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Ahab’s Ambition

moby-dick-1For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.”

At what point does young ambition tip into morbid disease? When does general optimism about the future turn into a narrow fixation with a specific goal? These are the great questions at the heart of the juxtaposition between Moby Dick’s young narrator, Ishmael, and the grizzled, twisted figure of the Pequod’s captain, Ahab. It is difficult not to wonder what exactly it is that separates them, particularly when Ahab reflects on his early years as a whaler: did he ever share Ishmael’s enthusiasm for the open sea, or was monomania always a defining part of his character? It is tempting to think that perhaps Ahab’s all-consuming ambition is a product of his age, that he is merely a wizened replica of the fresh-faced Ishmael: a man whose passion for whaling generally has been chiseled into a hard-edged obsession with the single white whale.

“…Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey – more a demon than a man! – aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool – old fool, has old Ahab been!

But that seems simplistic, and it is easier to imagine that Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick merely replaced some previous yearning. Perhaps Ahab was a young mariner hell-bent on rising within his chosen profession, dreaming of one day commanding his own ship. When that goal was successfully reached (and we know he has spent thirty-seven of the previous forty years at sea, abandoning his wife in the process) he was probably forced to reset his sights, to aim higher at some new unreachable target. To this extent, we might contrast Ahab with the captains who remain ashore, Peleg and Bildad, whose life at sea has been replaced by a very material dedication to the purely financial interests of the whaling ships they send on their way. Ishmael, on the other hand, has no interest in worldly gain of that sort. We learn at the outset that he is almost contemptuous of those who aspire towards positions of authority:

“…I never go as a passenger; nor, though I am something of a salt, do I ever go to sea as a Commodore, or a Captain, or a Cook. I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them. For my part, I abominate all honorable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever.”

On the contrary, Ishmael is drawn to the sea by something altogether less tangible. His adventure aboard the Pequod is not limited in scope, and it is clear that his journey is more of a personal, spiritual quest than that of the other members of the crew, excepting maybe Queequeg the harpooneer, who is happy to let his portable god make his decisions for him. The distance between Ishmael’s open-mindedness and Ahab’s tunnel vision is most obvious when one considers their different experiences at the top of the Pequod’s mast-head. Ishmael confesses to being a terrible lookout: “let me make a clean breast of it here, and frankly admit that I kept but sorry guard.” Indeed, chapter 35 (‘The Mast-Head’) quickly becomes a classic Ishmaelian digression ranging from the greats of history to ancient Greek philosophy. Ishmael enjoys looking, but not for anything in particular. He explains his poor watch-keeping thus:

With the problem of the universe revolving around me, how could I – being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude…”

In fact, Ishmael describes the expansive view of the sea from the top of the mast-head as his “ultimate destination.” Not so Ahab, who climbs the mast-head in chapter 130 (despite his wooden leg) with the single objective of sighting the white whale. Whilst he is “perched aloft”, he gazes so intently at the horizon for signs of his prey that he fails to notice the sea-hawk that symbolically swoops down to remove his hat, later dropping it in the distance, never to be recovered.

There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”

Ahab recognizes the absurdity of his quest in one stark moment of lucidity and candour in which he tells Starbuck, his first mate, not to follow him when he lowers his boat to give chase to Moby Dick. However, he also asserts that he himself has no choice in the matter, that he is merely the puppet of a “remorseless emperor.”   This passage confirms the role of linear authority aboard the Pequod.  Just as Ahab is unable to disobey what he sees as his fate, so Starbuck is unable to disobey Ahab, despite being all too aware of the madness of the chase.  It also confirms the helplessness of Ahab’s situation: he has spent so long pursuing his goal that he is now merely the victim of a terrible disease which drives him forward, almost in spite of himself. And yet, notwithstanding Ahab’s suicide mission, Melville’s novel is certainly not dismissive of the spirit of adventure in general terms. The fact that Ishmael endures as the sole surviving member of the Pequod is surely intended as a salute to that spirit of adventure, a spirit that does not allow itself to be curtailed by narrow-mindedness.

The Editors

Book Club Spy: A Little Life

A Little LifeHanya Yanagihara – A Little Life

Harrowing is the word most commonly used in reviews and in conversation where A Little Life is involved. It is a word more commonly associated with a dreadful ordeal than a seven hundred page novel. There is no point shying away from the fact that the book is far too long. However, Hanya Yanagihara is such a pro in the world of books that no one can blame her editor from baulking at the prospect of that particular conversation, especially as the story itself is undoubtedly compelling. The friendship between four university friends as it twists and breaks over several decades living in New York is as gripping as it is complicated.

Except it is not about four ‘little’ lives, because the stage is set for just one. Anyone intrigued by Malcolm’s daddy issues and burgeoning architecture career will be disappointed – he is really just a supplier of divine interiors after page 200. JB is the only one with a sense of silliness, and the release the reader feels from his comical presence is palpable, until the jokes and then his presence also recedes. Willem is the kind heart who seems to be a dim failed actor, until he gets his break, and is the best friend Jude could ever ask for. He is endlessly patient, and somehow avoids being annoying.

Jude is the unwilling star; the bleeding angel, the lawyer, baker, studio assistant, adopted son and abused vessel of what loosely represents the care system in America. Such is his beauty and grace that those who don’t want to paint him want to carve their marks into his (already battered) flesh to appropriate a piece of him for themselves. His story has been compared to a misery memoir, but whilst A Child Called It contains mawkish sentiment, and gestures of hopeful rhetoric, A Little Life has none of the above. The ending is not happy, and the very worst things happen to good people. Yanagihara, when asked about the expanding taint of child abuse in the novel, has explained that it is not that she is especially interested in children or abuse, but in this form of abuse as the ultimate form of abusive power.

