Commercial art galleries opened the 12th April and museums and public galleries are (at the time of writing) likely open from 17th May. So, what’s on exhibition-wise? Something of a patchwork across the country.
Pallant House, Chichester intends to reopen on the 18h May. Its current shows include ‘Degas to Picasso’ which focuses on the plethora of artistic movements from Post-Impressionism to Abstract Surrealism. There are prints by many of the masters of the period including Picasso, Cézanne, Braque and Matisse.
Alongside the early modern masters there is a show of the star British Pop artist, Richard Hamilton. The show seeks to challenge the idea that Pop Art is merely slick and cheap, suggesting that is ideas driven and a challenge (why are we always being challenged?) as to how we see the modern world. Both shows run until to 13th June.
At the time of writing Manchester Art Gallery was still cautious about its reopening. However, it plans to do so when possible and its main show will be ‘Grayson’s Art Club,’ a selection of works from the popular T.V. show. These are works which respond to lockdown. They are made by members of the public, celebrities and also well-known artists including Maggi Hambling and Anthony Gormley. Themes include the view from my window, animals and fantasy. It offers the visitor opportunities for hubris and schadenfreude. Until 31st October.
Baltic, Gateshead promises 4 exhibitions from 19th May, HMG guidance permitting. Of these ‘Baltic Open Submission’ features over 150 local artists reflecting on covid. If that prospect leaves you cold, The Fitzwilliam in Cambridge opens with ‘The Human Touch’ a postponed exhibition which explores the importance of touch in human experience over 4,000 years. Works by past greats such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Turner and Rodin will be placed alongside moderns such as Judy Chicago, Frank Auerbach and the Chapman Brothers.
The Ashmolean, Oxford currently promises an exhibition in due course based on its large collection of Pre-Raphaelite works on paper. Ruskin’s ‘Velvet Crab’ looks especially fun.
Fortunately, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park has been able to open up early – the advantage of being in a park. Of course, its indoor shows are closed but the great attraction is the outdoors.
In London, the British Museum promises, but with no dates, a major exhibition to mark the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket (not that the Museum calls Becket a saint or his death a martyrdom). Loans will include a stained glass window from Canterbury Cathedral.
The National Gallery offers an interesting selection of future exhibitions; Bellotto’s Köningstein views (from 22nd July), Poussin and the dance (from 9th October), Dürer on his travels which were so important for him and for the Italian cities he visited (10th December), and then, next year, Raphael with loans from the Vatican, Uffizi, Hermitage, Prado and Washington. All four shows promise to be well worth.
Tate Britain will show a retrospective of the work of Paula Rego (7th July – 24th October). Rego worked as a figurative painter at a time when figurative work was unfashionable. Her focus an women’s experience and use of the whole sweep of artistic tradition makes for very powerful works – see especially her ‘Dog Women’ series. ‘Hogarth in Europe’ (3rd November – 20th March, 2022) promises a quieter visual experience, placing Hogarth alongside such contemporaries as Chardin as depictors of urban living.
The Victoria and Albert Museum has a number of small shows running from before lockdown, very much for the afficionado.
And, sadly, it’s difficult for now to be know which other galleries will be open. We can expect that permanent shows such as the Hepworth, Wakefield and Tate Liverpool will open as soon as they can, but many galleries won’t commit themselves to opening until much nearer the time and a number of exhibitions such as the Wallace Collection’s Hals and the male portraits show (featuring its own ‘Laughing Cavalier’) may not take place as planned.
So, even when our museums and galleries reopen, its likely to be slim pickings as far as exhibitions go, at least until the autumn. Which makes for an excellent opportunity to visit the permanent collections in the absence of summer tourists.
