Lucy and Todd

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What Happened — Hillary Rodham Clinton

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on September 24, 2017 at 1:37 pm

What’s a girl to do? She said she wanted to be prez, Wall Street backed her as prez, Bill and Barack said she should be prez, and the Democratic National Committee got up to all kinds of dirty tricks to make her prez. Some people even voted for her (more than voted for Trump). But she’s not the prez!

Clinton wonders why she lost the U.S. election every day. So she got together a large team to write a book about it in her name. Like the giraffe, this group-effort apologia’s all over the place. The story’s told backwards, starting with Trump’s inauguration and George W. Bush’s appraisal of his speech: ‘That was some weird shit’.

Then it’s the morning after election night and time for Clinton’s painful concession. Then come the reasons she decided to run, unconvincing even if she genuinely cares ‘about struggling working-class families in fading small towns’ (it sounds like a Bruce Springsteen music theory mnemonic). To hear her tell it, she’s a real sweetie. She seems to see herself as some kind of overgrown Shirley Temple from the Good Ship Doolally.

Most of all, she wanted ‘to make life better for children and families’. Her interest in children is sickening, given that she presided over civilian drone strikes as secretary of state. Awash in American exceptionalism, she says the lead-poisoning of children in Flint, Michigan, ‘is not something that should happen in America.’ Where should it happen?

Let’s be clear. Women undoubtedly need to take over the world – it’s our only hope. But Thatcher, May, Imelda Marcos and Hillary Clinton will never help anyone eliminate patriarchy. Hillary couldn’t even bring herself to espouse the $15 minimum wage, the least she could do for women, who are the poorest of the poor. This ‘pragmatic progressive’ is actually a corporate-entrenched, business-as-usual capitalist nursed at the nipple of Walmart. But what’s a little slave labor between friends?

The Clintons invented Blairism, a money-grubbing centrism founded on indifference. To this Hillary added her own brand of Nixonian secrecy, torpor and contempt. The few actual beliefs she has turn out to be wishy-washy: feminism lite, healthcare lite, gun control lite. It’s all about strategy with her, and polls and data and focus groups and policy teams; caution, never passion. She likes the idea of a universal basic income so much she never even mentioned it in the campaign.

She writes of ‘the problem’ of income inequality when she should be talking about the obscenity of it. She claims to want to make her country ‘freer, fairer, and stronger’. Why not just free, fair, and strong? Next she’ll want equaler pay for women.

She’s right about all the sexism and misogyny in the 2016 election, and the beauty contest aspects of being a woman in politics. Clinton had to wear contact lenses, get her hair done daily, employ a makeup expert recommended by Anna Wintour (ouch), and buy a ‘uniform’ designed by Ralph Lauren: the pantsuits. This was another missed opportunity for feminist rebellion: for the sake of other female politicians, Clinton should have worn her beloved yoga pants.

Next comes a nauseating chapter on family and friends. Chelsea, the apple of her eye. Bill, her best pal and great fun to be with. How they love their bedroom in Chappaqua, with its many windows (hints here of lifestyle porn). From her father she learned unconditional love, and she loved her tough mother too, who endured a harsh upbringing. She’s also got hundreds of male and female friends who are always there for her, including (apparently) the Obamas.

The Clintons are philistines, their house full of biographies of past presidents. Bill reads spy novels, Hillary mysteries. But after the election all she did was watch box sets of TV series and practice nostril breathing. Bill’s a night owl (that’s not all he is). They walk the dogs together, and he edits her speeches. She calls him every night and buys him presents when she’s on the road. A martyr to the snooze button and snacks, she likes Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers, hot sauce, and ice cream bars. She’s a grandma, bigly, and a Methodist: she reads a morning devotional every day, prays quite a bit, and they say grace before dinner. She seems to think having a ‘faith’ is something to be proud of! But religion has killed America. It really stinks up the joint.

One chapter deals with gun violence, which Clinton rather bravely made an issue in her presidential campaign, risking the ire of the NRA. Sanders disappointingly stalled on the subject, treating gun ownership as a civil liberties matter, and the gun industry as the source of manufacturing jobs. Meanwhile, the Sandy Hook massacre has been labelled a hoax, and the parents get death threats. Not only the American people but the police need their weaponry confiscated.

But Clinton’s commendable stance on domestic guns vies weirdly with her hawkish behaviour in foreign affairs. She voted for the Iraq War, is always up for bombing people and, chuckling on camera over the savage slaughter of Qadaffi, once boasted: “We came, we saw, he died.” On top of that, where the Clinton Foundation goes, an arms deal always seems to follow. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence.

