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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. 

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Review: John Gray, Seven Types of Atheism

I don’t want to read this book a second time so this will be a short review. From its title, I expected something more elegant but, in fact, it’s a rather ragged book, as if written in a hurry or with lots of cutting and pasting. Bits of important argument are jammed up against thumbnail biographies. There is a very large cast of characters, some of them new to me and who sound as if they are worth reading. I’ve never read Santayana or Schopenhauer and Gray makes me feel that I’ve missed out. That’s something worth taking away from any book.

It’s an interesting book the most general theme of which is the claim that modern (post eighteenth century) positivisms and humanisms, supposedly atheist or secular in character, repeatedly mirror and repeat key mistakes of Christianity, notably the ideas that there is progress in history and that human beings are perfectible. As a result, they end up less liberal and humane than they often set out to be.

For Gray, history is cyclical - things get better, then they get worse - and human beings are always going to let us down. If I had to sum up his views in two words, they would be Shit happens. Three words and it would be Shit happens. Whatever. 

In this context, Gray makes some interesting remarks about Joseph Conrad and the sea (pp 132 - 141). The sea does not know the idea of progress, nor does the sea care much for our prayers. One might add: American evangelical conmen (they are always men and they are always conning people) who see hurricane floods as God's wrath directed at gays or abortion (or whatever) sometimes find their own houses struck by lightning. It may be poetic justice, but it is not part of a Plan nor does it represent Progress.

Lots of potential lines of argument are opened up only to be fairly rapidly abandoned. Some nuances are missed: the French revolutionaries changed the calendar, in a root and branch way; the Bolsheviks also changed the calendar (page 81), but the Bolsheviks actually did no more than move from the inaccurate Julian [as in Caesar] calendar to the more accurate Gregorian [as in Pope Gregory] calendar used throughout  the bourgeois capitalist world, 31st January 1918 followed by 14th February 1918, a reform still in place because it works better. It never had any Millenarian credentials.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Review: Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire

Click on image to enlarge

I still buy books in shops. I like to browse and I try to buy books I haven’t heard of - in contrast, if I go to Amazon it is to buy a book I already know about. At the end of my last visit to a shop (Oxford Blackwell’s) I left with six books, including this one.

As a result, I now have a new rule about buying in shops: avoid books with multiple product endorsements. This one has over thirty. I really don’t understand why.

There is always a danger in trying to write fictions based on current newspaper or TV preoccupations. The fiction can end up being read as simply a non-fiction contribution to the ongoing debate: Should we let young people who went off to join ISIS return to the UK when they change their minds or - more commonly - when ISIS loses the fight it has picked? I am going to guess that that is how some reviewers have read this book and some book groups have discussed it.

Novelists might claim that they concretise the question to individuals, make us see the human side of such questions, but insofar as those individuals are characters in a novel they are not real characters in life but imagined ones and imagined ones ought not (as a general rule) count for  much in real political debate. There are exceptions of which Scrooge is the all time stand-out case of a literary character you can legitimately deploy in real-world debate, treating the character's name as a shorthand for an argument or a gesture towards an area of common understanding. But from the fact that Miss Havisham does not lend itself so easily, one can begin to see that the traffic from novel to life is not so great as that between  life and the novel or would-be novel.

Imagined characters can be flat or rounded, caricatures or fleshed out, cardboard or something more solid. In my reading, Shamsie’s characters don’t quite make it across the line to become really interesting. Especially at the beginning, I was bored by their flatness. I began to say to myself “Potemkin village”.

They do improve but the characters then suffer the fate of being moved around in a plot which comes across as increasingly contrived and which ends up cynical: the ending seems designed for a crass Hollywood film even though the novelist gives her story cover as a re-working of Antigone. Again, I found myself saying “Potemkin village” which is for me partly a way of questioning whether the author’s heart is really in the work or whether the novel is something which has been knocked up for reasons which are not particularly heartfelt but more designed to impress - the Potemkin village is precisely a theatre scenery facade designed to impress the world but behind which there is nothing substantial.