Faber & Faber, 2021£16.99,
Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord. And let light perpetual shine upon them. This is a Christian novel, although the only overt references might be the title and an opening quotation from Henry Vaughan: They are all gone into the world of light. Here we find redemption, the gift of life and its goodness, the strength to be found in weakness, and the unique value of each human existence. Light Perpetual opens with the real holocaust or sacrifice of 168 people unlucky enough to be in Woolworths in the New Cross Road, London, at Saturday lunchtime in November 1944 when a German V2 bomb scored a direct hit. Spufford imagines the millisecond before the immolation of his five child characters, Jo and Val, Alec, Ben and Vernon. “This instant – this interval of time, measurably tiny, immeasurably vast – arrives unwitnessed, passes unwitnessed, ends unwitnessed. And yet it is a real moment. It really happens. It really takes its necessary place in the sequence of moments by which 910 kilos of amatol are delivered among the saucepans.” In the novel that follows, time is stretched out again, and we follow the lives of the five children stage by stage through to 2009. The book is a tour de force, yet the reader is left uneasy, maybe deliberately. Light Perpetual is not an ordinary fiction which we are asked to read as if it is real life. These children are dead. We are treated to real life, in all its variety, but know from the beginning that this is a fiction, an account of unlived time. Such is Spufford’s skill in evoking the passing scenes that we soon forget this experimental device and join the redeemed children on their lifelong journeys.
This is a London novel, in particular South London, 1944-2009, in the fictional Borough of Bexford, north of Sidcup. Passing events are real, the social history painstakingly recreated through sixty-five years: the Singing Class at Halstead Road Primary, the power play of the printing unions in 1979, mental wards on Largactil, immigration, beehive girls on the backs of scooters going to Margate, with comedy and tragedy, and stinging, crazy conversation: “You look like ham,” she says, “nice ham and of course I met you in the Co-op but you weren’t on the meat counter you were in hardware, what a shame, but to tell you the truth even if you had been I wouldn’t fancy you, no offence but there it is.” Every line rescues a detail from the past, not artfully placed, just packed in as life happens. Spufford remarks, “I like awkwardness, things that don’t fit, things that put up a struggle against being described.” All the delighted reader has to do is keep up. Never mind the meaning. “I follow Ben and Alec and Jo and Val and Vern onwards through the decades, catching up with them for a day every fifteen years as they pass through the stages of adulthood and the city changes around them; and changes again; and changes again, this being an era of endless metamorphosis. It’s a book dedicated to the proposition that there aren’t any ordinary lives. It’s a book about how we live in time.” For this reviewer, seventy years a Londoner without a break, a library of long lost impressions was opened as the book rolled through the years, revealing “a size-10 immaculately laced sixteen-hole oxblood DM”, National Health spectacles in pink plastic, the thin grey uniforms of the bus conductors, scruffy plywood chairs, the juddering Routemaster, watery coffee, the Hillman Hunter, pork pie hats, “pout-stretch-blot with the lipstick”, and the hilarious clashing of the classes in the cause of social mobility, as when Vern, the property spiv, suddenly realises that the middle classes actually like renovating old Georgian houses: “…he sees flickers of yellow inside, and finds he’s looking at a bearded guy in overalls stripping wallpaper by the light of, yes, three candles in a knackered old paint-dripped candelabra.”
But London threatens as often as she supports her children. Light Perpetual is about people who fail, either through their own mistakes, or through their unseeing choices, or because the politics in society throws them around. “Mr Brocklehurst and his megaphone and his leaflets and two Union Jacks on broom handles go down in the lift; the rest go whooping down ten flights of stairs.” But, in the end, there is resurrection light for all. Francis Spufford passed the plaque to the 168 V2 victims on his way to and from Goldsmiths. His book rescues them because, I suspect, he could no longer leave them there, although “their part in time is done”. The novel begins with the blinding light of the exploding bomb. “Come, other future. Come, mercy not manifested in time; come knowledge not obtainable in time. Come, other chances. Come, unsounded deep. Come undivided light. Come dust.” At the end of book, one of the characters, Ben, dies again: “The sun is overhead. The sun is shining straight down. The grass grows bright with ordinary light. Ben sees the light, and the light is very good.” And let light perpetual shine upon them.
