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Sunday, 6 September 2020

Reclaim Her Name? George Eliot and Middlemarch


I had been meaning to re-read Middlemarch and promoted it to the top of the waiting list after reading that a well-known alcoholic drinks company, Baileys, had recently re-issued it - along with 24 other books. This is what the Baileys website currently says about its project:


Reclaim Her Name was created to mark the 25th year of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, who we have proudly supported for the last 7 years …. The campaign was about championing female writers, something that the Women’s Prize for Fiction do every day.

(If you are unhappy with the grammar, I assure you I have copied carefully from the website; I can see Microsoft’s squiggle on my copying).

The twenty five books were all written by women but were published originally under male or gender-neutral names. Middlemarch was among the books selected and its new cover attributes authorship to “Mary Ann Evans”; it was originally published in 1871 under the name of the by-then very well-known and successful writer, “George Eliot”, whose first novel Adam Bede had appeared in 1859.

In 1854, a translation The Essence of Christianity (still the standard one) of Ludwig Feuerbach’s Das Wesen des Christentums gave title-page credit to “Marian Evans”, a name which Mary Ann Evans began to use when she arrived in London determined to become a writer; by 1854 she had become prominent as an editor and contributor at The Westminster Review. But current paperback editions of the Feuerbach give jacket credit to “George Eliot”, a name she only adopted later and specifically for her fiction.

It seems that Mary Ann Evans can’t win: “Marian Evans” has been taken away and replaced by “George Eliot”; “George Eliot” is now taken away and replaced by “Mary Ann Evans”. It’s tough being a woman; you can be confident that no one is going to mess with “George Orwell”.

I am sure the late but very strong-minded writer is mistreated both ways, but I take consolation from the fact that in Middlemarch she treats her fate in a light-hearted manner. If you turn to the Finale in the respectful Penguin edition which credits Middlemarch to George Eliot,  at pages 832-33 (yes, it’s a very long novel and in small print, too) you will find surprising attention given to questions of authorship.

Fred Vincy wins congratulations from the agricultural fraternity for his Cultivation of Green Crops and the Economy of Cattle-Feeding but in Middlemarch “most persons there were inclined to believe that the merit of Fred’s authorship was due to his wife, since they had never expected Fred Vincy to write on turnips and mangel-wurzel” (832). She continues, “But when Mary wrote a little book for her boys, called Stories of Great Men, taken from Plutarch… every one in the town was willing to give the credit of this work to Fred, observing that he had been to the University, ‘where the ancients were studied’ ….” (832).

She concludes, “In this way it was made clear that Middlemarch had never been deceived, and that there was no need to praise anybody for writing a book since it was always done by somebody else” (833).


I did read the novel cover to cover and enjoyed it despite its 800+ pages. There is a cast of characters of which at most one or two could be regarded as simple, black and white, souls who we can cheer for. The others have complex characters, merits and demerits, virtues and vices jostling or running in harness. Narrative tension is sustained through eighty six, mostly short, chapters. A few things grate (the over-used word "ardent", for example). Only in the final Book Eight - the novel was issued in serial form - titled "Sunset and Sunrise" was I a bit disappointed: the future lives of the main characters are packaged rather too neatly as tidy gifts to the loyal reader who has bought all the instalments. But, then, George Eliot did want to be a commercially successful novelist and was.That she was much more than that is the reason she has always been widely read ever since, by men and women alike, and surprisingly without much help from the manufacturing interest. 

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Publishing on Commission, Vanity Publishing, Self-Publishing


The early logical and mathematical work of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein was made possible by Gottlob Frege (1848 - 1925) who taught at the University of Jena. In 1893 a Jena publisher brought out the first volume of his pioneering Basic Laws of Arithmetic and the second volume in 1903. Sales of the first volume had been so poor that Frege had to pay for publication of the second. But he did not self-publish and nor did he, in the ordinary sense, vanity publish since his publisher Hermann Pohle exercised discretion in what he published - and Pohle could point to the fact that on the title page Frege would be identified by his academic titles (as he was) and claim that as adequate justification for publishing a work which neither Pohle or anyone else understood.

The conventional way of characterising what happened is to say that Frege was published on commission. Under such arrangements, the author pays all the printing costs up-front; the publisher retains a commission on all the income from sales, but hands over the balance to an author who may or may not recover their original outlay. Both Jane Austen and Lewis Carroll were published on commission. Where copyright law exists, it is likely that the author published this way will retain copyright. In contrast, when a publisher bears all the costs, they sometimes agree to do it only if copyright passes to them. They are, after all, taking all the risk. Academic journals, for example, took their pick of submitted articles, paid the whole cost of publishing, took the copyright, and paid no royalties. Like all academics of the pre-internet period, I signed up for that many times. Now I observe with curiosity the fact that downloads of things I wrote are on sale from publishers who took everything and paid nothing - though it’s true, neither authors or publishers foresaw a world in which something called a download might exist let alone be sold.

Permutations on these arrangements are easily imaginable and modern printing and publishing technologies have expanded the range of possibilities, once ideologically polarised (by proper publishers - MRDA) into proper publishing and vanity publishing.

But it was never really that simple, as the practice of publishing on commission illustrates, and it still isn’t simple. Self-publishers are avoiding the older, rather quaint vanity publishing firms. Publishers can apply to the Arts Council for subsidies to publish books which are unlikely to make a profit, perhaps because of the very significant cost of getting a good translation made. Universities may subsidise publication of a faculty member’s book if something like the need for colour illustrations would otherwise push up the cover price to levels which would deter everyone except librarians. And so on.

The quality control which a publisher’s editors like to think they exercise always takes place in a context where the balance sheet has to be considered. A subsidy - doesn’t matter where it comes from - can alter the equation and make the difference between acceptance and rejection. Of course, there are always other factors in play. Modern corporate publishing has become so competitive, and margins so tight, that I very much doubt that editors can afford to devote more than a very few hours to reading, judging, and seeking to improve the books they commission. My guess is that nowadays a large proportion are nodded through on the basis of the author’s previous track record. They are published unread.

