Sherlock Holmes and The Case of The Laboured Modernisation

From The Social Affairs Unit blog on January 5th 2005.

Since this was written, and even more “modernised” version, the BBC’s “Sherlock”, has been made and widely celebrated. While I initially quite enjoyed Sherlock, it was always rather tricksy and self-consciously “modern.” I also increasingly found the unreality of the plots and the contrived twists off-putting. The less-heralded US series Elementary was a more human scale modernisation – and Jonny Lee Miller a better Sherlock.

We also had two movie Sherlocks with Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, somewhat closer to contemporary action movies  I am sure now a rewatch of”Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking” would seem rather quaint. Re-reading this review, it strikes me as a more fundamental “modernisation” than either Sherlock or Elementary; what is “updated” is not the physical setting but the attitudes and practices of the profiler/forensic TV show.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Laboured Modernisation

Posted by Seamus Sweeney

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking
BBC1, 26th December 2004

Inevitably, each age will have its own approach to the major texts of its literature and the great plays of its dramatic history. We simply cannot view the treatment of Shylock as equitably as an Elizabethan audience might have, for instance. This is surely uncontroversial and clear. It’s another thing to insist, as so many do, that we need to “reinvent” or “reimagine” the classics, “improve on it” in the manner of Romeo Coates polishing up Shakespearean soliloquies. “Versions” of Shakespeare or the ancient Athenian tragedians in which contemporary political and moral attitudes are transplanted wholesale onto the originals are ever popular – for surely no modern audience could sit through Aeschylus or The Tempest without the requisite “relevance” and lashings of contemporary politics and preoccupations?

The Sherlock Holmes stories can hardly be claimed to be works of art of the equal of the above examples. However, they are revived as often – more so perhaps, since Holmes is claimed to be the most portrayed character in the history of the cinema, ahead of Dracula. The world of Holmes is both more and less amenable to the reinventing imagination of directors than that of Shakespeare or Sophocles.

Less so, because they are set in a very specific time and place, a landscape with instantly recognisable landmarks; Mrs Hudson, Hansom cabs, pea-soupers – all instantly recognisable dramatic shorthand. We see the silhouette of a deerstalker-clad face with meerschaum pipe – a popular image that owes much to the illustrator Sidney Paget and the actor William Gillette who incarnated Holmes on stage, rather than anything in the stories – and instantly we are in Holmesland. There is something of the security blanket about the Holmes world, a literary pill to banish all cares. One can see why it makes sense to produce another Holmes drama in the Christmas season.

More so, because from the very start Holmesland was the creation of imaginations other than Conan Doyle’s. Doyle famously disliked his creation, hurling Holmes off the Reichenbach falls in what would be a failed attempt to kill him off. Doyle wrote the stories with scant regard for the creation of a mythos and chronological missteps, inconsistencies in character and even appearance and similar slips abound. From the never used phrase “Elementary, My dear Watson” to the impedimenta of Paget and Gillette and children’s adaptations featuring mice or Bassett hounds as Holmes, the Holmes image has long departed from the control of Conan Doyle.

The legions of Holmes fanatics do their best to reconcile the inconsistencies in the “Canon”, to use the jargon for the original Doyle stories. It’s an uphill task. In the very first “Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D.”, A Study in Scarlet, Watson makes a catalogue of Holmes’ knowledge, which concludes his awareness of literature, philosophy and astronomy is precisely “nil”. Holmes is cheerily, proudly ignorant of the Copernican system. Later in the Canon, of course, Holmes declaims Goethe in German, cites Carlyle, and generally displays polymathic breadth of knowledge.

Holmes is therefore a tempting target for reimagining and revising, as well as a reliable ratings draw. BBC1 were therefore onto a sure winner with their Boxing Day presentation of Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, a brand-new tale of Holmes and Watson with Rupert Everett and Ian Hart incarnating the consulting detective and his medical sidekick respectively.

Holmes’ cocaine habit is irresistible for modern directors, hopeful as they are that it lends him a sort of street cred, and it came as little surprise that we first glimpse Holmes lounging in an opium den. Meanwhile, a body turns up in the foggy Thames estuary (London is fog bound more or less throughout the action), and Watson turns up at the autopsy. Here we see one of the major influences on the producers – the current vogue for pathologist-heroes, the likes of the various CSI shows and Silent Witness. In this case, however, the pathologist is not a hero, quickly deciding that the corpse is of a prostitute.

Watson, having bullied Holmes out of his sottish torpor, reveals that the corpse is actually of a virgo intacta and it is left for Holmes to conclude that the young lady is a daughter of the aristocracy. The young lady’s cold mother at first denies that the cadaver could be her daughter’s, and barely reacts when persuaded to reconsider by Holmes. Her equally cold-fish husband is a portrayed as a creep of the first water, engaging Holmes’ services with barely a glimmer of grief.

I thought for a while that we would be in for a story of the Unfeeling Aristocracy and their perverse passions. However, another young, aristocratic debutante is abducted and found hanging from a lamp-post on Westminster Bridge. Her parents are sincerely grieved, expressed in televisual terms by lots and lots of weeping. The stoniness of the first set of parents is left hanging, lurking until it too plays a role in the unsatisfactory denouement. We are plunged into the pursuit of a sexual sadist, a fetishist who is abducting young ladies of the aristocracy and dressing them in the clothes of his previous victim before killing them in turn.

