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The Necessary Angel — C. K. Stead

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 2, 2018 at 5:54 pm

Don’t you hate it when people come up to you at a party and say, ‘Did I mention that I’m giving a lecture at the Sorbonne, actually?’

The Sorbonne, or The Sorbonne Nouvelle as it’s now called, is merely a department of the University of Paris. It used to have some kind of intellectual glamour, if you admit such a thing possible. Now its primary use is to be drooled over by academics from other countries who think that even the mention of it will confer on them kudos and wisdom.

The characters in The Necessary Angel are connected with this place, and if you would expect them to be engaged in lofty pursuits, you’re in for a let-down. Instead of arguing for hours about philosophy and (gulp) literary theory, they’re sitting around reading The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis. Or languidly passing a copy between them, because they’re bored by it.

Max Jackson is from New Zealand, but somehow the deities of the Sorbonne allowed him admittance some decades ago and he has become a fixture. His wife Louise is a fixture, too – she’s doing an ‘edition’ of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education for the famous Bibliothèque Pléiade. This operation is something of a wonder, as Louise seems to write her annotations, send them off to the publisher, receive the proofs, see the book printed, and plan her launch party all within the space of a couple of months. French publishing must really be hot.

Max is living that portion of middle age when all he can do is think about women and try to bed them. Every woman in this novel is described in terms of her looks: she is beautiful or she is not beautiful. The shape of breasts is guessed at. Yet we know nothing about what Max looks like, except that he gets red in the face from chasing one femme up the stairs of the Opéra. (That’s the Opéra Bastille, CK Stead will have you know.) So now you can probably guess what Max looks like.

Max and Louise have two children and two apartments, because Louise has ‘banished’ Max from the family – he lives downstairs with their dog. Louise is a real snoop and in touring Max’s flat, sniffing his sheets to see if he’s having sex or just becoming a smelly middle-aged academic, she predictably finds a letter written to him by an odd English girl, Helen, a student.

Max is afraid of Helen, who’s a bit fragile, but he sleeps with her anyway, at the same time trying to construct a middle-aged obsession over his colleague Sylvie Renard. Sylvie hopes to become a fixture. Everybody in this book wants to become a fixture. Renard means fox, the author explains. Max attempts his obsession but he can’t really do anything. At all.

It’s strange that someone this vague could keep a teaching job. Scraps of terribly canonic, musty novels and poems walk across his thoughts like a nursemaid pushing a pram. He’s writing a book about Doris Lessing and VS Naipaul, which again seems a pretty lowly pursuit for the SORBONNE, especially since it’s only at the end of the novel that we get a single cogent, extended thought on literature from Max. That’s too late.

There are a few other characters. The children don’t matter – the dog might. Max has an office-mate with whom he shares coffee. Sylvie is in a relationship with a German TV producer whose only detectable trait is that he’s German.

Philip Roth once said that the reason there is so much back-stabbing, plotting and underhanded behaviour in academia is because ‘there is so little at stake’. But here, there doesn’t even seem to be that: ultra-competitiveness is mentioned, as if it’s expected, and it’s even attributed to some of the characters, but we see none of it and nothing really happens except a lot of contemplation of infidelity, and the name-checking of every important monument in the relevant arrondissements.

Sub-plot to the rescue: Louise’s family owns a small Cézanne, possibly an early version of the Etang des Soeurs, which is in the Courtauld Gallery in London, we are told sedulously, as we are told everything in this novel. The painting goes missing from Louise’s apartment after Max has taken a girl there, which he won’t admit.

Academics are always showily turning their attention from the classics to trash, and now that Louise has wrecked Flaubert for the general public she hopes that her new interest in Georges Simenon will yield her even more fame and success. She decides he’s no good, of course, but there is a brief Simenon razzle-dazzle in the faint bit of real action in this novel, police business regarding the search for the painting.

Is this meant to be the story of Max? Does he fit in? Is he smart? Is his French good enough? In the denouement the story makes a frantic rush from limp, coffee-sozzled romance into very badly written thriller. This is not a win-win situation, and it includes the dastardly trick of turning a slumbering female character into a terrorist, which male writers love to do.

As Anglo takes on Paris go, it doesn’t compare well with Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado – a master class in wit, energy and, well, Paris. In the end this is a campus novel, and like most campus novels it doesn’t work, because nobody cares what goes on in universities. Er – did I mention that it takes place at the Sorbonne? Actually?





