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The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the RyeThe Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger

“A liar tied up in truth / Enough for a lifeline” – Bonnie Bishop in The English Journal, November 2003

I had always held The Catcher in the Rye in mind as an archetypal coming of age novel which I had never read. It sat, on the bookshelves of my mind amongst Italo Calvino’s “Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them.” The name Holden Caulfield familiar, like an old acquaintance whose face has been forgotten.

Occasionally, I have the the feeling when reading a book for the first time that subconsciously I must have been saving it as a reward for myself. Regardless of the occasion, I look out especially for books with which I can identify. Something in Holden Caulfield’s outlook strikes a chord with me, though his experience of teenage life is far removed from my own.

Caulfield’s aggressive, often shrill, dislike of ‘phonies’ is interspersed with intelligent, charming observations which do not give him up for his naivity: ”The thing is, it’s really hard to be roommates with people if your suitcases are much better than theirs.”

The genius of his character is his ability to extrapolate universals from the very limited and apparently immature perspective of his own experiences. His extrapolations are lampoons to the impulse to generalise – reflecting his naivety yet seemingly drawing out insightful conclusions despite his narrow experience; the privileged son of a wealthy ‘corporation lawyer’ (“boy, do those guys really haul it in”).

His insatiable understanding of the complexity of others, coupled to an inability to concentrate on any topic or person for a protracted period produces these perfect polished lines setting out the many injustices of American society in the 1940s: “I hate it if I’m eating bacon and eggs for breakfast and somebody else is only eating toast and coffee.”

Caulfield’s love of “a swiss cheese sandwich and a malted milk” is also strangely similar to some later iconic American sociopaths (Clarence Worley in True Romance: “I could eat a horse if you slapped enough ketchup on it”) of which he seems to be one. The honesty of Caulfield’s attitudes to food and drink pre-figures Tarantino’s tight characterisation of Worley’s almost psychotic relationship with food and eating (a relationship most explicitly plaid out in one of the most violent scenes of the film in which Worley is out ordering a chicken sandwich while his girlfriend is beaten half to death in their hotel room by a brutish James Gandolfini).

The brevity of the book and the flex and slap of the prose belies the complexity of its writing, the delicate and indelicate leitmotifs (“Old Gatsby. Old Sport. That killed me … I was waiting for old Luce”), the clever patterning, the five years of writing that makes Holden Caulfield one of the best and most brashly defined characters that I can recall reading since I first read Anthony Burgess’, A Clockwork Orange.

And yet, The Catcher in the Rye is really an innocent novel, a coming of age tale about a sixteen year old boy who can’t keep himself in a school for longer than a year. The worst violence of the book is really a drunken Caulfield, clutching his stomach, pretending to have been shot, shouting down the phone to Sally Hayes at two in the morning – the child Holden playing gangsters and the adult Caulfield chasing after women: ”They got me, Rocky’s mob got me. You know that? Sally, you know that?”

But it is not the innocence or naivety of the action in The Catcher in the Rye that is reminiscent of the clearly violent A Clockwork Orange or even of True Romance. It is the cold and violent use of the English language (“that really killed me”) and the lightning strikes of annihilation directed at the other characters in the novel that makes Caulfield’s performance so potent, cynical and entertaining: “She was dating this terrible guy, Al Pike … he was always hanging around the swimming pool. He wore those white Lastex kind of swimming trunks, and he was always going off the high dive. He did the same lousy old half gainer all day long. It was the only dive he could do, but he thought he was very hot stuff. All muscles and no brains.” His rasping assassinations inflected with his childish and incisive observations (“Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell.”) make this one of the most enjoyable books I have read in months, reading each sentence like cutting with a well sharpened knife.

Caulfield seems to roam from one place full of phonies to the next. He is both attracted to the places that they are attracted to and repulsed by their presence in them (“It’s one of those places that are supposed to be sophisticated and all, and the phonies are coming in the window”). Much more, it seems, he is a stranger in the place of his own existence. Someone who is not yet accepted, or who does not yet accept himself – personification of that difficult journey out of adolescence, always approaching adulthood, retreating into childhood. This apparent uncertainty lashes out at the other characters he encounters, blind always to his own issues (“Stop screaming at me please,” she said. Which was crap because I wasn’t even screaming at her.”) he attacks the many flaws of others in place of addressing his own – an intelligent and childish prism through which to view 1940s New York – a delightful one.

The Catcher in the Rye has created a new category of books for my my mental shelving, one which it is leading by a mile: The Books You Have Recently Read And Now You Want Everybody To Read Them.

The Editors

Building Things

Smart People Should Build ThingsSmart People Should Build Things – Andrew Yang

My not now so recent change in career sparked a new drive for information in me. Entering a new line of work reopened the pores of my professional curiosity, and working in an otherwise undefined, unregulated, undocumented and as yet largely unformed industry in a company that had not previously existed, even more so.

