BOOKS READ APRIL 2020

John Le Carré: Agent Running in the Field,p/b, London, Viking/Penguin, 2019 

David John Moore Cornwell, more commonly known as John Le Carré is 90 years old and has written at lease 25 novels pretty much all in the espionage/intelligence genre. A former UK spy operative Le Carré clearly writes with inside knowledge about the complexities and dangers  of a double and triple life  where the consequences can be very high indeed for individuals and for nations. 

Spy thrillers are not my usual genre so It is hard for me to rate this recent novel against others but it is fascinating indeed to read a novel set in the current Brexit/Trump era of West/East politics. The characterisations are taut, the action tensing and the reader wants to believe in the key figures.  This novel is easy entertainment for a day’s reading and maintains attention even if some of the complexities of the plot at times go beyond  a slow mind like mine.  I would give this   novel 3 stars but I am guessing it would rank more highly for espionage lovers.

Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1: The Way by Swann’s: A New Translation; Translation, Introduction and Notes by Lydia Davis. p/b, Camberwell, Penguin,  2002

Formerly titled Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust has written a monumental oeuvre  in seven volumes. In this new Penguin edition, it is six volumes with volumes 5 and 6 printed in one volume). Former English translations by Kilmarten and Enright have been replaced in this Penguin edition by seven different translators and I found Lydia Davis’s translation of Volume 1 to be fluent, easy to read and the notes particularly helpful.

Marcel Proust

It has taken me to the ripe age of 71 to tackle Proust and in some ways I am glad because comprehension of his vast range of thinking across literature, art, botany, Greek mythology, music and the wonder of Paris at the turn of the century is exceptional and takes a bit of keeping up with.   In this volume the story line on the surface is quite simple and in three parts, the last one quite short. Part of the complexity of Proust is that some of his individuals, places and events are real and some are inventions eg. Vinteuil, brilliant fictional composer.  The notes help here but not always.

Part 1, Combray,  Is told in the first person and centres upon Proust’s childhood set in the imagined French village of Combray and focusses on the intensity of his closeness to his mother Madeleine, whilst at the same time introducing us briefly to the somewhat elusive and fictional Charles Swann and his daughter Gilberte. The Village of Combray is based in part on his own childhood town of Illiers.  

Part 2 is an account of the extraordinary relationship between Swann and a beautiful and street savvy Parisian courtesan Odette de Crécy. It would take an exceptional psychiatrist indeed to unravel the complexity of Swann’s feelings towards Odette!

Part 3, entitled in English “Place Times: the Name” is written again in the first person and Is a brief reflection on Paris and an imagined Florence and Venice but also tells of Proust’s first “love” involving a chance second meeting with Gilberte Swann as well as explaining to us that Charles Swann eventually marries Odette de Crécy to the reader’s amazement! 

Of course, with Proust, the story in many ways is secondary to the language. Even in translation, Proust immerses his reader immediately in an intensity of analysis of beauty ….beauty of feeling, of flowers, of music, of many amazing works of art, of architecture,  of weather, of feeling, of family relationships, of growing up, or yearning for meaning,  of sexuality, of a crumbling aristocratic French society. In undoubtedly the longest sentences I have ever read Proust weaves a spell over the reader with an intensity I am not sure I have encountered before, except perhaps in D H Lawrence or indeed Tolstoy.   I think that reading Proust is a decision! It is not literature that you can skip through to get the story line or if you do you will miss all that is worthwhile and valuable in the writing. 

Some brief ideas follow that jumped right out at me and give me pause even if I didn’t always agree:

p. 195:  …lies told out of vanity

p.201:   ..how amusing it must be to pore over books..

p. 201:  …the fear of being unhappy.

p.216:   …the clichés of art that need to be rejected.

p. 225:   …the ideal is inaccessible and happiness mediocre.

p. 249:   …to try to have but a single soul for the two of them…

p. 282: …the ‘Self’ above all…

p.444 fn 106. Proust writes: You’re never as unhappy as you think, which is based on a maxim of François, Due de La Rochefoucauld (1613-80), One is never as happy or unhappy as one imagines. 

p. 361. In spite of all that has occurred at this late stage of the Swann/Odette saga, and all that has been been revealed to the reader, Swann still did not believe that Odette was a prostitute. 

p.394:   ..The countries we long for occupy a far larger place in our actual life at any given moment than the country in which we happen to be.

Will I ever finish reading In Search of Lost Time? That remains an open question. I am glad I have read The Way by Swann’s and I want to read more of Proust. I will take this one volume at a time!

5 stars. 

Karpeles, Eric: Paintings in Proust; A Visual Companion to “In Search of Lost Time”,  h/b, London, Thames & Hudson, 2008

Marcel Proust, writing to French novelist and critic Jean Cocteau, said My book is a painting. I think this is an accurate way of describing Proust’s “thick” writing. You cannot just read Proust; even in translation, you have to experience it, you have to be in it. In another sense it is difficult to understand fully many of Proust’s offhand comparisons about events, places or people because they are comparisons with paintings. Art is never far away from his thought. 

This beautifully produced book saves the reader an inordinate amount of time hunting around to find an image of the paintings Proust refers to. After a brief introduction to Proust’s work the book simply consists of brief extracts in their literary order from In Search of Lost Time together with beautifully reproduced full colour paintings of the painting in question or the author’s best guess of the painting Proust refers to. There are 206 illustrations and complete indexes of artists, locations and notes on the painters. Proust’s writing at its height is a gift to the mind and spirit and this book is an inspirational accompaniment to reading Proust. Eric Karpeles and the publishers have provided a rich gift indeed for Proust lovers. Even if you haven’t read a word of Proust this is an art collection you will want to reflect on again and again.  5 stars and rising.

