Archive for November, 2012


All bloggers have to delete vast numbers of spamming messages every day, but I can’t help noticing that the spamming messages are becoming increasingly cryptic. Today, for instance, my spam filter blocked this message:

Absolutely adore may working difficulty for your daily life along with expansion of what most people passion.

Could anyone out there please interpret this? A virtual pint for the most entertaining interpretation.


In praise of argument

The title of this blog is, obviously, a bit of a joke. But not entirely a joke. Arguing is not necessarily, I’d argue, a bad thing. Indeed, given how given I am to arguing, I tend to see it in rather a positive light.  For what’s an opinion worth, any opinion, if it doesn’t have a bit of argument to go with it?

Looking around various discussion boards on the net, there appears to be a general feeling that an opinion is, somehow, sacrosanct. “It’s my opinion and I am entitled to it.” I’ve frequently seen that sentiment expressed quite explicitly. The mere statement of mere opinion is widely seen as the end of discussion, and challenging it virtually a personal affront. Patrick Stokes, lecturer in philosophy, takes issue with this: you’re not entitled to your opinion, he thunders. (Or, at least, I imagine he would thunder, for if anything is to be thundered, it is this.) You are entitled only to what you can argue.

Splendid rhetoric, but even as I applaud, I can see that it’s not really true. Of course you are entitled to your opinion. Everyone is. But what you are not entitled to is to have that opinion taken seriously. That accolade you only get that if you can present an argument for your opinion. That argument may be a good one or a bad one, or, most usually, something somewhere in between; but when an argument is at least presented, we have a starting point from which we can go on to determine how good or otherwise the opinion is. Without argument, we have nothing – not even that starting point.

And yet, arguing is something we never teach our children to do. We tell them when they are very young not to argue – and quite rightly, for arguing is not something one can do well without first acquiring some ability; but we never reverse this teaching when they are old enough to learn to argue properly. For, properly considered, arguing is a skill, and it does need to be learnt. The art of rhetoric, and the understanding of even the most basic rules of logic, are all inexplicably absent from our liberal education, and, as a consequence, argument is seen as a bad thing, and “argumentative” as a pejorative. And all we are left with is mere opinion. To which, we convince ourselves, we are entitled.

I do not mean to be dismissive when I speak of “mere opinion”. No, on second thoughts, I do. For “mere opinion” can and should be dismissed, even if it should turn out to be a good opinion. The dictionary defines “mere” as, amongst other things, “being nothing more than what is specified”. In short, “mere opinion” means “no more than opinion”. Or, in other words, “opinion unsupported by argument”. And what, I ask myself, is the point of that?

I often post on this blog thoughts that are not fully formed, in the hope that it will lead to discussion and debate; and that, in the course of this discussion and debate, I can come to viewpoints more considered, less inchoate. If I were to be restricted only to my own opinions without offering arguments for them, I would merely be trapped within my own mind. And, believe me, that’s not a pleasant place to be trapped in.

Inevitably, words are important. This is our means of communication – and, on this blog, where the occasional picture I put up is intended to be no more than decorative, our sole means of communication. Words have denotative meanings, and also connotative meanings, and they all count. This is why, when we debate matters, the words we use should be scrutinised, questioned, and their various levels of meaning teased out – those meanings we had intended, and those we hadn’t.

This is what I understand as “argument”. I understand it to be probing each other’s viewpoints; questioning the wording, and teasing out subtleties and complexities that are not immediately apparent; picking holes in what others are saying, and having holes picked in what I myself am saying, so that in attempting to fill in these holes, we may consider things we hadn’t considered before.

And the point is not necessarily to win. Often, the point is simply to see how well one’s thoughts stand up to scrutiny. If I come out of an argument without having modified my own thoughts in the light of something I had not previously considered, I tend to feel that the argument has somehow been unsuccessful; that, at some vital point, it has failed.


The titling of this blog was inspired by the title of this book by Amartya Sen. Indeed, my first title for this blog was “The Argumentative Indian”, but having now spent 47 of my 52 years in Britain, and rather liking it here, I really don’t know, culturally speaking, how much of an Indian I still am. But if, as Sen argues, questioning, disputing, arguing; being combative and contentious and disputatious; are all time-honoured aspects of Indian intellectual traditions, then these are traditions to which I am happy to lay claim. If I am indeed argumentative, then I am happy to be so; and if not, then this is a state to which I aspire.