No Live Files Remain — András Forgách

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 2, 2018 at 5:29 pm

(Translated from the Hungarian by Paul Olchváry)

‘In our home murderous quarrels invariably broke out over the Arabs and the Israelis, the political goals of the Americans and the Soviets, and the whole situation in the Middle East, and they lasted until veins were ready to burst, faces turned purple, throats hoarse.’ Welcome to Sunday lunch at 22, Kerek Street, Budapest. Not exactly the Good Ship Lollipop.

A few years ago, an acquaintance mentioned to the writer and artist András Forgách that he’d seen a file which suggested that his mother had been a government agent. Because even Hungary now has a degree of ‘freedom of information’, an astonished Forgách started digging in the archives of the interior ministry. What he discovered was enough to make him re-think his entire existence.

András’s father, Marcell, was nicknamed ‘Pápai’ (‘Papa’) in the bureau where he worked, for his plump good humour. But unassuming Marcell became a Hungarian operative in London, with the cover of a reporter in the state news service. A sensitive, complicated man, the role didn’t suit him. He began to suffer from paranoia, which became extreme. The family returned to Budapest. At that point the security service had the idea of operating Marcell’s wife, Bruria, in his place. She became ‘Mrs Pápai’.

Bruria was an easy-going, loquacious woman with a ferocious intelligence and a way of getting anyone to talk – about anything. Her correspondence with her handlers is disarmingly off-beat. She was also beautiful – a circumstance not lost on her masters, who considered using her as a ‘honey trap’. They gave up on the idea because they couldn’t afford it.

The Hungarian government was intensely interested in the new Jewish state. As the Forgách family had relatives and important contacts there, Bruria agreed to go on several subsidized trips, with young András. But Bruria was a fiercely devoted Hungarian socialist and patriot, and she hated Zionism; one learns quickly in these pages that if you’re going to be a spy, it’s not a great idea to be filled with venom.

‘Mrs Pápai’, writes András, ‘knew she was attempting the impossible, and yet she went. As for myself, I can’t – and I don’t want to – undertake to analyse twentieth-century Middle East developments, Palestinian-Jewish strife and/or the Israeli-Arab wars, and I don’t wish to have my say about world politics. No, here and now I wish only to understand my mother.’

This is the novel of what András found out about Bruria – and that is the correct form for dealing with this story, no doubt. It is told with amazing simplicity and a unique, almost uncanny sense of detail and humour. Forgách has the arresting habit of setting scenes by first describing the exact architectural history and nature of the buildings in which they take place.

After WWII, the security services were housed in a large building in Budapest that, with gob-smacking irony, had once been the Symbolic Grand Lodge of Hungary’s freemasons: ‘The hermae of half-naked women that had projected from the rustic keystones of the ground floor had been dismantled by careful hands – or by bombs or a well-aimed round of machine-gun fire – to make way for austere rhombuses.’ At one point the family occupy a flat which looks directly out at Buda Castle, and Forgách’s description of its dilapidated state and the statuary surrounding it is masterfully satiric.

The novel is moving and intimate – it will remind you at times of Günter Grass and perhaps the half-hidden relationships that were often the subjects of Robert Pinget. András, quite young at the time of his mother’s clandestine activities, has to re-calculate over and over what absolutely everything meant in his childhood – was a cocktail party simply a party? Or was it a group of people his mother brought together for the purposes of observation and provocation? Perhaps we could all ask ourselves that one.

Families are families, even if they are confidential agents, though the Forgáchs were a little less fortunate than some in their decay. András’s father lost his mind and also acquired Parkinson’s; Bruria ultimately couldn’t contain herself about the relations between Hungary and Israel and told the spooks she was quitting. She had grief of many kinds to contend with in her last couple of years.

One of the dossiers András reads toward the end ‘perfectly sums up that schizophrenic situation, that labyrinth without an exit, in which Mr Pápai and Mrs Pápai, my father and my mother, existed and floundered here and in the big wide world.’ This is a dark, eye-popping, must-read love letter – to lots of vanished things.


(This review appeared in the Herald on April 13, 2018)

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.


This review appeared in the Herald on April 7, 2018

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 …


This review appeared in the Herald on 18 March 2018

Carrington’s Letters — edited by Anne Chisolm

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 22, 2018 at 1:34 pm



Ah, the Bloomsbury crowd. There must be fewer people every year who covet details of their every ménage à trois. They produced one great writer: Virginia Woolf. The rest were hangers-on and lazybones.

‘The world is rather tiresome,’ wrote Lytton Strachey, one of the lesser figures, ‘…ladies in love with buggers, and buggers in love with womanisers, and the price of coal going up too. Where will it all end?’ This languid, elusive companion was to be the love of Dora Carrington’s life – and the source of much pain. She describes herself sitting ‘like a poached egg’ on his blue chair, soaking up his ‘unreality, and coldness’. Within weeks of his death in 1932, she shot herself with the gun she customarily used to hunt his dinner.

