Vol. 32 No. 20 · 21 October 2010

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How Maimonides got his name

There may well be a connection between James Davidson’s observation, in his review of the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names, that the name Jesus/Joshua is missing among Greek personal names ‘in all regions’ and David Nirenberg’s statement in the same issue that Moshe/Moses was an unusual name for Maimonides (LRB, 23 September).

Mordechai Margolioth’s Encyclopedia of Talmudic and Gaonic Literature, which lists the names of Jewish scholars from the second century BCE to the tenth century CE, features only one Moshe/Moses, and he lived in the ninth century under Muslim rule. Christian cultures tend not to use ‘Jesus’ as a personal name (though they do use the Hebrew form Yehoshua/Joshua). The exception is Iberia (and its derivative cultures) in which Jesus is a popular male name. Is it a coincidence that Maimonides came from Islamic Spain, given that Muhammad and its variants are the most popular personal names for males in all Muslim cultures? One might argue that both Jews and Christians had taboos against using the names of their founders and that it was the Muslim example which led the Christians of Iberia and Jews everywhere to abandon this custom.

Stephen Oren

David Nirenberg writes that the collapse of the liberal German world ‘drove Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem into exile’. Scholem emigrated to British Mandated Palestine in 1923.

David Griffiths
Fukuoka, Japan

Memories of Frank Kermode

I never met Frank Kermode in person. But I have been reading him since the beginning of my academic career at Trinity College Dublin, when I began work on an anthology of English translations of Montale’s poetry. A little later, having moved to Victoria University in Wellington (a ‘maximum emigration’, as Kermode described it in a kind email), I edited a set of previously unpublished Montale translations by Henry Reed, an author whom Kermode knew and respected. He welcomed the translations and enjoyed looking again ‘on Henry’s hand’.

In that email, Kermode added: ‘Did I tell you that Camillo Pennati and I published translations of some of the Xenia poems in the New York Review of Books? But I no longer have copies and I don’t remember the date of publication (I think in the 1960s); and I doubt if the translations had any merit except possibly that of earliness.’ I got hold of the translations just in time to include them in my Montale anthology. Here is one:

We had planned a whistle
for the hereafter, a sign of recognition.
I try it out in the hope
that we are all dead already without knowing it.

(‘Xenia’, I:4)

Marco Sonzogni
Wellington, New Zealand

What about Edith?

Helen Cooper states that ‘all the post-Conquest English monarchs down to Henry VI married Frenchwomen, or women from one or other of those not quite so French areas such as Flanders’ (LRB, 7 October). She isn’t quite right. In 1100 Henry I married Edith, the daughter of Scots king Malcolm III. Edith (or Maud/Matilda as she was renamed) was queen of England for 18 years and the mother of the Empress Matilda. She was a niece of Edgar Aetheling, the childless last male of the Anglo-Saxon royal house of Wessex. Arguably this was one of the main attractions of the marriage. It is the only, but a significant, exception to the Franco-centric marriage alliances of England’s Norman, Angevin and Lancastrian kings.

Colin Galloway
Lower Largo, Fife

So long, Lalitha

In denigrating what he sees as Patty and Walter Berglund’s overly sentimental reconciliation at the conclusion of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, James Lever resorts to a rhetorical trick: ‘Isn’t that just how it should have gone between Frédéric Moreau and Madame Arnoux?’ (LRB, 7 October). The contrast between Franzen’s happy ending and Flaubert’s intransigent irony is pretty devastating, but Lever has already established that Tolstoy, not Flaubert, is Franzen’s model.

Tolstoy’s best novels do end on a note of domestic tranquillity: Natasha and Pierre in War and Peace and Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina end up just like Patty and Walter. Franzen may not be comparable to Tolstoy in other respects, but in his commitment to marriage as a structural and ethical principle of his fiction, he has followed him faithfully.

John Pistelli

Uncertified Copy

It’s odd that Michael Wood, in his review of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, fails to mention the most obvious inspiration for the film: Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia, starring Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders (LRB, 7 October). Rossellini’s film is the story of an Englishman and his wife travelling through Italy, bickering and growing increasingly estranged from each other. Most of the film takes place in a car, as it does with Certified Copy, though in Rossellini the city the car drives through is Naples, and in Kiarostami it’s Arezzo. In both what little ‘action’ there is revolves around the couple’s spats. The difference is that we’re never in any doubt that Bergman and Sanders are a couple, whereas Kiarostami keeps us guessing.

Monica Casarotto

Remember the Referendum?

Bruce Ackerman shares the common misconception that the 1975 referendum was held in order to determine whether Britain should join the EEC (LRB, 9 September). In fact the public was asked whether or not Britain should remain in the EEC, having entered it on 1 January 1973 under Edward Heath.

Gordon Edwards
North Shore City, New Zealand

Get a real degree

In the earliest published essay in his classic collection Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, Howard Becker explores the beliefs and practices of the jazz musicians he knew and played with in the 1950s. They mostly thought of themselves as demeaned by their dependence on their customers, the ‘squares’. Squares didn’t really understand the music they apparently liked and never would, because a musician either had ‘it’ or he (it was always ‘he’) did not. The closer the musicians had to work to these squares the more they tried to insulate themselves through the vigour of their contempt and through their belief that the fundamentals of jazz couldn’t be taught. Perhaps this explains the source of David Craig’s cry that creative writing courses are almost always disparaged in print (Letters, 7 October). Many writers, self-made men and women, think of themselves and their work in the same terms as Becker’s jazz outsiders.

Andrew McCulloch
Newcastle upon Tyne

Elif Batuman argues that there are no .400 hitters in baseball anymore because players are more willing to risk a strike in the hope of hitting the ball out of the park (LRB, 23 September). That isn’t right. It’s because star batters usually play the whole nine innings, whereas pitchers no longer do. The last time there was a .400 hitter was in 1941. In those days the starting pitcher generally stayed in the game; if he was removed the relievers were players who weren’t considered good enough to start. Today, starting pitchers might be replaced after, say, 100 pitches, which can happen as early as the fifth or sixth inning. Even if a pitcher is doing well, a change is made after seven innings for an ‘eighth inning specialist’, who himself will exit for the ‘closer’. To batters’ further statistical disadvantage, left-handed relievers are brought in to face left-handed batters, and right-handed pitchers to face right-handed batters.

Elliot Tetenbaum
New York


An editorial misunderstanding led to a mistake being introduced into Daniel Finn’s review of The Lost Revolution in the LRB of 7 October. In the third paragraph, the sentence beginning ‘Any attention the Official IRA continues to attract’ should have read: ‘Any attention the Official republican movement continues to attract is thanks to the prominence of some of its former members and its reputation as a forerunner.’ We apologise to those ‘former members’ the paragraph goes on to mention.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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