Exploring an uncharted world below sea level

Jules Verne: Voyages extraordinaires: Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (English title: 20 000 Leagues under the Sea) ISBN: 978-2-07-012892-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ The ambition of Jules Verne (1828-1905) was to combine the scientific education of his readers with the pleasure of reading a thrilling adventure novel. The French writer succeeded marvellously, his books sold well, and quickly they became part of the classics of French literature. Verne was a visionary as far as science is concerned: His heroes flew into space decades before man had built a rocket capable to overcome the earth’s gravity, they explored the abysses of the oceans well before the technology of modern submarines had been invented. Verne had invented the genre of science-fiction literature avant la lettre and ranks among the best and most important European writers of all times.

I clearly recall my first contact with Verne’s fantastic worlds as a young boy. It must have been in the late 1970s in southern France, not far from Nice. I went shopping with my family at the first shopping mall I ever saw. It had a cart circuit on the roof – I made very big eyes when I saw it – and a movie theater. And so I watched “20 000 Leagues under the Sea”, shrieking in terror when the giant octopus grabbed the submarine with Verne’s heroes on board. I do recall nothing from the film, except this specific scene.

Curiously I had never read any of Verne’s novels up to now. I realized what I had missed once I had started with “A Journey to the Center of the Earth”. After the first pages, I had caught fire and read four Verne novels on a row, the last being “20 000 Leagues under the Sea” in the French edition of La Pléiade, beautifully illustrated, heavily annotated and with an excellent introduction. It was one of those books that I had trouble to put down; needless to say that it didn’t take me much time to read it.

I will not spoil your pleasure by giving away key scenes, but I will summarize the story nevertheless. In the late half of the 19th century from different spots in different oceans mysterious sightings are being reported. A giant whale? A man-made machine? Nobody knows, but everybody has an opinion. Some reports indicate that the mysterious object is capable (and willing) to attack ships, but the brightest scientists cannot come up with a convincing explanation. It is decided that an expeditionary team shall search the ocean and uncover the secret. Part of the team are the whale hunter Ned Land, the marine biologist Prof. Aronnax and his servant Conseil.

A dramatic event leads to a situation where the three heroes discover the truth behind the enigmatic sightings: The object is man-made. A technological miracle in many respects. Land, Aronnax and Conseil end up in a submarine named “Nautilus” and commanded by a mysterious man: Captain Nemo. His origin is unknown, his wealth unlimited. He sails the ocean and flees humanity, which seems to fill him with a singular hatred. A very intriguing man. Prof. Aronnax is fortunate enough to create a kind of intellectual bond with Nemo and slowly discovers the multiple facets not only of the submarine’s commander, but also of sea life as such and the hidden treasures of the oceans.

However, the three heroes are aware that being privy to Nemo’s world means that they will not be permitted to leave the “Nautilus”. While Ned Land develops quite a few escape plans, Prof. Aronnax is torn between his fascination by Nemo’s way if life and his desire to report the marvellous marine world that Nemo had made him discover and compels him to flee. Eventually they will flee, as to how and why and when – read the book! “20 000 Leagues under the Sea” is a real page-turner with a lot of suspense, at the same time Verne’s beautiful, elaborate language makes reading an almost sensual experience.

The “Nautilus” is the submarine of my dreams. Captain Nemo not only had a well-stocked library built into it, it also features an organ and a vast collection of sheet music. For all his hatred against mankind, he does not repudiate its cultural artifacts. Nemo names a few of his favourites: Weber, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Wagner and Haydn. Joseph Haydn precisely wrote an opera called “L’Isola Dishabitata”, that perfectly fits into the context:

A pocket-size opera inspired by Robinson Crusoe

Exposing tyranny, superstition and warmongering


François Rabelais: Gargantua Pantagruel ISBN 978-2-869-59892-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ When I was a student, the study of French literature compelled me to read and analyze a part of a famous Renaissance novel: Pantagruel, written by François Rabelais. “Gargantua Pantagruel” in its modern French version are two novels of a cycle of five satiric stories recounting the life and adventures of the giant Gargantua and his son Pantagruel. Behind the comic veneer lies a deeper meaning of course. Rabelais was an extremely learned man and did not write to entertain. He was master of the French language, fluent in Latin, a doctor of medicine and a close friend of Cardinal Jean du Bellay. And his endeavour was a dangerous one.

