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Wednesday, 31 March 2010

This Pope's No Joke

It's been nice to see the Pope and sections of the Catholic Church coming under sustained attack of late for their criminal role in the cover-up of child abuse. It's been clear from the moment he was elected that Ratzinger was a nasty piece of work and these new revelations have only further confirmed that fact.
Plenty of people with wildly differing agendas have been writing about this scandal, including Matt Taibbi whose pieces in Rolling Stone are usually hilariously bang on the money. However, he's a bit off-kilter and overwrought here, allowing his obvious personal issues with the Catholic Church to get in the way of what should have been one hell of a throw-down.
Jane Kramer over at the New Yorker, however, gets it just right. Informed and knowledgeable about Ratzinger and the church, she presents a litany of damaging evidence and example from Ratzinger's life and work which cumulatively builds to a devastating and damning climax.
One of the pertinent side points she makes concerns Ratzinger's despicable treatment of certain heroic South American priests when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (i.e. the Inquisition):

Under Ratzinger’s watch, the liberation theologians of Central and South America—Christian-communitarian evangelists, and not, as his Pope preferred it, Marxists—were either removed, summoned to Rome and silenced, or, in the case of bishops who had risked their lives to bear witness to the atrocities of their various military regimes, gerrymandered out of existence and their parishes folded into the dioceses of more accommodating and even complicitous priests. 

It's clear that even back then Ratzinger was an expert at punishing the innocent and rewarding the guilty. 

Kramer is obviously angry and disgusted by what she is writing about, but her quiet and measured approach allows the rage and contempt to shine through all the more powerfully. Read it and weep. 

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Reality Hunger and An Anti-Literary Manifesto Manifesto

Another day, another literary manifesto declaiming the death of the novel. Groan.

Just when I’d got over my annoyance at Zadie Smith’s handwringing Two Paths for the Novel essay (why two paths? Why not 100? Who said we have to make a choice?), along comes David Shields with his Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Brimming over with the overwrought language, false oppositions and absurd claims that we’ve come to expect from this genre (Plot is dead! We desperately need a form that reflects what it’s like to live in the 21st Century! Books need to be more like reality TV!) Reality Hunger also demonstrates the same lack of historical awareness and broader context that all these ‘whither the novel’ Jeremiads indulge in.

Forget not seeing the forest for the trees - for most of Reality Hunger, Shields is so busy headbutting the trees that it’s hard to imagine he even knows what a forest is anymore. One never gets the sense reading him that people have been saying similar things about the novel for almost as long as there have been novels – for Shields everything is a revelation and a revolution.

Conventional fiction teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fathomable whole that concludes in neatly wrapped up revelation. Life, though--standing on a street corner, channel surfing, trying to navigate the web or a declining relationship, hearing that a close friend died last night--flies at us in bright splinters.

Shit – really? Oh my God – that must mean the novel is dead!!

For nearly 250 pages it goes on like this. If you can imagine being forced to listen to a particularly self-indulgent performance artist shouting at you in the midst of a religious revival meeting, you’ll have some sense of what it’s like to plough through Reality Hunger.

Laura Miller over at Salon has done a great job of taking apart Shields’ book and the faulty thinking that lies both beneath it and other ‘the novel is dead’ whines. I just wanted to add a few extra things that I’ve noticed when reading Shields and others like him.

Firstly, every time I read one of these ‘the novel is in crisis’ rants, I always come away with the feeling that it’s not the novel that’s in crisis – it’s the author of the rant. It’s true of Shields and seems particularly true of Zadie Smith in her Two Paths essay. In that essay she goes to great lengths to set up a false opposition which will prove her claim that the novel is currently suffering a crisis of identity. But in doing so the only crisis of identity she truly reveals is her own – both as an author and as an individual in the early 21st Century. Faced with a world that prefers to watch TV and surf the internet, you get a sense that Smith, Shields and co have suffered a collective crisis of confidence. Instead of standing up for the novel, they start thrashing around and end up apologising for its very existence.

