Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Monday, January 31, 2005

Another diseased spirit

George Walden was a Tory MP and sometime junior minister between 1983 and 1997. He now reviews books on a regular basis in various London publications. In the left-wing New Statesman he patronises and pours scorn on Hans Erich Nossack’s newly-translated memoir of the Allied air raid on Hamburg; a raid that killed in one night almost as many that have been killed in Iraq over the last two years.

While he does acknowledge that Nossack doesn't seek to blame the Allies for the attack, there is, Walden says, a problem of tone. He is deeply suspicious of the romantic lyricism of Nossack’s prose:

Just as the images of the incineration of 3,000 souls in New York's twin towers were too alluring for aesthetes to resist applauding, the firestorm of Hamburg, says Nossack, ‘was almost lovely to look at’. For him, this vision of hell becomes a great, mystic, chaotic thing. Rather as many a Nazi envisaged war, in fact.

He doesn’t reveal the identity of the applauding aesthetes, which might lead us toward a certain conclusion, to which I’ll come.

What he does do is echo WG Sebald’s critique of German writing in response to the airwar. He agrees that it was concerned with forgetting rather than reportage. Such prose is "part of this process of forgetting". Yet Sebald calls Nossack "the sole exception" who was able to "put down .. concrete facts about the progress and repercussions of the gigantic, long-term campaign of destruction."

In Walden’s account, these concrete facts seem to be swamped by self-pity and moral equivocation. Could this be because Sebald had read widely in the subject and could see things that we can’t?

Walden suggests we read Nossack's book in tandem with Diary of a Man in Despair, an evocation of a nation's diseased spirit leading to war - written by Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, a German who did not equivocate and was consequently shot. Here you get the full moral stench exuded not just by the Fuhrer … but the schoolteachers, shopkeepers, labourers or sub-postmasters who helped give him 88 per cent of the vote. The sweat from their brown-shirted armpits is none the sweeter for coming from humble bodies.

For there is such a thing as the guilt of whole nations
.

Walden’s suspicion extends even to suspecting Sebald of equating the airwar’s destruction with "the enormity of Nazi evil itself" and playing down the culpability of ordinary Germans. This seems excessive; a means of avoidance. What’s more, he seems to want to attach guilt to all Germans who need to reveal the enormity of what happened to them. Walden doesn’t even want to learn enough to forget in the first place. Could this disdain be due to more recent events than the Second World War?

For the first six years of Walden’s time as an MP, he was part of a government that supported Saddam’s evil regime in Iraq: the time, it has to be said, he was at his most dangerous and most murderous. I wonder how he feels about being closer to influencing policy against a tyrant than many of the Germans he pours scorn on? I can find only this sickening article in the Telegraph which curiously fails to mention his own complicity in causing the deaths of the "exterminated millions … in the Iran-Iraq war" yet rages against Germany for refusing to join in the latest turkey shoot. For it is clear he applauds the recent, more direct efforts of extermination by ‘the Allies’, but it is probably 'almost too lovely' for him to describe.

For there is such a thing as the guilt of whole governments.

Sadly, diseased spirits like Walden, who do more than equivocate, suffer a different fate to Reck-Malleczewen.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Missive attack

While the gossip-hungry go hungry waiting for news that won't stay news on TS Eliot, we have only a year or so before Beckett's letters are published (in his centenary year). Meanwhile, here's Kafka on the subject in the subject.

The easy possibility of letter-writing must ... have brought into the world a terrible disintegration of souls. It is, in fact, an intercourse with ghosts, and not only with the ghost of the recipient but also with one's own ghost which develops between the lines of the letter one is writing and even more so in a series of letters where one letter corroborates the other and can refer to it as a witness. How on earth did anyone get the idea that people can communicate with one another by letter! Of a distant person one can think, and of a person who is near one can catch hold - all else goes beyond human strength. Writing letters, however, means to denude oneself before the ghosts, something for which they greedily wait. Written kisses don't reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts.

Abu Ghraib and real violence: a pitiless liberal speaks out

Susie Linfield’s essay The Dance of Civilizations subtitled The West, the East, and Abu Ghraib deserves consideration. It was posted on the left-leaning blog wood s lot on the day the world commemorated the liberation of Auschwitz and the injunction not to forget.

Linfield presents the impact of the photographs in the US and around the world. It seems that the images are now "internationally recognized icons" and that they have become part of US national consciousness. They will not be forgotten.

She says that what makes the photos so powerful is the pleasure with which the torture is depicted. The soldiers seem to enjoy the suffering, and are oblivious to its criminality. When "shame and fear are lacking", Linfield writes, "we all feel threatened". Hence the shocked response.

