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Book Club Spy Abroad Part Two

vivEdinburgh Book Festival: Viv Albertine interviewed by Ian Rankin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Editors

Logicomix 2: the fine line between insanity and genius


logicomix2

“Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Following on from last week’s post on Logicomix, it occurs to me that I failed to deal with one of the key themes of the graphic novel: the relationship between logic and madness. The authors openly make a big deal out of this (i.e. they discuss it as characters in the book), mainly because there seems to have been a disproportionately high incidence of mental illness among the great logicians. As noted by Gian-Carlo Rota:

It cannot be a complete coincidence that several outstanding logicians of the twentieth century found shelter in asylums at some point in their lives: Cantor, Zermelo, Gödel and Post are some.”

The purported link between insanity and genius is, of course, a well-trodden theme in popular culture; we need only think of Russell Crowe’s portrayal of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, or of Dustin Hoffman in Rainman. As a result, the ‘mad genius’ trope does set alarm bells ringing, particularly because the causative connection between mental illness and the work of logicians has been persuasively challenged (see, for example, this blog post). This raises the question of the extent to which the mad genius cliché is really just used to ostracise or at least stigmatise part of the intellectual community. After all, it is much more comfortable for people generally if high intelligence and the study of complex mathematics is confined to a category of the population with personality disorders.

Notwithstanding the above, the idea that many great logicians were driven insane by an obsessive dedication to their work does make for a compelling narrative. In many ways, madness represents the polar opposite or obverse of the coherent framework these thinkers were trying to achieve. To this extent, the fear of insanity must have been very real. In Logicomix, Bertrand Russell is the vehicle for expressing this fear, and he is shown as tormented not only by his encounters with mad logicians, but also by the knowledge that his family has a history of mental illness. And yet, Russell is also presented as the most human of the thinkers engaged in the quest for foundational mathematics. He fervently protested against what he saw as the madness of the First World War, had numerous passionate relationships with women, and was involved in several radical experiments in education. In this way, Russell becomes a sort of human conduit to the netherworld of foundational mathematics, a twentieth century Virgil tasked with guiding the reader towards an understanding of what the quest was really all about.

Interestingly, the narrative is framed as a talk given by Russell at an American university entitled “The Role of Logic in Human Affairs”. Moreover, the talk is given on 4 September 1939, the day the UK declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland. As a result, Russell is confronted at the gates of the university by a crowd of anti-war protesters advocating that the USA play no part in the escalating European conflict. Russell invites the protesters to hear the lecture he is due to give, noting that “I will be speaking about reason, in its highest form: logic!” Of course, in introducing his lecture audience to the foundational quest for mathematics he does the same for the humble reader, thus acting as a guide both within and outside the text. In this way, Russell becomes a narrative symbol for accessibility, which is surely the overriding objective of the book as a whole. Of all the ways to be introduced to the work of the great twentieth century logicians, Logicomix as a graphic novel must be the most approachable.

The Editors

Logicomix and the quest for a quest

Logicomix_coverLogicomix: An Epic Search for Truth – Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou

Logicomix is a graphic novel, no less, that sets out to tell the story of the foundational quest for mathematics. The superhero in question is Bertrand Russell, the British mathematician cum philosopher whose life we follow from austere upbringing to his role as one of the protagonists in the attempt to root the whole of mathematics in a logical framework (more on which below). The attempt to portray this quest in graphic novel form is itself, of course, a highly ambitious project, and the authors reflect this by building their own artistic quest into the narrative. In this way, we are presented with two parallel quests (or a quest within a quest): the foundational quest in mathematics, on the one hand, and the attempt to tell the story of that quest in a 300-page comic, on the other. When I started reading I found this format both slightly irritating and slightly patronising, but actually it works very well as a means not only of showing the difficulty of navigating an artistic project on this scale (involving at least five major players), but also of defusing the tension created by the inevitable liberties that the authors take with some of the events they depict.

