Lucy and Todd

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Judging Shaw — Fintan O’Toole

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on April 9, 2018 at 9:27 am

Judging Shaw: The Radicalism of GBS

 

GBS was one of history’s great high-wire acts, and it was performed solo and without a safety net,” writes Fintan O’Toole in this entertaining, insightful and wonderfully produced book. For three-quarters of a century, George Bernard Shaw was the most exciting and disturbing voice in English letters. He was the bane of politicians, coxcombs and bad musicians, and loved every minute of it. He was also the most-read socialist thinker of the 20th century, even though no political philosopher has ever quoted him.

Shaw was the first literary “brand” in the era of modern communications. “GBS”, a persona Shaw couldn’t always control and which began eventually to irritate him, was often portrayed as an imp, a devil, a self-anointer – one cartoon shows him with a laurel wreath to which is affixed a tag: “plucked by myself”. He was, and was seen as, a shameless self-promoter, a manipulator, a puppeteer. See the famous Al Hirschfeld drawing in the artwork associated with My Fair Lady: Shaw’s up on a cloud jiggling strings attached to Henry Higgins, who in turn has his own puppet, Liza Doolittle.

Putting aside his vast oeuvre, the plays, pamphlets, articles, books, postcards and letters, and Shaw’s contrarian, acid analyses of just about everything, his greatest achievement may ultimately have been a simple kick in the pants for us all. Go ahead, he said to the world. Read some books and work it out for yourself.

Strange, then, that what defeated Shaw, and almost ruined his career – twice – was politics. Not the play politics of taunting the English for their stuffiness and backwardness. Not the kind of politics that can be made fun of in newspapers and wry drama, but the real, looming disasters of two world wars. He got it wrong both times.

At the outbreak of the First World War he got up on his hind legs and bellowed that for England to fight Germany was nonsense, since the two nations were practically one and the same. He compared the Junkers to the English oligarchy (rightly) and debated whether it might be best for British soldiers to stay at home and start a revolution instead. Reaction was swift. The Establishment turned on him as a crank and a traitor. His books were withdrawn from libraries and bookshops, his membership in professional associations cancelled. For the popular press, always annoyed by him, the gloves were off.

Things were never the same for him, but Shaw, being Shaw, went on to write some of his best polemics in the 1920s: The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism contains a shrewd explanation of How the War Was Paid For that can still make your blood boil.

Then he did it again! At a luncheon in the late 1920s, Beatrice Webb noted that Shaw was “gabbling” about Mussolini, insisting that everyone agree that Il Duce was the best thing since dried macaroni. At this point Webb wrote Shaw off as a political thinker.

Shaw totally failed to notice that the Final Solution was not a sideline to Nazism but the essence of it. He thought he could talk Hitler out of it, one vegetarian to another. Always impatient for change, Shaw supported the dictators until the last possible moment: Hitler’s invasion of the USSR. He apologised to his compatriots. Pretty late. Pretty lame.

O’Toole casts Shaw as a hybrid of Oscar Wilde (his near contemporary and a fellow Dubliner) and Leo Tolstoy: half fanciful gadfly and half bearded dietary sage. After the First World War there wasn’t any of the gadfly left, or at least any market for what the gadfly had to say. And by 1945, Shaw was nearly 90 and his stinger was weak.

Shaw was anything but a sumptuary, excepting with words, but Judging Shaw is sumptuous. It’s full of skilfully chosen pictures, cartoons, reproductions of autograph letters and manuscripts that draw you into Shaw’s time and place.

A commemorative postage stamp issued by the Soviet Union in 1956 gives Shaw that glowing, Lenin-Stalin upward gaze. A photo shows GBS wearing only a loincloth and espadrilles, sitting on an uncomfortable-looking rock in the pose of Rodin’s The Thinker.

The continuing value of Shaw is his insistence that we stop ignoring what we are constantly being told – the “brain-dead megaphone” of politics and media, as George Saunders has it. Or stop swallowing it whole – whichever sin you commit. Get sceptical. And get critical.

TMcE

This review appeared in the Herald on April 7, 2018

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Robin Robertson — The Long Take

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on April 9, 2018 at 9:22 am

 

The Long Take, a narrative poem, is the story of a guy called Walker: his “name and nature”. He was born in Nova Scotia and was alive to what you might call an old-fashioned natural world, out of a Robert Flaherty film. He fought in France. Feeling soiled, disjointed, he believes he cannot return to the purity of his home place, so he washes up in New York City, in 1946, and experiences life there in the stark chiaroscuro of new cinema.

