Found in translation

image: Gary Miller/FilmMagic

Why Dylan Matters by Richard F. Thomas

Controversy about the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to songwriter Bob Dylan (76) raged for months over 2016 and 2017. In Why Dylan Matters Richard F. Thomas, a classicist at Harvard, provides an impassioned validation of the Swedish Academy’s decision. Dylan matters to Thomas because his songs have been a constant in his own life – important even before Thomas studied Latin and Greek. But Thomas also thinks Dylan matters for everyone because his work will endure just like that of Virgil, Homer, Ovid and Catullus.


Thomas mourns the fact that the young of the twentieth-first century rarely study the languages or literatures of the ancient world. Like Robert Zimmerman I studied Latin in my formative adolescent years. Like Richard Thomas I went on to spend my career teaching poetry, prose and drama. Unlike us, Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan and wrote the lyrics and music for some of the world’s greatest songs.

image: NME

Speaking of his life recently Dylan remarked that ‘if I had to do it all again I’d be a schoolteacher – probably teach Roman history or theology’. 60 years ago he was one of the male members of the mainly female Latin club at Hibbing High in Minnesota. But from 1957 onwards his path was directed only towards being a musician, although as Thomas writes ‘Rome and the Romans turned up in his songs from early on, and they continue to play a role in his creative imagination’.

Bob Dylan seminar in 2016. Image: New York Times.

At Harvard Thomas teaches a seminar course entitled Bob Dylan. He treats the work as he would that of any other writer. It is possible that Why Dylan Matters is a transfiguration of those weekly classes. With his students, and now his readers, he undertakes close reading and draws attention to the sources that resonate in the songs. He provides grids to illustrate the material that Dylan reuses. Here are some lines by Catullus. Here is a song by Hank Williams. Here is a letter from Ovid. Here is Woody Guthrie. Here are Rimbaud, Verlaine, Cavafy, Timrod and Burns. And here, on the other side of the chart are Dylan’s ‘transfigurations’ of their words.

Thomas is an apologist for Dylan’s process. What research reveals is that Dylan’s work, like many texts, is full of allusions or intertextualities. In this way knowledge of the inspiratory work increases understanding of a song. But, insists Thomas, Dylan is actually a plagiarist or thief because he does not acknowledge or cite his influences. And he does not care to talk about what his songs mean.


In spite of his career as an academic, Thomas seems to admire this magpie behaviour. He quotes T.S. Eliot who maintained that it was the habit of immature poets to imitate whereas mature poets steal and turn other people’s work into ‘something better or at least different’. As we know one of Dylan’s albums is titled Love and Theft.

Why Dylan Matters is about what Dylan calls ‘transfigurations’. Thomas records and annotates these borrowings in detail but he develops his treatise with some discussion on the effects of translation. Greek, Roman and French literature has to be translated for most anglophones.

13627245.jpgVersions of the Odyssey, for example, differ from each other: the most famous perhaps being the one championed by Keats in his iconic sonnet ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’. The Odyssey, in English for the first time, was transfigured for the Romantic poet.

Peter Green’s Penguin translation (1994 – now out of print) of Ovid’s poems of exile appears as a ruling concept in Dylan’s album Modern Times. Thomas compares four lines from Workingman’s Blues #2 and one from Ain’t Talkin’ with five lines from Green’s translation of Ovid’s Tristia and one line from his Black Sea Letters.

51pjrp1mogl-_sx331_bo1204203200_.jpgSo, according to Green Ovid wrote ‘I’m in the last outback, at the world’s end’. Dylan sings: ‘In the last outback at the world’s end’ in Ain’t Talkin’. Ovid writes in Tristia ‘wife, dearer to me than myself, you yourself can see. Dylan’s version in Workingman’s Blues #2 is ‘You are dearer to me than myself as you yourself can see’.


Dylan clearly lifted the words and phrases directly from Green’s translation, barely transfiguring them at all. And these letters or poems of Ovid obviously appeal to him, states Thomas, because they are ‘artistic creations of the voice of one suffering from solitude in a hostile, unwelcoming setting at the end of the earth’. Thomas suggests that in Modern Times Dylan was making himself alternate or ‘other’ selves with which to populate the stories of the album.

