Archive for the 'Books' Category Page 2 of 4



Two lists of books

In succession to this post which seems to have originated a meme, herewith two lists of novels – one list influential when younger, and the other later, with influence measured by strength of memory.  In each case, I include a couple of works  of non-fiction, because of their superb writing.

The rules only allow listing of one book per author.   In fact, all the books of some writers would merit inclusion.  In this group, I would include Brautigan, Camus, Conrad, Faulkner, Gordimer,  Ishiguro, H. James, Joyce, Maugham, Perec and Turgenev.

Influential when younger:

  • Albert Camus:  The Plague
  • JM Coetzee:  Waiting for the Barbarians
  • Joseph Conrad:  The Secret Agent
  • William Faulkner:  As I Lay Dying
  • Nadine Gordimer:  Burger’s Daughter
  • Joseph Heller:  Catch-22
  • Ruth Prawer Jhabvala:  Heat and Dust
  • James Joyce:  Ulysses
  • Franz Kafka:  The Trial
  • Arthur Koestler:  Darkness at Noon
  • William Least Heat-Moon:  Blue Highways:  A Journey into America
  • Doris Lessing:  The Diary of a Good Neighbour
  • Thomas Mann:  Dr Faustus
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez:  100 Years of Solitude
  • W. Somerset Maugham:  The Razor’s Edge
  • Herman Melville:  Moby Dick
  • Gerald Murnane:  Landscape with Landscape
  • Michael Ondaatje:  Coming Through Slaughter
  • Bertrand Russell:  The Autobiography
  • Jean-Paul Sartre:  Nausea
  • Mikhail Sholokhov:  And Quiet Flows the Don
  • Alice Walker:  The Color Purple
  • Patrick White:  Voss
  • Yevgeny Zamyatin:  We

Influential more recently:

  • Henry Adams:  The Education of Henry Adams
  • Richard Brautigan:  An Unfortunate Women:  A Journey
  • William Burroughs:  Naked Lunch
  • Italo Calvino:  If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller
  • Robert Dessaix:  Corfu
  • Shusaku Endo: Silence
  • Mark Henshaw:  Out of the Line of Fire
  • Kazuo Ishiguro:  An Artist of the Floating World
  • Henry James:  The Princess Casamassima
  • Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Emperor:  Downfall of an Autocrat
  • Naguib Mahfouz:  The Journey of Ibn Fattouma
  • Norman Mailer:  Harlot’s Ghost
  • Alberto Moravia:  Boredom
  • Georges Perec:  Things:  A Story of the Sixties
  • Antonio Tabucchi:  Pereira Maintains
  • Henry David Thoreau:  Cape Cod
  • Ivan Turgenev:  Fathers and Sons
  • Glenway Wescott:  The Pilgrim Hawk

As these lists may indicate, there are some writers (eg, James,  Turgenev) whom one may only appreciate after a certain age and passage of years.

On the other hand, for various different reasons, books by the following authors do not speak at all to me.

  • The family Amis
  • Saul Bellow
  • The family Bronte
  • Peter Carey
  • David Caute
  • George Eliot
  • Richard Ford
  • Graham Greene
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Howard Jacobson
  • Thomas Keneally
  • Iris Murdoch
  • Anthony Powell
  • Marcel Proust
  • Philip Roth
  • Tom Sharpe
  • Anthony Trollope
  • PG Wodehouse
  • and many more.

For some of these authors, the issue may be a generational one:  for example, I know of no members of late Generation Jones or later-born readers who appreciate that early-Baby Boomer obsession, A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell’s long-winded novel sequence.   Added 2013-02-12:    The age threshold of my personal sample is confirmed by that of Max Hastings, writing in 2004:

Anthony Powell’s fan club, always far smaller than that of his contemporary Evelyn Waugh, will continue to shrink as admirers die off and are not replaced.  Nobody whom I know under 40 reads his books, while Waugh’s position as the greatest English novelist of the 20th century seems secure.”

Of course,  not everyone shares my low opinion of Roth’s work.




