The chemistry and physics on which we fed were the antidote to Fascism

The Periodic Table book coverThe Periodic Table
by Primo Levi
translated from Italian by Raymond Rosenthal

This is my Italy book for my EU Reading Challenge and is also on my Classics Club list. It seemed appropriate right now in multiple ways. I’ve seen a few people recommending we all read Primo Levi this year to remind us what Fascism and Second World War concentration camps were like (to refute the argument that the US detainment camps aren’t really concentration camps). Plus, 2019 is the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, as designated by UNESCO.

This is a difficult book to describe. Not quite a memoir, but not quite popular-science either, and certainly more than just a loose collection of tales. Each of its 21 chapters is framed around one element – sometimes abstractly, sometimes very directly. Levi was a professional chemist and himself describes this book as “events, mine and otherwise…to convey to the layman the strong and bitter flavour of our trade…stories of the solitary chemistry…which with few exceptions has been mine: but it has also been the chemistry of our founders…who confronted matter without aids, with their brains and hands, reason and imagination.”

Levi begins with his ancestors and a dissection of the language he spoke as a child, a product of the Jewish community in the Piedmont region that combined Italian, Piedmontese and Hebrew. I’ll admit that the link is a little tenuous between the inert gas argon and Levi’s assessment of his ancestors’ general character, but I do love a bit of etymology and Levi has a knack for turning anything into a great story.

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Braiding the parallel rays into a dappled pattern

Snow Crash
by Neal Stephenson

Since its publication in 1992, this book has come to be considered a modern classic. I remember Tim reading it around 12 years ago and loving it – indeed, he still remembers it in remarkable detail. So in my ongoing science-fiction education, this seemed like a natural step.

This book has a fascinating setting that, though complex enough to be slowly revealed over 470 pages, is at heart simple enough to not require masses of exposition at the start. Instead, Stephenson opens with an action-packed sequence that introduces our main character – the aptly named Hiro Protagonist – and his foil, YT.

Hiro is a freelance hacker. His home is a storage unit that he shares with an up-and-coming rock star, a cramped situation that suits him fine because he spends most of his time in the Metaverse anyway – an alternative space that anyone with virtual-reality goggles and what is effectively an Internet connection by another name can plug into. In the Metaverse, your avatar can own property, socialise and explore in the vast space created many years ago by Da5id – superstar hacker and old friend of Hiro’s. In the Metaverse, Hiro is a sword-fighting expert, but in Reality (always written with a capital R) he delivers pizza to pay the bills.

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Gedanken fictions

Just a quick post to say that my review of Thought X: Fictions and Hypotheticals, edited by Rob Appleby and Ra Page, has been published over on the Physics World website. It’s a collection of short stories and essays about thought experiments in physics and philosophy, and I found it fascinating. The fiction authors include Zoe Gilbert and Robin Ince, while the accompanying essays are by scientists including Seth Bullock and Tara Shears.

To see what else I thought, hop on over to Physics World.

Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

(CC-BY Ed Lederman/PEN American Center)
(CC-BY Ed Lederman/PEN American Center)

Salman Rushdie, Festival of Ideas
St George’s Hall, Bristol, 11 October

On Sunday afternoon I saw Salman Rushdie in the flesh! Rushdie was visiting Bristol to promote his new novel Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights (a title his publishers apparently thought cumbersome). St George’s Hall was packed to the rafters with fans keen to hear, well, pretty much anything the great man had to say, though he stayed mostly on topic.

The new novel was written in part as a reaction against the act of writing memoir (Rushdie’s previous book, Joseph Anton, documented his 10 years in hiding following the 1988 fatwa against him) – he felt an emotional desire to be at the opposite end of the spectrum, to make stuff up again. Rushdie was inspired by the Arabian Nights and here, as always, he feels he is part of the grand old tradition of non-naturalistic fiction – possibly the oldest form of world literature, encompassing fairy tales, heroic epics and other forms that seek to spread the collective wisdom of the human race.

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It is far safer to be feared than loved

Il Principe

The Prince
by Niccolò Machiavelli
translated from Tuscan Italian by N H Thompson

I find military history tedious so this wasn’t the most fun read for me but it’s a classic and it’s only 99 pages so I figured I’d give it a go.

The premise is that Machiavelli wrote this as a textbook for a member of the powerful Medici family and indeed it is formally dedicated to one of them, but it’s unknown if it was ever read by any Medici or even if that was the true intention.

