09 December 2012

A Devil’s Curate’s Egg

The Portable Atheist
by Christopher Hitchens

Notwithstanding the presence of Omar Khayyam, Boswell and Mark Twain, this anthology is not light reading. On the contrary, it is serious stuff, and at times very heavy going.

The tone is set in the Introduction, from which Hitchens’ admirably waspish humour is curiously absent. Serious, indeed grave, it takes thirteen pages to explain just why the anthologist believes religion is wicked and needs to be put down. There is little in it I did not agree with; but sadly, there is also little in it that Hitchens has not said before, and said better, in God is Not Great and some of his other writings. It was dull reading, I'm sorry to say, and entirely failed to whet my appetite for the selections to follow.

These selections seem to be arranged chronologically, or mostly so. Hitchens must have considered Epicurus’ famous summation of theodicy too well-known to warrant inclusion, so we begin with an excerpt from Lucretius, in plodding blank verse which this reader, at least, was unable to finish. Next we are treated – O blessed relief – to a few verses from the Rubaiyat; but immediately afterwards one is invited to plough through closely-argued excerpts from Hobbes, Spinoza, George Eliot and David Hume: all good stuff, but hardly what one would call plain sailing.

Boswell's account of the death of Hume (a sanguine unbeliever to the last) and a refutation of deism by Shelley leaven the transition from the Enlightenment to the modern era; but once arrived, we immediately stumble over a selection from Marx’s ‘Contributions to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right’ – mere word salad, effectively meaningless apart from that famous remark about the ‘opium of the people’. I suppose it was put in out of sentiment, because Hitchens was once a Marxist; there can be no other excuse for it in an otherwise intelligent book.

But at least things from then on get less intensely philosophical. There are reader-friendly contributions from the likes of Anatole France, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad and H.L. Mencken. I liked especially the pieces by Freud, Bertrand Russell and Martin Gardner here included, as well as two poems by Philip Larkin: ‘Church Going’ and the familiar (though none the less blunt, brave and terrifying for that) ‘Aubade’.

Moving on to more contemporary writings, we have Carl Sagan’s famous ‘The Demon-Haunted World’, along with cogent and readable pieces by A.J. Ayer, Richard Dawkins, Elizabeth Anderson and Steven Weinberg. I particularly enjoyed the last, and was equally gratified to re-read a favourite piece of auctorial showing-off by John Updike, taken from his novel Roger's Version. However, the selections from Daniel Dennett (‘Thank Goodness’ and ‘A Working Definition of Religion’ from Breaking the Spell) are not the best examples of his writing that I have read; J.L. Mackie’s ‘Conclusions and Implications’ is impenetrable; Ian McEwan’s ‘End of the World Blues’ is rather affectless and dull; and Michael Shermer’s ‘Genesis Revisited’ is just plain silly.

Things really perk up, though, toward the end of the book. Salman Rushdie’s ‘Imagine There’s No Heaven’ is terrible – pontificatory and embarrassingly, dad-dancingly out of touch – but this is the only hurdle in the way of a brilliant gallop to the finish-line. Most of the horsepower is deployed in two essays by a Muslim ‘apostate’ going under the pen-name of Ibn Warraq: ‘The Koran’ and ‘The Totalitarian Nature of Islam’. The first makes mincemeat out of various arguments propounded in support of claims that the Koran is divinely inspired, ethical, or accurate either historically and scientifically; the second, which deals largely with Islamic law, its interpretation and enforcement, is chillingly described by its title. We then have a long piece by Sam Harris, a sardonic jewel by the heroically coiffeured Oxford don A.C. Grayling, and finally a short, affecting little autobiographical essay by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

For this reader, the selections from Ibn Warraq were the freshest and thus the most interesting works in this anthology. The fact that the author courted death by publishing them makes them still more impressive.

Summing up: there is plenty of intellectual meat in The Portable Atheist, as well as some superb writing, but it could have been improved by choosing a different sequencing plan, one that allowed for the more frequent alternation of deep philosophical argument and angry polemic with writing that offered more literary and aesthetic pleasure. A topic-based scheme would probably have done the trick. I also wish Hitchens had cast his net a lot wider; these selections are mostly quite conventional. And how come all we get of Primo Levi is a paragraph quoted in the Introduction?

01 December 2012

Uncertain Pleasures

Waiting for Sunrise
by William Boyd

It is 1913. Lysander Rief, an actor on the London stage like his father before him, is in Vienna to seek psychiatric help for a sexual problem. In his doctor’s waiting room, he meets, separately, a captivating but evidently disturbed young woman and an odd, military-looking man, both of them English. He later has an affair with the woman, suffers an entrapment, escapes it with the help of the man and returns home to England.

Then the First World War breaks out. In repayment for the help he received in Vienna, Lysander has no choice but to allow himself to be recruited as a British spy – or rather, spycatcher. The rest of the story is about his adventures in that role and his ultimately successful efforts to identify the traitor within the establishment who is feeding military secrets to the Germans.

Among literary novelists currently writing, William Boyd is probably the most reliable performer, surpassing even Ian McEwan in this respect. I have never read a book of his that I genuinely disliked, while some of them – such as A Good Man in Africa, Stars & Bars, Brazzaville Beach and his last before this one, Ordinary Thunderstorms – have been absolute corkers. Waiting for Sunrise (the title occurs at least twice in the text) is not quite as good as those, but it’s still pretty good. The ending is interestingly ambiguous – my girlfriend and I actually disagreed on who the traitor was – but satisfying all the same.

If you like your whodunits properly explained at the end, with all the loose ends tied up, this book may not be for you. There are a lot of unresolved questions at the end, or perhaps I’ve just been dense and missed some important hints. Be that as it may, readers who can tolerate a little uncertainty in their literary lives can get a lot of pleasure out of Waiting for Sunrise.

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