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Posts from the ‘Opinion’ Category

Book Club Spy (extended redux): Between the World and Me

Between-the-World-and-MeTa-Nehisi Coates, Between The World and Me

This book has been described as a form of love letter, but it sits in the gut more heavily than one of those halcyon glimpses into someone else’s adoration. There is reverence in Coates’ words, but there is also much controlled, lyrical rage throughout Between The World and Me that fizzes, lingers and grips you. Watching the news and reading about police brutality affecting the black population in America, or being a regular visitor to America will not even vaguely prepare for you this book. An article on tap dance (honestly) in the New Yorker ran through my head while trying to write this (and indeed debating whether I should even try): “This tangle of emotions – who wants to take it on”. Coates would not describe it as a question of desire. Reading his work raises questions of compulsion – or obligation – placed upon you by a writer who has described “the machinery of racism” as “the privilege of being oblivious to questions”.

The novel reads slightly like a padded out essay; unsurprising given that long form journalism is how Coates made his living for years in ‘The Atlantic’, many of his articles are quoted below. The framing device for the book’s structure was his 15-year-old son Samori’s reaction to Michael Brown’s killer being acquitted: “you were young and still believed. You stayed up until 11pm that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying…I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay”. He wants to tell his son that he must find a way “to live within the all of it”, that still no one bears responsibility for the continual degradation of black lives, and that is the reality, despite progress in equal rights. Despite this fatalistic resignation, he repeatedly expresses his desire to “unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape”.

Coates acknowledged this progress in ‘The Atlantic’ in June 2014, in “The case for Reparations”: “The lives of black Americans are better than they were half a century ago. The humiliation of WHITES ONLY signs are gone. Rates of black poverty have decreased. Black teen-pregnancy rates are at record lows – the gap between black and white teen pregnancy rates has shrunk significantly. But such progress rests on a shaky foundation, and fault lines are everywhere”. He goes on to cite the income gap, the disparity in overall household income and higher education disparities between whites and blacks in America today. Between the World and Me is indeed a love letter to his son – this gleams from the pages – but also to education, specifically to reading. Although “Schools did not reveal truths, they concealed them” – Obama has described black shame against educational achievement: “I don’t know who taught them that reading and writing and conjugating your verbs was something white”. Coates’ natural curiosity and encouragement by his family to reject second hand answers gave him the means to escape. He claims not to have been a good student at Howard University (his ‘Mecca’), but read as though he wanted to drink the libraries dry.

Coates distinguishes between race and racism: “we can see the formation of “race” in American law and policy, and also see how formations differ across time and space. So what is “black” in the United States is not “black” in Brazil”. He explores examples of these policies include redlining (“Blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport”), Jim Crow and GI bills. He defines racism as hierarchical “false naming”. The argument itself “is corrupt at its root, and must be confronted there”. Encountering James Baldwin in the Mecca was a Damascene moment for Coates, in “On Being White…and Other Lies”, Baldwin outlines the mistake white people made, in “this debasement and definition of black people, they have debased and defined themselves. And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white. Because they think they are white, they dare not confront the ravage and life of their history”. So, the key is confronting this head on, cutting out the corruption at the root and asking where did this come from.

The term racism being inherently flawed, Coates turns to what can be done: “What is needed is a healing of the American psych and the banishment of white guilt”. He sees white supremacy (a term preferable to racism as it is a super structure rather than a series of personal acts of opinions) as a central organising force in ‘congenitally racist’ American life. He outlined the “progressive approach to policy which directly addressed the effects of white supremacy is simple – talk about class and hope no one notices”. He does not touch on white guilt for long, except to say that “white supremacy is not an invention of white people; white people are an invention of white supremacy”.

He admits in the book to not knowing any white people growing up; everyone in his neighbourhood was afraid: “as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs”. The only incident featuring a white person in the book is one pushing his son in a cinema. He admits to overreacting, partly because a white man springs to the woman’s defence. Did it matter that she was white? Was it more significant that they were in ‘her’ part of town? It seems that her actions towards a child who happened to black were the crux, or it may have been that she was simply rude. In Coates’ definition of the word, she seems to have been Dreaming, and so never had to learn what it is to be afraid.

The concept of what black and white are is in itself much of the problem: “we should not seek a world where the black race and the white race live in harmony, but a world in which the terms black and white have no real political meaning”. Many people who think they are white are not, and the question of what black is is a huge one. Coates wishes to emphasise that those who are mistaken are part of the ‘Dreamers’ – those who do not and will not know the truth of life in America today, and anyone who has bought in the rotten lie is therefore not fully awake and living in the present reality. Coates does not want this Dream projected onto him. Perhaps the most quoted passage of his novel is his pitiless 9/11 passage: “They were not human to me. Black, white or whatever, they were the menaces of nature”. The Dream is innocent, and too much has happened to allow that in Coates’s eyes: he wants the nation to mature and open its eyes (“You must never look away from this”), to acknowledge its collective heritage and to reset the road map in order to truly consider how to live freely.