The book is split into short chapters, each of which is a self-contained essay. The first half of them look at types of prince and types of situation whereby a prince might take over a new military history. The second half looks at the qualities a prince should have and the ways he should behave. There’s extensive use of historical examples, many from Italy but also from all over Europe and occasionally further afield.

To be honest, for all the negative reputation of Machiavelli, this is in general sensible or at least realistic-sounding advice. It is sometimes ruthless but not as much as I had expected at all.

“He who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.”

“The ruler is not truly wise who cannot discern evils before they develop themselves, and this is a faculty given to few.”

“As long as neither their property nor their honour is touched, the mass of mankind live contentedly, and the Prince has only to cope with the ambition of a few.”

Of course, there is an awful lot of focus on war, which I didn’t like too much and objected to morally. Really much of the first half was a struggle against boredom.

“War is the sole art looked for in one who rules…when Princes devote themselves rather to pleasure than to arms, they lose their dominions.”

However, to make up for the objectionable war focus and dull military history there were moments of fascinating philosophical language and that ratio really flipped in the second half, with a lot more commentary on human nature. I especially liked the reference to Chiron the Centaur (a character I learned about in Song of Achilles) as the perfect instructor to teach princes how to use both the natures of man and beast.

“The manner in which we live, and that in which we ought to live, are things so wide asunder, that he who quits the one to betake himself to the other is more likely to destroy than to save himself; since anyone who would act up to a perfect standard of goodness in everything, must be ruined among so many who are not good. It is essential, therefore, for a Prince…to have learned how to be other than good, and to use or not use his goodness as necessity requires.”

The most famous chapter in the book is “Of cruelty and clemency, and whether it is better to be loved than feared”. But the answer given to that choice is not as clearcut as I often see quoted. As with most chapters, there is the ideal answer and the likely compromise. A prince “should desire to be counted merciful and not cruel” but should accept the reputation of cruelty “where it enables him to keep his subjects united and obedient”. And the famous line in this translation reads “it is far safer to be feared than loved”, which is not quite the same as saying it’s better. Indeed, Machiavelli goes on to caution that to inspire fear should not equal inspiring hate. In fact, there’s a whole chapter devoted to evading contempt and hatred.

There’s also an interesting discussion of assassination that might easily have referred to suicide bombers in another time:

“Let it be noted that deaths like this, which are the result of a deliberate and fixed resolve, cannot be escaped by Princes, since anyone who disregards his own life can effect them. A Prince, however, needs the less to fear them as they are seldom attempted.”

Apparently, since Machiavelli turned out later in life to be a liberal forward-thinker, many have argued over the centuries since the publication of The Prince that it’s a satire and was never intended to be taken seriously. Again, I’m not sure if it’s the translation but I didn’t detect any irony at all.

I’m glad I’ve read it and I can see how you could write many more words analysing the text than the original contains, but I am in no great hurry to read more old political philosophy. Especially not if military strategy is a common theme.

First privately distributed in 1513 under the Latin title De Principatibus (About Principalities).
First published by Antonio Blado d’Asola in 1532 as Il Principe.
This translation first published by P F Collier and Son in 1910.

Source: I honestly don’t remember. It’s a US edition so maybe one of my holidays over that side of the pond?

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

Thoughts on ideology

“Democracy is an experiment the goal of which is to keep the experiment going. The purpose of democracy is to enable people to live democratically. That’s it. Democracy is not a means to something else; there is no higher good that we’re trying as a society to attain. When we compromise with democracy in order to achieve some other purpose, even when the purpose is to defend democracy, then we are in danger of losing it.”

This quote from Louis Menand in the New Yorker (Mar 4, 2013, p71) really got me thinking. It’s such a basic point and one that should be blindingly obvious, yet I’d hazard it’s a subtlety that’s often lost on politicians.

The piece in the New Yorker, incidentally, was a review of a book about the New Deal. Menand was arguing that Franklin Roosevelt’s success as a politician was rooted in his being “a political pragmatist, someone who is less interested in the ideological provenance of a policy than in its effectiveness” – which sounds like a good thing to me. But it must be pretty rare to rise to the top in politics without a strong ideology, right?

I don’t pretend to know enough about politics or philosophy to be able to say more myself, but I like what Menand has to say.

