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Archive for June, 2008

No Longer At Ease (1960)

by Chinua Achebe

Picador Edition, The African Trilogy, from which page numbering comes.

This book is not available in the Penguin Classics range.

Chinua Achebe’s second novel, No Longer at Ease, published in 1960, is a then contemporary story of modern Nigeria. It is a Nigeria of contrasting religions, where modernity is in competition with tradition, a land of political corruption and western night clubs. Into this fray walks Obi Okonkwo, an honest man with an English university education, seeking to improve himself and his country, full of optimism and infused with pride, he knows how life should be. But this is 1950s Lagos, where everyman is out to make a fast buck, and have little concern upon whom they trample. The question Achebe poses is this: how can an honest man survive in this melee? Can there be hope for modern Nigeria?

In his introduction to the 1988 Picador collection, The African Trilogy (that contains Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God), Achebe says of No Longer at Ease, and in response to V S Pritchard’s comment at the end of his review of Things Fall Apart that Achebe’s second novel would be difficult to write:

No Longer at Ease was the second I wrote and it managed, by that fact perhaps, to inherit all the difficulty the critic had prophesied. I personally consider it as good of its kind as I am capable of fabricating, but I don’t think it has been very well understood. Perhaps it will have better luck now.” (P.10)

Much of Achebe’s difficulty may have been borne of the fact that No Longer at Ease was not the novel he had initially set out to write. He talks in the introduction of originally planning one long novel that would explore three generations of Ibo men, but when that proved too challenging he broke it down into three separate novels. No Longer at Ease was to have been the story of his fathers generation, but as he says,

“The major problem was this: my father’s generation were the very people after all who, no matter how sympathetically one wished to look upon their predicament, did open the door to the white man. But could I, even in the faintest, most indirect, most delicate allusiveness, dare to suggest that my father may have been something… of… a traitor?” (p.10)

So with this second generation skipped, Achebe turned to his own for No Longer at Ease.

The portrait of modern Nigeria that Achebe paints in this novel is not a handsome one. Whereas in Things Fall Apart the Obi tribe had been painted with grace, almost every figure Obi meets in this book is dishonest in some manner. Even the villagers who come to see Obi to help their children gain a university education are not above bribery, and even the children themselves are dishonest, the girls coming to offer sexual favours to ensure a place. This it seems is how Africans are seen so they must act that way. As Mr Green, Obi’s boss in the civil service explains:

“The African is corrupt through and through.” (p.175)

Obi tries to buck the system, to retain his dignity. He sends money home to his family, he repays debts instantly and in full, even if he has time in which to pay them. He falls in love with a bright, educated woman called Clara. Clara, like Obi, is Ibo. Here the first great clash of his life occurs. Clara is osu, an outcast, and in his tribe no one can marry an osu, for it would bring great shame upon his family.

“Osu is like leprosy in the minds of our people. I beg of you, my son, not to bring the mark of shame and of leprosy into your family.” (p.282)

Obi replies:

“But all that is going to change. In ten years things will be quite different to what they are now.” (p.282)

He also argues:

“I don’t think it matters. We are Christians.” (p.281)

For if they are Christian how can old tribal religion hold sway? Here we see the clash how the class between the two religions in Things Fall Apart has finally played out. Though Christianity is the dominant religion, the old ways still hold power. The battle never ended.

But Obi remains indignant, and honest. He will still marry Clara, despite the shame. Only modern Nigeria will not let him. Obi’s financial situation becomes desperate, and he is too proud to ask for money. He economizes:

“In future the water-heater must not be turned on. I will have cold baths. The fridge must be switched off at seven o’clock in the evening and on again at twelve noon.” (p.255)

These absurd money saving exercises reveal a man being undone by his very nature. He must maintain his standing in the community, for the community paid for his English university education to get him into the position he now holds and so he cannot be seen to disappoint, and yet at every turn this life is destroying him.

During the opening of No Longer at Ease we meet Obi on trial. The judge says:

“I cannot comprehend how a young man of your education and brilliant promise could have done this.” (p.174)

Achebe’s second novel is a deconstruction of how this could have happened, and in it he seems to be saying that it is Africa itself that is to blame, for it does not help itself, it only steals. A damning indictment that won Achebe the Nigerian National Trophy. But perhaps the T. S. Eliot quote that opens the book points to a different reading. From The Journey of the Magi:

“We returned to our places, these Kingdoms

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.”

If Achebe is true in what he states his intention to be, for this work to have been a second, or perhaps a third part of one long narrative, then perhaps the final reading should be that it is not Africa that has destroyed itself, but the fact that it surrendered. That it turned its back on the gods that ruled when we first met the happy, contented people at the start of Things Fall Apart. If they had just held, and not yielded, an honest man in Africa might still be at ease.

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Things Fall Apart (1958)

by Chinua Achebe with an Introduction by Chinua Achebe

Picador Edition, The African Trilogy, 1988, 558pp.

