Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Joseph McCabe: Fighter for Freethought (Reviewer’s Library No. 4) by Isaac Goldberg

More marketing than biography
In the early twentieth century, one of America’s most successful publishing enterprises was run out of the little town of Girard in southeastern Kansas. There Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius printed thousands of titles in his Little Blue Books series. Hundreds of millions of copies of these small, inexpensive paperbacks were sold at newsstands and through mail order. In addition to literature and knowledge of general interest, Haldeman-Julius also published books on topics that were radical for his time, such as socialism, atheism, feminism, and sex education. The most prolific writer in Haldeman-Julius’s stable of authors was Joseph McCabe, who covered all of the above subjects and more. McCabe was a former Catholic priest who lived for 12 years as a monk before leaving the church and rejecting Christian dogma. Even before he met Haldeman-Julius, McCabe became a champion of rationalism and established himself as one of the most outspoken opponents of the Catholic church and organized religion.

Though not a Little Blue Book, Joseph McCabe: Fighter for Freethought is the fourth volume in another series of Haldeman-Julius publications, Reviewer’s Library. The text is only 43 pages long. The author is Isaac Goldberg, another likeminded Haldeman-Julius regular. Goldberg doesn’t provide a biography of McCabe but rather a laudatory critical essay. Goldberg has never met McCabe or interviewed him; he has only read some of McCabe’s works and doesn’t appear to have done much research on the man. There is some coverage of McCabe’s career in the clergy and his reasons for defecting to atheism, but the biographical content stops there. The rest of the text is mostly Goldberg’s thoughts on McCabe, but Goldberg ends up talking about Goldberg just as much as he talks about McCabe. Goldberg uses McCabe’s life and works as a springboard to elaborate on freethought issues and anti-religious views. Because of the time period, there is also much discussion about the rise of fascism and authoritarianism, with vehement criticism of Hitler and Mussolini but mixed messages concerning Stalin.

The text is written in a somewhat casual style that’s aimed at habitual readers of Haldeman-Julius publications. It reminds one of the columns Stan Lee used to write in Marvel Comics that offered a look inside the “bullpen,” making readers feel like they were part of a club. Goldberg’s prose reads more like a magazine editorial than a book. This tone allows Goldberg to work in plugs for Little Blue Books and praise for Haldeman-Julius that would be inappropriate in a more formal treatise.

The best thing this booklet has to offer is a bibliography of McCabe’s published works. The list of titles is five pages long, includes around 175 entries, and teaches you more about McCabe’s writing career and scope of thought than anything Goldberg has to say. It covers not only McCabe’s publications with Haldeman-Julius but his entire published output up to 1936.

The book closes with one piece of McCabe’s writing, but the choice of essay is questionable. It’s a book review on a series of publications by (who else?) Haldeman-Julius. This, along with the 21 pages of advertisements, makes it clear that the Reviewer’s Library is little more than a marketing vehicle to promote sales of Haldeman-Julius publications. I learned surprisingly little about Joseph McCabe from this book that bears his name, but I am glad that I at least found a decent (though partial) bibliography of his work.

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Friday, August 21, 2020

Plays of the Natural and the Supernatural by Theodore Dreiser

Should have stuck to the real world
Theodore Dreiser is best known for his novels, but he also wrote a dozen plays over the course of his career. All but one of his dramatic works are of the brief, one-act variety. The collection Plays of the Natural and the Supernatural, first published in 1916, contains seven of Dreiser’s one-act plays. As the title indicates, some of these plays are a departure from Dreiser’s typical area of expertise. In his novels, Dreiser is perhaps the realest of American realists; his books are so realistic that at times they venture into the mundane. In more than half of the plays included here, however, Dreiser introduces paranormal phenomena. The results of his supernatural experimentation are far from successful, and he would have been better off sticking to social realism.

