Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a post-colonial novel told from four points of view. Queenie and Bernard, separated by war, are a British couple with a tepid relationship and Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican, married out of convenience and lured to England by opportunity. The book explores British racism in the 1950s. It’s less overtly ugly than its American cousin, but it nonetheless dictates the borders of the lives of Gilbert, Hortense and their fellow immigrants. Britain, long the colonizer, renowned for her Empire, in Small Island has reached a point where it would like to forget about the past and start from scratch. This time all these people of different colors can stay in their own lands. But, of course, this is not an option. Instructed by centuries of colonialism to believe they are British subjects and stirred up by the global tumult of World War II, immigrants from all over the world resettle in their “Mother Country.” Nearly all of the white folks in the book are like Bernard, dismissive and even affronted by the arrival of darker people on their shores. They stare, heckle, slam doors and on occasion take a swing at these people. It matters not that thousands of Jamaicans fought along side the British during the war. It is telling that most of the British folks Gilbert interacts with think that Jamaica is in Africa. Queenie, however, is the anomaly and perhaps even a cliche since so often these novels of race relations have at their center an enlightened white person. But luckily Levy gives her sufficient depth to carry a large chunk of the novel. What sets this book apart, and what probably helped Levy win awards for it – the Orange prize in 2004 and then this year’s Orange “Best of the Best” – was her ability to imbue each of the four narrators with his or her own voice. Gilbert and Hortense speak with the native rhythm of their home island, Bernard’s voice is pinched and fidgety, and Queenie is the voice of hope and happiness. Though the chapter headings indicate who will narrate each chapter, the voices are so distinctive that this touch is unnecessary.
Long before its publication, Jonathan Bate’s new biography of the English poet Ted Hughes was being circled by crows. This is fitting, since the crow was one of Hughes’s favorite animals and most recurrent images. In his 1971 collection Crow, written after the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath, the bird-protagonist is questioned at the gates of Hell: “...who is stronger than death?” Crow replies, “me, evidently,” and is allowed to pass. Hughes’s story is so calcified with rumour and controversy that any biographer, even one of Jonathan Bate’s caliber, was doomed to wade through a mire. The monumental book he has given us, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life, is at the very least the story of a man who was stronger than death, capable of turning death into startling and important art. Whether his biographer has such strength is a critical question. Bate certainly spent his time in the mud: almost as soon as The Unauthorized Life hit the shelves, Hughes’s widow publically defamed the book via a solicitor as “inaccurate” and “offensive,” going so far as to comment that “[t]he number of errors found in just a very few pages examined from this book are hard to excuse, since any serious biographer has an obligation to check his facts,” and demanding a public apology for insinuating that on the way to his burial, casket in tow, Hughes’s family stopped for “a good meal.” But the relationship between Bate and the Hughes estate, controlled almost solely by Hughes’s widow Carol, was not always so strained. As Bate reported to The Guardian last year, Carol Hughes began as an “enthusiastic” supporter of the project, providing the Oxford professor and Shakespeare scholar with unprecedented access to the seemingly limitless Hughes archives, held in substantial private collections as well as at Atlanta’s Emory University and the British Library. But after four years of digging, Bate reportedly received a letter from the estate, terminating the offer of an authorized biography with “no reason” given. Bate determined to go on with the work, and his guess about the reasoning behind the estate’s abrupt renunciation was that his project was becoming too biographical: what had started out as a “literary life” was developing into a more invasive, and potentially damaging, wholesale examination of a man as famous for his promiscuity as he was for his power with a poetic line. In his preface to the biography, perhaps anticipating the storm to come, Bate goes out of his way to keep things civil. He writes that “[t]he cardinal rule” he will apply to the project is that “...the work and how it came into being is what is worth writing about, what is to be respected.” In other words, the literature, not the life, will be his primary concern. But even in the short distance it has already traversed by this passage, Bate’s biography has gone a long way toward proving that such a distinction is impossible to maintain. Though Ted Hughes was famously allergic to biographers (who could blame someone who spent so much time protecting his children from the vendetta-mongering paparazzi that haunted him, as the executor of Sylvia Plath’s estate?), Bate summarizes “[t]he argument of this biography” as the assertion “that Ted Hughes’s poetic self was constantly torn between a mythic or symbolic and an elegiac or confessional tendency...” “The tragedy of his career,” Bate adds, “is that it took so long for his elegiac voice to be unlocked.” By the elegiac, Bate means the confessional. The argument here is that Hughes’s greatest poems were written when he allowed his biography to fully penetrate his art. The explicitly autobiographical collection Birthday Letters is the iconic example of this style from Hughes’s career, but as his published legacy expands, collections like Capriccio (a series of elegies to the woman for whom he left Plath) and even the much less erotic River take on clear biographical overtones in retrospect. In his exquisite interview for The Paris Review, Hughes once answered a question about the confessional element in poetry by asserting that “Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects with us, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of. Perhaps it’s the need to keep it hidden that makes it poetic—makes it poetry.” By this stage in his life, looking back on a volume of output that even the most prolific competitor would find intimidating, Hughes was willing to label it all “confessional,” to guess that an element of biography is what gives all poetry its vitality. Though during the exhausting legal battle surrounding her novel The Bell Jar, Hughes tried to escape ridicule from Plath’s admirers by