She offers an interminable recap on the ‘damn emails’, but the most significant chapter arrives near the end. It should have come first. Here she deals with Russia’s unprecedented interference in the election, which she deems an act of war. A Russian coup d’état has occurred in America and nobody’s noticed. (She suggests Russian government interference with Brexit too, shifty operations in Holland, Germany, Denmark and Norway, and a failed attempt to insert Le Pen in France.) While Trump tweeted that he wished the Russians would hack into Clinton’s missing emails, others concluded he himself had been (perhaps) unwittingly recruited as a Russian agent. Maybe Melania’s a KGB robot. That would explain a lot.

Was the ‘misguided’ Comey unwittingly recruited too, along with Sessions, Kushner, Assange and Mitch McConnell? Clinton reckons that the combination of Russian espionage, Comey’s last-minute pronouncements, the Republican very successful voter suppression efforts, the reckless inanities of mainstream TV news reporting, the misogynistic witch-hunt, the outdated Electoral College system, which she deems undemocratic, and her own deplorable ‘deplorables’ moment, cost her the election.

A terrible trick was played on the American people. But it wasn’t that Clinton lost; it was that Bernie Sanders, riding a groundswell of true popularity, was denied the Democratic nomination. Bernie would have had a landslide. Clinton couldn’t beat the outright nincompoop who won with a mere 25% of the electorate.

So she’s freed women in one way: to screw up. If you ever feel you’ve really made a mess of things, just think of HRC. It takes a village idiot.

 

LE

 

A version of this review appeared in the Herald, Sept. 23, 2017.

 

 

 

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Gila Lustiger — We Are Not Afraid

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 24, 2017 at 9:59 am

NOTTING Hill Editions is an imprint devoted to the art of the essay. Whereas some essays appear in pamphlet or broadside form, or on dreary blogs, NHE recognises that an important essay is potentially as meaningful for us as a longer treatise or a novel, and so they treat the essay with respect and put it between hard covers, in elegant, considerable editions designed to make their way in the world for some time.

This is important. Where can we look for detailed considerations of serious matters? Newspapers no longer have the space for in-depth essays, or the money to pay the people who ought to write them. Magazines, really, no longer exist. Intellectual writing disappeared from the airwaves decades ago.

The web is directionless and un-indexable. Urgent, important ideas belong where they always have: on paper.

You might say that the art of the essay embodies something noble about us in the West: the tradition of free, creative individual thought, unafraid to criticise persons or institutions when the going gets tough. In Paris, the going got very tough in 2015. Attacks on the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo on January 7 and at a supermarket on January 9 were followed by the events of November 13, when 130 people were killed and more than 350 seriously injured by religious extremists.

Gila Lustiger, a German writer living in France, spent six weeks “day and night” writing her response to those attacks, We Are Not Afraid. She became an “information junkie”, reading and listening to every account she could of the attacks, and individual and state responses to them. And yet she began to wonder what this cascade of information was for, more aware of the medium than the messages: “Now by this brilliantly organised attack in the very heart of one of the world’s most respected metropolises, the so-called IS had, in a very short space of time, managed to capture the attention of all media news reporting. IS was manipulating its media image almost as slickly as Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Sony, Nike, Disney or Mercedes.”

She demonstrates that IS’s agenda is political, not religious. They’re fascists. Lustiger, below, was led to examine the pretty hideous political stasis in Europe which has played a big part in the rise of religious radicalisation among the young, particularly those living in the “banlieues”, depressed artificial suburbs of French cities. “What could incite a young man to yearn so passionately for the ‘adventure’ of death? …

And when we call for the defence of our values, what, exactly, do we mean: what should we be defending?” In the course of her meditations, Lustiger examines the current state of refugees in Germany (and the coordinated New Year’s 2015 attack on women in Cologne and Hamburg). She is prompted to go further back in time, to 2005, when a wave of unrest and violence swept the banlieues. These dubious zones were built for an earlier cohort of immigrants to France, immigrants who found work. Their children, however, have traditionally faced unemployment rates of well over 50 per cent.

In a novel published in 2015, Lustiger wrote: “What they wanted was to get high on destruction … but this generation wasn’t protesting against anything, wasn’t calling for anything, wasn’t seeking anything because they knew for certain, and had always known, that no-one gave a toss about them.” Nicholas Sarkozy publicly called these young French citizens “scum”.

