Vol. 46 No. 2 · 25 January 2024

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Where Zeus Sat

In her review of Robin Lane Fox’s Homer and His Iliad, Ange Mlinko credits the author with travelling to the site of Troy to ‘attempt to verify geographical details … He climbs Mount Gargaron to describe the carpet of golden crocuses and hyacinths on which Zeus and Hera have their tryst’ (LRB, 2 November 2023). Alas, Lane Fox climbed the wrong mountain. There is no view of the plain of Troy from Kocakaya Tepe (780 metres), his Gargaron. The ‘topmost Gargarus’ where Zeus sat looking upon Troy and the ships of the Achaeans was further south-east: the peak of Mount Ida (Kazdağı), known as Babadağ (1765 metres). However, he can be forgiven for not travelling there. A military installation on top forbids access.

Following J.V. Luce in Celebrating Homer’s Landscapes (1998), Lane Fox places the Greek camp in the Lisgar swamp opposite Troy. Since then, İlhan Kayan, a geologist at Istanbul Technical University, has demonstrated that this area had turned into land by siltation before the late Bronze Age. It cannot have been used as a harbour. The ships and the camp were 10 km further south, at Beşika Bay, near the putative site of the tomb of Achilles. From there you can see ‘topmost Gargarus’, and imagine Zeus seeing you.

Jonathan Brown
Canberra, Australia

Painting is terribly difficult

I’m sure Julian Barnes is right that part of Monet’s appeal has to do with his art being cheerful (LRB, 14 December 2023). But is it cheerful à la Wodehouse, or à la Winnie in Happy Days? Or cheerful in the way of Ian Dury, listing his reasons? (‘Going on forty no electric shocks.’) I for one can never decide. I love the fact that the not usually pleasure-seeking poet R.S. Thomas wrote a homage to Monet’s Rouen Cathedral, Full Sunshine. All glitter and fanfare on the façade, yes,

But deep inside
are the chipped figures
with their budgerigar faces,
a sort of divine
humour in collusion
with time …
There is
a stone twittering in
the cathedral branches,
the excitement of migrants
newly arrived from a tremendous
presence …
Kneeling we drop our
crumbs, apologising
for their dryness, afraid
to look up in the ensuing
silence in case they have flown.

T.J. Clark
London SW4


Erin Maglaque tells us that when Aldus Manutius published his handy octavo edition of Virgil in 1501, ‘He called the book an enchiridion, the Greek word for dagger. A little weapon concealed in the pocket’ (LRB, 14 December 2023). Later she refers to Aldus’s ‘dagger-books’. In fact, enchiridion was the Greek word for ‘a little thing held in the hand’. It’s true that ‘small weapon’ was one common meaning, but the word was also used to refer to a book small enough to hold, and usually containing a pithy distillation of key points – hence the common translation ‘handbook’ or ‘manual’ for the word in that sense. Famous enchiridia include those of the Stoic ex-slave Epictetus and of St Augustine.

By Aldus’s day, the word was usually applied to small devotional volumes, either manuscript or printed. It was the literal ‘handiness’ of these pious pocketbooks that inspired him to adopt and adapt the word for his ‘portable Virgil’ of 1501, followed soon after by a series of other Latin texts that he advertised in a 1503 catalogue as ‘libelli portatiles in formam enchiridii’ – ‘portable little books in the form of an enchiridion’.

David Lupher
Tacoma, Washington

Sucking the Same Stone

Michael Wood gives Molloy as an instance where Samuel Beckett ‘translates himself from the French’ (LRB, 4 January). Actually it was Patrick Bowles who translated Molloy into English, though he did so with Beckett’s supervision. Bowles’s translation repeats the choice of Scott Moncrieff, to which Wood draws our attention, to translate the French hasard as ‘hazard’. He renders Beckett’s ‘par l’effet d’un hasard extraordinaire’ as: ‘For it did not escape me that, by an extraordinary hazard, the four stones circulating thus might always be the same four.’ This is the ‘sucking stones’ passage, and hasard stays as ‘hazard’ two more times, but only in this episode: ‘then even the most diabolical hazard could not have prevented me from sucking at least eight of my sixteen stones, turn and turn about’; ‘I could never reach the goal I had set myself, short of an extraordinary hazard.’ Perhaps Wood’s judgment about Scott Moncrieff’s choice – ‘a happy mistake’ – is relevant. ‘Hazard’ still conveys the idea of ‘chance’, yet it is mixed with connotations of the risk here of ‘always [sucking] the same stone, until the end of time’. Elsewhere in the novel, Bowles joins Terence Kilmartin and James Grieve and Lydia Davis and Brian Nelson in translating hasard as ‘chance’.

James Knabe
Georgetown, Texas

When was the falsetto?

Early music was originally created in contexts so vastly different from those in which we now receive it that any talk of our experiencing the music authentically is simplistic. Yet however freely musicians today wish to translate the language of a past composer for a modern audience, an understanding of the nuances, idioms and usages of the other tongue would seem to be helpful. As I understand it, that is all Andrew Parrott’s The Pursuit of Musick seeks to offer – whatever ‘vision’ Peter Phillips thinks ‘lurks unhelpfully in the background’ (LRB, 14 December 2023).