The essay divides this response into left-wing and the right-wing critiques. The left give a political explanation, blaming the Bush administration for encouraging lawless tactics, while the right blame the "casual brutality of American pop culture - embodied in Internet pornography, video games, rap music, movies, and television shows".

Linfield herself claims not have much knowledge of such culture: "I am not the most happenin' gal" she says. However, she is still suspicious of cultural critiques because campaigns against "mass-produced cultural forms" has a correlate in freedoms such as "the availability of birth control and abortion; the ability to live outside marriage; the freedom to read, see, and write anything I want, including this article." As Augie March - that great herald of American individuality and freedom - puts it: "Everyone knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining." However, she does point out that the left also see the impact of popular culture on what happened at Abu Ghraib (and, specifically, why we are aware of it): Susan Sontag observes that "photographing the torture was simply the natural extension of the image-world in which we moderns dwell: An erotic life is, for more and more people, that which can be captured in digital photographs and on video . . . .To live is to be photographed.

Linfield dislikes the "paroxysms of self-hate" of the US left over Abu Ghraib, and the sneering of Europeans (she cites the London Review of Books!) who depict the United States "as a uniquely depraved force of destruction". In her opinion, this is excessive if we compare the photos with those of the beheadings by the Islamic terrorist known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. His followers:

number far more than those [Lynndie] England could ever hope to attract. The most pitiless, most graphic, most celebratory and, yes, most lovingly photographed violence - real violence - emanating throughout the world today comes precisely from those who are expressly opposed to the lazy trashiness of American popular culture.

Her point though is not to reveal that the East is more barbaric than the West, but to ask how the West should proceed in this "diabolical pas de deux of violence and death". For this reason she believes it is the task of US citizens to strengthen US democracy rather than continuing on Bush's road of repression. However, the US, she says, must still fight a war on terrorists groups. Opposing torture does not end the discussion about the "ways and means in the war on terror". This is what she presents as important.

Yes, human rights belong to every human; but this does not tell us all we need to know about how to fight pitiless nihilists who regard suicide-cum-murder as life's best experience - and who do not, alas, represent an isolated, disowned lunatic fringe of the Muslim or Arab world.

As a result, there are "tragic choices" to be made by the US in order to "save the lives of innocent civilians".

In this last point, Linfield has more followers than al-Zarqawi. They are the same people who are appalled at the Abu Ghraib images. But they are also the people who funded two unilateral and illegal invasions of sovereign nations, with the subsequent loss of 150,000+ lives, and then re-elected the people who initiated them. Not one of these deaths has become an "internationally recognized icon" (despite the odd photo in obscure places). From reading this article, one would think there was no connection between US foreign policy and Islamic terrorism (or should that be US terrorism and Islamic self-defence?).

It seems that, ironically, for all her protestations of distance from popular culture, Linfield has fallen under its solipsistic spell. Nowhere does she mention the recent slaughter in Afghanistan and Iraq. The civilian death toll is staggering, yet it has no bearing on Linfield’s unhappnin' consciousness. As "associate director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University", she might have missed the coverage given to it. It hasn't wormed its way into communal memory like Abu Ghraib because it cannot be contained in a photograph. For sure, Linfield has the freedom to write about the slaughter but for some reason she doesn’t. Perhaps she made one of those "tragic choices".

Elsewhere, Linfield reveals that she didn’t protest against the imminent invasion of Iraq. There is no fear or shame here either.

Monday, January 24, 2005

The photocopier speaks out

Jonathan Yardley's photocopier was in action over the weekend. In his review of a John Grisham novel he almost writes: The prevailing assumption among the literati is still ... that popularity equals mediocrity.

How many times have we read opinions like this? It's like the same article is photocopied to save the 'author' from having to write, let alone think. As usual, no examples are given of members of the literati expressing the assumption.

Yardley - or rather the photocopier - goes on:

The assumption is entirely invalid, since it requires us to dismiss out of hand the immensely popular and notably distinguished work of Graham Greene, Charles Dickens, Eudora Welty, William Styron and Anne Tyler, to name five who come immediately to mind.

Although I think four of the above are pretty mediocre (I don't know anything about the fifth), I wouldn't argue for the assumption; after all my favourite author Thomas Bernhard is a bestseller in Europe. But I do wonder what Yardley is bothered about.

A few writers of what is still pigeonholed as 'genre' fiction have attained a measure of critical respect – Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, et al. – but it is handed out in a grudging or slumming sort of way.

