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Spoken Word: Other Lives – Hilary Mantel in conversation with Harriet Walters for the RSL

Wolf Hall - MantelWolf Hall has just come off the London stage, and it is about to appear on ITV as a ten-part series starring Mark Rylance, adapted for the screen by Mantel, just as she oversaw the stage production. With Bring Up The Bodies finally edging off the bestseller lists, Mantel’s collection of short stories The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is on every top ten list predicting Christmas books. In short, Mantel is everywhere, luckily for us.

Before delving into her latest offering, her appearance in the Union Chapel with Harriet Walters for the RSL is definitely worth mentioning. It was a few months ago now, but the overarching conversation has lingered, centring as it did on the idea of wearing another’s skin on your back. Walters, an established character actress, described having to go “a long way” to meet Lady Macbeth, reassuringly. Mantel, in turn, described the process of acquainting herself with Thomas Cromwell as mediation, or more simply as the process of getting inside a character’s head. The way she explained this was to recall the first moment the reader encounters Cromwell, as a fifteen year-old, bleeding in Putney after a beating from his father. She could hear a voice floating above his head, feel the cobbles beneath his cheek, and taste blood.

She gleefully relayed Christopher Hitchens’s review of Wolf Hall (“you would never know it was written by a woman”) as a testament – as well she should – of how naturally she occupied Cromwell. She clearly delights in living unlived lives by writing as a man, much as she did for Robespierre in A Place of Greater Safety. She wears their skins well and has done it often, so she knows what it requires, and is conscious that if you encounter the actor playing Cromwell five minutes after the curtain, you cannot be entirely sure if they have yet made the “perfect conversion”. Something of the public Croydon’s thuggish self may remain, before the private core of the actor manages to reassert itself.

The power of the play (it will be impressive indeed if this translates to the small screen) is that watching it makes Cromwell inhabit the present, walk in your line of sight and live, of course, if only for a while. The two women agreed that when it really works, the production “pins you to the heartbeat and to the breath”. This would be harder for a more thoroughly cerebral Machiavellian character, perhaps, as Cromwell lashes out – lightning quick – to strike Wolsey; he paces, looms and threatens. Exposition and rubbing one’s hands together in a sinister fashion alone will not get it done.

Given that Mantel is a pleasure to watch as well as to read – she beams and laughs, and seems to enjoy herself – sinister is the word that describes some of her rawer home truths (“ultimately, we are all just alone in the dark”) as well as the creeping feeling of dread from reading her recent collection of short stories. She described on stage the presence of an unarticulated secret – like Bluebeard’s locked room – in a novel, and how this can change with contextual climate. For Wolf Hall, she cited the preconception of people who tend to watch Henry VIII as a wife killer, because this is how the Tudors are taught in schools. We learn his list of wives with the song in order to remember how they snuffed it, rarely dawdling on his accomplishments in poetry, music or foreign policy, let alone his relationship with the Privy Council.

In the same way, every story from The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher carries a patina of dread. While it is not as overt as the corpse stashed beneath the coffee table in Rope, it is much more than something stuck in one’s tooth or a fingernail split to the quick. Some of the stories are more overtly macabre, and ‘Harley Street’ is just plain upsetting as one cannot help but speculate it is based on Mantel’s own delicate health. They are all funny. On finishing the title story, however, it is difficult to shake that feeling of something starting to turn on a muggy day, or indeed get rid of the sand concealed under one’s own skin, like the rhino in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories.