insisting that hers was the work of “a symbolic artist” -- in the open air he felt free to observe that what a true poet always works into symbols are the passions and events of his or her own life. Why, then, Bate’s insistence on the lifelong tension between Hughes’s “symbolic” and “confessional” sides? None of his readings of Hughes’s poems hinge on this polarity. In fact, the most energized sections of The Unauthorized Life are those that cover the two poets’ life together. In these, Bate is able to intersperse lines from Birthday Letters to illuminate biographical details. His scan of Hughes’s signature poem “The Thought Fox” similarly treats the piece exclusively for its autobiographical significance, barely quoting the poem itself, and giving extensive space to Hughes’s reflective commentary about it. As often as Bate insists that his book is about Hughes’s “work and how it came into being,” he rarely pauses for detailed analysis of that work. Few lines are dissected for their technical elements. It is the story of Hughes’s life, not the content of his poetry, that dominates the narrative. And as Bate delves again and again into Hughes’s tangled and often abusive sexual relationships -- these sections are certainly his most electrifying and detailed -- an uncomfortable, though understandable, reason for his lingering insistence that Hughes was “torn between the symbolic and the confessional” presents itself: Bate felt the need to keep things civilized. With an archive of blistering personal data at his disposal, but Hughes’s very human survivors more or less at his mercy, Bate faced a crushing ethical dilemma. The work that followed seems perpetually caught between the thrill of scandal and compulsion to soften the blow by selectively presenting Hughes’s most incendiary work as “symbolic.” This compulsion blunts Bate’s criticism especially when he describes Hughes’s volatility towards women: the shadow of a living wife and family understandably makes him waiver. In his chapter about Hughes’s infidelity to Plath, he reflects that one of the poet’s “most tasteless lines” falls in his Birthday Letters poem about Assia Wevill, where he describes his mistress as “Slightly filthy with erotic mystery.” Yet any serious reader knows that in the Hughes canon, this line is nowhere close to the most tasteless. My personal pick would be the line from his poem “Crow’s First Lesson,” where Crow, asked by God to pronounce the word “love,” instead regurgitates a “woman’s vulva” which drops “over man’s neck” and “tightens.” In fact, almost any passage from Crow more than equals Bate’s choice for “tastelessness.” We can infer that the problem with this line was not its imagery, but how it showcased Hughes’s potential for vitriol against the women he most loved, some of whom are still living. This sense of hesitation between analysis of the writing and emphasis on its biographical implications snags Bate’s scholarship at almost every crucial juncture. The lesson here is that no line, especially from an openly confessional poet, can be totally isolated from the life from which it sprung. Neither can it be analyzed only in terms of that life. The poet’s life and work are two branches derived from a single root, and Bate’s attempt to uncouple them only results in hindered growth. But there were other methods available to him -- precedents already set by great biographers. Beyond their shared surname, Jonathan Bate’s work on a poet so frequently compared to John Keats invites comparison between The Unauthorized Life and another heavy-hitter: the Harvard scholar W. Jackson Bate’s 1963 biography John Keats. A look at the two texts side by side makes for a striking contrast. W.J. Bate’s prose is muscular and unsentimental, and though he captures Keats’s personal struggles with sympathy, his scholarship of the poetry is just as excellent. His work on Keats’s vowel interplay in “The Eve of St. Agnes" and "Hyperion" remains groundbreaking, and is conveyed with crisp clarity: The frequency of Keats’s complex assonance, W.J. Bate writes, “far exceeds that in any other major poet,” and is not found anywhere in English poetry except in “poets whom we should assume to have other pressing concerns in mind: Shakespeare...and Milton.” His conclusion is that genius in form and content reinforce each other; an observation that could just as easily apply to Hughes, though Jonathan Bate seldom ventures deep enough into his versification to resurface with such conclusions. Instead, his commentary keeps a strange distance from mechanical analysis of the lines, though his syntax sometimes gives in to the temptation to mimic the staccato voice of his subject, with strained results: “The words of [Hughes’s] poems -- which he obsessively refined, revised, rewrote -- are complicated, freighted with meaning, sometimes darkly opaque, sometimes cut like jewels of crystal clarity.” A “jewel of clarity” sounds almost Hughesian, but only almost: converting nouns to verbs was one of the poet’s habitual gestures, but to end lines with an abstracted noun phrase like “crystal clarity” was something he got beyond early in his writing life, knowing that abstractions make weak images. Still, to hold Bate’s Unauthorized Life of Hughes in your hand is to experience something as hefty and monumental as a good Hughes poem. Hughes’s enormous Collected Poems has been compared to “a hunk of Stonehenge” for both its magical overtones and its sheer physical weight. Bate’s book is undeniably important, just as hefty, and often movingly written. His last passages about Sylvia Plath’s undying importance to Hughes are instantly memorable; his last flourish like poetry itself: “Before him stands yesterday.” If only every line of it were so good. But Bate was torn between his own rival muses: the personal and the symbolic strains of Hughes’s work, which he pitted against each other in the preface, turn out to be two sides of the same coin, the same monolith viewed from two angles. The intriguing rivalry he suggests between them turns out to be a false one. They were the same stone goddess that ruled all of Hughes’s work. Better to affirm, with the poet himself, that all poetry “is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say.” That to write is to confess in symbols. That the poetry is the biography. To have tracked this line of thinking directly through Hughes’s work would have made for a true “literary life.” Instead, Bate has given us a life informed by literature, where the most scandalizing moments are diffused by claims that they are important to a deep analysis that never occurs. Yet if what Bate gave us is not what it could have been, it is a riveting book nonetheless. Perhaps the best literary life of Hughes will have to wait until there is no one living left to hurt. In the meantime, the page is printed.
