Review: The Prussian Officer

Review: The Prussian Officer
The Prussian Officer

The Prussian Officer by D.H. Lawrence

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my first book by Lawrence, and I am greatly impressed. These short stories were published near the beginning of his writing career; yet they show a mature writer with a fully developed voice. Several qualities are immediately apparent. The first is Lawrence’s exquisite sensitivity to nature. The best prose in this volume is to be found in the many passages of natural description:

The air was too scented, it gave no breath. All the lush green-stuff seemed to be issuing its sap, till the air was deathly, sickly with the smell of greenness. There was the perfume of clover, like pure honey and bees. Then there grew a faint acrid tang—they were near the beeches; and then a queer clattering noise, and a suffocating, hideous smell: they were passing a flock of sheep, a shepherd in a black smock, holding his hook.

Lawrence’s primary subject is the rural poor. He is totally convincing in his depiction of the harried mother waiting for her drunkard husband to stumble home, or the sick widow trying to take care of her adult son. Unlike Hemingway, Lawrence has the rare talent of being able to write about people entirely unlike himself. His most memorable characters are consistently women, who normally show themselves to be superior in personality and intelligence to their male counterparts.

Insofar as these stories contain the germ of a philosophy, it is that passionate, sexual relationships allow people to be truly themselves. Thus, in “The Thorn in the Flesh,” the consummation of a relationship gives the couple a strange superiority over their circumstances; and in “Daughters of the Vicar,” the unhappy daughter who settled for a loveless marriage is contrasted with the self-assured daughter who marries for love.

But it would be wrong to call Lawrence a didactic writer, at least in this volume. The stories, for the most part, have no moral. They are concerned with the basic stuff of all prose literature: relationships—with oneself, with others, or with the rest of society. And as Melvyn Bragg says in the introduction, the stories are free of the traditional plot mechanics that are used to propel stories to pre-determined ends; instead Lawrence’s stories develop seamlessly, organically, without any noticeable push from the writer. I am looking forward to reading Lawrence’s novels.

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2018 in Books

2018 in Books

Few authors, especially the unpublished, can resist the opportunity to read aloud.

2018 has shaped up to be an excellent year in reading. I somehow finished fifteen more books than I had the previous two years. Admittedly, many of my books this year were quite short; some of Plato’s dialogues are arguably more like pamphlets than books, and I read twelve of them this year. These slim volumes were, I hope, compensated by a few ponderous tomes. I stumbled through the two final books of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, at 1092 and 870 pages; George Santayana’s 862 page treatise on ontology; 1300 pages of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives; and finally William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, weighing in at a tedious 1614 pages. I also attempted to read a 1400 page history of New York City; but I was forced to take a break halfway through to recover from an acute overdose of urbane facts.

The two most prominent themes of this year’s reading have been art and science.

I learned about the works and lives of Picasso, Miró, and Goya, and I savored Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s sketches of brain cells, which are as much artistic as scientific achievements. I also read two books of John Ruskin’s eloquent ravings on the value, morality, and beauty of art. Henry Adams concurred with Ruskin about the superiority of medieval art, as he demonstrated in his book about Chartres. Giorgio Vasari, however, took the reverse position, arguing that the Renaissance saved Europe from centuries of barbarous art; and he proved this thesis in his reverential biographies of Renaissance painters and sculptors. But by far the most compelling book on art I read this year was a collection of Vincent van Gogh’s letters, which reveal a man of extraordinary sensitivity and intelligence.

My reading in science began with two classics in the philosophy of science: Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—both excellent. But after learning the theory I wanted to know the practice; so I started blundering my way through the classics of the Copernican revolution. I began with Ptolemy’s Almagest, and followed this with Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus, Kepler’s Harmonies of the World, and Galileo’s Two New Sciences and Sidereus Nuncius; and I finally reached the capstone of the scientific revolution with Newton’s Principia. Looking at this list, I feel rather proud of myself; but in truth most of this “reading” consisted of flipping through pages of incomprehensible mathematics. I needed secondary sources to even achieve a basic understanding, relying on an abridged and annotated version of Ptolemy, Very Short Introductions to Copernicus and Galileo, and a popularization of Newton written by Colin Pask. And am I any the wiser for all this toil?

I had hoped to do half of my reading this year in Spanish; but with a total twenty books I did not even achieve a quarter. Luckily, many of these were excellent. Federico García Lorca’s trilogy of plays is a remarkable look at the force of tradition in rural Spain. The poetry of Antonio Machado was perhaps even more profound, with its blend of metaphysical calm and romantic sensitivity to nature. I also read two superlative novels from Spanish masters: Marianela by Benito Pérez Galdós, and El árbol de la ciencia by Pío Baroja. To do my homework, I sampled Spain’s golden age, reading Tirso de Molina’s El burlador de Sevilla, and Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna and El caballero de Olmedo. But the highlight of this year’s Spanish books was undoubtedly Don Quijote de la Mancha, which I read in the modernized version by Andrés Trapiello. Not that Cervantes needs any help, but Ortega’s and Unamuno’s commentaries on the Spanish masterpiece did widen my appreciation of that most infinitely entertaining of novels.

