Personae by Sergio De La Pava – review

For The Guardian

 

This is a tricky novel to review. I’m not even sure it is a novel. And I’m not certain as to whether its fragmentary nature belies an organic structure of astutely sewn intention or is merely a disingenuous device to conceal a let’s-get-something-out cobbling together of unpublished material lying around the writer’s desk. What I can tell you is this: I was powerfully engaged and richly entertained by Personae.

Some brief background: a few months ago, Sergio De La Pava was awarded the prestigious PEN prize for his debut novel, A Naked Singularity, which he self-published in 2008. His work has, therefore, adorned many a told-you-so banner in the great forward march of internet publishing, where he has been championed as literary fiction’s answer to the delirious smutathon that is EL James. For the record, De La Pava lives in New York where he is a lawyer appointed to represent people who cannot afford to hire lawyers. He is of Colombian heritage and cultivates something of an outsider persona: “Sergio De La Pava”, says the jacket, “still does not live in Brooklyn.”

But let’s get back to the work. A reductive summary of Personae might describe it as a postmodern text that begins with the investigation of an “unnatural” death by a preternaturally intelligent and attractive concert pianist turned police detective, Helen Tame. (De La Pava is forever playing with fiction’s types and tropes as well as its form.) The body belongs to an elderly unknown writer, Antonio Acre, who has been discovered on the floor of his apartment aged 111. Tame finds what remains of Acre’s notebook and tells us that it “can be seen as a kind of warming up to [his] subsequent works that form the greater part of [her] report”.

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Philip Roth: Notes on a Voice

Written for Intelligent Life Magazine:

 

Philip Roth turned 80 in March and announced his retirement after 31 books. He is going out on a high. He has more prizes than most novelists have procrastination tricks—36, including the Pulitzer. Half the literary world is aghast that he has not been awarded the Nobel; the other half is surprised that he has ever been awarded anything. For every reader who views him as a pre-eminent scrutineer of the human condition, there is one who sees an onanistic chauvinist with only one subject—himself.

 

He worked mostly in the isolation of his Connecticut studio, spurning marriage (he has had two), children (none known), the phone, even e-mail. He set out his artistic credo in “The Ghost Writer” (1979): “…serenity, seclusion. All one’s concentration and flamboyance and originality reserved for the gruelling, exalted, transcendent calling. This is how I will live.”

 

GOLDEN RULE He writes standing up, at a lectern. This lends him a declamatory vehemence, as if he’s forever seeking to persuade a hall of naysayers. He’s fond of cumulative cadences, questions and italics: “The stain that precedes disobedience, that encompasses disobedience and perplexes all explanation and understanding. It’s why all the cleansing is a joke. A barbaric joke at that. The fantasy of purity is appalling. It’s insane. What is the quest to purify if not more impurity?” (“The Human Stain”, 2000)

KEY DECISIONS To mine every last seam of his own humanity in the service of the novel; and, when there were no more seams, to start fracking. His work is thronged with clamorous alter egos, led by Nathan Zuckerman. In “Operation Shylock”, there are two characters called Philip Roth. But he disavows all these creations as his spokesmen: “I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn’t.” (“Deception”, 1990)

STRONG POINTS (1) Vividly kinetic prose that is nonetheless precise, inventive and beautiful. (2) Existential indignation: he inveighs tenaciously against the dishonesties of human life, relationships and consciousness. (3) An epic disregard for the rigid tedium of convention. When his narrator describes the wife of a friend with whom he hopes to sleep, the writing is incantatory: “What is happiness? The substantiality of this woman…The wit, the gameness, the shrewdness…that laugh marked with life, her responsibility to everything, not excluding her carnality—there was stature to this woman. Mockery. Play. The knowledge that everything subterranean beats everything terranean by a mile.” (“Sabbath’s Theater”, 1995)

FAVOURITE TRICKS You can’t disagree with Roth more than he disagrees with himself. You’re strapped in and riding the Large Hadron Collider of his pages and just as you’re starting to think, “this man is a monster,” you meet Philip Roth coming the other way just as fast. And boom…At last, the true particles of existence.

ROLE MODELS  His father, for the meaning of hard work. His mother, for the meaning of true love. His brother, for the meaning of everyday heroism.

 

 

The Circle by Dave Eggers – review

Written for The Guardian:

 

Could this be the most prescient satirical commentary on the early internet age yet?

In a recent essay published in these pages, Jonathan Franzen inveighed against what he sees as the glibness and superficiality of the new online culture. “With technoconsumerism,” he wrote, “a humanist rhetoric of ’empowerment’ and ‘creativity’ and ‘freedom’ and ‘connection’ and ‘democracy’ abets the frank monopolism of the techno-titans; the new infernal machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own developmental logic, and it’s far more enslavingly addictive, and far more pandering to people’s worst impulses, than newspapers ever were.”

I cite this because it chimes with the points that Dave Eggers is making in his latest novel, The Circle; we are at an interesting moment when two such significant figures of American letters have both independently been so moved to expound on the same subject. But my guess is that Eggers won’t suffer the same online crucifixion that has subsequently been Franzen’s fate. Why? Because although Eggers is saying all the same things as Franzen (and so much more), he makes his case not through the often tetchy medium of the essay, but in the glorious, ever resilient and ever engaging form of the novel.
The Circle is a deft modern synthesis of Swiftian wit with Orwellian prognostication.

 

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The Right to Bear Arms is Anti-Democratic

 

Written for Prospect Magazine:

When President Obama stood behind his familiar podium at the White House following the recent mass shooting at a college in Oregon, he made one of the most telling, angry and moving speeches he has ever given. The speech is worth watching for all kinds of reasons—not least because it is both oddly restorative in that it demonstrates that politics can still produce enlightened, humane and decent leaders and yet utterly disheartening in that it demonstrates that such leaders on this issue in America seem powerless.

It was the 15th time Obama had made such an address after a mass shooting. According to Shootingtracker.com, this was the 994th mass gun attack since he began his second term in November 2012. Meanwhile, the US Centre for Disease Control has robust figures to show that firearms caused the death of around 33,000 people in the USA in 2013 as opposed to 21 American deaths from terrorism worldwide (including Afghanistan). This was the contrast to which Obama himself drew attention.

The part of the speech that I want to highlight here, though, is a less obviously persuasive passage containing what might best be called moral philosophy. Obama often gets labelled professorial—as if this were an insult—but the question of what rights we have, what duties we owe one another and from where these rights and duties are derived is the central enquiry and pre-occupation of all the greatest thinkers from Socrates to Foucault via Kant.
The issue of gun ownership, Obama says, “…is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic … This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America.  We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.” Hold those thoughts for a second—especially that final sentence. There is a deep (liberal) democratic principle at work here and one that bears unpacking since it resonates beyond this particular tragedy and seems to me to categorically defeat any of the arguments run by the pro-gun lobby—lead by the National Rifle Association and traditionally supported by the Republicans.

In passing, it’s worth noting the responses of some of the Republican Presidential candidates. Jeb Bush argued against gun-control: “I don’t think more government is necessarily the answer to this. It’s very sad to see, and I resist this notion because we had this challenge as governor—stuff happens.” Donald Trump said: “It sounds like another mental health problem.” And Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, another Republican candidate, commented: “This is a complex issue that may not have a federal solution.” The general theme being resistance and hostility to government intervention.

Let’s turn now to the “right to bear arms.” The (in)famous 1791 second amendment to the American constitution states that: “a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” I want to leave aside all the other (interesting) issues to do with the historical context of the American war of Independence (1775-1782) and the semantic confusion over the words “state” and “militia,” and just focus here on “the right of people to keep and bear arms.” The issue of rights.

James Hunt v Niki Lauda: my summer of speed

My father and I set out just before dawn. It is 18 July 1976, and I have recently celebrated my fourth birthday. Already, there are hundreds of people afoot. We are walking across the Kentish downs and the world is turning ghost-blue around us. We are carrying scaffolding, heading towards the entrance to Brands Hatch to witness the greatest drivers of their generation compete.

We are early enough to choose a good spot, on a hillside just past a hairpin bend called Druids. By the time we have built our viewing platform, a warm sun is up and underlighting the few clouds in peach and rose and pale gold. This is the hottest summer on record and there is a drought, the worst since the 1720s. We turn on our camping stove and wait for my mother and baby brother. The whole of Britain is watching the British Grand Prix. They have a new hero, as do I: his name is James Hunt.

Nineteen-seventy-six is the year my memory begins, the first year of my consciousness. My dad has bought me Vimto and I drink it hot while he has his tea. He is pleased with the scaffolding and our view. He is 26. We talk about who we think is going to win: I want James Hunt; Dad wants Niki Lauda. Aside from Lauda’s own Ferrari team, my father must be pretty much the only man at the circuit who does.

Brands Hatch is a natural amphitheatre, the narrow track snaking between slopes from where the crowd look avidly down. Just before 3pm, the cars begin to assemble on the grid. We can see some of them coming round to take up station on the opposite hill. The tension becomes tangible; 80,000 people are now in the circuit and they’re all concentrating on exactly the same thing, communing.