That All Should be Saved
David Bentley Hart
£20, ISBN 0300246226
(in paperback Sept 2021)
Every once in a while you read a book in which it becomes clear that the writer is affected by a number of concerns that just don’t chime with your cultural milieu. An English person, for example, might easily be bamboozled by the complexities and subtleties with which, say, an Italian might write about spaghetti, or an Eskimo about snow. We would find it difficult to understand why certain sorts of spaghetti or snow annoy or please such a writer, the fine distinctions between the myriad different sorts of snow or spaghetti that exist, which are considered beyond the pale, and which are the focus of strong argument – and all because we don’t share their cultural background, history, and experience.
One can’t help feeling this is also the case in this work. David Bentley Hart proposes the idea that hell doesn’t really exist and that all people in the end shall be saved in Christ. But beneath that question seem to lurk a number of hoary old questions which have characterised American Protestant culture for a very long time, particularly in relation to the influential role that Calvinist thinking has played in forming the American theological psyche. As important as questions of eternal salvation might be, they just don’t form part of the culture of English, Anglican theological debate in quite the way that they do in the culture wars of North America. This book could only have been written by an American former Protestant.
Hart makes a number of interesting assertions on different fronts in his argument that all will be saved. A chapter argues, for example, that belief in God as loving creator means we cannot imagine the very human beings he created in love being condemned to eternal damnation. Just as God cannot will evil, he cannot will hell, according to Hart. A further chapter is spent presenting the New Testament as replete with evidence of the universal salvation of all being a key part of the earliest Christian kerygma, and carefully questioning portions of the scriptures usually seen as presenting a belief in hell as part of Jesus’ teaching. He argues in a further section of the book that seeing humankind created in the image of God means that God’s restoration of all things in Christ cannot be complete without all whom he has created in that Christ’s image being united with God. He also advances arguments to do with human free will, asserting that human beings can never really will to separate themselves from God, and so are not truly free in the way that many people understand the idea to condemn themselves to eternal separation from God.
A definite layer of neurosis, however, can be detected in Hart’s own frequently mentioned ecclesial journey. He is a convert from North American Episcopalianism to Eastern orthodoxy. He clearly sees his own position, which he argues has patristic warrant, as a way of distancing himself from Augustine, Thomas, and the Western Latin tradition. And yet, many elements of his fundamental assumptions about the development of Christian doctrine remain thoroughly Protestant. The Protestant historical meta-narrative sees a pristine early kerygma corrupted by tradition and history, which is miraculously rediscovered and revealed in the sixteenth century in the words of scripture. Hart similarly understands his thesis through this basic Protestant lens – universalism is, according to him, an early and widespread patristic belief which can be rediscovered after centuries of suppression through attentive study of the scriptures and careful thought. There is little sign of a catholic (or orthodox) understanding of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church shaping and revealing the truth of Christian doctrine through the centuries. Hart may have converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, but he retains a very Protestant heart in his understanding of the development of doctrine, the role of scripture, and how theological consensus emerges in the Christian Tradition.
One of the principal shortcomings of the work is the way in which Hart’s mode of argument relies on straw men. He takes the argument of his opponents and frequently subjects it to reductio ad absurdum. He asserts, for example, that the only truly logical way of believing in hell is in the form of full-throttle Calvinist double predestination, which many will obviously not want to. He latches onto an assertion by Thomas Aquinas that the beatitude of those who are saved is made more intense by watching and taking delight in the punishment in eternity of the damned, an idea many will find odd or unpalatable. This leads to a sense of two theological positions talking past each other, with little attention being paid to what non-universalists actually believe or why they believe it.
This work is unlikely to convince someone who believes in hell that it does not exist. Neither is it likely to give a universalist a deeper understanding of why so many people tend to hold a conviction that God will justly judge with reward and punishment at the end of time. It does, however, give us an intriguing and fascinating account of Hart’s own opinions, his idiosyncratic philosophical outlook, and why he believes what he believes.