Where Yanagihara has the edge over a well written journalistic by-line on an amazingly accomplished and complicated individual is her setting. The former careers from humble box room beginnings and cheap Vietnamese food to slick urban mega flats and haute cuisine. A few people left the narrative here: the endless square footage and minimalist contemporary art provide a bleak contrast to Jude’s scarred wreck of a life. Or perhaps their hearts just creaked with envy at the mental image these palaces summoned, which was too much when the reader has already been put under a certain amount of emotional duress. As covered in our Booker Prize piece, Yanagihara wanted to move away from the typical portrayal of New York’s geography and capture the hunger of the city’s inhabitants. She accomplishes this in every sense of the word – everyone works till they drop, they are always moving into bigger apartments or building new houses, expanding their empires and upgrading. Strangely, when it comes to appetite, despite her descriptions of iced cakes and Thanksgiving meals, I have never felt less hungry while reading about food. The opposite was the case when reading Fleming’s Bond books – never have scrambled eggs sounded so tempting.

Her most enchanting character is a supporting role. Harold the law professor first meets Jude at law school, where he buys Jude some clothes for a job interview. He is gentle, funny, a devoted husband and father and an appalling cook. He adopts Jude, and loves him persistently when Jude – like many victims of abuse – desperately tries to push him away. He gently continues to reappear, and that is his simple and irrefutable way of showing love. Harold is Mr Tom, Gandalf, John Keating and Atticus Finch combined. He represents the most pure manifestation of familial, paternal love in a novel which is interesting in tracing every kind, including the fleeting and the inadequate. Blood ties are replaced by friendships as the important family structure for Yanagihara’s characters, especially for those without children.

So harrowing, yes, too long, certainly. However, A Little Life is a detailed tapestry of style without being overly stylized, honest without being brutal for the sake of impact, and Yanagihara’s characters will floor the reader, often when they least expect it. It is not the image of a broken figure curled up on the floor in the dark that sears, but the gentle insistence that you look the speaker in the eye, figuratively speaking, as they are showing you something new.

The Editors

The Literature of Dreaming: Part 2 (The Science of Sleep)


I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?
― Ernest Hemingway

On Thursday 22nd October, Lavinia Greenlaw chaired a discussion between Jonathan Coe, Deborah Levy and Dr Russell Foster on all matters surrounding sleep at an event co-hosted by the Royal Society of Literature & Royal Society. Foster, a neuroscientist, opened by reminding the audience that 36% of our lifespan is spent sleeping. He described sleep as “the single most important behaviour we experience”, as well as giving a historical portrayal of its significance by citing Thomas Dekker, who thought that sleep was “the golden chain that holds health and our body together”.

Lady Macbeth refers to sleep constantly, using it to her advantage initially by making the sleeping state the moment to take the lives standing in her way, until it gets the better of her by abandoning her for good. She is deprived of rest, and yet clamours “To bed! to bed!” Shakespeare knew it was not something to be trifled with, and perhaps it wasn’t, until Thomas Edison came along. He thought sleep a criminal waste of time, and in inventing the light bulb he curtailed our natural sleep in a way candles and gas lamps didn’t and couldn’t.

Research continues to consolidate the link between mental illness and sleep disruption: illustrated by Foster’s graphs of hormone levels released whilst sleeping in the brains of schizophrenics. Sleep and mental illness have shared origins of overlapping neural pathways, as well as the more obvious factor that one is clearly able to influence the other. We need sleep to be able to use our brains as we would wish. The body at rest allows the brain to repair itself, sort information and perform memory consolidation, which is why we can sleep ‘on’ something and wake up with the solution.

Sleep deprivation actually puts the brain in an altered state, where you cannot tell how dampened a level it is working at. The part of the brain that controls impulse is asleep, which is why every idea seems outstanding when you are tired enough. Jonathan Coe said this was partly why he always felt sorry for Thatcher attempting to function on four hours a night. None of the three speakers put any faith in the concept of the brilliant idea at 3am. Rather than trust it for genuine inspiration, Coe recalled the story of a Hollywood producer who, agonized by ideas in the night dissipating on waking, put a pad by his bedside at his wife’s suggestion. The first morning he awoke to find he had written “boy meets girl” overnight.

Deborah Levy’s statement that “dreams tell us the things we don’t want to know but know anyway” clearly signposted that the scientific part of the evening was essentially over. She read Kerouac’s “rhapsodic manifesto” against sleep, containing his assertion that “the only ones” for him were “the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”. His rule of no yawners allowed does reveal the short jump between sleep avoidance and a fear of death. Just as brothers Hypnos and Thanatos lived cheek by jowl, some of us fear sleep in the event we should never wake again; Poe described sleep as “those little slices of death — how I loathe them”. Children require talismanic blankets and soft toys as part of their bedtime rituals in order to feel happy about going to sleep, but is this because of a painful (to them) separation from the waking world? Their fear of sleep could be more closely related to the threat of nightmare, depending on your personal views of the liminal state. Children are instructed to have sweet dreams, but more often see what truly lurks under the bed, or in the recesses of their minds.

Just as we have no control over the content of what we encounter within as we sleep, there is the area of considering what happens around us while we are unconscious. Jonathan Coe read from The House of Sleep, written 19 years ago about visiting a sleep clinic. Coe sleep walked frequently (nearly climbing out of a first floor window at one point) and decided not to visit a clinic, as he was frightened by the idea of being watched over while caught in the powerlessness of sleep. A parallel he drew with being in love. This powerlessness was summed up by a passage where characters Sarah and Gregory (an aspiring sleep clinician) have just had rather disappointing (for her) sex. The post-coital sleepiness and nostalgia were her favourite parts of the whole process. He tells her in one such period that his favourite part of her body is her eyelids, from watching her sleep. This is the first hint of his fondness for standing over sleepers. He likes to look down, fully in control, watching the helpless (a brilliant segue from sweet intimacy to sinister humour in the space of a few paragraphs). Sarah wakes from a nightmare where a creature has seized her by the eyes by its tongue, to find she cannot open her eyes as Gregory is holding her lids down with his fingers. He expressed a desire to see life flickering behind the lids.

