Lucy and Todd

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The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, by Kevin Birmingham

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on June 16, 2014 at 12:59 pm

Several years ago I was teaching some good students at a bad university. I became aware that there were rumours circulating about James Joyce’s Ulysses: someone knew someone who had read it. So-and-so claimed to be about to read it. The English department in which I worked only added to the mystery, lecturing on modernism but not assigning its works, which were deemed too complicated for twenty-year-olds (notwithstanding that when Joyce began Ulysses he was hardly a magisterial age).

Ulysses is a monument, sure: of tragedy, comedy, of art. But a literary monument isn’t like a statue: if you don’t use it, you lose it. Any writer wants to be read. Joyce wanted, desperately, to be read by the whole world, so he wrote the one book which contains the whole world, and we should all return the favour by reading it. It’s only a book – and that’s what is so great about it. You can go into a shop, buy it and read it. And then your life will be different. It’s a great system.

Books about Ulysses are many, and a lot of them aren’t very good. But Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book is a riveting account of just how difficult it was to bring Ulysses into the world, and how many people didn’t want it here, and who the hell they were. Their reasons now seem hopelessly antique and vapid, precisely because Ulysses was eventually born to us and helped us.

Ulysses was a hero, Joyce was a hero, Leo Bloom is a hero. Molly is one of the great heroines of literature. Birmingham’s book is a book of heroes, too, if not of saints: you reel from the sheer number of very bold men and, crucially, women without whom Ulysses wouldn’t have happened. The first was Nora Barnacle, the frank and witty woman who inspired the book and stood by Joyce through poverty and illness, exasperating though he was: when he was nearing the end of his task, she told him ‘You’re as dumb as an oyster now.’

The Paris bookseller Sylvia Beach was a godsend to Joyce, and eventually the first publisher of Ulysses, though in the end he bullied her, like many, into a sad retreat. Harriet Weaver gave Joyce money for many years and attempted to bring out the book in Britain, wandering London in search of a printer brave enough. Jane Heap and Mary Anderson ran the Little Review in which Ulysses started to appear in 1918. Anderson said, ‘This is the most beautiful thing we’ll ever have. We’ll print it if it’s the last effort of our lives’. A few years later it was banned, and burned.

Ezra Pound, taking umbrage at the novel’s many rejections, said in 1916, ‘Why can’t you send the publishers’ readers to the Serbian front and get some good out of the war?’ The book pirate Samuel Roth turns out to have been a (troublesome) hero of Ulysses by constantly threatening to publish a corrupt edition. One marks with deep admiration Maurice Darantière, the plucky printer of Dijon, typesetting by hand a huge book in a language he didn’t know and weekly tearing his hair out. When he thought the galleys were finally finished he got a telegram from Joyce with just one more word to add: ‘atonement’! And there’s a fascinating guy aptly named Barnet Braverman, who smuggled lots of copies of Ulysses across the U.S./Canadian border. In his trousers.

There are stories both horrid and funny associated with such a cultural earthquake. Birmingham is quite dauntingly surgical in his descriptions of Joyce’s medical troubles: chronic eye disease due to syphilis, and most of the infirmities of poverty. Ulysses, he notes, is the great novel of the human body, and the pain Joyce suffered in his own was transubstantiated for us all in the book.

One of the great escapades concerns Morris Ernst, the brilliant lawyer hired by Random House in 1931 to bring Joyce’s novel to trial, yet again. The publishers had to get a copy of Ulysses confiscated by customs so the fracas could officially begin – but the book arrived on a hugely crowded boat and the inspectors were just waving everything through. So Ernst went back to the customs shed the next day, suitcase containing evil book in hand, and opened it. ‘Aha!’ he said, ‘a copy of Ulysses by James Joyce!’ The officers thought he was crazy, but eventually allowed themselves to seize it.

One of the better known champions of the novel was John Woolsey, perhaps the only federal circuit judge who could have found in favour of Ulysses, and he did. His opinion was stirring and eloquent: ‘When such a great artist in words, as Joyce undoubtedly is, seeks to draw a true picture of the lower middle class in a European city, ought it to be impossible for the American public legally to see that picture?’

Ulysses bothers people. That is one of its many beauteous functions. It bothers people because it is earthy, but more because of the way it’s written: with an insistent, uncompromising, revealing humanity. After reading Ulysses you’ll never be able to escape from yourself. And if that isn’t an attractive offer, how about this: when you buy The Most Dangerous Book, you’re entitled to a free download of Ulysses! (Applause.)


