The Old Croton Aqueduct and the New Croton Dam

The Old Croton Aqueduct and the New Croton Dam

The Old Croton Aqueduct trail runs behind my house, and I’ve been walking along its tree-shaded way for well over a decade now. As a kid, I thought “aqueduct” was just a name, until my mom told me that, buried underneath the pebbly ground, there is a tunnel that used to carry water to New York City from Croton, a couple dozen miles north. Even so, it never occurred to me to learn about the aqueduct. This a striking but common phenomenon: we travel to foreign cities and go on tours, but neglect the history in front of our eyes. It wasn’t until I began traveling abroad that I started to realize the scale and significance of the old aqueduct—along with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Eerie Canal, it is one of the major engineering feats of nineteenth-century New York—and so I set myself to investigate it.

The first step was to walk the whole thing. This is not an easy stroll. The original aqueduct ran about 40 miles from the Croton Reservoir down to Manhattan. The water first reached the Receiving Reservoir, which is now the Great Lawn in Central Park, and then traveled further along to the Distributing Reservoir in Midtown Manhattan on 42nd Street. On this spot now stands the iconic main branch of the New York Public Library, and you can still find remains of the old reservoir’s foundation in the library basement. An imposing structure inspired by Egyptian architecture, this distributing reservoir used to be something of an attraction. People would come to stand atop its walls, for what was then one of the best views of Manhattan.

After the aqueduct was phased out of service in the 1960s, a large chunk of the land—26.2 miles of trail, to be exact—was donated to New York State, to form a historic linear park that stretches from Croton, through Ossining, Scarborough, Tarrytown, Irvington, Dobbs Ferry, all the way down to the Bronx. I didn’t manage to walk the whole way, but I walked most of this distance, first going south to Yonkers and then north to Croton.

For most of the way, the Old Croton Aqueduct is a dirt or grass path, about ten feet wide or narrower, with a well-worn channel in the middle. It goes through some historic areas, taking the walker alongside the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, through the park of Lyndhurst (former residence of Jay Gould, railroad baron), and near Sunnyside (former residence of Washington Irving), and into the wonderful Rockwood Park (former residence of William Rockefeller). The trail is not always so scenic; sometimes you are basically walking through people’s backyards, and there are a few intervals where you have to exit the trail and walk through a neighborhood to get to the next stretch.

Ventilator
Trail and ventillator

The walker will notice a few structures along the way. The most common are the ventilators, which are hollow stone cylinders with a shaft that allowed fresh air to reach the water below. These were installed to prevent pressure from building up inside the tunnel. Less frequent are the weirs, square stone buildings with metal sluice gates inside that could be dropped like a guillotine to divert the water in case repairs were needed. (And since the growing population of New York put heavy strain on the aqueduct, they frequently were.) These are situated above rivers, into which the water could be redirected. There is one above the Pocantico River in Sleepy Hollow, another in Ossining over the Sing Sing Kill, and another in the Bronx over the Harlem River.

Weir
Sleepy Hollow Weir

In Dobbs Ferry stands one of the old Keeper’s Houses, where the aqueduct’s superintendents used to stay. There used to be six of these along the aqueduct, but the one in Dobbs Ferry is the only one that still stands. It is an inconspicuous white house now, but not long ago it lay completely in ruins; the restoration was just completed in 2016, by the combined efforts of the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct, a non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to the aqueduct, and the State of New York. This house is open on weekends and is well worth a visit. It contains many exhibits about the aqueduct, with historical photos, engineering drawings, and maps, and also has several short documentaries you can watch.

Sluice Gate
Sluice gate

Up north in Ossining there is a stone bridge that carries the aqueduct over the Sing Sing Kill. (“Kill” comes from a Dutch word, meaning “river,” and is used in several place-names in New York.) A few times a year, The Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct give free guided tours that actually bring you inside this bridge. I recently went on one, and I recommend the experience. A group of about two dozen visitors descended through the weir into the aqueduct. The old sluice gate is a rusty mass of metal now. But the aqueduct tunnel itself, made of brick and waterproof concrete, has held up remarkably well. The only marks of wear are some cracks in the walls from running the aqueduct at full capacity. It made me giddy to think that I could walk through that dark and dank tunnel all the way to New York City.

Tunnel Interior
Inside the Aqueduct

Below this bridge, there is an elevated walkway (a “greenway”) where you can stroll alongside the Sing Sing Kill. This was just opened last year, in 2016, and is astonishingly lovely. From this you can see the spillway, which brought the water from the aqueduct into the river during repairs. As the guide noted, the water would spray out with such force that it scoured the bank on the other side of the river.

Spillway
Sing Sing Kill spillway

From the information available in the Keeper’s House and the Ossining Visitor Center—from permanent exhibitions and documentaries on display—I pieced together the history of this great work. The original aqueduct and dam were commissioned in the 1830s after it became apparent that New York badly needed more water. Outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera killed thousands; and the Great Fire of 1835 destroyed hundreds of buildings, largely because the fire department lacked the water to put it out. Manhattan is an island of marshy ground surrounded by brackish water, and before the Croton Aqueduct was built the only water supplies were local wells which could be easily polluted.

Greenway
Sing Sing Kill greenway

The man primarily responsible for planning and engineering the original aqueduct was John B. Jervis, who must be one of the great engineers of 19th century America. He had political as well as engineering challenges to surmount. The land needed for the tunnel cut through hundreds of properties, mostly farms, each of which required an individual settlement. Meanwhile, the two political parties of the time, the Whigs and the Democrats, were squabbling over funding. Upon completion of the project, Jervis rode in a rowboat through the tunnel all the way from Croton to New York. I don’t know how long it took him, but it takes the water 22 hours to make the journey. This slow speed was intentional, by the way, since it minimized wear on the tunnel.

High Bridge Ground View
Original High Bridge arches

The largest structure of the original aqueduct stands on the southern end. This is the High Bridge. Opened in 1848, this is the oldest bridge still standing in New York City. It originally resembled a Roman aqueduct, with tall stone arches carrying the water high overhead, just like the famous aqueduct in Segovia. Indeed, one remarkable thing about the Croton Aqueduct is that it uses the same principle the Romans used all those centuries ago—namely, gravity—transporting the water on its 40 mile trip with a slight incline, 13 inches per mile. The bridge had to be built so high (140 feet) to maintain this slope. The water tower Jervis designed still stands on the Manhattan side of the High Bridge, looking like the turret of some bygone castle. (This tower was needed to pump water to some areas in the Bronx, which lay above the Aqueduct’s slope.)

Water Tower
Water tower

In the 1920s people began to complain that the bridge’s arches were an obstacle to ships traveling through the river, so the middle stone pillars were demolished and replaced with a long steel arch. The bridge was officially closed to the public in 1970, apparently because of vandalism, and wasn’t opened until 2015—an astonishingly long time, if you ask me. (There are some excellent panels on the High Bridge, with illustrations of its history. I have attached the images at the end.)

High Bridge Top
High Bridge

As you can see from the High Bridge, the scale of the Old Croton Aqueduct is undeniably impressive: stretching about four times longer than the Aqua Appia in Rome (although, to be fair, I think the Romans built several aqueducts longer than the Croton Aqueduct), and requiring whole landscapes to be reshaped. The aqueduct was constructed by 4,000 laborers, mostly Irish, who made a dollar or less for ten-hour days. Having thousands of single men, with plenty of drink available (enterprising farmers began converting their barns into bars), predictably caused some ruckus. But it was a good job for the recent immigrants.

The opening of the aqueduct was something of a sensation. At the time, the Croton Aqueduct was one of the biggest engineering projects in the United States, only surpassed by the Eerie Canal. And the effect of the aqueduct on city life was scarcely less important than the canal’s. With a reliable source of clean water, the city began to expand at a remarkable rate. The original aqueduct was built with a maximum capacity of 60 million gallons a day. The engineers thought this would be enough water to supply the city for hundreds of years. But it wasn’t long until the ever-growing population of New York outstripped the capacity of the aqueduct. Indeed, it was largely thanks to the increased supply of fresh water that the city was able to grow so quickly.

Thus the aqueduct, designed to be used for centuries, was supplemented in 1890 by the New Croton Aqueduct, a larger tunnel that runs parallel to the old one. The Old Aqueduct stopped delivering water to the city in the 1950s. The New Croton Aqueduct is still in use—although it, too, has since been supplanted. The Croton watershed now delivers about 10% of NYC water. The majority of the water comes from the Catskill Watershed further north, ferried to the city by the Catskill and the Delaware Aqueducts. This latter tunnel, by the way, is the longest tunnel anywhere on earth, stretching 85 miles. New York is a thirsty city. (The current daily water supply of NYC is 1.3 billion gallons.)

Not only the original aqueduct, but the original Croton Dam was also replaced in the late nineteenth century. Jervis designed the original dam with an innovative S-shaped spillway to reduce damage from floods. But good luck seeing it now. Today, Jervis’s dam is underwater, submerged under the expanded Croton Reservoir, only visible in times of severe drought.

Croton Dam

For my part, I don’t regret this loss, since that dam was replaced by the New Croton Dam—a grand monument of the previous century. Made of cyclopean stones, standing at almost 300 feet tall, and stretching to 2,188 feet (almost the exact altitude of Madrid, coincidently) the dam is still immensely impressive. It is also beautiful, with the stair-like spillway allowing water to cascade down to the river below in an artificial waterfall. This dam was begun in 1892 and completed in 1906. Whole communities—cemeteries, churches, and farms—had to be moved to make way for the expanding reservoir. Standing on top of that dam, hearing the rushing water below you, does a better job than any statistic of conveying how much water a major city like New York needs.

Croton Dam Side

As part of my research, I also read the book in the Images of America series about the construction of the New Croton Dam. The story of this construction is told with dozens of old photographs, with commentary by Christopher Tompkins. You don’t exactly get a linear narrative this way; but the images alone are worth the price. It baffles the mind to think of what these men accomplished—redirecting a river, and erecting a structure 300 feet tall with cut stones, flooding an entire valley and displacing many communities—and all this using technology that looks, to my eyes, scarcely more advanced than what the Egyptians used. That’s an exaggeration, of course: the dam workers had steam shovels to excavate and railroads to bring stone from the quarry. But I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been to move those massive stones in a time before modern cranes, using only wooden derricks and pulleys and counterweights.

