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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’√©tat 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. 

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Review: Thomas Hardy The Mayor of Casterbridge

I recall as a teenager sitting hunched, gripped and tearful over The Mayor of Casterbridge. When I got to Henchard’s Testament on the final page, I was distraught. But I also felt that my own Will would read like Henchard’s and there was a masochistic pleasure in that.

I have re-read the book over fifty years later, starting with some trepidation. I really did not want to be reduced to helplessness. But I was curious to find out what had so moved me at fifteen or sixteen.

The writing surprised me. It was fast paced, not slow as I had expected. Things happen very quickly and I can see how that is because this was a novel written for serial publication. There are coincidences which we would find unacceptably implausible in a modern novel, stage exits and entrances occurring with pantomime artfulness.

I had forgotten that the novel is not only the tragic tale of Michael Henchard but also the tale of Elizabeth-Jane and it closes, after the Testament has been read, by settling her into some kind of happiness. But it may be that I had forgotten because Elizabeth-Jane had something in common with me as a teenager. Like many Victorian children, she is a replacement child. The original – offspring of Henchard and his wife Susan – died, to be replaced by the new version born of Susan and the sea captain Newson. In the Victorian period, children frequently died young and were often enough replaced by new versions bearing the same name. Hardy’s entire narrative about Elizabeth-Jane rests on the plausible fact – simply assumed in the narrative - that both she and her original bear the same name. I was a replacement child too, very consciously so for my mother, though I did not bear the name of the stillborn child who had preceded me. She would have been called Elizabeth.

Henchard has much in common with my father, whose meanness and aggression alienated both his wife and his son, alienations which he then resented and sought revenge for. So that also must have played its part in my teenage reading. Henchard is a less vengeful figure than my father, held back by the better side of his character which Hardy repeatedly emphasises. It is a requirement of tragedy that you do not feel that the victim  deserves their fate.

Though Hardy’s novel does not really have unity of time, it does of course have unity of place, and I guess that for some readers it is the descriptions of Casterbridge [Dorchester] and its rustic characters, decked in dialect and quaint vocabulary, which make the novel. But even then, some of Hardy’s authorial comments and asides are not without their contemporary relevance. The thought is attributed to Farfrae but is really Hardy’s when he writes of the skimmity ride as animated by The tempting prospect of putting to the blush people who stand at the head of affairs – that supreme and piquant enjoyment of those who writhe under the heel of the same …(page 295 in my edition)

Monday, 1 January 2018

Review: Zadie Smith, Swing Time

I don’t think I’ve read Zadie Smith since White Teeth (2000) which I liked. So when I came to this new novel there was a lot I had read in between, some of which came to mind as I began to read. There is an obvious comparison to be made with Elena Ferrante who also uses the narrative device of two girls growing up together and then going their separate ways. Then there is the cosmopolitanism - the narrative split between London, New York and West Africa – which made me think of Taiye Selasi, Ghana Must Go. This aspect of the novel I found the least satisfactory. Finally, Smith’s teenage girls reminded me of Caitlin Moran's and, like hers, they can be excruciatingly funny.

Like Ferrante, Smith writes powerful scenes which then accumulate into a longer narrative but without any heavy re-enforcement of a preferred story line. I found the London scenes overall the most striking and there was one, which takes place in a small north London pizza joint (pages 321 – 330), which I thought magnificent. It’s beautifully structured but feels like a story which has made itself up as it is being written, it’s completely unexpected, and it is a splendid example of showing rather than telling. It is packed with emotion, the narrator's included. 

The reviewer at The Observer is credited on the cover with the opinion that the novel “Has brilliant things to say about race, class and gender” which is really to cut Zadie Smith off at the ankles for a book in which dancing plays a leading role and reduces her to a clever Sunday school teacher. (In context, the cover quote does not sound half as bad; I checked back to the original review by Taiye Selasi and it’s overall better than the quote the publisher has used).

The novel is a novel and a very accomplished one; there are many turning points where it could shift in several directions, some at least of which will occur to the reader, and it is partly the sense of those other possible directions which gives the reader the chance to feel that this is a work of considerable imaginative power which opens up rather than closes down our own imaginative understandings of how we live and how we might live.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

My Book of The Year: Svetlana Alexievich, The Unwomanly Face of War

The Financial Times, where I turn to more often than to the TLS or the LRB for Arts & Books news and reviews - the FT is more radical and less modish - invited readers to submit their Book of the Year. I picked Svetlana Alexievich's The Unwomanly Face of War, reviewed here on 5 September 2017 and gave the required hundred word supporting statement which appears today at:

But see the original review for the full supporting case.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Review: Ann Jefferson, Genius in France. An Idea and Its Uses

This is a very readable scholarly study, which is more than can be said for some of the works scholared and quoted here. It was only late in the book that I came across books quoted which I thought I might want to read in full. True, I started with a prejudice that the word genius is one of those empty signifiers which gets filled with ever-changing but always vague content and which one should therefore avoid. But Ann Jefferson shows how the term has been filled up in French discourses spanning three centuries and how the content has not been as woolly as I had imagined, but at least passably sophisticated. Nonetheless, it is fairly clear that for most of the time the term circulates in the context of attempts to establish and confirm status and worth, including financial worth. When it comes down to it, the genius of a person or a work is ascribed and confirmed very quickly because authors do not wish to miss a royalty, painters a sale, or critics a chance to burnish their reputations.