Watson’s fiancée, a Ms (or was it Mrs?) Vandeleur, then takes the stage. She is a psychotherapist, who hands Sherlock (with whom she is on ostentatiously first-name terms) a volume of Krafft-Ebbing and rattles off the names of as many sexual deviances as possible. Later she pops up again, after another young aristocratic female is abducted, but released by the killer (on account, it seems, of having had surgical correction of a club foot) and undergoes a sort of debriefing from Mrs Vandeleur.

The other major preoccupation and stylistic role model of the drama is thereby revealed. The psychological profiler, that shadowy, seemingly omniscient figure as portrayed in the likes of Cracker, has traveled in the time machine for the updating. Later Holmes gives a speech to the detectives investigating the crimes that echoes so many serial killer movies, describing in psychological detail “the type of man we’re dealing with”: “a sexual deviant … a ruthless killer”.

Of course, Holmesians have claimed Holmes as a forefather of psychological profiling for years. In The Boscombe Valley Mystery, for instance, he describes the murderer as:

A tall man, left-handed, limps with his right leg, wears thick-soled shooting boots and a gray cloak, smokes Indian cigars, uses a cigar-holder, and carries a blunt pen-knife in his pocket.

But this is not profiling in the Cracker sense, or in the sense of The Case of the Silk Stocking. In Boscombe Valley, Holmes’ precision is based on observation of the physical environment, and all his conclusions are on physical characteristics. In the case of the Silk Stocking, however, presumably under the influence of the Krafft-Ebbing, Holmes produces a litany of psychological insights.

There was much to admire in this production. Period authenticity and the physical atmosphere of a Holmesland were well created. The music helped create this atmosphere, but one had the constant sense of having heard it before in other films and TV dramas. Indeed, Boccherini’s La Musica Notturna Dell Strade di Madrid No. 6 was used at the very end of the film, as it was in Master and Commander to rather similar effect. A wonderful piece of music and a rousing closing theme it may be, but there is something rather low-rent and unimaginative about this recycling.

Rupert Everett made an effective Holmes; able to capture the louché lassitude with the underlying reserve of boundless energy of Holmes at the beginning of so many of the stories, and the blend of solicitude and the insensitive focus on cracking a case that marks his dealing with the victims of crime. He does not have the hawk-like face of Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett, which may be why Ian Hart, reprising his role as Watson from the 2002 BBC Hound of the Baskervilles, is not the Watson of popular image. Just as the deerstalker and meerschaum pipe were Paget’s legacy, our image of Watson as a rotund buffoon derives from Nigel Bruce in the role opposite Rathbone rather than anything in the stories.

Hart’s vigorous, rather irritable, evidently intelligent Watson, may seem a more suitable right-hand-man, but there is something lacking in the chemistry between them. As well as being that bit dimmer than Holmes, to give the readers or audience a representative in the action, Watson should be an emollient, good-tempered figure.

Overall, this was a disappointment for two major reasons. Firstly, the key twist in the tale. Presumably the drama will be repeated, and possibly released on DVD, so I won’t divulge it here. But this twist is spectacularly lame. Correcting stories written for English composition in primary school, teachers would reserve their strongest condemnation for stories that ended with some variation of the words “I woke up. It was just a dream”. (Do primary school teachers now dare indulge in such common-sense criticism?) The resolution of The Case of the Silk Stocking is nearly as bad a cop-out.

Perhaps the producers could cite Conan Doyle as precedent – in the later stories, which all too often bear the signs of literary water-treading, he would increasingly enlist a deus ex machina, with obscure Indian toxins and killer jellyfish being enlisted to provide solutions to narrative problems.

Secondly and even more fundamentally, there seems something jarring in matching Holmes with a series of sordid sex crimes. It is like setting Miss Marple on the Soham murders, or Poirot on the Wests. The great literary detectives deal with schemes and plots, not the banal lust-driven crimes of the killer (or killers – still don’t want to give too much away) in this production. Sexual killers may be cunning in their way, but their crimes can hardly be claimed to possess the certain elegance and mystery that matches Holmes’ efforts. Krafft-Ebbing, debriefing, psychological profiling – all belong to a different world than the one Conan Doyle created. It says something about today’s television producers that they feel the need to stuff all this into every drama rooted in the past.

Nthposition review of “The Book of Skin”, Steven Connor, 2003

This book is a good example of contemporary (well, 14 year old at this stage) academic writing in the humanities – jargon and theory rich, concerned with unpicking privilege and inequality (and yet its very existence based on the privilege and hierarchy of the academy)

Over time I was less harsh on academic books on “readability” grounds. I never “pursued”  Armando Favazza’s  work on self-laceration, or at least I don’t remember Armando Favazza until just now.



The Book of Skin

[ bookreviews ]

“I want to be able to follow out (and follow others in following out) the intrigues (from that same root, tricoter), the knitting, the sifting, the inriddling of history… I expect to end up materially implicated, perhaps incriminated in the things I am up to here, in the skin… I am to be found writing here, though, not as the skin’s inquisitor but as its amanuensis” Thus, towards the end of his first chapter, does Steven Connor proclaim his intention in writing this book.

