Reading: China Miéville — October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

I was not expecting a new China Miéville book, nor was I expecting — if one existed — it would be non-fiction. That the subject is the Russian Revolution, however, doesn’t surprise me at all.

This is one of those books that went from “I do not know this book,” to “This book is ready to be picked up from your favourite bookstore,” in about a week. Doesn’t matter that Russian history is not really my thing (exceptions for Russia and the Soviet Union in Central Asia and the Caucasus, or interacting with communist China), nor that communism in general leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it’s China Miéville, and I will always read him — yes, even his Between Equal Rights – A Marxist Theory of International Law, which gave me none of the pleasure his fiction does, even if I do read the latter for the politics.

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution has a super fine cover, very Russian Constructivism (shoutout to brilliant artist Andrea Guinn for this). I said to Paul in St George’s, “Nice cover!” ’cos it’s true, and I do rate books by their covers. And it’s hardback, so it’s an all-round fine reading experience on the corporeal level. I should probably start a Cover of the Year thing too, to go with my fiction and non-fiction books of the year. I think I shall. Come October (heh) when I do my yearly round-up, I’m gonna enthuse wildly over cover art. There’s been some bangers this year, but October might be the one.

Not all about cover art though, Frances, what’d you read? A book marking 100 years since the Russian Revolution covering the year of 1917 from January to October, one chapter per month, the initial chapter a succinct history of Russia and St. Petersberg leading into that first month, and finishing on a short, critical epilogue. Additionally, a Glossary of Personal Names (so many names; so many acronyms), and a Further Reading section, plus an Index, some maps of St. Petersburg — at the time called Petrograd, and a central sheaf of photos. It is a story. Miéville says so himself in his introduction, he is telling the story of historical events as a story-teller, and not so much as a historian or academic. Nonetheless, because he is a formidable story-teller, erudite, and indeed a specialist on Marxism and history, he writes a captivating and lucid narration of those months.

He says also, in the introduction, “… I am partisan. In the story that follows, I have my villains and my heroes. But, while I do not pretend to be neutral, I have striven to be fair, and I hope readers of various political hues will find value in this telling.” Being partisan then, I have little interest in Marxism as a political philosophy, nor Marx the man, nor do I have much beyond scorn for Lenin and the Revolution, all of which are the habitat of loud, white, European men telling the rest of us how we need to listen to them, and that none of their failures fall on Marxism because hand-waving reasons. Miéville skates along the edge of this in his epilogue, giving some legitimate reasons for why things went the way they did in concise and graspable sentences, yet I still feel Marxists protest too much. “If only ‘x’ hadn’t happened, or ‘y’ had done ‘z’, we’d all be living in communist paradise,” is what my acutely cynical and partisan sensibility takes away from this. Which is to say, that I read October at all is because I think Miéville is a fine writer, a favourite for over a decade, with a sharp political mind, even if he is some kind of Marxist.

There are a lot of men in this history. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Bolsheviks, Monarchists, the Whites, others, it’s the easiest thing to write entire histories of the Revolution and never venture outside men. I appreciate that Miéville makes explicit effort to include the women and women’s organisations who were critical, women like Angelica Balabanoff, Maria Bochkareva, Catherine Breshko-Breshkovskaya, Alexandra Kollontai, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Maria Spiridonova , Ludmila Stahl, Vera Zasulich, all of whom get a mention in the Glossary. He also devotes pages to the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress (which I quoted here, and is probably worth buying the book for this alone), the Jadadist movement, the Muslim National Committee, the Union of Soviet Muslims.

A quick aside here about the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress, which I ended up tweeting about. The primary source for this, which Miéville includes in the Further Reading section (and I didn’t see at the time, so went off on my own fun research wandering, leading me to the same place), is Marianne Kamp’s paper Debating Sharia: the 1917 Muslim Women’s Congress in Russia, published in Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter 2015, available to read online.

