Favourite Readings 2021 – 10 Good Reads

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Robert Seethaler, The Tobacconist (Transl. Charlotte Collins. Picador, 2017) (Der Trafikant (Kein & Aber, 2012)).

Irwin D. Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept (Basic Books, 1992)

Hans Küng, Freud and the Problem of God (Transl. Edward Quinn. Yale University Press, 1990) 

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Freud’s Moses (Yale University Press, 1993)

Dorothy Parker, The Portable Dorothy Parker (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, second revision, 2006).

Andrew Clapham, War (Oxford University Press, 2021)

Charlotte Allen, The Human Christ – The Search for the Historical Jesus (The Free Press, 1998)

Alicja Sikora, Constitutionalisation of Environmental Protection in EU Law (Europa Law Publishing, 2020).

Doreen Lustig, Veiled Power,International Law and the Private Corporation 1886-1981 (Oxford University Press, 2020)

Adam Zagajewski, Mysticism for Beginners (Poems) (Transl. Clare Cavanagh. Farrar Straus & Girou, 1997).

As in previous years, EJIL’s Review section, has invited EJIL board members and editors to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year. No strict rules apply — the posts are meant to introduce books that left an impression, irrespective of their genre. Today we have selections from . You can read all the posts in this series here

It has not been an easy task to compose this year’s list – not because of a dearth of good reads, but quite the opposite – embarras de richesses. And two of the books actually go back to 2020 but given that I read them late in the year, it was too late to include them in last year’s crop. I will however sneak in two honourable mentions, with only brief commentary – but they were very close.

I want to remind the reader that these are not ‘book reviews’, which also explains the paucity of law books or books about the law. Many excellent ones have come my way in 2021, as in previous years, but an excellent law book is not always, in fact rather rarely, a ‘good read’ in the sense intended here: curl up on the sofa and enjoy a very good read, maybe even as a respite from an excellent law book? I should also point out that some of the ‘good reads’ are not necessarily literary masterpieces – and yet, still, very good reads.

The ‘Freud cluster’. By pure happenstance four of my best reads this year are linked more or less directly to Freud, in one or two cases rather tenuously and indirectly. And there is truly no evident connection among the four, except for the ‘Freud connection’.

Robert Seethaler, The Tobacconist (Transl. Charlotte Collins. Picador, 2017) (Der Trafikant (Kein & Aber, 2012)).

Of all the recommendations this year, The Tobacconist is something of a literary masterpiece. It is slim, in the best tradition of the Mitteleuropa Novella. I have seen it referred to as a ‘coming of age’ novel. It is really much more than that in that it is not just or only the coming of age of a young Austrian bumpkin moving to Vienna, discovering love, sex and mostly himself, but also a coming of an Age – the dark transitions of the 1930s and all that. The story unfolds in 1937.  It is simply superb in both these aspects. Written with huge sensitivity, humour, and a light touch, which conceals real depth into the human and the social. Freud is one of the clients of the tobacco shop where Franz Huchel works and a certain delicate relationship is established, not central to the main ‘plot’ for what it is, but revealing in many ways. I read the book in one gulp in late 2020 and then savoured it slowly again this year. Upon reflection I decided this would be my number one recommendation, and I want to believe that anyone who picks it up will not only see its great literary virtues but have the feeling of having encountered a splendid piece of art.

Irwin D. Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept (Basic Books, 1992)

This was an international bestseller translated into many languages and yet it is precisely an example of a very good read which is far from a Kafka, a Zweig or a Joseph Roth. But, it is an interesting and engrossing story – a bit like a TV series that is far from great but is bingeable. This is a bingeable book.  In some ways, and the author (whose sophistication and culture and professionalism as a psychiatrist and psychology scholar are beyond question) admits such. It is an introduction to the origins of psychoanalysis through a captivating tale involving principally Nietzsche as a patient, Josef Breuer as his therapist, the enigmatic Lou Salomé with whom everybody seems to be in love, and even Richard Wagner and others make an appearance – including Freud who is still Breuer’s young apprentice and is still learning. (At times one has the impression that some of the ideas that lay persons like me associate with Freud really originated with Breuer.) The tale involves, too, the marriage travails of Breuer as well as the complications of male therapist–female patient relationships. These are described with sensitivity, though mostly male sensitivity. This might be a bias of the times, but also of the author. Do not be put off by any of this. Once started it is hard to put it down, and I do not expect many will feel that they wasted their time. It really is a very good holiday read.