The book has its moments - characters are given some good lines, including funny ones; the  bad guy, Home Secretary Karamat, ends up as a fairly multi-dimensional character; jihadi Parvaiz has an interest in the world of sound around him which is developed in a thoughtful way. But then again, when Kamsie seeks to shift gear from plain narration to heightened narration, the prose and the imagery becomes overwrought.

I would like to have Liked this book; it’s more fun writing positive than negative reviews - and a mistake made in a browse-purchase inevitably makes you think about the book you didn’t buy.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Review: Guy Shrubsole, Who Owns England?

This is a readable, accessible book which roams much wider than its title. It provides a comprehensive introduction to the subject of land ownership. In the first half I felt I was being reminded of things I already knew from Private Eye and The Financial Times but as the book progressed I learnt many new things - for example, about English land reform movements in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, including the role of the National Trust,  and then about more recent and extensive actual land reforms in Scotland which the author thinks point the way for reforms in England.

Shrubsole correctly makes the case for believing that land is different from other goods. It is finite and we all depend on it in many ways. For this and other reasons, it’s important to know who owns it and for that knowledge to be in the public domain even though it deprives owners of a kind of privacy which we might accept for other goods - no one, for example, is arguing for a register of all oil paintings in private homes, something which would have the great disadvantage of being of great value to burglars. Land can’t be carted away - at least, not by an averagely equipped burglar. 

Everyone’s dependence on land for food, water, housing, recreation and so on, also creates a very strong case for its ownership and use to be publicly regulated even where land is not publicly owned.

Shrubsole focusses mainly on rural land and in that context makes much of the historical importance of common land - the commons of the past - and the importance now of publicly accessible land, land made accessible by “right to roam” legislation. He emphasises just how much land is privately owned and how few people own it.

 I felt that he would benefit from an over-arching concept of public space which gets used by theorists of the city to think about pavements, parks, and so on, and the way they are separate from though sometimes encroached upon by private spaces. Using the concept of public space, one can think not only about rights but also responsibilities. What we call public space is also the space where anti-social behaviour occurs, which is an important reason why so much of it is degraded; it’s not just the consequence of austerity budgets but of human disregard - littering the most obvious example. 

In the countryside context, Shrubsole only once mentions dogs (page 252). But one of the harsh realities of contemporary public space is that dog owners regard it as provided primarily for the benefit of an ever expanding number of dogs. The amount of public space from which dogs are excluded is pitifully small: think only of those small, fenced off and overcrowded children’s playgrounds surrounded by acres of land more or less monopolised by dog walkers. Walkers in the open countryside have to contend fairly constantly  with exciteable off-the leash dogs.

Shrubsole documents the power of the land-owning lobby, exercised over the centuries to secure more land for itself (the enclosures), and later on, tax breaks and subsidies. Any programme of reform faces a thanklessl task, not least in an England now with a much weakened administrative and political system in which voters have ceased to give governments the kind of thumping majorities which allow them to face down lobbyists and donors. Shrubsole tries to point a path to a better future. I fear it will be an uphill struggle, not helped by the fact that younger people, who are supposed to be more environmentally conscious, do not vote with anything like the enthusiasm of the elderly.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Review: Tara Westover, Educated

IN a footnote to his study of the Memoirs of Judge Schreber, Freud remarks that Schreber puts the most important things into footnotes. That may be true of this book and, especially, the final two pages blandly titled “A Note on the Text” (pages 383 - 384). It is in the notes and these two pages that Tara Westover most obviously agonises over the problem of the veracity of her memories and those of others, and it is in understanding that agonising that we have one route into the heart of her story.

Many years ago, R D Laing identified it as a core problem for children brought up in seriously disturbed but closed family groupings, including ones which were religiously fundamentalist in character, that they struggle to stand by what they know to be true; that they are easily cowed and persuaded (by a sense of guilt, a sense of loyalty, and often enough, by extreme fear) to accept as true what they know to be false.