Dylan has obviously been using Robert Fagles’s 1996 translation of The Odyssey. Like Green’s Ovid, Fagles’s Homer is reasonably contemporary. But it would be interesting to know if Dylan has yet read the 2017 iteration by Emily Wilson. In this, the first published translation by a woman, Wilson changes the focus of the story from patriarchal misogyny and exposes centuries of prejudiced translations that call Helen of Troy a ‘shameless whore’ (Fagles) or ‘bitch’ (Stephen Mitchell). Wilson has Helen explain that the Greeks ‘made my face the cause that hounded them’.


Dylan, who writes often about women, likened himself in his Nobel lecture last June to Odysseus saying that both of them ‘have shared a bed with the wrong woman, have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies’. He seems to see himself, like Odysseus, as a trickster who is ‘greater than them all and the best at everything’.

In the same lecture Dylan suggests that he’s ‘one against a hundred, but they’ll all fall, even the strongest’. In his own life Dylan has striven to keep himself ‘other’ from the Dylan that many fans want to preserve in aspic. A Dylan about whom every detail is known and whose songs can be mapped precisely against his personal experience.


Dylan however refuses to be pinned down. For him his songs are timeless – not about one marriage but about all marriages, not about one war but about all wars. He explains that reading Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front in high school was a life-changing event that led him to the realisation that wars are designed by people who ‘hide in your mansions / As young people’s blood / Flows out of their bodies / And is buried in the mud.

He spent a third of his Nobel lecture talking about the novel thus underlining the fact that his song Masters of War is no more about the war in Vietnam than it is about the Trojan War or any future war.


For me lyrics on the page are not poetry. Dylan is a songwriter and his words are for singing. The patterns that he creates work as music and performance but not as printed poems. The singing voice can compress or stretch words to create emphasis and rhythm and, of course, repetition is precious to the listener. Ironically the Odyssey and the Iliad were conceived as songs and what we actually experience now is the lesser form of printed translations.


Thomas describes Dylan’s working process as ‘a creative act involving the “transfiguring” of song and of literature and of characters going back through Rome to Homer’. But for all his scholarship he makes it a rule to attend several Dylan concerts every year. He lists Dylan’s set for November 19th 2016 and advises a visit to YouTube to get the full flavour. Because, as the final chapter heading reminds us, The Show’s the Thing. Listen to Bob Dylan in performance. But read this book for help on how to hear his lyrics.


Works cited

Dylan, Bob.  ‘Ain’t Talkin’. Modern Times. Columbia. 2006. Album.

—. Love and Theft. 2001. Columbia. Album.

—. ‘Masters of War’. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. 1963. Album.

—. Modern Times. 2006.  Columbia. Album.

—. ‘Workingman’s Blues’. Modern Times. Columbia. 2006.  Album.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. 2014. Atria. Print.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. 1996. Penguin. Print.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Emily Wilson. 2017. Norton.  Print.

Ovid.  The Poems of Exile: Tristia and the Black Sea Letters.  Trans. Peter Green. 1994. University of California Press. Print.

Remarque, E. M.  All Quiet on the Western Front. Trans. A. W. Wheen. 1929. Little Brown & Co. Print.

Thomas, R. Why Dylan Matters. 2017. Harper Collins. Print.

A version of this review was first published on pages 33 and 34 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 17th February 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.







Was Freud a fraud?

Freud: The Making of an Illusion by Frederick Crews

Unknown.jpegOn the cover of the UK edition of FREUD: The Making of an Illusion the E in the middle of Freud is struck out and replaced with an A. The word now reads FRAUD. This idea is repeated in the subtitle with the word Illusion.

There has long been a fashion for Freud-bashing, one which has been pretty evenly balanced by Freud-adulation. It is like attitudes to Ulysses by James Joyce. Love or hate – there is no middle way. Frederick Crews is set to make hatred reign. His book is described in the blurb as the ‘last word’ on Freud. Literally untrue though this is, Crews himself ruefully presents it as his final work on Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) citing as evidence his own age, 84 – a year older than his adversary when he died.