Information in the law is readily, though not freely, available. Reading into the profession is so important that young lawyers are sent to law school for two years before they start working but no such study is available for those starting out in young technology companies.

So where to look. A quick Google search for ‘starting a business’ produces 1,050,000,000 pages of information about leaving a job and starting out on your own (or joining in with someone who is doing the same). They will point you to Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup or the The Startup Owner’s Manual as being biblical texts in the world of high growth startups. Many others will try to convince you that for a monthly fee of only fifteen dollars, they will show you the keys to  unlock incomes in the thousands per week from only a few hours of effort (probably from setting up just such websites).

It may not take you long to find the works of Tim Ferris, his ouevre of ‘four hour’ books, textbooks defining the many ways in which you can do anything you want much faster than you think if you think about the effect of your actions rather than the effort of them (the ‘Pareto chop’). A treasure trove of short cuts, high tales and more than a dash of charlatanism, it made an enjoyable seed for the dream bed of my career change from the law, even if it is hard to trust a man who preaches the four hour work week and works sixteen hours a day.

Eric Ries’ works set out a methodology for developing an idea from scratch. Like most of the books in this category they preach common sense, but when common sense is the know-how of the industry, it is reassuring to see it printed up and labelled as a text book occasionally. Follow Eric Ries, don’t follow Eric Ries, it doesn’t really matter but you will probably last longer if you do as he says (and does). His core principle is a straightforward one: rapidly experiment with one eye on the rate at which you are spending money. You may ask why anyone would have to write that down but unfortunately it is.

My route into this particular genre of literature was more mundane than most being via the management pages of the FT in which Luke Johnson (a serial entrepreneur who began his career by building up the Pizza Express chain of restaurants) writes a weekly column.

His pieces are heart-felt and engaging, much like his book Start It Up which sets out no methodology but is an unabashed call to arms for anyone thinking about starting a company. Every other page of the book is a full page quotation affirming the decision of anyone thinking about starting up a business (or pretty much doing anything else).

After one column I emailed him to ask, ‘when is the right time to leave the law and set out on my own’, to which he replied ‘Seize the day, Luke’. One of the kindest, shortest and most memorable emails, I have ever received.

Another writer, who has recently published his very charming book, Smart People Should Build Things is Andrew Yang, a one time New York corporate lawyer. He lasted about as long as I did in the law before turning his attentions to startups, working in a number of different as he puts it ‘low paid’ jobs before founding his own tutoring agency and selling it in his mid-thirties at a healthy profit.

He now runs a not for profit organisation called Venture for America which specialises in placing young, budding, would-be-entrepreneurs in startup companies in deprived areas of America such as Detroit. A great idea and an excellent book – what appeals the most about Yang’s style is his honesty. Aside from the apparent immodesty of the title, he writes not as Tim Ferris superhuman who has ‘hacked life’, redefined wealth, reclaimed time and made himself into the examplar of ability in every jurisdiction of existence, but instead he writes with the wary encouragement of a person who didn’t like being a lawyer, turned down short term success and made a life for himself not dictated by others. Not a work of literature, but I will come back to, many times again.

The Editors

Spoken Word III

Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries interviewed by Robert Macfarlane

RSL, Union Chapel, Thursday 3rd April

The winner of the 2013 Man Booker prize, 27 year old Eleanor Catton from New Zealand, was interviewed by travel writer and academic Robert Macfarlane* earlier this month as part of the RSL event series. The evening kicked off with two men singing various traditional Maori songs, followed inevitably by the Haka. With our focus determinedly set on New Zealand – in case we had been inclined to wander – Macfarlane introduced Catton by describing the night The Luminaries won, with an anecdote highlighting the fact that Ben Okri is clearly great company as well as a good friend of Macfarlane’s, and that Catton was obviously startled to have won. She recalled for the audience that the moment she won, the internet ‘broke’ in New Zealand – her parents had to find out via the radio. 

Catton veered between making statements with a glint of steel – despite the prize, she said “the same task is before me now” – and being charming to the point where it almost beggared belief. Every question he posed was ‘interesting’, everything she wrote was ‘gorgeous’ to Macfarlane.  In their shared love of landscape they were brought together, and when they discussed this it felt like the audience were able to see where the bones of the novel came from. The Luminaries is a thin strip of a novel in that it covers the main street of a pioneering town and the beach, where the rivers meet as they come down from the hills. Catton spoke of this meniscus of land being trapped between the savage sea and impassable peaks. It is a land caught between ‘dangers’ where people refer to drowning as ‘the West Coast disease’.

Even when she has been abroad, Catton has been pulled toward her native land: her grandmother sent her the shipping news from microfiche across the ocean when she was in Iowa. She writes with two family maxims in mind: the idea that effort is individual, and that you cannot buy a view, it must be deserved. In addition, the Cattons maintain that everything looks better in the rain. This will not be news to any resident of the United Kingdom. 

