Ahead of his time

Ahead of his time

While I believe that 'cold statistics' properly deployed, can in fact help us take account of people's feelings and traditions, and avoid treating men like robots, nevertheless, there is a warning here, as we approach what has been described as a 'post-human'...

War wounds

War wounds

Listening time: 4 minutes.Among the warm-hearted and even funny accounts of people they met in the Soviet Union, this searing observation by John Steinbeck stood out, concerning a young girl apparently unhinged by the effects of war. Her near-feral and...

Of edible houses

Of edible houses

A donkey nabbed by the Italian army in the Second World War finds himself in Abyssinia where, from his perspective, the houses are edible. Having tasted this novel form of fodder, he is again exposed to the sickening slipperiness of a ship's deck with the rolling blue...

Mule meets Hamlet

Mule meets Hamlet

Grossman has a wonderful capacity to imagine the minds and feelings of animals, and while chronicling the horrors of man's inhumanity to man, doesn't forget to notice cruelty to animals, nor their staunch resilience and cleverness. In this short story, he traces the...

Something marvellous

Something marvellous

This wonderfully apposite quotation by Joan Miró turned up in The Economist's Espresso newsletter, apparently anticipating by decades this moment of isolation and quarantine. I hope, wherever you are, and however much confined, that you have at least some visual...

On cultural relations

On cultural relations

John Steinbeck and Robert Capa wrestle with their status in seeking some Soviet organization which would be willing to adopt and care for them during their month-long trip in the 1940s. Clearly, they fell through the cracks, being neither sponsored by the Writer's...

One breaks into the canon only by aesthetic strength, which is constituted primarily of an amalgam: mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction.  

Source: The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, Harold Bloom (London: Macmillan, 1995), p. 29

The stream of feeling

The stream of feeling

Casaubon comes late to marriage and having decided upon it, dives headlong into the expected stream of feeling, only to smack his head on the shallowness of his own emotions. George Eliot deftly evokes his disappointed realization that he lacks the wherewithal to feel...

The happiest time of life

The happiest time of life

Listening time: 3 minutes.  A beautiful description of the sheer, unbounded joy of being alive in a small mongrel dog who finds herself on the streets of a Russian city. Vasily Grossman's capacity to imagine the mind and feelings of animals is concentrated in this...

Mine’s bigger than yours

Mine’s bigger than yours

This is from an engaging Hungarian novel spanning the lives of a fictional Hungarian aristocratic dynasty, from the Congress of Vienna to the eve of the First World War - a great sweep of European history. The Esterhazys were one of the major Hungarian aristocratic...

Too much of a good thing

Too much of a good thing

When Steinbeck and Robert Capa found themselves stranded at an airport in the Soviet Union, they were offered copious quantities of tea. I loved the description of how much is too much. Care for a cuppa? 'The level of tea in our bodies had reached the thorax. And we...

The age of rumours

The age of rumours

Why let facts get in the way of a good prejudice? When John Steinbeck and Robert Capa let people know they were planning to visit Soviet Russia, they were subjected to reactions with a ratio of an ounce of reality to a pound of prejudice. I hope this example at least...

Nail a rumour and pin down a fact

Nail a rumour and pin down a fact

Steinbeck appears to have anticipated the age of fake news. This is particularly pertinent as we try to tease out virus fact from sickness fiction and some governments take steps to slow the churning of the rumour-mill. See another Steinbeck comment on the handling of...

Of fire and fizzle

Of fire and fizzle

This Hungarian historical novel spans the 19th century including the European mid-century revolutions which pretty much burned out, as summed up in this pithy conclusion. Perhaps the more enduring light comes from slower burning revolutions. 'Revolution blazes with a...

Change whispers

Change whispers

Although this isn't universally true, I liked the idea that great changes can begin with the whispers of a few people. From a compelling century-spanning historical fiction of the Austro-Hungarian empire from the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to the eve of the First...

News then, and now?

News then, and now?

John Steinbeck's analysis of the nature of news at the height of the Cold War resonates still, drawing attention to the air-time and column inches given to punditry over reporting. Sometimes watching ten minutes of a pundit-panel I wonder what I've heard that has...

