Tuesday, 26 April 2016

No Dyssing

Someone I heard on the radio yesterday claimed he was chastised by a tutor at university for using the word "dystopia". The tutor insisted that the word did not exist,  (even though it is an entry in the OED).

I like the tutor's attitude. His real point was that the correct word in the context of the man's essay was "utopia". The word "utopia" contains within it the inevitable promise of failure; no attempt at building a utopia has ever been successful to date, and therefore there is no need for a separate term to describe the failure that is inherent within the concept.

On the other hand no one has yet tried Auden's utopian plan

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Virtuous Circles

I am not entirely sure whether I've got this right but I'm assuming the phrase "virtuous circle" is an attempt to articulate the phenomenon in which someone goes so far in one direction that they end up meeting themselves coming the other way.

I encountered a perfect example of this while listening to a podcast of the Arts & Ideas programme, broadcast on Radio 3 on 21st April. In it Philip Dodd, (who is really such an astonishingly irritating broadcaster that I usually avoid him), interviews someone who makes the following observations about the recent flow of would-be migrants to Europe:

"What these people - let's call them "radical refugees" - demand is something very precise. They say, 

'I can choose the country I want; I can go there & that state is obliged to take care of me, to provide education & so on & so on, all of that'. 

This, I claim, is sheer madness. And it's avoiding the problem. We have to solve the problems there. Is the solution that all the poor people from the Middle East & then from Africa come to Europe? Then what?

And what about the extremely rich Muslim Arab countries just south of the war zone (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Emirates, to name them)? They're taking practically none of the refugees."

These comments sound to me like the kinds of remarks that extreme rightwingers might be expected to make, provided they are prepared for howls of outrage in reply. In polite liberal society they are as acceptable as telling a Brussels bureaucrat you actually think the Brexit camp have a few good points.

The comments were in fact made by the self-described Marxist Slavoj Zizek.

If you can put up with the bleated interpolations of Dodd, the full argument Zizek makes is an interesting listen, (not that he ever gets a chance to fully articulate it, thanks to Dodd's incessant interrupting). You can find it on the BBC Radio 3 Arts & Ideas website. 

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Battered Penguins - V by Thomas Pynchon

I know quite a lot of people who have read V, but I have not met one who professes to understand it. While Pynchon has a very readable style and the book swings along with gusto and confidence, it never really goes anywhere very much. 

Actually, I should rephrase that slightly - the book in fact goes to lots of places: Malta, Florence, Africa, New York, to name but a few. What it never does is arrive anywhere. Instead, it adopts the approach later taken - with somewhat less verve and energy - by Italo Calvino in If on a Winter's Night a Traveller and Robert Bolano in 2666 .  In those novels, and in V, one narrative gets underway and is then replaced by another and then another, over and over again.

The result is quite vexing, if you are the reader.

But is it a novelistic duty to be comprehensible and not to annoy your reader? And is it possible that Pynchon is doing something deliberate with his interruptions and general lack of coherence? Is this jumbled approach emblematic of the random absurdity of life?

Who knows. Possibly the broken narrative is a deliberate attempt to invoke the mystery of existence - or possibly it is just a sign that the author couldn't think of any good endings.

Mind you, the concluding passage of V does have a poetic beauty - and it seems to hint at the ephemeral, meaningless quality of life. But it also doesn't have much to do with anything that has gone before, (admittedly, it involves sea and water, of which we do see quite a lot as the novel progresses, but the character who appears in the finale is one we have only recently been introduced to).

Does incoherence matter, if it is (moderately) entertaining? Should we sit back and enjoy the sheer variety on offer in the book, without worrying about whether it all makes sense? Pynchon is certainly inventively generous. He conjures up a sojourn in the New York sewers, (including crocodiles), several rollicking naval passages, a recurrent fascination with the world created by Baedeker guides, a sidetrack into the world of Parisian ballet and another, even more vivid, into a nightmarish period in the history of an unnamed African country. Presented with such a feast, I feel a bit ungrateful to have to admit that, rather than revelling in Pynchon's invention, I found myself increasingly appalled.

One reason for this is that as I grow older my tolerance for depictions of male sexual violence toward women is diminishing day by day, particularly when they are presented - as they are in V - as a kind of entertainment, or certainly without any apparent reference to the female perspective. The whole African section of the novel is vile in this regard. It also does not allow a black point of view even for a fraction of an instant to penetrate the text. I hope I'm not becoming absurdly precious and too heavily influenced by the whole "safe space", "trigger warning" movement, but the description of female impalement seemed to be undertaken with a disturbing relish that did not appeal to me. On the other hand, perhaps if you accept from the beginning that the novel is told from an entirely, utterly male viewpoint, a viewpoint that sees women as variations on a template supplied by Jayne Mansfield, (whose impending marriage is bemoaned by one character), you may get on better with the book than I did.

Pynchon does pepper the text with aphorisms, some of which don't stand much consideration, while others may resonate a little. Here are some examples; the second two are better than the first, in my view, but I don't spend much time in bars so it's hard to judge, (the fourth is problematic, I think, and the final one I can't judge at all, or even fully understand):

"... people who prefer to stand at the bar have, universally, an inscrutable look."

"...we suffer from great temporal homesickness for the decade we were born in."

"People read what news they wanted to and each accordingly built his own rat house of history's rags and straw."

"Surely, if war has any nobility it is in the rebuilding not the destruction."

"Perhaps British colonialism has produced a new sort of being, a dual man, aimed two ways at once: towards peace and simplicity on the one hand, towards an exhausted intellectual searching on the other."

Pynchon also lards the text with ditties he has made up, and I'm afraid I found them tiresome. Mind yoy, I found the consistently wacky and, presumably, allusive names of his characters even more tiresome. Here are some examples:  Profane; Mafia; Stencil; Howie Surd; Veronica Manganese; Pappy Hod; Fergus Mixolydian; "Roony" Winsome, (who appears in an apartment decorated in what Pynchon describes as "Early Homosexual"); Benny Sfacim; and Dudley Eigenvalue,

Some surprising things that are mentioned in a book written as far back as 1963, include "Gitmo", "jihad" and "Chilean Riesling". Even more surprisingly, the book includes this passage about the Koran:

"The Lord's Angel, Gebrail, dictated the Koran to Mohammed the Lord's Prophet. What a joke if all that holy book were only twenty-three years of listening to the desert. A desert which has no voice. If the Koran was nothing, then Islam was nothing. Then Allah was a story, and his Paradise wishful thinking."

Impossible to prove, but I doubt that would be included in the text if the novel were published for the first time today. Joking about the Koran is not much of a laughing matter any more.

In conclusion, I found the book extremely original and intriguing but not entirely satisfying. Whether for good or bad, I also suspect it was a trailblazer - would David Foster Wallace have produced Infiinite Jest without Pynchon's puzzling precedent? It seems to me there is a line that leads from one to the other.

Possibly the novel is an attempt to portray through fiction the vision of life articulated in the diary of a character called Fausto:

"There is, we are taught, a communion of saints in heaven. So perhaps on earth, also in this Purgatory, a communion: not of gods or heroes, merely men expiating sins they are unaware of, caught somehow all at once within the reaches of a sea uncrossable and guarded by instruments of death."

Possibly; possibly not. While I admire Pynchon's persistence and confidence, I think that a novel cannot be described as entirely successful if, at the end of very nearly five hundred pages, the reader is still asking themselves, "What exactly is this thing all about?"

Saturday, 16 April 2016


I have to go to England next week and so I booked a Eurotunnel trip last night. Trudging, metaphorically, through the dreary stages of the booking process - car number plate; caravan or no caravan; "API"; et cetera - I noticed for the first time this:

What about budgies, I thought, what about anacondas (even though I don't actually know what exactly an anaconda is)? Why just dogs, cats and ferrets? Why can't I take my tadpoles, if I want to?

Or can I? Is the discrimination the other way round? Is it that you can take any pet without paying the outrageous extra cost of 25 Euros, but dogs, cats and ferrets, for mysterious reasons, incur that extra charge?

Why charge for animals anyway? So far as I can tell, you can shove thousands of people into your car and pay no extra, but one miserable ferret and you're up for 25 euros. Where's the logic?

Anyway, I'm collecting together a menagerie for next week's trip, and they'll all be on the back seat - just to test the system. There won't be a dog or a cat or a ferret among them - so I'm assuming they'll all be free of charge.

