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Posts tagged ‘Opinion’

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

Spoken Word III

Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries interviewed by Robert Macfarlane

RSL, Union Chapel, Thursday 3rd April

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Editors

Spoken Word

Daunt Books Festival, 27/28 March 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Editors

Pompeii was born again, Arcadia never died!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21. Why Read?

Reading led me to this series and its most recent entry (20), with its suggestion of a novel use for the marrow. Now that I have imagined an infant Augusta Pownall painstakingly pricking messages that would never be read into the skins of marrows, with that single-minded intensity of concentration that is largely confined to young children, I don’t care to contemplate a life without that image.

Reading is synonymous with the imagination, but it often reminds me why reality is worth bothering with. It forces us to observe and consider, to look and listen, not just talk – everyone’s got stories to tell, and hearing them is how we learn to understand the world. Talking about reading is almost as important as reading itself because it gives us shared language and frames of reference, but above all helps us make sense of our lives and the people in them.

So reading anchors us; it also offers escape of course. Absorption in lives, times, worlds, stories and ideas which are not your own is a voyeuristic pleasure that will never lose its power. The second-skin thrill of reading can be found in a few other places, but never so easily or so endlessly. There is no such thing as diminishing returns here: you can always revisit favourite voices and worlds, but there will always be new ones to get lost in.

No other medium can match the bottomless variety of books: all tastes are catered for. Your access to experience is limited by social circle and a host of other factors; your access to books is unfettered. Everything we’ve done or thought is out there between two covers. Like the idea of hitting Vegas with a head full of uppers and a car full of melons but can’t afford the plane ticket? Hunter S. Thomson at your service. Unafraid of death but not sure why? Seneca is your man.

Books not only admit you to universes of new experience, you can use them to deflect experiences you’d rather not have. We have all been sat next to someone who turns slightly towards you at the start of a long journey, ready to reach across the gulf of loneliness and make a human connection. Ostentatiously opening Chapter 17 will soon shut them up.

I regularly appal friends and family with my sense of direction. I have only the vaguest, shadowy notion of where things are in places I’ve known all my life. Blame books. I had something more important than geography to do in my childhood; the way I orientate myself is never going to revolve around landmarks, compass points or maps. Reading has taught me how to think, how to talk and, now, how to tattoo messages on marrows for those who know where to look for them.

Harry Joll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#GaimanLDN

@RSLiterature

 The Editors

The Literature of Oppression: Part 2

Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

mainkampf1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

meinkampf

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

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

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

The Literature of Oppression: Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Editors

Video Killed the Bookmark II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Editors

Video killed the bookmark

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

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

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

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

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

The Editors