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Saturday 30 December 2017

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

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

But see the original review for the full supporting case.

Sunday 17 December 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Review: Lawrence Osborne Beautiful Animals

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 7 November 2017

Review: Tim Parks In Extremis

The death of a parent does funny things to children, even when those children are of mature years. Powerful mixtures of grief, guilt, love, anger and relief are often toxic to clear thinking and uncomplicated feeling, even in those who have come to think of themselves as clearheaded and balanced in their emotional responses.

Tim Parks’ powerful new novel is not an easy read. It starts off with a hundred and more pages in which his fifty-seven year old narrator, Thomas Sanders, sets off on journeys (two) to his dying mother’s bedside. The journeys turn into those you have in anxiety dreams, delays and diversions at every turn. Anxiety dreams are exhausting and so too is Parks’ narrative; he doesn’t really let up. Worse, Sanders is merely acting an exaggeration of his normal self. He is anxious and obsessive anyway, his stream-of-consciousness narration constantly lurching from one source of stress to another. Where Beckett’s Molloy counts his farts – Parks reminds us of this on page 122 – Sanders counts the number of times he pees. He does that for the whole book. But he also finds time to obsess about grammatical correctness (whom / who). And about a solution he has found to his peeing problem, anal massage, which figures largely though I am not sure whether anal massage really is a distinct therapeutic technique (I can’t be arsed to Google) or simply another name for the prostate massage which qualified sex workers offer. Whatever, Sanders spends a lot of time both literally and metaphorically up his own arse. 

He is not very endearing. He is addicted to his mobile phone and laptop, which constantly distract him from his distractedness. Remarkably, he has a lover thirty years his junior who is only lightly sketched but who is clearly very tolerant. The drama of the novel hinges partly on whether Sanders will see sense and count himself lucky to have Elsa love him, as his “shrink” urges (she is never dignified with any other title), or whether he will retreat back into the marriage he has only recently left, do the right thing even if he has to self-anal massage forever to stay alive.

As if this extraordinary literary evocation of conflicted anxieties is not enough, we then proceed to very powerfully written deathbed scenes. Someone who drops dead from a heart attack spares us the horror of observing a body disintegrate; those who die of cancers may have some of their pain and distress relieved by drip-fed opiates but it doesn’t really alter the visible facts of what is going on as we sit there, day after day. Dying smells, as Parks observes in a novel which places itself in a tradition of novels which foreground the body: its orifices, its failings, its smells - rather than the mind, the soul, the spirit.

The novel keeps going after the death of Sanders’ devoutly Christian mother (who would not acknowledge the body) and for fifty or so pages I felt this was a mistake; the novel felt unfocussed and miscellaneous, cluttered  by sub-plots which are now given opportunity to develop but with too many characters making cameo appearances. But then Parks pulls the novel back together with another powerful narrative of the funeral, both moving and withering by turns, but which still leaves us on tenterhooks about which way Sanders will jump. In this, the narrative echoes the conflicted uncertainty of, say, Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers ( where, by the way, Paul Morel does actually administer what he hopes is a fatal dose of opiates to his dying mother).

Parks does answer the Which way? question in a two page Epilogue which closes the book with a Joycean Yes to life, but you feel it has been a close-run thing and the epilogue is so perfunctory that you rather fear a relapse. 

Wednesday 1 November 2017

Available Now: Trevor Pateman Prose Improvements

Click on Image to Magnify

Published 1 November 2017. Hardback. 128 pp. Limited first edition of five hundred signed and numbered copies.

Available in the UK from your usual bookshop (including any Waterstones) or until the end of 2017 order direct from the publisher to receive a copy post free to any UK address. Just send a cheque for £15 made payable to Theyby Ltd and accompanied by your own postal address to

degree zero,unit 10, 91 Western Road, Brighton BN1 2NW

Queries to

Sunday 29 October 2017

Review: Tim Parks, The Novel: a Survival Skill

In 1970, aged 16, Tim Parks wrote a school essay for which he expected an A grade. Instead he got a D with the explanatory comment “Biographical fallacy!” He had used the writer’s life to explain the writer’s work. Parks tells us this at page 75 of this very interesting 2015 book. The book might be regarded as his riposte or revenge for that remembered comment because it defends an approach which argues that novels are inter-textual with the lives of their authors and – equally so – with the lives of their readers. Authors inevitably write things which are meaningful for them as living, breathing human beings and readers involve themselves with novels because they are (mostly) about human beings and their relationships – albeit, wholly or partly imagined ones.