Of the seven plays in this volume, three of them can be considered “Natural,” meaning they deal with realistic subjects typical of Dreiser’s works: labor strikes, urban poverty, marital troubles. The first selection, The Girl in the Coffin, is the volume’s best entry. A strike organizer wants a local labor leader to appear at a rally, but the latter man is grieving beside the coffin of his recently deceased daughter. The plot is rather predictable, but Dreiser delivers high drama, authentic dialogue, and sharp insight into the labor struggles of the era. “Old Ragpicker” is another play in which Dreiser deals with the reality of his times. The title character is a homeless man, reduced to destitution by a stock market crash, who collects bottles and cans to survive. Though low on plot, it is a fine character study. The last of the realistic plays, The Light in the Window, deals with a wealthy couple on the verge of divorce. As they argue, passers-by imagine how happy life must be inside such an attractive and luxurious home. Dreiser plays up this contrast between expectation and reality rather heavy-handedly, but the marital drama is passable.

The remaining four plays fall into the “Supernatural” category. Of these, The Blue Sphere is the only one that rises to mediocre, while the rest are unilaterally terrible. Each of these plays has a real-world plot taking place while, invisible to the human characters, various supernatural entities, spirits of the dead, or mythical dryads flutter around providing commentary. In the Dark, for example, shows police chasing down a murderer while spirits circle in the air shouting “Murder!” and “Blood!” Laughing Gas is based on the hypothesis that people anesthetized by nitrous oxide are capable of experiencing visions in which they ascend to higher planes of existence and commune with the rhythm of the universe. The Spring Recital, depicting a church concert with ghostly spectators, is pointless.

Though written as plays, most of these dramas could never have been staged because they require sets and perspectives that would have been impossible to produce. They read more like mini-screenplays, but this was before they age of talkies, and they wouldn’t have worked well as silent films either. Laughing Gas, for example, describes both microscopic details of surgery and macroscopic views of extraterrestrial planes of existence. Nevertheless, somehow the play was produced once, in 1916. The most manageable work, The Girl in the Coffin, has been staged a half dozen times and “Old Ragpicker” twice. Other than that, these dramas have never seen the inside of a theatre. For the most part, they are no treat to read on the printed page, either. I’ve always admired Dreiser for his unflinching realism, but the fact that he would go in for this spiritualist nonsense has actually lessened my opinion of the man. To make matters worse, unlike Arthur Conan Doyle or Edgar Allan Poe, he can’t even manage to make the paranormal fun.

Plays in this collection

The Girl in the Coffin
The Blue Sphere
Laughing Gas
In the Dark
The Spring Recital 
The Light in the Window 
“Old Ragpicker”

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Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Atheist’s Mass by Honoré de Balzac

Why the materialist went to church
Honoré de Balzac
The Atheist’s Mass, a short story by Honoré de Balzac, was first published in 1836 under the French title of La Messe de l’athée. Like most of Balzac’s writings, this is one small piece in his grand patchwork of novels, essays, and stories known as La Comédie Humaine, in which he set out to document all facets of French society in the early 19th century. The story of The Atheist’s Mass revolves around two medical men. Horace Bianchon, a Parisian physician, is a recurring character in the Comédie Humaine, appearing in over two dozen works including Père Goriot and Lost Illusions. His mentor, the distinguished surgeon Desplein, also shows up in at least ten of Balzac’s works.

Desplein, whom Balzac describes as one of history’s great medical geniuses, is an unswerving and unapologetic atheist. Like many men of science, Desplein grounds his beliefs in empirical evidence rather than faith. His explorations of the human body and brain have made him a hardened materialist, one who disbelieves in the existence of the spirit or soul and trusts in matter alone. Desplein’s staunch nonbelief in all matters religious makes it all the more extraordinary when his protégé Bianchon spots the esteemed surgeon entering the church of Saint-Sulpice to attend a mass. What possible explanation could there be for this contradictory behavior? His curiosity aroused, Bianchon investigates the matter on the reader’s behalf. Roughly the first third of The Atheist’s Mass is a character sketch of Desplein, the middle third is Bianchon’s inquiries into this perplexing matter, and the final third is Desplein’s explanation for his uncharacteristic actions.