It is amazing to me that so much history—an engineering feat and a chapter in the history of New York—lay buried right behind my house, and that I’ve been walking along this trail for so many years, oblivious. Don’t wait until you travel to learn about history, to explore and go on tours. Take Thoreau’s advice: “Live at home like a traveler.”


These images are taken from informational panels on the High Bridge.

IMG_0241

IMG_0243

IMG_0242

IMG_0244

IMG_0245

IMG_0249

Advertisements

Review: Walden

Review: Walden

Walden & Civil DisobedienceWalden & Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!

This month, two hundred years ago, Henry David Thoreau made his way into the world. Thus it seemed like a good time to revisit his thorny classic, which filled me with such contradictory feelings the first time around.

This time, I was struck first by how current Thoreau’s book reads. A vegetarian before it was fashionable, or even respectable; a pioneer of nature writing and conservationism; a godfather of activism and protest; an author of lines that, even now, wouldn’t be out of place in any self-help book; and the originator of the “stunt-book”—doing something unusual and then writing about it—anticipating both performance art and reality television in his classic account of his life “in the woods.”

It is very easy to dislike Thoreau, or even to despise him. Thoreau took himself very seriously. He comes across as pretentious and magnificently condescending, while at the same time as naïve as a child. For all his practicality, he was astoundingly impractical. His insistence that everyone in Concord learn enough Latin and Greek to read the classic texts is characteristic of him—a snobbish and pointless piece of advice, delivered with disdain. His authorial personality is so often prickly and misanthropic, rebuking the world at every turn, and this mood is never lightened by an easy humor. There is no Montaigne in this self-chronicler; instead, like Iago, he is nothing if not critical. You wonder if anything but loons and books ever pleased him. He was, in a word, a dour man.

The case against Thoreau is more serious than just his off-putting authorial personality. The most common charge made against him is that of hypocrisy. His book purports to be the record of a bold experiment in living in the woods. He describes how he built his own house, grew his own beans, baked his own bread, and rhapsodizes about the solitude and isolation he created for himself. But in reality he was living just 20 minutes from his ancestral home, squatting on land lent to him by his friend Emerson, and receiving frequent and plentiful visitors. Apparently he went home weekly to get cookies from his mother, who also kindly delivered doughnuts and pies to our hero. It is not reported whether he ate his cookies and doughnuts with milk.

This is a damning fact, considering that Thoreau carefully documents all of his expenses and goes into excruciating detail as to his eating habits—without mentioning a single cookie. He gives the impression that he was a hermit on the very edge of society, living on the produce he created, savoring his lonely retreat from the world. And all this is recorded with the stated intention of showing that self-sufficiency is possible. But if Thoreau himself can bear neither a diet of pure beans nor the stark isolation of true life in the woods, his whole experiment is a sham. It is one thing for an ordinary citizen to be hypocritical; it is another thing for a moralizing philosopher who repeatedly stresses the necessity of living in accordance with one’s tenets.

The case against Thoreau goes ever further than this. For, if his practice didn’t align with his preaching, his preaching didn’t align with his preaching either. Walden is a baffling bundle of contradictions. Did Thoreau like the steam engines or hate them? He excoriates them one moment, and the next he goes into rhapsodies about the locomotive. He praises hunting as a way of bringing oneself closer with nature, and then he condemns all killing and eating of animals. Here he is enjoining us to ignore fantasies and pay close attention to reality: “If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainment.” And here he is telling us to do the opposite: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.”

The perplexing thing about this inconsistency is that Thoreau never admits to hesitation or doubt. He rattles off his opinions with the fervor of a zealot. And yet even his zealotry is inconsistent, for it was Thoreau who famously said “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured and far away.” This famous paean to self-determination is ensconced in a book filled with biting scorn for those who do not agree with Thoreau. In all likelihood, Thoreau himself was the least tolerant man in Concord. Considering both his inconsistency in action and speech, it is difficult to know what exactly Thoreau, who is always urging us, is actually urging us to do.

But I think that a strong case can be made for Thoreau, too—especially now. For Walden has aged remarkably well. If anything, Thoreau’s classic has become even more relevant in our harried age.

Thoreau flees to the woods because of a growing horror with every aspect of his contemporary society—the unjust government, the growing consumerism, the obsession with technology, the increasing specialization of labor, the absorption of all leisure by work, the constant petty conversation, the disregard of wild nature. The sources of this horror are, I think, in part mysterious to even himself, which might be one explanation for his inconsistency. He is like a boxer swinging wildly at an invisible enemy, or a doctor prescribing medicines for an unknown malady. But to be fair, we haven’t gotten much closer to solving the problems that Thoreau tried to tackle with such spirit.

For my part, I think Thoreau’s instincts are right, even when his diagnoses and his cures are wrong. His abhorrence of economic exchange, of interdependence, is an excellent example. Modern society obviously could not exist without exchange; the economy would collapse if we all chose to live like Thoreau advocates, and technological innovation would come to a standstill. Yet Thoreau’s abhorrence of intedependence is neither political nor economic, but moral. He recognized quite clearly, I think, that in a complex economy, we are enmeshed in processes that have moral implications. When we buy a product, for example, we don’t know who made it or how they were treated. When we patronize a shop, we don’t know what the owner does with our money. When we throw something away, we don’t know where it ends up.

Since the morality of any action is partly determined by its effects, and since many of those effects are hidden from view in a complex economy, to a certain extent we can’t even know the morality of our own life. This is why it was so inspiriting for Thoreau to build his own cabin and farm his own food; he could be sure of his “ethical footprint,” so to speak, and so could take full responsibility for his actions. Now, I don’t think Thoreau wanted to do this for the sake of others—he is extremely wary of do-gooderism—but for himself, since we cannot live authentically if we cannot know the effects of our actions.

To borrow an idea from the philosopher John Lachs, this state of ignorance as to the sources and causes of our moral lives is one part of that modern alienation that Marxists have described. When jobs become highly specialized, we might not be completely sure about our own effects within the organization in which we work. I myself have been in that situation, churning out data to be used by unknown people for unknown ends. Everyone in a complex economy, even a commercial farmer, is in this situation. Thoreau’s solution, isolating oneself in the woods, is I think undesirable—since it consists in dissolving society completely (which the misanthropic Thoreau might not have objected to)—but his experiment does at least help us to identify the causes of our “quiet desperation.”

Thoreau is also refreshing on the subject of work and leisure. The glorification of works carries with it the denigration of leisure, which Thoreau realized. When we consider only those activities as worthwhile that can make money for us, we spend our free hours in thoughtless relaxation or idling. And yet working, even if it is remunerative, is too often degrading—largely thanks to excessive specialization, which demands that we do the same thing over and over again, neglecting the full range of our capacities. Work consumes our time and energy and leaves us few moments for reflection and self-improvement. And because we consider leisure only a respite from work—since free time doesn’t pay, it is not for serious exertion—we do not even use what moments we have to achieve perspective and to develop our latent potential.

Again, Thoreau’s prescription for excessive work—to squat on someone else’s land and farm only the bare minimum—is disappointing and (pardon the pun) unworkable. And his advice for how to spend one’s free time—reading ancient books in the original language—is, at the very least, limited. But once again, his thrashing responses at least point the way to the malady that ails us, and his deadly seriousness can remind us to take our free time seriously and not squander it.

Thoreau is perhaps most valuable for his insistence on the time and space to think. Often it seems that the modern world is a conspiracy to prevent thinking. We work until we’re bone tired, and spend our free time in endless, meaningless small talk. Thoreau said: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Imagine if Thoreau could see us now, ceaselessly connected to each other with mobile telegraphs in our pockets, with scarcely anything more to say. The point, of course, is not that the telegraph is inherently bad—nor are smart phones for that matter—but that these things can easily become distractions, distractions in the existential sense, allowing idle chit-chat to intrude into every corner of our lives.

News also comes in for abuse. Too often we read the news, not with a genuine desire to learn about the world or to help us change it, but out of habit, worrying about distant problems that seldom affect us and that, in any case, we seldom try to solve. Sure, it is easy to dismiss Thoreau when he makes such dogmatic pronouncements as “To a philosophers, all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.” Yet I know many for whom the news is an addiction, and consuming news is the full extent of their political engagement. (And I don’t think I’m any better in this regard.) Again, the point is not that we shouldn’t read the news, but that we should not let ourselves develop a false sense of urgency that prevents us from examining our own lives.

Thoreau demands space for genuine thought. But what is genuine thought? I think this is what Thoreau had in mind with his famous lines “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Genuine thought, in other words, is thinking about the best way to live—what is deeply and lastingly important to us, and what is only temporarily or superficially important. I personally have found that even a week of relative isolation can be clarifying. It is amazing how fast anxieties and problems melt away when we remove ourselves from our usual environment. We spend so much time worrying about how to get things that we don’t stop to wonder if we really want them. It is easy, too easy, to accept goals and priorities from our environment without scrutiny.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Thoreau was reacting against problems of the modern world, problems that have only become more pervasive. His solution, which I find extremely unconvincing, is to reject society completely—and in practice, his solution is only viable for well-connected, single men with no children. Thoreau achieves a kind of purity at the expense of advocating something that is totally non-viable for the vast majority of humanity. But reading his book was, for me, a clarifying and a rejuvenating experience—a reminder to consider the more important questions of life, and also a reminder that these questions can perhaps never be definitely answered.

You may disagree completely with me about the philosophical merit of Thoreau. But his skill as a writer is indisputable. This book is a magnificent monument of prose. Whether he is describing his beloved pond or narrating a battle of ants, his writing is clear, forceful, and direct; and his fingertips occasionally touch the sublime:

If you stand right fronting and face to face with a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.

Thoreau’s power as a writer, combined with his undeniable originality—anticipating all the things with which I opened this review, and more—will make this book last until Thoreau’s next centennial, even if sometimes he’s an insufferable teenager.

