Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Review’

Logicomix and the quest for a quest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Editors

Gormenghast

GormenghastGormenghast – Mervyn Peake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Editors

Dial M for Mass Market Appeal

Killing-Floor-by-Lee-ChildLee Child is clearly a talented writer. The first three chapters of Killing Floor constitute one of the most strident openings to a novel I can remember. Strident, which is to say, gripping and devoid of nuance.

Then the problems begin. Because Killing Floor is too carefully constructed an artifice to be satisfying. Firstly, the author’s name is not Lee Child. It is Jim Grant. Jim Grant chose his nom de plume because it would put him next to Agatha Christie on the shelves. Good commercial thinking, but unsatisfyingly cynical.

Secondly the booming clarity of Jack Reacher’s internal monologue is a pace that Child is unable to sustain for an entire novel. When compared with an equally forthright opening to a book, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it whithers on the vine.

Thirdly the intricate twists of plot, the Sherlock Holmes like deduction, the neat tying up of loose ends to lay the foundations for the next novel smack of the worst of Hollywood. The base commercialism that great literature manages to avoid, patterns the novel in its paint by numbers crime thriller simplicity. It’s clear what Lee Child has done with Jack Reacher and he sells a lot of books, but it’s not art and it’s not literature any more than the The Hardy Boys or Biggles (though Biggles is great). It reveals nothing about the broader conditions of humanity, except that some people have talent and use it with cynicism and there is a huge market in feeding people entertainment which refuses to challenge them. No doubt the greatest of artists are prone to venality as much if not more than the rest (I remember an anecdote of Mozart in which he was asked what he was thinking when he stood as if in a reverie at the end of a performance regarding the applauding audience and he said “I was counting the house.”) but the lasting impression of Killing Floor is not improved by the cynical aftertaste it leaves or the charmlessness with which it is achieved. In the shadow of other great English popular writers such as the late Terry Pratchett who outsold every other author of the nineties, shifting close to 100 million books, or George MacDonald Fraser who wrote the first Flashman in two weeks on leaving the Royal Navy because he needed the money. Both were strongly and impressively commercial writers who serviced great audiences with their franchises but somehow achieved it with wit, charm and an invention that escapes Lee Child’s cruel and ultimately unsatisfying novel.

He is a great British export success story, for that we should be grateful, and we must certainly be impressed by his commercial performance, but as for his writing, it evades most compliments except, of course, that of purchasing it.

The Editors

Book Club Spy: Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Richard Flanagan – The Narrow Road to the Deep North

the_narrow_road_9f6ab061951_originalIt is getting harder to record the dialogue of Book Club as time goes on. Partly because I am too busy trying to interrupt to write down the finer points ricocheting about, and partly because a pattern has appeared where the group divides into two – fairly sharply down the middle – and one half then proceeds to disagree with the other. In the most good natured way possible. At great speed and volume.

For the session on Lorrie Moore’s Bark this was more of a problem (coming soon) but for Flanagan it was ideal, because of the LRB review.

For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure, The Narrow Road to the Deep North received a fairly scathing review from Michael Hofmann in the December issue of The London Review of Books. It is full of scything blows like this:

This novel is truly an entitled thing: it demands both action and high-value misty contemplation or ‘memory’. It is a universal solvent, or claims to be. You want love, it says; I got love! You want death? I got it. All the kinds. Any amount. It is all bite, and no chew. ”

I read this article before I read the novel; despite being warned not to, but could not contain myself. It is both terrible and wonderful. As a testament to the thickness of my skull or ability to compartmentalize, I truly enjoyed the book despite this. It is an account of life in a Japanese POW camp for Australian soldiers building a railway in impossible conditions, and then beyond to life after the war, full of crossed wires and missed opportunity.

Those in Book Club who disliked the novel in its own right – having escaped Hofmann’s surgical body blow – did so for the wrong reasons. That is was not worthy of the Man Booker; that there are too many books on the Second World War; that the protagonist Dorrigo Evans is not complicated enough – these do not really stand up as arguments in themselves.