If dream reveals the parts of the subconscious we would rather not tackle, daydream presented to Freud the ideal case scenario where we can make the little directions we desire to reality, much like the habit of thinking of a great response to an argument rather after the fact.

In the same way, we tend to think most truly in the quiet period immediately before sleep, moments described by Ondaatje in the English Patient “when she feels most alive, leaping across fragments of the day, bringing each moment into the bed with her like a child with schoolbooks and pencils. The day seems to have no order until these times, which are like a ledger for her, her body full of stories and situations.”

Full of possibility, in other words. Levy’s hypothesis was that only psychotics are truly certain. There is value in being separated from our certainties, as a state of floating helps ideas, and allows us to encounter endeavour. Our super conscious state – where we are at our most controlled and articulate – lies in direct opposition to a sleeping or semi-conscious state where you encounter what you can’t articulate, and you lack the imperatives to control it. As science has no definition for the unconscious, literature revels in bridging the gap. Coe’s apt response to Levy was that a novel or a poem is not a daydream, as there is control there. A controlled daydream then.

Science and literature agree that sleep is a transitional state. Raymond Carver captured it perfectly when he talked of crossing an invisible line to “a place where a little harmless dreaming and then some sleepy, early-morning talk has led me into considerations of death and annihilation.”

The Editors

Jonathan Franzen on Purity


An Evening with Jonathan Franzen: Intelligence Squared, 30 September 2015

At the end of last month, Intelligence Squared (the world’s “premier forum for debate and discussion”) hosted an evening of Franzen in discussion with Sarah Churchwell at The Royal Geographical Society for the launch of his latest novel: Purity. Two Americans discussing America in a room of ex-pat Americans. Plus two British people feeling very underdressed and obliged to ask each other questions like “What is Stevia?” [The answer turned out to be a sweetener; we were not missing out].

Once we managed to shoulder past the American academic habit of using longer words than necessary – like supererogatory – and they had each brought up their credentials frequently enough to feel well established, appreciated and legitimate, we were all delighted to get on with it.

Before reading from his latest novel, Purity, Franzen claimed it is a hard book to read from, but rose above this to deliver three entertaining passages in an appropriately wry tone. It was best when he dropped the voices and let his words do the job, as he has created a very entertaining story.

The protagonist Pip and her mother talk on the phone. The latter is a recluse living in the California hills, bleating: “you have no idea how much I envy you your cubicle” as she blenches at the visibility of the human form. Pip wishes to be in the world, but is stuck in a non-job hampered by student loans, and feels she cannot get much further without knowing who her father is. It is the only taboo topic between them, and so they dance around hypochondria and passive aggressive commentary: “No phone call was complete before each had made the other wretched”.

Next, down to Amarillo, Texas, where Leila the investigative journalist looks into a missing nuclear weapon. A listener so sympathetic she receives Christmas Cards from the Unabomber ten years after she wrote a piece on him that he felt painted him in a more favourable light than most. Leila is interviewing a woman about her ex-boyfriend, who showed her a B16 thermonuclear warhead, before asking her to strip and climb on so they could have sex on it. The payoff for this part of the narrative came from her initially playing for time by saying she didn’t want to get radiation poisoning.

Franzen avoided his Denver and Bolivia sections to provide his final reading: a first person narrative in early ‘90s New York. A recently divorced couple fight over the phone until he agrees to cross state lines so they can continue dysfunctionally sleeping with one another. At this point Franzen was at his most engaging, and rapid dialogue is hard to read well aloud.

As we entered the discussion section of the evening, Churchwell opened by saying Purity was a continuation of themes introduced first in The Corrections [published a week before 9/11] and then in Freedom – such as the corporatisation of America. The internet, and associated questions of privacy drive Purity. Not only was it unclear where a question lurked within this statement, but writers (as discussed in a recent piece on the Man Booker) do tend to pursue themes that hound them. This is hardly a revelation. Regardless, Franzen was deft with these questions that were more like earnest statements of intent.

This was not the case in the recent FT interview, where he came across as precious and evasive – almost keen to stoke the concept of him being the second most loathed man in America (Kanye West has top billing). He did not help himself with comments such as:

I am literally, in terms of my income, a 1 per center, yes,”, “I spend my time connected to the poverty that’s fundamental to mankind, because I’m a fiction writer.”, and “I’m a poor person who has money.”

He claims that he tells the truth, and he claims people do not like him as they do not like the truth. Rachel Kushner’s review is a classic example barely even touching on the novel’s content, cosily referring to the author as “Jon” while colouring in Franzen’s snobbery and mean spiritedness.

Returning to the podium, Franzen’s decision to name his protagonist Pip inevitably raised a question regarding his interest in 19th century literature. As we moved from Dickens to Trollope and How We Live Now, questions surrounding writing about the moment as it happens were parried by Franzen requesting who ‘we’ are now, as Dickens was able to have a much clearer idea of who ‘we’ were. This was explored in the last two novels and he struggled with it when writing the third before coming to a different understanding of who ‘we’ are: a community of readers and writers. This seemed to be rather stating the obvious and until he explained that he still aims to write for the imagined audience of 5000 that were present when he crafted The Corrections.

