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Saturday 5 December 2015

Review: Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend

This book was getting lots of Likes in the Books of the Year lists published in English newspapers and magazines, so I bought it and read it with pleasure.

The 331 pages of my translation are broken into 62 chapters and most of those chapterettes are emotionally charged, strongly visualised, dramatic vignettes of life in a working class quarter of 1950s Naples. Think Bicycle Thieves or La Strada for the atmosphere – but also Romeo and Juliet. There is more than a hint of the Camorra and an edginess created by the shared belief of the main characters that terminal violence is the way to respond to disrespect – well, and pretty much anything else. It wasn’t ISIS which invented that idea.

The novel is about two girls growing up and the book takes them up to age 16 and the marriage of one of them, Lina, the closest friend and alter ego of the narrator, Lenù – the familiar form of Elena, thus casting the author Elena Ferrante as the Lenù of the novel.

But at least for this reader, Lenù is much less interesting than Lina, so much so that I would not be surprised if in reality Lina and Lenù were one person. In the novel, their paths diverge just because clever Lenù stays in the school system and begins to be separated from her community of origin whereas brilliant Lina is withdrawn from school and kept in the home and shoe repairer’s shop of her family. But for most of the novel, she stays one academic step ahead of Lenù – in Latin, Greek, English - by borrowing books from the local library. The phrase "My Brilliant Friend"is used by Lina about Lenù once in the book, and the title reciprocates the compliment but with more justice.

Lina is an Original, genius, tomboy and reckless, who as the novel develops bends to the demands of her community so that with no experience of independent life – just a rich and complicated inner world of reservation and critique -  she marries at 16. It is her less original friend who is kept away from that fate by school (as much as anything) and who by the end of the novel begins to see that she will need to break with her community and culture or origin. If you like, she sees that the way out is through the door – not through the inner emigration which Lina practices.

I suppose my recommendation of the novel rests on the fact that I will now go to the bookshop and buy the three books which complete the chronological series of “Neapolitan Novels”

Added 15 December 2015:

Volume Two, The Story of a New Name, takes the story of Lina and Lenù into their early twenties. Lina has a child and leaves her husband for a life of hard work and poverty; Lenù leaves Naples for Pisa, graduates from university and aged 23 publishes a novel. Once again, I felt that Lina and Lenù are two sides of one person. Lina's notebooks - entrusted to Lenù - provide a simple literary device which enables Lenù to know everything about her absent friend's life.

The chapterettes (125 in 471 pages) remain highly charged and constantly provide fresh material. At times, I visualised it as a TV soap opera or sitcom (without the com) - a fixed cast of characters leading dramatic lives. It lends itself to TV forms more than to treatment as a film - a film would have to edit out three quarters of the material

The volume ends dramatically, like its predecessor, creating the space for the third volume: 

Added 3 January 2016: The two final volumes follow the lives of both women into their sixties and now much more space is given to Lenù's narrative of her own life, which is both unsparing and defensive.

In volume three, I was puzzled by the disappearance of the Camorra and its replacement by an assortment of "fascists" and "criminals". To be honest, I wondered if the author had been spoken to and told to be more careful. Volume Four brings the Camorra back but in a way which rather confirms that feeling - Lenù's sister marries one of the two principal Camorrists of the first volume.

There is a lot here about Italian politics in the 1980s and the ways in which Italy was (and still is) a failed state which has never been able (for example) to offer a fit for purpose Justice system to its citizens and so has provided the space in which the Mafias continue to thrive. If the State won't offer you protection, then the Mob will: Lina is explicit about this at one point. As recently as  2011 The World Bank rated Italy 158 out of 183 countries "for the efficiency of its justice system in enforcing contracts", just three places above Afghanistan. [ See my review of John Dickie's Mafia Republic on this website, 21 July 2013]

There is lots, lots more and in the end perhaps too much: the narrative structure is really "and then and then and then ..." which doesn't create pace and which does not create emotional climax for the reader at crucial moments (as when Lina's young daughter disappears). The absence of authorial humour from any of the hundreds of scenes is striking.

The editing of these books is impeccable. I could find fault with only two things: the occasional use of pseudo-generic "he" by the translator and a reference at page 105 in volume 4 to "Thailand" where the context of 1980s political debate clearly indicates that it should read "Cambodia" at the time that it was the Kampuchea of the Khmer Rouge.

Saturday 7 November 2015

Review: Ian McEwan The Children Act

England has an Establishment, utterly sure of itself, and most of its members live for part of the year in London where they circulate between interconnected club-like circles. Sometimes they seek out worlds outside their own, as when they go looking for sex or drugs. Sometimes, other worlds erupt into their closed lives in unexpected ways.

This is the second or third  novel in which Ian McEwan makes his story out of encounters between Establishment and Other. This time it involves a judge in the Family Division of the High Court and a teenage Jehovah’s Witness; in Saturday it took a distinguished neurosurgeon and a street criminal. 

Both are very readable books, with fine pacing and deft evocations of place and character. Scanning through McEwan’s backlist, I find I have read most of his novels and found only one to be a dud: Amsterdam, which got the Booker Prize, largely - I suspect - because the judges had screwed up a couple of years before when they did not give the prize to Enduring Love, a novel in a completely different class with a spectacular opening sequence.

The Children Act is a morally serious novel which manages to explore or touch upon a remarkably wide range of important issues: marital fidelity, enduring love, childlessness, loneliness, religious fundamentalism, what “the welfare of the child” might mean, the limitations of judicial procedures, the importance of classical music … All this in just over 200 pages (but the lines widely spaced). 

I was unhappy at only one (key) point (page 197) where the judge, Fiona, learns of the death of the young Jehovah’s Witness just before she goes on stage to play piano in an end-of-legal-term get-together and concert. Her performance is then turned into a requiem for the lost young man. I found this too contrived to be really effective.

