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Monday 5 February 2018

Review Philippe Sands, East West Street

I don’t usually provide quotable quotes about books I read but I have to say of this one that it is an extraordinary achievement, both in terms of the research on which it is based and the narrative manner in which it is presented. The main text runs to 387 pages, readable throughout. Sands recounts the history of his mother’s family; the history of two great international lawyers (Hersch Lauterpacht, Rafael Lemkin); the life and crimes of Hans Frank, governor of German-occupied Poland; the story of the Nuremberg trials and something of their  aftermath. He holds it all together by constant references back to Lemberg / Lwow/ Lvov /Lviv the city in Austrian Galicia where his grandfather Leon Buchholz and the two lawyers, Lauterpacht and Lemkin, were born and later the site of some of the worst Nazi crimes.

Lauterpacht gave us the expression “crimes against humanity” and Lemkin gave us the term “genocide”. One of the main achievements of this book is to make us think about what those things mean and how they have different implications for law and politics. In particular, Sands points out dangers involved in focusing on crimes against groups (genocide) rather than crimes against individuals, however large their number (crimes against humanity). There are not only the problems of proving intent to destroy a group as such, but also the danger that the idea of genocide re-enforces habits of thinking and acting by using categories which themselves are part of the problem. Though he does not draw it out, it is obvious that if the word “genocide” had never been used then Armenia and Turkey might have progressed much farther towards a resolution of  their century-old dispute than they have. But the Armenians insist they were victims of a genocide and the Turks do not want to accept responsibility for one, though they are clearly willing to acknowledge all or most of the main narrative of mass deportation, starvation and killing. One of the stumbling blocks is the fact that Turkey in World War One saw the Armenian population in its eastern parts as likely to favour enemy Russia over their own Ottoman rulers. That gave rise to military anxieties about fifth columns,  similar to those which led Stalin to organise mass deportations. But those deportations were not significantly driven by racial theorising. 

The archival research which Sands has conducted or directed is astonishing, and the reader must surely come to think that if only you persist long enough with your Google searches and your actual visits to people and places you will eventually turn up the truth. The remarkable chapter on Miss Tilney of Norwich, who took Sands’ mother from Vienna to Paris, is a handproof of that claim and within the book itself it reads like a polished gem of the archival researcher’s craft. It is all the more remarkable that Sands is working on questions where the archival evidence has so often been destroyed by war, neglect, sell-offs and looting - Sands does not mention that in the 1990s when the Soviet Union became the Wild East, chunks of Lemberg archive material were either sold off to cover things like building repairs and staff salaries or looted by new-style small entrepreneurs who paid bribes for easy access to material. I don't know the details of the transactions involved, but I have seen lots of  the archive material,  low-grade it's true but still part of a history which had been preserved for decades until the Soviet Union imploded. 

I think I will have a hard task to find a more impressive book to read in 2018 and for once the jacket endorsements (led off by John le Carré) are entirely justified.

Sunday 28 January 2018

The Awfulness of Modern Book Design and Production

It’s very hard to sell books, I’m told, and that’s one reason why publishers try to keep them cheap. Modern printing technology has slashed production costs to such an extent that the cost of the paper used is a major component. As a consequence, many books are printed on paper which is not much better than newsprint. Costs can also be trimmed by keeping type fonts small and line spacing narrow: you can easily pack 80 000 words into 200 pages or less, though if you bust a word limit the consequence is sixteen new physical pages since it’s still the case that a single uncut printer’s page contains sixteen text pages and you can’t get rid of any spares – they will be there at the end of the book.

Even though marketing is key to a book’s success, publishers economise on a book’s appearance. When I look at the dust jackets or covers on a Waterstones book table,  I imagine  they have all been prepared by freelancers taking at most a couple of hours to do the work and probably being paid a hundred pounds or less. That’s true even for best-selling books. Whereas food supermarkets have stripped-down packaging for their Essentials or Basics ranges, publishers strip down all their ranges.

I’m surprised that authors put up with all this. True, most of them (us) are desperate to be published so accept almost any terms. But Top Ten or Top One Hundred writers are surely in a position to argue. Perhaps they just don’t see it as their business: you sit at home, email the completed Word your agent, let your agent find the publisher and negotiate the terms, reckon that it is the publisher’s business to deal with paper, font, binding, endpapers, jacket or cover design.

This would perhaps be in OK in a world where publishers had some sensitivity and taste. But look at a Waterstones table and all the evidence is that they don’t. As examples of bookmaking craft and graphic art, the books are dire - a word which means really, really bad.  I do judge a book by its cover and some of the covers do seem to be informing me that the contents are not worth bothering with.