Hofmann makes several fair points: the love story is jerkily executed. Our hero falls in love with the wrong woman, and they do not get a happy ending. So far, not so bad, but there is a halting uncertainty to how Flanagan plots this missed opportunity so that it is more awkward than tragic. However, there is an argument that every love story in wartime does not get to be a sweeping epic. Similarly, Dorrigo is no Captain Dicky Winters from Band of Brothers, especially once he gets home, but surely that is the point of him. He plays the hero, but knows he is performing a necessary role in the camp, and once he gets home he continues to act. Unfortunately he is a Don Draper figure in peacetime: a facsimile, a shadow of a man, blankly pursuing women for the sake of it having already ticked all of life’s necessary boxes. The only problem is that Flanagan did not make the character darker.

Flanagan’s use of language veers towards the trite, and then reels itself back in in the nick of time with phrases like “the heat felt like a maternal force commanding him not to get up“. Some argued he has no style and others simply no affectation, comparing him to Colm Toibin.

One thing emerges for sure: there is a lot of surface work going on. Life in peacetime is not explained in detail until years have gone by, the difficulty of rehabilitation for Dorrigo is glossed over, when this would have gone a long way towards explaining his later difficulties. This may have also been because of the nature Flanagan’s own father’s recollections, which formed the spine of the book. The war comes to an end, people change their names and attempt to move on from the horror of starving to death in the damp jungle, and of course Dorrigo Evans can’t relate to those around him on a deeper level post war. None of them were dying of dysentery for want of a single egg in trenches full of human excrement. Both Evans and his captors in the camp have a certain amount of uncertainty about their names, especially the latter when it comes to the war crimes trial. No one knows who to be afterwards; this is nothing new.

Of course, some of the Japanese disappeared into ruined Tokyo and effectively eluded any attempt to identify them, at least for years. Nakamura, the General of the camp, hooked on speed and given an impossible job to do (build a railway in a sodden jungle with dying prisoners and dwindling resources) feels ticks biting him under the skin and believes he represents the Japanese spirit in its purest form. He survives by changing his name, and by refusing to remember. He believed the Australians died in their thousands because they did not have the necessary ‘spirit’ that the Japanese exemplified – the irony behind the spirit of nations being that every nation believes it is unique to them. The Australian attitude in the camps was refreshing to someone reared on British Blitz and Bridge Across the River Kwai bravery: they make jokes at the bleakest moments on the Line, and those who make it go back to the haunts described by the fallen, to drink together. This was a refreshing change to David Niven-esque lighting of cigarettes and telling each other to buck up during a dogfight, etc etc.

With all of the anniversaries of wars occurring so close to each other, some may be saturated with stories of horror from both World Wars and now Waterloo. This book deserves a look out of the Booker Prize beam, and in the light of being an Australian book (one of several I have enjoyed in recent years and would like to see more around) written for the right reasons.

The Editors

Review of the Year 2014

Fiction: Part 1

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

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

Hannah Joll

The Dig, by Cynan Jones

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

The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi

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

Alexander Starritt

Naples ’44, by Norman Lewis

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

Olivia Hanson

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

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

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

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

The Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

Tender Shoots, by Paul Morand

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

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst

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

World War Z, by Max Brooks

What a revelation.

Imogen Lloyd

Innocence, by Penelope Fitzgerald

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

A Girl is Half Formed Thing, by Eimar McBride

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

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

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

There but for the, by Ali Smith

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

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

Spoken Word: Martin Amis at the Edinburgh Festival, 24th August 2014

Martin Amis has just completed his second novel on the Holocaust – the first being Time’s Arrow, published in 1991, which he describes as “highly stylized and abstract”. His latest offering, The Zone of Interest, which he appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival to promote, is neither of these. He was very honest about this subject occupying much of his time between both works, describing himself as “obsessed”, and his references suggest he has read every work of authority on the Holocaust, twice. He described his reasons for writing as a “throb to write a certain sort of novel”, which covers the compulsion without making it sound like a perverse addiction, for once.