Despite the undeniable importance of the setting in terms of the initial events within the narrative, the action mostly happens inside. Virginia Woolf commented on how hard it is to move characters out of one room and into another. The chances of this happening and of then meeting others are significantly increased by being inside, on the whole. It also helps that the rain is relentless in the novel. 

Without wishing to ruin it for those yet to tackle this huge novel, The Luminaries charts the interwoven fates of several characters within a gold mining town. A local prostitute and infamous opium addict is found badly injured by the side of the road, a shipwreck causes a key crate to go missing, a hermit is found dead and his estate hotly contested. As the town elders vie for prominence and a séance reveals a common desire to be hoodwinked, everyone is of course obsessed with gold. In many ways it is a novel about dividends, and Catton is clever on the subject of relations being bought. She feels love and money are opposite, and that the latter is only ever a transient vehicle for enabling the former in some way. 

Catton planned out the structure of the novel with a piece of software that enables the user to program the night skies. By inputting the longitude and latitude, it shows you the stars in sky above that location, by adding any date it shows you the constellations at that time in order to see the skies revolve as well as the phases of the moon. In the late nineteenth century she found ‘a month without a moon’ between two full moons, and deemed it the sign to start her off. She had already been interested in astrology (to Maori New Zealanders, Orion’s belt is the bottom of a catamaran), but the idea of both fixed and moving parts interested her as well as providing assistance in crafting a plot of that complexity. She took astronomy archetypes and turned them into a novel: Sagittarius – said to represent the collective unconscious – is also the House of Journeys, suitable for a novel where the arrival of the mysterious stranger is key. 

Macfarlane enquired after Catton’s casual use of the word ‘whore’ throughout the narrative; it did not lose its impact for him no matter how many times it cropped up. She agreed the word was a shock, and that she would never normally use it but in this case had no compunction doing so, before pointing out that the words whore, ore, California and Victoria all contain the same sound. Catton sees patterns in apparently randomly distributed data. She is clearly interested in connections, describing them in a neat way.

The evening concluded with a reading by Kerry Fox in darkness so complete that Macfarlane said he felt like he was at a séance himself. He helped Catton towards increasingly voluble responses as the hour progressed and was the ideal choice to interview such a modest writer at the start of her undoubtedly stellar career. I just wish there had been slightly less awareness of this fact throughout the evening. 

*Kathleen Jamie’s 2008 review of Macfarlane’s book The Wild Places is one of the most crushingly funny pieces I have ever encountered. It may not be entirely fair, but with sentences like the below, that ceases to matter quite so much: “ if we do find a Wild Place, we can prance about there knowing that no bears or wolves will appear over the bluff, because we disposed of the top predators centuries ago, and if we do come unstuck there’s a fair chance that, like the man on Ben Nevis, we’ll get a mobile signal, and be rescued.”

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n05/kathleen-jamie/a-lone-enraptured-male

The Editors

Spoken Word II

Daunt Books Festival 27/28 March – Part Two

Bright Young Novelists: Adam Foulds, Rebecca Hunt and Evie Wyld interviewed by Edmund Gordon

The second event in the first day of the very first Daunt Books Festival recently featured Edmund Gordon – a critic currently writing a life of Angela Carter – speaking to three young writers based in the UK but keen on far flung settings.

Rebecca Hunt’s Everland plots two Antarctic expeditions 100 years apart, commencing in 1913 with three sailors trying to make their way to the small island of Everland in a dinghy after a storm. She highlights the danger of hope at the poles – in the form of kelp, or a cormorant – as a sign that land is nearby can of course be a mirage or salvation.

Hunt is very good on the practicality of life in this extreme place – of lugging things and people – that Scott and others were irritatingly noble and upbeat about in their diaries. It was drudgery. Also, carrying a dead or ailing body at the Pole is a dead weight that can kill you. It slows you down when there is no such thing as time to spare. She also deftly illustrates fraying tempers as a result of this pressured race, often with language ‘so violent it didn’t have a sound’.

It is also always good to hear about Hunt’s explorers living on pemmican (spiced, preserved seal meat) as a staple of the Polar menu. The last time I encountered this calorific snack was in an almost unbearably perky book provided by my grandmother: Susannah of the Yukon. Susannah is quite the explorer, defying the Mounties to strike her own gold claim aged nine. Her love of the frontier started this whole messy personal obsession with frosty horizons and the ends of the earth.

Evie Wyld then discussed her second novel: All the Birds, Singing (her debut was reviewed on the site here). The protagonist moves to a sheep station after an offer to become a form of maid ‘with advantages’, having been a prostitute in the city. The arrangement, having turned out to be less than advantageous, turns south and our heroine prepares to flee her trap. Amid a general backdrop of acute unease, she tries to plot her captor Otto’s mood every morning by the time he unlocks her door to release her in order to pick the perfect moment to run. The description of her disabling a truck engine on guesswork – throwing washers away frantically to buy herself time – is one of the most tense pieces of writing I have ever encountered.

