Jewish wisdom and the story of art; novels by a painter-Rabbi, a Vatican correspondent, and a Malaysian lawyer; a world history of language and those who wield it best. From Torah scrolls to Picasso, the Pope to Zen, hieroglyphics to writer’s block. Find all this and more in Part Five of my 40th birthday book bonanza, the final seven titles from my excavation through 40 years.
For those who’ve just arrived at the dig, finds from the earlier strata are still on display. Part One – magical relics dating back to my pre-primary period; Part Two – literary unearthings from my secondary and tertiary eras; Part Three – artefacts of wilderness exploration and transcontinental voyage; Part Four – evidence of Indian gurus and encounters with the grave. Now I’ll dust off the nostalgia and pick out formative texts from more recent times.
Book 34. Jewish Wisdom by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
In 2010 I took a university course on “Jewish Culture and Identity in Europe”, and stumbled into the 4000-year-old basement beneath my first-century Christian house. One excellent guide to its treasures is Joseph Telushkin, from the Los Angeles Synagogue for the Performing Arts and, I learnt as my mouth was dissected, one of my dentist’s favourite Rabbis. I soon purchased his Jewish Literacy (1991, revised 2008), a popular introduction to Jewish history, culture and religion – “an encyclopaedia that reads like a novel”.
My top Telushkin, however, is Jewish Wisdom: Ethical, Spiritual, and Historical Lessons from the Great Works and Thinkers (1994). Here the Rabbi drew on passages he’d marked in his 3500 books – a man after my heart! It’s thick but readable, with bite-sized paragraphs you can dip into anywhere. Telushkin comments on quotes and anecdotes from the Old Testament to the TV news: Moses and King David and the prophets, Shakespeare and Einstein and Woody Allen, Rabbis and rappers and Roosevelt. Sections like “how to be a good person in a complicated world” or “Judaism and the quest for meaning” cover almost everything from when lying is permissible to when sex is commanded. Chapters on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust have more sobering stories.
Jewish Wisdom begins with the gentile who said he’d convert to Judaism – if Rabbi Hillel taught him the whole Jewish law in the time he could stand on one foot. Hillel replied,
What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah! All the rest is commentary. Now, go and study.
Telushkin agrees that God’s central demand is to act ethically, and recommends keeping a character journal to examine our progress. He especially focuses on speech. Slandering others, says a Jewish story, is like tearing a pillowcase in a high wind – we can’t retrieve the feathers or the words. How to spot such gossip? One rabbi would ask himself, “Do I need to look behind my back before I say this?” Telushkin challenges us to go two hours per day without knocking anyone; his short Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well (1996) helped inspire an American “Speak No Evil Day”.
Jewish Wisdom is full of such practical examples and advice. “Try to live up to the reputation you aspire to.” Unblock “emotional constipation” to express care and gratitude, such as for school teachers who taught you to read – after my parents, who has given me more? Don’t condemn others’ actions you excuse in yourself, but “in justice judge your neighbour” (Leviticus 19:15). Carry two pieces of paper in your pocket, suggests a Jewish tradition, to balance humility and self-esteem: one says “for me was the world created”, the other “I am but dust and ashes”. Throughout, Telushkin is inspired by the words of Rabbi Nachman,
If you are not going to be any better tomorrow than you were today, then what need do you have for tomorrow?
Jewish sages said “the world endures because of three activities: Torah study, worship of God, and deeds of lovingkindness”. Rabbis should both study and practice a profession – as do I! – but first of all comes heartfelt devotion. For Telushkin, Jews read the Bible like a love letter. One illiterate shepherd would recite the Hebrew alphabet and pray, “I know only the letters. You, please, arrange them into the right words.”
As my father died of cancer at the end of 2010, I envied the depth of Jewish mourning rites that Telushkin describes, and I was touched by the Jewish bereavement blessing that embraces personal loss in a wider communal grief:
May God comfort you among all those who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.