So three cheers for being argumentative!

The missing post: an explanation

If you look for Chapter 24 in the 4th volume of Tristram Shandy, you will find it missing. If you glance at the page numbers, you will find a gap of ten pages. At the start of Chapter 25, Sterne explains:

— NO doubt, Sir — there is a whole chapter wanting here — and a chasm of ten pages made in the book by it — but the book-binder is neither a fool, or a knave, or a puppy — nor is the book a jot more imperfect, (at least upon that score) — but, on the contrary, the book is more perfect and complete by wanting the chapter, than having it, as I shall demonstrate to your reverences in this manner  —

He then spends the rest of this chapter telling us what had been in the previous chapter that he had decided to omit. And then, he explains why he had to omit that previous chapter: it was not because it was not good enough, but, rather, that it was too good:

[The omitted chapter] appears to be so much above the stile and manner of anything else I have been able to paint in this book, that it could not have remained in it, without depreciating every other scene ; and destroying at the same time that necessary equipoise and balance, (whether of good or bad) betwixt chapter and chapter, from whence the just proportions and harmony of the whole work results.

Now, I wish I could claim as much for my own missing chapter – the post that had appeared here yesterday afternoon, and, having been up here for an hour or so for all to see, mysteriously vanished. Now that it has vanished, there is no reason why I shouldn’t make grand claims for it – that it was written in a style and manner so much above anything else I have written here, that retaining it would have destroyed the inner harmony of the blog, and so on. But no: the sad truth is that it was an intemperate post written in a fit of extreme annoyance; and that, once I had calmed down, I realised that it did little to advance the image I try to project of myself of a jovial, avuncular figure, radiating to all a genial goodwill and a Pickwickian benevolence.

Or something like that.

This is the article that had aroused my ire. I have had occasion to take issue with Robert McCrum before, but on that occasion, I had been merely amused by what I took to be the foolishness of his writing; on this occasion, I was angry, and one really should not write when one is angry. Or, at least, having written, one should not reach for that “publish” button.

This particular article of his is, admittedly, jokey, and not intended to be taken seriously, but nonetheless, I couldn’t overlook what he had to say about Indian literature:

This could be seen as a subset of either Booker lit or Commonwealth Lit, and is represented by Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and many others. For a while, it seemed as if the English literary tradition would be sustained exclusively by writers from the sub-continent.

That the only Indian writings one need bother with are those written in a Western language for a predominantly Western readership, while those written in one those funny little languages of theirs need not even be acknowledged, is a contention widely accepted though never explicitly stated amongst Western literati; and, for me, it is the proverbial red rag to a bull: I find it offensive and insulting – especially when it comes from someone who had been editor-in-chief at Faber & Faber for twenty years, and really should know better. And in immediate response, I wrote a post that was written in heat, and generated little light. I shouldn’t have done

In any case, I have already had a bit of a rant about this matter only quite recently.

The last word should, I think, go to Laurence Sterne:

— I question first by the bye, whether the same experiment might not be made as successfully upon sundry other chapters —

If there is any other post that you think this blog would be better without, do please let me know!

On joy: a scene from “Anna Karenina”

When Levin had gone to Moscow to propose to Kitty, he had met her at the ice rink. He had tried “not to look at her for too long at a time, as one avoids looking at the sun”. But, as with the sun, “he saw her without looking at her”.

But Levin was rejected. Returning to his farm, he had tried to forget about her by throwing himself into his work. And he thinks he has succeeded. A simple life of toil on the land. Perhaps he might even marry a peasant woman. And the hurt he had received would be forgotten. But even as he thinks about such things, after a night spent out in the open, in the early hours of the morning, a carriage passes by. And inside the carriage is her.

Bright and thoughtful, filled with a refined and complex inner life to which Levin was a stranger, she was looking beyond him at the glowing dawn.

Just as the vision was about to disappear, her truthful eyes glanced at him. She recognized him, and a look of surprise and joy lit up her face.

He could not be mistaken. There were no other such eyes in the world. There was no other being in the world able to focus for him the whole world and the meaning of life.

Levin looks up at the sky which, that last night he had spent in the open, had seemed to him somehow sympathetic to his thoughts. But now, it seems different:

There, in that inaccessible height, a mysterious change had by now taken place … Over half the sky was spread a carpet of fleecy clouds growing gradually smaller and smaller. The sky turned pale blue, became brighter and answered his questioning glance always with the same tenderness and the same remoteness.