Reading The Book of Skin is a formidable undertaking. On the first page Connor refers to Barthes, Emmanuel Levinas, Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Baudrillard, and “the abiding presence of skin in the work of Jean-François Lyotard.” The reader no doubt has her own opinion on the work of the Parisian postmodernists, but even their most avid fan can hardly claim their influence on the clarity of prose, certainly in English, has been good. Connor, as befits, one supposes, a Professor of Modern Literature and Theory at Birkbeck College, is immersed in their tendency to verbiage, and to tendentious (or at least debatable) statements delivered with a confidence that brooks little opposition. I could only bring myself to read a chapter a night, afterwards soothing myself with the most vapid airport novels I could find. The tiny typeface, evocative of particularly daunting textbooks, does nothing to encourage the reader.

It is invidious to quote in isolation fragments which do, in fairness, make more (but not much more) sense in context. Nevertheless, I feel obliged to give the reader a flavour of the verbal environment of the book: “The two kinds of skin markings, letter and picture, discourse and figure, encode absolute and empty time. The law that enacts its everlasting marks is a law of vengeance, measure and ordeal, enacted in linear time. The marks of law mark the entry of law into time.” Another sample: “In fact, for Didier Houzel, the non-orientable manifold is in no sense a desirable or healthy condition. It typifies the experience of the autistic child, whose life is the enactment of an unmasterable internal turbulence.” Everything seems to either “enact” or “encode” something else, and often on the flimsiest of pretexts.

My favourite sentence, and the moment when I almost abandoned the book altogether: “Lyotard’s concern is with the topography and the temporality of this typography.” I’m sure it is.

From the occasional binding of books in human skin (John Horwood’s murder trial and execution were recorded in a volume bound in his own skin) to the differing portrayals of male and female bodybuilders in muscle magazines (the male bodies shinier, harder-looking than the female), the cultural history of the skin is fascinating. Connor displays great erudition – references to Flann O’Brien, to Chaucer and Shakespeare, to Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers carving “4 REAL” into his arm, to the urban legend of Shirley Eaton’s death during the making of Goldfinger after being painted in gold among many others – which leavens the work somewhat. When not cramming in as many references to French thinkers as he can, he is a witty writer, for instance when writing of now-obsolete terms for colour: “the term ‘isabelle’, to signify a rather soiled-looking calico, in memory of the Infanta Isabella, daughter of Philip II of Spain, who vowed not to change her underwear until her forces had taken the city of Ostend. (The grubbiness of the shade they finally attained may be gauged from the fact the siege lasted from 1601 to 1604)”

The early chapters (which “consider the various forms of the skin’s visibility”) are particularly freighted with theoretical ballast, while later chapters (“discussions of aspects of the skin which do not begin or end with the skin’s appearance”) – where the literary theory is in the background, and a particular aspect of skin is discussed in each – are far more readable. Even here the ghosts of the Left Bank rise to haunt the reader – for example at the end of a lucid chapter on the persistent idea that while pregnant were pregnant, any shocks or cravings they experienced would be transmitted to the foetus as a suitable skin marking (for example, desire for a particular fruit would transmit itself into a birthmark in the shape of that fruit, which would change with the seasons in accordance with the ripening of the fruit) Connor can’t resist a bit more theory: “The law of beings is subject to the accident of adversity, which is its own prior law.”

Nevertheless, the later chapters, put bluntly, “make more sense” – one even sees how the theory has its place. Perhaps Connor would have been better served by reversing the order of the chapters, and discussing “the various forms of the skin’s visibility” after the paradoxically more concrete “discussions of aspects of the skin which do not begin or end with the skin’s appearance.”

It would barbarous to dismiss this book simply because it is difficult, but it would be equally wrong to praise it for that reason. Alberto Manguel’s Reading Pictures combined erudition and learning with a clarity of expression and even, at times, an entertainers touch. There is much in The Book of Skin to provoke thought and discussion, many references to works (for example, Armando Favazza’s on self-laceration) which intrigue (and which I intend to pursue), yet one wishes Connor hadn’t made the book such hard work.


A-Bomb Dream #2 – 2004 review of “100 Suns” by Michael Light in

A-Bomb Dream #2 – 2004 review of “100 Suns” by Michael Light in

Nuclear angst was a staple for those who were old enough to be aware of the oft-trumpeted apocalyptic threat in the 1980s. In the 1990s it became a lot less real, and even the current revival of Coldish War between the USA and Russia has not, it seems, made the nuclear nightmare quite as vivid as it was. In the previous post I resurrected my review of Stephen Walker’s “Shockwave” about the Hiroshima bomb and the events leading up to it.All the undeniable technical and logistical brilliance ultimately came down to the dealing out of terrible deaths by the thousand. “100 Suns” was an even more vivid illustration of the reality of nuclear weapons. There is an absorbing gallery of the images at Michael Light’s Site

100 SUNS: MOTH/2 Kilotons/Nevada/1955


100 suns

by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]

“Nagasaki destroyed by the magic of science is the nearest man has yet approached to the realization of dreams that even during the safe immobility of sleep are accustomed to develop into nightmares of anxiety.” – JG Ballard, The Terminal Beach


San Francisco photographer Michael Light has assembled 100 photographs of United States atmospheric nuclear tests in the Nevada desert and various atolls in the Pacific from 1945 to the relocation of such tests underground in 1962. Many of these images have been until recently classified. The title comes from Robert Oppenheimer’s quote from the Bhagavad Gita, on seeing the successful test of ‘Trinity’ in June 1945: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst forth at once in the sky, that would be like the splendour of the Mighty One… I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Oppenheimer could have evoked Yeats’ “a terrible beauty is born”, for “terrible beauty” is the term for these majestic images of barimaginable destructive power.