Her escape is foiled by the dog jumping up and down with rage at the sight of her starting its master’s Ute (a car for those like me who did not know). The woman and dog are bound together; however it is the lady who runs the risk of being tapped on the nose with a rolled up comic for a misdemeanour. Wyld is always great on dog behaviour, describing “not a smell of hello but a smell of what are you up to”. She also delivers painfully sharp flashes of physical interaction: “every time we finish” having sex, Otto acknowledges this by “slapping the meat of his gut”.

At the sheep station, by dawn the air is already thick with flies. Breakfast is chops with eggs. There is a ewe with a black spotted nose. All of these shards of imagery are nearly familiar but ultimately combine to form an undeniable picture of Otherness. Australia is as familiar as a photograph, but blurred and off kilter. In response to a question about writing about far removed places rather than attempting to capture the areas of London that are currently moving fast, Wyld explained that she would rather get lost in her imagination than write about the Peckham she knows and get it ‘wrong’, as she would incur the wrath of the locals directly in the bookshop she runs.

Adam Foulds, having read a section from his most recent novel The Quickening Maze, was asked by an audience member when the best time to have been a writer was. His answer was 1885, due to the sheer number of contemporaries he could have enjoyed – Robert Musil and Thomas Mann in particular – however someone made the valid point that he would have been called in that case. A short pause ensured before he responded with a gentle defence for his choice: “Obviously, it had its risks.”

The process of writing a second novel was more like going back to square one than any of the three authors could have predicted. Each new endeavour is started by saying “This will be the one where I say what I mean”. Which in turn drives the impulse to keep going. Which is good news for the reader.

The Editors

Spoken Word

Daunt Books Festival, 27/28 March 2014

Celebrating Virago Modern Classics: Maggie O’Farrell, Susie Boyt and Deborah Levy, questions by Lennie Goodings

Virago was created as a publisher in 1973 to challenge the notion of ‘great’ women writers. They calmly and effectively appropriated the idea of Penguin Modern Classics for themselves, and O’Farrell, Boyt and Levy opened the inaugural Daunt Books Festival by discussing which Virago novels particularly inspired them. It was a relatively unusual opportunity to hear writers talk about reading without their being obliged to tie in their own work unless they felt like it.

Deborah Levy (Black Vodka and Hot Milk are two of her recent titles) chose Angela Carter and Muriel Spark as her authors. She compared Carter’s ‘long, luscious, feverish and slightly inflamed sentences’, that are all about revealing desire to Spark’s short, spiky sentences about it being concealed.

Spark feathers her books with many beautiful, slightly psychopathic female figures, about whom she is unapologetic. Levy described Spark as a genius at depicting human frailty and human cruelty, which she did not appreciate until years after first reading her. Spark inserts a kind of ‘mild panic’ into her calm sentences, which informed the way Levy wrote Swimming Home, creating a splinter on the surface of the prose. In this way, Levy explained her feeling that “books are laid inside us” until you re-read them and uncover more at a later stage.

Carter was described as altogether more theatrical, with desiring female characters; their bodies no longer buttoned up – in fact, they tend to have the first five undone. Levy cited Baudelaire’s influence on Carter before reading a passage from The Magic Toyshop in closing.

Overall, Levy’s confidence in her choices was partly derived from the fact that neither writer tends to have characters doing things like putting a chicken in the oven. The characters are given minds, enabled to travel on horseback – vulnerable and fragile – but are often ‘travelling across terrain to find something they need’.

Every time Maggie O’Farrell sees a dark green Virago spine in a second-hand bookshop, she buys it on principle. She described being drawn to the aesthetic of it: the portrait on the cover and the whiteness of the pages.

Her first choice was Our Spoons came from Woolworth’s by Barbara Comyn (the ‘daughter of a madwoman and a violent, cruel man’). She asked that you not be put off by the title, having herself been transfixed by Comyn’s unique prose style within five minutes. Quick as a whip, she pre-empted my next thought by acknowledging that the word ‘unique’ is overused, but asserted that Comyn’s narrative voice is unlike any other. Her character will take a newt to a dinner party and let it swim in the water jug, delivered in the same tone as a child dying of scarlet fever. The novel illustrates 1930s Bohemian London pre-Beveridge report, wherein barbed comedy rapidly descends into the destruction of a marriage.

Her next choice was Mollie Keane, ‘a Hibernian Evelyn Waugh’, who wrote about the minute calibrations of class and family in the Anglo-Irish last days of Empire. The novel portrays a family of poverty stricken snobs who value dogs above one another, and who would rather die than eat rabbit mousse, as it is ‘low’ food – having been caught for free rather than bought in a butcher. Their servants – who are starving – are sacked for eating starch in the laundry, and grocers are ‘robbers’ if they have the temerity to actually send a bill. You say nothing when your husband sleeps with servants, or when your son dies. If you are still standing after all of that charm, the language will still hold you fast, as every word Keane uses pulls its weight. She is the master of the disparity between what we feel and what we say: let’s take the dogs for a walk rather than actually talking about it.

