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The Literature of Oppression: Part 3

There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”


Ray Bradbury makes a valid point: if you’re not going to read a book, you may as well burn it.  And yet, we should probably realise that this is disingenuous – the Ayatollah Khomeini didn’t burn as many copies of The Satanic Verses as he could simply because he knew he’d never get round to reading it himself.  No, if there is a ‘criminal’ element of book burning, it lies in denying a book to other people.  It is a crime that has been committed around the world and throughout history with stunning regularity, from the multiple destruction of the libraries at Alexandria, to the raids carried out earlier this year on the manuscripts of Timbuktu.  There is no doubting that in all of these incidents, the burning of books was undertaken and encouraged, at least to some extent, in order to prevent a wider population from being influenced by the ideas contained in them.  As a result, book burning is a classic sign of despotism, whether religious, political or otherwise.

It is strange, therefore, to encounter a head of state bearing all the hallmarks of a dictator who nonetheless champions reading as a virtue to be encouraged.  In a speech in 2009, Hugo Chávez told the assembled masses to “read, read, read, read.”  This was not, as some may suspect, a cunning exercise in reverse psychology on a national scale, no, Chávez meant it.  In fact, he meant it so genuinely that he introduced a “Revolutionary Reading Plan”, with a prescribed reading list containing not just Marx and Lenin, but also Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allen Poe – two writers who almost certainly featured prominently in the Nazi bonfire that was part of the “Action Against the Un-German Spirit”.  Furthermore, it is universally recognised that Chávez himself was well read, and in any case he frequently participated in book clubs and writers’ meetings.  At first glance, this is difficult to square with the undemocratic style of his leadership, and in particular his repression of freedom of speech in Venezuela.

Upon closer inspection of the “Revolutionary Reading Plan”, however, it starts to become clear that this was not an attempt to help people develop their own independence of thought and personal taste.  For example, part of the Plan involved sending colour-coordinated book squadrons out onto the streets to “help” people with their choice of literature.  Of these, the most feared presumably was the black squadron, assigned to the fourth and final stage in the reader’s education, whose stated purpose was “the sharing of textual tools for cultural resistance against the ideological cultural attacks of the imperialists”.  With alarming speed we have descended from the wonderful prose of Don Quixote (Chávez was a big fan), to the clichéd slogans peddled by almost every marxist dictatorship to have graced the planet.

So what do the writers of South America make of this? Nobel-prize winner Mario Vargas-Llosa has been fairly forthright: “Hugo Chávez represents the worst of caudillismo” (the original caudillo being General Franco, himself no stranger to the destruction of literature, and, tragically, writers).  Gabriel García Márquez, who knew Chávez, is more circumspect, recognising at the outset of his rise to power the powerful contradictions of his character and ideological outlook:

One to whom inveterate luck has granted the chance to save his country.  The other, an illusionist, who could go down in history as just another despot.”

The Editors

The Literature of Oppression: Part 2

Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler

Hitler has started to show his face again of late.  In Athens last year, two protesters staged a street-play on the occasion of the visit of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.  The play, performed in the shadow of the Acropolis, comprised one short act, and no dialogue.  Its thesis was simple enough: Germany (and Dr Merkel) were to be blamed for the economic depression in Greece.  One of the actors, a woman, wore a toga and the grimacing mask of Tragedy on her face.  The other player, a man, wore the dun-coloured dress-uniform of the Sturmabteilung — the “brownshirts” of Germany in the 1930s — and a red arm-band with a white circle and a black swastika.  He had strapped an ample bosom to his chest, which strained at the buttons of his jacket, and (with scant regard for the apparent femininity of his part) he wore a black toothbrush moustache.  A crowd had gathered in the street, and the play began.  It did not last long.  The male protagonist (who was, of course, an unnatural cross of Hitler and Merkel) rent and tore at the clothes of the woman (who was, of course, Greece personified).  Then he raped her of all innocence and honour.

At about the same time, across the sea from Greece, Hitler’s face could be seen in Cairo.  There, the new Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, was being lampooned for assuming legislative power.  Protestors carried placards of Morsi with an unkempt fringe of black hair, combed down across his forehead, and the same toothbrush moustache.  He was being likened to that most infamous of dictators.