He cited anxiety and all kinds of shame stemming from digital communication as big drivers: he writes about these and “what the world is doing to me”. When asked about shame, he stressed the ironic nature of Purity as a title, and said his duty as a writer as he sees it is to ironize. The novel’s epigraph is Goethe’s Mephistopheles (Franzen called him Mephisto) introducing himself to Faust. Franzen explained: “He’s still a villain and because the universe is so big, some of the bad things cannot help but have good outcomes”. This applies to the internet – good coming out of bad – and specifically the character of Andreas Wolf, an Assange like figure. Assange is referred to several times in the novel in contrast to Wolf. When Churchwell asked: “How much emphasis do you want to put on their differences?” Franzen’s eventual response was “Quite a bit”. Like Assange, Andreas Wolf craves fame, but unlike him does not want to be seen as a hero. He resembles a compulsive lab rat with a like button.

Purity is surprisingly enjoyable to read – perhaps because Franzen’s pained tones do not pervade his narrative in the same way as when he is interviewed. The novel is an amusing sprawl through 80s East Germany, Bolivia and (as ever) a modern America that readers in the UK will never be part of but we somehow find compelling to read all about. There is no doubting his skill as a storyteller, and fortunately there is little risk for most of us in finding ourselves engaged in conversation with him.

The Editors

Man Booker Prize 2015: Readings


“This group shows what a broad church we are. Long may it remain so. ”

Man Booker Prize Readings, 12th October 2015, Southbank Centre, London

The night before the winner was announced, the six shortlisted Booker Prize nominees met at the Southbank Centre. Mariella Frostrup was presenting, and appeared to have mislaid her notes before mounting the podium, as her summary of Hanya Yagihara’s novel was:four men descending into horror because of one’s childhood secrets”. Anyone who has read A Little Life knows it is all about Jude. More on this from the Book Club Spy next week.

Much more important to focus on the six writers, starting with Marlon James*, who read from A Brief History of Seven Killings, set in 1976 Jamaica with “an ill wind, a malaria”, and “now, something new is blowing”. Bob Marley is playing football with anyone who will play with him, when his toe is skewered by an errant wire hidden inside his boot, his toenail is torn off, he nearly loses it entirely to cancer. Time speeds up rapidly and a litany of injuries whirl together in a global journey that seems full of blood – his boot fills with it every night on stage. Marley is ill, “the mattress has sucked two pounds of water from your skin”. One minute he is running in Central Park, the next his hips lock, then his neck, finally his arms, bringing him crashing to the ground with a dead scream in his throat. The cancer in his foot spreads throughout his body and he is transported around a series of hospitals before dying.

When questioned about his choice of Marley as a subject, it was not his music that clinched it (James is a Pet Shop Boys fan: “For me, reggae is like a family member, it’s great, I love it, but then I just want it to leave”) but his desire to find the 1976 his parents lived through while in Jamaica, the place James was born and where: “For me, a crisis was Starsky or Hutch”. He talked compellingly about his childhood reading of Dickens, who recounted history via marginal characters who, in the process, made history.

Tom McCarthy followed him with a brilliantly delivered reading from Satin Island. His hero is a corporate anthropologist, who writes in numbered paragraphs. McCarthy (who is also a performance artist, the head of an extraordinary group called the International Necronautical Society that seems to promote death) placed entirely perfect stresses upon the phrase “fucking buffering”. He revels in playing with language used by corporate structures and information exchange; seeing the data powering the spinning hourglass on his screen reassures our hero “a grace conferring act of generosity….an inexhaustive torment of giving”. The horror to him is that the spinning circle we are all painfully familiar with isn’t anything but the things itself: “We become buffering and buffering becomes everything”.

McCarthy feels that the digital world is the terra we live on now, citing the opening scene of the Oresteia, where Clytemnestra sees the beacons being lit, bringing news from Troy as proof that the remote transmissions of signs is nothing new. He asked what Hamlet is if not an examination of personal correspondence by the state. He later responded to an audience member asking if one needs to like a central character by crying: “No, look at Hamlet, he’s not even a character.

When probed on his continual treatment of themes such as doubling and transcendence, McCarthy politely answered that one tends to return to old wounds; however a blunter response could arguably be is this not what writers do?

Third came Chigozie Obioma with The Fishermen, reading a passage in which a group of boys, returning from the river with two large tilapia, find a dead man lying under a mango tree next to the Celestial Church. The ugliness of the soles of his feet are commented upon. He is, it turns out, not dead at all, simply mad. He performs a ‘calisthenics display’ covered in rotting mango, while the boys goggle at him in the gloaming, comparing him to a lion or Superman. They then watch him throw a mango twenty miles. From Obioma’s part of West Africa, there is strong belief in everything being pre-ordained, of the power of fate, spells and superstitions. He created his tale of fratricide while he was at college abroad and extremely homesick for…his brothers and sisters.

Next up was Sunjeev Sahota with The Year of the Runaways, which he rather undersold with the description of the novel as “four people together in Sheffield”. He read a scene where one character – “alone in the world and in himself” – leaves a suitcase of clothes at his future wife’s flat. The couple talk of the weather, and there is clearly something staged and/or sinister going on. He shows her clearly falsified photographs of them on holidays they never took, created by his lawyer. His involvement is not entirely fabricated, as he searches for excuses to stay in her company: “he couldn’t remember ever feeling that warm”.

Frostrup asked about his decision to write (as the child of migrants) about migration in light of recent press coverage devoted to the topic. He very gently answered that the question of migration had always been ‘gnawing’ at him – on his frequent trips to India it is an “open conversation” regarding the number of people who want to move to the UK or Canada – and for the 34 years he has been alive the question has been there, so it is not, for him, a topical issue.

