Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Non-Fiction’

When Breath Becomes Air

whenbreathbecomesReading Paul Kalanthi’s book is bittersweet: its author wrote it knowing he would die soon and I read it hoping time would slow down. I forgot that racing awestruck to the end meant racing to a foregone conclusion.

The book is a sort of letter, the sender dead before the words reach us. The first and last words are dedicated ‘to Cady’, Kalanthi’s baby daughter, and to his wife, Lucy. There’s something spooky and poignant about text that reaches us from a person no longer there. Like Albertine’s conciliatory telegram that reaches Marcel after she has died falling off her horse in Remembrance of Things Past, a letter with no extant sender is like being shut in a room where the door has been rubbed out. The instability of ideas we’d like to convey in letters is highlighted by Maggie Nelson in her recent, excellent book The Argonauts where she teases out the bravery of writing letters, we commit them to another person’s safekeeping, as well as the suspicion that the letter writer is really addressing themselves (an angry girlfriend replies to one of Nelson’s love letters the puncturingly simple: ‘Next time, write to me’). So why is Paul Kalanthi’s last letter of interest?

Last year, one of the editors wrote here about Do No Harm, written by the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh. When Breath Becomes Air has much in common with Do No Harm: it’s also written by a neurosurgeon and deals with the crushing responsibility that comes with the job for the few that make it and it’s brilliant (arguably, more so). Marsh and Kalanthi reflect on their careers at different stages, of course: Marsh is towards the end of his; Kalanthi had only just completed his training. The difference in their accounts, however, is also attitudinal. Where Marsh bemoans the growing number of technological surgical interventions eclipsing a surgeon’s job and the impossibility of getting enough practice in the operating theatre as a junior, Kalanthi is passionate and always uncomplaining. Kalanthi castigates himself for mistakes made, most of them inevitable. Sometimes, he fights hard to save a life only for that life to be so limited by brain damage he wonders if saving it is the right way to look at it; decisions deferred not made.

Like Marsh, Kalanthi studied English before turning to medicine, a feat less surprising in America where students are encouraged to specialise later than in the UK, turning to medicine only after a first degree. Kalanthi’s writing shows how much literature meant to him and his style is lauded in the foreword. With infectious enthusiasm he tells us that ‘to burke’ meant “to kill secretly by suffocation or strangulation, or for the purpose of selling the victim’s body for dissection“, fuelled by medical schools’ demand for cadavers in “the bad old days“. We learn the root of the word ‘disaster’ means a star coming apart (the Greek for star is ‘astron’). According to Kalanthi, ‘no image expressed better the look in a patient’s eyes when hearing a neurosurgeon’s diagnosis’. Later, he tells us the word ‘hope’ first appeared in English about a thousand years ago “denoting some combination of confidence and desire“. His evident enjoyment in writing and choosing words deliberately is overdone only once. Expounding on how to communicate the immensity of an unbeatable brain cancer to a patient incrementally, he cautions: the “tureen of tragedy was best slotted by the spoonful“. The structure of the book is interesting: necessarily frustrating us as Kalanthi ran out of time. In the beginning of the book we race along hearing about his training, forgetting that the story is about to turn tragic. “Eat with your left hand. You’ve got to learn to be ambidextrous“, his boss tells him one day passing him at lunch in the canteen during his first year as a surgical intern.

Lessons learnt are hard won. “In the midst of this endless barrage of head injuries, I began to suspect that being so close to the fiery light of such moments only blinded me to their nature, like trying to learn astronomy by staring directly at the sun. I was not yet with patients in their pivotal moments, I was merely at those pivotal moments. I observed a lot of suffering; worse, I became inured to it“. At the end of part one, he’s just got to terms with how to live as a doctor: working 100 hour weeks; living with the responsibility of being a good doctor; working proximate to death and how to meet a patient “in a space where she was a person, instead of a problem to be solved“. Then, feeling he has learnt how to live, he then finds out at the age thirty six that he’s going to die of lung cancer.

“Be vague but accurate.”

Time, how it speeds up over a lifetime and how best to use it, is, is (unsurprisingly) a central concern. Accurate but humane uncertainty is promoted over the false satisfaction of giving a patient an exact amount of time to live (“I came to believe that it is irresponsible to be more precise than you can be accurate“).

Kalanthi returned to work after his tumour shrunk enough to hope more time may be meted out to him. He goes back in order to complete residency, resting between operations and swallowing handfuls of antiemetics and pain medication to get through his first week. Then he sleeps for forty hours straight.

