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Tuesday 30 September 2014

Review: Marguerite Duras, L'Amant de la Chine du Nord

" - And if there is no unhappiness? 

- Then everything will be forgotten "

In 1984, Marguerite Duras published L'Amant - a lyrical, beautifully crafted short autobiographical novel about a teenager's love affair with a man in his twenties. The book was made into a film, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, which Duras disliked and it is sometimes said that she wrote this longer, second book - this second version of L'Amant - to show how the story should be filmed. It is indeed written as a series of filmically conceived scenes, sometimes with explicit notes of guidance about how they should be treated for cinema and it appeared in the same year (1991) as the film.

But there was another motive, which she acknowledges. In 1990, Duras learnt that her first lover was dead - had died some years before - and she set to work on this book. It is her mourning for her lover that is recorded here. And the emotional climax comes in a short passage at page 214 where the young Duras - just turned fifteen - urges her Chinese lover to make sure that one day he tells their story to his Chinese wife-to-be, complete with all the names, all the places, all the place names. Why to his wife? Because her unhappiness will allow her to understand the story. 

" - Et s'il n'y a pas de douleur? - Alors tout sera oubliƩ" (page 214)

The story is in the great tradition of literature which knots together love and transgression. Like Romeo and Juliet,  Duras and her lover are breaking the rules, three rules in fact: she is under-age; she is white in French Indo-China and he is Chinese. She is poor and he is rich.

There will be mean spirited readers who will see her teenage infatuation for the Chinese man as an act of desperation. A fatherless child in a dysfunctional family; a brutal older teenage brother already addicted to opium; a younger brother who she both protects from the older and with whom at the same time she has an incestuous relationship. A mother who is not coping. There will be readers who would have sent the man to prison for a long time - they have such good sex - and the girl to the tender mercies of state care.

But the story she tells is about a child who is not desperate but courageous - or, at least, developing through acts of defiance what will become the courage of later life. 

Overarching everything is an enormous tenderness in her depiction of her characters - even the bit players - and their relationships. Quite often, she brings this out by describing how couples - temporary couples in some cases - dance with each other. These scenes are a gift to the film maker. 

(I am reminded of a story told me by a friend who, looking through a lit college window late one evening, chanced upon a very elderly Rudolf  Laban dancing alone with his partner, Lisa Ullmann).

Saturday 13 September 2014

Review: Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire

This is a fascinating, well-written account of the final months of the Soviet Union. Though Gorbachev is presented as a much rougher, power-hungry figure than I had imagined, the book impressed me as balanced and nuanced particularly in its account of the "dance" between Yeltsin's Russia and Kravchuk's Ukraine in the last five months of 1991 - the period from Gorbachev's house arrest in Crimea by the ill-fated Moscow putschists to his 25 December resignation as President of the Soviet Union. This makes for very interesting reading, especially now in 2014 in the context of the armed Russo-Ukrainian conflict which post dates the completion of this book.

Plokhy has had access to important primary source material, including transcripts and notes on conversations between the first President Bush and Gorbachev, Yletsin and Kravchuk. He has also interviewed some of the important participants in the events of 1991. The book includes a great deal of surprising detail.

Ukraine was important to Russia both symbolically and practically. Yeltsin did not want it to slip away from a "Slavic Union" which would leave Russia with just much-smaller Belarus to face towards the Islamic republics - the half dozen Central Asian Stans. 

It was also still the case, as it had been in 1917, that Ukraine was important to feeding Russia and it is an extraordinary fact that, as Plokhy describes it, in 1991 the Mayors of Leningrad and Moscow were preoccupied with food shortages - there wasn't much in the shops and they feared that by winter 1991 - 92 there would be nothing. It could have been 1917  - 18 all over again. Russian history is often about the question, Who is going to be hungry? In the 1930s, Stalin decided that it would be Ukraine - the food it produced was needed in Russia.

This is one reason why I disagree with one of Plokhy's conclusions:

The death of the Soviet Union differed from that of other empires in that the resource-rich metropolis cut off its former colonial possessions from easy access to those resources. Russia stood to benefit from the loss of its imperial possessions more than any other empire of the past (page 399)
This may be true of oil and gas, but it is still not true of food - nor even of cotton which Uzbekistan produced for the metropolis. I discuss some related issues in my review on this site of Alexander Etkind's Internal Colonization (reviewed on 9 June 2012)

Sunday 7 September 2014

Review: Charles Clarke, The "Too Difficult" Box

I bought this book with a heavy heart. Yes, I got £5 off but pretty soon it will be £20 off in every charity shop. It's a book which will fall dead born from the press.

Charles Clarke is a former British Labour politician who has made a new career as a Visiting Professor. In that role at the University of East Anglia he invited 25 people to come and talk about difficult issues in British politics, nearly all of them Establishment insiders: thirteen are members of the House of Lords and most of the rest could be and some certainly will be.

Now the House of Lords is part of the problem and not the place to look for solutions. It's a comfortable London club of 770 members with house rules so lax as to positively encourage what in ordinary life would be corruption (Google "Baroness Uddin" for example and search out Keir Starmer's reasons for not prosecuting her). Unsurprisingly, no one in this book suggests its abolition - a cost-saving and very effective solution to the problem it creates for the credibility of  "British democracy".

Other parts of the problem do not merit chapters in this book: there is nothing on the baleful influence of the Treasury, the Monarchy or the Established Church (whose Bishops automatically sit in the House of Lords). There is a chapter on the Scottish parliament  - by a member of the House of Lords - but no suggestion anywhere that England might deserve one. There is no mention of Northern Ireland or Wales - the former subsidised from England at around £5000 per local inhabitant and the latter at £4 000. There is no discussion of the jingoism which has us cling to Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands (the latter subsidised at around £50 000 per local inhabitant).

These are matters "too difficult" for Charles Clarke's Establishment. They are committed to thinking inside the box.

Most of them have probably been asked to "talk to students" before and few of them try very hard. Lord Falconer contributes a very tightly argued piece in support of Assisted Dying, arguing for the adoption of the US state of Oregon's model and this is probably the sharpest piece in the box. . At the other extreme, Lord Shephard's piece is merely whimsical and Mary Honeyball's reads like the transcript of a confused but nonetheless self-congratulatory talk on How I Got the EU to Adopt the Swedish Model (criminalising men who pay for sex). Trevor Phillips and David Blunkett also offer unstructured chats.

Very few contributors are angry with the System - Lord Filkin (on an ageing population) is - and that adds to the interest of his piece. The outsiders - Anatole Kaletsky on the Banks and Adam Boulton on the BBC - also show exasperation, though of course neither Boulton or anyone else suggests that public funding of the awful BBC should be withdrawn - cost-saving and effective and no loss.

A couple of pieces are lively presentations of issues by people with deep inside experience - Baroness Hollis on pensions and Margaret Hodge on waste in public spending contribute interesting pieces, and so do Lord Howarth (on drugs) and Tim Loughton (on child protection).

But overall this is not the place to go either for sharp analysis of the nature of a problem or defence of decisive solutions. Overall, it heads towards a Lower Second - about par for modern British political life.