View all my reviews

Review: Cooking in Spain

Review: Cooking in Spain

Cooking in SpainCooking in Spain by Janet Mendel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are few places a New Yorker can go—especially in Europe—to find truly exotic food. Whether the cuisine is from Italy or Germany, China or Korea, Ecuador or El Salvador, chances are we have tried it—or some Americanized version of it—at least once. But, like many Americans, I was totally taken aback when I moved to Spain. The eating culture struck me as radically different; and the cuisine, if not exotic, was animated by a very divergent approach to cooking.

For a long time, I admit I was not very taken with what I discovered. Like many Americans, I am used to heavy meals with intense flavors, dishes that scorch your tongue and sit in your stomach like an iron weight, and I don’t feel satisfied unless I feel sick and slightly overwhelmed at the end of a meal. Spanish food very seldom produces that sensation. It is generally mild and relatively light. I don’t think I have ever had a dish from a Spanish restaurant I could call properly spicy, and Spanish portions are not usually large enough to produce the semi-comatose post-prandial mood that I was used to.

There are also many things that are simply not to my taste. I am not fond of tuna or hard-boiled eggs, yet nearly every sandwich in the cafeteria in my school has one—or both!—of those ingredients. And in general I cannot stomach as many carbs as the Spanish seem able to do. I am still baffled by bocadillos de tortilla—potatoes on a baguette?—even if I find them delicious; and many times I have been served a heaping plate of rice or potatoes with a side of bread (no meal in Spain is complete without bread), and wondered how Spanish people manage to stay so thin.

I am not the only American to have this reaction. Friends and family have expressed disappointment to me several times regarding the state of Spanish cookery. It is not that Spanish cuisine is bad, of course, only that Americans and Spaniards look for quite different things from food.

One major difference is that Spanish people like to be able to taste the ingredients, to savor the freshness and the quality of the individual elements of the dish, which is why Spanish cooking is often astoundingly simple and mild: both the form and the flavor of the original ingredient are preserved. Americans, on the other hand, like to transform and process ingredients beyond recognition. Another difference is that Spaniards are not so passionately fond of excess, and usually eat until they’re satisfied, not at death’s door. And this is putting aside the difference in Spanish meal times—lunch at two or three p.m., dinner at nine or ten—which I still have trouble adapting to.

Now, I should warn my American readers at this point that Spanish people are extremely proud of their food. Indeed, it seems to be the only thing about their country that Spaniards are unanimously proud of. They will freely denigrate nearly everything else—their government, their universities, their economy—but Spanish cooking is sacrosanct—¡se come bien en España!—and the quickest way to achieve good rapport is to praise the food vigorously. I would also like to mention, in self-defense, that despite some initial misgivings, I have grown to be extremely fond of Spanish cuisine—I swear!

Most cookbooks I’ve looked at—admittedly not many—don’t give an accurate idea of the food you actually encounter in Spain, presenting instead a fusion or haute-cuisine version, but this book is different. Janet Mendel is an American journalist who has been living in the south of Spain for many years now. Her cookbook is the most “authentic” book on Spanish cooking that I have come across. It begins with an overview of the different regions of Spain, moves on to Spanish ingredients, and contains over 400 recipes, as well as a glossary for food terms. The glossary is especially useful, since I’ve found that menus are more difficult to translate than poetry. (In Spanish, food words are particularly variable from country to country, or even region to region, making a Spanish-English dictionary of limited utility when faced with a menu.)

The regional overview is also valuable, for, like everything else in Spain, food can be quite specific to a location. Each major city has its own distinctive dishes; and particular cities—Seville, Logroño, San Sebastian—are famous for their food. The major axis of difference, I’ve found, is between the north and the south. Typically I prefer eating in the north—Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia, and the Basque Country—though there is excellent food to be found all over. In the south, mainly Andalusia, they tend to fry nearly everything, with the exception of the two famous liquid salads, gazpacho and salmorejo, both of which are delicious and refreshing under the brutal southern sun.

The north is far more verdant than the south, and the northern coast is at least equally as good for fishing, which means they generally have fresher ingredients. The Basque Country is the province most famous for its cuisine, and deservedly so, but I am particular to the food of Galicia. If you get a chance, perhaps when hiking the Camino de Santiago, find a pulpería, order some of the Galician octopus—seasoned with the distinctively intense local paprika—and drink the local Ribeiro wine, young and sharp red wine often served in a ceramic bowl. It is an exquisite meal.

Recipes for all these, and more—including all the Spanish classics, like my favorites, cocido, paella, cochinillo, fabadas, croquetas, and tortilla—can be found in this book, in simple and easy-to-follow recipes, along with extensive information on Spanish wines, cheeses, and produce of all kinds. Admittedly, I have not had great luck in my attempts to cook Spanish food, but this was entirely my fault. (My croquettes and my tortilla turned into mush; I am not a good chef.)

My failures notwithstanding, Mendel’s book is excellent, and almost encyclopedic in its coverage of different ingredients and types of dishes, methodically going through every type of meat and fish, including sections on snacks and desserts, with charming little vignettes along the way. She clearly knows Spanish cooking thoroughly, both the typical dishes and the meals for festive holidays, and does not dilute it or change it to cater to foreign palates.

Unfortunately, however authentic the recipe, the dish will not taste exactly right unless you buy the ingredients locally. To pick just one example, pork products play an integral role in Spanish cooking (they say it’s because eating pork differentiated the Catholics from the Jews and Muslims), and you will have a very difficult time finding true Spanish pork in New York. And this is a shame, considering that Spanish jamón is far better than prosciutto, and Spanish chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage) are wonderful flavoring agents for stews. Indeed, for my part I think Spain has the best pork products in the world, not that I would know.

As a parting piece of advice, if you go to Spain try to avoid those omnipresent tourists traps in the city center, with big yellow billboards advertising their paella. I had one of the worst meals of my life at one of these in the Plaza Mayor. You can find many excellent fine-dining establishments in Madrid. But to find more typical food, done well, look for the cheaper, less ritzy places. I can recommend the Café Melo’s—the menu has about six things, and they’re all good—and the Casa Mingo, an Asturian restaurant with famous roast chicken and Spanish cider, that’s right next to the chapel that contains Goya’s remains. And if you’re in Madrid in winter, try La Cruz Blanca de Vallecas for its famous cocido madrileño, a heavy stew of meat and garbanzos.

Well, I’m afraid that’s the best I can offer. I can only add that Spanish food may seem unpromising at first; but once you develop a taste for it and you know what to look for, it is a fascination and a delight.

View all my reviews

Life and Death in Berlin — Part 2, Death

Life and Death in Berlin — Part 2, Death

This is a continuation on my first post about life in Berlin, focusing on the darker side of the city’s history.


Historical Memory

Memory is not passive—either in a person or in a country. We choose what we remember; we can shape how we remember it; and our memories, in turn, shape how we act. History is messy, the truth is neither plain nor simple, and in human affairs there is no such thing as an apolitical fact. Opposing groups emphasize different episodes of history, interpret (or misinterpret) those episodes incompatibly, and sweep aside inconvenient episodes that do not fit their narratives. These narratives are not just background; they provide groups with their identity, giving them a historical trajectory and a goal to strive for. Thus it is not just for the dead, but the living, that we must attend to how history is remembered.

Nowhere is this need more apparent than in Berlin; nowhere can we see more clearly what power historical memory can wield. It is said that knowledge is power, but in history we had better say narrative is power. For the past is past, and not around to refute politicians who twist it to their advantage. The historical past is, to a large extent, a creation of the present; and it is recreated every time a book is written, a speech is delivered, or an article is published in the newspaper. The past that the Nazis created was of a mythic Germany, of a virtuous and heroic people, unduly hampered by foreign elements and racial impurities. The past that the Soviets conjured was of a dark night of bourgeois repression only recently lifted by the liberating proletariat army. As we all know, these narratives gave rise to atrocities—atrocities which, if the narratives had triumphed, we would remember as victories—and thus we are now faced with the task of remembering differently.

For this reason, a trip to Berlin is both horrifying and heartening—horrifying because of the crimes committed there, heartening because those crimes are not being ignored or swept aside. I have mentioned elsewhere that you can visit Madrid and never guess that, less than a hundred years ago, there was a horrendous civil war that ended with mass executions. The same cannot be said of Berlin. Indeed I think Berlin is a model of how historical atrocities should be framed and memorialized. The city has every reason to be proud.


Monuments of Death

The first of these somber monuments I visited was the rather cheerfully named Checkpoint Charlie. The name is really just Checkpoint C (Charlie is the NATO phonetic marker for “C”). Checkpoint Charlie is the most famous border crossing between East and West Germany.

Checkpoint Charlie Sign

As you may know, defection from East to West was high during the postwar years, particularly among the young and well-educated (not population most countries want to lose). To prevent this, the border between East Germany and West Germany was sealed off, and strict regulations put in place about leaving the country. But for many years the border crossings in Berlin remained much easier to get through (this was because the city was jointly controlled by the four occupying powers), making Berlin a kind of gateway to freedom for many hoping to flee the Soviet Union. All this ended in 1961 with the erection of the Berlin Wall. By that time, East Germany had lost 20% of its population.

In truth the checkpoint isn’t much to look at. It’s a small, white guardhouse with some sandbags sitting out front. There were two men in uniform carrying American flags. I was unsure whether they were actual American soldiers or enterprising men in costume accepting money to pose with tourists. In any case, the most memorable image of Checkpoint Charlie is the sign that says “YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR” in four languages—English, French, Russian, and German. On the other side of the sign, for those entering the American Sector, we are kindly reminded to “OBEY TRAFFIC RULES.”

The official Checkpoint Charlie Museum is nearby. I didn’t go, since I heard mixed reviews. I don’t have anything more to add about this famous landmark, other than that it was strange to be standing in that otherwise entirely ordinary road, and imagine tanks rolling in, diplomats being escorted by soldiers, and the fate of the world hanging on the de-escalation of tensions surrounding this border crossing. In politics, small flames can set off very large explosions. Seen with un-political eyes, Checkpoint Charlie is a shack on a road. Seen with historical eyes, it is one of the axes of world history.

