The Books of My Numberless Dreams

I haven’t done one of these in a while

Posted on: July 7, 2007

There have been some changes at the Times Literary Supplement. First they changed the website and now the periodical got a makeover. If I were cynical I’d say the re-arrangement was so they could have more ads on the inside of the cover but that’s not true. (I’m sure it was a part of it, but not all of it.) No longer is there the pretty table of contents with flourishes at the top and bottom gracing the inside of the cover. Now it’s a tight but neatly packed editorial staff list with their e-mail info and ads boxing it all in. On the next page over we have the table of contents also neatly packed in with no frills, to accommodate articles and ads. For the June 29th issue anyway; the previous one featured an unsightly sprawl down the page with parts of articles squished to sides haphazardly, a hiccup in design change, I assumed.

Commentary features have been shifted around: the amusing N.B. has the back page all to itself, a space usually reserved for a review. Now J.C. has more space to poke pointed fun at government arts programmes and highlight interesting art auctions. (In other words, was this necessary?) The freelance articles that I usually ignore are at the top of the page after the main Commentary piece. Two new additions are the “Then and Now” which is a reprint of an older TLS piece that has some current relevance; the other addition is under table of contents and gives what I think is an overview of what’s in the current issue. Something something. I’ve never read past the first few lines to find out. (I’ll do it next time, I promise, as a good reporter should.) Other little changes are the staples — no longer shall pages slide out and wander away from you — and italic notes at the end of interrupted articles informing one on which pages they end.

Well. It’s not all bad I suppose. I do like the stapled pages.

Dan Jacobson reviewed The Fox and the Flies by Charles Van Onselen in “Worm’s Eye View”. Onselen, a prominent South African social historian, focused on the understudied (according to Onselen) criminal Joseph Silver. Born in a small Jewish community in 1868 he grew up to travel the world — Britain, USA, Transvaal Republic, Cape Colony, Orange Free State, former German West Africa, France, Belgium, Brazil, to name a few — making a lucrative but small-time trade in whoremongering, thievery, police spying, and as informant on friends and enemies a like. To top it off Onselen asserted that at long last the world has discovered the identity of Jack The Ripper and it is Silver. Unfortunately for him Jacobson is not convinced: he compared the scholarly, exacting list of sources that supported all chapters in Onselen’s book except the one on Jack the Ripper, that amounted to a lot of subjunctive phrases and conjecture. Overall Jacobson found the book well-written and Silver’s life an interesting perspective from which to see the expansion and contraction of “the Atlantic World” (Onselen’s phrase) before and after the 20th century.

Ronald Hutton got his hands on horrible treat in “Twisted Tract: An Early Modern portrait of hell on earth”. He reviewed a new edition of Malleus Maleficarum by Christopher S. Mackay, a Canadian scholar, who did a fresh English translation to accompany the Latin volume. It afforded the public a new opportunity to give a new appraisal of the infamous book, both a demonology and witch hunting manual, ably supported by a “full and meticulous critical apparatus” and a good introduction both for readers unfamiliar with medieval history and academics aware of the current historical debates.

Heinrech Kramer, a Dominican friar, fancied himself an expert on witches having burnt two on the stake (he claimed it numbered in the thousands) and being diplomatically removed from an investigation in Innsbruck after the local bishop suspected that he wasn’t quite the authority he thought it was. Despite the general scepticism of the church’s “middle-management” he collaborated with Jacob Sprenger, respected theologian at the University of Cologne who, Mackay argued, wrote the first section of Malleus, evident from its dry and more intellectual tone in comparative to the rest of the text. Kramer also managed to garner the public support of Pope, Innocent VIII. Despite his purportedly disagreeable nature (involved in a few legal disputes and ended up in gaol once) he appeared to have some charisma and was an excellent story-teller, employing parables to convey to his readership the dangers of the demon world.

Women were especially prone to succumbing to the devil’s machinations, forever entering into hellish contracts by selling their soul and/or engaging in a lot of demonic sex. And I mean a lot. Female sexuality played a starring role in Kramer’s tract, which revealed a substantial fear and revulsion, and made him unpopular with feminists. Even Mackay got a bit censorious in his footnotes according to Hutton who then admonished that a historian’s role was not to judge but to understand the internal logic of such irrational phenomena. The book also included detailed legal instructions on how to go about prosecuting witches, if one is so inclined.

Near the end of the issue was a wonderful, concise review of Louise Gluck’s Averno, by Helen Farish in “We will not be spared”. She provided some helpful insight into Gluck’s approach to writing and the principles that govern her poetry. Farish connected it both thematically to earlier works (The Seven Ages) and in the quality of lyrics (The Wild Iris). Gluck has a stated preference for using “the simplest vocabulary” and all of that, along with the excerpts, made me much more enthused about reading her work. (Yay!)

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1 Response to "I haven’t done one of these in a while"

[…] guess only Imani and I have noticed the redesigned Times Literary Supplement, which debuted on June 15.  Stothard […]

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