The nebulous racial lines – if indeed, any can still be drawn – become clearer when it comes to the question of who fears for their personal safety. When it comes to the matter of the black body being hurt, Coates describes the use of his father’s belt used almost prophylactically so that it is he with his hands on his son, rather than a policeman as a matter of course, almost. This is reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and therefore of Medea – albeit at a different point on the scale of violence – where a mother would rather take her children’s lives than allow them to be taken into slavery. It is a way of appropriating that fear, of diverting the cycle of violence (“Either I can beat him, or the police”) rather than breaking it. Racism “as we know it, is basically a product of the slave trade, which is to say the seizure of power”.

Reviewing Between The World And Me in the LRB, Thomas Chatterton Williams asks the question “At what point might an oppressed group contribute – perhaps decisively – to its own plight?” However, Coates does acknowledge that no people have ever liberated themselves through their own efforts. It must be a collective exercise.

What is less clear is what he wants his analysis in this case to achieve – what does he hope for beyond the liberation of his son from fear for his body’s safety? Does he now live in Paris as he believes life as a black American is irredeemable, in his lifetime? He writes that it is because he wants Samori to grow “apart from fear”, though he admits “Home would find us in any language”. On his first trip to Paris, he describes sitting in a public garden for the first time in his life: “I had not even known it to be something I’d want to do”.

Coates has created a song that must be listened to, if only to continue to ask questions. He certainly will.

The Editors

Ulysses between Homer and Dante Alighieri

map-of-herodotus

The three kingdoms of the Divine Comedy are populated by people of different social classes. However, because it is also a pedagogical work, Dante prioritises exchanges with well-known characters, both mythical and real, in order to use them as universal examples.  Ulysses is one of the most prominent of these well-known figures.  So what do we know about him?  The legendary king of Ithaca appears in several classical works, but it is from the Odyssey, the epic poem which tells of his troubled return trip home after the Trojan War, that the collective consciousness learns of those peculiar traits which made him an icon. In this second poem we can barely recognize the warrior of the Iliad, in which he only really plays a marginal role. In the Odyssey, on the other hand, he is presented without the privileges befitting his royal rank, and he is forced to rely solely on his intelligence and cunning in order to survive. The most suitable Homeric adjective is polytropos (πολùτρoπoς), which we can translate as “someone having multiple faces”, or “many-sided”: in other words, someone who is able to face different situations and to adapt in order to survive and succeed. His craftiness and courage, his faith in himself and the innate curiosity driving him to plumb the depths of human understanding, make him a symbol of secular humanity, a kind of Vitruvian Man of literature, someone who is the measure of the creation that surrounds him.

In typical fashion, Dante chooses the person who embodies the highest form of these virtues, and then proceeds to show that without faith they amount to nothing. Which is why I believe that the Florentine author depicts his Ulysses as a catastrophic failure: according to Dante if man is guided by faith he can become a giant: “You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour” (Psalm 8), but when he is alone he is like a reed bent by the wind, to use Pascal’s famous image. In fact, man’s inanity also leads the psalmist to write: what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8 again).

Because in the Bible it is the right hand of God that saves man from death on numerous occasions, Dante is able to link Ulysses’ spectacular fall to his blind faith in himself as a man. This new interpretation was only made possible by a drastic abandonment of the central Homeric tradition, which doesn’t tell us his death, but which predicts it in Book 11 of the Odyssey (as per the famous soothsayer Tiresia) as a death coming in old age, at home and from the sea. This compelled Dante to revive a second and less famous mythological vein, which is mainly attested in Seneca and Pliny the Elder, according to which our hero didn’t return to Ithaca at all but instead passed through the Pillars of Hercules.

