Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘Todd McEwen’

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

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.

Michael Rosen–The Disappearance of Émile Zola

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 19, 2017 at 9:24 am

In July 1898, embroiled in the ‘Dreyfus Affair’ (the persecution of a Jewish army officer) and facing serious charges of libelling the French government in his article ‘J’Accuse’, the novelist Émile Zola vanished. Almost immediately there were wild speculations in the press: was he hiding in a suburb? Or worse, gone to Norway?

What Zola had done was to stop by his house, confer with his wife, and wrap up a nightshirt in some brown paper. As you do. He then took the train to Calais and a boat to England. Arriving at Victoria, he demanded to be taken to the Grosvenor Hotel (‘Grosvenor’ being one of a couple of English words he had managed to commit to memory). The nonplussed taximan drove him there. It was around the corner.

So began a weird year of self-imposed exile for one of Europe’s greatest writers, in a series of bafflingly mundane suburban villas and commercial travellers’ hotels. Five years before, Zola had been feted in London. Now he hardly dared to go out, afraid of papers being served on him if he was identified in public. Although, rather comically, he was spotted by a French lady on his second day in London: ‘Why! There’s M. Zola!’

Michael Rosen’s account of this adventure is a little shallow at times (it’s the re-hash of a radio programme). But it is interesting both politically and culturally in terms of today’s shrinking civil liberties, especially in the U.S., where not a finger is going to be lifted to protect individual freedoms, and when England has cut its ties with Europe in order to repudiate a whole lot of important, cherished, hard-won political ideals.

Though distressed at times, Zola seems to have been content with his suburban milieu. He took to cycling around places like Norwood and Weybridge. A serious amateur photographer, not surprising in a writer celebrated for his ‘scientific’ attention to detail, he began taking pictures of everyday English things. He particularly liked shop fronts and pubs, and was quite taken with the scores of young English ladies on bicycles he encountered.

He didn’t, however, adapt so well that he could tolerate turn-of-the-century English fare. He wrote to his wife: ‘The food continues to be revolting, their vegetables are always cooked without salt, and they wash their meat after they’ve cooked it. I am so sick of it, I would give you a hundred francs for a steak cooked by Mathilde.’ He wondered why English houses were all so small, he didn’t like Hyde Park and he thought the National Gallery ‘wretched’.

Zola’s domestic life was already complex. He and his wife Alexandrine did not have children, but he had fathered two with Jeanne Rozerot, originally hired by Alexandrine as a maid. The arrangement that developed over time, possibly without being expressly discussed with Alexandrine, was that wherever the Zolas went, at home in Paris or in their country house at Médan, Jeanne and the children were always installed nearby. Zola would see them regularly, always without Alexandrine. But Madame Zola developed a fondness for them and visited them with some regularity; later she developed a closeness with Jeanne too.

Many anguished letters detail the uncertainty between Zola and Alexandrine—Jeanne’s to Zola have disappeared. Rosen seems to have Alexandrine figured for some kind of emotional incompetent, but this doesn’t seem right, from what she wrote. Zola had inflicted a real emotional wound on her. She was in pain.

The Zolas began their married life as poor bohemians, but his hard work and success brought them into a certain amount of money. Now, though, Émile’s involvement with the Dreyfus Case had cost them almost everything they had. During his stay in England they had to have a sale of their effects, partly to pay for many clandestine trips back and forth across the Channel by Alexandrine, Jeanne and the children to visit Zola in his various Wimbledonish establishments. Most charges against him were eventually dropped and in 1899 he returned to the land of delicious vegetables and steak.

The awful epilogue to all this is well known: a little over two years later, Zola died from carbon monoxide poisoning (Mme Zola survived this horror). An anti-Dreyfusard builder later claimed to have stopped up the chimney, another point not pursued by Rosen. In 1908, in a show of remorse, Zola’s remains were taken to the Panthéon. As his body was placed in the crypt, alongside Hugo and Dumas, bigots fired shots. It never ends.

TMcE

This review appeared in the Herald, January 14, 2017

Gunter Grass–Of All That Ends

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 5, 2017 at 7:18 am

Gunter Grass, who died in 2015, made himself write or draw something every day in his last months. These written and visual memoranda show us what it will be like when we start inarguably to dwindle. He has much advice for those in this situation, but what he suggests might be taken up by us all in light of recent geopolitical cataclysms. Reread favourite books. Write long letters to friends who have passed on. Deliver indignant diatribes. Why not? We might as well assert or reassert any meaningful thing about ourselves, given that merely existing over the next few years looks like being pretty tricky.