Ah, so that's it. He wants critical respect for 'genre' authors. But why? Would the respect of the literati make any difference? According to Yardley, it's peripheral anyway. When I compare the contrasting market status of Bernhard in Europe with that in the UK and US, it has no impact on my enjoyment of his novels. I can't imagine how it could, unless my enjoyment depended on extra-literary criteria. Currently, I have no need for any individual or group to tell me Bernhard is acceptable or not. So why is Yardley giving such respect to the judgement of an anonymous literati?

There might be an answer in his admittance that the author under review isn't up to his aforementioned five. Does John Grisham rank with these in literary as well as marketplace terms? Of course not, and he might well be the first to agree.

Self-deprecation, you notice, is the first tactic used by many 'genre' fictioners and their fans. It enables the standing gravity of literary judgement to be at once denigated and surreptitiously indulged. In this case, it begs the question: what makes these five better in literary terms? Yardley doesn't say, but clearly he believes there are distinctions to be made. So, if we agree that popularity doesn't equal mediocrity and, its correlate, that popularity doesn't equal superiority, the question then becomes: how can we make the distinction?

It's a difficult and fascinating question, one that goes to the heart of literature and, if one holds one's gaze, to the heart of what it means to be human. More than ever it's a question we must face, standing at a distance from the photocopier. For this reason, it is terrible that those in a privileged position (that is, who are able to devote their working lives to reading to inform and guide the rest of us) avoid the issue. Yet maybe that's why they are in such a position.

(Link courtesy of Maud.)

Sunday, January 23, 2005

McCrum of no comfort

In 2105, readers will turn to [McEwan's] work to understand Britain's painful years of post-imperial transition.

On January 23rd, 2005, readers don't need to turn to The Observer's literary coverage to know what a pile of crap it is.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Sunday afternoon: McEwan on Newsnight Review

The author of Saturday talks about how, in 2001, he was planning a comic novel about a tabloid journalist. Then 9/11 occurred and he lost interest. He lost interest in the novel and novel writing itself for six or so months. Clearly the deaths of 100,000+ Iraqis didn't have the same impact.

But he does admit that the two million protesters on the day Saturday is set were completely right.

He moves quickly on beyond the implications of this troublesome fact by saying that Henry Perowne (the main character of Shaturday) could not agree with them as this would make it rather a boring novel. OK, I suppose.

Yet perhaps a fictional or non-fictional study of a Western middle-class liberal's wilful unwillingness to admit the bleedin' obvious would have been more worthwhile than an apologia in the form of a swirl of elegant writerly dry-ice (Mark Lawson thinks it's beautifully written!).

PS - An Anecdote:
When I was a student sitting in the library reading the graffiti on the desks, I saw a male head pop round a corner. I recognised the face. Later, I saw him again. It was Ian McEwan looking for his daughter. That's what he told me. I told him that I enjoyed The Child in Time and that my American housemate was reading The Innocent. Later, I told her that I told him. She was very excited. I put that novel down after a few pages and haven't read him since (except for these painful extracts).

There is no love on the one true path

Today, Kevin Hart's The Dark Gaze: Maurice Blanchot and the Sacred arrived and I am pleased.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The moment of distraction

The Electronic Book Review has a review of The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture by Mark C Taylor. His name was impressed on me by his short but stimulating contribution to a book on Maurice Blanchot. As a result, the title and subject of this book came as a surprise.

It seems he's written many books with more attractive subjects and titles than the one under review: Tears, Altarity and Grave Matters. The latter is a meditation on "the graves of American and European artists, architects, writers, philosophers and musicians who shaped modern culture". Cool.

Good thing it was accidental, otherwise they would have suffered more

"US Soldiers Accidently Massacre Iraqi family of seven".

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Sunday morning: more on McEwan's Saturday

ReadySteadyBlog provides a mouseful of links around McEwan's new novel. In particular, the lengthy (i.e. I scanned it) article on The Sharp Side, a blog new to me (though I'm delighted to see it links to The Gaping Void!). It more than justifies my intolerant reaction to the recent extract from the novel.

Some might condemn my reaction as politically motivated rather than a discerning literary judgement. Indeed, The Sharp Side's author concedes that "[i]t would be unfair to condemn a novel which hasn’t yet been published and which I haven’t yet read". Yet I need only read one sentence from the novel, quoted in The Complete Review's review, to feel political and literary disgust:

This reading list persuaded Perowne that the supernatural was the recourse of an insufficient imagination ...

Whenever I read a sentence like this from a fictional work, I feel the stuffy breath of the Master Novelist. No doubt it is beautifully written. This is not the problem. The problem is that it has the same solipsistic tendency of the beginner who takes up residence in the snug of fiction, suddenly freed from the cold wind and rain of uncertainty.