But even before 2012, Hitler could be seen across Cairo.  In Tahrir Square, long before it became the battlefield of the Egyptian revolution, young boys would sit on stools with newspapers and magazines for sale, spread out at their feet.  They sold books too — cheap paperbacks falling apart at the spines.  They either sold classics — The Arabian Nights, or the works of Naguib Mahfouz — or else non-fiction that was wildly nationalist, anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish.  This latter category comprised military histories of the Yom Kippur War; biographies of Nasser and Sadat; that debunked anti-Jewish forgery called The Protocols of the Elders of Sion; and, of course, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

* * *

I first tried to read Mein Kampf — and almost everyone who tries will fail to read this book — when I was at school.  The Library had bought a new translation, which stood defiantly on the table of new acquisitions, propped up among improving volumes of Kierkegaard and a dog-eared work of Freud.  Like a goose-stepping, “Heil Hitlering Obersturmführer of the Waffen SS, jack-boots gleaming with polish, eyes glistening with the wild zeal of Nazism, the book seemed to march off the Library table, out from among the decaying ranks of bourgeois intellectuals.

I told myself that I ought to read Mein Kampf to bolster my understanding of Germany in the 1930s — the topic of my History class that term — but then I was not a diligent student and had never read around my subject before.  No, deep down, I think I must have thought it was rebellious: that borrowing Mein Kampf from the Library might trigger a visit by the School Counsellor, or a letter to my parents, or a black mark against my record and a red flag during vetting if I were ever tapped to join the Secret Intelligence Service.  A black mark and a red flag.  The book did have a good cover — half red, with white lettering, and a black and white photograph of Hitler at a mass rally, or riding in an open-top Daimler.  Maybe that was why I read the book.  Perhaps I had fallen under the spell cast by Hitler and his architect, Albert Speer; the simple magic of good order, and symbolism, and primal colours.  It was a spell under which so many Germans had fallen.


When, at last, I opened the book, I found a scathing introduction written by the translator.  The poor chap was trying hard to distance himself from the monstrous Hitler and to pin the awful style of the writing on the German original.  Sentences, he said, ran on for whole pages, and narrative would blend with dialogue and philosophy without warning or punctuation.  It seemed as though Mein Kampf had never been edited, and had been compiled in no better order than if the portfolio had been dropped and the pages re-arranged as they fell.

At the time, I thought he was probably right, and my efforts to read Mein Kampf were largely thwarted by the impenetrable style.  Anyway, there was no alarm triggered when I took out the book from the Library; and it was far too bulky to carry around with me to show off my subversive reading habits.  And yet, I now think that that translator was perhaps too harsh.  For there are occasional passages of quality — and by ‘quality’ I mean good style, not good content.

Christopher Hitchens was partial to one passage, which he “treasured, in the clotted pages of Mein Kampf, above all others” and which “always [sent him] into a reverie”.  To quote Hitchens’ summary of the episode (from his review in Vanity Fair (February 1999) of Ian Kershaw’s Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris):

“As a young, resentful loser hanging around in the ­Austro-Hungarian empire, Adolf Hitler was forced to seek employment on a construction site. He thought the labor beneath him, and he very much resented being pressed to join a union. The lunchtime chat of his fellows was even more repugnant to his nature: ‘Some of the men went into the nearest public house,’ while ‘I drank my bottle of milk and ate my piece of bread somewhere on the side.’ And when they talked politics, everything was rejected: the nation as an invention of the ‘capitalistic’ classes—how often was I to hear just this word!—; the country as the instrument of the bourgeoisie for the exploitation of the workers; the authority of the law as a means of suppressing the proletariat; the school as an institution for bringing up slaves as well as slave-drivers; religion as a means for doping the people destined for exploitation; morality as a sign of sheepish patience, and so forth. Nothing remained that was not dragged down into the dirt and the filth of the lowest depths.

“It was this, said the young Hitler, which first persuaded him to study ‘book after book, pamphlet after pamphlet,’ and to begin fighting back for race and nation and decency. ‘I argued till finally one day they applied the one means that wins the easiest victory over reason: terror and force. Some of the leaders of the other side gave me the choice of either leaving the job at once or of being thrown from the scaffold.'”

I think Hitchens is right: this is good writing, or at least good story-telling.  The simplicity of the lesson is Aesop-like — terror and force lead to victory over reason; the juxtaposition of the laughable working-class debates, fuelled by unhealthy drinking, against Hitler’s own superior intellect, slicing through these irrational arguments with a purity of thought born of his Spartan diet; and of course the wonderful double-meaning of “being thrown from the scaffold” — both the scaffolding at the construction site where Hitler was working, but also the scaffold of public execution, the guillotine and the headsman.  It makes us think of the French Revolution, of la Terreur, and of the use of “terror and force” to achieve political victory which was to become Hitler’s mark.