In spite of decades of ultra-totalitarian politics and extreme isolationism—or, perhaps, because of them—there is something fascinating about Albania, a fascination that Francine Prose, in her superb novel My New American Life, locates in the person of Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian woman living in America on an expired tourist visa. After flirting her way through Immigration and bailing on her supposed destination, Detroit, for New York and a gig waiting tables at a restaurant in the Financial District, Lula is hired by an economics professor-turned-sell-out Wall Street economist—a sad-faced man she insists on calling Mister Stanley—to look after his son, a sullen teenager named Zeke who doesn’t need her to do anything more than feed him microwave pizza and keep him company watching TV. Mister Stanley wants someone around because his wife, Ginger, bailed on them on Christmas Eve, casting a pall over the house. Lula leaves the closet-sized Alphabet City apartment she shares with her (crazy but fun) Albanian friend Dunia for Mister Stanley’s lugubrious home in the Jersey suburbs. It is a stupefyingly dull job. Because she can’t drive, she spends most of the day puttering around the house, occasionally writing stories on Zeke’s laptop. Then one day, out of the blue, three Albanian “brothers” in a black Lexus SUV show up with a gun, which they ask her to keep for them. Although this is a flagrant violation of her pact with Mister Stanley—and the gun’s discovery may well jeopardize her U.S. citizenship—Lula agrees, mostly because she thinks the lead “brother,” Alvo, is cute. The rest of the plot—essentially a metaphorical collision course with Lula’s Albanian past and her American future—stems from this imprudent if understandable decision. If the book has a weakness, it’s that the conflict is too restrained, the stakes too low; even when the Chekhovian gun goes off, as it must, there is never a sense of danger, never a hint that something terrible might befall our heroine. But then, we don’t want anything bad to happen to Lula. She’s a thoroughly delightful invention. Like all great characters, she’s a collection of contradictions, an Albanian paradox: She’s street smart and experienced yet somehow innocent, unlike the corrupted Dunia; trapped like a nun in Mister Stanley’s chaste house—where neither of the other two occupants seem hip to her beguiling beauty—she’s nevertheless sexy, with a healthy if repressed libido (as her romancing of Alvo demonstrates); she’s a fantastic storyteller, so much so that Mister Stanley and his immigration-lawyer friend Don Settebello encourage her to write about her experiences—My New American Life is the working title of Lula’s memoir—but most of what she writes is either folklore masquerading as fact or straight-up plagiarism of the work of the Albanian poet and novelist Ismail Kadare. The novel is presented in third person, from Lula’s point of view. In Reading Like a Writer, Prose extols the virtues of elegant sentences, citing Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Phillip Roth as some of the masters of the craft. In My New American Life, Prose is on top of her game in this respect, the fluidity of the prose surpassing, I think, her work in Blue Angel. Here is a random sample from a book full of gorgeous sentences: No one saw the Range Rover pull up in front of Mister Stanley’s house, and though Dunia moved as if on stage, Lula and the driver were the only audience for Dunia’s theatrical scowling at each crumb of snow that menaced her beautiful boots. All Dunia’s painstaking olfactory research results were instantly corrupted by the unforeseen variable of Alvo’s strong cologne. Before leaning over to kiss her again, Alvo considerately pushed the buttons that heated the seats, and the warmth beneath Lula flowed into the warmth inside her. Through Lula’s eyes, Mister Stanley and Zeke—and, by extension, we readers—see the United States in a new way. She becomes a de facto ambassador, hipping us to Albanian culture (even though much of it is Lula’s invention) and adding her own perspective on America in 2006. Prose sets up a subtle compare and contrast between America and Albania (there's more in common than at first blush, especially during the Bush years, when the story takes place): Yesterday night, as always, she’d felt sorry for the president, so like a dim little boy who’d told a lie that had set off a war, and then he’d let all those innocent people die in New Orleans, and now he was anxiously waiting to see what worse trouble he was about to get into. He seemed especially scared of the vice president, who scared Lula, too, with his cold little eyes not blinking when he lied, like an Eastern Bloc dictator minus the poufy hair. Throughout the book, Prose has fun with the idea that the two countries are not as different as they seem. “‘If Hoxha and Milosevic had a baby,’” Lula jokes to her immigration lawyer, Don Settebello, “‘and the baby was a boy, it would look like Dick Cheney.’” My New American Life is an assimilation story, in which Lula merges (literally, as it turns out) with the American citizenry. It’s a commentary on immigration; in addition to Lula’s own struggles, Don Settebello is actively doing pro bono work at Guantanamo. It’s a nod to the absurdist comedy of Kadare and other Eastern European writers. But above all, it’s a wickedly entertaining read.
Netherland is a good book, and much has already been written, here and elsewhere, to that effect. Its central conceit, that of the New York City immigrant subculture of cricket, provides a fresh perspective on a city about which so much has already been written, and the parallel story, of the dissolution of lonely Hans van der Broek's marriage, often cuts with the immediacy of real, unmitigated loss. But, and of course there is a but -- and perhaps it's only due to my predilection for stories that come at me "like a big hot meteor screaming down from the Kansas sky," as Stephen King put it in his introduction to The Best American Short Stories of 2007 -- there is a deep problem with Netherland, and it's that the book more often exemplifies rather than illuminates the central dilemma that draws its attention, the modern challenge of an individual trying to author a coherent story for his own life.This is the problem facing Hans van der Broek as he surveys post-9/11 New York from his rented two-bedroom apartment in the eclectic Chelsea Hotel. His wife Rachel has decamped to London, taking their young son Jake with her. Her reason for leaving is ostensibly fear of another terrorist attack but really the problem is with Hans who seems barely present, wrapped in a malaise of his own divining. In Rachel's absence Hans falls into the subculture of city cricket. He's taking his suitcase out of the trunk of a taxi cab when he spies the driver's cricket bat lying in the wheel well. He inquires as he pays, and the next Saturday he's standing on a field on Staten Island, the only white man on a team of immigrants from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and other former colonial tracts. Reading Hans' conversation with the cab driver, I was struck by the improbability of the social engagement that results. The divide between driver and passenger in a New York City cab is typically absolute and O'Neill presents their conversation as something like Alice's rabbit hole, a whole new world revealed in plain sight. By contrast with Alice's journey, though, Hans' is fairly low stakes. He is a tourist, not an adventurer in this new world.Hans becomes a regular on the cricket pitch, through which he meets Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian immigrant with an entrepreneur's interest in cricket, though no real talent for the game. Chuck dreams of building a cricket stadium on deserted waterfront