Recent reading 5

A list, sometimes annotated, of books recently read:

  • Richard Bassett [2012]:  Hitler’s Spy Chief.   New York: Pegasus. A biography of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr.  This book appears to be a reissue (also revised?) of a book  first published in 2005.  The subject and argument of the book are fascinating, but sadly this is not matched by the writing, which is just appalling.The first problem is with the status of the book.  The inside cover pages say “copyright 2011″, and ”First Pegasus Books hardcover edition 2012″, yet the Acknowledgements section is dated 2004.   Various references to contemporary events throughout the book also indicate a date of writing of around 2003 or so.   The front section contains a “Preface to the American Edition”which is undated, but cites letters written in 2008 and 2009.  The author’s sloppiness with dates is manifest throughout the book, and it is often very hard for a reader to determine exactly which year events being described actually happened.A further great sloppiness concerns the use of names – many people, like citizens of Indonesia, appear only to have surnames.   Later references will often find a first name attached to the surname – is this the same person, one wonders?  It is as if the author assumes we know as much as he seems to know about minor Nazi officials, and temporary clerks in MI6.The book actually reads like the author’s narrative notes for a book rather than the book itself, with much background information missing or assumed to be known by the reader.   Is this his first draft perhaps, ready for editing?   How could one write on the topic of German foreign intelligence in WW II without discussion of the XX Committee, for example?    Admittedly, the author does make one single reference to this operation (on page 280, out of 296 pages of text), but with no explanation of what the committee was doing or an evaluation of its work, and not even a listing in the index.    And given the author’s argument that Canaris was an internal opponent of Hitler from before the start of WW II, then an analysis of the alleged success of the XX operations in outwitting Nazi intelligence is surely needed here.  Was Canaris complicit in these operations, for example?   Especially if, as the author believes, Canaris met with his British opposite number, Sir Stewart Menzies, during WW II.And like a person too eager to please, the author’s sentences run on and on and on, with clause after subordinate clause, each introducing a new topic or change or direction, or dropping yet another name, in some drunken word association game.    Where were the editors when this book was submitted?  On vacation?  On strike?   Reading the book requires a reader to fight past the author’s appalling prose style to reach the interesting content.    Sadly, Admiral Canaris still awaits a good English-language biography.
  • Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman [2012]:  Spies Against Armageddon:  Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. Levant Books.
  • Milton Bearden and James Risen [2004]: The Main Enemy:  The Insider Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB.  Presidio Press.
  • Natalie Dykstra [2012]:  Clover Adams:  A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.   An intelligent and sympathetic life of Marian (“Clover”) Hooper Adams (1843-1885), pioneer of art photography, wife of Henry Adams, and a daughter of transcendentalist poet, Ellen Sturgis Hooper.   She was a friend and muse to Henry James, and a distant relative of the step-family of George Santayana.
  • Archie Brown [2010]:  The Rise and Fall of Communism.  Vintage.
  • James Douglass [2008]:   JFK and the Unspeakable:  Why he Died and Why it Matters. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
  • Sidney Ploss [2009]:  The Roots of Perestroika:  The Soviet Breakdown in Historical Context. McFarland and Company.
  • David Maraniss [2012]:  Barack Obama:  The Story.  Simon and Schuster.
  • Ben MacIntyre [2012]: Double Cross:  The True Story of the D-Day Spies.  London: Bloomsbury. Reviewed here.
  • Colin Eatock [2009]: Mendelssohn and Victorian England.  London: Ashgate.  A detailed and comprehensive account of Mendelssohn’s visits to England (and his one visit to Scotland), and his activities, musical and other, while there.
  • George Dyson [2012]:  Turing’s Cathedral:  The Origins of the Digital Universe.  Allen Lane.   A fascinating account of the involvement of the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) in Princeton, NJ, in the early development of scientific computing, led by that larger-than-life character, Johnnie von Neumann.
  • Gordon Brook-Shepherd [1988]: The Storm Birds:  Soviet Post-War Defectors.  Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • Neil Sheehan [2010]:  A Fiery Peace in a Cold War:  Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon. Vintage Books.  A fascinating history of the US inter-continental ballistic missile program in the 1950s, told through a biography of one of its parents, USAF General Bennie Schriever.    It is easy to forget how much practical expertise was needed for successful missile and satellite launches, as with any new and complex technology.   As a consequence, we forget how few of the early test launch attempts were successful.  The Vanguard 3 rocket, for example, launched just 3 satellites out of 11 attempts between December 1957 and September 1959. (Vanguard was a USN project.)