Shields is particularly guilty of this and it leads him to then make a claim that a lot of these sort of writers end up making; namely that the contemporary literary novel is irrelevant because as a form it does not reflect the confusion, chaos and uncontrollable messiness of modern life. Because most novels refuse to reflect this messiness at the level of form (the argument goes) the novel can no longer adequately speak to or convey contemporary concerns. This then leads Shields on (as it has led many others) to champion certain techniques such as cut and paste, fictional memoirs, quasi-realism and even plagiarism as a solution.

Some solution.

By confusing form with content, Shields is unable to recognise that despite its 19th Century roots, the contemporary literary novel can still engage with the present in a meaningful way. In fact, I would argue that the contemporary literary novel’s refusal or inability to radically alter its form gives it a power and a place that slavish devotion to fashion would kill off.
And anyway, just because contemporary Western culture has embraced the soundbite and the image, the neurosis of surface and speed, why on earth does the novel need to do the same? If the world has gone mad, does the novel need to go mad too? Maintaining some cool distance and refraining from jumping down the rabbit hole in such a situation is not a sign of irrelevance; it’s a sign of sanity.

But I guess what I think is truly silly about these ‘novel in crisis’ books, essays and manifestos is that in trying so hard to draw lines in the sand, they call on the reader to make choices when none are necessary. There are a lot of exciting innovations going on with the novel and some great new voices working within the form and pushing it in new directions. Like Shields, I love Geoff Dyer’s books. But I also love quite a lot of Ian McEwan, trashy crime novels, Roberto Bolano and Flaubert. For me, the thought of having to pick sides among them seems ridiculous; as I’m sure it would seem to most people.

But for Shields and many like him, everything has to be turned into an either/or, an us-and-them scenario. Like the consumerist society they mimic, Shields and co demand that Choices Must Be Made.

Anyway, I’m so fed up with reading ‘novel-is-dead’ essays and manifestos that I thought I’d put together a half-baked manifesto of my own. I call it:

My Anti-Literary Manifesto Manifesto

Just because you hate Ian McEwan’s Saturday or Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections doesn’t mean that the contemporary realistic novel needs to be done away with

There are more important things in life than form

The conventional realist novel is not an oppressive power structure and championing fake memoirs, cut and paste techniques, plagiarism or non-linear structures is not an act of dangerous subversion. Nor is it ultimately very interesting

Unless you happen to live in the late 19th or early 20th Century, issuing manifestos and declaring that you belong to a literary movement is kind of embarrassing

If you are bored with the novel, perhaps the problem lies with you rather than the novel

If you are bored with plot, perhaps the problem lies with you rather than with plot

The contemporary literary novel is not your father/your mother/God/the state/capitalism/the ‘dominant ideology’

Stop your handwringing, slow down and get some perspective. As much as we love them, these are books we’re talking about; not matters of life and death

There is a reason why Ulysses is a better book than Finnegans Wake

It’s perfectly possible to like the novels of David Foster Wallace and Joseph O’Neill. It’s even possible to like the novels of David Foster Wallace, Joseph O’Neill and Stephen King

If you’re so upset about conventional linear narratives, why are you still clinging to 19th Century notions of progress and development?

Convention doesn’t always mean cliché any more than tradition always means control

Do your homework. If you haven’t read a good smattering of Flaubert, Proust, Eliot, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens and Hemingway then you really have no right to be issuing manifestos about the novel

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Ian McEwan on Solar and Climate Change

There's an interesting ten-minute video interview with Ian McEwan over on the Friends of the Earth website where he talks about his new novel, Solar, climate change, spending time in the Arctic and what it's going to take to tackle global warming.

He covers a lot of ground in the ten minutes and makes some good points, particularly when he notes that tackling climate change is going to also mean tackling some of the least admirable qualities we possess as human beings:

We're being asked to do favours for people we'll never meet...for people not yet born. This requires a scale of long-term thinking which lies outside our biology, so it's a particularly interesting challenge.

Yet despite this, his hope is that "our cleverness might win through" and save the day.

Mmm, perhaps.