In the Inferno, Ulysses tells Virgil and Dante his story from the moment of his departure from Circe, the sorceress who had hosted him for over a year and given him a son, Telegonus. He then continues to tell of how his fondness for his son Telemachus, his deep respect for his elderly father and his love of his wife Penelope (the strongest of human sentiments) could not surpass his burning desire (literally described almost as a fire) to be fully acquainted with man’s vices and virtues, the two poles that embrace the whole complexity of humankind. The search for knowledge is emphasised by recalling all the lands Ulysses passed through, but also by highlighting the old age of the man who has seen it all and who is now facing the ultimate and most coveted challenge, the Pillars of Hercules, the westernmost limit of the world, the crowning glory of a life spent in the pursuit of knowledge. At this point Dante makes his brilliant move: while the Christian hero has an obvious (albeit not simple) choice to make between good and evil, Ulysses, like the other tragic heroes from classical antiquity, has to choose between two evils. The choice is either to obey God by not passing beyond the geographical limits of the world, thereby renouncing knowledge, or to disobey Divine prohibition but to live like a man: both choices lead to punishment. Ulysses’ choice will be the most significant of his entire life, and he wants to remain true to himself and indeed he does. And so, thanks to a refined syncretism, the Pillars of Hercules, near Gibraltar (see map above), become the metaphor for the limits given to man by God. In medieval theological thought, God supplied man with all that was necessary to live, but man had to accept the existence of a mystery he couldn’t understand and which he should not investigate. In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas advised man to restrain his desire to know, even about the good!

Ulysses therefore makes his understandable but calamitous decision: to go beyond human limits. This has often been read as a moment of supreme human dignity, but also reflects a situation well known in the great 5 b.C. Athenian tragedy: hubris (ὕβϱις), where by his arrogance man fails to recognize the distance between his own nature and that of God. As with Greek tragedy, nemesis (νέμεσις), the equalising punishment of the gods, immediately springs into action and casts man down to a position so low  to make him wish he had never been born.

We find similar situations in the Bible, for instance in the book of Genesis, 2, 16-17: “The Lord God gave man this order: ‘You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and bad. From that tree you shall not eat‘”. Of course, this prohibition is the equivalent of that regarding the Pillars of Hercules: a restriction on man’s freedom. But here the prohibition does not have an end in itself because “the moment you eat from it” – the Bible continues – “you are surely doomed to die”. The prohibition aims, then, to maintain a universal equilibrium, we could say a natural one, between divinity and creature, between the highest knowledge of God and those who can’t properly handle that knowledge.

Nevertheless, man is often seduced by the desire to embrace absolute knowledge. In fact in Genesis 3, 4-5, “the serpent said to the woman: ‘You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad.‘” By eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve surrender to hubris and in doing so they lose earthly paradise forever, instead becoming acquainted with strain, pain and death, which may precisely be the knowledge from which God wanted Man to be spared. Ulysses can be read as the exact Dantesque parallel to this biblical episode: he accepts an impossible challenge. Man will always be inadequate in his relationship with God, and Ulysses is presented in the same terms. In fact, when facing his supreme challenge, he is described as an old man, accompanied only by a handful of weak friends and sailing an old ship, a remnant from a formerly glorious fleet, which Dante calls a “log”. In spite of this he refuses to exclude himself from the dream of absolute knowledge, and utters the famous ‘orazion picciola‘. This short speech is one of the best-known passages of Italian literature, a majestic tribute to the classical idea of oratory as the art of persuasion. The ‘orazion picciola‘ states non only Ulysses’ life essence, but also that of the whole of Greek culture:

And then I said: ‘O brothers, ye who now

have through a hundred thousand perils reached

the West, to this so short a waking-time

still left your senses, do not deny yourselves

experience of that world behind the sun

which knows not man! Consider the seed

whence ye have sprung; for ye were not created

to lead the life of stupid animals,

but manliness and knowledge to pursue.’

The Italian hendecasyllable’s musicality gives this passage great emotion and the result is never in doubt: Ulysses persuades his old friends to follow him. As a mark of respect for Ulysses, Dante prolongs his tragedy and as a last tribute to him, for a little time he gives him what he is looking for. For five months, in fact, our hero sails across a hemisphere that no living human had ever seen before, and he sees, just before the end, the incredible view of the mountain of Purgatory, whose enormity is in itself a symbol of divine disproportion relative to man, while the astonishment of the sailors is both amazement at the view and of the inevitable death to come. The eyes of faith, for Dante certainly, should be the only way for man to know God. Indeed, man, by his very nature is unable to see him face to face: in Exodus 3,6 we read “‘I am the God of your father – he continued – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob”. Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God‘. But then comes the moment of retribution: a sudden wind rises from the island, forming a whirlpool, swallowing the ship and its passengers together with their load of unfettered knowledge, thus restoring the equilibrium between man and God.

