Lucy and Todd

Archive for July, 2017|Monthly archive page

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

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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