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Sunday 24 June 2018

Books I Have Not Finished: Elif Batuman The Idiot

I review books here on the promise that I have read them cover to cover. So there is really no trace of the many books I have started but not finished, probably for many different reasons. Sometimes I have forced myself to finish a book in order to review it and for the past 150 pages I have been reading Elif Batuman’s The Idiot in that spirit. 

It started well enough: she is clever and funny and I bookmarked a few passages to quote. It’s easy to imagine how she is a successful staff writer on the New Yorker – though I remember that Jessa Crispin once called that publication “like a dentist magazine”.

The problem is the absence of plot. One reviewer quoted on the cover of my edition calls it “an addictive, sprawling epic”. I agree about the sprawling. The long drawn-out non-relationship relationship between Selin and Ivan seemed to be going nowhere except geographically at the point where I gave up on the book (page 269, shortly after a cast of new and re-assembled characters had been perfunctorily introduced and finally persuaded me to give up). 

It may well be that Selin comes of age in the 150 pages I am not going to read, but I am afraid that for this reader she is taking too long about it.

I suppose I should formally record Ceci n’est pas une critique du livre

Wednesday 20 June 2018

Review: Andrea Gullotta, Intellectual Life and Literature at Solovki 1923-1930

At his 1926 trial, the fascist prosecutor of Antonio Gramsci, leader of the Italian Communist party, famously declared “For twenty years we must stop this brain from working”. So Gramsci was sent to a fascist prison where he was supplied with pen and notebooks and a censor who duly stamped each page of what became the Prison Notebooks and Gramsci’s claim to enduring intellectual fame.

You can take this well-known story as evidence for many things, including the claim that totalitarianisms never quite succeed in controlling the human element – down the line, there will always be someone too lazy, too drunk, too bribeable, or too tinged with humanity to apply the full rigour of the law and who for an extended period of time may simply do things the way they see fit, until some interfering busy-body calls them to order.

In the early 1920s, Russia’s Soviet regime began to organise prisons and camps for the many opponents – real or imaginary - who for one reason or another were not simply shot on the spot. There was already to hand an Imperial model which involved sending prisoners far away from the principal cities and into remote and inhospitable areas – the east and the north. Russia is a very big place (look at the map) and you really did not need to bother with walls in places so remote that escape was hardly realistic (though, as always, there were escapees who lived to tell the tale).

The Solovetsky islands in the White Sea of the Arctic north west of Russia had been used before for this purpose, and the Soviets decided to use them again. There were already many buildings in place since the islands had for centuries housed Russian Orthodox monasteries. With an infrastructure already in place, it was a no brainer as somewhere to send people you wanted well out of the way. Out of sight and, as a side-effect, out of mind.

Largely as a matter of policy, Solovki became the place to which the Bolsheviks consigned opponents who claimed to be socialists themselves and, more generally, troublesome intellectuals – poets (a large occupational group in Russia), philosophers, theatre actors and directors (another large group), priests and theologians, natural scientists. Many of these did not claim to be socialists at all. Ordinary, uneducated trouble-makers were also sent to Solovki too but from Gullotta’s book I don’t get a clear sense of the relative sizes of the different groups or how the relative proportions shifted over time.

What is clear is that the Solovki camp admininstrators, and regardless of what Moscow may have had in mind, decided that the simplest way to organise the camp was to allow some of the intellectuals to go on being intellectuals, fully exempt from manual work, and to assign the manual work – principally, logging in the forests - mostly to those who were used to manual labour. The intellectuals were allowed not only pen and notebooks but a library, a theatre, a printing press, time and places to discuss and debate. They kept themselves very busy and the censors couldn’t keep up even when they wanted to (which was not always). So there is a large literary legacy from the Solovki camp – a camp which Solzhenitsyn called “the mother of the Gulag”. 

All this happened in a context where it was also possible to fall foul of some guard or other and end up out with the loggers, or in the punishment block, and possibly dead.

Gullotta’s scholarly, in-depth but quite readable book primarily examines the content of the printed output of work from Solovki in the early period 1923-30 and also considers the circumstances of it production, including the constantly shifting and always ambivalent relations between prisoners and camp administration.

I think there is a very simple point which can be made, that prison administrators and guards feel that it enhances their status if they are in charge of high-status prisoners. In non-totalitarian regimes, it is a commonplace that celebrity prisoners – prisoners whose crimes have been all over the newspapers – get better treatment than those who are not notorious. They find it much easier to work the system to their advantage. On Solovki, the intellectuals made life more interesting for the camp officials. It is not unimportant that some of the intellectuals knew how to make camp administrators laugh. Gullotta singles out Iurii Kazarnovskii, "the only satirical writer in the SLON camp who was appreciated by the camp administration" (page 246). (Even in the camps of Nazi Germany, humour could achieve things which other methods could not).

The printed literary output of Solovki appears from Gullotta’s book to be well-preserved and well-studied. There was also other written output, as I discovered by chance a few years ago. Prisoners did have right of correspondence, both inwards and outwards. There was a post office on the islands which Gullotta illustrates (see below):

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The camp printing press produced picture postcards with views of the islands and these were sold to prisoners who clearly had money. Money is important in prison camps; in totalitarian systems, it is one of the perks of being a guard that people – both inside and outside the camp -  will offer you bribes.

Some of the postcards are photographic, others were based on paintings and sketches by the well-known artist Osip Braz, best known for a portrait of Chekhov which now adorns many paperback covers, and who spent two years on Solovki (1924 – 26). Here is an example of Braz’s work in my possession; the card was printed on the press of the camp administration (USLON) in an edition of 1000:

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Prisoners wrote home on these cards, which were carried to the mainland at Kem and then passed through the regular mail. They were censored before leaving the islands but in a fairly perfunctory way – on the card shown below, the censor’s mark is simply the blue-pencil initials scrawled over the message. 