The photo shows the Mercury-Atlas and Gemini-Titan rockets at Rocket Park in New York City (courtesy of the NY Hall of Science).




Shadows

Writer Pico Iyer tells of his life being shadowed by – followed and pre-figured by the spirit of – Graham Greene, here. I’m no fan of Greene’s writing, but the shadowing I can appreciate. Many writers have spoken of similar shadowing and even possession – William Burroughs, Patricia Highsmith, Hilary Mantel, for instance. Highsmith’s Ripley, she came to feel, was a real spiritual presence, existent outside her books and her imagination.




Faded colored notebooks

The Grauniad celebrates a half-century of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook by asking various writers what they think of it.  The book is appalling, and one hopes will be forgotten before another half-century elapses.  In her earlier novels and subsequently, Lessing is one of the best writers in English of any century – gripping narratives, superbly-judged choices of words, inviting and compelling voices, and a sharp observational intelligence.    The Golden Notebook, however, is our Doris off her game.  Self-indulgent, overly-long, poorly-structured, apparently unedited, it is a mis-mash of different stuff that looks as if it were put down once in a hurry and then, it seems,  never re-read.  To this reader, the book appears as some random ideas for a novel, or perhaps several, which were never reworked coherently:   Clip some jottings together, put a cover on them, and call it post-modern -  that should work.   If art really is the doing of all things with artlessness, as Piet Hein once said*, then this book lacks even an attempt to be artful, as if the author was taking the michael, or worse.

 

* FOOTNOTE:

There is but one art,
No more, no less:
To do all things
With artlessness.




Visitations to a writer

Recently-deceased Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi, author of that subtle novel of political intrigue under totalitarianism, Pereira Maintains, writes about the visitation he received which inspired the novel, here.  How sad that the name of the brave Portuguese journalist whose death inspired the novel should be unmentioned by Tabucchi.

Dr Pereira visited me for the first time one September evening in 1992. In those days his name wasn’t yet Pereira. He still didn’t have distinct traits, he was rather vague, elusive, hazy, but he already nurtured the wish to be a protagonist in a book. He was only a character in search of an author. I don’t know why he chose me to tell his story. One possible hypothesis is that the month before, on a torrid August day in Lisbon, I too had made a visit.

I vividly remember that day. In the morning I bought the city’s daily newspaper and read an article about an old journalist who had died at the Santa Maria Hospital and whose remains lay in state at the hospital chapel. I shall discreetly avoid any mention of the deceased’s name. I shall say only that he was someone with whom I had a passing acquaintance in Paris, in the late 1960s, when he, a Portuguese exile, was writing for a Parisian newspaper. He was a man who had plied his journalistic trade in Portugal during the 1940s and 50s under Salazar’s dictatorship. And he had managed to ridicule the regime by publishing a savage article in a Portuguese newspaper. He naturally encountered serious problems with the police and was subsequently forced to choose exile.

I knew that after 1974, when Portugal returned to democracy, he went back to his country, but I didn’t meet him again. He wasn’t writing any more, he had retired, and I didn’t know what he was doing for a living. Sad to say, he had been forgotten. In that period Portugal lived the restless, convulsive life of a country that had rediscovered democracy after 50 years of dictatorship. It was a young country, led by young people. No one remembered an old journalist who had resolutely opposed Salazar’s dictatorship in the late 40s.”




On Monty

Montgomery Clift is one of the silver screen’s greatest actors.  I have written before about his intensely-naturalistic speaking style, with its pauses and false starts and mid-sentence hesitations and apparently improvised modifications on-the-fly.    To speak as he did, in so many films, showed that this speaking style was probably not an artefact of all the screenwriters involved, especially when so few other actors in these or other films of the time spoke like that, but instead evidence of his own great intelligence and superb ear for speech.

Amy Lawrence has now written a fascinating book on his screen acting across his career, analyzing in detail what he did and how, and how he achieved his effects.  By studying his own, hand-annotated personal copies of film scripts, for example, she is able to identify his particular contributions to the scripts and the dialogue of the films he acted in, and is able to demonstrate the artistry and diligence behind his naturalistic speech.   And to show it, in many cases, as his personal artistry, as he worked to revise and rewrite dialog that was often originally stilted or unnatural.