This review appeared in the Herald, 16 June 2014

Farmageddon — Philip Lymbery (& Isabel Oakeshott)

In Stuff We Like on June 16, 2014 at 12:18 pm

I just read this book about factory farming, and highly recommend it. I don’t find it easy to process nonfiction at the best of times, but this book was especially hard to take because it’s so sad. It’s no fun to hear about the stress cows are put through, only to die at half the age they should or Mao’s insistence on the annihilation of sparrows. But this is what’s been going on. Rainforests are stolen from native peoples in order to grow GM soya for cattle. Wildlife is in worldwide decline. The mega pig farms around La Gloria in Mexico, now notorious as the spot where the H1N1 virus began, are a source of widespread poverty and disease. And there are many, many other examples of human indifference, even outright objection, to life on earth.

According to the campaign group Animal Equality, things are even worse than Farmageddon claims. There’s so much cruelty involved even in free-range farming methods (including the grinding up alive of newborn chicks deemed surplus to requirements) they would probably say Lymbery doesn’t go far enough. But his book, linked to a documentary of the same name that he’s produced, forms a good basis for thinking about the whole issue, and much effort has been put into making it readable. Every chapter starts with a personal story, about Lymbery or someone he meets, that eases you into the more abstract political and philosophical questions.

Philip Lymbery is the head of Compassion in World Farming. Despite the horror stories he tells, he doesn’t insist on veganism: he maintains a kindly stance and tries to be fair to the farming industry whenever possible. But he is vehemently opposed to mass production, and does NOT see it as the only economically viable way to feed the world. Quite the reverse. He mildly recommends that for the sake of our own health as well as that of animals and the environment, we should eat meat less often and, when we do, make sure it’s grass-fed (allowed to roam outdoors) and organic (spared growth hormones and pre-emptive antibiotics). We should also stop wasting food, he says: ‘half the food produced worldwide is squandered – binned, left to rot or fed to farm animals’. A quarter of UK food is thrown away; a third in the US.

I’ve long thought over-population was the real impediment to feeding the world, but it’s not just human numbers that are rising alarmingly. The UN predicts the number of livestock will go up from the current 70 billion slaughtered every year to 120 billion by 2050. Most of these deaths now involve unfathomable amounts of pain, distress, injustice and disrespect inflicted on animals. There are profiteers who think they can do whatever they like, to animals, to our air, our land, our water, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness! These things cannot ultimately be OWNED by anyone – but they have been stolen.

We are never usually told what conditions are really like for animals on farms. Products are labelled ‘farm-fresh’ to reassure us, and city farms painstakingly promote the idea of traditional farming techniques and sentiments. It’s all a lie. More and more of our food originates in mega-prisons. It’s no accident that factory farms resemble concentration camps: that’s exactly what they are. ‘Much of the meat on many supermarket shelves has a dirty secret,’ writes Lymbery. ‘The way it was produced.’ Along with the illusion of contentment and cud-chewing, there is an illusion of cheapness too, promoted by supermarkets, that ignores the human, animal and environmental costs: from super bugs to suicide, poverty, land-grabbing, climate change, pollution, water shortages, starvation, and animal mistreatment (which is ingrained in the industry as if it were an absolute requirement). Those whopper bonus super-duper special-offer chicken deals actually come at a very high price.

The philosophy behind industrial farming was cracked from the start, founded not just on assumptions of human superiority but on the impulses of war. The organophosphates that farmers widely adopted for use on crops were originated by Nazi scientists for use as chemical weapons. ‘After the war, US companies adopted the technology for agricultural use… the scene was set for weapons of destruction to become the means for mass production in farming’, writes Lymbery. Similarly, Rachel Carson pointed out in Silent Spring that the aerial spraying of pesticides all over America in the 50s and 60s was partly inspired by a surplus of bombers from WWII. So poisoning the environment with DDT, killing birds, dogs and cats, and giving everybody cancer, had a pragmatic side: retired pilots needed something to do.

There seems no end to the number of bad ideas people can come up with, or their willingness to despoil the earth. Not surprisingly, these farms, born out of war and defended on grounds of practicality and profit, are making us sick, causing a million mysterious and not so mysterious ailments. And after all the technological ‘advancement’ of farming from a modest activity to one that is monstrous, the nutritional value of factory-farmed meat is really low. According to Lymbery, you would need to eat four factory-farmed chickens to get the nutritional benefits of one 1970s organic chicken. Factory-farmed meat is much fattier than grass-fed free-range meat, because factory animals aren’t allowed to MOVE.