Steinbeck on Capa

Steinbeck on Capa

John Steinbeck was a good friend of the photographer Robert Capa, with whom he spent a month travelling in the Soviet Union, producing a vivid work of written and photographic reportage. Capa died a few years later in a war zone and this is Steinbeck's pithy tribute...

The dog who understood

The dog who understood

This mongrel, scooped up off the streets, in Vasily Grossman's imagined story of the real creature who was the first dog in space, has a Christ-like capacity for love and sympathy, including for her slightly dysfunctional space-programme master.  Here he explains to...

Church bells and cannon fodder

Church bells and cannon fodder

If swords can be beaten into ploughshares, the reverse is also true, and church bells can be melted down as iron fodder for cannon.  Here, a historical novel concerned with the 19th century Austro-Hungarian empire reminds us of this miserable transmogrification. A...

System in everything

System in everything

A curious exchange between Anna Sergeyevna and Bazarov in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. Somehow, Anna's crisp response chills the romance of walking and seeing and even naming flowers. Last weekend we walked for a few hours, and with the use of a plant-spotting app, I...

Of ardent persistence

Of ardent persistence

One of my favourite literary dogs is Ottimo Massimo, who belongs to the tree-dwelling protagonist of one of Calvino's best stories. A small dachshund who goes a-courting dogs several times his size, occasionally with success.  His ardour is touching and funny. 'Ottimo...

A Greek showed up

A Greek showed up

Listening time: under 5 minutes.  From Steinbeck's masterful and lively account of travelling in the Soviet Union with Robert Capa. Chmarsky is their hapless interpreter who is pursued by a Kremlin gremlin, messing up many of his carefully orchestrated arrangements. ...

The massive effects of slight coincidences

The massive effects of slight coincidences

I liked this notion that centuries, as much as individuals, can be greatly affected by apparently insignificant coincidences, or even just incidences. This is a 19th century-spanning history of a Hungarian aristocratic family swept up in the turbulences of the...

One foot in, one foot out

One foot in, one foot out

A wry response to the observation by his future brother-in-law regarding Mr. Casaubon's suitability for marriage.  The old dry-as-dust scholar-curmudgeon having one foot in the grave, seems to view marriage to a glowing young woman as a means to extricate it. 'What...

On being attentive and polite

On being attentive and polite

If Dorothea, the heroine of George Eliot's Middlemarch, doesn't win you over with her profound and subtle range of human qualities, surely her respectful empathy towards canine feelings is a vote-winner. I love her careful attention to them, and the delicacy with...

The claptrap of monarchy

The claptrap of monarchy

According to the photographer Robert Capa, museums were the churches of the Soviet Union, where he spent a month in 1946 with John Steinbeck. Here they traipse around the royal museum weighing up the regal bling, wonderfully described as the 'claptrap of monarchy',...

Making up

Making up

The friendship of John Steinbeck and Robert Capa was strong, despite some funny frictions during their month-long trip to the Soviet Union.  Idiosyncratic characters both, and both no doubt exasperating at close quarters, probably Steinbeck was the more infuriating,...

Cocktails in Kiev

Cocktails in Kiev

Listening time: 2 minutes.  On their travels to the Soviet Union in 1946, John Steinbeck and Robert Capa were surprised to encounter something as Western-decadent as a cocktail bar; and they delighted in the simultaneous variety and uniformity of its cocktails....

Survival savvy

Survival savvy

Listening time: under 4 minutes. Inspired by the true story of a dog trained by the Soviets to go into space, Vasily Grossman imagines her life in this enchanting short story. What a life, and what a creature, Christ-like in her loving generosity yet as shrewd as...

Three in one

Three in one

Listening time: under 4 minutes.  One of the finest pieces of prose I have read in a long time is by the photographer Robert Capa, presenting his 'legitimate complaint' about his friend and travelling companion John Steinbeck (Steinbeck's own complaints about Capa...

Lost in Russia

Lost in Russia

The American writer John Steinbeck and the photographer Robert Capa spent months preparing for their trip to the Soviet Union in 1947, much aided by a philosophic bar-man and his cocktails. However, their plans fell flat at the first hurdle, which was to have someone...