The foundational quest in mathematics, for those who like myself had no idea that such a quest even existed (it is apparently also known as the foundational crisis in mathematics), was the concerted effort to find a rigorous logical and philosophical basis for mathematics. The quest started towards the end of the nineteenth century with the growing awareness of so-called “foundational issues”, including inconsistencies between the main branches of mathematics. The goal of finding a complete and consistent set of mathematical axioms from which everything in mathematics can be derived is also known as Hilbert’s programme, after the logician David Hilbert, who identified it in his famous list of problems in mathematics.

Bertrand Russell joined the quest after becoming frustrated with what he saw as unproved assumptions underpinning the study of mathematics. In 1900, he attended the Congress of Philosophy in Paris where he was introduced to the work of Giuseppe Peano, who was busy developing Georg Cantor’s principles of set theory. Russell’s personal attempt to achieve the Holy Grail of foundational mathematics is reflected in the enormous Principia Mathematica, which he co-authored with Alfred North Whitehead and which was eventually published in 1910. Unfortunately for both of them, and for foundational mathematics as a school of thought, Kurt Gödel’s two incompleteness theorems of 1931 proved that for every set of mathematical axioms, there are mathematical statements whose truth cannot be derived from the system itself. The presentation of the two theorems led another great mathematician, John von Neumann, to declare: “it’s all over.”

The rise and fall of foundational mathematics, and the consequences for those involved, is really at the heart of Logicomix, and the authors struggle to find the best way of portraying this in narrative form. The main point of difference between Doxiadis and Papadimitriou is over the issue of whether or not to depict the quest as essentially tragic. Broadly speaking, Doxiadis (a novelist) thinks that it must be seen as a tragedy, whilst Papadimitriou (a computer scientist) disagrees, pointing to the importance of the work of these mathematical crusaders in leading to the development of computer science:

Follow the ‘quest’ for ten more years…and you get a brand-new, triumphant finale…with the creation of the computer, which is the ‘quest’s’ real hero! Your problem is, simply, that you see it as a story of people!

As Papadimitriou notes above, the issue is really about whether the quest is seen in personal or impersonal terms. For Russell, the quest in its purest sense was a failure, even if he did live to see his work and that of other logicians inspire Alan Turing’s prototype computer, the theoretical “machine”. Papadimitriou, on the other hand, takes a wider (more contentious) view of events and, understandably perhaps as a professor of computer science, sees the computer as humanity’s great hope for freedom and democracy. To this extent, Russell’s failure was part of the “greater good”. I’m naturally inclined to side with Doxiadis on this one, probably because as a reader of novels I’m drawn to the human aspect of the narrative, and Bertrand Russell makes for a fascinating protagonist. However, the way the schism is ultimately reconciled via a dress rehearsal of Aeschylus’ Oresteia is cunningly staged, and ties in well with the Athenian backdrop. Having said that, perhaps more could have been made of the human/non-human divide, particularly because the limits of mathematics and by extension of human reasoning seem to have led indirectly to the ‘shadow’ humanity that is the world of computing that we have become so accustomed to. After all, without Turing and von Neumann this computer, let alone this online blog, would almost certainly never have come into being. [Ed: I’ve now been advised that this is a whimsical historical counterfactual that doesn’t stand up to rigorous philosophical scrutiny – apologies.]

Finally, it would be wrong to write anything about Logicomix without mentioning the stunning artwork. The two artists, Alecos Papadatos and Annie di Donna, do a fantastic job of recreating scenes from Russell’s life and more generally from the history of mathematics. I was also struck by the depictions of modern-day Athens, which is shown basking under a perpetually clear-blue summer sky. Even when Papadimitriou notes at one stage how much the city has changed in recent years, it still seems like an ideal place from which to write/draw a graphic novel. Inevitably, thinking of Greece nowadays immediately conjures images of queues outside banks and Alexis Tsipras sweating as he attempts to negotiate another bailout package with troika bureaucrats. However trite it may seem though, Logicomix reminded me of the enormous intellectual and artistic debt the rest of the world owes the country.

