Lucy and Todd

Archive for the ‘Reviews by Lucy and Todd’ Category

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

Advertisements

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.

Arthur & Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes–Michael Sims

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on March 14, 2017 at 9:36 am

You can get too much Sherlock Holmes. I once met the editor of a magazine called The Holmesian Observer. I read the Complete Sherlock Holmes while growing up, so I took an interest. Holmesian Observer? Looks good, I remarked innocently. The guy said, Actually it’s pronounced Holmeeesian. What are you, kidding me? I said. But that’s what it’s like among the Irregulars.

I’m sitting in the Conan Doyle, a pub with a view of the statue of Mr Sherlock Holmes in Picardy Place. According to a Nicholson’s pub group leaflet, Holmes ‘stands in permanent contemplation of the death of his creator’. Pretty meta. It could be that it’s just a bronze statue of Sherlock Holmes … that’s a possibility, isn’t it? The figure is more Basil Rathbone than Jeremy Brett. Our man’s in a nice little piazza of smashed-up concrete, backed by a broken fence and some bushes with a lot of trash in them, so he’s not being treated any worse than most people in Edinburgh.

The pub features some models of scenes from the Holmes stories, an old medical bag with Doyle’s name painted on it, and some bound copies of the Lancet. There is a colour reproduction of a portrait of James Boswell – ‘born in Edinburgh in 1940’. Beyond that, nothing much mysterious going on at the moment. I decide to try Holmes’s methods on those here.

MY DEDUCTIONS.

  1. This is the closest bar to the bus station. Everyone’s so depressed, it has to be.
  1. Some meticulous character went to a lot of trouble to Sherlock this place up, probably for a sinister reason. Tourism?
  1. These eight women work at John Lewis. This is easy—they’re talking dress prices and all have those little cords attached to their spectacles.
  1. A bunch of extremely old people are going to eat a lot of chips today. I cannot answer for the consequences.
  1. A lady interrupts my cogitations by collapsing outside on the pavement, the devil take her. I then espy an elderly man with a curiously luxuriant moustache at the bar. He’s standing here in a strangely challenging way, as if he’s the only person in the Conan Doyle who is belligerently, self-consciously aware of its ‘heritage’. Could it have been he who dashed the poor woman to the ground?
  1. The beef and bone marrow pie is off. (It says so on the blackboard.)

::

In Arthur and Sherlock, the prolix American writer Michael Sims discusses the events leading up to the creation of Sherlock Holmes. It is not a biography, and ends just after the first Holmes stories appeared. There are titbits for those who have stamina. Not a lot of marrow.

Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Picardy Place in 1859. His father had a minor job in the Works office as a draughtsman. An alcoholic, he was unable to support the family; later he became completely demented. The Doyle children all went to work in one way or another and their mother took in lodgers. Arthur loved books and from an early age thought about writing.

He used to tell stories to other children, for which he received apples.

But as a young man he needed a more reliable way to make a living, and went into the doctoring line. Studying at Edinburgh, Doyle came under the influence of Dr Joseph Bell, a pioneer of diagnostics considered something of a ‘magician’. It’s said that Bell could tell the trade of any man merely by looking at his hands. It was Bell Doyle was thinking of later when he created Sherlock Holmes; he said that Holmes was a ‘bastard between Joe Bell and Poe’s Monsieur Dupin (much diluted).’

Doyle sounds a timid fellow who liked frightening himself by experimenting with drugs and poisons. He’s a recognisable type: a writer who lacks imagination but thinks it can be stimulated by stunts and adventures.

Doctors all want to write. What is it with them? But Doyle was no Rabelais or Chekhov or Céline. He was closer to Michael Crichton. When he began to send out articles, he had achieved a style that passed for factual: an American magazine took his short story on the mystery surrounding the ship Mary Celeste as straight reportage. After attempting one thing and another, he decided to slot himself into the growing field of detective fiction. The Doyle that emerges from Sims’s book is like Nigel Bruce’s Dr Watson: an indifferently-educated, bumbly fantasist.