Anyway, the interview is definitely worth a look, particularly as an antidote to John Crace's predictably sarcastic Digested Read of Solar from today's Guardian.

Monday, 8 March 2010

A Man for All Seasons vs Wolf Hall

I caught some of the 1966 movie A Man for All Seasons on TV over the weekend and was surprised to see how well it’s held up. Of course, having an all-star cast including Paul Scofield, a gloriously bloated Orson Welles and a fresh-faced John Hurt helps, as does a cracking screenplay adapted by Robert Bolt from his own play. Yet much as I enjoyed watching it, there was still something that niggled about the whole thing just as it did when I first had to read the play and watch the film back in school twenty-odd years ago.
What bugged me was the man for all seasons, himself: Thomas More.

Although he’s the moral centre and unassailable Man of Conscience in the play and film, I’ve always felt there was something unbearably self-righteous and smug about the character of More as Bolt portrays him. All that talk of hiding in the law, the semantic games and the refusal to speak openly have always made him seem more pedant than hero to me. And although Scofield’s performance in the film gives the character some warmth, on the page itself More comes across as a cold, aloof, insufferable prig.

I don’t know - perhaps the play would have been better served if Bolt had spiced things up a bit by introducing a few of More’s real-life foibles, such as hairshirts, self-flagellation and his sadistic love of torturing and killing heretics?

Whatever the case, it was only when I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall that I felt I had found someone who was as annoyed by the More of A Man for All Seasons as much as me. Not only is Wolf Hall a novel which takes a great deal of pleasure in putting the boot into More, it also spends quite a bit of time gleefully puncturing much of his self-righteous certainty. In fact, so sustained is the attack on More in the book, that at times it feels like Mantel is deliberately writing with A Man for All Seasons in mind.

Here is Cromwell on More’s refusal to take the oath:

...this silence of More’s was never really silence, was it? It was loud with his treason; it was quibbling as far as quibbles would serve him, it was demurs and cavils, suave ambiguities. It was fear of plain words, or the assertion that plain words pervert themselves.

Mantel’s decision to make Thomas Cromwell the heroic central character of her book also speaks volumes. While in Bolt’s play Cromwell is the arch-manipulator and villain, in Wolf Hall he is a rough and ready, self-made Renaissance man, open to new ideas and experience. He is a precursor to modern man and, as such, utterly unlike Thomas More.

[Cromwell] never sees More...without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too.

Most revealing of all, however, is the fact that Mantel’s most cutting attack on More comes from the mouth of Cromwell in the form of a theatrical metaphor describing More’s silent refusal to take the oath. Reading it feels like a deliberate ‘fuck you’ to Bolt’s play and film:

Do you know what I hate? I hate to be part of this play, which is entirely devised by him. I hate the time it will take that could be better spent, I hate it that minds could be better employed, I hate to see our lives going by, because depend on it, we will all be feeling our age before this pageant is played out. And what I hate most of all is that Master More sits in the audience and sniggers when I trip over my lines, for he has written all the parts. And written them these many years.

I’m not sure if A Man for All Seasons is taught in schools anymore, but if it is it would be fun to see this quote plastered on the back of every copy. I, for one, wish I'd had it to hand back in my school days.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Literary Pilgrimages and Laurie Lee

Although at times I’ve been embarrassed to admit it, the truth is I’ve always been a bit of a fan of the literary pilgrimage. One of the first things I did when moving to London years ago was sneak off to Hampstead to see the house Keats had lived in (see pic above). I still remember standing in the garden and getting very excited when I saw the plaque indicating the very spot on which Keats was supposed to have been sitting when he wrote Ode to a Nightingale. At that moment I felt that both the poem and Keats himself had come alive to me in a way they weren’t before. Not in some bogus transcendental manner, but simply in the way that the physical reality of the place gave both ode and man a context and grounding they just hadn’t had for me previously. Keats and the poem no longer lived merely on the page or in my head – they had become flesh.

