Archives for category: Reading

Photo: Book Patrol

We all sort of recognize that a translation can/will change the meaning of a book in more or less important ways as it moves from one language to another — we rather hope they are usually less important ways. I guess that War and Peace is the book I’ve read in more translated versions — three or four — than any other, (though I expect, having worked at making them, I’ve looked at a few more translations of the Bible). The War and Peace I like best is my three-volume Everyman’s edition, but that’s mainly for physical reasons — it’s a big book after all. However I hate the fact that instead of the Russian names it uses Englished equivalents. I just plough through that, “hearing” Prince Vassily, Andrey Bolkonsky, or Nikolay Rostov when I read Prince Basil, Andrew, or Nicholas. Come off it — we know they can’t possibly have been called that! It’s not a book about Waterloo after all.

There’s a Publisher’s Note in the front of the Everyman edition in which they tell us that they are using an anonymous translation of 1886, and warning us that “Dates given by Tolstoi are those of the Julian calendar which had not then been abandoned by Russia. They are eleven days behind those of the Gregorian calendar now used by all the countries of Western Europe.” Does that make a difference I wonder? Charmingly the interior refers to him as Tolstoi, while the jacket and the cover stamping go with Tolstoy: costs too much to do anything to the interior! Anna Pavlovna Scherer (given an acute accent on the first e by Everyman, but not Constance Garnett in the Modern Library edition) had according to Garnett “been coughing for the last few days; she had an attack of la grippe, as she said — grippe was then a new word only used by a few people”. Everyman’s renders this more euphoniously as “. . . had been coughing for some few days: it was influenza — a grippe she called it (grippe being at that time a new and fashionable word.)” Handiness seems to march with felicity here, at least in the early going. But do we learn anything from such differences? Perhaps not at this level of detail, but I guess I’m happy to know that some people are now looking into the possibility.

There are some things which just can’t be translated, and seeing what various translators make of them can be instructive. Take as an example “jardin de curé”, mistranslated in the recent translation of Jean Giono’s Un roi sans divertissement, where it’s rendered as “a parish garden”, whatever that might be. What jardin de curé actually means is a garden of the sort they have in Britain, with a mixture of flowers, vegetables, fruits, and a bit of lawn — as opposed to what the word “garden” conjures up in the French mind: rather more of a formal arrangement of geometrically-laid-out neatly-trimmed bushes and gravel paths. The translator’s best compromise would probably be “kitchen garden” or even just “garden”, but the term is ultimately untranslatable without ludicrous periphrasis.

Problems in translation often arise in connection with associated meanings, the coloring, the emotional senses which come along with any word. For example “twilight” means something different to an inhabitant of Scotland than someone who has lived in New York City (or even more extreme, Singapore) all their life where twilight passes with a bang. It doesn’t really matter, but a New Yorker can’t read the word and experience the same echos as someone from Scotland will. Roaming in the gloaming would be a bit of a sprint for a New Yorker.

This sort of stuff is now being properly looked into. Prismatic Translation, an Oxford-based research group, basing its work upon theoretical principles set out in a book of that title, holds that “Translation is creative, not mechanical; it is a matter of growth as much as, or more than, of loss. Translators are writers. Languages are not separate boxes but are rather intermingled areas on the ever-shifting continuum of language variation.” They are running a specific examination of the 594 translations of Jane Eyre they have identified in 57 languages. Book Patrol sends us a link to Prismatic Jane Eyre.

Their analysis includes something called Distant Reading. “‘Distant Reading’ is a phrase coined by the literary critic Franco Moretti, in his book of the same name (2013). It outlines quantitative ways of analysing texts, using maps to visualise how they imagine space and how they circulate among readers, and computer analysis to capture aspects of their style.” OK, sounds reasonable if a bit dry and dusty. My simplistic mind prefers to speculate on what might happen if we took these 57 varieties of language and translated blind from one to the other in sequence. Nobody would be allowed to refer back to the original, and when we got back to the start, would English readers recognize the book as Jane Eyre, or would a Chinese whispers sort of effect have taken over to transform the book beyond recognition? I bet it would.