The Editors

An Evening with Julian Barnes

Vintage_Arthur_&_George_250JUSTICE “Law and Literature” event – 28 October 2014, Inner Temple Hall, London

Last Wednesday the London-based human rights organisation, JUSTICE, held the first event in its “Law and Literature” series: ‘An Evening with Julian Barnes’.  It began with a presentation by Lord Justice Laws, followed by Julian Barnes reading from his novel, Arthur & George, and then a conversation between the author and Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws QC.  Unsurprisingly perhaps, but unbeknownst to me at the time, the novel was chosen because it revolves around an early twentieth century miscarriage of justice known as the Edalji case.  The case concerned the prosecution and conviction of an Anglo-Indian solicitor, George Edalji, for numerous incidents of ‘horse-ripping’ (the apparently random mutilation of horses), known as the Great Wyrley Outrages, that occurred in Staffordshire in 1903.  The proceedings were drawn to national attention when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, already a major celebrity writer, took it upon himself to campaign on Edalji’s behalf, having become convinced that no man as short-sighted as Mr Edalji could possibly have committed the crimes himself.  The campaign was ultimately successful in turning public opinion in favour of the convicted man, and a commission of inquiry into the case was ordered by the government, which granted Edalji a pardon in 1907.  The case was also an important driver for reform of the criminal justice system in England, including the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal.  Interestingly, the Edalji case was almost exactly contemporaneous with the Dreyfus affair, a sort of more celebrated older brother, which sharply divided public opinion in France at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Barnes explained that he had first stumbled across the Edalji case completely by chance, and had investigated it with a writer’s “predatory” instinct, that is, in the hope of being able to turn the source material into some sort of fictionalised account of the episode.  He quickly became aware, upon researching the case, that his biggest challenge would be successfully balancing the lives of his two protagonists, Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji, so that the latter would not be totally eclipsed in the novel by the adventures, success and renown of the former.  This balancing involved drawing out the character of George so that it could become more interesting and nuanced than first impressions might indicate.  To this extent, Barnes actually read Edalji’s one book as a solicitor, Railway Law for the “Man in the train”, published in 1901, which he found surprisingly funny.

The use of real figures from the past as the basis for fictional characters was also discussed later on in the evening, with Mr Barnes declaring that he treated real people with as much seriousness in his work as he treated fictional individuals.  He did, however, concede that it was sometimes necessary to embellish a character in fiction, often for want of sufficient information on the original person – he remembered once being challenged at a book festival by a descendant of one of the characters in Arthur & George, who complained that the physical appearance of his relative as described in the novel did not match reality, before noting bitterly that “I suppose he’s your character now.”  To which Mr Barnes was tempted to reply: “yes, he is.”

This exchange, and in fact the evening as a whole, led me to reconsider two slightly hackneyed but nevertheless important and related issues in literature.  Firstly, the issue of artistic licence when it comes to exhuming and attempting to resuscitate incidents from history.  There is a well-founded concern, on the one hand, that figures from the past should not be posthumously slandered in any way.  On the other hand, there is a belief that significant episodes from our collective history should not be confined to non-fiction accounts and sterile textbooks.  In certain situations the two positions cannot be reconciled; opinions about what happened in the past frequently differ, and we therefore inevitably find ourselves entering a slippery debate about objectivity and the nature of ‘truth’.  However, the fact that writers of fiction cannot avoid causing some offence when adopting positions vis-à-vis history should never preclude them from embarking on artistic reinterpretations of the past.  I would argue that an author has some responsibility to be sensitive to what he believes to be true (perhaps an obligation to take characters “seriously” at all times), particularly when dealing with lesser known figures, but that is all.

This leads directly into the second issue referred to above, which is the responsibility of writers generally.  It is often claimed that literature and politics or social responsibility do not sit well together: the necessary ambiguity of the former clashing horribly with the black-and-white dogma of the latter.  This is true insofar as literature as art should endeavour to convey an experience of reality that is self-aware and not bound to rigid ideological structures, which is perhaps why Milan Kundera once remarked that “what Orwell tells us could have been said as well (or even much better) in an essay or pamphlet.”  Even accepting this, it is still nevertheless the case that writers wield significant influence outside their fictional output: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used his celebrity clout at the dawn of the twentieth century to secure the pardon of an innocent man, whilst only last week Julian Barnes put his name to JUSTICE’s most recent fundraising campaign.

