the Étienne of Germinal could not plausibly be transformed into a homicidal maniac.

The ordering of Les Rougon-Macquart was deliberate: Zola’s notes explicitly organise their components with a view to rhythm and balance, light and shade, Paris and the provinces. He also played with his readers: the tonality of Le Rêve, he wrote with glee, would confound the expectations of his critics. Pot-Bouille and Nana form a diptych demonstrating that sexual depravity was as characteristic of the bourgeoisie as the demi-monde. In that thematic superimposition, Nana is less ‘boring’ than Taylor contends. Zola provides a multi-dimensional panorama of his times. Overlapping time-frames also frustrate sequencing, as is evident from Zola’s manipulation of historical chronology to repeatedly signal the impending catastrophe of the Franco-Prussian War. The moral weight of Les Rougon-Macquart is reinforced by reading the novels, however great the challenge, not as a saga but as a cycle.

Robert Lethbridge
University of St Andrews, Fife

The Shoah after Gaza

Pankaj Mishra writes that in 1977 the Austrian writer Jean Améry ‘came across press reports of the systematic torture of Arab prisoners in Israeli prisons’ (LRB, 21 March). I can elaborate, as I believe this refers to a four-page report in the Sunday Times on 19 June 1977. I was one of the Insight journalists who produced the report, which detailed prolonged beatings, hooding, hanging by the wrists for long periods, confinement in stress positions in tiny cells, electric shocks and sexual assault.

Améry apparently considered our reports ‘sketchy’, but we interviewed no fewer than 44 Palestinian ex-prisoners, 22 of whom consented to be named. We felt we had to go to such lengths in order to counter the disbelief we anticipated, given the privileged position Israel enjoyed in the media and public opinion at the time. We also obtained independent corroboration from the International Committee of the Red Cross that our report was well-founded.

President Begin told a meeting of senior British Jews that it was the single most damaging article published about Israel since 1948. President Carter raised it with him at a meeting in Washington. Begin reportedly said he would mount an inquiry, but his office later said that our report was ‘without foundation’ since torture was ‘prohibited by law’.

Peter Gillman
London SE20

Having grown up Jewish in the US in the 1960s, I want to expand on Pankaj Mishra’s remark, quoting Peter Novick, that the Holocaust ‘“didn’t loom that large” in the life of America’s Jews until the late 1960s’. Measuring a society’s awareness of such events will always be difficult, but Mishra’s next remark is that ‘only a few books and films touched on the subject.’ He mentions the film Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), but neither William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), which sold two million copies, nor the US edition of The Diary of Anne Frank (1952), on which a Pulitzer prize-winning play (1955) and a Hollywood film (1959) were also based. Millions, young and old, devoured the Diary after the mass-market paperback was published in 1953. By the 59th printing in 1967, it had sold 2.5 million copies in the US. The movie, which I saw on TV in the early 1960s, was my own introduction to the Holocaust.

Elizabeth Benedict
New York

Moshé Machover rejects the appellation ‘Shoah’, arguing that the term’s ‘borrowed usage’ was propelled by the ‘Zionist propaganda’ of Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah; that the use of a Hebrew word for the Holocaust constitutes a ‘subliminal terminological connection between the genocide of Jews and the state of Israel’; and that most European Jewish victims ‘were not familiar with the word’ (Letters, 4 April).

‘Shoah’ is hardly a new term. It appears often in the Hebrew Bible. ‘That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of shoah and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness,’ we read in Zephaniah 1:15. In the 1930s the word was already in wide use among Jews, Orthodox and secular, to designate the Third Reich’s anti-Jewish practices. And, contrary to Machover, the vast majority of the victims of the Shoah, most of whom were traditional Jews or the children of religious households, knew biblical and liturgical Hebrew rather well, though the language was not their vernacular.

Why would ‘holocaust’, a word of Greek origin referring to a burnt offering to the Lord that carries an implication of sacrifice, a label for Nazi mass murder not in use until decades after the event, somehow be the superior designation?

Ira Katznelson
Columbia University, New York

It’s not cricket

Simon Skinner makes the case that reviews of refereeing/umpiring decisions work better in cricket than in football, both because the judgments made in cricket are objective and because cricket has abandoned the fiction of the referee’s infallibility. There are two other significant reasons (Letters, 21 March). First, football is a fast-flowing game in which disruptions to the action are generally short, while cricket is a much slower game of which pauses are an integral part. The referral of an umpire’s decision has its own drama, where the team on the receiving end of the initial verdict has fifteen seconds in which to decide whether to use one of its few appeals, and if it decides to do so there is then the drama of the evidence being presented to everyone in the ground on large video screens.