Lymbery describes a horrific pig farm he visited in China, that’s ‘so automated that a single stock man can “take care” of 3,000 pigs [making it] the ultimate factory farm, inhumane and utterly divorced from nature’. To enable these perverse farming practices to work, animals are not only punitively penned but regularly dosed with antibiotics, which are passed on down the food chain. The majority of the world’s antibiotics is now administered to livestock, a situation linked to the rise of MRSA, salmonella outbreaks, bird flu and swine flu (the latter farm-bred diseases are the direct consequences of mass production).

The new interest in cloning animals for meat is a similarly sorry tale and on this Farmageddon is truly frightening, describing the way chickens are bred with the intention that they will be unable to walk. As Lymbery puts it, ‘cloning threatens to multiply animals that are genetically programmed to suffer. It is a way of locking in misery’. They’re now breeding featherless chickens, to save us the bother of plucking. No thought is given to the bird’s quality of life. They are mere units of profit – as we all are, to our sinister betters. Cruelty is first practised on animals, then on humans: a system beloved of psychopaths.

The news on the farming of arable land isn’t good either. Because animals are now entombed in vast barns, their manure no longer fertilises the soil. All the useful dung beetles are gone, and the birds that ate them. The butterflies are gone, and bees have to be flown or trucked in to fields to do their duty. Even bees are now stressed out and overworked! Farms are increasingly devoted to single crops, without rotation, with the soil ‘enriched’ (or rather, killed and controlled) by pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilisers. Much of the soil in California is now like styrofoam, Lymbery reports. In Mexico, France, Holland and elsewhere, huge lagoons of pink slurry pollute the air and the water for miles around pig farms – and regularly overflow – making people ill and generating toxic algae. People and animals have died from inhaling these algae fumes along the coast of Brittany. Which used to be a beautiful place.

Fishing practices have been distorted by greed too. As a result, seabird populations are down by 95%. Off the Peruvian coast, which is now devoted to producing fishmeal (anchovy mush) for fish farms across the globe, they estimate there are only 1.8 million birds – a century ago there were 48 million. There’s nothing left for them to eat! Fish farms are also full of disease and parasites that threaten wild species and, in step with their mammalian counterparts in factory farms, farmed fish are kept in miserably overcrowded conditions. And Scottish farmers shoot the seals that the farms attract.

I would quibble with Lymbery’s phrase, ‘farming as nature intended’. Nature never intended farming, but there are certainly ways of working with nature, not against it. Agriculture, invented by women, was the basis for human civilisation, and it worked for thousands of years without hurting the environment. This symbiotic interaction has been completely abandoned in favor of intensive, destructive usurpation, whereby plants are cultivated in barren soil with the help of poisonous artificial substances, and animals are removed from the land, prematurely weaned, forced to grow at an unnatural rate, locked up, kicked around, and shunted across vast distances for slaughter. Just as in human slavery and sweat shops, a million reasons are offered for the need to abandon all compassion and restraint. Monsanto’s giving us all a good thrashing now.

Fox-hunting and vivisection labs begin to look fairly restrained, compared to the constant flagrant torture inflicted on the animals we eat. I know it’s awful even to mention this stuff, who wants to hear it? But it seems right to acknowledge the matter, because if people don’t realise what goes on, they’ll continue to support this endless cruelty by buying the products.

Farmageddon does a great job of delineating these issues, though it is admittedly long and somewhat prone to repetition, and contains one rather scary dangling participle: ‘Steamed, roasted, barbecued or minced in dim sum dishes, the Chinese are big on pork …’ It is not true, Lymber says, that free-range farming would take up too much space. He suggests that all of Britain’s chickens could enjoy a free-range life in a space a third the size of the Isle of Wight. This sounds like quite a good use for the Isle of Wight – but why not give chickens the whole place, so they can really gambol? They deserve it.


Novelist of the Nanny State: In the Approaches, by Nicola Barker

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on June 16, 2014 at 8:44 am

We are used to bearing up under an onslaught of Christianity in order to look at Giotto frescos or listen to Bach oratorios, but for some time we have been spared much Christian iconography in fiction. So the evangelical flavour of Nicola Barker’s latest creation comes as quite a surprise. What starts out as a slightly magical-realist flight of fancy turns out to be a novel about Jesus, saints, sin, eternity, angels, apostles, monks, haloes, ghosts, souls and even a heavenly light that shines (disgustingly) out of people’s hearts. Not to mention the requisite “difficult, workshy Jew”. For all her quirkiness and play, Barker is dragging around a big sack of mouldy old ideas here that made me feel less born again than bored again.