Frederick Crews and Susie Orbach. Image: the Guardian.

Since writing the book, nevertheless, he has found time for an email debate with psychoanalyst, Susie Orbach. She says he is throwing the baby out with the bath water whilst he responds that this baby is a destroyer of men and women.

Crews who is a professor emeritus of English at University of California, Berkley, has written a number of books critiquing Freud but these 700 pages draw in part on documents which have been made available only recently. It seems, and this is one of Crews’s objections, that many materials had been embargoed by professional and personal heirs eager to maintain a falsely positive view of their hero.images.jpeg Crews thinks that all extant details are now finally exposed to the sceptical critic’s eye and he nominates himself expert enough to write the ‘last word’ on Freud. Crews does not think that any of Freud’s claims can be substantiated. Instead Crews suggests Freudian concepts have led only to ‘noxious consequences’. He cites, as an obvious example, Freud’s view that women are intrinsically inferior to men but this idea is only the tip of the iceberg of damage wrought on other people.

It’s a vicious attack made more extreme by Crews’s righteous anger at what he regards as Freud’s purposeful obfuscation and deceit. He thinks Freud was a plagiarist and that this ‘was a question not of occasional borrowing, and still less of openly shared endeavour, but of chronic dishonesty and the malicious sabotage of others’ reputations’.

Crews positions his own methods in binary opposition to Freud’s, choosing ‘just to display the actual record of Freud’s doings and to weigh that record by an appeal to consensual standards of judgment’.

As an academic Crews is qualified to address the evidence but he fears that practitioners of psychoanalysis are still electing to hang on to a Freudian context in their work. Crews wants them to make the effort to study and teach more scientific theorists thus reducing Freud to the status of a thief and thereby promoting in his place those from whom he stole, such as Paul Dubois (1848-1914) and Pierre Janet (1859-1947).

Letter to Martha. 1883.  Holograph: Library of Congress.

Crews suggests that the key to Freud as a man and doctor is to be found between the years 1884 and 1900. These were the years from his late 20s to his early 40s. One of the previously untapped sources for Crews’s analysis was the entire set of 1,539 Brautbriefe, or engagement letters, exchanged by Freud and his fiancée, Martha Bernays, in the four long years of their engagement up to their marriage in 1886. Only 97 of these letters had previously been in the public domain.

Just as earlier biographers have hidden or ‘redacted’ these letters Crews has probably been at pains to discover and publish the most unstable and neurotic sounding excerpts. But, even taking into account gender relations of the period it is extraordinary to read Freud’s demands of submission to his every whim.

Other unattractive traits of character, to add to misogyny, are hypochondria and Freud’s preferred cure, frequent cocaine use. The personal use of the drug helped Freud with his depression and lack of confidence whilst professionally he was enthusiastic about it as a non-addictive painkiller.


According to Clews, Freud’s literature review, On Coca published in 1884 and the result of a mere four months study of cocaine, its uses and benefits, was lacking in rigour. Clews seems to suspect that the essay was put together during a cocaine-fuelled euphoria in which he thought the drug would prove his break-through to fame.

In this careless frame of mind Freud introduced cocaine to his dear friend and mentor Ernst Flieschl. He was hoping to release him from his addiction to morphine. As a doctor himself Flieschl had been injecting himself sub-cutaneously with morphine to alleviate the pain from an amputated thumb. Unfortunately the result of this advice was that, as Clews puts it, Freud turned Flieschl into a double addict.

Freud and Flieschl.

In spite of observing, at close quarters, his friend’s deterioration, Freud continued to advocate the treatment – at first as injections – and later, when it was obvious to all that cocaine was highly addictive, orally in a solution. Again Clews suggests that these claims could only seem feasible if Freud’s judgment was marred by the effects of cocaine.

In 1885 Freud published his Contribution to Knowledge of the Effect of Cocaine in which he outlined a series of experiments which he had carried out on himself. Of this essay Clews writes, ‘the aspiring physiologist thus declared, in the space of a few lines, that he both did and didn’t try his experiments on other parties, who both were and weren’t capable of matching his own reactions’.