Over the ten months and chapters of October, the story moves from the lightless and frozen days of deep winter to the heat and endless sun of summer back into grey and dim rain and snow. Time condenses. The first chapter covers centuries then decades, then years and months, then January; October reduces that to hours and parts of nights on single days. History rushes, then rushes again, finishing at 5am on the 26th, as dawn touches the night. We are left with an epilogue that stretches time back out, years and decades, as the Revolution grinds itself and the continent into autocracy.

I was wondering how to finish this. I wanted to say something like, “If you love China Miéville’s fiction, you’ll love this,” ’cos in many ways his novels are explorations of revolution, but that feels kinda glib. It’s more like this: If you love his novels like Embassytown, Kraken, or his Bas-Lag stories, Between Equal Rights will make you cry — unless you’re already partial to reading International Law, and you may or may not get a kick out of October, ’cos it’s non-fiction and non-fiction Miéville is a different writer from fiction Miéville however much he is telling a story here. But if Iron Council or Railsea are up in your Miéville faves, October will fit right in: It’s all about trains.

China Miéville — October: The Story of the Russian Revolution
China Miéville — October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

Quote

The All-Russian meeting of Muslims, called for by …

The All-Russian meeting of Muslims, called for by Muslim Duma deputies immediately after the February revolution, was fast approaching — but before this, on 23 April, delegates gathered in Kazan in Tatarstan for the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress. There, fifty-nine women delegates met before an audience 300 strong, overwhelmingly female, to debate issues including the status of Sharia law, plural marriage, women’s rights and the hijab. Contributions came from a range of political and religious positions, from socialists like Zulaykha Rahmanqulova and the twenty-two-year-old poet Zahida Burnasheva, as well as from the religious scholars Fatima Latifiya and Labiba Huseynova, an expert on Islamic law.

Delegates debated whether Quranic injunctions were historically specific. Even many proponents of trans-historical orthodoxy interpreted the texts to insist, against conservative voices, that women had the right to attend mosque, or that polygyny was only permitted — a crucial caveat — if it was “just”; that is, with the permission of the first wife. Unsatisfied when the gathering approved that progressive–traditionalist position on plural marriage, the feminists and socialists mandated three of their number, including Burnasheva, to attend the All-Russian Muslim Conference in Moscow the next month, to put their alternative case against polygyny.

The conference passed ten principles, including women’s right to vote, the equality of the sexes, and the non-compulsory nature of the hijab. The centre of gravity of the discussions was clearly Jadidist, or further left. A symptom of tremulous times.

October: the story of the Russian Revolution, China Miéville

Reading … A 9th Anniversary

It’s that time of year again! Frances’ and supernaut’s Books of the Year for the 9th time. And some most excellent books were read indeed. This time last year, I realised I’d been struggling a bit with enjoying reading. I looked back over what I’d read in previous years, compared it with 2015’s crop, and noticed I’d dug myself into a bit of a hole with mediæval art and history.

What to do, Frances? I dunno, Other Frances, how about read about space travel and stuff? Good idea!

Unlike last year, my ninth iteration of looking back on a year’s reading — and it’s in October because that’s when I first started blogging about reading, almost a decade ago — has some absolute slammers on the fiction side. Last year I didn’t even name a fiction book of the year. This year, if it wasn’t for one in particular, there’s be 4 or 5 smashing at it for joint Book. And in non-fiction the situation’s pretty similar, or even better, cos there’s barely a single non-fiction work I’ve read in the past 12 months that was anything less than well awesome. It’s also one of my least-read years, only 29 that I read and blogged (possibly a couple of others I’ve forgotten); definitely plenty of internet — I mean Rainbow Autobahn distraction in the last year, exacerbating my inability to focus on pages. I blamed my poor reading last year on that distraction as well, probably time to harden the fuck up and put away the internet.