Parks is more specific in his theorising than my generic paraphrase allows. In chapter 2 he commits himself to a version of  systemic (or systems) psychology as a way of understanding family dynamics and argues that novelists (at least characteristically) are marked by their families of origin to later understand human relationships in the terms they have been most familiar with. Those terms can often be expressed as simple binaries: freedom/ dependence; winning / losing; fear / courage; loyalty / betrayal; belonging / excluded. Readers are marked in the same way and will sometimes run into difficulties with an author if the author privileges a binary with which they are unfamiliar. Someone who positions themself as independent of ties may struggle to see why a character in a novel whose self-worth and happiness depends on belonging is so upset – devastated even – by exclusion. If you like, the value system offered us is completely different to our own. Parks might add: that’s one of the things novels are for.

He follows up the initial theoretical positioning with chapters in which the works (or some selected works) of Joyce, Beckett, Hardy, Lawrence and Dickens are read inter-textually with their own lives, rather than with the works of other writers. Parks himself stands in for the reader and the reader’s variable responses. These chapters are all very well done, and very well written; I suspect they have grown out of many years teaching fairly advanced English literature classes. In many ways, they don’t need the apparatus of systemic psychology, though that may have taught Parks what to look for or what to privilege.

Parks takes pot shots at what he often calls “academe” by which he means ways of reading which are essentially anodyne and avoid what human lives are often or always about, even when novels go to great lengths to show varieties of what that life is about. Academe is one bloodless pole of a binary the other pole of which might be blooded human desires and emotions. Parks’s father lived in a study lined with bible concordances; his brother, living in the same house, played guitar and fucked girls. Parks does not want to be his brother’s double – that’s not his family position – but he does agree that life is about fear and loathing, blood and guts, success and failure – and that what bible concordances say about those things (but which aren't indexed in that way, I guess) is unlikely to be terribly illuminating.

This is an enjoyable book to read. The question I suppose I ought to try to focus is this: What would someone living in pot-shot academe say about it by way of riposte? I find it hard to answer that, no doubt because I share many of Parks’s prejudices – much of his positioning , if you prefer. But if I was forced, I would start this way: systemic psychology is less systematic than you imagine, even in relation to its home base of family dynamics. Its weakness is that it is general (vague) enough to allow you to pick things out of the life and the text which fit. In this it ends up not being so different in method and result to Marxist criticism, which can always find things to fit, or to such things as archetypal symbolic reading, which ditto. So these methods are always self-validating. We in academe want to find methods which allow for falsification. 

The trouble is, of course, that in relation to literary academe that last sentence can only be ironic or, probably, just sarcastic.

Friday 8 September 2017

Review: Michael Rosen So They Call You Pisher!

Writing autobiography and memoir is a perilous business.  We forget and what we do remember has often been re-arranged in our minds but without our knowledge. Then there is embarrassment about how we were then, embarrassment which we may try to counter with a heavy dose of irony signalling that Yes, We know, This is toe-curling. Then there are anxieties about what can and can’t be said because so-and-so is still alive or because we reckon that our audience will boo rather than laugh if we go down some particular, incorrect path as we surely at some point did. Everyone has their satanic moments.

Recently, I tried to imagine what I might say if asked to talk, autobiographically, to a student audience in Oxford and I came out in a sweat. I'd like to think this had something to do with the fact that I see little point in public talk which does not have some kind of edge. Nowadays, at any rate, I wouldn’t want simply to make an audience feel good; I would want to challenge them a bit. Oh, I’m willing to come at it gently enough but, eventually, I want to get to the edge, the point at which I say something like Excuse me, I am not convinced. The problem is not a tucked away, shit-covered statue of Cecil Rhodes. The whole genre of monumental sculpture is misconceived. The thinking behind it is essentially atavistic and the realisation is almost always artistically without merit. Imagine there’s no statues. It’s easy if you try. The worst thing that can happen is that we pull down one lot only to put up another.

Some of my fellow students in 1960s Oxford were born with a silver spoon in their mouth - in some cases, a fistful of spoons. Thus William Waldegrave, whose A Different Kind of Weather I reviewed here on 28 April 2015. Others were nourished from birth, and sometimes force-fed, with cultural capital which in Michael Rosen’s case spills in a continuous stream onto the pages of his memoir. It’s hard to believe anyone could acquire so much capital so early in life. 

Rosen (born 1946) is the younger son of second generation migrants who are upwardly mobile. Through the 1950s and into the 1960s, living in London, they manage at the same time to be Communist, Jewish and sharp-elbowed, though it’s unclear in what order. I knew Michael Rosen’s father a bit,  a very lively and committed external examiner on a university course I directed, and before that I knew his son as a student at Oxford and then later as someone whose books I read to my children.