By careful exegesis, Lawrence is also able to debunk some myths.   Clift’s shambling, addled performance as a courtroom witness in the late Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), for example, is usually presented as evidence of the drug and alcohol addictions he is supposed to have succumbed to following his near-fatal car accident in May 1956.  This accident destroyed his face and left him in pain, taking pain-killers and drinking.   But, as Lawrence demonstrates, his court-room appearance in the 1961 film shows many of the same personal characteristics and mannerisms of his court-room appearance in A Place in the Sun, filmed in 1951 - “tightening his fists, flexing his fingers, pushing against the armrests with his elbows” [Lawrence, p. 212].   Clearly, the origin of Clift’s witness-box performance is not drugs, but acting chops.  Speaking of the character played by Clift in Nuremberg, she says:

Peterson’s gestures are emphatic, not neurotic, but combined with his broken syntax and repetition of sentence fragments, Clift clearly suggests in his performance that the character is not in control of himself.  But the actor is.  When we see the recurrence of these gestures across time and roles, before and after the accident, it seems reasonable to call them choices characteristic of the performer.  Clift is not a mess; he plays one.” [Lawrence, p. 213]

Lawrence also notices how Clift, throughout his career, often acts with his back to the camera, either fully or partially.  These episodes usually signal that he is engaged in some intense, interior, psychological reaction to some event or person, as if he could better tell us what he is thinking by not showing us his face.   That he would even try to do something so counter-intuitive, let alone that he usually succeeds, demonstrates the great actor Clift was.

I had only one, very small quibble with Lawrence’s book.  She describes (on page 63) the scene in The Big Lift (1950) when Clift’s character, about to receive an award for helping in the Berlin airlift, turns and sees for the first time that the official award-giver is a beautiful woman.   Lawrence does not describe Clift’s eyes as he suddenly sees this woman:  his pupils dilate widely as an expression of his character’s plain delight. We know of course, that the actor Clift must have practiced and rehearsed this dilation until he could undertake it at will.   But knowing this fact increases our admiration for his acting skills, since it shows the dedication and diligence he brought to the task.

Clift’s acting art was artless, and like all artlessness, took immense preparation, intelligence, practice, and persistence to achieve.

Reference:

Amy Lawrence [2010]: The Passion of Montgomery Clift. Berkeley, CA, USA:  University of California Press.

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The writing on the wall

Over at Normblog, Norm tells us that he wants his books and not merely the words they contain.   We’ve discussed this human passion before:  books, unlike e-readers, are postcards from our past-self to our future-self, tangible souvenirs of the emotions we had when we first read them.   For that very reason – that they transport us through time – books aren’t going anywhere.  It’s a very rare technology indeed that completely eliminates all its predecessors, since every technology has something unique it provides to some users or other.   We could ask, for example, why we still carve words onto stone and why we still engrave names onto rings and pewter mugs for special occasions, when the invention of printing should have done away with those earlier text-delivery platforms, more expensive and less portable than books and paper?




Recent reading 4: Achtundsechziger

While elements of the left turned to revolutionary violence in most countries of the West at the end of the 1960s, three countries experienced this turn to a much greater extent than any other:  Germany, Italy, and Japan.  This fact has always intrigued me.   Why these three?     What facts of history or culture link the three?  All three endured fascist totalitarian regimes before WW II, but so too did, say, Poland, Hungary, Greece, Portugal, and Spain.  The countries of Eastern Europe, however, met the 1960s still under the Soviet imperium, and so opportunities for violent resistance were few, and in any case were unlikely to come from the left.   Spain and Portugal and, for a time, Greece, were still under fascism in the post-war period, so opposition tended to aim at enlarging democracy, not at violent resistance.   Perhaps that history is a partial explanation, with (some of) the first post-war generation, the 68ers (in German, achtundsechziger) seeking by their armed resistance to absolve their shame at the perceived lack of resistance to fascism of their parents’ generation.  Certainly the writings of the Red Army Fraction (RAF), the Red Brigades, and the Japanese Red Army give this as a justification for their turn to violence.