The first thing to be underlined is that he was a compelling public speaker: articulate, urbane and very funny. He has the skill whereby he can take a useless question and weave it into something worthwhile for everyone in the room without causing offence. The second thing is that he spoke about the Holocaust in a way I had not encountered before; with a balance between lucid scholarship and biting irony that pronged one’s attention. One of his first remarks about Auschwitz (the setting for his novel, in fact it is the ambiguous backdrop for a love affair between an SS officer and his boss’ wife) was that “It was meant to be an earner.” The camp was unique in terms of its financial structure, as each prisoner was meant to have paid their own way through labour. Amis summoned the image of an immensely satisfied accountant marking balanced figures in the right column, before cutting through it deftly with the reminder that each figure only had a life expectancy of four months, at the most. He described the pervasion of fear in that setting: “With the pressure of death so close and vast in that place, the Kommendant only has to direct it at you.”

There are of course rules in writing this sort of book, more so than usual, arguably. One of his is that using Hitler’s name directly is crass: the Führer will do. I have no argument with this. Another of his rules is that he cannot not have a sex scene: despite having been nominated for the Bad Sex Award on several occasions (notably for Lionel Asbo, which reads like a bad dream), and commenting that men do not write sex as well as women, he clearly has not given up trying to improve. This is commendable on one level, and on another just slightly draining. He predictably makes the SS Commander’s wife sound like a wide barge/ cow hybrid, all soaring rump and beefy triceps.

He ventured into more interesting territory when he drew the contrast between the collective shame of the German nation, which will endure for as long as Jewish history is revisited, and the fanaticism springing within the last few years. He described the ageless Jewish attitude to conflict as being to wait out virulent aggression and then to negotiate, in order to try to seek terms. He feels this is unchanged. With regards to polar camps of belief, or even a zeugmatic way of life, he cited Ulysses for containing the clever use of cliché about the two inherited propositions in Ireland: Roman Catholicism, and anti-Semitism.

The analogy for ideology’s relationship with religion used to be methadone to heroine, however the last thirty plus years have proved that analogy to be flawed, as the former turned out to be fiercer than initially believed. When asked to compare the Second World War to ISIS his response was “nothing is so weird and awful that it can’t happen now.”

On that light note, the hour came to a close. Whatever the above may imply, his approach of fascinated analysis was not glutted with horrors, nor despairing complacency, but that of a man panning for patterns, and continually hunting for an answer to the ultimate baffling absurdity.

The Editors

The God Argument

 GraylingThe God Argument – A.C. Grayling

Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” Mark Twain

With the carnage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still looming behind a fragile ceasefire, and with ISIS still rampaging their way across northern Iraq, now seems like a good time to talk about atheism. A.C. Grayling’s short book is essentially a step-by-step guide to giving up religion, with absolutely no ground conceded to my kind of wishy-washy agnosticism. Grayling takes us through each of the main arguments for religion before savagely but politely uprooting them and tossing them aside. The second part of the book is then a celebration of humanism, which is the author’s preferred alternative to God.

The book is chiefly memorable for the way in which Grayling goes about his business of dismantling preconceptions regarding religion, basically doing a lot of the intellectual groundwork that most of us can never summon the energy for. A particular favourite of mine is the manner in which he illustrates the nature of proof via Carl Sagan’s story of the invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire – the lesson being that an inability to invalidate a hypothesis is by no means the same as proving it true. The implications of this are twofold. Firstly, that redefining religion to fit modern science smacks of inconsistency. Secondly, that not being able to disprove the existence of something does not make the odds of its actual existence 50-50, as is sometimes assumed when we say we can’t know with absolute certainty that God does not exist. Grayling points out that this is exactly the same as saying we can’t know that fairies, goblins, unicorns or mermaids don’t exist, but we usually reconcile ourselves to the extreme improbability that they actually do.