See conversations with Telushkin about his books A Code of Jewish Ethics (2006) and Hillel: If Not Now, When? (2010), assorted short articles by Telushkin, his talk “How Humor Informs Jewish Culture” on YouTube, or download study guides on Jewish Ethics to stimulate discussion.
Book 35. The Story of Art by E. H. Gombrich
The year after Dad died I discovered art history at university, and found it therapeutic to gaze at hundreds of paintings in a dusky auditorium. The Story of Art (1950, 16th ed. 1995) by Sir Ernst Gombrich helped place them in historical perspective. With over 7 million copies in print, a Louvre director said it is “almost as well known as the Mona Lisa.”
After a glance at rusty-red cave paintings, and ritual masks from Nigeria to Peru, Gombrich begins in Egypt, where tomb art enabled the soul to survive – one word for sculptor meant “he who keeps alive”. The plot continues in Athens with “the greatest and most astonishing revolution in the whole history of art”.
The Egyptians had largely drawn what they knew to exist, the Greeks what they saw; in the Middle Ages, the artist also learned to express in his picture what he felt.
For 1000 years, art history paralleled church history, shedding new light on theology. Moses prohibited graven images, restricting Jewish and Muslim art, but Christians believed God’s incarnation in visible flesh authorised visual arts, especially to instruct the unlettered. Gombrich suggests what they might have felt in fortress-like Romanesque churches and Gothic fantasies like Notre Dame in Paris.
These older churches in their strength and power may have conveyed something of the “Church Militant” that offered shelter against the onslaught of evil. The new cathedrals gave the faithful a glimpse of … the Heavenly Jerusalem … The walls of these buildings were not cold and forbidding. They were formed of stained glass that shone like rubies and emeralds. The pillars, ribs and tracery were glistening with gold. Everything that was heavy, earthly, or humdrum was eliminated…. These miraculous buildings seemed to proclaim the glories of heaven.
As a science graduate, I appreciate the mathematical perspective and human anatomy of Italian art, but the Northern Renaissance gripped me more. One of my favourites was Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck (-1441). He perfected the chemistry and technique of oil painting to achieve the final “conquest of reality”, capturing the glittering of jewels and the sheen of satin, reflections in polished armour, botanically accurate flowers, and fur you almost want to stroke. The side strips of this blog come from van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (1432). My header image is a slice of Madonna in Red (1438) by Rogier van der Weyden (-1464). I like the play of hands and robust interaction with the text, although my librarian grandmother would not have been amused.
The Protestant Reformation rejected most church art, but this new photorealism increased demand for portrait commissions until the 19th century brought the camera, which sparked shocking new ways of seeing. Gombrich cites a critic’s horror at an 1876 exhibition of painters like Monet and Renoir.
These would-be artists call themselves revolutionaries, “Impressionists”. They take a piece of canvas, colour and brush, daub a few patches of paint on it at random, and sign the whole thing with their name. It is a delusion of the same kind as if the inmates of Bedlam picked up stones from the wayside and imagined they had found diamonds.
Gombrich avoids technical jargon for a conversational romp through 5000 years of unbroken tradition, from the pyramids to post-modern collage, showing the problems each generation of artists tried to overcome. Each chapter begins with architecture and ends with a picture of artists at work, like an Egyptian chiseling a golden sphinx, 13th-century “Brother Rufillus writing the letter R”, or Gaugin’s 1888 Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers. With over 400 colour plates and several wide foldouts, The Story of Art is a gorgeous taster for a life-long visual adventure.
One never finishes learning about art. There are always new things to discover. Great works of art seem to look different every time one stands before them. They seem to be as inexhaustible and unpredictable as real human beings.
See the New York Times obituary, a memoir of Gombrich’s life by his son, a self-confessed art history newbie’s response to The Story of Art, or a 10-minute YouTube interview with Gombrich about the book (and how he was the first in England to know of Hitler’s death).
