Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Art of World War I

We were at an art exhibition entitled “Out of Chaos,” sponsored by the Jewish Museum of Art in London at the Courtauld Gallery. It wasn’t a huge show, some six smallish rooms, but if it lacked in quantity it more than made up for it in depth and quality. The idea behind the exhibition was to show 100 years of Jewish art in London.

A number of works in the exhibit caught my eye; one was a self-portrait by Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918). I was familiar with his work as a poet; he’s one of the so-called “World War I poets” who produced some wonderful poetry during the war. I wasn’t as familiar with his art. Eventually, I was able to get my hands on Whitechapel at War: Isaac Rosenberg and His Circle, an exhibition book for a show of the same name held in London and Leeds in 2008. And I learned that Rosenberg was not only one of the World War I poets, but also a member of a group of artists known as the “Whitechapel Boys.” (Another was artist David Bomberg, who was represented in the “Our of Chaos” exhibition with several paintings.)

At that point, several exhibitions began to converge – the First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum in London; this “Out of Chaos” exhibit at the Courtauld, and then one we saw just recently, at the Mildred Lane Kemper Museum in St. Louis: “Images of War, War of Images.”

It’s no surprise that there are a number of exhibitions, artistic and historical, about World War I; we are about right in the middle of the war’s centenary. What’s fascinating is that there were essentially three kinds of art that developed through and because of the war: “official art,” like that commissioned by the British military of artists like Paul Nash; paintings and drawings that artists who served in the war did, often to help them make sense of what happened; and the art used for what we can only call wartime propaganda.

Like the poets telling their stories in theor poetry, the World War I artists told their stories. Both poets and artists tried to make sense of a war that began with cavalry riding horses and quickly became a murderous assault by weapons technology in the stalemated trenches.

An excellent introduction to the “official art” and the “artists’ art” is Art from the First World War by Richard Slocombe and published by the Imperial War Museum in London. A small paperback (costing $20 in the U.S. but less than that if you happen to visit the museum in London), it includes some of the major works which resulted from the war, including some of the desolate battlefield scnes by Paul Nash, horrific landscapes by john Nash, and works by C.R.W. Nevinson, Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg, and several other artists.

Whitechapel at War, noted above, focuses on a relatively small group of artists. It includes three essays on Isaac Rosenberg, the Whitechapel group collectively, one on how their works began to become known through print, and a final chapter a “Whitechapel Girl,” Clare Binberg, who was associated with the group but did not share their military experience.

A third good resource is Nothing but the Clouds Unchanged: Artists in World War I, edited by Gordon Hughes and Philipp Blom, which is the exhibition book for “Images of War, War of Images” show at the Kemper Museum. While the first two books focus on British artists, this one is more expansive, encompassing artists and art from all of the primary nations at war during the conflict – British, French, German, Russian, Italian, American and others. Like the exhibition itself, it goes beyond paintings and includes recruiting and war bind posters, magazine illustrations, photographs, and even how soldiers decorated their helmets. The essays (and illustrations) are packed with information on how the war was visually “told,” both during and after the conflict.

The “Images of War, War of Images” exhibition is in its final days at the Kemper – it closes Jan. 4. If you’re in or visiting the St. Louis area, it is well worth your time. 


Top painting: “Gassed” by John Singer Sargent, oil on canvas (1919); Imperial War Museum, London.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

“Notes from Underground” by Roger Scruton

Prague, 1985. A young man named Jan Reichl works as a street cleaner, because it is the only work he’s allowed to do. His father was arrested , tried and imprisoned for anti-state activities; as a result, Jan is not allowed to go to university. His mother spends most of her free time typing samizdat manuscripts – how works by dissident Czech authors and others were circulated during the communist area (samizdat was not limited to what was then Czechoslovakia; it existed is virtually all European countries in the soviet orbit and in Russia itself).

Jan, through his imagination, lives in what he calls “the underground,” a kind of alternative existence, even if only in his mind. When he rides the Metro, he imagines lives for the people he sees on the train. He fashions these imaginings into stories, one of which, entitled Rumors, has slipped into samizdat circulation under a pseudonym.

