An imagined artist

Chaim Potok wanted to become a painter but life intervened and it was a road not traveled. Instead, he became a writer primarily of well-received novels. He was unusual, as a major Jewish writer in North America at the time, as he was fully immersed in his tradition as a believing, practicing Jew, rather alienated from or even antagonistic to his tradition.

He wrote from within yet not unaware of or ungenerous towards the secular, the intrusion of modernity. It is, in many of his novels, a creative tension between the enclosed but unfolding and sustaining world of Hasidic or Conservative Judaism and the American world beyond that gives his novels their life. It comes alive in the struggles of his characters to make their way - faithful to both tradition and the new.

This is wonderfully depicted in Potok's 'My Name is Asher Lev'. Asher introduces himself at the novel's opening as the crea…

The Whispering Poet

The poet, Norman Nicholson, was diagnosed as an adolescent with TB and was dispatched from his Cumbrian home to a sanatorium in the south of England where a regime of very fresh air in a hut three sides open to the air, feeding and rest included the instruction not to speak over a whisper! Though affording him ample space to read, it interrupted the trajectory of his education, thwarting any prospect of university, and drawing him back to Millom, where, until their deaths, he lived with his father and stepmother, the latter overlapping somewhat uneasily, with his wife. 
It was a confining that he captured in his signature poem, 'The Pot Geranium' (see below). A man, often ill, apparently confined to a small room, located in an industrial, soon to be a post-industrial town, that was his lifelong home; and, yet in seeing deeply into it, witnessing to its patterns and times, he is connected to every place and time. 
Yet the particularities of a place and your witnessing to it ca…

Davita's Harp

Channah Chandal survived a pogrom in Russia that killed her sister and grandfather and finds herself in Vienna, a student because her father is ashamed of her. Ashamed because she has been raped, ashamed because he, away, as so often, studying with his Hasidic rebbe, was not there to protect her.

In Vienna, she meets Jacob Daw, who will become a famous writer of short stories, and she sheds her religiosity and wakens to a wider world, an awakening that brings her to America and marriage to a Gentile journalist, Michael Chandal, and conversion to Communism and dedication to the party.

Michael, himself, bears a wound, as a seventeen-year-old, immediately after the First World War, he witnesses the brutal killing of an union activist in a conflict over lumber, from which his family built its fortune. Estranged from them, he embarks on his campaign to right the world, to free the proletariat.

This couple has a daughter, Davita Ilana, from whom's perspective Chaim Potok's wonderfu…

Creating out of nothing - the art and life of a remarkable artist

I remember having dinner in Oxford with a young, enthusiastic Pole, who was completing his Masters in Art History before progressing to greater things, who asked me, "What do people in England think about Poland"? This was prior to its entry to the EU.  Thinking honesty was called for I suggested: The start of the Second World War, Solidarity and the Pope being Polish as three possibilities if you were 'lucky'. He looked appropriately crestfallen and I was sorry.

Czapski was moved similarly to realise that in spite of its historic importance and its cultural depth, Poland was often simply an absence in people's cultural cartography. Sad to say, I think, this continues to be true, to which my own unfamiliarity with Czapski himself attests.

I cannot remember how I came to recently acquire Eric Karpeles' 'Almost Nothing: The Twentieth Century Art and Life of Jozef Czapski' but I am deeply delighted that I did. Czapski's life virtually spanned the wh…

Searching for paradise in the hidden Himalayas

At moments of dislocation and intense social uncertainty people will appear offering the possibility of another land where people will be blessed, liberated and genuinely at home. In this case, it was not 'Brexit' but a hidden land of actual immortality, enfolded within the mountain ranges around Mt Kanchenjunga on the Nepalese/Sikkim border. Unlike Shangri-la, Beyul Demoshong was not simply a physical space, carefully hidden (as imagined in Hilton's Lost Horizon) but an occulted place spiritually hidden.

The person offering this journey and opening the way to it was the 'crazy lama', Tulshuk Lingpa. Lingpa was a 'terton' a finder of 'terma' which were texts magically hidden until discovered at the right moment for them to be of maximum usefulness to people's spiritual development. They were often hidden by Padmasambhava, the robust wonder-working bringer of Buddhism to Tibet; and, Tibetan Buddhism is alive with such discoveries (though undoubt…

Good Companionship

The novel's author, J.B. Priestley, was ambivalent about, 'The Good Companions'. Whilst it was the novel that made his name and secured his livelihood as a writer, it was the novel that threatened to overwhelm and encircle his name as the author of 'The Good Companions'.

It was as if Dickens found himself seen as the author of 'The Pickwick Papers', that everything he did was seen through that lens alone or, to use an appropriate theatrical analogy, Priestley found himself typecast. Like, say, the great Richard Briers always being seen through the lens of having 'been in' the exemplary BBC television comedy, 'The Good Life' but never being seen for his performances, say, in Shakespeare.

It is an apt comparison because, as with 'The Good Life', 'The Good Companions' is an exemplary novel of its kind. In this case, a picaresque tour de force that takes three disparate 'amateurs' and plunges them by coordinated accident…

A Forgotten Kingdom

Peter Goullart was a White Russian emigre in China who progressed from being a clerk through being the tour guide to wealthy Westerners to a promotor of co-operatives on behalf of the Chinese Nationalist government in the remote province of Yunnan from 1939 to 1948. He left on a plane never to return shortly after the brutal arrival of the Chinese communists who were to change the life of Yunnan for good. Ironically in the process destroying the co-operatives that Goullart had laboured to help launch and which had encouraged a significant momentum towards prosperity. Their grassroots collaborative agency naturally distressing the centralised directives of a collectivist state in the making.
Goullart's "Forgotten Kingdom: Nine Years in Yunnan, 1939-1948" is his charming account of his life there. It is an accomplished text where he sees with a clear eye - compassionate, balanced and engaged. This is an account with neither romanticism nor cynicism but one of a place actu…