A cockatoo, I thought I'd take, plus a frog and a goldfish - and maybe a walrus. An angora goat, for something fluffy, a sloth or two, (I've always been fond of them), an orang utan, (one of the ones I adopted at Christmas), a goldfinch, (ideally the one from the Mauritshuis, provided I have time between now and then to whip down to The Hague) and maybe a butterfly. That should do it. Any other suggestions gratefully taken onboard (onboard geddit?)

Friday, 15 April 2016

Please Beleaf Me

Although it is still quite cold, the trees in the park behind our house are getting dressed up for summer. Which should bring to mind the Philip Larkin poem with the line about the trees coming into bud, "like something almost being said"

Instead, all I can think of is that Lydia Davis micro-story called Spring Spleen. It goes like this:

"I am happy the leaves are growing large so quickly.

Soon they will hide the neighbor and her screaming child."

(For more Lydia Davis, search out the book that Spring Spleen comes from: The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Penguin Books, ISBN 978-0-241-96913-7)

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Mud Larks

No sooner had I scoffed at beaches made of mud than I was forced to reconsider the errors of my ways. This was done via the medium of film, more particularly the film called A Bigger Splash, which we went to see yesterday and very much enjoyed.

Anyway, having never encountered the concept of a mud beach, I was now confronted with one in full "glorious" technicolor. More particularly, I was confronted with the sight of Tilda Swinton and the new(ish) Belgian film star called Matthias Schoenaerts lying on such a beach and fondly smearing mud over each other.

I have to say I'm still not enthusiastic. It was, quite frankly, an unappetising sight.

But the film is excellent - and the image of a mud covered Swinton sitting bolt upright on her mudflat (sorry, beach) and peering up through muddied eyes at the heavens, wondering what she had done to deserve the blow fate has just dealt her is one of the more comic things in a film that, while essentially serious, is also at times very, very funny indeed.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Cultural Difference

Mention of oceans and beaches yesterday reminded me that after going to Berlin the other day, (of which more perhaps in the future), we stopped for a night on the way back to Brussels in a Friesian seaside town called Harlingen.

Harlingen is an absolutely sweet place, full of pretty houses and apparently friendly people. We went to a restaurant that was run beautifully, (no canned music, hurray), and where they gave us the most deliciously fresh fish and oysters and so forth, (perhaps I am creating a false impression in using the word 'gave' - we did have to pay, of course, but not vast sums).

While waiting for one or other course, my husband got into a discussion about the language of the area with a woman who I think was one of the owners of the restaurant.

As a child my husband had picked up somewhere this phrase about the Friesian language: "Good bread and good cheese is good English and good Fries". Was the Friesian language really as close to English as this phrase suggests, he wanted to know.

Not quite as close seemed to be the slightly disappointing conclusion. It would not be enough to move to Harlingen and simply do what I witnessed many adults of my parents' generation, (although not, I hasten to add, my parents themselves), doing whenever they encountered a foreigner who didn't speak English: speak very loudly and slowly in English

My husband, perhaps sensing that they were on the point of exhausting the topic of language similarities or the lack thereof, changed the subject.

Were there any beaches in the Harlingen area, he enquired.

"Yes", the woman told him proudly, "there is one."

"Is it a pebble beach or a sand beach?" I asked.

She turned to me with a delighted smile.

"It is mud," she said, "the beach is mud."

I've been thinking about it ever since. For an Australian, that woman was stretching the definition of  what a beach is. Are we alone in the world in believing, on our extremely large island (or very small continent), that a beach must be made of sand, or, - and this concession is merely to be kind to our mother country - possibly made of countless round stones? I think I'm right in asserting that, if you are Australian, mud is not a permissible substance for inclusion in the category headed "beach" - at least it is not as far as I know, (any Australians who disagree, please set me straight immediately).

Anyway, despite its lack, in my view, of beach possibilities, I still really liked Harlingen. Should you wish to see it for yourself, while staying right where you are, here are some pictures of the dear little place.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Too Fluid

I remember as a child being exhorted to plunge into some bitterly cold ocean or other, by adults who, as they waded in ahead of me, appeared to be rapidly turning blue.

Small though I was, it struck me that there was something odd about the adults' attempts to lure me into the water with them. The phrase "Don't be so wet" - or, to begin with, more kindly, "Don't be so wet, darling" - rang back at me through the icy air.

Get wet to prove you are not wet - even aged five that seemed a puzzling proposal.

I wonder now where that particular notion of wetness, as in feebleness and weakness, came from? And does it still exist? Do people still tell children that "wet" is a state that they ought to avoid? Does the concept exist in other languages or is it something peculiar to Britain? And why was it wet not to get into the ocean but also wet to scream blue murder, as I did, when, having consented to enter a much warmer ocean in quite a different part of the planet, I was attacked by a Portuguese Man o'War jellyfish?

Wetness and weakness - I suppose there is a logic to the entangling of these two concepts, if you take solidity to be a metaphor for toughness. On the other hand, fluid is far from feeble, as any houseowner who has dealt with a flood will tell you. The kind of force that a battering ram can produce is immediately visible, but the strength of wetness, while not instantly noticeable, is greater than you might imagine. Hidden, out of sight, seeping silently beneath foundations, it can destroy as effectively as any solid object - and with a quieter, more insidious power.

I Heard That - London Fields by Martin Amis


I have at last reached the end of Audible’s unabridged version of Martin Amis’s London Fields. What an enormous relief.

I resorted to Audible because I have never been able to persist with any of Amis’s novels in their on the page manifestations but was convinced that I ought to have at least one of them under my belt. For most of my adult life, after all, I have been under the misapprehension that Amis is a giant of our culture and one of the late 20th century’s truly gifted writers. Thus, my lack of persistence has seemed to me to be a shameful failure which has left a great gaping void in my cultural experience.

I have filled that void now; I have made my way to the end of the unabridged text of one of Amis’s novels. In the process, I had hoped to become a member of the Amis fan club. I believed that the result of my hours of listening would be that I'd turn into an Amis admirer, able to share the enthusiasm that so many others feel for the great man.

Sadly, things didn't work out that way.

I do of course recognise that Keith Talent is, in theory, a hilarious creation - in the mould, perhaps, of Toby Belch or Falstaff or - well someone. And Marmaduke is too - despite the fact that each time his name rang out from the narrator's mouth all I could think was, “Oh for pity’s sake, not another hyper-exaggeration in prose form of dressing or doing other day-to-day things with a small child; flipping hell, we get it, Martin, get rid of that trowel you’re ladling it all on with, please"

To put it another way, while recognising that each and every character in the novel is a richly comic creation, I was distracted by a nagging question - aren’t things that are richly comic supposed to raise at least the occasional laugh?

Because, you see, for me nothing did.

Really, I mean it.

Or, to adopt for a moment the tiresome approach to prose chosen by Mr Amis, let me spell it out longhand: in the laughter stakes the book achieved a result of exactly zero, so far as I was concerned. That’s the big O I’m talking about. Yes, precisely nil on the scoreboard in the game of mirth provocation. Nada; niente; nichevo; totally, utterly, completely zilch. Not one solitary, damn, miserable, infinitesimal trace of a faint guffaw; not a skerrick; not a sausage. The novel turned out, so far as I was concerned, to be an absolutely, undeniably, appallingly, unspeakably and tiresomely giggle free zone.

Possibly the repetitive, Thesaurus-influenced approach is simply not for me. It makes the whole thing seem so laboured. Using a verbal sledge hammer is an odd way to generate laughter, in my experience. Never trusting the reader enough to allow them to work out for themselves that a joke is being cracked - or is about to be - seems to me a condescending kind of method.

Yet every single time Amis is about to articulate something he considers amusing, he cannot resist flashing textual warning lights and setting off verbal sirens, just in case you might be too thick to pick up that he is on the point of being - or at least trying to be - droll.

It is like being locked in a cupboard with the literary equivalent of that nudge-nudge Monty Python character. Throughout the entire work, he is there, looking over your shoulder or squeezing up beside you, winking and digging you in the metaphorical ribs. It wouldn't surprise me if in the Kindlefire version of the novel blinding neon signs have been inserted around the edges of pages, to alert you  to humour by flashing the words, “JOKE IN PROGRESS” at appropriate points. Amis seems unable to cope with the possibility that you might not recognise exaggeration or grotesquery or whatever effect he intends to blast you with. He becomes the joke teller who laughs at his own punchlines. He revels so in his own originality, doubling up at his own gags, (which you could see coming several miles off), that he leaves no opportunity for you to edge in a faint chuckle of your own.