“The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out…you may decide you want to spend your time working as a neurosurgeon, but two months later, you may feel differently. Two months after that, you may want to learn to play the saxophone or devote yourself to the church. Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.” This sense of values shifting would be familiar anyone who has lived close to someone terminally ill. It is well captured here and brought to mind Marion Coutts’s The Iceberg. Kalanthi wanted to spend 20 years working as a surgeon-scientist and 20 writing. In the end, he wrote for one year only and this book is his account of choices made and accepted.
Hannah Joll

The Outrun

OutrunEvery so often you read a book you wish you had written. It is not the same as the idle desire to see the wrinkled forehead of the white whale, to hold a handmade gleaming gold fish in your hand, or to describe a gleaming banquet after a battle, but the desires are neighbouring kingdoms. It is when the combination of subject and style means you should ruefully salute. The Outrun by Amy Liptrot is such a book.

Liptrot is from Orkney, a remote Scottish Island, but she does not sound it. She is 6 feet tall, and she has read Moby Dick. Here the similarities with this Editor end, as she knows about the birds I have lived with, and the history of the places I have seen and briefly admired. She is also a recovering alcoholic and writes about drink in a way that is haunting for anyone who is any way informed about addiction. But this is no misery memoir – it is a limpid account of mending. She had help – support from a recovery unit and family – but the majority of her account is solitary, and deeply thoughtful.

She lives alone in a lonely place and learns about the night sky, bird calls, how to rebuild walls and how to not drink. Recalling her life in London that lead to her need for recovery, the contrast between chaotic Hackney nights and freezing communal swims in an Orkney dawn is pronounced. She helps her father, a farmer, with the lambing and counts birds for the RSPB. She visits the most remote, tiny and abandoned islands in Orkney and starts to contemplate the 12 Steps, with very relatable concerns regarding AA.

Relatively sparing on self-pity and very open, the only criticism I can level at Liptrot is that I would like to know more: more about what she ate and read in the two years she covers in Orkney. There is a moment where she catches and eats razor clams, but greedy readers will remain disappointed.

The London side to her narrative will have familiar aspects for anyone who spent some of their twenties on London Fields drinking too much, living in a dingy flat you could not afford with no idea of how to get a job or maintain a relationship and making up for it by going to too many parties. This then gets a lot darker than many will have experienced, but The Outrun is ultimately a hopeful book. The focus here is on her finding a way forward, the people she encounters in this path bob in and out rather than feature heavily – much like the the corncrake she sees in her headlights at night after a summer of searching. A gleaming flash, and then it is over, but you are left better than you were before.

The Editors

The Better Angels of Our Nature

the_better_angels_coverThe Better Angels of Our Nature – Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University, and Better Angels is his attempt to chart (and explain) the history of human violence more or less since records began. Pinker’s book is a fairly intimidating prospect at just under 900 pages, but then again it is a monstrously ambitious undertaking, and in fact it’s surprising that he manages to deal with the subject as comprehensively as he does.

The basic proposition is that violence of all kinds amongst humans has been in decline for a very long time. Pinker acknowledges that in absolute terms that hypothesis is plainly wrong, but argues that the statistic that really matters when looking at human violence is the relative chance of a person suffering a violent death at the hands of another person over the course of his or her lifetime. In other words, the question should be: would you rather have a 50% chance of dying a violent death over the course of your life, or a 5% chance? For Pinker, it is the rate of violent death that counts, not the total number of violent deaths at any given stage in history. Looked at in this way, the statistics presented in Better Angels show a clear downward trajectory in human violence across the ages, even when the atrocities of the 20th century (‘the bloodiest in history’) are taken into account. Interestingly, Pinker notes that the absolute death tolls of historical conflicts often tend to be underestimated, or at least not scrutinised in the same way as death tolls for modern wars. Apparently the Mongol conquests in the 13th century accounted for the deaths of around 40 million people.[1] Although that figure must clearly be open to challenge in a way that more recent statistics are not, it is uncontroversial that the Mongols systematically massacred the populations of the lands they conquered. For example, somewhere between 700,000 and 1.3 million people were killed by the Mongols in the city of Merv alone. As well as haggling over statistics, however, what Pinker is interested in doing is exposing the phenomenon of historical myopia that allows people to assess different periods of history through different lenses.

Having engaged in the argument surrounding his central hypothesis, Pinker then spends most of the book explaining what he thinks might be the causes of this long-term decline. He examines the Hobbesian ‘pacification process’ whereby fiefdoms were gradually replaced by kingdoms, thus suppressing localised violence as power came to be concentrated in a sovereign of some sort. He also looks at Norbert Elias’ theory of manners, the so-called ‘civilising process’, which posits that as centralised sovereign authority grew, so too did a system of courtly manners intended to minimise violence and pay homage to the monarch. The latter was in fact considered as part of David Mitchell’s BBC4 series on manners last month, which also featured an interview with Steven Pinker discussing the civilising process and its contribution to lower rates of intra-human violence.

