Books read December 2020

BOOKS READ DECEMBER 2020

Alex Miller: Max, p/b, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2020

Max is a complete departure for Alex Miller. It is hard core research into the early life of the hard to find holocaust survivor Moses (“Max) Blatt who was a close friend of Miller’s early in his life and a major encourager of Miller’s writing career and understanding of literature. Max’s early life was difficult to unravel because he was a Jewish underground leader of two organisations in Poland working to oppose the Nazi take over of central Europe. He was tortured early in his career and finally released, severely injured. Recovering in Switzerland Max returned to Poland and continued his anti-Nazism activities at great risk to his life. Eventually he had to flee Poland via Shanghai and made it as a refugee to Australia where he met Miller through friends of Miller’s first wife.  To his own personal and deep distress Max left behind in Poland both his parents and his first wife Hanna who all perished in the Nazi onslaught on Warsaw. 

These sorrows left a permanent mark on Max because of the guilt he felt magnified by the criticism of his own brother Martin whom he had assisted to escape to Palestine. For thirty years he had no contact but eventually made contact with Martin and his family through three visits to Israel. None of this was known to Miller who had to learn German and follow a lonely and complex path of international research to track down Max’s family in Israel some years after Max’s death. In this process he was supported by some impressive holocaust researchers and scholars as well as the extensive and meticulous research he undertook himself.

Nevertheless this story is not just a survey of the evidence for Max Blatt’s life. All the skills, beauty, depth and power of the Alex Miller we have come to love is still on show in this book.  Ideas and sentences which struck me include:

p112: One lifetime is not long enough to forget

p.129: irony defeats zealotry  and   leaving open the triumph of human folly.

p.129: whether the Jews belonged to the East or to the West

p.130: reconciliation with the sadness of existence

p.134  Judaism In Wroclaw was a practice not a religion.

p.142  humkind insists on repeating its mistakes

p.152 good and evil reside within humanity in an uneasy state of potential

p.170 the irrational capacity for faith

p.171 Even if we don’t believe in a God let us behave as if there is one.

p.175 ..their dreams were lost

p194: Max rejected utterly the business of making some people more valued than others.

p.194  For that generation the holocaust was still going on

p.218 the death of dreams…it is better to dream and struggle than to live in the freedom of which we once dreamed.

p.236 Noone’s life can be fully restored

p239 The facts are not everything: “there is a spiritual dimension to our lives”

p239 Without the certainty of death there is no death (of a loved one).

Alex Miller is now 84. He may not have another book in him ..but who knows. I for one hope for one more!  5 stars. 







Graham A. Cole: Engaging with the Holy Spirit: Six  Crucial Questions,
p/b, Nottingham, Apollos/Oak Hill Annual School of Theology, 2007. 

Dr Graham Cole is Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology and Academic Dean at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield Illinois and a former Principal of Ridley College Melbourne. This book arose out of an annual School of Theology at Oak Hill School of Theology in London.

I have read many books on The Holy Spirit but none as clear and concise as this one. Cole is renowned for his speed reading technique and there is clear evidence of this from the wide variety of resources quoted in this book. Apart from substantial Biblical references Cole has clearly read widely in many theological areas and not just those of an evangelical persuasion.

The six critical questions are all on biblical texts involving the Holy Spirit. In order they are:

 What is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit ? 

How may we resist the Holy Spirit?

Ought we to pray to the Holy Spirit?

How do we quench the Holy Spirit?

How do we grieve the Holy Spirit?

How does the Holy Spirit fill us?

Cole’s responses to these questions with a pattern of: (i) theological reflections from earlier scholars (including both Calvinistic and Arminian portions); (ii) theological reflections from recent scholars; (iii) Analysis of the Biblical text? and (iv) a theological reflection of his own.  All quotations are carefully bibliographed and there is a helpful theological mini dictionary at the end of the book as well as an index of all Biblical quotations.  Cole’s writing is clear, concise and he is not afraid to challenge some of the ‘holy cows’ of both Calvinist and Arminian writers of the past. If you have never read a book about the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian faith this is the place to start. It is clear, helpful, balanced and thoroughly researched.  5 stars. 