But I suppose it is all down to stylistic taste. Clearly, one of the points of Amis is his labouring and his exaggeration and his repetition and his baroque heaping on of more and more and yet more verbiage. While these are all elements that I dislike in his writing, I assume that he - along with some of his contemporaries, e.g. Will Self - is in revolt against the Hemingway/Chandler et cetera crisp, streamlined model of prose. In other words he is self aware; he is banging on and on completely deliberately. His repetition laden mode of operation is knowing, rather than the result of an inability to be succinct. The fact that the great steaming pile of verbiage that results does not interest or entertain me is not necessarily a sign that it is bad; it is at least done intentionally, with the aim of not being short, sharp, minimalistically to the point. Therefore, possibly the problem is not that Amis is no good so much as that he is no good for me. That is to say, what I demand from fiction is not what Amis is intending to provide.

It is therefore unfair to condemn Amis’s work, except on the grounds of my own personal taste. Within the scope of Amis’s own private conception of what literature should be, he may well succeed. He may well have achieved that which he planned. Starting from the position that we all share one huge insight and that is that humans are universally idiotic and vile and life is a huge joke played by an indifferent universe, he sets out to create a world where the loathsome, despicable creature called man is systematically stuffing everything up. There is much evidence that this may be a horribly accurate assessment of existence but it is still a very bleak scenario. Reading a novel where the reader is invited simply to stand back and sneer at the antics of his fellow humans is ultimately a dispiriting venture, in my opinion. However, after a discussion with a member of my family who is loving London Fields, I realise that it can give pleasure to others who demand exactly this level of cynicism and despair from a work of fiction.

Which leaves me only able to say that I personally hated the book - and also that I thought it was utterly unoriginal, indeed possibly plagiaristic. That is, in its plot the thing is a straight out steal of Muriel Spark’s The Driving Seat - at least that’s how it appears to  me.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Battered Penguins - The Secret Vanguard by Michael Innes

This charming book could be described as Michael Innes's 1940 updating of Buchan's 39 Steps. Set mainly in the Highlands, it features Innes's genial policeman, Appleby, but the protagonist is actually a young woman called Sheila Grant. Quite by chance she gets caught up in trying to foil the plans of a secret vanguard of Nazis , when she overhears a piece of poetry - Innes was really a professor of English at Oxford, so this is entirely appropriate - being muttered on the train to Inverness.

I really enjoyed the book, which had a number of surprisingly exciting twists and turns. I had Innes down for a writer of cosy whodunnits but, while this is definitely reassuringly Golden Age in atmosphere, (gallant men, plucky women  that sort of thing, not a speck of grit or a trace of interesting social mix anywhere in its pages), it is also exciting. I suppose I should point out that I don't get out much, so it doesn't take a great deal to excite me. All the same there were nail biting moments, in my (sheltered) view.

I also very much liked the fact that the central female character was given a good deal of initiative - and even allowed to wield a gun in self-defence. I also enjoyed the evocation of a wonderfully empty, (wonderful for the tourist; rather a drawback for those characters trying to get help as they evade the baddies, of course), rural Scotland - and also  of  a world in which constant self-censorship in the interests of not inflaming minority sensitivities was not yet deemed necessary.  Innes writes beautifully and is capable of comic turns as well as philosophical and pastoral musings. In this regard - that is, the comic - I rather liked the  scene in which Appleby and a cohort of other males have to dress up to look like Women's Institute members  and then find themselves needing to give chase to the Nazis: 

"Gathering up their skirts, they went pelting after him"

The green-minded may be a bit shocked by the wanton use of petrol to set fire to pristine moorland so that our heroes and heroine can make a quick get away, under cover of flame and smoke. Nowadays this kind of environmental vandalism would trigger outrage, but The Secret Vanguard is not at all a nowadays kind of  book. It has a single  purpose: to give  a white English-speaking  middle class reader about an hour and a half of very light diversion. Speaking as a pretty much paradigmatic example of its target audience, I reckon it perfectly fulfils that aim

Monday, 4 April 2016

Now That We Need Them

Yesterday was that rare thing in this part of the world - sunny. And so we decided to go to Antwerp.

We had a look at the glorious train station and then walked down a pedestrian street called Leysstraat.

Leysstraat is lined with highly ornate buildings and almost all of them sport friendly figures or faces on their highly decorated facades. The few buildings in the street that have been built since the war are plain, lacking in craftsmanship and altogether unendearing. They lack individuality and most  of them reminded me of the Budapest Communist Party Headquarters design story, told by Tibor Fischer in Under the Frog (waking up late for his appointment with those commissioning the headquarters, the architect jumps out of bed and straight onto the complex model he has made of his projected building, destroying it instantly; unable to construct an equally elaborate new model in the 10 minutes he has left before the meeting, he grabs a shoebox and presents that, successfully, instead).

Why do we meekly accept the progressive endrearying of our urban environment? Why do we never rise up against the slow but steady tide of lowering standards and expectations and the assumption that prettiness is neither desirable nor affordable?

More basically, why at the precise moment when we created something - the traffic jam - that meant we really needed nice things to look at to distract us from the fact that we were stuck in a morass of fumes and metal, did we decide that utterly plain facades were the way to go?

If you would like to meet some of the stony Leysstraat population, you can find them here.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

With All Your Might

This week I read in the paper about a minor celebrity who had died. As usual, we were told that this had happened after a long "battle" against some hateful disease.

The regular use of fighting words in the context of death after a long illness always makes me uncomfortable. It implies that it is dishonourable to feel weak and tired when you are ill. You should be raising banners and actively wielding cudgels, it suggests, at a time when you are at your most feeble.

I prefer the phrase I saw used about someone in the Telegraph obituary column a couple of weeks ago. The person in question, we were informed, had died:

"... after a long illness, bravely borne."

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Not That Again

I went to see Son of Saul the other day. Some people express the view that enough is enough and the whole subject of the Holocaust has been dealt with plenty of times already and it is extremely tiresome that there are those who continue to bang on about it. For me, on the contrary, it seems that the more I learn about it the more I feel the need to find out. I suppose what I really want to find out is how European civilisation came to a point where such things could be contemplated - and not merely contemplated but carried out enthusiastically!

How did anyone even think up the idea of annihilating a race? And then what gave them the temerity to think that it would be all right to suggest such a thing out loud? And finally what drove many to agree and to participate with gusto in the appalling process?

And within the big questions are the smaller ones: were those who drew up plans for the machinery of killing - the Schreibtischmörderer, as Theodor Adorno apparently called them - morally better or worse than those who operated that machinery; were the Jews who were chosen by the Germans to work in the concentration camp zonder commandoes, plundering the clothes of the dead, removing their gold fillings et cetera, victims or culpable? On this second question, I agree with Joshua Cohen who, in a fascinating review of The Wall by HG Adler, (from which I also gleaned that Adorno term) in the London Review of Books, 3 March. 2016, writes:

"... being forced to participate in another's death while waiting for your own was victimisation at its most perverse."

In his review Cohen also details an incident at Theresienstadt that I knew nothing about before - or at least had completely forgotten about (it is largely drawn from WG Sebald's Austerlitz, which I did read a long time ago, but have clearly since forgotten) :

"In the summer of 1944, with Denmark protesting against the deportation of its Jews to Theresienstadt, Germany capitulated to diplomatic pressure and allowed the International Red Cross to visit the camp to prove that no exterminations were being carried out on site. The Reich Security Main Office, sniffing a PR opportunity, ordered the Gestapo to implement Operation Beautification (Verschönerungsaktion) which would transform the camp temporarily into a picture-postcard hamlet.