This I do not know

This I do not know

One of the best books I read last year is The Russian Journal of John Steinbeck. He spent a month in the Soviet Union with the photographer Robert Capa - the one writing limpid, lively, funny, succinct and compassionate prose and the other taking equivalent photos....

The magic fabric of life

The magic fabric of life

We forget, mostly, that we live in a time of unprecedented mass luxury and ease. Yes, we are messing up ecosystems and climate systems, but access to communications, clean water, electricity and a myriad other miracles is growing and with more ingenuity and some...

A gardener to the roots

A gardener to the roots

This gardener, who tends the castle grounds of the monstrous pile of Gormenghast, is driven by something more than the beauty and colour of the flowers he grows, rather by their vital sap or something similar.  He must have tapped into, or been made of, the same...

A weight of glory

A weight of glory

Merry Christmas if you celebrate it, and if you don't, may you in any case enjoy bright stars and their weight of glory. The message of the day is an ancient one: peace on earth and goodwill to all men. 'The stars shone so brightly that they made a weight of glory in...

Worth the expense

Worth the expense

George Eliot can be pithy, here singling out someone as being unworthy of the bullet a character might like to send them. See another curious quote on the cost of bullets, and one about a man who was likened to one. 'He would be as pleasant a mark for a bullet as I...

Of borders and beverages

Of borders and beverages

This description of what really marks a border between one country or region and another delighted me. It boils down to the habitual brew offered to a guest. Rory Stewart crosses from coffee country to tea terrain, which itself graduates from black to...

Care package

Care package

Rory Stewart has a moment of home comfort when some British soldiers he encounters on his hike across Afghanistan brew him some tea and send him on his way with other goodies, no doubt all the more welcome for being so familiar in a remote place. I liked the selection...

Chests as broad as horses

Chests as broad as horses

One of several heart-warming accounts of Rory Stewart's random encounters with British soldiers in Afghanistan.They always show him and his dog kindness, providing momentary reprieve from remoteness; see the bag of home comfort food they also shared.According to...

How to mess up an interview

How to mess up an interview

What's the gravest problem facing the UK?  Brexit? Not a bit of it. I loved this response of Harry Eyres during his civil service interview.  Needless to say, it didn't help him get the job.Probably wasn't cut out for it anyway.'At my final board in the Civil Service...

Government as jugglery

Government as jugglery

According to this 9th century vizier, policy is what you end up with once you've figured out what works. You throw a few balls in the air and if they don't fall to the ground with a thud, bingo, you have a policy.  Or to use another analogy, you lob a handful of ideas...

I love Babur – II

I love Babur – II

Again, splendid, awkward Babur, the massive mutt picked up by Rory Stewart while trekking across Afghanistan.  Usually Rory has to yank, drag and generally cajole the dog into continuing. Here the roles are reversed when Rory comes close to calling it a day, lying...

I love Babur – I

I love Babur – I

One of the great dogs I've met through reading is Babur, whom Rory Stewart acquired, against his better judgement, while hiking across some of the remoter regions of Afghanistan.  Babur is big, stubborn, brave, fearful, and loveable.Here he lays claim to new territory...

Pocket money sexism

Pocket money sexism

Tom Tulliver once again spurns his sister, putting her in her place in a depressing translation of boy-versus-girl worth in terms of Christmas gift money.The novel in many ways revolves around the close, loving but inharmonious relationship between the siblings,...

Brother and sister

Brother and sister

George Eliot's Mill on the Floss is largely about the relationship between Tom and Maggie Tulliver, brother and sister. Her needy love for him and his genuine but undemonstrative and somewhat superior fondness for her.  Summed up perfectly in this single sentence,...

Why fight?

Why fight?

Rory Stewart's trek across Afghanistan allowed him to meet some colourful characters.  Here he questions one of them to understand why he took up arms, first against the Russians and then against the Taliban. It boiled down to fending off unwelcome interference in the...

What’s the difference?

What’s the difference?

On his long trek across some of the remoter regions of Afghanistan, Rory Stewart found himself being presented as having a range of professions. Here the man introducing him is equally indifferent to accuracy in describing his religion and becomes baffled by his...