I begin to wonder whether all my care and attention when it comes to reading a book is really justifiable. Books are just objects after all, and (usually) easily replaceable. But still I can’t stop myself turning the pages with obsessive care, and I’d stop reading before I’d ever allow myself to fold the cover all the way back. Dog-earing be damned: book marks can be so interesting — I found a Complements slip from Bentley House in an old book just yesterday. (I left there in 1969.) My manic carefulness is probably in part a consequence of having been involved in the manufacture of these compulsively compelling things: you spend so much time trying to make them come out perfect that you cannot but treat them tenderly. I used to cringe at the way some editors would handle the advance copy I’d borne to them, intoning à la Buck Mulligan, “Introibo ad altare editorum” in anticipation of their worship. But that’s not a complete excuse: author John Scalzi is every bit as bad. He discusses the whole problem at his blog Whatever.

As a librarian rather sanely comments in reaction to the screams of protest at Alex Christoffi’s confessing to chopping thick books in half to make them easier to read, “Frankly, the weird coddling of paper books needs to stop. It’s pulp with ink on it. Do whatever to it to make it easier on you — this also goes for dogearing, note-making, etc.”. It’s hard though to think of these objects just as objects: they contain so much meaning. Habits of parsimony (we‘d say we were just being careful) are hard to overcome for us Scots, and if I’ve got a book I am extremely reluctant to buy a better copy, and will nurse the invalid through repeated readings with the most delicate and careful touch. In other words I’ll be damned if I’d force myself to buy a second copy just because of the convenience to be gained by cutting a paperback in half. (A proof is a horse of a different color though.) But hold on a minute. Come on man: compare and contrast your evident willingness to buy another bottle of wine — a comparable outlay!

I’m just re-reading Clayhanger in a Penguin paperback I got in the seventies. The price printed on the cover is 45p or 9/-, which is how in those quaint and ancient days we used to write nine shillings. Those were the early days of the decimalization of the British currency before publishers had realized that the switchover gave them a perfect opportunity to jack up prices before anyone knew enough to notice. Nine shillings, just less than 10 bob or 50p, was once upon a time exactly 45p. Decimalization happened in 1971, so Penguin were ahead of themselves here: the book, reprinted in 1970, would have cost 9/- for a few months, jumping over to 45p a few months after they took delivery of the reprint. I’d bet it cost 90p on the next reprinting. 9 shillings, 90 pence — who’s going to notice?

On a different tack, the imprints page tells a slightly odd tale:

I always imagined Clayhanger was an almost-classic book, maybe a classic if we can include Arnold Bennett in the pantheon. Was it really only first published as a paperback in 1954? And did it really take till 1961 to need reprinting? The paper, as you can see from my rather wobbly photo, is rather the worse for wear having yellowed quite dramatically, if surprisingly evenly (that’s a shadow at the lower right). You can see the bits of bark in this groundwood sheet, but the paper is still holding together better than you would have expected. So too is the binding: Bosch of Utrecht did a good job. Not a huge book, but no need for me to even think about ripping it in half, as I’m reading it partly from this copy and partly from an ebook edition offering not only this book but also Hilda Lessways, These Twain and The Roll Call — all for 99¢.

Do we live in a golden age for readers!

There follows the complete text of A. C. Grayling’s essay “Reading” from his book Meditations for the Humanist.


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

It seems that some doctors prescribe books instead of medications to patients suffering from depression, stress and anxiety. The patients are referred to a bibliotherapist — yes: bibliotherapist — who gives patients reading lists suited to their conditions. The treatment’s inspiration was the observation by librarians that borrowers are apt to say, on returning a book, that it did them good by making them laugh or by distracting them from their troubles.

There are almost too many things to say about this amazing fact. Cynics will ask, What sort of pass are we in that people need a doctor’s prescription to prompt them to read? When did we forget that reading is, for a thousand reasons, one of the chief resources of life? Will doctors turn to prescribing dinner for the hungry and sleep for the tired as the next step in the medicalisation of human existence, or as a response to the supine inability of people to think and act for themselves?