Also available in the Penguin Modern Classics range.

It has been fifty years since Chinua Achebe’s landmark novel, Things Fall Apart, was published and in that time its reputation and power has not been diminished. The sheer brutal power of Achebe’s simple stark prose launches you headlong into the fight for the very soul of a nation – its cultural identity, its political identity, and most crucially its religious identity. One knows from the first sentence that this is to be a novel that ends in bloodshed, and it is still shocking when we get there. The blood spilt on those African soils we know will echo through time. As the Yeats poem, The Second Coming, from which Achebe has taken his title, says:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

The story goes that when Achebe sent his completed manuscript to William Heinemann, it was the first African novel he had seen and so was unsure of its merit. He passed it to his friend, recently back from a teaching post in Africa, Dr Donald Macrae, who wrote what must surely be the shortest recommendation ever: “The best first novel since the war.” It is not difficult to see where Macrae is coming from, for if this is not the best first novel since the war, it is certainly one of the best. Achebe has a distinct voice, and a subject matter that is wholly original within fiction published in the west until that point.

Things Fall Apart tells the story of the Obi tribe – located in what we presume to be the present day borders of Nigeria, though of course the Obi do not recognize this territorial boundary, just as they do not recognize the bicycle upon which the first missionary arrives, which they call his “Iron horse”.

Achebe builds up this portrait of the primitive Obi tribe in good, clear strokes. Their reasoning and behaviour is explained and their ritualistic habits not dismissed in a way a non-African might have portrayed it.

The first part of this novel introduces to an important man, Okonkwo, who attempts to better himself and his families lot, only to become disgraced through a tragic accident in which:

“Okonkwo’s gun had exploded and a piece of iron had pierced the boy’s heart.” (P.105)

As the taking of a fellow clansman’s life is a crime against the earth goddess, Okonkwo and his family have to leave Obi land, and can only return after seven years. They settle in a village called Mbanta, in his motherland, where he remains deeply shamed. Back in his home town of Mbaino, his house is burnt to the ground, and his animals killed. This is, we are told:

“merely a cleansing [of] the land which Okonkwo had polluted with he blood of a clansman.” (P.105)

This reasoning – along with the treating of Ogbanje (a changeling) – a child who repeatedly dies and returns to its mother to be reborn – who when they die are disfigured and buried rise again, with the facial disfigurement sometimes present – replay as events with the Christian missionaries that come to Obi to convert “the primitive tribes of the lower Niger.” (p.168)

When the first missionary is killed – a simple man who came only on his iron horse, spreading God’s word – he is reborn as a contingent of missionaries, more zealous than the first. The tribesmen grant the missionaries a plot of land upon which to build their church. The land is in the Evil Forest. The Evil Forest is where the Ogbanje are buried, and the tribesmen suspect the missionaries will die there. The land was given under the challenge:

“Let us give them a portion of the Evil Forest. They boast about their victory over death. Let us give them a real battlefield in which to show their victory.” (P.124)

When the missionaries do not die, but prosper in the Evil Forest,

“It became known that the white man’s fetish had unbelievable power.” (P.124)

The battle lines between Christianity and the tribal religion is drawn, and Okonkwo seeing his chance at reinstatement to power within his tribe, becomes one of the men who will stand against the white man, will expel the church from their land, for it is a type of Ogbanje, has committed a crime against the earth goddess and needs to be disfigured.

To reveal more of this novel would be to diminish its devastating power to a first time reader. Things Fall Apart is one of Africa’s greatest novels (along with Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy) and is a wonderful testament to Achebe’s power as a novelist.

When Things Fall Apart first appeared in 1958, one of its reviewers (whom Achebe seems to think is V. S. Pritchard) said that Achebe’s second novel might prove more difficult to write. Achebe followed Things Fall Apart with No Longer At Ease in 1960. The review of that book follows.

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The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975)

by Edward Abbey with a Preface by Robert Redford and an Introduction by Eric Schlosser

Penguin Modern Classics, 421pp

When Edward Abbey died in March 1989 his final wish was that his body be buried in the desert wilderness he so loved, unmarked and lost, “I want my body to help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree.” This is what his friends did, in opposition to federal law, a final twist Abbey undoubtedly found funny. In his most famous work – The Monkey Wrench Gang – one sees Abbey’s opposition to the bureaucracies of modern America, a deconstruction of everything that has gone wrong in his society. The Monkey Wrench Gang did not remain the thought of one man, however, going onto inspire activist groups across America, some who even today leave messages referencing Hayduke, the central figure of this novel, and monkey-wrenching as a term synonymous with sabotage gained power again because of Abbey’s novel. In fact, many see Abbey’s novel as a guidebook, a how-to guide for committing eco-terrorism.