Of all Pinker’s factors contributing to the reduction in violence over time, however, there is one that stands out for the purpose of this blog, and that is reading. In particular, Pinker argues that the revolution in printing, and the expansion in literacy, had the effect of widening people’s perspectives to the extent that they were no longer prepared to view strangers as less human and therefore less worthy of protection:

Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point. Not only are you taking in sights and sounds that you could not experience firsthand, but you have stepped inside that person’s mind and are temporarily sharing his or her attitudes and reactions. […] Stepping into someone else’s vantage point reminds you that the other fellow has a first-person, present-tense, ongoing stream of consciousness that is very much like your own but not the same as your own.”

Pinker then goes further, and looks at the impact of different literary movements across the ages. He notes Lynn Hunt’s observation that the “heyday of the Humanitarian Revolution, the late 18th century, was also the heyday of the epistolary novel.” This was the time of Richardson’s Pamela and Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses doesn’t get a mention for obvious reasons). This was followed by the rise of realism in the 19th century, which was perhaps more closely linked to political movements aimed at eradicating conflict. The causative effect of these literary trends on a global phenomenon like human violence is clearly impossible to know with certainty, but Pinker argues that the “ordering of events is in the right direction: technological advances in publishing, the mass production of books, the expansion of literacy, and the popularity of the novel all preceded the major humanitarian reforms of the 18th century.”

Whether or not you agree with Pinker (and I think it is difficult to poke many holes in his overall thesis), Better Angels is a fascinating study of history and psychology that deserves to be read by anyone interested in knowing more about what drives people to be violent. The conclusions are overwhelming optimistic, particularly the view that human beings can moderate and control violence. It is not necessarily the inescapable demon that it often appears (and is made out) to be. However, what really sets the book apart is the neutrality of its tone. Whilst Pinker may be a self-confessed liberal, Better Angels is the work of a thoroughly empirical mind, hence the obsession with statistics (which require some effort to process if you are as statistically illiterate as I am, although Pinker suggests that most of us are). Pinker acknowledges this towards the end of the book, and apologises if he seems cold-hearted in the face of reams of statistics on death and destruction. However, he is undoubtedly right that violence does not often get examined with the objective tenacity required of the subject, which is perhaps why Better Angels seems like such a revolutionary tome.

The Editors

[1] Matthew White: “Worst Things People Have Done” (The Great Big Book of Horrible Things).

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

Review of 2015: Part 3

Welcome to the third and final instalment of this year’s ‘Review of the Year’. We owe a huge thanks to all our contributors and readers, without whom the DRTF project would be a lifeless irrelevance; 2015 has been wonderful and we look forward to seeing more of you in 2016.

 

Editor 1

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. This account of a Ted Hughes scholar aided in rearing his sons by a foul-mouthed crow, summoned by their jagged mourning, was simply brilliant. For anyone who admits to not knowing what to say when it comes to an absence, for anyone who has ever loved Ted Hughes, and for everyone who is keen for some lucidity and dark humour.

Mislaid by Nell Zink. This book will make you laugh on public transport, sometimes in a shocked ‘I hope no one is reading over my shoulder’ sort of way. Zink is outrageous, and I cannot compare her lolloping pace and wit to anyone writing today. The collapse of a marriage, unconventional upbringings of the best sort, intellectual snobbery defied and some brilliant defiant female characters I would love to befriend.

Porcelain by Benjamin Read. Read creates graphic novels that could loosely be described as fairy tales, but they owe a lot to H G Wells, steampunk, the gothic tradition and the Art-Deco movement, to name a few influences apparent in his work. This tale of an alchemist creating animated porcelain figures within Dickensian London is beautifully drawn by Christian Wildgoose.

Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari. This book is not beautifully written, but just as with Gomorrah (also reviewed on this site) that does not seem quite as paramount as the treatment of such an enormous global topic as the trade and treatment of illegal drugs and its inevitable consequences. Hari, a journalist, travels to the most affected parts of the world to better understand how addiction can be tackled and the perception of addicts changed for the better.