Hans Küng , Freud and the Problem of God (Transl. Edward Quinn. Yale University Press, 1990) 

Now we get to the ‘serious’ Freud stuff. The celebrated liberal Catholic theologian, Hans Küng,  bête noire of the Vatican (primarily, but not only, because of his attack on the doctrine of Papal Infallibility), passed away in 2021. I recalled being impressed when I read him 45 years or so ago. I decided to reread some Küng. I was somewhat less impressed when re-diving (or rather delving) into some of his most famous, and very verbose, major works, including some I had not read. He is one of those authors who manages to be a hugely prolific writer of, yes, mostly verbose books. (How do they do it?) He has written extensively on religions other than Christianity, so I read his book on Judaism, which was far too fawning to be any good. Hence I did not bother with his treatment of other religions. I expected the same. So I set aside the tomes and looked for some shorter stuff, and came across two little jewels. One is Mozart, Traces of Transcendence. Worth a read, a fairly good read, even in disagreement. The other, which I am recommending, is Freud and the Problem of God  –his Yale Terry Lectures, which is an indication of his prominence. It is an engagement with Freud’s major works on the theme, principally his early 1927 essay, The Future of an Illusion, which sent shock waves that are difficult to appreciate in our very different, very secular world of today, Civilization and Its Discontents (1939, where religion is but one theme) and his rather tortured but profound Moses and Monotheism (1939). I say tortured because it is, at least between the lines, the most serious engagement with his own Judaism or rather Jewishness. If you have not read all or any of the above, it is still worth reading Küng, who engages empathetically, at times sympathetically, with this dimension of Freud’s work and gives the reader a fair account of them. Where he agrees with Freud, his very own bête noire is, of course, Christianity. The Lecture origin of the book (120 pages) facilitates a fluent reading. It is a clever book. He Freudizes (excuse this horrible neologism) Freud, exposing his assumptions and particularly the claim that Freud does not draw his atheist conclusion from his psychoanalytical exploration, but comes with his atheism as a premise with inevitable psychological conclusions (illusion/delusion, an invention responding to human needs, etc). He is particularly sharp in his critique of the potentially harmful therapeutic consequences of such. Pick your side in the debate, but whichever it may be, this is a rewarding read.

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Freud’s Moses (Yale University Press, 1993)

Maybe you have had enough of Freud or religion or both by now. This is another fluent read based on lectures given, and offers a full engagement with the theme of Freud’s tortured Jewish identity. Not more of that, you might be thinking. Give it a try. It is a truly wonderful read, almost like a Krimi, with correspondence, photos and artefacts, which ‘expose’ Freud’s phobia (my word) that, God forbid (I could not resist this), psychoanalysis will be dubbed a Jewish science. It is a tale which is told sympathetically, almost lovingly unmasking the Great Unmasker in a way that does not in any serious manner destabilize Freud’s huge scientific and cultural contributions. In many respects, it delicately humanizes him in unexpected ways.

Of the ‘Freud cluster’, The Tobacconist is a must, any of the other three will do.

Dorothy Parker, The Portable Dorothy Parker (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, second revision, 2006).

I confess to my ignorance. I had never read Dorothy Parker before this year. How could I have not? How could you have not? The book is a selection of her short stories, poems, literary and theatre critique, and letters. It is a work of a very special genius from a remarkable person, who in many ways was, in her human and feminist sensibility, way ahead of her times. (Her heyday I would say was from the 1920s to the 1950s – she died in 1967).  She belonged to that Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald et.al. crowd, and the only explanation why she is not quite in that pantheon (if pantheon it is) is because – her own explanation – she did not complete a full novel. But her short stories are timeless (try The Lovely Leave for starters). The poems are priceless (Unfortunate Coincidence: By the time you swear you’re his, Shivering and sighing, And he vows his passion is Infinite undying – Lady, make a note of this: One of you is lying.). The book and play reviews (of those I had read or seen) always made me see things I had not noted before, and the correspondence will not make you cringe. In a bout of enthusiasm, I managed to procure a First Edition of the 1944 slim original. But you are advised to buy the Penguin deluxe edition of 2006, which contains the full shebang. It is a book one could, I suppose, read in one big gulp, but to get the full pleasure of it small portions are advised, thus prolonging and renewing the pleasure.