The Editors

Book Club Spy: Do No Harm

Do No HarmDo No Harm – Henry Marsh

After a considerable hiatus, we reconvened to discuss this autobiographical account of neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s career. The book is essentially a series of episodes spanning several decades of practise, and the most immediately disconcerting thing about a fairly unsettling book all round is Marsh’s tone. He veers between brutal honesty, peevish rebellion and didactic pomposity, and everywhere in between. The idea of an egotistical surgeon is as entrenched as our acknowledgement of the job as fairly technical and demanding: on Radio 4 on 30th June, he described himself as “jolly clever”, whilst at the same time being keen to debunk the idea of the surgeon as a solo “Michelangelo genius”.

He partially dispels the latter notion with his description of his entrance into the medical profession, which would be impossible now. He is quick to describe himself as middle class, but the story of him meeting one old boy and discussing fly fishing in order to gain a place at medical school (despite only two science GCSEs) suggests he is rather grander than that.

However, there are moments when he confirms every assumption surrounding the medical profession I have ever had, especially regarding his personal relationships, about which to be fair he is very discreet. I felt deeply sorry for his first wife – about whom he respectfully mentions very little besides the fact that his work contributed to the breakdown of the marriage – but his few explosions of temper/ego in the book are all compared to his younger episodes and found paltry by comparison, so he must have been a terror in the 90s. He refers to the nervous breakdown he had as a young man – necessitating a year out from Oxford – as silly. He glossed over it on the radio as he does on family matters in his book – as long as he is calling the shots on which episodes of his life to expose he is far more detailed, just very selective, as is his right.

Marsh claims the idea of surgeons needing to have steady hands is a myth, but the idea of an inexperienced wobbler operating on you or a loved one is not going to inspire many with confidence. Everyone is keen on training new doctors but no one wants to be the one experimented on, as it were, especially his story of a man being paralysed when a normally able, confident trainee snipped a vital nerve in his spine. The description of that white thread flopping where it is not meant to be is utterly desolate. It is one of the reasons Marsh hates training junior doctors.

He is not sentimental about his patients: he is gleeful when an outpatient has recovered sufficiently to say to him: “I hope I never see you again.” There is no Grey’s Anatomy schmaltz here. He claimed on the radio never to have had his mind changed by a patient – occasionally he has advised against operating in order to prevent spinning someone’s painful life out and has clearly expressed his views on avoiding a painful end for patients and families. He would, however, encourage patients to get second opinions on riskier surgeries – this is the culture elsewhere and he claims that in this country there is too much of a tendency to defer to a medical opinion rather than question it.

He has experienced surgery in Iran and Ukraine on several occasions and so is qualified to make some comparison. One reader questioned his motives for going to Ukraine to perform surgeries: was it because these extreme, neglected cases were interesting to him, and a coup if he pulled them off (he is much less accountable there if he doesn’t) rather than doing something genuinely altruistic? Another quibble was his account of bringing second hand medical equipment from England to perform these surgeries, as if everything provided for Ukrainians was second best. The ‘better than nothing argument’ is never sexy. He bought said kit with his own money. The patients he saw would certainly have suffered more without him, so on balance it seems to have been a good thing. The same sceptic questioned whether he should go back to Ukraine having retired to operate. Again, less than ideal to know an elderly gent is operating, but I would choose one of the most accomplished brain surgeons in the UK over none at all, personally.

His parting, reedy comment regarding his expertise on Radio 4 was that he finds neurosurgery crude. It is particularly interesting that he compares it to butchery when the practise is comared to the complexity of the brain, which no one completely understands. The book opens with his painfully vivid description of an exposed brain, with its jelly-like surface encased in silvery strands like a spider’s web. Brain surgery is only every chopping bits out of the brain – he is especially good at describing tumours: soft, uckable-out ones and hard ones that have to be collapsed in on themselves. Herein may lie the tension inherent in the profession at which he is so clearly proficient: he likes making things and admiring in them in their entirety, yet for thirty years he has had to remove and break things, never adding to the whole of the brain. Perhaps as a result, his retirement plans are to make things: furniture and houses while taking care of his own health. At the age of 65 he claims: “I am taking nothing for granted”. Except perhaps the publishing world, as he is planning a second book.