100 SUNS: TRINITY /21 Kilotons/New Mexico/1945

There’s something about the scale of the destruction wrought by nuclear weapons that beggars the imaginative faculty. The beauty of 100 Suns is a numbing one, image after image of gigantic explosions, of fierce red sunsets that promise apocalypse. The mushroom cloud was naturally co-opted by Andy Warhol for one of his silkscreen reproductions of mass-produced images of disaster, 1965’s ‘Atomic Bomb’. The images in 100 Suns resensitise; this is a glimpse into the inferno, the blood-red sunrises and sunsets of the Pacific tests teaser trailers for the last day of human life. We realise again what nuclear weapons mean.

The most incredible images are those in which human beings share the frame with the fireworks; the US military wanted to assess the ability of combat troops to carry out operations in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear strike – thus an initially banal image of helicopters flying towards the horizon takes on new significance once one realises that they are flying towards the debris cloud of a nuclear explosion. We see troops huddle in trenches, showered by sparks from the detonation of ‘Simon’ before “ground and air shockwaves will toss them like dolls, then fill their mouths with radioactive dust.” We see strange, almost bleached images of military brass viewing, clad in eerie protective goggles. Another image simply shows five GIs staring open-mouthed at the ‘Dog’ test – significantly the only named individuals to appear in the photos. Light’s selection manages the seemingly impossible – humanising the moment of nuclear detonation.

Most of the images were taken by the Air Force 1352nd Photographic Group based at Lookout Mountain Station, a secret Hollywood facility which utilised the latest photographic technology for the military. The scale of Lookout Mountain’s activity can be appreciated by the fact that 1946’s ‘Baker’ test at Bikini Atoll was filmed and photographed to such a degree that a world wide shortage of film stock ensued for a number of months.

The tests were given bland – ‘Stokes’, ‘Hood’, ‘Sequoia’ – or facetious – ‘Little Feller’ – names, (and why have military operations now been given names like ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, as opposed to the cryptic domestic objects and fauna of yesteryear?) almost comically at variance with the literally apocalyptic seriousness of the operation.

Light’s closing essay and concluding captions for each photo ain much fascinating, terrible information. Phrases like “an explosion greater than all those of World Wars I and II combined” recur with numbing frequency. In their dry way, with their litany of desert towns ravaged by tumours, islanders relocated and official deceit and denial at every turn, the captions illuminate the lunacy that surrounded the whole nuclear enterprise. The victims of nuclear testing – the town of St George, Utah; the still uninhabitable Bikini Atoll; the Japanese trawler Daigo Fukuryu Maru; John Wayne, Susan Hayward and other members of the cast and crew of The Conqueror – their fate is one which once (and now again?) seemed to threaten us all.

Of course, there would be a place for a Soviet and indeed Chinese 100 Suns, with their own catalogues of casualties and cover-ups. The publicity material for the book claims “one of the virtues of the book is its emphasis on data not on argument”, implying that this in a way a sober, “value-free” presentation of images. This is true up to a point; there are no rending images of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, Light’s essay is sober and powerful, and concludes with the fervent and (I would hope) incontestable invocation: “May no further nuclear detonation photographs be made, ever.” However, it can hardly be a coincidence that the chronology that concludes the book includes the accession of George W Bush, and that of no other President. Not when the chronology later observes, in its entry on the February 2002 publication of the Nuclear Posture Review, that “not since the first term of the Reagan Administration are nuclear weapons so emphasised in US defensive strategy”

And of course merely presenting these images, without any comment of any kind is a far from “value-free” act. This is the reality of nuclear testing. Light observes that the transfer of testing underground brought cultural invisibility and secrecy. “Photographs only tell us about the surface of things, about how things look. When it’s all we have, however, it’s enough to help understanding. It exists. It happened. It is happening.”

A-Bomb Dream #1 – review of Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima by Stephen Walker – 2005, Nthposition

My more recent Management Secrets of the Manhattan Project post in The Dabbler was inspired by reading Leslie Groves’ “Now It Can Be Told”, but it was this book that inspired me to read “Now it Can Be Told”



by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]

In the foreword to Einstein’s Monsters, Martin Amis dilated on how terrible nuclear weapons made him feel. They made Martin Amis feel really bad. I guess most of us can empathise, but nuclear weapons made Martin Amis feel really, really bad. He wanted to vomit. You got the feeling he wanted to perform other bodily functions. If nuclear weapons were really, really bad, the thought of nuclear weapons was, perhaps surprisingly, rather worse. Amis quoted some, to be honest rather mild, examples of nuclear jargon and, metaphorically, turned to the reader his face a rictus of disgust, and said “look at that! Unimaginable. Unimaginable!” Martin seemed to be doing his best to preserve his moral purity by telling us how unimaginable nuclear weapons are. It’s a precursor of his style in Koba The Dread, from which one might imagine Stalin’s worst crime was destabilising the Amis-Hitchens axis.