Book 36. My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
My new interests of Judaism and art coalesced in my first novel by Rabbi Chaim Potok (1929-2002). As a military chaplain in South Korea, he experienced “core-to-core culture confrontation” between his American Judaism and the beautiful, pagan East. His novels explore what happens when two such rival worlds clash in the life of an “in-between” person.
In My Name Is Asher Lev (1972), an artistic prodigy is born to ultra-orthodox Jews in New York. Asher’s father lives for the sake of Heaven, rescuing Jews from Stalin’s gulags, and views art as a sinful frivolity. From a young age, however, Asher cannot stop drawing.
I grew up encrusted with lead and spectrumed with crayons… Washing for meals was a cosmic enterprise.
At 12 years old, Asher is apprenticed to a secular sculptor who trains him in Western art, including sketching nudes, and teaches Asher to ignore propriety – his only duty is to express the truth he sees.
Art happens when what is seen becomes mixed with the inside of the person who is seeing it… You must paint the truth or you will paint green rot.
Asher’s mother is torn between her husband’s piety and her son’s passion, and Asher knows only one way to paint her torment. No spoiler alert needed – the first lines reveal the climax.
My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion.
I am an observant Jew. Yes, of course, observant Jews do not paint crucifixions. As a matter of fact, observant Jews do not paint at all – in the way that I am painting. So strong words are being written and spoken about me, myths are being generated: I am a traitor, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflictor of shame upon my family, my friends, my people…
In the sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev (1990), Asher is 20 years older, forced to leave home but still observing the commandments – synagogue prayers and kosher food meet modern art and Picasso. Potok was himself a painter, so both books are sprinkled with aesthetic insights like the epigraph from Picasso, “Art is a lie which makes us realise the truth”, and his take on writing echoes Michelangelo:
A novelist has to create the piece of marble and then chip away to find the figure in it.
I’m intrigued by Potok’s picture of Orthodox Judaism, but what moved me most, that year of my father’s cancer, was his portraits of father-son relationships. Though often keen to finish a book and get on to the next, I’ve lingered over Potok’s final chapters for days, reluctant to say goodbye. But as Asher’s father tells him when at six he finds a dead bird,
Everything that lives must die… Something that is yours forever is never precious.
Book 37. The Vatican Trilogy by Morris West
My new soul mate in 2011 is the only Australian on my birthday list. At the age of 13, Morris West (1916-1999) entered an Irish Catholic monastery for ten years of indoctrination. On the brink of his perpetual vows, he walked out and began to reconstruct his shattered identity.
It costs so much to be a full human being that there are very few who have the enlightenment, or the courage, to pay the price… One has to abandon altogether the search for security, and reach out to the risk of living with both arms. One has to embrace the world like a lover, and yet demand no easy return of love. One has to accept pain as a condition of existence. One has to court doubt and darkness as the cost of knowing.
West typed his first novel in an air force tent in northern Australia as Japanese planes flew overhead; a desert whirlwind scattered the first draft. At 80 he wrote A View from the Ridge: the Testimony of a Pilgrim (1996), which recounts his career – PA to the Australian PM, radio writer, international correspondent, blockbuster novelist – and his spiritual journey.
West said his novels all deal with moments when nobody can tell you what to do, “when God is silent and you can’t ring up the pope”. Such complex situations attract complex characters: cynical mystics, God-haunted atheists, saints not granted the gift of faith, agnostic believers in the divine harmony who “wrestle with the cacophony and apparent discord of the score.”
Seven years of journalism in Rome inspired West’s Vatican Trilogy. These novels are page-turners, set against the Cold War’s nuclear threat. Will the USSR heed the Pope’s plea before launching World War Three, or will assassins get him first? The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963) was the best-selling US novel in 1963 and a 1968 Hollywood film.
The book begins with a pontiff’s death and the machinations of election – where Potok unfolds Hasidic Judaism, West takes us into the papal court. The new Ukrainian Pope Kiril resembles St Francis of Assisi, wandering Rome at night cloaked as a common priest to meet his people. He accuses the Church of burying the simplicity of the gospel under centuries of legislation:
We have covered the pasture-land with fences, so there is no place for the sheep to run free.