Carrington trained at the Slade but, under the cloying influence of the Bloomsbury crowd’s bent for decorative arts, ended up spending a good deal of her time producing pub signs, trompe l’oeil glass-paintings, book plates, tiles and lampshades for the Omega Workshop, and book covers she was never happy with for the Hogarth Press. But she was primarily consumed by her adoration of Lytton.

He tolerated this unexpected passion good-naturedly, and benefited from it hugely. Carrington tended to his every need for more than a decade and a half, including the excremental at times of severe illness. ‘Please start taking your Sanatogen instantly,’ she pleaded.

For his part, Strachey encouraged her to paint, and to read, in between jaunts to London where he badmouthed her to the ‘Woolves’ (Leonard and Virginia) and shared her letters with enemies. Indiscretion, betrayal and deceit were the Bloomsbury set’s meat and potatoes.

Introduced to us here by a sexploitative cover photo reminiscent of naturist magazines, Carrington first seems a bit of a flibbertigibbet who does not know herself. Like the rest of the Bloomsbury bunch, she’s a name-dropping, skinny-dipping, punt-hogging, house-hunting, knee-jerk Jew-hating snob, and a habitual, Trump-style, self-appointed evaluator of ‘attractiveness’.

She and Lytton sport sickening epistolary nicknames: he Count Lytoff, grandfather, Bugger-wug, Old Egotistical HumBug, and Toad in the Hole; she Doric, Mopsa, incubus, Pollypuss, your pen wiper, votre grosse bébé, and periwinkle Crinkle Crinkle.

With the complicity of other Bloomsburyites (and lectures on virginity from their patroness, Lady Ottoline Morrell), Carrington was treated as a skittish coquette and bullied, often simultaneously, by several needy, possessive men. Everybody wanted her to just grow up and be heterosexual.

But a long honest letter to Lytton on the eve of her marriage to her major oppressor, Ralph Partridge, transforms Carrington halfway through the book. Suddenly she’s the real deal, though abject – a thinking, feeling, breathing person.

Imagining that it’s all over now with Lytton (it wasn’t), she says their friends ‘all wondered how you could’ve stood me for so long…as I didn’t understand a word of literature and we had nothing in common intellectually or physically. That was wrong… I had one of the most self abasing loves that a person could have… How I adored every hair, every curl on your beard. How I devoured you whilst you read to me at night. How I loved the smell of your face in your sponge.’

She starts to come across as endearingly confused, dreamy, fun-loving, thoughtful, tender, clingy and curious. She’s better-read than they all made out too, mentioning Blake here, Rimbaud there – though Daisy Ashford was her favourite. Amongst visual artists, she valued Goya, Cézanne and Matisse.

The letters reveal a painterly eye. ‘Does one ever see two hares fight in London?’ she asks. She preferred a nine-mile walk in the country, ‘with only a half sucked acid-drop of a moon for company’. And, ‘Do you ever go out when everything is over at night? The corn field was greeny purple, & poppies making dark black red stains, and you grabbed at them, for they seemed only stains on the waving mane of wheat, and Lane’s nightdress shone a wonderful colour in the midst of the field.”

Self-critical, she’s a much better letter-writer than she realizes. She compares Lady Ottoline’s literary salon at Garsington to ‘a lunatic asylum at tea. Everybody equally enchanted.’ She characterizes nostalgia as a form of masturbation. She mocks D. H. Lawrence. And, though a pacifist, she wishes the Germans would bomb Cheltenham, ‘of all English towns the most stagnant and over grown with seedy colonels & their wives.’

Though she liked sex with women, she complains bitterly about being female herself, loathing menstruation and being ‘tied with female encumbrances, & hanging flesh.’ Explaining why Lytton was right for her, ‘Somehow it is always easier if I am treated negatively, a little as if I was not a female.’

Parturition revolted her, and she’s even more pained by the insouciance of mothers once it’s over, looking so happy ‘with a grub in the cot’ beside them. She despised her own do-use-the-proper-butter-knife mother too, writing of ‘the sordidness of her life & the lives of all these people who live in these neat little houses with closed windows’.

Bloomsbury freed Carrington from that, but ultimately disappointed her with its incestuous hypocrisies. She herself had a real talent for love, concluding that ‘if one wasn’t reserved, and hadn’t a sense of “what is possible” one could be very fond of certainly two or three people at a time.’ In her life and letters she threw a spanner into the conventions of sexual desire. Always worth doing.



(This review first appeared in The Herald on January 14, 2018)