Then there is the Dickensian dream-sequence, that infamous passage of Mein Kampf in which (we are to believe) Hitler came to the realisation of his anti-Semitism.  To quote:

“At the time of this bitter struggle, between calm reason and the sentiments in which I had been brought up, the lessons that I learned on the streets of Vienna rendered me invaluable assistance. A time came when I no longer passed blindly along the street of the mighty city, as I had done in the early days, but now with my eyes open not only to study the buildings but also the human beings.

“Once, when passing through the inner City, I suddenly encountered a phenomenon in a long caftan and wearing black side-locks. My first thought was: Is this a Jew? They certainly did not have this appearance in Linz. I watched the man stealthily and cautiously; but the longer I gazed at the strange countenance and examined it feature by feature, the more the question shaped itself in my brain: Is this a German?”

As I read this, I cannot help but think of Eugene Wrayburn’s night-time wanderings through London in Our Mutual Friend, and of the descriptions of Fagin (a Jew) in Oliver Twist (particularly: “As he glided stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved: crawling forth, by night, in search of some rich offal for a meal.”)

To be clear, I vehemently oppose the anti-Semitism of Mein Kampf.  Yet I think Hitler has written this passage well.  I would go so far as to suggest that this is pure invention, that Hitler never saw a Jew in a long caftan that led him to codify his doctrine of anti-Semitism.  Rather, for the propaganda that Mein Kampf surely is, Hitler wanted to create a strange, disconcerting, nightmarish scene.  This would help bend the reader to Hitler’s argument.  Like a dream (or a nightmare) in the midst of empty sleep, the scene is set within a fierce mental struggle, and in between blindness and open eyes; the sight of the Jew is a “phenomenon”; we walk with Hitler through the mysterious streets of the old city of Vienna (I always think that it must be night-time); we see the strangeness of the Jew, his unfamiliar visage and costume; and Hitler himself acts oddly, voyeuristically, watching “stealthily and cautiously” from the shadows.  In short, I think Hitler invented this passage to present the archetypal villain of Mein Kampf — the Jew — much as Dickens did Fagin in Oliver Twist.  And for all the hateful purpose of this passage, I think that Hitler has written it well.

So, we may loathe Mein Kampf for its vitriolic content, but I think that we are perhaps too hasty to reject this book on literary grounds.  Mein Kampf is typically associated with phrases like “an insight into Evil” and “the workings of a madman’s mind”.  Such epithets may be true — but the writing itself is not always bad.  Nor should we be surprised, with hindsight, that Hitler could write well to achieve his goals.  We know that Hitler was (in his own way) a fantastically successful orator.  On the other hand, we do not know who wrote those rousing speeches, that made matrons swoon and brought grown men to their knees in tears.  Nor can we say for certain who coined the slogans and the one-liners that codified Nazism and made so many Germans embrace its tenets.  Mein Kampf, however, is unquestionably Hitler’s writing.  It is rough, in sore need of editing, and written in a pompous style.  We should also remember that it was written by a dosshouse misfit, a cashiered corporal sitting in prison in Bavaria after joining a handful of washed-up old generals on the fringe of a failed Putsch.  How much more surprising, then, that the book should have these flashes of quality.

* * *

A few years ago, I was walking through Tahrir Square.  Then, there was no talk of revolution in Egypt.  The square was empty of tents and protesters, just a busy roundabout with tramps asleep on the grass and the newspaper-sellers sitting on their stools.  Stopping to buy a paper, I also picked up one of the copies of Mein Kampf (called Kifahy in Arabic).  It cost me 2 Egyptian pounds, or 20 pence.  I sat down in a café and opened the book again.  Five or six years had passed since I had tried to read it at school.  This time, there was no apologetic introduction.  The cover was simple and plain, with a swastika and a blurred photograph of Hitler.  The ink smudged and the thin paper almost tore as I turned the page.


I read the first few lines and thought about them.  Yes — Hitler may have been mad, and he was certainly a monster.  Written from a Munich gaol cell by a man with no apparent future, his belief in his own destiny should by all rights be called delusion.  It would be ten years until Hitler came to power, and fifteen until he united Germany with Austria, completing the Anschluss long hoped for by many of his compatriots.  Knowing that in hindsight, knowing that Hitler’s dream was to come true, the opening of Mein Kampf is chilling.  But it is also a very good opening to a book:

“It has turned out fortunate for me to-day that destiny appointed Braunau-on-the-Inn to be my birthplace. For that little town is situated just on the frontier between those two States the reunion of which seems, at least to us of the younger generation, a task to which we should devote our lives and in the pursuit of which every possible means should be employed.”

George Richards is a writer covering Middle Eastern affairs.  He recently travelled overland from Istanbul to Alexandria, researching the state of Christianity during the Arab Spring.

The Literature of Oppression: Part 1

I know many books which have bored their readers, but I know of none which has done real evil.