But returning to the fiction itself, there is also a responsibility inherent in the act of writing, albeit one that is not immediately obvious.  I think Mr Barnes put it best in the preface to his book of essays Through the Window:

Novels tell us the most truth about life: what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, how it goes wrong, and how we lose it […] Fiction makes characters who have never existed as real as your friends, and makes dead writers as alive as a television newsreader.”

As applied to the fiction of Julian Barnes, I can safely say that without Arthur & George it is extremely unlikely that I would ever have heard of the Edalji case, let alone have become interested in it.  More importantly, I would never have put myself in George Edalji’s shoes as he faced the injustice of a world intent on punishing him for being different.

The Editors

25. Why Read?

“Why Read?”

You can rely on reading.

Lots of the other things that you can do to pass your time and have fun are out of your control. My favourite television programme has ended and there probably won’t be another series because not enough people liked it (which means they must have been stupid), but with a book, it’s just you and the book. It doesn’t depend on anyone else’s point of view – once it’s there, no-one can change that.

In the same way, when I read, no-one is making their mind up about the appearance, setting or accent that characters have: everything comes out of my own brain. If you go to the theatre, or to the cinema, then lots of that has already been done for you. Even if you don’t think that that lady looks like Medea, that’s bad luck because she’s already in it and that’s who you’re going to see. I didn’t think Percy Jackson would have an American accent, but he did in the film and now that’s the voice I hear in my head when I read the books.

Reading allows me to make my own mind up about everything, and make my own decisions: there’s just me and the writer’s words – and that’s how I think it should be. That’s why I read.

William Kelly, age 11

“Why Read?”

I read me because it enables me to go back in time and experience what other people with different standards of living experienced.

I find it really interesting to read about things that I don’t understand, because then I’ll know about it, and that knowledge will never leave me – I even know about the Stone Age now, and that’s not the sort of thing that comes up in conversation, but it’s good to know, because now I’ll never wonder what happened in the Stone Age. I’ll know.

Some of the most amazing people in history wrote their autobiographies, so you don’t have to think what they MIGHT have thought: you can read their actual words. People like Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Julius Caesar (and some baddies as well) wrote about what had happened in their lives, so when I read about them, I know they’re telling the truth and that they haven’t got it wrong.

Alexander Kelly, age 10

“Why Read?”

Reading lets impossible things happen to you.

You can be in the story, with the characters, not just watching the story like you would do on television, but actually being there. Even if you don’t know people exactly like in the story, or know the places that they’re talking about; when you read, it’s like you do know those things.

In “Alice in Wonderland”, I think Alice is me, and that those things could actually happen to me in real life. Even if there are things that seem impossible (like girls turning into kangaroos in “The Wind on the Moon”), when I read it in a book, I don’t think it’s fake or unrealistic: I think that there’s a world where it can happen and does (under certain circumstances). When I read these stories, I think that these places are lovely places to be, and that the things that are happening are lovely things to happen. It brings a huge amount of pleasure into my life and allows me to relax in silence, and if I couldn’t read I’d miss all the worlds, the lives and the people in the books who have come to life as I have read about them.

Nina Kelly, age 10

 

24. Why Read?

The rational benefits of reading have been extolled at length and are varied: it’s an educational pastime, it’s social, there’s a simple pleasure to visiting a well-stocked bookshop or library. But the thing that really interests me is the unquantifiable; the magical: it is the finishing of a book.

It is taking a second to let it settle in the mind and the heart. It is being in – and yet slightly apart from – your surroundings. It is getting on with the business of living after the book has happened to you.

The moment varies in intensity and spirit depending on what’s been read. Sometimes we move quickly on, with the lightness of an untroubled mind, immediately forgetting much of what we’ve just read. Sometimes we linger as we reintroduce the back cover and the last page, feeling heartbroken, inspired, bewildered or philosophical, as the book colours the way we take those first few steps back into the real world. For my part, the imagery conjured up by George Orwell in his Homage to Catalonia remains with me from the first reading; the lucid recollections leaving a permanent impression on an adolescent mind dealing with the challenges, responsibilities and myriad journeys of impending adulthood. Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming: not so.