And now we all hear it: the deafening noise of 26 of the most highly tuned and powerful engines in the world rising, rising, rising… For three seconds, this crescendo echoes and reverberates, trapped by the landscape – and then we are racing.

Clay Regazzoni, Lauda’s journeyman teammate, makes an unexpectedly good start from the second row. He dives down the inside of Lauda into the first bend – a notoriously fast and hard-to-perfect right-hander that tightens as it sweeps down the dip between our hills – but Lauda doesn’t see him draw alongside and he turns in. The Ferraris touch. Regazzoni starts to spin. Hunt goes wide on to the grass to avoid the accident. But Regazzoni’s trajectory carries him hard into the side of Hunt’s car. So now Hunt’s McLaren rears up sideways in the air and slams down again, breaking his front suspension. Meanwhile, cars are screaming down behind them at ferociouJames-Hunt-008s speeds. There’s water on the track from Regazzoni’s radiator. There’s no grip and nowhere to go. Several drivers career into each other as they swerve to avoid what is unfolding ahead. Dust rises, debris flies. Cars and bodywork are strewn over the circuit. It is impossible to see.

We are standing up on the scaffolding, mad with excitement. The race is stopped. We watch Hunt nurse his broken McLaren round in front of us. We can hear it scraping on the tarmac. He pulls off, up a slip road, and so shortcuts back to the pits.

There is going to be a restart. Some team owners, the ones with broken cars, want to use their spares; others argue that this is illegal. The rules are not clear and there is a long delay. The crowd grows ever more restless. The heat is relentless. When it begins to look as if Hunt will not be allowed to race (his car was damaged and is therefore out), the chanting starts, first in the grandstands and then quickly around the entire two-mile circuit: “We want Hunt! We want Hunt!”

The atmosphere turns febrile. The crowd begin to throw cans and even bottles on to the track. My dad continually has to ask other spectators to stop climbing on the scaffolding for a better view, because he is afraid they will topple his young family headlong to the ground. The marshals are trying to sweep the broken glass off the circuit, even while they are being hit. Menace hangs in the air; the event organisers fear a track invasion and worse. I am subdued and anxious, suddenly a small child in an adult world. A stopgap decision is made: in short, to ignore the rules and sort it all out later. They will restart, with Hunt readmitted. The victorious roar from the crowd is louder than the engines. Away they go again, but this time, as they come past, Lauda is in the lead with Hunt second.

Watching these men drive close up is like watching the gods compete. There is the visceral thrill of their implausible speed; they are at the absolute limits of adhesion. But more than this, they are at the limits of their own humanity; even as a child, I have a sense of their extraordinary physical skill and their intense concentration, the split-second adjustments they make as they weave and dart to pass each other on the narrow ribbon of tarmac. I can see them wrestling with their steering wheels: correcting slides, jerking right and left, trying to pass, to defend, to stay in the race. Most of all, though, there’s the danger. I learned about death watching motor racing. In those days, the cars were flimsy, with no thought for safety, only performance. If a driver crashed unluckily, he would die. These men were supposed to be fearless: that was the point. Five drivers had been killed since I had been born, and I knew this. When I went to school, I scorned the boys who venerated rugby and football players: these men were not in the same league, they seemed to me pedestrian.

We watch Lauda come through in his scarlet Ferrari, smooth and exact and certain; he is elegant. Hunt is giving chase, sliding and fishtailing and sweeping his McLaren through the bends that Lauda has so precisely piloted moments before. They’re on the ragged edge, but neither is able to best the other, until, on lap 45, Hunt draws alongside going into Druids. When they emerge in front of us, Hunt is just ahead. We are in the right place at the right time in the world.
Earlier that day, Dad and I had gone for a walk opposite the pits, amidst the frenzied activity of the mechanics, the erupting engine noise, the deferential film stars and the muted politicians. Hunt was answering questions from the public. Somehow Dad managed to get the roving microphone, pass it to me and whisper what to say. Suddenly I was speaking to James Hunt over the public-address system. My father inclined his head, in the way he does when he wants to encourage me. So I said that today still counted as my birthday, even though the actual date was a few days before, because coming to the Grand Prix was my big present, and Hunt laughed and told me to “keep the party going”. He asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told him I wanted to be a racing driver. He took me seriously and said that the best plan was to assume anything was possible, and to ignore anyone who told me different.

I could not have articulated it then, of course, but Hunt seemed to me everything a boy might hope to grow up to be: brave, engaging, intelligent, irrepressible, cool. He smoked Rothmans, even though his main sponsor was Marlboro. He liked to turn up to corporate events barefoot. He had the magic with girls, and he didn’t care what people thought or said. He was his own man. Most of all, he drove with flair and adrenaline. His team manager, Alastair Caldwell, once said that “when the car was switched off on the grid, [Hunt] was so wound up, the whole thing was shaking”.

Later, back on the scaffolding, Dad read me an interview with Lauda. The Austrian’s nickname was “Super-rat” because of his slight overbite. He was shy, slight: only 5ft 8in. He was married, monogamous, meticulous. He didn’t smoke, he didn’t party. He stayed late at the garage, working with his mechanics to perfect every aspect of his car.

Here, then, were two great sportsmen, so different in character that they might almost be from different species: Hunt the epicurean, Lauda the ascetic. And yet they were both winners. Their rivalry, like all great rivalries, was based on the emotionally powerful conjunction of this difference and this similarity. I can see in my own life an effort to reconcile their two versions of masculinity: on the one hand, to live without fear, in the moment; on the other, to devote myself to the painstaking, near-monastic business of attempting to write half-decent novels.

I’ve thought a lot about why my dad supported Lauda. He was born in 1949, within three months of the Austrian, the eldest son of a large family that valued self-reliance above all else. As a child, I found the way my father handled life with such indefatigable competence reassuring; now, I find it astounding. When he held my hand, there was nothing we could not deal with. Looking back, I think my father supported Lauda not because he wanted him to win, but because he wanted to offset the seductive but possibly destructive lessons a small boy might take from Hunt. He wanted balance. (Tellingly, Hunt’s 1976 Brands Hatch win was subsequently given to Lauda: Hunt was deemed to have broken the rules by taking that shortcut back to the pits.)

Lauda also appealed to my father on an aesthetic level. My half-Russian mother was an agent for classical musicians, and every summer we drove insanely around Europe, camping and visiting composers’ houses, as well as Grand Prix and prehistoric cave paintings. When I asked Dad recently why he supported Lauda over Hunt, he said, “Well, you get some pianists who are melodramatic at the keyboard, sighing and throwing themselves about. Lauda is like one of those pianists who doesn’t move an unnecessary muscle. After a while, without the histrionics to distract you, you close your eyes and you start to listen. And, when you do, you realise that their music is beautiful.”

A few years after that day at Brands Hatch, my father and I are in the forests of the Eifel Mountains. We are driving around the infamous Nürburgring in Germany. This is a circuit unlike any other: more than 14 miles long, with endless gradient changes and more than 170 corners. We’re going slowly, looking for something. There is mist hanging beneath the trees and the valleys are lost below. Misshapen stumps and improbable rocks fringe the track. Black birds dispute the white lines. In the 1970s, safety here was next to non-existent – ambulance stations were miles apart – yet the average lap speed was 120mph.

Exactly two weeks after that 1976 British Grand Prix came the German. As Lauda made his way into Nürburgring that morning, a member of the public had thrust a photograph of Jochen Rindt’s grave into his face, hoping for a reaction. (Rindt was the last great driver to represent Austria; he died in an accident in 1970.) Lauda was so anxious about the dangers that he convened a poll among the drivers as to whether they should race at all. He lost by one vote.

Worse was to come: before the race, it began to rain – but only on part of the circuit, which meant that there was no good tyre to be using. Lauda started on wets and then changed to dries and went out again. He was trying to make up positions. As he came through a lefthand kink, just before a corner called Bergwerk (“the Mine”), his rear suspension collapsed. This is the place that Dad and I have been looking for. The corner feels threatening, like something from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a forgotten section of the circuit hidden among the dense trees.

Lauda is doing 130mph as he enters that kink. As the car fails, it slews right, digs deep into the feeble catch fencing, hits a bank of earth behind and is sent airborne back into the centre of the circuit. The fuel tank fractures. Petrol spews. Everything is on fire. Around the corner comes British driver Guy Edwards. Somehow, he misses the wreckage. The next two drivers do not: they spear into the stricken Ferrari at sickening speed, sending it slithering and shattered farther down the track. Lauda is trapped in the car. The fire rages at 400C. His helmet is half off and he is burning to death. Several drivers stop and run towards the blaze. They are desperately fighting to get Lauda out, but they cannot reach far enough into the intense heat. They can’t loosen his belts. One of them gets an extinguisher. They make one last effort and somehow haul him out of the cockpit. Lauda is still conscious, lying on the track, asking about his face. He has been burning for nearly a minute. My Dad and I drive all the way around Bergwerk in silence.