The penultimate reading came from Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread. She read the contents of a phone call between an (estranged) brother and sister in Baltimore that was more of a monologue, with the sister using rather clichéd language – dusty motes of sun, doors being flung open and people sitting on stoops – in order to manipulate her brother with shared memories, or simply punish him through boredom. She was more engaging during the Q&A, exclaiming: “I don’t know why we’re all so fascinated by family, but I’m sure I’m not the only one”. Her description of reducing a novel’s plan to one sheet of paper over the course of a month, then knitting it together through an intricate editing process with multiple stages.

Finally, Hanya Yagihara read from A Little Life. The passage focussed on the main character Jude’s process of managing memory by erasing the small and avoiding the big, but the gaps he creates in his memory widen and try to infiltrate his waking life. His techniques (phyically checking locks, and those of the mind where he envisions a white expanse, where he is finally clean) are employed to make himself feel safe. Yagihara described her way of writing the novel as frenzied and exhilarating, though physically and emotionally difficult. Upon being complimented for her competence at writing as a man, she explained she felt that she has always been surrounded by women and thus is more interested in men (though “less as I grow older”). She was wry and polished, quipping that as someone having lived there for twenty years and who works in the literary world, she was tired of people writing about the physical geography of New York. What she is interested in is the shared ambition of those who live there, as everyone is on the run from something. To be continued.

The quote in the title of this review was from Sunjeev Sahota and felt apt: in the course of an hour, six writers gave us a dizzying range of style in every sense of the word, while showing a quiet regard for one another and the canon into which they had all been hurled headlong.

*Marlon James was announced as the winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize on Wednesday 15th

The Editors

The Literature of Dreaming: Part 1


And people who don’t dream, who don’t have any kind of imaginative life, they must… they must go nuts. I can’t imagine that.”
― Stephen King

In the late 1910s, the surrealists, led by Andre Breton, invented a process they called “automatic” writing, which involved, among other techniques, waking each other up in the middle of the night in order to write immediately and attempt to capture something approaching the purity of unconscious thought. In this they were inspired by Freud’s works of psychoanalysis, and in particular the theory that the subconscious mind, free from the shackles of reason, is somehow capable of revealing a deeper truth. For both writers the dream was a purveyor of this deeper truth; the surrealists simply went to greater lengths to try to harvest the dream as a source of creative expression. It is noticeable, however, that between the publication of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900 and Breton’s The Magnetic Fields (the first automatic text) in 1919, there was a world war, and it makes sense to me that this global catastrophe should have contributed somewhat to the urgency and pragmatism that the surrealists invested in their attempts to flee the constraints of rational thought.

But the surrealists were not the first writers to see the world of dreams as a way of escaping the strictures of waking life. Lewis Carroll was also fascinated by the contemporary science on the interpretation of dreams, and used the dream as a narrative form through which he could satirise staid Victorian didacticism. Alice in Wonderland is in many ways just an escape from the limitations of English society in the mid-19th century, and for Carroll the dream was the perfect vehicle for that escape. Conventional views of logic, order and morality are thus subverted in favour of a sort of gleeful anarchy of the mind.

I’m not strange, weird, off, nor crazy, my reality is just different from yours.”

In discussing dreams and escapology in literature it seems entirely necessary to mention the famed use of the dream as a hackneyed narrative technique to obviate apparently inevitable fictional developments – otherwise known as the “I woke up and it was all a dream” ending. This device does of course have a more highbrow name – the deus ex macchina trope – whereby authors brazenly interfere with otherwise plausible plots just because they can and they don’t like the way things are going. Apparently Alex Garland’s novel The Coma has the message “I WOKE UP AND IT WAS ALL A DREAM” encoded in final paragraph. God knows what he was hoping to achieve with that, but presumably it was intended as some sort of play on the abovementioned cliché.

I suppose the point this post is meandering towards is that the dream in literature is often used as a sort of escape hatch to an alternate reality; an escape hatch used by authors to forget and to criticise the reality of waking life, or simply to indulge in whimsical doodles. The unifying thread seems to be dissatisfaction with contemporary reality and a yearning for something that may only be possible in the dim half-light of the dream world. And yet the escape is often not just from objective reality, but also from the reality of subjective consciousness. Returning to Breton and the Surrealists, automatic writing was intended in large part as a way of evading a subjective understanding of reality that was conditioned by a mind taught to think in a particular way. In other words, it was an escape from Western ideas of rationality and logic, as well as from the broader historical and social context of the time. Given that the prison bars of the mind are less clearly defined than other more objective constraints, it takes a very particular form of escape within oneself to break free from them. And what better temporary leave from the conscious self than the dream? Surely not drugs, despite certain similarities and what some claim to be the hallucinogenic aspects of Alice in Wonderland. No, the purest drift into unconsciousness is the dream. As William Blake, that king of dreamers, wrote:

Father, O father! what do we here
In this land of unbelief and fear?
The Land of Dreams is better far,
Above the light of the morning star.

The Editors

Elena Ferrante, or Naples, Part Two


A panel discussion was held at Lutyens and Rubenstein on the eve of the release of the final novel in Ferrante’s Naples tetralogy. The panel was made up of Cathy Rentzenbrink, Jonathan Gibbs, Susanna Gross and Tessa Hadley – all writers and critics, but more importantly, ardent Ferrante fans. Although none of them were especially keen on speaking in front of an audience, when it comes to this author none of them could bear the alternative prospect of sitting in the audience and watching another panel get it wrong. Such is the fervour for Ferrante.

For those who have not yet been introduced, the books chart the course of a friendship over several decades. The two women – Elena and Lila – are co-dependent rivals and know each other better than anyone. The novels open with Elena writing their story down as Lila has disappeared. Her aim to recapture what may soon be forgotten becomes, we realize, memoir as as an aggressive, defiant act. Elena is punishing Lila by colonizing their story. She seems to own it by providing the only side, however, in telling the full version of events, there are moments when she clearly hands the reader’s sympathy over to Lila by recounting her own actions. There is little objectivity, but at the same time, there is little bias.

