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Sunday, 11 March 2018

Review: Denise Riley, Impersonal Passion

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Since I stopped teaching in 2000, I don’t have to read anything. I make my own choices. In practice, for new books it means being guided by what I read about in reviews and by what I see on the Waterstones tables. For old books, it means reading what I feel I ought to have read or want to read again. But the desire for ease and familiarity surely keeps me away from some authors – ones I have never got to grips with, etc - and more generally from very long books. In addition, the anxiety of influence keeps me away from books which I think might deal in the same topics as I am currently trying to think about. I want to have my shot at them first.

That, of course, is a distinctly non-academic way of thinking and a very risky one too: in all likelihood, someone else has already taken the same shot as I am aiming for - and been shot to pieces, too.

In the arts and humanities, academic thinking and writing carved out its niche by insisting that you read other people’s work first and, ideally, to the point of exhaustion. You could then write a literature survey, groaning under the weight of the footnotes and Bibliography attached, before trying (ideally) to turn a small trick of your own at the end, essentially  a small step up your career ladder. In many cases, you simply pointed out other people’s mistakes and omissions. In practice, the results were often unreadable and, deservedly, pretty much unread. Life had been so much more fun in the days of belles lettres when anyone with leisure and the ability to turn a phrase could write an essay about anything they pleased – and publish it! If it means I can do as I please, I am all in favour of belles lettres. True, I don’t expect anyone else to pay me.

Though I knew Denise Riley as a fellow-student in the 1960s and 1970s – she designed the cover for my first book Language, Truth and Politics (1975) – I kept a distance from her later work, partly because of the anxiety of influence and partly because I suspected it would be Too French for me. Recently, I decided it was long overdue for me to take a look at what she had been up to in the past forty years.

Her short (I liked that) book of essays Impersonal Passion, published in 2005, was a very pleasant surprise. I enjoyed it, found it accessible, thought it dealt deftly with the problems which surely arise (even more so now) when you try to engage with issues contentious within academic feminisms and where there is at least some pressure to go for safety in numbers. At moments, it is very funny, though Riley only occasionally lets herself enjoy the pleasure - notably in the essay “Your Name Which Isn’t Yours.”  Finally  – this was no surprise – it is exceptionally well written, everywhere turns of phrase to die for.

There are footnotes and heavy-duty books cited, and Riley knows an awful lot of stuff, but the visible apparatus is slight compared to the evidence of Stakhanovite effort traditionally displayed in  heavy-duty academic writing. 

I think this book of essays belongs to belles lettres not to academic prose, and that is all to the good as far as I am concerned, though the question  is legitimate whether the production of belles lettres is the proper business of universities.

When I say belles lettres, I am not just congratulating the author on her abilities as a writer. For example, as one part of the evidence, a lot of the time she uses indirection – not an academic trope at all - to come at central controversies in culture and politics by means of small, everyday examples which may not seem to have much to do with the public domain unless you, the reader, make the connection – Riley often indicates the links but never harangues us about them. So she writes about how difficult it is to tell the truth using a conventional formula often deployed to lie; about the ways and by-ways in which your own name is, well, not really yours because someone else gave it you and you just put up with it; about the odd persistence of hurtful words which seem to have a much longer life than real bruises; about the querulous questions Why? and Why Me?  All this is done both delicately and probingly. She avoids overt autobiography and I think this may still be an academic inhibition – once you allow autobiography into academic writing, anything goes. So she uses “she” to give third person examples where as a post-academic I would at least feel free to use “I”.

Belles lettres has its own weak points. If you can write well, you can always spin things out so that you go on and on making a point not because that is the way to make a point but because you have been asked for five thousand words. Traditionally, the genre of belles lettres did not stoop to include political or religious tracts. It was meant to seduce rather than harangue and though the controversial was not excluded, whimsy was accommodated rather more easily and that was a weakness in the genre and directly related to the social class of both likely writer and likely reader, free of the pressing worries which were addressed by the tract.

I see I am on 876 words;  I used to write a thousand automatically in these circumstances of a book review. So I’ll tell you that I thought of an example which perfectly demonstrates Riley’s claim in chapter Six, that we often tie ourselves and others in knots if we try to tell the truth with a conventional formula.