Of those 29, only 10 were non-fiction; the remaining 19 non-fiction skewed more to fantasy than sci-fi, with around 7 works explicitly skiffy, 9 explicitly fantasy, and a trio (maybe more depending on how dogmatically I apply those categories) deftly straddling both. I call those Speculative Fuckery, ’cos I love when the only two genres I read start boning each other.

On the non-fiction side, mediæval Northern European history continues filling my shelves, and there’s a bunch of “not easily categorised on their own” which nevertheless fit predictably into my decades-long interests.

Then there’s the new, or maybe to say newly clarified bunch that I kinda want to call Islamicate Studies, though that might miss something, so it encompasses that, human rights, identity, philosophy, feminism, and is primarily from women from and/or writing on Iran, Near/Middle East (I’m a bit iffy on this appellation right now, and have been trying out ‘West Asia’ also because it shifts the centre and subject of focus out of Europe, dunno though), and people from or descended from those regions in Europe, North America, Australia. I arrived at this field of interconnected subjects after increasing dissatisfaction with how feminist/queer/left-ist writing addressed brown and/or Muslim identities; regarded these people living in Europe, North America, Australia; and when I spent some time thinking about how the diverse subjects I was reading needed to come together. Also it’s a lot of living in Berlin/Germany/Europe and getting increasingly pissed at the racism against anyone not unequivocally ethnically correct, and the white feminist/queer/left-ist bullshit distractions, and my own personal, slow movement towards identifying if not myself as Turkish/brown/West Asian/Muslim, then definitely my family history (as you can see from all the slashes, I have no idea).

Books! I have read them!

Fiction first. This was a fine year. If I hadn’t read Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, she’d still be my Fiction Book of the Year with The Winged Histories, though sharing with a few others. I don’t actually know how I would pick a book of the year from a pile comprised of that plus Jo Walton’s Necessity and The Philosopher Kings;  Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng’s The Sea Is Ours; and Ann Leckie’s masterful finish to her debut Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Mercy. Impossible. I would probably give it to the latter, but then … Necessity, a brilliant conclusion to another trilogy, and The Winged Histories: sublime. So I could possibly get it down to a trio of exceptional literature, but no further. Lucky then A Stranger in Orlondria saved me from that anguish.

I don’t want to say it’s ‘better’ any of those other three — though perhaps that’s the case when comparing it to The Winged Histories, which would lose its spot in the trio just as The Philosopher Kings does to Necessity. I think of the two Samatar has written it’s a more major work. If this is my final trio then, I’m not claiming one is better than another, simply A Stranger in Olondria has had a significant effect on me. Would that effect stand up under re-reading? How would that re-reading compare to one of Leckie’s trilogy? If I read them both back-to-back, what then would be my judgement? The best questions always involve more reading.

This is all anyway just writing from memory, how I remember a book made me feel. I’ve been thinking recently that eventually my memory of a book dissolves until it’s just feelings, colours, a glimpse of an image or two. It’s like sediment, like geology, layers upon layers of this.

A quartet of other books I liked a lot: Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, Genevieve Cogman’s The Masked City, K. T. Davies’ Breed, and Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space.

Breed was a romp of Oglaf proportions and probably the most fun I had this year. I wish she’d write more of this. Reynolds’ Revelation Space I read because I needed some hard operatic space sci-fi, and his Slow Bullets novella was a favourite of mine last year. This one was good enough for me to slog through the whole, uneven trilogy. I like him, but there’s a hopelessness in his work, like the heat death of the universe.

As with Reynolds, Genevieve Cogman is another whose previous works got me to read her latest. The Invisible Library, which I also read last year was well tasty. I was super excited to find she had this sequel — and OMG! Just like last time when I discovered The Masked City, she has a sequel to that! Excellent! The immediate result of me writing about my favourite books is I’m ordering more.

Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning. Yeah, loved a lot. Glorious cover art, almost almost one of my first choices, but a few flaws in it, and the cliffhanger “Will bad things happen? Stay tuned for Book 2!” guaranteed to piss me right off. Please, don’t do that to me. I’ve paid for a story, not half a story. If your story’s too big for one book, then at least divide it in a way that doesn’t leave me hanging.