Andrew Clapham, War (Oxford University Press, 2021)

Here is an oeuvre which is at one and the same time a law book (you could teach a course out of it) and a book about the law (it does so much more than simply outline the law of armed conflict both jus ad and jus in). It contextualizes it, historicizes it, makes it human in its inhumanity (wonderful chapter on victims). It is a book of very serious scholarship. But it is included in my selection for this year (after all, there are quite a few excellent books covering the subject) because of the manner in which it is written. Almost conversational – without compromising nuance and detail. A book on the law of armed conflict? Typically, when they land on one’s desk, one tends to flip through them, maybe read the intro and conclusion, perhaps a select chapter. Sounds familiar? In this case, I started just thus, expecting that it will demand 45 minutes of my time, and was then completely drawn into it. If you are new to the subject (hard to imagine among readers of EJIL…) you could not find a better introduction. If you are an old hand, you will both profit and enjoy, maybe with a tinge of jealousy.

Charlotte Allen, The Human Christ – The Search for the Historical Jesus (The Free Press, 1998).

Please do not skip to the next selection. This was a contender for my number one recommendation for the year. It is practically a page-turner interspersed with continuous chuckles. The subject is the so-called Historical Jesus as distinct from the Christ of Faith: a survey of centuries of historical research as to what Jesus really said and what Jesus really did and who Jesus really was. Put differently, the scholarship that debunks the simplistic versions of ‘Gospel Truth.’ Given the centrality (and in some ways even enduring importance) of Christianity to western civilization, it is an important story. The original historicists were of course branded as heretics. But at least in the last 200 years there has been no serious theology that does not integrate, one way or another, the historical Jesus perspective. It is a discipline that was dominated by German Protestants in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. However, since Vatican Council II, Catholics have entered the field (with a vengeance and extraordinary excellence). and in the last half century they have dominated American theological discourse. Now, given the subject matter, you can imagine that even more contentious than the battles between the Christ of Faith crowd and the Historians are the battles among the various historical schools. As Allen comments wryly, though all professing to use more or less the same historical scientific toolkit, if the author is a liberal German Protestant, mirabile dictu the real Christ will be, you guessed, in the image of a liberal German Protestant. The book has been on my shelf for years, but I kept setting it aside. Charlotte Allen is a journalist. There is enough rubbish written on the subject by supposedly serious scholars, so why bother with a journalistic account? (Wondering about rubbish? Try John Allegro, a member of the original team deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls. Original he was! In Allen’s description, he is the author of ‘…The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, a true collector’s item for aficionados of the search for the historical Jesus. Allegro contended that Jesus was not a human being but rather a mushroom’. So incongruous was this that I bought his book and read it. It’s for real).

So now I crawl to Canossa. Journalist or not, Allen’s book is erudite, quite comprehensive, an excellent primer on the subject. My shelves are groaning under the weight of Historical Jesus scholarship, which I would never dream of inflicting on others. But this is different. It is written with verve and wit – as compelling an intellectual history as you will ever find. Of course, many in the field hated it, but this is because of her acerbic tongue. Sample this (a propos Hans Küng):

The most enthusiastic Catholic Johnny-come-lately [to historical Jesus scholarship] was Hans Küng …. In 1974, when he was 48, Küng published a 600 page book, On Being a Christian, whose ramblings bore all the earmarks of a middle-aged man’s sudden (and slightly behind the curve) discovery of sixties youth culture: quotations from Hair, allusions to Jesus Christ Superstarand the Beatles, and fawning adulation of everyone under the age of 30. 