The result is a very moving and memorable story. Though the narrative concerns matters of atheism and religion, Balzac doesn’t take sides or preach in either direction. Atheism is merely a characteristic of Desplein that allows Balzac to explore the character’s history and personality. The account Desplein gives of his past reveals the humanity within the genius. The background in medical science and Balzac’s depiction of the lifestyles of these 19th-century doctors also keeps the story interesting. In the end, however, Balzac delivers a universally touching tale that transcends the time and place of its setting. Despite its brevity, or perhaps because of it, The Atheist’s Mass packs a powerfully poignant punch and stands as one of the better short stories in the Comédie Humaine.

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Monday, August 17, 2020

The Argonauts by Eliza Orzeszkowa

Polish literature, though you’d hardly know it
Eliza Orzeszkowa
The Argonauts, a novel by Polish author Eliza Orzeszkowa, was first published in 1900 under the Polish title of Argonauci. Translator Jeremiah Curtin published an English-language edition in 1901. The story opens in a luxurious mansion, the home of Aloysius Darvid, a self-made tycoon who through ceaseless toil and prodigious business acumen has amassed great wealth. His riches allow him to associate with princes and counts, but, not being of noble birth, he knows he will never be considered one of them. This workaholic pushes himself to the limit, not for the money but for the thrill of the conquest and the cachet of prestige. In pursuing his business interests, Darvid has neglected his family, leading to his wife’s affair with another man and his older children viewing him with contempt. When Darvid decides to put his house in order, he does so with an uncompromising iron fist characteristic of his autocratic business tactics.

One good reason to read Polish literature is to learn more about Polish history and culture. Orzeszkowa may be a Polish writer, but you’d hardly know it from reading this book. The only indication that the story takes place in Poland is that the characters call each other Pan and Pani (the Mr. and Mrs. of the Polish upper classes). It would be difficult to imagine a French novel in which location, either Parisian or provincial, plays no part whatsoever in the story. The city in which The Argonauts take place, however, is never mentioned. The words “Warsaw,” “Krakow,” or “Poland” don’t appear anywhere in the book. The word “Polish” does appear once (as opposed to “polish,” which appears 11 times). Orzeszkowa has more to say about French, English, and German culture than she does about that of her Polish motherland. Her characters gush over the works of Arthur Rimbaud, William Morris, and the Pre-Raphaelites, but I don’t recall a single Polish artist or writer being mentioned in the text. Russian authors sometimes satirize the upper classes of their nation for shamefully trying to deny their Russian heritage by pretending to be French. Orzeszkowa seems to be doing the same thing here, not as a satirist but as a culprit, by excising every element of Polishness from her own novel.

A phrase that appears over and over again in The Argonauts is “painted pots.” This is meant to signify old-fashioned values, outdated conventions, and conservative mores. This epithet is frequently uttered by characters of the younger generation, essentially 19th-century libertine hipsters who consider themselves iconoclasts. They refer to the older generation as Arcadians, a pejorative indicating stuffy old fogies with passé tastes who couldn’t possibly comprehend the sublime beauty and daring intellectualism of contemporary arts and literature. Though Orzeszkowa may have intended the opposite, the reader wants to side with the Arcadians since all the men and women of the younger generation come across as despicable human beings. In fact, almost all the characters in the novel are contemptible. Besides an innocent young girl who’s an easy target for the reader’s sympathy, the only character one really feels for is an aging member of the petty nobility who one day comes to the realization that he’s become a has-been.

The Argonauts is not a bad novel, but there’s not much notably compelling about it either. Orzeszkowa draws vivid characters who act out some valuable moral lessons, but she does so in a rather heavy-handed manner. The exaggerated histrionics, slow plot, and repetitive exposition call to mind the very dusty “painted pots” her characters find so repugnant.