Tara Westover’s insistence on getting things straight, as if she is a historian of her own life and even at times a pedantic one, is an index of her struggle to hold on to her mind in a context where those she loves demand that she denies the truth of her perceptions and back up the demand with the full panoply of threats available to them - exclusion from the family, damnation by God, and - more crudely - the prospect of a violent death.

Westover’s perceptions are crafted into an extraordinary story - I am happy to agree with a reviewer who calls the narrative “jaw-dropping” - told through a series of tightly structured, dramatic vignettes.

I don’t want to do a plot summary because that will foreground the sheer exoticism of her story which takes her from mountainside, survivalist “End of Days” Mormonism to Trinity College, Cambridge. In this respect, I think a reviewer in Vogue got it right:

Despite the singularity of her childhood, the questions her book poses are universal: How much of ourselves should we give to those we love? And how much must we betray them to grow up?

As for the singularity of Westover’s childhood - no birth certificate, no schooling, no doctors, no seatbelts, no car insurance, no health and safety in the scrapyard, no handwashing after using the toilet, guns cached - it does of course leave me thinking that we need to talk about America, a country badly in need of more Feds and more socialists to deal with its endless outback of lawless Aryan supremacists, Mormon survivalists, abusive cults, and trailer park dysfunction, not to mention …

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Review: Isabel Hardman, Why We Get the Wrong Politicians

This is a hand-wringing book by an Establishment political journalist about Establishment politicians and Parliament. It’s readable, full of interesting anecdotes, and good in the parts which emphasise Parliament’s failures at what is supposed to be its job, legislation. The detail assembled there is worth having. The book pairs with the more academic work The Blunders of our Governments, by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe,  reviewed on this Blog on 11 June 2013 and mentioned several times by Isabel Hardman.

One book can’t do everything but three things are missing which bear on Hardman’s case.

First, the history. We may think of Parliament as sovereign in the UK, but technically it is the Queen in Parliament who is sovereign. That technicality is explained by a history in which Parliament developed as a creature of the Executive,  that Executive finally formalised as a Cabinet which constitutes Her Majesty’s Government, its head appointed (and still appointed) by the Sovereign. So Parliament developed as second fiddle, though by the 19th century it came to acquire more power than ever did the state Dumas of Imperial Russia. Its power expanded with the expansion of the franchise, but its members remained subject to Executive manipulation, the carrots of jobs and bribes, and later the sticks wielded by  government Whips. Theresa May’s billion pound bung for the votes of ten DUP MPs did not come out of nowhere. It was an ordinary exercise of Executive prerogative.

Second, the voters. Those who argued for the expansion of the franchise through the 19th and early 20th centuries twinned their case with a demand for the expansion of popular education so that voters would be prepared for their tasks as citizens. But the British educational system never got into the business of educating citizens; it stuck with God, the Queen and school uniform and still does. As social media have now made clear, if tabloid newspapers had not already done so, the result is that many “citizens” are not really up to their job.

Third, there is the long term decline of Great Britain, a decline marked by periodic adventures - Suez, Iraq, Brexit - which each time leave it a weakened power. The decline has now gone so far that one can reasonably speak of a failing state - Hardman instances several areas (for example housing and social care) where the state has ceased to cope with the demands created by demographic and economic change. 

In failing states, politics does not attract all the talents; it attracts the crooks and the also-rans. When it comes to it those are people who can’t deliver. The Conservative Party likes to tell the story of Harold Macmillan who as Housing Minister in the early 1950s got considerably more houses built than his (talented) Labour predecessor - much or most of it, social housing. He did it with the benefit of what was still very much a war time command economy, it’s true, but he did it without benefit of computers or social media. Nowadays, you can be put in charge of Brexit, as was David Davis, and simply not turn up to work, throw in the towel - and still get invited onto state TV as if you might have something worth hearing about. Put in charge of negotiating trade deals, as was Liam Fox, you can end up able to show the Faeroes and Fiji and not much else; but you keep your job and continue to appear on state TV.