Sebald describes it accurately in Austerlitz, because he relied on Adler’s account. ‘It was decided,’ Sebald writes, ‘to organise the ghetto inmates under the command of the SS for the purpose of a vast cleaning-up programme: pathways and a grove with a columbarium were laid out, park benches and signposts were set up, the latter adorned in the German fashion with jolly carvings and floral decoration, over one thousand rosebushes were planted.’ Food rations were increased; new clothes – not just uniforms – were sewn. Conditions in the barracks improved, especially after seven thousand prisoners were dispatched to Auschwitz a month before the inspectors’ arrival. Dr Paul Eppstein, president of the Judenrat, was appointed mayor for the day, and tasked with leading the Red Cross contingent on a tour; Brundibár, a subversive children’s opera whose villain resembled Hitler, was performed; a football game was played, and there was a show trial in which Jewish lawyers, judges and jurors tried another inmate for ‘theft’. The Red Cross report, made public only in 1992, might as well have been ghostwritten by the Reich: ‘The SS police gives the Jews the freedom to organise their administration as they see fit.’ A later propaganda film presented the camp as a spa town for the Jewish elite, which explains Adler’s name for it in The Journey: Ruhenthal means ‘Valley of Rest’. The novel depicts it as a sanatorium with an identity problem: sometimes the Jews are the patients and the Nazis are the benevolent physicians pursuing their ‘cure’; at other times the Nazis are ‘the diseased’, armed lunatics bent on eradicating their Jewish caretakers."
From what I can tell from the Cohen review, Adorno and Adler were at odds over the usefulness of portraying the Holocaust in fictional or poetic form. It seems to me that any means that communicates to large numbers of people both the reality and the horror of the events in the various German concentration camps cannot be criticised. It is important that we never again become complacent about our own capacity for brutality. In this context, I recommend Son of Saul - it is not at all enjoyable but it is powerfully instructive and moving.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Ways of Remembering

On my way to New Bond Street the other day, I couldn't resist wading through the traffic to have a look at Hyde Park Corner and the various memorials that stand there. Each time I do this, I wonder if it is really beyond the wit of transport planners to redirect the cars and trucks that form an almost constant cordon round the Corner's little island of grass. If they shoved the whole lot underground, the place would become properly accessible to people, while also giving the wonderful house at No. 1 London the room to breathe that it deserves:

I have to say that no matter how many times I look at it I find the design of the memorial to the machine guns corps intriguing. Did they fight naked? It seems unlikely:

The New Zealand monument is less baffling, even if does look like a slightly demented fencer has knocked off for lunch or, having set up the posts, gone into town to get the fencing wire to link them with:

Part of the problem is obviously that these monuments are all grouped in the same spot as possibly the greatest war memorial ever designed, the Royal Artillery memorial, with 'Here was a royal fellowship of death' inscribed around its base and the tragic figures made by Charles Jagger, grouped around it:

Recumbent Artilleryman

Shell Carrier

The one that comes off worst in this encounter, sadly, is the Australian memorial, which was summed up all too accurately recently by the sculptor Michael Sandle in an interview on Radio 3. This is what he had to say about it:

"The Australian Memorial looks like a pissoir in an upmarket hotel designed by a 12-year-old girl"

I'm afraid I find it hard to argue with that, although I do wonder why Sandle feels the need to specify the imaginary perpetrator's gender - would it make things better if it had been conceived by a 12-year-old boy?

(I found this article about the Jagger memorial interesting, by the way)

Sunday, 27 March 2016

An Act of Vast Inattention

After bemoaning the ugliness of most things erected after about 1940, I took refuge in one of Michael Innes's agreeable Inspector Appleby novels. This one is called The Secret Vanguard and in it Innes shows Appleby reflecting as critically as me on the progress of architecture.

As the novel was published in 1940, I may need to push back my date for acceptability of buildings - or review my whole belief and accept that buildings I find hideous will eventually, like each season's fashions, grow on me. Perhaps all that I - and Mr Innes/Inspector Appleby before me - am/are suffering from is shock of the new.

On the other hand, judging by how rapidly modern buildings deteriorate, are torn down and replaced by equally unloveable, usually even taller ones, perhaps I'll never have the chance to get beyond the shock phase.

Here is the passage that struck me. In it, Appleby takes a taxi from Trafalgar Square to a library somewhere in Bloomsbury:

"In five minutes the taxi, much as if it had been a contraption in a scientific romance, deposited him at the threshold of the eighteenth century. Strange how these severe facades satisfied the mind. Or rather not strange; nothing subtle or inspired was involved - nothing more, probably, than observance of the law of golden section. Strange rather that, as if by some act of vast inattention, people had just ceased to build that way."

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Eggs Are Out

By chance, I have begun to read Charlotte Bronte's Shirley on the evening of Good Friday. To my surprise, the second paragraph of her first chapter draws an analogy between what the book will be like and the kind of meal that ought to be eaten on Good Friday. In the process, Bronte provides a detailed description of the meal that is required.

As I love almost nothing more than descriptions of meals in fiction, I am copying Bronte's passage here, so that anyone who wishes can follow Bronte's instructions as they prepare their dinner tonight:

It is not positively affirmed that you shall not have a taste of the exciting, perhaps towards the middle and close of the meal, but it is resolved that the first dish set upon the table shall be one that a Catholic—ay, even an Anglo-Catholic—might eat on Good Friday in Passion Week: it shall be cold lentils and vinegar without oil; it shall be unleavened bread with bitter herbs, and no roast lamb.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Getting Better All the Time?

I never took a photograph until a year or two ago, but, now that I've started, I'm at it all the time. Everywhere I go, I'm on the look out for Instagram possibilities. The world for me these days is just a series of brightly coloured squares.

But this afternoon, in pursuit of my new happy-snappy hobby, a rather awful thought came into my mind.

I was standing on a bridge in a pretty Belgian town called Durbuy when it happened. I had just gazed through the viewfinder, hoping to frame an attractive shot, but, as so often happens, I'd realised it wasn't going to be possible. And the reason it wasn't going to be possible was the same one it always is. The problem was that the scene contained too many traces of post-1950s human activity.

It should have been simply lovely. After all there was the river, which was flowing and sparkling and generally being an exceptionally nice stretch of moving water. And lining the river there were willow trees whose weeping boughs had that smudged glow that is not quite a colour, that has no form and yet, for all its intangibility, is the clearest of all indications that spring is just around the corner. In addition to these natural attractions, there were ancient stone buildings and a church with a pretty steeple.

All the major elements that might have made up my picture were attractive, but they were undermined by small but unignorable flaws.

The first was  a large plastic sack full of some kind of agricultural chemical, which someone had dumped on the riverbank. I suppose, if I'd been really keen, I could have gone down and dragged that out of view. But then there was the ugly stretch of municipal fencing that appeared to have been put up the day before yesterday, presumably in response to some EU directive about protecting people from moving water and the possibility of  their falling into same. And running alongside that was a carefully placed row of concrete edging bricks that it probably took several committee meetings and a number of discussion papers to come up with, plus the labour of a dozen or so men to lay so neatly along the upper edge of the riverbank. Plus, of course, there were the bright green plastic rubbish bins fixed to several of the willow trees and, in every possible spare space, the rows and rows of cars.

If I were original, if I had a genius's vision, I might see the beauty in bright green plastic and, as it was a car that brought me to Durbuy, I really ought to have appreciated the sight of massed automobiles.

Stupidly though,  I remain romantically attached to the handmade (not merely notionally; I make a lot of things by hand myself, I should point out). As a result I find myself wondering whether we humans still contribute to the beauty of our surroundings or whether we only detract from it these days.

I've  tried to think of one example where we've improved an old town with our erections. The Sydney Opera House has been suggested as one possibility but it has got location on its side - and I've never been convinced that it's a really resolved design anyway (its base has always bothered me).

Besides, I'm really thinking about domestic architecture, the fabric of the towns we live in. Will any housing cluster today be as attractive to visitors of five or six centuries in the future as, say, Lavenham is to us today?

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Tricked You

Over at Hats and Rabbits, Chris has come up with the most wonderful scenario. He no longer has faith in it, but I shall cling to the dream regardless. Chris's scenario is that Donald Trump is playing a huge practical joke on the American public and very soon - any day now, (please) - he's going to turn round and say:

"Look how far you let me push you, American people, to support the most negative and insensitive views! Look how you let me appeal to your reptilian brain instincts! Let this be a lesson to you: Don't let fear and hate drive your decisions. I am officially dropping out of the presidential race. It has all been an act. How could it have been anything else? Just don't forget how you almost voted for a guy who was clearly running a campaign that alluded to Hitleresque ideas..."