The cover, showing sheep on the edge of a cliff, reminds you of Far from the Madding Crowd, and there is an earthy Bathsheba-like figure called Carla, loved by two men and fancied by a few others. But there the resemblance ends: Hardy rebelled against Englishness, Barker exults in it. And though the title, referring to tide tables, has a nice nautical ring and the book is set near Hastings, it turns out the Channel is just “unbearably bloody there” and the cause of a much telegraphed landslip.

Set in 1984, the story follows a bunch of people as they try to reconcile themselves to some very murky shared experiences in the past. Nazism, thalidomide, a Peruvian earthquake and avalanche, car bombs, the IRA and the Brighton hotel explosion all serve as tragic relief within what is essentially a lark. There is, of course, room for the whole world in a good novel, but it is not so easy to combine the macabre, the grandiose and the cute.

Yet there is a richness here: shrunken heads; a possum-pelt coat covered with Aboriginal hieroglyphics; naughty badgers (though not enough of them); a neurotic parrot driven nuts by a mynah bird (ditto); a seemingly dead diabetic dog who digs his way out of a shallow grave; a lot of eucalyptus oil; a tricky discussion conducted between naked stranger inside a small backyard sauna; and a very funny scene in which Carla rescues Clifford, one of her admirers, from a pink and yellow birthday sweater that’s much too small for him: “It’s like an expensive lambswool python has eaten you up, whole.” Clifford becomes one of the more engaging figures in the book because he talks back to the author, protesting his minor-character status and complaining about her other books. Just like pets, Barker suggests, fictional beings can hate their owner.

There are some helpful tips on asbestos and cooking shark, and two pages of plausible solutions to hiccups. But there is way too much dialogue – dramatic events all seem to happen offstage and get relayed to us only through conversations or interminable interior monologues, killing any potential impact. Using a rolling succession of narrators, Barker takes her time, sometimes giving us a character’s every fragmentary thought: “Why is he doing this? Why would …? What’s the …? Is there something I don’t …? Is there …? Something Kimberley said, maybe? Does he … did she … does he …?” It is a very long-winded way of telling a shaggy-dog story.

And what’s with all the repetition and reiteration? Each chapter seems to be a recap on the last, offering a remarkably similar perspective on the situation. As a result, the book is twice the length it should be. Barker emerges as the novelist of the nanny state, full of monotonous chatter, false cheer and educational asides as she drags you along by the hand, continuously reminding you of things she has already told you. Look, we may not know how to cure our own hiccups (actually I do), but that doesn’t mean we’re stupid.

She is particularly mawkish about a dead child called Orla, who has many ectoplasmic and other saintly attributes. Most of Barker’s other characters are equally hard to love, but they initially possess the cheering quality of being immune to illness and injury: a near-impaling on a garden fork, a hornet sting, car accidents, even 75% burns, are all magically survived. Carla repositions her own dislocated thumb, with no ill effects. But as the denouement nears, their resilience subsides: Carla’s would-be lover Mr Huff sets off (in a huff) on a 90-mile walk that (due to excessive chafing) causes his buttocks to seal together. Mr Huff limps around for the rest of the book – much to Carla’s amusement.

As if the religiosity weren’t offputting enough, Barker eventually strays into physics and computer technology as well. One character, an ex-poet, says she prefers science because “art is undecidable”. But artistic decisions are made all the time – the quality of a work of art depends on how many of them are right.




(A version of this review appeared in the Guardian, June 14, 2014)

I Am China — Xiaolu Guo

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on June 7, 2014 at 8:21 pm
I Am China looks as though it is going to be a simple, even classical love story. Jian is a fiery alternative musician in China. Having become notorious as a political gadfly, he’s expelled from the country. From detention centres around the world he exchanges letters with his girlfriend Mu, an altogether more hard-headed and practical poet. Their correspondence supposedly forms a debate about China, artistic freedom, love and individuality. Jian, wishing to be a firebrand, loses his liberty, of course; Mu is more flexible and remains in the world.

Then there’s Iona, a slightly unsure translator of Chinese in London. She’s from Scotland, which we are told is cold, rather like herself. When she gets bored with translating, which is often, she likes to have anonymous sex, which we have to watch. A handsome publisher straight out of Mills and Boon, and one of the most astonishingly wooden, implausible characters you will ever encounter, gives her a sheaf of documents he’s acquired – the letters and diaries of Jian and Mu. He doesn’t speak Chinese, but he thinks there may be something compelling in there somewhere. Iona must sift these scraps to see if she can find, or forge, their narrative. It takes her an amazingly long time, and the reader is unwillingly drawn in to the same process, the same doubt: is this a story?