The Geography of My Reading - Eight Year Survey


I didn’t travel very much, even before lockdown,  and I’m a bit uncomfortable about that, especially since there is an international airport just up the road. But I like to think that I still travel extensively in my mind, in thinking and in the reflections which reading enables. But do I fool myself? Well, as always now there is CCTV evidence; the movements of my reading can be tracked. For the past eight years, I have posted reviews of books onto this blog - not all the books I read, maybe a third of them. So do those books provide evidence of extensive mental travelling or not?

As of this morning, there are about 280 posts on the blog of which some are essays or comment. I classify 240 posts as book reviews. Four are reviews of books read in another language (French - Duras, Houellebecq, Kundera, Geblesco) which hardly counts as serious surveillance of what they are up to on the other side of the leylandii.  Still, I can also point to twenty four books translated into English but it seems only one of those from a non-European language, Japanese: Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, which I enjoyed. Everything else - almost ninety percent - was written in English, though many by American writers and some by European academics writing in English. True, English is a world language - but so is Spanish.

Of the 240 books reviewed, 170 were written by men and 70 by women. Take out the extensive non-fiction and consider only the novels and autobiographies, then the balance changes to 50 men and 40 women. The only mitigation I can find is that the one review of Elena Ferrante deals with all four Neapolitan novels and a scurrilous review of Jane Austen tackles five with the agreeable result that if separately counted the ratio for novels would improve to 50:47 which ain’t bad as things go. You can always do things with statistics.

But overall first impressions do not strike me as the kind of wide-awake travelling I had fondly imagined. But perhaps I do myself an injustice? The reviews are never plot summaries; I only review a book if I find that I have something to say about it. Often enough, I draw on a back catalogue. I looked at my review of Murata and found that I pulled out Charlie Chaplin and Gregor Samsa to make sense of her first person narrator, Keiko. But that also shows that I didn’t have any Japanese points of comparison and I still don’t.

I don’t currently read books about Brexit or Donald Trump or the Royal Family. I have reduced my Bloomsbury biography footprint to zero The authors don’t need my encouragement..






Changing Places


Collectors enjoy great freedom. Drift into collecting teapots and it’s up to you whether to focus on a country or period, or instead go after little teapots short and stout. Readers are equally free to structure their reading; there is a field of possibilities limited only by our imaginations. If someone told me that this year they were reading books by authors surname Z that would be intelligible and intriguing. I would guess that a reader could learn a lot that way. Likewise, if someone said: This year, it’s writers in translation. From Chinese. And an obvious policy: Going halves: alternating books by women with books by men. Such principles could work well but not perfectly - you might end up reading all of Zola for want of anything else and a small voice in my head reminds me that there is a Marxist tradition which marks down Zola as a superficial naturalist, inferior to a robust realist like Balzac.

A powerful structuring principle would ensure that you read mostly good books and at the same time familiarised yourself with many real times and places, with varied ideas, and a wealth of imaginary worlds. What’s not to like?  But does any such principle exist? Well, I certainly wouldn’t trust a university reading list. Might I trust a friend?

Imagine a friend in another country who also enjoys reading. And suppose that at the end of the year you sent each other a list of all the books you had read that year. And suppose that you made a Resolution to read in the coming year the books which your friend had just read - exception made for those already familiar to you.

This is a more demanding challenge than the habit of taking up occasional reading suggestions or acting on reviewer recommendations. It’s always a big challenge to change places. If your friend reads in another language and you can’t read it, there’s immediately a problem with books not available in translation. Fine, that will reduce your commitment to something less daunting.

Paris is a couple of hours away from London but the reading world of a French friend in Paris is going to be very different from that of an English friend in London. It’s not a new intellectual situation; Voltaire pointed it out:

 A Frenchman who arrives in London, will find philosophy, like everything else, very much changed there. He had left the world a plenum, and he now finds it a vacuum. At Paris the universe is seen composed of vortices of subtile matter; but nothing like it is seen in London. In France, it is the pressure of the moon that causes the tides; but in England it is the sea that gravitates towards the moon…

Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques were published in English in 1733 and in French the following year; the London edition a best-seller, the Paris edition suppressed. That typical outcome reversed in the twentieth century when Paris became the place to publish books banned in English-speaking countries.

Who knows what it might be like to change reading places now? Just for a year. Or a lockdown.

Readers Lurk in Every Writer's Mind

Readers lurk in every writer’s mind. Some are wished-for readers who will fully appreciate what the writer is about. Some are stern critics, editors of style but also protectors of morals. Some are judges who remind the writer that not all can have prizes. One is likely to be your Mum or Dad.

The list continues and it is a brave writer who can claim that they wrote exactly what they wanted to write without a care about who might read and what they might think.

When Charlotte Brontë  has Jane Eyre declare Reader, I married him!  I assume that she expected a Bravo! from everyone, a tear from some, and a blessing from the vicar. She did not expect her readers to be appalled. So even if I married him! is more assertive than He married me! it is not as if Miss Brontë expected to scandalise early (1847) Victorian readers of expensive triple-decker novels. Some may have had reservations, but they bought the book and read it. That’s the main thing.

Nowadays, the creative writing magazines that I find in W H Smith constantly prep their readers with information about what readers want and what propriety demands. It is as if the only kind of writing they can imagine is cynical writing under the overarching banner of Give ‘em what they want.

So they might tell you (I simplify a bit) that Asperger’s is trending. The would-be successful first-time novelist then turns to Wikipedia and discovers what Asperger’s is, googles around for a few personal experiences, and stumbles on an articulate mother whose child has Asperger’s. At this point, the novelist decides that it will not be too much of a disruption of the plot if the main character of their novel-in-progress now acquires a sister who in turn acquires a child with Asperger’s. The new sub-plot will surely strengthen sales of the intended novel. It probably won’t and the cynicism with which it is created may well be lisible, even to an average reader. 