I enjoy the design work involved beyond the stage of writing a text. Paper, typeface, font size, line spacing, headers and footers. Then endpapers and cover boards where it is a remarkable truth that a very wide range of colours and textures are available in the standard Wibalin ranges and all at pretty much the same cost. Despite that, most published books huddle in a safety zone, using a small range of the available options. How often do you see end papers in bright yellow or lilac or apple green?

As for jacket design, software which comes as standard with any PC already enables anyone to mock-up a jacket and even though I entrust to a graphic designer the final preparations, which involve adjustments down to half a milimeter in placing text and images, I am involved in all stages. The covers aren't elaborate confections, but they have been worked on.

The result, hopefully, is a book which has been thought through as a physical object as well as a literary or scholarly text. You won’t see many  in your local bookshop. The one big exception in the recent past was the special edition of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent.

Saturday 27 January 2018

Review: Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

This is a long, leisurely book, with a single narrator who does not have the benefit of a university education and who sustains a straightforward simplicity of expression throughout. Kathy is sometimes distracted by her own line of thinking and recalls herself to subject matter from which she has digressed with an Anyway or an As I was saying. It’s beautifully done. Ishiguro creates a mystery which is only slowly revealed, information dripped into the narrative bit by bit.

The plot could be labelled as sci-fi or dystopian fantasy, but it hews so close to ordinary reality that it is really an extended metaphor for life’s journey. True, it is distinctive that Ishiguro’s characters have no natural parents - they are cloned human beings – and their lives are organised by an invisible state apparatus which provides them with guardians and an education and a career path about which there seems to be no choice: they are to become organ donors, and they will begin to donate while still young and will expect to die (though they use the word complete) no later than their fourth donation. When they complete, all their remaining organs will be harvested for use – a fact which Ishiguro slips in at page 274 of his 282 page book.

So we are born, we live our lives and we die. The distinctive feature of the lives of the clones is that, having no parents, and discharged from guardianship at sixteen, they are used to looking after each other. Indeed, eventually they all become carers to donors before becoming donors themselves. Their lives are very closely intertwined, and so Ishiguro can write a delicate story of intimate relationships, their ups and downs, their moments of frustration and of greatness, their breakdowns .

It seems there is no way of altering your destiny, and when Ishiguro introduces the possibility that there might be in Chapter Nineteen(pages 214 – 232) it is at the same time the first moment of emotional release in the book, a Greater Love … moment when one of the three principal characters, Ruth, holds out a chance to Kathy and Tommy which is also life-sacrificing on her part. She holds out to them a possible route for delaying the moment at which they will become donors. If they are true lovers, they may be able to get a deferral.

But Charon does not allow deferrals now anymore than he allowed one to David Hume; the rumour of their existence is a myth and Chapter Twenty Two is devoted to revealing that (pp 251 – 270), opening the way for a closing Chapter Twenty Three (pp 271 – 282) where Tommy and then Kathy reconcile themselves to the inevitable. Here once again, Ishiguro is writing to release the store of emotion he has built up inside us and, at least for this reader, succeeds.

Wednesday 10 January 2018

Tuesday 9 January 2018

Review: Anne Applebaum, Red Famine

Anne Applebaum’s becomes a very readable book and impresses as very well documented and argued, but it starts badly. The bad start has something to do with her own prejudices and something to do with a language problem compounded in all probability by a surfeit of uncoordinated research assistance. I will focus on these two problems.

At page 19, we read that the Bolsheviks’  “coup d’état in October (7 November according to the ‘new calendar’ they later adopted) put them in power amidst conditions of total chaos. Led by Lenin, a paranoid, conspiratorial and fundamentally undemocratic man, the Bolsheviks …”

Now I am only going to argue with one part of this. Why the snide scare quotes around ‘new calendar’?  In Bolshevik-controlled Russia, the 31 January 1918 was followed by 14 February. This switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar replaced a less accurate with a more accurate calendar: both calendars involve slippage but the Julian slips at the rate of one day in 128 years, the Gregorian by one day in 3030 years. More importantly, all of Russia’s neighbours already used the Gregorian calendar and the Bolsheviks simply brought their country into line with the norm in Europe’s – er, capitalist – countries. When you wrote a letter, personal or business, to someone in those countries you no longer needed to use dual dating to prevent confusion. The only remarkable feature about Russia’s ‘new calendar’ is that it took a bloody upheaval to bring about an overdue administrative reform and that incidentally tells us something interesting and important about the old regime. In the same way, my own country would probably need a revolution to arrive at a fixed date for Easter but, fortunately, there is no chance of any such thing here.

