Alternate pop-culture worlds. The Derbs' weekly Netflix rentals this month included two not-bad movies — better than our recent average.
I didn't enjoy it as much as Steve did; but then, I don't know anything like as much as Steve does about 1960s California, Hollywood, and movies. I agree with the numerous reviewers who complained about the movie being too long, and I naturally frowned at the disrespect shown to Bruce Lee.
The movie kept my attention, though. I stayed awake all through, which is by no means — by no means — always the case with me and movies. The acting is at a high professional standard, and the plot line was clever.
That plot line left me reflecting that two of the three 2019 movies I have seen had alternate-history plots; and the history being altered in both cases was pop-culture history. The other of the two was Yesterday, which I reported on in my April Diary. Is there a trend forming?
Alternate-history stories are of course nothing new. As I noted in April, I've been reading them for almost as long as I've been reading. For the most part, though, their worlds are ones in which some large historical event turned out differently. The allies losing WW2 has been the most thoroughly worked-over alternate world: The Sound of his Horn by "Sarban," Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, Robert Harris' Fatherland, … How many have there been?
Other writers have been more adventurous. Robert Silverberg wrote a rather good novel in which the Ottoman Empire took over all of Europe in the 14th century — Shakespeare's plays were written in Turkish — and held it until the 1900s. Kingsley Amis gave us Russian Hide & Seek, in which the USSR has occupied the British Isles. (Inspiring me to a similar but much shorter effort.)
A favorite of mine, although only at short-story length, was Poul Anderson's "Eutopia," which flips through several alternate worlds, although nothing like as many as David Gerrold's novel The Man Who Folded Himself. And then of course there is Harry Turtledove … Yeah, I know, I've read way too much sci-fi.
Placing the historical switch in the realm of pop culture — of pop music in the case of Yesterday, Hollywood in Once Upon a Time — is new to me, although I may just be out of date here. I've been striving to think of similar plot lines.
- The young Fred Astaire successfully resisted his mother's efforts to train him as a dancer. His physical genius instead found an
outlet in martial arts, of which he became a world-famous popularizer. At the climax of the movie an elderly but still-agile Fred (b. 1899) takes on
Bruce Lee (b. 1940) … OK, maybe I'm just getting back at Tarantino for the Bruce Lee caricature.
- Mario Puzo can't get any movie producers interested in making The Godfather as written, so he starts over, pitching it now as a musical …
No, I'm not really getting anywhere with this, am I? If any readers have suggestions, I'll put them in my next email round-up. If any suggestion ends up as a movie, though, I want a cut of the movie rights.
Jones' mother, around 1900, had lived in Ukraine as tutor to the grandchildren of Welsh industrial entrepreneur John Hughes, who had founded the iron-working city of Donetsk — actually named Hughesovka until the Revolution. That connection inspired Jones, against all the rules, to go take a look at how Ukraine was faring in 1933. It was, of course, in the throes of a dreadful famine.
It's a story worth telling, and the movie's not badly done. Main negatives: if you don't know the outlines of the story in advance, it's not clear who's who (Mrs Derb didn't, so I had to keep pausing the thing to explain); the scenes of Jones trekking through deserted snow-bound villages could have been cut by half; and the producers were a bit heavy-handed with atmosphere, which, like so many things in life, is best attained if not striven too hard for.
There were some good character sketches, though. Peter Sarsgaard was a fine repulsive Walter Duranty, the New York Times reporter who shilled for Stalin and got a Pulitzer Prize for it (never revoked). It was nice to see a screen portrayal of George Orwell, too, although the mustache doesn't look quite right.
We also get a glimpse of Malcolm Muggeridge, the only movie portrayal of the old gadfly that I know of. It's the merest glimpse, the bittiest of bit parts: no speaking lines, just a background figure in a crowded-party scene, the left one of the two people face-on here. (The other I think is Ralph Barnes.)
Is Muggeridge still read? He was clever and funny. He had a wealth of experience, an impressive list of personal acquaintances, and a great fund of memorable anecdotes (although I suspect he made a lot of them up).
Whatever: I thank actor Michael O'Donnell for giving us a Muggeridge. I hope his career takes an upturn. Mr. Jones is his only screen credit on IMDb.com, and they don't even have a publicity still of him. I have no personal access to movie producers, but if Michael is ever at a loose end on Long Island North Shore, I'd be glad to buy him a drink.
Into Manhattan. This month saw my first trip into Manhattan since the coronavirus scare came up.