Clearly, there are many variants on this simplified story. These little manoeuvres designed to ride on the coat-tails of current trends are unlikely on their own to produce a best-seller. In any case, even bestsellers don’t pay the mortgage for very long. The serious money is in books which can be turned into films for the big screen. The reader lurking in the writer’s mind then becomes a film director or, at least, a scout for one.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Review: Elisabeth Geblesco, Un Amour de Transfert

When Jacques Lacan died  in 1981, a critical commentary in Le Monde  accused  him of perverting psychoanalytic practice, using among other things seduction and manipulation of the transference. This book could be produced as Exhibit A, despite the fact that the author wrote a letter of protest to Le Monde which it did not publish; it is included here at pages 268-70.

Consider the following, from early on in these notebooks:

Now, without the transference, one can’t act (page 92) 

Monday, 10 May 1976
I look at my watch as I ring the bell: 17h 43. Gloria opens the door and tells me to go into the library. I go there, meet the Master who tells me to go in [to his consulting room]. I come out at 17h 45, two minutes later. It’s very good for my transference because that pulverises it. Thus am I stripped clean. Two hundred francs a minute! .( p 93)
 11 May 1976
Before Lacan’s Seminar, Lacan says to her ….. Come and find me straightaway, when it’s over. My neighbours are agitated and ask me, Was that addressed to you? … Yes, to me. I feel like she to whom the Sultan has tossed the handkerchief   (p 95)

And so it continues for some two hundred and fifty pages: He love me, He loves me not.

I read this book for a personal reason: I met Elisabeth (Sanda) Geblesco and her sister Nicole in 1971 and kept up a friendship with them until about 1978 when we lost contact. We  first met on a train: they were sitting facing me and introduced themselves by professing curiosity to know who was this person reading a cheap French paperback of The Logic of Port Royal (Arnauld et Nicole, La Logique ou l’art de Penser 1662). Elisabeth died in 2002; Google gives me no information about Nicole later than 2017.

Un Amour de Transfert was published in 2008 and transcribes in two hundred and fifty pages the notebooks in which Geblesco kept a session-by-session record of her supervisory (contrôle) meetings with Jacques Lacan in the period 1974-1981:  Lacan died in September of 1981, aged 80. The notebooks were kept private and not shared with anyone, not even her sister with whom she lived; they were a secret diary. The meetings took place in Lacan’s consulting rooms (5 rue de Lille, Paris) and Sanda travelled to them from her home in Monaco where she had lived for most of her life, since the late 1930s in fact. I never knew her age, which seemed indeterminate, and the introduction to this book does not give her date of birth - curious in relation to a culture where necrology is taken seriously and birth dates are always given along with death dates. My guess is that she was born between 1930 and 1935. There is no English translation of this book (it exists in Italian and Spanish and would merit an English version), and translations below are my own.

I have left this rather cumbersome review in note form, taking each notebook in turn:

Notebook 1 (pages 21 - 54) covers the period October 1974 - May 1975 and caused me a great deal of amusement. Here Sanda discovers what it means to travel up from Monaco and pay 400 Francs (cash in hand) to be supervised by Lacan: sometimes you get 8 minutes before he gets up and looks for you to hand over the money (p 25); sometimes 3 minutes ( p 26), another time 10 - 12 minutes (p 28 - with the additional comment that she got longer than any of the others who had gone in for their appointment before her; one got 2 minutes). On the other hand, there is also a session of 45 minutes and this is equally notable (p 26). But the coup de théâtre has to be when Lacan is bored, stops listening, and turns his attention to something else: he has opened the drawer of his table and is counting his money … I have never seen so much at one time, real money, except in the banks or shops (pp 39-40). From this passage I conclude that during their meetings, Lacan sat at his desk and she to one side, not opposite [ see further discussion below]. By page 47, Geblesco is expressing fury (The whole thing having lasted five minutes, I’m furious) and calls what is happening a comedy. But she keeps going back for more …

By the end of the first notebook, one begins to see the other side: the tragedy and first of all not Lacan’s but Geblesco’s. In the course of their meeting on 27 May 1975, Lacan compliments her on her work with a client whose case she has been presenting:

I am delighted and leave feeling much better. He must have realised that it wasn’t working anymore and was as warm as in the first trimester. Still, it’s marvellous to hear it said by LACAN, the being who I admire most among the living, that one is a good analyst!! I said to him that I was very happy and I had the courage to thank him. He called me “mon petit” and that greatly calmed me [me repose beaucoup]. It’s him [ i.e, for once it’s him - TP ], miracle, who has forgotten that I must pay him (p 54).

Lacan is seventy four; Geblesco is forty or forty five. She was one of the two daughters of a Romanian diplomat. Before 1939, Bucharest was the Paris of eastern Europe, French the language of its upper classes in the way it had once been in Tsarist Russia. So it may not have been at all strange for this diplomat to marry Berthe Guillemin, direct descendant of the Bonapartist Marshall of the Empire, Jean Lannes (1769 - 1809), first Duke of Montebello. And when the parents divorced, it perhaps indicated something of Berthe’s social status that she took her daughters to live in Monaco on the Boulevard du Jardin Exotique where Sanda and Nicole shared an apartment for the rest of their lives.

But Monaco was also close to French home territory: the Guillemins were of the south of France, not Paris, and Sanda was in contact with that extended family - one of her cousins was married to the Duc d’Orléans, the person who would have the right to claim the French throne if it was on offer.