There is a tincture of justice in these exclamations, but it is not appropriately directed at doctors. It should rather be directed at the failure of our culture to show people what rich deposits of pleasure and usefulness, and what expansion of horizons, are to be found in reading. An education in reading includes guidance — very easy to give, it takes five minutes (much less if you say, ‘Ask a librarian,’ which is excellent advice) — on how to find any required book or kind of book. And just a little experience as a reader grants access to the great country where one flies as an eagle over the history, comedy, tragedy and variety of human experience, at every point garnering much, if the reading is attentive, from the abundance on offer.

The key is ‘attentive’. The best thing any education can bequeath is habits of reflection and questioning. Reading can be a passive affair, and entertainment leaving no impression on the mind beyond a pleasant present distraction. Many books are skillfully written to demand no more, and there is nothing wrong with that. But for anything more, reading has to be an activity, not a passivity. It is hard to define what makes good books good, because good books come in so many different kinds, but one thing common to most of them is that they make readers think and feel, elevating or disturbing them, and making them see the world a little differently as a result. ‘We find little in a book but what we put there,’ Joseph Joubert said. ‘But in great books, the mind finds room to put many things.’

Reading does not automatically make people wiser or better. When it has that effect it is because readers have done the work themselves, quarrying the materials from their response to the printed page. But apart from practical experience of life, which is everyone’s chief tutor, scarcely anything compares with books as the mine where that quarrying can begin. To read is to enter other points of view; it is to be an invisible observer of circumstances which might never be realised in one’s own life; it is to meet people and situations exceeding in kind and number the possibilities open to individual experience. As a result, reading not only promotes self-understanding, it equips one with insights into needs, interests and desires that one might never share but which motivate others, in this way enabling one to understand, and tolerate, and even to sympathise with, other people’s concerns. As an extension of how this informs one’s behaviour towards others, it is also the basis for civil community and the brotherhood of man.

I keep a photograph on my desk of the Philosophical Library in the Strahof Monastery in Prague. Taken from the upper gallery, it captures the tranquil beauty of that deep room, filled up with light from the clerestory windows in the right-hand wall. The photograph shows one long bar of sunshine lying across a tier of book-shelves, illuminating the richness of the leather bindings ranked there. Below, on the ground floor, three desks are disposed at comfortable intervals, among them an ingenious reading wheel any scholar would envy.

The scene is wonderfully expressive of everything to do with books, and the reading of books, with study and thought, with books as the distillations of time and man’s endeavours — even the world itself, brought into reflective equilibrium and clothed in quietness and retreat. If, off to one side, there were a closet with a bed in it and wherewithal to make tea, one would not mind being locked in there, and the keys thrown away.

A cynic might proclaim this beautiful and evocative library a mere dead mortuary for books, a past curiosity for dull-eyed tourists to glance at, a selling-point for the postcards that now represent its only product. But I think it is a work of art, and represents something opposed to the uneasy, fickle, failing norm of most human life and its compromises.

Philosophical Hall, Strahof Library (clearly not Professor Grayling’s photograph)   © 2011 David Coleman

·   ·   ·   •  •  •   ·   ·   ·

A library is like a hive storing honey, part of the best, sweetest and most nourishing exudate of human experience. A commentator on Vergil’s Georgics Book IV, which tells of honey-bees and lost love, remarked that only four things withstand time — gold, sunlight, amber and honey. Some archaeologists digging in Greece once came across an ancient amphora filled to the brim with honey over 2,000 years old. They took a little each day to spread on their bread at breakfast. After a time they noticed that there was something at the bottom of the amphora. When they looked, they found that it was the body of an infant.

It is an extraordinarily touching thought that the mourning parents of this child, so long ago, buried it in honey to preserve it forever. The action speaks of great wealth, and great love.