So said Voltaire in the eighteenth century.  Since then, the world has seen the publication of Mao’s Little Red Book, Qaddafi’s Green Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf, three books which might be considered as a sort of grotesque canon of totalitarian literature, covering as they do both extremes of the political spectrum, with rogue state oppression somewhere in the middle.  All three were published in the twentieth century, the century in which totalitarian ideology somehow managed to evade reason and irreversibly scar the face of human history.

“[Our purpose is] to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, and that they help the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind.”

The above quotation from Mao’s Little Red Book provides a singularly perverse view of the function of literature and art in society.  It is not often that books are seen as weapons that can be wielded by the forces of oppression, but unfortunately art is an inherently malleable thing, only as benign and constructive as the artist chooses it to be.  As such, we can hardly be surprised if on occasion literature is co-opted by the forces of darkness and used as a tool to further the totalitarian policies of oppressive regimes, all the more so since propaganda is a key element of any dictatorship.  Ultimately, there is no denying that books have been complicit to a certain extent in some of the worst atrocities committed by human beings.

And yet the hideous number of deaths caused by the regimes of twentieth century tyrants does not necessarily refute Voltaire’s point; a book in and of itself can do no harm, unless the reader is of a particularly frail and sensitive disposition.  Of course, that a book is unable to commit genocide of its own volition does not settle the debate over the potential harm caused by books either, in vaguely the same way that a rifle being unable to commit murder on its own does not settle the debate over US gun control (see the laughable simplicity of the NRA’s slogan “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”).  One could argue that Mein Kampf, which is still banned in numerous countries, including Austria and Russia, continues to incite racially aggravated violence across the world, from Greece to Colombia.

Interestingly, Mein Kampf was never banned in Germany, but its publication has been restricted since the end of the Second World War by the state of Bavaria, which owns the copyright to it.  This copyright expires in 2016, seventy years after Hitler’s death, and Bavaria plans to publish an annotated edition of the book before this happens, in an attempt to educate new readers and make it “commercially unattractive” to publish in the future.  The latter may be optimistic, but perhaps this is the best way to proceed.  After all, to ban books, however offensive or inflammatory the content, is to fall into the totalitarian’s trap.  In view of this, the Literature of Oppression series aims to look at some of the worst books ever published by oppressive regimes, not, we hope you will agree, in an attempt to stoke anger or resentment, but in order better to understand the influence they continue to exert, whether or not that influence is still enforced down the barrel of a gun.

The Editors

Unpopular Writers 5: D H Lawrence

The author of the infamous Lady Chatterley’s Lover is not regularly mentioned outside academic circles for anything else. The groundbreaking trial and endless film adaptations have kept in within a shared frame of cultural reference, whereas his numerous other works have garnered less attention. The question then emerges as to whether this interring of Lawrence’s work is deserved, or if there remains a rich seam of prose being neglected when it should populate bedside tables and syllabuses.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must be honest about having experienced more intense moments of annoyance with Lawrence than almost any other writer beyond the pulpy butchers of sensationalist crack-lit. The only way of truly illustrating the frustration the reader suffers from the inconsistency of tone, contradictory dialogue and bizarre use of exclamation is to include an extract from his short story, The Wintry Peacock; the premise being a love letter from an Elise of Belgium to farmer Alfred, which is then intercepted by his wife back at home, who makes the narrator translate it for her. The two men meet at the end, and discuss the peacock who roams the countryside and suspicion:

“’Why?’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you wring that b—- peacock’s neck-that b—- Joey?

”Why?’ I said. ‘What for?”

I hate the brute,’ he said. ‘I had a shot at him–‘

I laughed. He stood and mused.

‘Poor little Elise,’ he murmured.

‘Was she small–petite?’ I asked. He jerked up his head.

‘No,’ he said. ‘Rather tall.’

‘Taller than your wife, I suppose.’

Again he looked into my eyes. And then once more he went into a loud burst of laughter that made the still, snow-deserted valley clap again.

‘God, it’s a knockout!’ he said, thoroughly amused. Then he stood at ease, one foot out, his hands in his breeches pockets, in front of him, his head thrown back, a handsome figure of a man.

‘But I’ll do that blasted Joey in–‘ he mused.

I ran down the hill, shouting with laughter.”

