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Davita's Harp

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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…

Without vision the people perish...

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John Carey in his admirable biography of Golding says of  "Darkness Visible" that a simple summary of its plot would sound preposterous and, agreeing, I will not try here.

At its heart are three figures. Matty, an eccentric who appears out of the fires of the Blitz in war torn London hideously disfigured by fire. Mr Pedigree, a pedophile school teacher, whose life enters a downward spiral having been betrayed by Matty`s remorseless honesty.  Sophy, who with her twin Toni, grow up in the same town that connects Matty with Mr Pedigree and where their failed attempt to kidnap a child from a local public school brings the denouement that is Matty`s death and Mr Pedigree`s presumed redemption.

The outward narrative that connects these three figures together is, as Carey notes, mostly unbelievable and yet this detracts from the novel not one whit. What matters consistently is the inward dynamics that propel the principal characters outward actions and here Golding`s vision is rem…

The uncanny biography

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I was on my way to bed on Tuesday night and found myself contemplating Andrei Bely's "Kotik Letaev' his experimental novel that follows a child from birth onwards capturing the unfolding of its awareness whilst mirroring Rudolf Steiner's understanding of the development of consciousness. What, I found myself thinking, do I really think about Rudolf Steiner? The next day, over breakfast, I open my current book, John Cary's excellent biography of William Golding and within a page, I learn that Golding's first teaching appointment was at a Steiner school (as one of his lifelong friends, met at Oxford, became a minister in the Steiner inspired, Christian Community). Golding himself, whilst initially impressed by Steiner's work, found Steiner's followers less appealing. I smiled at the coincidence and thought no more of it.

On Wednesday evening, I found myself thinking of how and when did my early, thirteen-year-old, introduction to Transcendental meditati…