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Friday, August 14, 2020

Harmony of Babel: Profiles of Famous Polyglots of Europe by Kató Lomb

Not quite what the subtitle promises, but still educational
During her lifetime, Kató Lomb (1909-2003) was one of the world’s most renowned polyglots (a master of multiple languages). Languages were not only her passion but also her vocation. After earning a PhD in chemistry, she discovered her love for languages and pursued a successful career as an interpreter and translator, including simultaneous interpreting at scientific and political conferences. She was also an advocate for language learning and wrote four books on the subject. Her last book, Harmony of Babel, was published in 1988. The subtitle Profiles of Famous Polyglots of Europe leads one to believe that the book will consist of biographical sketches of renowned multilinguists, but such profiles comprise less than half the book. The rest is a discussion of languages and language learning techniques similar to the material featured in Lomb’s first book, Polyglot: How I Learn Languages.

Early in the book, Lomb provides biographical sketches of six great polyglots of the past. The best-known is Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849), a Vatican scholar who was famous for his facility with dozens of languages, even though he never left Italy. Mezzofanti gets the most coverage, at 26 pages, while the shortest profile is less than a single page in length. The depth seems to be determined by the amount of information available on each person, which in some cases is pretty scant. Lomb only cites one or two references for each biographical sketch.

The bulk of the book is taken up by Lomb’s “Imaginary Round Table of Polyglots.” She interviewed 21 living (in 1988) polyglots and combined their answers to her list of questions into a sort of mock symposium on linguistics and language learning. Some, like Lomb, work as interpreters and translators, but others include linguists and philologists, reporters, poets, an archbishop, and the grandson of Emperor Franz Joseph von Habsburg. All are European except for one American and one Japanese. Each of these polyglots gets their own introductory profile, and it is fascinating to read how they learned their languages and how they use them. In the mock discussion that Lomb has compiled, they all provide interesting perspectives and tips on language learning, but they agree on very little.

Though her works have been translated into multiple languages, Lomb is Hungarian and wrote the book for a Hungarian audience. Consequently, Harmony of Babel includes an essay entitled “Why Is Language Instruction Ailing in Hungary?” In her writing, Lomb often makes references to Hungarian authors, poets, painters, and politicians, which actually makes the book more interesting to an American reader with little knowledge of Hungary, its history, or its arts and letters. The editor of the English-language edition provides helpful explanatory footnotes when needed. The book ends with a transcript of an interview of Lomb by a Hungarian TV host in which they engage in an in-depth discussion on the profession of interpreting.

A pdf file of this book, and two other Lomb books, can be downloaded for free from the website of The Electronic Journal for English as a Second Language. The primary audience for this book is language educators, but self-educating language enthusiasts will also find much useful wisdom. Given the subtitle, I was disappointed Harmony of Babel didn’t have more biographical information on historic polyglots. It turned out to be more of a miscellaneous grab bag, but I still enjoyed the read and gained a lot of insight into language learning methods.
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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Tales of Space and Time by H. G. Wells

Adventures in the past, present, and future
Tales of Space and Time, published in 1899, is a collection of three short stories and two novellas by science fiction writer H. G. Wells. The five selections in this volume had all been previously published in periodicals from 1897 to 1899. The three short stories take place in the present day and all have something to do with space, while the two longer works supply the time component of the collection, with one taking place in the distant past and the other set in the future.

In the opening story, “The Crystal Egg,” the owner of a curiosity shop is loathe to part with one precious object in his collection. He finds that when he gazes into his mysterious crystal egg, he sees visions of an otherworldly landscape. Unlike the crystal ball of fairy tales, however, Wells invents a science fiction explanation for this phenomenon. Though this story is notable for the precocious ingenuity of Wells’s sci-fi vision, the storytelling is a bit awkward at times.

The next entry, however, does not suffer from the same problem. “The Star” is an excellent and riveting apocalyptic tale. A foreign star enters our solar system on a possible collision course with Earth, destroying Neptune in its path. The story that follows is a combination of educated conjecture about what havoc such an event would wreak on Earth and shocking thrills worthy of a late-20th-century meteor disaster movie. The drama is globally epic in scope, and Wells depicts natural disasters with a detached brutality that readers of his day must have found horrendous.

