Books With a Difference

Responding to Moonlight Reader’s “call for papers (= titles / authors)” — there are quite a number of excellent lists out there already; anyway, here’s my contribution … or a first draft, at least.  Links go to my reviews (or status updates / summary blog posts / author pages) to the extent I’ve posted any.

Not necessarily in this (or any particular) order:

Dorothy L. Sayers: Are Women Human?
Sayers didn’t like to be called a feminist, because she was adverse to ideology for ideology’s sake, but nobody makes the case for equality and for the notion that a person’s qualification for a job depends not (at all) on their sex but solely — gasp — on their qualifications and experience more eloquently than she did in these two speeches.  (I gave up on the attempt to review this little book when I realized that I was basically fawn-quoting half its contents, but the BL book page lists two very good reviews by others.)  Sayers’s crime fiction is legendary, of course, but she’d totally be short-changed if she were ever reduced to that … even to a brilliant book like Gaudy Night (which transforms into fiction much of what she addresses here).  This should be taught and listed right alongside Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Moderata Fonte: The Worth of Women
If you thought women in the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance didn’t know how to speak up for themselves, think again.  There’s Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Christine de Pizan … and then, there is 16th century Venetian Moderata Fonte.  The Worth of Women is, essentially, a witty, pithy conversation among several women preparing one of them (the daughter of another one of their number) for her wedding, and it covers everything from women’s daily life and struggle (as such, but in particular vis-à-vis the stupidity and inferiority of the other sex, which without any justification whatsoever has been declared “superior”), their wishes, desires, etc.  The young bride, who actually doesn’t much feel like marrying to begin with, is consoled over the fact that she really has to (the only alternative being the cloister) by the assurance that every effort has gone into finding her a good husband (i.e., the best specimen from an inherently inferior selection), and receives manifold advice on how to get around him.  The whole text reads refreshingly contemporary, very much to the point — and in part, it is just laugh-out-loud funny.  (“Moderata Fonte” was, incidentally, the pen name of a lady actually named Modesta Pozzo, which means … exactly the same thing: Modest Fountain.  [Or Fountain of Modesty.]  And yes, I probably should review this book at some point, too — God knows, I added enough quotes from it on Goodreads back in the day …)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun
One of my highlights of 2018 and the book that (in large parts) inspired my personal “Around the World in 80 Books” challenge; an insightful, heartbreaking, unflinching, and just all around amazingly written look at the 1960s’ Biafra war, post-independence Nigerian society and the human condition as such, by one of today’s most brilliant writers, period.  Eye-opening in so many ways.  (And yes, admittedly this one is on several of those published “must read” lists, too, but in this one instance I don’t care.  This really is a book that everybody should read.)

Aminatta Forna: The Memory of Love
My Half of a Yellow Sun of 2019; the book which alone would have made that “Around the World” challenge a winner even if I’d hate every other book I’ve so far read for it (which I don’t).  Trauma, fractured lives and society, love, betrayal, war and peace in post-independence Sierra Leone (1960s-70s and present day).  Forna is Adichie’s equal in every respect and then some.  For a bonus experience, get the audio version narrated by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith: He transforms a book that is extraordinary already in its own right from a deeply atmospheric and emotional experience into visceral goosebumps material.

Xinran: The Good Women of China
Before she emigrated to the UK, Xinran was a radio presenter in Nanjing: Inspired by the letters she received by women listeners, she started a broadcast series dedicated to their stories, some of which she tells in this book.  Her broadcasts gave Chinese women — firmly under the big collective male thumb for centuries and still considered beings of a lower order today — a voice that they hadn’t had until then; now her books give non-Chinese readers a pespective on an aspect of Chinese society that most definitely doesn’t figure in the pretty picture of a modern high-tech society that China would love to present to the world.

Astrid Lindgren: Pippi Longstocking and Lindgren’s Wartime Diaries (“A World Gone Mad”)
Pippi Longstocking taught me, when I had barely learned to read, that girls can go anywhere and do anything they set their minds to. — Lindgren’s wartime diaries are tinged with the same sense of humor and profound humanity as her children’s books, in addition to containing a spot-on analysis of the political situation in the years between 1939 and 1945 and many insights into her daily life.