I have always thought that another causal factor in common between these three countries was the absence of alternating left and right governments.  With a succession of right-wing and centre-right regimes in Italy and Japan, and right-wing and grand-coalition (right-and-left-together) regimes in Germany, how were views in favour of socialist change able to be represented and heard?  Indeed, in the German Federal Republic, the communist party had been declared illegal in 1956, and remained so until its reformation (under a new name) until 1968.   And even the USA may not be an exception to this heuristic:  In 1968, the candidate of the major party of the left, Hubert Humphrey, was a protagonist for the war in Vietnam (at least in public, and during the election campaign).  And while the candidate of the major party of the right, Richard Nixon, had promised during the campaign to end the war, once in office he intensified and extended it.   For anyone opposed to the war in Vietnam, the democratic political system appeared to have failed;  indeed, one of those who had most publicly opposed the war, Robert Kennedy, had been assassinated. It is interesting in this regard to note that the Weather Underground only adopted armed resistance as a strategy in December 1969, a year after Nixon’s election.   In Chantal Mouffe’s agonistic pluralism view of democracy, a key role of political argument and verbal conflict is to bring everyone into the political tent.  If some voices, or some views, are excluded by definition or silenced by assassination, we should not then be surprised that those excluded try to burn down the tent.

And perhaps because I like the idea of acting according to (an empirically-grounded) theory of history, I always found the primary argument of the RAF very intriguing:  That by engaging in armed resistance to the capitalist state, the revolutionary left would force the state to reveal its essential fascist character, and that this revelation would awaken the consciousness of the proletariat, leading to the revolutionary overthrow of the state. Although intrigued by it, I never found this argument quite compelling:  First, it could be argued that a democratic state only has a fascist character in response to, and to the extent of, armed resistance to it.  So predictions of its fascist tendencies become self-fulfilling.   Second, the history of countries ruled by fascism in the 20th century surely shows that life under totalitarian rule makes organizing and engaging in dissident activities, particularly group-oriented dissident activities, less not more feasible.     Third, I believe strongly that not only do ends not usually justify means, but often means vitiate ends.     This is the case here:  suppose the violent left’s violent resistance had indeed worked in overthrowing the governments they were directed at.  What sort of society would have resulted?   What we know of the personalities of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof and their revolutionary colleagues leads me to think that a Cambodia under the Khmer Rouges, rather than a Sweden under Olof Palme, would be a more likely description for life in a West Germany led by the RAF.  Thank our stars they failed.

These thoughts are provoked by some recent reading on the subject of leftist urban terrorism in the West, both fiction and non-fiction.  The fiction concerns the psychology and consequences of life underground, long after any thrill of plotting and executing armed resistance has passed.

First,  a novel about the Angry Brigade (AB), the lite, British version of the Red Army Fraction:  Hari Kunzru’s “My Revolutions”.   This is a gripping first-person account by someone who had participated in AB actions, and now, 30 years later, is living under an assumed name.  His past comes back to him, through some not-fully-explained, but dirty, tricks that British intelligence agencies seem to be running.  These dirty actions are (or rather, appear to be) targeted against those who were on the edges of the violent left, but not part of it, who have now risen to prominence in Government (Joschka Fischer comes to mind), and the narrator is used by the shadowy intelligence forces to blackmail or destroy the career of the target of the action.  The writing is fluent and plausible, and the tale engrossing.  Only occasionally does Kunzru trip:  Who ever uses “recurrent” (page 4) in ordinary speech?  (Some people may say “recurring”.)    Precisely how does the sun beat down like a drummer? (page 10).   But most of the novel reads as the words of the protagonist, and not the words of the novelist, indicating that a realistic character has been created by the author’s words.

The same cannot be said for Dana Spiotta’s “Eat the Document”.   Although this book too is riveting, it is not nearly as well-written as Kunzru’s book.   The story also concerns the later after-life of some formerly violent leftists, presumably once members of the Weather Underground, now living in hiding in the USA, incognito.   The story is told through the purported words of multiple narrators, a technique which enables the events to be described from diverse and interesting perspectives.  I say “purported” because too often the words and tone of different narrators sound the same.  In addition, often a narrator uses expressions which seem quite implausible for that particular narrator, as when the teenage boy Jason speaks of “recondite” personalities in suburbia (page 74):  these are not Jason’s words but those of the author.

