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Suggestions for reading material when confined to barracks

Ex-Premier Harold MacMillan’s reputation has had it’s vacillations. However, many recall his stoically reading in a trench Aeschylus’ Prometheus in Greek. So whatever isolation we are advised or requested to endure in our very much more comfortable domestic surroundings, suitable reading matter might become Chicken Soup for the Soul. Glancing around the town’s charity shops and my own bookshelves has given me the opportunity to select some books suitable for longer reading. Here are my suggestions:-

A Pacifist’s War by Frances Partridge

Diaries by Frances Partridge, dating from 1945-60, which provide an account of her association with the Bloomsbury group and focus on her life at Ham Spray in the Wiltshire downs with her partner Ralph, where they exchanged visits with a variety of notable friends. It is an engaging read set against the backdrop of uncertain news. The pace of life in the country in wartime is described with underlying courage and compassion.

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics

This volume is listed as a New York Times Best Seller as well as a Sunday Times Bestseller by a prominent journalist and broadcaster, Tim Marshall. When you are felling imprisoned and suffering from severe cabin fever then the spatial constraints of geography assist a useful understanding of the consequent political history. This is what one Amazon reviewer  writes, “I found this book to be an excellent concise summary of how the political world has developed to where it is today. I found the section on Russia particularly interesting and it opened my eyes to some factors driving the current position.The author has an incredible grasp of world affairs and our history. It made me wish I had spent more time in this area and has given me a thirst to spend more time in future.
It has turned me into even more of a dinner bore as I am now able to explain the background behind many of the current world conflicts with such confidence that I go unchallenged! “(Tri Jules)#

Fabled Shore – From the Pyrenees to Portugal by Rose Macaulay 

The author wrote, when this book was published in 1949, “A Greek mariner from Marseilles compiled in the sixth century B.C. a topographical sailing book of his voyage from the Lands of Tin in the northern seas, down the western coast of Portugal and round the Sacred Cape, and so along the southern coast of the Iberian peninsula, through the Pillars, and along the Mediterranean coast to Marseilles, his home. The later part of this sailing book, from the Tartessos region (near Cadiz) to Marseilles, had great detail, describing each bay, each cape, each port, for the benefit of those Greek merchant mariners who adventured and trafficked down that far and fabulous coast to the Pillars of Hercules, and beyond these into the dark and questionable Atlantic where the silver mountains stood back from the Tartessian shore.”#

Fluent in Greek and Latin this book is fluently written and also an introduction to Rose Macaulay’s novels and other writings. There is an interesting biography of Macaulay –

Rose Macaulay: A Biography by Sarah LeFanu

1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear by James Shapiro

Well, it was the year of terrorist activity and also the return of the plague but this is book, now available in paperback, traces Shakespeare’s life and times from the autumn of 1605, when he took an old and anonymous Elizabethan play, The Chronicle History of King Leir, and transformed it into his most searing tragedy, King Lear. Well researched and written this is a,fine sequel to the author’s earlier book, 1599.

If, however, you prefer to take it on the chin you could always read Thomas MannDer Tod in Venedig in German or even Albert Camus’s La Peste in French. You might be better off reading Proust in the original if your language skills are up to it- I have an easier version;

Image result for les temps perdus en BD 




Book Reviews

Proust and other such neuroscientists! A cross-cultural investigation

In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare wrote,” Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back, wherin he puts alms for oblivion”. This fully accords with the discoveries of modern brain science. Proust in his famous novel, ‘’In Search of Lost Time’’ anticipates such discoveries by neuroscientists, such as Rachel Hertz, that smell and taste are the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus. Thus the taste of a petit madeleine evokes a rediscovery by Proust of Combray and a flow of associations- it is the part of the brain in which long term memory is centred. Lehrer in ‘’ Proust was a Neuroscientist’’ weaves an intriguing argument about the relationship between recent neuroscientific discoveries and the novels of George Eliot, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf. A scientist, who has researched with Nobel Prize-winning, Eric Kandel, has a taste for philosophy; Lehrer intends to heal the rift between what C.P.Snow termed the ‘Two Cultures’. He wishes to accord respect to the truths and the intuitive discoveries, especially of modernist writers and painters.