And Levin realises that living a simple life of toil, married to a peasant woman, however good and virtuous, is not for him: it is she he loves.


Of the many passages of Anna Karenina that have haunted my mind since my most recent reading, this one particularly haunts me. What I think particularly strikes me about it is that the sight of Kitty awakens in Levin a sense of joy, and also, at the same time, re-opens his wound, sharpens the pain.

And the two emotions do not, I think, contradict each other. We tend to think of joy nowadays as but as an excess of pleasure; we think the difference between the two is but a difference in degree, and label both with that banal and vapid coinage “feelgood”. But joy, true joy, is, as Tolstoy reminds us, something quite different: it is something that can strike us even as it causes pain. After all, one of the most heartfelt expressions of grief in the English language opens with the words “Surprised by joy”.

For Wordsworth too knew of the complexities of joy:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused

A joy can bring pain, and it can also disturb. Not much of the “feelgood” here. And it can take us also by surprise. In his sonnet “Surprised by joy”, Wordsworth does not tell us what had occasioned his joy – merely that he was “surprised” by it. And when he had turned instinctively to share his joy with his daughter, he remembered what he had known all along: the joy could not be shared with her, for she was dead. It is not her he had forgotten: far from it – she had been continually present in his mind. What he had momentarily forgotten was her absence from the real world.

Rabindranath Tagore, in one of his most famous poems, also meditates on this: if one is absent from this world, but present in one’s mind, then in what sense, if any, does she, can she, exist?

You are not before the eye,
You have made your home in the midst of the eye itself.
[Translated with startling inadequacy by myself]

And from here to the closing lines, the poem soars with a sense of ecstasy – with a sense sublime of something more deeply interfused. (And this I will not attempt to translate: the sounds and rhythms Tagore uses to communicate this ecstasy are not available in English, and to fall short would, to my mind, be to misrepresent it.) The joy that is depicted in the closing section of this poem does not wipe out the pain, nor even mitigate it: but it is a joy nonetheless. And similarly with Wordsworth’s sonnet: it is significant that this almost unbearably poignant expression of grief and pain is introduced with an evocation not of gloom or of despair, but of joy.

In our modern times, we tend not to believe in the concept of transcendence: if the material word is the only world there is, then there can be nothing to transcend to, and all feelings, all emotions, are either merely “feelbad” or “feelgood”: “feelgood” is what we should all strive for, as this, after all, is the sole purpose of living; and “feelbad” is what you take anti-depressants to ward off. This is perhaps why I come away from so many modern novels with the sense that I have witnessed merely small, insignificant people experiencing small, insignificant feelings. But with Tolstoy, I feel I am in a much bigger world. No other writer, I think, has depicted the physical surfaces of our lives so meticulously; but Tolstoy depicts also a sense of transcendence, even though we can but vaguely know what those regions may be that we are transcending to. He depicts that sense sublime of something that is more deeply interfused – something that refuses to be pinned down, but which we cannot ignore without diminishing ourselves. It is in that sense of joy we feel even as we grieve, even as we feel pain – even as we are disturbed. It is certainly what Levin feels when he unexpectedly catches sight of Kitty in the carriage.

[All passages quoted from Anna Karenina are taken from the translation by Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes, published by Oneworld classics]

How does one start a “blog meme”?

I have no idea to the above question. One way is to nominate a number of bloggers, asking them to answer some questions and then to pass it on to others. But there are so many blogs I enjoy and so many bloggers I like, that it seems invidious to pick out merely a few. And in any case, I wouldn’t want to put pressure on anyone to write a specific kind of post. So, here’s the deal: If anyone out there is writing a literary blog, and you fancy taking part in this, why don’t you write a post about a passage from your reading that is of particular significance to you, and explain why it is significant?

Once again, please don’t feel obliged in any way, but I’d be fascinated to see what other bloggers pick, and why. The passage could be from a poem, a novel, a short story, an essay, a play … anything at all really. And the reason why this passage is significant could be … well, once again, it could be anything: that’s the fun of the thing.

I’ll kick this off with my next post.

Turtles all the way down

Bertrand Russell, according to philosophical lore, was once in the course of giving a public lecture on cosmology when he was interrupted by an old lady in the audience. “Everything you have been telling us is rubbish,” the lady vociferously objected. “The world is actually flat, and it is supported by a giant elephant that is standing on the back of a turtle.” Russell, humouring her, asked what might support the turtle. The lady replied, “It’s turtles all the way down!”