The honey story is of course a good one, but its connection with reading is a bit tenuous. The library as a sticky series of honey pots? Maybe we can think of the ideas in books sticking to their readers — in order to remember you have to read actively, as Professor Grayling says. But the activity doesn’t end when you close the book; you also have to reflect on what you’ve read after the event — licking your sticky fingers? Memories are formed by periodic reexamination of an event, an exercise which reinforces the synaptic pathways in the brain, thus foregrounding that particular item.

One might nigglingly object that “exudate” is an overly fancy word to describe either honey or books. It’s also an inaccurate term in both contexts. Nevertheless Professor Grayling writes well and clearly. His latest book, The History of Philosophy (Penguin Press, November 2019) is an inspiring eagle-flight over the world’s philosophies. My philosophy-student granddaughter reports that it is a rich quarry.

For a rational, liberal, secular-humanist like me Professor Grayling’s heart is in the right place — right (or really left) on his sleeve. “Faith”, one of his brief chapters, includes this rousing sentence “Religious belief, meanwhile, whatever it might do in comforting the fearful in the dark, has always and everywhere brought war, intolerance and persecution with it, and has distorted human nature into false and artificial shapes.” I find myself growing more and more intolerant of intolerance.

“Reading” is reprinted without any permission at all: let’s just say that it’s for criticism and review!

I did a piece on bibliotherapy a few years ago.

So what were your top ten books of the year? You haven’t published your list yet!

It’s all getting to be too much: you can’t turn around these days without somebody else bombarding you with yet another list of the best books of the year. I even got a list of the top ten books borrowed from New York Public Library. (Number 1 was Michelle Obama’s Becoming.) This list-bloom happens every year of course, but the fact that we’ve survived another decade is adding to the pile. I must be getting these notifications at the rate of more than one a day. Just got a notification of a list of the best books of the decade as selected by first-time authors. I await the century’s best from left-handed authors with blonde hair.

Just because it’s a pretty color, here’s an infographic showing the 16 best sci-fi books of all time. (The decade be damned.)

In protest against this proliferation, here’s my list of the Best Making Book Posts of 2019.

I quite liked Letterspacing 5, worth the price of entry for the interviewer’s reaction in the gobsmacking video, and The Shed at Dulwich has to be seen to be believed. Stanford University Press deserves a nod. Selling Encyclopedias gets in on the sentimental ticket. Sheep touches on an important topic. Slipcase also struck me as a nice one. V and U represents a type of post, and a post of type. Biography of a book suggests a new line in subject matter — I am keeping my eyes open for similarly meaningful copies. I was a bit harsh about some of my former colleagues in the jaundiced Pitt Building, Editorial, but I really did have a great time there. I guess Ch-ch-changes? was perhaps worthy. Ten’s enough — ten’s maybe too many.

My best books of the year? This category suffers, for me, the fatal flaw that I don’t just read books published during the year: in fact I surely didn’t read ten of them. Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries was published in English in 2018. This immense and hypnotically narrow-focussed New York novel was originally published (in German) in the early 70s, and is now triumphantly translated by Damion Searls. Uwe Johnson’s one of our own: from 1966 to 1968 he worked as a textbook editor at Harcourt, Brace & World and lived with his family at 243 Riverside Drive where the novel is set.

Richard Powers’ Overstory (also 2018) takes a while to get going but stick with it and you’ll be rewarded richly, and inspired to redouble your environmental efforts. The Portable Faulkner, the volume featured in the “Biography of a book” post referenced above, cannot but be one of the best books of any year in which you read it. Lyall Watson’s Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind is full of fascinating facts. It was originally published in 1984.

After Life and Fate one would naturally expect Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad to be a considerable achievement: it’s another masterpiece, and might actually count as a book first published in 2019 as this translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler restores chunks of the manuscript excised by Russian censors, or just left out of earlier editions, so this is a newly published complete edition. The book is supported by comprehensive apparatus at the back.

However, the book which most knocked my socks off in 2019 was one I’d read a couple of times before. This time I found Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) an amazing triumph of tone.