Crime and Punishment read-a-long week 10 to the end


Once I realised there were only just over 100 pages of this tome left, I couldn’t drag out reading it for another three weeks, as per the official schedule, so I read straight through to the end. Before I get to the spoilers for this final discussion post, I thought I’d write a few thoughts about the book as a whole.

For one thing, I still think I could have found a better translation. It has been interesting seeing excerpts quoted over at Unputdownables that were significantly different from what I had read. I started out reading the Penguin Popular Classics edition from 1997, which I found dull and depressing. I switched (or rather started over) to the Oxford World’s Classics edition translated by Jessie Coulson in 1953 and updated by Coulson in 1981 and initially found it a much better read. However, when other readers started raving about beautifully written or moving passages I looked at my edition and thought ‘Really?’. So there’s that.

The story seemed very slow. I mean, essentially, all the action happens in the early chapters, the rest of the book is the psychological effect of those actions. But there are a lot of characters and none of them is straightforward, in personality or in motivation, which makes guessing where the story is going quite tricky. There are a lot of intellectual discussions about not only crime and punishment, but also class, philosophy, love, society – there’s certainly a lot to get your teeth into. So while I didn’t find the story gripping, I did always find it interesting.

I would not say this was an instant favourite for me, or even highly ranked among classics I’ve read. I recognise it as a great piece of work but for me it was an intellectual exercise not an enjoyable read. I’ve heard it said that often people love either Dostoevsky or Tolstoy but rarely both, so perhaps I’d best give Leo a go.

And now for some thoughts on those final chapters. In weeks 10 and 11 I read from part 5 chapter 5 to the end. The official discussion posts will go up at Unputdownables every Friday. Unavoidably, the following will be pretty darned spoilerific.

There are so many characters who come across as just as or even more creepy than Ras, I had to keep reminding myself that he’s a murderer. But then in those moments when he tries to justify his murders a chill would go up my spine and I would, just for that moment, intensely dislike him.

“Although he judged himself severely, his lively conscience could find no particularly terrible guilt in his past, except a simple blunder, that might have happened to anybody… ‘What makes what I have done seem to them so monstrous?’ he asked himself. ‘The fact that it was a crime? What does the word mean? My conscience is easy…Many benefactors of mankind who did not inherit power but seized it for themselves should have been punished at their first steps. But the first steps of those men were successfully carried out, and therefore they were right, while mine failed, which means I had no right to permit myself that step.'”

Porfiry’s handling of Ras is clever if bizarre. He pretends friendship, pretends to have a scrap of evidence and pretends to enjoy debating the philosophy of murder and power just to persuade Ras that he must confess.

“His breath failed and he could not finish. He had listened with indescribable agitation while this man, who had seen right through him, repudiated his own judgement. He dared not, he could not, believe it. Eagerly he had scrutinized the still ambiguous words to find something more precise and definite.”

I thought from quite early in the novel that Ras would end up confessing, but I’ll admit there were times I was almost persuaded that instead he would run away or kill himself or even that a key piece of evidence or witness would turn up so that he could be arrested. However, there are increasing signs towards the end that Ras is headed for prison camp in Siberia.

“He wandered aimlessly. The sun was going down. A particular sort of dejection had recently begun to show itself in him. There was nothing violent or poignant about it, but it carried with it a premonition of perpetuity, weary, endless years of cold deadening depression, a presage of an eternity on a hand’s breadth of ground.”

Dunya doesn’t half attract some horrid men, huh? Although Razumikhin is completely lovely so at least she has him. But Svidrigalov, like Luzhin, goes to great lengths to make himself look better (and Ras look worse) to win Dunya. Of course, she is too smart to be fooled and Svidrigalov, unlike Luzhin, gives up when Dunya rejects him. And Dunya is of course one of two great positive influences on her brother (the other being Sonya). In fairness, Razumikhin tried to be but just couldn’t understand Ras well enough to help him the way the women could.

“‘It was to escape the shame that I wanted to drown myself, Dunya, but the thought came to me, when I was already standing on the bank, that if I had hitherto considered myself strong, then the shame should not frighten me now. Is that pride, Dunya?’
‘Yes, Rodya, it is pride.’
The almost extinct fire flared up again in his lustreless eyes; it was as though he were pleased that he could still be proud.
‘And you don’t think, sister, that I was simply afraid of the water?’ he asked, with an ugly smile, looking into her face.
‘Oh, stop, Rodya!'”