In the third novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Greco admits: “I had been conditioned by my education, which has shaped my mind, my voice. To what secret pacts with myself had I consented, just to excel. And now, after the hard work of learning, what I must unlearn. Also, I had been forced by the powerful presence of Lila to imagine myself as I was not. I was added to her, and I felt mutilated as soon as I removed myself. Not an idea, without Lila. Not a thought I trusted, without the support of her thoughts. Not an image. I had to accept myself outside of her. ” Indeed, Lila affects every sentence: “she has managed to insert herself into this extremely long chain of words to modify my text, to purposely supply the missing links to unhook others without letting it show, to say more of me than I want, more than I’m able to say”. Despite becoming a successful author, Elena Greco feels she owes all she has to Lila’s inspiration, to her very existence. Lila (beautiful and wild) overshadows Elena, but the former feels she must live vicariously through the latter because she ducked out of formal education, failed to get out their neighbourhood in Naples, and succumbed to its cycle of savagery.

In the second novel, The Story of A New Name, when Lila realizes on her wedding day just how significant her groom’s shortcomings are, she barely restrains herself: “She used all her strength, and I who knew her thoroughly felt that if she could she would have wrenched [his arm] from his body, crossed the room holding it high above her head, blood dripping in her train, and she would have used it as a club or a donkey’s jawbone to crush Marcello’s face with a solid blow.” Upon realizing she cannot leave the old life, or indeed change it, she retreats into blackness: “I think how much blood there is in a person’s body. If you put too much stuff in things, they break. Or they catch fire and burn. ”

In the final instalment The Lost Child, Ferrante describes Naples as “a city that reveals or underlines that dreams of unhindered progress is utterly pessimistic and unfounded. We are in fact in an age of savagery, unknowing.” The tonal overlap with Saviano is striking when she describes the lack of “decipherable order, only an unruly and controllable crowd on streets…in the place where they threw out beasts and garbage a lot of human blood was shed”. As Saviano alerted the world to the presence of the Camorra at the centre of global crime, Ferrante shows that Naples is a microcosmic world: “The entire planet, she said, is a Fosso Carbonario”.

The complexity of local life in Naples is initially baffling, not least because of the various intertwined family trees by the end of the final book. Every family has a function within the neighbourhood, which Ferrante manages to stretch out over the course of thirty years. This is, perhaps, where people see the soap opera element to her writing. The end of the tetralogy was compared (perhaps sacrilegiously on both sides) to the end of Coronation Street, as the number of characters was gradually reduced until barely eight remain. All minor characters blend together on the second rung – an act of will to draw attention to the central dynamic – burnished by brilliant touches, such as Nella with her “laugh of an ageing virgin” talking about cutting people’s cocks off. She tells Elena that she is “much better” than her friend, who “knows how to wound” but so indeed does Elena, we learn.

Some readers have questioned whether these novels are feminist. In an attempt to answer this question, it has been pointed out that they are both full of rage, and the obligation to conform in rooms of men. One panellist cited the idea of bleeding likeability when the word feminist was mentioned in a recent conference, and that is not dissimilar from how I feel when rage and feminism are so swiftly connected. One thing is for sure: Ferrante’s books are full of blood. For those that still find swearing amusing (guilty) then the level of violence in the dialectic insults thrown around is superb. Ferrante treats language like a set of land mines beneath your feet: the path is difficult until only one way is possible: forward.

Only irony is made difficult as [you would imagine the books would be saturated with it] – especially when it comes to Nino, the love rat. He goes from hero to rotter as the years go past, and if you consider how Alice Munroe would write a love scene with him in it, it would be awash with irony. In this way, the tetralogy does not conform to our understanding of what novels are. There are no nods for the reader to give us a hint as to what to expect – no beams of sunlight shining on a character to let us know all will be well, no black cats as a warning. Her apparent lack of tricks – seeming like a memoir with all the tricks employed in fiction – makes one realize the unspoken conventions writers employ: such as never having two characters called John in the same story, as there so often is in life. The characters feel like flesh and blood acting of their own volition, rather than constructs with strings being pulled by the author.

Lila dissects her own form when she gives an explicit account of her own formlessness, after an earthquake. When she is overwhelmed, unreal things are “plunged into a jumbled, sticky reality”, and solid forms have dissolving boundaries. This underlines the lack of formal, stylized style in these novels. They run on messily – much like life – colliding and repeating in a realistic fashion. There are no good or bad characters; they all devolve or change. Her characters are true in every flaw, and can arouse and disgust us.

Just as outsiders identify themselves with her characters, Ferrante’s decision to remain an outsider through anonymity is the source of much speculation (though the panel felt disloyal discussing this rather than the novels themselves). Unencumbered by identity, Ferrante is as free to live as we are to read.

The Editors

27. Why Read?

I have what can only be referred to as Magical Realism Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which gives me the great pleasure of thrilling highs while I’m in the throes of a Louis de Bernieres, and a crushing, soul-destroying depression when I’m not.  I scour bookshops, and paw at the covers of books that promise a journey into the deepest jungles of South America, where I might learn how to cast spells from a 300-year-old Indian and where it’s totally normal to have a giant black jaguar as a pet.  The compulsion finds me boring through a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the detriment of my social life and personal relationships – you, my dear, can’t give me anything this book cannot.  It’s a deeply personal obsession.

I’ve thought a lot about why I dive so deeply into books, especially those of magical realism, and why when I think about getting lost in one, I think of a wardrobe, doors through which I escape into another world.  Perhaps the image of a wardrobe relates to a room in a house where a family reside, and it seems the most simple reason for my reading is to explore familial situations I’ve never had the joy of experiencing.  In books like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Of Love and Shadows, I find great comfort in exploring the stories of storied families who have survived for generations on grit and honour.