For a novel so enshrouded in controversy, it is such a pleasure to find that it is as funny as hell, filed with such a rambunctious spirit, and one not afraid of its controversy, it’s irreverent or its own intellect. Abbey wears these tags with pride. His book opens first with a statement:

“This book, though fictional in form, is based strictly on historical fact. Everything in it is real or actually happened. And it all began just one year from today.”

This is partially true: Abbey and his friends often committed minor acts of eco-terrorism. And then we have a memorial to Ned Ludd, a biographical quote and Byron’s quote, “Down with all kings but King Ludd.” Then finally there are the three quotes:

“…but oh my desert

Yours is the only death I cannot bear.”

-Richard Shelton

“Resist much. Obey little.”

-Walt Whitman

“Now. Or never.”

-Thoreau

Immediately one is given a sense of Abbey’s intentions, and it is not difficult to see how certain individuals could become charged by this tone. Then we have a definition of the word ‘sabotage’. There can be no doubt what territory Abbey is leading us into. With one radicalised by Abbey’s erudite selection, the novel opens with a prologue, entitled The Aftermath, and one of the most cinematic openings in modern literature. We are at a bridge on the Utah-Arizona border, a grand achievement of American architecture, and crowds are gathered to watch its official opening, six months after it first started being used. Abbey’s prose floats around the officials gathered, the spectators, the more distant Native American spectators, even up to an eagle’s view, building up this sense of expectation, of drama. Then:

“Suddenly the center of the bridge rose up, as if punched from beneath, and broke in two along a jagged zigzag line. Through this absurd fissure, crooked as lightning, a sheet of red flame streamed skyward, followed at once by the sound of a great cough, a thunderous shuddering high-explosive cough that shook the monolithic sandstone of the canyon walls. The bridge parted like a flower, its separate divisions no longer joined by any physical bond. Fragments and sections began to fold, sag, sink and fall, relaxing into the abyss.”[1]

Abbey’s narrative takes us back, and introduces us to an oddball quartet – Hayduke, the Vietnam veteran with a love of booze, guns and the great outdoors, Doc Sarvis the billboard burning activist and his partner in crime Bonnie Azzburg and the polygamist Seldom Seen Smith. These unlikely figures, united by chance, form a partnership of eco-terrorism, sabotaging the strip mines, blowing up automated trains, blowing up bridges and with their sights set on the biggest prize of them all, the Glen Canyon dam. Their actions bring them to the attention of Bishop Love, a local developer and head of the San Juan County Search and Rescue Team, whose dogged pursuit of these ‘outlaws’ brings the novel to its dramatic climax in the Maze, a complex web of desert canyons in southern Utah.

Abbey – a man who for many years worked as a ranger and fire lookout at different national parks – was keenly aware of the natural world and mans role within it. This knowledge is imbued within the four central characters of his book, and it is this knowledge that allows them to succeed in their actions, and provides Abbey’s book with much of its beauty:

“From down down far down below, carried on the wind, came the applause of Boulcher Rapids. The dried stalk and empty seed husks of the yucca rattled in the breeze, on the rimrock, under the stars. Bats dipped and zigzagged, chittering, chasing insects taking evasive action flying for their lives. Off in the dark of the woods one vulgar nightbird honked. Nighthawks rose against the gaudy sunset, soared and circled and plunged suddenly for bugs, wings making a sound like the roar of a remote bull as they pulled abruptly out of headlong dives. Bullbats. Back in the forest deep in the gloom of the pines a hermit thrush called – called who? – in flutelike silver tones. The pining poet. Answered promptly by the other bird, the clown, the raven, the Kaibab crake, with a noise like a farmhand blowing his nose.”[2]

In contrast to this natural order, the men of the Search and Rescue team use whatever mechanical means they have – jeeps, planes, helicopters, guns. The helicopter searching for them – a motif bought over from Abbey’s first successful novel, The Brave Cowboy (1956) (later turned into a film called Lonely are the Brave (1962) with Kirk Douglas) – is a failure, for unlike the animals that fly, or the creatures on the ground, it cannot enter the gullies, find hiding places under rocky clines. If only the men in pursuit obeyed the natural law of the world, Abbey is suggesting, then their task may have been easier.

Abbey’s novel has a very difficult relationship with the law and the concept of what is right. His protagonists advocate anarchy, and the figures in authority are presented as corrupt, inefficient or greedy. His protagonists see little wrong with derailing a train or blowing up a bridge and are almost entirely successful in their plans. Near the very end of the novel Seldom Seen, Bonnie and Doc Sarvis are playing a game of poker on their houseboat, a game in which their probation officer is involved. He seems to be a man bought round to the same beliefs as the gang – even Bishop Love seems finally to come round – and it is here that Abbey falls down. His resolutions seem to be saying: if the lawmen just sat down and listened to the cause, understood its motives, then they too would agree. Though the probation officer is kept away from Hayduke’s return, and knows nothing of the new plan to sabotage industry, his very presence inside this groups centre indicate a deeper complicity.