Somewhere in the world, there is a person whose dog once ate their homework. Next day, they went to school …. The sensible thing would have been to LIE, it would have caused so much less anguish all round.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Essay: Are You An Academic In A Hurry? Be Prepared to Wait Twenty Five Years

Academic work is a slow business, academic publishing was always crushingly slow, and the reception of academic work even slower. The chronology which follows may give dubious comfort to those who wonder if there will ever be a day when …

Academic year 1971 – 1972: As a Leverhulme scholar, I attend lectures by Claude Lévi-Strauss at the Collège de France in Paris. He takes as his subject for the year the plastic art of the American / Canadian North West coast Indian tribes. I take notes.

1975: The Geneva publisher Albert Skira publishes an elegant, heavily illustrated two volume work based on the lectures titled La Voie des Masques

1979: The Paris publisher Plon publishes a cheaper one volume version which I buy

1982: A Vancouver publisher brings out a translation by Sylvia Modelski titled The Way of the Masks

1983: The London publisher Jonathan Cape brings out Modelski’s translation, and I buy it.

1984: The editor of a student magazine published by the Philosophy Society at the University of Sussex, where I am teaching, asks me to contribute something and I do a review/essay based on Modelski’s translation and title it “The Dialogue of  Masks”. The journal is called Aletheia and my essay appears in issue 4, pages 16 – 22. I argue that in relation to the standard structuralist formula A:B::C:D (A is to B as C is to D) there is a missing fourth term in Lévi-Strauss’s analysis. You would be very lucky to find a copy of this journal!

2003: I add the 1984 article, with a few small changes, to my academic website which at the time was unusual in allowing free download access to unabridged work

2009: In a Serbian journal published in French, Problèmes d’ethnologie et d’anthropologie, nouvelle série, vol. 4, nr. 2, pp 121 -134, Senka Kovač  publishes an article “Claude Lévi-Strauss: le masque et le mythe” which includes an extensive summary of my essay: for example,  seven paragraphs begin with the word “Pateman”. I come across this article in 2017

2012: In a French journal Gradhiva, published by the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, Baptiste Gille publishes a long essay (pages 216 – 39) “Le visage des Bébés des eaux et des Gens du ciel. Nouvelles perspectives sur les masques swaihwé”.This also makes some use of my 1984 essay. I come across this article in 2017

But for the Internet, this little piece of work - just a few pages -  would never have lived: the student journal publication could be reckoned as a bit like auto-destructive art. Since website publication in 2003, it has been discussed twice, but the first time in  2009 was twenty five years after the original 1984 publication.

I'm still hoping that one day the hours sweated on "Liberty, Authority and the Negative Dialectics of John Stuart Mill" will be rewarded by  a reader :)

Monday, 5 February 2018

Review Philippe Sands, East West Street

I don’t usually provide quotable quotes about books I read but I have to say of this one that it is an extraordinary achievement, both in terms of the research on which it is based and the narrative manner in which it is presented. The main text runs to 387 pages, readable throughout. Sands recounts the history of his mother’s family; the history of two great international lawyers (Hersch Lauterpacht, Rafael Lemkin); the life and crimes of Hans Frank, governor of German-occupied Poland; the story of the Nuremberg trials and something of their  aftermath. He holds it all together by constant references back to Lemberg / Lwow/ Lvov /Lviv the city in Austrian Galicia where his grandfather Leon Buchholz and the two lawyers, Lauterpacht and Lemkin, were born and later the site of some of the worst Nazi crimes.