property in Brooklyn, thereby restoring New York - and America - to its cricket roots and making himself rich at the same time. Hans takes quickly and casually to Chuck, explaining, "Because his deviousness was so transparent and because it alternated with an immigrant's credulousness... I found all the feinting and dodging and thrusting oddly soothing." Hans finds Chuck's presence soothing, but not important. He has time on his hands with his family across the pond, and in that context, Chuck is a convenient diversion, a placeholder. There is never anything Hans has to learn from Chuck, or accomplish with him in order to get his life back on track. Such tenuous relationships are not the stuff of great literature, and absent real stakes in the story, the character of Chuck Ramkissoon is more inventive than artful.Much the same is true of the rest of the architecture of Netherland, which comes across as contrived and clever more often than real and human. Certain problems are established at the outset of the book - a murder and a de facto divorce - but there is little effort throughout the narrative to explore them, unravel them, or even, often enough, to address them. Instead, Hans flits episodically through life in New York and remembrances of his childhood. Netherland is a character study more than a story and the central challenge facing the character is that he's been unable to craft a coherent story for his own life, one fortified with governing values, purposeful action, and consequential relationships. What's true in life turns out to be true in novels, too. It is hard to have a good one without those things.In one particularly well-wrought episode from the book, Hans is approached in a Manhattan diner by Danielle, a fleeting acquaintance from his former life in London. The two go on a date and then pass a romping night together in Hans' apartment. Danielle has no precursor in the story, nor any legs. She appears and disappears and at the end of her section, I wrote in exasperation, "Is it possible to deepen an understanding of the character without deepening the plot?" In Netherland the events are connected only through Hans, as he experiences and remembers them. This leads, in Hans, to a sense of vertigo and groundlessness, tethered as he is only to himself. In me as a reader, it led, quite frankly, only to boredom. My intellect was engaged and my aesthetic sensibilities stimulated, but at almost no point in the book did I really care about what was happening.Halfway through the book, Hans takes shoeboxes of old photographs to a woman named Eliza who arranges photo albums for a living. She says to Hans, describing her work, "People want a story. They like a story," to which Hans replies, "A story. Yes. That's what I need." Tantalized by O'Neill's writing and very often drawn in by the creativity of his sets, I was filled with optimism as I read this. A story was all that remained to redeem Netherland, just as it was all that remained to rehabilitate Hans. But unfortunately, the story never comes, and the lasting impression of Netherland is a thought, an idea, not a feeling, and it is not for such things that I read novels.See also: Garth's take on Netherland
● ● ●
Andrew McGahan's The White Earth was a big deal when it came out in Australia in 2004. His previous novels had given him a following, but The White Earth was the winner of the Miles Franklin Prize, Australia's richest literary award, catapulting him to a new level of recognition. The book is a multigenerational tale in which the generations collide. Young William and his mother are cast from their homestead in Queensland when William's father burns to death in a farming accident. They are taken in by William's cranky great uncle, John McIvor, who lives holed up in a decrepit mansion on what's left of what was once a great homestead called Kuran Station. There is still enough land left at the Station to lust after though, and William's sickly but greedy mother sets out to make sure that William will be the heir to his hermit uncle. The main action of the book takes place in 1992 and is filled with what I understand to be the political questions of that time, mostly having to do with compensating aborigines for the ancestral land that was taken from him. All of this makes old John McIvor something of a crank, obsessed with protecting his land and leader of a fringe organization whose membership has racist tendencies fueled by fears that cityfolk will allow their farms to be taken away. Luckily McGahan provides flashbacks to the life of young John McIvor so we can see how Kuran Station, taken from him when he was young and regained after middle age, became his life's obsession. Though not as masterful as other books in this same mold and a bit heavyhanded in the use of certain images (men on fire), The White Earth is an enjoyable epic of the struggle for land Down Under.
● ● ●
I.The year is young yet, but I'd like to direct your attention to what will no doubt be recognized as one of the finest short stories published in it. It is called "Walter Benjamin," and it appears in the Australian journalist Clive James' experimental omnibus, Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. I use the term "experimental" advisedly; like the revelatory works of W.G. Sebald, Cultural Amnesia weaves history, fiction, and memoir so tightly together that it may be hard for the casual reader to tell the imaginary from the real... particularly as Cultural Amnesia purports to be a work of criticism. Compound this postmodern pliability with a classic unreliable narrator - James himself - and vertigo quickly sets in.So how does an artist hold together such an ambitious edifice? "Style," James tells us, in one of his not infrequent moments of insight. And if some of James' critical pronouncements lead us to suspect him of a tin ear, his writing confirms that he has learned a great deal from Proust, from Gibbon, from Waugh. Cultural Amnesia, which at 850 pages looks like intellectual heavy lifting, turns out to be a lively read: clear, colloquial, provocative, and often funny. James the stylist prizes clean rhythms, practical diction, an air of erudition, and above all the art of aphorism. We discover early on that he is a fine coiner of apercus, and if fatigue sets in halfway through the book, we finish with exhausted admiration: the man is a mint, a machine churning out sheet after epigrammatic sheet.Unfortunately, in literature, unlike science, elegance is no indicator of truth, and it's not always clear whether James' clever turns of phrase are backed by any standard other than authorial fiat. To put it another way (paraphrasing Virginia Woolf), Clive James seems willing to throw a few truths on the fire in order to make an essay blaze. Of Rilke, for example, he writes, "There is a dangerous moment when, in the [Duino] elegies, 'the tear trees, the fields of flowering sadness' start sounding like fine shades of meaning, instead of forced exercises in sentimentality." James' British resistance to even the mildly visionary does lend this assessment a bumptious snap, crackle, and pop. But in straining for a phrase to parallel "fine shades of meaning," the critic does violence to the poet he professes to admire. Whatever they are, the Elegies are less like "forced exercises" than anything else in the Rilke canon... possibly in 20th Century poetry. And this slip recursively undermines one of James' earlier aphorisms, decrying "ways of studying the arts so as to make the student feel as smart as the artist." (Because what else is James doing with Rilke here? (And do we really venerate artists for their "smarts?"))We can forestall the dizzying cascade of parentheses that might ensue by reminding ourselves that Cultural Amnesia is, among many other things, a character study. Its subject: one Clive