Lion Feuchtwanger: Die Jüdin von Toledo (Raquel, the Jewess of Toledo, aka A Spanish Ballad)
A bit hard to come by in translation, but absolutely worthwhile checking out (and an indisputable evergreen classic in the original German): Set during the medieval Spanish Reconquista (the era when Christian princes and armies were wresting the Spanish peninsula back from the Muslims), in Toledo, during a phase when Christians, Jews and Muslims were living together peacefully in Castile; the true-life story of — married — (Christian) King Alfonso of Castile and his love for a young woman of Jewish faith.  Lots of food for thought on multicultural societies, tolerance, broadmindedness and responsible choices that applies today just as much as it did then.  I first read this decades ago and it has stayed with me ever since.

Iain Pears: The Dream of Scipio
More on multicultural societies, tolerance, conscience and choices; set in the Avignon area of Provence during three distinct historical periods: the end / breakdown of the Roman empire, the medieval schism of the Catholic church (when the popes were residing in Avignon), and the Nazi occupation of France.  All three periods are linked by a mysterious manuscript, and in all three periods the (male) protagonists are guided by a woman who is their superior in wisdom and who becomes their inspiration.  Another one of those books that have stayed with me for years and years.

Wallace Stegner: Remembering Laughter
MR mentioned Angle of Repose, and I’d agree that is Stegner’s best novel (it’s also far and away my favorite book by him); but I do also have a soft spot for his very first novella, written as his (winning) entry in a writing competition, in which all of the hallmarks of his fiction are already present, most importantly the backdrop of his beloved Western Plains and the topic of people’s isolation from each other (even when they’re ostensibly in company).

Gabriel García Márquez: Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold)
100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera may be the books by García Márquez that the creators of those “must read” lists tell you to read (and I don’t exactly disagree), but this brief novella set in a small Columbian seaside town is every bit as worthwhile of notice: A deconstruction, in a mere 100 pages and in reverse chronology, of an honor killing and the society that has allowed it to happen.  Completely and utterly spine-chilling.

Salman Rushdie: Joseph Anton
Actually, any nonfiction by Rushdie (for my money, most of his fiction writing as well, but part of that is on “those lists” anyway, and I know Rushdie’s style of fiction writing isn’t everybody’s cup of tea).  I’ve read some of his essays, but not enough of them yet to make for a full collection, so I’ll go with the one nonfiction book of his that I actually have read cover to cover: His memoir of the fatwā years.  Unapologetically personal and subjective, even if oddly — and to me, jarringly — written in the third instead of the first person; but definitely one of my must-read books of the recent years and one that I have every expectation will stand the test of time.

For completion’s sake: His essays are collected in two volumes entitled Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 and  Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002.  I’m hoping to complete both of them, too, some day soon.

Graham Greene: Our Man in Havana and John Le Carré: The Tailor of Panama
Two takes on essentially the same topic — corruption, Western espionage and military shenanigans in Central America –, both redolent with satire and featuring a bumbling spy against his own will as their MC.  I’m not a fan of either author’s entire body of work, but I find both of their takes on this particular topic equally irresistible … and unfortunately, they seem to have regained consiiderable topicality in recent years.

Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman: Good Omens
By which I do not mean the recent TV adaptation but the actual book, as well as (by way of a companion piece) the full cast BBC audio adaptation.  Armageddon will never again be as much fun — but Pratchett and Gaiman wouldn’t be Pratchett and Gaiman if there weren’t a sharp-edged undercurrent, too: Unlike the TV adaptation with its squeaky-clean looks, the book does not shy away from taking an uncomfortably close look at religion and society.  And then, of course, there’s Crowley and Aziraphale …

(Honorary entry from Pratchett’s Discworld series: Hogfather.  Just because.)

Michael Connelly: Harry Bosch Series
One of the two ongoing crime fiction series that I’m still following religiously and have been, from very early on.  Connelly nails L.A., to the point that it becomes a character in its own right in his novels rather than merely a backdrop.  Harry Bosch is a Vietnam vet, your quintessential curmudgeonly loner with a big heart, fiercely loyal (motto: “Everybody counts or nobody counts”) and hates corruption, grift and nepotism in the LAPD more than anything else.  One of my all-time early favorite entries in the series is book no. 6, Angels Flight (which deals with the Rodney King riots and their fallout), but really, Connelly just keeps getting better and better.  The TV series starring Titus Welliver as Harry makes for great companion material, but to me the books will always come first.  (Even more so now that some of them are actually narrated by Mr. Welliver in the audio versions.)