Lauterpacht gave us the expression “crimes against humanity” and Lemkin gave us the term “genocide”. One of the main achievements of this book is to make us think about what those things mean and how they have different implications for law and politics. In particular, Sands points out dangers involved in focusing on crimes against groups (genocide) rather than crimes against individuals, however large their number (crimes against humanity). There are not only the problems of proving intent to destroy a group as such, but also the danger that the idea of genocide re-enforces habits of thinking and acting by using categories which themselves are part of the problem. Though he does not draw it out, it is obvious that if the word “genocide” had never been used then Armenia and Turkey might have progressed much farther towards a resolution of  their century-old dispute than they have. But the Armenians insist they were victims of a genocide and the Turks do not want to accept responsibility for one, though they are clearly willing to acknowledge all or most of the main narrative of mass deportation, starvation and killing. One of the stumbling blocks is the fact that Turkey in World War One saw the Armenian population in its eastern parts as likely to favour enemy Russia over their own Ottoman rulers. That gave rise to military anxieties about fifth columns,  similar to those which led Stalin to organise mass deportations. But those deportations were not significantly driven by racial theorising. 

The archival research which Sands has conducted or directed is astonishing, and the reader must surely come to think that if only you persist long enough with your Google searches and your actual visits to people and places you will eventually turn up the truth. The remarkable chapter on Miss Tilney of Norwich, who took Sands’ mother from Vienna to Paris, is a handproof of that claim and within the book itself it reads like a polished gem of the archival researcher’s craft. It is all the more remarkable that Sands is working on questions where the archival evidence has so often been destroyed by war, neglect, sell-offs and looting - Sands does not mention that in the 1990s when the Soviet Union became the Wild East, chunks of Lemberg archive material were either sold off to cover things like building repairs and staff salaries or looted by new-style small entrepreneurs who paid bribes for easy access to material. I don't know the details of the transactions involved, but I have seen lots of  the archive material,  low-grade it's true but still part of a history which had been preserved for decades until the Soviet Union imploded. 

I think I will have a hard task to find a more impressive book to read in 2018 and for once the jacket endorsements (led off by John le Carré) are entirely justified.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

The Awfulness of Modern Book Design and Production

It’s very hard to sell books, I’m told, and that’s one reason why publishers try to keep them cheap. Modern printing technology has slashed production costs to such an extent that the cost of the paper used is a major component. As a consequence, many books are printed on paper which is not much better than newsprint. Costs can also be trimmed by keeping type fonts small and line spacing narrow: you can easily pack 80 000 words into 200 pages or less, though if you bust a word limit the consequence is sixteen new physical pages since it’s still the case that a single uncut printer’s page contains sixteen text pages and you can’t get rid of any spares – they will be there at the end of the book.

Even though marketing is key to a book’s success, publishers economise on a book’s appearance. When I look at the dust jackets or covers on a Waterstones book table,  I imagine  they have all been prepared by freelancers taking at most a couple of hours to do the work and probably being paid a hundred pounds or less. That’s true even for best-selling books. Whereas food supermarkets have stripped-down packaging for their Essentials or Basics ranges, publishers strip down all their ranges.

I’m surprised that authors put up with all this. True, most of them (us) are desperate to be published so accept almost any terms. But Top Ten or Top One Hundred writers are surely in a position to argue. Perhaps they just don’t see it as their business: you sit at home, email the completed Word your agent, let your agent find the publisher and negotiate the terms, reckon that it is the publisher’s business to deal with paper, font, binding, endpapers, jacket or cover design.

This would perhaps be in OK in a world where publishers had some sensitivity and taste. But look at a Waterstones table and all the evidence is that they don’t. As examples of bookmaking craft and graphic art, the books are dire - a word which means really, really bad.  I do judge a book by its cover and some of the covers do seem to be informing me that the contents are not worth bothering with.

I enjoy the design work involved beyond the stage of writing a text. Paper, typeface, font size, line spacing, headers and footers. Then endpapers and cover boards where it is a remarkable truth that a very wide range of colours and textures are available in the standard Wibalin ranges and all at pretty much the same cost. Despite that, most published books huddle in a safety zone, using a small range of the available options. How often do you see end papers in bright yellow or lilac or apple green?

As for jacket design, software which comes as standard with any PC already enables anyone to mock-up a jacket and even though I entrust to a graphic designer the final preparations, which involve adjustments down to half a milimeter in placing text and images, I am involved in all stages. The covers aren't elaborate confections, but they have been worked on.