This is what we can say about Ulysses as a character. But if we analyse this episode within the context of the work as a whole, we can see it also as a clear sign of the high esteem Dante held himself in as a poet. As early as the first Canto, he establishes himself as an enthusiastic follower of Virgil not only as regards the tragic style (the highest form of poetry) but also regarding the prophetic mission carried out through literature. This idea will be reaffirmed later in Paradise 25, when he describes the Divine Comedy as a work “that hath made both Heaven and Earth copartners in its toil”. Again in Inferno 4, when he visits Limbo, a place populated by the unbaptized, he is accepted by the five most celebrated classical poets (Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Lucan) as one of their limited group, and this feels like a sort of official poetic investiture. Later on, in Purgatory 11, he runs through the most refined poets of contemporary (and only recently born) Italian literature and asserts that Guinizzelli’s greatness as a poet has already been surpassed by Cavalcanti’s, and that that of another poet (clearly Dante) is going to leave them both trailing in its wake. With respect to this aspect then, the episode of Ulysses is enlightening.  Just as Virgil, in recounting the conquest of Troy in Book 2 of the Aeneid, is Homer’s direct successor, so Dante feels he is able to carry on from that Latin masterpiece, not only taking up one of its prominent characters, but also incorporating a novel death for Ulysses, and moreover giving it a deeper sense: that enlightened by faith.

Gianfranco Serioli is a teacher of Italian literature, and director of the Divine Comedy summer course in Sale Marasino, Italy – info: http://www.iseolakess.it

Dial M for Mass Market Appeal

Killing-Floor-by-Lee-ChildLee Child is clearly a talented writer. The first three chapters of Killing Floor constitute one of the most strident openings to a novel I can remember. Strident, which is to say, gripping and devoid of nuance.

Then the problems begin. Because Killing Floor is too carefully constructed an artifice to be satisfying. Firstly, the author’s name is not Lee Child. It is Jim Grant. Jim Grant chose his nom de plume because it would put him next to Agatha Christie on the shelves. Good commercial thinking, but unsatisfyingly cynical.

Secondly the booming clarity of Jack Reacher’s internal monologue is a pace that Child is unable to sustain for an entire novel. When compared with an equally forthright opening to a book, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it whithers on the vine.

Thirdly the intricate twists of plot, the Sherlock Holmes like deduction, the neat tying up of loose ends to lay the foundations for the next novel smack of the worst of Hollywood. The base commercialism that great literature manages to avoid, patterns the novel in its paint by numbers crime thriller simplicity. It’s clear what Lee Child has done with Jack Reacher and he sells a lot of books, but it’s not art and it’s not literature any more than the The Hardy Boys or Biggles (though Biggles is great). It reveals nothing about the broader conditions of humanity, except that some people have talent and use it with cynicism and there is a huge market in feeding people entertainment which refuses to challenge them. No doubt the greatest of artists are prone to venality as much if not more than the rest (I remember an anecdote of Mozart in which he was asked what he was thinking when he stood as if in a reverie at the end of a performance regarding the applauding audience and he said “I was counting the house.”) but the lasting impression of Killing Floor is not improved by the cynical aftertaste it leaves or the charmlessness with which it is achieved. In the shadow of other great English popular writers such as the late Terry Pratchett who outsold every other author of the nineties, shifting close to 100 million books, or George MacDonald Fraser who wrote the first Flashman in two weeks on leaving the Royal Navy because he needed the money. Both were strongly and impressively commercial writers who serviced great audiences with their franchises but somehow achieved it with wit, charm and an invention that escapes Lee Child’s cruel and ultimately unsatisfying novel.

He is a great British export success story, for that we should be grateful, and we must certainly be impressed by his commercial performance, but as for his writing, it evades most compliments except, of course, that of purchasing it.

The Editors

Message for Charlie Hebdo

offence noun (UPSET FEELINGS)

upset and hurt or annoyed feelings, often because someone has been rude or shown no respect:

I really didn’t mean (to cause/give) any offence (= did not intend to upset anyone) – I was just stating my opinion.

Do you think he took offence (= was upset) at what I said about his hair?

Three men suffered offence in Paris on Wednesday morning before deciding to attack the offices of a well-known satirical publication, murdering twelve people in the process. Charlie Hebdo was not itself known for indiscriminate violence, or indeed violence of any sort beyond the sharpening of pencils, although some half-wits seem to think they “had it coming”. Now eleven men and one woman are dead as a result of a single, petulant outburst of impotent rage.  They were:

Michel Renaud

Mustapha Ourrad

Elsa Cayat

Frederic Boisseau

Franck Brinsolaro

Ahmed Merabet

Bernard Maris

Philippe Honore

Jean ‘Cabu’ Cabut

Georges Wolinski

Bernard ‘Tignous’ Verlhac

Stephane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier

They join the illustrious group of people who have died rather than succumb to intimidation.

The Editors

The God Argument

 GraylingThe God Argument – A.C. Grayling

Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” Mark Twain

With the carnage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still looming behind a fragile ceasefire, and with ISIS still rampaging their way across northern Iraq, now seems like a good time to talk about atheism. A.C. Grayling’s short book is essentially a step-by-step guide to giving up religion, with absolutely no ground conceded to my kind of wishy-washy agnosticism. Grayling takes us through each of the main arguments for religion before savagely but politely uprooting them and tossing them aside. The second part of the book is then a celebration of humanism, which is the author’s preferred alternative to God.