The finishing of a book is a brilliant thing to experience oneself, but an even better thing to witness.

It’s a joy to watch someone close a book and try to judge how they felt about it from their actions and expressions.

This is what I see as the reader’s “decisive moment”, their pause after the curtain falls and before the applause sounds, the second between the apple striking Newton and the forming of an idea in his head. It’s the stillness and clarity and optimism of that single moment at the very end of any tome that keeps me coming back to the bookshop or library in search of my next conquest and compels me to encourage the same venturing spirit in you.

We never acknowledge it, but we avid book devourers are all in a club. And it’s changed our lives. It’s the Finishing a Book Club.

I call on you to renew your membership today.

Simon Thompson

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 3

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The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.” Arthur C. Clarke

Having looked at a few of the classics of ‘travel’ or adventure literature in Part 2, I thought it would be worth considering the outer limits of the genre in this post. After all, it seems logical that after the full extent of physical or spatial travel has been exhausted, humanity and therefore literature should turn towards other less obvious modes of travel. Where to go in fiction when the world is no longer a mystery in reality? This seems a preposterous question to ask in the 21st century, but would probably have been less so in the 19th century, when the possibilities of spatial travel must have excited the imagination in a way that is difficult to comprehend nowadays. In fact, a brief glance at Jules Verne’s bibliography betrays the progressive fetishisation of adventure: we have a simple enough start with Five Weeks in a Balloon and The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, before we move swiftly to the more ambitious Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Mr Verne is quite obviously pushing the boundaries both of physical travel and of our appetite for exploration literature generally, probably to breaking point and beyond.

Even in the 19th century, there must have been a threshold for the public’s endurance of adventure fiction. Once a hero or heroine has gone up and down and sideways as much as is humanly possible, where to next? The answer I think can be found in the clear progression from R.L. Stevenson’s romantic adventure novels of the 1880s (Treasure Island, Kidnapped) to H.G. Wells’ science fiction of the 1890s (The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds). The first of H.G. Wells’ novels listed above represents a particularly interesting spin on the conventional spatio-temporal dimensions of the adventure novel. Indeed, the protagonist of The Time Machine, the Time Traveller, explicitly remains in the same location (a laboratory in Richmond, Surrey) whilst simultaneously embarking on a journey of discovery to the England of the distant future. This is thought provoking for a number of reasons. Firstly, in departing from the confines of spatial exploration, Wells subtly floats the notion that adventure is not merely the preserve of pirates and treasure hunters. In other words, whilst the Time Traveller remains locked in a laboratory, the adventure he undertakes is nevertheless very real.

This seems to be getting at the idea that the scientists of the 19th century were just as ambitious in their quest for discovery as the explorers of the geographic world. Within the context of the adventure story, the idea that a man or woman could emerge from a confined space and claim to have encountered something previously unseen and unheard of must have been nothing short of revolutionary, bordering on the mystical. And yet, that is of course what scientists have always done. In a way, this makes their exploration all the more authentic and noble: scientific explorers cannot always count on the admiration of a timid public when they emerge from their adventures; more often they are greeted with a general lack of understanding and dismissive mockery. This introduces another fascinating element to the classic adventure tale: the idea of the returning traveller shunned for having the temerity to look behind the veil of accepted reality. The Time Traveller cannot be fully understood or believed, which is presumably one of the reasons he chooses to embark on another quest the day after his dinner party, this time never to return. Once again we encounter a hero in the Ulyssian mould, a man driven by a lust for knowledge and adventure, but also perhaps alienated from his peers in mainstream society. It is not hard to imagine, after all, that Ulysses, having returned home to Ithaca after ten years of travel, would have struggled to convince Penelope that he had been kidnapped by a Cyclops.

