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Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Review: Emma Dabiri, Don't Touch My Hair

Hard on the heels of Coca Cola, international conglomerate publishers have discovered diversity. It’s partly a function of modern book production technology which has drastically reduced the cost of producing physical books. The biggest  printing companies can deliver two thousand attractive hard bound books printed (in black and white - colour is still expensive) on good paper for five thousand pounds ($6500 at today’s rate) or less, including the cost of typesetting and jacket design (both often the work of freelancers working cheaply from home). They can do a thousand books for half that. A big publisher can use its existing publicity and distribution network to place two or even one thousand books into a niche on Amazon or Waterstones and end up with  a small profit even if they do not sell more than the initial print run. So far, good news. There is a catch. A publishing house editor’s time is valuable, like that of a lawyer. An editor carries overheads - London or New York office space, for example. So an editor’s time has to be costed at maybe a hundred maybe two hundred pounds or dollars per hour. Five hours devoted to a single niche/diversity book risks killing  the profit. Twenty and you would lose your job.

It’s my belief (expressed here in an essay published on 5 March 2016) that quite a few books are now published to all intents and purposes unread by anyone but the author and, maybe, their partner. Neither content nor style has been subject to serious external review. Emma Dabiri’s Don’t Touch My Hair is a readable combination of memoir, rant, history and critique but it’s a ramshackle affair - a work of what we now call cut and paste. Her final page Acknowledgements are unusually short and non-specific so they provide some kind of  indirect confirmation for my claim simply by what they don’t say. But there is one place in the book  where I suspect a reader has pointed to a problem, and another where a critic is quoted. I will come to them in a moment.

Emma Dabiri’s background is Irish-Nigerian, a niche not quite in the same category as snakes in Ireland but in her childhood, getting close. She has Black Hair almost off the Richter scale on the chart she provides at page 18 which runs through 1 (straight), 2a,2b,2c (seriously curly), 3a, 3b,3c, 4a,4b (seriously kinky, double helix stuff, and the point at which Dabiri locates herself),4c. By way of aside, I discovered when I was in my late teens and freed from the regimen of short back and sides required by school rules and convention, that I was a 2b or 2c. Before then, I did not know I had curly hair. I let it grow, which was the thing to do at that time, and there are photos to prove it. My first girlfriend (this was the 1960s) was up there in the 4’s, one reason I read this book. But I am now simply Bald. That is a category not on Dabiri’s scale, partly because she is almost exclusively concerned with female hair. That is  problematic because hair grooming seems to be almost always structured by the binary divide and can only be understood in terms of the contrasts the binary allows. In passing, Dabiri provides a nice photographic illustration of that truth - a photograph captioned, “While Masai men had long, ornate and intricate hairstyles, Masai women favoured shaved heads annointed with red cohre and oils” (page 169). That is the kind of thing which should be at the centre of a structural sociological or anthropological analysis of hair but is here merely an aside.

Black hair has history as well as  structural location, a grooming history which starts in Africa and a stigma history which starts in America. One of the most interesting small sections in Dabiri’s book (pages 65-68) comprises quotations and summaries of the accounts of early European visitors to the old pre-colonial African kingdoms, notably the kingdom of Benin. They are complimentary about many things, including hairstyles. Stigma develops in tandem with the slave trade, colonialism, and Christian missionaries (the experts in stigma) and Dabiri’s book gives chapter and verse.

I want to pick out two places where there is an acknowledgment of difficulties. At the end of a fairly long and predictable rant about cultural appropriation (p 178ff), Dabiri writes, “[Fred] Astaire is certainly worth further consideration when discussing the important distinction between appropriation and borrowing, the latter undoubtedly the basis of evolving culture” (page 190). That is a tacked-on remark which goes nowhere, and was maybe added in response to some criticism. But if it’s true it ought to be worth quite a few pages trying to establish where evolutionarily-dynamic borrowing ends and appropriation begins. Evolution has never been very popular in the U S of A, the main focus of this book, and is still disbelieved by a significant part of the population, drawn to fundamentalist world views of one kind or another. It’s arguable (I’d argue it) that the hair police Twitter-rants are religious-fundamentalist in character, opposing themselves to any evolution of culture. The ranters prefer their cultures in museums where they can be celebrated as history and heritage. (New Year’s Resolution: Avoid the word Heritage for twelve months).