His memoir is lively and funny. His coming of age chapter La Colonie when at sixteen he goes to summer camp in France, without parents or older brother, is very well done. I found the book most interesting when he assembles bits of his cultural capital as it stood at a certain date and then stands back to reflect on what is going on in his life. But for the most part he sticks to a conventional Memoir form and, for example, does not attempt to link Life (to age twenty three) to later Work, except very incidentally. Maybe that is simply someone else's job.

Life from an early age was busy, and Rosen has always been busy – over 140 books, says the blurb. Perhaps too busy. I found my father intolerable because he played the part of an alcoholic who makes everyone around suffer, and my father most of the time wasn’t even drinking. He was just uninterested in other people’s needs or wishes when not actively hostile. I got very little from him, or worse. But Michael Rosen describes a father who is always there, always solicitous, always urging on. His mother tries to shield her son a bit, “Leave him alone. He’s tired”, but rather ineffectually it seems. Despite never having had such attention, I am sure I would have found a father like that intolerable and so I tend to read some of the incidents of rebelliousness catalogued in the later part of the book as a reaction to Harold’s omnipresence in his son’s life as well as to the absurdities of the institutions including Oxford that we attended. Michael cannot resist a jape and sometimes they backfire. 

He closes his book with a letter addressed to his father but written after the latter's death and even though the content is not directly about their relationship, indirectly I suspect it is all about that.


I seem to be  included at page 270 but remember absolutely nothing of the story there except that I know it must be true because I have a photograph which is in my Archive. At the time, this has been pinned up on a board and graffitied. I still find it excruciating, which may explain why I have so completely forgotten why I am there on the right playing the part of a complete prat or prick (take your pick), though possibly outperformed by Judith H in the middle who has just told her mum she is going to be in the school play. Martin W is looking behind having been struck by the appalling thought that we three may be parading alone along Broad Street, Oxford. 

Click on Image to Magnify

On this business of cultural capital. Michael Rosen absorbs it with his mother's milk and  his father's spoonings. It does make a difference. I got all my capital from school and the balance from home was probably negative. How many children learnt to eat up their lettuce because it contained lodnum [laudanum] which was good for you? But being entirely school-made, my guess is that you always feel a bit of a fraud. Michael Rosen was cheated out of a First Class degree by a spiteful examiner, Professor Dame Helen Gardner. He ends his book on the story with which I was familiar and which reads as if it still rankles. But I doubt her spite does cut into his capital, or much into him.

I wasn't cheated out of my First and indeed got one with knobs on - a congratulatory letter. About thirty years later I started to have a recurrent anxiety dream. I had decided to do the Oxford PPE course again, as a sort of refresher and challenge. But it had become much harder and I was unsure that I would be able to finish the course and increasingly certain that I would not get a First, might not even Pass. The anxiety became more intense, and I would wake up with the thought that I would have no option but to quit the course before I was put to the test. Because without the public endorsement, there was nothing in me.

Tuesday 5 September 2017

Review: Svetlana Alexievich, The Unwomanly Face of War

In 1978, Svetlana Alexievich (1948- ) began the interviews which comprise this book. It was turned down for publication in 1983, but Soviet Perestroika allowed it to be published in a censored and self-censored but impressively large state edition in 1985. It is now translated in an edition which restores omitted material, but it was the 1985 edition which underpinned the award of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature to Alexievich, who was born in Ukraine but is now Belarussian by nationality.
Alexievich does in-depth oral history and then composes her material into books where there is only a small amount of authorial narrative. In this book, she assembled the voices of women who were with the Red Army in the second world war, at the front and especially in the bloodlands of  Russia’s western front, Germany’s eastern front. Partisan, underground and liaison front liners are also well represented.

The narratives are harrowing and I read the book slowly, in sections, so as not to skip too easily over what was being told. Several times I was struck by the thought that these are the women who survived and lived to tell the tale thirty of forty years later, often hesitantly and in tears. Many others would have survived the war but died before then; some would have emigrated to Israel and maybe other countries; some refused to co-operate with the historian.

Several times also I thought this would make a splendid choice as a core text for a course in gender theory. It would disrupt a great deal of polite and facile thinking. Alexievich’s women have a lot to say about being women at the front line and are acutely aware of the tensions between their transgender occupations as snipers and fighter pilots and their previous existence as young women – often girls – in pretty frocks. There are no lesbians in the book, which I am sure has everything to do with Russian culture not the author’s selectivity. There is one woman who claims to be a man to get into the navy and tells a very funny story about it (pp. 202 -3).  But there is a general absence of vodka which surprised me.

There are many splendid examples of young women refusing to take No for an answer even from hardened Soviet bureaucrats. Most of those who fought at the front had first to overcome attempts to place them at the rear when they volunteered. Several simply hitched lifts or hid under tarpaulin to get to the front line and once there tried to make themselves useful and resisted attempts to send them away. Some were  under eighteen and under average height. A repetitive theme is the complaint that they had to wear men's army uniforms and boots many sizes too big for them.Only late in the war did the Soviet bureaucracy start supplying appropriate clothing. 

