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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.

Review of 2015: Part 1

Our approach to reviewing the year, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is to look at what people have read in the last twelve months, as opposed to what was published during that time. So without further ado, here is the best of what our contributors managed to get through over the course of 2015.

 

Candia McWilliam

Young Eliot by Robert Crawford: A poet and scholar, Crawford, thinks himself into the growing mind and childhood  of the poet and scholar T.S Eliot, whom it has been all too easy to think of as one who arrived with assured celerity at some judicious “version” of middle age. A lovely book rich in fully inhabited detail that can only whet the reader’s appetite for the next volume.

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. Surfing – and why surf ?-  put into words that just about convey the pointful pointlessness of sitting inside the little green room at the end of the curl of the wave, and in so doing, of writing, slippery words eluding you as you try to make standing upright among their tides and fathoms seem natural and easy.

The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in our Times by Barbara Taylor. The account by a high achieving intellectual of utter breakdown and its redressing; and of changes in the treatment of such isolating mental pain,  with particularly attentive reference to Friern Barnett Hospital -now made into luxury apartments, while “care” has fallen into “the community “.

Step Aside, Pops! by Kate Beaton teases the culturally smug in elegant graphic form .

A Very Private Celebrity: The Nine Lives of John Freeman by Hugh Purcell.  Ignore the off-putting title. Anything is good that takes you back to Freeman,  who, in addition to being a soldier, a politician, a journalist, an intellectual and a diplomat, made some of the greatest ever telly, with his Face To Face interviews. Pleasingly, these interviews are often wreathed in smoke.

The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie. The great poet of nature and its unharnessability by soppiness has asked of herself that she make a poem a week for a year.  Do read it;  nothing but the matter as it matters.

For pure sensual pleasure at the eye: Silent Beauties. Flower photographs made by the Dutchman Leendert Blok in the 1920s.

Queer Saint: The Cultured Life of Peter Watson . A curiosity and much more. Written by two authors (Adrian Clark and Jeremy Dronfield) which is somehow always a piquant, and inextricable poser for a reader. Watson was very beautiful, very rich, very generous and very intelligent. He was an enigma and exerts a forceful elegance beyond his grave, to which he was sent too soon by a jealous act of murder.

Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes by Richard Davenport-Hines. This book demonstrates its subject’s variform mighty intelligence (his Cambridge Tripos was Classics and Mathematics) and dares approach the emotional make-up and flowering of the great economist. A generous affecting energetic transfusion of a book.

My discoveries, amid the annually increasing re-reading, have been the works of the novelist, costume historian and very sharp opiner, Doris Langley Moore, who so loved Lord Byron that she arranged to marry him although he had been dead for more than a hundred years  .

Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest, a short novel, concrete yet poetic, irreversible, merciless as to the fate of a woman who is understood to have sinned.

The Black Mirror by Raymond Tallis. It is an investigation of the ubiquity of the idea and awareness and sense of death such that it intensifies our relish for, understanding of, and love of being alive and of -what is it? – life itself.

 

Hannah Joll

Howard’s End by E. M Forster. I started the year with this. Sisters, family, personal choices. I loved it and know I will reread later on down the line. The evocation of how it feels to fall in love with a family (the Wilcoxes) is brilliant.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson. This made me want to read more by Robinson. It’s simple and graceful and quite ghostly/haunting for it. Lila the protagonist is a strange, innocent tomcat – an inspiration.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Murakami. ‘In each shave lies a philosophy’, so Murakami, quoting Somerset Maugham, opens a short book I read in one sitting. Murakami presents his choices, unusual as they are (such as running the original marathon to Athens backwards) plainly. There is something meditative about his orderly routines and the rhythm of his runs that suggests he knows his limits and emanates calm because of it.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine. Anger and reflection, restrained and channelled into this prose poem on casual, ubiquitous racism has made this book startling. Rankine describes multiple vignettes: the Tooting riots; the Williams sisters and the introduction of Hawkeye in tennis; her acquaintances’ lazy pronouncements on affirmative action. She does something very clever with narration and changing ‘you’ and ‘I’ to recreate the distance and alienation felt due to repeated racist acts.

Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante. Enough written on these elsewhere but I think that we are lucky to be alive when books such as these are being written: a paean to friendship; a dissection of violence in our characters, many things.

The best poem I’ve read this year by far is Paul Muldoon’s ‘Cuthbert and the Otters’, it punches above ALL the weights: ‘I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead’.

 

Margot Gibbs

@MargotGibbs

Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith: Originally recommended by Imogen Lloyd.  One of my favourite openings to a book ever, “Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says“. Delight in imagination, its silliness, the silliness of thoughts- whilst remaining serious at its heart; no poe-face. Lots of writing that talks about myth making and storytelling within the narrative makes me numb with boredom; this is completely alive. Some of the nicest writing on beauty and sex that I’ve read (on par if not better than Hollinghurst or maybe I just love gay books).

Elizabeth Costello, JM Coetzee: Novel dressed up as philosophical dialogue. A female novelist at the end of her life, interrogating her beliefs and the rationalist and humanist roots of modern thought. Easy to dislike at first for its self-consciousness, but it’s fantastically way too fleshy for that, and the most intellectually exciting book I’ve read for ages. Made me feel like a teenager.

This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs the Climate, Naomi Klein: I didn’t read it for ages because I thought I knew it, but when I read it I was like a new convert. Deeply historical, political and global. Links on well to her earlier work on the WTO and Shock Doctrine. First half arms you with every fact you ever wanted. Second half focuses on the small scale “barricades” being made by resistant communities but avoids sentimentalising. Her positive diagnosis comes naturally from the negative: localised politics are the way to defeat this brand of destructive capitalism.

Ahab’s Ambition

moby-dick-1For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.”

At what point does young ambition tip into morbid disease? When does general optimism about the future turn into a narrow fixation with a specific goal? These are the great questions at the heart of the juxtaposition between Moby Dick’s young narrator, Ishmael, and the grizzled, twisted figure of the Pequod’s captain, Ahab. It is difficult not to wonder what exactly it is that separates them, particularly when Ahab reflects on his early years as a whaler: did he ever share Ishmael’s enthusiasm for the open sea, or was monomania always a defining part of his character? It is tempting to think that perhaps Ahab’s all-consuming ambition is a product of his age, that he is merely a wizened replica of the fresh-faced Ishmael: a man whose passion for whaling generally has been chiseled into a hard-edged obsession with the single white whale.

“…Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey – more a demon than a man! – aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool – old fool, has old Ahab been!

But that seems simplistic, and it is easier to imagine that Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick merely replaced some previous yearning. Perhaps Ahab was a young mariner hell-bent on rising within his chosen profession, dreaming of one day commanding his own ship. When that goal was successfully reached (and we know he has spent thirty-seven of the previous forty years at sea, abandoning his wife in the process) he was probably forced to reset his sights, to aim higher at some new unreachable target. To this extent, we might contrast Ahab with the captains who remain ashore, Peleg and Bildad, whose life at sea has been replaced by a very material dedication to the purely financial interests of the whaling ships they send on their way. Ishmael, on the other hand, has no interest in worldly gain of that sort. We learn at the outset that he is almost contemptuous of those who aspire towards positions of authority:

“…I never go as a passenger; nor, though I am something of a salt, do I ever go to sea as a Commodore, or a Captain, or a Cook. I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them. For my part, I abominate all honorable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever.”