The result, hopefully, is a book which has been thought through as a physical object as well as a literary or scholarly text. You won’t see many  in your local bookshop. The one big exception in the recent past was the special edition of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Review: Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

This is a long, leisurely book, with a single narrator who does not have the benefit of a university education and who sustains a straightforward simplicity of expression throughout. Kathy is sometimes distracted by her own line of thinking and recalls herself to subject matter from which she has digressed with an Anyway or an As I was saying. It’s beautifully done. He creates a mystery which is only slowly revealed, information dripped into the narrative bit by bit.

The plot could be labelled as sci-fi or dystopian fantasy, but it hews so close to ordinary reality that it is really an extended metaphor for life’s journey. True, it is distinctive that Ishiguro’s characters have no natural parents - they are cloned human beings – and their lives are organised by an invisible state apparatus which provides them with guardians and an education and a career path about which there seems to be no choice: they are to become organ donors, and they will begin to donate while still young and will expect to die (though they use the word complete) no later than their fourth donation. When they complete, all their remaining organs will be harvested for use – a fact which Ishiguro slips in at page 274 of his 282 page book.

So we are born, we live our lives and we die. The distinctive feature of the lives of the clones is that, having no parents, and discharged from guardianship at sixteen, they are used to looking after each other. Indeed, eventually they all become carers to donors before becoming donors themselves. Their lives are very closely intertwined, and so Ishiguro can write a delicate story of intimate relationships, their ups and downs, their moments of frustration and of greatness, their breakdowns .

It seems there is no way of altering your destiny, and when Ishiguro introduces the possibility that there might be in Chapter Nineteen(pages 214 – 232) it is at the same time the first moment of emotional release in the book, a Greater Love … moment when one of the three principal characters, Ruth, holds out a chance to Kathy and Tommy which is also life-sacrificing on her part. She holds out to them a possible route for delaying the moment at which they will become donors. If they are true lovers, they may be able to get a deferral.

But Charon does not allow deferrals now anymore than he allowed one to David Hume; the rumour of their existence is a myth and Chapter Twenty Two is devoted to revealing that (pp 251 – 270), opening the way for a closing Chapter Twenty Three (pp 271 – 282) where Tommy and then Kathy reconcile themselves to the inevitable. Here once again, Ishiguro is writing to release the store of emotion he has built up inside us and, at least for this reader, succeeds.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Review: Anne Applebaum, Red Famine

Anne Applebaum’s becomes a very readable book and impresses as very well documented and argued, but it starts badly. The bad start has something to do with her own prejudices and something to do with a language problem compounded in all probability by a surfeit of uncoordinated research assistance. I will focus on these two problems.

At page 19, we read that the Bolsheviks’  “coup d’état in October (7 November according to the ‘new calendar’ they later adopted) put them in power amidst conditions of total chaos. Led by Lenin, a paranoid, conspiratorial and fundamentally undemocratic man, the Bolsheviks …”

Now I am only going to argue with one part of this. Why the snide scare quotes around ‘new calendar’?  In Bolshevik-controlled Russia, the 31 January 1918 was followed by 14 February. This switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar replaced a less accurate with a more accurate calendar: both calendars involve slippage but the Julian slips at the rate of one day in 128 years, the Gregorian by one day in 3030 years. More importantly, all of Russia’s neighbours already used the Gregorian calendar and the Bolsheviks simply brought their country into line with the norm in Europe’s – er, capitalist – countries. When you wrote a letter, personal or business, to someone in those countries you no longer needed to use dual dating to prevent confusion. The only remarkable feature about Russia’s ‘new calendar’ is that it took a bloody upheaval to bring about an overdue administrative reform and that incidentally tells us something interesting and important about the old regime. In the same way, my own country would probably need a revolution to arrive at a fixed date for Easter but, fortunately, there is no chance of any such thing here.