I once described this kind of sentence to a friend by making up the opening line of to ficticious novel: Laetitia was glad she had lighted a fire in the parlour as the day had turned dark and cold. It evokes, to me, the same sense of suffocation as one feels in the company of a bully.

There's a phrase that comes to my mind now, the source of which I cannot recall, that sums up my own approach to fiction: the creative letting-go of the desire for possession. This is not an intellectual approach - or at least not solely - but felt in the urge to write itself. When I read a sentence like McEwan's, I feel that I am not reading fiction at all. What can it be called instead?

John McCririck: lest we forget

From 9pm to 950pm I used the Recall button on my remote to switch between BBC2's Auschwitz: The Nazis and 'The Final Solution' and C4's Celebrity Big Brother.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Bernhard in the Cabinet

Gregory Williams on a postcard from the Austrian Cultural Forum.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

The Kafka Project

Mauro Nervi's impressive resource The Kafka Project has been redesigned and relaunched. The site went down after I had accessed a good appreciation of Kafka's short story The Cares of a Family Man by EV Meksin from the front page. Now it's gone and I can't find the link.

Extracted from involvement: Ian McEwan's Saturday

I began reading this Guardian piece thinking it was a review of Ian McEwan's new novel Saturday about a man caught up in the February 15th 2003 march against the coming invasion and occupation of Iraq. The opening lines didn't disabuse me. I thought it was summary of a scene in the novel. But by the second sentence of the third paragraph, I had realised something was wrong. Up to this point, there had not been a comment from the reviewer.

The first sentence of the third paragraph is: Ever since he treated an Iraqi Professor of Ancient History for a cerebral aneurysm, saw his torture scars and listened to his stories, Perowne has had ambivalent or confused and shifting ideas about this coming invasion.

At this point, I still thought it was a review. After all, it does read like a précis. From the second sentence of the third paragraph, however, it begins the story of the Iraqi professor. It was here that I stopped.

It was so unconvincing and yet there was no comment from the reviewer about 'caricature' and the like. Hasn't "Henry Perowne" (and what an unconvincing name that is!) ever treated another torture victim from somewhere less newsworthy? This is a prime example of journalism by other means. The narrative does not include itself in its meticulous study.

My mistake in reading it as review was an unwittingly perceptive one. There is no involvement but a supercilious schematic based on a very limited perspective that is also unaware of its limits. However, this is the understanding of what fiction is if one reads reviews in newspapers like The Guardian. Here we have a narrative of complete control where the only doubt is the contemptible liberal umming-and-arring of a character designed to justify the inexcusable open-mindedness to Blair's criminal war by writers like Ian McEwan and other journalists.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Time of the Superwolf

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy’s new record is a collaboration with Matt Sweeney. Together they form Superwolf. After several listens, I'm still not won over.

Four songs stand out: A Beast for Thee, Lift Me Up, Bed is for Sleeping and Death in the Sea. Generally, these are the cooler, quieter songs. Some were written by Sweeney. Yet all lack the essential Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. I felt more or less the same about Master & Everyone, Ease Down the Road and, going back much further, Joya. While there are great songs in each, there is a sense of an inauthentic assertion (which might explain why they were popular with journalists). However, with these LPs, one at least felt there was something going on, a search for a way forward.

Some might now look back and see Greatest Palace Music - the lush, Nashville reworkings of the Palace Brothers' low-fi alt-Country classics - as an indication of BPB’s stagnation, or worse, his betrayal. I don't. I see it as a triumphant reassertion of his essence: serious joy. All the darkness of the originals is unified with the brightest, most gorgeous music. It’s not a matter of being better or worse but of reinvention.

Superwolf is, by comparison, fairly complacent arcane musings in familiar (familiarly arcane) BPB territory. There is no real sense of reinvention.

Only with the opening lines of Death in the Sea do I sense what makes Will Oldham songs special.

Someday I must die.
It ain’t for me to know why.
And I want to die in the sea
.

Here is the familiar and endearing preoccupation with death; a morbidity that is immediately mixed with an odd sense of joy – due partly to the cool tenderness with which Will Oldham sings the lines, and partly to the writing: the adamant statement of the final line, in all its cheerful peculiarity, raises the spirits. The dual movement towards death and life is all important. It makes me want to hear it again and again. Unfortunately, the rest of the song dissipates this joy too easily.

Perhaps the collaboration with Sweeney has diluted the essence. But all music is a collaboration. Individuals collaborate with music. This is why Will Oldham appears as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. He recognises (seems to feel it viscerally) that the music removes Will Oldham from himself. He is reinvented, or goes as far as to become someone else. When this dynamic is the subject of his songwriting (with death at its heart), Bonnie 'Prince' Billy comes into his own. With Superwolf, reinvention is indulged in rather than explored.

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