Not So Tired After All

Has London changed or is it me? When I lived there, I let it defeat me. Mind you, I lived just off Victoria Street and, passing through that area the other day, I realised that it might defeat me again, if I were given a second chance - the density of pedestrian traffic is bad enough, but the fact that all the pedestrians in the area are in a great and unrelenting hurry is, over even a quite short space of time, rather dispiriting. No-one has patience for hesitation, no-one is prepared to give an inch of pavement away.

These days though, as a visitor, I enjoy a walk through London, so when I was there last week I went for a wander. This is what I saw.

I walked up through the park and onto Piccadilly. Then I passed the old In & Out Club and was, as usual, puzzled to see it standing unused and empty. The poor old place is looking even more delapidated than it was some years ago when I last peered through the railings. What is the point of leaving it to rot? Someone very rich from a far away country owns it, I believe. I wish he would either make use of it or let it go. It is looking very miserable at the moment:

Even though I thought I was fairly familiar with this part of London, it can still spring surprises, especially if you glance upwards. Despite having walked up St James's Street and onto Piccadilly a hundred times, until the other day I'd never registered the rather imposing figure at the top of the building on the corner:

For a while in my youth, I used to work near Mount Street. A great many things have changed in that area - including the sign at the entrance of the gardens, which seems to be ageing into a thoroughly grumpy billboard. It would be easier and quicker to simply list the one or two things that are permitted in the gardens - but perhaps nothing beyond breathing and scuttling fairly briskly through the place is in fact allowed:

Not that it really matters, since from Mount Street it is only a short walk to a much bigger and better park, if you can brave the traffic in Park Lane or the n'er do wells in the tunnel underneath.

Once again, near the entrance to the park I discovered something I'd never noticed before - this sign telling passers by that Her Majesty, (it's only just occurred to me, but it must be rather good to be called "Her/Your Majesty"; excellent for one's confidence, don't you think?), the Queen planted a little grove of silver birches in this plot in 1977. 1977! And they're still tiny. Gardening must be very much a game of patience in the British Isles:
Wandering on, I arrived in Belgravia and was just going past this building:

when I noticed a plaque I'd walked past many times without paying any attention. As I am now a temporary resident of Belgium, it suddenly seemed enormously interesting - moving even:

Sadly, I have to reveal that my walk wasn't all exciting discoveries - it also had its fair share of disappointments. My favourite haberdasher's has somehow turned into a branch of Pret a Manger and several other equally well-established businesses seem to have been swallowed up by more food outlets for office workers. I wonder if these are the only kind of business that breaks even in London at the moment.

The worst blow of all was the disappearance of Allen's, my favourite butcher in the world. It was a place where good food was understood and valued, where you could buy meat that was not killed yesterday and, most fantastically, where, if you went in a week or two before Christmas and looked up, the ceiling appeared to have been completely replaced by a dense mass of feathers - actually, closely packed turkeys, suspended and awaiting their turn on the Christmas table. I doubt I'll ever see anything like it again:

The French government subsidises small quirky shops, I've been told. It certainly has much more varied high streets than Great Britain does generally. But the British population doesn't seem greatly moved by the march of chain shops and the erosion of individuality in the retail sector, (an exception being Totnes, where I went later in the week; cheeringly, the inhabitants of that town seem to have fought off the Zara-Next-Accessorize-BootstheChemist-M&S-Costa blandness that characterises so many midsized rural towns).  

After London, I got on the train and headed for Devon. I was still sad about the loss of Allen's and the various other shops I'd always assumed would be there forever, but the British countryside looked so lovely, I couldn't stay sad for long. I was reminded, when I glimpsed some allotments on the edge of one or other town we passed through, that I am truly a hybrid, half-Australian/half-English: that is to say, I have always rather wanted an allotment, which is something no Australian I have ever met can even begin to understand. Because I am also Australian I can see how allotments represent an English embrace of small horizons and expectations that is anathema to Australian optimism, but as an English person, I cannot quite rid myself of pinched perspectives and dismally unambitious dreams.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Miserable Clarity

I've been wondering about the strange extremes that seem to have captured the imaginations of the American voting class. I'm not wondering any more, because I went to see The Big Short. It is such a good film, but it also makes sickeningly clear that cynicism and distrust of the elites that run government and financial markets is the only response anyone could sensibly have in the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis. Trump and Sanders are the children of sub-prime and CDOs.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Miaowing Up the Wrong Tree

The other day I mentioned the confusion so many of the Europeans I meet feel when they contemplate the ways of their British colleagues. Reading Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy this morning, I was struck by a passage, which dramatises the situation. A young Romanian woman called Sophie has just listened to a group of English speakers telling a joke, and finds it confusing; she proceeds to tell a Romanian joke to illustrate what humour is about so far as she is concerned:

'"Then I do not understand. Why is it funny?"

"Why," Inchcape blandly asked, "is anything funny?"

The answer did not satisfy Sophie. She said with some asperity, "That is an English joke, eh? Here in Romania we have jokes, too. We ask, 'What is the difference between a kitten and a bar of soap?' I think they are silly, such jokes."

"Well, what is the difference?" Guy asked.

Sophie gave him an irritated look and would not answer. He set about persuading her until at last she whispered in a petulant little voice: "If you put a kitten to the foot of a tree, it will climb up."'

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Now I Understand

After what turned out to be a slightly wan experience looking at the late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire's things spread out for auction, I picked up the latest issue of the London Review of Books and began to read an article on the subject of borders. In it was this quote from Georges Perec who, it seems to me, goes some way to explaining my reaction to what was on view. Sotheby's was trying to slide the domestic into the public and the result was jarring:

"The private, the domestic (a space overfilled with my possessions: my bed, my carpet, my table, my typewriter, my books, my odd copies of the Nouvelle Revue francaise); on the other side, other people, the world, the public, politics. You can't simply let yourself slide from one into the other, can't pass from one to the other, neither in one direction nor in the other. You have to have the password, have to cross the threshold, have to show your credentials, have to communicate ... with the world outside."

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Left the Building

I loved the character that emerged from everything the Duchess of Devonshire wrote and so, when I saw that Sotheby's was auctioning her belongings, I decided I'd go along and have a look.

There is a logical flaw at the heart of that sentence isn't there? However charming someone's writing - or indeed personality - may be, what on earth has that got to do with their things?

I didn't think it through until now though. As a result, I set off for Sotheby's cheerfully. When I went in to their New Bond Street building, I was actually quite excited, but, instead of enjoying myself, as I wandered around I began to feel faintly miserable. I looked at everything, but none of it gave me pleasure. I certainly didn't feel any sudden urge to bid on any of the lots up for auction. In fact, by the end of my visit, I was rather glad to leave.

It wasn't that the auctioneers hadn't made a good effort. They'd plastered the staircase wall leading to the rooms where the Duchess's things were displayed with an attractive photograph of the Duchess's house - a very pretty stone ex-vicarage, pictured on a sunny day with flowers in full bloom. They'd set up a series of rooms to look as though they were actually the Duchess's dining room, bedroom, kitchen et cetera. But somehow the whole thing was dismal.

I think it was the fact that the illusion they were trying to create remained very clearly an illusion. We were in a windowless shop space and there was no getting away from that fact. Despite the very best efforts of the organisers, the rooms they'd set up so carefully owed a great deal more to Ikea in concept than to a time-worn interior that a particularly engaging person lived in.

Worse still, once the idea of Ikea had seeded itself, you couldn't help noticing that the furniture - which in its own milieu would have looked exactly right - here in a showroom revealed itself as a bit battered, chipped in places and generally bearing the inevitable marks of use.

Many of the smaller things didn't even have the virtue of being old and originally well-crafted from good materials. Like most of us, the Duchess gathered up all sorts of odds and ends that appealed to her for reasons not always to do with aesthetics - after all, her house wasn't a show room or a museum, just a place where somebody lived. The fact that things that amused her or had sentimental value were really rather ghastly if you did not share those same sentimental attachments to them meant that they ended up looking frankly a bit tawdry in this impersonal setting.

I should have known of course. Stuff is just stuff, regardless of who it belongs to. Stupidly, I'd imagined that some vestige of the Duchess's personality would have lingered with the objects with which she surrounded herself. Instead, seeing them all laid out there - for sale to the highest bidder -made it chillingly clear that she was very definitely no longer here among us. She had, like her beloved Elvis, left the building and, without her magnetism to enliven them, the things that she treasured had reverted to being just things.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Cross Cultural Studies

In Brussels at the moment, I keep meeting people - well-meaning Swedes and earnest Germans, cheerful Italians and concerned Luxembourgeois - who express themselves surprised, a little hurt and above all mystified by the British and their apparent lack of total infatuation with "the project" (that is, the whole set of bureaucratic contraptions that are the engine of the Brussels economy - and contribute fairly generously to that of Strasbourg as well).