At the hospital, Lauda is read the last rites and everybody, including his doctors and his wife and his mother, who is interviewed on German TV, thinks he is going to die. He has first- to third-degree burns, a broken collarbone, cheekbones and several ribs. But what is killing him is that his blood is poisoned and his lungs have been scorched and are filling up with fluid.

Then the miracle happens. Forty days later, Lauda returns for the Italian Grand Prix in Monza (where Rindt died) to fight on. He is alive through sheer force of will. He has half an ear missing and hair on only one side of his head. His wife spends most of the weekend resewing his balaclava to protect what is left of his skin. Nobody can believe he is standing, let alone at the circuit. But here he is, climbing into his Ferrari, out-qualifying his teammates, out-qualifying Hunt. He finishes fourth. When he takes off his helmet, he is covered in blood and pus. Back in England, my four-year-old self has fallen in love with Niki Lauda.

Hunt went on to win the 1976 championship by one point, at the last race of the season in the mad monsoons of Japan. Lauda had pulled out, unable to clear the water from his vision because of the injuries around his eyes. When he accepts the trophy, Hunt says, “Quite honestly, I wanted to win the championship and I felt that I deserved to win the championship. I also felt that Niki deserved to win the championship and I just wished we could have shared it.”

I like to think about those words from time to time, and what they mean. As my father taught me, masculinity is subtler than the world sometimes like to spin.

Here Come The Druids

Written for Prospect Magazine:

 

I am on the rail replacement bus service outside East Midlands Parkway train station, which itself lies resplendent beneath the ravishing architectural solicitation that is Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in the rain. I am on the top deck with three other men. One has a gold tooth, another a shaven head and a feverish red beard, and the third a ponytail and a couple of vehement face piercings. Down below a man I will come to know as Nuka Raven is biding his time dressed in a black tunic and cloak with silver trim. We’re 10 miles outside Nottingham.

“Don’t worry,” says Tim Spicer, the gold-toothed 36 year old, “it’s not just warlocks. They’re not elitist. Everyone is welcome. It’s very… affirmative.”

“Druids?” I ask.

“Oh yeah. And maybe some wicca chicks.”

Forty-five minutes later and I’m marching resolutely up a hill with several hundred men and women who look as if they’re heading straight for the gates of Mordor. There are banners saying “Welcome to Pagan Pride Parade 2013.” There are time-smoothed staffs, purple runic-patterned dresses, bright yellow and pale blue flowers and several people are drumming. Sure, I’m not pagan, but I am a sucker for people who mean it—so I join right on in when the shout goes up: “We are pagan! And we are proud! We are pagan! And we are proud!”

We arrive at the Arboretum in central Nottingham. This is one of the UK’s biggest pagan gatherings and has been roughly timed to coincide with Lammas on 1st August—a date that originally marked the first harvest festival of the year.

Paganism was finally recognised as a religion in the UK at the 2001 census. The numbers are rising: in 2001 about 42,000 people identified as pagan; in 2011 the number was 75,000. Informal estimates are three times this number. Until recently, many a pagan has been chary of coming out. But as the doors of our busy national closet have begun to ease open, so too the pagans are venturing on to the streets. I find myself ignorant of even the basics, so I’m here trying to find out what being a pagan entails. More than 20,000 people gathered to celebrate the summer solstice at Stonehenge on 21st June. But why are people turning to “the old religion”? Who are they? And is modern Paganism really anything to do with pre-Christian traditions?

I snag a passing shaman. I’m hoping to be reconnected with my soul.

“How long does it take to get to the spirit world?” I ask.

Carnival by Rawi Hage – review

For The Guardian:

This tale of a taxi driver’s nocturnal meanderings shows lyricism, compassion and great human spirit

I enjoyed this book in so many ways that it is tempting to urge you to eschew any further reading and download it immediately or set off for the nearest decent bookshop, however many hundreds of miles that may now be. But Carnival is not a masterpiece – it is a rich and often beautiful, brave, engrossing, intelligent, literate, funny and very human novel, yet it is not quite as fine as it hopes to be.

Hage won the lucrative Impac prize for his first novel, De Niro’s Game. And the spirit of De Niro also hovers over Carnival, his third, because this is the story of a taxi driver: “a man of contradictions” named Fly. Fly was born in the circus. His mother “nursed [him] through … the follies of clowns and the bitter songs of an old dwarf who prophesied for [him] a life of wandering among spiders and beasts”. Which is more or less exactly what Fly now does – criss-crossing the nameless city, mostly by night, picking up and participating in the lives of his various fares: drug dealers, prostitutes, strippers, debauchees, feuding lovers and drunken tourists. The “spiders”, we are told, are the cab drivers who “wait at taxi stands for the dispatcher’s call … for things to come and ages to pass”; but the flies are “wanderers, operators who … navigate the city, ceaseless and aimless, looking for raising arms to halt their flight”.

 

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman – review

For The Guardian

Neil Gaiman is at his best when he abandons his trademark fantasy for stark realism

This is Gaiman’s first adult novel since Anansi Boys in 2005 and his millions of fans will be mad for it. It tells the story of a man who returns to Sussex for a funeral and then finds himself driving “randomly” to the scenes of his childhood. He is drawn to the Hempstock farmhouse wherein, he remembers, there lived three generations of powerful and mysterious Hempstock women. The youngest of these, Lettie, used to call their duck pond her “Ocean” – later revealed (in a beautiful passage) to be a metaphor for what might best be described as the cosmic life force. And it is by this Ocean that the narrator sits down and recalls the magical and traumatic events that befell his seven-year-old self.

Those events get scary when the hero wakes with a coin choking his throat. He and Lettie take the problem to the older two Hempstock women who warn them to be careful when they set out to “bind” the malevolence.

Out in the fields, they encounter the monster: “some kind of tent, as high as a country church, made of grey and pink canvas that flapped in the gusts of storm wind… a lopsided canvas structure aged by weather and ripped by time”. In the ensuing struggle, the narrator lets go of Lettie’s hand as she chants the binding spell (though these Hempstocks don’t call them spells: “Gran doesn’t hold with none of that. She says it’s common.”) and the monster places a worm into the arch of the narrator’s foot.

Later, the boy removes the worm but doesn’t quite get it all out. The malevolence stays and assumes the human form of the tall blonde Ursula Monkton, the narrator’s evil live-in nanny, who wears a ragged grey and pink dress that also flaps. Now there’s real trouble. And the only thing that Ursula Monkton is scared of, the only thing that will get rid of this kind of a monster, are the formidable “hunger” birds…

You’d be right in surmising that I find all these flapping tent-monsters and worms in your feet and beautiful governesses slightly gauche. Which wouldn’t matter (and doesn’t, in terms of those millions of fans) except that I also find Gaiman much more interesting as a writer than this somewhat laboured “mythic” story permits.

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The relentless charm of Nigel Farage – Interview

For Prospect Magazine

We are approaching a significant moment in our national history. And somehow the hitherto fringe figure of Nigel Farage is at its centre. Yes, the UK Independence party, for all the farrago of its local election successes, is still a minor party; but it has become the point around which the debate on Europe and immigration is now revolving. Ukip does not have to win a single seat in the 2015 election to change the course of British politics. It has already set the terms. It has caused the current spread of Conservative fissures and pushed David Cameron to propose legislation guaranteeing an in-out referendum on membership of the European Union. And it has inflamed the one debate that even our Gilbert and George coalition might not survive. Meanwhile, Ukip is making the Labour party react—and nervously so. How has this happened? To begin with, the answer is best understood by watching its leader, Farage, in his element: on the campaign trail.

I am in South Shields—Labour heartland in the northeast. It is the day before the by-election caused by David Miliband’s resignation. The next day, on 2nd May, Ukip will alter the geometry of British politics by winning 139 seats on local councils and taking, on average, one in four votes nationwide. But Nigel Farage doesn’t yet know this. He is out campaigning on behalf of Richard Elvin, his party’s candidate. The northern sky is wide and bright, though it’s unreasonably cold if you stand in the shade. We are in the main pedestrianised street. Farage is talking with (not “to” or “at”) yet another enthusiastic supporter, a man in his fifties and a former Labour voter.

“Yes, well, that’s often true,” Farage says, leaning in to respond to a complaint about the perceived lack of visibility of David Miliband previously. He extends the point to include every Westminster politician: “The other three parties are all the same. That’s why we are drawing support very evenly across the country—now that is a strength but it is also a weakness under first past the post.”

A German journalist interrupts. She is non-specifically cross. Typically, Farage seeks to flatter her, even as he goes on the attack: “Ah, well, under your system where you have two ballot papers”—he smiles, he means the German electoral system which he is implying is more civilised—“we would have had representation many years ago. But under this system it is tough and we haven’t yet broken the dam.”

What the journalist doesn’t appear to know—surprisingly few do—is that Farage’s second wife, Kirsten Mehr, with whom he has two young daughters, is also German. Later he tells me that he “is careful to keep the family out of it.”