But it’s still an excellent novel, well worth what will be a short read.

Saturday 24 October 2015

Review: Timothy Snyder, Black Earth

This is really three books in one.

The first part aims to shift the way we see the Holocaust. When something becomes familiar and taken-for-granted like the Holocaust, then it is always a good thing when someone tries to make us see it afresh. This Timothy Snyder does. He wants to produce two shifts (at least).

First, away from Auschwitz – a late and relatively minor Holocaust scene – and towards the Bloodlands of eastern Europe where mass murders, mainly by shooting, claimed the lives of over a million Jews in 1941 – 42. Waitman Wade Beorn's Marching into Darkness is the companion book for this part of the narrative. Unhelpfully, the book jacket design misses what Snyder is arguing and gives us the familiar railway tracks. Most Jews did not travel by train to die; they were rounded up where they lived and shot in local fields and forests by ordinary soldiers and locals as often as by specially trained killers.

Second, away from an emphasis on (Nazi or traditional) anti-semitism, as sufficient explanation on its own, and towards an understanding of the broader contexts in which people turn on their neighbours and kill them. In this broader context, Snyder emphasises eastern Europe as a world of shortages (land, food, clothes …) and a world of insecurity. The insecurity was dramatically increased by the wilful destruction of state structures by both Germany and the Soviet Union – in the worst cases, we find both of them attacking in rapid succession. When you destroy states – Poland, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – remove their leaders, their leading classes, their political parties, their armies, and so on, you turn citizens into stateless individuals, denied a Leviathan to protect them. Fear alone is enough to turn them against each other; anti-semitism channels the direction of pre-emptive violence in which those who have no prior or no profound ideological commitment willingly join.  

When the world becomes seriously insecure, the idea of killing your neighbour takes hold almost as if it is human nature. At the end of his book, Snyder briefly ( page 336) references the US-UK invasion of Iraq as an exercise in state destruction which functioned very much like the Nazi and Soviet invasions of 1941 – 42 in turning people into killers of their neighbours. Snyder singles out one phrase from a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust and Stalin's Gulag to illuminate what he is trying to get at: "a man can be human only under human conditions" (page 341)

The second part of Snyder’s book takes us over familiar ground – some of it familiar because of his earlier book Bloodlands -  and takes us through thumbnails of how the Holocaust proceeded (or was halted) in different countries and how individuals responded to their generally complex and intolerable situations. This is all readable (and occasionally perhaps sentimental) but does not add to or shift the way we see things, except insofar as it seeks to confirm the role of state destruction in unleashing the Holocaust.

The third part is a short essay which seeks to draw Lessons from the Holocaust which will allow us to understand the way our world is now and what threatens it. The main theme here is the potential role of food and water shortages – brought about by climate change -  in turning people against their neighbours, seeking to expropriate and secure scare resources for themselves. I would have turned this short essay into something a bit longer; as it stands it feels a bit schematic, despite brief references to interesting examples (like the Rwanda genocide of the 1990s).

If you are pressed for time, read the first part of this book. If like me you think that we can never stop learning from our own recent history, read it all.

Sunday 18 October 2015

Review: Michel Houellebecq, Soumission

I think Michel Houellebecq is a very good writer - sometimes superb - but I don't think this is a good novel. It doesn't really work.

He imagines France a few years on from now (2022) electing a (moderate) Islamic President one of whose (less moderate) priorities is to islamicise - with the help of Saudi Arabian funding - university education. The events of the novel unfold through the eyes of a jaundiced professor who is cast, first, as an Outsider à la Camus: there is an obvious nod to the opening page of L'Etranger at page 174. But he is cast, second, as a faux naïf  who sits open mouthed (always nibbling at the canapés or the mezze) as others, more clued in politically, give him lessons in what is happening to France. These lessons take the form of set piece speeches, delivered by a secret policeman and a university rector to their audience of one. It is one of the drawbacks of a roman à thèse that you are forced into such desperate literary devices.

I should add that the narrator is also cast, third, as an academic expert on J K Huysmans, sufficiently distinguished to get the invitation to edit a Pléiade edition of his works. What Houellebecq writes about Huysmans is interesting and clearly knowledgeable; some university should probably give Houellebecq a doctorate for his thesis and overlook the novel.

Houellebecq can be an amusing writer when he wants to be but I am not sure - maybe my French isn't good enough - if he intends that we should be in fits of laughter as he brings his novel to a close. His narrator likes food and sex, preferably free but he will pay for both if necessary. He's a bit down on his luck when he is compulsorily retired from the new islamicised Sorbonne. But he is tempted back. He sees what is happening to those of his colleagues who have converted to Islam. They not only have the salaries, but new wives. The rector of the University has been given a 15 year old, very sexy, but also has an older wife who can cook, very well.

And so the narrator, after dutifully reading the little introduction to Islam provided,  discreetly enquires - If I accept the invitation to return, for how many wives would I qualify? Well, there is no obligation to take all of them, but we could probably offer you three. That settles it and, to the delight of his colleagues, our Vicar of Bray returns to his university post.

Tuesday 29 September 2015

Review: Joseph Kanon, Leaving Berlin

The old Aristotelian device of “unity of time, place and action” works for the novel as well as for the theatre. If you want to create dramatic tension, it’s probably the device of choice. But it has a downside. You can end up creating implausible coincidences – on the stage, it means that the hero or villain enters stage left at just the right moment – just fancy that! – and in the novel it means pretty much the same thing. Joseph Kanon’s novel has a bit of this dramatic clumsiness, even though (because it’s a spy story) you may be unclear whether it’s a hero or a villain who has just walked onto the page.