Friday, 12 April 2019

Booklaunch London

Click  on Image to Enlarge

In the April 2019 issue of Booklaunch you can read a long extract from my Prose Improvements where I discuss Milan Kundera's Art of the Novel.

The website is at 

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Review: Annie Ernaux, The Years

France was (and in many respects, still is) a nation of shopkeepers, and Annie Ernaux was born in 1940 into that very large part of the French petite bourgeoisie which is separated by only a cigarette paper from the paysans and ouvriers. Her parents ran a café and épicerie, her early childhood marked by the everyday wartime and early post-war privations common to nearly everyone. But she is clever and achieves her own upward mobility into the teaching profession and, of course, eventually becomes a famous writer.

This is her autobiography published in 2008 and covering the whole period of her life until then. But the word “I” never occurs, except in occasional extracts from diaries. She writes in the third person (“She”) when directly referencing herself, and at other times uses a generic “We”, and less frequently, a “They”. The reader has surely noticed this before Ernaux draws attention to it and its motivation in the closing pages (page 225 in the English edition). But the English reader will not notice that the translator renders the author’s “On” and “Nous” fairly consistently as “We”, occasionally as "People" except at page 225 where the translated author mentions that she has been using both One and We.

 There is a certain amount of slippage, and sometimes I felt that the “We” of this English version sounded unavoidably like the English Royal We, the “We” which Her Majesty uses when talking about herself. This is unfortunate:

And we [translating Nous ], on the threshold of the 1980s, when we would enter our fortieth year, were suffused with a weary sweetness that came of accomplished tradition, and gazed around the table of faces, dark against the light. For a moment, we were struck by the strangeness…” (p 130)

As I read it, this “We” is rather like defensive irony, the voice we often slip into when talking, for example, about the embarrassments of adolescence. Its function is to permit us to talk about things which would otherwise remain unspoken. I think this is how  "She" and“We"  and "They" all function for Ernaux. Specifically, it allows her to write extensively about her own sexuality - the fumblings, the awakenings, the dissatisfactions,the experiments - in a context where she has children and other people close to her who are still alive. The distance of "She" and "We" or "They" provides protective cover; “I” would be too exposing. There is a topic there for a seminar discussion.

But “We” and "They" and "One" are also used because Ernaux is trying to write not only her own story but the history of her times, so that the autobiography is also a biography of a generation:

There is no “I” in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only “one” and “we”, as if now it were her turn to tell the story of the time-before (page 225)

All that the world has impressed upon her and her contemporaries she will use to reconstitute a common time….By retrieving the memory of collective memory in an individual memory, she will capture the lived dimension of History (page 224; see also 169 - 170)

That her experiences are typical of those of a larger group she establishes by means of one primary device, basically the device of assembling proper names. For each  year or decade, she recalls and writes out (often as not much more than lists), the names of currently popular songs, singers, films, TV programmes, household products, shop names, politicians of the moment,  faits divers (murders, crashes, suicides), slogans, catch-phrases and slang. Thus to evoke the varied destinations of the soixante-huitards after the events of 1968, she writes:

            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)

It continues with five more namings and the general stylistic choice of enumeration is sustained for over two hundred pages. I think it poses some problems. Clearly, The Years is not just a work of remembering. People just don’t remember as much as Ernaux does, at least without a prompt. Nowadays, the prompt is provided by the internet. You can simply Google to have your memory jolted: what did we wear in, say, 1970; what films came out that year; what were the slogans on the banners; what word did we most often use to express approval; what were the amusing cinema advertisements [ I have prompted myself there: at the cinema, there was the very sexy advertising for Dim collants, with sing-along music. The ads. were much talked about and it was said that Godard had directed them …].