The frustration of not being fully understood is the universal curse of the keen reader. When a reader emerges from the solitary world of book-reading, there will almost inevitably be a gulf between that reader’s appreciation of reality and everyone else’s. However much a book is dissected, explained and shared with others, the reading of it is inevitably a deeply personal experience. This is, of course, both terrifying and exhilarating: no one can do the reading for you, just as no one can visit Southeast Asia for you, which is why summaries and SparkNotes unfailingly miss the point. And when the heavy-lifting is done, when War and Peace lies conquered on your bedside table, no one is there to congratulate you or admire your newly-found intellectual acumen (or newly-found sense of existential despair). Any sense of triumph is purely your own, like a lone Himalayan climber who, having successfully reached a summit during the day, is forced to dig a one-man shelter in the side of the mountain at night.

The Editors

Book of Mammon, Part III: Zero to One

Peter Thiel - Zero to OneZero to One, Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future, by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters

The word entrepreneur must be so tired as to nearly be dead by now. Does that apply to freelancers and sole traders? Does it apply to people who go to big corporates and do something ‘entrepreneurial’. Roles at Unilever or Tesco described in this way don’t quite ring true but without a meaningful definition against which to measure claims, the word is apt for hijacking by pretenders of every shape.

One entrepreneur who could not be described as a pretender, Peter Thiel, has recently published a new book in this hectic pop-lit genre: Zero to One.

Thankfully, Zero to One is not a rags to riches, this-is-why-I’m -a-billionaire disaster like many of the books in the same category. The title refers to what Thiel considers to be the nature of entrepreneurship: creating something that did not previously exist.

Whilst the book itself is not a work of literature, it is of broader cultural significance because it taps the shallow of veign of contemporary business thought which at once shapes the world we live in and glances disappointingly off the surface. Thiel and Masters book measures well against the benchmarks of quality for the genre, like Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders, or Dee Hock’s exceptional One From Many. It occasionally lapses into the generalisations that plague much of the genre but on the whole it is enjoyable for its structure, concision and insight if not into the business of high technology investment, then into one of the greatest technology investors of his generation.

Peter Thiel speaks with natural authority on the subject of successful technology companies and technology investing. He founded PayPal and led it as CEO until its public listing and acquisition by eBay in (2004?) and his venture capital firm, Founders Fund, was the first investor in Facebook. His latest company, Palantir, in which he is a co-founder and investor produces data analysis software that is being adopted by business and government across the world including the CIA and is rumoured to have been used in the CIA operation to track down Osama bin Laden. Whether it is true or not: such is the hype around Peter Thiel.

More interestingly, the book’s genesis is more nuanced than the usual business magnate’s PR excercise. The book’s co-author is a recent Stanford graduate called Blake Masters who came to Thiel’s attention after his detailed lecture notes on one of Thiel’s lecture courses at Stanford became an internet sensation. The book is in fact a collaborative write up and update of those notes, a sign perhaps of Thiel’s magpie-like eye for opportunity.

One key theme of the book is Thiel’s critique of competition. Better, he says, to operate a tiny monopoly than compete yourself to destruction in a giant market. ”Monopoly is the condition of every successful business.”

He gives light to the kind of low-tech decisions that his Founders Fund uses, in combination with some more sophisticated analysis to reach their conclusion: “cleantech executives were running around in suits and ties. This was a huge red flag because real technologists wear t-shirts and jeans. So we instituted a blanket rule: pass on any company whose founders dressed up for pitch meetings” and on explaining why he has not invested in Uber, ”I prefer not to invest in business models that venture capital guys are too familiar with.”

His understated manner is refreshing in a world dominated by hyperbole; on the subject of his Facebook investment he said simply to a recent interviewer: “it’s a good sign when a company is only looking for money to buy more computers to keep up with demand.”

He sets out his investment principle that any investment ventured by a fund should be capable of returning the entire value of the fund to shareholders because the majority of investments will fail. He sights a potential return of 10 times the investment as the only return that should be entertained by investors not because he expects big returns from all of the companies he invests in, but because each company must be potentially capable of making up for the failures of all the others.