The two novellas included in this volume act as companion pieces to one another. “A Story of the Stone Age” is just what the title advertises. The story takes place 50,000 years ago, and its heroes are a couple of ape-like archaic humans named Ugh-lomi and Eudena. Despite the connection to human evolution, this barely qualifies as science fiction. The plot is so simple it reads like a children’s story, complete with talking animals that call to mind Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Its worst offense, however, is just being way too long and very boring. If you’re looking for a good science fiction novel about prehistoric man, Jack London’s 1907 book Before Adam is far superior to this.

The second novella, its futuristic counterpart, fares much better. “A Story of the Days to Come” is set in the same 22nd-century world as Wells’s 1899 novel When the Sleeper Wakes (later published as The Sleeper Awakes). This novella, however, is far better than the Sleeper novel because it gives the reader a more thorough tour of the future society Wells has conceived, a dystopian vision of London that illustrates his socialist views on the class struggle. Wells also adds a touch of humorous social commentary by focusing on a pair of future lovers who are nostalgic for the romantic days of the Victorian Era. I was disappointed by The Sleeper Awakes, but this exceptional novella proved to be the book I was hoping for.

The closing short story, “The Man Who Could Work Miracles,” is only mildly entertaining. This is a whimsical fantasy about a man who finds he can make anything happen simply by willing it. Though the story does conclude with an element of real science fiction, for the most part it feels too frivolous and foolish. Notwithstanding, Tales of Space and Time is a fine collection overall and worth a read for fans of vintage science fiction. The diverse subject matter and creative premises aptly illustrate the broad scope of Wells’s talents as a sci-fi visionary.

Stories in this collection

The Crystal Egg
The Star
A Story of the Stone Age
A Story of Days to Come
The Man Who Could Work Miracles

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Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand-Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found by Violet Moller

Whirlwind tour through a millennium of scholarship
The intellectual foundations of Western civilization were laid by the philosophers and scholars of ancient Greece. The original scrolls that documented their words of wisdom have long since disintegrated, so the earliest surviving manuscripts of Greek texts are copies of copies. The fact that any of these writings have survived to the present day is rather amazing, and the story of how they survived is fascinating. In her 2019 book The Map of Knowledge, historian Violet Moller gives credit where it’s due to the scribes, translators, scholars, and collectors who kept this knowledge alive through the Dark Ages. Moller covers roughly a thousand years of history, circa 500 to 1500, from the decline of the Western Roman Empire to the birth of the printing press and rise of the Renaissance. In telling this epic story, Moller organizes her narrative around seven cities—Alexandria, Baghdad, Córdoba, Toledo, Salerno, Palermo, and Venice—each of which successively supplanted its predecessor as the Western world’s leading center of books and learning.

To narrow down what would otherwise be a huge and ungainly study, Moller focuses on the works of three scholars who were at the apex of their respective fields: Euclid (mathematics), Ptolemy (astronomy), and Galen (medicine). The prolific Galen alone is responsible for roughly half of the extant writings from ancient Greece. Moller not only charts the history of ideas but also the world events and political figures that helped foster those ideas. The book highlights emperors and kings who patronized scholars and established legendary centers of learning, such as the Great Library of Alexandria, the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, and the Schola Medica in Salerno. The chapters on Baghdad and Córdoba are of particular interest because they highlight the contributions of Arab and Muslim scholars and scientists whose invaluable contributions to Western civilization are little known to most American readers.

With so much geographical ground and temporal scope to cover, Moller can only provide a whirlwind tour of these thousand years. Some key characters are granted extensive biographical sketches, but often an important figure will only be mentioned in a sentence or two before the narrative must rush on to the next succeeding stage of scientific enlightenment. Nevertheless, the reader is introduced to many fascinating lesser-known figures, such as al-Khwarizmi, the brilliant Persian mathematician who invented algebra; Gerard of Cremona, the hardest working translator in medieval Toledo; Roger II, the Sicilian king who transformed Palermo into an intellectual mecca; and Erhard Ratdolt, the pioneering book printer whose work rivaled that of the more famous Aldus Manutius.