– from Why Does the World Exist? By Jim Holt

There are some questions we cannot help asking ourselves, even if we are convinced that there can never be a fully satisfactory answer. “Why does something exist rather than nothing?” is perhaps the most basic question of all. Of course, not everyone thinks the question is unanswerable; and not everyone even thinks the question is valid to begin with. Philosopher Adolf Grünbaum, is particular, is adamant that this question is not even to be asked, as it is meaningless. But, undaunted by this early setback, author Jim Holt sets out to find, if not the answer, at least the various thoughts and ideas that mankind has come up with in relation to this eternal puzzle. He describes his quest, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as an “existential detective story”; and, during the course of his detective work, he interviews some of the foremost intellects of our time – scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, theologians; and even novelist John Updike shortly before his death, to consider the views of a creative artist. And the range of thoughts and ideas they all come out with is as bewildering as it is fascinating. His first interviewee, philosopher Adolf Grünbaum insists with some vehemence that the question itself is meaningless; another eminent philosopher, Richard Swinburne, opines that although the existence of God cannot be confirmed, it is the most probable given the laws of Bayes’ Theorem; a mathematician (Sir Roger Penrose, no less) thinks that the laws of pure mathematics preceded the universe itself, have an objective reality, and are immutable; and that the universe had to come into being to satisfy these laws. And so on.

In between these interviews, Holt explains very clearly and with considerable wit some of the subtlest ideas and concepts from the fields of philosophy, physics and mathematics. I do have something of a background in physics and mathematics, but I was still grateful to have explained the philosophical implications of some of the ideas from these areas; and, not having any background in philosophy at all, I was extremely grateful for Holt’s very lucid and elegantly expressed expositions of various philosophical ideas. The result of all this is both entertaining and fascinating, although if Holt’s quest is indeed a detective story, then it is one of those post-modernist open-ended ones: here, at the end, Poirot does gather all the suspects together in one room to reveal the killer; but, instead of doing so, he merely goes through all his hypotheses, before finally conceding that he does not really know whodunit.

As far as my own limited intellectual abilities go, the question asked in the title is insoluble. If every effect has a cause, as Leibnitz maintained, then we can, in theory at least, trace back the causes of all effects either until we get to the First Cause. We may call this First Cause God, as those do who are religious; or we may call the First Cause the laws of mathematics, as mathematician Roger Penrose does; or we may call it the principle of goodness – as one philosopher, John Leslie, does. There are other possibilities also. Or we may move away entirely from this idea of a First Cause, and say, as certain branches of Hindu cosmology do, that the chain of causality is infinite, and that everything, ourselves included, has always existed. If the former applies – i.e. if there is indeed a First Cause – then this First Cause has to provide an explanation for itself, and that is circular; but if the latter applies – i.e. if there are indeed turtles all the way down – we find ourselves lacking an explanation of the existence of this infinite chain of turtles.

Of course, science has peered deeply into this issue. We now know that the universe started with the Big Bang; but, just as any child in scripture classes when told that God created the world asks “Then who created God?”, the question “Why did the Big Bang occur?” seems to me – pace Grünbaum – a legitimate one. What happened before the Big Bang to make it occur? At this point, we are firmly admonished: there was no time before the Big Bang, we are told, and, hence, to ask what preceded it is as meaningless as it is to ask what lies further north than the North Pole. But this answer does not satisfy. Whether there was time before Big Bang or not, why did it occur? Why is there not nothing?

No doubt, scientists will be able to tell us some day why the Big Bang occurred: we know, for instance, that there is never such a thing as a complete vacuum, as even in nothingness there are quantum fluctuations – random spontaneous creations and annihilations of particles and anti-particles. And even out of this the universe may have emerged. But this seems to me to leave open the question: “If the laws of physics are such that the universe could come into being, then why are the laws such?” If our existence is contingent upon the laws that allow us to exist, then is it not legitimate to ask how these laws had come about? Did someone – God, say – decree them? Or did they appear spontaneously out of nowhere for no apparent reason?