Her third and final choice was Rosamond Lehmann’s The Invitation to the Waltz, which captures a seventeen year old girl preparing for a party – and that true insight that the prospect of the night is always better than what actually takes place, the anticipation always being superior to the event. At the party she encounters the master of the house’s son. More on this at a later date (when I have finished the book).

The final speaker Susie Boyt chose Elizabeth Taylor in the hope that one day the film star will be called the “other Elizabeth Taylor”.

Boyt carefully explained that Taylor repeatedly pulls off effects that are very hard to achieve with no effort at all, from simple, perfect sentences (“The chair scraped back and talk broke out”) to expertly set moral thermostats and particularly good group portraits: one scene was cited where a clutch of ladies cook their lunch – lamb chops on a Baby Belling – at the same time as melting wax in a little pan to do their moustaches.

She also described an air of recklessness to Taylor’s stories, including one where a new groom gets so caught up in the joy of being in the pub that he simply forgets about his new bride upstairs in her lilac underwear. He automatically goes home to his mum’s house at the end of the night, alone, and ‘no one knows what to think at all’.

Boyt also gave a synopsis of a brilliant short story by Taylor of two people posing as a married couple in order to land a job offered to a pair of married waiters: these people are serious enough about their vocation to be lifted by ‘the glacial table linen’ and the elegance of the clientele. The ‘husband’ takes their cover story seriously enough to put a photograph of ‘their son’ in the flat, and asks her to leave out her hairbrush and a pot of face cream in order to convince any curious visitors. Of course the story does not end well.

Taylor expertly shows all the things in family life that can go wrong, something that Boyt, who described herself as liking ‘to write dark books with high spirits’* and with the same moral agenda as Taylor, clearly sympathizes with. A slightly more optimistic way of describing it could be a way of showing how to be good in the world without being ground down to a paste.
This concludes Part One. Part Two, featuring Evie Wyld and others will follow shortly.

*Boyt on cities: “I like dual carriageways and litter and all the things you are not supposed to like but I really do”.

The Editors

Night Walks

Night Walks – Charles Dickens, Penguin Books ‘Great Ideas’

Penguin do a couple of great lines in quirky short books called ‘Great Ideas’ [eds: we review another here]. About one hundred authors are showcased and, from what I can tell, the series is aimed at introducing the reader to an essay or a passage from an extremely famous writer/politician/philosopher/champion of the arts. Some books are a more natural fit than others. Engels’ and Marx’s Communist Manifesto fits the 100-200 page bill perfectly. There is, however, a danger that a reader might approach this literary fast-food and then believe themself to be familiar with the author. This is likely to end in disappointment bearing in mind the collection of contributors range from Kant to Rousseau, Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky. Gaining familiarity, confidence and enjoyment from these gods takes a rather more sustained effort. That isn’t to say that fast food isn’t enjoyable.

 

nightwalks

 

It was seeing the photo above, a study of night time London in the 1920s which encouraged me to seek out Dickens’ Night Walks. I never really need much convincing where Dickens is concerned. He is the author of one of my favourite books – Great Expectations – and his writing has a conversational style which, to me, sounds like a quirky uncle time-travelling from the mid 19th Century to tell you a story. Furthermore, whilst his English is obviously not modern I never find it old-fashioned, which makes for a more relaxed read when compared with other literary greats.

Night Walks is a rather awkwardly cobbled together collection of commentaries by Dickens on the London of his day. The best parts are invariably the chapters which chart the walks which Dickens took during the nights where he lost his battle with insomnia, hence the name of the book I suppose. There is also a wonderful chapter where Dickens recounts a time when as an 8-year-old he spends a day lost in the City pondering what to do with his life and how to find his fame and fortune. Following in the footsteps of Richard ‘Dick’ Whittington is entertained at length. It might be complete fabrication, but it makes for a good tale nonetheless. There are also passages on the prevalence of betting shops, regular state funerals, and other peculiarities of the time which I found less interesting. Nonetheless, there is some genius about this book and it has little to do with the excellence of the writing or the writer.

One of the marvellous things about London is that the streets and the boroughs are unchanging. The British capital has never enjoyed/suffered a major reworking at the hands of a revolutionary band, an occupying power or any other force for radical change. You and I can walk the streets as Dickens once did, you and I can reconstruct the Limehouse, Whitechapel, Covent Garden or The Borough of the time based on the information provided by Dickens. Whilst the docklands that Dickens talks of are now in the shadow of Canary Wharf, the old streets and yards remain. The abject poverty of Tower Hamlets may have been somewhat relieved and the streets paved, but it isn’t beyond the realms of imagination to mentally recreate Dickens’ London.