As I build up in my head my desire for a family, and whether or not it is something I’ll ever really have, these books deliver me into the bosom of a mother who was never actually there, and impart on me words of wisdom from an overbearing father who doesn’t spend his time searching for his own answers at the bottom of the bottle.  In books like The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, I raise a gaggle of children who tug at my shirt tails and climb onto my shoulders as I prepare dinner, and who I boil in a bath of tea so they go to bed smelling of peppermint.  I build a home with my bare hands and spend years turning it into a home that I will pass on to my children, who will live with me there until I push them away because of my cloying love, and who will return because they can’t live without it.

Books introduce us to authors with hopes and dreams and fears just like ours.  In my case, and as with any Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, my voracious appetite for books is borne of a void.  Each time I read a novel exploring the intricacies of family life and of love, the void feels a little less big, the pills of truth easier to swallow because of the inebriating effects of magical realism.

Josh Rivers

Gomorrah (or Naples, Part One)

GomorraRoberto Saviano’s account of Camorra criminal activity in and around Naples in his book Gomorrah was so unstintingly revealing that he now lives in hiding, avoiding death at the hands of mob boss Guiseppe Setola. He wrote in The Guardian earlier this year that after “eight years under armed guard, threats against my life barely make the news. My name is so often associated with the terms death and murder that they hardly register. After all these years under state protection, I almost feel guilty for still being alive.” These three phrases encapsulate his ponderous prose style, while at the same time telling such an enthralling story that the reader is appreciative of what he has sacrificed his peace of mind for.

He went on in a wounded fashion: “I’m either at the Nobel academy having a debate on freedom of the press, or I’m inside a windowless room at a police barracks. Light and dark. There is no shade, no in-between. Sometimes I look back at the watershed that divides my life before and after Gomorrah…Naples has become off-limits to me, a place I can only visit in my memories.” The idea for this series of posts is to take the stark Naples depicted by those Saviano memories, and contrast it with that of Elena Ferrante’s Naples tetralogy (in Naples, Part Two).

Gomorrah’s opening gambit of corpses spilling from an open shipping container cannot help but grab the reader’s attention, but it is the subsequent image of the crane driver responsible covering his face with his hands and peeping at Saviano through the gaps that takes the fragment from Hammer House of Horror into the human realm. One of the reasons why his tone slips from scholarly to hysterical – aside from the fact that it is a deeply personal account – is perhaps that this story is being told for the first time in this way: not as bedtime stories, whispered rumours of urban myth at ground zero, or academic circles. In making this an accessible product, it was perhaps inevitable that something would be lost in the transition. The surreal is captured, but there shouldn’t be such a note of the inauthentic.

This account is most compelling when Saviano does not heap lists of family names and bodies on the reader, or even worse, try to inject pathos, when nothing further is required. The account is so extraordinary in its own right that he (and his translator) needn’t have bothered. It is the flashes of insight he allows through that seem the most arresting, as they are indisputably his without him messing around with ‘style’: “to get a job mixing cement, all I had to do was let the contractor know where I was from. Campania provided the best builders in all of Italy – the most skilled, the fastest, cheapest, the least pains in the ass.” The equivalent simply does not exist to my knowledge in the United Kingdom: the idea of a man appearing and announcing he is from Ipswich and that being sufficient to land him a construction job is incredible. However, Saviano himself is deliberately a black hole in the narrative, providing very little by way of personal context, when it is these moments that lift the narrative.

He goes on to layer in detail about exhaust fume dust and other waste being hidden within the cement, as everything criminal seems to end up in construction or waste disposal. Anything incriminating is covered in topsoil or a thin layer of cement, only to grin through just when the surface appears to have calmed. The explanation for the book’s title comes with a eulogy to a murdered Priest, Don Peppino, from Saviano’s neighbourhood: “Don’t you see that this is Gomorrah, don’t you see? Remember. When they see that the whole land is brimstone, and salt, and burning, and there will be no sowing, no sprouting, no grass growing”. Saviano tells of bones, chemical waste and even shredded currency forced into the soil, poisoning it beyond repair.

Gomorrah is such a laundry list of death (Naples has one of the highest murder rates in the world) that it is hard to discern why some incidents are singled out in outrage – the death of a female teenager is one of the multiple teen deaths which are often collateral damage. It does not appear to be her gender that made it so upsetting for Saviano, but the poignancy of her friend calling her mobile phone while it is placed on top of the coffin. The only jarring note in a tragic interlude, was the fact that this appeared to affect him the most.

Steeped in horrors as he is, the two most appalling moments Saviano witnessed were a ‘guinea pig’ addict used to test the drugs sold by the clans by being injected in the neck with cocaine, killing him outright, and the HIV-free zones where prostitutes receive medical care in order to ensure the clan do not have to wear condoms when they visit. These, added to the realization of the Camorra’s sheer sprawl, will endure. The shudder of fear generated by the realization that this is no pocket of power in a chokehold, but a network with considerable global reach, drags this story from beneath the bed. There are links with the Russians, of course, a surreal Aberdeen connection, links with China, a presence in Australia, and the clan are influential throughout Europe and Latin America (including the most ruthless of all, the Mexican cartels). Saviano also describes an attempt to organize the Gypsies of southern Spain into a criminal group.