Flash Fish

This is the age of aquariums: young men are paying a fortune to “aqua-scape” their indoor fish tanks—and parting with up to £250,000 for a single fish. Why? 

Written for Prospect Magazine:

 

We’re waiting for the suicide fish. It is Monday night. We’re in expensive territory—Notting Hill, west London—and we’re staring at a huge aquarium roughly 14 feet long and three feet tall. There’s water and there’s rock in there. Not much else.

“When they due?”

“Pretty soon.”

“What are they called?”

“I don’t know, man.”

The protein skimmers whirr and hum in the intervening silence. “You have to feel for them,” I say, after a while. “I mean, if you’re going to be a fish, then you don’t want to be one of these suicide guys. You want to be… second wave.”

“Yes. But we’re trying to prevent wipeout here. That’s what it’s all about. If you don’t use the suicide guys to test the water, and something goes wrong, you could have a very expensive mass extermination event on your hands. Could be carbon dioxide, could be pH balance, could be salt, could be temperature, could be anything—but you lose the whole tank.” He draws slow and sober breath. “Wipeout.”

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The curious case of the Sherlock pilgrims

Written for Prospect Magazine:

 

I have just arrived. I am standing in the square in the small Swiss valley town of Meiringen. On all sides, fir trees and high alpine meadows give way to cragged grey faces of rock that are veined in ice. Here and there louring clouds snag the serrated peaks.

“What’s going on?” I ask the Swiss woman next to me.

“I think they’re starting,” she replies, confidentially.

“Starting what?”

But now a brass band embarks upon some deafening mountain lament and nothing further can be heard.

I fall back upon my powers of observation and deduction. A rotund cardinal comports himself across the cobbles in full scarlet regalia to converse with a man who appears to be some kind of itinerant manure shoveller. A chubby boy in the guise of a 19th century mountain guide sits on a sedan chair with his accordion; from time to time and for no reason, he pops on a false beard, then pops it off again, the elastic cutting into his cheeks. A sly, fastidious man is half-introduced. His name is Snork, he says, or Stark or Hark or Bark or Snark—it’s impossible to hear him until the music stops; at which moment, I catch only the end of his sentence “… and so this is where they invented meringue.’”

“My name is Peter Steiler,” shouts an elderly Swiss man in a lemon-coloured bowler hat. “I am a very intelligent man.’”

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Pulphead: Dispatches from the Other Side of America by John Jeremiah Sullivan – review

 

Written for The Guardian:

 

I began this book reluctantly – I was deep into Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which is pretty much the exact opposite – but by the end I wanted to hand out copies to all those poor folks I see squirming their way through the squalid prose-dungeons of Fifty Shades. I wanted to launch a new British magazine especially for long-form journalism. I wanted to go out and round up a good few of the nation’s so-called columnists and shame them into admitting that the weekly crap-farragoes that they are pretending to call careers will no longer do. I wanted to say “that’s what I’m talking about”.

What am I talking about? Pulphead is a collection of essays that appeared in various American magazines written by a journalist in his late 30s, whom almost nobody in Britain will know. But my guess is that those of you who like real writing (I know you’re out there) will soon come to love John Jeremiah Sullivan – especially if he turns his talent to writing fiction, which, on the evidence of this collection, would not be too great a stretch. My stateside siblings tell me that he’s already got a foot on the same escalator that took Foster Wallace, Franzen and the gang per aspera ad astra. Meanwhile, various people are calling him the next Tom Wolfe this and the new Hunter S Thompson that. Who knows? I’d say hold off a spell – he’s simply not produced enough assessable work. But I certainly found this collection wonderfully engaging, lucid, intelligent, entertaining, interesting and amusing.

The first pleasure of Pulphead is the subject matter.

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Weather Anxiety

Written For Prospect Magazine:

 

I was powering along the French autoroute in my truly awful car wishing I had gone into mining precious metals or something when my travelling companion piped up from the passenger seat: “Why are you driving so fast?”

It was a good question. We were heading to a small town called Beaune. There was no rush. We weren’t late. We hadn’t even booked anywhere to stay. Nobody was expecting us. The world was even more indifferent to our progress than usual.

“I don’t know,” I replied, backing off a little.

“At least it’s not raining anymore.”

“That’s it,” I said, turning to her. “That’s it.”

“What’s what?” she frowned. “Keep your eyes on the road, you idiot.”

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Orta: the Italian lake tourists haven’t discovered

For the Guardian

There is a code of silence that surrounds Lake Orta in northern Italy. Visitors are reluctant to tell others about its beauty for fear of increasing … well, the number of visitors. Indeed, it is astonishing how few people – even Italians – know about the place, and it is telling that the Milanese call it La Cenerentola (Cinderella) because they have long considered it the secretly superior sibling to the larger, money-blighted lakes of Como and Maggiore. But, for me, what sets Orta apart is not its beauty – though the place is absurdly pretty – but the lake’s mysterious, ethereal, almost supernatural quality. There is something for the soul there as well as for the eye.

This is thanks in part to the architecture, in part to the enchanting island in its centre (of which more below), but most of all to the intimate drama of its setting: the way mountains, weather and light are forever in counterpoint to the water itself. Sometimes a preternatural stillness seems to rise from the deep. Sometimes fogs wreathe the surface, shrouding the island and the opposite shore. Sometimes the snow falls silent and heavy as if the sky has sunk never to lift again. Sometimes the fierce sun burns for days as if no other climate were even possible. And sometimes the föhn wind thrashes the lake into fury.

The light changes by the hour. Look out in the morning and there’s a medieval mist; by noon, the lake is as clear as the Enlightenment; then, by five, a brooding romanticism has descended. You never want to leave.

My association with the place began over a decade ago when a member of my extended family discovered Orta San Giulio, the lake’s principal town, and promptly withdrew the offer he had made on a London place to buy an apartment there. For the next few years, as he renovated the place, it was my good fortune to spend weeks at a time there working on my second novel and taking delivery of ovens, logs, taps and so on. In summer when the lake glistened silver-blue, I sat in the garden and worked in the shade. In winter I watched storms coming down the valley and turning the water the colour of slate.

The lake has always been popular with writers.

Model Britain: One Man’s Quest to Understand Fashion Week

 

Written For Prospect Magazine

 

Day four. London Fashion Week. I’m heading backstage half an hour before yet another show. I pass a neo-Ottoman grouse-beater, a man with rabbit ears, a slouch of camp rockabilly-punks, DH Lawrence and a six-foot female Day-Glo clown-witch. I’m a grizzled veteran of the scene by now, but even so, I double back. Someone has to have the definitive answer. Maybe it’s her.

“Can you tell me what this is all about?” I ask.

“What?”

“London. Fashion. London Fashion Week?”

“It’s about…” She considers. “It’s about dramatic but joyful.”

One of the best answers so far. Her name is Sadie Clayton. She is a fashion student. She seems confident. And at least it’s an answer that she embodies. She’s a witch-clown, I realise, not the other way round. I reassess my life—so much to learn—and I look to her friend. “Anything else?” I ask.

“Neoprene,” she says.

“Got it. Thanks.” I nod. “Dramatic but joyful. Neoprene.”

I’m getting closer, I think. I press on.

Security here is intense. I need separate passes to breathe, walk, speak, see and micturate. Indeed, faced with the demeanour of the various press officers, most non-fashion writers would assume that they had inadvertently stumbled upon some kind of top-secret peace summit between Israel and Palestine that was being personally brokered by President Obama and Angelina Jolie in the nude.

“I’m with the hair team,” I say, when I reach the VVVIP security door. This is also code.

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Among the Russians: Giving the Tolstoy Lecture at Yasnaya Polyana

 

Visiting Tolstoy’s estate, Edward Docx met writers who live gloriously and furiously—and took a beating on behalf of the former head of MI5

 

Written for Prospect Magazine:

 

We are walking through birch trees that quaver and drip with a steady but refreshing rain. We are on our way to Yasnaya Polyana, the country house of Leo Tolstoy. I am with two fellow writers: Evgeny Vodolazkin and Igor Malyshev. The path is muddy here and there and sometimes we go in single file.

“Perhaps it’s because Tolstoy doesn’t have a sense of humour—or not a very good one,” says Evgeny from the back.

“Or maybe it’s because with Dostoyevsky something is always moving,” says Igor, up front.

“Yes, it’s more dynamic,” I venture, “but maybe that’s because there’s more at stake. Unlike Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky has a preoccupation with how to eat as well as how to live.”

“Yes, Dostoyevsky was… what is the English?” Igor asks.

“Skint,” I say.