Our Daily Bread
Istros Books, 2020
£10.99, ISBN 9781912545094
I have never read a book like this before. Described by the Croatian author as ‘ a meditation on the cultural and symbolic significance of bread throughout history,’ it has kaleidoscopic, language breaking, cascading quality about it. Its range in religious culture, geography, history, science, literature, and art of all media is staggering. It unleashes a torrent of ideas and emotional energy that springs from an unremitting focus on bread.
It is not until the seventh and final chapter (seven to echo the seven crusted bread that signifies the longest lasting bread of the hermit, prisoner and long distance sailor) that the source of this energy and focus is revealed. As a child the author’s father returns from time in a Nazi labour camp with the stories about the lack of bread and a Christmas Eve when a protestant pastor invited a work party into his home for bread, wine and offered hot water to wash and shave with. In the 1970’s he tracks down those who knew his uncle who died in a Soviet concentration camp. His uncle’s friend recounts to the author that the last words his uncle said were ‘bread, bread.’ He promised this friend he would write about bread. Bread is life. Bread is hope. Bread is freedom. This is the unwritten manifesto of this book.
It description as a ‘meditation’ directs the way the book is read. It is not a sit down for an hour or two page-turner. There is too much to stimulate and provoke, too many prompts for reflection and enquiry. It is impossible to digest in large chunks. To this reviewer two sections stood out at first reading. The first is the very first chapter, Bread and Body.
The author draws attention to the writing of the early Greek philosopher Anaxagoras of Clazomenae who made a connection between the body and bread. ‘ Let us consider a loaf of bread. It is composed of vegetable matters and helps nourish our body. However, the constituent parts of the human body are multiple: skin, flesh, blood, veins, sinews, cartilages, bones hair… How, then, could it happen that the uniformly constituted bread should produce this rich multiplicity off objects? A change of qualities is not possible, so that the sole remaining hypothesis is that the bread that nourishes us already contains the countless forms of matter the human body displays.’
He then goes on to make a connection with the writing of the Church Father Saint Gregory of Nyssa ‘If a person see bread, he sees in a certain sense, the human body, because the bread enters the body and becomes the body itself. The author comments, ‘bread and the body understand one another.’
The second section most memorable to me at first reading was the author’s detailed knowledge of the types of bread baked on Mount Athos, where there is a huge variety of bread that has its origin in the many cultures and backgrounds of the various monasteries. But on Athos no one is permitted to eat unleavened bread, ‘their faith brings them closer, bread unites them.’ This is a book I shall keep returning to – every page has nourishment for the mind and soul.
Chancel Screens Since the
Proceedings of the Ecclesiological Society Conference 2019
Mark Kirby (ed.)
The Ecclesiological Society, 2020
£20, ISBN: 9780946823260
The roodscreen, topped by a loft bearing a rood flanked by figures of SS Mary and John, was a sine qua non in a late-mediaeval church. The Reformation in Britain saw things change, and this book, arising out of a conference, documents changes – not least in attitudes – since then.
Peter Doll sets the scene, with an essay on the theology of screens, looking back to the Veil of the Temple in Jerusalem, and how the concept was taken up in the cancelli of early Roman churches. Drawing on ancient authorities, not least Hooker, he re-examines typology and asks if we can move on to a fuller vision of worship, less focussed on the ‘here and now’. No one knows more about how the late-mediaeval screens of England were built and decorated than Lucy Wrapson, who looks at the developments in them in the immediate pre-Reformation period, examining changes in their construction and how the saints were depicted. In East Anglia we have quite a bit of information from wills and surviving inscriptions to help date them. Just as with the fabric of buildings, it could take a long while before the work was complete. New screens were being constructed right up to the break with Rome; just because there were noisy Protestants in some areas (e.g. London) does not mean that the faithful in most of the country were demanding change. Henry’s order in 1538 led to the defacement of images of S. Thomas Becket, as can be seen on several screens, but iconoclasm seems to have been hit and miss. The Elizabethan edict of 1561 permitted the removal of rood lofts (roods had already come down) but did not require it. Many of the alterations to screens occurred later, whether to permit more seating in the 18th century or during whole-scale Victorian restoration of churches, as John Roberts later reminds us.