In celebration of later love

In celebration of later love

George Eliot noticed a bias in poets' treatment of love, a tendency to say many fine things about its first experience, and far fewer about those that happen later in life.I confess to having a special interest in sharing this quotation on this day, being the joyous...

Of tolerance and tender ears

Of tolerance and tender ears

500 years ago, in an age apparently less tolerant than our own, Erasmus made a plea for free speech, particularly in the form of mockery, providing only that its expression be without rage. I was struck by the contemporary ring of his comment on 'the tenderness of...

Dismissing death

Dismissing death

Rory Stewart's father could be pithy, taciturn, and funny (without necessarily trying to be).  Here his son tries to open up a discussion on some of the deeper sides of life, to which his old man gives short shrift.  He had a tendency to shut down unwanted...

Where is the chair?

Where is the chair?

An endearing philosophical philistinism in the elderly father of Rory Stewart. Ever practical, he had no truck with time-wasting on pointless speculations.I may be guilty of similar.'I've hated philosophy since university,' he said. 'I gave up when they asked me to...

Two points of view

Two points of view

Very important to keep an open mind and allow yourself the possibility of having more than one view point. How better to do so than by having both a front and a back parlour?And thank heaven for one's own exceptional qualities, which are matched, surely, only by those...

Of humbug and hypocrisy

Of humbug and hypocrisy

George Eliot makes a bold statement about wealthy Mr. Glegg's goodness of heart, until you get to the closing clause.  She has many such subtle ways of revealing human failing, which she records but rarely condemns overtly. Her writing also cautions readers against...

Changed identity – II

Changed identity – II

Again, Rory Stewart's guide-bodyguard, Qasim, resorts to invention in presenting his ward to people they meet on their hike across Afghanistan. In general, Qasim does not appear to have regarded Stewart's real identity, as a writer and a hiker, as worthy of mention....

Changed identity – I

Changed identity – I

Rory Stewart's hike across remote areas of Afghanistan began with a couple of bodyguards assigned to him whether he wanted them or not. The senior of these, Qasim, has a habit of giving Stewart varying identities, depending on the people to whom he is presenting him....

Changing the subject

Changing the subject

A young man in love learns a lesson in the limitations of egotism.  'She' is Maggie Tulliver, a beautiful human being both deeply loved yet in many ways greatly undervalued. She is one of the most honest and open of the richly developed characters in George Eliot's...

Rain refuge

Rain refuge

It happens to be such a morning as I write this. The first chill, misty, rainy morning we've had in a long time and so much needed. Of course, the spirit seeks sunshine and blue skies, but you can also smell and sense the plants and trees soaking up the long-awaited...

Pah to the Iliad

Pah to the Iliad

Tom dismisses one of the world's greatest epics, a 3,000 year old classic of war, on the grounds that its heroes cannot be verified and nor did they even use cannon. Pitiful. Unlike the Duke of Wellington, alive and well in Tom's time and in full possession of the...

Euclidian toothache

Euclidian toothache

Young Tom Tulliver makes the case (in vain) that studying Euclid causes toothache. If you allow for psychosomatic effect, he may be right. In any case, a winning education-avoidance reaction, almost as good as Timothy's awful moment.   'I don't think I am well,...

Those interfering newbies

Those interfering newbies

From Rory Stewart's trek across the Marches, the region of Britain aligned with Hadrian's Wall.  One of the charms of his account is that he takes the time to talk to the locals.  Here he meets one who laments the interference of 'newbies' in the village. ...

A singing map

A singing map

I loved this idea, using a song to guide you in lieu of a map. From one of Rory Stewart's long treks, one across Afghanistan (and several neighbouring countries), and one along the region either side of Hadrian's Wall.May your singing map lead you true,...

The deciding moment

The deciding moment

Rory Stewart was offered a large dog who seemed to have a few health and other 'issues'.  I like that his decision to take the dog seems to have been triggered by the animal's feeble attempt at a tail-wag and a tiny signal of friendliness. I also like that...

Never look a gift dog in the mouth

Never look a gift dog in the mouth

This is the beginning of a wonderful tail of a man and a dog, with Rory Stewart being unable to resist the dog offered to him on his hike across Afghanistan.  Despite his misgivings. Here he tries to walk away from the gift, before giving in and naming him...