Indeed, it seems as though some of the author’s reflections on certain areas of the city are not too far removed from modern sentiment: “When I go into the City, now, it makes me sorrowful to think that I am quite an artful wretch. Strolling about it as a lost child, I thought of the British Merchant and the Lord Mayor, and was full of reverence. Strolling about it now, I laugh at the sacred liveries of state, and get indignant at the corporation as one of the strongest practical jokes of the present day.”

In Night Walks you have both a guide and a companion.

Matt Bradley

Don Quixote 3: the beautiful shepherdess

The genius of the Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha, Sñr Don Quixote, lies partly in the juxtaposition of his lunacy against absurd social norms. Cervantes splits open the idiocy of social conventions by the non-conformity of his ludicrous knight ‘errant’. Don Quixote does not fit within the social constructs of his day and the characters he meets regularly depart from his company in discussion of his madness: “they left him and continued their journey, during which they had much to talk about, from the history of Marcela and Grisóstomo, to the madness of Don Quixote.”

But in the episode preceding this passage, Cervantes’ caustic irony splits open the normative chauvinism of the group of male shepherds who consider Don Quixote to be mad. Cervantes portrays them in their ignorance, despite their apparently acceptable views, by leaving reason to be defended by a woman (albeit a beautiful one) and a madman.

Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and the shepherds, who are at this point travelling together, come across the funeral procession of the young shepherd Grisóstomo. Telling the tale, Ambrosio, one of the funeral party, says: “He loved deeply and was rejected; he adored and was scorned; he pleaded with a wild beast, importuned a piece of marble, pursued the wind, shouted in the desert, served ingratitude and his reward was to fall victim to death in the middle of his life, which was ended by a shepherdess whom he attempted to immortalise so that she would live on in memory.” The shrill cry of a masculine group, forming around their lost companion. The tone is clichéd and anti-intellectual, it shows no appreciation that the poignancy of love is bound as much to the imminency of loss as to the strength of feeling of the lover. It says only, he loved, was unrequited and this is somehow an offence of the subject of his love.

A short while later the group, now travelling together, comes upon Marcela, the shepherdess in question. Ambrosio, in his ludicrous almost camp manner, accuses her of several ridiculous things including coming “in your arrogance, to tread on this unfortunate corpse”, a string of accusations which prompt an exceptional response from the beautiful shepherdess.

“The lover of the beautiful thing might be ugly and since ugliness is worthy of being avoided, it is absurd to say: “I love you because you are beautiful; you must love me even though I am ugly”… According to what I have heard, true love is not divided and must be voluntary, not forced. If this is true, as I believe it is, why do you want to force me to surrender my will, obliged to do so simply because you say you love me? But if this is not true, then tell me: if the heaven that made me beautiful made me ugly instead, would it be fair for me to complain that none of you loved me?… if chastity is one of the virtues that most adorn and beautify both the body and soul, why should a woman, loved for being beautiful, lose that virtue in order to satisfy the desire of a man who, for the sake of his pleasure, attempts with all his might and main to have her lose it?… it is correct to say that his obstinacy, not my cruelty, is what killed him. 

… I am free and do not care to submit to another… The limits of my desires are these mountains, and if they go beyond here, it is to contemplate the beauty of heaven and the steps whereby the soul travels to its first home.” 

After her astounding and excellent soliloquy she departs into a dense thicket of forest, intending not to be followed. “And some – those who were pierced by the powerful arrow of the light of her beautiful eyes – gave indications of wishing to follow her, disregarding the patent discouragement they had heard.” But Don Quixote refuses to allow them: “Let no person, whatever his circumstance or condition, dare to follow the beautiful Marcela lest he fall victim to my fury and outrage.”

The truth in Cervantes, it seems, is like a paste-board knight, riding on a lean old donkey, frail, regularly beaten but determined in the face of ignorance, convention and stupidity. Don Quixote forever challenges accepted convention with his naive honesty, is dubbed mad and ignoble as a result and pays no attention to his critics. For that, we can only salute him.

The Editors

The Reason I Jump

The Reason I Jump, Don't Read Too Fast

The Reason I Jump – Naoki Higashida

I bought a copy of The Reason I Jump after reading this outstanding article on autism on medium.com proposing the ‘intense world’ theory of autism.

Traditional understandings of autism have been predicated on the idea that autism stems from a cortical deficit, most commonly relating to language and emotion. As Oliver Sacks wrote in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: “Neurology’s favourite word is ‘deficit’.”

But the intense world theory takes the opposite view: autism is not a deficit of feeling, but a superabundance of it, so much so as to be overwhelming. Instead of feeling no emotion, autistic people feel so much emotion that they shut themselves down in order to protect themselves from it. They are so attuned to their surroundings and the emotions of others that they are intensely affected by them. This overwhelming of the senses affects every aspect of their lives, from the ability to speak their minds, to the ability to conduct conversations. They require constant attention to maintain a daily routine and severe autism prevents a person from living any kind of independent existence.