As Peter Hennessy points out in his introduction to The Secret State, his scholarly study of the elaborate network of bunkers and security installations drawn up by Whitehall in response to the nuclear threat of the Cold War, the men and women who worked on this were not parodic Dr Strangelove figures, but ordinary enough human beings. When it comes to considering the existence of nuclear weapons, wringing our hands and saying how unimaginable it all is and how much we’d like to vomit won’t do.

Another trope often used discussing things nuclear – more particularly the Manhattan project – is to ply up the mythic aspect of it all. Robert Oppenheimer is cast as Faust, or Prometheus, with General Leslie Groves as Mephistopheles. This is the mode of James Thackara’s America’s Children, and it would seem of the forthcoming John Adam’s opera Dr Atomic. While artistically satisfying, and hinting at perennial themes about the hubris (and, one fears but hopes not, nemesis) of technical knowledge, this tends to obscure that the Manhattan project – and the subsequent use of the bomb as an instrument of war – was a gigantic technical problem that became an enormous moral and political one.

Stephen Walker focuses on three weeks from the Trinity Test on July 15 1945 up to the 24 hours following the dropping of “Little Boy” on Hiroshima. The wider political and moral issues are alluded to, and reading carefully, it is clear his sympathies are with those who opposed the bomb’s use, or felt it should be used as a demonstration. However, this is a work of straight reportage. I would hazard a guess that most of nthposition’s readership would be anti-nuclear and regard the development and use of the bomb as an unalloyed disaster, yet readers of every point of view will be swept along in the breathless narrative. Such issues as the enormous toll of the invasion of Okinawa, and the projected casualties of a Japanese invasion, are discussed, although readers will have to go to other sources to fully explore these topics.

From the Trinity test site to Hiroshima in the days before the bombing to Potsdam where Truman finally had the trump card over Stalin (who, via Klaus Fuchs, knew all about the bomb already) that allowed him to feel a world statesman at last to Tinian Island where the 509th Composite Group – who dropped the two bombs that killed perhaps a quarter of a million people and whose only wartime casualty was a military policeman who injured his hand disarming an old Japanese shell – were awaiting a mission that they had only been told would “win the war.” (only in flight were the crew of Enola Gay told they were “delivering” an atomic bomb) Walker’s story spans the globe and is yet strangely intimate. This is the story, ultimately, of a few men.

Lacking an index, and occasionally written in “journalistese” (the adjective “brilliant” is thrown around rather too liberally to describe the Manhattan project scientists, for instance. It may be true, but it isn’t all that helpful), the book nevertheless cracks on at an impressive pace. The Manhattan Project story is familiar, the story of how the bomb was actually dropped is less so. It exerts an equally terrible fascination. Like the documentary maker he is, Walker has an eye for the telling details.

For instance, those who like to see Robert Oppenheimer as a bruised spirit, manipulated by the Machiavellian General Groves, readying the bomb despite his best intentions, might be interested in a couple of cameos from Walker. Immediately after the success of the Trinity test, “his old friend Isidor Rabi watched him as he strode across the camp. Something in Oppenheimer’s bearing chilled his flesh. ‘I’ll never forget the way he walked,’ he said later. ‘It was like High Noon – I think it’s the best I could describe it – this kind of strut. He’d done it.’ Gone was the fragile self-doubt, replaced by something quite different: the intoxicating certainties of power.”

Later, after learning from Groves that – in the words of an announcer who, in fairness to him, had no idea what exactly he was announcing – that there had been a “successful combat drop” of one of Los Alamos’ “units” – Oppenheimer entered the lab’s weekly colloquium of scientists: “Edward Teller, the father of the future hydrogen bomb, recalled a colleague shouting out, ‘One down!’ Another scientist never forgot Oppenheimer’s behaviour as he mounted the stage: ‘He entered that meeting like a prizefighter.’ And like a prizefighter he clasped his hands together over his head in the classic boxer’s victory salute.”

These glimpses into Oppenheimer’s psyche are typical. There are lots of similar touches. In a way it serves as a starting point for further exploration. We read of Secretary of War Harry Stimson as he tried to push for a final diplomatic solution – but too gently, and too late. He did manage to restrain Groves’ enthusiasm for destroying Kyoto, the traditional Japanese capital. Stimson’s affection for the city stemmed from two visits he had made with his wife in the Thirties. While Groves thought that the destruction of the beautiful cultural centre would smash Japanese morale instantly, Stimson feared – or stated he feared, for who knows if this cultured man perhaps really feared being too easily able to visualise the destruction that would be wrought – that this would lead to even more suicidal defiance. Thus Kyoto was spared, to Hiroshima’s cost.

We read too of the men who made up the 509th Composite Group, of its driven, methodical commander Colonel Paul Tibbets, who didn’t mind what wildness the crack pilots in the Composite Group got up to, as long as they Seeing General Leslie Groves as Mephistopheles may overplay the mythic overtones a little, but he certainly had a preternatural genius for picking the perfect men for each job. Oppenheimer’s secretary later bluntly claimed that the married Groves “was almost certainly in love with Oppenheimer. She remembered Groves saying, ‘he has the bluest eyes you’ve ever seen, and they look right through you.'” Perhaps after all the Faust-and-Mephistopheles mythologising is done with, we could see the extraordinary relationship as something closer to Tristan and Isolde – an impossible love consummated only in oblivion.

