The agreeable eye

an eudæmonistarchives

January 2010

Setting the East Ablaze

2 January 2010, around 8.20.

The Cheka, Bailey learned later, had come to the conclusion that he must either have got clean away or been disposed of by the Germans who – with the war still on at that time – had good reason for wishing him out of the way. The evidence for the later, it seems, rested on the fact that he had disappeared without his toothbrush. This, the Bolsheviks felt, no Englishman would ever do. In fact, he happened to have two. (59)

Drawing on contemporary travelogues and memoirs, as in his earlier, longer (and better) book The Great Game, Peter Hopkirk has written a highly readable and amusing account of political intrigue in Central Asia in the early twentieth century. It is a drama about information (who could find out what, when) at a time when access to information was so limited that it translated almost directly to power. Beginning initially with the tale Lieut.-Col. Frederick Bailey1 – ‘discoverer’ of the Himalayan blue poppy and catcher of butterflies – traveling to Tashkent with the White Russian governor, Setting the East Ablaze moves on to consider the Soviet ‘threat’ to India, as well as ambitions to influence China, ending ultimately with WWII and Indian independence. Bloodthirsty Turkic nomads are not omitted.

The main problem – and the reason why The Great Game is a superior book – is that the material does not seem fully digested. The tone changes from chapter to chapter depending on whose memoirs Hopkirk draws on. Indeed, in some places, he seems to have only one or two highly biased sources to spin a narrative from, which entirely color how the story is related;2 this is nowhere really addressed.3 Not being particularly well informed about the period or the region, I cannot with justice comment further.

However – and this sums up my frustrations and delight in this book – I want to know what happened to the Irish governess, ‘the plucky Miss Houston’ who helped so many people escape from the Red Army. She made ‘her own dramatic escape into Persia’ (86) from Tashkent, but that is the last we hear of her, and there is no citation, so she is lost to history. Alas.

  1. Though by no means neglecting a colorful cast of characters from dozens of nationalities, including the dapper (and deadly) Enver Pasha and the sadistic, mad Baron Ungern-Sternberg. []
  2. Particularly in the stories of the aforementioned Enver Pasha & Baron Ungern-Sternber, as well as the Tungan leader Ma Chung-yin []
  3. A situation not helped by lack of information from Soviet archives and a legacy of misinformation on the ground. []

city of stone

19 January 2010, around 8.50.

castle at Gjirokaster

Birds of dark omen wait for you in the city of stone.

Swann’s Way

27 January 2010, around 8.25.

A few notes on Swann’s Way:1

  1. These are in the strictest sense of the term, simply notes. I had wanted to come up with a coherent essay on the first volume, but that desire simply led to my procrastinating on reading the rest, so I am making my notes and my peace. []
  2. See Paul Fussell on passports, and Hugh Kenner on timetables. []

elusive taste

29 January 2010, around 0.20.

I’ve stayed in much richer ones than that. I’ve stayed in one so rich that when you pulled the lavatory-plug it played a tune… Rich people – you have to be sorry for them. They haven’t the slightest idea how to spend their money; they haven’t the slightest idea how to enjoy themselves. Either they have no taste at all, or, if they have any taste, it’s like a mausoleum and they’re shut up in it.

—Jean Rhys (Good Morning, Midnight, p. 448)

I should have warned you. This is a Japanese thing … my daughter’s idea to import it. When you flush, it set off the music, it’s … more pleasant, you see?

—Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog, p. 221)

If you happen to be flying from Armenia to the US you of course know that there were not, until spring of 2010, any transatlantic flights out of Yerevan.1 Thus one has the pleasure of enjoying a пересадка in Moscow, a Zwischenlandung in Frankfurt, or an escale in Paris.2 During one of these terrestrial interludes I picked up The Elegance of the Hedgehog in one of the bookstores at Charles de Gaulle aéroport, drawn by the publisher’s distinctive design and the word ‘hedgehog’; I read it on the flight from Paris to Dulles. It struck me – as do most books that might make an eight hour flight seem shorter – as charming, clever, enjoyable, and not much more than that. I would have been quite satisfied with it as a book had I not picked up Barbery’s earlier short novel Gourmet Rhapsody3 at Dulles(t) airport for the return flight.

I wanted something different. I suppose I wanted to see a different stage of development in the writing, either more or less confidence in what she was doing. But Gourmet Rhapsody read like yet another chapter in some more epic novel about the charmingly quirky inhabitants of no. 7, rue de Grenelle. In doing so, it drew attention both to its own faults and to the faults of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. These faults are not so much the fault of the novelist – both novels are admirably structured, have interesting characters, and explore different points of view through a satisfying range of voices – as of the sentimentalist. Although both novels are supposedly about adults who have reached a certain level of mental sophistication, they are both full of interludes of behavior and thinking more suitable to fussy children.4 Although seemingly complex and rich in feeling, they are only truly satisfied by simple pleasures and really want nothing more than to either to feel loved or to express affection or closeness, or to have some sort of genuine experience not marred by the pretenses they themselves have erected. Thus Renée’s intellectual posturing and insecurity are nothing but fronts to prevent people from coming too close, and Pierre Arthens’ quest for an elusive flavor ends up being a quest for simplicity (or rusticity) and the memory of closeness with his son. Fair enough. It is, however, frustrating, that characters which at first seem to have so many facets are reduced by these means to flat caricatures of peevish need; what seemed rich and full and promising, is ultimately revealed as empty.

I am, however, very possibly wrong about all this. As an interlude of some months has passed between my reading of these novels and my writing of this crankiness, it is possible that the savor has been embittered by forgetfulness and the perusal of too many texts devoted to food.

  1. One hopes that after spring of 2010 some direct flights to the US will be available. []
  2. Strangely enough, Armenian doesn’t have a word for ‘layover’ (or ‘stopover’ if you prefer). Of course one can get the meaning across through periphrasis, but ultimately one falls back on the Russian word, as is often the case. []
  3. Published in the UK as The Gourmet. []
  4. Which is not to say that persons who have reached an adult age do not act like children. []

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