Spies of No Country

Isaac Shoshan died last week. He was an Israeli Arab who worked as a spy and who – among others – is profiled in the very good book, Spies of No Country. I read the latter in the early part of the pandemic – fascinating. I’m good at languages, have a great memory, I love travel and I’m quite adaptable, so I often think I would have made a good spy. But then I think about the not talking during torture part, and I realize I didn’t miss my calling. Or maybe I just didn’t miss that particular calling.

Hamnet and Judith

I’m not a big fiction reader, particularly contemporary fiction, which I generally find ham-handed and tedious. But I absolutely loved Hamnet and Judith, by Maggie O’Farrell. It’s historical fiction, about Shakespeare’s two youngest children, twins Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet died at the age of 11, and the novel is about his death, about the plague (fitting for our era of pandemic), as well as the relationship between Shakespeare and his wife. Her childhood and background are part of the story, and this paragraph describing her as a child and adolescent gave me a huge pang, as this was precisely what I experienced in my family.

She grows up feeling wrong, out of place, too dark, too tall, too unruly, too opinionated, too silent, too strange. She grows up with the awareness that she is merely tolerated, an irritant, useless, that she does not deserve love, that she will need to change herself substantially, crush herself down if she is to be married.

(And yes, I have crushed myself down some.) From that rather painful recollection, though, I bring you some uplift: a clip from a sitcom I just discovered – Upstart Crow. It is about Shakespeare and his family, his career, his friends and the Elizabethan era. Hysterically funny and edifying. Unfortunately, only seems to be on at random times on PBS.

Revelation

It’s January 6th, which is the birthday of my late brother, Alan. Miss him terribly, and would sure love to talk U.S. politics with him right about now. I have no other relatives capable of the kind of rational discourse Alan could manage or who are anywhere near as intellectually curious. Would also love to talk poetry with him and as it is Epiphany thought I would try to find some poems other than Eliot’s wonderful Journey of the Magi. I succeeded! This link gives us Eliot’s poem, as well as two others, both of which were new to me: one from Auden and one from Joseph Brodsky, which is just startling. What touched me about the Auden poem was that he had rejected faith as a teenager, but then came back to it. (I have been on a similar trajectory.)

The grandson of Church of England clergymen, Auden renounced his High Anglican faith as a teenager. However, in November 1939 he went to a German cinema in New York City, and as Edward Mendelsohn put it in a review of the book Auden and Christianity, the theatre

was showing an official German newsreel celebrating the Nazi victory over Poland. (Until the United States and Germany declared war, German films could be shown freely in American theaters.) Auden was startled by the shouts of “Kill the Poles!” that rose from the audience of ordinary German immigrants who were under no coercion to support the Nazis. He told an interviewer many years later: “I wondered, then, why I reacted as I did against this denial of every humanistic value. The answer brought me back to the church.”[1]

He eventually found his way to the American version of the Church of England in the United States, the Episcopal Church, and became a parishioner at St. Mark’s-in-the Bowery.

(Emphasis mine.) I have had some similar motivations regarding faith. Follow the above links for the poems and more.