The book is chiefly memorable for the way in which Grayling goes about his business of dismantling preconceptions regarding religion, basically doing a lot of the intellectual groundwork that most of us can never summon the energy for. A particular favourite of mine is the manner in which he illustrates the nature of proof via Carl Sagan’s story of the invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire – the lesson being that an inability to invalidate a hypothesis is by no means the same as proving it true. The implications of this are twofold. Firstly, that redefining religion to fit modern science smacks of inconsistency. Secondly, that not being able to disprove the existence of something does not make the odds of its actual existence 50-50, as is sometimes assumed when we say we can’t know with absolute certainty that God does not exist. Grayling points out that this is exactly the same as saying we can’t know that fairies, goblins, unicorns or mermaids don’t exist, but we usually reconcile ourselves to the extreme improbability that they actually do.

More important than the powerful logic Grayling deploys in his favour, however, is the fact that the author is clearly motivated by a genuine preoccupation with the effect of religious belief in the world, and not by a proselytising desire just to make sure everyone agrees with him. I say this is important because I think a lot of atheistic thinkers get caught in the proselytising trap, Richard Dawkins being chief among them. This is, of course, not to say that they are necessarily wrong, but that the way in which they put forward their case harks back to a manner of ideological persuasion we might normally associate with religious preaching, not the opposite. In other words, more or less impartial observers of the religious debate, myself included, need to feel that it is more than a frenzied bout of intellectual masturbation – the stakes may be high but I have always preferred Sartre’s approach, which is to say that even absolute certainty of God’s existence wouldn’t deprive you of responsibility over your own actions (i.e. it should make no difference to how you choose to live your life).

Unfortunately, the reality is that organised religion does make a difference, and for the most part it makes a difference in a profoundly negative way, as has been made abundantly clear to everyone over the past few weeks. Grayling is uncompromising in setting out exactly what he finds distasteful about religion, from its fundamentally divisive nature, to the way it perpetuates itself by targeting children for indoctrination. The latter point is one that bears remembering – no one chooses which side of the wall they are born on.

The Editors

Books for prisoners

Books to prisoners

It is a special kind of ignorance that classes reading as a privilege that should be banned. Reading is not a privilege, nor is it a right. It is an act of consciousness. The symbols and the medium need not be letters and paper. Human beings read everything that they look at. Books, newspapers, pictures, faces, eyes, actions, landscapes, patterns of behaviour, groups of individuals, subliminal messages, reading is the act of sensing and interpreting.

Man is by nature a social animal”, says Aristotle, and reading is how we converse with the world, even in silence. Reading is not a drawbridge to be retracted nor can its object be erased. A text, once read, lives on in the mind far longer than the act of reading it. Books are the captured voices of others and they can lead us anywhere we need or wish to go. Why then deprive prisoners of guidance? That is not an act of punishment, nor even of vengeance. To guide the misguided must be one purpose of a justice system.

To those prisoners who are allowed to read, or who seek a book to accompany them in prison as they pass time: two of the best companions you could ask for are a collected works of Shakespeare and a copy of the King James Bible. Both are untempting and intimidating books to many readers on the outside but they are the richest and most rewarding books when read with time. Read them slowly, read them for pleasure. If it is all that is available to you, then you are rich: “Why, nature needs not what thou, gorgeous, wear’st, / Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But for true need – / You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need.” (here).

I can’t imagine how I would react to imprisonment. Not well. Bryan Keenan’s amazing An Evil Cradling dispelled my teenage idea that being kidnapped might be an interesting path to self-discovery. It is tempting, however, to think of the books that could be read, particularly by someone starting reading in earnest for the first time, in prison.

Perhaps one should start with stoic literature. BoethiusConsolation of Philosophy is a book I read at least once a year as a free person. It contains among my favourite lines of literature: “If you seek the help of the surgeon, you must first expose the wound” and I think I would revisit it as often as I could if I were in prison.

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius might also offer solace and a model for survival: “If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you should be bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with your present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which you utter, you will live happy.” Or Fox’s Book of Martyrs, on surviving and internalising persecution: “Before he went to the stake he confessed his adherence to those opinions which Luther held; and, when at it, he smiled, and said, “I have had many storms in this world, but now my vessel will soon be on shore in heaven.” He stood unmoved in the flames, crying out, ‘Jesus, I believe’; and these were the last words he was heard to utter.”