Ian Rankin: Inspector Rebus Series
The other long-lasting crime fiction series that I’ve been following since pretty much forever; for similar reasons as Connelly’s Harry Bosh series: Edinburgh is a character of its own rather than mere backdrop; John Rebus (ex-S.A.S.) is Harry Bosch’s brother in spirit in virtually every respect — except that Bosch has a daughter, whereas Rebus has (or had, until recently) his booze — and like Connelly, Rankin does not shy away from addressing the social and political topics of the day in his novels.  For me, Rankin had found his Rebus legs, oddly enough, also in book 6 of the series, Mortal Causes (which deals with the “white supremacy” /  neofascist brand of Scottish nationalism), but he, too, just keeps getting better and better.

P.D. James: Inspector Dalgliesh Series
From the waning years of the Silver Age of detective fiction (post-WWII through the 1960s) all the way to the New Millennium, James was the reigning queen of British mystery writers, and for a reason.  Her friend (and rival for those honors) Ruth Rendell may have been more prolific, but every so often gave in to populism and cliché — not so James.  She was unequaled at setting a scene and creating a suspenseful atmosphere, and in the best tradition of the Golden Age masters, her mysteries always turned on psychology first and foremost.  Means and opportunity were important, but it was humans and their relationshp that she was chiefly interested in.   I have no doubt that her books will stand the test of time just as well as those of Conan Doyle, Christie, Sayers and their generation of mystery writers.

Joy Ellis: Their Lost Daughters
The second book in Ellis’s Jackman and Evans series; an absolute stunner in every single way.  Mike Finn and Jennifer(‘s Books) weren’t that enchanted with Ellis’s other series (Nikki Galena), and I have only read one other book by her so far (Jackman & Evans no. 1), but be that as it may, this one is completely worth it and then some.  Set in the Fen Country, dripping with dark atmosphere, with a likeable and fully rounded pair of detectives as MCs — and a veritable jaw-dropper of a finale.  Oh, and the audio version (of the entire series) is narrated by Richard Armitage.

Peter Grainger: An Accidental Death
New Fen Country crime fiction series no. 2, and every bit as atmospheric and well-written as Ellis’s Their Lost Daughters.  This is the first book in the DC Smith series, which centers on a formerly higher-ranking policeman who has chosen to stay on the job as a detective sergeant (rather than go into retirement), so as to be able to actually do hands-on crime solving work instead of being shackled to his desk dealing with police administration.  Again, highly recommended, and I am very much looking forward to continue reading the series. — With this series and those by Ellis, I’m also really, really happy to have found not one but several new series set in a part of Britain that has not yet been written to death.

Donna Andrews: Meg Langslow Series
I am not anywhere near a reader of modern cozies (and though Golden Age mysteries are often lumped into that category, to my mind few of them really belong there) — I quickly get bored by trademark kinks and similar forms of repetitive humor, and I often find their plotlines, characters and settings unconvincing, shallow and overly sugarcoated.  Donna Andrews is the exception to the rule: I probably still wouldn’t read too many of her books back to back, but visits to the crazy but comfortable world of her small-town Virginia have become a Christmas reading tradition in the last couple of years that I’ve really come to look forward to.  Favorite entries to date: Duck the Halls, The Nightingale Before Christmas, and Six Geese A’Slayin’.

Jennifer Worth: Call the Midwife
Midwifery in London’s East End, in the mid-20th century.  I’m not even a mother myself, but man, I’ve never been more grateful for the advances in modern medicine than after reading this book.  Well, and other social advances obviously.  Gotta love the Sisters, though …

 

Jared Diamond: Collapse and The World Until Yesterday
Diamond won a Pulitzer for Guns, Germs and Steel, but these two books (particularly: Collapse) are, to my mind, much more relevant to the world in which we’re living today; in analyzing both the state of our modern, globalized world (and its chances for a sustainable future) and the lessons to be learned from past societies: those whose choices led them to failure as much as those whose choices led to success and long-term survival.  Diamond is anything but a prophet of disaster, but being a scientist, he cannot and of course does not shrink from simple, indisputable facts and realities.  At no time have voices like his needed to be listened to and taken seriously as much as today.

  Full disclosure: I know Jared Diamond personally; he’s a longtime friend of my mother’s.  That doesn’t however impact my belief that his voice, and those of scientists like him, need to be heard now more than ever.