That does connect to a second moment where there is an intervention, unusually in the form of an actual quote. The search for “Roots” (forgive the pun) is problematic because it usually stops when satisfying ones are found. Dabiri’s Africa is characterised by “wholeness” (a word which belongs in a chain which goes down all the way to wholesome and wholegrain). There isn’t much local violence in the African past which interests her and none at all in the African present: kleptocrats and tyrants don’t figure in the story at all. Her history remains fairly firmly in the realms of Uplifting Story, which publishers like. But she quotes an email from someone (Ron Eglash) who it seems to me is trying to re-focus her Roots-based approach toward something more structural:

“The temptation is to dive into the competition over ‘who discovered it first’. But that kind of competition is a framework created for Intellectual Property rights…. Reversal never works. ‘We discovered it first’ is not a rebuke of white supremacy, it is just adopting their tactics. That is what Audre Lorde meant when she said, ‘ the master’s tools will never tear down the master’s house’ (pages 216 - 17)

That isn’t going to trend on Twitter.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Review: Stefan Collini, The Nostalgic Imagination

Reading this book, I had the sense of someone successfully making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Stefan Collini is a conscientious researcher, who gets deep into the archives; a very alert and astute reader, able to pick up the significance of a parenthetic concession or an adverbial emphasis; and a fluent writer. He also constructs and sustains an interesting thesis which has wider implications than the local ones with which he is primarily concerned.

At the same time, I often felt that the authors and books  selected for analysis scarcely merit the very careful attention given to them. At times, something of what may be his exasperation shows through in asides which reveal a very nice, dry sense of humour. But his even-handedness does not allow him to go much further than that.

As universities began to develop imperial ambitions in the late nineteenth century,  new professionalised subject departments  put the squeeze on older forms of (often amateur) writing. In the new academic history, there was soon to be no place for the kind of general overview which cheerfully assumed both a general theory and a short set of moral, political or religious values to sustain narratives which offered readers a ready-made sense of how they (and, usually, their own country) had got to be where they now were. In England - and Collini is writing only about England -  a main victim of university professionalisation was what, as  a sixth former in the 1960s, I learnt to call The Whig Interpretation of History.

But there were still readers who wanted those general overviews and Collini’s principal thesis is that, in England, some part of the demand was met by the work of a group of writers and academics (nearly all with strong links to Cambridge University) whose official concern was with the teaching of English Literature, itself a new university subject, and officially focussed on its internal history and on text-focussed criticism. But, perhaps because less secure in its identity than academic history, university English Literature found room for historical and critical works which were stuffed with both general theory and moralising lessons. 

The general theory was most often pessimist, a story of cultural decline (T S Eliot, the Leavises) or, at least, fragmentation (maybe good-enough shorthand for Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams) - combined with ideas about how the situation might be reversed, redeemed, or at least made tolerable to the sensitive. The proposed remedies seem to indicate some weakness in the original nostalgic diagnosis: the Church of England, hill-walking, cycling, adult education. I had assumed there were  flirtations with fascism among those Collini discusses, but he does not mention any. It would have been good to have had a disclaimer.

Collini does not at any point mention Imperialism, even though the period he covers (roughly from 1918 to the 1960s) embraces both the peak moments of British Imperialism in the 1920s and 1930s and its precipitous decline after 1945. I infer not a failure on his part but a likelihood that, for his authors,  the Empire was a bit like your income or your sex life; it was something there but not talked about, as if you didn’t have one or any. You just drank the tea, sweetened with the sugar. In terms of his main thesis, that his authors all gravitated to nostalgia about the past, not thinking about Empire may have helped leave the nostalgia untroubled.

In retrospect, though they were reasonably well informed about history, the group of critics with whom Collini is concerned had no access to an adequate analytical understanding of language (pace Empson). That did not really become available  until the work of Wittgenstein, J L Austin, H P Grice - and from another source, Mikhail Bakhtin - enabled the kind of work then accomplished by writers like Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson. The main achievement has been to create clear and useable distinctions between sentence and utterance, sentence meaning and utterance meaning, semantics and pragmatics. This has allowed a  recasting of  traditional rhetoric (which never distinguished sentence and utterance) and a  more sophisticated account of the field of author - narrator - implied reader - actual reader relations.

“Continental” semiology and semiotics as practised by Roland Barthes in the 1950s got underway in no better an analytical  position than the Cambridge critics, with Barthes professing to stare at images on the page much as the Cambridge critics professed to attend to words on the page. Both could only do it because of a great deal of only half-formed theory.

The general interest of Collini’s very readable book lies in its connection to the broader topic of changes in the hierarchy and distribution of writing genres brought about by twentieth century university expansion, an expansion which proceeded at an exponential rate. One result was a fairly long period when it seemed that the job of the non-science academic was to write unreadable and unread books, many to be published at astronomic prices by specialised publishing houses. At the same time, anything readable and read was regarded as inferior. But in  the last couple of decades  a clear movement has arisen to create “cross-over” books which can both function as core texts in serious university courses and appeal to a wider readership. Some of the American university presses have played an important part in this movement, though inhibited by increasingly censorious university environments.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Essay: Thirty Eight Minutes with Olga Tokarczuk

Olga Tokarczuk, two of whose books have been reviewed previously on this Blog in their English translations published by Fitzcarraldo, has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here is an essay spun off from her work which I include in my book of essays, Between Remembering and Forgetting (published 15 February 2020):

The Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk loves obscure facts and strange little stories which are not just the stuff of competitive quizzes but capable of setting our minds racing. Thus at page 109 in the English translation of her novel Flights, she tells us that

The shortest war in history was waged between Zanzibar and England in 1896, lasting thirty-eight minutes.