There’s a grimly amusing and properly depressing account of the government’s (at best) half-hearted attempts to “do something” for this generation. Mostly it involved renaming and renaming and renaming the agencies supposed to educate and to help the young; the fact is that French society was, and is, utterly indifferent to them. In the end it was Jacques Chirac who rather unexpectedly challenged the public to bring these people into society, and so into government, which would make things very different, as Lustiger points out. It never happened. The youth of the cités were so culturally disenfranchised and confused that in their rioting they destroyed around 70 public libraries, and Lustiger takes this up as a particularly emotional, thorny example of the clash between extremists and the democracies.

“Many of the rioters were school drop-outs and their hatred was directed not just towards books but towards the written word in general which they saw as an instrument of their subjugation … the realms of language and the written word stood for only one thing: bureaucracy.”

Bad idea, ignoring people.

After 2015 things went topsy-turvy in France. “Even left-wing politicians have taken ownership of republican emblems, they respond to atrocities by singing the Marseillaise and get misty-eyed before the tricolore flags hanging from many a Paris balcony.” Lustiger describes an interesting moment in November 2015 when the left-wing press were hanging on every word of the public prosecutor – that really is a world turned upside down.

Though it’s won prizes, this is not so much a grande essaie as it is an arresting attempt to understand the place of terrorism in our lives, using the tools of a journalist, a novelist, a citizen and a mother. That Lustiger’s essay is a book, an attractive, physical, western book, is crucial. She quotes Hannah Arendt, who said education was nothing other than creating the basis which allows it just to be possible to readjust the world’s bearings. We all must act on that possibility every day.

 

TMcE

 

This review first appeared in The National on July 17, 2017

Will Self — Phone

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 24, 2017 at 9:53 am

PHONE begins, cutely, with the ringing of an old-fashioned telephone. Actually it’s a “retro” ring on a modern mobile, overheard by Dr Zachary Busner, and it starts him down some very long corridors of memory.

A retired psychiatrist who’s becoming senile, at one point he finds himself in a hotel room in Manchester bestrewn with all manner of signs of serious debauchery, and smeared with faeces. This he attempts to explain to the manager of the hotel without wearing any trousers. But haven’t we all had that dream?

Dr Busner also remembers how well-dressed his father was (the reason was partly that he wanted to be taken for English, not Jewish): “He wore tailored English suits and shirts, handmade English shoes, Saint Michael’s not-so-hairy vests, pants and socks – gold cufflinks from Asprey’s, gold fountain pens from Parker, leather wallets, pocketbooks and card cases from Smythson’s … That he sported Italian and French silk ties only confirmed him in his opinion of his own essential Englishness: if the Angels of Death were to come swooping down over Whitestone Pond … if they were to dive, deploying some sort of Semitic-blood-seeking equipment – then they wouldn’t locate Maurice, who’d remain in the drawing room at Redington Road, sipping tea, listening to the Light Programme.”

One thing about this novel that is inarguably good is the author’s ability to encapsulate whole decades, not by describing what happened or who figured in them, but with simply the materials of daily life.

He does the early 1960s with the aroma of Passing Cloud cigarettes; “changing at Motherwell, and waiting by a huge old wall, anthracite-black and rain-dank”; and cameras “of cream Bakelite, Meccano and vulcanised rubber.”

We, however, are bafflingly yanked out of Dr Busner’s somewhat amusing, attractively crumbling little world and sent half way across civilization with a bunch of odious English spies. It’s never clear why. But these jumped-up Whitehall geezers really are the Angels of Death, and they, too, spend a lot of time thinking about male clothing.

From now on we have to listen to spooks and squaddies giving us the real dope on war in the Middle East and global politics, or making jokes about child soldiers, and it’s very hard to care. Of course, Will Self has made something of a speciality of anatomising the male English psyche. The question is: who needs it?

The novel becomes scabrous and never recovers. Thinks a spy known to us as The Butcher: “Both espionage and closeted homosexuality depended on good tradecraft – including cryptanalysis: a mouth slobbering at a crudely hacked hole could mean quite different things … depending on the context.” That, in fact, may be all you need or want to know about this book.

There is some superb Tony Blair-bashing, which is welcome. But do you really want to read a novel that has phrases in it like “instead of the silky Agent Provocateur lingerie he’d been expecting…”? A woman has a “barrage balloon of belly”. And there is a lot of very old-hat novelist-understands-prostitute folderol. You begin to realise that this is not art, and it’s not even satire. It’s just stuff that oozes out of a writer who is floundering in the tar pit of the establishment.

The Butcher uses sex with both women and men to exert the sad, staggering amount of control over everything that he seems to need. Because, one supposes, that he represents the England of today. There’s a sketchy attempt at feminism in Self’s treatment of one female character, to make up for all the maleness. It doesn’t work, partly because there is no variety of voice in this narrative.

