Books providing a criticism of religion can be quite enlightening, but this unfortunately isn't one of them. The author despises -- yes, that's the word -- the dogmatists of atheism and religion, even while condeming them for despising people with whom they disagree. And who are these religious/atheist fanatics? It seems they are people who believe the world can be a better place if we put our backs to the task. The author considers these people dangerous. Once he has pegged them, there is no journalistic scorn they should be spared. As a former newspaper reporter and editor, I recognize the style: the carefully selected anecdote, the contemptuous adjective, the dismissive summation. The monumental irony is that the author dispenses this vitriol against people whose unforgiveable fault is: being judgmental. How he manages to write this book without recognizing that irony is a mystery more shrouded than any religious cult.
I suppose there are dangerous atheists, although I don't know any. My atheist friends are generally educated and decent people, trying to make sense of this crazy world. I suppose there are dangerous believers, although I don't know any of them either. My Christian friends, mostly Catholics, mostly what the author would call (with the perfuntory camouflage journalists apply to certain prejudices they know their audiences generally share) "devout Catholics." But they, too, are fine and good people. I even know a few Fundamentalist Christians, and whatever their political agendas, I can only say this: if some unthinkable cataclysm comes hurtling upon the world, I'd be relieved to find them among the survivors. Anyhow, I know there are self-inflated journalists who have chafed under the barely perceptible limits that pass for professional ethics in their business, and who finally free themselves to write pedantic books about their uninformed and uninformable opinions. If you're looking for that book, look no further.
Some reviewers have been disappointed by this book, perhaps because they wanted a summary of Aquinas' philosophical writings, or a scholarly overview of his place in the broader historical context. I think they might have skipped over Chesterton's introductory note, which speaks to these expectations: "This book makes no pretense to be anything but a popular sketch of a great historical character who ought to be more popular. Its aim will be achieved if it leads those who have hardly even heard of St. Thomas Aquinas to read about him in better books." Readers who have studied Aquinas in any sort of disciplined way, either through formal coursework or independent study, perhaps will not learn anything new here -- thought they might. Readers who know little about Aquinas, or who think they do because of something they heard about the dance of angels on pinheads, will find this book useful and illuminating. A reader who is familiar with St. Thomas, and with Chesterton, and who can read them both with relish (though in my case, with nothing like the same degree of understanding), will thoroughly enjoy this book. Chesterton's sketch of Thomas is personal -- that is, personal to Chesterton. But anyone familiar with Chesterton knows he never wrote an impersonal book in his life. He was a journalist, not a scholar, and all journalism is personal. Anyhow, what distinguishes this book is that Chesterton is not so much in awe of Thomas that he is afraid to be intimate. So he wrote a book that is intimate, not systematic. And it's a very good book.
This is a novel of man who learns to live with who he is. He has the kind of haunted, rarified, occasionally brutal life that many Davies' characters endure, and enjoy from time to time. It is a tale worth telling.
Davies has a profound gift for characterization. Frank Cornish is as fully realized as any figure from biography. Davies is always sympathetic with his characters, and this sympathy lets us understand them in depth. Some of them turn out to be scoundrels, but he does not gloat over their downfalls, or rail at their triumphs. They are who they are, and his business is to reveal them.
Davies' prose as always is as clean and graceful as fine music. The story is darker than his "Rebel Angels" or the comic "Tempest Tost" and lacks the high drama of the Deptford Trilogy, but still a thoroughly rewarding read.
Almost nothing happens in this book, in terms of action. Yes, there are a few moments when events suddenly accelerate: the unscripted appearance of a horse in the middle of a rehearsal; a drunken and inconclusive fist fight; and of course, what went on behind the scenes on opening night. Between these milestones, you have to make do with very little -- except Davies' extraordinary prose, his gift for biography in blunt but sympathetic tones, and his delightfully dry humor, which he applies to almost everything, including dry humor.
I found this book slow when I first started it, so I put it down for a few months. On a second listening, I was immediately engaged. Davies doesn't intend to take you on an aventure; he seems to be saying, "I'd like you to meet a few acquaintances of mine." The narrative tends at points to wander from the main story, but even these diversions are worth the time.
Being interested in the history of World War II, I found the title intriguing, but felt uneasy about starting this book. I expected horrors. I was surprised at how reassuring this book was. The persistence of one person's moral center of gravity during a society's terrible moral collapse is profoundly moving. The chapter on "comradeship" is a brilliant essay on the way even a self-aware person can temporarily lose himself in group loyalty. The description of atrocities is chillingly understated. Haffner shows an astonishing ability to connect social, political, psychological and ethical themes. The prose is musical. I came away with a better understanding of how the world, at least the Western world, has changed since fascism, and with greater confidence in the future.
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