Generally speaking, when these kinds of foreigners find the inhabitants of the British Isles puzzling, they turn for guidance to a book called Watching the English, by Kate Fox.  However, if any of them asks me for a good handbook to Anglo-Saxon attitudes, I recommend Lost Worlds by Michael Bywater instead. Apart from anything else, it is so much more amusing than Watching the English. Actually it is one of my very favourite books.

To give just one example of what it offers, here, in a mere two or three paragraphs, while explaining the use of the phrase "old chap", Bywater provides so much insight into the English (British?  Oh lord, let's not even think about plunging into that) character:

"Chap, Old

An oddity, Old Chap; a curiously English construction, suggesting intimacy without actually suggesting intimacy. You can see why the English would need such an honorific.

To call a man 'old chap' was shorthand for what would otherwise take far too long to express. But we can try. What it, at least in part, meant was:

'What I am about to say presumes upon our acquaintance to the extent that to address you as Mister whatever-it-is would be unbecomingly stuffy. Yet I do not wish to embarrass you with a self-conscious use of your first name. The matter that I am about to raise also temporarily (it may even be permanently, but I do not want to assume that) obliterates any fine gradations of rank or differences in income between us, yet although I am addressing you as what might, to Johnny Foreigner, appear to be an equal, I am nevertheless retaining the upper hand in the conversation which is to follow. I am probably going to give you some advice, which you may find unpalatable; alternatively, I may be about to make light of something which you find serious to the point of being unbearable; or it may be that I am about to give you bad news and my old-chappery is an indication that, while I am obviously sympathetic to your plight, I most certainly do not feel your pain, and I would be frightfully obliged if you could at least give the impression of not feeling it either, or we may face the possibility of embarrassment."

I suppose it is worth pointing out, in case anyone is in any doubt, that embarrassment is an English person's very greatest fear.

Anyway, Bywater goes on to bemoan the decline of "old chap" in common usage, thus:

"How the hell can we say that, now that 'old chap' has been forever lost? We can't. And so we don't. Instead we go in for all sorts of un-Englishness - first names, sharing, emotional honesty, hugging, stuff bordering on intimacy - and then we wonder why Johnny Foreigner no longer looks up to us and the world is going to hell. Bad show. Blame the women. And that dashed Viennese fellow, said everyone wanted to have a pop at his mother, you know the fellow, trick cyclist, jabber jabber, dreams, cigars, face dropped off, won't do, old chap; won't do at all. Thin end of the wedge. Do you know what I think, old chap ... hello? Hello? Are you there? Hello ...?"

Battered Penguins - One of the Wattle Birds by Jessica Anderson

I enjoyed this short book which tells the story of Cecily, a young woman whose mother has died and who, partly as a consequence, partly because she is growing up and the closeknit friendships of youth are beginning to dissolve, finds herself feeling increasingly alone.

Cecily is studying for university exams. The text she is studying is Morte d'Arthur by Malory. I have never read it, but I suspect it may tell of a quest and thus mirror the quest of Cecily to try to find an explanation for her mother's behaviour towards her in the months before she - the mother - died

The story is set in Sydney and there are many passages in the book that made me homesick for that lovely city. For instance, at one point Crcily is carried pillion on a motorcycle up one of those steep streets around Coogee:

"...he roared up in an absolutely straight and glorious burst, while alongside us raced an exploding strip of sun and ocean and green or rocky headland."

As well as bringing back that milieu vividly to my mind's eye, this kind of description reminds me somehow of Helen Garner's style. One might call it Australian heightened realism - except it isn't really the style that is heightened; the truth is the experience of being in Australia - something to do with the height of the sky, the size and emptiness of the country and, more than anything, the light - is itself heightened. Life there is more vivid than elsewhere, brighter, sharper - or so it seems to me ( and in answer to potential objections about excessive nationalism, I should point out that, while I miss this aspect of life often, it isn't necessarily an absolute positive; living in a heightened, brighter reality can be rather wearing after all).

I also enjoyed purely Australian touches such as describing someone as having "little hands curled over, like a kangaroo."

Actually, hands are something of a preoccupation with Cecily. As well as those kangaroo like ones,  she observes those of her Aunt Gail, (a brilliantly sketched monster of self-centredness, a person who imagines herself more successful than she really is at disguising her true nature beneath a veneer of charm):

"I look at the helpless white hands on the big wheel, at the rings on her pointed fingers."

and those of her cousin, applying hand cream, (I love this description):

"I watch Hilary's slender little hands lovingly administer to each other."

Whether this has anything to do with the identification of "high handedness" as an important force in Cecily's mother later in the story, I don't really know.

The story itself is slight. Cecily does attain her quest's object, to some extent. What holds the attention though is not the plot so much as the characterisation - most particularly Cecily, who won my affection almost instantly. - and the small vignettes along the way, such as the little scene between the surfers Shane and John, which is entirely incidental but peculiarly touching.

I remain puzzled by the role of Wil, Cecily's boyfriend, in the book. He is much admired (by Aunt Gail and the world in general), but unempathetic, not obviously imaginative or, really, sympathetic in any way that I could see.  Cecily never betrays a critical thought about him, but does have an increasingly long list of things that she has decided not to tell him. "I foresee no end to the things I won't tell Wil", she declares at the end of the book, although apparently this is not a concern to her. Her mother has stipulated in her will that Cecily can only come into part of her inheritance if she marries, which, naturally, complicates their relationship.

At one point, struck by grief suddenly, Cecily tells us:

"I want to stop under a tree and cry out that this time last year I had so much, and ask why I have been left with so little. But I can't do this, not to Wil, not only because it would be insulting, but because it would make me see myself, reflected in the mirror of Wil's principles, as disgracefully self-indulgent in view of the various deprivations around me, to say nothing of the sorrow, terror, famine, and the clash of ignorant armies in the terrible world outside. Will wants to live his life in full consciousness of that world, he genuinely does, and so would I perhaps, but whatever I do, my concerns remain narrow, and I often forget all about it."

Someone who thinks it is possible to subjugate grief about your own individual loss by remembering the misery suffered by anonymous crowds in far off countries is a clod, in my view. In any case, Wil's casual announcement that Cecily can no longer come grape picking with him and that he will be leaving her alone over the summer suggests to me that before long he will be sliding out of this relationship permanently.

It is a great achievement on the part of Anderson that she has made me believe in these characters so much that I am prepared to speculate on their future actions beyond the confines of the book in this manner - Wil, of course, won't be doing anything, because Will doesn't actually exist.  An even greater achievement is the way in which, by including tantalising glimpses of Cecily's mother, allowing her to appear very briefly and then vanish before we are ready to let her go, she creates in us a similar longing to that which burdens Cecily. The nterlude in which she talks to her father also, for me at least, very delicately and beautifully portrays the absolutely unique bond that is the one between a father and a daughter. If there is any kind of conclusion, perhaps it is contained in Cecily's father's observation during this conversation that, "You'll never know the simple verbal truth. Yet you may arrive at an answer", and in Cecily's subsequent statement, "Casually but completely, I put my trust in time."

Friday, 26 February 2016

I Robot

While my husband was out for a couple of evenings last week, I watched Shoah. Possibly not something best done on one's own.

I haven't finished yet. I'm only five and a half hours in. But the things I've learnt so far aren't quite as straightforward as I'd imagined.

In fact, I haven't exactly learnt anything. Rather, I've found myself up against questions I can't answer about moral responsibility - and I'm also growing increasingly doubtful about Edmund Burke's assertion that "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." I think Burke grossly underestimated the force that is bad men.

Not that it is always easy to define who exactly is bad.

Before watching the film, I would probably have said that all the many individuals who contributed in one way or another to the workings of Treblinka, Auschwitz et cetera were each unequivocally evil. After all, they had allowed evil to triumph by, essentially, doing nothing. Yet, if many of them - including, most troublingly, those inmates who were spared, provided they did appalling work within the system - had struggled against the powers in charge of the camps, what difference would it actually have made? Those individuals were not faced with the chance of saving someone else by sacrificing themselves. If they had refused to cooperate, all that would have happened is that they would have gone to their deaths and others would have been drafted in to replace them. Good men would have done something, been killed, and more good men would then have been drafted in - until some of those good men thought, "What's the point?"