In World War Two, the diplomat Geblesco was consul in Geneva; whether he had any contact with his daughters, I do not know [ but see my summary of notebook 4].  The war would have made it difficult but not impossible. But, on balance, I suspect not. And I also suspect that he was born around the same year as Jacques Lacan. And as a third suspicion: that Lacan did not know the family history of the person who was paying him 400 francs to meet him for a few minutes a couple of times each month. So when he called her mon petit it was a piece of guesswork, though perhaps not entirely without calculation. (Why not ma petite? That is not common; the generic is normally used - it abbreviates mon petit enfant). 

And did Sanda Geblesco realise that when she started keeping her secret notebooks, they might one day be read as a young girl’s diary? Such inferences and questions are the obvious ones, though maybe more obvious if you have read The Purloined Letter (to which Geblesco refers page 44).

I was a little in awe of the Geblesco sisters. They did not fit easily into any of the English categories I had available to me at the age of twenty four. They could be imagined as blue stockings from their dress, the intensity of their intellectual interests, the uncertainty of their age. But they were also grandes dames - a couple of times Geblesco refers dismissively to Lacan as a  (mere) bourgeois.Yet they did things which blue stocking don’t do - when Bob Dylan performed at the Isle of Wight festival in 1969, they made the trip. And grandes dames don’t usually work for child welfare services, Sanda’s background before she became an analyst. Both sisters gave support to the Irish Republican cause, and when Sanda died Republican Sinn Fein was represented at the funeral; the Sinn Fein obituary notes her religious faith. (The editorial footnotes to this book are fairly minimal and could easily be expanded to incorporate such information).

Notebook 2 (pages 57 - 95) gives us more information about Lacan’s waiting room. Since sessions do not last for a fixed period of time, one arrives at an approximate hour and waits to be called. You look at the others who are also waiting and you time how long those who go in before you stay in the consulting room before they exit. Lacan’s secretary Gloria is also introduced and one suspects a little jealousy (page 90). [ Much later, Gloria is caught listening at the keyhole (p 206) ]. Geblesco's loyalties are expressed without being demanded: there’s no need to go to see Hélène Cixous’s play because it will be bad (page 86).

But Geblesco is not simply a patsy; she turns the situation to her own advantage and gets value for her money in other ways. She is building up her career in Nice and she does the necessary negotiations for a lecture visit Lacan will make. She asks Lacan to support her application for membership of the Ecole Freudienne de Paris (EFP), his organisation. He authorises use of his name and when she makes the necessary moves, she finds herself promptly admitted and publicly listed as a practising analyst without so much as a CV submitted (p 71). [ Much later, when it seems that her meetings with Lacan are coming to an end, she worries about its impact on her professional standing in Nice (p 214) ].

Meanwhile, Lacan’s degree of interest in the supervision can be gauged by whether or not he is counting his money: Lacan stops counting his money … and takes a lively interest …. Lacan starts counting his money again. I continue… (page 74).

There was a thought which occurred to me which I will not try to elaborate. On a couple of occasions, Geblesco presents dream material attributed to a client; I felt it could have been her own. Of course, it is a hazard of (rather amateurish?) supervision that the person supervised brings along a thumbnail sketch of an analytic conversation, inevitably re-shaped by their own preoccupations.  Geblesco and Lacan are not sitting down together to listen to an extract from a tape recording of an analysis which might reveal a different tale. In supervision, the analyst tells the analysand’s tale, and in this case tells it to Lacan who has very definite ideas about what he wants to hear.

Notebook 3 (pages 99 - 137). I drafted the two previous sections after finishing the notebooks to which they relate. Now I feel I am more or less obliged to leave them as they stand. Notebook 3 begins with a dozen quite extraordinary pages covering just May and June 1976. It then re-starts at the end of October. In France, nothing is allowed to disturb les sacreés vacances, not even madness. (Holidays in France have the same religious status as the NHS in England). 

But the long break may have functioned rather like the clock ticking away in the traditional analysis: the patient saves the important things until the last five minutes. Geblesco treats June 1976 in the same way. On the 24 May, Geblesco tries to develop her own ideas about female paranoia in relation to castration, the ideas linked to the scandalous Japanese film Empire of the Senses (Ai No Corrida). Lacan turns his back on her (p 99). At the next meeting on 15 June, she launches her attack; the extraordinary narrative takes up eight pages (pp 100 - 112) and the editor rightly illustrates part of the text in its original holograph form. Geblesco wants to distinguish the transference which forms part of every analysis from what goes on (or should go on) in a supervision. She acknowledges but attacks her own transference - her fixation (she doesn’t use that word) - on Lacan. She says it’s ridiculous (p 101). She’s had a dream (she doesn’t tell Lacan but inserts the narrative at this point) in which her jealousy towards Gloria is obvious. In the dream the psychoanalyst Leclaire (who she does not know) appears as a jealous scoundrel who tells her Lacan is dead. And so on. Then she moves on to develop an interesting argument (to which Lacan gives his full attention) about how an analyst is a specific, real person in ways which mean that they cannot be helpful to any and every client indifferently. She turns this argument onto Lacan and interrogates herself - in front of him - as to what he might offer her, specifically, as a human being …. It continues at length and then, Thus, my question remains: What is it, beyond all the rest, of the BEING of the analyst, how does it intervene in the analysis, what is it of their specificity, what is it as a result of your being, of you in the analysis, and of me who receives? (p 105). It’s a passionate speech. Long silence. Lacan slowly and gently responds, and she says he has difficulty looking at her. By the time she leaves, she is high as a kite - at page 112 we get Aphrodite and Zeus and Dione, followed by St John the Evangelist, filia [brotherly love] in Greek and Laudate Dominum in Latin - and then a flashback to the divorce of her parents.

But there is something she says in launching her attack which suggests to me that she has also pulled rank on the bourgeois Lacan who counts his money in front of her: I was brought up as one of Racine’s princesses (p 103). 

