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Thursday, 19 July 2018

Review: Shaun Greenhalgh, A Forger's Tale

This is a very interesting book, and not just as a work about the craft knowledge of a very successful forger.

First, it is interesting as narrative because the text is written by an unreliable narrator, rather like Clive Driscoll’s In Pursuit of the Truth (reviewed here on 13 September 2015). I say this not because  of the self-justificatory theme which runs through the book, but because some of the stories told provoke (in me) the reaction This is a wind up, a reaction consistent with the author’s own claim that there is personal satisfaction to be got from deceiving a self-satisfied art world. 

That connects to a second level of interest which attaches to the fact that the author is someone who could have become a successful member of the middle-class but rejects that as an aspiration and destination (perhaps only after the death of a much-loved, more highly educated girlfriend) staying close to his roots both literally – he lives with his mum and dad - and metaphorically. Like Clive Driscoll, the prose style is intended to remind you constantly of this rejection. It sits uneasily with the fact that the author was clearly a youthful prodigy with an extraordinary memory and extraordinary practical abilities, focussed around an interest in serious art which has been life-long. The prodigiousness has something in common with that which one associates with autism or what in the past were called idiots savants. With or without such associations, the extraordinary ability is something to be admired.

Then there is the craft knowledge of a forger, spelled out over many pages and showing an extraordinary breadth and depth. In my own line of business as a stamp dealer, we encounter forgeries but nearly all of them are not only bad but often display childish ignorance – an envelope with an 1890 postmark but the address written in biro, and such like. Greenhalgh is in another league, not really replicated in the stamp world since the 19th century days of Fournier and Spiro.

Finally, there is an interest for the philosophy of art, not only in relation to the standard question about the possibility of the perfect forgery. More importantly, the author rightly emphasises that in the visual arts, artists always work with materials and that those materials are of importance and interest in their own right, as are the craft ways in which they are worked. We tend to look for an artist’s overall vision, but it is always expressed through the very knowledgeable working of very specific materials.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Review: Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman

Like Charlie Chaplin, Keiko does not quite get it. In the school playground, some boys are fighting and the girls are screaming for someone to stop them, “so I went to the tool shed, took out a spade, ran over to the unruly boys, and bashed one of them over the head” (page 8). 

Things improve for Keiko when her sister begins to provide her with simple scripts for navigating the difficulties of social life, fake stories which will satisfy the unsettled, but her big breakthrough comes when she takes a part-time job as a convenience store worker. Here there are many ready-made scripts provided by the training manual and by the store’s routines and Keiko settles down (as Miss Furukura) for eighteen seemingly contented years until serial loser and oddball Shiraha appears. They both have the idea that teaming up (in an oddball way) will get the world off their backs – the world which wants to see marriages and breadwinners and babies and divorces. It doesn’t work out.

This is a very readable, often funny, often poignant, short novel written in the first person to be read in a society where (I am told) you’re abnormal if you don’t fit in. I don’t know how good is the translation. The text has the kind of awkwardness you might expect from a narrator who might be diagnosed as suffering from a sort of social autism, but the English can’t quite make up its mind where it sits in terms of both vocabulary and style. 

Nonetheless, Keiko remains endearing and I am sure that if she ever visits England, someone will be sure to give her the script which instructs that Japanese tourists should photograph things, but not look at them.

As well as Chaplin, I also thought of Gregor Samsa. Keiko is another of those characters who is a sort of walking alienation device who by failing its requirements gets us to see how society works. She deserves to be read.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Review: Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

Somewhere in my childhood memories there is a strange book The Story of Mankind written and strangely illustrated by Hendrik van Loon. It didn’t fit with what I understood to be History: the Kings and Queens of England; the wars in which We had beaten Them; and – a bit later - the heroes of the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

Now that we have Globalisation, the study of World History makes a lot more sense, and probably even to children. Yuval Noah Hariri’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind is a splendid, fascinating contribution to world history. I even indulged myself with the thought that it could be the basis of a primary school curriculum, but then I remembered that I live in Ruritania where schools hang out bunting for Harry and Meghan but would never do so for a Climate Change agreement.

All the way through this readable 500 page book, Harari springs surprises, getting us to see things - with which we may be half familiar -  in a new light. His most striking achievement is to incorporate other animals into his narrative, both elaborating on how other animals have shaped Homo Sapiens and how Sapiens has shaped them. He doesn’t say it, but in effect he makes a very strong case for veganism.

He makes a strong case for a lot of things, and one of the interesting features of this book is the way in which he is not afraid to venture challenging opinions even though they are couched in modest prose. Especially in the early chapters, I felt that I was having all kinds of preconceptions challenged, as when he develops a line of argument to suggest that early hunter-gatherers (foragers) were (much) better off than the peasants who toiled in the fields after the first Agricultural Revolution – the one which took place long before Christ. He also made me laugh with some very well aimed Ouch! lines.