Despite this last scene flaw, Abbey’s novel is a strong one, bubbling with ideas. As Robert Redford says in his preface to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, Abbey’s “words seemed to come in tight bundles, like a Hemingway sentence.” His thoughts come in tight bundles too, like sucker punches.

Abbey followed this book with a sequel in 1989, entitled Hayduke Lives! In this book it is Abbey that lives, a man of ideas, of concern for his world, the natural order of things. It is the novel that best espouses his philosophy: “… hate injustice, defy the powerful, and speak for the powerless.” In The Monkey Wrench Gang he does all three.


[1] P.5-6

[2] P.248

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Symphony of the Dead (1987)

Abbas Maroufi

trans. Lotfali Khonji

This novel is not from the Penguin Classics series, but a novel from a small publisher called aflamebooks, dedicated to bringing the best of world literature to a wider audience.

Iranian author Abbas Maroufi moved to Germany in 1996 following a trial that saw him sentenced to six months in prison and 20 lashes for ‘spreading lies’ and ‘insulting eminent revolutionaries and Islamic values’. His crime had been to host a forum through his literary magazine Gardun for debating art, literature, culture and public affairs. His sentence saw his work banned (though this ban was lifted in 2003), and it was only through international outcry that Maroufi did not have to serve his sentence.

In 1994, following actions against writers in Iran, 134 authors signed a declaration calling for an end to the mistreatment of writers. “We are writers… But problems which have arisen in the contemporary history of our society as well as other societies have distorted the image of the writer in the eyes of the state, certain sectors of society and even in the eyes of the writers themselves. Consequently, the identity of the writer, the nature of his/her work, and even the collective presence of writers have all been subjected to undue attack.” Maroufi was cited as one such example. This action was met with a wave of killing.

Maroufi’s debut novel, Symphony of the Dead, published in 1987 deals with the troubled Urkhani family, whose eldest son, Ideen, is a frustrated poet and intellectual. Ideen spends his days writing poetry and reading works in translation (Balzac, Hugo and Homer amongst others). He becomes the apprentice to a dissident intellectual, Nasser Delkoon. Ideen’s association with this man brings shame upon his family, for “a few days later, during an evening when a full moon had lit up everything, three members of the Security Forces pushed their way into Master Nasser Delkoon’s house. He was arrested, accused of leading the brave, young men of Ardabil astray, and sent to Tehran under guard.”[1] Though Maroufi’s own tribulations are seven years away from the publication of this novel Maroufi is revealing himself a writer aware of the persecutions he could face for living the life he wants to lead. For it is with Ideen that we suspect Maroufi most keenly associates.

Told in symphonic form, with different narrators for each movement, and freely switching between first and third person voices, and utilising stream of conscious narratives to tell this story that switches back and forth in time, layering and revealing the truths of the Urkhani family, Symphony of the Dead works best when exploring the persecution of Ideen by his father. The other members of the Urkhani family – Urhan, the greedy, talentless younger brother driven by the same base desires as his father; Yousef whose childhood accident has left him paralysed and helpless and Ida, Ideen’s twin, the daughter whose story weaves through the narrative, a ghost-like impression. The matriarch of this family can do little to help herself or her children, for rule in post-Second World War Iran is difficult for women. From this set-up Maroufi tells a story that deals with difficult issues but whose resolutions seems to indicate that those who disobey are naturally punished by God’s Law.

Ideen, whose punishments by his father and then by his life decisions, all stem from his life-choice – to be a poet. In his early life, as he is reading much and writing much, he has first his books, then his room burnt by his father who disapproves of what Ideen is doing. He feels his son should be working in the family business, building a life for himself, and though Ideen is rebellious against this and comes to loathe his father, his actions are not without explanation. He is attempting to save his son from a life of trouble and persecution. It worries his father, Djerban:

“Even many years later, one cold winter’s night when Father had stretched himself out with the quilt of the korsi pulled up to his chin, he worried about Ideen and said: ‘I wonder who Ideen acquired his characteristics from. The more I think about it, the less I can think of anyone in our clan resembling him, either in appearance or behaviour.’”[2]

It is a description Ideen himself agrees with:

“Many years later, Ideen, too, felt that he did not have much in common with the rest of the family… He felt that he even didn’t look like any other member of the family. This similarity to Ida had waned with the passage of time. By the time he was eighteen, he was thin and already very tall. His hitherto handsome face acquired an air of sadness. Father’s eyes were small, blue and almost devoid of eyelashes. Mother’s, even when she used extra make-up to make them look like Ideen’s slit eyes, had no “Mongolian” narrowness. Father was slight. He had remained tiny and looked like a dry raisin. His voice, by contrast, was so powerful. One wondered where this voice came from. It was cold and penetrating, like the authoritative voice of members of the security forces.”[3]

If Djerban is attempting to save him, Ideen is associating him with the security forces, this body of men who prohibit cultural life. It is clear that Ideen and his father shall never see eye-to-eye, and the attempted moments of peace between these men is punctuated by actions of such brutality – the burning of Ideen’s notebooks, the refusal to cow to parental demand to such an extent that Ideen becomes a wanted criminal. But this is a novel punctuated entirely by moments of violence, some calm, others aggressive. It is the overriding motif, the symphonic link, the apocalyptically bleak impressions – ravens in a ferocious winter, shallow graves, soldiers falling from the sky – that swell Symphony of the Dead to more than another tale of a family in strife.