I don't think cooperating allowed the triumph of evil, since not cooperating stopped nothing and resulted in extra death.

To begin with, though, I did imagine that it might be possible to differentiate between the moral responsibility of the person who wrote the detailed report that is read out at one point - a report specifying exactly what modifications were needed to increase the efficiency of the trucks that were used as killing chambers early on in the war - and the moral responsibility of the person who drove the engine that took the trucks into Treblinka. The report writer, it seemed to me, was in no real danger and was coldly, calmly applying their intelligence to how to improve the killing capabilities of machinery; the engine driver, by contrast, was in immediate danger -  should he refuse to drive his engine, he would be killed and someone else would be dragged in to do the driving instead.

His refusal would prevent nothing, whereas the report writer could have deliberately made recommendations that made the machines function in such a way that they didn't work at all. But actually, as I write, I begin to have my doubts about whether even the report writer had a real choice. Almost everyone had become trapped within a depraved structure of violence. It was the architects who created that structure - (those who, using violent intimidation, imposed violent methods on an entire nation) -  who were to blame. The report writer may have been one of these willing architects - or merely a frightened cog inside the death-dealing machine.

And so the only conclusion I can reach with certainty is that it is absolutely vital to ensure that you never ever allow your country's government to fall into the hands of people who consider violence a useful tool - or, worse still, actually get satisfaction or pleasure from violence.

But, as the lesson of history seems to be that that is virtually impossible, an alternative presents itself - one that has never until now been available. If humanity is not capable of ruling itself over a sustained period without resorting to violence - and this does seem to be clear from everything that has occurred in our history thus far - then perhaps what we need to do is put non-humans in charge. If we can manage to create a generation of robots that are programmed to have as their priority never ever allowing any kind of violence, then surely they will provide us with an ideal government. At a time when politicians seem to be held in lower esteem than ever before, could my gentle robots possibly make things worse?

But then I remember that other great phenomenon so unavoidable in human affairs. It is known as the law of unintended consequences. I withdraw all further proposals. While personally I think this 1750 French mannequin might make a fine President of the United States, I cannot guarantee it. I suppose it depends on what the alternatives turn out to be:

Wednesday, 17 February 2016


I like trivia quizzes, although I rarely get the opportunity to go to them. They seem to me a really fun way to spend an evening with people you don't necessarily know particularly well or have that much in common with. You become a team, you bond - although sometimes you fall out (there's someone in Canberra who still holds a grudge against me from pre-Internet days; my sin was to to supply what  was judged to be the wrong answer on the height of Mount Ainslie [even though it was later demonstrated that the fault was not mine; the night's judges were in possession of inaccurate figures]).

Anyway, I have recently acquired two useful bits of trivia that I am going to shore up here for future use.

The first is the original name of Donetzk, the capital of the Donbas region in Ukraine. Believe it or not, it is Hughesovska. The place was named after an Irish miner called John Hughes who set up iron-smelting works there in the 1870s

My second piece of trivia is possibly not as widely intriguing as my initial one. However, I spend a bit of time in Chagford in Devon and I like Evelyn Waugh, so it interests me, which is why I'm recording it - it is that Evelyn Waugh was staying at the Easton Court Hotel, Devon in the third week of Setember, 1931.

I got that last fact from an LRB review written by Terry Eagleton about a book by DJTaylor called The Prose Factory. The piece also contains a reference to:

"a wonderful description by a friend of Virginia Woolf's who arrived at her flat to find Woolf and Edith Sitwell, between whom relations were somewhat strained, sitting on the sofa together, 'like two praying mantises putting out delicate antennae to each other.'"

A letter writer in the same issue recalls Margery Allingham's description in The Longer View of the area of London in which the LRB has its offices:

"the web of little streets which floats out like a dusty cape around the neck of the Museum."

How nice to be reminded of Allingham's gifts. Now I'm going off in search of A Longer View.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Strained Similes, Heroism and Wonderful DC George

What a huge relief it is to receive from George this memorandum written by other Proust readers - there is great comfort in the discovery that there are others in the world who find almost as little to recommend in the 'great work' as I do, (thus far):

Crawling Up Everest

Russell Baker

On July 18 the two of us set out together to read Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. We have been reading it fairly steadily ever since, thanks to our stocked kits of smelling salts, and are determined to keep on reading until we either finish or die in the attempt.

Our first diary entries--of a Shackleton's expedition in literature--are presented below because this is a moment that cries out for public examples of heroism to remind us again of the greatness of which Americans are capable.

Few deeds can be more heroic than an attempt to read Remembrance of Things Past from beginning to end. Some persons will quarrel with this. Some will argue that true heroism lies in sitting through all of Wagner's Die Valkyrie. Others will hold that it consists in enduring a festival of Andy Hardy films. Every man has his Everest. None is so formidable as Remembrance of Things Past.

Remembrance of Things Past is longer than Everest is tall. When all seven volumes are piled together the stack is more than six miles tall. This great length is due not only to the incredible number of strained similes contained in the novel's seven voluimes, but also to the dense layers of tedium packed into almost every paragraph.

Reading it is a feat to test Hercules, Washington, Lindbergh, John Glenn or John Wayne. "Life is too short and Proust is too long," Anatole French is said to have explained when asked why he had not read it. Perhaps so.

To help in the struggle I have retained a Sherpa reader who is highly praised among his countrymen for his ability to read anything. His name is Tenzing. Once Tenzing read the inaugural address of Warren G. Harding in its entirety, and, to show that this was not a fluke, went on to read The Last of the Mohicans almost halfway through.

To protect ourselves against the temptation to cheat by skipping several volumes, we are reading aloud, every last word. The opening diary entries follow:

July 18: Would anyone believe 12,000 words about a man who had a hard time going to sleep when he was a boy? We read twenty-two pages of this before Tenzing gets ugles and say I have betrayed him by not telling him that this is a plot to bore him to death. Fortunately, I am asleep by this time and cannot take offense.

July19: Another twenty pages today. The narrator--Proust, I suppose--still couldn't get to sleep. In a sudden flurry of narrative action Proust drinks a cup of tea and eats a cookie, which remind him of his boyhood, especially an aunt and a church he associates with that age, and an inability to go to sleep.

July 20: Only six pages tonight. Proust remembers the church again and, in a plot complication, recalls a stained glass window. Tenzing revives my heartbeat with brandy after seven hours of reading the paragraph on pages forty-nine, fifty, and fifty-one. Our medical team pleads with us to turn back.

July 22: Our first crisis tonight. Lifting the book to begin, I was seized with acute indolence, which the doctors say is common in the tertiary stage of tedium gravis. It was brought on by my conviction that Proust was going to remember the church's steeple while my life ebbed away.

Recovered enough tonight to read again. Proust tells absolutely everything about a meal that was prepared when he was a boy--asparagus, chicken, potatoes, marrow, spinach, apricots, roast leg of mutton, biscuits, preserves, coffee, cream, pepper and salt, bread, butter, knives, forks, spoons, table cloth ... Tenzing says I must get a grip on myself.

July 23: Tonight we read for three weeks and finish nine pages. Proust reads in his garden and remembers veal.

July 24: Hurrah! Seventeen pages in just thirty-two hours tonight! Proust thinks of an invalid aunt and a musician who rather thinks he would like to play for some guests but is too shy to mention it.

July 25: Tenzing is in a deep depression. "That rotten Proust is going to think of the church again," he predicts at dinner. "Compared to Proust," he tells me, "Uncas, Chingachgook and Warren Harding are as much fun as Mae West." I take Tenzing to see an old Terry Thomas movie, which reminds both of us of brussels sprouts.

July 26: Refreshed by our night off, we plunge through twenty-seven pages about Proust's boyhood passion for hawthorn blossoms. Tenzing collapses in hysteria, cursing hawthorn blossoms, spinach, church steeple and stained glass windows.

Our medical team order us to take a week off. With 60,000 words behind us we have barely dented the book, but we feel heroic and American. Next week, says Tenzing, who has peeked ahead, the plot will thicken. He believes Proust is about to take a walk in the country. I already begin to look forward to it. Or is it merely anticpation of the ticker tape parade up Broadway?