James. For the duration of our reading, we are in the presence of a voice no more self-aware than that of Nabokov's Kinbote. As with Pale Fire, we get to what is worthwhile not by nodding along with the narrator but by reading through him, by teasing out the contradictions he's straining to conceal. And because our narrator's subjects are seldom so small as a line of Rilke - because he rarely stoops to close reading - the potential rewards, are enormous.Really, despite some introductory fulminations against "ideology" (a neat lift from the Marxism it purports to abhor), Cultural Amnesia aims at a kind of unified field theory of 20th Century history and culture. In alphabetized essays running from Anna Akhmatova through Dick Cavett all the way to Stefan Zweig, James returns again and again to the same questions: How did artists (not to say works of art) respond to the atrocities of Nazism and Communism? How should we value works of art, and why, and which ones? II.These are, as James suggests, humanist questions, and if the answers he arrives at don't quite meet that standard, there's much to admire in the attempt. Over and above the sheer pleasure of James' style stands his passionate moral engagement with history. He assays his new humanism on behalf of the millions and millions of victims of totalitarian movements. Like McDuff, he feels these losses as a man.Indeed, writing about the suicide of Viennese polymath Egon Friedell, as storm troopers come "marching down the street," James sounds almost envious that he was born too late to have been there alongside Friedell, to prove his own mettle. Our current pieties and abstractions about the war in Iraq or the genocide in Darfur can sound hollow in comparison to James' moral outrage; there is much to learn from the way he takes massacres personally, and the critic owes it to him to take seriously the possibility that Stalin's gulags might be a "central product" of socialism, rather than an aberration. (There was a time when Jean-Paul Sartre did not take that possibility seriously, and if James' renunciation of everything Sartre wrote requires some willful misreading, at least it stands for something. James and Sartre have this in common: the belief that critical positions should never be lightly held.)It bears saying, too, that we are lucky Clive James is on our side. Passion is crucial to thought - it's what makes thought matter - but it can also cloud judgment, and too frequently in Cultural Amnesia James' zeal for laissez-faire liberalism tips over into a ratification of corporate capitalism or a crotchety disdain for "economic determinism [and] dogmatic egalitarianism." In the Introduction, he writes,"Bright, sympathetic young people who now face a time when innocent human beings are killed by the thousand can be excused for thinking that their elders do not care enough [...] but their elders grew to maturity in a time when innocent human beings were killed by the million."Even as he ignores Rwanda and Darfur (syntactically blaming the bright young things for even bringing them up), James seems implicitly to dismiss the liberal, democratic catastrophe in Iraq by saying, in effect, "well, things could be worse." Such Panglossian sophistry, pronounced throughout the book, is a blot on the good name of humanism.Nor does James quite follow through on his pluralist aspirations, which are the best and most deeply held part of his own ideology. He can imagine Duke Ellington jamming for Igor Stravinsky, but cannot hear the "we vs. they" contradictions in his assessment of leftist academics:"The Procrustean enemies of our provokingly multifarious free society are bound to come, sometimes merely to preach obscurantist doctrine in our universities, at other times to fly our own airlines into towers of commerce. What they hate is the bewildering complexity of civilized life."To align the "witch doctors" of Cultural Studies with Al Qaeda is to fail to understand either, and this failure is not just intellectual, it is moral.In more supple hands, the conjoinment of conscience and illiberalism in James' essays - the way even his "descriptive" certainties shade toward systems of intolerance and control - might help illuminate the vexing ideological blind spots James exposes in subjects like Sartre. A fuller humanism, that is, might explore the ethical tensions of being human. But James, despite having his own person as good evidence to the contrary, conceives of human beings as unitary creatures, either cowardly or heroic. And, with sometimes disastrous results for his criticism, he resists the idea that generally lousy people can make genuinely great art.III.Given James' stern opposition to critical theory, it is both ironic and heartening to hear him decry the commodification of culture. In years past, an essayist's insistence on learning as its own virtue might have suggested a doctrine of art for art's sake. James, however, seems to view an artist's works as an accessory to his or her life. Beneath a veneer of newfangled catholicism, he is that most old-fashioned of creatures - a biographical critic. Reading carefully through his renunciations of ideology, it becomes possible to discern James' own. He does not believe that an artist with socialist sympathies can be as great as an artist who made do without them... or that a book colored by an objectionable ideology may also be a great one."Louis-Ferdinand Celine, the author of that amazing phantasmagoria Voyage au bout de la nuit, had also written Bagatelles pour un massacre, a breviary for racialist fanatics," he writes, blithely ignoring the incipient racism in the former. Why can't he see Journey to the End of the Night for what it is? Would remembering Celine's jaundiced account of the "primitives" in the novel's African section make Journey less of a book? Or does the dialogic form of the novel allow us to situate Celine's fictional alter-ego in a fully articulated ethical world, in which we can evaluate and possibly understand his misanthropy? Answering these questions would require a wholesale reexamination of James' precepts about art... and might even force him to borrow a trick or two from Marxist literary theory, or - horrors! - from deconstruction. But James, blithely assured that academic critics "have nothing in mind beyond their own advancement," can't entertain the notion that moral and ideological ambiguity might enrich, rather than reduce, a text.Of course, evaluating a genius mainly in light of his stated views on totalitarianism can itself become a reductio ad absurdum. Here, for example, is James' version of Wittgenstein's Tractatus: "Wittgenstein had thus constructed an instrument for discussing the totalitarian mentality, but he never used it. [...] There is evidence, however, that when he finally saw the photographs of the hideous aftermath in the concentration camps he forgot his famous rule about being silent on issues of which one cannot speak, and broke down in tears."Aside from being a vulgar misapprehension of Wittgenstein's proposition about the limits of language (or, if James had the nerve, a gestural opening into Wittgenstein's later philosophical investigations), this moment of voyeurism is spectacularly beside the point, reducing Wittgenstein and the Holocaust to mere credentialing mechanisms for one another. James presupposes that a virtuous human being surprised by the evidence of totalitarian slaughter could be anything other than grief-stricken. (In James account, Sartre would be one of those human beings. Here bad historiography is the accessory to bad criticism, falsifying the way Stalin's propaganda machine worked... which is not to excuse Sartre, who should have known better.) Anyway, we end up learning more about Clive James than about Ludwig Wittgenstein.Even those artists lucky enough to have died before