Ha ha! Infidelity! Killing things! Hurrah for being so attractive and vital! At moments like this you may quail and think, this author is deservedly unpopular and long may he remain so. It is almost enough to make you throw the book across the room. However, Sons and Lovers did more than redeem Lawrence’s name on first (and second) reading. While he became so tired of the work that he allowed Edward Garnett to cut about a hundred pages from the text, what remains contains passages of moving natural description, such as Gertrude Morel making her way through the Nottinghamshire countryside: 

“She went over the sheep bridge and across a corner of the meadow to the cricket ground. The meadows seemed one space of ripe, evening light, with the distant mill-race. She sat on a seat under the alders in the cricket-ground, and fronted the evening before her, level and solid, spread the big green cricket-field, like the bed of a sea of light. Children played in the blush shadow of the pavilion. Many rooks, high up, came cawing home across the softly-woven sky. They stooped in a long curve down into the golden glow, concentrating, cawing, wheeling, like black flakes on a slow vortex, over a tree-clump that made a dark boss among the pasture.”

Her neat, indomitable figure confronting a tapestry sky in the gloaming, framed by the treeline and cricket field, creates an enduringly positive image to sustain the reader through the grittier sections depicting the collier lifestyle. Lawrence was unparalleled when it came to depicting rural life, and of course, sex. Mrs Morel’s son Paul and his lover Clara cling to each other in this passage: “It was as if he, and the stars, and the dark herbage, and Clara were licked up in an immense tongue of flame, which tore onwards and upwards. Everything rushed along in living beside him; everything was still, perfect in itself, along with him. This wonderful stillness in each thing in itself, while it was being borne along in a very ecstasy of living, seemed the highest point of bliss.

And Clara knew this held him to her, so she trusted altogether to the passion. It, however, failed her very often. They did not often reach again the height of that once when the peewits had called. Gradually, some mechanical effort spoilt their loving, or, when they had splendid moments, they had them separately, and not so satisfactorily. So often he seemed merely to be running on alone; often they realised it had been a failure, not what they had wanted. He left her, knowing THAT evening had only made a little split between them. Their loving grew more mechanical, without the marvellous glamour.” For a shared experience to go from the sublime to the slightly disappointing in her case in such a wonderfully understated way in surely a testament to Lawrence’s skill. The topic was contentious enough at the time, and to depict the woman’s feeling of isolation (despite her admirable faith in Paul’s ability) as he experiences pleasure alone, only for the encounter to be described as mechanical is almost startlingly honest, and human. Of course, he then goes on to despise her as the gleam is lost for him despite the blame being equally shared, arguably. Either way, to be writing in this truthful a vein in 1913 was astonishing, and hardly obscene by contemporary example. At the time of writing I have not quite finished Women in Love, but it is already clear that the author continued to create thoughtful, passionate female protagonists (who are wonderfully dressed in emerald green stockings and drooping hats) who will continually take risks and waste no time in sparing each other’s feelings when it comes to the vicissitudes of the opposite sex. I hope a few of you will read it too. Peacocks aside, he is worth pursuing and not just for the purple prose.

The Editors

A book in the long grass (on books and cover)

I have always enjoyed browsing the shelves of a library or a bookshop. I am quite covetous about the physicality of books, I eye them and think about them in the way that some people drool about sausages and steaks or cheeses and wines. Since I was a child I have held this acquisitive relationship with books. There are some bookshops that I cannot go to because the shop is too well judged as a honey trap for the materialist reader. John Sandoe is filled with examples of the cunning conceits of deceptive restraint employed by booksellers to engage the juices of my raw materialism. A quiet, naturally lit, dusty, wooden, cramped shop stacked high with £30 hard back books, some if not many of which are available for free on my Kindle and which are most difficult to resist.

Books are often judged by people’s reactions to them from the outside. If you want to know if you will like a book, it is perfectly natural to turn to a review of it to see how it has been received. The article will likely be a reflection of the reviewer’s own experience of reading the book,  flecked through with anecdotes of childhood and personal interest and hopefully, if skillfully written, flecked through with the essence of the book itself. A good reviewer might lift the review into a piece of writing of itself, something to be enjoyed without recourse to the underlying text if needs be. But ultimately, as a reader looking for a book, you are looking for reflections of the book in the reactions of others. So it is with their covers.

That is why the cover is both the browsing reader’s friend and a mercurial and beguiling enemy. It is no surprise to me that I lusted after a copy of Death Comes to Pemberley when it was first released. The hardback edition of it was one of the most delightful books I have seen in a shop in years. I was on the cusp of buying it several times on the basis of the cover alone. When I finally read a review of it, I discovered that it was a murder mystery set in the D’Arcey household (of Pride and Prejudice). Even the beautiful yellow cover papers and the gentle, matt-touch of the dust jacket with its extravagant black script is not enough to lure me into a new circle of hell reserved in my mind for post-Austen crime novels. I thought I was in love, I was wrong.