Or perhaps there is more comfort to be had in the literature of imprisonment, exile or disaster providing a kind of commonality of experience. Kafka’s The Trial or Voltaire’s Candide might be my first ports of call (“I am the best man in the world, and yet I have already killed three men, and of these three, two were priests.”). I might attempt Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipeligo, though I have never managed yet, or branch out into the literature of metaphorical imprisonment, Zóla’s L’Oeuvre, in which a young artist is imprisoned by his artistic ambition, Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray or more literally, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Perhaps instead, the literature of escapism would be more enticing, giving life to J M G Le Clézio’s contention that literature is the true travel and opening up worlds real and unreal for the reader to escape into.

Either way, once read, a book can never be taken from you. So a lesson for all of us from the deprivation of literature from prisons is to read as much and as widely as we can, while we can. And for those suffering a ban on reading, perhaps they can take solace in the words of Benjamin Disraeli: “When I want to read a good book, I write one.”

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

Pompeii was born again, Arcadia never died!

The 24th of August 79 A.D. was a catastrophic day for the cities of Pompeii, Ercolano and Stabia, which were all completely destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. This terrible event was accurately recorded by Pliny, still a child at the time, who followed his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who had been appointed by the emperor Titus to coordinate support for the people of the three cities, only to die in the process. The Roman cities were buried under several meters of lava and their existence was forgotten for centuries. This was true until the end of the eighteenth century, when, thanks to the support of the Neapolitan royal family, excavations started and the cities were brought back to life. Nowadays, more than five million people visit Pompeii every year, curious to immerse themselves in the everyday life of a first century roman city.

Arcadia is not exactly a lost city, but rather a remote sensation we keep in a corner of our imagination. On the one hand, it gives us the idea of something far away, lost forever, but on the other it has never really left our subconscious.

Arcadia has always been the poorest region in Greece, but despite this it enjoyed a prominent place in the minds of ancient Greeks. Athens represented eventful life, art, policy, crowded streets, active ports, the home of the most eminent philosophers and men of culture, whilst Sparta, by contrast, was the city of strength, war, and was devoted to ancient moral values. Between these two exemplary cities was Arcadia, a poor land of shepherds with a basic economy, almost representing the lost innocence of humankind. Outdoor life, simple and genuine food, a life dedicated to hard work and the family, obstinately focused on the things we 21st century Europeans would probably like to see more of in our modern lives. But only very few of us are brave enough to choose that life, mainly because we do not want to leave our comfort zone. And yet the Arcadian alternative dwells in our subconscious.

How different our existence is! Life is a fruit that is given to us, and in the very moment we appreciate it, it is taken away from us. It is an unkept promise: you are born, you love your parents and relatives who give you love and teach you what you need to become a man, then they leave you, just as you think they are a fundamental part of your life. You give birth to children who you will later have to leave. You work hard to find your way in the world and after forty or fifty years you see the book of your life close. Before people started believing that life could continue in an afterlife, this represented a tragedy: they thought it a cruel trick of fate.

In the Bible the place of everlasting joy was called earthly Paradise: “Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and he placed there the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made various trees grow that were delightful to look at and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. This famous passage from Genesis provides certain images, which instill in our mind the idea of a serene life now lost forever. The first is God planting a garden: it suggests a period in which God did things in person, which could only be good. The second is the garden, that had been planted in the east, which, by the Middle Ages represented a mythical faraway place, where everything was possible. Third: the garden was fully supplied by God: not only did it produce everything man would need to survive, but it also contained the tree of knowledge and that of life. In that idyllic period, man suffered neither bodily nor spiritual needs. In fact, almost every ancient culture keeps in its collective memory such a place, such a period. For instance, Hesiod, the first known ancient Greek writer, tells us of a Golden Age with more or less the same characteristics as the Bible’s earthly Paradise.

In ancient Greek culture, this lifestyle was ascribed to Arcadia. Simple people, poor but not sad because of it, living according to the season’s rhythm, herding their flocks, and killing just the animals they needed to feed themselves. No old age, no troubles, no illness, no pain nor death but everlasting youth. Shepherds perennially in love with delicate shepherdesses, who dreamt of spending their lives adoring husbands and loving their children. Nature, of course, had a very important part in this world: fresh and clean water brooks, singing birds, sweet-smelling flowers played their part to make possible what modern people seem to have lost forever.

In turn, art could not avoid reflecting such an ancestral sentiment. Except for Hesiod, who describes pastoral life as the best way to live honestly, Theocritus, a poet of the third century B.C. from Sicily, went down in history as the most prominent pastoral writer. After him, the great Virgil followed with two refined poems: The Bucolics, describing the serene existence of shepherds, and The Georgics,portraying the life of farmers. He was requested to write these two poems by emperor Augustus, who wanted to offer his people the ancient, simple, serene lifestyle as an example in opposition to the modern, dissolute Roman habits.