These works of fiction are partly engrossing to me because I once unwittingly knew a former violent leftist on the lam – the Symbionese Liberation Army’s James Kilgore, whom I knew as John Pape.  I wish I could say I’d always suspected him, but that is not the case.  Indeed, if anything, I suspected him of being a secret religious believer.  He was serious, always intense, and softly-spoken, and ideologically pure to the point of having no sense of humour. The Struggle was all, and life seemed to be all gravitas, with no levitas (at least in my interactions with him.  I have no idea how much of this serious demeanor  is or was his true self.)  Adopting a position as a committed revolutionary is certainly an interesting strategy for a cover;  one does not expect underground weathermen to be regular attenders at Trotskyist reading circles, but Pape was.  (And he did the homework!) But perhaps someone with a sense of humour does not join a movement of revolutionary violence in the first place, at least not in a democracy.

In the non-fiction category is Susan Braudy’s history of the Boudin family, one of whose members, Kathy Boudin, was a member of the Weather Underground.   As with Kunzru’s and Spiotta’s novels, this non-fictional account is also riveting.   It is, however, appallingly badly written. For instance, for a history, the book is very fuzzy about dates – when did Jean Boudin die, for example?  And much of the text reads like third-hand family anecdotes, perhaps interesting or amusing to the family but not to anyone else.  (Aunty Merle always was partial to rhubarb and once asked for it in a restaurant.)    And lots of very relevant information is simply not provided, for instance the prison sentences given to Kathy Boudin’s fellow-accused in 1981.   As a history book, this is certainly a book.

Finally, a quick report on Hans Kundnani’s superb analysis of the extreme German left, Utopia or Auschwitz:  Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust.  Kundnani argues that there were competing strains within the violent German left in the 1960s and 1970s:  one strain engaged in struggle (against capitalist and western imperialist injustice) as a form of remedy for the failure – or at least, the perceived failure – of their parents’ generation to resist Nazism, and other strains comprising German-nationalist and, suprisingly, even anti-semitic tendencies.    The presence of such tendencies at least explains how some on the far left in the 1960s ended up on the neo-Nazi right thirty years later.  Kundnani’s book is superb – interesting, well-written, humane, engrossing, and tightly-argued.  I had only one small quibble, which is perhaps a typo or an oversight:  On page 252, Kundnani refers to German military participation in a NATO-led attack on Serbian forces on 24 March 1999 as the “first time since 1945, Germany was at war.”  Well, the Federal Republic of Germany perhaps.   The DDR sent troups to join the Warsaw Pact invasion of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in August 1968.   If I was a former citizen of the DDR, regardless of my opposition to that invasion, I would be annoyed that my nation’s history seems to have been forgotten by people writing after unification on German history.

UPDATE (2010-08-25): My remark about participation by the DDR military in the Warsaw Pact invasion of the CSSR in 1968 is wrong.   The forces of the DDR were, at the last moment, stayed, as I explain here.    Thanks to Hans Kundnani for correcting me on this (see comment below).

References:

Bill Ayers [2001]:  Fugitive Days:  A Memoir. Boston, MA, USA:  Beacon Press.

Dan Berger [2006]:  Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity. Oakland, CA, USA:  AK Press.

Susan Braudy [2003]:  Family Circle:  The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left. New York, NY, USA;  Anchor Books.

Uli Edel [Director, 2008]: Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex.  Germany.

Ron Jacob [1997]: The Way the Wind Blew:  A History of the Weather Underground. London, UK:  Verso.

Hans Kundnani [2009]:  Utopia or Auschwitz:  Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust. London, UK:  Hurst and Company.

Hari Kunzru [2007]:  My Revolutions.  London, UK:  Penguin.

Chantal Mouffe [1993]: The Return of the Political.  London, UK: Verso.

Dana Spiotta [2006]:  Eat the Document.  New York: Scribner/London, UK: Picador.

Tom Vague [1988/2005]:  The Red Army Faction Story 1963-1993.  San Francisco:  AK Press.

Jeremy Varon [2004]:  Bringing the War Home:  The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies. Berkeley, CA, USA:  University of California Press.