From Checkpoint Charlie it is a five-minute walk to my next monument, the Topographie des Terrors. This is a fairly new exhibit—opened only in 2010—built on the ruins of the old Gestapo headquarters, where their prisoners were tortured and killed. As befitting its name, The Topography of Terrors is an open-air museum dedicated to the history of Nazi atrocities. This history is arranged as a timeline, with plentiful pictures and information panels giving examples and details of the National Socialist regime.

Topography of Terror

Most of this information will not be new to anyone with a basic knowledge of the Holocaust or the Nazi movement—although familiarity hardly dulls the sickening horror of it all. The museum is more valuable for its ability to convey the atmosphere of the time, especially with the numerous Nazi propaganda posters on display. Nothing sums up an ideology with the stark simplicity of a propaganda poster. We see a hardworking German Aryan worker struggling to work, while weighted down by the lazy inferior races; we see bald-faced incitements to hatred against Jews; we see rallies for the workers at home to fight as hard as the soldiers in the field; and then there are the usual posters warning citizens to black out their lights during air raids and to watch out for spies.

Propaganda

Scattered among the posters are profiles of the fallen. One profile which struck me was of a man with epilepsy, Otto Mathewes, who was put into a sanatorium by his family, sterilized by the Nazis, and ultimately sent to a death camp to be killed. I knew that the Nazis targeted those they deemed racially impure—Jews and Roma—as well as homosexuals; but I did not know that the Nazis would put to death somebody with epilepsy—a treatable disease, or at the very least one that could be managed. For me, as for many, the most perplexing thing about the Nazi movement is how an entire population could be goaded into cooperating with their murderous policies. Most populations, it seems, can be persuaded to go to war, which involves killing outsiders. Yet the Nazis didn’t only wage war, but killed citizens of their own country. Why wasn’t there widespread resistance? Hannah Arendt’s phrase about the “banality of evil” comes to mind; but I suppose this question is not one to be answered with a phrase.

Hitler Chart

Among the propaganda posters, I found a chart showing the different paths for Nazi youths to follow to become full-fledged Nazi adults—for women, from Jungmädel (young girls) to Mütter und Hausfrauen (mothers and housewives), for military boys from the Hitler youth to the military. Looking at that chart, I feel a mixture of disgust and amusement. Such a regimented society, with caste-like roles and ranks for everyone, is repressive in the extreme. And yet, for all its nefarious intent, this organization strikes me as hopelessly juvenile. Indeed it is even campy, as if the whole country is to be organized like the Boy Scouts. Considering this chart, it is easy to see why many Germans did not consider Hitler a serious threat before he rose to power. His mind was packed full of this stuff—juvenile, campy plans designed to appeal to a boyish desire for ritual, hierarchy, and order. The line between the notions of an oaf and the ideas of an autarch is disturbingly fine—perhaps ultimately just access to power.

The exhibition also includes a model for Welthauptstadt Germania, “World Capital Germania,” the proposed city to be constructed over Berlin after Germany won the war. This plan, drawn up by Albert Speer, is discussed by Robert Hughes in his documentary The Shock of the New as an example of the architecture of power. Everything about the design is meant to provoke awe. The scale is enormous; the proposed dome of the Volkshalle would easily dwarf St. Peter’s and the Pantheon. Again, we see here the big imaginations of little minds. It is the same mixture of a juvenile yearning for order and a boyish admiration of strength that we see in the chart.

Coincidentally, the Topography of Terror is located right next to the longest extant stretch of the outer Berlin Wall. It is little more than a wreck now, so full of holes you can see right through it. That ruin completes the picture of atrocities, giving the visitor a glimpse of what came after the Nazis were defeated.

Berlin Wall

It is a short walk from the Topography of Terror to the Holocaust Memorial, more properly called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman, it opened in 2005, and is situated near the Brandenburger Tor. The memorial is strikingly abstract. There is no information to be found, no names of victims, no sculptures or symbols, nothing that can provide the visitor context. Instead, the visitor finds a field of concrete slabs, 711 of them, ranging in height from 8 inches to over 15 feet. These slabs are arranged in rows and columns, slightly askew, and the monoliths grow as the visitor enters into the monument.

Holocaust Memorial

I admit that my first impression was one of disappointment. There just isn’t much to look at—just identical grey blocks, stretching out like a miniature city. Is the meaningless abstraction of contemporary art really appropriate for commemorating the Holocaust? But I revised my opinion as soon as I walked into the memorial. The blocks slowly grow until they encompass you and limit your line of sight to four narrow passageways. I felt uncomfortable, even unnerved. It is easy to get separated from friends, and difficult to find them once lost. There is no telling who you will see if you turn a corner. Muffled voices come from all directions. I am not prone to this, but I felt a kind of crushing claustrophobia in the monument, a sense of being hopelessly lost and in danger, and I hurried to get out.

Holocaust Memorial Interior

As many have noted, the memorial lends itself to many interpretations. The concrete slabs are shaped like coffins, and the rows of blocks strike many as a graveyard. The gradual increase in the slabs’ height as you walk into the memorial, rising until all lines of vision are cut off, is symbolic of the gradual limiting of the Jews’ options as the Nazis stripped them of rights, property, liberty, and life. The mechanical regularity of the slabs suggests the inhuman efficiency of the Nazi killing machine. But more important than these interpretations is the feeling evoked by the monument, the uncomfortable, suffocating feeling of being trapped. It is a cold and comfortless place, although kids are often found playing hide-and-seek within. Indeed the monument invites use as a playground, and it is easy to imagine people skipping from block to block and dashing through the columns. And perhaps this, too, forms an essential part of the monument, showing us that children can turn even bleak concrete into innocent fun.

The monument does not impress everyone; it has been controversial from the beginning. Richard Brody wrote a piece in The New Yorker criticizing the memorial for being too vague and for not including the names of the victims. (As he notes, the names on display in an information center under the slabs, along with other documents about the atrocity. But this information is not well marked, and both Brody and myself missed it.) More recently there was a social media story about Shahak Shapira, who took pictures of tourists taking selfies in the memorial, and juxtaposed them with images of the holocaust—terming it the ‘yolocaust’. I admit that it doesn’t surprise me that people take selfies at the memorial. Nowadays, people will take a selfie with the murderer who just broke into their house, and spend their final moments counting likes.

For my part, I thought it was a moving and effective work of art, even though I was skeptical at first. While I can see why some criticize the lack of names or context, I think the silence of the memorial is what gives it such emotional power; it is a silence that invites us to contemplate the absence of all those men, women, and children, those who were taken and can never return.

Berlin’s other famous memorial is not within easy walking distance. The Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer) is located to the north, next to another surviving section of the wall. It was opened to the public in 1998, within a decade of the reunification. It is much more “traditional” than the Holocaust Memorial, with explicit messages, historical recreations, and information about the victims. Nearby is the Chapel of Reconciliation, an oval-shaped church made of thin strips of wood—you can see through the walls from the inside—built over the foundations of an older church demolished to make way for the wall. A statue of a man and woman in a desperate embrace reminds us how many families were split by that barrier.

Berlin Wall Memorial

The main attraction of the memorial is a section of the wall reconstructed to look as it would have when it was dividing the city in two. This recreation is bounded by two high steel walls, preventing visitors at ground level from looking inside. The viewer needs to climb a tower across the street, right next to the memorial building, and look down from above. From there you can see that the Berlin Wall was really two walls, an exterior and an interior, both of the same drab gray appearance. It is steel-reinforced concrete, too tall to climb easily, too strong to ram with any normal car. Between the two walls is what was called the “death strip,” an empty area full of gravel raked smooth, with a small road running through the center so that army vehicles could quickly move to different sections. This strip was deadly because any potential escapees would be totally exposed there, easily visible to those in the guard tower nearby. There is no cover from searchlights or from firearms. Street lights kept it constantly illuminated. Caught there, you would be a sitting duck.

Although it was a beautiful sunny evening, and although it is surrounded by green parks and bushy trees, the wall section struck me as inhuman, dreary, and squalid. It is the picture of homicidal efficiency—a barrier designed with intelligence and foresight to accomplish immoral ends. The same question occurs to me here as occurred to me at the Topography of Terror: How could people—presumably normal, neighborly people—be persuaded to build something like this? The sheer absurdity of building a wall to keep people in rather than out, to stop an exodus of people fleeing from their own country, must have struck everyone involved. And yet the wall was built, construction crews dragged the concrete into place, soldiers manned the watchtowers, and government officials devoted time and energy to its maintenance and improvement.

Inside the memorial center are old letters, recorded interviews, and information panels about those whose lives were affected by the wall. There are stories of people fleeing, being caught in the attempt, and getting shot down by guards. One famous escape story is of Wolfgang Engels, who stole an armored personnel carrier and rammed it through the wall, getting shot in the process but making it out alive. East German Soldiers at the wall were instructed to shoot anyone attempting to cross, even women and children. Nevertheless, about 5,000 people successfully escaped; well over 100 were killed in the attempt. Some of the escapees dug tunnels, some even flew balloons—indeed, the last casualty of the wall, Winfried Freudenberg, died in 1989 when he fell from his homemade balloon. Guards on the Western side could not help anyone on the death strip, or they risked being fired on by the East German guards. This led, most famously, to the death of Peter Fechter, who was shot in the death strip and left to bleed to death, as hundreds looked on from both sides.

The last place I visited was the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, an old Soviet and then Stasi prison. This is situated far away from the other major sites, in the east of the city. But it is well worth the trip. The only way to visit the prison is on a guided tour. My tour guide, a young woman, was excellent—extremely knowledgeable and compelling. According to her, some of the guides are actually former inmates in the prison. In any case, I can say that it was one of the best guided tours of my life. My visit was both informative and moving, and I hope you get a chance to go.

As I said, the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen is a prison formerly used by the Soviets and the Stasi. Before that, it was used by the Nazis as a communal kitchen. When the Soviets conquered Berlin, the building was used hold prisoners—accused Nazi collaborators. The building was not designed for this. The Soviets put their prisoners in the food cellars in the basement—big subterranean rooms with no windows. Conditions for prisoners were atrocious. The cells were unheated and terribly cold in the winter. The Soviets did not distribute clothing to the prisoners, so if they were unlucky enough to be thrown in without a coat, they had no recourse but to freeze. The cells had no bathroom, only a single chamber pot—without even a lid, so the place constantly reeked—that was seldom emptied. Soldiers had no showers, and no medical attention. If memory serves, the guide said they were fed once a day, and poorly. Death from starvation, cold, and sickness were common. Beatings and other forms of torture were used to extract confessions. Conditions were so inhumane that many attempted suicide; but since there was nothing in the cell, no sharp objects or chords, even this was difficult.