Like his novel, The Good German, which I reviewed here on 19 January 2015, Leaving Berlin is set in early post-war Germany – 1949, in fact. This setting is now a sub-genre with its own tropes. One of them is in danger of being over-used: the mass rapes perpetrated by Russian soldiers as they entered Germany from the east in 1944 – 45. These rapes were known about, condoned and even encouraged right up to the top – Stalin knew. They are now documented in history books to make up for omissions in histories written at a time when you didn’t write about such things. Novelists now use the stories and are in danger of over-using them as if dealing with a peculiarly Russian disorder.

But it wasn’t only Russian soldiers who raped. So did Allied soldiers, not on the Russian industrial scale but in a few cases amounting to atrocities, notably involving troops from the French colonies: see the Wikipedia page “Rape during the occupation of Germany” for an introduction. These Allied rapes are not used as a literary trope: the French were on our side and their troops were African.

The novel has what seems a sentimental moment straight out of Casablanca (pages 315 – 318) but Kanon then gives it an unexpected twist – after all, this is a spy novel and as such it works quite well.

Sunday 13 September 2015

Review: Clive Driscoll, In Pursuit of the Truth

I usually have a fairly straightforward response to a book; to this one, I don’t

London’s Metropolitan Police has a reputation for idleness, incompetence and corruption. And that’s just the official view from numerous enquiries and investigations into its conduct. I would add servility to the list. The Met. has never stood up to its political masters who, it seems, will tolerate the Met’s shortcomings so long as it jumps when told to Jump! Only recently, the Leader of the House of Lords Baroness d’Souza reported her deputy, Lord Sewal, to the Met. for possession of class A drugs: the evidence provided by newspapers photographs of him snorting what he obviously believed to be cocaine. The Met. were on the case very quickly and obliged the Baroness by breaking down the door to Lord Sewal’s flat, an event duly publicised in those same newspapers. Now had I phoned the Met. and reported a neighbour who I suspected of snorting coke, I think it would have been seen as a case of wasting police time. London, after all, is the cocaine capital of Europe (that’s official too). Busting Lord Sewal was a complete waste of police time –  it may have  ticked the box, We acted on the Information, but it was done to oblige. It's forelock tugging.

The Met. is a traditionally working class organisation and Clive Driscoll presents himself as just an ordinary London boy from a difficult background who, despite dyslexia, has pulled himself up by his own bootstraps into a 35 year career with the Met. The style of the book is aggressively uneducated. I don’t know if this is Clive Driscoll alone or as he has been crafted by a ghost writer. The effect is sometimes comic and sometimes toe-curling. I think it is a main reason why I sometimes felt, This is an Unreliable Narrator. (But the low point comes when Mr Driscoll, who aims quite a few appropriate shafts at Roman Catholic church officials - spiced with reports of coded hand signals they use between themselves - then tells you that he himself is a  … Freemason. That had me in stitches.)

You cannot be a Comic Cuts Dixon of Dock Green Copper and at the same time successfully take on some very difficult investigations and secure convictions. That is where the style of the narration clashes all the time with the stories it narrates.

DCI Driscoll’s lasting claim to fame and gratitude arises from the fact that he took on the “Cold Case” Stephen Lawrence murder (which dated back to 1993), secured the confidence of the murdered boy’s parents – who provide Prefaces to this book - and others who had been bitterly disillusioned by the mishandling of the case, and eventually secured two convictions in 2012.

Things went wrong on the Lawrence case very early on: one of the suspects was the son of a well-known criminal who just happened to have a working relationship with the policeman put in charge of the murder investigation and who saw to it that the investigation went nowhere, despite information and evidence all over the place. Exceptionally bad luck? No, not completely untypical of the Met. 

All this and a lot more is on the record. So too is the fact that having secured the convictions, the Met. responded to Driscoll’s success not with congratulations but by pushing him into compulsory retirement – hence this book which though it never presents itself as such is also his revenge.

All these negative things said, there are stories told here which are entirely credible, greatly to Mr Driscoll’s credit, and often enough are stark reminders of what life in an “Inner City” is like for many of its inhabitants. Some of the things narrated here deserve further scrutiny, since the UK’s laws of libel have often enough prevented the naming of names. Mr Driscoll’s book is at its most frustrating when he points his finger upwards to the “high ups” in the Met.

Thursday 10 September 2015

Review: Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

This is a very well written and very interesting book. It argues that the elderly frail and the dying can enjoy a better quality of life than they often do - and that will often enough involve less medicine than more. It will certainly involve asking the frail and the dying what their own priorities are.

Gawande contrasts nursing homes, organised like penitentiaries, unfavourably with assisted living where even the very frail can keep something like their own front door and the freedom to schedule their own time and occupy it in their own way. Likewise, he is more impressed with hospice care (including hospice care delivered at home) than with medical interventions which go on for too long and often reduce rather than improve quality of life.

The argument is built up through some very finely written informal case studies, including one of his own father. As a result, the book is very easy to read - though, of course, it deals with end of life issues which are often enough traumatic for those involved - the person who is on the way out and the family who will remain. He also looks in detail at the ideas of practical providers who have sought alternatives to over-medicalised, over-hospitalised management and intervention.

I felt that the argument Gawande advances is really more general than he indicates. Even before we get into frailty and end of life, modern medicine often offers us too much and expects us to take it. 

It is now routine, for example, to offer rather unpleasant and often risky procedures as the means by which certain things (usually cancers) can be ruled out. But a good specialist using his or her hands and collateral information could in at least some cases make a reasonably reliable assessment. I would like the option of declining the invasive procedure until I had had a judgment from a pair of hands that concluded there was a real cause for concern.