This is a more than usually germane point since the Tolstoy estate (which remains in that family) stretches away in all directions around us: heavily wooded and undulating with scattered, scruffy villages and sudden long-grassed fields that put me in mind of those scenes in Anna Karenina when Levin goes out scything with his serfs and resolves to eschew all human falsity in favour of a sweat-drenched agrarian redemption.
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The Prophet – Dylan Live: Review

 

The World’s Greatest Living Artist written for Prospect Magazine:

 

As ever, the big question is: what are we all doing here? But I’m distracted from this because the room has started thrumming with that most peculiar of energies—tangible but invisible, personal but shared: human expectation. I’m with my excellent friend Will Smith, the British comedian and actor. We’re at the very front of the balcony. Below, there are hands raised in anticipation, voices calling out and people pressing forward. We are some five thousand in number. But it would be hard to say which of us are the more excited: those who can have no inkling of the bizarre beauty of what they are about to see and hear; or those, like myself, who know what’s coming.

I’m not exactly sure how many times I have done this… I lost count in 2004 and it was past 70 then. I admit: I am entirely without reason or sense when it comes to Bob Dylan. I remember the first time, of course. I was still at school. I went to three out of six freezing February nights at the Hammersmith Odeon. I remember the numbness in my toes as I stood queuing (for hours) to be admitted first and so get as close as possible to the stage. And I remember being caught out by how just how fast the other lunatics ran the second those doors opened.

 

That was 1990 and in the intervening 21 years, whenever funds and geography have conspired to make it possible, I’ve been back for more. I’ve given up trying to be at the front—such wisdom these days, such dignity—but nonetheless it is to the very same Hammersmith venue that I’ll be returning later this week with Will. He’s not a very sensible person either.

Of course, we’re only middle-ranking extremists. Even back then, I was already 25 years behind the rest of the crowd—many of them here tonight, (60, 70, 80 years old), grizzled veterans of the 1960s. Paradoxically, I now look at the new recruits—in their teens or twenties—with the same mixture of fondness, ruefulness, and condescension that I myself once received. Fellas, I think, I love the frizzy hair and the ponchos and everything but were you there when he played “I and I” and Winston Watson on the drums kicked his ass?

We’re in Bournemouth tonight, by the way. I know, I know. What am I doing here? What are they doing here? What is he doing here? I’m coming to it…

But now the house lights go dim and the noise of the crowd rises and—this is it, this is it—a disembodied voice in the darkness intones: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. The voice of the promise of the 60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock. Who donned makeup in the 70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the 80s, and who suddenly shifted gears releasing some of the strongest music of his career in the late 90s. Ladies and gentlemen—Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!”

And here he comes—70 years old, dressed as a harlequin-cowboy, hat-brim tipped down low, white shoes, white-piped dark suit, crazy hair, crazy grin-grimace, crazy way of walking, and looking for all the world like a man who has just been asked to play both King Lear and the Fool in some mad production set wherever the Old West meets the Deep South. He seldom speaks to the crowd and there is very little by way of acknowledgement—a half-nod perhaps—before he takes up station sideways-on behind his keyboards.

Darkness again. Will and I crane forward. There’s about a minute of maddened cacophony while his band seem to detune their instruments in order to tune them up afresh and the drummer tests everything he has got as if entirely new to drums, drumming, any notion of order. Then, abruptly, astonishingly, the six men on stage converge—in harmony and in time—and the miracle of music is born among us. The spotlight falls. And Dylan begins to sing.

***

I say sing. Imagine an Old Testament prophet come down from the mountains of the desert. Imagine he has 70 years’ worth of visions to impart in rich and vivid verse—visions comprised for the most part of searing and timeless human truth about love and god and man. But imagine that he has neither heard nor spoken a single word during his many decades alone—that his voice is therefore as cracked as the tablets he bears and as croaky as the rocks among which he has lived, and that furthermore he has no sense of the speed, nor the sound, nor the stresses, nor the syntax of conventional speech. Now imagine that an unusually convincing joker selling ecstasy tablets and helium balloons has waylaid him on the way to the amphitheatre. And, finally, imagine that when at last he steps up before you to discourse upon what is undoubtedly the quintessence of existence, he chooses to do so by intoning through a hookah pipe using only the five notes of the pentatonic scale. That’s what I mean by singing.

We reach the end of the first song and return to the dark abyss of uncertainty while his band de-tune, re-tune, and the drummer hits a few arrhythmic drums. Insanely, every new song is born from this chaos. Why this should be so—like everything else about this Dylan phenomenon—is a mystery. Dylan has played on average 100 shows a year, every year, (think about that a second), since I first went to see him in 1990. It’s really not that much of an exaggeration, therefore, to say that he and his musicians are the tightest rock band playing anywhere in the world today. So why the confusion between every single song? Why the wide-eyed concentration with which they appear to watch him as if expecting at any moment to find themselves plunging panic-stricken, embarrassed and unprofessional into an entirely different universe—a song by, say, Kate Bush?

New spotlights. What’s happening? Hang on—yes, yes—here comes Dylan himself out from behind the keyboards to centre stage. And we’re into the second song. He’s got the microphone in one hand and his harmonica in the other and he’s dancing like a punch-drunk boxer, a marionette, Kafka’s favourite uncle.

On so many levels, the theatre of his performance is extraordinary. He moves quickly, then slows, then freezes. He throws himself into angled positions—stretched out, oblique, hunched—as if dodging bullets that only he can see. He delivers a line, straightens, delivers another, compelled, it seems, to wring new inflections from his songs physically as well as aurally. And that voice again: a keening, a wailing, a lament for the end of time.

“What song is it?” I shout at Will.

“Not sure, not sure,” Will mouths back.

We are lost. We’re not alone. Nobody seems to know. Not the veterans. Not the lunatics down at the front. Maybe not the band, yet. Maybe not even Dylan himself.

We dig deep. Dylan has written more than 450 songs (think about that for another second) and I know all of them inside out but I’m still not sure. He seems to enjoy catching everyone out (including his musicians) by randomly changing the set list or pretending one song is another song for a few bars. Will makes the observation that Bob could happily play song-bingo with his catalogue every night: he could have one of the madmen in the audience shout out a random number between one and 500 and still play a more interesting, powerful, poetical and well-known set than any other living artist. Maybe this is what he’s been doing. Meanwhile, something is happening here…

A spell is being cast. The man on the stage is leading us all in conjuring up the ghosts of Dylan past, Dylan present and Dylan future. And now, as the song progresses, we are retuning our ears, refiguring our eyes. We hear the crazy intonations clearly. We understand this antic demeanour. The magic is working.

“Is this one of his?” I ask.

Will looks baffled. Sometimes Dylan plays The Clash, sometimes Elvis. Maybe it is Kate Bush.

“I think it is ‘This wheel’s on fire,’” I shout.

Will nods. We’ve got it. This is not bad. Only two verses in. We’ve been entirely beaten before. And, oh, we now realise, what a song it is…

Why? Because we, the half of the audience who do this a lot, we all thought this was a song written when Dylan was 26, (already seven world-changing albums into his career—think about that for another second) about his famous motorcycle “accident.” Or, if not that, then a song that in some way refigured King Lear’s words to Cordelia: “Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound/Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears/Do scald like molten lead.” Or, if not that, then a song that somehow channels the prophet Ezekiel’s vision: “As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire with horses of fire suddenly appeared.”

But no. What we didn’t realise was that this song, now that we listen to it again—here, tonight—this song is actually about the relationship between a 70-year-old singer-poet-musician and his audience, about the memory and continuing life of the songs, about all that has happened since it was written in 1967: “If your memory serves you well/We were going to meet again and wait/So I’m going to unpack all my things/And sit before it gets too late/ No man alive will come to you/ With another tale to tell…” Now how does he do that? How can this be? How is it that a relatively minor song written 44 years ago means all these new things to us, to him, here in 2011 in, of all places, Bournemouth?

Which brings us to the answer to the big question: what are we doing here?

What the uninitiated do not seem to understand about Dylan’s work is that it’s not really poetry, nor is it really music, but rather the much more powerful intersection of the two. Lots of Dylan does stand up on the page, but lots of Dylan doesn’t. Instead, it’s when you hear him that his tremendous imaginative power reveals itself. And it’s when you hear him live that this happens most of all. Each night, with astonishing verve and energy, he seeks to find, then connect with, and then highlight some new strand in the tapestry of his verse. Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he doesn’t. And it is for this particular reason that we are all here—and why we are driven to return again and again.

“Oh Christ, he’s doing a guitar solo,” Will says.

I shake my head, bewildered. We’re into song three. Now there are three other guitarists on stage. One of them is Mark Knopfler. But the truth is that they are all—by some distance—better lead guitarists than Dylan. I have about 50 live recordings of his concerts; on no occasion has he ever played a good guitar solo.

But of course there are deeper and more general reasons as to why we are here—reasons to do with art and art’s concerns. We’re after something real and authentic and spellbinding and heartfelt that is not packaged or contrived or facetiously achieved, something full of feeling and insight, but something that is not delivered at the expense of human intelligence or subtlety or wit. Such sustenance is plentiful with Dylan because, like all great artists, he is—and has always been —forcefully and seriously engaged with the quiddity of life. How are we to live, given this? How am I to love, given that? Can you forgive me, given this? Can I forgive you, given that? Can there be a creator, given what we know? How do we sustain ourselves and endure, if not? Who am I to myself, to others, to you? What is happening here? How does it feel?