You can surf for hours and you will be richly rewarded. Ernaux says as much:

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)

I think this identifies a real problem. The list which results from googling may generate a general nostalgia and often (Ernaux must surely hope) an “Oh, I remember that”. But the feelings evoked are essentially diffuse; they have not been focussed by a single, experiencing self; they were often enough given to you in the infinite present of the computer screen rather than by some inner searching and recovery. So though the lists evoke passing nostalgic thoughts, surely different for each reader, they do not really disturb, and there are simply too many of them. They are not like Proust’s entirely idiosyncratic experience of dipping his biscuit which nonetheless works because it can do duty for something different for each reader. Another seminar.

It’s true, there is a major thread of Ernaux’s book which is about the experiencing self, and which does disturb. That is the thread about her sexuality and I think it is the strongest part of the work, strongly expressed. It is also the part of the work which fitted into my own pre-conception that post-war France was simply Vichy but without the Germans: conservative, Catholic, claustrophobic without liberty or equality, neighbours primed to denounce you.

There is a third possible seminar besides those devoted to distancing pronouns and the lists. The Years ticked off in decades do not on their own provide a strong narrative structure. Of course, there is growing up, settling down, starting again, growing old. But partly because of the wider aspiration to write a collective biography, it doesn’t quite have the force one would get (and expect to get) from an "I" focussed Bildungsroman. Only in the last few pages does Ernaux take centre stage, very effectively so.
I bought French and English versions at the same time and decided to read the English one since I thought that in the French there would be too much temporary vocabulary from the past which needed looking up. I consulted the French when I was puzzled or disliked something in the English. I do think that translating “C’est à dire” as “i.e.” is unsatisfactory (page 158) and unnecessary when what is replaced is a colon which could have been retained (page 219). I.e.  just does not belong in literary prose. And I've not come across before the use of "abolishment" for "abolition" (page 136 and elsewhere)

And I think the following translation has to be either a howler or a typo:

A la fierté de ce que l’on fait se substituait celle de ce que l’on est, femme, gay, provincial, juif, arabe, etc. (page 205)

Pride in what one did was substituted for pride in what one was - female, gay, provincial, Jewish, Arab, etc. (page 184)

In the translation “for” should read “by”, or alternatively, “In place of pride in what one did was substituted pride in what one is …”: identity politics is what comes after, not what comes before.

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Review: Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

The English as a people must now be reckoned mentally incapacitated from a surfeit of royal babies and costume dramas. Brideshead Revisited is one of those books which like those of Jane Austen is now only read because it is the script for wide and small screen country house productions. By the end of reading it you will know a lot about what everyone wears and about interior furnishings; the script is very detailed and seeing it on screen requires less effort.  Over the years, since its publication in 1945, it's been a good money spinner.

Brideshead Revisited is also a book about a world where everyone thinks it possible to have their cake and eat it, and thus fits neatly with our contemporary English incapacitation. They may not always succeed, but much of the time they do not suffer (or suffer very much) for things which would be fatal to the little people on whose labour their lives depend. There will always be someone around to get you out of a scrape, and if money is needed to lubricate the extrication or soften the blow, well, there is an awful lot of it about. As for religion, it’s Roman Catholicism and that is particularly accommodating, providing both terrifying rhetoric and obliging side-deals. It is against divorce, but if you have the necessary, an annulment can be arranged. Adultery merely requires that appearances be kept up. As for homosexuality, well, you simply condemn and turn a blind eye, or condemn and join in.  When it comes to writing a fiction based on the fact, it’s very simple. You let the reader know what you are on about but you don’t do anything as tasteless as dwell on the fact. (I discover that this has provided scope for critical debates about whether the book is “about” a homosexual relationship between Sebastian and Charles, thus casting it into the dire category of books written in code. I found myself impatient with the book because it was so obviously coded, and not only because of the censorship priorities applied by London publishers back in 1945 but probably also because coyness may have been the only way the author could handle his material. The London censorship priorities are, of course, different now).