Likewise, with medication. It is not only the elderly frail who are over-medicated to the point where side-effects are worse than the problem being medicated for. Play-safe prescribing or prescribing-on-request puts many millions of people onto pills they don't really need. 

There are signs that the problem is being recognised and  that things are changing. I hope so.

Sunday 6 September 2015

Review: Hanif Kureishi, The Last Word

Books are read in context. I was working for a couple of days in Wiesbaden and took with me an unfinished Caitlin Moran How To Build A Girl. Well, that’s a book where you speed along, tripping over from one gag to the next, and I finished it faster than I had imagined. I heartily recommend it.

I needed something else to read. The nearest German bookshop could only offer me a dozen novels in English (I’ve given up trying to read in German) from which I picked this one.

Kureishi has a very long back list from which I recognised only My Beautiful Launderette which I remember as a fine film.

This is not a book where you trip along, despite the cover puffs which assure you that it is “Brilliantly funny” and “Hugely entertaining”. Maybe it depends where you are coming from. The novel tells the story of a London-based man commissioned by his London publisher to write the biography of an elderly Indian –born but rural England-resident writer, who in turn writes a novel about the upstart young man sent to write his biography. I guess it’s the kind of plot which goes down well in London literary circles where, Private Eye informs me, everyone is up everyone else’s bum.

As a novel, I found it quite flimsy: unambitious plot and characters who aren’t quite, well, characters despite (perhaps because of) the big brushstrokes with which they are painted. I found white working-class Julia the most interesting of his three leading female characters.

But as a novel of ideas – an essay in other words – it’s very interesting. And when it uses its near-to-death main character Mamoon to say things of which London literary society might disapprove if you said them in your own voice, it’s interesting and fun. 

Thus Mamoon:

"[On George Orwell] All that ABC writing, the plain style,the bare, empty mind with a strong undertow of sadism, the sentimental socialism and Big Brother and the pigs, and nothing about love - intolerable. No adult apart from a teacher would bother with one of his novels." (page 92)

“One falls in love, and then learns, for the duration [of a marriage] that one is at the mercy of someone else’s childhood” ( 115)

“The truth is, everything we really desire is either forbidden, immoral or unhealthy, and, if you’re lucky, all three at once” ( 275)

“[Of his personal archive] It’s all going to the university this week. I should have stuffed it in the grate. Ted Hughes, whom I knew and loved, had the right idea with Sylvia’s diaries – push them in the oven after the woman’s head. Otherwise those unreadable academics never stop trying to make their careers and a good income out of it, while making the man look like an ogre. They see it as they wish, without imagination. And it is ordinary male sexuality that they hate” (300)

But reading this last rant, I did wonder if Kureishi did not quite have the courage of his character’s convictions and has left it to the reader to silently insert "politically correct" or “female” before “academics”. Perhaps that's unfair; maybe an editor took something out as an outrage too far. Elsewhere, Kureishi does allow Mamoon his racism.

Refreshingly, and in defiance of the new norm,  Kureishi does not Acknowledge the help of any Facebook Friends. 

Thursday 20 August 2015

Review: Kirstin Innes. Fishnet

The UK-based The Guardian newspaper organises an annual Not The Booker Prize literary competition and it has just published the Shortlist of six books based on Guardian readers’ voting. This book topped the list so I bought it (via Amazon, I’m afraid) together with the second on the list - which I guess will be reviewed here in due course.

It’s an interesting book with many strengths. There is a strong narrative line which generally held my attention. But towards the end I felt a jump forward in the chronology was awkwardly handled. When I first read pages 220 – 221  I thought they might be in the wrong place or that “Almost four years on…” (p 221) might be an uncorrected slip. If I count as a reasonably attentive reader, that really shouldn’t happen.

There is also an awkwardly handled story of betrayal, the importance of which you can I think easily miss. The narrator, Fiona, “outs” a student  sex worker, Anya/Sonja in a fit of anger or sexual jealousy and then in a disconnected passage interprets her own subsequent behaviour as an attempt at reparation. This is an important part of the narrative and it doesn’t come through as strongly as it should.

The strong, central narrative is single parent Fiona’s search for her long-time missing sister Rona / Tasha who she discovers had been working as an escort at the time of her disappearance which followed immediately on from handing over custody to Fiona of her baby daughter.

As Fiona introduces herself to sex workers in her search for Rona, she brings into consciousness her own frustrations with her job and with parenting. She also becomes more aware of her sexuality and desires which are hard to be open about. By the end of the book, she has become a sex worker herself, with a higher standard of living and greater contentment in her role as parent.

In between, there is a lot of very empathetic writing about the lives of sex workers and a fairly obvious contempt for those who would “save” them by criminalising those who pay for sex (men - who on this issue  are fair game for uninhibited sexist stereotyping by advocates of the "Nordic Model"). The contempt probably gets in the way of giving a rounded portrayal of the saviours – Innes has a character, Claire, who is very cardboard even though Innes devotes quite a lot of space trying to understand  her and humanise her. But maybe these people are cardboard - in another context recently I read an essay by "Nordic Model" Mary Honeyball which would support that thought.

The book is at its best in its assertiveness about female sexuality in the face of the Save Women from Prostitution denial of female sexuality. And, perhaps even more so, it is very strong in its probing into what it might mean to live a good or fulfilling life if you, like very many people, don’t have a lot of money, do have a child to care for, and don’t want to live like a doormat.

Monday 17 August 2015

Review: William Faulkner, Light in August

Light in August was published in 1932, just twenty years before Harper Lee began writing. In comparison to her books, it's a heavyweight work of literature, initially striking me for its wordplay linguistic inventiveness and its piledup evocative paragraphs. It also struck me for its sexual frankness. It's a slow read because Faulkner is in no hurry and does not maintain a single (or even a dual) narrative line. I found this unsatisfactory only at the end when the introduction of a completely new character, the State Captain Grimm - Joe Christmas's eventual killer - delays the work which is then delayed again by the historical musings of Hightower.