I know what you are beginning to suspect. And—yes—it’s no coincidence that besides Shakespeare I’ve also sounded some Biblical notes in this essay.  (The step from art to religion was ever a short one.) So, OK, as a robust agnostic, I’m prepared to admit it: seeing Dylan is the closest I come to a religious experience. But forget all the stuff you have read about him by people who are 40 years out of date, this is what he himself has recently said: “Here’s the thing with me and religion. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else… I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe in the songs.”

Which bring us, finally, to the question of what Dylan himself is doing playing 100 nights year at 70. Of course, there are simple answers to this question: enjoying himself, making money, working. But there are also more complex answers. He breathes life into his songs each night in order to keep them alive to himself because he, too, is seeking transcendence and meaning and purpose in his work.

Whenever I meet someone new, it is always a huge relief to discover that they know and like Dylan. Such taste guarantees an attitude to the world and a freight of emotional intelligence that I feel I can trust. Similarly, when I meet people who say that they don’t like him or don’t get it, then I feel a momentary despair—in much the way as when people say they don’t like classical music or art galleries or reading or a particular country. It’s all in my head, of course, but then everything is all in all of our heads. (What else is there?) Besides, what Dylan is really about is protest—not narrow political protest anymore—but a kind of existential protest. And you just don’t get that on The X Factor.

Postmodernism is Dead: Essay

Written for Prospect Magazine

 

I have some good news—kick back, relax, enjoy the rest of the summer, stop worrying about where your life is and isn’t heading. What news? Well, on 24th September, we can officially and definitively declare that postmodernism is dead. Finished. History. A difficult period in human thought over and done with. How do I know this? Because that is the date when the Victoria and Albert Museum opens what it calls “the first comprehensive retrospective” in the world: “Postmodernism—Style and Subversion 1970-1990.” Wait, I hear you cry. How do they know? And what was it? Postmodernism—I didn’t understand it. I never understood it. How can it be over?

You are not alone. If there’s one word that confuses, upsets, angers, beleaguers, exhausts and contaminates us all, then it is postmodernism. And yet, properly understood, postmodernism is playful, intelligent, funny and fascinating. From Grace Jones to Lady Gaga, from Andy Warhol to Gilbert and George, from Paul Auster to David Foster Wallace, its influence has been everywhere and continues. It has been the dominant idea of our age.

So what was it? Well, the best way to begin to understand postmodernism is with reference to what went before: modernism. Unlike, say, the Enlightenment or Romanticism, postmodernism (even as a word) summons up the movement it intends to overturn. In this way, postmodernism might be seen as the delayed germination of an older seed, planted by artists like Marcel Duchamp, during modernism’s high noon of the 1920s and 1930s. (Seen in this light, the start-date that the V&A offers for postmodernism—1970—is quite late.)

Thus, if modernists like Picasso and Cézanne focused on design, hierarchy, mastery, the one-off, then postmodernists, such as Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning, were concerned with collage, chance, anarchy, repetition. If modernists such as Virginia Woolf relished depth and metaphysics, then postmodernists such as Martin Amis favoured surface and irony. As for composers, modernists like Béla Bartók were hieratic and formalist, and postmodernists, like John Adams, were playful and interested in deconstructing. In other words, modernism preferred connoisseurship, tended to be European and dealt in universals. Postmodernism preferred commodity and America, and embraced as many circumstances as the world contained.

In the beginning, postmodernism was not merely ironical, merely gesture, some kind of clever sham, a hotchpotch for the sake of it. It became these things later in lesser works by lesser artists: Michael Nyman, Takashi Murakami, Tracey Emin and Jonathan Safran Foer. Rather, in the beginning artists, philosophers, linguists, writers and musicians were bound up in a movement of great force that sought to break with the past, and which did so with great energy. A new and radical permissiveness was the result. Postmodernism was a high-energy revolt, an attack, a strategy for destruction. It was a set of critical and rhetorical practices that sought to destabilise the modernist touchstones of identity, historical progress and epistemic certainty.

Above all, it was a way of thinking and making that sought to strip privilege from any one ethos and to deny the consensus of taste. Like all the big ideas, it was an artistic tendency that grew to take on social and political significance. As Ihab Hassan, the Egyptian-American philosopher, has said, there moved through this (our) period “a vast will to un-making, affecting the body politic, the body cognitive, the erotic body, the individual psyche, the entire realm of discourse in the west.”

Lost in Translation

 

Novelist Edward Docx had to know what it feels like to be lost—truly lost—in the Amazon. So he went to Brazil and hired some men to leave him in the jungle. Written for Prospect Magazine:

 

Our troubles began with the translator. Undeniably, José was a well-meaning man with a great many characteristics that the guide, Abi, and I both admired. It was a matter of regret to all concerned, therefore, that proficiency in Portuguese or English turned out not to be among them. A native Spanish speaker, he had arrived on the busy quay in Manaus accompanied by numerous madrigals of endorsement from the various agents, boatmen and interested parties involved in our little expedition. Indeed, so exceptionally fluent had he seemed in his acknowledgement of his own abilities that it had also appeared certain that they must extend far beyond the scope of the mere three advertised languages. But now here we were—standing deep in the Amazon jungle and, if anything, his linguistic facility seemed to be receding.

“So, let’s say just one hour,” I said.

José looked at both of us, nodded with childish enthusiasm and said nothing.

I tried again: “I need to understand what it’s like—to be alone here. In the rainforest. For my book. You leave me here for one hour and then we meet at exactly this spot.”
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The last stand of the Amazon

For the Guardian

In the forest, there are no horizons and so the dawn does not break but is instead born in the trees – a wan and smoky blue. I twist in my hammock. The total darkness, which has been broken only by the crazy dance of the fireflies, is fading and now shapes are forming – branches, fronds, vines, bushes, leaves, thorns, the soaring reach of the canopy, the matted tangle of the understorey. The crazed clamour of the night – growls, hoots, croaks – has died away and for a moment there is almost hush. This is also the only time of cool and I can see thin fingers of mist curling through the trunks and drifting across the river beyond. A butterfly passes in the quavering grace of its flight. Then, suddenly, the great awakening begins and the air is filled with a thousand different songs, chirps, squawks and screeches – back and forth, far and near, all around. So loud and so raucous and so declarative of life is this chorus that nothing anywhere in the world can prepare you for it. I am camped deep in the Brazilian Amazon with my guide.

Life and Seoul

For The Guardian

The first totems we drive past are the Garbage Mountains. And, contrary to the name, they are almost beautiful – green, rolling, lightly wooded and crisscrossed by trails on which Seoul-weary citizens might wander. The South Koreans are proud of having transformed their terrible trash problems into parkland; they do it carefully, stabilising the vast mounds, protecting nearby rivers, planting skillfully and collecting methane to heat civic amenities. We are on Freedom Motorway – so called, they say, because one day it will reconnect the communist North with the capitalist South. I am with my translator, Kwon, and a photographer and we are on the 35-mile journey out of Seoul towards the world’s most heavily militarised border, which divides the two countries.

The Han River runs beside us deep and wide and glinting in metallic shades of blue-grey. The road turns north. As we move outside the precincts of Seoul, we begin to pass pale clusters of tower blocks. These are further evidence of the economic miracle: the satellite cities. And here live the ever-expanding metropolitan overspill in thousands upon thousands of new apartments linked by malls and walkways that light up at night with an ethereal charm. Another few miles and Kwon points towards an industrial complex, the place where LG, the vast electronics company, is developing its “eighth generation” technology; so sharp and real, he jokes, that they don’t dare bring it out for fear of people walking straight through the screens. His pride, several decades into the job, is characteristic of South Koreans.

So far so good on Freedom Highway. But now, some 15 miles in, the tone of our trip begins to change. Besides the billboards, we begin passing under several bridges daubed in cheaper fly posters. They seem unnecessarily frequent and yet they carry neither traffic nor pedestrians. Kwon’s face becomes more sombre. They are anti-tank devices, he explains, dummy bridges, heavy concrete structures primed with explosives, ready to be detonated in the event of an invasion. To the South Koreans, this is not idle talk: the Seoul subway has signs telling passengers what to do in the event of an attack. Not a year goes by without some dangerous border skirmish or serious naval incident (such as the sinking of the warship Cheonan in March); they consider invasion a real and present danger. By most conventional military measures, the South would eventually overwhelm the North, but the capital’s proximity to the border weighs heavily – decisively – in the balance of such grim calculations, since Seoul would be horribly vulnerable long before any such conflict could be “won”.

Nemesis by Philip Roth

For The Guardian

 

Before we get into this I should probably say that it’s my belief that Philip Roth, now 77, can write whatever the hell he likes. After more than 50 years working at the highest level, after having produced at least three enduring masterworks of prose fiction, after having vigorously, unflinchingly, brilliantly and beautifully wrestled with the notions of nationhood, religion, love, death, belief, despair, destiny and the fundamental nature of human experience, I consider that he is entitled, if he so wishes, to bind and release his fridge magnets one letter at a time.