The book is copiously annotated and has an extensive bibliography – talking about belief, it defies belief how a book of such erudition can be so readable (for the record she is a serious Christian). Terrific read.

Alicja Sikora, Constitutionalisation of Environmental Protection in EU Law (Europa Law Publishing, 2020).

Typically, when I see ‘Constitutionalization’ I run for cover. Almost as fast as when I see ‘Proportionality’. This is a book that has the hallmarks of a legal practitioner (and serious scholar), whose work covers not just or principally litigation, which is what comes to mind when we see the word Practitioner, but the law-making process itself. I have a weakness for law books that adopt an evolutionary approach, a movie rather than a snapshot of The Law as it Stands. And if you think how, as recently as, say, 20 years ago we tended to talk of consumer protection law and environmental protection law as kind of twins of third generation rights, we see that all this has changed with environmentalism entering the value DNA of the Union, and it can no longer be thought of in sectoral terms. Just think of the ubiquity of the word ‘sustainability’ in so many diverse areas of law and policy. The study is not fawning, though it is normatively positive of this evolution, and interspersed are critical comments at different levels which come just at the right places. And, of course, it passes the Good Read test, which is not obvious for this subject matter and this genre of book.

Doreen Lustig, Veiled Power, International Law and the Private Corporation 1886-1981 (Oxford University Press, 2020)

In many ways this book can serve as a model for countless doctoral students grappling with how to turn their dissertation into a successful book. One lesson is: take your time! Allow for maturation of thought and writing. Historical theses are typically of humongous size, cholesterol-laden with every possible detail and source, and oftentimes of interest to no one outside the narrow field of the historical subject matter. Lustig’s volume is slim, very slim for a historical study – what an achievement, what a virtue. It is written engagingly, not quite in the conversational style of Clapham, but with utmost clarity and, above all, a story, a real story unfolds from chapter to chapter. It has wonderful momentum. And, importantly, it is not only the historical narrative that is of true interest, but it is abundantly relevant to any contemporary discourse of corporations and international law.

[Full disclosure: once before, in recommending Guy Sinclair’s prize-winning book, I faced the dilemma that he, as is Lustig, was a friend and young colleague. I disclosed this, as I am now. I would recuse myself from writing a proper book review in such a case, but why, I reasoned then and I reason now, should I exclude from my list of good reads a book that was one of my best reads this year, and would be such whether I knew the author or not?]

Adam Zagajewski, Mysticism for Beginners (Poems) (Transl. Clare Cavanagh. Farrar Straus & Girou, 1997).

That great poet from that nation of poets (and, it appears, still poetry lovers) Poland, died earlier this year. Take the word ‘Mysticism’ in the title in a very, very holistic way. One way to understand it would be to think of the non-material dimension of our lives, of the human condition. Consider this: Vermeer’s Little Girl.

Vermeer’s little girl; now famous,

watches me. A pearl watches me

The lips of Vermeer’s little girl

are red, moist and shining.

Oh Vermeer’s little girl, oh pearl,

blue turban: you are all light

and I am made of shadow.

Light looks down on shadow

with forbearance, perhaps pity.

I chose this one, of many, partly because it corresponds so beautifully with Szymborska’s Vermeer poem alluded to in an earlier Good Reads. I would be remiss if I did not mention his superb translator, Clare Cavanagh. If you have not read poetry for a long time (since high school?) I cannot think of a better re-starting point than this wonderful slim volume.

Honourable Mentions 

Wolfgang Borchert, The Man Outside (A Play) (New Directions, revised edition 1982)

Borchet’s play is the work of an awfully young soldier returning from the war. It was a hit back in 1947 but was then the subject of all manner of criticism. It is a remarkable document and a very good read.

Joachim Fest, Not I – Memoirs of a German Childhood (Transl. Martin Chalmers, Other Press, 2012)

Joachim Fest is a controversial person. It is worth rereading the chapter about him in Reich-Ranicki’s, The Author on Himself (‘Nine Good Reads and One Viewing’, 29 EJIL (2018)). But this memoir, written in old age, is captivating and beautifully written. 

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