Prison Hall

Conditions improved somewhat when, in 1951, the Stasi took over. Instead of using the old food cellars, they built an actual prison building. The cells were above ground, with windows, and had a toilet, a sink, and a mirror. The guards didn’t carry guns, for fear that the prisoners might steal one. In the hallway outside the cells, running along the wall, is a chord that, if tugged, sets off an alarm. Prisoners were not allowed to speak to each other, or even exchange glances, outside the cells. According to the guide, the Stasi used psychological forms of torture more often than beatings. Interrogators would try to gain the prisoner’s confidence, to use a mixture of threats and friendliness to get what they were after. Sometimes more stringent forms of torture was used, like sleep deprivation. In any case, prisoners had to sleep with their arms outside the blanket; and guards would come several times a night to shine a light inside the cell, checking that their arms were in view. The only outside recreation they were allowed was in what was called the ‘tiger cage,’ a small enclosure with high walls and a caged roof.

Incredibly, the prison was completely unknown to the public while it was in use, even though it is a large compound in the capital. This is partly why it remains standing in such pristine condition. Almost nobody knew about it; so after the fall of the Berlin Wall, angry demonstrators didn’t come pouring in the gates. Part of the tour included the unmarked van used to pick up prisoners without detection. According to the guide, after the wall fell, former prisoners sometimes bumped into their erstwhile interrogators. In one anecdote she recounted, the interrogator refused to apologize; but in another, the interrogator said he was sorry for what happened.

I have recounted the tour as best as I remember it; but this brief summary does not capture the feeling of standing in those dark cells, seeing the interrogation rooms—eerily office-like—and thinking of all the people who suffered and died here while their loved ones waited in total ignorance of their whereabouts. The whole environment was designed to be dehumanizing, to make life as uncomfortable and as fearful as possible for the inmates.


This completes my short experiences with the somber memorials of Berlin. There is not much more to be said. I left Berlin with a keen awareness of the terrors that took place within recent memory, and with a deep respect for the citizens’ commitment to remembering these terrors. These monuments are built to commemorate crimes, crimes that reveal the lowest depths of our nature. That these monuments were built—in the very heart of the country where these crimes took place—shows us the heights we can rise to.

Review: Washington Irving’s Sketchbook

Review: Washington Irving’s Sketchbook

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories: Or, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories: Or, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. by Washington Irving

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prose writers are voluminous and unwieldy; their pages crowded with commonplaces, and their thoughts expanded into tediousness.

I am a child of Sleepy Hollow, New York, and I have lived in Irving’s shadow almost as long as I can remember.

Every Halloween, this town is inundated with tourists, who come to wander around the lovely old cemetery where the legend is set, and where Irving himself is buried. Behind my house is where they put on the “haunted hayride.” I went every year as a kid. A pickup truck drags groups of twenty in a trailer through a stretch of forest, where volunteers dressed in masks jumped out and scared the kids half to death. And of course no hayride was complete without the headless horseman himself, riding out of the shadows on a black horse with a jack-o’-lantern on his knee.

The town nextdoor is called ‘Irvington’ in Washington Irving’s honor, and it is there that his old house, Sunnyside, is situated. The house is a delightful little dwelling, a small jumble of architectural styles—gothic, Dutch, Spanish—overlooking the Hudson River. Irving was an amateur architect and landscaper, very much of the Romantic school, and re-made the old farm he bought into a charming park, with a little pond, a babbling brook, and paths that wind through the forest nearby. On the property is a sycamore tree that has been growing since 1776, seven years before Irving himself was born.

When Irving bought the property, he had unimpeded access to the river; but that changed when, ten years later, the Hudson Line railroad was built at the river’s edge. Nowadays, trains rattle by every ten minutes or so. All the old train cars have names printed on their sides; and as I sat there on a recent visit, I saw that one of the cars on the passing Amtrak was named “Washington Irving.” He is simply everywhere. There is a statue of Rip Van Winkle outside the Irvington Town Hall Theater. On the walk back to my house I passed by the Washington Irving Middle School, which I attended, the Tarrytown High School, where our football team is the Horsemen, and the Christ Episcopal Church, where Irving himself worshiped, and where his pew is still preserved.*

Right outside Philipsburg Manor—an old colonial farm that now serves as a historical site—is an ugly metal sculpture of the Headless Horseman. Right next to it is where the old bridge stood where Ichabod Crane met his fate. There is not much to see now, just a modern concrete construction. But if you keep walking into the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery you can see the Old Dutch Church, and, a little farther on, you will come across the man’s tombstone. Like his house, his grave is neither ostentatious nor grandiose, just a simple stone that lays in a family plot.

The man’s influence is inescapable. It was Washington Irving who originated the nickname ‘Knickerbockers’ (after an imaginary Dutch historian he used as a nom de plume) for the denizens of New York. The New York Knicks owe their name to Irving, and the word ‘knickers’ also derives, through devious channels, to this writer. It was Irving who popularized the myth that Christopher Columbus thought the earth was flat, which he included in a biography of Columbus that Irving wrote while living in Spain. It was Irving, too, who originated the nickname ‘Gotham’ for New York City.

We even owe our holiday celebrations to Irving, since it was he, along with Charles Dickens, who helped to make Christmas into the secular holiday of gift-giving and merry-making that it is today. Irving played a hand in the creation of Santa Claus, too, with a story about St. Nicholas in his first book. With his love of ghost stories, Irving is also one of the architects of Halloween—and thousands still make the pilgrimage to visit his tombstone in that ghoulish time of the year. I cannot even escape his influence in Spain, since it was Irving who helped to spread the exotic, enchanted image of Andalusia, and who thus helped make Spain a tourist destination; and it was also thanks to his book of stories about the Alhambra that people began taking an interest in restoring that old ruin.

Washington Irving was named after George Washington, and was born just a few weeks before the Revolutionary War was officially concluded. He was a new man for a new land. An often-told story—difficult to verify—has it that he was taken by his maid to visit George Washington when he was just six years old; there’s a watercolor drawing, still hanging in Irving’s hold house, of the old general patting the young boy on the head. Whether it happened or not, the story seems symbolic of the role that Irving would play in American literature—exactly analogous to George Washington in politics—as a pioneering leader. For it was Washington Irving who was the first American writer to be respected by his English peers. He showed that these unruly savages overseas could aspire to eloquence too.

This book is often marketed as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories; but its original title is The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., and was published under that pseudonym rather than Irving’s own name. The book, often merely called The Sketchbook, is a sort of parody of the sketchbooks that other wealthy American travelers made on their visits to Europe. It is framed as a travel book, and contains many vignettes about places Irving visited. But Irving does not stick to this theme very diligently. The book also contains some short pieces about Native Americans; and the two most famous stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” are both set in New York, and purport to be found among the old papers of Diedrich Knickerbocker, another of Irving’s pseudonyms.

Although the collection is miscellaneous, Irving was not a writer of great breadth, and his distinctive style is consistent throughout. Thematically, Irving was a purebred Romantic. He has a taste for quaint customs, forgotten ruins, exotic places, and old yarns—in short, everything antique, out-of-the-way, and foreign, everything that allows his imagination to run wild with conjecture. These preoccupations lead him to investigate old English Christmas customs in the country, and to rail against their disappearance. It also leads him to treat the Native Americans as noble savages, the pure emblems of a disappearing culture, as well as to focus his eye on the old Dutch lore lingering about his native New York.

In truth there is not much substance to his writing. The closest he ever gets to philosophy is the Romantic, Ozymandian sentiment that all things yield to time. Rather, Irving is a stylist. His prose is fluent and easygoing—indeed, remarkably easy to read considering its age—so effortless that the prose practically reads itself. The subject-matter is usually a description of some kind—of what someone is wearing, of a farm or a tavern, of a funeral or a wedding—and he steers clear of all argument and dialogue, maintaining the fluid rhythm of his pen as it flies forward. When he is not describing a gothic ruin, an old curiosity, or a picturesque landscape, he is involved in some ghost story or traveler’s anecdote. Some of these, indeed many, involve love affairs between gallant soldiers and young women who possess “that mysterious but impassive charm of virgin purity in whose hallowed sphere no guilty thought can live”—it’s quite revolting.

But if Irving nowadays strikes one as lightweight and Romantic to the point of silliness, one should remember that he was a pioneer and an innovator—the first American man of letters, and one of the champions of Romanticism when that movement had hardly reached this country. And if he seems more style than substance, one should also remember that Irving wrote to amuse, not to instruct; and it is by that goal that he should be measured. Even now, Irving is a champion amuser; and even if he has some unfashionable tastes, he it still fresh and good-natured after all these years:

If, however, I can by any lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow; if I can now and then penetrate through the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in good-humor with his fellow-beings and himself—surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.

Surely, surely, he has not.


*I recently went to visit this church. As luck would have it, I was about to knock on the door just as the rector, Susan, was on her way out of the building. When I asked about Irving’s pew, she very kindly gave me a quick tour. The old pew sits in a corner now, set aside to preserve it. The church also has Irving’s bible and prayer book—tattered old things in a glass case—as well as a copy of the 1859 issue of Harper’s Magazine that carried a front-page story about Irving’s funeral. “So many people came in, they were worried the floorboards would break,” Susan said.

 

View all my reviews

Review: King Lear

Review: King Lear

King LearKing Lear by William Shakespeare

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

King Lear, along with Hamlet, forms the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s art. As such, the play seems beyond criticism, or even analysis. The greatest artists set their own standards; they can only be measured against themselves; and as Shakespeare is a giant among giants, his masterpieces are doubly beyond reckoning. Even Harold Bloom, who has something to say about everything, insists that these two plays “baffle commentary”—although it doesn’t stop him from trying. I have difficulty even doing that. Hamlet is among my favorite works of literature, one I have read and seen many times, and yet I cannot think of a single thing to say about it.