The Editors

Gormenghast

GormenghastGormenghast – Mervyn Peake

This massive tale of a remote, gothic earldom is comprised of three novels published between 1946 and 1959. Peake was unable to realize his plans for further novels after his death from Parkinson’s at the age of 57. His pellucid language darts in and out of the dark, hulking place he concocted in Gormenghast, which of course is a living presence in itself.

Gormenghast has been ruled by the family Groan always; it is a vast castle, isolated from the outside world by inhospitable regions on every side. As Peake was an official war artist (and had been present at the opening of some of the Nazi concentration camps), it has been suggested that the partially abandoned and jagged skyline of Gormenghast is intended to be reminiscent of London or Dresden post-war.

Outside the castle, clustered under the northern walls, are mud dwellings inhabited by the “Bright Carvers”, whose only purpose is to carve elaborate objects out of wood and present them to the Earl. The Outer Dwellers bear children of unearthly radiance, which fades rapidly on reaching adulthood. The castle’s highest tower, the Tower of Flints, is inhabited by huge numbers of death-owls. The realm’s inhabitants know “every bay, inlet and headland of the great stone island of the Groans, of its sheer cliffs, of its crumbling outcrops, the broken line of the towers”. Their lives revolve around the ruling family of Groan. Martial force, economy and religion appear to have no place here, yet this still does not make for simplicity, because of course there are still people in it.

The melancholy Earl Sepulchre loses his mind after his library is burnt, and sacrifices himself to the death-owls, believing he is one of them. His Countess – a magnificent bulwark redhead with locks like “burning snakes”– only talks to birds, is followed by a cloud of white smoke and yet hides a keen strategic brain. Their wild daughter Fuschia always wears a dress of “flaming red” and their son Titus is not keen on taking on their father’s mantle of observing endless, onerous ritual. And this is approximately seven percent of the plot.

The Groan way of life is threatened by a boy from the kitchens, named Steerpike. He worms his way up the ranks of the servants by murdering and manipulating at every opportunity. He knows every rule and every nook, and is quite simply a wonderful creation. He is revolting (“His body gave the appearance of being malformed, but it would be difficult to say exactly what gave it this gibbous quality”) and highly intelligent. His rise to power is psychopathic (declaring “Equality is everything” whilst pulling the legs off a beetle) fuelled by the fundamental urge to destroy the castle. With his bulging brow and red eyes, capering over the corpses he creates, you do not clamour for his victory but there is a chasm in the novel at his departure.

Notable dynamics are between the obese, sweating cook Swelter (first name Abiatha) and his murderous, reciprocated hatred for the top servant Flay. Flay is an emaciated tall devotee who sleeps outside his master’s door and who lives to preserve the stones of Gomernghast. Second to their dance macabre is Doctor Prunesquallor’s verbal torture of his egomaniac sister Irma (played brilliantly by Fiona Shaw in the 2002 BBC production). She is:

Vain as a child, thin as a stork’s leg, and, in her black glasses, blind as an owl in daylight. She misses her footing on the social ladder at least three times a week, only to start climbing again, wriggling her pelvis all the while, She clasps her dead, white hands beneath her chin in the high hope of hiding the flatness of her chest.

The romantic sub-plot concerning the vapid Irma Prunesquallor and Gormenghast’s Headmaster Bellgrove is welcome relief from Steerpike’s machinations. The established professional academics, the schoolmasters of Gormenghast, are parodies of Oxbridge learning; pedantic, futile, vulgar, lazy and grotesque. Bellgrove is gently dismissed thus:

Two things demand transparency when it comes to this epic. Firstly, that because it is an epic, it is of course immense. Perservere by all means, and here is the second thing: the third book is extremely strange. At the end of the second, Titus flees the castle for the wider world beyond Gormenghast Mountain. The third book follows Titus as he finds a futuristic world of industrialists and advanced technology – with strong steampunk overtones. The plot for this one is utterly bonkers, but suffice it to say that Peake includes some fairly indulgent love scenes, and Titus learns that he does not need to live in the shadow of Gormenghast. Peake’s humour and original illustrations help you along the way. This is a book to read over a holiday, when it does not matter if the way is long, and when you can succumb to the intensely detailed world he created, and follow Flay into the dark.

