THE NEW YORKER August 30th 2010 SIMON PARKE SPEAKS WITH THE DEAD Book trailers-the low-budget previews modelled on those used by the film industry-have quickly grown tiresome. They're never very interesting, often overly impressionistic and pretentious, and rarely rise above the level of those silly historical reA"nactments you see on cable. They might get better over time, or die out; either is preferable to their current state. An exception, though, are the finely wrought previews for Simon Parke's Conversations with - A" biographies, published by White Crow Books. In this series, Parke bypasses the more quotidian aspects of historical biography by conducting interviewsA" with his subjects-Jesus, Meister Eckhart, Arthur Conan Doyle, Vincent van Gogh, and Leo Tolstoy-with the answers coming from their published writings. The trailers are stagey-with Parke and the actor playing his subject shown in the recording studio while a musical score soars behind their voices-yet the interviews nonetheless feel natural. Much of this feeling owes to the straightforward and unadorned nature of the exchanges, as when Parke asks Vincent van Gogh why he drinks, and the master answers, If the storm gets too loud, I take a glass too much to stun myself.A" The shot cuts to At Eternity's Gate,A" van Gogh's portrait of a man with his head in his hands, but you can imagine the whorls and swirls of the artist's favored darkened skies as well. Here, Parke conducts his interview with Tolstoy in the assured and chatty style of a British talk-show host: http://whitecrowbooks.com/conversations/page/conversations_with_leo_tolstoy This gambit may be viewed as simply a clever gimmick, but there is something compelling about Parke's style, which in a way that is always promised but rarely delivered, does, in fact, bring his subjects to life. Parke's role as the good-natured interlocutor seems to be an essential component of the project, a disposition on display in this cheeky description of his imagined time spent with Tolstoy: He also proved an appalling husband, hated Shakespeare, never came to terms with his sexual appetite and yet had a profound influence on the non-violence of the young Gandhi. My time at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's country estate, was never dull; and sometimes, surprisingly comic. Soon after I left the great man, at the age of 82, he ran away from home. by Ian Crouch Loose leafs from the New Yorker Books Department.
About the Author
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of Britain's most celebrated writers with his invention of the ultimate detective, Sherlock Holmes, completely altering the crime-fiction genre. As well as this he was a pioneering sportsman, doctor of medicine and champion of the underdog, helping to free two men who were unjustly imprisoned. Of most importance to the man himself, however, was his belief in Spiritualism and the spreading of the 'vital message'. He was born Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle into a strict Roman Catholic household. He was sent away to Jesuit boarding schools until he was 17 years old and although some aspects of the religion appealed to him he believed that the foundations of Catholicism, and all Christian based faiths, were fundamentally weak so he chose to be an agnostic. He received his degree in medicine from the University of Edinburgh Medical School in 1881 and by this time had already began investigating Spiritualism and had began attending seances, a fact that rebuffs the more common idea that he found Spiritualism after his son Kingsley died in 1918. In fact by that point not only had Arthur believed in Spiritualism for almost 30 years but he had even declared this fact in 'The Light' magazine in 1916 and spoken publicly about his beliefs in 1917. His first book to deal with the subject, 'The New Revelation', was published before Kingsley's death too so it is fair to say that Arthur's belief in Spiritualism was not a knee-jerk reaction to his son's death. Arthur didn't immediately fill the void left by his loss of faith in Catholicism with Spiritualism. It took him until 1887 to write 2 letters to 'The Light' in which he discussed his conversion to Spiritualism, a fact that once again plays down any talk of an overnight and rash change of faith. Arthur joined the British Society for Psychical Research in 1893 which at that time counted groundbreaking naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, philosopher William James, scientists Williams Crookes and Oliver Lodge and future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour amongst its members. During one of his investigations for the Society in 1894 he was involved in a case that re-enforced his beliefs when he, along with fellow researchers Frank Podmore and Dr. Sydney Scott, was asked to look into a possible haunting case at the Dorset home of a Colonel Elmore. The Elmore family had reported strange loud pained sounds that were so disturbing that most of the staff left their jobs and the family dog would not enter the rooms where the noises emanated from. After spending some evenings at the home and hearing some very loud sounds the party left unsatisfied as their findings were inconclusive. Not long after this the body of a young child was found buried in the garden and Conan Doyle believed that it was the spirit of the dead child that was responsible for the phenomena in the house. Although Arthur had continued his research into Spiritualism he hadn't spoken publicly about his beliefs although he did drop hints about his thoughts on the subject through his character Stark Munro in 1895's 'The Stark Munro Letters'. This relative silence all changed as a result of World War I as he himself is quoted as saying; I might have drifted on my whole life as a psychical researcher - but the War came, and it brought earnestness into all our souls and made us look more closely at our own beliefs and reassess our values.A" In 1916 he wrote an article in 'The Light' discussing his change of attitude and reinvigorated belief in Spiritualism and from that moment on his life's work became the spreading of the 'new revelation' even though he was fully aware of the damage it would do to his reputation. 'The New Revelation', which was his first published work to deal with Spiritualism, arrived in 1918 and the following year he released 'The Vital Message' which, again, was solely concerned with Spiritualist matters. By 1920 he had embarked on a tour of Australia and New Zealand promoting Spiritualism and had also wrote about the infamous 'Cottingley Fairies' which would prove to be very damaging to his credibility. In the early twenties he toured America and Canada and in 1924 he translated Leon Denis' 'Jeanne D'Arc Medium' from the French and in the following year travelled through France lecturing. His book, 'The History of Spiritualism', was published in 1926 and from then on until his death in 1930 he continued to go from country to country proselytizing, taking in Rhodesia, South Africa, Uganda, Tanganyika, Kenya, Scandinavia and Holland on his way. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle continued his staunch belief that some part of us survives our physical death right up to his own death of a heart attack at his home in Crowborough, East Sussex, on 7 July 1930.