Getting to know your guest

Getting to know your guest

One of several exchanges in which Rory Stewart finds himself being presented as anything but what he is.  These introductions took place on his hike across hundreds of kilometres of remote Afghan mountain paths; each time, his guide described Stewart as he...

Mind the mine

Mind the mine

Rory Stewart walked a long stretch of remoteness in Afghanistan, part of an even longer walk which took him across Pakistan, Iran and Turkey.  His account of the Afghan adventure is replete with marvelous exchanges with the locals, and a splendid...

Say what you ought

Say what you ought

A laughing summary of a lady's capacity to say the right thing at the right moment, just what she ought, no more no less. The image is simply one I chose to represent the era, mood and look - a suitably elegant lady who might be the owner of such...

An excellent precaution

An excellent precaution

Long gone the days of bedbugs and room tics, when a lady might think to travel with her own linen. Still, something in the wording suggests a wryness in Jane Austen's view of such fastidiousness.'She always travels with her own sheets; an excellent...

Call him Titus

Call him Titus

Baby Titus, born into a crumbling, rambling pile of stone, with parents of a warmth and tenderness approximately equivalent to the building material of their castle. Here is his mother, prescribing his care for the first five years of his life, at which...

I shall teach the boy…

I shall teach the boy…

The Countess of Gormenghast ponders her personal curriculum for her newborn son, after despatching him to a régime of nanny-care for the first five years of his life.  She clearly has higher hopes for him than for his neglected sister.Her capacity for love...

Where every word starts with ‘a’

Where every word starts with ‘a’

I love Mandelstam's poetic summary of place, here the city of Sukhum, where he says every word starts with A and you should start your study of Caucasian alphabets. 'Sukhum: a city of mourning, tobacco, and fragrant vegetable oils.  Here is where one...

Footing the bullet bill

Footing the bullet bill

This is half funny, half awful - your country of birth, having given you the death sentence, hounds you in exile with bills to cover the cost of your eventual execution. In the event, they left him in (one) peace. He was, by the way, the Principal...

Argumentative authenticity

Argumentative authenticity

You can't help admiring people said to be as authentic as argumentative, including in themselves, and in their art and architecture. This from a slender, entertaining and masterful look at one of the great Roman poets, and his continuing relevance to our...

A page per year

A page per year

Taleb is an erudite and provocative writer, sometimes coming across as intellectually arrogant, though always interesting. Here he shows a healthy sign of self-deprecation which I found entertaining. He's published a few bestsellers, but it doesn't seem...

On living forever

On living forever

Listening time: 2 minutes. This long and winding quotation enchanted me to the extent that I wrote it out by hand some 20-30 times and sent individual copies to as many friends. It is one of a small trove of prose quotations I’ve learned by heart, to recite at dawn to...

On hearing Beethoven for the first time

On hearing Beethoven for the first time

Listening time: 4 minutes. A favourite quotation from a favourite novel, Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, reviewed here (soon also available in audio).In print, it can look dauntingly long, so it is the perfect candidate for the first WritingRedux...

No summer is long enough

No summer is long enough

Referring to the Arctic, where the summers are short and the winters long, this rueful statement made me think about our own longer summers and how they can fill your reservoirs with light and warmth to carry you through the darker, colder months. 'No...

A single moment, a lifelong memory

A single moment, a lifelong memory

This spare and tender novel captures a simple gesture in a passing moment and how it haunts someone for life. These moments can change everything, or simply reveal needs and dreams deeply buried.'"Another one?" the young woman asked, and Egger nodded.  She...

Frogs around a pond

Frogs around a pond

I liked Socrates' image of the Mediterranean, that great big watery basin, as a pond around which we live like frogs.'We live round a sea,' Socrates had told his Athenian friends, 'like frogs round a pond.'   Source: Quoted in Peter Brown, The World of...

Of science and art

Of science and art

Someone spotted this on a wall at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), a bastion of cutting edge science, and therefore intriguing to see how they position it in relation to art. 'Science is what we understand well enough to explain to a...

They had dreams too

They had dreams too

One of the most elusive aspects of history, and perhaps insurmountably so, concerns what people felt, thought, and dreamed.  Yet the endeavour to explore this is crucial to have a sense of history which is more nuanced than a series of more or less...