Stanley Wells, James Shapiro, Tarnya Cooper and Marcia Pointon: Searching for Shakespeare
Hard to believe this started life as a National Portrait Gallery exhibition catalogue, but it did: A lavishly, gorgeously illustrated, supersized, book-length (240 p.) showcasing of Shakespeare’s life and times; companion to the 2006 exhibition on the NPG’s examination of the authenticity of six portraits then believed to be of the Bard (of which only one, the Chandos Portrait, in addition to the famous First Folio cover of Shakespeare’s works and the statue in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church survived that scrutiny).  More informative in both text and images than many a Shakesperean biography or a book on the history of the 16th / 17th century.

Stanley Wells: Shakespeare and Co.: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Johnson, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher and the Other Players in His Story
The world of Elizabethan theatre, by the grand master of British Shakespearean scholars and long-time chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.  Equally engaging, informative and entertaining — and I’m pretty sure the Bard would have appreciated Wells’s not just occasionally pithy turn of phrase.

Antony Sher and Gregory Doran: Woza Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus in South Africa
The future artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and one of Britain’s greatest contemporary Shakespearean actors (himself born in South Africa) — off stage, a couple — take the Bard’s most controversial and violent play to Sher’s home country … in the middle of Apartheid.  Judging by their tour diaries (in essence, this book), it must have been quite a trip.

Final note, for those who are wondering: Golden Age mysteries have been covered by several other list creators here on BL already, so I decided not to replicate that (obviously, otherwise the better part of the entire canons of Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and others would have shown up on my list, too).  Similarly, while Jane Austen, the Brontës, and several other 19th century writers are unquestionably part of my personal canon, they’re also on just about every published “must read” list out there, so there hardly seemed any point in including them here.  Ditto Greek mythology.  Ditto William Shakespeare (the plays themselves, that is).  Ditto Oscar Wilde.  Ditto John Steinbeck.  Etc. …

And now that I’m finally about to hit “post”, I’m probably going to think of a whole other list of books that I really ought to have included here!

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1903597/for-moonlight-reader-books-with-a-difference

Iain Pears: The Dream of Scipio

The Dream of Scipio - Iain PearsA Fascinating blend of philosophy, morality and historical fiction.

Like probably nothing else, the breakdown of social order forces us to reach into ourselves, to draw for guidance on our innermost beliefs and moral values; for absent direction by the established rules of society, we only have ourselves to turn to for advice. – Such is the situation in which find themselves this book’s three protagonists: Manlius Hippomanes, Olivier de Noyen and Julien Barneuve; and each resolves the resulting conflict in a different fashion, based as much on his personal nature as his deeply-held convictions and values.

Manlius is a 5th century Roman aristocrat, living during the final years of the Roman Empire. Originally a man of letters more than political or religious leader, he is a member of a dying class: educated in Neoplatonism and the classical Roman tradition, cultured, and placing the survival of civilization – as embodied in traditional Roman virtues – above everything else. Yet, as his city, Vaison, and the rest of Provence comes under the dual onslaught of the Visigoths under Euric and the Burgundians under Gundobad, he abandons (if only publicly) his pagan beliefs and seeks appointment as Bishop, realizing that with the secular power of the Roman Republic weakened beyond recovery, only the Catholic church’s growing influence provides a sufficient basis for his ultimate goal: to maintain the essence of Roman civilization and culture while formally accepting the weight of the new political forces; by forming an alliance with Roman-educated Gundobad to save at least part of Provence from destruction by the Visigoths, and to ensure the continuance of Roman law and values under Burgundian administration. (As the author implicitly admits, this book’s Manlius is loosely based on St. Avitus of Vienne, who lived approximately 50 years later, actually was an advisor to Gundobad, later converted Gundobad’s son and successor Sigismund to Christianity, and whose most prominent piece of writing is a five-book-long poem on Original Sin, Expulsion from Paradise, the Deluge and the Crossing of the Red Sea which, 1100 years later, in part probably inspired Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”)

Strongly influenced by his muse’s, Neoplatonian philosopher Sophia’s teachings, Manlius lays down his own philosophy in sermons and letters – and in a treatise he entitles “The Dream of Scipio,” for the like-named excerpt from Cicero’s “Republica” describing – in the voice of Scipio Africanus – the great Roman’s vision of the universe and the rewards of immortality awaiting the good statesman. But unlike Cicero’s “Somnium Scipionis,” Manlius’s manuscript doesn’t take the form of a dream by Scipio Junior about a conversation with Scipio Africanus but that of a dream about Scipio; or rather, a conversation between Sophia and Manlius about Scipio’s comments on the fall of Carthage. And while in Manlius’s penmanship the treatise thus contains primarily a discourse on the fall of Rome (and a response to Saint Augustine’s “City of God”), this book’s two other protagonists, Olivier and Julien, in turn come to appreciate its significance as a treatise on the fall of civilization in general: For Manlius holds that civilization is a purpose in and of itself, to be perpetuated either by action premised on this singular aim, or by teaching.