It is not just with the members of the Urkhani family that Maroufi weaves his spell. The secondary characters in this narrative – the Englishman Lord, whose Electric Fan Company is big business in Ardabil; Ayaz the policeman whose dedication to duty is noted by all for even at night he is seen cycling the town (when in fact he is moving between his wife and his mistress); Mr Mirzayan whose workshop becomes home to Ideen, and his daughter Sormeh becomes a lover to Ideen – live and breathe in this narrative.

The final character in this novel is the town of Ardabil itself. A prominent town in north-west Iran, its remoteness from Tehran nevertheless make it still a provincial town. The name comes from the Zoroastrian name of “Artavil” (mentioned in Avesta) which means a holy place, and Maroufi has chosen this town specifically, for it has the religious authority, but is also a melting pot of Persian, European and Russian lives. It is a town whose bleakness, where temperatures can rise into the mid-30s and drop 20-below, and whose ragged mountains and open lake at Shorabil, provide a suitable backdrop to the members of the Urkhani clan.

Where perhaps Symphony of the Dead suffers – at least for non-Iranian audiences – is a lack of commentary upon certain culturally specific matters, for though we know more about this country than perhaps we once did, Persian culture is still a hermetic world to most, and although this aflamebook translation does provide some of these contextualising details in a helpful explanatory notes section, more is needed. Nevertheless, this is a strong debut novel, and a fascinating insight into a world and a culture at a crossroads, between old and new, honour and duty against freedom and thought. Maroufi has produced a work of bleak honesty.

Symphony of the Dead is available at all good retailers, or from the aflamebooks website here.


[1] P.125

[2] P.69

[3] ibid

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The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (c.1132 – 1138)

by Peter Abelard and Heloise with an Introduction by Betty Radice and M. T. Clanchy

trans. Betty Radice and Revised by M. T. Clanchy

Penguin Classics, 296pp.

From the middle of the High Middle Ages comes one of the great correspondences of all time, that of Peter Abelard, a French philosopher and one of the greatest logicians of the twelfth century, and his gifted pupil Heloise. Through these impassioned letters unfolds the story of their romance and all its turbulence, as well as a fascinating debate that reveals much about the mind of religious life in the early part of the twelfth century.

Penguin Classics and M. T. Clanchy have lovingly updated Betty Radice’s famous translation of the 1970s, including with the letters of Abelard and Heloise (including his autobiographical piece, Historia Calamitatum) various addenda, such as letters between Peter the Venerable and Heloise, two hymns by Abelard and extracts from the Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard[1].

The Lives of Abelard and Heloise

Peter Abelard was born c.1092 at Le Pallet, near Nantes, the eldest son of a minor noble Breton family. His father desired his son to have a military career, as he himself had done, but Abelard pursued life as an academic. Abelard excelled at the art of dialectic, and during this early part of his life he “began to travel about in several provinces disputing, like a true peripatetic philosopher, wherever I had heard there was a keen interest in the art of dialectic.”

These travels eventually bought him to Paris (which is where he formally adopted Abelard as his name, having previously been known as Pierre Le Pallet), and in Paris, at the cathedral school of Notre-Dame de Paris he was taught by William of Champeaux, the disciple of Anselm of Laon, a leading figure in Realism. Very quickly Abelard was able to better his master in argument, and the resulting fallout destroyed Realism, and was replaced by Abelard’s Conceptualism. This bright young figure, still only twenty-two, set up his own school at Melun and then another nearer Paris at Corbeil.

Here comes the first mystery of Abelard’s life. At the height of his powers, Abelard disappeared from public life. On his return in 1108 he again met with his former teacher, William, and the two became rivals, but Abelard swiftly won. From here Abelard turned his concerns towards theology, and attended the lectures of Anselm of Laon, soon becoming a fellow teacher, and then surpassing even him. In c.1115 Abelard took the chair at Notre-Dame and was nominated canon.

Supposedly surrounded by thousands of students, from various countries, drawn by his teachings, and at the height of fame, Abelard first met Heloise.