From news reports of people fleeing the city I was vaguely expecting to see tumbleweed blowing down Broadway and prairie dogs prowling the sidewalks. In fact, on a walk along Second Avenue from 53rd Street to 75th, things looked surprisingly normal. Stores were open, restaurant sidewalk tables were well-occupied, there were pedestrians and cyclists a-plenty.
A lot of the people I saw were mask-less — I'd estimate 15 to 20 percent — and seemed unselfconscious about it. I witnessed no incidents of mask rage.
The main difference from normal times was underground. There were actually empty seats in rush-hour subway carriages.
On the other side of that coin, vehicular traffic was even worse than usual, which I would not have thought possible. The Manhattan quip "Shall we walk, or do we have time to take a cab?" is several years old to my certain knowledge, but it has never been more apt.
All in all, though, a reassuring normality: one more for the file folder headed "London in flames!"
Tyrants with a writing problem. I once somehow got the idea that it would be cool to be able to boast of having read a book by Stalin. I accordingly bought a copy of the Short Course. That was of course a blunder: Stalin is unreadable.
Then a few weeks ago I spotted a reference to Daniel Kalder's 2019 book Dictator Literature, which surveys the written (or ghost-written) works of numerous despots from Lenin to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov of Turkmenistan. The thought occurred: If I can't read Stalin's book, I can at least read about it. So I bought Dictator Literature.
Incredibly, Kalder has read them all: the literary productions of every crank despot and mass murderer of the past hundred years. (Although I'd guess he resorted to some skim-reading with the thirteen volumes — seven thousand pages! — of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha's memoirs.) Even more incredibly, he has kept his sanity.
The literary output of dictators is not all turgid theorizing and bombastic self-justification. Mao Tse-tung famously wrote poetry. So did the young Stalin: We are offered an example. Kalder gives sensible, often witty judgments on it all. He thinks, for example, that Ho Chi Minh was a better poet than Mao:
Mao never wrote anything as simple and affecting as Ho's "Goodbye to a Tooth":
You are hard and proud, my friend,
Not soft and long like the tongue:
Together we have shared all kinds of bitterness and sweetness,
But now you must go west while I go east.
Kalder may not know that in the context of classical-style Chinese verse, which is what Ho was writing, that last line is a weary cliché, as if an English-language poet were to mention the sweet sorrow of parting. Perhaps Ho himself knew that and was being ingenious somehow. The line between cliché and allusion is not always clear, certainly not in translated verse.
And as mediocre as Mao's and Ho's poetry may have been — and again with all due allowance for qualities lost in translation — Stalin's was probably worse:
High in the clouds a lark
Was singing a chirruping hymn
While the joyful nightingale
With a gentle voice was saying —
"Be full of blossom, oh lovely land …"
Some of these tyrants of the past century wrote novels as well as poems. Kalder actually contrasts Mussolini's 1910 effort in this genre, The Cardinal's Mistress, with Stalin's Short Course:
[The novel] shows that Mussolini, although a Marxist [yes, really: Marxist, fascist, po-tay-to, po-tah-to — JD], could allow for the significance of the inner, subjective world in human action. Now, admittedly, these inner worlds are attached to two-dimensional fictional characters, but at least they have desires and hatreds — in stark contrast to the proper nouns who serve as the protagonists of Stalin's Short Course. Mussolini's fictional people, motivated almost entirely by superstition, greed, lust, and hatred, have more substance that Stalin's "real" people.
The Cardinal's Mistress was written for money, when Mussolini was a penniless journalist. If you want novels written by tyrants when actually tyrannizing, there are Generalissimo Francisco Franco's 1942 Raza ("The plot is simple and not wholly incompetent" — Kalder) and the four novels Saddam Hussein published in the early 2000s ("The books were so personal, so important to Hussein that he worked on them right up to the end of his rule.")
And yes, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov of Turkmenistan has entered the fiction lists, "launching his debut novel, The Bird of Happiness, at an event in the city of Dashoguz in October 2013." I can't find any evidence of an English translation, but perhaps some poor hack in the Turkmen capital is at work on one.
Writing, said the Roman, is neither an art nor a science but an illness. (The Irish playwright Brendan Behan described himself as "a drinker with a writing problem.") Dictators are not immune.
I salute Daniel Kalder for his superhuman perseverance in having read through such a mountain of drivel, and for having presented his thoughts about it with insight and wit. I hereby nominate him for the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Fiction reading of the month. As well as being a producer of literature, Stalin was also a consumer of it. One author he liked a lot, and to whom he showed quite un-Stalinish favor, was Mikhail Sholokhov (1905-1984). And yes, that link is to Sholokhov's page on the Nobel Prize website. He was awarded the Nobel for literature in 1965.