The Reason I Jump is a charming book. It is written with a ferocious honesty: “I ask you, those of you who are with us all day, not to stress yourselves out because of us. When you do this, it feels as if you’re denying any value at all that our lives may have – and that saps the spirit we need to soldier on. The hardest ordeal for us is the idea that we are causing grief for other people. We can put up with our own hardships okay, but the thought that our lives are the source of other people’s unhappiness, that’s plain unbearable.”

Framed as a sequence of fifty seven questions, The Reason I Jump is one of the most refreshing autobiographical works I have read.  A window on a part of our own mental lives that is so often hidden away. Written by Higashida when only thirteen years old using a writing frame to point at each letter individually, the crisp clarity of the language is astounding.

“It’s not that we dislike holding hands, it’s just that, if we happen to spot something interesting, we can’t help but dash off and let go of the hand we were holding.” or my favourite in answer to the question, why do you ask the same questions over and over?: “I imagine that a normal person’s memory is arranged continuously, like a line. My memory, however, is more like a pool of dots. I’m always ‘picking up’ these dots – by asking my questions – so I can arrive back at the memory that the dots represent.”

The Reason I Jump is a charming view of our own behaviours from the perspective of someone living at their mercy. That autism represents the extreme condition is no barrier to it revealing the absurdity of many behaviours of the non-autistic (particularly stress induced lapses of lucidity: “when I see I’ve made a mistake, my mind shuts down. I cry, I scream, I make a huge fuss and I just can’t think straight any more”).

Reading The Reason I Jump is like reading about someone who wears the central tenets of the human psyche at the surface so that the social and linguistic elements of our beings which protect our soft psychological centres like a veneer are displaced, leaving the centre exposed, overwhelmed and seemingly vulnerable. It struck me, reading the voice of a person who could not speak, that there might be two challenges with autism. The first, to make us a little more like them: clear, honest and emotionally aware. And the second of course, to help them live their lives with clarity, honesty and an understanding that penetrates beyond the veneer.

The Editors

Book of Mammon, Part II

dontreadtoofast.comBarbarians at the Gate – Bryan Burrough and John Heylar

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

There is something fiendish about that element of finance directed purely at the acquisitive fabrication of money that did not previously exist.

One of the most enterprising of these solutions (progress of a kind: like the rack or the guillotine) is commonly referred to as ‘PIK’ debt or ‘payment in kind’ debt: I pay you for a company with a loan note (literally an ‘I owe you’); if needed, I can pay you back with more loan notes (more ‘I owe yous’). The price of my purchase shoots up and the amount of cash required remains the same. If things go well, you get paid when I refinance the PIK debt. If they go badly, Lehman Brothers collapses under the weight of its now ‘toxic’ I owe yous. Or as our protagonist, Ross Johnson puts it:

I mean,” Johnson went on, “we have found something that’s better than the U.S. printing press. And they’ve got it all down here on Wall Street. And nobody knows it’s going on. I wonder if the World Bank knows about it. You could solve the third world debt crisis with this stuff. It’s a brand new currency…”

The development of this practice is really the birthplace of Barbarians at the Gate, a steaming missive written by two Wall Street Journal journalists hot from the trail of one of the most decadent and extraordinary leveraged buy-out competitions (LBOs) of the already decadent 1980s. The confluence of an LBO market just coming to its adolescent maturity on the rise of PIK and other exotic debt types, the petrol burning machismo that fuelled it and the extravagant talent and whimsy of, Ross Johnson, CEO, “a man who devoted his life to shaking things up”.

The book centres around the bidding war leading up to the purchase by KKR of Johnson’s company RJR Nabisco. An LBO is essentially a purchase of a company by a private equity fund using debt and a friendly (well-remunerated) management team to secure a purchase. The existing shareholders are bought out at a premium. The managers take a large equity position in the company in exchange for performance incentives. The company is taken off the stock market. The private equity fund trims the company’s fat (in RJR Nabisco’s case, a thirty aircraft strong private fleet of jets compiled by Ross Johnson and colloquially known as the ‘RJR Air Force’) to make room in the cash flows to accommodate interest repayments on debt. Three or five or more years down the line the company is either broken up and sold in more valuable constituent parts or taken back to the stock market to be sold, hopefully at a profit.

The book is one of the few business thrillers I have ever read, and it gripped me more tightly than any novel I have read in the last year. It takes as its raw material such a rich subject, such intense characters (“Kravis went numb. He had been fighting for this for so long. He had lost eight pounds in the last six weeks…All he could think of was how much work was ahead”) that at times Burrough’s and Heylar must force on their writing a dead-pan description of “the biggest prize in history” without which the book would have become unreadable.