When a man becomes a clown he makes a free gift of himself to the audience. To endow them with the saving grace of laughter, he submits to be mocked, drenched, clouted, crossed in love. Your Son made the same submission when He was crowned as a mock king, and the troops spat wine and water in His face… My hope is that when He comes again, He will still be human enough to shed a clown’s gentle tears over the broken toys – that once were women and children.
In the last Vatican thriller, Lazarus (1990), a third pope undergoes cardiac surgery and totters from the tomb like Lazarus as a profoundly changed man. The book reflects West’s own heart scare at 72 and his prayer the night before a risky bypass:
You gave me life. I didn’t ask for it. But, bitter and sweet, you gave it. The gift looks a little bedraggled and defaced now. But while I had it, I loved it. Now, if you want it back, I surrender it, with thanks.
See an interview with West, a review of The Shoes of the Fisherman, a survey of his work Rereading Morris West, the New York Times obituary, or a brief comparison of Pope Francis to West’s Pope Kiril.
Book 38. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
In 2012 I spent seven months in Kuala Lumpur, programming in air-conditioned comfort during the day, then cruising the city as it cooled. Compared to India, south-east Asia produces few English novels, but Malaysian Chinese author Tan Twan Eng makes up for a lot.
Tan’s first novel, The Gift of Rain (2007, Booker Prize long listed), is set in his birthplace of Penang (on Malaysia’s northwest coast) during the Japanese occupation in World War II. The protagonist is torn between the cultures of his English father, his Chinese mother, and a Japanese diplomat who teaches him Aikido. Tan is himself an adept, and describes the “stillness in motion” of fighting and philosophy and the student-sensei relationship. We meet the moral ambiguities of war and the melange of Malaysia that I love, with street food and incense sticks, colonial English villas and Malay fishing villages. Ancestral tablets in Chinese clan houses and a fortune-teller in the Snake Temple represent roots and destiny, raising the old question of free will and fate.
Tan’s second novel The Garden of Evening Mists (2012) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Yun Ling Teoh survived three years of labour as a “Guest of the Emperor” in a Japanese jungle camp. Her sister died there. After the war Yun Ling determines to build the Japanese garden they designed in their imagination to stay sane. She knows the perfect man for the job, and so the book begins:
On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the emperor of Japan.
Nakamura Aritomo had immigrated for mysterious reasons to Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands – which I visited to escape the lowland heat. Tan brushes in the lush setting of tea plantations amid rainforest with pastel prose:
mountains tonsured in clouds… the first light of the morning melting down their flanks…the kitchen chimney scribbling smoke over the rooftops…
a grey heron… one leg poised in the air, like the hand of a pianist who’d forgotten the notes in his music…
The story unfolds through flashbacks “like shards of ice fracturing off an arctic shelf” as Yun Ling fights a degenerative aphasia, writing of her apprenticeship to Aritomo 36 years ago. As in his first novel, Tan juxtaposes brutality and beauty. Yun Ling is scarred by Japanese torture, yet begins to heal through the culture’s arts of Zen gardening, ink painting, and meditative archery. As a melancholic whose favourite season is autumn, I savour her wistful reflections.
The garden has to reach inside you. It should change your heart, sadden it, uplift it. It has to make you appreciate the impermanence of everything in life. That point in time just as the last leaf is about to drop, as the remaining petal is about to fall; that moment captures everything beautiful and sorrowful about life. ‘Mono no aware,’ the Japanese call it.
With its lyrical metaphors and haunting atmosphere, The Garden of Evening Mists attempts to “capture stillness on paper” as it contemplates suffering and guilt and loss, friendship and nature and art. Fittingly for my midlife musings, it ruminates on memory and forgetting, twin goddesses that shape the history of our lives.