the rise of totalitarianism are not spared the indignity of becoming Rorschach tests for James' various preoccupations. Gibbon gets taken to task for his prose (!) and Proust gets praised for all the wrong reasons. To hear James tell it, Proust's virtue is his essayistic "wisdom"; In Search of Lost Time has "no structure to speak of." This is heroically contrarian, but also dead wrong, and points to the blessing and curse of Cultural Amnesia. Unless we are inspired to remember the works of art James is nobly attempting to rescue, we'll be stuck having to take his word for it.Proust's "wisdom" isn't contained in his discursive speculations, the critical essays (sometimes enchantingly specious) indebted to Ruskin and Bergson. The Search's essayistic passages are aesthetic movements, not entries in a philosophical rolodex (a critic who characterizes Wittgenstein as primarily a poet should understand this.) It is precisely the structure of In Search of Lost Time, mapped in miniature by the "Combray" section, that embodies Proust's species of wisdom. James, not surprisingly, sees Proust's book as a mirror of his own - "an imaginative encyclopedia" - and misses the ironic reversals, the ultimate recognition toward which Proust's grand structure tends.But in James' own search, as in Proust's, the narrator's most dubious conclusions may serve to highlight deeper truths of psychology. The truth about Clive James is that he can't entertain the idea that his triumphalist brand of capitalist liberalism might have its own flaws to be guarded against, its own totalizing tendencies, its own rolls of the dead. James is wonderful on artists whose lives and work are ideologically in harmony with each other and with him, but is much less tolerant than his bete noire Georg Lukacs of those whose ideas challenge a laissez-faire global political order. James frequently and rightly affirms that a right to dissent saves liberal democracy from becoming a totalizing ideology, but can't conceal his resentment of the ungrateful few who exercise that right. And in the absence of Proust's structural wisdom - in the absence of a Recognition scene, in which the narrator belatedly discovers his own imperfect apprehension of things - Cultural Amnesia trembles with unresolved tensions, threatening to bring down even the heroes James has enlisted on behalf of his cause.IV.To borrow from his sketch of Egon Friedell, James "comes on like an actor and a thinker both." And sometimes the point of his performance seems to be to indemnify the capitalist West against any notion of progress. This leads him to the two tendencies that compromise, perhaps fatally, several of his essays.The first tendency is to distort the legacies of the cultural figures he admires (those who fit comfortably within the current version of centrist, bourgeois tradition) through misplaced emphasis. In James' ode to Louis Armstrong, Armstrong's single greatest achievement appears to be that he admired Bix Beiderbecke. Margaret Thatcher, we are told, posed "a crisis for Britain's ideological feminists, who could no longer maintain that there was a glass ceiling." Thomas Mann? "A solid paterfamilias." One does not doubt that Mann confined his homosexual feelings to his fantasy life, that Thatcher vexed feminists, and that Armstrong approved of white musicians. But surely the collective achievements of this triumvirate amount to more than allowing straight white heirarchs to say, "Look, boys, he's one of us!"Nor does James does reserve distortions for his fellow humanists. If he mischaracterizes artists who worked to shape the center, he fictionalizes those on the left.A tortured eulogy for Edward Said dissolves into an orgy of bad faith, as our narrator tells himself that faint praise and outright damnation add up to an ingenuous farewell."There is no call to doubt [Said's] integrity just because he had been raised in transit on luxury liners, laurelled at Princeton and Harvard, and otherwise showered with all the rewards Western civilization can bestow. What can be doubted is his accuracy. [...] It is important to say that there were some Arab thinkers who [...] found Orientalism a wrong-headed book. According to them, it encouraged a victim mentality by enabling failed states to blame the West for their current plight: a patronizing idea, common to the Western left. Though most of Said's Western admirers were never aware of it, this ambiguity marked Said's written work throughout his career: he was continually telling the people he professed to be rescuing from Western influence that they were helpless in its embrace. A quality of self-defeating ambiguity also characterized Said's role as a practical diplomat."This tangle of innuendo belies James' insistence elsewhere that transparency of prose and transparency of meaning are synonymous. Every possible charge against Said is given space on the page, even as James conceals his endorsement. The rhetorical coup de grace comes when James hides behind "some Arab thinkers." These nameless Arab thinkers' sole contribution to 20th Century culture seems to be that they make it easier for Clive James to write off a subaltern whose politics he finds threatening; in the rest of the book, James evinces no interest in Middle Eastern culture.We are further informed, in the space of a paragraph, that "the Western and non-Western worlds of creativity had not been symmetrical"; that "no Orientalist had ever been more damagingly superficial than" Edward Said (again, according to non-Western scholars); that "Egypt had Napoleon to thank for everything it possessed" (said Naguib Mahfouz - and he won the Nobel Prize, so who can doubt him). James is nothing if not a marvel of compression:"Said was right to this extent, however: Occidental intellectuals find out very little about what is thought and written in the Oriental world. Very few of Said's admirers in the West could begin to contemplate the fact that there are some bright people in the East who thought of Said as just another international operator doing well out of patronizing them, and with less excuse. I finished writing the piece that follows not long before Said finally succumbed to cancer, and I have left it in the present tense to help indicate that I was treating him as a living force, brave in a cause that was very short this kind of soldier."We are witnessing here the birth of a new rhetorical mode: character assassination by friendly fire. Maybe James was right to suggest that Said should have stuck to playing piano.James is even worse on Sartre, whom he hates above all others. His inability to give Sartre a fair reading is a shame, as Sartre, unlike Said, might actually have been convicted of the most of the charges against him. To wit: "When Sartre broke with the Communists, he retained respect for their putatively benevolent social intentions, and was ready to say something exculpatory even if what he was exculpating was the Gulag network, whose existence, after he finally ceased to deny it, he never condemned as a central product of a totalitarian system, but only regretted as an incidental blemish."But as excoriation curdles into invective, James sinks so low as to suggest that Sartre's "physical ugliness" shaped his cultural positions, that Sartre was "debarred by nature from telling the truth for long about anything that mattered." Sometimes it's hard to tell what really enrages James most: Sartre's apologies for Communism, or the fact that he beat James to the punch in opposing Nazism.In light of Sartre's socialist sins, Being and Nothingness is written off here as an update of Heidegger's "high-flown philosophical flapdoodle"... the product of "a mind that could not grant itself freedom to speculate in [...] its own compromises with reality." Now, in Heidegger, we have a man whose conduct under totalitarian