The cover of my copy of the The Tin Drum on the other hand, once the horrible dust jacket has been removed, is one of the most delightful objects in my house. A thick rectangle with cream paper bound in red card with black writing stamped on the spine, it looks as edible as a thick slice of victoria sponge cake and its reading makes up in fibre and delight for all the empty calories its exterior, though edible, might suggest. The physical fact of The Tin Drum is only asserted by the copy on my shelf – a work of metaphysical genius, expressed physically to a passing viewer of my shelves as a work of physical beauty. The physical genius of Death Comes to Pemberley is that of a siren, calling me as a reader onto the rocks of its evil beauty.

It was my intention to use this article as a guide for readers looking for books in bookshops. I admit that it is not. “Look at the way the publisher has responded to the book in the choices it has made,” I wanted to say. Instead, I have ranged across just two of my little fictional, dalliances of the last two years. What I have discovered in my commercial promiscuity amongst the many booksellers of London, and can give to you for free, is what you the reader and I the writer already knew: there is no formula to follow in choosing books but to browse and browse and browse the shelves – you will soon come to recognise the books that were made for you, that call to you, that read the way that you wish them to be read but new books come to us by many means and not least of all among them, our curiosity.

The Editors

The interpretation of beaches

I do not think beaches are a good place to read books. The  combination of salt, water and sand are bad for the books in question, worse for a Kindle or an iPad. The sun is bright and hurts the eyes and the act of shading them from its glare with the book is distracting from the book itself. Sun loungers do not support the back enough in any but the least comfortable and most stupid looking positions to be at all workable.

What beaches are really for is sand castles and waves and rock-pools – themselves all genres of their own kind of novel, constantly reworked, shifting, reinterpreted by the passage of time, constructed as much by the people that inhabit the beach as a novel is by the minds that read it playing out the words of the book. Do not go to the beach in search of books, and do not take books to the beach either if you can avoid it. The spirit of the beach and the tales it tells are more open, more wounded, more sapping than those of the novel – more lavish, more ancient.

A cliff is a richer source of narrative than a book, so is sand and so is that old, white tufted woman, the sea. The beach is made up of nothing except stories: how the layers of landscape came to place themselves where they did, the end of traces of animals fossilised into eternity – their bodies impressions only like the names of the great name-stayers of history, preserved in all but their true form, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Herodotus – and perhaps more important that which was not preserved. Who knows what it was to take dinner with those men, or to shake their hands: the warmth or coarseness of their grip, the true colour of their cheeks, the smell of their armpits, the shape of their feet. Who knows those things in the living, extra-sensory way that we know everything about someone when we meet them by instinct; things we later cannot describe, things we wish we did not know. Though great men of literature might be preserved as fossils it is only ever in the igneous rock of volcano-man which is paper and which in man’s perverse playground game – paper, scissors, stone – somehow trumps the stone. Who knows what it would have been to see or to hold any of the shapes preserved in cliffs. Certainly not he who does not read the cliff with his mind’s eyes open.

Beaches are not good places to read books. The reading mind if it is a true reader does not need paper and ink and words but will read anything and everything it passes with a critical and practical gaze, dissecting its narrative and characters to form an extrapolated view: it will read the paving stones in the street, the walls of a house, the flickering lamplight of a quiet street at night, it will read the words which have not been written and note them and above all it will be curious, it will be critical. What it does with this knowledge – if it chooses to write it or not – is that mind’s own choice. Nonetheless, the lesson of beaches is that great writers must first be great readers since writing is nothing but reading the world aloud for others.

The Editors

Video Killed the Bookmark II

The problem with this topic is that the number of decent book to film adaptations –  since classics such as The Big Sleep and Lean’s Great Expectations were being made more than 50 years ago –  can be counted with alarming rapidity. After Visconti’s version of The Leopard with the wonderfully hirsute Burt Lancaster, the top three have been:

The Silence of the Lambs: this can be explained by any of a number of quotes – not the most obvious:

Hannibal Lecter: First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?
Clarice Starling: He kills women…

The clash of Thomas Harris’s splendid Hannibal with the compelling (but mostly taupe ) Clarice as she states the obvious gives rise to a tense dynamic that propels them across serial killers, the Goldberg Variations, fine wine and of course, her childhood.

No Country for Old Men led to the appearance of one of celluloid’s most malevolent figures: Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh swinging a customized stun gun as he slaughters his deadpan way through West Texas after Josh Brolin and the cash perfectly captures the grim relentlessness of McCarthy’s prose that similarly keeps you turning the pages, though you know the news is going to get much, much worse before it gets better.