Freud’s 1887 article Remarks on Cocaine Addiction and Fear of Cocaine is for Clews ‘deplorable’ in that he, Freud, ‘sold faked results for the use of advertising copy and published, under an assumed name, a high estimation of his own knowledge and research’. It easy to see why Freud’s contribution to science was rejected in all respects by the 1970s. But his reputation as the father of psychoanalysis lives on.

Freud’s London study in 1938.  A framed portrait of Flieschl hangs on the wall.

Freud completed his career as a medical researcher having broadcast, at best confusion among those considering the future of cocaine, and at worst ideas which would trap many in addiction and expose others to false hope of rehabilitation. The best outcome for cocaine use at that time was as a local anaesthetic, pioneered successfully by Freud’s colleague Carl Koller. The worst was its maturation as a recreational drug.

The remainder of Freud: The Making of an Illusion concentrates on Freud’s development as a psychoanalyst and a paterfamilias. This stage of his career began with a five month trip to Paris in the summer of 1885 funded by a small grant which was embellished by a loan from the wretched Fleischl. In one of his letters to Martha her fiancé doubted that this would need to be repaid as its donor might not live to see his return to Vienna.

B-86_SF_mit_Familie _und_Tante_Minna.jpg
Freud with his wife, sister-in-law and children. 1898. Image: Freud Foundation.

Crews’s biography of Sigmund Freud, each chapter of which ends in a condemnatory summary of his subject’s actions, is hard to believe. The evidence, however, is overwhelming and must be exposed.

Behaviours rewarded early in manhood by a dearth of scrupulous peer rebuttals continued throughout Freud’s career. Because of lack of challenge Freud was encouraged to repeat his habits of ‘chronic dishonesty’ and malicious destruction of the ‘reputations of others’. The inheritors of their master’s papers must also be brought to account for the harm that has been done to patients in the name of fraudulent Freud.

Works cited

Crews, F. Freud: The Making of an Illusion. Profile Books. 2017.

Crews, F. and Orbach. S. ‘How we feel about Freud’.  The Guardian. 20 Aug. 2017. Web. 4 Oct. 2017.

A version of this review first appeared on pages 41 and 42 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner published on 2nd December 2017.  Reproduced here by permission of the Editor.

Is the pope a Catholic? Martin Luther was

Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident by Peter Stanford. 

Peter Stanford’s name will not be unfamiliar to readers of the Telegraph or the Guardian/Observer, as both titles publish his work. He seems to specialise in writing on religion, particularly Catholicism; writing obituaries, particularly those of Catholic prelates; and writing about prisons, particularly in terms of the Longford Trust and penal reform.

Some of Stanford’s published books

Stanford lives in North Norfolk and attends mass at his local Roman Catholic church. Communion is administered by an ex-Anglican married priest. The celebrant preferred to convert to papacy rather than work alongside women priests and bishops in the Church of England. Stanford’s biography concerns another man of principle, although it was papal abuses against which Luther stood firm.


The introduction plays on the legend that Luther’s career in the church began when he was terrified, having been caught out in the open by a violent and cacophonous thunderstorm. He was so frightened that he promised Saint Anne, the Holy Virgin’s mother, he would become a monk.

Whilst dismissing the credulity of the tale, Stanford creates, for himself, an elaborate conceit: he is in Wittenberg, soaked to the skin by a storm, sheltering in a doorway, sequestering a Playmobil model of Martin Luther in his drenched pocket. He is then welcomed – even though a Catholic – into Luther’s own church, the Stadtkirche, by the Lutheran Rev. Cliff Winter from Wichita, Kansas. You couldn’t make it up. Or could you?


Whatever the accuracy or exaggeration of the story, it’s a good one and a warm reception to a text which looks like it might be quite challenging. Lucas Cranach’s 1529 portrait of Martin Luther, which graces the cover, shows a serious face with thin determined lips. We know that Luther’s life will be a series of acts of courage resulting in privation and excommunication. There won’t be many jokes along the way. Well, have you heard the one about the Diet of Worms?

