10 Good Reads – Part 1

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This has been an unusual year (and that must be the euphemism of the year). I have not been to my office since February and have had no access to the pile of new books and the even greater pile of older books waiting to be read. There is, however, also a silver lining (there always is, isn’t there?), at least in this case for those without COVID-exacerbated care responsibilities, and with the privilege of adequate time and resources. Though most of my law books and books about the law are kept in my library-within-the Library at NYU Law School, some migrate home with my noble intentions of reading them there but are then forgotten, forlorn, on the shelves. This unusual year has offered redemption to a great many of them.

I want to remind my readers that the criterion for selection is not ‘good books’ but ‘good reads’ where the pleasure factor predominates. There are many excellent law books that one does not associate with the almost sensuous ‘pleasure’ associated with reading, say, a good novel – the tactile feel of the pages, the aroma of books, both new and old, the snuggly feeling of being curled up on the sofa with a novel or poetry book, and the supreme pleasure of forgetting about the office and note taking and law …

One ‘innovation’ in this year’s list is a recommendation of a children’s book, though of the genre that adults will enjoy no less, or perhaps even more, than their children.

Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob (Księgi Jakubowe albo Wielka podróż przez siedem granic, pięć języków i trzy duże religie, nie licząc tych małych) [The Books of Jacob, or a Great Journey Through Seven Borders, Five Languages and Three Major Religions, Not Counting the Small Ones] (Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2014)

When writing about The Books of Jacob, one risks resorting to all possible cliches and superlatives. But what does one do when words fail you? It is no less an authorial achievement and reader experience, than, say, Joyce’s Ulysses – and it risks the same fate: a book that everyone knows and far fewer have actually read. So think, perhaps, Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, or Anna Karenina, or, a safer bet, One Hundred Years of Solitude. These comparisons are not directed at the specific content or scope of The Books of Jacob but at the indelible impression with which the reader (of 900 pages or so) is left and its destiny to take its place among the timeless classics of world literature.

The Jacob of the title is Jacob Frank, heretic, kabbalistic Jewish Pole of the 18th century, a follower and successor of Shabtai Tzvi – the self-proclaimed Messiah who converted to Islam. Frank preferred Catholicism when he, in turn, converted. I suggest that you read the Wikipedia entry on Jacob Frank as background, though it is not really essential and, in any event, keep an open mind.

In some ways the book bears a resemblance to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, which was one of my Good Read recommendations a year or two ago – though frankly, excuse the poor pun, Tokarczuk’s novel operates at an altogether more profound, capacious, and at times mystic, level. The mystic element should not put you off – it is organic and essential to the narrative. (This is not meant, in any way, to belittle Mantel’s remarkable novel.) Both novels are a mixture of history fictionalized and fiction historicized, in that order. Tokarczuk’s historical research and essential fidelity is, like just about everything in the book, awe inspiring, the result, she told me, of eight years’ work. It shows.

Both books were published to critical acclaim. Mantel won (twice!) the Booker prize (Tokarczuk won it for her previous novel, translated into English as Flights) and the few stray critical voices of both books, were/are driven by a similar normative sensibility. In the case of Mantel, brimstone and fire were meted out on her negative treatment of St. Thomas More, justified or otherwise. In the case of Tokarczuk, that kind of criticism was directed at the opposite – her failure to demonize Frank, who in more ways than one was a terrible human being (of course, in his own eyes he was not truly human but some later version of the Word Incarnate). One should dismiss this criticism with a tinge of compassion for the critics. Tokarczuk presents Frank, huge warts and all, and there are episodes where one is simply consumed with revulsion, but she leaves it to the reader to make whatever normative judgment she or he wishes of this complex hero/anti-hero. She also treats Judaism, Catholicism and Islam with similar forthrightness, warts, huge warts, and all. It is refreshing in an era in which the issue of religion(s) is dealt with either with barely concealed contempt or romanticized kid gloves. The same is true as regards gender, sexuality, homosexuality and other such ‘touchy’ issues. They are treated with similar sensitivity, integrity and naturalness. Be that as it may, for the most part the book was published to huge and justified critical acclaim and most reviewers faced my dilemma of finding appropriate words to express one’s appreciation and admiration.

Now you may be thinking: Mantel’s novel covered Henry VIII and his coterie of wives, and the likes of Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell and others, in the context of an epoch-defining period in European history, the evolution of the Anglican Church and the politics of the 16th century, the results of which are still felt today. Jacob Frank, by contrast, is a minor footnote even in Jewish history. My children went to the finest Jewish schools in Boston and New York. I am sure that not a single one of their graduating classmates has ever heard of, or has an inkling who Jacob Frank is – a figure of interest to professional historians of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. Why, then, you may be thinking, should I make the effort of reading about such a figure?