In the sciences, the pressure is different: you have to get to the solution before someone else does. You might end up proving Fermat’s last theorem fifty years after someone else has done so, and quite independently, but it doesn’t quite cut it as a stroke of genius. 

Likewise, a misunderstood or neglected artistic genius is not quite in the same league as someone who was acclaimed in their own lifetime. Clearly, if you had to wait until after your death, you were deficient in the kinds of marketing skills which Ann Jefferson has occasion to remark upon. Among French geniuses, Victor Hugo seems to have had the clear lead in self-marketing. Jefferson does not re-tell the old story that on the day of Hugo’s funeral you could not find a prostitute anywhere in Paris. That story is clearly somewhere in Parisian memory because when I attended Lacan’s public lectures in 1971 – 72, someone sitting next to me pointed to the front row and told me that the beautiful women there were all paid to attend. So for the next lecture, I joined in the spirit of the thing and wore a boutonni√®re. One should pay homage to genius, especially when it is hand in glove with charlatanism - a side theme which Jefferson interestingly explores.

But this haste to garland genius is in tension with what is supposed to be an aspect of genius, that the person or work of genius takes us somewhere we have not been before – that is the originality - and it may be quite hard for us to understand where we are being taken or why. The critics may be as baffled as the lay person. Would it not be more likely that we should have to wait for recognition of genius rather than have it announced (as seems quite often the case) even before the show has begun?
Nowadays, for example, a novel is published with the verdict already inscribed on the dust-jacket in half a dozen puffs by the great and  good of literature. What critic would dare dissent?

Genius circulates in a semantic space which includes or has included concepts of creativity, originality, imagination, idiots savants, prodigies, charlatans, madness, intelligence, and Jefferson encounters these as she progresses through her three centuries of French thought. I found her sympathetic chapter on Julia Kristeva one of the most interesting in the book, along with that on Sartre and Barthes, but it does seem to me that Kristeva, at least on Jefferson’s account, is expanding the concept of genius in such a way that it either transforms into or conflates it with singularity which is not so much a mark of originality as a mark of authenticity. If you can find your own genius, you at the same time find how to be authentic, to be you in your own way. That can be an everyday achievement to which all of us can aspire and its pre-requisite is not so much intelligence as  confidence.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Review: Lawrence Osborne Beautiful Animals

It’s true that most novels nowadays are hostage to their covers, and in this case the novel does little to undo the laziness of a cover which looks like some indifferent A level project. I was surprised because I bought the book on the strength of a puff from Lionel Shriver in The Financial Times. She has an intelligent take on many things so I was hopeful for the novel.

The novel has a plot which is moderately interesting and perhaps more interesting to me because I once knew a rich young woman who thought it would be a good idea to steal the paintings and silverware from her even richer parents’ country home in order to sell them off for a good cause.  Like Naomi - the lead character in this novel - she didn’t go to jail for it because a judge from the same social class decided she was the victim of a manipulative male and gave her a suspended sentence and her accomplice a stiff dose of Parkhurst Jail.

But I felt the writing was lazy. The 294 page book has 24 chapters and I began to feel that, yes, the author gets up in the morning, knocks out a chapter in a couple of hours and then goes off to do something more interesting. When he is short of inspiration, he takes out the road map and makes a paragraph out of getting from A to B.  When the plot threatens to lose all credibility, he props it up with a hasty improvisation. So to make it minimally credible that self-appointed detective Rockhold is able to get on to the trail of Faoud, he throws in an assistant who is a phone call away with all the information he needs, and doubles it up with a miraculous hotline to the Italian police. It is all terribly casual.

I don’t do plot summaries in my reviews but if I did  in this case it wouldn’t take long. It is, I suppose, a strength of the book that it sticks to one story and a small cast of central characters  who may be beautiful animals but are not otherwise terribly attractive or interesting. As philosophers of their own lives, they fail badly, though you could say that is part of Osborne’s point: they may be rich and beautiful but when it comes to thinking, well,  it's been done better. But for Naomi and her friend Amy, it doesn't seem to matter. They have money and don't really need brains. Only Faoud pays a heavy price.