Eric Karpeles

Larry Crabb: Understanding People: Why We Long for Relationship, p/b, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2013 (1987).

Dr Lawrence (“Larry”) Crabb holds doctoral qualifications in Psychology from the University of Illinois and has been Scholar in Residence at Colorado Christian University. He has written widely in the areas of Biblical counselling, Marriage, the Church and approaches to pyschology. Understanding People is probably his most well known book and has often been republished.

Understanding People is a demanding read. Its conversational style, especially in the early chapters might strike the reader initially as glib and simplistic and further judicious editing would have given these introductory chapters greater clarity.  But the reader who perseveres will see that Crabb will not accept common and  simplistic Christian responses and requires his readers to travel slowly and thoughtfully through the many difficult moral questions of the modern world including our freedom to choose,  questions of maturity, personhood, rationality, hostility, the possibility and pains of change, our emotional nature and the many tricks especially Christian folk use to cover up their general unwillingness to “go deep” with the Christian friends and pastors they associate with. 

Crabb is a critic of the limiting aspects of much psychological counselling. His target is not in reference to treatment to deal with problems resulting from physical/natural causes such as major depression and other affective disorders, behavioural or emotional problems stemming from chemical imbalance, physical lesions or degenerative disease, drug induced psychosis and learning difficulties caused by perceptual malfunction and early learning deficits. Rather his attention focusses on what he regards as moral issues. 

Crabb provides a critique of various psychological approaches including Christian approaches such as Christian moral Model counselling and nouthetic counselling but also psycho-analysis, Rogerian counselling, Gestalt therapy, primal therapy and other similar dynamic and relational models. Whilst Crabb is supportive of many of the principles at work in both these secular and strict Christian approaches (such as Jay Adams’ nouthetic counselling), Crabb argues that there is a huge gap in training Christian counsellors. Simplistic proclamations that “Christ is the Answer” won’t do the job for pastors (p.236) and pastors who think that simply stating Biblical positions and then retreating to church discipline procedures when the teaching fails, is not the way forward.   Crabb believes that the scientific sidelining of a Biblical understanding of life principles starting with Freud in the early C20th and exploding exponentially since, has been to the detriment of human flourishing and that Christians in particular have been let down by their pastors who should be thoroughly  trained in counselling as well as the usual focus on Biblical teaching. The book is aimed primarily at Christian leaders, pastors and counsellors rather than non-Christians. 

p.152   Sometimes we select or adopt a painful image of ourselves (such as we are clumsy, or forgetful or shy)  to avoid a deeper psychological or spiritual problem or challenge.

Whilst Crabb would agree that the Bible does not directly provide solutions to problems such as anorexia or obsessive compulsive disorder, he argues that there are profound and overlooked central ideas and principles in the Bible that Christian counsellors can make use of in their pastoral work. He believes that Christian communities have been let down by the C20th preoccupation of ministers and ordained clergy with relatively “safe” Biblical theological questions in both preaching and discussion and that clergy are by and large inadequately trained in Biblical approaches to personal psychological and moral issues including marriage and parenting difficulties, pornography and physical drives including lust. He believes that many clergy are not ready to deal with such difficult and personal issues and are either content to communicate simplistic Biblical quotations and where that fails encouraging folk to seek secular psychologists. 

Some thought starters that I found helpful include:

p. 31.  A discussion of whether the Bible was designed to answer C21st ethical questions.

p. 43   Biblical inerrancy does not  mean that  our personal interpretation of a text is innerrant.

p. 55.  The general disinclination of pastors to get into the ugly details of peoples’ lives when they ask for help with the result that churches degenerate to audiences rather than communities …nothing matters but the pulpit.

p. 63.  The dangers of simplistic textual responses to complex psychological issues such as transvestism or fear of intimacy.

p.73    We are good at studying the Word of God but missing out on the Message of God.

p.74  Pastors should be trained to deal with the real issues in people’s lives not just be clever Biblical exegetes.  He cites one newly licensed ordinand complaining that “no-one asks the questions I can answer!”

p96. Our counselling model will depend upon our beliefs about human nature. Therefore we need to study human nature in depth to fulfil our counselling responsibilities.

p.110  There is a common resistance to self examination amongst Christians, for fear of what we will find. 

p132 While the Bible answers the central spiritual longings of the Christian we all have less deep but very real longings that God does not directly satisfy. How do we deal with these longings?

p143.  We must recognise that sin is much deeper than conscious and voluntary transgression of known laws.  Sin requires our transformation (Romans 12:1-2)

p155.  Our task is to renew our minds. We cannot always change our circumstances.

p.160. A regular danger for pastors of large churches is that they produce either robots or rebels and not much in between.

p.161  We need to major on spirituality, prayer and the mystical side of the Spirit as much as on Biblical head knowledge,

p.176 Personality theories that ignore the element of human choice are unbiblical but we all need to understand the motivations for our behaviour choices.

pp. 180-187 People are responsible because they are free but longstanding behaviour can become compulsive…We need to recognise the goal of our pet behaviours Most people don’t see themselves as choosing  beings and in the Christian life the process of choice is slow and never ending. 

p192  Too often we get the impression that spiritual Christians always feel good…joy now is not to replace suffering, it is to support us through it. Sometimes we will be sad. 

p. 208  Spiritual maturity should not be measured by emotional evenness. 

p232  Christian maturity is realised dependency, admitted poverty, brokenness ..we need to acknowledge our helplessness and vulnerability. 

Understanding People  is an excellent introduction to Christian counselling and will repay reading many times over.  4 stars. 

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