If that yields a smile, it is because we discover that we have always sort of assumed that, well, wars - properly speaking - are the sort of thing that have to last a bit longer. How much longer? Well, we have never actually considered that question and right now we don’t have a definite answer. Nonetheless, thirty-eight minutes, no, that’s not long enough. How can you start and finish a war in thirty-eight minutes? Wikipedia tells us that you can:

The ultimatum expired at 09:00 East Africa Time (EAT) on 27 August, by which time the British had gathered three cruisers, two gunboats, 150 marines and sailors, and 900 Zanzibaris in the harbour area…. Around 2,800 Zanzibaris defended the palace; most were recruited from the civilian population, but they also included the sultan's palace guard and several hundred of his servants and slaves. The defenders had several artillery pieces and machine guns, which were set in front of the palace sighted at the British ships. A bombardment, opened at 09:02, set the palace on fire and disabled the defending artillery. A small naval action took place, with the British sinking the Zanzibari royal yacht  HHS Glasgow  and two smaller vessels, and some shots were fired ineffectually at the pro-British Zanzibari troops as they approached the palace. The flag at the palace was shot down and fire ceased at 09:40.
The sultan's forces sustained roughly 500 casualties, while only one British sailor was injured….The war marked the end of the Zanzibar Sultanate as a sovereign state and the start of a period of heavy British influence.

No doubt about it: a proper war with a bombardment for a beginning, a casualty-strewn middle, and victory for British imperialism at the end.


But my mind is still racing. Thirty-eight minutes. Can you be in love for thirty-eight minutes? Can you mourn for thirty-eight minutes? These are also things which happen in time, in real time, and which have duration so it must be possible to say something about that duration. You fall in love with someone and later you fall out of love, that is normal; but if it is love must not some time elapse before the second can follow the first? Make the time too short and you have a passing infatuation or simply the hots. We have words to describe such short-lived states. The same for mourning. In thirty-eight minutes you can be upset and then stop being upset, but you can’t really mourn, can you? Wittgenstein thought about such problems:

What is a deep feeling? Could someone have a feeling of ardent love or hope for one second - no matter what preceded or followed this second …. The surroundings give it [the feeling - TP] its importance. (Philosophical Investigations, para. 583)

To understand what he is getting at, think of negligence. It isn’t a state of mind, like forgetfulness. A plane comes in to land and the pilot forgets to lower the undercarriage; the plane crashes. Those “surroundings” turn the pilot’s forgetfulness into negligence.

Now look at things another way. Love and mourning are sometimes unending. There are people who marry, live together for sixty years or more, and who still describe themselves as in love with each other. It’s very rare, but the newspapers tell us that such enduring love does happen – but of course, rarely, in the same way that it is rare to live to be older than a hundred.

Some people never stop mourning a loss, but in that case we are less likely to admire and more likely to introduce a new word, melancholy, to describe what has happened. In the middle of the carnage of the First World War, Freud wrote his Mourning and Melancholia which distinguishes the two states, with the one treated as normal and the other as pathological. But the difference was already well-established and the anatomy of melancholy well-understood. A melancholy disposition is just about tolerable in a person, though we may wish sometimes that they would snap out of it, but full-blown and life-long melancholy is something we cannot accommodate. Miss Havisham, jilted at the altar and wearing her wedding dress for the rest of her life, is not an admirable character.

I have deferred the question. How long must it last for it to be love or mourning? We have some vague notions which relate to our sense of the human scale of things. A week in politics is a long time, but a week in love surely not. And if your husband or wife dies, it is offensive to some sense of - what? decorum?- that you should re-marry before a certain period has elapsed. If you do, it suggests that you did not love the person who died or that you do not love the new person you are marrying. Either way, or both, it suggests that you are rather too concerned with your own creature comforts. So there is a moral dimension involved in our assessment.

Unfortunately, there is no Wikipedia page to tell us the story of the shortest love in history or the briefest of sincere mourning. The internet can tell you how many seconds it takes to fall in love (four is popular), for how long the  Roman Catholic church expects you to mourn a loss, and much more besides. But that still doesn’t answer the question, How long must it last, at a minimum?

This material is now included in my  book Between Remembering and Forgetting (degree zero 2020) available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers -  but also from me in case of difficulty and should you want a signed copy:

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

The Publisher’s Bad Blurb Prize

The Literary Review makes an annual Bad Sex Award for really, really badly written sex scenes in novels which may have other merits but when it comes to sex, none at all.