 When Geblesco returns on 21 June, the seating has changed: Lacan is sitting in his analyst’s armchair; Geblesco is directed to the desk seat he normally occupies, so I sit down, more and more astonished (p 108). But to me it seems there is still a game going on in which the Master may well be as busy planning his next move as he is with counting his money or playing with his Borromean rings(or knots) - these grow in importance during the period covered by the notebooks but I can’t summons up any enthusiasm to discuss them.
Meetings resume at the end of October (p 112) with the first session reckoned “a good quarter of an hour” (p 114) and continue up until Christmas (p 133) with the meeting on 14 December reckoned a “long session” - “at least twenty minutes” (pp 130-31) included in which time is a discussion of what Geblseco should do about a patient who she thinks may act suicidally during the Christmas break. Should I tell her she can contact me in an emergency? Lacan: It’s up to you and, then, She won’t do it (pp 129 - 30).

Geblesco reflects on her intense feelings for Lacan and acknowledges the Father-identification (p 120); comments on other female visitors to Lacan (“high fashion” p 116; “very beautiful” p 128); notes the hateful and frightened atmosphere in the general assembly of the Ecole Freudienne (pp 121-22), and links her reaction on the death of André Malraux at seventy five to the fact that her father died without her seeing him again ( p 125), though she does not indicate for how long she had not seen him [ see now summary of Notebook 4] - much later there is a very curious reference to a psychiatric examination demanded by her father at the time of the divorce (p 135). In this notebook, Geblesco acknowledges that she may be writing for eventual publication ( p 131).

And so on. There was a sentence which struck me very forcibly and deserves quotation: Beaucoup d’humains sont morts sans avoir jamais parlé à personne - Lots of people die without ever having spoken to anyone. ( p 125).

There is then a very long gap before the last entry in Notebook 3, dated 2 April 1977, in which Geblesco writes that she has been very ill - from the description, a reader will infer cancer.

Notebook 4 (April 1977 - May 1978) opens with a statement that from the waiting room she can overhear an analysis going on in Lacan’s consulting room (p 141); a second incident, more dramatic, is reported at page 148. The salle d’attente system which Lacan operates strikes me as amateurish at best and unprofessional at worst.

She says she is drawn to a male client, not classically beautiful but … Lacan isn’t happy and at the end of the session insists she returns the following week (p 143). On 13 June Geblesco writes a sentence which could be a very good essay question, Love is analysis itself (p 147) and wants to know if one can get beyond the conventional explanation of love, Because it was me and because it was him/her. Lacan  issues a warning about her attraction to her client. At page 148 there is a first remark about the fact that Lacan is getting old.

Everything stops for Les Vacances and we jump from 14 June to 18 October 1977 on which date there appears to be no recognition that an improvement in one of Geblesco’s patient's mood may be due to the fact that she has had thyroid surgery and hasn’t been in analysis for the period of les vacances. 

Geblesco criticises Freud for a reductive/positivist failure to allow for any mysticism (p 150) and Lacan wants her to come back for another meeting the next day. She asks herself, Do I have to pay ( p 155). Yes, she does ( p 158 ) though she makes him take a cheque. I love discussing with him but if I have to pay for that, my means don’t allow me to do it often. At page 161 she finds it tiresome that there is no time to discuss a client’s case in depth. Page 167 she makes a slip and asks for her next appointment on 14 February; Gloria laughs, presumably recognising a Freudian slip when it’s put on a plate. In the entry for that date she writes that she has been talking to Julia Kristeva about him. Kristeva says that she loves Lacan a lot. Geblesco adds, Moi, aussi je l’aime beaucoup.( p 168).

There is then an important passage at page 169 where Geblesco appears to summarise what happened to her relationship to her real father: one day he takes you to the cinema and you never see him again.

Notebook 5 (June 1978 - September 1981). This last notebook chronicles the decline in Lacan’s health and the eventual acrimonious dissolution of the Ecole Freudienne de Paris. The language becomes more religious - Bible phrases and so on with magical numbers thrown in - and in other respects more abject: only illness has prevented me from obeying him and to be there when he wished (p 212). This is not quite true: she has shown herself capable of standing up to him and there is in this notebook 5 a passage where she seems to be making a pitch to occupy Lacan’s place as a thinker.

She  says she wants to work up the idea that The unconscious is structured like a lineage and immediately Lacan terminates the session which has only just begun (p 209). (She is thinking of the way in which a psychological burden can be carried over more than two generations, which I think is true). Lacan doesn’t like it when she expresses approbation for anyone else’s psychoanalytic work: I believe he didn’t really like it that I had expressed appreciation for A Didier-Weill. Not that he’s megalomaniac but he’s fragile …(p 203).

We learn more about her relationship with her own father. Lacan is much more for me than my own father (p 216) and she cries when Lacan dies, me who didn’t cry when my father died (p 250). These more frequent references to her own life in the last notebook, linked to Lacan’s decline and death, bring into the foreground the tragic aspect of these notebooks. Geblesco has spent six or seven years of her life making tiring journeys from Monaco to Paris and paying 400 ( latterly 500) francs a time to talk for a few minutes to someone who treats her badly. And maybe just because her own father treated her badly.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Review: J Land Barbara Hammond, The Village Labourer 1760 - 1832

There is something to be said for old fashioned historical prose, the sort which was written before the university institutionalisation of History. This powerfully written book dates from 1911 and has been more or less continuously in print ever since. It’s very readable and, indeed, moving.

One of the small ironies of such old works is that even when Radical and of great potential interest to a self-educating reader, they nonetheless assume a knowledge of French and Latin (though never German) of which the reader may be ignorant. The very first four lines of this book are in French - a quotation from de Tocqueville. The great radical R H Tawney had the same habit as the Hammonds. They did not quite escape from the assumptions of their class.