Sticking with poetry, the second half of the sixteenth century was probably the most important in terms of reinforcing this Arcadian dream. Gian Battista Guarini wrote the Pastor Fido, a poem set completely in an ancient pastoral environment. It immediately became a literary success setting off a multitude of imitators throughout Europe. It was even set to music by Haendel and Vivaldi. Let me add that Milton’s L’allegro and Il pensieroso were in turn influenced by Guarini’s poem and skillfully engraved by Blake.

We are not able to visit Arcadia, as we can with Pompeii, but we probably don’t need to, because we have not completely left it.

Some people, in order to escape weekly stress, buy a house in the countryside. Perhaps this is because of a vague memory of that lost life, and an attempt to recreate it.

Gianfranco Serioli is a teacher of medieval and modern Italian literature, and director of the Divine Comedy summer school in Sale Marasino – www.iseolakess.it

Neil Gaiman in conversation with Claire Armistead, Royal Society of Literature, 17th June

They say you should never meet your heroes, and while I didn’t strictly meet Neil Gaiman, I felt as if I did. Maybe because I could actually see the speakers’ facial expressions for the first time in my life, being fairly myopic and therefore the delighted occupant of a front row seat for the occasion.

Anne Chisholm introduced the evening as the biggest ever event for RSL, with 1000 tickets sold. The subject of the talk was ‘Memory, Magic and Survival’ on the ticket, however Gaiman changed survival to time on the evening itself. Maybe to sound less exhausted at this stage of his gruelling tour schedule. He was there to introduce his last latest novel, before inevitably talking about comics, which is certainly why I was there. Claire Armistead, the literary editor of the Guardian, described Neil Gaiman as ‘many writers’. He said he is determined ‘never to pop out of the same hole twice’, crossing genres deliberately. Joe Wright is directing the film, the book was not due to even come out until 2 days after the event, the rights are sold, and the script being developed, such is Gaiman’s clout.

The pair discussed the Guardian webchat curated by Gaiman for readers to contribute to a live online story, as a way of creating a communal story made by hundreds of people. It started with the line: “It wasn’t just the murder, he decided. Everything else seemed to have conspired to ruin his day as well. Even the cat.” The response was so enthusiastic that the webchat was the only bit of the Guardian website that didn’t crash during Gaiman’s one day takeover. He has since started similar threads on Twitter, as part of what seems to be an ongoing push to build confidence in his readers’ self-confidence. His ‘Make Good Art’ graduation speech earlier this year was an online sensation.

Gaiman described his most recent novel – The Ocean at the End of the Lane – as accidental. It started as a short story for his wife as he missed her while she was abroad, a way of showing her the world he grew up in.  The story grew from novelette to novella to a novel, although he only discovered this after typing it up.

What first sounded like a nostalgic Sussex story with autobiographical elements is actually a fairly dark tale that started from a revelation from Gaiman’s father, who found the family lodger dead in his Mini at their end of the lane; he had committed suicide after amassing gambling debts.  The narrator may be seven, but this is not a children’s book. The suicide was driven by money, and the monsters in the novel are heralded by the act of giving of money, and all through the eyes of a child who doesn’t really understand the place of it. This is a book for adults who have forgotten the powerlessness of childhood. Gaiman said he wanted to get away from ‘weird magic’ in writing this book, but of course this is what ultimately emerged with the silver shilling extracted from the throat of the narrator on waking from a nightmare.  There are fingers in eye sockets, a blurred line between dreaming and waking, the boundaries (or lack thereof) of myth and the feel of a shifting Leviathan of a story being coaxed off the ocean floor.

In a way that both revealed the extent of his influences (he read everything from a young age including Pony Club books) and explained the power of naming in the book, Gaiman referred to Mary Poppins as a Chthonic god to illustrate the power channelled by only ever referring to someone by their name and surname together. Gaiman professed his lifelong love of myth as a preference for darkness, rather than as a sugar coating fundamental truths. They are, after all, stories of deception and butchery. And to offset his description of this as his darkest and most disturbing book, he went on to plug his latest children’s book Fortunately the Milk, which is so wonderfully silly it includes a time travelling stegosaurus.

The amount of material he produces in a good year across genre and media is phenomenal.  And yet, he described the anxiety he experienced in the Sandman graphic novel era that ‘it’ would all go away, that he wouldn’t be able to write. This only stopped the year after he won the Newbery medal. Now the Sandman 25th anniversary edition is due to come out, and Gaiman is starting to feel the weight of 30 million readers. In this latest story, drawn by J.H.Williams, he will explain why Morpheus is exhausted at the start of Preludes and Nocturnes, and hence so easily captured. He announced this, along with his plan to write a short story for the Marquis de Carabas from Neverwhere.  For lovers of the comic book, this is Wimbledon and the Olympics combined. After he cited Swamp Thing: American Gothic as his favourite comic book arc, you cannot find a copy anywhere. His statement that ‘comics are a medium people mistake for a genre’  is also deeply pertinent for those who are trying to encourage the comic explosion to continue for as long as possible. In closing, he made a joke about colourblind Daaleks, and in the process delighted a thousand comic book fans in one heroic swoop.