Jian quickly ceases to be a viable character, as he’s under arrest most of the time. There’s a good point made about the nomenclature governments use for the “non-persons” of this world: he’s in a “removal” centre, then in “detention”, then “protection” (as he rightly wonders, protection from whom?). The novel could be about dissidents and the “detained”, but detention centres are all pretty much the same, and it doesn’t make for much drama. Jian loses interest in writing, coming up with stuff like: “The artist looks down at his cock, and his cock looks at his guitar. Then his guitar looks at him. They all look at each other. Who is playing whom? Each said: ‘I am!'” As he’s bounced around the globe his correspondence with Mu becomes patchy; their belief in each other wanes.

And this is the problem with this novel: having Iona paw through this bundle of stuff, which she never appears to assess or even put in order, the power and the eloquence of Mu and Jian’s work and thoughts are lost. There is a story, but it’s not helped by stopping and starting (the idea being, possibly, to add a fast-cutting, “cinematic” energy). There’s a constant, inelegant repetition of what we’ve been told, implying we need to be reminded of things – when in fact the plot was so simple it didn’t need to be hacked up like this in the first place. The diaries and letters, atomised as they are, remain inchoate to Iona, and to us.

There’s a stubborn opacity to the prose, which is strewn not with incident but with what the author plainly believes to be emotional triggers, though they come across as Tin Pan Alley cliches. Dead baby? Flowers? Snow falls on an apple tree in the garden of the silly publisher? So? And it’s unfair – it’s torture, in fact – to be intricately told what it’s like to scroll up and down in a document on a computer screen, and to be expected to find suspense in that.

Mu’s story is the best the novel has to offer, the only story that takes place before our eyes – everything else is maddeningly hidden, reported; off-stage. But we’ve gone through quite a bit in order to watch the only fully-realised character, a revolutionary poet, get a running-dog’s office job in London, the very heart of late capitalism, just as Mr Fancy Pants Publisher caves in to Chinese government coercion like a wet noodle. It doesn’t always seem right to turn a book against itself, but after so much wheel-spinning and cruel dangling of plot points and forced coincidences, Jian dies just minutes before Iona, moved as she was by his plight, was to meet him. “It cannot be!” she exclaims. “Oh fuck.” My sentiments exactly.




Free copy of Doctors & Nurses – quiz closed June 15

In Stuff We Like, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on June 6, 2014 at 10:44 am

In Lucy Ellmann’s rather outrageous study of medicine post-Harold Shipman, the main character was originally called “Loathe Self”. This later seemed too explicit a cross for her to bear, so she was reduced to the humbler name of “Jen”, Jen with her trademark cargo pants, ravenous appetite, and handbag fetish.

All you need to do to win your free copy of Doctors & Nurses is: guess the novel from which the following quote comes.

Three winners will be picked indiscriminately from a handbag, during a ceremony courteously witnessed by pigeons, sparrows and French marigolds (in honour of the apparent advent of summer). Winners will then be contacted and asked for an address to which to send the book.

(NB Former Atelier quiz winners may not participate, on the grounds of being too smart – apologies.)


The quote:

Drearily I wound my way downstairs: I knew what I had to do, and I did it mechanically. I sought the key of the side-door in the kitchen. I sought too, a phial of oil and a feather; I oiled the key and the lock. I got some water, I got some bread: for perhaps I should have to walk far; and my strength, sorely shaken of late, must not break down. All this I did without one sound. I opened the door, passed out, shut it softly. Dim dawn glimmered in the yard. The great gates were closed and locked; but a wicket in one of them was only latched. Through that I departed…

…  I skirted fields, and hedges, and lanes till after sunrise. I believe it was a lovely summer morning: I know my shoes, which I had put on when I left the house, were soon wet with dew. But I looked neither to rising sun, nor smiling sky, nor wakening nature. He who is taken out to pass through a fair scene to the scaffold, thinks not of the flowers that smile on his road, but of the block and the axe-edge; of the disseverment of bone and vein; of the grave gaping at the end: and I thought of drear flight and homeless wandering–and oh! with agony I thought of what I left.  …  Birds began singing in brake and copse: birds were faithful to their mates; birds were emblems of love. What was I? In the midst of my pain of heart and frantic effort of principle, I abhorred myself. I had no solace from self-approbation; none even from self-respect. … I was hateful in my own eyes.



June 15:

Many thanks to all who participated. The answer was Jane Eyre, which had a big influence on Doctors & Nurses. This scenes sees Jane at her lowest point, beautifully described. She has just lost Rochester, she thinks, for ever. The contrast between the summeriness outside and the abyss inside her head is ferocious.