Intended for general readers, this book is very clearly written without any challenging academic jargon, and explanatory footnotes spell out some very elementary concepts for those unfamiliar with ancient or medieval history. Even so, the very nature of the subject and Moller’s vast breadth of scope demands a confusing tangle of detail that may very well prove exhausting to the general history buff. One really has to be an enthusiast of rare books and their history to appreciate The Map of Knowledge. Such bibliophiles, however may be unsatisfied by the briskness with which Moller rushes through these thousand years. While novice readers might find it hard to see the forest for the trees, more knowledgeable readers will wish the tour bus would slow down a bit so they could enjoy the scenery.

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Monday, August 3, 2020

Tales of Three Centuries by Michael Zagoskin

Balzacian stories of feudal Russia
Mikhail Zagoskin
Tales of Three Centuries is a collection of three short stories by Russian author Mikhail Zagoskin. In the English-language edition, published in 1891, his name is printed as Michael Zagoskin. These stories were translated by Jeremiah Curtin, an American multilinguist who served as secretary to the U.S. minister to Russia. Curtin is perhaps best known and sometimes criticized for his translations of Polish literature. His command of the Russian language was better than his Polish, however, and his prose here is lively and easy to read.

The three stories included in this collection are almost long enough to be considered novellas. These works are lighter than the intimidatingly ponderous epics one often associates with Russian literature. Zagoskin’s writing calls to mind the fiction of French writer Honoré de Balzac, who is even a topic of conversation in one of these stories. Balzac chronicled French society in a series of fictional time capsules that often took the form of comedies of manners. Zagoskin likewise uses his stories to illustrate the social landscape under Russia’s feudalistic system of the 18th and 19th centuries. Like Balzac, Zagoskin is often a satirist who pokes fun at the values and conventions of the upper classes: their obsession with land, measured not in acres but in souls (serfs); their propensity for social climbing, even through deceptive means; and their efforts to distance themselves from their own Russianness by pretending to be French.

In the first story, “An Evening on the Hopyor,” five gentleman guests attend a dinner party at the estate of a wealthy and eccentric host. The gathering turns into a Canterbury Tales-style sharing of stories, resulting in a half dozen sub-narratives, all of which deal with supernatural experiences. The tales they tell are suspenseful but not frightening as Zagoskin brings a sense of humor to his ghost stories that calls to mind Arthur Conan Doyle more than Edgar Allan Poe. Each paranormal phenomenon is cleverly debated by believers and skeptics. All of the storytellers have had military experience, and the tales they tell often relate to their service in Poland, Italy, or the Napoleonic Wars, thus providing the reader with glimpses of Russian history and military life.

“The Three Suitors” is a more typically Balzacian comedy of manners. A young maiden is in love with a handsome young captain of the hussars, but her stepmother won’t allow her to marry for love. Instead, this guardian wants to arrange a marriage between her stepdaughter and one of three competing landowners. The stepmother’s matchmaking tactics border on pimping as she manipulates the three suitors to her own advantage. Luckily, the girl has a godfather who actually cares about her happiness. This story is good fun, though pretty predictable.

The final entry, “Kuzma Roschin,” is an improvement on the same theme. A father won’t let his daughter marry the soldier she loves because the young man’s family is of a lower social and financial class. This story, however, has the added attraction of a sinister bandit. What starts as a comedy of manners morphs into a melodramatic adventure before concluding as a touching meditation on guilt and justice. Like Balzac, Zagoskin has a tendency for too-abrupt endings that leave the reader wanting an epilogue. Nevertheless, this collection as a whole displays smart, entertaining writing with plenty of historical context and local color to conjure up the atmosphere of Tsarist Russia. Zagoskin may not be a household name among Russian masters, but Curtin made a wise choice when he selected these stories for translation.

Stories in this collection
An Evening on the Hopyor 
The Three Suitors 
Kuzmin Roscha

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