On those Lists which are everywhere, it ranks in the Top 100 American novels of the 20th century and no doubt even higher among novels which treat of the American South and the legacy of the Civil War, whites and negroes, Confederates and Yankee abolitionists. But its themes are in many respects more personal than sociological, focussing on a set of lives early damaged and badly so and intersecting in ways which bring out that damagedness. There is only the merest hint of the possibility of redemption, in the short final chapter.

It's 380 pages in my edition; I doubt I will read it again, even though it is the kind of richly-textured book which would repay a second reading.

Thursday 6 August 2015

Review: Rhidian Brook, The Aftermath

Germany in the immediate aftermath of World War Two is a popular setting for contemporary novels written in English. On this site, I have recently reviewed two others: Joseph Kanon's The Good German and Ben Fergusson's The Spring of Kasper Meier. This book is another one. There must be others and already enough for a Compare and Contrast MA dissertation.

I began with a prejudice against this book. The author is described as a "regular contributor" to BBC's radio "Thought for the Day" which in the days when I listened to radio was an Establishment platform for unctuous religiosity. Oh dear, I thought, I hope that's not what I'm in for with this novel. 

Fortunately, I wasn't, though my suspicions returned when I got to the last of the author's "Acknowledgments". All novelists have to have these nowadays - younger writers think it means providing a list of their Likes - and Rhidian Brook ends his own with an acknowledgment to "The Author of All Things". 

Finger down throat.

The novel maintains a well-structured pace and I didn't at any point want to give up on it. The pace quickens at the end but the end itself could be found unsatisfactory: Brook resolves the situation of  his main German characters, Stefan Lubert and his daughter Frieda but not that of his main English characters, Lewis, Rachael and their son Edmund who have been living in the requisitioned Lubert villa. It's left for us to imagine the outcome for them but it is such a big task that it feels like it's been dumped on the reader.

The strength of the novel is in the feeling of edginess which Brook creates in handling the relations between his main characters. Lewis-Rachael, Rachael - Lubert, Edmund-Frieda, Lewis-his colleagues, Edmund and the street orphans of Hamburg. You can imagine it done as a stage play with silences and exits. 

All the characters are dealing with loss and it is their different responses to loss which the novel explores. The ending simply restores one of the losses, quite literally: Lubert's wife and Freida's mother, who they have believed dead in the 1943 Hamburg firestorm, turns out to be alive.

There are moments of unctuousness but his German orphans are constructed around their knowledge of English swearing, definitely not acquired from Thought for the Day.

Monday 3 August 2015

Review: Tim Butcher, The Trigger

This is a beautifully crafted and very readable book. The author retraced - literally, as a hiker - the steps which took Gavrilo Princip from his home village in Austro-Hungarian Bosnia to Sarajevo and the intellectual and emotional steps which turned him into the assassin  of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. Narrating his journey, he at the same time writes the biography of Princip and compares and contrasts the Balkans in the 1910s with the Balkans in the 1990s, where he worked as a news reporter. There is some original archival research done on the way. In total, it's a very good book.

Tim Butcher presents Princip as a South Slav nationalist - a Yugo-slav nationalist - rather than a Serbian nationalist. He wanted to free all those who were colonial subjects of the Austro-Hungarian empire regardless of their language or religion. Princip was actually (it seems) little interested in how they would then organise themselves.

These claims are important because the rhetorical positioning of the great powers in the run-up to their  First World War cast Princip as a Serb Nationalist in pursuit of what later came to be called Greater Serbia. That positioning allowed Austria-Hungary to point the finger of blame for the assassination at independent (but weak) Serbia and pushed Russia into the role of defender of Serbia, a country populated by fellow Orthodox Christian Slavs.

This is once again one of those fine books which though not written by an academic will force the academics to re-think. 

Criticisms occurred to me at just a couple of points. Butcher makes rather heavy weather of the language issue - is it Serbo-Croat, or Serbian and Croat? - and strangely makes no mention at all of the fact that the south Slavs use two alphabets. Serbians / Orthodox Christians use Cyrillic; the others use Roman. Yugoslavia, when it existed, was obliged to use both. 

Butcher's narrative is about Serbs, Croats and Bosnians (and Herzgovinans - Princip was one). The Slovenes, the Macedonians, the quasi-independent Montenegrins, the Kosovar Albanians, the Jews, the Hungarians, the Roma don't figure. What united them all was merely the fact that for centuries they had been ruled as colonial subjects either of the Ottomans or the Habsburgs. Princip did in fact succeed in freeing all of them from the yoke of those Imperialisms. The brutal conflicts of the 1990s were (at least partly) about freeing themselves from the yoke of a demented Greater Serb nationalism.

Thursday 30 July 2015

Review: Ferdinand von Schirach, The Girl Who Wasn't There

I didn’t find this a gripping novel in the way that the author’s previous book The Collini Case is gripping: I read that book in a single sitting (see my Review 16 March 2014). With this one, I struggled.

Roland Barthes back in the early 1950s developed the concept of a “Degree Zero” of unmarked prose in modern writing; he had in mind works like Camus’ L’Etranger – the original English translator of that novel found its plainness so unacceptable that he or she simply padded out the Spartan text with invented flourishes. Von Schirach adopts a Spartan style reminiscent of Camus. For well over a 100 pages everything is described in flat prose, short sentences resisting emotional charge or effect. I don’t think this is the translator getting it wrong.