Some previous thoughts on beating terrorism here.  Past entries in the Recent Reading series are here.

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Concat 3: On writing

For procrastinators among you writing the Great American Novel, here are some links with advice on writing:

  • Hilary Mantel [2010]:  The joys of stationeryThe Guardian, 2010-03-06. On why writers need to keep loose-leaf notebooks.  An excerpt:

That said, le vrai moleskine and its mythology irritate me. Chatwin, Hemingway: has the earth ever held two greater posers? The magic has surely gone out of the little black tablet now that you can buy it everywhere, and in pastel pink, and even get it from Amazon – if they believe your address exists. The trouble with the Moleskine is that you can’t easily pick it apart. This may have its advantages for glamorous itinerants, who tend to be of careless habit and do not have my access to self-assembly beech and maple-effect storage solutions – though, as some cabinets run on castors, I don’t see what stopped them filing as they travelled. But surely the whole point of a notebook is to pull it apart, and distribute pieces among your various projects? There is a serious issue here. Perforation is vital – more vital than vodka, more essential to a novel’s success than a spellchecker and an agent.

I often sense the disappointment when trusting beginners ask me how to go about it, and I tell them it’s all about ring binders.”

  • Rachel Cusk [2010]: Can creative writing ever be taught? The Guardian, 2010-01-30.  A moving discussion on teaching creative writing, and the relationship between writing  and therapy.

Honest criticism, I suppose, has its place. But honest writing is infinitely more valuable.

At the start of last term, I asked my students a question: “How did you become the person you are?” They answered in turn, long answers of such startling candour that the ­photographer who had come in to take a couple of quick pictures for the ­university magazine ended up staying for the whole session, mesmerised. I had asked them to write down three or four words before they spoke, each word indicating a formative aspect of experience, and to tell me what the words were. They were mostly simple words, such as “father” and “school” and “Catherine”. To me they represented a regression to the first encounter with language; they represented a chance to reconfigure the link between the mellifluity of self and the concreteness of utterance. It felt as though this was a good thing for even the most accomplished writer to do. Were the students learning anything? I suppose not exactly. I’d prefer to think of it as relearning. Relearning how to write; remembering how.




Caute on Marechera

One did not have to visit many bars or nightclubs in downtown Harare in the early 1980s before encountering the late Dambudzo Marechera  (1952-1987), Zimbabwean novelist and poet.    I knew him slightly, as did anyone who was willing to share a drink with him and enjoy (or endure) a stimulating late-night argument on politics or literature.   Some of his writing, for all its coarse language, is powerful and sublime (in the tradition of Burroughs and Genet), and David Caute, in a book I have just read, argues correctly that he was a great writer.    The book also captures his personality well,  even if it gives the impression that Caute thinks the work forgives the man.   It does not.  As a person, Marechera was a victim of  his addictions and perhaps also of a psychosis – mercurial, abusive,  racist, foul-mouthed, illogical, self-destructive, and paranoid:   not someone who was nice to be around for very long.     Nothing forgives such poor behaviour, not even great writing.

As always when I read David Caute, I am reminded of Graham Greene:  both are writers who grapple with the major moral questions and issues of our time, yet both write in the sloppiest of language, insincere and vague, and have the tinnest of ears.  Woolly writing might be evidence of woolly thinking or evidence of malice aforethought (perhaps attempting to hide or obfuscate something, as Orwell argued); it could also be evidence of insufficient thinking.  In any case, Greene’s and Caute’s arguments are often undone and undermined by their style.  We only get as far as page 6 of Caute’s book on Marechera, for example, before we stumble over:

Piled high at the central counter of the Book Fair are copies of his [Marechera's] new book, Mindblast, published by College Press of Harare, an orange coloured paperback with a surrealist design involving a humanized cat and a black in a space helmet.”

A black what, Dr Caute?  A black what?  I guess you mean a black person.  Just two sentences later, though,  you speak of,  “An effusive white executive of College Press . . .” So, let me get this right  – white people are important enough to have nouns to denote them, but black people not, eh?  Hmmm.

Although the effect is racist, I am sure Caute is not deliberately being racist in his use of language here, but rather just sloppy.    But the sloppy expression, here as elsewhere, leads one to doubt his sincerity and/or his ear.   Of course, someone who spent a lot of time in the company of white Rhodesians could easily forget how offensive the first usage sounds (and is); and we know from Caute’s earlier books that he spent a lot of time in the company of white Rhodesians.