Silence is probably the wisest and best course in these situations. But I will stick my neck out a little and try to digest the indigestible, and write a little something about Lear.

This play opens with Lear dividing his kingdom among his daughters. From the first, we are both attracted and repelled by Lear. He is foolish, vain, egotistical, irritable, rash, and imperious. He is clearly not fit to govern a house, much less a kingdom. The transparent flattery of Regan and Goneril, and the equally transparent sincerity of Cordelia, produce the exact opposite response that they should in Lear. Such a poor judge of character, coupled with such a quick temper and a dogmatic devotion to his own impulses—evidenced by his disinheritance of Cordelia and his banishment of Kent—can be neither loved nor respected.

But Lear demands the viewer’s love. He cannot be simply dismissed as a bumbling old man. He is a bumbling old man, yes, but he is also charismatic beyond measure. Every utterance of his is supercharged with passion. He is histrionic, even hysterical; and yet his wounded pride, his kingly dignity, is utterly persuasive. He is every inch a king. Nothing but lifelong power and command could produce a man so totally unable to control his impulses, and so regally disdainful of everything that opposes his will. What is perhaps most lovable about Lear is his directness. Those whom he loves, he loves unstintingly; and unstinting is his pain and disenchantment when his love is not returned. There is nothing dispassionate about Lear; he lacks completely the ability to be calculating and shrewd. And this is both a weakness and a mark of nobility; it makes him vulnerable, but it also makes him loveable.

His foil in this is Edmund. Edmund is pure calculation. He feels nothing for nobody—not for his brother, nor his father, nor his two lovers. It is his total lack of sentiment that allows him to shrewdly manipulate others, much like Iago does. Gloucester, Edgar, Goneril, and Regan all assume that Edmund would not betray them, since he is seemingly tied to them by emotional bonds, and they are all deceived. This description makes Edmund sound psychotic; and yet, for many, he is the most likable character in the play. It is such a relief when he comes on stage. His cool cynicism and dry wit are a necessary reprieve from the ceaseless torrents and whiplashing anger of Lear. Indeed, I couldn’t help thinking that Edmund, so stealthy, so cunning, so self-controlled, would make a far better king than Lear ever did.

Aside from passion and placidity, another theme in this play is sanity and madness, wisdom and folly. The Fool, despite his name, is perhaps the wisest characters in the play, constantly upbraiding Lear for his mistakes. Although dressed like a jester, he lives like a sage, abiding simply and apart from the machinations of power. He bestows his love on the worthiest characters, Lear and Cordelia, and is the loyalest of friends and servants. Edgar, disguised as a madman, is hailed by Lear as a philosopher; and Edgar himself, upon witnessing Lear’s descent into madness, notes that Lear’s ravings have some strange sense: “O matter and impertinency mixed! Reason in madness!” Meanwhile, all the sober plans of Edmund eventually come to naught. Is Shakespeare implying that true wisdom and reason cannot be expressed in ordinary language, but must take the form of poetic ravings or lewd jokes?

Few scenes in literature, if any, are as tragic as when Lear walks out with Cordelia’s corpse in his arms. There is no silver lining in the tragedy. He loses everything—and then dies. Audiences in previous ages thought that this was too harsh, and the play was often performed with a happy ending. We moderns have re-acquired a taste for the bleak. Yet the play is still heartrending. Gloucester in particular attracts my sympathy. Fooled into betraying his loyal son, and betrayed in turn by his disloyal son, blinded for showing kindness to Lear, cast out a broken man intent on ending his own life—it’s a torture to watch. Lear’s story is even darker, for at least Gloucester dies of a happy shock. With Lear we witness a noble and kingly soul, who loves and is loved by many, who is reduced to a babbling fool, who is stripped of everything he owned, even his senses, and who finally dies of heartbreak.

Well, there’s my meager attempt at a review. At least now I can say that I’ve tried.

View all my reviews

Review: The Captive & The Fugitive

Review: The Captive & The Fugitive

The Captive & The Fugitive (In Search of Lost Time, #5-6)The Captive & The Fugitive by Marcel Proust

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More than a year has intervened between my reading of the last volume and this one; and yet I find that my reaction to Proust has remained constant. Constant, yes, and complicated.

I have this relentless back and forth, tug-of-war reaction to Proust, a mixture of the most intense admiration and absolute disgust. My thinking and writing bear the scar of his influence; it is a scar I wear proudly, but which still stings if I poke at it. Whenever I read Proust, I feel so irritated and sometimes so dreadfully bored—a palpable and suffocating boredom—that I want to tear my hair out by the roots; and when I finish I have the mad desire to yell vulgarities at the top of my lungs, both as a celebration and a way to vent pent up anger. But I keep coming back, I keep rolling the rock patiently up the hill, and I keep watching it tumble back down.

I have had difficulty identifying why I’ve had this reaction. In previous reviews I’ve attributed it to Proust’s Cartesianism: his entrapment in his own ego, his relentless subjectivity. But the fact that this book is so deeply rooted in the first-person does not adequately explain the Proustian effect. There are plenty of autobiographies and memoirs that do not produce this same sensation of being trapped in the writer’s head and buried alive by their cogitations. No, it is not the subjectivism alone. Although you wouldn’t guess it from Proust’s elegant, smoothly drifting prose, or his perpetually calm narrative voice, the upshot of his reams of analysis is not only Cartesian, but deeply cynical. This passage perhaps sums up the cynicism better than any other.

The bonds between ourselves and another person exist only in our minds. Memory as it grows fainter loosens them, and notwithstanding the illusion by which we want to be duped and with which, out of love, friendship, politeness, deference, duty, we dupe other people, we exist alone. Man is the creature who cannot escape from himself, who knows other people only in himself, and when he asserts the contrary, he is lying.

For Proust, the essential error of human life is forgetting this essential subjectivity. This error is most obvious with love. We think we fall in love with other people; but we really fall in love with creatures of our own fancy. The person we love has only an oblique reference to the real person, and is mostly a collection of desires, hopes, fantasies, fears, memories, and other sundry emotions—a jumble of mental propensities only associated, by chance, with another person. Indeed, our beloved is not even singular; we have as many beloveds as we have moods. Proust goes even further. His bleak conclusion is that love not only has very little to do with the other person, but that love, far from a tender emotion, is just an expression of sexual jealousy.

In his Cartesian worldview, there is literally no action, however apparently generous and kind, that is not ultimately selfish. That is inevitable, since we can only ever know ourselves, and all our ideas of other people are just veiled ideas of ourselves. And can we even know ourselves?

Time is constantly stripping our identity away. Our thoughts can never stand still, but ceaselessly rush downstream, and the refuse is swept down the drain. We are trapped in our own perspective; and there is no stable point from which to even come to grips with that perspective. The mind reacts to this existential instability by imbuing its environment with meaning, and then trying to control it. We fall in love—thus imbuing a specific person with all the magic charm of our thoughts—and then do our best to keep our beloved near us. Sexual jealousy is just this attempt to control the beloved; and love, for Proust, is just the anguished feeling that our beloved, whose presence helps to define us, might break away. This is why love evaporates for Swann after marriage, and for the Narrator after Albertine’s death; they no longer feel jealous.

Without going into tedious argument, I will say that I disagree with this intense subjectivism. If you begin, like Descartes and like Proust, with the ego and then try to build the world back up again, you will find, like Proust, that you can’t and that you’re stuck with your own ego. But far from being the most solitary of animals, humans are the most social. And the very fact that the world doesn’t make sense when you take your solitary ego as the starting point—which Proust’s Narrator continually finds—is why you ought not to. Yes, we see other people through the distorting lens of our own personality—as any mortal creature must—but experience so often shows that we are much better judges of other people than they are of themselves, and even, in a way, we know them better than they know themselves—something impossible in Proust’s world.

This is not to say that there isn’t a great deal of truth in Proust’s perspective. Specifically, I think he is brilliant at showing how our happiness depends on our interpretation of events rather than events themselves. Like any patient historian, he catalogues all the ways that the Narrator interprets, misinterprets, and re-interprets Albertine’s words and actions; and he shows again and again that the Narrator’s emotional state depends exclusively on these interpretations, not on the words or actions themselves. He is happy when he thinks Albertine loves him, desparing when he thinks she is cheating (but did she ever love him, and did she cheat?); and he begins to get over her when he stops defining himself in reference to her.

As you might have guessed, art plays a large role in Proust’s worldview. For it is only through art that we can, just barely, break out of our perspectives and reveal ourselves to others. The phrase from Vinteuil’s sonata is the prime example of this, which reappears in Vinteuil’s septet, transformed, in a different context, with different emotional overtones, and yet unmistakably the same basic phrase of music. This phrase communicated the stamp of Vinteuil’s mind so unmistakably because, being the product of focused and impassioned artistic creation, it carries with it something of the composer’s unchanging soul, an identity impossible to discern using formal analysis but which is immediately recognizable nevertheless. (Proust was, you see, no advocate of the death of the author.)

It is only through this artistic communion that we can transcend, however briefly, the limitations of our perspective: “the harmony of a Wagner, the colour of an Elstir, enable us to know that essential quality of another person’s sensations into which love for another person does not allow us to penetrate.” The reference to love is crucial here, since for Proust love is the false idol that leads most people astray. It is only through art, not love, that we really get to know another person; it is only through art that the boundaries that separate mind from mind are bridged; and this, presumably, is why Proust is writing this in the first place. Here is Proust putting this into his own inimitable words:

… is it not true that those elements—all the residuum of reality which we are obliged to keep to ourselves, which cannot be transmitted in talk, even from friend to friend, from master to disciple, from lover to mistress, that ineffable something which differentiates qualitatively what each of us has felt and what he is obliged to leave behind at the threshold of the phrases in which he can communicate with others only by limiting himself to externals, common to all and of no interest—are brought out by art, the art of a Vinteuil like that of an Elstir, which exteriorises in the colours of the spectrum the intimate composition of those worlds which we call individuals and which, but for art, we should never now? A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect of things of Earth. The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we can do with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we really do fly from star to star.

Notice how intense is Proust’s subjectivism here. Even if we go visit another planet, he thinks, we really only see ourselves. The exterior world has almost nothing to do with what we observe, think, or feel, and it is only through art, which opens up other perspectives, that we have a window to something new, a temporary escape from ourselves.