The Hammonds have a very clear story line and argument, supported by extensive quotations from their primary sources among which they (interestingly) include novels of the period. The old English aristocratic ruling class comes out of it very badly, the Church of England very very badly: in 1810 a Bill to remove the death penalty for shoplifting items below the value of five shillings passed in the Commons but was rejected by the Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury and six other Lords Spiritual - six bishops of the Church of England - lending their support to the rejection (page 204) - and that’s just for starters.

At various points I was struck by similarities to the way we provide today for the poor. Though we do now have a minimum wage - an idea familiar and sometimes acted upon as far back as the sixteenth century - we also have all those kinds of income support which in the  18th and 19th centuries helped keep down wages and made swathes of the population dependent on public relief to the advantage of employers and rent-receivers. The Speenhamland system may have gone but we still have its legacy, for example, in the willingness of governments to pay private rents for poor tenants, thus keeping up the level of rent in a way deemed very acceptable to landlords. That a better idea might be to build more homes is not one that we have often acted upon, though Harold Macmillan in the 1950s famously did.

Like many English people, I can trace lines of descent through the agricultural labourers of southern England who are centre stage in this book. Those labourers did leave a record in their certificates of birth, marriage, and death but in very little else apart from the names they passed on. I read this book to fill out the picture and found much more of interest than I had expected.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Review: Yrsa Daley-Ward, The Terrible

I read this book at one sitting (rare) and had no real quibbles (also rare). True, it’s not quite as big a read as its 208 pages might suggest - that’s because there is a lot of white space. I’m a fan of white space and don’t mind buying blank pages.

Daley-Ward chronicles a troubled (sometimes traumatic, sometimes chaotic)  Northern England black girl childhood and adolescence in deft, word-sparing sketches which sufficiently evoke character, milieu and feeling to make any more plodding framing (“I was born in … my mother …. my father ….) unnecessary. At no point did I feel lost in what are often quite complex relationships - her mother has three children by three men, for example. This suggests to me that Daley-Ward has deployed a lot of craft skill in shaping her material and a lot of thought in keeping a firm hold on a main narrative thread. She knows what she is doing and it isn’t splurging. (The question whether some of it is poetry rather than prose or vice versa does not interest me, though I see that other reviewers discuss the question).

Daley-Ward sustains that thread from birth to eighteen, often using her precise age as an anchor point. This takes her to page 107 at which point I suspect many writers would have stopped and said, That’s it; done my childhood. At no point did I feel she was using her prose to illustrate some general truth, nor did it feel as if she was writing with the baleful gaze of hindsight and the disapproval of adult judgement. No one really gets hit over the head with an imported adjective; Daley-Ward simply tries to express how she felt about her life and people in her life, sometimes in everyday terms, sometimes more poetically. Both ways, she carries the reader (this reader) along with her.

The bold decision was to continue beyond the age of eighteen and into the fairly recent past (she was born in 1989 so still not thirty when this book was published in 2018). This continuation is written very frankly (to her credit) and my quibble would be to say that when your life is in a messy period it’s hard to give it much narrative shape; there is just a succession of things which happen. You hook up with this person and then move on to the next; you drink and then you take drugs and back round again; you do sex work and then modelling or vice versa. And you live to tell the tale ( those who don’t live simply don’t tell their tale).

The book was awarded the PEN Ackerley prize in 2019, a prize which is given to a British literary autobiography published in the previous year - and with quite a bit of emphasis on the literary; ghost written celebrity memoirs don’t qualify for consideration. Though I haven’t read the other two shortlisted autobiographies, I think this one clearly meets the standard expected for that prize. It sits comfortably alongside Amy Liptrot's The Outrun which won  in 2016 and which also has religious fundamentalism and alcohol as prominent themes. The two books could be read together in a book group; Liptrot is white, grew up in Orkney and was in her early thirties when she wrote her book.

My own memoir I Have Done This In Secret was called in by the judges for the same longlist of twenty six from which Daley-Ward emerged the winner and I would of course be very happy if you read that memoir too. But do read this one first. 

Monday, 23 March 2020

No Review Really Needed: Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, Swan Song

Gossip is a dish best served hot. True, it can sometimes be re-heated: how else explain the continuing fascination of literary London with tales of century-old Bloomsbury gropes and fumbles? Those fascinated  would be horrified to think that such things might happen today, still less  written about. But the fastidious are numerous, enough of them to ensure that in London publishing circles it is believed that the only really safe sex is that between dead posh people.

In New York there is also a  long literary tradition of re-heated gossip of which Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1963) might stand as an example: thirty years on from your time at Vassar College you dish the dirt on who said what, who did what, back then and for sure you have a best-seller on your hands. Truman Capote also achieved best-sellerdom with his 1975 Esquire magazine contribution “La Côte Basque 1965” which touted rather too recent gossip about very very rich people - the metropolitan elite with knobs on -  thus rather unsurprisingly causing its author no end of a problem. But the piece paid the rent and much more besides.

Swan Song re-heats the 1975 story and the furore it provoked and - since everyone involved is now very dead - the novel has received universal praise, the publishers able to splash plaudits over front and back covers and five garish inner pages of my edition: “Remarkable” (Woman & Home) “Spellbinding” (Sunday Express - An English newspaper for dead people), and so on. So much credit for re-telling so much past gossip. You can understand why there are authors out there ready to go the moment Prince Philip actually dies.

The author writes well, constructs scenes  effectively, varies the style of telling, and so on. It’s just a pity that it’s all in the cause of the idle rich. It’s not as if it’s Brett Easton Ellis: one learns a great deal about what people ate, drank, wore, and how they protected their skin from the sun but it doesn’t feel in the least bit satirical. I got to page 131 and then looked and saw that it would go on until page 467. I called it a day.

The novel was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction - which is why I bought it - but got no farther; perhaps someone suggested that there is really no good reason to go on feeding our conformist enthusiasm for celebrity gossip even when it is got up safely as Literature.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Surely a Great Time to Read Trevor Pateman Between Remembering and Forgetting ....