All of these authors I’ll read again (along with a score of others on my Have You Written A New Book Yet? list). I might be a bit crabby here and there about the works, but I also possess a modicum of self-awareness that I’m a pretty fucking demanding reader. The authors and works above if you’re into sci-fi / fantasy (or if you’re not) are about as good as it gets. Not just for this year, but of everything I’ve read in the last 12 years or so. (And just wait for next year’s Books of the Decade! It’s gonna be hectic!)

Non-fiction!

I didn’t read much of this in the last year, but I lucked out here too, barely a dud among them (and that single one was an old book I realised I’d never finished), running out of superlatives here.

I tried to broaden my non-fiction reading a little again, move outside the clag of mediæval history. So I read Amy Shira Teitel’s Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA, Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, and Jo Walton’ What Makes This Book So Great. All excellent works in completely different ways, and which remind me I need to read more astronomy, astrophysics, and geology this year.

The Book of the Year though — and I’m forcing myself to pick only one — comes from another trio: Kathryn Babayan and  Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire; Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens; and Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War.

Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, in no small part for her writing on the Soviet occupation and war in Afghanistan. Her writing is chilling. Heart-rending. I even said Zinky Boys would be my Book of the Year. Pretty sure I said the same thing about Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others. In truth I shouldn’t pick one over the other, except that Babayan and Najmabadi’s Islamicate Sexualities somehow is tying all this together, mediæval history, human rights, feminism, identity, migration, religion, and it’s so urgently pertinent to the slow stumbling back to the abyss Europe is currently taking. Read them all, or at least familiarise yourself with the writers.

Other books well worth reading: Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence. Mediæval of course: Miri Rubin’s Emotion and Devotion: The Meaning of Mary in Medieval Religious Cultures, and Gude Suckale-Redlefsen’s Mauritius Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice.

And that’s my reading for the last 12 months. As if I’m not sated and replete already, I’ve already got a pile of new stuff.

Reading is a great privilege. It’s not however, explicitly a human right. Article 26 i. and 27 i. of the UN Declaration of Human Rights either directly imply or by extrapolation intend reading as a human right, yet nowhere is it explicitly stated that reading comprehension or literacy, and the opportunity to gain this ability is a right. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, yet I can interpret the UNDHR in a way that fulfils the letter of declaration while still populating my dictatorship with illiterate proles.

My ability to read, at the level I do, at the frequency, my ability to critically consider the works I read (with or without concomitant swearing), to write about them here, to discuss them with others, all this is a privilege. And I mean that in the sense of a special honour. And that necessitates obligation.

Rather than continuing blabbing, I’ll quote myself, first from 2013 and then from last year:

Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!

And:

So here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.

Isabelle Schad: Solo für Lea, at Sophiensaele Berlin

Isabelle Schad’s new solo for Lea Moro, called appropriately, Solo für Lea premières at Sophienæle next week. I had the pleasure of seeing the development showing a few weeks ago, and it smashes. Intense, focussed, totally recognisable as a Schad work. If you don’t know who she is, now’s your chance. And if you do, this is what happens when Der Bau gets filtered through Fugen.

Isabelle Schad
Solo für Lea
Premiere: Thursday, 13th October 2016, 21:00, Sophiensaele (Berlin)
Further dates: 14 & 15 Oct, 21:00; 16 Oct 18:00

The Solo for Lea is a meeting between Isabelle Schad and Lea Moro. In continuation of Schads choreographic practice around relationships between body, movement, image and (re)presentation, the work attempts to draw a very personal portrait of Lea Moro, dealing with the specificities of her body, its rhythms, its contours, colours and energies. Dissected in parts and reorganised anew, the body is regarded as pure materiality, as a medium of energetic potential and transformation.

