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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

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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. 

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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 CarrĂ©’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.