It is getting dark. In the low mists over the hills, an orange glow broods, as if the trees are on fire. Bats are flooding out from the hundreds of caves that perforate these mountainsides. I watch them plunge into the mists without any hesitation, trusting in the echoes and silences in which they fly.
Are all of us the same, I wonder, navigating our lives by interpreting the silences between words spoken, analyzing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us?
Book 39. Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler
Once upon a time I studied French at school, German and a little Latin in Europe with my family, and New Testament Greek. Overseas in 2012, I dabbled in my first non-western tongues, Hindi and Malay, and rediscovered my philological bent. Back in New Zealand, I attended linguistics lectures and read several texts, of which the most stimulating was Empires of the Word: a Language History of the World (2005). Its author Nicholas Ostler is chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages and an English linguist with – claims the publisher’s blurb – “a working knowledge of 26 languages”. Ostler disavows this on his blog, and affirms of language learning,
There is no royal road to it, but gold glints in unexpected places all along the path. For me it has always been the surest route to new worlds that lie beyond my imagination.
Empires of the Word explores why some languages flourish and spread while others wither and die, finding “language prestige” to be more important than brute military or economic power. Each chapter surveys the history of one major tongue, with plenty of maps and quotes (in original and translation), and hints of their characteristic flavours:
Arabic’s austere grandeur and egalitarianism; Chinese and Egyptian’s unshakeable self-regard; Sanskrit’s luxuriating classifications and hierarchies; Greek’s self-confident innovation leading to self-obsession and pedantry; Latin’s civic sense; Spanish rigidity, cupidity, and fidelity; French admiration for rationality; and English admiration for business acumen.
“The Desert Blooms: Language Innovation in the Middle East” recaps a lot of my Old Testament study. We learn that writing began with accounting, from Sumerian clay tablets – preserved by library fires – to the new “clay free office” of ink on papyrus. Semitic languages have the most astonishing survival story in Hebrew, and the fastest spread (since Alexander’s Greek) in Arabic – its script used for languages from Spanish to Swahili, Turkish to Malay. And unlike her predecessors, wrote Greek historian Plutarch, Cleopatra was the queen of polyglots:
Like a many-stringed instrument, she turned her tongue easily to whatever dialect she would, and few indeed were the foreigners with whom she conversed through an interpreter, since she answered most of them in her own words.
With my Indian interests, my favourite chapter is “Charming like a Creeper: the Cultured Career of Sanskrit”. Centuries before Christ, its analysis of phonetics and grammar resembled algorithms for computer translation. It was the first language to travel overseas, spread by Hindu gods and Buddhist monks and pirate traders, and was embraced much as Americana is today. South-East Asia uses Indian scripts and Sanskrit names, like Java and Sumatra and Malaya; Japan’s kana alphabet copied Sanskrit letter order; even Chinese “Mandarin” derives from Sanskrit for “counsellor”.
Sanskrit has the world’s most elaborate puns and a vast vocabulary, with 50 words for lotus. The most common, padma, can also mean “coloured marks on the face and trunk of an elephant, an army formation, a trillion (1012), lead” or “temple, quarter-elephant, species of serpent… a mode of sexual enjoyment, a posture in meditation, a treasure connected with magic”. No wonder an ancient Sanskrit devotee could say,
Bracelets do not embellish man, nor necklaces bright as the moon;
bathing, cosmetics, garland, head-dress, none can add a whit.
Man’s one true embellishment is language kept perfected:
finery must perish, but eternal the refinement of fine language.
Later chapters cover European tongues. Is Latin extinct, or the world’s second most spoken language? What explains the accident-prone “curse of Germanic”, almost never adopted by those its speakers conquered? In 1898 German Chancellor Bismarck said the defining event of his times was “North America speaks English”. But will English always be top dog, or fade like past crusading linguae francae? The greatest faith in a lingo’s undying virtues comes from novelist Anatole France:
The French language is a woman. And that woman is so beautiful, so proud, so modest, so bold, so touching, so voluptuous, so chaste, so noble, so familiar, so mad, so wise, that one loves her with all one’s soul, and is never tempted to be unfaithful to her.