Trevor Cooper’s wide-ranging essay on screens in the century following the Reformation includes illustrations of a number of unfamiliar examples, as well as well-known ones like Croscombe (Somerset), St John’s Leeds, and Abbey Dore (Herefs.). At Abbey Dore, the introduction of the screen was part of the Laudian Viscount Scudamore’s campaign to put the former abbey in a fit state for worship (1634). Cooper perceptively points out the largely unnoticed emblem of the Five Wounds on the screen’s eastern side. This is not unsurprising, as the screen was the work of the finest carpenter in the area, John Abel, who was a lifelong Catholic recusant. A significant part of the population in the Marches remained faithful to the Old Religion, down to the martyrdom of S. John Kemble at Hereford in 1679 and beyond, Kemble’s grave at Welsh Newton being a place of pilgrimage to this day. Following the Restoration in 1660, relatively few screens were erected. The Great Fire of London afforded Sir Christopher Wren a great opportunity in building churches. Only two of them – St Peter Cornhill and All Hallows the Great – were given screens. The reason for this, Mark Kirby suggests, is to be found in their ground plans, essentially auditory ‘preaching boxes’ which did not have the distinct delineation of the ground plan into nave and chancel hitherto normally found.
Andrew Derrick looks at the effect of the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation, which laid emphasis upon the High Altar. Although not mandated, screens in Catholic churches often disappeared to improve the congregation’s view of the High Altar at services, which by now included Benediction. Many French cathedrals reflect this. Taking Chartres as an example, the jubé has gone, though the mediaeval stone screen work stretching around the sanctuary remains. In other cases, fine wrought-iron screens were substituted, allowing visibility which maintaining a symbolic separation, as at Sens and Auxerre. The survival of the complete structure at Albi is exceptional. At the parochial level, a considerable number of screens remains in Brittany despite the influence of the Counter-Reformation there. The best-known example – and the finest – is in the chapel of S. Fiacre at Le Faouët, but of the others one of particular interest is that in the chapel of S. Fiacre at Melrand. It has a similar layout to the well-known screen in the Southern Marches of Wales at Patrishow, with two stone altars on the nave side, flanking the central opening. It demonstrates how that screen (and others) would have looked when its decorations, like statues, were in place before the events of the mid-16th c. New screens were being installed into the 18th c., like the one at S. Etienne l’Allier (Eure).
The impetus for screens during the Gothic Revival was, as John Roberts points out, driven by A. W. N. Pugin, exemplified by his masterpiece, S. Giles, Cheadle (‘Perfect Cheadle’). Pugin’s arguments in favour of Gothic, including screens, were, ironically, taken up to a greater extent by Anglicans than by his co-religionists. Camdenians like R. C. Carpenter started to put screens in their buildings, whilst George Gilbert Scott reached the average Church of England member with his. By the 20th century, it was natural for writers like Percy Dearmer in The Parson’s Handbook to regard the roodscreen and rood as normal church furnishings. Some of the greatest Victorian architects like Butterfield and Street used low stone screens as demarcations between nave and chancel (think of All Saints’, Margaret Street, or Saint Augustine’s, Queen’s Gate), though possibly the finest achievement of this type during the 19th c. is the great stone screen in St Augustine’s Kilburn.