One day on the Metro, he sees a girl, a girl so vivid she breaks through his imaginings. He’s so overwhelmed that he leaves a typewritten copy of Rumors on the train. It ends up in her hands. And they meet, Jan and this young woman named Alzbeta Palkova, or simply Betka. And Jan soon finds himself increasingly enmeshed in another kind of underground, a real one, one comprised of dissidents and intellectuals.

Notes from Underground by Roger Scruton is the novel that tells the story of Jan and Betka, but it does so almost indirectly. It is a novel about a specific place and time – Prague in the waning does of communist domination before the end of the Berlin Wall. It is a novel about a love affair. It is a novel about a search for truth, both collective and individual. It is a novel about history, and how history is not something that happened years before but almost a living thing that continues to shape and direct the reality of today. It is a novel written as a memoir, with the writer describing events of 30 years previously.

Roger Scruton
Scruton, a native Briton and currently a Fellow at the Ethics and Policy Center in Washington, D.C.  has written both novels and short stories over his long career as a writer and philosopher, but he is better known for his non-fiction works, such as Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England (2012); Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (2009); The Uses of Pessimism (2010), and Green Philosophy (2012; published in the United States as How to Think Seriously About the Planet). He is also a well-known lecturer (he recently spoke at the Ethic and Policy Center on “The Future of European Civilization: Lessons for America”).

He is also that relatively rare species of conservative philosopher, and a novel like Notes from Underground (with a title borrowed from Dostoevsky) might have fared poorly in less experienced hands, becoming too much of a political discussion. What is different about this work is its heart of the love story of Jan and Betka, a story of a love that the reader understands early is likely doomed but only gradually coming to understand why.

And it is in that unfolding of the “why” that the story of an era is told, and told well.

Photograph by the Prague Castle at sunset by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

“The Hog’s Back Mystery” by Freeman Wills Crofts

Hog’s Back is an actual place – it’s part of the North Downs in Surrey in the United Kingdom, lying between the towns of Guildford and Farnham. It’s not far from London. And it is the area, in The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts, with its small and large country homes, winding lanes, walking paths, farms, woods, where a series of suspected murders is committed.

The key phrase here is “suspected murders.” A semi-retired doctor has simply disappeared. One minute he is reading the newspaper after dinner, and the next minute he is gone. At first thinking he has gone for a walk, his wife, sister-in-law and a house guest aren’t that concerned. But time passes, and concern gives way to fear that something has happened.

The local police call in New Scotland Yard, personified by Inspector Joseph French (who stars in a number of Crofts mystery stories). Once French is on the case, he’s like a terrier who keeps digging and digging until the dirt and dust are cleared away and a crime lies open to the naked eye.

The Hog’s Back Mystery was first published in 1933, and has been republished in the British Library Crime Classics series. It’s a fascinating story; the reader, like Inspector French, doesn’t know for the longest time whether a crime has actually been committed. When a nurse the doctor worked with is also reported missing, it begins to look like two lovers have run away.

That is, until a third person goes missing.

Crofts (1879-1957) was considered one of the master writers in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, roughly covering the 1920s and 1930s. His name and his stories ranked with Agatha Christie, Margarey Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, R. Austin Freeman, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Mars among others, in the United Kingdom, and with the somewhat more hardboiled school writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in the United States. Crofts wrote some 33 novels, several short story collections, and stage and radio plays. The Hog’s Back Mystery is one of two by Crofts republished by the British Library in its series, the other being Antidote to Venom.

Freeman Wills Crofts
Crofts only turning to full-time mystery writing in his late 40s. Prior to that, he was involved with railways. In his late teens, was apprenticed to an uncle involved with railroad construction (and a railway project plays a key role in The Hog’s Back Mystery.) It’s no coincidence that the story has a “construction engineering” feel to it.

Once Inspector French determines a crime has indeed been committed, his focus becomes the how instead of the who. All of the possible suspects (six of them) have cast-iron alibis. Slowly and methodically, French unravels what has happened.

The Hog’s Back Mystery is an entertaining story, offering a deep glimpse into the kind of mysteries that were so popular 80 and 90 years ago – and by author who deserves to be better known than he is.