Sholokhov is mainly known for his epic novel And Quiet Flows the Don, which was published piecemeal from 1928 to 1940. It's about the Cossacks, a south-Russian ethny of much-disputed origins, but speaking Russian and adhering to the Orthodox Church. They live mainly on the steppe lands north of the Black Sea.
Sholokhov was not himself a Cossack, but he grew up among Cossacks and immersed in their culture. The novel covers the years 1912-18 in four parts: "Peace," "War," "Revolution," and "Civil War."
Sholokhov the man gets mixed reviews, mostly but never entirely negative.
He was a regime mouthpiece, but he had been other things too … In publicly advocating for the release of men wrongfully imprisoned during the Great Terror, Sholokhov exhibited extraordinary bravery when others — almost everyone, in fact — was overwhelmed by fear; ultimately, however, he would lose his conscience in the stupor of vodka and vanity. [Peter Finn in the Washington Post, January 31st 2019, reviewing Brian Boeck's biography of Sholokhov.]
I knew about And Quiet Flows the Don from way back. In my misbegotten youth I hung out with lefties sympathetic to the USSR. When Sholokhov got his Nobel in '65 they were all swooning over the book. I bought a copy and started to read it, but bailed out after a couple of chapters.
Fast forward to Summer 2020. Mrs Derbyshire listens to Chinese-language audio novels when working round the house and garden. I have been unable to fathom her criteria for selecting which novels to listen to, but she casts her net wide.
Last month she was enthusing to me about her current selection, which had the Chinese title 靜靜的頓河 (Jìng-jìng-de Dùn Hé) — "The Quiet Dùn River." At first I vaguely supposed that this was something out of Chinese literature — they've been writing novels for several centuries — but when she described a couple of episodes from the book I guessed it must be Sholokhov's.
For conjugal solidarity, and to make up for my youthful sloth, I borrowed a copy of And Quiet Flows the Don from our town library and read it right through with no effort. Not bad: though not worth a Nobel, and Sholokhov didn't write much else of note. Yet more evidence, as if more were needed, that the non-science Nobels are, and have always been, to some degree political.
The book's main defect is the great multiplicity of characters, made harder to keep track of because of the Russian naming system. Forename, patronymic, surname: Sholokhov sometimes uses one, sometimes two, and sometimes all three to identify a person, not always consistently for the same person. My library copy (Pub. Alfred A. Knopf, 1941, tr. Stephen Garry) includes a three-page "Key to Principal Characters," but it's not much help.
Whatever: In the book of my life, that's one thing fewer I've left unfinished.
A nation gone crazy. The action of Sholokhov's novel takes place almost entirely in the Ukrainian and South-Russian hinterland, far from metropolitan centers. None of his characters could really be described as belonging to the urban intelligentsia.
I shall therefore forgive him for not having provided coverage of the sheer craziness of politics in pre-revolutionary Russia, some of which bears a disturbing resemblance to our own current Cultural Revolution.
Professor Gary Saul Morson has a first-class article about that side of things in the October issue of First Things. Prof. Morson's piece should be compulsory reading for anyone troubled by today's intellectual climate in the U.S.A.
Not just lawyers, teachers, doctors, and engineers, but even industrialists and bank directors raised money for the terrorists [i.e. of pre-revolutionary Russia]. Doing so signaled advanced opinion and good manners. [Suicide of the Liberals by Gary Saul Morson; First Things, October 2020.]
My only quibble with Prof. Morson — a very small one, perhaps stirred by having just mentioned Malcolm Muggeridge in an earlier segment — is that he should have put in at least a passing mention of Muggeridge's 1966 essay "The Great Liberal Death-Wish." Put that piece together with Prof. Morson's, you have a nice set.
Daniel Kalder in Dictator Literature gives us some glimpses of the general lunacy of Russia in that time. It wasn't restricted to the political intelligentsia. For example: Until reading Kalder I had never heard of the Skopts. Here's Kalder, writing about Lenin.
To put things in perspective, consider that in 1907 [Lenin's] Social-Democratic Party had a membership of around 150,000. The Skopts, a millenarian sect who believed that salvation would come once they had managed to castrate 144,000 people, had around 100,000 members during the same period. Even at its peak, then, Marxism was not that much more popular than crushing men's testicles between hot plates, a method of castration favored by the sect.