Claire Price considers the changing perspectives on screens in the 20th century and beyond. In the early 1900s, architects like Ninian Comper were restoring and installing screens, with well-known examples like Egmanton (Notts); Cantley (Yorks); Eye and Lound (Suffolk); and of course the new build of St Mary’s Wellingborough (Northants). Fewer screens were installed as time went on, liturgical fashions changed, and ‘Victorian’ became an adjective of abuse. Some ‘fashionable’ architects advocated central planning with no screen. Although Vatican II did not mandate it, some Catholic clergy decided that screens should be removed, so that (for example) Pugin’s screen was removed from S. Chad’s cathedral in Birmingham – and saved by Fr. Brindley for Holy Trinity, Reading. Scott’s cathedral screens came under attack. The example in Hereford Cathedral was removed, and eventually came to repose in the V&A; that in Salisbury cathedral was scrapped (Ely, Lichfield and Worcester survive). Today we have moved in some quarters beyond the Liturgical Movement to a time of utilitarian attitudes to worship when it seems that the most important furnishing to some clergy is a projector screen.
I would particularly commend the speed with which these conference papers have appeared in print, especially in a time of pandemic, and also the number and quality of the illustrations, many in colour. This book deserves a wide readership.
Book of the month
Journey to Freedom
Bloomsbury Press, 2021
£14.99, ISBN 9781472983909
“I had a special occasion to learn about freedom. A stroke of luck. I was sent to prison.” With these arresting words begins an excellent short book about big themes by the Russian Orthodox priest Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov. The themes are slavery and freedom, fear and joy; and the practice of the Christian faith is presented as the pathway that leads from one to the other.
Sergei Ovsiannikov was for some decades, until his death in 2019, the Russian Orthodox priest in Amsterdam. While serving in the Soviet army as a young man at the beginning of the 1970s he was charged with propaganda for the American way of life and disobedience to his superiors. In a short prelude to Journey to Freedom he provides an account of his subsequent time in jail, which gives an overriding sense of authenticity to his reflections on slavery and freedom. This is not a book of abstract conjecture. Ovsiannikov’s convictions have been forged in the crucible of experience and of suffering. His account of prison brutality reminded me of Solzhenitsyn’s Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. His description is all the more haunting because of the precision and brevity of its prose.
It was in his solitary confinement cell, with its flat, featureless time, surrounded by fear and deprived of the usual panoply of roles and relationships whereby a person might ordinarily understand his or her identity, that Sergei Ovsiannikov began to think about freedom, though not in terms of escaping from jail. But it was there “that the event took place that led me to freedom. More precisely, it was there that the long path to freedom began. Today, after so many years have gone by, I am not even going to insist on the reality of this event. In a certain sense, it was not real. I will put it more precisely: the event did not belong to the reality of that closed cell I was locked up in; it had nothing to do with the heavy oil paint of its blue wall, or with the heavy iron door with its little peephole, or with the heavy smell of waste. I was as if reality divided and I wound up in the part where there was light and lightness. Heaviness disappeared. And in this light I heard very clearly the words: Freedom can only be found in God.’
By his own admission, Ovsiannikov knew nothing about freedom or God. But this was to change when he arrived in London. He became a companion and student of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, whose sermons he had read in samizdat back in the USSR. Metropolitan Anthony’s name crops up quite regularly throughout this book and readers of New Directions who have treasured his writings will be glad to find themselves here alongside a fellow disciple.
This book about the journey to freedom has a clear structure and I wondered at first if it would turn out to be a book of moral theology. It begins an analysis of the reasons for our lack of freedom, with a consideration of the Biblical narratives of the creation and the fall. Then comes a reflection on the nature and character of the human person, drawing deeply on the writings of St Paul, but also including an impressive extended consideration of the passions, those ‘skewed standards’ that can block our journey through life. Asceticism is presented as the means by which to combat the passions and move towards freedom. A third section considers important elements of life (politics, religion, love) through the prism of freedom. Finally there is a section entitled Coming Out Into Liberty. I don’t know whether Ovsiannikov was a person of irony, but his title for this part of the book does not denote what a contemporary Western reader might excitably expect. It deals rather with themes such as baptism, prayer and its distractions, poetry and creativity. Coming out into liberty means an encounter with Christ which issues in a pathway to joy, an expansion of the soul and a life of magnanimity.