Related: My reviews of other British Library Crime Classics

Photograph: A view of Hog’s Back in the North Downs of Surrey, via Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, December 28, 2015

“Laurus” by Eugene Vodolazkin

Arseny is born in Russia in 1440, or “the 6948th year since the Creation of the world.” When he is seven, his father brings him to live with the boy’s grandfather, Christofer; Arseny’s parents have grain to reap even though they are awaiting a recurrence of the plague. His parents do not survive the plague. Christofer raises Arseny, teaching him what he knows about healing, everything from setting broken bones and dealing with illnesses to helping couples become pregnant. He also teaches Arseny about nature and God. They live within the shadow of a monastery.

These themes – healing, nature and God – suffuse Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus. This isn’t a novel about religion and faith set in medieval Russia; this is a novel that places the reader firmly in the reality of medieval Russia. We live Arseny’s life. We heal with Arseny’s hands. We live his life, and it is a remarkable life. It is a story that moves in unexpected directions. And it is a story of redemption, and how a holy man, in the sense that medieval Russia understood “holy men,” finds redemption.

Laurus is an astonishing work. I approached it with skepticism because I couldn’t imagine becoming engaging with a novel about a holy man in medieval Russia. From the first pages, I could barely stand to put it down.

At times, it reads like an old story found in archives, complete with the occasional use of archaic language, which translator Lisa Hayden transforms into Old English for the English translation. The challenges she faced in the translation had to be prodigious; see “On Translating an ‘Untranslatable’ Book,” linked below.

And at times, it reads like “a journal of the plague years.” The plague becomes a kind of character of its own in the story. It is how Arseny meets the woman he falls in love with, although he wouldn’t have described it that way. It is how his reputation as a holy man is made – the healer who seems personally impervious to the contagion of the plague, allowing him to heal, often to the point of exhaustion. It is how he becomes protected by a prince.

Eugene Vodolazkin
Arseny will go on a journey to Jerusalem, a mission of redemption. His companion will be, of all people, an Italian who has occasional glimpses into the future, far into the future. Those visions help to make Laurus something of a contemporary story as well – God, and faith, exist outside of time.

Voloalazkin works in the department of Old Russian Literature at the Pushkin House in St. Petersburg, where he is an expert in medieval Russian history and folklore. That expertise likely has much to do with how Laurus is structured, how it reads, who the characters are and what they do.

It is an engaging story, a remarkable story, a revealing story. And it is, perhaps the most revealing about its readers. Laurus is a novel about medieval Russia that speaks directly to the society we live in today. 


On Translating an “Untranslatable” Book – Lisa Hayden at Literary Hub

“People Need Other Things to Live By” – Rod Dreher of American Conservative  interviews Vovolazkin

On the novel Laurus – Eugene Volodazkin at English Pen

Painting: Holy Man, the Soul of the Russian People by Mikhail Vasilyevich Nesterov.

Sunday, December 27, 2015


After Acts 27

The storm rages, my ship
strains and creaks, the sound
of wood cracking and splintering,
timbers snapping like small sticks,
the ship breaks apart even before
the soundings grow shallow,
the ship rudderless, the sails shredded,
the ship careens in waves seeking
to devour, swamping
with each monstrous swell.
Over the noise of the storm we hear
the crack and screech of the hull
touching bottom, touching rocks,
ripping apart on rocks as it vomits
us into the swirling tempest. Yet
the word spoke; we live.

Painting: Shipwreck, oil on canvas by J.M.W. Turner (1805); Tate Britain, London.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Saturday Good Reads

It often seems, especially to Christians, that the United States is caught in a downward cultural, social and political spiral, a spiral that seems to be rapidly accelerating. I try to caution myself against constant pessimism, knowing that it’s too easy to fall into discouragement and that I might well be overreacting. I take some heart from author Marilynne Robinson’s observation that “We are better than what we see on television.”

And then comes a conversation, reported by Rod Dreher at American Conservative, between Yale University professor Dave Gerlenter and Bill Kristol on how the past two generations of American educators have focused on disdaining Western culture, and how the slide is now happening very, very fast. This isn’t our imaginations. And they are not making this up: just consider recent events at the University of Missouri, Yale, Emory, Pepperdine, Wheaton, Princeton, and on and on.