They should add a Bad Blurb prize. Bad Blurbs are quotes cut and pasted onto book jackets and sometimes onto front pages which are meant to attract readers to the book but in fact display a certain inappropriateness for the book they supposedly blurb.

Until this week I had only accumulated two examples, books which have been previously reviewed on this Blog:

Novel: Alex Preston In Love and War
Publisher: Faber 2017
Relevant plot summary: Hero dies horribly at hands of Gestapo; heroine dies in Auschwitz
Bad Blurb: selected by the Publisher from GQ magazine which tells us that it’s a book for the beach, “The perfect read to pair with that first sundowner”
Comment: Gin and Auschwitz, anyone?


Novel: Megan Hunter The End We Start From
Publisher:  Pan Macmillan 2018
Relevant Fact: Under 20 000 words, disguised by using wide spacing, sixteen pages of end materials, and thick paper
Bad Blurb: “I read it in one sitting” (a breathless Hannah Kent of Burial Rites fame)

Comment: How could one not?


But this week I can add a third one:

Novel: Salley Vickers, The Librarian
Publisher: Penguin 2018
Relevant plot summary: Mills & Boon. I gave up at page 155-6 where Doctor finally kisses Nurse, sorry, Librarian, “ ‘ What would you wish for, Sylvia?’ But he had stooped and was gathering her body to his, so she didn’t answer./ “I have wanted to do that since I met you in the foundry”’
Bad Blurb: “Vickers writes of relationships with undaunted clarity” (Adam Phillips, no less, who sold the book to me)

Comment: Phillips was reviewing another book by Vickers, Cousins. But in any case there surely has to be a sotto voce continuation to his phrase: “ undaunted clarity as if Freud, modernism, the War, post-Modernism had never happened”. "Undaunted clarity" from the pen of Adam Phillips  gives the game way. It is something no longer available to us, outside the world of Mills & Boon novels.


Added 2 August 2020:

I have now discovered a variant on the genre. I just bought a Penguin Modern Classics edition of Nabokov's Ada or Ardor. The spare pages at the end are used to advertise other books by Nabokov. This is how Penguin introduces its edition of Lolita:

"Humbert Humbert - scholar, aesthete and romantic - has fallen completely and utterly in love with Lolita Haze ......"

It continues. [ For those who haven' read the novel, her name is Dolores Haze].

Friday, 9 August 2019

Essay: Google Assisted Prose

When I googled the title for this essay on 9 August 2019, Google replied:

No results found for "google assisted prose".

Well, that’s all going to change now.

In recent prose writing - I give an example below - I often end up indicating how I have used Google to enable parts of the prose and in a self-conscious way. If you like, I have got myself into a triangle with a search engine.

As an independent scholar and writer who doesn’t use a university library any more, I am very reliant on Google. But so are lots of other people, including those who do also use old-fashioned book-based libraries. At its simplest, Google allows you to get research results in one minute which would have taken a day in a library to obtain. When a desktop search takes up thirty minutes because you try out every version of the query you can formulate, complete with variant spellings and all the rest, then that could easily be equivalent to a month-long search involving inter-library loans and so on.

Of course, there are problems. Not everything has been uploaded and a serious researcher may well have to go off to a paper-based archive in the hope of finding information they need. But, on the other hand, persistent googling will turn up things which you would never have found through paper-based research - there are just too many bits of paper and too many archives out there. But a remarkably large number have been uploaded.

More importantly, the google search makes certain kinds of writing very easy - perhaps, too easy. 

There are successful memoirists and novelists who clearly make extensive use of internet searches. Among books I have recently reviewed on this Blog, Annie Ernaux’s The Years (originally published 2008; review on this Blog 26 February 2019 ) and Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (originally 2007; review on this Blog 4 August 2018) struck me as examples of google assisted prose - Ernaux explicitly acknowledges it:

The web was the royal road to remembrance of things past [ a double allusion here, to Freud and to Proust ]. Archives and all the old things that we’d never even imagined being able to find again arrived with no delay. Memory became inexhaustible, but the depth of time, its sensation conveyed through the odour and yellowing of paper, bent-back pages, paragraphs underscored in an unknown hand had disappeared. Here we dwelled in the infinite present (pages 209 - 210)

The most obvious advantage of google assisted prose (GAP) is that it enables you to pile up examples and indulge any taste you may have for obscure facts. This is clear from Ernaux's prose:

           Some smoked grass, lived in communes, established themselves as factory workers at Renault, went to Kathmandu, while other spent a week in Tabarka, read Charlie Hebdo, Fluide Glacial, L’Echo des Savanes, Taknonalasanté, Métal Hurlant, La Guele Ouverte, stuck flower decals on their car doors, and in their rooms hung posters of Che and the little girl burned by napalm.They wore Mao suits or ponchos, sat on the floor with cushions, burned incense, went to see the Grand Magic Circus, Last Tango in Paris, and Emmanuelle …. (page 108)

Here, Google is enabling the recall of things which  have been largely forgotten, and enables it not least because Google now offers an extraordinary library of images which makes any personal album of hard copy photographs look decidedly meagre.....