The Editors

Justice for Thomas Cromwell

JUSTICE “Law & Literature” event – 11 February 2015, Great Hall, Middle Temple, London

Three months agCromwello, JUSTICE hosted their third event in what seems to be the increasingly popular “Law & Literature” series, and surely there was no better venue than the Great Hall of Middle Temple for Hilary Mantel to read from her new, as yet unfinished novel, The Mirror and The Light, the third in the trilogy featuring Thomas Cromwell as its protagonist. Up to this point in the series it was noticeable that JUSTICE had carefully selected their authors based on some sort of affinity with the law and, understandably, justice. The first event featured Julian Barnes discussing his novel Arthur & George, which revolves around a well-known miscarriage of justice, and that talk was followed by another given by Robert Harris on An Officer and A Spy, also about a notorious miscarriage of justice (l’affaire Dreyfus). Although the theme of righting wrongs was not so immediately obvious with Mantel’s trilogy of Tudor-age tomes, all doubt was cast aside at the entry to the event, where the title of the reading was unveiled as “Justice for Thomas Cromwell”, slightly giving away the plot of the third instalment in the process. Of course, Cromwell himself was also a lawyer, among many other things it seems, if we are to believe Mantel’s retelling of his life and times as one of Henry VIII’s closest consiglieri.

Mantel’s is certainly not what you would call a booming voice, and the size of the venue meant that the audience had to lean forward as one to catch everything she said. Again, perhaps given the high proportion of lawyers in attendance, she was quick to point to the legal mechanics underpinning the history of the novels: England’s break from Rome was about “jurisdiction not ideology”. In other words, the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church was not about a disagreement over religious doctrine, but rather about sovereignty and the right to self-determination. In that sense, certainly, it could be said to anticipate by half a millennium the current political tussle over the Human Rights Act/European Court of Human Rights, which also seems to have little to do with legal philosophy and everything to do with perceived foreign interventionism and the fact that politicians never like to have their power challenged. I suspect that the organisers of the event at JUSTICE may have made that connection before inviting Mantel to be a speaker.

Mantel said she was less interested in the formalities of history and power than she was in the behind-the-scenes wrangling that actually leads to agreements being reached between kings and countries. To this extent, her interpretation of Cromwell is as the ultimate manipulator of events (almost like a slightly more benign 16th century version of Frank Underwood), whose pragmatism stands in marked contrast to the ivory tower intellectualism of Thomas More. In Mantel’s world, less gets done in the great halls of power than in its courtyards, corridors and kitchens; one would imagine that little has changed over the ages in this regard. However, it is these interstitial spaces between what we know as history that Mantel has made herself master of. It reminds me of something Julian Barnes once wrote about his aversion to famous dates; he said he was less interested in 1492, for example, than 1493 – i.e. what happened when Columbus got back to Europe and took all the credit for finding the new world? The answer is that things continued very much as they had been before, except that the man who actually first sighted America wound up as a gunrunner in north Africa.

I think it is Mantel’s eye for detail and nuance, her ability to humanise historical characters by revealing both their strengths and their weaknesses, that accounts to a large extent for the incredible success of her novels. However, it is also her immense skill at filling in the void between what we think we know actually happened at the time. To this extent, I pity historians of the period who must be unable to read Mantel’s novels without a considerably heftier degree of scepticism.

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

The Frozen North

the expedition bea uusmaThe Expedition – by Bea Uusma

A Swedish doctor who has been obsessed for over fifteen years with the story – known to all Swedes – of the doomed attempt to reach by the North Pole by hot air balloon, has written her own account. She describes her attempts to venture out to the White Island (where the ballooner’s bones were found) four times only to turn back as the ice had never thawed enough to allow the ice breaker ship through. Usma returns to her cabin to watch the frozen North, and quiets her disappointment by taking the reader meticulously through the facts.