rule deserves all the opprobrium that can possibly be heaped upon it. But Being and Time cannot be dismissed as "flapdoodle" on the grounds of biography alone. Nor can Being and Nothingness, whose author has the advantage of having participated in the Resistance. In fact, both Sartre and Heidegger were keenly interested in the mind's compromises with reality, though they didn't conceive of it in those terms (see, for example, Being and Time, Part One, Division I, Section V).It's likely that Heidegger's agnosticism on the subject the Other (later critiqued by that self-interested Witch-Doctor Emmanuel Lewinas) enabled his early political enthusiasm for Hitler. But it's also possible to hang Heidegger out to dry on the grounds of his own definition of authenticity. Sartre, too, for that matter . To the extent that they endorsed or excused (respectively) totalitarian regimes, Heidegger and Sartre could be seen to have fallen short of their own philosophies. But to reach this nuanced verdict, one has to have actually tried to understand the philosophies in question, and James can't be bothered with philosophy (not a great quality in a cultural critic). Even Hegel and Kant get his goat. I had always thought of the anti-intellectualism and paranoia as a combination peculiar to the American far right, but apparently it can afflict Aussie humanists, too.V.Which brings me to "Walter Benjamin," the essay I hailed above as a fine piece of fiction. It's not historical fiction, in that it doesn't hew closely enough to fact. But as a work of imagination, it's audacious.Okay, I'll admit it... I'm being unfair to James. But only because James is unfair to Walter Benjamin. Apart from being a thinker whose sensibility - which can in no way be construed as ideological - has changed my life, Benjamin should be enrolled among James' angels. He was a victim of totalitarianism, killing himself in the Pyrenees when it seemed he wouldn't be able to escape the Reich. But because Benjamin practiced a syncretic version of Marxism, and would become popular, posthumously, with leftist academics, James can't let him die with dignity."It remains sadly true, however, that he is more often taken for granted than actually read. 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' is the Benjamin essay that everybody knows a little about. Whether its central thesis is true is seldom questioned, just as the value of his work as a whole is seldom doubted. His untimely death was such a tragedy that nobody wants to think of his life as less than a triumph. But there had already been many thousands of Jewish tragedies before his turn came, and what is remarkable for the historically minded observer is just how slow so brilliant a man was to get the point about what the Nazis had in mind. About the other tragedy, the one in Russia, he never got the point at all."How terrifying it is to see a fine mind in the grip of ideological fervor... I mean James', of course. How terrifying the totalizing flatness of the phrasing: "his turn came"; "Jewish tragedies." How awful the statement that Benjamin's death was less remarkable than his failure to get the hell away from Hitler, the tiny insinuation that somehow his death was his fault. And how bizarre to take Benjamin to task for not having "got the point" about a tragedy he didn't live to survey the extent of. And then James has the gall to tell us he's doing Benjamin a "courtesy!"In real life, Benjamin is pretty widely read, and "The Work of Art" is well known precisely because its central thesis isn't really up for debate. A quick comparison of James' "proof" that this thesis is bogus with the thesis itself reveals that James hasn't understood what Benjamin means by "aura." Not even one bit. Normally, the James method would be to chalk this misunderstanding up to Benjamin's obscurity - he goes on and on about Benjamin's "all-inclusive obscurity" - but he's made the mistake of granting that "The Work of Art" features "a general point designed to be readily understood." So why can't James understand it? If I may expropriate some other lines from this essay. "His life story gives us the answer: he was cushioning reality. It needed cushioning."Of course Benjamin's reality, James tells us, was anti-Semitism. (And if he knew what was good for him, the implication is, he'd have written about that, in the form of journalism, rather than theorizing about Parisian cafes (shopping arcades, actually.)) But what reality can a successful TV personality, in his (I'll say it) idiotic dismissal of a cultural giant, possibly be cushioning himself against?VI.That reality is the world we now find ourselves in. The Soviet bloc has collapsed, without affording Clive James the chance to prove himself worthy of his heroes. Nazism, though it still persists, has dwindled. Only in the past few years have the lines for a new global conflict have been drawn. That the good guys have so far not acquitted themselves heroically challenges James' picture of liberal democracy as a system that doesn't require progressive intervention or even vigilance (only totalitarian ideologies have such requirements, he thinks). And so, rather than refine his model, James saddles up and goes looking for enemies. Too often, he finds the wrong ones.Given the amount of cannibalizing he's done of his own body of work here, an odd palimpsest effect sets in... as if James is trying to reshape decades of enthusiastic reading and writing into a brief against the new enemies of civilization. Between the fits of intemperance, ignorance, and magnificent self-satisfaction are principled reflections on those who actually have blood on their hands, on Trotsky and Goebbels and Mao. And though it's often said that it's easier to write a bad review than a good one, James writes insightfully about figures like Albert Camus, whose art and political record were both sterling. His encomiums extend to literary critics, philologists, and historians from all over the world, and have left me with a list of writers I'm eager to read. I don't know enough about Gianfranco Contini or Georg Christoph Lichtenberg to do anything other than enjoy James' writing on them.In his role as a bourgeois provocateur, however, James is too willing to substitute ardor for attention, attention for smartness, smartness for intelligence. Cultural Amnesia is always ardent, often attentive, frequently smart, and sometimes intelligent. And boy is it learned. About the big things, it's absolutely right. As students of culture, we must connect the dots. We must take a stand against oppression, against mass murder.But we know that already; we want our new humanism to help us with the details (with Guantanamo, with nuclear proliferation, with the ongoing totalitarian tragedies in North Korea and Iran). And it's the details where James' claims to humanism get dicey. He would rather praise that paragon of moral imagination, Mrs. Thatcher, than actually calibrate the human cost of the laissez-faire branch of economic determinism. (I can't resist quoting this little cascade of reasoning (read closely, now): "She should have trusted her instincts and shut out the smart voices [...] Her best instinct was to stick to a simple course of action once it had been chosen. That instinct became her enemy, and the enemy of the country, on those occasions when a simple course of action is not appropriate. In domestic policy it hardly ever is.")What we can take from Cultural Amnesia, in the end, is a largeness of ambition, a breadth of learning, a catholic sensibility, and a heroic belief that culture can be a matter of life and death. But we must explore the finer points of art and history for ourselves, and reach our own conclusions. We must be intelligent readers. We must be careful not to let Clive James' "necessary memories" stand in for our own.