The language problem is more complex. Applebaum has written her book with the support of what are or were Ukrainian diaspora organisations in Canada and the USA, notably the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. They have protocols to tell you how to transliterate from Ukrainian to English, which is excellent, and Applebaum tells us that she is going to use them. What is not excellent is that some of the Ukrainian words your friends point you towards are essentially recent inventions which are simply anachronistic when used in historical discussions. The most egregious example appears at page 9, where Applebaum tells us that the city of what is now called Donetsk was originally called ‘Yuzivka’ in honour of its founder, the Welshman John Hughes. It wasn’t. It was called ‘Yuzovka’ or ‘Iuzovka’, which are standard transliterations from the Russian original. Applebaum has instead transliterated from a modern Ukrainian word which is essentially an invention. Yuzovka was a Russian company town and remained so until it was renamed ‘Trotsk’ in 1923 (after Trotsky) and then ‘Stalino’ (after Stalin) and finally in 1961 ‘Donetsk’ which is the name by which it is known today, and helpfully by both  Russians and Ukrainians. The word Yuzivka has no historical purchase, merely an ideological one.

In addition, simplistic and anachronistic language purists never actually achieve the ideological consistency they want. Human beings just can’t cope with their demands. This is obvious from Applebaum’s very sloppy maps.  I have no desire to wear you down, so I will take just one, her map titled Ukraine, 1922. The old Imperial Russian guberniyas had been slightly re-organised by that date to create the Ukrainian SSR but the map gives them their names in a mix of versions, some transliterated from Ukrainian (Kyiv, Kharkiv) and some from Russian (Podolia, Odessa). Town and city names are also mixed. Some versions are Ukrainian (Proskuriv not  Proskurov) others are Russian (Melitopol, Mariupol not Melitopil, Mariupil). Yuzovka is given its post-1961 name, Donetsk. I am sure Applebaum has been inundated with emails picking up on these and other points but we should probably acknowledge that we are never gong to get it right. She does use maps which exclude Crimea from Ukraine, which is historically accurate: the administrative transfer to Ukraine was made in 1954.

Some years ago I was asked to prepare for auction in Switzerland what was probably the largest collection of Ukrainian stamps and postal history ever assembled. The catalogue was going to be written in English. When it became known that I was going to do this work, I got emails from diaspora Ukrainians reminding me of spellings and transliterations I should employ. That was helpful, but I had to point out that I was keen to avoid anachronism and falsification. At the time of the first Ukrainian stamp issues in 1918, language questions were not much of a priority in Ukraine and old Imperial Russian postal cancellations continued in use for some years (something which, in contrast, did not happen in the newly independent Baltic countries which were keen to switch from Cyrillic to Roman immediately). Before the early or even mid 1920s, only a couple of cities produced any Ukrainian language postmarks (Kyiv and Kharkiv) and even those were simply used alongside the old ones. So I ended up writing catalogue entries which read, for example, “Letter from Kyiv with cancellation KIEV 10.10.18”, the capitalised letters transliterating the Russian of the postmark. But I am sure I slipped up from time to time, just as most people do when they alternate between civilisation and civilization without even noticing. And in my view, most of the time we should relax and live with the slippage unless some question of historical accuracy is at stake.


When we get past all this, we get a book which I think is more tightly argued than her book on the Gulag. She assembles a great deal of material but is cautious about using the word genocide and gives a reasoned estimate for the numbers who died in the Holodomor, the artificial famine of 1932 – 33, designed in Moscow but implemented on the ground by Ukrainians as well as Russians. The photographs she uses are important and some of them will be new to readers. [ Added 3 July 2018: see also my review of Philippe Sands, East West Street on this Blog, 5 February 2018. Sands thinks that in general the concept of crimes against humanity has more to commend it than the concept of genocide. In that perspective (I am extrapolating), the burden passes from proving that Stalin targetted Ukrainian peasants to proving (much more easily) that he targetted peasants whose way of doing things stood in the way of a megalomaniac agricultural policy, rather in the way that Mao was later to do in China. The national, ethnic, cultural or linguistic categories into which the peasant fell was irrelevant to Mao. But that did not stop them starving to death].