At present, I am not sure I agree with Proust about the ability of art to transcend the boundaries that separate consciousness from consciousness; and I certainly do not agree with his cynical views on love, or his subjectivist vision of human life. As a writer of prose, in short bursts I find him extraordinarily eloquent, and in longer sittings I find him soporific and tedious. His books simply wear you out. Proust himself died at 51 while completing the last volume; and his English translator, Scott Moncrieff, died at 40 midway through the same volume. I myself feel as if every page of Proust ages me internally. Time is not only a theme of this book, but an essential aspect of reading it. In The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann says:

Can one narrate time—time as such, in and of itself? Most certainly not, what a foolish undertaking that would be. The story would go: “Time passed, ran on, flowed in a mighty stream,” and on and on in the same vein. No one with any common sense could call that a narrative.

But Proust comes perilously close to narrating time. His prose never changes pace, never speeds up nor slows down, but slides by like time itself, uniformly moving along, flowing, drifting, with the same mannerisms repeated again and again, the same sorts of observations, the same themes that repeatedly return—a placid voice narrating a story that makes me neither laugh nor cry, only yawn on occasion—and yet, and yet, you cannot make your way through these pages without being transformed, however subtly, in the process. Just as Proust’s Narrator feels as if great artists and musicians allow him to see the world with a hundred eyes, I feel as if I have lived several lives so far; when I put down Proust my bones ache and I feel weary, I feel weak and dizzy as if I were just breathing a thin atmosphere. And yet, and yet, who would change a word, who would alter a line, and who would consider any time spent in these pages to be lost?

View all my reviews

Review: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

Review: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

The Autobiography Of Benvenuto CelliniThe Autobiography Of Benvenuto Cellini by Benvenuto Cellini

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All men of whatsoever quality they be, who have done anything of excellence, or which may properly resemble excellence, ought, if they be persons of truth and honesty, to describe their life with their own hand

Why we like or dislike someone, why we admire or despise them, why we are happy or annoyed by their conversation, are questions more difficult than they look. After reading this book, for example, I have grown quite enamored of Benvenuto Cellini, even though he had many ugly sides to his character—besides being criminally immoral. These flaws were unmistakable and impossible to ignore; and yet he had one quality that allowed me, and has allowed many others, to grow fond of him nevertheless: charisma.

Born in Florence in 1500, Benvenuto Cellini was a goldsmith and a sculptor, considered one of the most important artists of Mannerism. During his lifetime he traveled all around Italy and France, making rings, necklaces, salt shakers, statues, fountains, buttons, lapels, and coins for rich and powerful patrons. Perhaps his most famous work is the statue of Perseus standing over the body of Medusa, her bloody head held aloft in his hand, which can be found in Florence. As far as I know, the only work of his I have personally seen is his fine crucifix in the Escorial near Madrid. But despite Cellini being, to quote his book, “the greatest artist ever born in his craft,” he is nowadays mostly remembered for his autobiography, which is without doubt the most important work of its kind from the Renaissance.

Cellini wrote his autobiography in a simple, matter-of-fact style. His main focus was on his development and career as an artist, but he also relates many stories from his personal life along the way. And from this narration emerges a remarkable portrait of the man himself.

The most conspicuous part of Cellini’s character is his arrogance. He says near the beginning “in a work like this there will always be found occasion for natural bragging,” but occasional is hardly a fitting description of his boasting. Every page is stuffed with self-praise. He compliments himself for his robust constitution, his strong body, his keen mind, his kind nature, his skill in combat, and most of all his artistic prowess. The only artist he thinks equal to himself is Michelangelo, and with few exceptions he considers his rivals to be incompetent dunces, or worse.

It does not take shrewd judgment to read between the lines of this autobiography. Cellini only admits to being in the wrong once in his life. (After taking sexual advantage of one of his models, he viciously beat her. He felt guilty because the day before he had forced her at gunpoint to marry her lover. The next day, he beat her up again.) Other than this, Cellini would have you believe he is a decent, honest, respectful man and that all his enemies were motivated by jealousy or pure wickedness. And yet, the speed and consistency with which he finds himself surrounded by enemies, and the frequency with which he gets into disputes and fights, makes it painfully clear that he must have been a bellicose and infuriating fellow.

The degree to which Cellini was blind to his faults is both terrifying and oddly endearing. That someone could be so unconcerned with the morality of his actions or with the justice of his behavior is an instructive lesson in human nature. (And that he is still likable is another lesson.) Cellini narrates the vilest deeds in such a mundane tone that you almost forget what he is talking about. Here is Benvenuto’s forth murder, the killing of Pompeo, a rival goldsmith:

I drew a little dagger with a sharpened edge, and breaking the line of his defenders, laid my hand upon his breast so quickly and coolly, that none of them were able to prevent me. Then I aimed to strike him in the face; but fright made him turn his head round; and I stabbed him just beneath the ear. I only gave two blows, for he fell stone dead by the second. I had not meant to kill him; but as the saying goes, knocks are not dealt by measure.

(Besides the tone of that passage, the most amazing thing for me is that he aimed for Pompeo’s head but professed he didn’t mean to kill him. The guy was seriously nuts.)

When I reread the above excerpt, I think I ought to loathe such a man, who can both commit a murder and then talk about it so coolly. But Cellini’s ego and his personality are so exaggerated that I have trouble thinking of him as a real person. With all his misadventures, crimes, vanities, boasts, and disputes, he seems more like a character invented by Dickens or Cervantes than a man I can identify with. In this, I couldn’t help being reminded of Trump, who is relentlessly egotistical and cruel, but who escapes normal consequences because he seems more like a caricature than a human being.

Because Cellini is focused on his own doings, the world of the Renaissance stays mostly in the background. Sometimes it is easy to forget the setting entirely, since Benvenuto is one of those rare, timeless personalities. But at other times, the great difference between his world and mine was simply alarming.

One night during dinner, for example, his friend brought a prostitute; out of respect for his friend, Benvenuto refused her advances; but after those two went to bed, Benvenuto seduced the prostitute’s 14-year-old serving girl. The next morning he woke up with the bubonic plague. Another time, when he was sick, the best doctors in Rome instructed him that he couldn’t drink any water. His condition got worse and worse—doubtless due to dehydration—until finally, disobeying their orders, he drank a pitcher of water and felt immediately better. The doctors were stunned. The doctors had better luck on another occasion, though. When Benvenuto got a metal splinter in his eye, a doctor successfully flushed it out by slicing open live pigeons and letting their blood rush into his eye.

These are just a taste of some of Benvenuto’s anecdotes. His life was enviously exciting—indeed it’s rather amazing he lived so long, since he had many close calls with death. When he wasn’t being poisoned or fighting off highway bandits, he was suffering illness, injury, and imprisonment. And amidst all this, he managed to attain the highest reputation and skill as an artist, and also to write the most important autobiography of his century. If being a Renaissance Man means living life to the fullest, Cellini is a prime example.

If you are planning on taking a trip to Italy, or just want to learn more about the Renaissance, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I listened to the audiobook version while I was in Rome. Cellini was narrating the time he defended the Castel Sant’Angelo during the 1527 sack of Rome. As Cellini boasted about his heroic deeds—he would have you believe he defended the castle single-handedly—I turned a corner and found myself face to face with that very castle (see above). It was one of the most memorable moments of my reading life.

View all my reviews

Review: Gatherings from Spain

Review: Gatherings from Spain

Gatherings from SpainGatherings from Spain by Richard Ford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In practice each Spaniard thinks his own province or town the best in the Peninsula, and himself the finest fellow in it.

Few countries have been the subject of as much travel writing as Spain; and much of it has been perpetrated by Englishmen and Americans. As far as I can tell, both Spanish tourism and travel writing really got underway in the 19th century, when a triumvirate of authors published their accounts of their travels: Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, George Henry Borrow’s The Bible in Spain, and Richard Ford’s Handbook for Travellers in Spain. The latter may have had the biggest impact on Spanish tourism, since Ford not only published a popular book about Spain, but a detailed guide for would-be travelers.

Ford’s Handbook was, I believe, the most-important work of the pioneering travel-guide series, Murray’s Handbooks for Travellers, published and largely written by John Murray III. (Many of these can be found for free online.) Ford’s book, a massive, two-volume tomb that I can’t imagine anyone lugging around on vacation, nevertheless became extremely popular. The very next year, a condensed version was published, Gatherings from Spain, which also sold well.

This was, apparently, a time when Spain was seldom visited by Brits or Americans. Ford, Borrow, and Irving all treat Spain as a remote, unknown, and exotic land. To quote Ford: “The country is little better than a terra incognita, to naturalists, geologists, and all other branches of ists and ologists.” The typical thing to do was to visit France and Italy—on the so-called Grand Tour, undertaken by aristocratic graduates to see Renaissance paintings and Roman ruins, to learn French and Italian, and to generally have a lovely time—passing over Spain as too poor, backward, and dangerous to merit visiting. When Irving visited the Alhambra in the 1830s, it was a forgotten, unrepaired wreck. But all this changed as a result of these books; and soon then country became, and still remains, flooded with Brits and Americans looking for exotic adventure.

Ford’s works must be one among the best travel books ever written. That someone of such intelligence and literary skill spent his time writing guide books boggles the mind. Ford seems to know everything and can write about it all in excellent, witty prose that dances across the page. His knowledge of Spanish proverbs rivals Sancho Panza’s, and he sprinkles a good deal of Latin and French for good measure. There is never a dull moment in this book. Whether he is discussing Spanish cooking, wine, cigars, bullfights, inns, horses and mules, geography, the weather, the stock market, the post office—no matter what, he can make the subject fascinating and funny. Here he is warning the investor against buying Spanish bonds:

Beware of Spanish stock, for in spite of official reports, documentos, and arithmetical mazes, which, intricate as an arabesque pattern, look well on paper without being intelligible; in spite of ingenious conversions, fundings of interest, coupons—some active, some passive, and others repudiatory terms and tenses, the present excepted—the thimblerig is always the same; and this is the question, since national credit depends on national good faith and surplus income, how can a country pay interest on debts, whose revenues have long been, and now are, miserably insufficient for the ordinary expenses of government? You cannot get blood from a stone; ex nihilo nihil fit.