A revised and longer version of this Blog post now appears in my book Between Remembering and Forgetting (degree zero, 15 February 2020)

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Notes on Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

I’ve been thinking about the topic of cultural change and recently published a  summary  on this Blog (11 September 2018). It struck me as I read through it  that there were things which led back to Wittgenstein, like my use of the idea of a “sample book”.  But I hadn’t read any Wittgenstein-related material let alone Wittgenstein himself since the 1980s. I thought I should retrace my steps and so I bought a copy of the Philosophical Investigations (PI) in the scrupulous modern edition (as a student in the 1960s and 1970s, I used the second edition of 1958 and later sold it when I felt I had no more use).

I have mixed feelings. I’m still not convinced. Here are some thoughts.

  Wittgenstein approaches his work in a territorial spirit. He was of course a Professor of Philosophy in a feudal university, so nothing new there. There is Philosophy and it isn’t Science. The sciences which are mentioned in PI - physiology, psychology, maybe psychoanalysis - look for causes whether in the present or the past. They are sometimes interesting, sometimes not. True, psychology as Wittgenstein knew it (behaviourism, fanciful “experiments ” using undergraduates) had very little going for it (See PI, #307; Part II, #371). Philosophy, in contrast, is concerned with concepts and grammar - though the PI locates those within “forms of life” and so sometimes reads like a theoretical or philosophical anthropology or sociology - and has been read that way. Three thoughts.

   As people took on board his work, they developed it in two directions. First, there was “conceptual analysis” which had mixed success. Extended into areas like ethics or politics, it read as a rather complacent and conservative rendering of what we think, disguised into what “we say” - as if the student needed to learn etiquette. “When we use the word “democracy” we mean …”. As a result, there is a lot of work in old issues of  philosophical journals which is no longer read by anyone. [An aside: in the late 1960s I attended Peter Winch’s seminars at King’s College, London. An old man sat in the corner, Rush Rhees [1905 - 1989], who had been one of Wittgenstein’s acolytes. Occasionally, he made a remark and each time I felt that, well, it wasn’t quite up to what one would expect in a graduate seminar. The remarks were banal. I put it down to his advanced age; but looking now at his dates, that can’t have been the explanation. ]

  The “grammar” when linked into the idea of “forms of life” fairly quickly yielded a sharp distinction between “sentence” and “utterance”, semantics and pragmatics. As early as 1960, J L Austin moved things on with How To Do Things With Words which gets us thinking about situated utterances and the many things they are used to do. In one direction, this helps clarify Wittgensteinian ideas about (say) the way in which understanding might be an achievement rather than a state. We say, “Now I understand!” when we feel we’ve achieved something, that we’ve now got it, and can carry on unaided. We are not reporting a state of mind. In another direction, Austin’s and then Grice’s work turned into contemporary and highly technical linguistic pragmatics.

From (say) the 1970s, the development of artificial intelligence, cognitive science, cognitive theory has often proceeded in ways which has ignored territorial boundaries. Many Wittgensteinians have been appalled. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. There have been extraordinary developments in both what we can do (using machines, implants, what have you) and how we investigate what “forms of life” might be natural to human beings. All this has come about by getting over the prissiness of Wittgenstein’s territorial approach and also past his unreflected thinking about "children", “training” and “ instruction”. (As a young man and a good Austrian Catholic, he clearly believed that error could be beaten out of children: go to Wikipedia for the details).
 Wittgenstein does give the impression that he thinks that it would make no difference if we had sawdust rather than brains between our ears. (see # 282 on the “babble of a baby” as nonsense; #293 “the box might even be empty”; #376;Part II, # 148 “The oddity of children’s drawings”). He also is at risk of turning local empirical truths into necessary truths, a trap into which later Wittgensteinains have fallen. Conversely, necessary truths are sometimes missed:

  # 249 “Lying is a language-game that needs to be learned like any other one”. And truth-telling?  There are plenty of theorists who think that truth-telling isn’t learnt; it’s what comes naturally to us and makes other language games possible.

   Wittgenstein insists that his investigations are not exercises in introspection or phenomenological description (I don’t think the word “phenomenology actually occurs in PI; it isn’t in the Index either). See for example # 232. But they often read as if they are those things and when they do it’s often boring, though there are those who have annexed Wittgenstein for  phenomenology or common sense. There are two specific shortcomings when he is working in this introspective / phenomenological way.