Pressing on, on page 43 we read:

Such rhetoric counts for little against the current surplus of maize, tobacco and beef which only the commercial farmers can guarantee.”

Well, actually, no, Dr Caute.  Tobacco and beef were in surplus at the time referred to (1984) due to commercial (ie, mainly white-owned) farms.  But maize was in surplus because the avowedly Marxist government of Robert Mugabe used the price mechanism when it came to power to encourage communal farmers  (ie, subsistence black farmers) to produce and sell surplus maize crops.   This was something so very remarkable – the country in food surplus for its staple food almost immediately after 13 years of civil war and 90 years of insurrection, and because of the fast responsiveness of peasant farmers   – that all the papers were full of it.  Surely Caute must have heard.  (See Herbst 1990 for an account.)  And even beef production was boosted by contributions from communal farmers, particularly after the Government decided not to prosecute the many illegal butcheries competing against the state-owned meat-processing monopoly, the Cold Storage Commission.  (One may wonder why a socialist government would not support its own state enterprise against privately-owned competitors until one learns that many members of the Cabinet had financial stakes in the competing butcheries.)

Is the sloppiness in Caute’s sentence then due to Orwellian sleight-of-hand – seeking to promote a case that was factually incorrect – or just  due to insufficiently-careful thought?   I suspect the latter, although it is throwaway lines like this – as it happens, lines so common in the conversation of white Rhodesians in the 1980s – that make me ponder  the sincerity of Caute’s writing.

And, finally, Caute seems eager to berate the left and liberals for their failure to call attention to Robert Mugabe’s ethnic cleansing in Matebeleland in 1982-84, the Gukurahundi campaign.  Certainly more could have been said and done, especially publicly, to oppose this.  But why is only one side of politics to blame?  Both the US and the UK had conservative administrations at the time, both of which (particularly Thatcher’s) made strong representations to Mugabe over the fate of several white Zimbabwe  Air Force officers detained and tortured in 1982.   These governments did not make nearly such strong representations over the fate of the victims of the Gukurahundi. Perhaps Mugabe was right to accuse the west of racism on this.  And Mugabe’s military campaign in Matabeleland was not launched for no reason:  As Caute must know, South Africa and its white Rhodesian friends were engaged in a campaign of terrorist violence against Zimbabwe from its inception, with terrorist bombings throughout the 1980s.   The Independence Arch he describes traveling under on the way to Harare Airport was in fact the second arch built to commemorate Independence:  the first had been blown up shortly after it was built.   And even Joshua Nkomo admitted (at a press conference following his dismissal from Cabinet in February 1982) that he had asked South Africa for assistance to stage a coup after Independence.  While Mugabe’s 5th Brigade was certainly engaged in brutal and genocidal murder and rape, the campaign was not against an imaginary enemy.

Although evil may triumph when good people do nothing, from the fact of the triumph of evil it is invalid to infer that nothing was done to oppose it by good people.  Where are the mentions in Caute’s account of the strong, high-level and repeated Catholic opposition (both clerical and lay) to Mugabe’s campaign?  Where is the mention, in the statement that Mugabe detained people using renewals of Smith’s emergency powers regulations, of the independent review panel established by ZANU(PF) stalwart Herbert Ushewokunze when Minister for Home Affairs, the Detention Review Tribunal, to consider the cases of people detained without trial?  The members of this panel included independent lawyers, some of whom were white and liberal.    Some people, even some of the people Caute seems to excoriate, were doing their best to stop or ameliorate the evil at the time.

FOOTNOTE: I speculated on Robert Mugabe’s possible CIA connections here.   If true, this may explain the reticence of Western Governments to publicly criticize him in the 1980s.

References:

David Caute [1986/2009]:  Marechera and the Colonel:  A Zimbabwean Writer and the Claims of the State. London, UK:  Totterdown Books. Revised edition, 2009.

Jeffrey Herbst [1990]: State Politics in Zimbabwe. Berkeley, CA, USA: University of California Press. Perspectives on Southern Africa Series, Volume 45.

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