The two authors who most dominated my year were Shakespeare and Plato, as I labored under the optimistic delusion that I could read both of their complete works. I still have a long way to go, of course; but any time spent with these two masters is rewarding; and I hope to continue my naive ambition next year. I read very few works of English language fiction this year, of which E.M. Forster’s Howards End was the standout work. As usual, I tried to read about New York and the United States while I was home during the summer. This lead me to pick up Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, John Muir’s The Mountains of California, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, David McCullough’s The Great Bridge, Ron Chernow’s Titan, and Alistair Cooke’s America. None of these was as revelatory as The Power Broker, which I read last summer; but each one shed some light on my vast and aggravating homeland.

The most exciting event on Goodreads this year has been my recent ascension to the most followed reviewer in Spain, with 1,700 new followers just this month. Believe me, I’ve been as baffled as you must be. The mystery was partly solved when I investigated the list of my followers, and found that a large part bear the obvious traces of fake accounts. I would like to take this opportunity to publicly assert that I have not paid for any bot service, and I have no idea why they would choose to follow my reviews. Perhaps the computers have a taste for pretentious prose.

In any case, I would like to thank my fellow reviewers and followers, man or machine, for contributing to this excellent year of reading. You support me in my own endeavors, you inspire me with your intelligence and curiosity, and you provide me a community of thoughtful readers and writers. So may 2019 be as good a year for book enthusiasts as the this one has been.



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2017 in Reading

2017 in Reading

This past year of reading has shaped up to be a great one.

One major theme this year was war. Perplexed by the prevalence of such a monstrous and destructive activity, I read several histories and biographies, particularly focusing on the First World War and the Spanish Civil War. Of the former, Rainer Maria Rilke’s and Ernest Hemingway’s novels combined with Ernst Jünger’s memoirs to give me some idea of a soldier’s life during the Great War. G.J. Meyer’s excellent overview, A World Undone, completed the picture by summarizing the background and the battles. On the Spanish front, F.G. Tinker’s thrilling memoirs of his time as a fighter pilot complemented Antony Beevor’s military history and Gerald Brenan’s historical background to the conflict. (I also went on a superb tour in Barcelona focused on the war.)

I remain both morbidly fascinated and equally baffled by warfare, and plan on continuing this theme into the next year, focusing more on the Second World War.

I also explored history more generally. To compensate for my dearth of high culture, I made my way through Grout & Palisca’s History of Western Music—a worthy overview of the subject—as well as several smaller books about individual artists—Dalí, Gaudí, Sorolla, and Picasso. Stefan Zweig’s memoirs taught me about the pre-war and interwar periods in Europe, and Tony Judt’s magnificent history of postwar Europe led me from 1945 up to the present day. Then, Joseph Stiglitz’s economic analysis shed light on Europe’s uneasy status quo. Hoping to penetrate the mysterious rise and fall of civilizations, I tackled Oswald Spengler’s phantasmagoric Decline of the West and Arnold Toynbee’s more soporific companion, A Study of History; but I remain in the dark on this question, so I content myself with the sharp prose and colorful descriptions of Lord Macaulay.

Henry David Thoreau was born 200 years ago this year, so I decided to re-read his classic account of life in the woods once more, and found myself once more conflicted. (I also visited Walden Pond, as well as a fantastic exhibition about Thoreau in the Morgan Museum in New York.) I also decided to trace Thoreau’s influence through some of his spiritual followers, both as a conservationist and as a social advocate. This led me to Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, and Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives.

This last book dovetailed with another major theme, New York City, which led me to learn about the Croton Aqueduct and the subway system, as well as to read Federico Garcia Lorca’s surreal poetry, Jane Jacob’s brilliant analysis of what makes cities succeed and fail, and Robert Caro’s wholly remarkable biography of Robert Moses—easily one of the best books of the year.

Though this year has been fairly light on fiction, I still had some literary pleasures. Among these were several Shakespeare plays, Hemingway’s short stories, Dickens’s Bleak House, and the final three volumes of Proust’s sprawling epic. But my favorite novel, and my favorite book of the year, is without doubt George Elliot’s Middlemarch, which I found to be life-alteringly brilliant. I have also read some excellent literary criticism: Orwell’s essay on Dickens, Ortega y Gasset’s essay on Cervantes, Unamuno’s ecstatic commentary on Don Quijote, and best of all Bradley’s lectures on Shakespeare’s tragedies—a model of literary appreciation.

I also used several books as jumping-off points for investigations into certain aspects of modern life. I tasted Spanish cuisine with a cookbook, I flirted with romance through Azis Ansari, I argued politics with Jonathan Haidt, I swapped work stories with Studs Terkel, and I tested the educational system through a GRE prep book, a book on classroom management, and William Deresiewicz manifesto on higher education. I also pondered the best way to live with a biography of Montaigne and a book on Stoicism, though I am still in the dark on this point.

To sharpen my travel writing I read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s wordy account of his trip through Europe in the 1930s, and George Henry Borrow’s even wordier account of his trip through Spain in the 1830s, neither of which I very much liked. Yet I relished Richard Ford’s Gatherings From Spain, and recommend it to any curious travelers to the Iberian peninsula.

My reviews have grown longer and more detailed this year, as I have incorporated more summary into my reviews in the hope, perhaps vain, that it will allow me to understand and retain more of what I read. The downside of this strategy is, of course, that many reviews are a slog to read. But on the whole I am happy with most of my reviews from this year. Of these, I am most proud of my review of Hegel’s Phenomenology, followed closely by Susan Haack’s Defending ScienceWithin Reason—two philosophy texts, as it happens.

Thanks to all of you for reading so much and for writing so well, and may 2018 be even better.