 I want to make a sharper use than does Wittgenstein of the distinction between judgement and intuition. We offer judgements as guidance for other people - You’ve added that up correctly; in English, the plural of sheep is sheep - but intuitions are simply reports of how things strike us, as in the Müller-Lyer illusion where we report that the lines look of unequal length.

 I also want to distinguish two sense of agreement. It is a curious fact that everyone agrees that the Müller-Lyer lines are unequal in length. But they agree this distributively, without discussion or participation in a “form of life” other than a natural one. The Müller-Lyer lines pick up a fact about human vision, not about human culture. In contrast, there are things we agree collectively. That doesn’t mean that we vote or even discuss (very much). All it means is that when we judge (for someone else’s benefit) that the plural of sheep is sheep we are confident enough about what other people think / judge to use our own judgement to guide (say) someone learning English. (Compare PI, # 234, 241; Part II,  #346, #351). Of course, we may get it wrong especially when we are over-reliant on local experience and think that everyone shares our dialect.

File:Müller-Lyer illusion.png

Friday, 5 July 2019

Review: Craig Brown, Ma'am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret

Some countries which choose to have a titular, non-executive head of state - the Republic of Ireland, for example - take care to choose that person by methods which are more or less guaranteed to produce someone decent, responsible, and of years sufficiently advanced  to make it less likely that they are driven by unsatisfied ambitions or hormones. Such Presidents are not much fun, but they often do a very good job.

But in the United Kingdom - or at any rate, England - the addled population is by and large happy to take their chances with the unchallenged offspring of a family which in the not very distant past spoke German and which currently provides a known line of succession to last a hundred years: after Elizabeth comes Charles and then William and then George. It’s all stitched up - though in case of accidents unforeseen, the full line of succession is rather more elaborately mapped; Wikipedia’s short article on the line extends it to 59 places which must be a huge disappointment to the person in 60th place left to dream of plane crashes, terrorist outrages, and heroin overdoses.

The Royal Family, as it styles itself - not unreasonably: it manufactures births and marriages at increasingly frequent intervals (deaths much less often) - tirelessly promotes its brand and with great success. Hardly a news outlet fails to attend closely and to report everything, including - nowadays - the really important thing, the gossip. We all love gossip about our betters, and the more wicked, the better. It is of much less interest that we currently find ourselves in a terrible political and even constitutional crisis and with a dutiful but ninety-three year old head of state.

Gossip about the living is more satisfying than gossip about the dead, but the advantage of the dead for the gossiper is that they can’t sue. Craig Brown’s imaginative book about Princess Margaret is very much about the dead, no holds barred and no holes barred. It’s cleverly done, funny, thoughtful, multi-faceted, and much helped by the fact that its cast of mostly dead characters is comprised of people who wanted very much to be larger than life, even if their actual lives were merely chaotic. Not only do we have the tragically larger than life Princess Margaret but also a cast of famous writers, actors, directors, poets, painters together with those famous for being famous, nearly all of whom succeed in dwarfing their own achievements with outsize egos (or ids), sometimes poured into their diary pages and letters-for-posterity-to-read.

These very self-indulgent people had children, often in quantities, and Craig Brown says little about them, except for a bit about Princess Margaret's grown-up children who auctioned off all her stuff after her death. Many of the other children are still alive. Some suffered for the sins of their parents - I thought of that when I came across the name of someone who I once knew, briefly, and who did suffer, not fatally (as happened with those who succumbed to drug overdoses) but, still, enough.

It would be possible to read this book in a very serious frame of mind - as I have just started to do - and to start asking the questions which, in this book, only dogged (and dead) Willie Hamilton MP asks: Why do we pay for all this? Why do we put up with it? But not only that, What is so wrong with us that so many of us are so absorbed by the bad behaviour of those who are famous or, nowadays more frequently, famous for being famous?

Brown provides us with many snapshots  - the sub -title “99 Glimpses” is apposite - and most of the time he leaves us to make our own judgments. He is hard on a voyeuristic footman who spills the beans, but then quotes repeatedly from his book (My Life With Princess Margaret by David John Payne) which could not be published in the United Kingdom because the courts banned it - in effect, as a breach of what we would now call a Non Disclosure Agreement. He is less hard on those higher up the social order who tittle-tattled their way into his book.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Review: Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

In most novels, the author leaves a trace - sometimes a very obvious one - of the imagined reader who has inflected the writing. In contemporary fiction, it’s quite easy to find novels which have been written with a film-director-looking-for-a-script lodged in mind. It’s very easy to find crowd-pleasing novels in which cardboard characters are put in to represent the “under-represented”, thus ticking at least one and preferably several current political correctness boxes. And, of course, it’s still possible to find books where the author is clearly worried about what their Mum might think.