I felt the same way when I happened to be in Oxford, Mississippi, a few years back and went to see Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s grand old Southern home. Walking around this place, seeing Faulkner’s Underwood typewriter on which he wrote so many of his books and seeing some of Lafayette County - the real-life counterpart to Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County - made Faulkner’s work feel tangible, real and utterly contemporary. I’d always loved Faulkner’s novels and regarded them as awe-inspiring works, but now I also truly understood they were written by a flesh and blood man who sat in this chair, walked on this path, lived in this house. He and his books suddenly moved out of the realm of fantasy and the abstract and became grounded in real life. The hard graft and creative work which went into making these books suddenly became more real.

Of course, plenty of people object to the literary pilgrimage for a variety of reasons, cheesiness chief among them. Some people may prefer to maintain the primacy of their imagination, and feel that seeing where a book was set or where an author lived encroaches upon them in the same way that a film adaptation of a book can sneak into your head and replace your images, characters and scenes with those from the movie.

Fair enough, but I prefer to think of this as less a confrontation where images fight for supremacy and more of a creative conversation, where the pictures that explode and form in your head while you’re reading meet up with the real world and both are enriched by the contrast.

However, sometimes the two seem to perfectly mirror each other in ways that can feel quite eerie. I had one of those experiences last weekend when I went to Gloucestershire for a few days away. It turns out that we were staying not far from Slad, the small village where Laurie Lee grew up and which he immortalised in Cider with Rosie. I’ve always loved Lee’s books, so I knew I had to go and take a look at the house he grew up in.

It wasn’t hard to find, but what struck me was how closely it resembled the house as I’d imagined it when reading Cider with Rosie.

Our house was 17th-century Cotswold, and was handsome as they go. It was built of stone, had hand-carved windows, golden surfaces, moss-flaked tiles, and walls so thick they kept a damp chill inside them whatever the season or weather … Most of the cottages were built of Cotswold stone and were roofed by split-stone tiles. The tiles grew a kind of golden moss which sparkled like crystallised honey...Behind the cottages were long, steep gardens full of cabbages, fruit bushes, roses, rabbit hutches, earth-closets, bicycles and pigeon lofts.

The bicycles, cabbages and pigeon lofts may be long gone, but the ramshackle charm of the building was still very much there. It looked almost exactly like how I imagined it.

As I looked down on it and later, when I walked past the pub and old school which Lee had walked past when leaving the village on his way to London and then Spain, images and scenes from the books came flashing back to me. I determined there and then that I was going to dig out my old copies of his books and re-read them.

After all, that seems to me the goal of any literary pilgrimage – not to merely wind up at a place, but to ensure that the place acts as an inspiring waymarker leading you back to your ultimate destination: the books themselves.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Girl with the Dodgy Friends; or why neoconservatives love Stieg Larsson.

Unless you’ve been wandering around lost in your local branch of IKEA for the past couple of months, you’re probably aware of at least some of the hoopla surrounding Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.

The biggest thing out of Sweden since ABBA, these thrillers (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) have become a global publishing phenomenon. Now with the first of the movie adaptations set to hit the big screen here in the UK in a few weeks’ time, Larsson’s books look like they’re going to get an even bigger publicity boost.

Although there’s plenty to fascinate about the Larsson phenomenon, one of the most interesting elements is the way so many journalists have latched onto the books and breathlessly championed them. In the Guardian, Roy Greenslade writes they are a “must-read for journalists”, while Boyd Tonkin in the Independent, Joan Smith in the Sunday Times and countless others elsewhere have sung their praises.

There’s no real surprise, here. Journalists love reading about themselves, and particularly like reading about themselves when they’re portrayed as incorruptible crusaders for truth. And in the character of Mikael Blomkvist, they may have found their ultimate wish-fulfilment fantasy.

As a pin-up for campaigning journalism, this guy is hard to beat. Not only does he manage to land world-shattering, government-toppling-type scoops on a regular basis, he sets his own briefs, leads a life of thrilling adventure and also just happens to be good-looking and irresistible to women. There’s no doubt this all makes for a great read, but as a portrayal of journalists and journalism as it’s practiced today, it bears about as much relation to reality as a Fox News report.