On the contrary, Ishmael is drawn to the sea by something altogether less tangible. His adventure aboard the Pequod is not limited in scope, and it is clear that his journey is more of a personal, spiritual quest than that of the other members of the crew, excepting maybe Queequeg the harpooneer, who is happy to let his portable god make his decisions for him. The distance between Ishmael’s open-mindedness and Ahab’s tunnel vision is most obvious when one considers their different experiences at the top of the Pequod’s mast-head. Ishmael confesses to being a terrible lookout: “let me make a clean breast of it here, and frankly admit that I kept but sorry guard.” Indeed, chapter 35 (‘The Mast-Head’) quickly becomes a classic Ishmaelian digression ranging from the greats of history to ancient Greek philosophy. Ishmael enjoys looking, but not for anything in particular. He explains his poor watch-keeping thus:

With the problem of the universe revolving around me, how could I – being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude…”

In fact, Ishmael describes the expansive view of the sea from the top of the mast-head as his “ultimate destination.” Not so Ahab, who climbs the mast-head in chapter 130 (despite his wooden leg) with the single objective of sighting the white whale. Whilst he is “perched aloft”, he gazes so intently at the horizon for signs of his prey that he fails to notice the sea-hawk that symbolically swoops down to remove his hat, later dropping it in the distance, never to be recovered.

There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”

Ahab recognizes the absurdity of his quest in one stark moment of lucidity and candour in which he tells Starbuck, his first mate, not to follow him when he lowers his boat to give chase to Moby Dick. However, he also asserts that he himself has no choice in the matter, that he is merely the puppet of a “remorseless emperor.”   This passage confirms the role of linear authority aboard the Pequod.  Just as Ahab is unable to disobey what he sees as his fate, so Starbuck is unable to disobey Ahab, despite being all too aware of the madness of the chase.  It also confirms the helplessness of Ahab’s situation: he has spent so long pursuing his goal that he is now merely the victim of a terrible disease which drives him forward, almost in spite of himself. And yet, notwithstanding Ahab’s suicide mission, Melville’s novel is certainly not dismissive of the spirit of adventure in general terms. The fact that Ishmael endures as the sole surviving member of the Pequod is surely intended as a salute to that spirit of adventure, a spirit that does not allow itself to be curtailed by narrow-mindedness.

The Editors

Elena Ferrante, or Naples, Part Two

ferrante

A panel discussion was held at Lutyens and Rubenstein on the eve of the release of the final novel in Ferrante’s Naples tetralogy. The panel was made up of Cathy Rentzenbrink, Jonathan Gibbs, Susanna Gross and Tessa Hadley – all writers and critics, but more importantly, ardent Ferrante fans. Although none of them were especially keen on speaking in front of an audience, when it comes to this author none of them could bear the alternative prospect of sitting in the audience and watching another panel get it wrong. Such is the fervour for Ferrante.

For those who have not yet been introduced, the books chart the course of a friendship over several decades. The two women – Elena and Lila – are co-dependent rivals and know each other better than anyone. The novels open with Elena writing their story down as Lila has disappeared. Her aim to recapture what may soon be forgotten becomes, we realize, memoir as as an aggressive, defiant act. Elena is punishing Lila by colonizing their story. She seems to own it by providing the only side, however, in telling the full version of events, there are moments when she clearly hands the reader’s sympathy over to Lila by recounting her own actions. There is little objectivity, but at the same time, there is little bias.

In the third novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Greco admits: “I had been conditioned by my education, which has shaped my mind, my voice. To what secret pacts with myself had I consented, just to excel. And now, after the hard work of learning, what I must unlearn. Also, I had been forced by the powerful presence of Lila to imagine myself as I was not. I was added to her, and I felt mutilated as soon as I removed myself. Not an idea, without Lila. Not a thought I trusted, without the support of her thoughts. Not an image. I had to accept myself outside of her. ” Indeed, Lila affects every sentence: “she has managed to insert herself into this extremely long chain of words to modify my text, to purposely supply the missing links to unhook others without letting it show, to say more of me than I want, more than I’m able to say”. Despite becoming a successful author, Elena Greco feels she owes all she has to Lila’s inspiration, to her very existence. Lila (beautiful and wild) overshadows Elena, but the former feels she must live vicariously through the latter because she ducked out of formal education, failed to get out their neighbourhood in Naples, and succumbed to its cycle of savagery.