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The writer, a prisoner called Lisovsky writing to a family member in Smolensk, describes the card’s panoramic view, singling out the white house in the centre which houses the camp administration and where he works or studies every day in the accounting department. He identifies the Kremlin on the left of the card and in between he has arrowed the 10th company barrack where he lives. On the right, he identifies the Preobrazhensky cathedral with its bell tower “without bells”. In front of it all is the frozen sea. “Now you see where I am”.

Tuesday 12 June 2018

Review: William Boyd The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth and Sarah Winman Tin Man

I finished Boyd's book feeling that I have gone through life with the wrong name. Trevor Pateman. It just wouldn’t make it into William Boyd’s world. His characters have posh names and live posh, though not necessarily successful or happy, lives. The prose is worldly and glides effortlessly over the surfaces of human folly. I read the whole thing without difficulty and quite a lot of amusement and pleasure. The closing fifty page story is remarkably gripping, very artful, but also an unashamed film script in which a great deal of any director’s work is already done. It would be low-budget, too, though the lead actor would have to be well-paid.

I am less sure about the central hundred-page tale of young Bethany Mellmoth’s hapless wanderings. If your main character suffers from repetition compulsion then you sort of get the point after a few repetitions and don’t need a hundred pages of them.

I read this book after reading Sarah Winman’s Costa short-listed Tin Man. That was also readable (and since I am convalescing from hospital surgery, my current threshold for readability is probably quite high – or low -  if you see what I mean). I was going to criticise her for opportunistic mobilisation of fashionable stereotypes, but then when I read Boyd’s work I thought, well, he just mobilises stereotypes which are permanently fashionable. Winman  does have a long passionate section (Michael) which I thought very well done; it is very direct and does not glide over anything. 

Friday 8 June 2018

The Pitfalls of Academic Investment

Suppose you are a student of the Arts and Humanities and end up spending five graduate years reading the works (all of them) of some well-known writer/thinker. Along the way, you submit an MA thesis and a PhD. After all that, only two outcomes are possible:

Either you think that the writer you have studied is truly one of the greats, deserving of the most careful and prolonged study, exegesis and discussion. Having read all the major works (of which there are many), you will now go on to read the minor works, the correspondence, and the shopping lists. You will build a reputation as an expert on X.

Or else you conclude that your writer is entirely mistaken, wrong-headed, positively evil (in the case of Marx or Nietzsche, say) and that it is your duty to build an academic career exposing their fallacies and faults. You will be the scourge of all those still deluded enough not to spot the errors, the confusions, the dangers.

What you will not conclude is this:

Yeah, I spent a lot of time – years in fact –reading this guy. There are some good ideas but overall – and there is a lot of stuff to get through – it’s not so brilliant as some people make out. Frankly, it’s not worth doing the criticism line by line and, well, now I’m going to turn my attention to other things.

That italic passage could only be spoken by someone willing to write off a very heavy graduate school investment of time and money. Life is short and to write off five years of school is more than most of us have the stomach for. It is as a result of human caution that we end up with tenured academics who live off the intellectual capital they banked in their youth.

I see only one way of avoiding the usual outcomes. You just have to discourage young researchers from putting all their eggs into one basket. Make them move around a bit intellectually. Fine if they want to settle down with a mortgage and a dog and a human partner, but try to keep them away from intellectual monogamy. Maybe later in life; maybe in retirement when they can invest as much as they like of their leisure into whoever does it for them.

I think I was fortunate in my early academic career. I never really got a crush on anyone, or at any rate, a crush which lasted. I shopped around. I don’t regret it, though in terms of a career it was not a sensible way of behaving.

Monday 4 June 2018

Review: Paula Cocozza, How To Be Human

On balance, No. Early on I was impressed by Cocozza’s ability to create suspense out of stock-in-trades of the thriller genre – simple things like noises off and doors opening. Then as the story developed I found it hard to keep going. She has a small cast of characters (Mary, Mark, Eric, Michelle) who in one way or another have lost the plot of their lives and who are filled out with detail which does its job of indicating how and what they have lost. Notably, Michelle is very well sketched for post-natal depression.  

But I got bored with the protracted folie à deux between Mary and her real/imaginary urban Fox. Mary behaves towards her Fox as many people do towards their dogs, and once I had that thought Mary ceased to be a hero of urban eco-mysticism and became just another sad dog-dependent loser and I can’t be doing with three hundred pages of that.

But as the numerous publicity puffs indicate, there are more ways than one of reading this book and I just happen to have stumbled into one which closed it down for me rather than opening it up.

Friday 1 June 2018

Available Now: Trevor Pateman, I Have Done This In Secret

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This memoir of my childhood was published  by degree zero on 8th June 2018 and can be ordered now at Waterstones online. No doubt discarded review copies will appear on Amazon in due course. There is only a hardback edition.

As personal memoir it is focussed on the years from my birth in 1947 until arrival at university in 1965, but it is also a story of my mother's life and she lived from 1907 until 1978.

The jacket uses a photograph taken in 2011 by an urban explorer in the abandoned Dartford mental hospital, Stone House, originally the City of London Lunatic Asylum.

Should you like to have a signed copy, send a cheque for £15 made out to Trevor Pateman and address it to Unit 10, 91 Western Road, Brighton BN1 2NW. Don't forget to include your own address!