I realise not everyone shares my view. But a mere two novels into my own career I find I cannot but have a deep respect for the sustained calibre of his work, and I am prone to suspect anyone who doesn’t get Roth of being callow, parochial, prim or thick. I keep Sabbath’s Theater (1995) by my desk along with Coetzee and Hollinghurst to remind myself what the modern novel is capable of, and it’s the book I most often give as a gift – especially if the person in question claims they liked, say, On Chesil Beach. And, well… if this approach doesn’t work for you then you should stop here. Maybe try Closer magazine.
So then: Nemesis is Roth’s 32nd book. (And even the worst is still quite good.) It is set in Newark during the sweltering summer of 1944 and it tells the story of Bucky Cantor, a playground director “who, because of poor vision… was one of the few men around who wasn’t fighting in the war”. Instead, Cantor’s war is with a gruesome outbreak of polio. The narrator is one Arnie Mesnikoff, himself a child at the playground and also a victim of the disease; it is Mesnikoff who runs into “Mr Cantor” years later in 1971 and learns how things turned out.

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

For The Guardian. This review was written before the novel won the Man Booker Prize.

 

Flaubert once wrote to Turgenev: “Never have things of the spirit counted for so little. Never has hatred for everything great been so manifest – disdain for beauty, execration of literature. I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.” It’s a favourite quotation of mine for many reasons – among them the way it is both so pompous and so not-at-all pompous at the same time – and of course every serious writer thinks exactly the same of his own age. But all the same, so weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seems the mood of the publishing industry at the moment, and so swollen and celebrated seems the appetite for the ill-bound crapola of the departure lounges, that it is tempting – after reading something as fine as The Finkler Question – not to bother reviewing it in any meaningful sense but simply to urge you to put down this paper and go and buy as many copies as you can carry.
But let’s press on for now. The Finkler Question (longlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize) is full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding. It is also beautifully written with that sophisticated and near invisible skill of the authentic writer. Technically the characterisation is impeccable, the prose a subtle delight, the word selection everywhere perfect, the phrase-making fresh and arresting without self-consciousness. Indeed, there’s so much that is first rate in the manner of Jacobson’s delivery that I could write all day on his deployment of language without once mentioning what the book is about. A single line describing the hero’s father will have to do: “a man who stood so straight that he created a kind of architectural silence around himself”.

So what is the book about? Well, this is the story of Julian Treslove, once of the BBC (pleasingly satirised) and now making a living as a celebrity lookalike. Treslove is not Jewish but, in simple terms, the narrative details his love affair with and besotted inquiry into what Jewishness means – politically, socially, economically, romantically, intellectually, emotionally, culturally, musically and so on. Treslove has only a “timid” awareness of his place in the universe “ringed by a barbed wire fence of rights and limits”. He wants to be part of something vast and ancient, something abounding and intense. He wants to be Jewish.

Santa Maddalena

For The Sunday Times

When you step through the main entrance of Santa Maddalena — from smoky Tuscan woodland into chiaroscuro Tuscan cool — you are confronted by what must surely be the most impressive visitors’ book in world literature. Approximately 18in tall and 2ft wide, it stands, always open, at the foot of the stairs that lead up to the library, as if it were a Biblical tablet brought down from the mountains by some local colossus of letters past — Dante, perhaps, or Boccaccio.

On my first visit here in 2008, I made the terrible mistake of reading it there and then. I had come to work on my third novel. I wanted an empty sky, bed, soul. Instead, whom did I find crawling across these great pages, in their many crazy hands, but the finest writers available to humanity.

Invisible by Paul Auster

Written for The Guardian:

 

Paul Auster is a writer with many skills: a disarming directness of style, a subtle ability to render subtle psychology, a connoisseur’s feel for the novel form – its limits and its play – and much besides. Invisible is the story of Adam Walker who, while a student at Columbia University in 1967, meets a visiting Swiss professor, Rudolf Born. Born offers him money to found and run a literary magazine. Walker then sleeps with Margot, Born’s girlfriend, for “five straight nights” while Born is away.

On Born’s return, they are held up at gunpoint; Born pulls a knife and Walker is horrified to see him use it. Walker runs off to fetch an ambulance, but Born and the would-be mugger are gone. Walker later discovers that said mugger died of multiple stab wounds “gouged into his chest and stomach”. Freaked out, Walker moves in with his sister and starts sleeping with her. Freaked out even more, Walker moves to Paris where he sleeps with Margot again and decides to exact revenge on Born (who escaped New York for Paris) by revealing to Born’s new woman, Hélène, the truth about the man she is set to marry – which plan he will execute through winning the friendship and confidence of her frumpy daughter, Cécile.
The story is told as three parts – a manuscript that has been written by the dying Walker in 2007 and then sent bit by bit to Walker’s old college friend, Jim Freeman, himself an author. Freeman thus narrates passages relating to the modern-day Walker. At the end, Cécile takes over the narrative to describe her trip to visit a fat and elderly Born on the island of Quillia in the Caribbean.

If I Ruled The World

 

Most novelists and poets are broke. But why aren’t we getting a bailout? We’ve been no worse at our jobs than the bankers. Written for Prospect Magazine:

 

“Dude, where’s my cheque? Either this is not a recovery, or you forgot to mail out our cheques while the recession was on.”

“That’s what you’d open with?”

“Yes, he’s the prime minister so he’s probably busy, right? And I think we would need to get in on him straight off—prevent him from using his famous charm.”

Early in September, my poet friend Mitch and I were sitting beneath skies of sodden sugar attempting to enjoy our second barbecue of the day. Sometime in May, we had inadvertently bought 200 bags of charcoal. (Online—Paypal—a tip from a malicious playwright of our acquaintance.) The summer months had passed in a blaze of drizzle and James Purnell and we had never got around to lighting a single briquette. So now that autumn was all but upon us, we were flame-grilling pretty much every meal.

We were discussing the much-whispered end to the recession. Specifically, we were going over what we would say to Gordon Brown in the event of our finally being called into Downing Street. This idea had first flourished during an earlier “if I ruled the world” conversation, back in 2008, along the lines that if the government was bailing out the banks, it was surely only a matter of time before they started bailing out novelists and poets.

“We’re even more of an essential part of the national fabric,” Mitch had argued. “If we go down, the nation goes down. Before the bankers, I would have called in all the writers and promised that—as long as we undertook to stop all high-risk stuff—there would be taxpayer funds made available.”

 

“What do you mean high-risk stuff?” I had asked.

“The sub-genre market,” Mitch had explained. “The poets would have to undertake to keep it strictly metrical and rhyming. And the novelists would have to quit bundling up bad biography with bad fiction and trying to sell it on as ‘memoir.’ At least for a few years until everyone forgets again.”

“What about the playwrights?”

“Fuck them.”

Back in 2008, we had both come to believe that Downing Street would definitely call. No doubt, we would have been required to sit though an atrocious late night curry… but then, soon enough, the chancellor would have been writing us cheques, paying off our debts, buying up our foreign rights and offering us copper-bottomed royalty guarantees for all future works. Rushdie and Motion would probably have to be nationalised but the rest of us would get the assurances we needed.

It made a great deal of sense. After all, Mitch was right about the national fabric: writers are at the very heart of how a nation thinks about itself. What country names its streets and its pubs after bankers? None. Will there ever be a Victor Blank Road? No. The HSBC and Duck Tavern? Unlikely. ABN AMRO night on BBC2? I doubt it. Would people cross the globe in 400 years’ time to stand outside the house where Fred Goodwin was born? Not unless they were planning to put another brick through his window. When bankers want love, they have to pay for it.

So why not a bailout for us? Mitch and I—and lots of other writers we knew—were all about to go bankrupt. And we had surely been no worse at our jobs than the bankers had been at theirs. Indeed, between us, Mitch and I had involved less than a dozen readers in our mistakes. With relatively modest taxpayer support, we could keep our works flowing exactly as we have done before and guarantee all 11 of our readers their money back should they suddenly ask for it at the same time.

Plus, there was a precedent. Soon after the outbreak of the first world war in August 1914, Lloyd George, then chancellor, invited 25 leading authors to Wellington House, headquarters of the war propaganda bureau, to discuss ways of best maintaining Britain’s interests in the impending crises. Those who attended the meeting included Kipling, Hardy, Conan Doyle, Ford Madox Ford, HG Wells… Indeed, had not Shelley once (rightly, sagely) said that “the poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”?

The time had come for a little acknowledgement. So we had reasoned.