In this black and white world he begins to write. From an island beginning he becomes a sharp, cinematographic observer of urban humanity – in the latter half of the 20th century, what other kind is there? He hears from men how New York works: “Up there …” he gestured at the bright/jewelry of the towers,/the wasted light of penthouses and suites,/’… are all the girls and all the money.” Walker encounters some people from Hollywood and gradually ideas of it work on him and he lights out for there. Walker you could easily imagine as the actor Robert Walker: a world-weary, battle-hardened, acutely sensitive man, scarred and unbalanced.

Any narrative poem about New York City reminds you of Hart Crane’s The Bridge; California brings to mind Robinson Jeffers, a writer with whom Robin Robertson has much in common. In its beginning, The Long Take remarkably captures linguistic styles of 1940s American writing – Saroyan and Steinbeck. As it progresses into the mid-1950s, we’re hearing Ginsberg and Baldwin.

You also sense the paintings of John Sloan and hear Joseph Moncur March and Les Murray (whose Fredy Neptune is another shattering narrative of a damaged fighting man). David Jones’s In Parenthesis, Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (to our disappointment, Walker is also a drinker) – you will be washed in all these when you read this poem. Dust, the dust and sand natural to Los Angeles, but also that raised by the constant, insane development and re-development of the city, is John Fante’s dust.

Walker gets a job on a newspaper, easy as pie. Those were the days. But everything in Los Angeles has always been happenstance, in turmoil, endangered, unreliable – just like the houses and the iffy, oily soil they rest on. Assigned to the city desk, he covers murders. There are so many of them. Then as now, LA is a shifting and shiftless society. Dead bodies: “Like they’re dolls … How they’re still holding on to something that might save them – their purse or their newspaper or a dollar bill.” Walker is also appalled by the staggering number of indigents – many of them ex-servicemen – and on his own bat he begins to write exposés on the subject.

Admirers of Robertson will be familiar with his attentions to the human body and the thousand ways in which it can, with deliberate evil, be injured or destroyed; some of them still wake up screaming remembering his early poem The Flaying Of Marsyas. Don’t dare to think that you will be disappointed here: Walker can’t forget things he’s seen, done, and the things he sees, even now. He thinks he’s watching a man, pursued by the LAPD, unfurling a red handkerchief; its bullets taking him apart. Another guy’s smile is described as crossing his features like a fly exploring a wound.

Walker’s awful recollections are thrown against memories of the ever-changing beauty of his birthplace and the rapid, increasingly Dante-esque carnival of wilful self-destruction he finds Los Angeles to be. Bigotry and racial violence are an ongoing, frighteningly natural extension of the war: people being torn down in the same way as buildings – buildings that cannot be allowed to live out their natural lives: “They call this progress, when it’s really only greed.”

At one point Walker gets time off from his newspaper to look into the plight of bums in San Francisco, yet another kind of city for him to surgically, magically refract. He travels there on a bus, seated across from a woman who is eating a big bag of funnel cake. One had hoped that a writer of Robin Robertson’s sensibility, flaps of flesh and bubbling blood notwithstanding, would never have had to know about funnel cake.

Suddenly, we realise that Walker can’t handle his insights: he becomes as bad an alcoholic as the people he’s writing about. The corrupt city gives up on itself and Walker witnesses its destruction, exactly as predicted by a literate though homeless pal.

Walker’s downfall is heartbreaking, because it’s not only his. A woman razzes him in a bar, and he replies, as Los Angeles, as America, for all of us: “I know why I’m drinking. I just don’t know why I’m here.”

The Long Take owes much to film noir – that is its texture. And this is an apt language for speaking about the US now. Noir was a kind of underground, semi-sanctioned Hollywood grumble about the real state of the country, a sub-political lens on the chirpy, too-highly burnished official version of the new American life that ignored racism, poverty and the persecution of ideas.

So the poem becomes completely up to date: Robertson has chosen a supremely uncomfortable, recognisable flashpoint in US history, an almost perfect mirror image of the nation today: crude, newly unleashed material ambitions mix with off-the-chart levels of fear and paranoia. The only difference is that then it was Russkies and immigrants, and now, uh …

TMcE

This review appeared in the Herald on 18 March 2018