There is an extravagant death bed scene, which according to taste is either very well done or simply de trop. From a structural point of view, the interesting thing is that Waugh selects for the death bed not one of his major characters but the relatively minor pater familias. The mother of the family, who plays a much larger part in the narrative, is despatched with no mise en scène. The novel thus ends on a fittingly patriarchal note, the death of the father which re-arranges everyone’s future and re-establishes  the order of things. And the priest is very happy with his three pounds, the price of sending pater to heaven after a lifetime of having his cake and eating it (page 318).

There are some passages which I found funny, and some very well-written. The book was composed and published in England at a time (1944 - 1945) when the little people were preparing  to install, by a landslide of unprecedented scale, a socialist government. It was written, as they say, against the current and, of course, deliberately so. Nothing much has changed there when you think of the royal babies and the perennial costume dramas.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Review: Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl

Bart van Es, a professor at Oxford University, sets out to research a breach in his Dutch family of origin. His father was the youngest child of the van Esses whose family included an adopted daughter who ought to have been Bart van Es’s aunt. But in 1988 she had been expelled from the family by Bart van Es’s grandmother, and Bart has had no contact with her. In 2014, the aunt is still alive, in Amsterdam, and Bart approaches her (by email) and goes to visit.

His aunt, Lien, was taken in by the van Esses during the second World War. Born in 1933, she was Jewish, handed over by her secular parents to non-Jewish foster carers when it seemed there was no other way for her to survive. The parents were right; both died in Auschwitz, victims of the very efficient Dutch operation to round up and deport its Jews, some of them able to trace their Dutch ancestry back to the period of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Lien spent the war being moved from safe house to safe house, though was lucky to spend two extended periods with just two but rather different families. At the end of the war, and with no credible Jewish relatives to claim her, she is asked to choose between the Social Democratic and warm van Esses and the Calvinist and cold van Laars. She chooses the van Esses, not least because she has been sexually abused by a van Laar uncle. In due course, the van Esses learn about this,

All goes as well as might be expected given her start in life, until one day in 1988, Bart van Es’s grandmother writes to her adopted daughter to sever all relationships with her. The van Es grandfather had died in 1979; other family members more or less fall into line with the exclusion. What has gone wrong?

Rather like Philippe Sands in East West Street (reviewed here on 5 February 2018), van Es combines the interviews with his surviving aunt with archival research and interviews with those still alive who knew the van Esses, the van Laars, and knew Lien. So instead of writing a family history, he ends up writing a history of the Netherlands from the 1930s and well past the end of World War Two. But he focusses on the war period, on the Dutch Jewish experience of the war, and on the lives of those non-Jews who became helpers. I found all this very interesting, partly I think because though we are used to reading about the German experience and to some extent the French one, the Netherlands in the Nazi period is not so familiar to English readers. His narratives of the complexities of Dutch society were all new to me.

I feel there is a strange lacuna in the book. Maybe I have missed something but I will proceed as if I haven't. It may be that it is a lacuna which cannot now be filled. In one sense van Es solves the puzzle of the family breach, and thereby achieves a work of reparation (there is a sub-plot of reparation of difficulties within his own family). But he does not examine the most obvious narrative which explains it, even though he provides all the evidence. Lien’s exclusion begins immediately after the death of her adoptive father in 1979. His widow - Lien’s adoptive mother - leaves Lien’s name off the printed death notification to which the names of mourning family members are, as convention dictates, appended.

In 1953, at the age of twenty, there was a moment, during a weekend visit home, when Lien's adoptive father made sexual advances to his adoptive daughter. She repulsed them and they were not further pressed; but from Lien’s point of view the damage was done. To me, an obvious narrative is the one which says that the mother somehow knew about this, or at least sensed it, and that the death of her husband freed her to act, making it clear that she blamed her adoptive daughter for whatever had happened. There was a strong motive to exclude Lien at that point, even though the breach was not fully finalised until ten years later. It’s possible that the father made a death bed confession, or that he confessed to someone else at an earlier point who then re-told the story, maybe much later.