Said to have been beautiful, and remarkable for her knowledge of classical letters, from Latin and Greek to Hebrew, Heloise was under the care of her uncle, Fulbert, in the precinct of Notre-Dame, where Abelard went to tutor her, and from where he used his powers to seduce her. Their relationship soon became public knowledge, and when Fulbert found out the lovers were separated. Continuing to meet in secret, Heloise soon became pregnant, and was sent by Abelard to Brittany, where she gave birth to a son, Astrolabe. To appease her furious uncle, Abelard proposed a secret marriage, in order that his prospects of advancing in the church should not be hindered, but Heloise opposed these plans. This independent, strong woman appealed to Abelard not to sacrifice his own life for her, but she soon acquiesced. Pressure mounted on the lovers to reveal their marriage, so at Abelard’s behest, Heloise took refuge in the convent of Argenteuil. Fulbert, thinking that Abelard was getting rid of her, plotted revenge. He and some others broke into Abelard’s chamber by night and castrated him.

As a consequence of this, and because of Canonical law, the upper ecclesiastical offices were closed to him, as was the priesthood. Heloise agreed to become a nun, for Abelard would never be able to function as a husband again. Abelard retreated into his work, studying deeply and reopened his school at a now unknown location. He wrote a book, the Theologia ‘Summi Boni’ but his adversaries picked up on the rationalistic interpretation of the Trinitarian dogma, and so Abelard was made to burn his book. He remained an antagonistic figure in religious life, until finally he became a hermit and built himself a cabin of stubble and reeds near Nogent-sur-Seine. When the location of this retreat became known, however, students again swarmed to him, to hear him teach. In gratitude he consecrated the new Oratory of the Paraclete.

Abelard still feared persecution and so deserted the Paraclete and spent some time presiding over the Abbey of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys, on the far-off shore of Lower Brittany, a lawless land, prey to outlaws. The misery of these years was intensified by the breaking up of Heloise’s convent at Argenteuil. In favour to her, he established her as head of the new religious house at the deserted Paraclete. Very soon afterward he wrote his Historia Calamitatum, and so began the correspondence of Abelard and Heloise.

Though his life still remained troubled, and a significant conflict with Bernard of Clairvaux saw Abelard formally arraigned upon a number of heretical charges. Abelard, as the investigation continued, collapsed at the abbey of Cluny. Removed to the priory of St. Marcel, near Chalon-sur-Saone, he died. He was buried at St. Marcel, but soon afterward his remains were secretly exhumed and given over to the care of Heloise at the Paraclete. Heloise in time came to rest beside him.

Modern Interpretations

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise have not proved to be as straight forward as they might first appear. As M. T. Clanchy discusses in his introductory essay The Letters of Abelard and Heloise in Today’s Scholarship, “the greatest threat to the reputations… has come from allegations of forgery.”[2] This threat has been heightened in the last thirty years, where it has received more attention, but it is not a new threat. Charlotte Charrier in 1933 has questioned the authenticity of the letters, particularly Heloise’s, for “how could any medieval woman, let alone a nun, have said such things?”[3] J. T. Muckle also concluded that Heloise’s letters were forged, or at least reworked. However both these early challenges to the letters comes because the challengers could not see how such religious figures could be so irreligious, a claim easy to counter for Abelard’s stance towards religious authority had always been questionable at best. The claim that the letters maybe a thirteenth century fiction is also questionable as the details included in the works seems too great and too detailed for it to be anything other than a twelfth century composition.

When reading the letters one is struck by the recurrence of certain phrases and motifs, and exactly quotations repeating in each other’s letters. It appears that there might possibly be some common editor of the works – perhaps Heloise after Abelard’s death? Or Abelard rewriting Heloise’s? – who has made the works into an accessible form. As Clanchy explains, “the author is more likely to have been Heloise than Abelard. At the convent of the Paraclete she had the writing facilities, the stability, the time, the knowledge and the motif to write, whereas Abelard was repeatedly on the move.”[4]

The difficulty in authenticating the author of these letters is hindered by the fact that there are no actual letters signed by either Abelard and Heloise, and that there are just copies made up into a book form that first appears in 1280, more than 150 years after the correspondence took place. This does not immediately hint at forgery as some claim, for it was not uncommon then (as it is now) for original letters to become lost and for copies to have been made.

Concluding Thoughts

Whatever the authenticity of these letters, it is clear that they display a level of emotional and intellectual attraction uncommon in mediaeval letters. The names Abelard and Heloise are as entwined as lovers as Romeo and Juliet or Dante and Beatrice (as Betty Radice famously eulogised). Their love lives on, inspired artists, poets, filmmakers and novelists into the present day. The debates on religious affairs retain relevance to those of faith, and provide such a fascinating insight into a very different way of life. It has been a delight reading them in Radice and Clanchy’s superlative translation, and the supplementary material provided accentuates the thoughts and emotions of these lovers well. There maybe more tests of their authenticity, just as they had tests in life. The last word goes to Abelard, from his Confession of Faith: “The storm may rage but I am unshaken, though the winds may blow they leave me unmoved; for the rock of my foundations stands firm.”