The early chapters concentrate mainly on the Americans. As the book progresses, Walker introduces the stories of the citizens of Hiroshima. There’s Isao Wada, a volunteer in a suicide boat squadron which would on August 6 1945 act as life savers rather than destroyers. Wada, as enthusiastic and as brainwashed as any other Japanese before that date – he did volunteer for a suicide squadron after all – thought immediately on the bomb’s impact that “The boats were irrelevant now. It was obvious to Wada that the enemy who had done this were far beyond anything he and his fellow cadets could do. Their bombs were too big.” There are doctors and teenage schoolgirls (diverted to war work) and photographers and the whole panoply of human life. There is, inevitably, a sense in which their stories focuses on the details of their ordinary life, while the American stories are all military or scientific or political or a mix of all three.

This is not a “final word” on Hiroshima, on the Manhattan Project, on the history of atomic weaponry since. It is a fast-paced book, as exciting as a thriller, about three weeks that in every sense shook the world. We know what happens, but we keep reading. Like Moondust, Andrew Smith’s account of the moon landings, it restores the strangeness, the technical brilliance, “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing” – but in this case the result was apocalyptic destruction rather than a brief moment of inspiration. The statement that August 6 1945 changed the world forever is a cliché. This book forces the reader to realise the truth of that statement. Stephen Walker’s achievement of telling a barely believable story without hyperbole or excess mythologising deserves wide recognition and readership.


Nthposition review of The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud and the Search for Hidden Universes, 2004

 One of the most memorable books I reviewed for nthposition. I have written before that time has modified some of my judgments, usually tempering enthusiasms a little. The years since have not, I think, changed the relative positions of Einstein and Freud all that much in the intellectual firmament. Here’s an article on their 1927 meeting from a Slovene website…


The invisible century

Richard Panek


by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]

The first thing that surprised me about this book was that it existed at all. Richard Panek, who has been a science writer for the New York Times and Esquire, has written an exciting, fast-paced account of how Einstein and Freud, the two Jewish titans who would be expelled from the pure corpus of Aryan science by the Nazis, exploded our view of ourselves.

For while Einstein’s status as a demigod of science is unchallenged, despite some carping biographies and his refusal to accept the possibility that God might play dice, Freud is barely regarded as a scientist anymore. Einstein has become the archetype, the literal icon (what a pity that wonderful word icon is now so grossly overused, describing footballers and 10-day wonder pop singers) of 20th century science. The title of one of the many books written decrying Freud alone point to his loss of status, ‘Freudian Fraud’, epitomises many people’s feelings about Freudianism. At best a waste of time, at worst a sinister quasireligious pseudoscience – this is the widespread view of Freudianism.

Freud has been steadily attacked over the 66 years since his death. As his papers and correspondence have continued to be published, ethics questionable by the standards of any day and a cavalier dogmatism have become documented. As psychiatry and clinical psychology become more and more driven by the need to be “evidence-based” and the concomitant drive for efficiency, the long-term treatment that is psychodynamic psychotherapy is often derided as a timewasting “therapy for those with deep pockets”, the ‘YAWIS’ (young, attractive, wealthy, intelligent, successful)

Thus, to encounter a book which treats Einstein and Freud as equals is something of a surprise. Panek deals well with the many and varied criticisms of both. However, the general tone of the book is one of admiration. These men revealed the hidden universes of relativity and the unconscious, proving the truth uttered by Hamlet that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of your philosophy, Horatio.”

Panek begins with the one and only meeting between Freud and Einstein, during the New Year’s Holiday season of 1927. Freud was staying with one of his sons in Berlin, and Einstein called on him. As Panek writes, “Freud and Einstein shared a native language, German, but their respective professional vocabularies had long since diverged, to the point that they now seemed virtually irreconcilable.” Freud wrote to a friend afterwards that “he understands as much about psychology as I do about physics, so we had a very pleasant talk.”

This meeting is the starting point for six breathlessly exciting chapters. It is one of the best explications of Einstein’s thinking in a historical context that I have read. The story of the exhaustion of late-19th century physics is well-known; the apparent belief that all that could be known was known suffuses the physics of the day. The difficult, daydreaming Zurich patent clerk would change all that.

What is less well remembered is how deeply it was felt in neurology and psychiatry – from today’s perspective, disciplines nascent in extremis – that the end of psychology was in sight. With a good enough microscope, the brain would yield up its secrets as easily as the rest of the body had once anatomy began to proceed in a scientific manner. The French mathematician Pierre-Simon de Laplace wrote in the late 1700s that “an intelligence knowing, at a given instance of time, all forces acting in nature, as well as the momentary position of all things of which the universe consists, would be able to comprehend the motion of the largest bodies of the world. Nothing would be uncertain, both past and future would be present.” Laplace’s idea was taken up not just by physicists grappling with the mechanics of the “largest bodies of the world” but by the new psychologists also.

Panek traces the development of 19th century neurology, its splendid achievement in identifying so many neuroanatomical and indeed neurocellular structures, and its corresponding failure to achieve a Laplace-like understanding of the mind. The neuron was not the end of psychology. Freud, it is often forgotten, trained as a neurologist and always claimed a rigorously scientific worldview. Seeing himself as a researcher first and foremost, he was forced to take up lucrative clinical practice to support his wife and family. This practice would be the research that secured Freud’s fame – or infamy – forever. He began to explore the defence mechanisms of the people who came to consult him, their resistance to exploring certain topics or to express certain thoughts, and that very resistance became the stuff of what psychoanalysis would become.