Kenneth Clark: The Nude, h/b, London, The Folio  Society,  1990. 

Kenneth Clark, who died in 1983 was a doyen of commentators on art in the twentieth century alongside Ernst Gombrich and Nikolaus Pevsner. Clark was director of the National Art Gallery in London playing a key role in preserving and hiding works of art during the blitz. He was also Slade Professor of Art at Oxford for three years. His public reputation was based on his television presentations about art and art history including the substantial ten week program Civilization which also became a popular book, also published by Folio and elsewhere. Lampooned by the radical left and his own sybaritic politician son for his aristocratic lifestyle and classical approach to art,  Clark remains nevertheless an acute and learned commentator on art, art history and culture. 

The Nude in the Folio edition is a beautifully designed and illustrated study with an array of high quality pictorial presentations of works of art and a commentary that can be easily understood even by an artistic layman like myself.  The coverage  of Western art moves from Greek art from the C7th B.C. to the modern period finishing with sculptor Henry Moore. There is no attempt to address classical Egyptian, Iranian, Indian or East Asian art and no reference to the Southern hemisphere at all which is a pity given Clark’s significant personal influence on Russell Drysdale. 

Clark’s analysis tiptoes around the line between beauty and reality in the artistic study of the human body  as against deliberately erotic painting and sculpture. One does wonder what Clark would have said about Klimt’s work in this area!  A key issue in the analysis is the impact of Christian thinking and culture on nudity in art which was profound at least until the end of the C17th. Clark’s treatment of artistic portrayals of the crucifixion was particularly enlightening.    My one criticism of the book, a problem perhaps inevitable, is that many works of art are described but without visuals, which at times makes the argument difficult to follow without taking the time to follow up and find the works discussed on line. This edition includes an Introduction by Charles Saumarez Smith, very substantial detailed notes on many related issues, a list of works cited and a detailed index.  I doubt there is yet a better study on “The Nude” in Art History to date. 5 stars and rising. 

William Beckford: Vathek: An Arabian Tale, in Shorter Novels of the Eighteenth Century, (including Doctor Johnson: The History of Rasselas and Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto ), h/b, London & Toronto, E.P. Dent & Sons/Everyman’s Library, 1930. 

William Beckford (1760-1844) was at one time reputed to be the wealthiest commoner in England,  having inherited a sum to the current value of £125 million which included a cotton farm in America with 300 slaves. Beckford used his wealth to purchase a vast art and ceramics collection, travelling the world and spending much time in Europe, as well as building the vast Fonthill Manor and a Tower (only the Tower survives).  

He wrote this novel in French being inspired by Horace  Walpole’s Gothic The Castle of Otranto. Beckford’s novel is a mixture ofGothic horror and Arabian tales of powerful leaders, supernatural beings and happenings and a curious mix of the moral and the racy. The central character Vathek is a powerful caliph with the power of an evil eye to dominate his people and an even more powerful and evil wife.  The character of Vathek is loosely based on al-Wathiq, an Abbasid caliph who reigned from 227-232 AH in the Islamic calendar. He had a vast thirst for knowledge, was a patron of scholars and artists and a strong leader.

In the short novel Vathek seeks more and more power and is quite ruthless with many of his attendants and advisors, murdering them at will. His desire was a tower to “reach up to heaven” and went that seemed impossible he began to travel. He survived some difficult situations with supernatural beings and eventually reached the caliphate of Fakreddin, a devout and a fair leader of his people. Vathek falls in love with Fakreddin’s exquisite daughter and she with him, forsaking her childhood sweetheart to whom she had been betrothed. Together they travel to seek the seat of all power overcoming all pbstacles until the come to the gates of Eblis the seat of ultimate evil, the Arabic equivalent of Hell where they doomed for eternity. The short novel ends with a paragraph endorsing the moral life and forsaking evil. The Everyman’s edition comes with very detailed notes of all the characters, legends and forces mentioned and sourced from ancient Arabian and Pre-Islamic sources including elements from The Arabian Nights. 

There is food for thought in this mélange of images and dreams and I quite enjoyed reading it as a cautionary tale of foolish ambition and uncontrolled sensual desire for power and conquest. 4 stars