This approach may leave the impression of a cavalier or even scattergun strategy, the kind of institutional gambling that is so vilified by the modern media but the impression of Thiel from the book is of a calculating pragmatist.

Thiel’s success as a founder turned investor outside of the literary world imbue the book with a significance that it would not otherwise deserve. Whilst Zero to One does not pertain to any standards of art, as the public face of an economically significant cultural phenomonen, it is interesting and even insightful and in the end, like any good shop-talk, it is easily confined to an afternoon.

The Editors

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 2

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Since writing the first post in this series a few weeks ago, I’ve discovered that the Germans have a word for the inconsolable yearning that seems to be at the root of much of what we do as humans: Sehnsucht. Apparently the notion is now commonly used by psychologists to describe our feelings of inadequacy regarding what we view as incomplete in our lives, as well as our perpetual search for happiness and alternative forms of living. C.S. Lewis became fixated with the idea, which he described as:

“… our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside …

Over a number of years this thought led C.S. Lewis towards his espousal of the Christian faith, which he saw as the only satisfactory counterpoint to the inherent restlessness of the human heart. Similarly, Ulysses’ condemnation in the Inferno is heavily linked to his pursuit of knowledge by purely terrestrial means (i.e. physical as opposed to spiritual travel). For Dante, as for C.S. Lewis, the only way to arrive was to embrace God.

However, turning away from religion, it is clear that a large part of what we derive from books and travel comes from the process itself. In other words, we often undertake both not as necessary steps towards a fixed goal or “arrival”, but as activities we enjoy in and of themselves. This is certainly where Robert Louis Stevenson was coming from when he declared that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” Indeed, despite his frail health, Stevenson was a man constantly on the move, and his travel writing (notably In the South Seas, 1896) is said to have deeply influenced Joseph Conrad, who also travelled extensively in the south Pacific and used it as the location for much of his own work (see Lord Jim and Victory).

Seaward ho! Hang the treasure! It’s the glory of the sea that has turned my head.”

The idea of travel for its own sake plays a prominent part in Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a novel which dwells on the invariably anticlimactic nature of achieving a specific goal or arriving at a specific place. The treasure itself becomes a corrupting influence, and is depicted as a stale symbol lying in stark opposition to the travel and adventure that precedes its acquisition. Gold requires a sophisticated system of exchange to recognise its value; in other words, it is inherently worthless. And yet, despite the absence of a meaningful objective, the central quest of Treasure Island is portrayed as a welcome antidote to the drab professionalism of nineteenth century Victorian England.

Reading is a similarly exhilarating but anticlimactic process. The realisation towards the end of a good book that there aren’t many pages left can be crushingly disappointing, as though we expected something more to appear miraculously after the final sentences. It is not, howver, a disappointment that stops us picking up more books, from which we must infer that, as with travel and treasure-hunting, reading is a never ending activity the real pleasure of which lies in the doing and not the arriving. As T.S. Eliot said,

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

The Editors

23. Why Read?

I was read to before I learned to love reading. My sister and I would lay attentively, tucked into our twin beds as my father’s slow melodic voice lulled us to slumber. As he sat reading I would fall in and out of new and familiar worlds, and although I can’t remember any of the books he read, I can remember the feeling being read to gave me: it was comforting.

Perhaps being read to made me lazy, I don’t remember reading much as a child. I was further behind in literacy than most of my year. It wasn’t till University, a little after University in fact, that I would find reading a prerequisite for happiness. Suddenly books were something I had to read, rather than an extracurricular activity to take or leave.

There is a magnificent power to literature, both in fiction and non-fiction, that nothing else in life can give you. My family never had the money to travel beyond Cornwall, I don’t have the money to travel beyond Europe. Yet I’ve seen Canada, China and Australia without needing to leave my living room. I’ve travelled through time, into space, through wars and into the minds of others. When fiction is at it’s best I’ve dropped periodically into experiences so vivid I have trouble separating them from my own. Reading is an inexpensive tool to expand the mind, both intellectually and emotionally.