Yes, the prose is a little dated now, and more than a little involved in needless intricacies; but that is exactly the charm of this book: it simultaneously illuminates both the Spain of the 1830s and the English attitude at that time. This attitude—insofar as it is manifest in Ford—is one of extraordinary condescension, and an obsession with comfort, luxury, and money. This book is full of information about Spain—hiring servants, traveling by rail and horseback, where to eat and sleep (all of this, of course, far outdated and fascinating)—but contains virtually nothing on why Spain is worth visiting in the first place. Maybe Ford saved all of Spain’s attractions for the Handbook, since this book can read like one long denunciation:

The principal defects of Spanish servants and of the lower classes of Spaniards are much the same, and faults of race. As a mass, they are apt to indulge in habits of procrastination, waste, improvidence, and untidiness. They are unmechanical and obstinate, easily beaten by difficulties, which their first feeling is to raise, and their next to succumb to; they give the thing up at once. They have no idea of grappling with anything that requires much trouble, or of doing anything as it ought to be done, or even of doing the same thing in the same way—accident and the impulse of the moment set them going.

Passages like these are typical. Ford does his best to reinforce the stereotype that Spaniards are a lazy, superstitious, bungling, idling, arrogant, prideful, and incompetent people. He goes on to deprecate Spanish food, wine, roads, railways, hotels, music, and asserts that “Madrid itself is but an unsocial, second-rate, inhospitable city.” Even the climate doesn’t escape criticism: “the interior is either cold and cheerless, or sunburnt and wind-blown.” He dwells at length on the lack of comfortable accommodations and the difficulty of finding adequate service, which I think says far more about English fastidiousness than Spain itself. For example, back then most English didn’t like garlic, and Ford writes of the Spanish predilection for that ingredient with horror, although he notes that it is tolerable in small amounts.

One thing I noticed is that Ford shares with Irving the habit of calling Spain “Oriental” and of comparing Spaniards with Arabs. This is presumably because of Spain’s Muslim past. I don’t know if either author had ever gone to Asia or the Middle East, but these comparisons inevitably struck me as pure exoticizing nonsense, depicting Spain as a mysterious foreign land with age-old customs and alien manners, an enchanted Arabia just next-door, the East readily available for curious English travelers. To a certain extent this exoticizing has continued down to the present day; Spain is often treated as a more adventuring destination than France or Italy. Ford certainly bears a part of the blame for perpetrating these old stereotypes and misconceptions; but I’m sure it helped him sell more books.

I don’t write all this as a criticism of Ford, who is long-dead and whose guide is two-hundred years outdated. Indeed, I think the value of this book—aside from its historical interest and literary merits—is that it is now an amusing compendium of prejudices and chauvinism. One both laughs with Ford and at him, since he is genuinely amusing, and also, for all his travels and wide-reading, very much a man of his time and place. For all his criticizing and fault-finding, Ford is a good-natured guide and writes of the subject with palpable enthusiasm and affection. I was constantly delighted by this book, and hope one day to tackle the massive Handbook—that is, unless my Spanish habit of procrastination prevents me.

View all my reviews

Review: The World of Yesterday

Review: The World of Yesterday

The World of YesterdayThe World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Memoires often make the best travel books. I began this book in preparation for a short trip to Vienna, and quickly discovered that I had chosen well. Whatever your opinion of Zweig, The World of Yesterday is worth reading simply for the wealth of information it contains. Few history books paint so rich and full a picture of European culture during these transformative years—above all, in Paris, Berlin, and Zweig’s original home of Vienna—from the peaceful span preceding the First World War, to the Indian Summer of the interwar years, to the terrible hardships that led to the second great conflagration.

The last two autobiographies I read were of Benvenuto Cellini (whose beautiful salt-cellar is on display at the Vienna Art History Museum) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, two very different men alike in their narcissism. Whatever faults Zweig may have had, he was not a narcissist. This is the least personal of autobiographies, almost never mentioning Zweig’s so-called “personal life”—his marriages, private disappointments, and intimate friendships. Instead Zweig focuses his gaze outward, at the world around him, the cultural milieu, the slowly shifting tides of history.

By being so self-effacing, Zweig succeeds in producing a surprisingly insightful look at his world. A delicate, sensitive, and intelligent man, Zweig was extremely well-read, and knew virtually everybody—every famous European, at least—and so was in a uniquely advantageous position to write the history of his times. To give you some idea of his social circle, Zweig knew Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dalí (he even facilitated a meeting between the two when Freud was in London), he met Auguste Rodin, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and was friends with Richard Strauss, Benedetto Croce, Rainer Marie Rilke, Romain Rolland, and Maxim Gorky, just to name the names that come to mind.

Zweig’s history is largely one of tragic loss, as he repeats again and again. He begins his life in an affluent home, the son of a successful industrialist, in a period of calm stability and cultural efflorescence in Europe. He hones his writing skill, quickly gains success, meets several famous contemporaries, travels and sees the world, and then witnesses the body of European civilization tear itself apart for the flimsiest and most fatuous of reasons during the First World War. The war eventually comes to its bloody end, Austria and then Germany suffer terribly, Zweig meanwhile becomes one of the world’s most famous and most translated authors (although the English never liked him), and then Hitler’s rise begins, forcing Zweig to flee. The book ends just as the Second World War is commencing.

Despite the tragedy that Zweig lived through (and committed suicide during), it is impossible for me not to have life-envy. Here was have a man born into wealth, who had the time and resources to dedicate his whole self to his art, who could travel wherever he pleased whenever he pleased, who achieved instantaneous success seemingly without effort, who was able to meet and befriend all of his contemporary heroes, and who was even wealthy enough to collect manuscripts of his deceased idols—in short, it would be hard to imagine circumstances more favorable to the creation of a writer than those Zweig enjoyed. If you had asked me, before reading this book, to give my prescription for creating a first-class writer, I don’t think the result would be far off.

Yet for all his cultural capital, Zweig does not come across as pretentious or pompous. He is timid, uncharismatic, and even mundane. It is easy to imagine bumping into him on the street. (Though, as Hermann Kesten wrote, the Zweig of reality was far more eccentric than than Zweig of this book.) As a writer, he is skilled, consistent, and accessible. In a word, his prose is fluent: easy to read and digest, even in large doses. He is always interesting and never overpowering, like an excellent dinner guest. The one quality he lacks is humor—a serious deficiency, but not a fatal one. Perhaps the best way to describe Zweig is that he is a sophisticated middle-brow author, which might be why the high-brow world has had trouble accepting him; unlike Milton, Zweig intended to soar a middle flight.

It is hard to criticize Zweig—the champion of European solidarity, whose message is especially important now—who asks so little and never imposes his views. But I must say that he had several blindspots.

First, I think that his narrative of events is deeply colored by his affluence. Zweig—a rich, successful, cosmopolitan intellectual—simply cannot imagine why anyone would do something so insane as to start a war. How is he to travel to Paris or to attend the theater festival in Brussels if men are fighting? His explanation of the conflict—which comes down to thoughtless stupidity—is historically unsatisfactory. And even though I, of course, agree with his anti-war ideals, I couldn’t help thinking that his social status prevented him from understanding why less fortunate people might be dissatisfied with his wonderful world.

More generally, I think that Zweig’s life demonstrates why art should not be made into a religion. Zweig did not only love art, he worshipped it. His intense focus on the objects that artistic geniuses have touched—their manuscripts and notebooks and even their furniture—reminded me of the reliquaries of Catholicism. Every time he introduces one of his famous acquaintances, he writes a mini-hagiography, obsequiously describing even his subject’s face, manners, and expressions, as if artistic skill sanctified one’s mortal frame.

I personally found it all very distasteful—how, for example, Zweig fetishized every item that was in Beethoven’s room when he died. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, of course; but it makes it very easy to confuse aesthetic with ethical values. This confusion leads to the kind of political apathy Zweig succumbed to. When the beautiful is all that matters, why worry about tawdry things like social welfare?

Zweig had the attractive, but ultimately vain, notion that he could live aloof from politics. He never mentions anything even remotely political in his fiction; he didn’t even vote. Then he is surprised and dismayed that politics follows him everywhere. Granted, he does have a political stance: he is a pacifist, a humanist, and an internationalist. But this stance is not the product of reasoned consideration; it is the stance that allows him to continue his life as a traveling author unmolested. To steal a phrase from Michael Hoffman’s scorchingly hostile review, he is more a passivist than a pacifist. What Zweig wants from politics, in other words, is what would be necessary for him not to bother with politics.

Now, it is worth asking whether we ought to live in a world where we have no choice but to pay attention to the dreary doings of politicians. Be that as it may, Zweig certainly didn’t have a choice, which led to the irony of this most apolitical of authors structuring his autobiography according to political events.

All these criticisms notwithstanding, I think most people will find here a fundamentally sane, humane, and liberal book. For my part, Zweig supported the right causes, if not always for the right reasons. One thing, however, is left unclear: the relation of this book to Zweig’s suicide. Zweig, along with his wife, ended his own life not long after finishing this book. One might expect this to be his final message to the world; but as the translator notes, it is difficult to read this as a long suicide note. Zweig talks of a future, his future, with more books to write and years to live. The book even ends with a paean to life.

Whatever reason Zweig ended his life, one thing was certain: the Vienna of his youth, the Vienna he so lovingly describes here, is mostly vanished. If I can judge from my short visit, the city is entirely changed: Vienna nowadays is a city of tourism. Instead of the music-loving, critical, and discerning audiences Zweig describes in theaters and concerts, the city is now full of tourists who will pay periwigged salesmen to attend generic Mozart concerts, which run identical programs of greatest-hits that tireless musicians perform nightly. In the streets, English and Chinese are more commonly heard than German. Of course, Vienna is still lovely and full of cultural treasures; but these cultural treasures are of the past now, not the living present.

Did Zweig sense this change coming? Maybe not in so many words, but I think he knew that his world had forever passed into memory. There was no putting Europe back into the same postwar shape after so much destruction and death. That past now exists only in museums, grand old buildings, and books like this.

View all my reviews