More important than the powerful logic Grayling deploys in his favour, however, is the fact that the author is clearly motivated by a genuine preoccupation with the effect of religious belief in the world, and not by a proselytising desire just to make sure everyone agrees with him. I say this is important because I think a lot of atheistic thinkers get caught in the proselytising trap, Richard Dawkins being chief among them. This is, of course, not to say that they are necessarily wrong, but that the way in which they put forward their case harks back to a manner of ideological persuasion we might normally associate with religious preaching, not the opposite. In other words, more or less impartial observers of the religious debate, myself included, need to feel that it is more than a frenzied bout of intellectual masturbation – the stakes may be high but I have always preferred Sartre’s approach, which is to say that even absolute certainty of God’s existence wouldn’t deprive you of responsibility over your own actions (i.e. it should make no difference to how you choose to live your life).

Unfortunately, the reality is that organised religion does make a difference, and for the most part it makes a difference in a profoundly negative way, as has been made abundantly clear to everyone over the past few weeks. Grayling is uncompromising in setting out exactly what he finds distasteful about religion, from its fundamentally divisive nature, to the way it perpetuates itself by targeting children for indoctrination. The latter point is one that bears remembering – no one chooses which side of the wall they are born on.

The Editors

A life in books

StonerStoner – John Williams

This is a book about a man, William Stoner, who enters the University of Missouri at the age of nineteen to study agriculture and never leaves. It charts his progression from undergraduate student to professor of English literature within the university, depicting the trials and tribulations of his professional and family life. Ostensibly, it is not a book that tells a particularly interesting story, certainly not an extraordinary one in any case. Nor does it go into any particular detail about the focus of Stoner’s career as a student or as a teacher of literature; I can’t remember the period or any of authors he specialises in. And yet, Williams manages to convey an irresistible sense of the joy of Stoner’s vocation, starting with a vague awareness of his calling through to the publication of his first text. In fact, the most striking thing about the novel is the way it moves seamlessly through the protagonist’s life, stopping carefully to consider some of the key moments in it, but at all times adopting a detached perspective.

It is this detached perspective that allows the author to capture the vagaries of human life so convincingly, successfully mixing a sense of fatalistic abandonment with an appreciation of Stoner’s stoicism and ability to take stands on matters of principle. He has to make several difficult decisions, including to stay at the university to study literature rather than return to his parents’ farm as originally planned: “If you think you ought to stay here and study your books, then that’s what you ought to do.” However, despite these fleeting instances of self-determination, Stoner’s control over his life is limited in the extreme, as tends to be the case with every life when looked at in retrospect. Similarly, his contact with the outside world, and with history generally, is described in terms of transient encounters: the First and Second World Wars and the Great Depression appear indirectly through other characters rather than as characters in themselves.

Perhaps it is the book’s grasp of the ephemeral that leads many to the conclusion that this is a melancholy novel about a thoroughly downtrodden individual. In many ways that assessment is correct, but it fails to do justice to the full extent of the novel’s scope. For starters, Stoner lives a life of relative comfort and is a man who loves his job. Williams spoke as follows of his protagonist: “I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing.” There is no doubt that, despite some moments of intense conflict and sadness, Stoner’s is a full life, which is more than most will experience. Williams manages to convey this in a thoroughly original manner, and it is a book that haunts the reader long after it has been put down.

The Editors

The Literature of Oppression: Part 4

Escape to Hell by Muammar Gaddafi

Before he was trapped in a sewage pipe in the desert, buggered with a length of steel piping and killed by a mob holding camera-phones.  Before the female bodyguards, and the poor schoolgirls, and the secret bedroom to which he took them, with its gruesome gynaecological surgery next-door.  Before he came in from the cold, and renounced nuclear weapons, or shook Blair’s hand to close a deal with BP.  Before Lockerbie, and WPC Fletcher, and the IRA.  Before he was called Mad Dog, or Fuzzy-head, or Abu Shafshufa.  Before he took to wearing a furry ushanka-hat with the ear-flaps tied beneath his chin, before he permed his hair, before he dressed like an African chieftain and carried a fly-whisk.