 Click on Image to Magnify

A linked set of twenty six essays exploring topics around individual and collective memory. There are discussions of the internet as  prosthetic memory; memorials and statues; oral history, notably in the work of Svetlana Alexievich; sentimental objects; forgetfulness as part of what enables both individual and cultural change. And much more ....

Hardback, 144 pages.       ISBN 9780993587962             £15 post free from the publisher and author. Online bank payment only - no cheques at this time :) But you can ask for a signed copy....

Order from   or

Regular UK stockists include  Amazon* and Waterstones

* Depending on how you access Amazon, it is currently showing only Kindle editions unless you click to All Formats. This book is not available as Kindle.

Friday, 20 March 2020

Review: Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other

In Ruritania, there are many ranks, orders, and medals. An elderly gentleman commonly known as Prince Charles but whose full title is sentences longer than that is often photographed wearing a chestful of ornaments, the birthday badges which his Mum has given him over the many years of a very extended childhood. But even those in the lower orders of society can aspire to their own Ruritanian badge. Bernardine Evaristo has one; she is a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire - remarkably, this Order does not have to wait for others to award it a ***** rating; it is already Most Excellent in its own eyes.

Evaristo’s MBE may explain much about Girl, Woman, Other. It’s not so much a novel as a set of thumbnails for a very long running TV soap attuned to well-established UK (social realist) and US (schmalz) markets. For the social realists, there is thumb-nailed poverty, rape and domestic violence. Etcetera. For the popcorn crowd, Bad characters like the Evil Nzinga are disposed of but the Good (Domnique & Laverne pages 111-112; Bummi & Kofi pages 187-188; and most blatantly Hattie & Penelope in the Epilogue) ride off into the sunset as the focus turns to soft and the credits roll. It’s a trope which is also found in Evaristo’s earlier Mr Loverman but in that better book there are main characters who are more fully developed and as a result they, as it were, earn their sunset. In this book, the happy endings are merely formulaic: try pages 111 - 112 for example.

The signature typographical style which uses line breaks instead of full stops does not really disguise the banality of much of the prose:

over time Shirley became an experienced schoolteacher who remained committed to giving the kids a fighting chance / realizing everything else was against them with such large classes and lack of resource and parents who didn’t have a clue how to help them with their homework / parents who’d left school early to work in a factory or learn a trade or be assigned a bunk bed in a Borstal … and so on from pages 234 to 236. 

The alliteration at the end of the quotation is not untypical; compare page 324 rozzers in riot gear, at the ready. I suppose it’s meant to breathe life into dead prose.

The narrator’s omniscience grated on me and as I tried to explain that I hit on the word  condescending.  Ruritania is structured by condescensions.  And  they invite collusion, including that of the intended readers of this book.  Evaristo’s novel has more Diversity than a Coca-Cola advertisement but often enough she wheels out her characters seemingly just in order to satirise them (try page 334) and prove to her audience (perhaps only too willing to have it proved) that, really, for all their dreadlocks and veganism and theyism (etcetera) they're really no better than the rest of us, though we can of course all strive, can’t we?

That’s so true, vicar, would you like another cup of tea?

Friday, 6 March 2020

Review: Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds

Very few, if any, societies have ever  arrived at a workable and sustainable consensus about how to distribute desirable scarce goods. The problem is exacerbated when the goods identified as desirable, notably money and fame, are inherently scarce because relative. If you extend the range to include, for example, happiness or virtue or wisdom - well, then things might get a bit easier. If you can identify goods where your gain is not necessarily my loss, so much the better. But for many people that’s a bit too subtle; their understanding is limited to zero-sum games: there’s a cake and any bit you get is a bit I don’t get.

A recent British Prime Minister, David Cameron, praised those who took the sharp-elbowed approach. If you want something scarce, then force yourself to the front of the queue. If you knock over an old lady on the way there, well, that’s life which is about grabbing what you can. President Trump agrees; he has grabbed many things on his way to the top and he will do whatever it takes to stay there - say, dirt on Joe Biden’s son as quid pro quo for US military aid.

I grew up at a time when it was thought that the distributional problem could be solved in a consensual way if societies operated meritocratically: you should get more of the desirable goods only if you in some way merited them. Talent, hard work, a track record of success were among the measures of merit. Race, Class, Sex were irrelevant. Though it was rarely articulated bluntly meritocracy was also a blatant alternative to inheritance; if you were really going to be meritocratic, then the House of Lords had to go and inheritance of serious wealth had to go too.

All general theories have their problems. At Oxford in the 1960s, one of my leftist friends reckoned it a problem deserving of serious consideration (his father in the wine trade), How should the finest wines be distributed after the revolution? Clearly, ability to pay would no longer be acceptable (or possible). Would merit work? Could you demonstrate through attendance at wine tasting classes that you had a  palate deserving of a Premier Cru? And so on through many rounds of drink….

Nowadays, no one is very keen on meritocracy. The favoured alternative is representation though no one has yet produced a definitive tome listing all the relevant parameters for who should be represented and where. I have tried to do the math, and once you move into multi-dimensional (intersectional) representation it is very  hard to formulate what would count as a situation in which it would be true that For all  values of the variables X and Y, X is fairly represented in Y

But basically the where is fame and money and the who is specified in terms of a few identities: ethnicity (but how many ethnicities are there?) and sex and/or gender (with a lot of ongoing debate there: is the Board of Directors gender balanced if half are males by birth and men by identity and the other half women by identity but with male appendages still in place? Trans ideologists seem obliged to say that the answer to that is Yes).

Nobody seems much worried about class anymore because the working class, rather awkwardly, has its own identity politics: in the USA it’s Trump and in England it’s Brexit. The identity politics with which Douglas Murray is concerned is a middle class thing; it’s about access to money and fame.

