Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘George Saunders’

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 His books were withdrawn from libraries and bookshops, his membership in professional associations cancelled.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

Books of 2017

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on January 2, 2018 at 8:15 am

Todd McEwen’s choice:

Gila Lustiger’s We Are Not Afraid (Notting Hill Editions, £14.99), written in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, is a ferocious evaluation of both ISIS and our governments. A must for all the complacent on your Christmas list. Buy in quantity.

David Thomson in Warner Bros (Yale University Press, £16.99) offers a compelling précis of the Hollywood studio that ‘was’ America from the 20s through the 70s: ‘America has become a tedious doom-ridden country now, but in those precious years it hated to be boring. It would kiss you if it hadn’t just washed its hair.’

Novel of the year simply has to be Lincoln in the Bardo, by the almost-can’t-stand-it incredible George Saunders (Bloomsbury, £18.99), an urgent cacophony of American confusion and rage. Regret and sorrow seep from it as rust dripping from the iron letters on a marble tomb. You’ll feel like a bug stuck on a pin, your legs wriggling. And you won’t want it to stop.


Lucy Ellmann’s choice:

How many people in the UK have been wasted, do you think, because they happened to be black? Not just wasted but trampled and tormented. Journalist and campaigner Reni Eddo-Lodge hasn’t really stopped talking to white people (yet). In Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race (Bloomsbury, £16.99), she tells of Britain’s ignoble history of discrimination, the Stephen Lawrence charade, the craven prioritization of the white working-class, and the ‘white feminism’ endorsed by establishment fakes. She’s great when she’s angry. Echoing the eloquent James Baldwin (whose appearance in the film, I Am Not Your Negro, was one of the highlights of my year), Eddo-Lodge says ‘The onus is not on me to change…racism is a white problem.’ Brava! She’s begging white people to acknowledge their complicity in racism and do something about it. ‘White privilege is a manipulative, suffocating blanket of power that envelops everything we know, like a snowy day.’ Enough of these white Christmases!

(From The Herald, December, 2017)


Bark — Lorrie Moore

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on March 12, 2014 at 8:29 am

Lorrie Moore’s new collection of stories is concerned with many themes, some of them timeless, others quirkier, but recognizable: divorce, antidepressants, hair, the sudden need of alcohol in step-parenting. But one of its larger subjects is men: men who no longer know how to love, men who find themselves mere cogs in the detestable societal machines they’ve created, men who join up with women for sex and become mooches. Baffled American men – baffled men everywhere. And despite being set in what seems initially a hazily-defined American Midwest, there is a great variety of situations, characters, and levels of understanding in these short tales. Middle-aged men and women try and fail to connect. Displaced female professors mourn the loss of one of their number in what becomes, surprisingly, a ghost story. A woman has to insist on going on the final family holiday of her marriage; children become very ill. Mothers share loving moments with their daughters at pretty weddings in the ‘heartland’ of America, a heartland ruffled and troubled for reasons, or one specific reason, that Moore sets out as she goes along.

The centrepiece of the collection is a longer story, ‘Wings’, about a couple that had very brief success as pop musicians. Now, they have maxed out their credit cards and are living in a rented house in a nondescript area, far from fame and the hope of it, perhaps in a place that Paul Reiser called ‘one of those big rectangular states’. The woman had the misfortune to fall in love with a supremely untalented guitarist who auditioned for her band. Now she’s stuck with him, because she’s still in love. But she manages to transform her situation, thanks to the almost random intervention of a dying senior citizen. More importantly she shakes off the frozen, defeated mind set which seems to inhabit the landscape, and to stand for the current American mentality. This is what you might call quintessential Lorrie Moore land. It’s a little like Raymond Carver’s United States, and shares an occasional border with the surreal republic of George Saunders. (You find yourself wondering how much time Moore has spent in places she didn’t want to be, and feeling sorry about it.) But the bleakness Moore works in is tempered, unlike Carver’s, with a deeper wit, and empathy: life sucks, right now, but perhaps it didn’t always, and needn’t. There are moments that can be apprehended and lived in, while you’re taking your beating.

Moore is often devastating when at her breeziest. In ‘Foes’, a writer, joking around at an awards ceremony he doesn’t want to be at, gradually realizes something quite disturbing about his gorgeous, exotic table-mate. In a beautifully off-hand and wonderfully described piece called ‘Subject to Search’, what seems like a longed-for and satisfying love affair becomes, on the sunny Boulevard St-Michel, a fractured and frighteningly immediate prelude to the revelations about Abu Grahib. Tom, his lover knows, works in intelligence, and right here in the middle of their tryst he’s been summoned back to Washington. Very quietly he tells her, ‘I said to them, whatever you do, don’t flush Korans down the toilet. Whatever you do don’t have them be naked in front of a woman. Whatever you do don’t involve them in any sexual horseplay whatsoever. Do not pantomime fellatio—which is probably good advice for everyone.’ She’s so happy that she can barely listen, or barely hear, and when he tells her that this is going to be as earth-shaking as My Lai, she dismisses it. And this is what these stories are also about: war. The wars prosecuted by the United States over the last decade, and what this has done to the spirit of the nebulous heartland Moore so bravely concerns herself with. In some of the pieces, war is safely in the background, like static, which is the way our mutual governments like it. In others, it’s as plain as if you’ve stepped on a land mine.

An important pleasure in reading Moore is in reading a writer to whom language is just as important a subject as what happens: for example, poetry, of many kinds, is a thread running through Bark. So many writers act as though the use of language is their own domain, their business alone—they’d never dream of letting their characters play with words or remember a poem fondly. Her writing, too, is a hymn to the versatility and beauty of the third person and the past tense: something you wish many novelists who seek sloppy immediacy in the present tense could learn. These stories are packed with an amazing number of poetic, aphoristic and comic zingers, but they are much more than that. A woman who finds herself eating a lot of hard-boiled eggs at a party thinks, ‘Soon no doubt I would resemble a large vertical snake who had swallowed a rat. That rat Ben. Snakes would eat a sirloin steak only if it was disguised behind the head of a small rodent. There was a lesson in there somewhere and just a little more wine would reveal it.’ Once in a while, Moore’s deep and skilful way with a joke can obscure the dense and varied meaning she musters from life, but, ye gods, is that anything to complain about in this day and age?


(This review appeared in The Herald, 2 March 2104)