Before all of that, Muammar Gaddafi wrote a story called ‘Escape to Hell’.  We cannot know for certain precisely when he wrote it – but it was likely in the 1980s, when Gaddafi had already been leader of Libya for fifteen years.  By then, his brand of political ideology was becoming more fixed: a peculiar blend of social conservatism, populism, revolutionary socialism, pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism.  Gaddafi’s literary style was also on display, and it did not receive a warm reception.  His speeches were rambling and awkward, lurching between standard Arabic, his Bedouin dialect, and Berber tongues.  He liked to coin words in Arabic, but these were laughed at by the intelligentsia in Cairo and Damascus.  And he had published The Green Book as a manifesto of his political philosophy – but this was a poorly-written and widely-mocked collection of aphorisms, bought by tourists as a trinket and recited by school-children in a drone.

* * *

Hardly surprising, then, that Escape to Hell did not attract much attention when it was published in 1993 in a collection of short-stories.  In the bookshops of Tripoli and Benghazi, loyal followers might have bought a copy, but even they must have been underwhelmed by the cover: a green field and a bright sun, drawn in childish bright colours.

Gaddafi

 

And Escape to Hell begins, as uninspiringly as its cover, as a kind of Gaddafi memoir.  There are odd allusions to history, to leaders overthrown by their people, but they feel forced and unnatural. But it is also disarmingly honest: Gaddafi describes his fear of the mob, his fear of his father (who beat him), and his loneliness as a poor Bedouin from the desert in smart, urbane Tripoli.

Having rambled for five or six pages, the reader might be forgiven for shutting the book, bored. He might think that, after all, perhaps Colonel Gaddafi just felt unloved, and out-of-place, and scared.  Maybe that explains it all.

The more cynical reader might even dismiss this outpouring as a clever ruse: self-deprecating to appeal to the wealthy burghers of Tripoli and Benghazi who had never really trusted this upstart shepherd’s boy.  “At least,” Gaddafi wanted them to think, “this Colonel knows his place. He seems to have a healthy fear of us, the people — maybe we can keep him in check after all.  Best to stick with him for a little while longer.”

Keep on reading.  It gets much better.  Without warning, Gaddafi drops all the introspection, all the talk about his fears and his father.  His writing comes to life. It is as though Gaddafi has stepped away from the lectern, jumped down from the podium, two steps at a time, run through the auditorium to where you are sitting, grabbed you by the collar and lifted you out of your seat.

Now he is shouting at you with a truer voice, all historical allusion and affected modesty thrown aside. Gaddafi changes tone abruptly; now he wants to tell the story of how he escaped to Hell.  It is the story of a journey into the desert, away from the mob he so fears, and a journey to solitude and tranquility. And it begins with Gaddafi fleeing Tripoli, hounded by the reader, by the mob.

Your very breath bothers me, invading and violating my privacy; it seeks to squeeze me dry, greedily devouring my essence, licking up my sweat and sucking in my breath.  Then it pauses, to give me a short breathing-space, before it attacks me again.  Your breath chases me like a rabid dog, is saliva dripping in the street of your modern city of insanity.  When I flee, it continues to chase me through cobwebs and esparto.  So I decided to escape to Hell, if only to save myself.

This is pretty good writing, at least stylistically.  Indeed, the whole of the second half of Escape to Hell — the description of Gaddafi’s journey to Hell — is better than you would expect.  The odd thing is that, as you read, you find yourself hearing echoes of great European literature.  After all, the journey to Hell — the descent to the Underworld — is a subject tackled by the greatest writers of all, by Homer, Vergil, Dante and many others.  That is not to say Gaddafi ranks among such great writers — only that there is a ring of literary truth in his writing that we also hear in the finest descriptions of Hell.