Experimental prose styles, like those deployed in this novel and (for a relevant contrasting example) in Anna Burns’ Milkman, may be designed with an aesthete or literary snob reader in mind. More often, I suspect, they are ways of stopping any imagined reader from interfering with the story. The writer is determined to tell the story they want to tell, and the imagined reader can go hang. This often enough yields a commercially unpublishable novel, and did in the case of Eimear McBride’s book. 

Even now, skimming the blurbs on the Faber edition, it’s quite clear that there is little inclination to talk about one half of the book. The novel is dedicated to the author’s dead brother and, indeed, the narrator in the novel tells at length the story of her older brother’s life-long illness and early death - the novel culminates with that death. Reviewers are comfortable with that. But half of the novel is about rough sex, about masochistic sex, and about taboo sex - narrated in detail and all of it (to simplify enormously) designed to fuck the narrator’s pain rather than to bring pleasure or closeness. The publisher’s blurb on the back cover of my Faber edition is really an extended trigger warning rather than an engagement with this half of the book.

I did read it right through, in short sessions. I can’t say I enjoyed it. In Milkman Anna Burns has an experimental style which carries the reader along and is the vehicle for a great deal of humour. McBride has a style which constantly frustrates the reader in their tracks, notably through the repeated use of full stops, of sentences which aren’t, and of depictions which are ambiguous or obscure - one isn’t always sure which. It is as if the text is shot-through with a great deal of static through which one has to try to follow the threads.

The threads are undoubtedly there, all the way through. The sick brother and the rough sex threads are tied together with an Irish Roman Catholic thread, which also perhaps deserves a trigger warning: there is a horrific scene of the neighbours coming in to sit round the dying brother’s bedside, help him on his way (pages 185-88).

All this produces a novel of unremitting intensity with very, very few intermissions. There are a handful of passages where the style changes. I noted these: page 92 where the mother is telling her daughter her woes; pages 173 - 74 where the doctor tells the brother that he is dying; page 197 where in the final sexual encounter the prose completely breaks down in a (let’s say) Joycean manner. It’s not enough. If I read the novel again (I won’t) I would look for more of these variations and any serious study would want to look at the use of stylistic change within the narrative.

I can identify with a writer’s need to keep out of their head the kind of reader who will frustrate the writer’s story and I can see that a difficult prose style is one way of doing that. But I would like to think that victory over the censorious reader, the prurient reader, the tiresomely correct reader, could be achieved with a style (or variation within a style) which is a little kinder to an actual reader. Equally, I can see that McBride's style is an attempt to convey the anguish of an inner world which any easier prose would tend to soften.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Review: Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity

Leave aside state honours, like knighthoods, and the peak of an academic or artistic career is not a Professorship or even membership of a selective Academy (like the British Academy) but rather an invitation to give a series of lectures (say six or eight over the course of a term) at a top university, generously endowed and named for the specific purpose of securing willing acceptees. Since 1950, Oxford has appointed a John Locke lecturer to give lectures of the same name; since the 1920s, Harvard has had an annual Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. The BBCs Reith Lectures are the equivalent for a general audience.

When given in universities such performance lectures will be attended by many of  the lecturer's peers and by eager graduate students; sometimes the  hall will be full to overflowing. These are grand occasions on which the lecturer responds to and justifies his or her claim to fame. Very often, there shortly after appears the book of the series.

Lionel Trilling (1905 - 1975) was Norton professor at Harvard in 1970 and the resulting book is, along with his The Liberal Imagination (1950), his best known.

It is an effortless cultural survey, spanning four main countries, (England, France, Germany, the USA) and four centuries. Trilling shows that he has read the original sources; the main critical sources; and is in touch with what a new generation is saying (I was surprised to find the names not only of Sartre but also Lacan, R D Laing, Marcuse, Sarraute). He picks a theme designed to limit and unify his material, the linked ideas of sincerity and authenticity, and seeks to show how those  ideas emerged, developed, and transformed - and who were the writers who didn’t quite go with the flow:

"all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling";
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth” 
(Oscar Wilde, quoted at page 119)

The result is a traditional blend of cultural history and cultural criticism, all done with grace and humour. The book is very readable. I suspect Trilling’s brand of urbanity and ease is nowadays in shorter and less confident supply.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Review: Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead

I bought this book because I had read and enjoyed Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, reviewed on this Blog on 4 August 2018. In contrast to that other book, this one has a more conventional structure, with a single first-person narrator telling her story and a whodunnit? story about a series of events (murders) in the isolated area where she lives. It is fascinating.

It perfectly illustrates Milan Kundera’s claim in his L’Art du Roman (reviewed here on 5 November 2014) that the novelist is someone who works with  imaginary people, personnages (characters), and develops their characteristics as far as they are able and with  a view to engaging the reader with the particularities, the specificity of the character.