Overall, Phone seems a rickety attempt at channelling Joseph Heller, Thornton Wilder and, arrogantly, Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Maybe William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic. Stream of consciousness? Not really. In consciousness there is variety. Reading this, frankly, just seems like being vomited over by A Guy Who Went To University. There’s a difference.

Puns and clichés abound, and it’s not always clear whether these staggeringly inadequate male characters are giving us what they believe or if their consciousnesses are the narrator’s. “Never shit where you eat.” This is revealed to us by the author as proper, street-smart received wisdom of The Butcher’s. Or maybe he thinks he made it up? Doctor, heal thy self. It’s too late to be “knowing”, it’s too late to be smug, it’s too late to be clever, too late to male, and very, very too late to be an English male novelist. Here is the proof.

 

TMcE

 

This review was first published in the Herald on June 2, 2017

The 7th Function of Language—Laurent Binet

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 27, 2017 at 5:09 pm

You know, it’s possible to have a lot of fun, even in the world of today. Laurent Binet’s debut novel, HHhH, was a frightening and utterly riveting account of the attempt to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, narrated by a neurotic post-modern writer whose observations of himself as he garnered the facts of the case were as entertaining as the story itself. Now, if you had been told that this scarily perceptive novelist’s next subject was to be French literary theorists of the 1970s, you would predictably have yawned.

But Laurent Binet is possessed of something like Superman’s X-ray vision combined with a million lasers. When he gets something in his sights, that thing is dead. And what he kills in his new novel is literary theory, in all its fake unuseful stupidity. Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes and the gang were working very hard to ruin the art of literature in the name of strutting masculinity in the 1970s and 1980s. With The 7th Function of Language, their number is up.

In 1980 the semiologist Barthes was struck by a van in Paris and died a month later. From this rather sad, ordinary fact Binet constructs an opera buffa of a cabalistic world of evil so wide-ranging and seemingly influential that it makes those who worry about the Illuminati or read Dan Brown books look like the pipsqueaks of paranoia that they are.

Before he was run down Barthes had lunch with Francois Mitterrand. He may have discussed with the future president a document relating to the work of Roman Jakobson, a Russian linguist who identified six functions of language—all very academic and all very debatable, as these things are. But Jakobson may have identified a seventh function, an aspect of language the use of which would cause its utterer to gain anything he wished. (Or she—but as this story is about literary theory, women don’t figure much except as swooning fodder for the critical bed.)

This seventh function becomes a state secret, like the A-bomb, and the serving president, Giscard, wants it for France. (Binet alludes to the power of semiology as something humans have but don’t understand, like fire.) As with his book about the Nazis, Binet wipes the floor with you with a great deal of improbability, and you just want more. Reputations get dissed, fingers chopped off, the French Open is watched (of course), sex is had at academic conferences (of course) and in ancient anatomy theatres, the Bulgarian and Japanese secret services begin to chase post-Structuralists and you still want more. More! Reading Binet gives you that rare pleasure of feeling that you’re losing your grip on reality. As one policeman asks another, ‘How do you know that you’re not in a novel?’

What Binet can do with a scene, a paragraph, is beyond belief. He can suddenly burst into a wide ranging scenario where everyone is talking at once, not even in the same room, and like his undoubted associates, or competitors, Wu Ming of Bologna, he can accentuate the banality of cultural evil with the most horrific violence. In the few minutes before the Red Brigades’ bombing of the railway station in Bologna in 1980, a slightly stoned policeman is looking at the abandoned piece of luggage that contains the bomb. Each time he looks at it, it seems a little bigger. That is Binet at his best – for him the world is completely plastic and at the mercy of the novelist. So few have his courage or ability.

As in HHhH, the novel is a commentary on itself and the practicalities of novel writing, as Binet says when describing the efforts of two of his policemen to discover what happened at lunch between Barthes and Mitterrand: ‘They could barely even get hold of the guest list. But I can, maybe … After all, it’s a question of method, and I know how to proceed: interrogate the witnesses, corroborate, discard any tenuous testimonies, confront these partial memories with the reality of history. And then, if need be … You know what I mean. There is more to be done with that day. 25 February 1980 has not yet told us everything. That’s the virtue of a novel: it’s never too late.’

Here is an irony: The 7th Function of Language might be the first novel that uses the tools of semiology to the advantage of fiction. And in that case it must be the last. The purpose of this novel, it’s to be hoped, is the long-overdue murder, embalming and funeral of literary theory. One suspects Binet will make, or perhaps already has made, a lot of enemies with this jaw-droppingly disrespectful, extremely witty and—yes—heart-felt book. But one thing’s for sure—he’ll know how to handle them.