Now this is important, and has obvious bearing on the world of literature. JSTOR Daily informs us that there’s a company in Britain, Carlings, which will sell you a dress for £30 which comes with the caveat “This is a digital product that will be applied to your photo, you will not receive a physical version of this item”. They also inform us, rather inspiringly if redundantly, that their digital collection has zero impact on the environment.

So you can now buy an item of clothing just so as to look good in your Instagram feed. Carlings will “tailor” your garment to fit your photo. It’s clearly a trend waiting to explode, and I’m mulling over whether to offer to sell readers of this blog analogous “books” . . . let’s say Nicholas Nickleby for starters. You’ll never have to go to the bother of reading it (it is quite long) because the text won’t be there — it’ll just be a photo of the book which you can upload to Instagram and thus gobsmack all your friends with your superior reading chops.

Oh, all right — I’ll do it. Here’s your book:

All you have to do is download the photo: just drag it to your desktop. The hand’s a nice touch don’t you think? Makes it look like you didn’t just download a cover pic from Amazon. Hey, for an additional 50¢ we can even offer you a feminine thumb.

This is a free introductory offer. The next book you want to “read” will cost you £5, not bad compared to the price of a dress, eh?

Oh, oh: just had a horrible thought: will I have to share the proceeds with the publisher? Perhaps I’ll just call the whole thing off.

Five Books provides a valuable service bringing weekly recommendations by a different experts to books on a variety of subjects. A new subject every week — if there’s a topic you know nothing about, Five Books is there to suggest the best way to approach it.

They now tell us here that they’ve been at it for ten years, so there’s quite an archive which you can visit via the link in the first line.

The dark blue words in the picture are rather hard to see. Click on the image to enlarge it. They don’t of course work as links though.

Go, dumb-born book,
Tell her that sang me once that song of Lawes:
Hadst thou but song
As thou hast subjects known,
Then were there cause in thee that should condone
Even my faults that heavy upon me lie
And build her glories their longevity.

Books of poetry have power. Ezra Pound asserts in the opening stanza of “Envoi” from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley that his poetry transcends the eroded traditions of English poetry (the “her” of line two is Britain; and the “Lawes” is Henry Lawes 17th century court composer). Henceforth poetry will be serious — and new. Books of poetry will change the world.

Interesting Literature brings us 10 of the best poems about books and reading. (Only someone who’d been to school in Britain half a century ago would instantly think of “six of the best” on reading this title.*) Seems Interesting Literature aren’t the first to bring us a group of booky poems, but that’s fairly unsurprising isn’t it? Interest in poetry and interest in books tend to ride together.

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry —
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll —
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul —


Emily Dickinson may perhaps be overlooking the fact that prancing poetry (or any kind of book for that matter) often asks a fairly oppressive toll. Books have never been cheaper than in our lifetimes, but many still moan about how expensive they are. Maybe she has library borrowing in mind, otherwise it’s not such a frugal chariot. But she’s spot on on the frigate image. I was recently complaining about how films short-circuit our imagination by forcing our imagined worlds into one specific cast. Text in a book leaves us free to see the world we are reading about just as we want it to be.

26 inspiring poems about joys and importance of books and reading from bookkidsblog also include Ms Dickinson, but sacrilegiously not her em-dashes.


*The Cambridge Dictionary defines this as “a beating, usually of six hits with a stick”.

For a British schoolboy back then this was an almost weekly hazard. I was not a particularly well-behaved boy, and have over my schooldays been beaten with a hand, a book, a rolled-up newspaper, a wooden-backed blackboard duster, the back of a hairbrush, a ruler (the edge applied sharply to the knuckles), a stick, a cane, and a leather strap, both plain, and with the end cut into a nice fringe (what sailors would call the cat-o-nine-tails). Oh the glory! Oddly perhaps it was at the earliest age, five or six, that the strap, applied to the palm of your hand, was the instrument of choice for disciplining pupils. None of this seemed especially awful to me at the time: it was just what happened.