Alexievich’s patience and empathy – she cries a lot too – is rewarded with astonishing cameos and vignettes which made me cry too. Not the ones which are tales of the kinds of barbarism which still happen every day in modern war zones, but the absurd and poignant. There is the female commander of an anti-aircraft gun, listening to a wireless in the middle of the night and first to hear the Victory declaration. She then rouses her team from sleep to ready their big gun, and personally fires a four-round Victory salute, only to be arrested and then promptly un-arrested by the senior officer she has woken up (p 204). There are the boy and girl kissing publicly on a ghetto bench while a German pogrom is in progress. They are observed with horror by a female Soviet underground fighter who then realises, as the couple stand up and are shot, that they have seen their public kiss as a way of ensuring that they die together (p 208 - 09).

She also elicits oral one-liners which any writer would be proud of and she saves a couple until late in the book. An underground fighter explains that now, decades after the war, she doesn’t like spring. The war stands between us, between me and nature. When the cherry trees were in bloom, I saw fascists in my native Zhitomir (p 277). And on the last page, a medical assistant, Tamara Stepanova Umnyagina, tells us that There can’t be one heart for hatred and another for love. We only have one, and I always thought about how to save my heart. (p 331)

Do read this book and remember that the context is a war in which twenty million Soviet citizens died, leaving after-shocks which still continue.

See my Blog of 7 February 2017 for a review of Alexievich's Second-Hand Time

Sunday 27 August 2017

A Life in Books

I began reading grown-up books when I was twelve or thirteen and by grown-up I mean Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner and Edgar Wallace. I have been reading ever since. I do discard books but, once I have started, then I try to get to the end. Sometimes that’s hard and eventually unrewarding. I’m not a speed reader of any kind. I don’t skim and I do read footnotes. So if I had to guess how many books I have read, on average, every year then the figure won’t be very high. Not less than 100 and not more than 200, I guess – I’ve never kept lists so I can’t be sure.

Suppose we settle on 150 a year – three a week – then in fifty years that’s a mere 7 500 books, many of them of ephemeral interest, many of them textbooks, many of them not worth the effort expended. Since I am now seventy I should be calculating on fifty seven or fifty eight years. OK. The round figure still only goes to 8 000. If I am under-estimating wildly, then 10 000.

They are very small numbers, aren’t they? And the number of books I have read more than once must be very small indeed, dominated by set texts read many times for teaching purposes. Things like J S Mill’s On Liberty.

It means that there are thousands of Should Read books that I have not read and maybe now I should try to make a List, prioritise as they say. After all, even if I read 150 books a year for another ten years, that’s only another 1 500. And there are books I would like to re-read, and some because I need to re-read them because I refer to them in something I am writing ( I just re-read John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy for that reason and that’s 680 pages in my edition).

Prioritise. But do I prioritise the unread short books or the unread long ones? And does a re-reading count as much as a new reading?

Saturday 26 August 2017

Review: Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population

On my desktop I have a Word doc. titled “The Surplus Population” and it is in the context of a desire to expand on that title that I read Malthus’s 1798 essay in the original version included within this larger collection of his work. Malthus started off in Mathematics and this is no doubt the main reason why he formulates his Principle of Populaton in mathematical terms:

Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio

In consequence, in all human societies famine is a real and permanent possibility. There are two principal ways to try to defeat Malthus’s argument. First, you can claim that population can readily be checked by preventive measures,  of which contraception is the one that Malthus refuses even to contemplate since it is a severe violation of Christian morality. Second, you can argue that Malthus underestimates the real possibility of raising agricultural productivity.

These counter-claims are not as convincing as on first read they may appear. Leave aside the baleful influence of the Roman Catholic church, and it is still the case that human beings, given the chance, do seem inclined to breed at a level which in many cases they must know is prejudicial to their ability to feed the children they are begetting. Those who have no such material worries are often happy to preen themselves on their own fertility, as if we should look up to them as a model to emulate. As I write, Jacob Rees-Mogg is the most prominent in England among the ranks of those inviting our admiration for the prowess of his sperm. He has outperformed both Prince Philip and Tony Blair. But if he was not a wealthy man, he would be considered as simply feckless.

Second, there are major examples of political leaders vastly overestimating their ability to increase agricultural production and productivity. Stalin did it and gave the world the Ukrainian famine which cost several million lives; Mao Tse Tung did it and caused deaths in the tens of millions before he was stopped; the dynasty which rules North Korea has done it repeatedly and now has so many soldiers and so few peasants that it will never be able to feed its population (which in the past few decades has meant that the USA has repeatedly stepped in to feed them).

So Malthus may be on to something after all. But the Essay is interesting also because of many side thoughts, notably on topics such as the relation between national wealth and general happiness and the likely absence of trickle down effects from very unequal distributions of wealth and income. He was one of the first, if not the first, to point out that demand does not always generate supply and that measures to fund demand still do not do the trick. In his day, poor relief did not turn into more food produced only into higher food prices . In our own day, Help to Buy does not turn into more houses built only into higher house prices – which, of course, every British government must deliver at peril of losing its voting base.

Saturday 12 August 2017

Review: Alison Bechdel, The Fun Home

I don’t think I have read a comic book / graphic novel since the first volumes of Maus and I only read this one because it was sent to me. It’s very good and at a basic level impressive for the sheer scale of the project which has been completed: hundreds of line drawings across 232 pages. I suppose the book belongs to the genre of Secrets & Lies.

There are two basic rules of parent-child relationships: no child shall die before both of their parents are dead; no parent shall die before their youngest child has passed their eighteenth birthday. Alison Bechdel’s father does not violate the letter of the second rule, but he violates the spirit, getting killed by a truck (or killing himself in front of a truck) when Alison is still at college and when there are still may unresolved issues between them, not least her fairly recent discovery that her father has frequent sexual flings with boys and young men (the age range is a bit unclear, but seems like 16 – 21). She has recently come out to her family as a lesbian (in theory) and is just braving the passage to becoming a lesbian (in practice).

Her family situation is odd and is presented in great detail: her father is obsessive about numerous projects, many of them concerning their home. He is emotionally distant. He runs a part-time funeral home (hence the book’s title) and his children are on intimate terms with dead bodies, embalming fluid and such like. The father also teaches and the mother, who comes and goes a bit in the book and is also distant, studies. This is a family where everyone is always busy.

The text is a plain narrative which reads as both diary and public confession. It has a sort of and then and then and then character which means that the reader feels free to stop and put down the book whenever. Instead of dialogue, we have drawn speech bubbles. I think I read all of them, so the arrangement is clearly working. The book takes its time to expound the themes which Bechdel wants to present, and is often funny as well as probing.

I think it works and I’m glad I read it.

Wednesday 9 August 2017

Review: Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

When you publish a book, anyone can read it and make what they will of it. That truth is strikingly demonstrated by Maggie Nelson when she reports that one of her previous books, about the murder of her mother’s sister, earnt her a middle-aged, male stalker carrying an attaché case who pursued her on to campus and qualified her for a security guard outside her teaching classroom. The handbooks don’t discuss that kind of writing block. Maggie Nelson mentions others, writing with very measured dry humour

Most of my writing usually feels to me like a bad idea, which makes it hard for me to know which ideas feel bad because they have merit, and which ones feel bad because they don’t (p 153)

The author writes  about her life in California, married to Harry who is F transitioning to M with the help of testosterone and a double mastectomy. Harry has a son by a previous relationship and Maggie Nelson gives birth to a son with the help of a sperm donor. The story is exploratory, well written, and concludes with an accomplished narrative which is split between her experience of childbirth and motherhood and her partner’s narrative of the death of his mother.

It may sound odd to say this, but in the past this book would have been written as a spiritual autobiography – there was a genre – and most likely it would have been decorated with passages from the Scriptures. Maggie Nelson’s story is iced with quotations from the usual modern theorists of identity, sexuality, gender and feminist theory – many of them French post-structuralist. I do wonder if they actually help or whether they will serve principally to allow the author to include this book in an academic CV. I have believed that the personal is political for fifty years. I'm still unsure about the personal is academic.

I have my doubts about several of the theorists she quotes – they write and theorise in a way which allows a cult to form but not for understanding to develop – and I only relaxed when she seems to come down strongly on the side of the plain language wisdom of D W Winnicott.

I had other doubts which relate in part to what I think of as American culture with its strongly fundamentalist inflections. America as we know it was the creation of rogues and religious zealots whose weakness was always to look for enemies rather than friends – the paranoid style. That style endures, both among America’s oppressors and America’s oppressed, and it leads people to dig in to positions which are elaborated and fortified beyond reason. You can end up with more rules than the Old Order Amish. Maggie Nelson is not immune, even though her book is well written, engaging and deals squarely with matters of the heart.

America also has a bad relationship with medical science. Americans pay more for less good care than people in many other countries. And because it is so largely commercialised, it remains as it always has been, prey to charlatans and quacks or, at the very least, to those who seek to persuade you that more medicine is better than less. In my mind, I am unable to extricate the narrative of Harry's transition from F to M from its medicalisation and I do fear that one day people will be saying that the medicine got it wrong. I hope not. In my case, my fear means only that I have a drawer full of prescription drugs which at one time or another I have decided not to take, sometimes wisely I am sure.

Tuesday 1 August 2017

Review: Alex Preston, In Love and War

Click on Image to Magnify

The cynicism of the cover drew my attention to this book on the Waterstones table. We have seen this cover before: it normally targets the person walking into W H Smith to buy the Rothermere paper and a bar of Toblerone and who wants the past – not the distant past, but anywhere between the 1930s and the 1950s (before Suez) when England was posh and glorious and Toblerone was a very special treat. It could have been more cynical: the novel features a dog but we are spared Tatters on the cover. Maybe Faber and Faber drew the line; it cannot be very many years ago that they would have committed suicide rather than commit to a cover like this. It's gold-embossed, in case that's not clear from my scan.

All’s fair in publishing nowadays and, indeed, I bought the book. I looked around for the Toblerone but Waterstones doesn’t stock it yet.

I read the novel and felt ambivalent. I don’t often feel ambivalent – the last time was when I read a copper’s autobiography (Clive Driscoll’s The Pursuit of the Truth) and felt I was being led by an unreliable narrator. With this novel, the cover had primed me to look for cynicism and it is there all over the text if you want to find it, the tropes we are familiar with wheeled on to the page one after another: posh country house England, young chap up at Cambridge, ambivalent sexuality, unwise flirtations with fascism, the woman who reminds him what decency is. For the first hundred pages I was inclined to give up. It all seemed lifeless, the prose even or flat, no anguish and remarkably untroubled passion which I suppose goes with the privilege of being posh. When Preston kills off his first heroine Fiamma at page 110, it doesn’t matter very much.

The novel then becomes more stylistically inventive and gets better but there are relapses. Thus Preston’s leading man, Esmond, recording privately on disc for posterity after the outbreak of War finds a new love and delivers himself of the following thoughts:

If it strikes you as strange, after Philip, after Gerald, that I should love Ada, it shouldn’t. It is not only that Fiamma, dear dead Fiamma, served as a copula, a springboard, a bridge. I have always loved beauty and the gender of those I love matters to me as little as their shoe size. It seems odd to me that so many humans limit themselves, slavishly. For now, it is Ada. (page 201)

It’s true that Esmond does grow up a lot after recording this drivel, but what he records does rather suggest he has done a tick-box degree in Queer Studies where you learn that sex is not acceptable in polite society and must be replaced by gender. But this point of social etiquette dates from the 1980s not the 1930s.  I now felt sorry for Fiamma.

By page 241 Esmond is reading The Communist Manifesto but by this point the dog has entered the story so the reader can feel Esmond must be on the right path notwithstanding. Dogs enter novels at the author’s peril. Milan Kundera does it extremely well in The Unbearable Lightness of Being so it can’t be absolutely wrong. 

Thanks to his new love, Ada, Esmond finds himself a fighter in the Italian Resistance and it is the exploits of the resistance which make up much of the text in the latter part of the book.

I made it to the end (page 340) by which time Esmond is horribly but courageously dead and Ada in Auschwitz. I didn’t shed any tears and that may explain why one of the jacket reviews, quoted from GQ, tells us that it’s a book for the beach, “The perfect read to pair with that first sundowner”.  Those who signed off the cover at Faber and Faber presumably had no qualms about that product endorsement. Gin and Auschwitz, anyone?

The late Stuart Hood’s Pebbles From My Skull, later reworked as Carlino, is an impressive  memoir of escape from a Prisoner of War camp and a year spent in the Italian Resistance in Tuscany. This seems a good place to recommend it. Hood (1915 – 2011) was what used to be called “a man of the Left” but in the 1940s he was a British military intelligence officer - though one should say, British as in Scottish. Sometime in the 1980s, I discovered he lived in Brighton and got him appointed as a Visiting Fellow at the University of Sussex to contribute to the MA programme I directed. The University was too stupid to recognise his many distinctions and  refused to give him an honorary doctorate for his lifetime work, preferring local notables. Hood’s wartime experience was clearly an ever-present fact of his life, not only in the form of reunions with old comrades (a Piazza is named after him somewhere in Tuscany) but also in doubts and anxieties. I recall walking across the Sussex campus one evening and asking him if his experience still affected his everyday, ordinary life. Yes, he replied, in the evenings I get anxious about where I am going to sleep – his own house and home a couple of miles from where we were walking.

Friday 28 July 2017

Review: Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen

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This is an interesting book, but not quite as good as the jacket quotations. Nothing new in that. It is supposed to count as a “psychological thriller” or a crime novel on the strength of the last forty pages out of 260 but that’s pushing it and, in any case, those pages seem a bit contrived and implausible – there are not just loose ends at the end but awkward jumps and implausible claims. In contrast, what goes before is a sustained effort in character building. Most of the book is devoted to building the character of the first-person narrator, Eileen, who isn’t very likeable, has habits not for the squeamish, and lives an awful life spent between two prisons – home and her place of work. It is only late in the book that a second, contrasting character is introduced – Rebecca, who is imagined by Eileen as her opposite: adventurous, clever, glamorous, the usual suspects. At this point, I was reminded of Suzanne Rindell’s The Other Typist where the life of the narrator, a police precinct typist, is transformed by the arrival of her Other. Rebecca's arrival turns the novel into Eileen's Coming of Age story.

I did sit up late to finish the book but then the late sitting only began because I could see I  had just thirty pages to go. Before that, the tone of Moshfegh’s narration is very even – the language, the pace – and had my own mood been distracted I think I would have given up on the book long before the end. That said, the imagination deployed in creating Eileen and the serious commitment evinced in doing it over so many pages is impressive. But a lot better than that? Let’s wait until we read about people reading this book for a second or third time.

Friday 21 July 2017

Review: Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, everybody lies

When people answer questions from pollsters, they lie. When they make Google searches, they don’t. They know they can delete their browsing history and that’s enough privacy for the average user. People make an awful lot of searches and Google collects mega-quantities of reliable data which tell us what people are thinking and how they are feeling. This Big Data is now being mined by people like Seth Stephens-Davidowitz [S-D from now on] to answer all kinds of question, many of them at the applied end of the social science spectrum.

This is a well-meaning book but it is terribly naïve – not about people, whose deviant sex lives the author cheerfully catalogues, but about social science or social theory in the broadest sense. I nearly gave up on the book at chapter 2 “Was Freud Right?” which tells us that Freud was a theorist of “phallic symbols in dreams” (page 46) and goes on to prove that he was wrong about them.  S – D has been educated at Stanford and Harvard but has still has not picked up the knowledge that Freud’s reputation-making book, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), begins with a very long and comprehensive critique of theories of dream symbolism (“Dream Book” theories) and follows up with an alternative account in which dreams make idiosyncratic, improvised choices of symbols to express the dream thoughts and that what is drawn on to provide the symbols for the dream is largely if not exclusively the experience of the previous day. The italicised words turn Freud’s account into a falsifiable theory whatever Karl Popper may have said (S-D has come across Popper on Freud). So S-D starts out from something worse than a schoolboy howler and as a result chapter 2 is abysmal. If you are inclined to cultural despair, you will delight in the fact that the abysmal is published by Bloomsbury.

Things do get better, sometimes significantly so, but the general problem remains that the Big Data S-D loves is crunched according to often unanalysed background theories and preconceptions. The general approach is to ask someone “What do you want to know?” and if they want to know if violent cinema films cause violent behaviour, then S-D will hit the Big Data until they yield a Yes or No answer. There are a lot of “What do you want to know?” questions which S-D is only too willing to answer. He rarely stops to consider that there might be a problem with the question.

I quite liked the Conclusion which S-D has calculated will be reached by only a minority of readers. But this Blog was created on the promise that I would only review books I had read cover to cover, give or take footnotes. But then I suppose I should acknowledge that one of S-D’s findings (page 259) is that people who make online loan applications in which they promise to repay a debt are more likely to default on a debt than those who don’t promise. The same people also take God’s name in vain. Nothing new there.

Thursday 8 June 2017

Review: Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday

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I read this novella - 35 000 words – and thought it was beautifully conceived and crafted, one of the best things I have read this year. So a couple of weeks later, I have read it again to see how it is done. Some of the results are quite surprising. For example, the text runs to 149 pages. Exactly half way through at page 74, Swift baldly announces the death of his second most important character, Paul Sheringham:

She had not known he was already dead.

That one sentence provides new interest for the reader, now waiting to discover how Paul died and what will happen next.

The story is heavily marked by premature deaths, starting in the very first line:

Once upon a time, before the boys were killed…

The short lives of boys killed in the trenches of the first world war then stands in dramatic contrast with the longevity of the main character, Jane Fairchild, who appears first as a twenty-two year old housemaid involved in a passionate, sexual relationship with Paul who at twenty four is the youngest of all the brothers, the only boy from two neighbouring families who was too young to be sentenced to death in the trenches.

The heart of the novel  is a narrative of the last time Jane and Paul are together, Mothering Sunday 1924. This occupies the first half and is exquisitely done. Paul dies at twenty four but Jane lives to ninety-eight (it works out at 1901 – 1999), a long life on which Swift places great emphasis, and she becomes a well-known and much-interviewed novelist but one who never discloses the tale which Swift has told in the first half of his book.

Second time around, I had some doubts about the long recessional which forms the second half of the book. Swift writes about how Jane becomes a novelist, the books she reads and what she says about them when interviewed in later life. ( She reads Kipling, for example, who wrote a Recessional).  It chronicles the titles of the novels she writes. It is as if Swift is seeking some quieter objective correlative for the emotions which sear the first half of the book and the abrupt loss which on Mothering Sunday 1924 brings to an end the love affair of the young maid Jane and the young master Paul. But it also suggests, I suppose, that though we normally think that novelists will always end up writing about what has most touched them in their lives, that may not be a general truth. When her secret life as Paul’s lover ends, Jane has to carry on as the housemaid almost as if nothing has happened. She has to close that book and can only find a future by opening a new one. Art is long, but life is short.

Monday 5 June 2017

An Intellectual Biography?

Alphabetical Thinking
I have been organising my thoughts alphabetically for many years. Emptying out a cupboard, I found a sheet of foolscap, dated 1991, with a draft list of chapter headings for a book to be written titled Things to Think With: One Hundred Powerful Ideas. I liked Claude Lévi-Strauss’s phrase choses bonnes à penser (things good to think with) the moment I first encountered it and I have made repeated use of the idea. On this 1991 occasion my alphabetical list of chapter headings reads as follows, now properly alphabetised and numbered by a click on Word. The material in square brackets has been added to clarify what I was thinking about:

1.      Alienation [Marx]
2.      Analytic/Synthetic [philosophy of language]
3.      Aufhebung [Hegel]
4.      Background / Foreground
5.      Bad Faith
6.      Believing that “p” is true
7.      Bricolage [Lévi-Strauss]
8.      Catastrophe  Theory
9.      Collective / Distributive Agreement [theories of convention and mutual belief]
10.  Collective Goods [Mancur Olson etc]
11.  Cyclical Majority (Condorcet)  [also Kenneth Arrow]
12.  Deconstruction [Derrida]
13.  Double Bind [Gregory Bateson]
14.  Emic / Etic  [as in phonemic / phonetic]
15.  Equality of Opportunity
16.  Fact / Value Distinction
17.  Falsifiability [Popper]
18.  Family Resemblance [Wittengstein]
19.  Functionalism [ as in sociology]
20.  Games, Theory of
21.  Geisteswissenschaften [ the human sciences in the German tradition ]
22.  Genre
23.  Gestalt [ as in Psychology]
24.  Gödel’s Theorem
25.  Good Enough Mother [Winnicott]
26.  Grammar
27.  Ideology
28.  Indifference Curve Analysis [as in marginalist economics]
29.  Intentional Object [philosophy of mind and language]
30.  Intertextuality [various literary theorists]
31.  Intuition / Introspection [ as in linguistics]
32.  Irreversibility
33.  Language
34.  Making Strange [as in Wordsworth, Shklovsky and Brecht]
35.  Marginal Utility [in economics]
36.  Modularity [ as in modular theories of mind – Chomsky, Fodor etc]
37.  Natural Selection [Darwin]
38.  Necessary and Sufficient [conditions as in philosophy]
39.  Optimality [ as in public goods theories – Olson, Elster etc]
40.  Original Position [John Rawls]
41.  Overdetermination  [Freud, Althusser]
42.  Paradigm / Episteme [ Kuhn, Foucault]
43.  Personal is Political
44.  Possible Worlds [analytical philosophy]
45.  Pragmatics
46.  Prisoner’s Dilemma [theory of games]
47.  Producer Capture [ libertarian political theory]
48.  Public Sphere [Habermas]
49.  Relevance [Grice, Sperber and Wilson]
50.  Repressive Tolerance [Marcuse]
51.  Rigid Designator [Saul Kripke]
52.  Semiotic / Semantic [Julia Kristeva]
53.  Structure
54.  Surplus of Meaning [literary theory]
55.  Synchrony [Saussure]
56.  “The Real” [probably Hegel]
57.  Theodicy [the problem of evil]
58.  Transference [ Freud]
59.  Transformation [Chomsky]
60.  Transitional Object [Winnicott]
61.  Turing Machine [Alan Turing]
62.  Twin Earth [analytical philosophy; Putnam]
63.  Uncertainty Principle  [Heisenberg]
64.  Unconscious [Freud]
65.  Underdetermination [Kuhn, Quine, Feyerabend]
66.  Uniformitarianism [Lyell’s Geology]
67.  Unintended Consequences [social and economic theory]
68.  Universal Grammar [ Chomsky]
69.  Zero-Sum [Theory of Games]

The idea was to get to 100 ideas but as you see I only got to 69. The book never got written, but many of the ideas are to be found through my writing, past and present. When I look at the list now, I think it can serve as a very short and fairly honest intellectual biography.