Panek tells his story superbly. The chapters rattle by. Freud once wrote that the years of struggle, in retrospect, are the ones that fill a man’s heart most, and both of these parallels lives are dominated by the years of (relative) obscurity. This is perfectly proper in a book about the ideas of these two men rather than their lives, and makes a refreshing change from some scientific biographies that concentrate at great length on the later, public figure, and skimp over the early breakthroughs that made the subject worthy of attention in the first place.

Einstein’s relativity and Freud’s unconscious are revealed as the pivotal events in, not just science in the general sense, but in our own understanding of ourselves. Even if you are utterly dismissive of Freud and all psychoanalysis, or in the less likely circumstance that you are utterly dismissive of Einstein and all relativity, I urge you to continue your argument with this book.

Nthposition review of Pieces for the Left Hand, J Robert Lennon, 2005

Now this would be classed as flash fiction , I am not sure if the term existed in 2005 but it didn’t flash (ho ho) into my mind. Another piece from – hopefully not completely gone from the world writ on water that is the internet…


Pieces for the left hand

by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]

There’s a form of literary snobbery that holds that the bigger a book, the better. To be worthwhile, a fiction must be Important; and to be Important, a fiction must be large. We are a long way from Telemachus, who held that ‘a big book is a big evil.’ In this age of literary elephantiasis, where biographies of the most modest literary or historical figures regularly weigh in at well over the 1,000-page mark, where a novel is not a novel unless it approaches the dimensions of the phone book, the nice things Polonius and various others have said about brevity have been forgotten.

Of course, to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and in suitably Newtonian fashion some writers turn to the brief, the concise. Last year, the poet Don Paterson brought out The Book of Shadows, a well-received attempt to revive the ultimate mini-literary form – the aphorism.

The small story – by ‘small’ I mean a page or two pages, around 200 or 300 words long at most, rather than a short story as such – has had distinguished practitioners in the past. It is a literary form that has ancient roots. The parables of the New Testament echo in those fragments of Kafka, and those laconic miniatures of Borges that haunt the imagination longer than most deskbusting Important New Novels. The readers of the early days of universal education and widely diffused literacy were rich in small, wonderful stories. Johann Peter Hebel, the German educationalist and journalist, wrote in the early 19th Century a series of ‘house friend’ almanacs that featured tiny stories, one of which, ‘Unexpected Reunion’, Kafka described as “the most wonderful story of all time”. Wittgenstein reportedly carried a small volume of Hebel stories with him at all times, and if you feel like emulating him, Penguin Classics have published a collection called The Treasure Chest which I can heartily recommend.

J Robert Lennon’s Pieces For the Left Hand is subtitled ‘100 Anecdotes’. It consists of exactly that – 100 mini-stories, told in an artless, conversational style. In the Preface, which itself reads a little like one of the stories that follow, we are told about “the author of these stories” – a 47-year-old man, living with his college Professor life in upstate New York, “unemployed, and satisfied to be unemployed”. Rather than working – though in the past he worked what, it is hinted, must have been a tedious job to support his family while his wife began her academic career, “he walks for hours, cutting through fields and forests, hiking along the shoulders of roads”. These walks have begun “to shake things loose in the author’s mind”, and memories accumulate until, sifting through them, he tells himself the stories in his mind. “He is happy with them as they are: ephemeral, protean.”

The stories are grouped in seven sections: ‘Town and Country’, ‘Mystery and Confusion’, ‘Lies and Blame’, ‘Work and Money’, ‘Parents and Children’, ‘Artists and Professors’, and ‘Doom and Madness.’ Some of the anecdotes seem inconsequential, or are burdened with a too-pat irony. But the beauty of a book like this is that the next story is not too far away, and it might be funny or moving or wise or just odd.

It is of course invidious to further compress the already small stories that make up the collection. Some samples: two twins (male and female), turn out years later not even to be related and marry, much to the disgust of the townsfolk who still feel they ‘should’ be brother and sister. A nearby small town the author visits seems deadened, glazed over with grief; his initial sympathy on learning that the inhabitants are mourning the deaths of 11 schoolchildren in a fire is tempered when he discovers that this happened 40 years before. The section ‘Artists and Professors’ contains the most artificial stories, rather too steeped in an over-literary preciosity for my taste, but it also one of the most amusing: ‘Mikeworld’, the story of a 10th planet, the invention of a conceptual artist, which becomes part of the official science of a newly independent South Pacific state.

The stories in this book are not vital or arresting in the way Borges or Kafka’s pieces can be. There is something too much of the bucolic contentment of the narrator’s ambles about them. Also, there is a lack of proper names – we read endlessly about “our Mayor” or “a prominent businessman” or “our local paper’s film critic” – all of which may be intended to convey universality, but means that few of the characters gain more than archetypal identity.

Having said that, it is perhaps the perfect book for someone who has to make a succession of short, frequent bus or Tube journeys (full disclosure: for this review, I read the book on a series of such bus trips). It is always stimulating and never boring. It is a wonderful book for dipping into and reading a few stories at a time; indeed, I suspect that the impact would the lost and the faults enumerated above would be more obvious if one read it all in one sitting.