Second, there are few goals in a football match. A poor or contentious decision is likely to affect the final result. In cricket, even though the removal of a leading batter is a significant event, depending on the format there are twenty or forty wickets potentially to be taken in a match, so a single decision isn’t so emotionally charged.

Stephen Adamson
London SE5

Non-Human Threat

Michael Ledger-Lomas mentions the illustrations in Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books but not their principal illustrator, H.J. (Henry Justice) Ford, whose work is a large part of what gives Lang’s series its coherence and makes it so memorable (LRB, 4 April). Across twenty-odd years, Ford delivered several hundred plates, interspersed throughout the tales every three or four spreads. They are by no means all of the same quality, and it’s true that his colour plates especially seem to draw heavily on Burne-Jones’s then recent Briar Rose sequence. But where Burne-Jones depicts a static kingdom of the sleeping, in the artificially posed tableaux the Pre-Raphaelites favoured, Ford’s pictures are often lively with non-human threat. The Yellow Fairy Book features maybe the best of them, including a magnificent Tinderbox dog with saucer eyes, a terrifying witch clambering aboard ship from her impossible stone boat, and King Frost snapping his icy fingers as he interrogates a maiden clad in the thinnest of shifts in a wintry forest. He could also supply terrific writhing dragons, as Tolkien must have observed.

Mark Sinker

Stagger Lee

Michael Wood, writing about Cord Jefferson’s film American Fiction, notes many references to American greats – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thelonious Monk, Walt Whitman – but passes over the narrator’s use of the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh (LRB, 21 March). This is a nod to the legendary African-American gangster Stagger Lee, immortalised in a song covered by everyone from Mississippi John Hurt and Cab Calloway to Bob Dylan, Neil Sedaka, the Clash, Taj Mahal and – in a terrifying version – Nick Cave.

Adam Lechmere
London SE23

D-Day Dodgers

Stephen Sedley reminds us about the ballad ‘The D-Day Dodgers’ (Letters, 7 March). The credit for the lyrics should be given to Hamish Henderson, the great Scottish folkie and political philosopher. It sits alongside his powerful anthem ‘Freedom Come-All-Ye’:

Roch the wind in the clear day’s dawin
Blaws the cloods heelster-gowdie ow’r the bay,
But there’s mair nor a roch wind blawin
Through the great glen o’ the warld the day.
It’s a thocht that will gar oor rottans
– A’ they rogues that gang gallus, fresh and gay –
Tak the road, and seek ither loanins
For their ill ploys, tae sport and play

Nae mair will the bonnie callants
Mairch tae war when oor braggarts crousely craw,
Nor wee weans frae pit-heid and clachan
Mourn the ships sailin’ doon the Broomielaw.
Broken faimlies in lands we’ve herriet,
Will curse Scotland the Brave nae mair, nae mair;
Black and white, ane til ither mairriet,
Mak the vile barracks o’ their maisters bare.

So come all ye at hame wi’ Freedom,
Never heed whit the hoodies croak for doom.
In your hoose a’ the bairns o’ Adam
Can find breid, barley-bree and painted room.
When MacLean meets wi’s freens in Springburn
A’ the roses and geans will turn tae bloom,
And a black boy frae yont Nyanga
Dings the fell gallows o’ the burghers doon.

Late in life he performed this to a vast crowd gathered for a Deacon Blue gig in front of Stirling Castle. After the band’s first set he strolled onto the stage in his old raincoat and, without fuss or introduction, sang it a capella. The effect was mesmerising, and the torch was passed to another generation.

Gerard Hastings
Céret, France


Mike Jay writes about the history of sleep science (LRB, 4 April). The researchers have consistently got it the wrong way round. Far from it being the purpose of sleep to support and nourish life, the purpose of life is to sleep. As Isaac Bashevis Singer put it in his short story ‘The Letter Writer’, ‘Herman had often thought that one’s true life was lived during sleep. Waking was no more than a marginal time assigned for doing things.’

David Flusfeder
Deal, Kent

Various Hand Grenades

Francis Gooding writes about the Imperial War Museum (LRB, 22 February). Evidently the museum has developed since my visit there in 1975. I recall a display case of several hand grenades used by various forces, each one briefly described on a small, hand-typed label. The curators hadn’t restrained themselves from an occasional joke: the label for the Italian grenade said, ‘Lethal – but only to the thrower.’

Allen Schill
Turin, Italy

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