Olivier and Julien, however, draw different conclusions from Manlius’s treatise than did its author for his own time. Olivier, a 14th century poet in the Avignon household of powerful Cardinal Ceccani (but like Manlius originally from Vaison) sees his world fall apart as the plague descends upon the South of France, while Ceccani and his rival Cardinal de Deaux vie for influence in the court of Pope Clement VI. Caught between the lines of political intrigue and the menace of the Black Death are Olivier’s Jewish teacher Gersonides and his servant Rebecca. And unlike his master Ceccani, who (similar to Manlius) will sacrifice individuals for a perceived greater aim, Olivier takes the opposite approach, sacrificing himself for an act of humanity and placing the well-being of two individuals – Rebecca and Gersonides – over his master’s far-reaching goals. Julien finally, a scholar who has retired to his hometown Vaison to outwait the horrors of the Third Reich and the Vichy Regime, is the most reluctant of all to take action, preferring instead to make his small contribution to the preservation of civilization through teaching. But eventually he is goaded into collaboration with the regime on the grounds that whatever he doesn’t consent to do will be done by someone with true national-socialist fervor – only to realize too late, after his lover, Jewish painter Julia Bronsen has been sent to a “labor” camp, that evil actions taken for honorable reasons often constitute the greatest of all evils.

But it is not only “The Dream of Scipio” – written by Manlius, unearthed by Olivier and Julien – and the moral choices they face that unite this novel’s three protagonists. Of similarly symbolic importance is the fate of the Jewish population, society’s eternal all-purpose scapegoat (persecuted by Manlius, protected by Clement VI after Olivier’s act of self-sacrifice and left to perish by Julien’s failure to act); and each man is strongly influence by a dark-haired muse, an outsider of society in her own way. And then, there is a little chapel just outside Vaison: consecrated to Sophia (whom, like Manlius, Christian oral tradition has made into a saint for her manifold acts of goodwill), rediscovered by Olivier, decorated by his painter-friend Luca Pisano, and temporary sanctuary to Julien and Julia.

Iain Pears masterfully weaves together the fates of the three men, three pivotal historical moments – observed in the single nucleus of one Southern French town – and philosophical questions as old as civilization itself into this spellbinding successor to his equally stunning “Instance of the Fingerpost.” Yet, his writing isn’t ponderous or heavy-handed; and while some prior understanding of the philosophical concepts discussed may enhance the book’s enjoyment, no great expertise in Neoplatonism or Catholic theology is required on the reader’s side. This is historic fiction at its best: engaging, thoughtful and well-researched to boot.

 

Favorite Quotes:

“Considering he was neither priest nor scholar, the young man gave sensible, thoughtful replies – the more so, perhaps, for being untrained, for he had not learned what he should believe or should not believe. Present a statement to him in flagrant contradiction to all Christian doctrine and he could be persuaded to agree on its good sense, unless he remembered it was the sort of thing of which pyres are made for the incautious.”

“Do you know, the only people I can have a conversation with are the Jews? At least when they quote scripture at you they are not merely repeating something some priest has babbled in their ear. They have the great merit of disagreeing with nearly everything I say. In fact, they disagree with almost everything they say themselves. And most importantly, they don’t think that shouting strengthens their argument.”

“[H]e initially conceived of Olivier as a man of the greatest promise destroyed by a fatal flaw, the unreasoning passion for a woman dissolving into violence, desperately weakening everything he tried to do. For how could learning and poetry be defended when it produced such dreadful results and was advanced by such imperfect creatures? At least Julien did not see the desperate fate of the ruined lover as a nineteenth-century novelist or a poet might have done, recasting the tale to create some appealing romantic hero, dashed to pieces against the unyielding society that produced him. Rather, his initial opinion – held almost to the last – was of Olivier as a failure, ruined by a terible weakness.”