Doyle could create a sense of adventure and place and sometimes slightly kinky mystery—‘as her beautiful head fell upon her chest, I saw the clear red weal of a whiplash across her neck.’ But he was never really a good writer. Take ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. Please. The denouement (demonic hound revealed to be actual hound, starved, face painted with phosphorous) is clearly an afterthought. Who would actually bother to do that? And all the faffing around about Sir Charles’s missing boot pretty much gives the game away. Dr Mortimer is a total blabbermouth who almost ruins everything. He should have his arse kicked with a new tan boot.

Still, there’s a kind of raw excitement about setting off on an adventure—in the late Victorian England of perfectly coordinated railway timetables and a lightning-fast, fully functioning post office. Think of it! There is, too, a stuffy comedy to the Holmes stories as narrated by Watson, the way all these men look each other over and sum each other up. It’s all about class, of course, but they accept each other as human. More or less. When there comes an interloper, he is readily identified as an urchin, a cabman, or a woman, and you don’t need to be a detective to do that.

You rarely fall over in admiration of one of Doyle’s paragraphs, but there is atmosphere:

Every minute that white woolly plain which covered one-half of the moor was drifting closer and closer to the house. Already the first thin wisps of it were curling across the golden square of the lighted window.

Watson says that Holmes likes to ‘dominate’ people by keeping everything to himself until the last moment. But what that really means is that Doyle has to keep us hanging around until he’s invented some ending, the opposite of what Holmes’s methods are supposed to be. There’s a lot of sham logic, induction and deduction. Doyle liked to give the illusion of high-flown thinking. He once said of the Holmes stories that ‘people think them more ingenious than they are.’

::

But now let us muster our facts over a pipeful of Baker Street shag and talk about what a bad book this is. It has the tedious qualities of a kind of American non-fiction which is not much known here, at least not yet. It is not scholarship and it is not solid journalism, but just splashing about in the shallows of some subject.

Each little chapter has its winsome title and epigram. Despite such gestures toward organisation, Sims hops around within a paragraph like a Mexican jumping bean. He’s incapable of forming a straightforward narrative. There is some suggestion hanging around the publicity for this book that this is intellectually adroit. It isn’t.

On page seven already, Sims portrays a patient at the Royal Infirmary describing his symptoms to Dr Bell ‘in a Scottish accent’. Well, what would you expect? Sims informs us that scholarship was revered in Edinburgh, but a little later he refers to ‘navel-gazing Scottish theologians’, a rather raspy remark on the capital’s intellectual history. He offers yet another American conception of what the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ was, and then, amazingly, tells us what ‘bohemians’ were:

Arthur liked to think of himself as bohemian. The term derived not from inhabitants of the actual Kingdom of Bohemia – which, in 1867, had become part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – but from bohémien, originally the French term for Romany people, often described in English with the word Gypsy.

Sims explains at length what a deerstalker cap is. Then he explains what deer stalking is. It’s not hunting, he will have you know, but later he returns to the goddam hat to tell us where it could and couldn’t be worn. He seems to trust us to know what deer are.

But if you don’t know what a deerstalker is, why the hell would you be reading this book?

When Doyle goes to Portsmouth to set up a medical practice, Sims says he arrived on a hot day carrying ‘only his ulster, probably a tin box for the top hat that was de rigueur for a young professional man, and a bulky leather portmanteau. The bag was heavy with photographic equipment and brass plates, clothing, books and a large brass sign that he had had made in Plymouth—dr. conan doyle, surgeon.’ “Only?”

Sims’s descriptive writing is awful. What are ‘marble relief columns’? He says the Water of Leith ‘bisects’ Edinburgh. I think we would be very surprised if we awoke tomorrow and found that to be the case. And how many times would you like to be told who Burke and Hare were?

Sims thinks everyone in the 19th century had three names. Thomas Babington Macaulay, among dozens of others, is always called that, just so you won’t confuse him with the other historian Thomas Macaulay. Or Macaulay. These names treble into an almost unbearable cacophony.

You would be more entertained and edified just to sit down and read Doyle. Michael Sims’s intimations about Sherlock Holmes are nothing less than the footprints of a gigantic bore.

TMcE

This article appeared in the Scottish Review of Books, March 4, 2017