Never mind. It’s clear that most journalists love these books not because they’re a realistic depiction of the life and work of a journalist, but because they depict a life and work most journalists would love to have.

What’s not so clear, however, is why alongside these regular journalists, so many neoconservative commentators and their fellow travellers have taken these books to heart. In recent months both Nick Cohen in The Observer and Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair have hyperventilated about Larsson and Salander, while various other loons around the place seem to have latched onto Larsson’s books as a sort of thinly-veiled political manifesto.

To work out why these guys love Larsson so much, it’s useful to take a closer look at Larsson’s politics.

It is well known that Larsson drew on his own experiences as a campaigning journalist to create Blomkvist, and much has been made of the fact that he wrote for a renowned anti-racist journal. What’s not advertised on his biog blurb, however, is the fact that Larsson was also a revolutionary socialist and was once the editor of a Trotskyist journal.

Now I’m not saying there’s any conspiracy going on here, but once you become aware of this you can see how these novels in certain ways reflect some of the inflexibility of that ideology. Like the work of most ideologues, there’s a strong strand of intolerance and humourless self-righteous judgement humming along beneath the surface of these books.
Just take the titles. In Sweden, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had the painfully literal title, Men Who Hate Women. Catchy, huh?

While other thrillers and crime novels are keen to explore moral complexities and grey areas, there’s none of that in the Larsson novels. His is a world of good and bad, of black and white where the good may have minor faults (Salander’s anti-social tendencies, Blomkvist’s single-mindedness) but where they are unarguably on the side of the angels.

Not so the baddies. Not only are the villains here without any redeeming qualities, they’re also unrepentant misogynists and racists who deserve nothing more than severe punishment, humiliation and death. There are no lesser villains with Larsson. Ever had sex with a prostitute? No excuses – you are an abuser who must be punished. Ever expressed or even harboured some slightly retrograde or un-PC opinions? A good beating, humiliation, your life ruined and possibly death is all that’s coming to you.

Hand in hand with these Dredd-style judgements is a casual approval of violence in extreme forms. When the baddies torture, rape or kill in the books, they are merely expressing their inherent evil. Yet when Salander shoots people, beats them up or ruins their lives (as she does on numerous occasions throughout the trilogy) she is merely exercising her moral right as a victim and as one of the oppressed. We’re meant to cheer her on, and we do. In fact, much of the fun and thrill of the books come in the way they power along as turbo-charged revenge fantasies that stick it to the man with guilt-free glee.

There’s nothing really wrong with that, of course. The avenger has a long pedigree in literature, and Larsson plays with that in a way that isn’t always so humourless and literal. And although these books deal with contemporary politics and the abuse of power, it’s clear that, ultimately, they’re fantasies rather than a realistic blueprint of how to confront oppression.

Clear, that is, unless you happen to be a journalist like Nick Cohen, who in his bizarre piece seems to portray the books as some form of moral template and Larsson himself as the possessor of a righteous certainty Cohen believes is lacking in modern European democracies.

“Larsson had none of the characteristic difficulties of contemporary writers in conveying fear or acknowledging the existence of evil, which afflict even John le Carré,” Cohen writes in his piece. (yeah le Carré, you appeaser. No wonder you’ve got a French-sounding name…)

After praising the Swede for his “generous” politics and claiming that his books gain their power because of the “political knowledge that he gained as a socialist militant”, Cohen then lambasts modern Britain for lacking Larsson’s “principled consistency”.

Of course, all of this is depressingly familiar to anyone who has read Cohen in the past few years. For those of you who aren’t familiar with his dull tirades, Cohen is one of those former lefties like Christopher Hitchens and David Aaronovich who, post 9/11, underwent a sort of reverse-Damascene conversion in which it was revealed that ‘Islamofacism’ was the greatest threat of our era, and that anyone who didn’t understand that or support the war in Iraq must obviously be a fool, an appeaser, or both.

It’s important to note when reading the guff these men write (and yep, it’s always men) that although they tend to bang on a lot about defending human rights and the rights of women, what they seem most interested in is defending their right to see themselves as warriors involved in some grand and glorious global struggle.