Luther’s ideas contributed to a century of religious wars followed by centuries of internecine conflict, culminating in 1999 with the ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification during the Catholic-Lutheran talks at the Vatican. Justification by faith was the central issue for Luther: faith, or love of and belief in Christ, was the only way to salvation. The ‘95 Theses’ is a list of short debating points on the subject of indulgences.


Luther was disgusted by the contemporary habit of buying indulgences. These, sold by the church, could be used to ensure one’s own, or a loved one’s, place in heaven. But Luther believed that indulgences had no power and were corrupt. When Luther’s ‘95 Theses’ arrived in Rome the Vatican was using the money raised to build St. Peter’s. Luther suggests that Leo X, who was as rich as Croesus, should pay for the cathedral himself. That is the content of thesis 86.


Luther also took exception to four of the seven sacraments.  He approved of the Eucharist, of child baptism and of confession. These three he thought were the only ones coming directly from Christ. Also they bring the believer closer to God. Additionally they cannot be manipulated by powerful priests. Confirmation, marriage, holy orders and extreme unction did not make the cut. As can be seen these excisions would have reduced the role and power of the Catholic clergy.

Leo X. Raphael.

Leo X dismissed Luther’s ideas and refused to enter into discussion or debate. Demands were made that Luther recant and when he did not he was excommunicated in 1521. Frustrated and disappointed, Luther and a growing band of dissenters broke free of Roman Catholicism and set up the Lutheran Church.

What is there to celebrate in 2017? According to Stanford, Europeans owe Luther a ‘debt’ because he broke ‘the stranglehold of the late medieval Catholic Church over all aspects of life, religious or otherwise; for his championing of ideas of individual responsibility, freedom of conscience and worship; and for showing how powerful, well-entrenched elites can be confronted and vanquished, if only you have the courage’.

Lucas Cranach

Wittenberg is getting itself spruced up to welcome, this coming October, international visitors on the 500th anniversary of the legendary nailing of ‘95 Theses’ to the church door. This might not have happened – printing presses were Luther’s preferred medium.

Visitors won’t get to hear one of Luther’s, two thousand, sometimes ‘sublimely beautiful’, sermons. But they will see Cranach’s vast altarpiece, with Luther, disguised behind a beard, taking the Eucharist at the Last Supper! It’s a metaphor, I suppose. Although, Stanford suggests that Luther was, even in his lifetime, seen as important as one of the apostles. Apparently, Luther’s riposte was that he was nothing but ‘a stinking afterthought’.

Lucas Cranach

During the celebrations, the congregants might hear a service in English or German. That was another of the great achievements of Luther’s life: the translation of the Bible from Latin into the vernacular. This is good as it means people will be able to understand the special prayers, prepared for the occasion, by the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.

One prayer hopes that there will be time ‘to experience the pain over failures and trespasses, guilt and sin in the persons and events that are being remembered’. Are those being remembered people like Martin Luther and Leo X?

Another reads, ‘Thanks be to you for the good transformations and reforms that were set in motion by the Reformation or by struggling with its challenges’. Well, it may not have the beauty or poetry of the language of the King James Bible but you can see the point. The prayer acknowledges Luther’s achievement in starting a movement that, even though it did not intend to, might have saved Roman Catholicism from entropy.


Stanford extols work done by the scholar, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to be Benedict XVI. As pope, he spoke in 2008 at St. Peter’s, Rome saying ‘Being just simply means being with Christ and in Christ, and this suffices. Further observations are no longer necessary. For this reason, Luther’s phrase “faith alone” is true’. This was an extraordinary, and long overdue, acknowledgement of Luther’s argument. All he ever wanted was debate and discussion but he was vilified and hounded.

In 2010 Benedict visited a sacred place. It was a ‘former Augustinian monastery, at Erfurt’. Luther was a scholar there. The Pope said, ‘We should give thanks to God for all the elements of unity which he has preserved for us and bestows on us anew”. But Luther remains excommunicated. Would he mind?