Reading inspires me to act in the world – not just participate. I understand others better, I am more accepting of difference and more aware of social injustice. I fight ignorance with each new book while simultaneously realising how much more I have to learn.

As saccharine as it sounds, reading makes me think anything is possible.

To quote George R. R. Martin’s Jojen Reed:

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

Why read? Why live once when you can live infinitely.

Alice Farrant writes the blog ofBooks.org. Follow her on Twitter: @nomoreparades.

Spoken Word: Martin Amis at the Edinburgh Festival, 24th August 2014

Martin Amis has just completed his second novel on the Holocaust – the first being Time’s Arrow, published in 1991, which he describes as “highly stylized and abstract”. His latest offering, The Zone of Interest, which he appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival to promote, is neither of these. He was very honest about this subject occupying much of his time between both works, describing himself as “obsessed”, and his references suggest he has read every work of authority on the Holocaust, twice. He described his reasons for writing as a “throb to write a certain sort of novel”, which covers the compulsion without making it sound like a perverse addiction, for once.

The first thing to be underlined is that he was a compelling public speaker: articulate, urbane and very funny. He has the skill whereby he can take a useless question and weave it into something worthwhile for everyone in the room without causing offence. The second thing is that he spoke about the Holocaust in a way I had not encountered before; with a balance between lucid scholarship and biting irony that pronged one’s attention. One of his first remarks about Auschwitz (the setting for his novel, in fact it is the ambiguous backdrop for a love affair between an SS officer and his boss’ wife) was that “It was meant to be an earner.” The camp was unique in terms of its financial structure, as each prisoner was meant to have paid their own way through labour. Amis summoned the image of an immensely satisfied accountant marking balanced figures in the right column, before cutting through it deftly with the reminder that each figure only had a life expectancy of four months, at the most. He described the pervasion of fear in that setting: “With the pressure of death so close and vast in that place, the Kommendant only has to direct it at you.”

There are of course rules in writing this sort of book, more so than usual, arguably. One of his is that using Hitler’s name directly is crass: the Führer will do. I have no argument with this. Another of his rules is that he cannot not have a sex scene: despite having been nominated for the Bad Sex Award on several occasions (notably for Lionel Asbo, which reads like a bad dream), and commenting that men do not write sex as well as women, he clearly has not given up trying to improve. This is commendable on one level, and on another just slightly draining. He predictably makes the SS Commander’s wife sound like a wide barge/ cow hybrid, all soaring rump and beefy triceps.

He ventured into more interesting territory when he drew the contrast between the collective shame of the German nation, which will endure for as long as Jewish history is revisited, and the fanaticism springing within the last few years. He described the ageless Jewish attitude to conflict as being to wait out virulent aggression and then to negotiate, in order to try to seek terms. He feels this is unchanged. With regards to polar camps of belief, or even a zeugmatic way of life, he cited Ulysses for containing the clever use of cliché about the two inherited propositions in Ireland: Roman Catholicism, and anti-Semitism.

The analogy for ideology’s relationship with religion used to be methadone to heroine, however the last thirty plus years have proved that analogy to be flawed, as the former turned out to be fiercer than initially believed. When asked to compare the Second World War to ISIS his response was “nothing is so weird and awful that it can’t happen now.”

On that light note, the hour came to a close. Whatever the above may imply, his approach of fascinated analysis was not glutted with horrors, nor despairing complacency, but that of a man panning for patterns, and continually hunting for an answer to the ultimate baffling absurdity.

The Editors

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 1

Dante

in our mad flight we turned our oars to wings

Inferno XXVI

It has been suggested elsewhere on this website, somewhat unoriginally, that every time a reader picks up a book he or she embarks on a journey, often of intellectual discovery, but potentially also of the emotional, imaginative, or even spiritual variety (see Roomful of Mirrors). Indeed, J.M.G. Le Clezio, chief inspirer of this series of posts and author of the original essay “Reading as True Travel”, argues that reading offers a form of departure that extends far beyond the limits of physical travel:

The world’s mystery cannot be found through exploration: mystery resides rather in the world’s imaginable power.”