The authors gather around their plot a litany of Shakespearean characters, Henry Kravis, one of the three founders of KKR, plays a kind of Goneril to Ross Johnson’s Lear. Ted Forstmann, founder and CEO of Forstmann, Little & Co, a Cordelia, decries the debt funded buyout practices pioneered by KKR: “We are not comparable. When I started this business ten years ago, I said I wanted to be the best. I didn’t care about being the biggest. If you think the biggest is the best, go away. You belong with Kravis. Our returns are three and four times the returns they lie about getting.”

On the other side, the loose management style of Ross Johnson (“A few million dollars are lost in the sands of time”) and the extraordinary governance practices of RJR Nabisco make the problems of valuing this behemoth of a company intractable: “If missing figures weren’t bad enough, Stuart didn’t completely understand the ones he had. One number in particular puzzled them all. On the initial projections they had obtained from RJR Nabisco was a heading “Other uses of cash”. Beside it was a row of figures stretching out ten years, each ranging from $300 million to $500 million. Stuart had no idea what the numbers meant.” Never has so much fun been had reading about the accounting woes of others.

Barbarians at the Gate is a fast paced, American thriller. A book that doesn’t give up being read (“We’d like to think that Barbarians has aged well”, the authors coyly note) and has survived the twenty years since its publication, rather like the LBO market but unlike RJR Nabisco.

More notably for us, the PIK notes that fuelled the eventual $25 billion valuation of RJR Nabisco are still in use. Last year nearly $15.3 billion dollars of debt was raised by PIK notes in 39 different deals. Perhaps this is a cost of economic recovery. Perhaps it is the sign of the green shoots of economic progress that we would like to see. Regardless of interpretation, if ever there was a time to understand the unreasonable man it is now because doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result isn’t progress, according to Albert Einstein, it’s insanity.

The Editors

House of Stone

dontreadtoofast.com

House of Stone – Anthony Shadid

My father was born in a house in a small village in the south of Lebanon. The sound of the wind in the grasses rushing down to the border with neighbouring Israel is deceptive and peaceful and it is a sound and a scene that I re-enact regularly when I am tired or ill or lonely.

In 1985, Israel militarised an area north of its border including the village to create what it described as a ‘Security Zone’. There are few places on earth less safe than a militarized security zone; the price of security is guns, landmines, soldiers and razor wire.

It was certainly not a safe place for my Grandfather’s house. As a young boy my family told me it had been used as a weapons dump. When I finally came to see it in 2002, it was a roofless shell of limestone blocks. My father could point to the places he had played as a young man, the room he was born in, the kitchen, the garden, not far away the well, in the distance the lake but it was clear that even if the spirit of that house was there, the body of it was nearly gone. We went down to his school where there was a class reunion. Everyone speaking, hugging, smoking after twenty, thirty and even forty years.

Over dinner with my cousin last week, I discovered that the house had also been used as a brothel. We met for dinner in a pub in Maida Vale, an area of London populated by large Arab and Jewish communities (ironies abounded). He had flown from Canada with work and was passing through London. We hadn’t seen each other for ten years before a bizarre chance meeting the week before in a pizza restaurant in central London. This is modern Lebanon to me – a globalised diaspora – rooted largely in memory and roaming, spread to far-flung places: Brasil, Oklahoma, Kansas, Canada, London to name a few.

House of Stone appears to take this fact as its cause. Shadid writes about his attempt to restore his family home. His family is from the same village that my father was born in, Jdeidet Marjayoun and he writes beautifully about the difficulties of life there.

“The availability of electricity dictated everything, regulating the day – when the small, satellite shaped electric heater that I called the Syrian radar functioned, when the three of five working bulbs dangling on a wire from the ceiling cast light, when the water heater scorched so aggressively that steam hissed through the shower head, when the mini-refrigerator kept what little was inside cool.”

There is no denying the deft depiction of the extraordinary characters recruited to his tale and the great rent torn open in him between loyalty to his mission in Lebanon and to his family – “so much of the house was what you might call memories of what I had imagined over many years.” The book belongs in the category of the good memoir – a genre seemingly created by books like The Hare with Amber Eyes, The Music Room, The Snow Geese. 

But one thing nagged at me. Shadid, who later died of an asthma attack escaping Syria, left a young family, a broken marriage, behind in Oklahoma to rebuild his house. Perhaps all of my generation of Marjeyounis are from a broken place, one that cannot be easily restored, one that has been scarred by war and violence that cannot be erased, even if it is plastered over. Shadid recalls how George Farha (my great uncle) would pray for his children each night during the civil war: “Hala in Dubai, Hikmat in Barbados, Rifaat in Switzerland.” Hikmat says: “I believe I am still living because of his prayers.” Perhaps if there is one lesson that I take from dinner with my cousin in London, abstract as it may seem; in 2014 home is not a place; perhaps it never was.

The Editors