The new work unfolds itself in the borderline between visual arts and dance, between performance and installation, between sensual experience and abstraction and is playing with form-aspects of cubism and Picasso’s drawings in one dash.

Together Schad and Moro engage in constellations of forming and dis-figuring, in which the body itself becomes the stage: the space, place and matter that is subject of observation.

Concept, choreographie: Isabelle Schad
Co-choreography, performance: Lea Moro
Dramaturgical support: Saša Božić
Sound: Damir Šimunović
Light design: Bruno Pocheron
Technic: Bruno Pocheron, Mehdi Toutain-Lopez
Costume: Charlotte Pistorius
Production management: Heiko Schramm

Made possible by a long years collaboration with Laurent Goldring.

Production: Isabelle Schad
Supported by: Wiesen55 e.V.

Isabelle Schad: Solo für Lea — 1
Isabelle Schad: Solo für Lea — 1
Isabelle Schad: Solo für Lea — 2
Isabelle Schad: Solo für Lea — 2

Reading: Julie Phillips — James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

One of a stack of books I got from the James Tiptree Jr. Literary Award Council as part of the monster job of doing their website and award database, a stack of which I have only begun to dent by reading Julie Phillips’ excellent biography of the award’s namesake, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. Strange after working for the Council for five years I hadn’t read anything of or about Tiptree (in book form, I mean), so this was a comprehensive drowning in one of the most brilliant, talented, over-achieving, plain weird science-fiction writers I’ve come across. It actually reads like science-fiction.

Grim science-fiction at that. There’s a hopelessness in her regard of life that is present from her earliest memories as a child up until her suicide at age 71 in 1987, a sense of already being old, of being already too late, of barely, only temporarily keeping at bay the entropy of the universe. Besides this comprehensive existential misery, her experience of daily life was equally as an outsider. Whether as a woman, lesbian or bisexual (or at least definitively not straight, even if she never acted on it), incapable of conforming to the social proscriptions of her gender, physically ill at ease with her body – by current nomenclature she would be claimed as both queer and trans, but she evades even these generalisations – in the entirety of her identity and sense of self is the impossibility of belonging, of feeling at home in the world. And this too collides with the unusually privileged life she had, as a child of wealthy Chicago socialites, travelling to central Africa, later in the Women’s Army Corps in photointerpretation, chasing German scientists (and so brushing alongside the history of space flight), then joining the CIA, later earning a Phd in psychology before embarking not as Alice Sheldon, but as James Tiptree, Jr. as an award-winning science-fiction writer.

It’s difficult to reconcile that charmed life with the gloom, my uncharitable self thought a cup of harden the fuck up wouldn’t have gone amiss, and yet without the protection that life afforded a woman born in 1915, it’s unlikely she would have been any different than the great mass of women at that time, pushed into marriage, second-class citizens, expected to breed, and any signs of dissatisfaction, of wanting the life the other half lived, squashed out with drugs and disapproval. Or, with her exceptional intelligence, curiosity, empathy, would have been rubbed out all the more definitively.

I haven’t read a biography for a long while, possibly one on Wittgenstein was the last. Julie Phillips does a remarkable job tying research, notes, letters, conversations, a life, into a coherent story. It’s perhaps telling, and vindication of Sheldon’s decision to write under a male pseudonym that she is so little known and regarded today. If we’re going to thrown names like Ursula Le Guin or Phillip K. Dick around when talking about sci-fi, or even the ’60s and 70’s New Wave, Tiptree deserves the same recognition.

Julie Phillips — James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
Julie Phillips — James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

Reading: Svetlana Alexievich — Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War

Book of the year. Right here. There will be none better.

A few months ago, Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I’d never heard of her—not so unusual for me—saw her name in passing on the Russian, Central Asian, Afghanistan blogs I follow, thought, yeah, cool, woman winning for a change, didn’t really pause to read more until I saw Afghanistan mentioned, then found she’d written this: Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War.