A world history has to be extraordinarily selective, but I felt that Russia was unreasonably overlooked in the account of Imperialism. Russia is interesting because over a few hundred years it created an Empire by constantly expanding its land borders. The Romanov dynasty entered the First World War with plans to extend those land borders still farther – into Austrian Galicia and across Turkey to Constantinople. Only in the case of Alaska and California did it create a colonial presence which required that a sea be crossed. It also had its eyes on Hawaii, but  fairly quickly gave up on all of them, despite the availability of some very good explorers, ships, and sailors.

The book is translated from the Hebrew original, partly by Harari himself. I noticed only one occasion when the translation is unsatisfactory: at page 287, we are told that “Darwin almost became an Anglican pastor”. “Clergyman” would be the right word.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Review: Jade Sharma Problems

The top executives of contemporary trans-national conglomerate publishing have the same dream and it’s a wide screen Cola advertisement where all are Represented and all have happy smiles and deodorised armpits. No one is angry, no one smells, and no one says Fuck you.

It’s a dream world in which, ideally, Philip Larkin will not write a poem about Your Mum and Dad but if he does then the line will continue they f*** you up. The Cola advertisement is a happy snap of a Sunday school outing, everyone on their way to Heaven because it’s not strictly true that everyone is Represented.

The bad guys aren’t Represented, all those unpleasant people who get angry, smell, swear and who it was always a mistake to invite along in the first place. They probably drive old Ford cars and they will never get to Heaven. 

This novel is a refreshing read, brought to the public originally by a small American independent publisher and picked up in the UK by another independent. It’s not a conglomerate book.  It’s first person narrator, Maya (a name which means Illusion), is a drug addict who is enthusiastic enough about sex to be classed by Sunday school as a sex addict, and who is foul-mouthed and opinionated. She is angry, she smells, and she says far worse than Fuck you. Her life is a mess and Jade Sharma does not spare us the details, creating a novel in the tradition of those which animate their characters through their pissing, shitting, puking, fucking and jerking off. It’s not a book I would recommend to a polite Book Group.

It held my attention for its 220 pages, even though there is always going to be a hazard in making a novel out of someone who is heading towards dereliction. The writing is smart and funny. I guess it belongs in an American tradition which includes William Burroughs, Hubert Selby and Kathy Acker.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Books I Have Not Finished: Elif Batuman The Idiot

I review books here on the promise that I have read them cover to cover. So there is really no trace of the many books I have started but not finished, probably for many different reasons. Sometimes I have forced myself to finish a book in order to review it and for the past 150 pages I have been reading Elif Batuman’s The Idiot in that spirit. 

It started well enough: she is clever and funny and I bookmarked a few passages to quote. It’s easy to imagine how she is a successful staff writer on the New Yorker – though I remember that Jessa Crispin once called that publication “like a dentist magazine”.

The problem is the absence of plot. One reviewer quoted on the cover of my edition calls it “an addictive, sprawling epic”. I agree about the sprawling. The long drawn-out non-relationship relationship between Selin and Ivan seemed to be going nowhere except geographically at the point where I gave up on the book (page 269, shortly after a cast of new and re-assembled characters had been perfunctorily introduced and finally persuaded me to give up). 

It may well be that Selin comes of age in the 150 pages I am not going to read, but I am afraid that for this reader she is taking too long about it.

I suppose I should formally record Ceci n’est pas une critique du livre

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Review: Andrea Gullotta, Intellectual Life and Literature at Solovki 1923-1930

At his 1926 trial, the fascist prosecutor of Antonio Gramsci, leader of the Italian Communist party, famously declared “For twenty years we must stop this brain from working”. So Gramsci was sent to a fascist prison where he was supplied with pen and notebooks and a censor who duly stamped each page of what became the Prison Notebooks and Gramsci’s claim to enduring intellectual fame.

You can take this well-known story as evidence for many things, including the claim that totalitarianisms never quite succeed in controlling the human element – down the line, there will always be someone too lazy, too drunk, too bribeable, or too tinged with humanity to apply the full rigour of the law and who for an extended period of time may simply do things the way they see fit, until some interfering busy-body calls them to order.

In the early 1920s, Russia’s Soviet regime began to organise prisons and camps for the many opponents – real or imaginary - who for one reason or another were not simply shot on the spot. There was already to hand an Imperial model which involved sending prisoners far away from the principal cities and into remote and inhospitable areas – the east and the north. Russia is a very big place (look at the map) and you really did not need to bother with walls in places so remote that escape was hardly realistic (though, as always, there were escapees who lived to tell the tale).

The Solovetsky islands in the White Sea of the Arctic north west of Russia had been used before for this purpose, and the Soviets decided to use them again. There were already many buildings in place since the islands had for centuries housed Russian Orthodox monasteries. With an infrastructure already in place, it was a no brainer as somewhere to send people you wanted well out of the way. Out of sight and, as a side-effect, out of mind.