 

Editor 2

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. This brilliant book is the most clear and concise refutation of twenty-first negativity I have yet encountered. By studying the decline of violence (of all kinds) over the course of human history, Pinker persuasively makes the case that humanity is not in fact doomed to a never-ending recurrence of genocide and destruction, despite what the media may have us believe. Although it was first published back in 2011, I felt this was the perfect antidote to the growing sense of impending disaster that seems to have gripped the world in 2015.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel. As is usually the case with literary trends and me, I arrived several years late at the Hilary Mantel party. I got there eventually, and have since been making up for lost time. In February this year I was even lucky enough to hear Mantel read from the as yet unpublished The Mirror and The Light (see review). For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, Mantel’s ability to make the 16th century seem like it happened a few weeks ago is an absolute delight.  

 

 

Review of 2015: Part 2

The second instalment in our “best books read in 2015” series.

 

Charlotte Joll

The Poet’s Daughters by Katie Waldegrave…aka they fuck you up those famous Dads which might also be an appropriate comment on my second choice: Eleanor Marx by Rachel Holmes though her real (and possibly not unconnected) problem was being a HOPELESS picker of men.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. Best depiction of what it’s like to have dementia – I learnt a lot more reading this than from Atol Gwande’s Being Mortal which I found banal as well as depressing (but perhaps that’s because the issues he deals with are all too familiar to anyone who works in the NHS).

Night Waking by Sarah Moss.  The modern v historical plot line doesn’t entirely work (Possession has spawned a great many imitations) but it’s brilliant on the simultaneous intense pleasure to be experienced from having and holding small children and the soul destroying boredom of being made to look after them when all you want to do is work or sleep.

 

Olivia Amory

The only books I have read this year which were published in 2015 have been the Ferrante novels, which I loved mostly because of the quick movement in the language and realistic portrayal of a female friend, and A Little Life which I feel I enjoyed despite my better nature.

I have also read Far From the Madding Crowd which I thought was wonderful but somehow took me a very long time and got rather confused with the film in my head and a couple of books about old men thinking about their lives (Stoner / Disgrace) which were moving but also remained quite distant from my own emotional life.

H is for Hawk which I thought could have been shorter. The Narrow Road to the Deep North which I have now turned against in my head for some reason but has made me want to read something about Australia. Now I look back it seems rather a depressing year!

But I did read and love both A Month in the Country by J. L Carr and Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.

I think I have become worse at reading books and don’t really like things that I find hard to relate to anymore. I’m reading Bonfire of the Vanities at the moment and everyone in it is so horrible, silly and unimportant that I can’t enjoy it at all. And why should I relation to Carr or Gibbon – I must have a rather warped, twee image of myself.

I think A Month in the Country is my best because it just gives you this very complete image in your mind, which is strictly limited both in terms of time (a month) and place (a church) that make the memory of reading it stay intact in your mind so that can look back on it with more satisfaction than most novels.

 

Anna-Jean Hughes

Co-founder of https://thepigeonhole.com/

Hands down my favourite has been a book of short stories called Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan. Can’t laud it hard enough.

 

Alexander Starritt

http://www.apolitical.co

For me this year it’s been the revelation that is The Adventures of Augie March. I’ve never read a book so slowly in my life, at first because it’s so directionless (like Augie’s adventures), then because each page shows you your own heart with more understanding of it than you could ever hope to muster. One of the few books you would go to your grave more ignorantly for having never read. Plus the sentences are some of the finest and it’s sometimes very funny.

Gomorrah (or Naples, Part One)

GomorraRoberto Saviano’s account of Camorra criminal activity in and around Naples in his book Gomorrah was so unstintingly revealing that he now lives in hiding, avoiding death at the hands of mob boss Guiseppe Setola. He wrote in The Guardian earlier this year that after “eight years under armed guard, threats against my life barely make the news. My name is so often associated with the terms death and murder that they hardly register. After all these years under state protection, I almost feel guilty for still being alive.” These three phrases encapsulate his ponderous prose style, while at the same time telling such an enthralling story that the reader is appreciative of what he has sacrificed his peace of mind for.

He went on in a wounded fashion: “I’m either at the Nobel academy having a debate on freedom of the press, or I’m inside a windowless room at a police barracks. Light and dark. There is no shade, no in-between. Sometimes I look back at the watershed that divides my life before and after Gomorrah…Naples has become off-limits to me, a place I can only visit in my memories.” The idea for this series of posts is to take the stark Naples depicted by those Saviano memories, and contrast it with that of Elena Ferrante’s Naples tetralogy (in Naples, Part Two).