For example, though there are clear similarities between this book and some of Houellebecq’s writings (notably La carte et le territoire reviewed here 1 August 2012), von Schirach – unlike Houellebecq who is very good at it - does not try to write erotically charged and arousing prose; he just narrates sexual scenes as he might narrate having a shower.

I was on the point of giving up (even though the book is very short) when the murder mystery section opens – at page 115 of the 215 page book - and the writing becomes more lively, more open and even funny. The first joke appears as late as page 142 (top line) and I found it inordinately funny – that’s what emotional starvation does to you.

Alternatively, you could say that it shows good crafting, good pacing. I don’t think so. I think the pace – or if you like, the tone – is unchanged for too long (115 pages say) and then the murder mystery is compressed and underdeveloped.

Like Houellebecq in La carte et le territoire von Schirach imagines himself into the work of a modern artist of conceptual orientation (actually a photographer) and is thus able to create a complete work – a project, an installation – for his character just using words. The reader can enter fully into this totally imaginary art work. This perhaps illustrates the weakness of conceptual art, which is often no more than a narrative illustrated with a few props. But von Schirach has done his background reading and some of the more interesting passages in the second half of the book are those which give the background to his photographer’s disappearing trick.

There is a happy ending which is so brief and abrupt that it could be called trite.

My advice: in his next novel, von Schirach should give himself another 50 or 100 pages and he should change the pace, the emotional tone, more often. Trite but possibly true.

Sunday 26 July 2015

Review: Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman

Basically,No. It’s a pity that Harper Lee was prevailed upon to release this novel written half a century ago and before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird.

The book is poorly structured and paced - it doesn’t have either the narrative drive or the emotional drive that you get in Mockingbird. The dialogue is – to use an appropriate cliché – wooden: it’s not so much dialogue as a collection of set-piece speeches. Some things are embarrassingly bad: notably when Uncle Jack morphs into Dr Freud in One Easy Lesson in order to make things at least half-right again between Jean-Louise and Atticus.

As for the content, my guess is that it does not stand the test of time and won’t be helpful in addressing America’s contemporary race issues which now are just as much a Northern as a Southern question.

At worst, there are going to be Reading Groups where someone will suggest that if it’s OK for Atticus Finch to be some kind of qualified racist then it must be OK for all of us.

The book has the overall sentimental feel of the work which followed it.But it would have been best for To Kill a Mockingbird to have remained the one-off, stand-alone achievement which it has been since it was published.

Saturday 27 June 2015

Review: Suzanne O'Sullivan, It's All in Your Head

This is another book picked up by chance in Waterstone's and a most unusual one too. It's quite easy to find books which narrate the case histories of patients seen by private psychotherapists (Stephen Grosz's The Examined Life is a recent example, reviewed on this site 3 February 2014) or, in the case of Adam Phillips, by a former NHS child psychologist. But this book is by a consultant neurologist with a special interest in epilepsy who in the course of her work (both NHS and, I assume, private) encounters patients whose symptoms have no identifiable organic base and are thus, sooner or later, classified as psychological in origin.

The symptoms are major and disabling - seizures, convulsions, paralysis, blindness. They are symptoms which have led to ambulances being called, A and E working flat out, consultants being telephoned, provisional diagnoses and medication being prescribed - and to no avail. 

For the most part, they are symptoms which if not organically caused, would once have been assigned to the category of hysteria. Dr O'Sullivan devotes some pages to the history of hysteria within modern clinical medicine, starting with Charcot and Janet and continuing to Breuer and Freud. But - perhaps on editorial advice - she gives no bibliographic references at all, not even a Further Reading list. This is a pity since part of the interest of this book lies in the fact that it is written from the perspective of a neurologist with an orthodox medical training and wide experience of conventional clinical practice in Ireland and the UK. It thus gives an unusual insight into what hospital neurologists nowadays know and think about psychosomatic or psychogenic disorders.

But the book uses case histories rather than theoretical argument or research review to guide our understanding. One of the first things to strike me about these case histories was the prominent position of the patient's parents, partners and other carers. Of course, if you are confined to a wheelchair you are going to have carers. But the carers are often present in the kinds of unhelpful way which R D Laing and A Esterson flagged up many years ago now in Sanity, Madness and the Family: the carers present themselves as authoritative in regard to the medical history and current feelings of the patient. They also have strong views on what will count as an acceptable diagnosis. O'Sullivan does not really engage with the facts she extensively reports and the patient is always referred as an individual to a psychiatrist and never everyone involved to family or marital therapy.

She frequently makes the point that the psychogenic illnesses she encounters are found in people who often have no conscious awareness of being anxious, depressed or stressed and who indeed often enough proclaim themselves happy and worry-free. You could say, this is why they have ended up in A and E rather than in the armchair of a private psychotherapist. At one point she remarks, "Perhaps those who deny stress do so because they do not feel stress, having converted it to something else" (p 243) - that "something else" being a somatic symptom. But this is not an incidental "Perhaps" feature. It seems to be the heart of the matter - the patients she is seeing suffer from conversion disorders in which the body expresses (in a terrifying manner) what the conscious mind, the tongue cannot.

This is a very interesting, quite brave book. It is consistently humane, even towards the occasional malingerer who makes it all the way to the neurologist's telemetry suite - in the final chapter, there is a charming, warm portrait of just such a person. We know a lot about the world of those who can be articulate on the analyst's couch, much less about those whose body takes the brunt of their illness.

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Essay: Portnoy's Complaint meets the Creative Writing Class

It was Carmen Callil who made me go out and buy a Philip Roth. When she resigned as a judge for the Man Booker International Prize, just awarded to Philip Roth, she complained that all his books were the same. Well, I thought, then I only have to read one.