There’s a Zen-like piece on melancholy – ‘the clock was invented to oblige it’. Hopeless loves are recalled as well as rewarding ones. The role of jealousy in life is given a good kicking. On the economy, which seems to be improving, Grass says, “We just don’t know what to save, or why,” and that applies to Germany as well as Greece. There’s an elegy to the Olivetti typewriter on which he wrote all his novels: “She was and is my favourite product from the fifties, sleek and elegant in form, as if Leonardo da Vinci had invented the typewriter on the side”. A lot of this is grim, some wry, all of it rueful. Well, what exactly is the matter with rueful?

Of All That Ends is also an album of drawings. Grass was a renowned graphic artist, very good with ink (see the cover of his novel The Flounder of 1977). He made many drawings of these appealing fish, some incorporating his own features, sharing that species’ lugubrious, confused look.

Most of the drawings here are in charcoal and graphite, with some washes – Grass no longer had the confidence for pen and ink, which he regrets. They seem like an almost systematic homage to the textures of Albrecht Dürer. Decay is the thing: dead birds, broken eggs, live snails crawling alongside petrified snails. Grass exhibits his dentures next to an eroded elk’s skull. There’s a lot here about his teeth.

Throughout this book are plentiful reminders of what a writer of the forest Grass was. Windfall apples and pears nestle in leaves, gently beginning to rot. There is a narrative of feathers, juxtaposed in particular with some twisted coffin nails, for which Grass recalls paying a cemetery worker in Lucky Strike cigarettes; at one point he was a stonemason by trade and spent time in graveyards. There are disturbing renderings of large pairs of paper scissors paired with human hands; later these big blades lie on a table with a lot of snipped-off fingers. Grass asks himself why he collects frogs and toads that have completely dried out, while arranging them for us in a penciled danse macabre.

There are chains, ropes, and a curious bundle of sisal which is used in India, smouldering outside shops that sell bidis, as a kind of continuous cigarette lighter. Grass’s own smoking has come to an end, and there are several drawings of his favorite pipes, now “cold and ill-tempered”. Grass watches Germany and the world, and the feelings and tastes of the world that he created, typically and definitely start to decay: onions, mushrooms, people, offal, walls, houses, tobacco and history. Books and paper. He finds pointed decay at the very heart of the reunification of Germany.

The compelling story of the book is about the day Grass and his wife decide to have coffins made for them, by an old acquaintance who built much of their furniture over the years. (A German word for coffin is Erdmobel, “earth-furniture”.)

The discussion starts over coffee and cake. Grass wants a birch box, his wife pine. He doesn’t want the box to taper toward the foot, and neither of them wish for cushions or linings. Grass gets the idea of lining the boxes with leaves, whether bright ones from summer fruit trees or decayed and autumnal: when they die, he and his wife will lie on leaves in their boxes and be covered with them. He rules out one leaf, that of the oak: a Nazi symbol. The meeting ends with schnapps.

It’s hard not to feel that here we are watching Grass being buried, not under the summer or autumn leaves he wished for, but under the scraps of paper ideas and images that make up this book. Whether or not this is bottom-of-the-drawer material (which he does allude to at one point), it reads, pitifully, a little more that way than not.

Duly the boxes are delivered by the friendly carpenter. Schnapps again. Grass and his wife take them down to the cellar and try them out, lying in them side by side. His wife tells him she wished she had a camera: “You looked so content.” Later, preparing dinner, Grass points at their two fish, nestled in a pan, and they both laugh.

The boxes remain, pointedly useless, in the cellar; eventually his wife begins to use hers for storing her flower bulbs. Now, against the certainties these two boxes would seem to offer, Grass surprisingly borrows a tale from a friend of his that intimates the two bespoke coffins were stolen, for a time, from the cellar. Later they are mysteriously returned, minus the bulbs, but containing two very delicate mummified mice. Grass’s doubt and ambiguity are there, were there, to the end.

TMcE

This review appeared in the Herald, Jan. 1 2017