You would be mistaken. You can come to the book with no prior knowledge, not even the Wikipedia capsule, nor with even the slightest interest in Jewish mysticism and its history. You will discover in this book a Europe you never knew; you will gain an altogether new understanding of ‘multiculturalism’; you will be captivated by the simple genius of the myriad narration techniques used by Tokarczuk. And if you understand the complex tale of the relationship between Jewish Poles (I use this term advisedly, rather than the more common Polish Jews) and Christian Poles as a proxy for what we often glibly refer to as the issue of ‘The Other’ you will come out enormously enriched both cognitively and emotionally. And, perhaps, above all, the insight into the human condition is simply second to none.

So far, to the best of my knowledge, the book is available in its original Polish, French, German, Dutch and Hebrew (the language in which I read it – a faultless translation in the sense that the book gives the feel that it was written in Hebrew). If you do not read any of these languages – pre-order the book and enjoy the anticipation.

A good read, wonderous.

Harry Mulisch, The Discovery of Heaven (transl. Paul Vincent. Penguin, 1997)

This book, a gift from a close friend, lay hidden on my shelves since 2003 and was redeemed by Covid. Better late than never was never truer than in this case. Is it a ‘masterpiece’? It is not. Far from it. Is it a terribly intelligent, challenging, surprising and engrossing book – oh yes it is. The ultimate Good Read – both a page turner and yet serious literature. To wit, though written in 1992 it is still in print, and rightly so. Though written in 1992 it is set, in an evolving time span commencing with World War I, through World War II, a large part in the ‘68s in Europe and then taking us to ‘the present’. The time play of the novel, past and future is one of the key elements of the novel. Any attempt to describe the plot risks terrible spoilers but I will give you a little taster:

Max had a strange feeling. Suddenly all four of them, or in fact all five of them, were together. But who were they? Onno simply thought he was in the company of his friend, his mother-in-law, and the mother of his child. But at the same time he was in the company of the mistress of his friend, who himself was perhaps the father of the child that his wife was expecting and who could therefore no longer be rightfully called his friend, and nor could his wife be called his wife. Sophia knew a little more than Onno, but not everything, as Max himself did.

This might give the feel of a Barbara Cartland novel. Anything but. The protagonists are deeply characterized, intriguing and even profound. And there is a supranatural metanarrative (again I’m avoiding spoilers) that requires suspension of one’s disbelief (or belief), bordering, perhaps, on the silly but giving the whole both a gravitas and a lightness at one and the same time. I think that for the author the metanarrative mattered most. I found plot and characterization the real achievement.

Beware! this is a novel for the intellectual and the cultured – music, art, literature and philosophy play a role, often light and ironic.

Here’s an example of that:

She was a professional musician; she knew that making music was not about expressing emotions but about evoking them: and that could only succeed when it was done professionally – that is dispassionately, like a surgeon operating, regardless of theatrical grimaces conductors and soloists often pulled when they knew they were being watched. At home or in rehearsal, they never pulled those faces nor did orchestral musicians, because those were the faces of listeners.

Mulisch wrote this before the advent of Youtube where an irritating distraction has become a veritable debasing pathology. (Check this if you are not convinced.)

You may, too, regard this riveting novel as one of the finest exercises in exploring the paradox of determinism and free will. I warned you: a novel for the intellectually inclined.

A movie has been made of this book, which is to be avoided. It competes with the rendition of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities for the title of worst adaptation of novel to the screen.

A good read that will delight many.

Olivier Corten, Le discours du droit international – Pour un positivisme critique (Pedone, 2009)

When James Kugel, whose lectures at Harvard on the Bible attract a student audience of 1000, published his How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now everyone waited to see how an observant person who, with whatever level of sophistication, accepts the normativity of the law revealed, as a historical fact, by the Almighty to Moses on and at Sinai, was to reconcile such with the scientific, critical and Critical reading of scripture which upended that very historicity. It is a marvellous, erudite book, which displays a breathtaking command of critical, historical, archaeological and comparative culture scholarship, written in a manner that explains the popularity of his course on which the book is based. And yet his professed aim of reconciling the two and resolving the existential dilemma of a compartmentalized life which all thinking persons of faith face was a heroic failure. (Christians struggle with a similar dilemma in navigating between the Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith.)

Olivier Corten’s equally marvellous book – personal, passionate, erudite and profound – attempts a similar enterprise: reconciling a critical and Critical approach to international law, which undermines traditional positivist approaches and their underlying claim for normative legitimacy, with a ‘faith’ in just that. The word discours in the title might lead you to expect that tired, sneering, ‘unmasking’ ‘narrative’ of the ‘I’ll tell you how it really is with the narcissistic indulgencies of post-modernism’. You are in for a very pleasant surprise. With an impressive command of the critical, sociological apparatus, and written with a personal and engaging style (which does not jar in this case), he heroically attempts to bridge the compartmentalized existence of the public international lawyer – most evident when we leave the (critical) classroom and enter the (positivist) courtroom. I will let the reader decide if he is more successful than Kugel, but the journey which he takes you along (as well as the terrific Introduction by Emmanuelle (Manu) Jouannet) offer a very good and enriching read.