I bought The Human Stain, on table display locally, and thereby plugged a gap in my reading. I had now read all of Philip Roth. I could see Carmen Callil's real issue. He's an all-American Male Writer. He's not doing polite fiction, he's doing a bar room brawl.

Unfortunately, I did enjoy the book, even when it punched me in the gut: there's a scene where, as part of his rehab, a traumatised Vietnam veteran - one of the principal characters - is taken to a Chinese restaurant to sit down and eat a meal. It's a long, drawn-out passage and reading it is like watching a horror movie. In a Creative Writing class you could use it as a model of craftsmanship.

I went out and bought another Roth, Portnoy's Complaint, a book I could have read at any time in the past forty years but hadn't.

In the second half of my University career, I drifted into teaching Creative Writing. There was a demand for it, people would pay (if you gave them an MA), and I could do it well enough. The basic formula is that you sit around and people read excerpts from their work in progress - or they pre-circulate it - and everyone joins in to comment. It was certainly easier than the foundations of linguistics.

The main source of anxiety in the Creative Writing class is that some (male) student will produce his equivalent of Portnoy's Complaint. And though I can sit and laugh heartily here at home, my toes would curl if someone did it (as they occasionally did) in a CW class. The atmosphere is just too polite, too politically correct and too feminine. At worst, it's Sunday School.

Maybe it was me. Maybe I didn't know how to make the setting into one which could accommodate masculine (or maybe male) rampage, masculine (or maybe male) tirade. Blogger can't accommodate it either, it seems - it refused to autosave the first draft of this Blog the moment I started to quote Roth Fucking and Cunting (I wouldn't even dare quote him Jewing).

But I don't think it was just me. Portnoy's Complaint could not come out of a nice CW class and that, I think, is probably Carmen Callil's problem with Roth. But if so, I think it is the CW class which has to go, not Roth or Roth's genre of writing.

Reblogged from where it first appeared on 29 June 2011

Friday 29 May 2015

Review: Andrew Morton, 17 Carnations: the Windsors, the Nazis and the Cover-Up

This is what you end up with if you place at the heart of your country’s constitution a struggling dysfunctional family, often enough just not up to the job or any job. There are plenty of occasions reading Andrew Morton’s book when I thought “Just like Prince Charles!” and “Just like Prince Harry”. The Windsors ( and their previous incarnation, the Saxe Coburg Gothas whose name they dropped in 1917 ) have only ever had much luck when their women have been in charge: Victoria, George VI’s wife Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (the Queen Mother), Elizabeth II.

Unfortunately, this is not a good book. I find it hard to believe that the author read it cover to cover before signing it off:  two thirds of the way through, it is as if another (and inferior) writer takes over in Chapter 13 who then goes on to re-tell from a different perspective what has already been told in the first dozen chapters (and already more than once). So though I began reading with interest I ended up more than ready to put the book down.

It is not original research and in offering many quotations from a fair number of historians who have already written about Edward VIIIs sympathy for Hitler (and his own German aristocratic relatives who rallied to Hitler’s cause) it ends up without a clear verdict on the nature of his disloyalty to his country and his country’s various governments in the 1930s and 1940s. Morton has at least one excuse: though many important incriminating documents survive, others have surely been destroyed and more would have been if the House of Windsor and the Governments of the 1940s had had their way. (Just as nowadays, it is the Government which is fighting to keep Prince Charles' indiscreet political letters from becoming public)

The man who briefly became Edward VIII before abdicating to marry an American divorcee combined popular charisma with a deeply unpleasant private personality, his wife likewise. There are many examples in the book to make you think, “These people are complete shits”.

Like Prince Charles, Edward believed in an “active” monarchy which would not restrict itself to the constitutional duties of advising, encouraging and warning. But it’s unclear on what Edward felt his right to intervene to be based: he doesn’t appear to have studied much, read much or spent much time talking to anyone who wasn’t a crony or a crook – or a flatterer and spy. Perhaps then just Divine Right gave him the authority he assumed, after the Abdication, to conduct protracted freelance diplomacy with the Nazis and their allies.

Deeply self-centred and often childish, he had no notion of discretion and his careless talk in France in 1940 – where he had an active duty military posting - may have cost lives. On that Morton is reasonably decisive.That may have been one reason he was then posted to the Bahamas where he was made to sit out the war as Governor. Primarily, he was exiled from Europe to keep him a long way away from his Nazi chums.

The insecure George VI and the vindictive Queen Mary (George V's widow and Edward's mother) and Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother ensured that after the war, there was no place for him in Britain. But in perpetuating the family feud as dysfunctional families are supposed to do, they may have done some good. Edward VIII got away with actions which in the case of lesser mortals might have led to war-time internment. He does not even appear to have been questioned under caution. After the war, he had little or no scope for any action. 

Monday 25 May 2015

Review: Suki KIm, Without You, There is No Us

You couldn’t make it up. North Korea boasts one private university, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). It teaches  - in English and for free -  a couple of hundred male children of the North Korean elite, picked by the regime. The University is funded mainly by American Evangelical Christian groups and the teaching staff are mostly  Christian missionaries, who are however forbidden to proselytise. Go to Wikipedia to find out more about PUST (which you can do, unless you are in North Korea where Internet access is restricted to a very small group with usage monitored by guards).

Suki Kim, a Korean American born in Seoul, got herself a job at the University in 2011, shortly after it opened and at which time it was no more than a glorified English language school with its own new campus. She had her own agenda: not as a Christian, but as an investigative journalist and writer. This book is the product of teaching at PUST for two semesters. Her website contains a page defending the ethics of what she did.

This book is her strange diary of teaching in a strange land among strange teachers: the kind of fundamentalist teachers who won’t enter a Buddhist temple (page 211) or entertain the idea of letting students watch Harry Potter. (“filth” page 275).