As for that epilogue – talk about redemption and the power of being loved by a good woman! It’s interesting that Sonya is that epitome of the good woman who is beloved by all, considering her background. But then, it seemed to me that at no point did Dostoevsky judge her or even her profession negatively. Those characters who tried to use it against her were all proved wrong for doing so. But of course Ras was also using her unfairly, right up to the last couple of pages.

“Do I love her? … Oh, how low I have fallen! No – I wanted her tears, I wanted to see her terror, and watch her heart being torn and tormented! I wanted something, anything, to cling to, any excuse for delay, some human being to look at!”

So that’s it. Finished. My detailed thoughts on the rest of the book can be found here. After a couple of extra short books as a reward I’m quite tempted to pick up another huge chunk of a book! Have you read Crime and Punishment? What are your thoughts on it?

First published in the Russian Messenger in 1866.

Source: Borrowed from the library.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

On the bright side

Candide: or, Optimism
by Voltaire
translated by John Butt

This wasn’t as intimidating to read as I feared but it’s definitely intimidating to write about! On the one hand a short picaresque novel about the many adventures of a young German, it’s also a study of philosophy, humanity and life itself.

The story is ridiculous and the characters entirely wooden, but that’s not the point here. Voltaire is witty, ironic, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant, always clever. Briefly, Candide is the ward of a rich baron who is thrown out when he is discovered kissing the baron’s beautiful daughter, Cunégonde. As his tutor Pangloss had always taught him that “all is for the best” he approaches his series of misadventures with a sort of naïve cheeriness and hardy resilience. He travels the world making his fortune over and over, only to lose it again and again. He is repeatedly arrested, robbed, cheated, whipped, banished and otherwise mistreated. His beloved companions die or are otherwise taken from him, yet to the last page he is determined to find a man who is truly happy and dogmatically discusses his philosophy with anyone who will join in.

One of the many ironies of the story is that Candide actually finds a true paradise in South America – Eldorado – but chooses not to stay because he is restless and because he is concerned for Cunégonde, who last he knew was in the hands of a dastardly king.

The story reminded me of Tom Jones, Gulliver’s Travels and The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. A lot happens but even the worst (rape, disembowelment, hanging) is dealt with matter-of-factly. A running joke is Candide’s challenge to find a man who does not think he is most ill-treated man alive. Everyone he encounters has a terrible back story.

Voltaire mocks every religion, nationality and philosophy, which makes the moral message a bit unclear. Is he saying life is inherently awful and we should have no hope? But then why have a hero who survives through so much and remains optimistic?

Definitely worth reading but I still prefer more recent prose style-wise.

First published 1759.
This translation first published 1947 by Penguin.

What women writers want

A Room of One’s Own
by Virginia Woolf

I was inspired to finally pick up this book by Amy Reads and her part in the Year of Feminist Classics project. It turns out, now I look at the reading schedule, that they’re not discussing this title until May, but I’d been meaning to read it for years anyway, and I can always go back and discuss it with them in three months’ time!

I’m so glad I finally read this book. It is truly brilliant. I struggled a little with the Woolf books I had to read for my degree, but this is actually a reworking of two speeches she gave at women’s colleges in October 1928 and therefore has a rather different style from her fiction. For me it was much more accessible and approaches the topic of feminism from an angle that I am very interested in – women and fiction.

Of course, Woolf being Woolf, she doesn’t approach the subject in an entirely straightforward manner. Instead she begins with her answer to a question as yet unvoiced and then invents the character of a woman writer to illustrate how she arrived at this answer, including all of the research and ruminating along the way. But bizarre as that sounds, it’s a fascinating and intelligent study of its subject with so many quotable passages that my copy is now covered in bright yellow sticky notes.

The conclusion of this extended essay is so famous that it is not only the title but is also repeated in red text on the front cover of my edition: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.” These days that may seem like an odd statement but it’s worth remembering, as Woolf ably illustrates, that at the time of writing there were very few colleges in the UK that accepted female students and almost no scholarships or bursaries for them; women were not allowed in Oxbridge libraries unaccompanied, even if they were students there; a woman’s property and wealth legally became her husband’s upon marriage; and even upper class women were very unlikely to have a study or sitting room of their own.