For example, when (apparently Caucasian) Sierra Boggess was cast to play Maria in a production of West Side Story one objection on Twitter read “You are a Caucasian woman and this character is Puerto Rican. It’s not like you’re hurting for job opportunities. Stop taking roles from actors of colour”  (Murray, pages 142-43).

Well, to me that’s just an inversion on a standard working class complaint against immigrants They come here and take our jobs. In this case, Puerto Ricans having come to mainland USA (as US citizens, they have always had free movement rights) now claim back jobs which have been stolen from them. This zero-sum idea of theft is central to identity politics, most notably in the doctrine of cultural appropriation. Nobody supposes either that immigrants make jobs happen or that culture grows by appropriation. Human beings just seem to find positive-sum thinking too hard.

But there is more to contemporary identity politics than non-meritocratic competition for scarce goods. There is a strong sectarian or theological element with which Murray is largely concerned and against which he argues and where I find very little to disagree with. The hate-filled bullying behaviour of some young people who think they have virtue on their side repeatedly reminds me both of the American witch hunt tradition and of Jew-baiting on the streets of Hitler’s Germany. It is not the politics of the democratic Left; it has more in common with the politics of the worst Right - including an extraordinary degree of racism which Murray documents.

 Leave aside the bullying, it is also the case that identity theologians secure their prominence - their five minutes of fame on Twitter - by finding ever-new impossible things for us to believe before  breakfast. Murray singles out what trans ideologists expect us to believe and makes a restrained case against, urging caution but also flagging up the ridiculous. Eventually I guess the impossible trans beliefs will go the way of the Holy Trinity; whether they know it or not, most of those who are still Christians are Unitarians not Trinitarians despite the residual efforts of England’s state church.

Meanwhile, the impossible beliefs are doing a great deal of harm, notably in university humanities and social science departments  which have cheerfully converted themselves into seminaries where nothing is studied or argued, and everything simply asserted and endlessly repeated  even if (as with Judith Butler’s prose) it is often confused or simply unintelligible.  

I thought Murray’s book very well argued and surprisingly nuanced for a writer whose metatags (Eton, Oxford, Henry Jackson society, neocon, Leaver,  ….. the Spectator) are so unpromising. The book is perhaps at its most effective when he looks to Martin Luther King for a defence of what later came to be called Big Tent politics. The general idea should be to find things we have in common, not ways of endlessly asserting the desire not to be common.

Recently, I tried to write a memoir of my years as an Oxford undergraduate, both personal and political. As concerns the political, I arrived in 1965 as an eighteen year old member of the Labour Party who had very recently knocked on his neighbours’ front doors to secure the election of a Labour government; three years’ later I graduated as a supporter or even member (I think I had a card) of the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation (which may or may not have had an apostrophe …). To put it anachronistically, during my three years at Oxford, I Woke.

But then trying to remember things I realised something which may now seem odd. However Woke I may have been - and this is not just true of me - that didn’t mean that you did not talk to the Unwoke (who were legion), did not debate with them, did not listen to them. And they reciprocated. It occurred to me, for example, that every week when he lectured, arch-liberal and critic of Marxism Isaiah Berlin pulled in a very full house and a significant part of that house was the Oxford Left which turned out in force, not to heckle or barrack, but to listen to the most mesmerising lecturer Oxford had on offer. I would not be pushing it if I said that when you took your place you looked around to make sure that your fellow lefterrati were there with you, rather as if you were at the theatre (which, of course, you were). If anyone had suggested that Isaiah Berlin should be No Platformed it would have produced bemusement or merriment. We had enough confidence in our own convictions not to need to suppress other people’s (and that may be one clue to understand where we have got to now).

It occurred to me that age might have made me rose tinted in thus presenting the Left as indulgently liberal so I looked for some external confirmation and found it indirectly in  - doyen of the Oxford Left - Tariq Ali’s Street Fighting Years, originally published in 1987 and re-issued in a 2018 version which I am using. He writes about his time in Oxford where by 1966 he was already well-known as an activist and trouble-maker. That does not stop the local Conservative MP,

Monty Woodhouse from embarrassing me on more than one occasion He used to stop me in the street and say “I am to the left of the local Labour candidate [Evan Luard - TP] on immigration, on Vietnam, on Rhodesia and probably also on economic measures. But you and your friends will be voting, I take it, for him” To which I replied that we were voting for parties not individuals and moved off rapidly … (page 138)

So it was quite possible for a Tory toff (later the 5th Baron Terringon) and a revolutionary toff to josh in a civil way with each other on the streets of Oxford - and for Tariq Ali to tell the story twenty years’ later in a way which does credit to his opponent.

It’s true that very shortly after, end 1968-early 1969, quite a few of us did place one limit on our tolerance - just one, and after quite a lot of debate which in my case made me very familiar with John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Mill argues that free speech loses its privilege when the circumstances of an utterance constitute it into an incitement to violence of some kind. He gives an example: you should generally be free to say that corn dealers are starvers of the poor, but not to address those words to an already excited mob standing in front of the local corn dealer’s house. On this basis, I concluded -  and argued in meetings - that it was legitimate to try to stop Enoch Powell’s countrywide stump of political speeches since they constituted an incitement to violence, unintentional perhaps but their effect clear enough on streets which were becoming unsafe for black people. I had no problems with the idea of Powell addressing, say, a university seminar - indeed, I had attended one that he gave in Oxford and I simply sat a few feet away from him and listened. I agreed with Mill: circumstance makes a difference.

The blind spot in my thinking was the rather too easy assumption that we could take the law into our own hands. On the statute books, incitement was an offence so why not appeal to the state (as people do now)? After all, the state had more resources at its disposal than we did. Equally, the exception made for Powell was arrived at with some hesitation and doubt; it was a last line of resort not the first choice as it now seems to be (Murray provides examples).