Since Parrott’s narrative is largely ‘even-handed’, what Phillips sees in the background can only be Parrott’s past history as a writer and as performer with his Taverner forces. Both in The Pursuit of Musick and his Taverner recordings, Parrott’s work has concentrated on the Baroque, and on music for instruments as well as voices. Yet Phillips’s review focuses almost exclusively on Parrott’s involvement with Renaissance choral music. This is Phillips’s own interest, with his tremendously successful Tallis Scholars. Even here, though, he is on unsure ground. He asserts ‘Parrott’s obsessive determination to prove that the falsetto voice didn’t exist until the 17th century’. No one is making that claim, though many (myself included) have offered a nuanced view, placing the falsettist in some historical contexts and not in others. Phillips himself wrote in 1978 that ‘although we associate countertenor parts with falsettists, it is possible that a tradition has been lost here.’ It certainly has, and specifics of that pre-19th-century vocal technique can be found in treatises cited throughout The Pursuit of Musick.

Phillips seems to think that those interested in uncovering these specifics are guilty of what he elsewhere dismisses as ‘fussing about minutiae of detail’. What he would have us do instead is ‘look at the music carefully and create a sound which seems to suit what the composer may have wanted, as seen through his scores’. Except that most often they had no scores. What they had were sketches of parts for which they had to fill in words, amend certain notes, embellish melodies and express the music as they saw fit. In other words, ‘the music’ as these composers ‘wanted’ to hear it was only partly embedded in the notes on the page. For the rest, if we choose to do so, we would look at sources of the kind found in The Pursuit of Musick. That, make no mistake, is a choice: it’s perfectly valid to choose otherwise, to sing the notes in a modern score, or even to add the improvisations of a soprano saxophonist. But when Phillips describes the ‘maverick’ Parrott’s ‘daring’ in ‘allowing his singers to embellish the lines of a Palestrina motet’ as ‘simply contrary’, we might ask contrary to whom, and to what?

Simon Ravens
Ilkley, West Yorkshire

The Smell of the GDR

Neal Ascherson describes the smell of the German Democratic Republic, including ‘the smoke of brown coal briquettes’, as a vanished ‘Staatsduft’ (LRB, 14 December 2023). I was born in 1991 and so never knew exactly what Ascherson calls ‘almost a cosy fug’. But the distinctive (and definitely unpleasant) smell of brown coal still wafts through my courtyard in East Berlin whenever the central heating comes on. There are no GDR-era residents left in my building and the heating system was changed to gas years ago, but the coal particles cling stubbornly to the insides of pipes and chimneys. Anyone curious, or nostalgic, need only poke their nose into the courtyards of Prenzlauer Berg during the winter months.

Sophie Hermanns


Discussing Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, Michael Wood suggests that ‘we need perhaps to invent a word whose meaning is the exact opposite of charisma, a word that would conjure up a complete, terminal absence of glamour’ (LRB, 14 December 2023). We already have that word: ‘charisn’tma’, coined in the 1990s by Barry Cryer to describe the political performance of then prime minister, John Major. Charisn’tma has the interesting feature, for the cineaste, that it can be represented visually as well as semantically. In Spitting Image, Major’s puppet always appeared as (literally) grey, even though the programme was broadcast in colour.

Allan House
University of Leeds

Experimental Network

James Meek says that ‘no cabler or streamer has made a TV series more powerful, mysterious and disturbing, more strange, than David Lynch’s Twin Peaks’ (LRB, 4 January 2024). However, Twin Peaks was not a successful experiment but a promising one destroyed by the network that financed it. ABC insisted that Lynch reveal who killed Laura Palmer, although the show was clearly built around what was meant to be an unresolvable mystery, repeatedly altered its showing time and ultimately killed its unexpected popularity. Creative pressures on the show’s makers turned the second season into a mess. The third season, made by a different company a quarter of a century later, does not redeem this act of vandalism.

Jack Grahl
London SE25

Guilty and Not

Edmund Gordon writes that in the 1920s the oil tycoon Edward Doheny was acquitted of paying the bribe that Albert Fall, secretary of the interior to President Harding, was convicted of accepting (LRB, 4 January). Some may recall a similar feat of escapology on British shores. T. Dan Smith, the capo di tutti capi of the Labour establishment in the North-East in the 1960s, was charged with offering a bribe to Sid Sporle, the housing chair of Battersea Metropolitan Borough (now Wandsworth) Council, in the context of a massive new council housing initiative (part of Richard Crossman’s ambitious housing drive). Both were charged under a multiple indictment involving several alleged offerors and offerees of bribes. Sporle was convicted, imprisoned and ruined but Smith succeeded in getting a separate trial, at which he was acquitted of corruptly offering the emoluments that Sporle had been convicted of accepting. The Court of Appeal decided that the fact of inconsistent verdicts from different juries did not render Sporle’s guilty verdict unsafe.

Mark Mildred
London SW11


Susannah Clapp writes about an exhibition of the photographer Yevonde’s work at the National Portrait Gallery (LRB, 14 December 2023). It’s worth noting that the show has moved to the Laing in Newcastle. It’s there until 20 April.

Debby Raven
Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear

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