“Was not Hypatia the greatest philosopher of Alexandria, and a true martyr to the old values of learning? She was torn to pieces by a mob of incensed Christians not because she was a woman, but because her learning was so profound, her skills at dialectic so extensive that she reduced all who queried her to embarrassed silence. They could not argue with her, so they murdered her.”

“She had lost herself in this old work, her personality dissolving into it, so that she had been set free. The immortality of the soul lies in its dissolution; this was the cryptic comment that so frustrated Olivier and which Julien had only ever grasped as evidence for the history of a particular school of thought. He had known all about its history, but Julia knew what it meant. He found the realization strangely reassuring.”

“His idleness was his refuge, and in this he was like many others in [occupied] France in that period; laziness became political.”

“She was looking for something I could never give her.” Again his dark eyes bored into Julia’s mind. “You have something of the same about you, young woman. Take my advice: Don’t think you will find it in another person. You won’t. It’s not there. You must find it in yourself.”

“For the first time, she did want more. She did not know what she wanted, knew that it was dangerous and that she should rest content with what she had, but she knew an emptiness deep inside her, which began to ache.”

“Felix had gone to live in a lotus land of his imagination. Where what is desired is dreamed of as already happened, where obstacles dissolve under the weight of desire, and where reality has vanished entirely.”

“And here was the moment. The end of it all, for civilization was merely another name for friendship, and friendship was coming to an end.”

“Caius was one of those who gloried in his ignorance, called his lack of letters purity, scorned any subtlety of thought or expression. A man for his time, indeed.”

“Manlius … took care in his invitations, actively sought to exclude from his circle crude and vulgar men like Caius Valerius. But they were all around; it was Manlius who lived in a dream world, and his bubble of civility was becoming smaller and smaller. Caius Valerius, powerful member of a powerful family, had never even heard of Plato. A hundred, even fifty years before, such an absurdity would have been inconceivable. Now it was surprising if such a man did know anything of philosophy, and even if it was explained, he would not wish to understand.”

“[T]he concern of man is not his future but his present, not the world but his soul. We must be just, we must strive, we must engage ourselves with the business of the world for our own sake, because through that, and through contemplation in equal measure, our soul is purified and brought closer to the divine. … Thought and deed conjoined are crucial. … The attempt must be made; the outcome is irrelevant. Right action is a pale material reflection of the divine, but reflection it is, nonetheless. Define your goal and exert reason to accomplish it by virtuous action; successs or failure is secondary.”

“Philosophy cannot be extinguished, though men will try … The spirit seeks the light, that is its nature. It wishes to return to its origin, and must forever try to reach enlightenment.”

“[Men] prefer the foolish belief and the passions of the earth [to the enlightenment of their souls]. They believe the absurd and shrink from the truth.”
“No, they do not. They are afraid, that is all. And they must remain on earth until they come to the way of leaving it.”
“And how do they leave? How is the ascent made? Must one learn virtue?”
Here she laughs. “You have read too much, and learned too little. Virtue is a road, not a destination. Man cannot be virtuous. Understanding is the goal. When that is achieved, the soul can take wing.”

“Olivier took a deep breath, then turned and bowed in farewell. Gersonides nodded in return, then thought of something.
“The manuscript you brought me, by that bishop. It argues that understanding is more important than movement. That action is virtuous only if it reflects pure comprehension, and that virtue comes from the comprehension, not the action.”
Olivier frowned. “So?”
“Dear boy, I must tell you a secret.”
“What?”
“I do believe it is wrong.”

“The point of civilization is to be civilized; the purpose of action is to perpetuate society, for only in society can philosophy truly take place.”

“Civilization depends on continually making the effort, of never giving in. It needs to be cared for by men of goodwill, protected from the dark.”

“Action is the activity of the rational soul, which abhors irrationality and must combat it or be corrupted by it. When it sees the irrationality of others, it must seek to correct it, and can do this either by teaching or engaging in public affairs itself, correcting through its practice. And the purpose of action is to enable philosophy to continue, for if men are reduced to the material alone, they become no more than beasts.”

“The evil done by men of goodwill is the worst of all … We have done terrible things, for the best of reasons, and that makes it worse.”