Tokarczuk chooses to create a character who has to be credible as an educated, older single woman living alone in an isolated rural area - though as a recluse, she is really a rather sociable one -  whose affection for her dogs (her Little Girls) is such that she turns serial and  brutal killer.  The pivot to murder occurs when she realises(from a chance encounter with a hunter’s trophy photograph) that her dogs have been shot by local hunters who find them a nuisance. The credibility is built by making her someone who is very unwell in her body, who prefers dogs to the disappointment of human beings, whose eccentric mind is obsessively choc a bloc with astrological knowledge (which will be of more interest to readers in a similar state than this one), but who is also enamoured of William Blake, quotations from whose work provide chapter epigraphs and book title. Blake also provides the narrator with her eccentric orthography: she Capitalises in eighteenth century Fashion, a Peculiarity which also contributes to our appreciation of the Comic aspects of the narration. The book is, indeed, really very funny - but that the narrator makes us laugh is often enough because her judgments and priorities are cock-eyed, creating that space in which it is credible that she should end up  thinking  herself entitled to murder.

Tokarczuk does not sit her narrator in a prison cell to write  her story, allowing her to escape that fate; had she done the prison version then I would have been tempted to make comparisons with such narratives as those of Pierre Rivière (non-fiction) and Humbert Humbert (fictional).  

I felt confident that the translator knew what she was doing, and only once queried what I was reading, but I don’t have a Polish original here so I can’t extend that remark. The book is produced to the high standard typical of Fitzcarraldo editions - nice paper, print size, good editing, and so on.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Review: David Rieff, In Praise of Forgetting

When I saw this book in Blackwell’s Oxford shop during a May 2019 visit, I knew I had to buy it even though I wished I hadn’t seen it. For a number of years, I have been working off and on around themes of memory and forgetting, beginning in the 1990s with a critique of moralising theories of individual learning which ignore unlearning ( ) and extending, more recently, into criticism of the emphasis which states place on collective memory and remembrance - there is a recent example of my writing here:

I’ve read David Rieff’s short book twice. It’s excellent, I can’t find anything really to disagree with, and I have a note of half a dozen books I ought to read as follow-up (it’s a pity the book has no Bibliography - I had to create one on the inside cover as I went along). 

Rieff is not only very widely read, he has practical experience as a journalist of conflicts kept alive by so-called collective memories and he turns this experience to good account. He writes well, though sometimes in sentences sufficiently long and complex for me to lose track and have to start again.

Individual memories are extinguished with the death of their bearer. Before then, they have been subject to continuous mental processing and re-processing - things are forgotten completely, details fade, mis-rememberings intrude, sequences are jumbled. These truths apply both to what psychologists call episodic memories - usually, things which we can recall visually - and semantic memories, things which are organised into narratives of events which we believe we experienced first-hand. There is also a category of procedural memory - remembering how to ride a bike, and so on - which can be remarkably enduring. See Jonathan K Foster, Memory (2009) for these distinctions.

Collective memories - or what Rieff calls in his sub-title “historical memory” - are not really memories at all. In my country, there is a widely shared commitment to keeping alive the memory of the Wars - the First and the Second - but the “memory” is actually no more than common knowledge of a very abridged and usually tendentious historical narrative given emotional life by the ceremonies of remembrance in which it is embedded and which are very frequently repeated - once a year for Remembrance Day, and so on, but in reality it's a constant of British political discourse.

David Rieff puts such collective memories under critical investigation and concludes that from the point of view of securing peaceful and prosperous futures, they would often be better forgotten. They are often divisive and they can function to allow avoidance of the current challenges posed by new historical realities. He gives examples, discussed in some detail, and his harshest conclusion is that they are formulas for “unending grievance and vendetta” (page 110). Most of the time, his discussion is much more subtle and nuanced than those words alone might suggest, and this is true of his discussion of Holocaust remembrance which is woven right through the book.

The sublety is most obvious in those passages where Rieff takes his cue from Josef Yerushalmi’s Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (1982) and probes the idea that the antonym of “forgetting” is not “remembering” but “justice” (page 91) and expands this by introducing the term “peace”. It is forgetting which often enough enables peace, even without justice, but in contrast the demand to remember links easily to the demand for justice, understood in terms of crimes and punishments. Rieff mobilises some significant examples of historical moments when forgetting has been accepted as a way out from conflict which yields peace even if it does not deliver justice: he references the end of white rule in South Africa, Spain at the time of Franco’s death,  Chile in 1990 , the 1995 Dayton accords in Bosnia, and  the 1998 Good Friday agreement in Ireland.

I’m writing this on 4 May 2019 when President Trump is in the United Kingdom to boost his re-election chances by meeting the Queen and going to Portsmouth to remember the 75th  anniversary (75th? what kind of anniversary is that) of the D-Day landings, historical memory in the service of a man who knows no history.