Three young engineers boarded their hot air balloon in Stockholm, 1987, totally unprepared for the demands of such a journey: their donning of monogrammed woollen stockings was not an encouraging sign. They thought it would take six days by air, having inflated the balloon by dissolving iron filings with liquid sulphuric acid and loading the basket down with port and champagne, plus more essential stores for several years. The balloon started to leak after a few days, and came down without incident but very far off course. They started to walk, dragging hugely overloaded sleds, against the direction of the flow of the ice floes. It took them days to realize that they were barely managing to stand still, let along gain ground, shedding ballast as they trudged.

Perhaps one of the saddest sentences in the recovered diaries – which extend from 11 July 1987 to 3 Oct 1987 – was that “the homing pigeons are all dead.” That, and their consumption of the champagne they had dragged for miles while they withered with cold and hunger. Once the diaries were recovered, the fiancée of the now deceased Nils Strindberg had the singularly strange experience of being informed that he had died – when she had suspected as much and therefore been married to someone else for decades – and was told his last words were addressed to her. Her name was Anna Albertina Constantin Charlier – a name which, Usma informs us, “means hydrogen balloon in French.”

They survived for almost four months on White Island, where their bodies were not found for thirty years. When they were found, it was by accident. At the time, there was no conclusive evidence with the technology then available, as to the cause of death. The bodies were then cremated, destroying any chance of later study. Usma was desperate to return to the site in order to search for some clue, as she was tired of reading theories about trichinosis and death due to an excess of vitamin E in eating polar bear and seal liver. She is wonderfully open about her obsessive attitude, and the book is written in the most lucid, detailed fashion without succumbing to opaque fact or passages moaning about the fragility of human life on the frozen wastes. It is also rather beautiful, with wonderful photographs and excellent formatting.

Those who are susceptible to the language of endless horizons, harsh conditions and impossible courage (in other words, the Scots) tend to be suckers for this kind of book. I have not enjoyed a book about ice so much since Francis Spufford’s Ice and the English Imagination.  For those that need to find out more, Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage is a free exhibition at the British Library until April 19th.  Next week: how to make your own pemmican.

The Editors

Review of the Year 2014

Fiction: Part 1

Welcome to Don’t Read Too Fast’s review of the year 2014.

For those who have yet to experience our yearly extravaganza, our approach is not to give a list of the best books published this year, but rather to share some of the best of what we’ve actually managed to read, whether 21st century offerings or tomes from the Dark Ages. With that said, please sit back and enjoy the first instalment.

Hannah Joll

The Dig, by Cynan Jones

This is very short and very good by a fairly new writer, I think. The length and intensity of language (like Ted Hughes or Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist collection his ear is poetic and rough at the same time e.g. describing a badger’s nose hanging from ‘a sock of skin’). It’s about badger baiting but also farming, briefly. The physical descriptions, (knowingly) brilliant attention to detail, and its address to grief make the book tender as well as frightening.

The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi

I’d looked at this book on other people’s shelves and skipped over it for years (also vaguely mixed it up with Italo Calvino). The whole thing is great but a story like ‘Iron’ I’d recommend to anyone, anytime and feel confident. It’s about friendship and bear meat as a euphemism for experience. ‘Nitrogen’, a story about the author sifting through chicken shit with his new wife on their honeymoon to try and synthesise the factor that makes the better post-War lipsticks stay on is also tip top. He’s so thoughtful and excited, it’s good to read.

Alexander Starritt

Naples ’44, by Norman Lewis

I’m pleased to say I’ve read lots of good books this year, but the best I think is Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44. Lewis was a population liaison officer in the War and for this book has basically written up his diary, taking out the boring bits. It is still in the form of entries a page or two long, and each of them is fantastical. Naples seems only half-real, only half-European, starving, oriental, in thrall to sex and superstition. Lewis reports that the Neapolitans raided the aquarium for food, sparing only a baby manatee they could not bring themselves to kill; it lived a few short weeks more before the American commander in chief demanded it for his table. A prince comes to Lewis to find a position for his sister at a military brothel. The populace anxiously awaits the annual liquefaction of a vial of San Gennaro’s blood. The volcano erupts. The mafia seize control. The warped and the monstrous gather in caves. Each diary entry is the most astonishing short story you’ve ever read.