Blake Butler’s frenetic prose transforms rather than comforts. His nightmarish new novel, 300,000,000 has its thematic and syntactic origins in “The Disappeared," (pdf) a story from his debut collection Scorch Atlas (2009). A teenager’s abuse is discovered during a high school scoliosis check: “Even the cheerleaders saw my bruises.” The boy’s father is made to “shoot free-throws to prove he was a man.” His airballs land him in prison. Parentless, the boy is placed under the care of his porn-watching uncle. The boy longs for his absent mother, whose disappearance is representative of a wider thinning of the population. This pandemic has reached his school, where “Baskets of dental floss and disinfectant were placed in the nurse’s office with the condoms.” Paramilitary officers tackle teachers when they attempt to leave the building. Dead bodies begin to pile. Students “who weren’t sick were going crazy. I watched a boy stick out his own eyes. I watched a girl bang her head on a blackboard.” Surrounded by death, the boy seeks life -- the life of his lost mother. He places dots on a map to represent his sightings of her, and the constellation forms her face. Among the wordplay and the gore and the hyperbole, Butler’s final mode is love. 300,000,000, is the logical and emotional evolution of “The Disappeared.” Butler is too young for this new novel to be his endgame, but the book arrives with the feeling that it announces an aesthetic pivot. Butler’s books have been cataloging language’s increasing inability to document America at its exhausted margins. 300,000,000 is a long, unwieldy work. Some readers will flaunt its difficulty like a badge. Others won’t be able to finish. Those who can reach the final pages will be rewarded, though perhaps not with the conventional crowns of fiction. Butler’s work is not for everyone, but for its rightful audience, his fragmented narratives are like revelations. The novel begins with the discovery of a notebook belonging to an alleged serial killer, Gretch Gravey. Mute upon capture, Gravey’s writing does the talking. His prose is thick with Biblicisms. He seems destined to not merely kill, but consume or absorb the novel’s titular amount of Americans. Gravey’s goal is metamorphosis. Transfiguration. His persona shifts into those he has spiritually consumed, a seemingly endless parade of boys and mothers held prisoners in a house full of sex, drugs, and death. No matter the unnamed narrative voice, all of Gravey’s narrators sound like Butler’s trademark syntax and description: “During this era, Gravey wore his white hair like a robe a lot, wrapped around his fangled body with the weird bruises at his softer points such as his calves and pits and chin, as the networking womb inside him widened.” Long sentences that curve around commas. Scrambled registers of language, with the colloquial and pop living next to the archaic. Images of mothers, births, homes, and night. References to bodies as “meat.” Butler’s repetitions feel less like mannerisms and more like the refrains of some new literary religion. His characters speak in tongues. Gravey’s disciples litter the first half of the novel. It is difficult to discern what is real, and what is not, although part of Butler’s linguistic project appears the cleaving of sign from signified. Jacob Korg has argued that the genius of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was not his ability to be mimetic, but his belief that language was ultimately transformative. Words warped the world. Near the moment when the reader might become frustrated with this novel -- wondering whether Gravey’s cannibalistic murders are hallucinations or actualities -- Butler’s project becomes apparent. Gravey’s goal is to kill everybody in America, and he claims the best part about that plan is that “you can begin with anybody in America.” Detective E.N. Flood, the man assigned to the case, whose footnotes complement the narrative text, then fully enters the story. His admission: “Honestly at this point I want to burn the book. I also find myself thinking I want to eat it, that I want to get the sentences tattooed on my body. The thought snakes through me in my voice. I have been sleeping with the book at night whether I do or not, like suddenly it’s in my arms, or it feels like it is. It is a pressure. A dress. It kind of itches. As an afterthought, I have covered up the mirrors in my home, though not those in my car. Suddenly I feel over-aware of the number of mirrors I come into contact with daily, often without having even noticed their presence in the room. The book continues.” 300,000,000 bothered me. I’ve been unsettled by William S. Burroughs and Kathy Acker, but Butler’s work arrives with a firmer theology. In a recent interview, Butler explains “I am not religious in the churchgoing sense or probably even many other senses, though I do believe in god, at least where the idea of god could be some force that exists outside reality. I do not necessarily understand why any human would imagine an illimitable entity and then think they can have a relationship with it as a human. My spirituality is more like silence, which is holier to me than wafers and wine.” God is simultaneously present and absent in Butler’s canon. He is never, though, forgotten. The maniacal bloodletting in 300,000,000 is a frightening reminder that there is still blood to be let. Butler’s book wonders what would happen if one man attempted to kill America not with planes or disease or bombs, but with hate, with a pure evil. At one point in the novel, Gravey’s convoluted plan runs out of luck. He is arrested, “found facedown in the smallest room of his seven-room ranch-style home with legs bound at the ankle by a length of electrical wire, apparently administered by his own hands.” But there is no peace. The nightmare merely is given another mask. Detective Flood’s notes become more poetic and perverse. He describes the smell of Gravey’s home as “sweet...The sweetness was revolting. But it was also -- I breathed it in.” Like Gravey, Flood’s identity becomes tenuous. He is more letters than man. He becomes Darrel, an amorphous identity that previously belonged to Gravey and snakes through the novel. Other investigators are confounded by Gravey’s seemingly endless tapes. They are not blank, merely the “white of a white loom.” The viewers see what they want to see, since the “eyes play tricks inside their wishing boredom.” The novel’s footnotes begin communicating with, and contradicting, each other. Flood disappears, and when he returns his notes are even more apocalyptic. He is searching for something more than Gravey, “Something outside the potential aspect of god or what had been or could be. Something a language didn’t own.” Fiction’s ability to reveal the fallibility of language is nothing new. What Butler offers is, curiously enough, something religion posits: language is inadequate to capture existence. Butler’s sentences stretch toward the invisible, the mystical, but they are unable to reach it. They snap back. They break. For Butler, the evil of Gravey, the evil omnipresent within 300,000,000, is beyond the scope of his sentences. What else would we expect of evil? What else would we expect of God? In “The Disappeared,” the parentless narrator sneaks glances at the pornography ordered by his uncle. The boy is more than disinterested; he is afraid. The women “had the mark of something brimming in them. Something ruined and old and endless.” Soon that ruined, old, endless dread becomes physical and parasitic. With 300,000,000, Butler has created a literary artifact. Gravey’s hellish experiments move beyond the walls of his bloodsoaked home and permeate his country. A “football hero” stands “with the Luger to his temple on the fifty-yard line. The banker handing back a withdrawal in the form of a sheet of his own skin. Gas station attendants robbing the customers of their consciousness.” One unidentified speaker wonders “What is happening in America?...We must act now. This is our home.” Butler’s central trope has always been the idea of homes, our private Americas. But Butler’s house has many rooms. 300,000,000 is a new testament; what happens when prose becomes prophecy.
● ● ●