Most of my reading on Afghanistan has been either pre-1978 coup and Soviet occupation or post that plus Taliban thrills (who were real money makers for analysts and pundits for about ten years until Da’esh came along). The decade of the proxy war, from which Afghanistan and the Middle East are still suffering, has been only the subject of two books I’ve read: Rodric Braithwaite’s Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979–89, and now Alexievich’s stunning Zinky Boys.

They’re called Zinky Boys because the teenage heroes come back from the land where the Soviet Union is certainly not waging a war in sealed zinc caskets to be buried at night without ceremony.

I can’t do justice to this work. A relentless, measured documentation of suffering, loss, lies, the devastation of a generation, of imperial arrogance and stupidity that brought about its own demise, that discarded used up and broken bodies barely older than children, and as those very same colonial nations now almost fifteen years into the most recent occupation and war in Afghanistan begin yet another barely disguised proxy war in Syria, after all the unending chaos Europe, the British, Americans and their fiefdoms have instigated from Hindu Kush to Maghreb, this is the history to read. This is what we have to look forward to, this is what we are complicit in. All of us. These are the same lies being told for a fifth decade. It’s all here. There’s nothing new to find in the current wars, there won’t be a different outcome this time.

The writing, voices of young soldiers, the wounded, mothers, nurses, officers, conscripted and volunteers, it’s a recital, a judgement. Through the pages of this slim book they become one, each story unique and individual, and each the same. I can’t praise the writing highly enough. It occurs to me the closest is one of Liao Yiwu’s works, maybe The Corpse Walker.

It was only because I saw Afghanistan mentioned that I paused. I’m not much of a Nobel Laureate fan, many of the awards are political choices, and of the authors I have read or have read about, very few are indeed of the brilliance the award is supposed to confer. Of the Chinese winners, Gao Xingjian has nothing on Liao Yiwu, and Mo Yan is rubbish, as a person and a writer. But occasionally—Samuel Beckett and Henri Bergson of the writers I know—politics or no, the author is that outstanding, their contributions unique. Svetlana Alexievich, who I so easily could have missed, is that, and is the equal of Beckett and Bergson. And if you’re not moved to anger and tears through these pages, if your dreams aren’t troubled, there’s no hope for you.

Svetlana Alexievich — Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War
Svetlana Alexievich — Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War

Reading: Mechthild Of Magdeburg — The Flowing Light of the Godhead

From Caroline Walker Bynum my love of mediæval history narrows to the 13th century and a place not far from Berlin: Magdeburg. Of all the women saints and beguines from the 12th and 13th centuries (and earlier), Mechthild Of Magdeburg seems to me the strangest,  a savant outside the usual, writing in vernacular German instead of Latin, highly emotional, erotic. Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of the Godhead) is her only work, which survives only in later translations into Latin (from around the time of her death) and Alemannic German (from around fifty years later). I find it somehow appropriate also she was in Magdeburg at the same time the statue of St. Mauritius was sculpted for the Magdeburger Dom.

Yet I, least of all souls,
Take Him in my hand,
Eat Him and drink Him,
And do with Him what I will!
Why then should I trouble myself
As to what the angels experience?

Mechthild Of Magdeburg — The Flowing Light of the Godhead
Mechthild Of Magdeburg — The Flowing Light of the Godhead

Reading: Caroline Walker Bynum — Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages

The third of seven. I am reading Caroline Walker Bynum the way I read Iain M. Banks. Of the remaining four, one is decidedly unaffordable, so let’s pretend I’m half-way through her opus with Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages.

As with  Fragmentation and Redemption, this is a collection of essays, and was published in the same year: 1992. I’m reading it disorderly, in part because I have an agenda, in part because it surpasses my limits of comprehension. Bynum became a phenomenally better writer over the two-ish decades between these two collections of essays (some of which in Jesus as Mother go back even further to the 1970s), starting as she did from quite celestial heights; she also reveals her true abilities in longer works, where she can cut loose with ideas developed and returned to over hundreds of pages.