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise are available here in an anonymous translation from 1901, though without the supplementary material.


[1] Constant J. Mews, The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France (New York, 1999)

[2] Penguin Classics Edition, 2003, P.lxiii

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, at p.lxvii

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The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

by Fyodor Dostoyevsky with an Introduction by David McDuff

trans. David McDuff

Penguin Classics, 920pp.

Near to the end of Dostoyevsky’s 1880 masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, one of the brothers, Ivan Fyodorovich, suffering from an alcohol-related hallucinatory disorder delirium tremens, is visited by the Devil. It is first physical manifestation of the Devil in this work, and his final appearance in Dostoyevsky’s work, but this Devil has been a constant “symphonic motif”[1] throughout. The Devil’s appearance is more than symbolic of Ivan’s state of mind, the Devil points to the very heart of Dostoyevsky’s work.

As Dostoyevsky indicated in his letter of the 16 March 1878 to V. V. Mikhailov, The Brothers Karamazov was to have been a novel about children. It is through this letter that one can begin to systematically untwine the deeper concerns of the final novel. Dostoyevsky says,

I have conceived and will soon begin a large novel in which, inter alia, a major role will be played by children… I am studying them, I have been studying them all my life.

These thoughts connected with the tragic death of his own son, Alyosha, at a young age, and a subsequent visit to the Optina Hermitage a few months afterward, combine to show a man deeply interested in the question of truth. He is exploring, with depth, the realities of his world and the realities of other experience. It is a motif that has been echoing through Dostoyevsky’s work his whole life, and here in The Brothers Karamazov reaches its apotheosis. Truth, of its various and heterogeneous kinds, is revealed to the three brothers at the heart of this dark tale.

The manifestation of the Devil reveals to Ivan a particular truth, a subjective truth, concerning the question of belief:

‘What kind of belief is it that is forced upon a man? What is more, in the matter of belief no proof is of any avail, especially the material sort. Thomas believed not because he saw the risen Christ, but because he already desired to believe.’

For it is these questions that cut to the very heart of Ivan’s truth. He is a revolutionary intellectual, a fervent rationalist, with a certain belief: ‘It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.’ His belief is however deeply troubled, and as illustrated in one of the books most famous sections, The Grand Inquisitor, can shake the love of his family to its very core. In The Grand Inquisitor, Christ returns to Earth in Seville, during the Inquisition, and though he is loved and adored, the Grand Inquisitor has him arrested and sentenced to be burnt at the stake. The Grand Inquisitor pays one final visit to Christ where he refutes Christ and states:

‘Oh, we shall persuade them that they will only become free when they renounce their freedom for us and submit to us. And what does it matter whether we are right or whether we are telling a lie? They themselves will be persuaded we are right, for they will remember to what horrors of slavery and confusion your freedom has bought them. Freedom, the free intellect and science will lead them into such labyrinths and bring them up against such miracles and unfathomable mysteries that some of them, the disobedient and ferocious ones, will destroy themselves; others, disobedient and feeble, will destroy one another, while a third group, those who are left, the feeble and unhappy ones, will come crawling to our feet, and will cry out to us: ‘Yes, you were right, you alone were masters of his secret, and we are returning to you, save us from ourselves.’’

Ivan’s parable displays his deep disgust at the church and its powers, its truth that is designed solely to subjugate the common man. This is one of the truths that he refutes. This, it becomes clear with the manifestation of the Devil, has been Ivan’s quest, to find a truth that is real. The Devil, as we have shown, offers another truth, apposite to Christ and to the Church (the Devil essentially decries the church’s stance as shown in The Grand Inquisitor (‘What kind of belief is forced upon a man?’)). However, Ivan’s reaction is not too dissimilar to his to the church. It is a truth that he refutes:

‘Not for one moment do I take you for a truth that is real,’ Ivan exclaimed in what amounted to fury. ‘You are a falsehood, you are my illness, you are a ghost. Only I do not know how to destroy you, and perceive that for a certain time I must suffer you. You are a hallucination I am having. You are the embodiment of myself, but only of one side of me… of my thoughts and emotions.’

It is Ivan’s refutation of the Devil that finally accents his mental deterioration, for he is a man living in a world that – for him – can contain no truth. It is telling that Dostoyevsky follows the parable of The Grand Inquisitor with a detailed life of the religious figure featured most prominently in The Brothers Karamazov, that of Alyosha Karamazov’s mentor, Zosima the Elder.