Gomorrah’s opening gambit of corpses spilling from an open shipping container cannot help but grab the reader’s attention, but it is the subsequent image of the crane driver responsible covering his face with his hands and peeping at Saviano through the gaps that takes the fragment from Hammer House of Horror into the human realm. One of the reasons why his tone slips from scholarly to hysterical – aside from the fact that it is a deeply personal account – is perhaps that this story is being told for the first time in this way: not as bedtime stories, whispered rumours of urban myth at ground zero, or academic circles. In making this an accessible product, it was perhaps inevitable that something would be lost in the transition. The surreal is captured, but there shouldn’t be such a note of the inauthentic.

This account is most compelling when Saviano does not heap lists of family names and bodies on the reader, or even worse, try to inject pathos, when nothing further is required. The account is so extraordinary in its own right that he (and his translator) needn’t have bothered. It is the flashes of insight he allows through that seem the most arresting, as they are indisputably his without him messing around with ‘style’: “to get a job mixing cement, all I had to do was let the contractor know where I was from. Campania provided the best builders in all of Italy – the most skilled, the fastest, cheapest, the least pains in the ass.” The equivalent simply does not exist to my knowledge in the United Kingdom: the idea of a man appearing and announcing he is from Ipswich and that being sufficient to land him a construction job is incredible. However, Saviano himself is deliberately a black hole in the narrative, providing very little by way of personal context, when it is these moments that lift the narrative.

He goes on to layer in detail about exhaust fume dust and other waste being hidden within the cement, as everything criminal seems to end up in construction or waste disposal. Anything incriminating is covered in topsoil or a thin layer of cement, only to grin through just when the surface appears to have calmed. The explanation for the book’s title comes with a eulogy to a murdered Priest, Don Peppino, from Saviano’s neighbourhood: “Don’t you see that this is Gomorrah, don’t you see? Remember. When they see that the whole land is brimstone, and salt, and burning, and there will be no sowing, no sprouting, no grass growing”. Saviano tells of bones, chemical waste and even shredded currency forced into the soil, poisoning it beyond repair.

Gomorrah is such a laundry list of death (Naples has one of the highest murder rates in the world) that it is hard to discern why some incidents are singled out in outrage – the death of a female teenager is one of the multiple teen deaths which are often collateral damage. It does not appear to be her gender that made it so upsetting for Saviano, but the poignancy of her friend calling her mobile phone while it is placed on top of the coffin. The only jarring note in a tragic interlude, was the fact that this appeared to affect him the most.

Steeped in horrors as he is, the two most appalling moments Saviano witnessed were a ‘guinea pig’ addict used to test the drugs sold by the clans by being injected in the neck with cocaine, killing him outright, and the HIV-free zones where prostitutes receive medical care in order to ensure the clan do not have to wear condoms when they visit. These, added to the realization of the Camorra’s sheer sprawl, will endure. The shudder of fear generated by the realization that this is no pocket of power in a chokehold, but a network with considerable global reach, drags this story from beneath the bed. There are links with the Russians, of course, a surreal Aberdeen connection, links with China, a presence in Australia, and the clan are influential throughout Europe and Latin America (including the most ruthless of all, the Mexican cartels). Saviano also describes an attempt to organize the Gypsies of southern Spain into a criminal group.

In this way, Gomorrah depicts a huge, constant, and filmic level of threat: “some people went round to the senator’s brother’s trout farm and scattered the fish around, leaving them wiggling on the ground to die slowly” (before adding “suffocating in the air” as though there were many other ways). We learn that the horse’s head is small fry, relatively speaking, when it comes to making a point in Naples. Life also imitates film in the passage where Saviano describes how the female Camorra bosses dress their security detail in yellow tracksuits like Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Saviano himself references his own awareness of Scarface when he walks around the abandoned villa belonging to one of the bosses, helpless with rage and pissing into the bath (before conceding that this was an idiotic thing to do). This concession, together with the anecdote of an economics graduate “brought into the clan to handle the distribution of certain brands of coffee in the area bars” provided a rare note of humour. Such is the importance of coffee distributors in local commerce to the bosses. Less charming is learning that the same graduate tried firing an AK47 after the neighbourhood capo insisted everyone on the payroll had to learn how to shoot. He is ecstatic about having fired something so well designed, and becomes obsessed with meeting Kalashnikov himself. This is all very diverting, until Saviano strays into predictable stereotype when describing Kalashnikov with “the trace of vodka on his breath”.

Gomorrah is almost an unbelievable story, so it is perhaps appropriate that it is written in such an over the top fashion. Saviano is a better investigator than he is a writer; he is nonetheless exceedingly courageous to have written and talked at all, and long may he go on doing so. These tales clearly needed to be told in all of their savagery and breath-taking casualness for any life that attempts to exist alongside and apart from the Camorra themselves. Which is of course where Elena Ferrante comes in.

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