“The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought, who picked up [a newspaper] could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the rule of a patriarchy.”

Woolf counts the four great women writers as Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë and George Eliot (which was interesting of itself to me, that 80 years ago the same names should have been considered “great” as now, or maybe we consider them great because we have been told they are for 80+ years) and looks carefully at how being a woman influenced each of them. In Jane Austen she sees the greatest influence of having had to write in a shared sitting room, as so much of Austen’s work is set in those very rooms, but she also bestows great praise on Austen for having such an honest, undeniably female voice. Charlotte Brontë, Woolf says, was a better wordsmith but also more given to expressing discontent with her lot in life, giving her heroines speeches about being held back from the world that jar with the rest of the novel.

Woolf finds women depicted by men, in fiction and non-fiction, wholly unsatisfactory, partly because men tend to depict women as hollow featureless objects but also because a lot of what they do show is unrealistic idealism. In truth, through most of history women have not been nearly as well educated or as wordly as men.

“A very queer composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history…some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.”

Women depicting women, however, can actually do it properly, creating real personalities, likes, dislikes, good qualities and bad ones. Woolf describes her delight when reading, in a not particularly good book by a woman writer, about the friendship between two women – a subject she declares is at every woman’s heart and yet never depicted yet by any man. (She makes a few generalisations like this. I have to presume that, though reasonably well read, she had not read every book ever written and therefore an exception to this statement may well exist.)

In the face of such adversity, Woolf shows great admiration for those pre-20th-century women who did defy convention and write, even those who did it in secret, but especially those who published their work like Aphra Behn (another name I studied at university). She urges the women she is speaking to – women who have at least a little money, some education and most likely a room of their own – to continue this tradition, to find their own voice uninfluenced by men. She complains that her reading has become monotonous with so many men’s voices, so much male influence, and expresses a hope that the time will come when readers will think her rant out of date.

She closes with the sentiment that in “another century or so” women writers will have found their voice. I like to think that, while the gender equality fight is still very much on, in writing at least women have found an equal footing. I don’t know how the numbers compare of books published by men and women, or indeed books sold, or literary prizes won, and if they are even now it’s probably a very recent development, maybe even in the last ten years. But the world has changed drastically from the one Woolf knew and I like to think she would be proud of women today, especially women writers.

First published 1928.
I read the Penguin Great Ideas edition, published 2004.

UPDATE: If you’re interested, you can check out the Year of Feminist Classics discussions about this title here and here.

Examining happiness

Happy Creatures
by Ángela Vallvey
translated by Margaret Jull Costa

This is an odd book. I know this because every time I mentioned a scene to my friends they were incredulous as to why I would want to read such a book. But even with the weirdness, I thought it pretty good.

It’s also cerebral, much in the manner of Sophie’s World. There’s a simple storyline told in simple language but you rarely get through a paragraph without learning some philosophy.

You can tell it’s going to be cerebral from the start because the main characters are Ulysses, Penelope and their infant son Telemachus. They’re living in modern-day Madrid and very much aware of the provenance of their names (in fact it’s why they named their son as they did) but that doesn’t stop the author comparing their life events to episodes in The Odyssey.

Ulysses and Penelope are separated. She left him holding the baby when Telemachus was just three months old to pursue her career in fashion design. This episode is not told fully until more than halfway through the book, though it is referred to often. The first section of the novel is told from Ulysses’ perspective so it is a bit of a jolt to finally hear Penelope’s side of things and realise she had her reasons, and not bad ones either. I was impressed by how this was handled.

Another large element of the first part of the novel is Penelope’s father Vili’s class that he teaches at the Academy about the philosophy of happiness. Vallvey details a lot of conversations held at these classes, and also snapshots of the lives of several class members. These add interesting colour around Ulysses’ seemingly endless search for his own happiness.

So far so good, although the endless quotes do get a bit tiresome. But what I found disconcerting was how…comfortable the characters are with their bodies and discussing sex. I’m no prude but there were a couple of scenes at which I cringed and struggled to believe could be real. Maybe it’s a Spanish thing.

It was an entertaining read with some good comic moments and some interesting observations. However, I found the philosophising a little tedious and felt there was too much of a tendency to judge characters’ actions.

First published in Spain in 2002 by Ediciones Destino.
This translation first published in Great Britain in 2004 by Viking.