 

TMcE

 

This review first appeared in the Herald on May 19th, 2017.

The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington –Joanna Moorhead

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 2, 2017 at 2:28 pm

The English painter and sculptor Leonora Carrington was born one hundred years ago in Lancashire. She had not so much a life but, like Amélie in Jeunet’s surreal comedy, a fabulous destiny. Born into a wealthy textile family, she was rebellious and contrary from an early age. Her father was a tyrant, far beyond what you might expect from even the most apoplectic blustering Edwardian parvenu. Leonora constantly and enthusiastically thwarted and enraged him – at one point she was sent down from school with the admonishment: ‘This girl will collaborate with neither work nor play.’

Wrong! Carrington did play, and she did plenty of work too. She developed an intense inner life, identifying, in that unshakable adolescent way, with her horse. Horses and other animals, especially hyenas, would always feature in her artwork and in her fiction, of which she wrote a goodly amount: Down Below, just republished this month, is a frightening account of what may have happened to Carrington after she suffered a nervous breakdown in the early years of the Second World War. Her partner, the surrealist painter Max Ernst, had been arrested in France and Leonora had fled to Spain. There, through the intervention of her father, whom she always compared unfavourably to Hitler, she was incarcerated in a mental hospital. She was given drugs which induced epileptic seizures and terrible hallucinations, and did lose her mind for a time. ‘I was obedient as an ox,’ she said. She was rescued by a family friend, and was then offered a marriage of convenience by a Mexican diplomat of her acquaintance. Leonora went with him to New York and then to Mexico, where she spent most of the rest of her life.

This is the barest outline of her tumultuous times, however, as there were many intrigues and affairs and toings and froings of all involved with those inside the Surrealist circle and outside it. Ernst had escaped numerous times from detention to look for Leonora – in the process he got temporarily snapped up by Peggy Guggenheim and they all went unhappily off to America together. As Joanna Moorhead says, Surrealism was relocating to New York. And she is well aware of what Carrington was up against with this crowd: ‘avant-garde the movement may have liked to think it was, but when it came to women the Surrealists’ views were depressingly narrow and conventional.’ Just what Leonora was always trying to escape. By the time she got to New York, she realised she could never be happy with Max, as in his neediness he would overpower her.

Leonora’s career begs the question of whether the Surrealists were really any good: Surrealism often seems adolescent, a collection of schemes dreamt up by people who couldn’t paint or write very well. Leonora’s pictures at times resemble Max’s. In hers there is a feeling of enclosure, of being inside some strange building, rather than in the alien landscapes Ernst frottaged into being. Her paintings are semi-mediaeval, like paintings in books of hours, with some elements strikingly to the fore, while other strange and important things are happening far away. There are an awful lot of wimples. And often a haze, or scrim, settles between us and the action. She shares certain qualities with Dalí, including a kind of sepulchral humour. But she never considered herself a Surrealist, and said she had never tried to be one.

In Mexico, Carrington made a new life for herself. She married a Mexican photographer, and they raised two sons. She developed a deep friendship with the Spanish Surrealist painter Remedios Varo (their work is strikingly similar). In the 1960s and 1970s Leonora became quite politically active. She designed a famous poster for the feminist movement known as Mujeres Conciencia – Women of Conscience. Moorhead, however, provides almost no information on what Leonora got up to for most of her time in Mexico. According to her, there is only one extant correspondence between Leonora and anyone else (she always destroyed her mail), so parts of this book feel deranged and undocumented.

The author turns out to have been a cousin of Carrington’s. She heard about Leonora vaguely through family folk history but no one else in her branch of the family seemed interested in her. Moorhead, a journalist, made it her business to track down this surreal black sheep, and began visiting Leonora twice a year in Mexico City. Carrington seems to have tolerated these visits, even though she didn’t much care for journalists. As she grew older she wasn’t always quite sure who anybody was. The two women talked over Mexican politics and American power more than anything else, though one can think of many, many artistic questions Moorhead should have asked. At the very least, she should have got help in describing Carrington’s work, and should have been prevented from trying to explain it. After all, Carrington always said that painting can’t be explained.

One day after a long discussion of the Surrealist manifestos of André Breton, Carrington asked Moorhead for her notebook, and wrote something in it. Later Moorhead realised that Carrington had written it in mirror handwriting, a habit Leonora developed at a nightmarish convent school as a child. When Moorhead held the page up to a mirror, the message read: ‘I never read the Surrealist Manifesto.’

TMcE

This review appeared in the Herald, April 29, 2017.