What I think back to is 1991, when we moved our then 11-year-old from our highly regarded public school district because his English teacher couldn’t send a note home without grammar and spelling errors, but she surely wanted to make sure the class had plenty of exposure to “diversity opportunities.” That was 24 years ago – a generation ago.

I read a story like this, and I think, “The Dark Ages aren’t coming. The Dark Ages are upon us.”

And then I remember my hope is not in the federal government, American universities, the news media, any of the 20 people running for President, or even the American people. My hope is someone else. See the Rend Collective’s video.


Muslims and Christians Do Not Worship the Same God – Thabiti Anyabwile at The Gospel Coalition. And Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God? – Nabeel Qureshi at RZIM.

The Death of God is Greatly Exaggerated – Kate Bachelder interviews Erix Metaxas in The Wall Street Journal.

Confronting the Problem(s) of Evil – Joe Rigney at Desiring God (Hat Tip: Mike Duran).

Give Away – Jay Cookingham at Soulfari.


Norman Nicholson – D.S. Martin at Kingdom Poets.

Landscape Art – Tim Good at Arts by Tiwago.


Do You Write for Yourself? – Alton Gansky at Novel Rocket.


Pilgrim Congregational Church, Union Boulevard – Chris Naffziger at St. Louis Patina.

Three Impressions – Tim Good at Arts by Tiwago.

Life and Culture

Educating for a Dark Age – Rod Dreher at American Conservative.

Star Wars: The Force Ages – Perry Block at Nouveau Old, Formerly Cute.

Dissecting the Irreversibly Altered Brain of a Pro Football Fan – David Murray at Huffington Post.

Inside Chipotle’s Contamination Crisis – Susan Barfield at Bloomberg Business.

Rend Collective: Build Your Kingdom Here

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Born to destroy

After I John 3:1-8

A strange birth,
a strange calling, this,
a stranger destiny,
born to destroy the work
of evil, the edifice
constructed on lies
and flourishing, growing
a black blossoming,
fruitful in fertile soil
of bent desire, the worship
of self. So he comes
to divide, to separate,
to set aside, to destroy,
to save.

Photograph by Alex Grichenko via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

“The Cricket on the Hearth” by Charles Dickens

The Cricket on the Hearth is third of the three best-known Christmas books of Charles Dickens. Its publication in 1845 followed A Christmas Carol (1843) and The Chimes (1844). There were two additional Christmas books (novellas, actually), The Battle of Life and The Haunted Man, but they’re not as well known as the first three. Dickens also wrote a whole raft of Christmas short stories.

As opposed to his lengthier novels, which were serialized and later assembled as complete books, the Christmas books were published in their entirety. Another feature they share in common with each other and with the longer novels is how much emphasis Dickens places on mood and scene.

The Cricket and the Hearth is the story of two families. John and Mary Perrybingle have been married almost a year, and they have a new baby. They are friends with toymaker Caleb Plummer and his daughter Bertha. Bertha is blind; her father goes out of his way to make sure she doesn’t know what straitened circumstances they live in. Caleb works for Tackleton, a man whose first name we never learn but he is a generally obnoxious character. Tackleton is getting married to May Fielding, a friend of Mary’s and Bertha’s who had been in love with Bertha’s brother Edward, who has disappeared into the wilds of South America.

It sounds more complicated than it is; the story moves along at a fast pace, and involves mistaken appearances, a mysterious old stranger, and Tackleton being maliciously helpful. Disaster looms. But this is a Dickens Christmas story, and we know all will end well (Dickens killed off a number of well-loved characters in his longer novels but not in a Christmas story).

Charles Dickens
The first several pages of the story are devoted a rather lengthy discussion of whether the boiling kettle or the cricket chirping in the fireplace at the Perrybingles set the tale in motion. As the discussion moves forward, Dickens makes the reader an insider, with an occasional aside, an opinion, a joke, or an observation that the characters are oblivious of. It’s a way the author has of hooking the reader by essentially making him a fellow teller of the story. We’re not just listening to a story or reading a story; we’re sharing inside jokes and insights with the narrator as the story develops.