Largely as a matter of policy, Solovki became the place to which the Bolsheviks consigned opponents who claimed to be socialists themselves and, more generally, troublesome intellectuals – poets (a large occupational group in Russia), philosophers, theatre actors and directors (another large group), priests and theologians, natural scientists. Many of these did not claim to be socialists at all. Ordinary, uneducated trouble-makers were also sent to Solovki too but from Gullotta’s book I don’t get a clear sense of the relative sizes of the different groups or how the relative proportions shifted over time.

What is clear is that the Solovki camp admininstrators, and regardless of what Moscow may have had in mind, decided that the simplest way to organise the camp was to allow some of the intellectuals to go on being intellectuals, fully exempt from manual work, and to assign the manual work – principally, logging in the forests - mostly to those who were used to manual labour. The intellectuals were allowed not only pen and notebooks but a library, a theatre, a printing press, time and places to discuss and debate. They kept themselves very busy and the censors couldn’t keep up even when they wanted to (which was not always). So there is a large literary legacy from the Solovki camp – a camp which Solzhenitsyn called “the mother of the Gulag”. 

All this happened in a context where it was also possible to fall foul of some guard or other and end up out with the loggers, or in the punishment block, and possibly dead.

Gullotta’s scholarly, in-depth but quite readable book primarily examines the content of the printed output of work from Solovki in the early period 1923-30 and also considers the circumstances of it production, including the constantly shifting and always ambivalent relations between prisoners and camp administration.

I think there is a very simple point which can be made, that prison administrators and guards feel that it enhances their status if they are in charge of high-status prisoners. In non-totalitarian regimes, it is a commonplace that celebrity prisoners – prisoners whose crimes have been all over the newspapers – get better treatment than those who are not notorious. They find it much easier to work the system to their advantage. On Solovki, the intellectuals made life more interesting for the camp officials. It is not unimportant that some of the intellectuals knew how to make camp administrators laugh. Gullotta singles out Iurii Kazarnovskii, "the only satirical writer in the SLON camp who was appreciated by the camp administration" (page 246). (Even in the camps of Nazi Germany, humour could achieve things which other methods could not).

The printed literary output of Solovki appears from Gullotta’s book to be well-preserved and well-studied. There was also other written output, as I discovered by chance a few years ago. Prisoners did have right of correspondence, both inwards and outwards. There was a post office on the islands which Gullotta illustrates (see below):

Click on Image to Enlarge

The camp printing press produced picture postcards with views of the islands and these were sold to prisoners who clearly had money. Money is important in prison camps; in totalitarian systems, it is one of the perks of being a guard that people – both inside and outside the camp -  will offer you bribes.

Some of the postcards are photographic, others were based on paintings and sketches by the well-known artist Osip Braz, best known for a portrait of Chekhov which now adorns many paperback covers, and who spent two years on Solovki (1924 – 26). Here is an example of Braz’s work in my possession; the card was printed on the press of the camp administration (USLON) in an edition of 1000:

Click on Images to Enlarge

Prisoners wrote home on these cards, which were carried to the mainland at Kem and then passed through the regular mail. They were censored before leaving the islands but in a fairly perfunctory way – on the card shown below, the censor’s mark is simply the blue-pencil initials scrawled over the message. 

Click on Images to Enlarge

The writer, a prisoner called Lisovsky writing to a family member in Smolensk, describes the card’s panoramic view, singling out the white house in the centre which houses the camp administration and where he works or studies every day in the accounting department. He identifies the Kremlin on the left of the card and in between he has arrowed the 10th company barrack where he lives. On the right, he identifies the Preobrazhensky cathedral with its bell tower “without bells”. In front of it all is the frozen sea. “Now you see where I am”.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Review: William Boyd The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth and Sarah Winman Tin Man

I finished Boyd's book feeling that I have gone through life with the wrong name. Trevor Pateman. It just wouldn’t make it into William Boyd’s world. His characters have posh names and live posh, though not necessarily successful or happy, lives. The prose is worldly and glides effortlessly over the surfaces of human folly. I read the whole thing without difficulty and quite a lot of amusement and pleasure. The closing fifty page story is remarkably gripping, very artful, but also an unashamed film script in which a great deal of any director’s work is already done. It would be low-budget, too, though the lead actor would have to be well-paid.

I am less sure about the central hundred-page tale of young Bethany Mellmoth’s hapless wanderings. If your main character suffers from repetition compulsion then you sort of get the point after a few repetitions and don’t need a hundred pages of them.

I read this book after reading Sarah Winman’s Costa short-listed Tin Man. That was also readable (and since I am convalescing from hospital surgery, my current threshold for readability is probably quite high – or low -  if you see what I mean). I was going to criticise her for opportunistic mobilisation of fashionable stereotypes, but then when I read Boyd’s work I thought, well, he just mobilises stereotypes which are permanently fashionable. Winman  does have a long passionate section (Michael) which I thought very well done; it is very direct and does not glide over anything.