Stanford wonders what Martin Luther might have thought of the Catholic Church today. He feels that Luther would have admired the way that the Catholics have reformed themselves from within. It has taken generations but finally, Stanford suggests, they have arrived at a solution not unlike Luther’s recommendations 500 years ago. He says that Luther was ‘a man for his own age, but also for every age since, right up to the current day’.

Peter Stanford

Stanford is an excellent writer able to explain theology and present it as exciting and vibrant. He also finds some jokes.

Works cited

Stanford, P. Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on pages 34 and 35 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 15th July 2017.  It is reproduced here by permission of the editor.


Embarrassing Beliefs

The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrère

Emmanuel Carrère

Carrére states that ‘things of the soul, the things involving God embarrass me’ but, there maybe other things that should embarrass him more.

This is an extraordinary book. Carrère subtitles it ‘a novel’ but its form has been described as biographical non-fiction written in the first person.  Essentially it is a history of early Christianity.  Three of the first century characters are named Jesus, Paul and Luke. The narrative is interwoven with Carrère’s 21st century first person voice – it is as if he is in conversation with the disciples.   It’s compelling and unsettling.

Apostle Paul 1.jpg
The Damascene Conversion: Tibor Kraus

The Kingdom gives an account of the Damascene Conversion. It has a long section on Luke, who seems to be Carrère’s favourite chronicler. The Gospel of Luke tells a familiar story but Carrère’s apparent intimacy with the narrator is achieved through comparison of available sources/translations and especially a close investigation into style. Carrère gets really excited because at two points in his gospel Luke changes from the third person to the second person. So what was an account of Paul’s travels talking about ‘him’ or ‘them’ becomes ‘we’. Luke is there with Paul apparently. Carrère enjoys speculating about that.

Secondly Carrère is interested in what has been omitted as well as in what has been recorded. In all four gospels there is only one half sentence that suggests that Paul was imprisoned in Jerusalem for two years. Here Carrère uses his knowledge to imagine what Luke did with those 24 months.

Extracts of reviews printed on the blurb are apostolic in their reverence for The Kingdom. Julian Barnes , who clearly read the novel, published in 2014, in its original French, calls Carrère ‘the most important writer in Europe’.  I had never heard of him until the book editor at the Irish Examiner sent me a copy to review.  Since I completed my review of The Kingdom I have looked at others, see works cited below.  All the ones I have read are by men.

They notice, as I did, Carrère’s narcissism but not so much his misogyny.  The choices of  subject matter, characters, sources, attitudes and style are all overtly male.  Although there are strong women in Carrère’s personal life they are under-represented, indeed absent, from The Kingdom.

What embarrasses Carrère is that for three years, from 1990, he was ‘touched by grace’. During that period he became a fervent believer, filling notebooks with daily thoughts stimulated by reading the Gospel of John. He attended mass every day, took communion and made confessions.


Bookending his devout episode Carrère, a French intellectual and urbane Parisian, is more at home with works of philosophy, psychology and literature such as Nietzsche, I Ching, Kafka and Homer. But, in order to write The Kingdom, Carrére had to research Christian exegesis, as he had previously done in the early 1990s, for his own spiritual purposes.

Working over recent years on The Kingdom has, says Carrère, been like writing an early Philip K Dick novel. In the story a child is born to a virgin. The boy’s father is an invisible god. After being killed by rational unbelievers the prophet is resurrected and promises eternal life to those who believe in him.

Members of his sect spread the word throughout the world and establish one of the great, and most resilient, religions. For Carrère, who currently presents himself as sceptical and agnostic, this sounds like science fiction. Maybe that’s why he calls The Kingdom a novel?

Carrère in his study: New York Times Magazine

Carrère is open about himself, his thoughts and his behaviour. It is shocking to read his self-deprecatory account. He is selfish, self-indulgent, self-revelatory, self-loathing and self-aggrandising. It’s all about him in a way that I find deeply repellent but at the same time I also feel that I may know him better than any other human being, other than myself. He holds nothing back, stating that he ‘loves himself to the point of hatred’.