I realised I was out of my depth when I inadvertently returned to reading the first essay, The Spirituality of Regular Canons in the Twelfth Century and had entirely no idea what she was talking about. No. Idea. Word porridge. I was being sneaky anyway, and jumping forward to the last essay, Women Mystics in the Thirteenth Century: The Case of the Nuns of Helfta.

(I also intend to read Did the Twelfth Century Discover the Individual? and the other two, maybe returning to that first one later.)

There should be one of those brooding, shirtless highland miniseries about the nuns of Helfta. Gertrude the Great of Helfta, Mechtild of Hackeborn, and my favourite, Mechtild of Magdeburg. The others around or near them like Gertrude of Hackeborn, or preceding them like Hildegard of Bingen. There is no way I can do these incredible women any service in writing anything here, but wow are they impressive.

I wish I had more focus at the moment for reading, mostly it’s a couple of pages over breakfast, very much out of rhythm. This isn’t my favourite of Bynum’s which might by why I’m trudging through, but the detail and care—and joy—in her research and writing, and the beauty of the subjects, definitely I’ve turned mediæval in the past year because of her and people like Mechtild of Magdeburg.

Caroline Walker Bynum — Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages
Caroline Walker Bynum — Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages

Reading: Caroline Walker Bynum — Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion

Sixteen years before Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond, Caroline Walker Bynum wrote what I’m reading now: Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. It was written at a time when she was prolific—or at least her publisher was—thee two full-length works and this collection of essays over the course of two years. After that, not so much.The Resurrection of the Body in ’96, Metamorphosis and Identity, in ’01, Wonderful Blood, and in 2011, Christian Materiality. I’ve compared her in the past to China scholars Susan Mann and Gail Hershatter in the discipline and intense focus of their research, their ability to be equal to that research in writing, the beauty of their writing, and now it occurs to me in the paucity of published full-length works over decades (and of their Wikipedia pages, which are so scant as to be almost misinformation).

After Wonderful Blood, which was one of my Books of the Year for 2014 (along with Afsaneh Najmabadi’s  Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran, whom I might also compare) I knew I’d be back for more of her; only a question of how long I could delay. Bynum’s works are not easy. The footnotes take up around a quarter of the pages and are often critical, insightful points (when not fields of citations) that burnish the work. The subjects are always highly specialised, narrow, waste no time with generalities, detailed like tapestries, and simultaneously engaged into unexpected comparisons with 20th and 21st century scholars, of which she writes with equal precision and clarity. And joy.

“Not easy” is a multifarious thing. Derrida and Foucault are not easy for different reasons, My memory of both of them—and similar others—is of many words on pages. Not much joy. Bynum too has many words on many pages, but with her, no matter how demanding her exegesis, there is this playful joy. She knows how good she is and is no modest wallflower, nor does she slip into cocky, bragging arrogance, or try to pull a fast one on her audience. She loves what she writes about, her life’s work. It’s a pleasure so rare to read her.

And it was a pleasure to return to her after the dismal Germany and the Black Diaspora, one of the most expensive books I’ve ever bought, and one that did such a disservice to its subject, with the averageness of scholarship and mediocrity of bringing the essays together into a complementary unity. A long pleasure too. It takes me months to read Bynum, I chew through other works in-between then back to her, methodical, page by page, one paragraph after another, one sentence, one line, a phrase. Sometimes I wander off on thoughts for most of the hour I’ll be reading, not even making it through a part of a page. And not to be too romantic about it all, even though it’s not her primary concern (perhaps to describe it as a parallel one) she makes clear ideas about and ways of seeing the world in the late-medieval era are eminently applicable to today, particularly theory concerning bodies, gender, identity, which at times make it seem we are the ones who are ‘medieval’.

Caroline Walker Bynum — Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion
Caroline Walker Bynum — Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion