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Sunday 28 May 2017

Review: China Mieville, October

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I sense that in Russia, the hundredth anniversary of 1917 is a bit of an embarrassment. The current government stresses continuity with the past and so links itself to the double headed eagle and two-faced Russian Orthodoxy. It is out of the question to celebrate the February 1917 downfall of the Romanovs, who now have a cult following among the very stupid. Nor is the regime in any position to celebrate the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 since it exists only as a consequence of the downfall of hated Bolshevik power in 1991.

Outside Russia, it’s not so difficult – the Romanov dynasty deserved its fate, period – but hindsight casts a very long shadow over the October revolution. 

China Miéville has had the excellent idea of writing a would-be popular narrative of 1917, a sort of John Reed story but with the benefit of all the archives which historians have now turned into many books. The narrative starts with great brio but rapidly narrows its focus to a blow-by-blow, day-by-day account of political events in Petrograd. This in turn descends into a chronicle of socialist in-fighting so painful that you can see why the words socialist and sectarian now seem inseparable. Miéville is dispassionate enough to realise that sometimes he is demonstrating the truth that it is not only second time around that history presents itself as farce. As someone who has read quite widely in the history of this period, I still found myself reading about factions and organisations I had never heard of and have no reason to want to read about again.

The author is good on the Provisional Government's multiple weaknesses. It is hard to believe how a government in a position to take fresh stock of the situation could have persisted in a war from which there were so many very good reasons to get out. The legacy of the Romanovs was a country which could not win a major war, still less realise grandiose designs - Nicholas's government reckoned to get Austrian Galicia and Constantinople as war loot in return for their contribution to the Allied war effort.

The focus on Petrograd politics and personalities of the revolution could have been lessened. The author does fairly repeatedly allude to  hunger but doesn’t really present it as a driving force. He has more to say about Peace and Land but less about the Bread which was the first word in the Bolsheviks' revolutionary slogan. Russia had undergone a sort of Industrial Revolution but no corresponding Agricultural Revolution. It’s major cities – Petrograd and Moscow – were far away from fertile agricultural areas. There was always a problem about feeding the cities and  the First World War turned the problem into an impossibility when not only were there armies as well as cities to feed but the fact also that peasants who worked the land were drafted to be killed in the trenches. The Romanovs could not feed Petrograd, nor could the Provisional Government, nor could the Bolsheviks. In the end, the Americans stepped in and created a vast Relief Administration in the early 1920s. People still starved and would continue to do so.

I did not baulk at any of the facts presented (except at a 5 November instead of 7 November on page 3), but I felt the scale of the February revolution – the Revolution in the eyes of contemporaries – is perhaps underplayed and the abrupt cut off on 26 October is too soon –Miéville should have followed John Reed at this point and given us Ten Days That Shook The World, taking us into the first week of November 1917 (Old Style).

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Review: Matisse in the Studio, edited by Ellen McBreen and Helen Burnham

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Everything we write is marked by the time and place in which we write, sometimes very lisibly so as in this interesting study of Matisse’s relation to the objects which he collected over a life-time, housed in his studio and used in his work. The contributors to this exhibition catalogue have had to read about and hear about Orientalism, the male gaze, cultural appropriation and so on. As a result, they sometimes write as if they are walking on eggshells and you can sense it. 

It shouldn’t be like that. Either you accept a theory and deploy it actively, which in this case might lead to rather more criticism of Matisse than is to be found here, or you ignore it and just get on with what you want to draw our attention to.

That said, the authors are good at drawing our attention to what Matisse thought he was trying to do, as expressed in letters and interviews; how in practical terms, he tried to do it using a studio which he tailored over decades to his purposes; and how that converts into the work he produced. There are some very telling illustrations and juxtapositions of object and work.

Because it is a discourse which is out of fashion, there is really nothing here on how Matisse’s personal life and work intersected so that his separation from his wife in favour of his secretary is not even a blip, and the fate of his daughter Marguerite likewise (page 183). There is also very little on the later cut-outs which interest me partly because they seem to be the way in which an old man turned to good account a bad hand dealt him by health and age.

Saturday 6 May 2017

Review: Tim Marshall, Worth Dying For. The Power and Politics of Flags

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Back on 11 August 2016, I reviewed here Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography which I felt had a lot of zest and a clearly-articulated argument. As a result, his publisher sent me this new book to review.

It also has a lot of zest and a great deal of incidental detail for those interested in Pub Quizzes and such like. But it does not have the analytical sharpness of the previous book and this is probably inevitable given its subject matter, a history of mostly national flags and their symbolism. A few things struck me.

Flags, flagpoles and rules about hoisting flags onto their poles etc are pretty much cultural universals. This is in some ways rather odd, since the whole business is a fairly arbitrary one. True, there are some motivated explanations of how flags came into existence – so that you could see where your own lot were re-grouping during the battle, and so on – but this hardly explains the universality and large measure of conformity we have got to now.

Where we have got to now also leaves many flags unresponsive in their design to the fact that they will (mostly) be flown at the top of large static poles. Just a couple of more modern flags – those of South Africa and, notably, Seychelles have dynamic designs which respond to the possibilities opened up by the fact that they will be attached to a pole at the left side and flutter out from that static point. Most flags are symmetrical, imagined from the standpoint of someone (the designer) looking at them as illustrations on a page. Many are also cluttered with detail which, though visible to designers at work on the page in front of them, will be lost on those casting an upward glance at a pole. Most of the flags of Latin America – Brazil an obvious exception - look to me ripe for a design overhaul. They are without flag-design or artistic merit.

Quite a lot of Tim Marshall’s text is devoted to explanation of the symbolism of individual flags. This is necessary because though flags are usually icons of something or other, what something or other it is has to be pointed out – so “X stands for Y” and then, once we are told, we see it. Technically, this is to say that flags make a great deal of use of translucent icons as opposed to transparent ones. An icon is transparent when pretty much anyone can see what is meant without any supporting verbal explanation – most road warning signs are meant to be like this, so that you can understand them wherever you are coming from. But there are resemblances between sign and object which have to be pointed out and the same sign may mean more than one thing: on one flag, the colour Green may stand for Islam, but on another it may stand for a nation’s forests or fields.

Over fifty years ago, I had a summer job in a lakeside Swedish hotel. One of my duties was to raise and lower the very large Swedish flag each day from its very large pole. I realised early on that I was being watched from guest windows as I performed my tasks, and so I adopted a sort of Boy Scout formality, marching briskly to the pole and so on. Somehow - perhaps because I had indeed been a Boy Scout - I knew that I should fold the flag carefully when taking it down and at no point when it was going up or down allow it to touch the ground. Such indeed are the expectations in Sweden and most other places, but at some point one guest did congratulate me on how I did the job. He also explained to me what the colours of the flag represented: blue for the sky and yellow for silver birch leaves. But I bet that isn’t the only explanation around for Sveriges  farger. No one made an issue of the fact that it was an English schoolboy handling the Swedish flag.

Monday 1 May 2017

Review: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

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Mr Dostoyevsky has written a long book – 650 pages in my Penguin Classics edition – but it is still a gripping psychological thriller. In the foreground of the story are poverty, prostitution, mental illness according to the latest theorising, God according to more traditional theorising, the Russian soul and, seemingly inseparable from that, Russian vodka. There is a lot of vodka in this book, as there was and still is in Russia where it has always held down male life expectancy. The short Epilogue suggests a sort of redemption through suffering and unconditional love but I think it would be wrong to see Mr Dostoyevsky as a simple bringer of The Good News. He is too clever to fall into that trap, though there will be readers who try to push him into it.

His substantial cast of characters do genuinely seem to develop in the course of the novel, and to go off in unexpected directions. It doesn’t feel as if they are mouthpieces for views Mr Dostoyevsky has fully worked out in advance. They each have a distinctive voice and the author allows those voices plenty of free expression throughout the book. Indeed, the largest proportion of the book is given over either to set-piece conversations between two or more characters or to interior monologue. There is little commentary or obvious authorial intrusion, to the extent that rather than have a character exclaim something within inverted commas with an authorial remark like he laughed to follow it, Mr Dostoyevsky (at least, in my translation) incorporates the laughter into the speech with a he-he or ha-ha. I have to say that I found this rather wearing and unsatisfactory since it is so clearly authorial anyway and also terribly repetitive.

Professor Bakhtin has said that the style adopted in this book could be called polyphonic. Dostovevsky assembles a cast of characters, as one might in a play, and lets them speak, each in their own voice. None of them speak with the voice of the author though he clearly has his partialities, most obviously in regard to Sonya, a Magdalen figure who is chosen by Raskolnikov as his confessor – a traditional role for a prostitute. In this case, confession is a route to intimacy rather than a result of it. 

It is part of his skill that at the same time as he is setting off characters by their conversations, Dostoyevsky manages to move the narrative story line forward in a way which keeps the reader reading. It helps in this respect that he has an astute detective who is hot on the trail of the murderer and keeps up a cat-and-mouse game intended to bring the perpetrator to the point of confession, a strategy in which he is arguably successful. The detective plays a vital role in moving the story along.

As with many Russian novels, it is hard to keep track of characters who sometimes appear with first name and patronymic and sometimes with familiar names.My edition lacks a Cast of Characters such as often appears at the front of  Russian novels. One would have been useful here, at least for this older reader.