These Christmas books were popular with his readers. They usually involve the redemption of a scoundrel, engaging characters living close to poverty, a child or two, often with an affliction (Tiny Tim and Bertha both have disabilities), a powerful social message. and, of course, a satisfying ending. These Christmas books, along with the short stories and the Christmas scenes in his novels, have made Dickens the author we think of when we think of Christmas.

Illustration: A scene drawn by John Lynch from A Cricket on the Hearth - Caleb Plummer and his daughter Bertha and the mean Mr. Tackleton..

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Falling in Love with “Brooklyn”

It’s been a long time since I fell in love with a movie, 34 years to be exact, and the movie was the Oscar Award-winning Chariots of Fire. Based on real events and people, it was a film that told a story, yes, but a story that swept you up in its characters, a group of young men who reached for something beyond themselves.

And now I’ve fallen in love with 2015’s Brooklyn.

I didn’t think film producers made movies like this anymore. Brooklyn is a love story, a coming-of-age story, an immigrant’s story, and the story of a young woman who’s making her world in the world. If it included a subtle or not-so-subtle political or social message, a feature of many movies today that tends to make them something less than what they could be, then I missed it.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Photograph: Emory Cohen and Saorise Ronan in a scene from Brooklyn.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

T.S. Eliot at the British Library, Part 2

The audience at the British Library for a discussion about a new annotated edition of T.S. Eliot’s poetry was largely an academic one: professors, students, researchers with the British Library, likely a few poets. And two Americans on (mostly) vacation.  Our trip was punctuated by poetry and writing highlights: a Keats Walk in Hampstead and Hampstead Heath; a visit to the Charles Dickens Museum; the Samuel Johnson House; a visit to Merton College at Oxford (Eliot’s college and where J.R.R. Tolkien taught).

And finally, with two days left in London before we departed, we were listening to this discussion at the British Library by Jim McCue and Christopher Ricks, co-editors of T.S. Eliot: The Poems, Vol. I (Collected & Uncollected Poems) and T.S. Eliot: The Poems, Vol. II (Practical Cats & Further Verses).

Collecting and annotating the poetry of a write like T.S. Eliot is fraught with challenges and difficulties, not the least reason being Eliot himself editing his poems over time, or manuscripts of the same poem with variations, and one version published in one collection and a slightly different version published in another.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Photograph: The British Library in London by Mohammed Abushaban via Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, December 21, 2015

“Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story”

It’s Christmas Eve. A train headed north from London becomes blocked by a massive snowfall that shows no sign of letting up. In a third-class compartment, occupied by a brother and sister, a psychic researcher, a young rather nervous young man on his way to visit a rich aunt, a rather obnoxious man who seems full of hot air and himself, and a show girl, discussion turns to what to do.

Finally, the psychic researcher suddenly bolts from his seat to go look for human habitation nearby. Four of the others follow, leaving the obnoxious man behind. Fighting their way through swirling snow, the group eventually finds a rather large house, its door open, fires burning in the fireplaces, and water boiling for tea.

And no one is in the house. But there is a body buried in the snow outside.

While this may sound like an Agatha Christie story like Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None, the similarities are slight and superficial. Instead, it is Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J. Jefferson Farjeon. Originally published in 1937, it was republished late in 2014 as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, and became a surprising hit in U.K. bookstores.

Farjeon was the son of Benjamin Farjeon, a popular and prolific novelist in the 19th century who was inspired to write by Charles Dickens accepting one of his stories for publication. The son wrote numerous mystery novels, including on, No. 17, that was made into a movie by Alfred Hitckcock. Farjeon’s sister, Eleanor, was a poet and writer of children’s stories. Writing clearly ran in the family.

J. Jefferson Farjeon
Mystery in White is rather light holiday fare, even (as it turns out) a murder on the train and the body in the snow. There’s a bit of holiday levity, particularly with the brother and sister characters, David and Lydia Carrington. The psychic researcher turns out to be a fairly decent detective, and he’s instrumental in eventually solving the murders as well as another murder buried 20 years in the past.

The British Library has published some 25 novels in the Crime Classics series, including two additional stories by Farjeon: The Z Murders and Thirteen Guests.

Mystery in White is a rather fun read, particularly if it’s the holidays and it’s snowing outside.

Related: My reviews of other British Library Crime Classics

Photograph by Bobbi Jones via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.