And is it in any case reasonable to view it in this manner? After all, that the laws that describe the universe must necessarily be the laws that caused the universe to come into being is but an unargued assertion. And even if we were to accept this assertion, unargued though it is, and accept that a universe capable of supporting life and consciousness came into being because certain laws allowed it to do so, then we are assuming that the laws came first; and this is surely disputable. Is it not, at least, legitimate to see the laws merely as descriptive of the universe, and, hence, only of consequence when the existence of the universe is already an established fact? Roger Penrose, for one, doesn’t think so. For him, the laws of mathematics have an objective reality, and are eternal. But he doesn’t explain why that should be so. The laws of mathematics are for him what God is to the religious – a brute fact, a point where we must stop and not look for further turtles underneath. But this seems to me merely to shift the mystery back a few links in the chain: the mystery itself is not solved.

Even Steven Weinberg, among the most extraordinary scientific intellects of his or of any other age, feels there can be no answer. Or, at least, that human beings are not capable of comprehending them. But, Weinberg insists, science, although it cannot finally and irrevocably provide a solution, can indeed probe much further, and answer many of the questions that so puzzle us now. However, rather intriguingly, he goes on to say that the more explainable the universe becomes, the more pointless it seems. Not everyone feels this way: Richard Dawkins had famously declared that the more we understand of the universe, the more fascinating it becomes; and, in his characteristically imperious manner, he had insisted that we all should see it in his terms on the pain of being damned as obscurantist. That someone so very distinguished as Steven Weinberg can not see it in such terms indicates the importance of differing individual temperaments in these matters.

And this is what particularly fascinated me – even more perhaps than the ideas expressed. If reason is objective, I wondered, then how is it that so many brilliant minds reason themselves into such diverse positions? And it strikes me that it isn’t really reason that has led these luminaries to their very different conclusions: it’s their temperaments. If these same people had been born with the same powerful intellects but with different temperaments, then their reasons would have led them to very different conclusions.

Inevitably, this leaves me wondering where my own temperament leads me. I do not of course possess anything like the level of intellect of the various people Holt interviews, but nonetheless, like Steven Weinberg, I too cannot help feeling that the more we understand the mechanism of the universe, the more pointless it seems. I do not see the point of offering a defence of such a perspective: it is my own temperament, and no more. Speaking for myself (and, I emphasise, only for myself), if we are to live our lives as fully as we can, we must not see our lives as pointless, as lacking significance. And I find myself actually grateful that the full answer to the question will always elude our human understanding.

In short, for me, it’s turtles all the way down!

“My Kind of Girl” by Buddhadeva Bose

It was heartening to see the recent publications in the West of some Indian books that had actually been written in Indian languages. But perhaps it is equally disheartening to see these publications given such little publicity. On a recent tour of London bookshops, I couldn’t find any of these titles on the shelves of even the largest: without at least a bit of publicity, the shelf-lives of books aren’t long. And the dreary orthodoxy prevailing in the Western world that the only Indian literature that is worth bothering with is that written in English remains, sadly, unchallenged. I did, however, pick these translations up while they were still available, and, last week, I read the short novel My Kind of Girl (Moner Mato Maye) by Buddhaveva Bose.

I must confess that Buddhadeva Bose is merely a name to me: having grown up in the West, largely cut off from Bengali culture, I have read very little Bengali literature outside Tagore. He is renowned as among the finest Bengali authors of the post-Tagore generations. Tithidore (When the Time is Right), reputed to be his finest novel, is available in English in India, but, as ever in such cases, not in the West. (I picked up the English translation when I was in India earlier this year, although I haven’t got round to reading it yet.) My Kind of Girl, written in 1951, is a much shorter work, and, I suspect, a much slighter work: it is deftly executed, and there was much in it that was fine; however, given the author’s reputation in his native Bengal, I get the impression that it is more a simple five finger exercise rather than a full-blown sonata. Perhaps I will get a better impression of Bose once I have read Tithidore.

Which is not to say, of course, that this short novel is negligible: it is clearly the work of a sharp literary intelligence. And the translation, by Arunava Sinha, seems very well done – although, more than once, I found myself trying to guess from the somewhat unusual syntax what the original Bengali may have been. For Bengali syntax is very different from English: it is far more economical with words. Take, for instance, a simple English sentence such as this:

“There were three trees standing next to the house.”

In Bengali, most of these words would be considered superfluous. “Next house three trees” is perfectly adequate, and, in Bengali, perfectly correct. But to write this as a proper sentence in English obviously requires a bit of “padding” – the addition of words that are superfluous in one language, but necessary in another. Most of the time, the translator does the job of padding well: but occasionally, I couldn’t help feeling that the addition of a few more words might have helped.