Journey to Freedom is not in fact a handbook of moral theology so much as a work of pastoral theology, clearly the work of a pastor of souls. It reminds me slightly of Cardinal Hume’s addresses to the novices at Ampleforth in To Be A Pilgrim, but it is written in a very different idiom. It is very Orthodox and very Russian and that makes this book at once familiar and new for western readers.
An example can be found in Ovsiannikov’s consideration of the eight passions, those ‘simple, workaday little dead ends’ that block the way of the path to freedom. They are gluttony, greed, lechery, sorrow, despair, wrath, vainglory and pride. As we read what Ovsiannikov has to say about them we cannot miss the fact that his writing springs from considerable experience of hearing people’s confessions. I thought this was one of the most engaging parts of the book and will be pleased to re-read it, both as a penitent and a confessor. For a penitent, Ovsiannikov’s analysis of the passions would make good fresh material for an examination of conscience, more human and humane than the lists of sins that one finds in old manuals of devotion. For priests who hear confessions, the reflections of an experienced Orthodox confessor will give a new understanding and empathy for souls that I imagine would be a tremendous help.
Ovsiannikov doesn’t use western categories like venial or mortal sins, but how about this for a positively Tolstoyan variation on that theme, a description of how to deal with vexation before it turns into the more serious sin of wrath:
The main thing in moments of vexation is to catch it in time, before wrath flares up. Try mentally sitting as an observer beside you and imagine that this observer is hunting wild duck. A duck emerges from the reeds and rapidly flaps its wings, flying heavily to the opposite shore of the lake. Heavily – that is at the beginning, when it has to pick up speed, after which it flies freely, high up and can’t be stopped. The hunter shoots while the duck is still low… it is the same with wrath.
That Slavonic advice in the confessional should set angry birds back on the right path!
Russia indeed looms large in this splendid book and anyone interested in that country will find this a particularly pleasing read. The themes are universal but the idiom is Russian. And this might prompt readers to move on from this book and revisit or discover for the first time the poems of Pushkin, the icons of Andrei Rublev, or even, much to my surprise and delight, the Soviet rock music of Boris Grebenshikov, of whom Ovsiannikov, like me, was a fan. (I concede, though, that this is very niche!) If you are tempted to read the great 19th century novels by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, I recommend you choose translations by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who have translated this book very finely and whose work, in my opinion anyway, is absolutely outstanding.
Meanwhile, readers might also take a new interest in Orthodox liturgy, intrigued by the references in this book, for example, to the excellent rubrics of the baptismal rite, like godparents spitting at the devil; or the Lenten spirit expressed in the long, majestic Penitential Canon of St Andrew of Crete. St John Paul II said that the Church must always breathe with her two lungs, by which he meant the Latin Western Tradition and the Orthodox Eastern Tradition. Readers of New Directions will surely feel is shameful that we ignore that advice and pay so little heed to the riches of our Orthodox brothers and sisters. Reading this book would be an excellent start to righting that wrong.
Notwithstanding the Orthodox, Russian idiom of this reflection on grand existential themes of slavery and freedom, fear and joy, this book will also provide food for thought as we reflect on the experience of living through the Coronavirus pandemic and the social isolation that we have endured. Rowan Williams, in his introduction to Journey to Freedom, notes that the same questions suggest themselves to persons in lockdown as to Sergei Ovsiannikov in his Soviet prison. Who or what am I when most of the persons and things that give me my identity are taken away? How can I look my fears in the face unless I have some sense of genuine freedom? This book, says Dr Williams, “could hardly be more timely as we begin to think what kind of human society we want to nurture on the far side of the trauma we have shared… It is a book which offers – unobtrusively – a whole vision of the reality we inhabit; a book of ethics, spirituality and philosophy. And all this because it is essentially a book about God: the God who alone can speak into our fear and promise that we can, in spite of all, be turned inside out by the divine gift and by the gratitude, patience, joy and silence that grow out of it.”