Zosima is a figure we first see through Alyosha’s reverential eyes: ‘Father Zosima, the renowned Elder of our monastery, to whom he had attached himself with all the first ardent love of his quenchless heart.’ As seen, upon both the introduction of Alyosha and Zosima, we are revealed a depth of love and trust not seen within the Brothers Karamazov. The narrator of this tale, however, has a few pointed comments to make that reveal the truth of this unquestionable love and faith to be not as it first seems:

‘An Elder is someone who takes your soul and your will into his soul and his will. Having chosen an Elder, you give up your own will and render it unto him in full obedience, with full self-abnegation. This test, this terrible school of life is accepted voluntarily by the one who dooms himself in the hope, after long ordeals, of conquering himself, or mastering himself to a degree where he may at last attain by dint of lifelong obedience a total freedom, that is to say, freedom from himself, and avoid the lot of those who live all their lives without ever finding the self within themselves.’

From this passage it is ascertained that what Ivan sought at the bottom of a drink bottle and through his lifelong obedience to rationalist tendencies, Alyosha takes from religion. What is revealed to us is two brothers, both hiding from themselves and from the truth of their family.

Zosima’s truth, we later learn, is not as it first appears. He is a man, who through necessity has hidden the truth of his former life. We learn in The Russian Monk that Zosima had a rebellious youth and that he only finds his faith whilst in the middle of a duel. It is the threat of imminent death that guides Zosima to his true path in life. Zosima reports that one must forgive others by acknowledging their own sins and guilt before others; that no sin is isolated, making everyone responsible for their neighbour’s sin. This philosophy, opposite to Ivan’s, is another truth.

The final brother at the heart of this epic novel is Mitya. He is a man driven by more base and carnal desire. He is a sensualist, like his father, and because of this they often clash. Mitya spends large amounts of money on debauched nights, fuelled with champagne, women and whatever else his money can buy. It is his conflict with his father over the same woman, Grushenka, which proves his undoing. Mitya’s truth makes no need of God or the Devil, but simply money.

If, as Dostoyevsky says in his introduction, ‘[The Brothers Karamazov] consists of two novels’, then the first novel is a novel of each characters truth, of their devotion to a way of life – Alyosha to religion, Ivan to rationality, and Mitya to money – then the second novel is a dramatic shift. Fyodor Karamazov, the brothers’ father, is murdered and a sensational trial is launched when Mitya is arrested for the crime.

The trial reflects upon the different beliefs so far explored in the novel. The murder trial is a literal exposition and contradiction of Zosima’s tenet, for it questions whether one man alone can be held accountable for the murder of another. If Zosima preaches that each sin is connected, how can Mitya alone be responsible for the death of his father?

The truth of the novel is that each of the brothers played a part in his father’s murder: Mitya had the motive (the love of Grushenka, the three thousand roubles that are key point of concern), Ivan can justify the killing through rationalism, whilst Alyosha did nothing to prevent his brothers from committing their actions, though he knew of their desires.

Mitya’s sentence mirrors Ivan’s argument in The Grand Inquisitor: that man is fundamentally weak and wants to be told the true nature of right and wrong, a truth supplied by the jury.

The final chapter of the book, The Speech by the Stone, returns us not only to Dostoyevsky’s original intention for The Brothers Karamazov, but also to what is his final decree on the question of truth. Alyosha has come home for the funeral of Ilyusha, a schoolboy known to Alyosha and whose life has provided a central backbone to the novel. His death prompts Alyosha to speak to the children who had once bullied Ilyusha but who had finally become his friends:

‘So let us here, by Ilyusha’s stone, agree that we shall never forget – in the first place, Ilyushechka, and in the second, one another. And whatever may befall us subsequently in life, even though we do not meet for twenty years hereafter – all the same let us remember how we buried the poor boy, the one at whom you formerly threw stones, do you remember, down there by the bridge? – but whom everyone came to love so later. He was a wonderful boy, a kind and brave boy, he had a sense of the honour and of the bitter insult that his father bore, and for which he rose up. So, in the first place, let us remember, gentlemen, all our lives. And even though we may be occupied with the most important matters, attain honours or fall into some great misfortune – all the same let us never forget how good we found it here, all of us in association, for the poor boy has possibly made us better than we are in actual fact.’

The final truth Alyosha and this novel impart is not a religious truth or a rational truth or a base truth, it is a truth simply of the heart. Love another and be kind. For it is through this, and this alone, Alyosha and the reader have learns, ‘memory alone will keep him from great evil’. Memory of love and being loved. For it is love that tore his family apart, or rather an impure love. And this is the truth.

Sigmund Freud called this book, “The most magnificent novel ever written”, whilst James Joyce said, “The Brothers Karamazov… made a deep impression on me… he created some unforgettable scenes [detail]… Madness you may call it, but therein may be the secret of his genius… I prefer the word exaltation, exaltation which can merge into madness, perhaps. In fact all great men have had that vein in them; it was the source of their greatness; the reasonable man achieves nothing.” And this is the truth of this novel, one of the finest in any language.


[1] McDuff xxiv, Introduction to The Brothers Karamazov, Penguin Edition 1993

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