Pièta Rondanini: Michelangelo 1552

I cannot condemn him though as I think this level of honesty should be applauded, unless, of course it is all an enormous confidence trick.  Maybe, that’s what he means when he calls The Kingdom a novel? Perhaps this soul-baring, breast-beating Emmanuel Carrère is a self-created fictional character and if I were to visit the author in his apartment in Rue des Petits-Hôtels I would find someone completely different.

Interestingly the narrator has two amazing and loyal friends. He mentions others but it’s these I covet. His godmother, Jacqueline, both loving and challenging, is a constant figure in his life.   She, it is, who when he reaches the slough of despond in his early 30s, guides him into Catholicism. She provides an extensive reading list, and, as necessary, reassurance. She warns him of the perils he will face in his pilgrim’s progress.

Jacqueline has a lovely flat in Rue Vaneau, full of beautiful things, like a sanctuary for the soul. If she were still alive I would like to go there. She is ‘well versed in Oriental wisdom and yoga’ and thus is able to provide spiritual leadership in a number of ways. She is a mystic who steps in when therapy and analysis fail Carrère. At the point just before he finds his faith, he remembers, ‘just being me became literally unbearable’.


The other thoroughly desirable companion is Jacqueline’s other godson, Hervé. He is a one-on-one friend with whom Carrère has, for 25 years, spent a fortnight at the end of every summer. They sojourn in Valais, Switzerland and walk and sit for hours in silence. Beyond these trips he and Hervé rarely meet. But Hervé, whose own notebooks juxtapose the words of Christ ‘with those of Lao-tze and the Bhagavad Gita’, is ‘the least fanatic of human beings’. He sounds really great.

There is one episode in The Kingdom which I found especially distressing. Carrère and his first wife, Anne, need a nanny for their two small boys. I am not sure what Anne’s work might have been but Emmanuel was in the habit of going to the office everyday to write screenplays or fiction. The new nanny, whose sole advantage is that she might have been employed previously by Philip K. Dick, is left alone on her very first day. Both parents exit the apartment leaving a baby in a bassinet.

What ensues is shocking and I would say that if it had been part of my experience of parenting I would have been too embarrassed to make my negligence public. For Carrère, however, the embarrassment comes not from his behaviour in the rational world but in his short-lived relationship with the Lord.


N.B. If you are interested in reading about Emmanuel Carrère I urge you to start with two articles in the Guardian.  Robert McCrum writes that Carrère is the ‘most important French writer that you’ve never heard of’. Tim Whitmarsh is entrusted with the same paper’s review of The Kingdom.  There is also a brilliant piece by Wyatt Mason for the New York Times Magazine.

Works cited

Carrère, E. The Kingdom: A Novel. Trans. John Lambert. Allen Lane. 2017. Print.

Mason, W. ‘How Emmanuel Carrère Reinvented Nonfiction’. New York Times Magazine. 2 Mar 2017. Web. 3 Mar 2017.

McCrum, Robert. ‘The Most Important French Writer You’ve Never Heard Of’. Guardian. 21 Sept 2014. Web. 3 Mar 2017.

Whitmarsh, T. ‘Review Emmanuel Carrère The Kingdom: the man who invented Jesus’. Guardian. 24 Feb 2017. Web. 3 Mar 2017.

A version of this review first appeared on April 15th 2017 in the Irish Examiner on pages 33 and 34 of the Weekend Section.  


Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep


Merrily she rolls along


Every American loves their national treasure, Meryl Streep, except Donald Trump. He regards her as ‘one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood’. And judging by his snide undertone, Michael Schulman, who penned this unauthorised biography, is not that keen.

On the surface everything in the garden is rosy.  Writing in a rather breathless, women’s magazine style, Schulman details Streep’s conventional upbringing in Bernardsville, New Jersey.

Using as archival material the 1967 Bernadian yearbook, Schulman paints a picture of a young woman whose first acting role was to put herself ‘where the boys are’. He suggests that girls universally disliked Streep because they could see through her disingenuous persona: sweet and girlish, passive and tongue-tied, in order to snare beaux. But this behaviour was normal for the period. Red-hot poker type girls were required to disguise themselves as shade-loving violets.

Streep and Booth at a prom.