Mrs Derbyshire wanted me to tie the party balloon to Basil's collar when I took him for his daily walk. Me: "Honey, I'm just as willing as the next guy to make an idiot of myself in front of the neighbors; but there's a line to be drawn, and that's on the other side of it."
More normality; in fact the park was as crowded as I've ever seen it. Mask compliance was even more casual than in Manhattan: I think more than a quarter of the park-goers were maskless.
Once round the park is two and a half miles. My habit, which I want to resume, has been to ride four times round, alternating clockwise and counter-clockwise. That's a neat ten miles. It also makes for easy calculation of average speed. If I do a circuit in 10 minutes, I've averaged 15 mph, the park speed limit; if in 15 minutes, I've averaged 10 mph. Easy to remember.
My times on this outing were not very good. Not one of my four circuits broke 15 minutes. Some of that was just me being out of condition, but most of it was the number of people walking and cycling. I had to keep slowing down for them — especially the little ones on kiddie bikes, who have not yet mastered lane discipline.
Still it was lovely to be in the park, among so many fellow citizens none of whom was shrieking political slogans or trying to make money. My state is shamefully ill-governed, but even among madness and commotion there are bright clearings of sanity and peace. Thank you, New York.
Jeet? I see that a scholar at Stony Brook University has published a book about the spoken dialect of New York city, title You Talkin' to Me? The September 19th issue of The Economist ran a column about it, column title "Cawfee Break."
I'd buy a copy of the book and read it but that (a) my pile of bought-but-not-yet-read books is way too high and (b) I already have a good stock of knowledge on the subject. I acquired that stock by living several years in and near the city and working alongside all its classes, from dishwashers to investment bankers.
Arriving in New York first from England at age 28, it took a while for my ears to get adjusted. "Earl," I realised eventually, is not a title of nobility, there being none such in this republic, but a generic term for lubricants. Fat Alice is not an overweight local female celebrity but a sum of money, instantiated in a paper bill called a fin. "Jeet?" is a polite enquiry as to whether you have recently taken in nourishment, to which the proper negative response is: "No, jew?" And so on.
It wasn't just the phonetics I had to get used to but the attitude. Almost the first words spoken to me in the city were, "HEY, JACKASS!" after I just-perceptibly brushed against someone as we both simultaneously traversed a wide doorway in opposite directions. If I had written that Stony Brook scholar's book, that would have been my choice of title: Hey, Jackass!
Now, after a half-century of social churning and levelling, there isn't so much raw New Yorkish spoken; and living as I do many miles outside the city boundaries, I don't hear much of what there is. When I do hear it, I savor it.
In late September I went to a nearby electronics store to buy a new router. I'm a landline/Ethernet guy myself, but the two smartphone addicts I share my house with had been whining that they kept losing their wi-fi connections. My router was years old and obviously failing in its powers, so I went to the store and asked to see some late-model domestic routers with potent wi-fi.
The floor sales rep I engaged with was knowledgeable and helpful. His speech, however, was one of the outer-borough sub-dialects of New Yorkish — Trumpish, more or less. He pulled down a top-of-the-line model, extolled all its many virtues and capabilities, then concluded his sales pitch by leaning towards me, jabbing a finger at the item in its box, and declaring triumphantly: "I tell ya, dis ting eats an' shits!"
Dis ting cost more than I'd budgeted for, but he'd pressed a key button in my psyche. How could I resist? I bought it. It works fine, so far without leaving any unpleasant messes behind.
Any student of modern math must know what it feels like to drown in a well of telescoping terminology.
For a high-profile example, let's take the Calabi-Yau manifold, made famous by string theory.
A Calabi-Yau manifold is a compact, complex Kähler manifold with a trivial first Chern class.Before you could even guess what that definition might mean, you would need to find another source to define a Kähler manifold:
A Kähler manifold is a Hermitian manifold for which the Hermitian form is closed.After which you would need a third source to define a Hermitian manifold:
A Hermitian manifold is the complex analogue of the Riemannian manifold …And you're down the rabbit hole. [Why Mathematicians Should Stop Naming Things After Each Other by Laura Ball; Nautilus, September 2nd 2020.
I cannot forbear noting that the Calabi-Yau manifold has a walk-on part in my algebra book, page 317.
Oh, it's a brainteaser you're wanting, is it? Here's one from the 2019 Putnam Competition. (The 2020 Putnam, originally scheduled for February this year, was canceled on account of the damn fool virus.)
Problem: Determine all possible values of the expression
A³ + B³ + C³ − 3ABCwhere A, B, and C are non-negative integers.
It's harder than it looks, but you can solve it with just basic arithmetic.