And then, there are the idioms – the same phrase, the same words, but which carry a different charge in a different language. We come across this in the title itself: Moner Mato Maye literally means “a girl like my mind”; or, less literally and more clumsily, “the kind of girl who suits my taste”. Sinha’s title, My Kind of Girl, seems admirable; however, it implies an environment in which one may choose one’s partner: but the society depicted is one in which marriages are arranged, and in which people, both male and female, do not grow up with expectations of choosing partners for themselves. No-one here actually expects to be married to people with whom they may happen to fall in love; and when those whom they love are married off to someone else, there seems little sense of disappointment. One cannot after all be disappointed when one had no expectation to begin with.

This is a very different environment from any that most Western readers will be familiar with, even though arranged marriages had been a norm in the West until quite recently amongst certain classes. That one may feel little pain when the object of one’s love may marry someone else may seem extraordinary to a modern Western reader: and yet, such is the unobtrusive artistry of Bose’s narrative style, it seems perfectly natural in the context. The four brief stories which comprise this novel all have at the centre this theme: the dislocation between one’s emotions and one’s awareness of the demands of reality.

The structure of the novel is a simple one, and has often been used: four men, strangers to each other, find themselves thrown together for a while, and each tells his own story. This simple structure is familiar to anyone who has seen the Amicus portmanteau horror films such as From Beyond the Grave or Tales From the Crypt: but here, the stories aren’t horror stories: they are about love. The model is not the Amicus horror films (which this book predates anyway), but, rather, Chekhov’s trilogy of stories, “Gooseberriess”, “Man in a Case” and “About Love”.

The first story is particularly painful. So painful, indeed, that the narrator has to pretend it had all happened to someone else. No-one is fooled by this, though they are all too polite to challenge him on this point. This is a story about love rejected. The narrator is a big man, physically clumsy and unattractive; he is, however, successful in life: he has a good head for business, and has become wealthy: in a society without any form of economic safety net, the security offered by his wealth makes him, despite his physical clumsiness, a prized match. And yet, when he asks his mother to arrange a marriage with a woman with whom he has fallen in love, he is rejected: she comes from a cultured family, and he and his family are seen as unrefined and boorish. Even when he saves them from being thrown out penniless on the streets, she tells him clearly that she is not for him, and that not even gratitude for his generosity could shake off the distaste she feels. Not only can he not win her love, he cannot even buy it – not even if he wants to. The rejection is final and complete. And this physically clumsy, hard-headed businessman continues to carry inside him the pain, the shame, and, also, a profound disgust with his own self.

The second is a sad, wistful story: a youthful love that never had a chance of being consummated, but which lasts throughout both their lives, even into old age. The third, we are promised, is a “comic story” – a scherzo in the four-movement work. However, although no-one acknowledges it, the “comedy” leaves behind a bitter taste. The narrator falls in love with a young lady who is pining away for the sake of another. This other person, a doctor, is already unofficially engaged to an Anglo-Indian girl, who is receptionist at his surgery. And the narrator is shocked: “So an Anglo-Indian’s ploys matter more to you than a Bengali girl’s tears?” he asks. The racism, and the sheer stupidity that lies behind it, are shocking, but this narrator is too self-unaware to notice: his moral outrage even as he speaks these words is real.

By the end, he ends up marrying her, unembarrassed about being but a second best choice, and seemingly not even pausing to ask what his wife feels about it all. Perhaps she married him to punish herself; perhaps, by the end, she was past caring. Who knows? The narrator certainly doesn’t: he hasn’t even given this matter any thought, and thinks of the whole thing as “comic”. This “comic” story is, however, the most disturbing of the four.

The final story, the climax of the sequence, is a tragic tale. It is well enough done, but in many ways, it was the least remarkable of the four. The earlier stories had shown us a writer of remarkable talent and imagination: all I saw here was a writer who knew his craft well, but who was, at this stage, merely going through the motions.

ll in all, not perhaps an unqualified triumph, but a remarkable work for all that. A five-finger exercise, as I said, rather than a major sonata. This winter, I’ll tackle Tithidore (When the Time is Right): if it lives up to anywhere near the reputation it has in the Bengali-speaking world, I should be in for a treat.

What’s in a name?

My favourite title of any novel is this:

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.

This title is usually shorted to Moll Flanders, and that’s a bit of a shame. I’d love to see an edition that prints the full title on the cover.