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Saturday 30 December 2017

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

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

But see the original review for the full supporting case.

Sunday 17 December 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Review: Lawrence Osborne Beautiful Animals

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 7 November 2017

Review: Tim Parks In Extremis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 1 November 2017

Available Now: Trevor Pateman Prose Improvements

Click on Image to Magnify

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

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

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

Queries to

Sunday 29 October 2017

Review: Tim Parks, The Novel: a Survival Skill

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 8 September 2017

Review: Michael Rosen So They Call You Pisher!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Click on Image to Magnify

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

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