Among eighty or so interviewees Schulman foregrounds Mike Booth, a childhood sweetheart, who ‘let her go’ before joining up and serving as a medic in Vietnam. Schulman centres Booth as ‘a major character’ in Becoming Meryl Streep. But he’s not really.  He was her first boyfriend and they kept in touch for a while.  But he was not an influence in her life as she progresses towards success and recognition as an actor.

It’s almost as if Schulman is licking his lips as he imagines his very own, well-researched, script for a film about Streep’s early life. Maybe he’s written the acceptance speech for his Best Original Screenplay award?

It’s easy to visualise an early moment, one imagined rather than documented by Schulman, when Streep rips out her tooth braces and crushes her spectacles. In this Schulman-scripted film, later shots would show Streep resculpting herself on ‘an apple a day’ until the occasion in 1975, at the graduation of the Yale Drama School, when the slender, white-clad woman ‘stood out like a blaze of light’. Think of the overhead shot. Every other graduate wore black and, apparently all the other women went, ‘Bitch, why didn’t I think of that?’

91st Evacuation Hospital, Tuy Hoa, Vietnam

In my imagination Schulman’s blockbuster film, has Streep’s scenes of ivy league campus life, interwoven with frantic iterations of Booth.  Nestling within the breast pocket of his scrubs would be letters from Streep, placed close to his heart.  He is seen darting from injured GIs to Vietnamese children with napalm burns. What a movie Schulman could write! Move over The Deer Hunter.

What is more difficult to foresee is Streep giving permission for this ‘film’ to be written, since her spokesman states ‘Ms Streep has no comment. She made no contribution to this book nor has she read it’.  Herein lies the problem.

It is likely that Streep is not overly concerned with this ‘chick-lit’ account of her teenage years. What may well have displeased her is a later section dealing with Dustin Hoffman and Kramer vs Kramer. The chapter, ‘Joanna’, was separately published in Vanity Fair. On its website,, the Philadelphia Inquirer suggests the excerpt ‘justifies buying the book, but Schulman’s tone is so annoying’ that it would be better just to read the April edition of Vanity Fair. You could just look at the magazine’s website, March 29th 2016.

Schulman interviewed the producer of Kramer vs Kramer, Richard Fischoff, who purportedly said that Method-actor, Hoffman, had slapped Streep. ‘He was goading her and provoking her, using stuff that he knew about her personal life and about John to get the response that he thought she should be giving in her performance.’

The film, made in 1978, followed on, fairly closely, from the death of John Cazale (Fredo in The Godfather), Streep’s lover and co-star on The Deer Hunter. Streep had been at his bedside, on March 12th of that year, when Cazale died, aged 42, of cancer. Schulman suggests that it might have been the ‘still-fresh pain’ which gave Streep the vulnerability needed to play the part of the mother who deserts her child, twice, in Kramer vs Kramer.

Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep in Kramer Vs Kramer.

It would seem that neither Hoffman nor Schulman realise that Streep is an actor.  Her job involves playing characters.  She does not need to lose a lover to play vulnerable.

Meryl Streep won her first Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Kramer vs Kramer. Schulman opens his biography with an account of Streep’s most recent Best Actress win for The Iron Lady in 2012. It is in that acceptance speech that Streep utters the words, which give the book its title, ‘Her again’. She knows that she has been around the Academy Awards for some time, frequently nominated, and winning, so far, three times.  In a typically self-mocking manner Streep acknowledges that she is always turning up at awards ceremonies. She can understand if people are fed with her.

In the acknowledgments Schulman thanks Streep ‘for not throwing up any significant roadblocks’. Had she co-operated with his book it would have been better.  His bitterness is palpable.  Her greatness and dignity is obvious in the way that she distances herself from the book.

Works cited

Benton, Robert, Stanley R. Jaffe, Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander, Justin Henry, Nestor Almendros, Gerald B. Greenberg, and Avery Corman. Kramer Vs. Kramer.  2001.

Schulman, Michael.  Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep. Faber& Faber. 2017.

An earlier version of this review was first published on p37 of the Irish Examiner Weekend section on 18th March 2017.