Certainly, it must be accepted that seeing more of the world will not necessarily open the traveller’s eyes to the infinite subtlety of the human mind (unless perhaps said traveller is the 17th Earl of Oxford on a controversial visit to Verona) and, to this extent, any parallels we may seek to draw between reading and travelling are limited: the results we can hope to achieve from each activity are distinct, albeit potentially overlapping. However, in this piece I would like to focus more on the similarities between what it is that drives us to pick up books, on the one hand, and book plane tickets, on the other.

Apologies for digging up Dante for a second week running, but I find it difficult to attempt to comprehend these underlying urges without referring to the Florentine poet’s conception of man as Ulysses preparing to embark on a final expedition, this time to the “unknown” half of the world that was thought to lie beyond the Pillars of Hercules (dividing Europe and north Africa). Dante sees Ulysses as the ultimate traveller, a hero perpetually and tragically in search of more. More what, exactly? More of everything, but most importantly more knowledge – “all men desire to know” – which is why he is a sort of anti-hero in the Inferno: he embodies both the desire for knowledge (always a delicate area where faith is concerned), and humanity’s inherently unsatisfied and restless nature.

There is no doubting the fact that the search for discovery and the pursuit of knowledge drive, to a large extent, our desire to read as well as our desire to travel. We read books to find out what happened and how things work, to marvel at other people’s imaginative creations, and, above all, to marvel at beauty (see Why Read? No.17). We travel for similar reasons. Moreover, we may return to books and places, but there is nothing quite like the joy of the new, of experiencing the hitherto unexperienced. As such, there is a large element of risk-taking in both reading and travelling – not in terms of physical danger, obviously, but in terms of whether or not we ultimately find what it is we set out to discover. After all, it is one thing to seek the contemplation of beauty, for example, but another altogether to strike gold in a way that is distinctly subjective and personal to us. We may be recommended books to read or places to visit, and yet it is almost impossible to foresee what it is that will move or impress us. It is not uncommon to put down a book or return from a holiday thoroughly uninspired by the preceding ‘journey’. Invariably, however, we trust that there is something out there for us, even if it is hidden away on the other side of the world. Something that would be good to see, something we must see.

Reading and travel are often viewed as activities of leisure, to be taken up in spare time away from the harsh reality of working life. I would suggest, on the contrary, that both are in fact often motivated by an underlying sense of urgency. See, for example, the frequency with which both inspire bucket-list discussions: “100 books/places to read/visit before you die”. That reading and travel might both reflect humanity’s consciousness of mortality is an idea that seems to surface frequently in Julian Barnes’ novel A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, not explicitly perhaps, but it lurks behind some of the more central themes. In particular, the story of Noah’s ark, which Barnes uses as one of many ‘pillars’ around which to base his 10 ½ narratives, connects the idea of salvation through physical travel to that of salvation through literature. That may seem a stretch but bear with me – the story of Noah is intended (in the Bible) both as a literal account of humanity’s survival by taking to the seas, and as an allegory for humanity’s salvation through faith. That faith is accessed and understood, at least doctrinally, via books, and the story of Noah appears in the first book of the Bible, Genesis

Medusa

So should we be more inclined to see readers (ourselves) as intrepid physical and spiritual adventurers rather than as armchair navel gazers? Probably not, but there is undoubtedly a desperate yearning at the root of much of our literary activity, a yearning caught between despair at the inadequacy of what we know is true, and the hope of what might be true in the as yet unexplored landscapes of some distant reality. Barnes once again manages to convey this exquisitely in his assessment of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa – a painting painfully split between an overwhelming sense of foreboding doom and a glimmer of hopeful expectation (see the tiny ship on the horizon). It is easy to imagine that Ulysses experienced something similar as he sailed beyond the boundaries of man’s earthly realm, glimpsing the mountain of Purgatory as he did, before being sucked down to the eighth circle of Hell.

The Editors

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