“I have brought peace to this land, and security,” he began.
“And what of your soul, when you use the cleverness of argument to cloak such acts? Do you think that the peace of a thousand cancels out the unjust death of one single person? It may be desirable, it may win you praise from those who have happily survived you and prospered from your deeds, but you have committed ignoble acts, and have been too proud to own them. I have waited patiently here, hoping that you would come to me, for if you understood, then some of your acts would be mitigated. But instead you send me this manuscript, proud, magisterial, and demonstrating only that you have understood nothing at all.”
“I returned to public life on your advice, madam,” he said stiffly.
“Yes; I advised it. I said if learning must die it should do so with a friend by its bedside. Not an assassin.”

“When all this is over, people will try to blame the Germans alone, and the Germans will try to blame the Nazis alone, and the Nazis will try to blame Hitler alone. They will make him bear the sins of the world. But it’s not true. You suspected what was happening, and so did I. It was already too late over a year ago. I caused a reporter to lose his job because you told me to. He was deported. The day I did that I made my little contribution to civilization, the only one that matters.”

“Odd, don’t you think? I have seen war, and invasions and riots. I have heard of massacres and brutalities beyond imagining, and I have kept my faith in the power of civilization to bring men back from the brink. And yet one women writes a letter, and my whole world falls to pieces.
You see, she is an ordinary woman. A good one, even. That’s the point … Nothing [a recognizably bad person does] can surprise or shock me, or worry me. But she denounced Julia and sent her to her death because she resented her, and because Julia is a Jew.
I thought in this simple contrast between the civilized and the barbaric, but I was wrong. It is the civilized who are the truly barbaric, and the [Nazi] Germans are merely the supreme expression of it.”

“He had volunteered early, rather than waiting to be conscripted, for he felt a duty and an obligation to serve, and believed that … being willing to fight for his country and the liberty it represented, would make some small difference. … His idealism was one of the casualties of the carnage [of Verdun].”

“[Pope] Clement waved his hands in irritation as if to dismiss the very idea. “The world is crumbling into ruin. Armies are marching. Men and women are dying everywhere, in huge numbers. Fields are abandoned and towns deserted. The wrath of the Lord is upon us and He may be intending to destroy the whole of creation. People are without leaders and direction. They want to be given a reason for this, so they can be reassured, so they will return to their prayers and their obiediences. All this is going on, and you are concerned about the safety of two Jews?”

“Every cataclysm is welcomed by somebody; there is always someone to rejoice at disaster and see in it the prospect of a new beginning and a better world.”

“Politics bores you?” Bronsen said.
Julien smiled. “It does. Apologies, sir, and it is not that I haven’t tried to be fascinated. But careful and meticulous research has suggested the hypothesis that all politicians are liars, fools, and tricksters, and I have as yet come across no evidence to the contrary. They can do great damage, and rarely any good. It is the job of the sensible man to try and protect civilization from their depradations.”

“Diplomacy and virtue do not make easy companions.”

“Virtue comes through contemplation of the divine, and the exercise of philosophy. But it also comes through public service. The one is incomplete without the other. Power without wisdom is tyranny; wisdom without power is pointless.”

“Father is a school manqué … He always wanted to write books. But he became rich instead, so is not allowed.”

“Do you wish to speak in Provençal, French, or Latin? They are all I can manage, I’m afraid.”
“Any will do,” the rabbi replied in Provençal.
“Splendid. Latin it is,” said Pope Clement.”

“A hundred francs! Oh, dear me! It is worth millions of francs, my child. But my – dealer – here tells me that in fact a picture is worth only what someone will give for it. How much money do you have?”
Julia took out her purse and counted. “Four francs and twenty sous,” she said, looking up at him sadly.
“Is that all the money you have in the world?”
She nodded.
“Then four francs and twenty sous it is.”

“This is a perfectly good picture. And if I didn’t know you, I would be impressed and charmed. But I do know you.”
He thought some more, wondering whether he dared say precisely what he felt, for he knew he could never explain exactly why the idea came to him. “It’s the painting of a dutiful daughter,” he said eventually, looking at her cautiously to see her reaction. “You want to please. You are always aware of what the person looking at this picture will think of it. Because of that you’ve missed something important. Does that make sense?”
She thought, then nodded. “All right,” she said grudgingly and with just a touch of despair in her voice. “You win.”
Julien grunted. “Have another go, then. I shall come back and come back until you figure it out.”
“And you’ll know?”
“You’ll know. I will merely get the benefit of it.”