#GaimanLDN

@RSLiterature

 The Editors

Colonsay Book Festival (26-28 April 2013)

This tiny festival on an island in the Hebrides measuring eight miles long is fairly new. My father is head of the Catering Committee for the festival (he baked the bread for lunch and my mother made the soup. My sister-in-law made sandwiches. I ate all three.) On the afternoon of the second day there were three speakers on the stage of the Community Village Hall, the talks are summarized below in the order in which they appeared.

Candia McWilliam has spent a sizeable part of her life on Colonsay, and it was here that she wrote some of What To Look For In Winter: A Memoir In Blindness. I have written out below the extract she read aloud, as it is the ideal introduction to our Why Write series we hope to launch soon, and because it is both brilliant and true.

“I write because the work is real. It involves concentration and a study of life, which is all we have. I write because I want to help my parents out of their graves, she wherever she is, and he in the wall of Scottish heroes. I write because I cannot often express things face to face, being at once (or I was; we’ll see about that) performative and shy. I write because I don’t think most of my children are interested at the moment at what may interest them after I am dead, the half of themselves that will have been buried with their mother, but that lives in them. I write because I want to write more well. And better. And better. I write because I read, and they are my patriotisms and loyalties, reading and writing. I write because it is the act of glorification and gratitude to which I am most suited to take up my apprenticeship. I write in order to keep abreast of the swim of words and to hold the world – whose glory is, with its sadness, that it will not be held.

I write because I wake up, I fall short, I sleep, I wake.

I write because the world and all I love in it is forcing itself upon my attention and to pay attention is everything.

I write because words change one another when they lie together. Because words change things. They make people see.

Words can mend what is broken, or render it more interesting than mended. They can make people attend to one another.” (pp.479-480, Vintage Paperback)

Candia read aloud in an English sounding voice – she explained to the audience that though she is Scottish she does not sound it – and with such dancing humour that a story of serious weight is placed lightly in your hand, to savour, rather than clamped heavily down upon your brow.  In a game that circumvented game-playing, but simply celebrated the observation of semiotics and indeed Scotland, Candia read a short story with a message: the first letter of each paragraph spelled out a message for the keen listener. This would have tickled Nabokov and was enjoyable for us, though it left me feeling a little blunt of ear.

Maggie Fergusson then proceeded to introduce the subject of her biography, George Mackay Brown: A Life with images of the Orkney islands and readings from his poetry and prose.  Mackay Brown was a beautiful poet and a painfully shy man. Maggie’s self-deprecating account of how the book wrote itself after she was handed some love letters in Edinburgh Library does not give her meticulous research and lucid style enough credit. The account of her travelling to meet him at a time of year when Orkney is bathed in perpetual light, and a walk on the beach with Mackay Brown when his telling a story from his childhood was his way of signalling his approval for her to be his biographer was delivered in a quiet and moving way.

Here is a work for poets –
Carve the runes
Then be content with silence.

(from Following a Lark)

Finally, Ian Rankin gave a world premiere reading from his latest Rebus novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible which promises the usual dose of irony-laden exchanges in damp Edinburgh corners and Rebus providing his wheezy brand of revenge on behalf of abducted and mutilated women everywhere. Fans may be rubbing their paws together over around the world – my father is a quiet but dedicated fan – and Rankin created many more in the Village Hall that afternoon with his even delivery and jaunty responses to the audience. One example:

“Mr Rankin, I’ve not read your novels, but now that I’ve heard you speak I might start.” To which he responded “Well, that’s not really a question, but thanks.”

It is for exchanges like these we were lead to understand how unsettling authors must find literary events. Rankin pointed out that for the majority of the year, writers lead isolated lives with conversations held with their characters, before being yanked out of solitude and plunged into a forum where any question – however personal – can be lobbed at you without warning. The ability to take these and turn them into something that the entire audience can take home and turn over in their minds – to glean from and chip at should they wish to, that add to these books that were already of value to us, but now come with hidden extra parts, treasures exhumed for us kindly by the architect – is a gift these three showed the assembled company in Colonsay. I hope we all try to use it, and to remember at the next lecture or event, that this is how it can be.

Please email submissions on Why Write to editors@dontreadtoofast.com

http://www.colonsay.org.uk/

http://www.colonsaybookfestival.org.uk/

The Editors