In the second novel, The Story of A New Name, when Lila realizes on her wedding day just how significant her groom’s shortcomings are, she barely restrains herself: “She used all her strength, and I who knew her thoroughly felt that if she could she would have wrenched [his arm] from his body, crossed the room holding it high above her head, blood dripping in her train, and she would have used it as a club or a donkey’s jawbone to crush Marcello’s face with a solid blow.” Upon realizing she cannot leave the old life, or indeed change it, she retreats into blackness: “I think how much blood there is in a person’s body. If you put too much stuff in things, they break. Or they catch fire and burn. ”

In the final instalment The Lost Child, Ferrante describes Naples as “a city that reveals or underlines that dreams of unhindered progress is utterly pessimistic and unfounded. We are in fact in an age of savagery, unknowing.” The tonal overlap with Saviano is striking when she describes the lack of “decipherable order, only an unruly and controllable crowd on streets…in the place where they threw out beasts and garbage a lot of human blood was shed”. As Saviano alerted the world to the presence of the Camorra at the centre of global crime, Ferrante shows that Naples is a microcosmic world: “The entire planet, she said, is a Fosso Carbonario”.

The complexity of local life in Naples is initially baffling, not least because of the various intertwined family trees by the end of the final book. Every family has a function within the neighbourhood, which Ferrante manages to stretch out over the course of thirty years. This is, perhaps, where people see the soap opera element to her writing. The end of the tetralogy was compared (perhaps sacrilegiously on both sides) to the end of Coronation Street, as the number of characters was gradually reduced until barely eight remain. All minor characters blend together on the second rung – an act of will to draw attention to the central dynamic – burnished by brilliant touches, such as Nella with her “laugh of an ageing virgin” talking about cutting people’s cocks off. She tells Elena that she is “much better” than her friend, who “knows how to wound” but so indeed does Elena, we learn.

Some readers have questioned whether these novels are feminist. In an attempt to answer this question, it has been pointed out that they are both full of rage, and the obligation to conform in rooms of men. One panellist cited the idea of bleeding likeability when the word feminist was mentioned in a recent conference, and that is not dissimilar from how I feel when rage and feminism are so swiftly connected. One thing is for sure: Ferrante’s books are full of blood. For those that still find swearing amusing (guilty) then the level of violence in the dialectic insults thrown around is superb. Ferrante treats language like a set of land mines beneath your feet: the path is difficult until only one way is possible: forward.

Only irony is made difficult as [you would imagine the books would be saturated with it] – especially when it comes to Nino, the love rat. He goes from hero to rotter as the years go past, and if you consider how Alice Munroe would write a love scene with him in it, it would be awash with irony. In this way, the tetralogy does not conform to our understanding of what novels are. There are no nods for the reader to give us a hint as to what to expect – no beams of sunlight shining on a character to let us know all will be well, no black cats as a warning. Her apparent lack of tricks – seeming like a memoir with all the tricks employed in fiction – makes one realize the unspoken conventions writers employ: such as never having two characters called John in the same story, as there so often is in life. The characters feel like flesh and blood acting of their own volition, rather than constructs with strings being pulled by the author.

Lila dissects her own form when she gives an explicit account of her own formlessness, after an earthquake. When she is overwhelmed, unreal things are “plunged into a jumbled, sticky reality”, and solid forms have dissolving boundaries. This underlines the lack of formal, stylized style in these novels. They run on messily – much like life – colliding and repeating in a realistic fashion. There are no good or bad characters; they all devolve or change. Her characters are true in every flaw, and can arouse and disgust us.

Just as outsiders identify themselves with her characters, Ferrante’s decision to remain an outsider through anonymity is the source of much speculation (though the panel felt disloyal discussing this rather than the novels themselves). Unencumbered by identity, Ferrante is as free to live as we are to read.

The Editors

Book Club Spy Abroad Part Two

vivEdinburgh Book Festival: Viv Albertine interviewed by Ian Rankin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Editors

Logicomix 2: the fine line between insanity and genius


logicomix2

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Editors