Nthposition review of The Spider’s Web, Joseph Roth

It seems that Nthposition is no more, or hopefully temporarily down (on another note, The Dabbler, which had seemed to have expired, now seems seems to be back) Here is a somewhat random review of Joseph Roth’s novella The Spider’s Web.


The spider’s web
by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]
Some authors have a greater renown in languages other than their own. For instance, Edgar Allan Poe has often been regarded with a fastidious scorn by English and American literati, with Henry James pronouncing with high-minded disdain that “an enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection” and Eliot that “Poe had a powerful intellect was undeniable but it seems to me the intellect of a highly gifted young man before puberty.” The French, however, went loopy for Poe at an early stage, with the Bostonian alcoholic and child-marrier tapping deep into the part of the French collective subconscious that would beget Baudelaire and surrealism. Or the part that dug Jerry Lewis.

Other writers however have their reputations imprisoned firmly within the confines of their language, at the mercy of their translators – and even then how many subtleties, how many interplays of idiom and dialect, can be missed. Joseph Roth, for a long time, seemed to be such an author – highly regarded in the German speaking world, less known without. Perhaps in Anglophone countries his name is too easily confused with both Philip and Henry Roth. (Note to self: I must take steps to doom Seamus Heaney to obscurity. Though I fear it’s a bit late now)

Roth, one of the most famous and highly paid journalists of the Weimar Republic, became the chronicler of the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that extraordinary, almost accidental political institution that saw enormous intellectual ferment, with figures from Wittgenstein to Freud to Adler to Gödel, mixed with the rise of anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic forces such as the Guido von List societies. In novels such as The Radetzky March and Right and Left, Roth chronicled the last days of the doomed Central European culture that flourished under the Empire. Contemplating the subsequent history of the nations that made up the Austro-Hungarian Empire, monarchy does not seem like such a bad system after all.

This, Roth’s debut novel, follows Theodor Lohse, a personification of the resentments and hatreds of the post war German. He was a lieutenant during the First World War, and now as the novel begins is a law student and tutor to a Jewish jeweller’s son. He lives unhappily with his mother and sisters, who “couldn’t forgive Theodor for having failed – he who had twice been mentioned in dispatches – to die a hero’s death as a lieutenant. A dead son would have been the pride of the family. A demobilised lieutenant, a victim of the revolution, was a burden to his womenfolk. Theodor lived amid his family like some aged grandfather who would have been revered in death but who is scorned because he is still alive.”

Theodor resents the Efrussis, the Jewish family where he serves as a tutor, and the Jewish student who comes top of his class in law school. Theodor comes second by dint of application and dogged persistence, whereas, “the Jew, Glaser, who drifted smilingly through breaks, carefree and headless of books” effortlessly rises to the top. “Glaser’s learning was as dishonestly come by as the jeweller’s fortune.”Lohse lusts after Frau Efrussi, with her violet knickers (how does he know she wears violet knickers? It isn’t terribly clear) and haughty tone, while the women Theodor has are “the barefoot simpleton from the north, the woman with the angular rough hands and the crude caresses, chill to the touch, with sweaty stockings and dirty underclothes.”

“His dream cried out for release like some sickness living invisibly in his joints, filling every blood vessel, which he could no more escape than he could escape himself.” His dream, of course, is simply resentment and hatred mixed with inchoate personal ambition. Lohse’s life changes when he encounters a Dr Trebitsch in the Efrussis house. Beguiled by Trebitsch’s spade beard and stream of talk, Theodor tries to impress Trebitsch by boasting of his service in the regiment of a Prince the doctor has mentioned.

Thus Trebitsch arranges Theodor’s attendance at a dinner with the Prince, after which the royal personage brings Theodor to his chambers and they have a sexual encounter. Trying to wipe this from his mind the next day – for his own tastes run to “girls with wide hips… he loved to find a refuge and a home in women. After the consummation he liked to be mothered by the all-embracing, to lay his head between big, kindly breasts” – he is inducted on the Prince’s recommendation into SII, a cell of right-wing agents provocateurs.

Lohse enters a world of betrayal, of secret societies and public meetings, of beer-hall oratory and mess-room sedition. He infiltrates left wing groups to betray them, and arranges the bloody suppression of strikes. For all his anti-Semitic rhetoric and anti-socialist actions, his ambition is his real driving force. Indeed, he makes contact with socialist groups when it seems expedient to do so. He becomes as much a prisoner of events and ideology as their maker. By the end, if he is not doomed utterly, he is unmistakably captured and shacked by the work which seems to have chosen him as much as he chose it.

If there is a criticism to make of this short, beguiling novel, it is that Lohse is too obviously a bad ‘un, so to speak, from the start. He is a little too much the personification of resentment and envy, his hatred of the Jews stems a little too obviously from the circumstances of his own life. It would be interesting to read of a more sympathetic protagonist’s decline into the mire of ultra-nationalism.
The poet Michael Hofmann has done sterling work translating Roth. John Hoare does translation duty here, and the text reads smoothly and clearly. Not being familiar with the original German text, I cannot comment on its fidelity but can commend its fidelity to the atmosphere of the times it describes. The novel ends inconclusively, for Roth himself would not know the full horror of the Reich’s Götterdamerung, drinking himself to death in Paris with perfect timing in 1939.