‘’Proust was a Neuroscientist’’ illustrates how researchers have, for instance, located those receptors that are responsible for discerning new tastes and smells. In an interesting and amusing chapter, Lehrer explains how the latter discerning receptors take up a huge amount of DNA-about 3 per cent of the human genome. The nose contains at least 350 receptor types. Millisecond pulses have been detected in fruit flies have been doctored with fluorescent proteins which flash when an odour impinges. Scientists have studied the resulting flashes under high powered microscopes and mapped the resulting patterns as neon flashes in the fly brain. This is part of the melange contained in a light-hearted chapter about the French gastronomic chef, Auguste Escoffier, who created culinary symphonies by means of glutamate laden veal stock sauces that so delighted the Parisian haute bourgeoisie in the Hotel César Ritz.

In classical philosophy there exists the Hericalitean concept of the flux, a neo-Platonist view concerning chaos. This has certain parallels in the research by Kimura concerning random changes in DNA. Further discoveries by Elowitz on colourful bacteria in 2002 and fruit flies suggest that their variation is due to random atomic jostling. Jonah Lehrer quotes further research by Gage on junk genes that have the wonderful name of ‘’retrotransposons’’. Essentially this shows how individual diversity is created in line with evolutionary logic. These findings along with others on neural plasticity appear to accord with George Eliot’s belief, as exemplified by her treatment of character, that people have free will and this inspires her to produce a rich text such as ‘’Middlemarch’’, exemplifies this. A text which itself is open to alternative personal interpretations.

The chapter on Cezanne plunges into perception beyond impressionism; how the brain engages in an imaginative act when structuring forms out of ambiguous brushstrokes. The development of photography pushed Cezanne’s investigations in a new direction –with new postimpressionist studies he was attempting to figure how the mind creates the sense of external reality. In effect, Lehrer argues that this corresponds to how the conscious brain is involved in structuring the impressions which arrive onto the layers of the cortex. This part recently has been discovered to be sensitive to contrast and stripes. Thus Cezanne engages the viewer in a challenging and more ultimately satisfying process. From the abstract impasto, fresh to each viewer, the reality of adamantine structures emerges as Mont St Victoire or succulent green apples. Then, the reader is treated to an interesting coda on the clash between Zola’s naturalistic writing and Cezanne’s reaction to it when the latter finds himself, previously a close friend, reduced to an unflattering characterised in a novel as an unstable and wild artist.

‘’Proust was a Neuroscientist’’ teems with ideas and makes demands upon the reader tying together unfamiliar themes in a manner which finds a parallel in the author’s treatment of the music of Stravinsky. Yet it is mostly very clear in its exposition of complex physiology, although a glossary might have been usefully employed for physiological structures. Lehrer writes from a tradition which includes William James, and of course his brother, the esteemed novelist Henry. Pluralism and pragmatism, Rorty and Wittgenstein are all positively appraised. Dissecting self-awareness, as in his chapter on Virginia Woolf has harrowing aspects, however, two factors make this a thoroughly engaging read; it’s energetic pace and its provocative style. For instance, Lehrer doesn’t mention that Woolf was a victim of child abuse and this will have deeply traumatised her lonely sense of herself. However, being moved to sometimes argue with an exposition does not make it any the less valuable experience.

There is a growing interest; it would seem in both Proust and in neuroscience. In Nicholas Carr’s ‘’The Shadow lands’’, he poses the question whether new internet technology etc. and how it actually changes the brain. Merzenich and Kandel have both emphasised the plasticity of the organ. As we get more adept at scanning and highlighting in the new media, we are also damaging our ability to read, concentrate and thoughtfully reflect. The implication for child development adds to such concerns, as Maryanne Wolf has pointed out in ‘’Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain’’. This being an investigation into word poverty and dyslexia; learning literacy for which there seems to be little in built genetic planning. Hence, this short and accessible book of Jonah Lehrer is a valuable contribution to this debate and the fascinating discussion about how truth is variously constructed and validated in science and in literature.