Apocalypse Now must have been an absolute bastard to adapt. The murky novella, Heart of Darkness, manages to convey the chaos and residual fear Willard experiences as he ventures into the Congo; the fact that Coppola illustrates this with a pared back script and fractious cast set in Vietnam is seriously impressive. Whether you agree that bald fat Brando cuts it or not, if the loss of control at the last American outpost before they get to Kurtz doesn’t get to you, the surfing certainly should.

Graphic novels were broached by the Editors in the first instalment of this discussion, although of course there is a wealth of material to choose from, and the production line does not appear to be slowing. The production companies have long ago optioned the more obvious series for adaption to the screen, and the result is now TV series for the lesser known characters of Marvel and DC as well as mega-Marvel blockbusters.

It has been a tumultuous transition for comic fans. The original X-Men films can now be blotted out by the masterful First Class with the likes of Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence reclaiming the original story with authority. The fact that Wolverine: Origins was so woefully rubbish does not diminish the beast himself, or apparently Hugh Jackman’s bankability. Will.I.Am as Ghost was truly the nadir for the Marvel team.

Or it was until the Green Lantern appeared. The only good thing to come out of it was Ryan Reynolds meeting Blake Lively: who doesn’t like when two attractive people get together to flash some teeth? But the film went straight onto the midden heap alongside Daredevil, both Punishers, Hulks, Fantastic Fours and all initial three Spiderman films – shame for Evil Dead fans that Raimi lacked the sand to make a proper adaptation. No one wants to see James Franco as a broken Harry Gordon sobbing in an ugly fashion at sunrise. Raimi did do one vitally important thing of introducing the swooping, elated shots of Parker swinging along the grid of New York, our stomachs follow the trajectory of the camera in a great way and you can almost forget that Tobey Maguire just isn’t funny enough to play this self-deprecating hero. Without these, we may not have had the version of The Amazing Spiderman last summer that showed how entertaining the story is. Majestic casting with Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May were the perfect support for Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone to bashfully set up the original love story for Spiderman. Marvel films are currently on a role with The Avengers, Thor, the Iron Man Franchise (to a lesser extent Captain America). They are huge, funny, stunning and not yet bloated. Long may it last.

Which brings me to DC. Batman remains the most complex and enthralling character ever to feature in a comic book. A lone playboy, devoted only to his butler Alfred and the various permutations of Robin, there is no permanent love interest or nemesis, and no deviation from his goal: to be whatever Gotham needs to survive, or in good years, improve. Bruce Wayne is often depicted as a massive, scarred figure who appears almost ludicrous in a tuxedo. His calcified joints and scar tissue accumulated over years of letting the city take its frustration out on him is referenced in a great scene in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises when the news that Batman has no cartilage left in his knee does nothing to impede the plot. Phew.  Michael Keaton started what Christian Bale finished, although sadly Val Kilmer and George Clooney did some damage on the way with a lot of help from Jim Carrey and the wonderfully ridiculous ex-governor of California. Anne Hathaway absolutely smashed it as Catwoman to the extent that her other crimes against literature (One Day and Les Miserables, I’m not even starting with her Jane Austen impression) may be forgiven.

People performing extraordinary feats of strength and agility against gloriously unambiguous baddies in this dimension, or the next, will always have appeal. There is now aesthetic satisfaction as well as escapism to be had, and mutants no longer need be hammy. The momentum is such that there is no need for a rueful grin after delivering lines like: “How dare you attack the son of Odin!” as the audience knows a fight scene is coming, and it’s going to be ludicrous, violent, fast, and wonderful.

Next time: Will Dark Horse facilitate a third Hellboy film? Will Man of Steel and Kick-Ass 2 be any good? (Yes) And of course, Iron Man 3 as of April 14th.

The Editors

Video killed the bookmark

The thinking seems to be with a lot of book-to-film adaptations that a popular book will make a popular film.  I suppose it must be true that if you have a guaranteed pool of fans who will turn up to watch the film just out of interest because they loved the book, then you’re probably some way to covering your costs.  Predictably, this often leads to disappointment, and the frequent claims that a film has in some way despoiled the original text.  This is interesting for a number of reasons, but primarily because of the implicit assumption by the reader of the book that because the film is guaranteed a decent narrative (the one it stole from the book), most of the hard work is done for it, the only further ingredient required being a heavy dose of cinematic embellishment, probably in the form of CGI – see Life of Pi and The Hobbit as contemporary examples.