In this way, Gomorrah depicts a huge, constant, and filmic level of threat: “some people went round to the senator’s brother’s trout farm and scattered the fish around, leaving them wiggling on the ground to die slowly” (before adding “suffocating in the air” as though there were many other ways). We learn that the horse’s head is small fry, relatively speaking, when it comes to making a point in Naples. Life also imitates film in the passage where Saviano describes how the female Camorra bosses dress their security detail in yellow tracksuits like Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Saviano himself references his own awareness of Scarface when he walks around the abandoned villa belonging to one of the bosses, helpless with rage and pissing into the bath (before conceding that this was an idiotic thing to do). This concession, together with the anecdote of an economics graduate “brought into the clan to handle the distribution of certain brands of coffee in the area bars” provided a rare note of humour. Such is the importance of coffee distributors in local commerce to the bosses. Less charming is learning that the same graduate tried firing an AK47 after the neighbourhood capo insisted everyone on the payroll had to learn how to shoot. He is ecstatic about having fired something so well designed, and becomes obsessed with meeting Kalashnikov himself. This is all very diverting, until Saviano strays into predictable stereotype when describing Kalashnikov with “the trace of vodka on his breath”.

Gomorrah is almost an unbelievable story, so it is perhaps appropriate that it is written in such an over the top fashion. Saviano is a better investigator than he is a writer; he is nonetheless exceedingly courageous to have written and talked at all, and long may he go on doing so. These tales clearly needed to be told in all of their savagery and breath-taking casualness for any life that attempts to exist alongside and apart from the Camorra themselves. Which is of course where Elena Ferrante comes in.

The Editors

Book Club Spy Abroad Part Two

vivEdinburgh Book Festival: Viv Albertine interviewed by Ian Rankin

To promote her autobiography Clothes Music Boys [which contains the sentence: “Everyone who writes an autobiography is a twat or broke; I’m a bit of both”] Viv Albertine opened her talk at the Book Festival with an anecdote of her band The Slits performing “I’ll do the split And shit on it”.  Viv herself counted in the start of the song “1234!” as fast and as loud as she could. Mick Jones of The Clash, her boyfriend at the time, had to inform her later on that this was intended to set the speed and volume of the song, it wasn’t just something you bellowed out in as rock n roll a way as you could. The Slits played their first gig in Edinburgh (this was also the first time any of them had stayed in a hotel). Everyone played at their own speeds in the hope that they would all end up coincidentally meeting in the middle and finish playing at the same speed. They didn’t.

Albertine vividly (ha) described the extent to which they were spat on by the audience. She couldn’t keep her grip on her guitar due to the volume of spit, and Ari Up, the lead vocalist was spat upon into her open mouth as she performed. Viv’s response to this was to hit the perpetrator over the head with her guitar, followed by the sentence: “This was every gig.” She is, in this way, wonderfully wry, and refused to write about anything she “wasn’t in the room for”.

They were equally threatening to feminists and punks: “we got letters from Swedish feminists who hated us as well….we never got done” (meaning they never got arrested) but had more than their fair share of violence: “we got stabbed and attacked on the streets of London…Ari got stabbed twice”. Ari was 15 years old at this point.

On getting started and actually learning how to play a musical instrument, Albertine proclaimed that: “back then you either played the recorder or the flute or you were a twat”. When she bought her first guitar she asked “can I have a red one, and why isn’t there a mirror in the shop?” She couldn’t get Mick Jones to teach her: “Once you’ve shagged a guy they never want to teach you anything”. I found this depressing, if wittily delivered. She recalled walking down Portobello Road holding Jones’s hand when they encountered Johnny Rotten – at which point she dropped his hand as it wasn’t very punk to show affection in public – and announced she was putting a band together before she had a guitar, any idea how to play or anyone else to play with . Fortunately, Rotten had a friend with him called Sid Vicious who offered to be in her band (despite this being their first meeting). Slightly less fortunately, they played together for a summer and it never actually led anywhere.

She was obsessed with music but there were not many women playing it in the 70s; girlfriends and wives tended to be thanked on album sleeves. She saw a female drummer in Kocomo perform and it sparked her to make the mental leap to get guitar lessons from Keith Levene.

Patty Smith’s album ‘Horses’ was another turning point, as the sight of the cover lead to her to plead that the content live up to such an image: a girl and a boy in one, the visual rendering of what Albertine was looking for. She claims the 70s were more like the 50s morally, and ‘Horses’ was the first time she realized girls made appreciative noises during sex.

On actually joining the band, she initially resisted the invitation from a 14 year old wearing a belted bin bag, but changed her mind when she saw Ari perform, screaming her head off. Their iconic album cover of them wearing only loincloths and mud has scared generations of men, mostly due to the expression in the women’s’ eyes.

She blames Thatcher’s Britain for the band falling apart, saying it all became about “manicures, pedicures, working hard, all very un-British”. She dealt with this disappointment by becoming one of Britain’s first aerobics instructors, having been taught by none other than Jane Fonda. This transition hardly appears to have been intuitive, however Albertine claims this was not that a big leap given she was wed to the message rather than the medium, that it was about female pioneering as women did not do any sport at the time, they sat on the side-lines. Fonda advocated joining in and Albertine felt part of the “revolution of physicality”. She was endearingly excitable on this point, which was just as well as she became noticeably more deflated when recounting her later career as a director for the BBC, her struggle to conceive with her husband, the collapse of her marriage and struggle with cancer.

However, with what appears to be characteristic persistence she had a daughter after 7 rounds of IVF and 2 miscarriages. She also recounted her triumph at managing to sleep with someone before her ex-husband after the divorce, “even if he did look like a cab driver”.

Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood taught Viv Albertine to ‘play with life’ at a very young age and she took that message quite clearly to the core. The Slits’ cover of “Heard it Through the Grapevine” (arguably their best known song) was a happy accident from playing around in the studio, they never set out to be punk, no one knew what they were until post-punk came out years later. She fell into a group of utterly fearless girls who were screaming to get started, challenging all comers and did things completely differently by acting on instinct. Clothes and boys ultimately didn’t seem to have that much to do with it.

The Editors


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