The most miserable existence

The most miserable existence

Deprivation on the Danube, as viewed by a newly arrived governor during the Roman Empire, posted to a wine-less, olive-free desert. Some 1,500 years later, he would surely approve of the progress made, with many fine wines produced in countries through...

Daft and marginal

Daft and marginal

I liked this description of a region being 'daft-and-marginal' before splitting in two, with one half somehow managing to rule the world for a while.This is from Simon Winder's masterful, erudite and entirely entertaining study of Germany. He writes with...

An empire of leftovers

An empire of leftovers

Simon Winder has a politically incorrect style of presenting history, which makes it a refreshing, thought-provoking read.  I loved his book about Germany, which I read on the eve of running a major event there - it was loaned to me by a German colleague...

Leadership as multi-tasking

Leadership as multi-tasking

You get to steer the ship because you can handle multiple tasks at once. Here, John demonstrates his leadership skills: tiller in one hand, pork pie in the other, and lemonade secure between his knees.  A CEO in the making, or at least an Admiral.The...

A waste of an island

A waste of an island

Wonderful notion this, from one of the best of Ransome's enchanting children's books. Of course if you land on an island, you should light a fire, or what good is the landing?'They had landed on the island near which they were anchored.  They had bathed from it, and...

A different way of crying

A different way of crying

Mia Couto's book is about a man who nearly destroys his family through his fury, both manifest and inarticulate; and about the resilience of his sons in surviving it. I found this simple statement surprising and wise - it takes a lot of strength and...

A new breed of cultural object

A new breed of cultural object

I loved the unashamed enthusiasm of this statement, Rebanks having dedicated his life to preserving both this rare, tough breed of sheep, and the way of life that goes with it.  Also the novel idea (to me), of a breed as a cultural object. The breed is...

A poet on poetry

A poet on poetry

A surprising combination of qualities to look for in fine poetry (and other writing). Hard to think of poetry which comes closer to embodying all three than the meticulous, mysterious and fresh-voiced verse of George Herbert. 'The three qualities I admire...

Thoughts on modern life

Thoughts on modern life

I found this passage striking and moving, perhaps putting its finger on the pulse of much contemporary malaise. It feels a valid and thoughtful statement though you can take issue with certain elements; such as whether pre-modern life was any better for...

Certain of everything

Certain of everything

This statement by Robert Rubin resonated with me and, I believe, with Susan Cain, author of Quiet (a reassuring read if you share such a sense of doubt and wonder from time to time if you might be 'introverted'). It reminds me of a note I found on my desk...

Global folly, global range

Global folly, global range

One of the pitfalls of globalization is the greater range for damaging stupidity which might formerly have been more easily corralled at a local level.This blunt prognosis is from a thoughtful piece by one of the world's preeminent astrophysicists, the...

The book of life

The book of life

'A million species of animals and plants are threatened with extinction. Three-quarters of the world's land and two-thirds of its marine environments have been "significantly altered" by human action.'  I read these lines in The Economist days after this...

Aim high, 17th century style

Aim high, 17th century style

George Herbert, one of England's greatest poets, as well as being a priest and the Orator of Cambridge University (something like today's corporate spokesperson or public affairs director).  He also made a collection of a good thousand proverbs. Here is...

My kind of company

My kind of company

John Donne describes an accomplished woman with a wide-ranging capacity to converse intelligently.  I like the spectrum he chose: predestination to slea-silk and, it seems, everything in between.'She knew well how to discourse of all things, from...

A big headache

A big headache

In the age of supermodels, it was fun to read that the 17th century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi complained to her patron of the difficulties of working with 'expensive female models'.I wonder if one of the 'good ones' she mentions is featured in...

Non-negotiable

Non-negotiable

The 17th century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi names her price and sticks to it, in a letter to her patron. Incidentally slipping in some slurs on her Neapolitan counterparts. Elsewhere she mentions having had her ideas stolen and questions whether...

Slaves to the sun?

Slaves to the sun?

While for the most part these twin sisters are nothing short of bonkers, I liked when one of them questioned the tyranny of time, speaking with splendid disregard for the sun of day and moon of night.For other examples of their more eccentric exchanges,...

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