One thing she does not discuss but which I think is relevant is this. Like Russia, Ukraine has a major boundary problem. The creation of Ukrainian identity has been difficult because there are not enough mountain ranges and rivers creating natural boundaries. After Imperial Russia collapsed in 1917, Ukrainian nationalists laid claim to territories extending considerably beyond today’s boundaries (especially in the north and east). When you look at their maps, you start to see straight lines reminiscent of those favoured by Europe’s imperial powers when they carved up Africa and the Middle East. In the absence of natural boundaries, cultural nationalism assumes exaggerated importance and so does the tendency towards cultural imposition. In the present instance, both Russian and Ukrainian nationalisms came into conflict over territories whose people, left to their own devices,  would probably have ended up living in the kind of inconsistent and compromising ways which enrage bureaucrats, imperialists and pedants. 

Saturday 6 January 2018

Review: Thomas Hardy The Mayor of Casterbridge

I recall as a teenager sitting hunched, gripped and tearful over The Mayor of Casterbridge. When I got to Henchard’s Testament on the final page, I was distraught. But I also felt that my own Will would read like Henchard’s and there was a masochistic pleasure in that.

I have re-read the book over fifty years later, starting with some trepidation. I really did not want to be reduced to helplessness. But I was curious to find out what had so moved me at fifteen or sixteen.

The writing surprised me. It was fast paced, not slow as I had expected. Things happen very quickly and I can see how that is because this was a novel written for serial publication. There are coincidences which we would find unacceptably implausible in a modern novel, stage exits and entrances occurring with pantomime artfulness.

I had forgotten that the novel is not only the tragic tale of Michael Henchard but also the tale of Elizabeth-Jane and it closes, after the Testament has been read, by settling her into some kind of happiness. But it may be that I had forgotten because Elizabeth-Jane had something in common with me as a teenager. Like many Victorian children, she is a replacement child. The original – offspring of Henchard and his wife Susan – died, to be replaced by the new version born of Susan and the sea captain Newson. In the Victorian period, children frequently died young and were often enough replaced by new versions bearing the same name. Hardy’s entire narrative about Elizabeth-Jane rests on the plausible fact – simply assumed in the narrative - that both she and her original bear the same name. I was a replacement child too, very consciously so for my mother, though I did not bear the name of the stillborn child who had preceded me. She would have been called Elizabeth.

Henchard has much in common with my father, whose meanness and aggression alienated both his wife and his son, alienations which he then resented and sought revenge for. So that also must have played its part in my teenage reading. Henchard is a less vengeful figure than my father, held back by the better side of his character which Hardy repeatedly emphasises. It is a requirement of tragedy that you do not feel that the victim  deserves their fate.

Though Hardy’s novel does not really have unity of time, it does of course have unity of place, and I guess that for some readers it is the descriptions of Casterbridge [Dorchester] and its rustic characters, decked in dialect and quaint vocabulary, which make the novel. But even then, some of Hardy’s authorial comments and asides are not without their contemporary relevance. The thought is attributed to Farfrae but is really Hardy’s when he writes of the skimmity ride as animated by The tempting prospect of putting to the blush people who stand at the head of affairs – that supreme and piquant enjoyment of those who writhe under the heel of the same …(page 295 in my edition)

Monday 1 January 2018

Review: Zadie Smith, Swing Time

I don’t think I’ve read Zadie Smith since White Teeth (2000) which I liked. So when I came to this new novel there was a lot I had read in between, some of which came to mind as I began to read. There is an obvious comparison to be made with Elena Ferrante who also uses the narrative device of two girls growing up together and then going their separate ways. Then there is the cosmopolitanism - the narrative split between London, New York and West Africa – which made me think of Taiye Selasi, Ghana Must Go. This aspect of the novel I found the least satisfactory. Finally, Smith’s teenage girls reminded me of Caitlin Moran's and, like hers, they can be excruciatingly funny.

Like Ferrante, Smith writes powerful scenes which then accumulate into a longer narrative but without any heavy re-enforcement of a preferred story line. I found the London scenes overall the most striking and there was one, which takes place in a small north London pizza joint (pages 321 – 330), which I thought magnificent. It’s beautifully structured but feels like a story which has made itself up as it is being written, it’s completely unexpected, and it is a splendid example of showing rather than telling. It is packed with emotion, the narrator's included. 

The reviewer at The Observer is credited on the cover with the opinion that the novel “Has brilliant things to say about race, class and gender” which is really to cut Zadie Smith off at the ankles for a book in which dancing plays a leading role and reduces her to a clever Sunday school teacher. (In context, the cover quote does not sound half as bad; I checked back to the original review by Taiye Selasi and it’s overall better than the quote the publisher has used).

The novel is a novel and a very accomplished one; there are many turning points where it could shift in several directions, some at least of which will occur to the reader, and it is partly the sense of those other possible directions which gives the reader the chance to feel that this is a work of considerable imaginative power which opens up rather than closes down our own imaginative understandings of how we live and how we might live.