Olivia Hanson

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I’ve never read such a long book that is so compelling. A well-written page-turner! I have now totally forgiven Donna for The Little Friend on this basis. (Eds: we agree)

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

This, plus The Corrections, are two of my favourite novels ever. Beautiful turns of phrase and highly believable characters. Perfect reflections of the human condition.

The Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Beautifully written, one of Fitzgerald’s best. If only it were complete!

Tender Shoots, by Paul Morand

A jewel-like collection of short stories, set in Paris at the turn of the century. Such a find.

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst

Wonderfully written, sympathetic narrator, startling insight into 80’s life for gay people.

World War Z, by Max Brooks

What a revelation.

Imogen Lloyd

Innocence, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Chosen for the scene with the tailor and all the other bits I wanted to underline and remember forever but was too greedy to.

A Girl is Half Formed Thing, by Eimar McBride

Because once I found a rhythm, it became the most ferocious and intimate thing.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

I got there in the end. Because every scene felt intricately painted (like those tiny Dutch rooms ), not just the characters but their surroundings, as if she’d been spying on them inhabit that world before she started writing, and that richness and made all the tricksy twists and turns easier to navigate.

There but for the, by Ali Smith

It was a bit like if all the best, weirdest characters from legendary sitcoms have been told to hang out, and the master of ceremonies is an unassuming genius who has never watched TV and has no clue who they are. I loved it so much but can’t really explain why!

This list seems a bit sexist now, I did read men too but they didn’t cut the mustard this time.

The Men and Women of Middlemarch: Part 1

middlemarch

I at least have so much to do in unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.”

George Eliot’s Middlemarch, first published serially in 1871-1872, is a work of almost unrivalled complexity set in the Great British Countryside.  AS Byatt has suggested that the title is both a nod to the geography of the novel, and a reference to the first lines of Dante’s Inferno: “In mezzo cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva scura” [“In the middle of the road of our life / I found myself in a dark wood”].  Certainly, the main characters are all beset at various stages in the novel by the obstacles life hurls at them.

Middlemarch was famously the conflation of two separate narratives the author was working on simultaneously: the first, a study of provincial society revolving around the character of Dr Lydgate; the second, a short story entitled “Miss Brooke”, with Dorothea Brooke occupying centre stage.  The resulting dual-protagonist structure of Middlemarch has been a source of confusion for readers and critics ever since, doubtlessly exacerbated by the fact that Eliot did not contrive to have her two main characters end up romantically entwined.  However, to describe Middlemarch in terms of two parallel stories would also be simplistic, there being a huge number of other characters whose separate entanglements are also central to the overall makeup of the novel.  In fact, it has often been noted that the underlying metaphor of the book is that of “the web”, holding the various strands together in an intricately woven arrangement.

Besides Dorothea Brooke and Dr Lydgate, much can be made of Bulstrode the morally dubious banker, Mary Garth the sensible daughter of the local land agent, Ladislaw the principled outsider, and even Mr Brooke the delusional would-be man of politics.  Arthur George Sedgwick, writing in 1973, observed the debate that had already begun to rage regarding the identity of the novel’s true protagonist, noting that some even viewed the town itself as the lead player.  Unfortunately, Mr Sedgwick ultimately appears to have become caught up in Eliot’s carefully constructed web of interconnected plot-lines and overlapping characters:

It would be a mere waste of time to go into a minute criticism of Middlemarch.  The plots are too numerous, the characters too multitudinous, and the whole too complicated.”

He thus concludes as follows:

In the attempt to play the critic of such works as these, one cannot help feeling that to properly analyze and explain George Eliot, another George Eliot is needed, and that all suggestion can do is to indicate the impossibility of grasping, in even the most comprehensive terms, the variety of her powers.”

It is not our intention in this series to get bogged down in a similar state of despair, so we will not be attempting anything approaching a comprehensive analysis of the novel.  Instead, we plan to look at a few of the characters individually, to see what still resonates about them and the way Eliot presents them to us.  The idea is that by putting some of the key character under the microscope separately we might learn something about the way Eliot conceived her characters, both as someone fascinated with the concept of freedom and choice, and more generally with the intertwining paths of human life.

The Editors