And yet, incredibly, as I write this… still no call and still no cheques. Either the recession is not actually over and they are waiting for things to get really bad, or Mitch is right and Gordon has simply forgotten. Still, at least we’re not suffering all the draconian controls and regulations that the bankers have had to work within since they were bailed out by the state. I hear that they are really struggling to come to terms with how different things are now. Ease up on them, I say. Otherwise we risk crushing their elliptical wits, their elegant imaginations and their eloquent humanity. Which would be a tragedy

Peter Mandelson – Profile

 

For Prospect Magazine

On 6th December, 30 years ago, on a dark and miserable night in south London, a few streets from where I am writing this, a young Peter Mandelson was elected as a Labour borough councillor to the world’s most insane local council—Lambeth. Representing Stockwell, the 26-year-old Mandelson found himself sitting on a Labour council led by a man called “Red Ted,” who was backed by a grim cast of Trotskyites and Bennites. Though few pause to consider it now, this was Mandelson’s first experience of real politics. It was winter 1979 and the Labour party was just about to forget about the British people altogether in favour of a long and enthusiastic tour of the hinterlands of lunacy and irrelevance. Mandelson was living in a tiny flat in Kennington. His bed—in the living room—folded into the wall.

On 17th February this year, Baron Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool was attending a drinks reception at the Manhattan penthouse that is the official residence of the British consul-general in New York. The secretary of state for business, enterprise and reform was in America to talk up the British economy. The centrepiece was a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. But, as he waited at the studios of CNBC during a busy day of interviews, Mandelson overheard the chief executive of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, claiming that Britain was in “a downward spiral.” On screen Mandelson reacted robustly; later on though—at the party and in the presence of journalists—he let fly: “Why should I have this guy running down the country? Who the fuck is he?” he was overheard to say. Thus a mini-media storm was set in motion. And yet there was a further, more private, layer to the evening’s events. At some point, Mandelson took a moment to send a text to the young daughter of a close friend who was also in New York and with whom he had been in touch throughout his visit—a text to the effect that the evening was deeply tedious and that he wished they had gone to the Armani party instead as they had discussed. It was New York fashion week and he would much rather have been with David and Victoria.

The two dates are illustrative.

To Whom It May Concern

For The Telegraph

There are some novelists who will tell you that it’s the characters or the plot that cause all the trouble, or the research, or the pacing, or managing point of view, or controlling tone; but you would do better not to believe them. All of these are exasperating. But the thing that really screws you up is the dedication.
The book may be good, bad or both, but once it is finished you can dodge it, stand by it, disown it, move on, say you did or didn’t mean it, point out that you made it up, insist that it has nothing to do with you or anything that has happened in the past. The dedication, on the other hand, is where you have to say exactly what you mean. The dedication is where you can balls up the rest of your life.
To whom, then? And how do you say it? It’s an almost impossible choice for, aside from the chosen one, every person you hold dear is going to be disappointed. Put it another way: writing a dedication to a novel is a bit like composing an email to your closest friends and family, explaining that you don’t like them as much as you have been pretending, hitting “send all” and cc-ing the rest of the world. Where to start?
There’s your mother – the first choice, you might think. But what about your father? Maybe both: “To my parents?” Sounds somehow adolescent, though. Better to write another book and split them up. What about your partner? Your wife, husband, boyfriend or girlfriend? Surely she (in this case) deserves the dedication over family members – after all, you didn’t write the book when locked in your childhood bedroom.
Hang on, though: which partner? Because, of course, you were with someone else before your current partner and for much longer – when you began the book, now you come to think of it, and your previous partner definitely helped on those early stages. She is going to be really pissed off if you dedicate it to her usurper. Though that is as nothing compared to what said usurper might feel if you dedicate it to the bitch you used to go out with.

Forget lovers, what about one of your brothers or your sisters? But which one? All of them together? Too weak, too smug. (How many books are you going to have to write in order to keep everyone happy?) Let’s sideline all family members, partners and bedfellows past or present.

What about your best friend? Not bad, but nobody is that much “better” a friend than the others – not really; different people fit into different parts of your life. How about your friends taken all together? Too general. So just mention a few by name. But who do you not mention?

How about going for something non-personal. A school or university? Teachers in general, or one teacher in particular, or maybe a regiment, or a pet, or a country, or a special place, or the queen, or the pope, or the bank manager (that bastard), or the publishers, or the booksellers or … potential readers? Yes, why not? After all, they are the ones you really want to thank. But it’s hardly very personal is it? What about future partners? Monica Bellucci?

The history of dedications is as long as the history of writing (Horace’s odes and Virgil’s Georgics were dedicated to Maecenas, a wealthy patron) and all of the above dedicatees have been tried at one time or another. What is interesting is the amount of information that there is to be gleaned about the author from his or her decision. Because – be in no doubt – he or she was careful in the deciding.

This is Geoffrey Chaucer’s curiously touching dedication to his son from A Treatise on the Astrolabe (1391): “To Litel Lowis my sone…. purpose to teche thee a certayn nombre of conclusions pertayning to this same instrument.”

Here is J D Salinger dedicating Franny and Zooey (1961) to his friend and editor: “As nearly as possible in the spirit of Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean, I urge my editor, mentor and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn… lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific, defender of the hopelessly flamboyant… to accept this pretty skimpy-looking book.”

One way to deal with the “which woman” problem is to take a cue from Norman Mailer, who dedicated The Presidential Papers (1963) to “some ladies who have aided and impeded the author in his composition”. (Another solution is to dedicate your work to your pipe – as Jerome K Jerome did in Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, 1886.)

The more a person writes, the greater the opportunity for flexibility: Agatha Christie dedicated her first novel to her mother, her second, “To all those who lead monotonous lives”, and her third to two friends “with apologies for using their swimming pool as the scene of a murder”.

In the past, however, the dedicatee was more likely to be a monarch or a patron. The dedication to the patron, in particular, is responsible for some of the most oleaginous writing ever committed to paper. You may have come across the kind of thing: “To the most Luminous, Beautiful, and Accomplished Lady Purse-Strings, Meritoriously Dignified with all the titles Religion, Vertue, Honour, Beautie might bestow, without Worthinesse on the part of the Author, the following few unfit Lines are offered.” Men whose lives were devoted to the refinement of words were reduced to unctuous panegyric.

This was as nothing compared to the dedications to kings and queens. As ever, it took Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding to rescue us: “To His Royal Highness Prince Posterity” is the dedicatee of A Tale of a Tub (1704), while Tom Jones (1749) is dedicated to George Lyttleton Esquire “notwithstanding” his “constant refusal” to accept the dedication.

Meanwhile, there is the long tradition of beloved pets. Colonel Buchanan dedicated Sahara (1926) to “Feri n’Gashi, Only a camel, But steel true and Great of Heart”. And here’s Larry McMurtry – grappling with split loyalties perhaps – “For Leslie, for the use of her goat.” (The Desert Rose, 1983).

These examples illustrate another problem: should a dedication be “for” or “to”? “For” implies the work was undertaken specifically as a gift for the dedicatee; while “to” implies the work is being addressed to the dedicatee – much as you might traditionally address a letter or a poem. Modern writers might consider that “dedicate” derives not from the Latin dare (“to give”, with dedi as past tense), but from a form of dicere – “to speak”.

The dedication – in exceptional circumstances – can also cause public ructions. Probably the most famous dedication of all is that inscribed by Thomas Thorpe, the publisher of Shakespeare’s sonnets: “TO. THE. ONLIE. BEGETTER. OF. THESE. INSUING. SONNETS, MR. W.H.” Was Mr W H the “fair young man” of the sonnets? William Herbert, perhaps, who became the Earl of Pembroke, or Henry Wriothesley to whom Shakespeare wrote dedicatory letters? Was Shakespeare gay? Or was Mr W H the “begetter” merely the “getter”, the man who procured the sonnets for Thorpe’s publication – one of Thorpe’s mates?

A respectable second in the ructions stakes is the dedication to William Thackeray, which appeared in the second edition of Jane Eyre (1847). Charlotte Brontë must have been the only person in literary England who did not know that Thackeray (like her fictional Mr Rochester) was married to a woman who had gone insane. This wasn’t helped when it came to light that Thackeray had just published a novel in which a scheming governess attempts to seduce her employer. Needless to say, sections of the press were not slow in imagining that “Currer Bell” had worked for Thackeray and the two were lovers.

Those determined to avoid lovers, family, pets or patrons usually find themselves turning to the reader. Ben Jonson, sick of the persistent idiocy of critics, dedicated his play The New Inn (1629) to his audience. In more modern times, Robert Beckman has updated the spirit of this approach with his excellent “to those persons whose actions are deflected by thought along with the few remaining people of intelligence who are still able to read and who do sometimes purchase books”.

The dedication which negotiates the whole thing most eloquently is that written by William Hogarth in 1753. It took him so long that he never finished the work for which it was intended: “The No-Dedication, not dedicated to any prince in Christendom, for fear it might be thought an idle piece of arrogance, nor dedicated to any man of quality for fear that it might be thought too assuming, not dedicated to any learned body of men, as either of the Universities or the Royal Society, for fear that it might be thought an uncommon piece of vanity, not dedicated to any one particular friend, for fear of offending another; therefore dedicated to nobody; but if for once we may suppose nobody to be everybody, as everybody is often said to be nobody, then this work is dedicated to everybody. By their humble and devoted, William Hogarth.”