Rabelais was one of the few Renaissance authors who dared criticize the ruling powers: tyrannic kings and the Catholic church. Of course, he never mentioned any real names, he distorted facts and exaggerated in the grossest manner. The use of foul language, the depiction of crude scenes added even more to the ridicule, but all this just served to shield Rabelais from the criticism of being a heretic or a state enemy while he blamed the brutality of his time, the superstition of people, scholastic pedagogy, the betrayal of moral standards by the powerful. He voiced a severe criticism of tyranny and presented a blueprint for an enlightened, benign exercise of absolute power.

I knew none of all this when I was a student. No teacher ever explained this to me, no teacher ever put the novel and its strange style in context. My “Pantagruel moment” was one of those experiences that almost turned me away from French literature for ever. Nevertheless, for almost 30 years I had a feeling that, Rabelais being an eminent figure of French literature, I should read the two novels “Gargantua” and “Pantagruel”. The French editor Claude Pinganaud did an excellent job in translating the two works from Medieval French into modern French without sacrificing the substance or the richness of Rabelais’ language.

This said, the book remained a challenging read for me. I am glad I read it, but I won’t read it a second time. Renaissance music however, that’s a different story. I can listen to Emilio di Cavalieri’s monumental work “Rappresentatione di anima, et di corpo” over and over again:

Searching for the salvation of the soul

Discovering Vienna and its lost Jewish facet

bober vienne

Robert Bober: Vienne avant la nuit. ISBN 978-2-8180-4326-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ What a wonderful book! I can say this without any caveat at all. Everything is wonderful. First, the idea: A French writer investigates the origin of his Jewish family and ends up with an intelligent, colourful sketch of Jewish life in Vienna before the night, that is before the extinction of Jewish life in Vienna under the Nazis. Second, the execution of the idea: a highly readable book, with interesting, witty texts written by the author and extensive quotes of eminent Jewish writers like Joseph Roth, Arthur Schnitzler, Thomas Bernhard and Stefan Zweig. Lovely illustrations, admirable drawings, historic and current pictures, scans of original documents complete this work.

The trip to the past reveals the value of Jewish life for Vienna. It shows what is missing today: A part of Vienna’s identity. Wilfully destroyed. What a lost! I am grateful to Bober to have me shown I facet of the city I love so much that I wouldn’t have discovered so easily without him. The next time I will be in Vienna, my look upon the city will not be the same it used to be. I will look for signs. I now know where to look fo them. This said, to all my Jewish readers: Happy New Year or L’shanah tovah!

Bober narrates his adventure in a very intimate style and so some intimate music from a Vienna composer imposed itself as my music suggestion accompanying this review. A piano is de rigueur, a violin too – Johannes Brahms’ Trio in B minor:

 Overwhelmed by a sparkling trio of divine length

A revolutionary thinker guiding us towards enlightment

Frédéric Lenoir: Le miracle Spinoza. Une philosophie pour éclairer notre vie. ISBN 978-2-213-70070-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Baruch de Spinoza – the name alone was enough to spark my curiosity at school. A Jewish philosopher of Portugueuse origin, living and teaching in Amsterdam in the 17th century. At the age of 23, the young intellectual genius had already been banned by the Jewish community because of his revolutionary ideas. If I were to sum his credo up I would say: Reason can explain the universe. Going one step further I would have to admit with Spinoza: God is a man-made fiction. What I specifically appreciate is Spinoza’s lifelong endeavour to reconcile theory and practice and to put rational behaviour at the center of socio-economic and political question. Don’t make fun of anybody, don’t lament, don’t detest, think!

The French writer and philosophy teacher Frédéric Lenoir has written an excellent introduction into Spinoza’s world. I wish I had had it when I still was at school. Our teacher did his best to explain to his students Spinoza’s basic ideas, but the 17th century was way too far from my everyday life and I did not understand much, if anything at all. Lenoir puts the philosopher’s ideas not only into a historic context, he also tries to explain their relevance for our contemporary world. Applied philosophy – I love that!

Spinoza gave a lot of thought to the highly controversial subject of religion, and Lenoir’s way to present this subject alone gave me a lot of satisfaction. Spinoza does not deny the existence of God as many of his critics have said, instead he says that religions – any of the three monotheistic religions – have become an instrument of monarchs, bishops, muftis and rabbis to keep people ignorant and to rule them by fear – fear of punishment by God if they do not obey laws made by men. He opposes this view to a view that sees religion – any of the three monotheistic religions – as the quest for justice and peace, the ultimate Good being intellectual enlightment, control of human passions and science-based judgment in all affairs, a goal that admittedly, only few can reach.