Reading the passage above, for example, one could be forgiven for thinking of Aeschylus’ play Eumenides (458 BC); of Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, the prince who killed his mother and was pursued for his crime by those hellish demons, the Furies — “Blow forth on him the breath of wrath and blood, / Scorch him with reek of fire that burns in you, / Waste him with new pursuit — swift, hound him down!

Or, having fled Tripoli, take the description of the beginning of the road into the desert. Gaddafi says: “The path to hell is covered with an unending natural carpet, which I walked along merrily and happily.  When the carpet came to an end, I found the road covered with fine sand. […] I stopped to choose the shortest path to take.”  At once, we think of the famous opening verses of Dante’s Hell — “Midway this way of life we’re bound upon, / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, / Where the right road was wholly lost and gone”.

And when Gaddafi says that he has escaped to the desert to flee the hellish, hounding crowds of Tripoli, to escape the mob, we think of the famous line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play Huis Clos, about people locked in a room in the afterlife: “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” “Hell is other people.”

The cynic will say that Gaddafi has cribbed these allusions from European literature – so much for the illiterate, small-time country boy we encountered in the first half.  Gaddafi was cunning; more clever than he seemed; he must have been pretty well-read.  But, sneers the cynic, Gaddafi was no writer — The Green Book, and all those mad, rambling speeches are proof enough of that — so he can hardly be expected simply to have chanced upon the same turns of phrase as an ancient Greek dramatist, or a Renaissance poet, or an existentialist playwright. No, he was just a cheat, using high literature to make his point, turning beauty to his foul ends.

I disagree.  It is true that the second half of Escape to Hell is more convincing than the autobiographical first.  Whatever his ultimate goal, by describing his escape to the tranquility of the desert, Gaddafi expresses far more eloquently his fear of the Libyan people than he does in the prosaic first half of the story, where his openness and honesty is so earnest that even the most naïf reader must suspect its authenticity.

Instead, the journey to Hell rings true.  Gaddafi finds in the desert a lonely serenity, far away from the city — “How beautiful hell is compared to your city!”, he tells the reader.  I have heard this sentiment expressed by many who have been in the deserts of the Middle East. From young Egyptians fleeing smoggy Cairo for a weekend’s camping under the stars, to an Omani fisherman who liked nothing more than taking a trip into the desert and away from the treacherous sea. After he had crossed the sands of the Empty Quarter with tribesmen of the Rashid, the greatest British Arabist of all, Wilfred Thesiger, wrote something remarkably similar:

When I first entered the sands I was bewildered by the utter unfamiliarity of my surroundings and frightened by the feeling that I had only to be separated from my companions to be completely lost in the maze of dunes. Now, like any Rashid, I regarded the Sands as a place of refuge, somewhere where our enemies could not follow us, and I disliked the idea of leaving the shelter the afforded.

It is for this truth — both literary and simple — that Gaddafi’s description of his journey to Hell is so powerful. It is for this reason that Escape to Hell is good writing.

* * *

In Escape to Hell, Gaddafi journeys into the desert to flee the mob of Tripoli. He would do so again.  In 2011, when the tide of the civil war in Libya had turned against him and the rebels were in Tripoli, Gaddafi gathered his bodyguard and drove out to the sandy wastes, back towards Sirte, his hometown in the desert.

One can imagine that, driving through the sand-dunes in a small convoy, far away now from the shells and the bombs, Gaddafi felt again the calm about which he wrote in Escape to Hell.  Then, ambushed by rebels on the desert road, his followers were killed and Gaddafi was dragged from his hiding-place in a sewage pipe.  There, in the sands, Gaddafi met his end at the hands of a mob.  He had tried to escape, and now he is in Hell.

 George Richards is a writer covering Middle Eastern affairs.  Follow George on Twitter: @gergis

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