See Empires of the Word reviews at the Guardian and National Review, a Guardian review of Ostler’s provocative Last Lingua Franca: English until the Return of Babel (2010), or Ostler on English’s Bleak Future.
Book 40. Writers at Work Interviews by The Paris Review
To mark my four decades my sister gave me, by request, a four-volume set of 64 author interviews from The Paris Review. The magazine has published 350-odd interviews since 1953, each around 30 pages, constituting “one of the single most persistent acts of cultural conservation in the history of the world”, a rich inspiration for reading, writing, creativity and life.
Most interviews include a draft page covered in the writer’s circlings and scribblings, and then describe his or her pad. Ernest Hemingway‘s studio was full of animal trophies, shotgun shells, and bullfight journals. He types while standing on the skin of a lesser kudu, and gives some crusty replies:
The fact that I am interrupting serious work to answer these questions proves that I am so stupid that I should be penalized severely.
Fellow Nobel Laureate William Faulkner has vigorous opinions and echoes the view of Asher Lev’s mentor above:
The writer’s only responsibility is to his art… Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.
Lighter-weight authors appear too. P. G. Wodehouse misses spatter-dashers and had servants as a child, but never a butler like Jeeves. Stephen King was threatened by a huge St Bernard, and buried his daughter’s cat in the local pet cemetery, inspiring two of his horror works. Although known for science fiction, Ray Bradbury despises e-books.
There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it. You put it in your pocket and you walk with it. And it stays with you forever. But the computer doesn’t do that for you. I’m sorry.
I tend to agree. I haven’t touched my Kindle in two years and, like founding Paris Review editor George Plimpton, “I never understand people who don’t have bookshelves” – they’re on every wall in my room. Umberto Eco‘s Milan apartment is “a labyrinth of corridors lined with bookcases” holding 30,000 volumes, with 20,000 more at his 17th-century manor on the Adriatic coast. That trumps Rabbi Telushkin above! Eco describes how he haunted mediaeval Paris to write his murder mystery The Name of the Rose (1980), set in a monastery library amid theological debate, which I shortlisted as a birthday book. Eco recommends reading to give you “a ravenous multiple personality”:
An illiterate person who dies, let us say at my age, has lived one life, whereas I have lived the lives of Napoleon, Caesar, d’Artagnan. [of The Three Musketeers]
Of my birthday books’ authors, only Salman Rushdie (in my Part Four) has his own interview. Seeing The Wizard of Oz sparked his first story at nine or 10; P. G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie were his first favourite authors; he fell for The Lord of the Rings at 15, loved the imaginary languages, and spoke Elvish with fellow nerds. Midnight’s Children (1980) took five years. After struggling to get it off the ground, one day the first page with his narrator Saleem just arrived.
I was electrified by what was coming out of my typewriter. It was one of those moments when you believe that the writing comes through you rather than from you. I saw how to drag in everything from the ancient traditions of India to the oral narrative form to, above all, the noise and the music of the Indian city. That first paragraph showed me the book. I held onto Saleem’s coattails and let him run.
C. S. Lewis, whom I greatly admire, said there’s no such thing as creative writing… there is, in fact, only one Creator and we mix. That’s our function, to mix the elements He has given us.
Once, when Maurice Sendak was being interviewed on television a little after the success of Where the Wild Things Are, he was asked the usual questions: Do you have children? Do you like children? After a pause, he said with simple dignity: “I was a child.” That says it all.
The full archive is public at www.theparisreview.org/interviews. Also see The Paris Review Origin Story and Their Secret to the Art of the Interview, Salman Rushdie’s Introduction to Volume 4, the current editor on the interviews, or a photo and links essay on founder George Plimpton, The Paris Review and American Masters.
Birthday Bibliography: Books 34-40