I know that 21st century Americans regard the whole idea of corporal punishment for children with horror, but I have to say I never felt particularly violated by this ritual. Sure it was painful, but only for a few minutes. The sensation of having been a hard case (blubbing was of course not an option) and of having as it were “stuck it to the man” was positive rather than hurtful. Schoolboys who were unhappy were I think unhappy because they were being bullied, not because they were given six of the best by a figure of authority. (Fascinatingly The Economist of November 9th tells me that a child’s likelihood of being bullied at school is, according to recent research, 70% genetic. Really, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”.) Just to get an American audience really going, I might point out that “figures of authority” included not just teachers, but senior schoolboys too. Yes, dear reader, I have administered condign punishment myself. I never heard (or thought) those clichéd words “This is going to hurt me more than you” and I believe I survived these rituals relatively healthy (so I claim at any rate).

And I’ve never forgotten that seven eights are fifty-six, and the inspiring rallying cry “of nemo let me never see neminis or nemine” — though it is true that most of the times I had to bend over were for disciplinary infractions rather than failure to remember.

The Folger Library’s blog, The Collation has an interesting account by Kathryn Vomero Santos of her detective work on an annotated copy of John Minsheu: A Dictionarie in Spanish and English, A Spanish Grammar, and Pleasant and Delightfvll Dialogues in Spanish and English (London, 1599).

In 2010/11 Professor Santos was examining all nine of the Folger Library’s copies of this work when she found copious annotations in one of them. She observed that “something fascinating happened: the Spanish-to-English dictionary section was removed from its original binding, interleaved with new sheets of paper, trimmed, and rebound. These new sheets of paper were ruled to mirror the three columns of the dictionary entries now on the opposite page. In various places throughout these ruled columns, a reader then inscribed a series of two or three numbers that correspond to words in the dictionary. Where the dictionary lacks a particular word, this user has added entries and numbers on the opposite page.”

You can click on the image to enlarge it.

Professor Santos’ solution to the mystery of why anyone would have gone to the trouble of interleaving the book and adding apparently cryptic numbers turns out to be that the reader in question was creating a dictionary or a concordance of Don Quixote. The numbers correspond to Part number and page number in some edition of Don Quixote of the word thus indicated on the facing page. Who exactly it was who was doing this work is uncertain. The book was part of the library of John Hunter (1728-93), Scottish surgeon. His older brother William it is for whom The Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow is named. John however is commemorated in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, and is also name checked in The Hunterian Society in London.

The handwriting of the annotations doesn’t however match that of John Hunter or his wife Anne. One might speculate that the book was marked up by someone who was planning to publish a concordance to Don Quixote, or a dictionary containing all the words used in that book, and that the Hunters acquired it when the job was done. Was there such a concordance or dictionary published?

My 1959 edition of Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary, still to my mind the best one-volume dictionary because of its policy of nesting*, charmingly tells us that it aims to include “all words used in Shakespeare and the Authorised Version of the Bible, in the poems (and many those in the prose writings) of Spencer and Milton, and in the novels of Walter Scott.” I choose to think that these handwritten annotations in the Minsheu volume were done for an eighteenth-century Chambers’s Spanish Dictionary with analogous aims.


* Nesting refers to the arrangement of entries all together under a single root heading. It can be thought of as a typographical matryoshka doll set. Saves space, but also occasionally provides quaint and interesting juxtapositions. They don’t do it any more I regret.


Lots of academic books (and others) are divided into Parts.* An author can subdivide their magnum opus however they feel inclined. Logic is always a desirable organizing principle however, and the hand of an editor may often come into play here. A book can consist of Volumes, Books, Parts, Chapters, Sections. Chapters and sections thereof can be subdivided into multiple subheading levels. The more levels of subheading you use, the more your book begins to look like a textbook. If it is one, it’s often useful to number the subheads so the reader can recognize what level they are at: e.g. 2. 4a. 5. But in the end all this subdividing is all done just to assist readers.