For Spinoza religion, dealing with faith, and philosophy, dealing with the pursuit of truth via rational thought, do not exclude eachother but need to co-exist, covering two distinct aspects of human life, following to different types of logic. He fights for the right to free expression and condemns the interference of religion into politics, which according to Spinoza, need to be guided by scientific analysis and good judgment. Naturally – and quite ahead if his time – he favours democracy over monarchies and aristocracies. The logic corollary to the right to free expression is the right to freely choose a political representative.

With his heavy criticism of some of the foundations of Judaism and Christian faith and central aspects of the political reality of his time, Spinoza made himself a lot of enemies, which led him to publish several of his books under a pen name and some only after his death. Apparently someone even attempted to murder him.

He was conscious about the scandal his claims in the field of teligion would trigger, and I will just mention two provocations Lenoir explains: a) The Torah (or the Pentateuch, five books included in what Christians call the Old Testament) was not written by Moses b) With the fall of the first Jewish state more than 2500 years ago, the Jews cannot claim any longer to be the chosen people, the bond has been severed. To prove his point he produces a systematical critical analysis of the Torah, an interpretation in the light of historical facts. Can you do this in the 17th century? Not if you like a peaceful life.

Christians did not fare much better. Spinoza rejects the idea of the Holy Trinity and Jesus being a human incarnation of God – two ideas that split the Christian church. Spinoza hit a vulnerable spot and he did not stop here. According to him, God cannot be external to this world since human understanding alone can come up with anything called God. God is a concept, made by men. He also objects to a literal interpretation of the Old and New Testament and claims that religions purpose are to give people a set of ethical rules to live more or less in peace together – a manmade system to guarantee a certain social order, convenient for rulers and open to misuse. And yes, Spinoza had read Machiavelli’s treatise “The Prince”. In his time, the ethical framework was set by religion, however, as Lenoir does not fail to mention, there could be alternatives, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The United Provinces, part of which would become today’s Netherlands, may have been a liberal state, however time was not yet ripe for such attacks on central pillars of the established order and the power that seemed to guarantee social and political stability. Along with the French René Descartes, Spinoza certainly was one of the most important prophets of what would later be called the age of Enlightment. It’s a shame it took me so long to find that out. I find him a fascinating man with fascinating ideas. What’s more, Lenoir’s introduction to Spinoza’s world is a useful reminder about the origin of the scientific, economic and political framework that rules our everyday life today. I couldn’t think of a better book to read on a Dutch beach.

Just for the fun of it, let’s pitch Spinoza against Johann Sebastian Bach, who reached out to God in his music, for instance in his “Brandenburg Concertos”:

Bach appeals to our sense of beauty

Restoring the equilibrium to preserve peace

Pierre Assouline: Une question d’orgueil. ISBN 978-2-07-045963-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ What pushes a man to betray his country, his government, his government’s allies? Georges Pâques is at the center of an espionnage case that shook France and Europe in the 60s when Pâques was identied as a Soviet agent, arrested and sentenced.

The French writer Pierre Assouline goes beyond simply retracing the unusual career of a French public servant that passed intelligence for more than 20 years to Moscow. The quest for the truth about Pâques’ character and his motivation – if such a truth exists – was an adventure in itself that merited being shared with the public. And Assouline does it in his inimitable, beautiful way as he did it in his biography of the journalist Albert Londres.

Assouline talked to Pâques, to his first Soviet agent handler, the latter’s wife and grand-daughter. He sneaked into Russian archives at the time when Boris Yeltsin ruled Russia and everything in Russia was for sale, state secrets inclusive. And gradually he came closer to the essence of Pâques deepest convictions: A sense of mission to put something right, to correct the balance of world affairs. Nothing less.

Pâques was a deeply pious Catholic, politically conservative and he certainly felt no sympathy for the autocratic regime of Staline and his successors. At the same time he was disgusted by the United States’ dominance in world affairs and their government’s arrogance, something he experienced right at the beginning of his career as a public servant of the French administration in Algeria in the 40s. This experience triggered a reflection that would propulse his career: Restoring the equilibrium by helping the Soviet Union. Betraying to preserve world peace. Talk about an ambitious young man.

The Soviet side quickly realized their luck, and Pâques’ first handler rather easily recruited him to report rumours, ideas, opinions, gradually moving to more sensitive information. Once he realized he had in fact become a Soviet agent in the top echelons of the French government and NATO, it was too late to turn back. The irony of his career: Betrayal led to Pâques downfall. A Soviet defector revealed details about a French agent and authoritirs patiently collected information until they had singled him out.

I am not without ambition myself, though I feel much more attracted by music than by politics. One of my long-term goals is to learn to play Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major (Op. 53):

Standing in awe before the Waldstein- Sonata