Janusz Korczak, Bankructwo Małego Dżeka (Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza RSW “Prasa- Książka-Ruch”, 1979)

Korczak’s books with titles such as The Child’s Right to Respect; Loving Every Child – Wisdom for Parents; How to Love a Child are still current in the field of education and have been translated into numerous languages. His life ended when, together with the children in the educationally pathbreaking Warsaw orphanage he founded, he was transported to Auschwitz to be murdered by the Germans. It was a life noble in the deepest sense of the word and, appropriately and thoughtfully, both life and work are still celebrated in Poland and elsewhere with numerous biographies, plays, opera, TV and film adaptations, including a biographical movie by Andrzej Wajda. He did not just preach; he practised what he preached.

His most widely read and translated children’s books are King Matt the First (and associated titles) and Kaytek the Wizard, both still in print in numerous languages. I have a bulging Janusz Korczak shelf in my library. During Covid I reread Little Jack, for the first time in 60 years and in the original. Written for children it is just about at the level of my budding Polish. (Both Korczak and Szymborska are the proof that you do not need complex language to touch the deepest strata of the human experience.) I am convinced that this is his children’s book masterpiece. King Matt and Kaytek let loose a fantasy – charming, engaging (a bit too ‘programmatic’ for my taste), though provoking and wildly entertaining to both children and adults.

But Little Jack is the Cinema Verité of children’s actual life. A hugely insightful look into the feelings of the young in their relationships at school, with classmates and teachers, and at home with parents and siblings. It is far less ‘political’ than King Matt and far more realistic than Kaytek. One measure of its success and insight is the fact that even though it is set in America (of all places) in the 1920s (the book was first published in 1924) the emotional world it describes is timeless.

This recommendation might be relevant only to my Polish readers, all of whom will know of Korczak, most of whom will have read, have had read to them, or have read to their own children King Matt and Kaytek, but might not have read Little Jack since astonishingly it has been out of print for many years. (It is available in PDF online and there is even a full-length audio pod on YouTube.)

For others, I was able to find a 1972 translation into German (under the title Jack Handelt fuer alle- Friedenspreistraeger), later published as part of his collected works in 2000 as Der Bankrott der Kleiner Jack (Guetesloher Verlaghaus), and a 2015 (!) version in French, Le faillite du petit Jack (Edition Fabert). There is a Hebrew edition, which was published in the 1950s and which is now a collector’s item but which as a child was my very favourite book alongside Erich Kaestner’s The Flying Classroom. But I could find no translation into English, Spanish or Italian. Maybe some reader can help me here?

As a children’s book that adults will enjoy, it is splendid.

Lars Vinx, The Guardian of the Constitution: Hans Kelsen and Carl Schmitt on the Limits of Constitutional Law (Cambridge University Press, 2015)

This is a collection of six articles by Kelsen and Schmitt, which are directly or indirectly in ‘conversation’ with each other, on the subject of judicial review. It includes a fine introduction by the translator/editor, the Turkish scholar Lars Vinx. It, too, was one of those books that migrated home three or four years ago to be read at leisure, and ended up in the graveyard of good intentions until redeemed by Covid. It caught my eye because of the Weiss saga (yawn). Those whose profession is legal theory can now have their turn at yawning. But if you are like me, having read some of the principal writings of both but not much more, this book will be interesting and satisfying. The genre of articles forces the authors to be concise. (In their general oeuvre Kelsen is far more verbose than Schmitt, yet in my view he is at his best when forced to be concise. If you haven’t waded through his Pure Theory, Kelsen reduces it to one short article in the very first issue of the Israel Law Review; not too bad either). The polemical nature of the articles collected in this book adds to the Good Read dimension.

I always have trouble when using Schmitt; the person behind the scholarship was revolting beyond measure in his pre-War, during-War, and post-War incarnations – what I feel must be somewhat akin to a doctor who in order to save a life must rely on the results of the Nazi human experiments. Creepy. His failure, like his competitor in the Revulsion Stakes, Martin Heidegger, to express any remorse for his writings and deeds places him beyond redemption. That his anti-liberalism makes him a darling to some of the Rive Gauche crowd and fellow travellers is painful to behold.

But it would be churlish to deny his insightful, at times profound, and always interesting normative and analytical contribution. The dialogical nature of the essays presented in this collection is clarifying so that one gets more out of each than had they been read in isolation. So the General Editor of the Series in which the book appeared, David Dyzenhaus, and the incomparable CUP legal editor, Finola O’Sullivan, as well as Lars Vinx should be congratulated and thanked.

Good and useful read.

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Maria says

December 18, 2020

It’s not a major point but I am quite certain Lars Vinx is German (and not Turkish as this post suggests).

Johannes Fahner says

December 20, 2020

Pleased to see The Discovery of Heaven here, in my view an extremely creative mix of megalomania and satire, something that marked Mulisch' character as well. After his death, a Dutch newspaper printed a cartoon titled 'Mulisch discovers heaven', where Mulisch says: 'I think the book was better'.