For my own assistance I recently subdivided Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad into its three constituent Parts. This was because the damn thing is just too heavy to lug around, clocking in at 2½ lbs. Grossman has kindly divided his story into three parts, and as I happened to have a galley proof, useless now that the final book has come out, I chopped it into three “volumes” rather than chuck it out. In this it now matches my favorite edition of War and Peace which I like to read in the three-volume Everyman edition. Apt, in that people keep on referring to Grossman’s two-volume saga of the Battle of Stalingrad as the twentieth century War and Peace. No doubt flattering to Grossman, but who knows if he were around today he might not prefer the comparison to go the other way round — War and Peace as the nineteenth-century Stalingrad/Life and Fate.

We were recently talking to a Russian doctor who writes short stories. To his wry amusement he occasionally finds himself referred to as the modern-day Chekhov. Still flattery is flattering, and I’m sure he’d rather people were aware enough of his books to be comparing his writing with anyone’s. Such a prestigious predecessor is an extra bonus.


* At the other end of the telescope, a book itself can be published in parts.


When people read obscure novels, when they listen to over-complex music or look at a frighteningly unintelligible painting, they feel anxious and unhappy. The thoughts and feelings of the novel’s characters, the sounds of the symphony, the colours of the painting—everything seems peculiar and difficult, as if from some other world. Almost ashamed of being natural and straightforward, people read, look and listen without joy, without any real emotion. Contrived art is a barrier placed between man and the world—impenetrable and oppressive, like a cast-iron grille.

But there are also books that make the reader exclaim joyfully, ‘Yes, that’s just what I feel. I’ve gone through that too and that’s what I thought myself.’

Art of this kind does not separate people from the world. Art like this connects people to life, to other people and to the world as a whole. It does not scrutinize life through strangely tinted spectacles.

As they read this kind of book, people feel that they are being infused with life, that the vastness and complexity of human existence is entering into their blood, into the way they think and breathe.

But this simplicity, this supreme simplicity of clear daylight, is born from the complexity of light of different wavelengths.

In this clear, calm and deep simplicity lies the truth of genuine art. Such art is like the water of a spring; if you look down, you can see to the bottom of a deep pool. You can see green weeds and pebbles. Yet the pool is also a mirror; in it you can see the entire world where you live, labour and struggle. Art combines the transparency of glass and the power of a perfect astronomical mirror.

All this applies not only to art; it is equally true of science and politics.

And the strategy of a people’s war, a war for life and freedom, is no different.

This is the entire text of Chapter 2 of Part Two of Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, New York Review Books, 2019. ISBN 9781681373270, 1088 pages, $27.95

grossman.1_1024x1024Just like War and Peace, with which Grossman’s two-part account of the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942 is constantly compared, the author takes time every now and then to step back and in asides addressed directly at the reader, reflect on life, history and politics.

That reference to politics in the second last line of the chapter may strike us as odd given today’s disenchantment with politics and politicians. But bear in mind Grossman was writing at a time when it was still possible to feel idealistic, and on the other hand at a time when criticizing the regime was a maladaptive strategy. However, compare and contrast this passage from a little later in the book (Chapter 30): “The twentieth century is a critical and dangerous time for humanity. It is time for intelligent people to renounce, once and for all, the thoughtless and sentimental habit of admiring a criminal if the scope of his criminality is vast enough, of admiring an arsonist if he sets fire not to a village hut but to capital cities, of tolerating a demagogue if he deceives not just an uneducated lad from a village but entire nations, of pardoning a murderer because he has killed not one individual but millions.”

As I wrote in my recent post, Gormenghast, “Stalingrad is the prequel to Life and Fate. Unlike that second installment, it was in fact published in Russia in Grossman’s lifetime, in 1952, though it was heavily censored and appeared under a different title (For a Just Cause). The wonderfully readable translation of this volume is also by Robert Chandler, joined on this occasion by his wife, Elizabeth Chandler. He can be heard discussing Life and Fate and other parts of Grossman’s work at my earlier post on Grossman.”

This new publication, the first translation into English, restores parts of Grossman’s manuscript which were censored or omitted from previous editions.