As creepy as it is, it’s no real surprise, then, to see the likes of Cohen, Hitchens and all manner of other neoconservatives latching on to the Larsson books. Cohen (a former leftist) and Hitchens (a former Trotskyite) may have turned their back on many of their former beliefs, but they haven’t been able to stop sharply dividing the world into good and bad, and wishing to see the bad as deserving of severe punishment.

Like Salander in the Larsson novels, when it comes to confronting who they see as the baddies Cohen, Hitchens and their fellow travellers all seem remarkably sanguine about the use of violence. So long, of course, as it’s other people both dishing it out and receiving it. Neocons are, if nothing else, dedicated armchair warriors. Let’s not forget that as prominent and unrepentant cheerleaders for the war in Iraq, these guys have tacitly endorsed slaughter and bloodshed on a grand scale, even while claiming to be on the side of the oppressed.

Not that Larsson’s novels should take the blame for this. Larsson managed to confine his violent fantasies to the realm of fiction, where they belong. For Cohen, for Hitchens and for all the other warmongering ‘liberal interventionists’ who have allowed their fantasies to roam free in the real world, the same excuse can not be made. Perhaps it’s time they put down the novels, stopped dreaming about Lisbeth Salander, and learnt to tell the difference between fact and fiction.

It would be a shame if Larsson’s fine and fun thrillers were tainted by their endorsement.

Friday, 12 February 2010

The Body of Lies Index: a more reliable economic indicator than anything the Office for National Statistics puts out.

I live in the East End of London and, looking around sometimes, it’s not always easy to tell that there’s a recession going on. That’s not because the area has somehow miraculously escaped the after-effects of the banking collapse and the financial crisis - far from it. No, it’s not easy to tell there is a recession going on because this place always looks like there is a recession going on.

Boarded-up shops, Poundland doing a roaring trade, a general vibe of poverty and make-do and mend – that was what it was like when I moved here during the boom years, and nothing much has changed since.

Yet even though this latest recession has been largely invisible here, that’s not to say there are not signs of the outside world’s economic woes. If you happen to be passing along Bow Road you’ll be able to see one of these signs, quite literally. Sitting just down from Bow Road tube station above the forecourt of a used car dealership is a gigantic billboard advertising the Ridley Scott movie, Body of Lies, starring Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio.

With its moody, dark design and a tagline that seems to express both the public and the bankers’ respective responses to the recession – ‘Trust No One. Deceive Everyone’ – this billboard has been looming over Bow Road since November 2008.

That’s right – November 2008. Not last year, but the year before. By my count, it’s actually been up there for 66 weeks, during which time Russell Crowe has probably gained another 20 lbs and DiCaprio has lost even more of the boyish good looks he once possessed.

Although it’s now been there so long that most people don’t even notice it anymore, whenever I see it it always sends a slight shiver of anxiety coursing through me. That’s not because I think the movie was crap – although, admittedly, it wasn’t that great - it’s because the fact that this ad is there indicates to me that no matter what some statisticians and optimists say, it’s clear we’re still in deep economic shit.

For me this poster isn’t advertising a half-decent Ridley Scott spy thriller; it’s advertising the fact that for well over a year there has not been one company in the whole of the Greater London area who have had enough money to buy an ad to replace Crowe and DiCaprio’s moody visages. We all knew that advertising was in trouble long before this recession started, but this is ridiculous.

That was why when it was announced the week before last by the Office of National Statistics that the UK had finally moved out of recession, the first thing I did after snorting in derision was take a little walk to see if Body of Lies was still there. Sure enough, it was and still is.

Now entering its 67th week, the Body of Lies billboard has become a sort of oblique economic performance indicator for UK plc, and one whose presence seems a more reliable gauge of the state of the country’s economic wellbeing than any pronouncements made by the Office for National Statistics, the Bank of England, Gordon Brown, Dave Cameron or Mervyn King.

And until that day comes when Crowe and DiCaprio are finally papered over by some other ad, I’ll be consulting the Body of Lies Index (BOLI, for short) before believing anything I’m told about us being out of the woods.