Graphic novel adaptations are the best examples of this because they don’t just lift the narrative; in some cases they deliver a frame-by-frame rendering of the entire book.  This is supposed to be extremely clever, and directors will talk proudly of how they feel they have captured the essence of the original and should therefore be exempt from the criticism of die-hard readers.  In fact, it seems to be the case that a lot of film productions these days enlist the services of the book’s author to help with this process.  This sort of attitude almost always ends in disaster.  Take the Watchmen film – I have yet to meet a reader (not even necessarily fan) of the original who enjoyed the film, and with good reason, because the film is terrible, despite being a literal adaptation of the graphic novel, both visually and audibly (the soundtrack is chosen to match specific lines from the book).

Although the copy-cat approach is most obviously flawed in the case of graphic novels, I would argue that a large proportion of all book-to-film adaptations fail because of overly literal interpretations of the original.  This was certainly the case with the first film rendition of John Fowles’ The Magus, which earned itself this scathing put-down from Woody Allen:

“If I had my life to live over again, I would want everything exactly the same with the exception of seeing the film version of The Magus.”

However, I would argue that The Magus was successfully re-adapted to make The Game several decades later.  Although this connection is not made explicit and the setting and even plot is different in each, the themes are almost identical, as is the central narrative of jaded-bachelor-made-good.  Apparently John Fowles even considered suing the makers of The Game for plagiarism.  For the purpose of this post, though, it serves as evidence of the premise that the more distinct and original the interpretation of the book, the more likely it is for the film to be any good.  Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is a great re-imagining of Shakespeare, as is Hook of Peter Pan.  It seems obvious to say but this makes sense given that a work of art, be it film, book or anything else, requires a degree of creativity, and signs that the artist has put something of himself into his work.  Slavishly tracing a book into a screen may make sense from a box-office perspective, but it will almost never lead to anything worth seeing.

The Editors

At journey’s beginning

“He is a chilly Londoner who does not endow his stations with some personality, and extend to them, however shyly, the emotions of fear and love.” – E.M. Forster, Howards End

My first experience of the pleasure of reading in train stations came as you might imagine at the beginning of a journey. Marylebone Station was the doorway to London for me as a young person, the portal through which I passed as an adolescent from the rolling quiet of the Chiltern hills into the bustling adolescence of Oxford street, Maida Vale and the charmless pretension of the South West. Despite being the busy confluence of these two realms of the head, the quiet wait beside the flower stall, browsing in WH Smiths or reading on a bench was always much improved by the gurgling traffic of people and voices throwing up a busy, anonymous hum in which to focus on a slow and arduous task like deciphering a book.

After Marylebone came St Pancras’ refurbished splendour, Victoria’s eminent and sturdy hustle, and Paddington’s bizzarre and claustrophobic length. Clapham Junction has some of the best coffee in London but Kings Cross is good for no reader – saved (perhaps) by its proximity to the British Library.

But what  is most apparent – following a short and necessarily haphazard consideration of the benefits of London’s train stations for the concentration required to read and read well – other than the suitability of the train station for reading is that an important part of that same aptitude of the train station evaporates when you go there to read but are not waiting for a train.

The cord of concentration drawn out by the need to be in a certain place at a certain time – the pricking of ears – that is necessary for catching trains is also just right for reading: too much concentration is anxious and ennervated – fidgety – too little concentration is lazy, dangerous and likely to leave you in ignorance or taint you with tardiness or both.

Waiting for a train in a train station offers the perfect combination of concentration, relaxation, ephemerality and memorialisation. You will not forget that it was outside the Paul coffee shop in Marylebone that Kafka’s K was first executed, or in Le Pain Quotidien in St Pancras that Pierre Bezhukov tied a bear to a policeman in War and Peace and threw them together into the Moskva or that it was beside Delice de France in Victoria that Myrtle’s nose was first broken by Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. The books create the memories of course – and to their writers the credit – but the world is so much brighter when stretched along a modest rod of apprehension and few activities benefit more from this, and the meditative bustle of a crowd, than sitting down and reading a book.

The Editors

Literary resolutions 2013

To read as many titles published by the Persephone Press as possible. Neglected, often but not exclusively female, writers resurrected in elegant gray covers, they so rarely miss the target and are worth every penny.

To subscribe to the New York Review of Books – they provide a fresh take on writers the UK does not cover, as our broadsheets relentlessly poach off each other from the small pool of authors found to be universally acceptable, or at the very least commercially viable.

To attend, and report on, more literary festivals, especially in Scotland. In April Ian Rankin and John Banville are reading at the Colonsay Literary Festival (an island in the Hebrides with a population of 126). Expect several Compton Mackenzie references when one of our editors reports.

To finally complete The Man Without Qualities. This may have to wait until the summer.

To review more novels published in the last decade.

To buy a proper bookshelf.

To spend more time/money in London bookshops.

The Editors