The language problem is more complex. Applebaum has written her book with the support of what are or were Ukrainian diaspora organisations in Canada and the USA, notably the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. They have protocols to tell you how to transliterate from Ukrainian to English, which is excellent, and Applebaum tells us that she is going to use them. What is not excellent is that some of the Ukrainian words your friends point you towards are essentially recent inventions which are simply anachronistic when used in historical discussions. The most egregious example appears at page 9, where Applebaum tells us that the city of what is now called Donetsk was originally called ‘Yuzivka’ in honour of its founder, the Welshman John Hughes. It wasn’t. It was called ‘Yuzovka’ or ‘Iuzovka’, which are standard transliterations from the Russian original. Applebaum has instead transliterated from a modern Ukrainian word which is essentially an invention. Yuzovka was a Russian company town and remained so until it was renamed ‘Trotsk’ in 1923 (after Trotsky) and then ‘Stalino’ (after Stalin) and finally in 1961 ‘Donetsk’ which is the name by which it is known today, and helpfully by both  Russians and Ukrainians. The word Yuzivka has no historical purchase, merely an ideological one.

In addition, simplistic and anachronistic language purists never actually achieve the ideological consistency they want. Human beings just can’t cope with their demands. This is obvious from Applebaum’s very sloppy maps.  I have no desire to wear you down, so I will take just one, her map titled Ukraine, 1922. The old Imperial Russian guberniyas had been slightly re-organised by that date to create the Ukrainian SSR but the map gives them their names in a mix of versions, some transliterated from Ukrainian (Kyiv, Kharkiv) and some from Russian (Podolia, Odessa). Town and city names are also mixed. Some versions are Ukrainian (Proskuriv not  Proskurov) others are Russian (Melitopol, Mariupol not Melitopil, Mariupil). Yuzovka is given its post-1961 name, Donetsk. I am sure Applebaum has been inundated with emails picking up on these and other points but we should probably acknowledge that we are never gong to get it right. She does use maps which exclude Crimea from Ukraine, which is historically accurate: the administrative transfer to Ukraine was made in 1954.

Some years ago I was asked to prepare for auction in Switzerland what was probably the largest collection of Ukrainian stamps and postal history ever assembled. The catalogue was going to be written in English. When it became known that I was going to do this work, I got emails from diaspora Ukrainians reminding me of spellings and transliterations I should employ. That was helpful, but I had to point out that I was keen to avoid anachronism and falsification. At the time of the first Ukrainian stamp issues in 1918, language questions were not much of a priority in Ukraine and old Imperial Russian postal cancellations continued in use for some years (something which, in contrast, did not happen in the newly independent Baltic countries which were keen to switch from Cyrillic to Roman immediately). Before the early or even mid 1920s, only a couple of cities produced any Ukrainian language postmarks (Kyiv and Kharkiv) and even those were simply used alongside the old ones. So I ended up writing catalogue entries which read, for example, “Letter from Kyiv with cancellation KIEV 10.10.18”, the capitalised letters transliterating the Russian of the postmark. But I am sure I slipped up from time to time, just as most people do when they alternate between civilisation and civilization without even noticing. And in my view, most of the time we should relax and live with the slippage unless some question of historical accuracy is at stake.


When we get past all this, we get a book which I think is more tightly argued than her book on the Gulag. She assembles a great deal of material but is cautious about using the word genocide and gives a reasoned estimate for the numbers who died in the Holodomor, the artificial famine of 1932 – 33, designed in Moscow but implemented on the ground by Ukrainians as well as Russians. The photographs she uses are important and some of them will be new to readers.

One thing she does not discuss but which I think is relevant is this. Like Russia, Ukraine has a major boundary problem. The creation of Ukrainian identity has been difficult because there are not enough mountain ranges and rivers creating natural boundaries. After Imperial Russia collapsed in 1917, Ukrainian nationalists laid claim to territories extending considerably beyond today’s boundaries (especially in the north and east). When you look at their maps, you start to see straight lines reminiscent of those favoured by Europe’s imperial powers when they carved up Africa and the Middle East. In the absence of natural boundaries, cultural nationalism assumes exaggerated importance and so does the tendency towards cultural imposition. In the present instance, both Russian and Ukrainian nationalisms came into conflict over territories whose people, left to their own devices,  would probably have ended up living in the kind of inconsistent and compromising ways which enrage bureaucrats, imperialists and pedants.