Presumably, the North Korean authorities feel that they have something in common with American evangelical Christians and I guess they do: “mad” comes to mind quite frequently as you read this book. Both groups are intellectually isolated. Google to find out how many Americans believe that the sun goes round the earth or that human beings are the product of special creation.

North Korea is a country where over ninety percent of the population is kept hidden from outside eyes. They are impoverished, hungry,sick and afraid. They are at permanent risk of brutal punishment. They are –  Suki Kim uses the word – slaves. They do not appear in photographs.

What outsiders are allowed to see is a theatre – Potemkin churches (“Freedom of Religion”), Potemkin farms, Potemkin crowds – against a stage set of endless monuments to the Kim dynasty and endless socialist realist exhortations.

What Suki Kim encounters is a small group of elite students who know next to nothing about the world outside Pyongyang, but who are clever enough to know that they don’t know. They are naïve, sexually frustrated, and very very fearful. They operate exclusively in groups (though that is common enough among young men – think English football fans). They look alike and act alike. They are at least half mad.

It is difficult to see how North Korea can change. Except for the blanket of ideology which stifles everything, the relationship of the capital to the rest of the country is not so different to that found in mineral-rich African states, where the capital city’s wealth stands in total contrast to rural impoverishment. Except that North Korea has little by way of natural resources. The regime is propped up by the proceeds of crime, the proceeds of slave labour, foreign aid, and - as I now discover - Christian missionaries. There is no economy to speak of. What money there is goes into the military programme.

This is a troubling, very emotional (and probably flawed) book. It contains very little to comfort and a lot to disturb.

Sunday 3 May 2015

Review: Owen Jones, The Establishment

This is a straightforward Them (the 1%) and Us (the 99%) book. It's lucid, well-documented, compelling and sometimes - as in the chapter on the police - scary. Rather than concentrate on its many strengths, I will focus on my doubts.

(1) Trade Unions. It's true that the assault on Trade Union power, led initially by Mrs Thatcher and continued ever since, has helped produce a much more casualised, readily exploitable, and lower paid labour force than existed for many industries - but not all - in the 1960s and 70s. But that assault was possible because the old Trade Unions pissed off a lot of people and not just the bosses.

There has always been some tension between the goals of trade unions and the aims of socialist or social democratic political parties. The former are designed to advance the interests of sections of the labour force; the latter to advance the interests of all workers. Those aims can conflict. In the UK the miners, for example, got into the habit of expecting everyone to stand up for their pay claims - partly playing on other people's guilt when they didn't themselves do such dirty or dangerous work - until a point was reached (for me, in 1984) when people no longer wanted to jump when the miners said Jump! Oh, the miners might get sentimental about the nurses, but that's not the same as a proper discussion about who should be paid what and why. 

Look at France, which retains strong unions ever-ready to strike, and what you see, partly as a long-term consequence of unions pursuing sectional interests is, on the one hand, large groups (notably in the public sector) with very good terms and conditions of employment and, in stark contrast, two big, overlapping, excluded groups: young workers ( or would-be workers) and migrants from France's former colonies, mostly blacks and mostly Muslims. Whatever the rhetoric - and there's an awful lot of it in France - the effect of sectionalism has not been favourable either to equality or fraternity. 

(2) The Big State. Around the world, more egalitarian societies have bigger states, taking a larger share of GDP. This is a bit depressing because in the UK at least, the state has a poor record for efficiency and transparency. To this day, the National Audit Office churns out report after report documenting the waste of billions. Transfer activities have an inherent inefficiency because when you take from A to give to B, there are always administrative costs and, on top of that, there is often bungling. It would be nice if we could cut out the middleman.

Apparently, there is just one major state - Japan - which scores well on equality but has a relatively small state (for details, see Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level). 

How could you achieve both a lot of equality and a smaller state? It could be done, for example, by legislating high minimum wages and capping top wages. If that is combined with the use of inheritance tax as a major source of state revenues, you can dramatically level the playing field. The last thing I can get enthusiastic about are systems which make heavy use of indirect taxes (VAT) and subsidies such as tax credits and housing benefit. On the other hand, when you legislate for equality then if you are way out of line with market forces, you just end up with black markets, dual systems, evasion and so on. That is, unless people are satisfied with their situation - Owen Jones, for example, points out that nowhere else in Europe do bankers expect to be paid such huge amounts as those in London. And in Germany, at least,corporate greed seems much less common - big companies are kept in the family, not asset stripped and bankrupted by their bosses. So there are cultural issues - and I suspect they include such things as the culture of stag parties and men-only football (In Germany at the time of the World Cup, I was amazed to find the streets full of painted, flag-waving but mixed-sex and sober groups).

(3) Profit. Owen Jones spends a lot of time denouncing the selling off and outsourcing of public services for private profit. Leave aside that there exists some support for this because people got fed up with crap public services. Concentrate on the issue of Profit.

Suppose it cost the public sector £150 to provide some identifiable chunk of a service - like issuing a TV licence or producing a chest X ray. Now suppose a private firm comes along and offers to do it for £100 plus a whacking £25 profit. It's still better value for money than the public service. Why not let them have their profit?

Since there may be important reasons to keep a service public, the first response to this situation should be to ask why the public service is more expensive and whether it can be made more competitive. Frequently, it can indeed be made more competitive - and Owen Jones is quite right to point to the purely ideological commitment to private provision which characterises our recent governments and which led, for example, to the selling off of the one public service rail franchise (the East Coast mainline) which just happened to be more efficient and more profitable than any of the heavily subsided private sector rail rackets. 

To make Profit the enemy is a dangerous oversimplication (as in "People not Profit"). People can benefit from Profit - but not from ideologies of Profit which is what we are currently offered.