Monday, 8 February 2016

Plodding on with Proust

Inspired by this post at The Millions blog, I returned to my attempt to listen to the whole of Proust in French. I have now reached the end of Combray, which is not very good going, considering I've been at it, on and off, (mostly off, admittedly), since 2014.

What is wrong with me? I am not falling under the Proustian spell. I think he has some interesting things to reveal about memory, about individual perception, about the evanescent richness of each moment. I recognise that his attempt to articulate the whole of one individual's consciousness is, in a way, heroic, even though, or perhaps partly because, it is doomed. I presume, perhaps inspired by moving pictures, he is after what he refers to as:

la conquête de la vérité.

the conquest of truth

I recognise that he has rather bleak but not uninteresting views about the loneliness of individual existence:

On cherche à retrouver dans les choses, devenues par là précieuses, le reflet que notre âme a projeté sur elles ; on est déçu en constatant qu’elles semblent dépourvues dans la nature du charme qu’elles devaient, dans notre pensée, au voisinage de certaines idées ; parfois on convertit toutes les forces de cette âme en habileté, en splendeur pour agir sur des êtres dont nous sentons bien qu’ils sont situés en dehors de nous et que nous ne les atteindrons jamais.

We try to discover in things, endeared to us on that account, the spiritual glamour which we ourselves have cast upon them; we are disillusioned, and learn that they are in themselves barren and devoid of the charm which they owed, in our minds, to the association of certain ideas; sometimes we mobilise all our spiritual forces in a glittering array so as to influence and subjugate other human beings who, as we very well know, are situated outside ourselves, where we can never reach them.

I find an intriguing link with the modern fad of mindfulness in his conclusion that the senses are a pleasure in themselves:

... en continuant à suivre du dedans au dehors les états simultanément juxtaposés dans ma conscience, et avant d’arriver jusqu’à l’horizon réel qui les enveloppait, je trouve des plaisirs d’un autre genre, celui d’être bien assis, de sentir la bonne odeur de l’air

... I continue to trace the outward course of these impressions from their close-packed intimate source in my consciousness, and before I come to the horizon of reality which envelops them, I discover pleasures of another kind, those of being comfortably seated, of tasting the good scent on the air,

All the same, as I've complained before, he does goes on so. Also, I find him cloying. 

It is a matter of taste, of course, and perhaps I am misguided to find so much of the book overblown. Nevertheless, a writer who refers to beams of light having "golden wings" may not be my kind of writer:

un reflet de jour avait pourtant trouvé moyen de faire passer ses ailes jaunes, 

a reflection of the sunlight had contrived to slip in on its golden wings, 

If this were an isolated incident, I might be able to overlook it but the next two passages, also Proust, also from Swann's Way are for me among the most revoltingly cloying passages I have ever had to read, (or listen to) - and they are only two examples from among many:

mon ravissement était devant les asperges, trempées d’outre-mer et de rose et dont l’épi, finement pignoché de mauve et d’azur, se dégrade insensiblement jusqu’au pied — encore souillé pourtant du sol de leur plant — par des irisations qui ne sont pas de la terre. Il me semblait que ces nuances célestes trahissaient les délicieuses créatures qui s’étaient amusées à se métamorphoser en légumes et qui, à travers le déguisement de leur chair comestible et ferme, laissaient apercevoir en ces couleurs naissantes d’aurore, en ces ébauches d’arc-en-ciel, en cette extinction de soirs bleus, cette essence précieuse que je reconnaissais encore quand, toute la nuit qui suivait un dîner où j’en avais mangé, elles jouaient, dans leur farces poétiques et grossières comme une féerie de Shakespeare, à changer mon pot de chambre en un vase de parfum.

... what fascinated me would be the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible changes to their white feet, still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed: a rainbow-loveliness that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form, who, through the disguise which covered their firm and edible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare's Dream) at transforming my humble chamber into a bower of aromatic perfume.

Hélas, c’était en vain que j’implorais le donjon de Roussainville, que je lui demandais de faire venir auprès de moi quelque enfant de son village, comme au seul confident que j’avais eu de mes premiers désirs, quand au haut de notre maison de Combray, dans le petit cabinet sentant l’iris, je ne voyais que sa tour au milieu du carreau de la fenêtre entr’ouverte, pendant qu’avec les hésitations héroïques du voyageur qui entreprend une exploration ou du désespéré qui se suicide, défaillant, je me frayais en moi-même une route inconnue et que je croyais mortelle, jusqu’au moment où une trace naturelle comme celle d’un colimaçon s’ajoutait aux feuilles du cassis sauvage qui se penchaient jusqu’à moi. En vain je suppliais maintenant. 

Alas, it was in vain that I implored the dungeon-keep of Roussainville, that I begged it to send out to meet me some daughter of its village, appealing to it as to the sole confidant to whom I had disclosed my earliest desire when, from the top floor of our house at Combray, from the little room that smelt of orris-root, I had peered out and seen nothing but its tower, framed in the square of the half-opened window, while, with the heroic scruples of a traveller setting forth for unknown climes, or of a desperate wretch hesitating on the verge of self-destruction, faint with emotion, I explored, across the bounds of my own experience, an untrodden path which, I believed, might lead me to my death, even—until passion spent itself and left me shuddering among the sprays of flowering currant which, creeping in through the window, tumbled all about my body. In vain I called upon it now.

I would like to think the asparagus passage is actually a kind of joke. Proust is capable of being vaguely amusing, as when describing his grandmother's attitude towards sea air:

Ma grand’mère ... trouvait qu’aux bains de mer il faut être du matin au soir sur la plage à humer le sel et qu’on n’y doit connaître personne, parce que les visites, les promenades sont autant de pris sur l’air marin

My grandmother ... held that, when one went to the seaside, one ought to be on the beach from morning to night, to taste the salt breezes, and that one should not know anyone in the place, because calls and parties and excursions were so much time stolen from what belonged, by rights, to the sea-air.

Another problem for me is that I do not find Proust's apercus particularly revealing. In fact, they often puzzle me. For instance, is he right in what he says about very good people:

Quand, plus tard, j’ai eu l’occasion de rencontrer, au cours de ma vie, dans des couvents par exemple, des incarnations vraiment saintes de la charité active, elles avaient généralement un air allègre, positif, indifférent et brusque de chirurgien pressé, ce visage où ne se lit aucune commisération, aucun attendrissement devant la souffrance humaine, aucune crainte de la heurter, et qui est le visage sans douceur, le visage antipathique et sublime de la vraie bonté.

Later on, when, in the course of my life, I have had occasion to meet with, in convents for instance, literally saintly examples of practical charity, they have generally had the brisk, decided, undisturbed, and slightly brutal air of a busy surgeon, the face in which one can discern no commiseration, no tenderness at the sight of suffering humanity, and no fear of hurting it, the face devoid of gentleness or sympathy, the sublime face of true goodness.

Similarly, is it true that:

nous ne connaissons jamais que les passions des autres

it is only with the passions of others that we are ever really familiar

And, even when I do recognise that Proust has a point - the idea of flies as a kind of chamber music of summer appeals to me here for instance - I end up exasperated, because he labours his point until it is flogged to death:

... les mouches qui exécutaient devant moi, dans leur petit concert, comme la musique de chambre de l’été : elle ne l’évoque pas à la façon d’un air de musique humaine, qui, entendu par hasard à la belle saison, vous la rappelle ensuite ; elle est unie à l’été par un lien plus nécessaire : née des beaux jours, ne renaissant qu’avec eux, contenant un peu de leur essence, elle n’en réveille pas seulement l’image dans notre mémoire, elle en certifie le retour, la présence effective, ambiante, immédiatement accessible.

... the flies who performed for my benefit, in their small concert, as it might be the chamber music of summer; evoking heat and light quite differently from an air of human music which, if you happen to have heard it during a fine summer, will always bring that summer back to your mind, the flies' music is bound to the season by a closer, a more vital tie—born of sunny days, and not to be reborn but with them, containing something of their essential nature, it not merely calls up their image in our memory, but gives us a guarantee that they do really exist, that they are close around us, immediately accessible.

In addition, Proust is capable of statements that sound quite good but, when you grapple with them, reveal very little meaning. For instance, at one point he says:

...ainsi notre cœur change, dans la vie, et c’est la pire douleur 

 ...the heart changes, and that is our worst misfortune

What does he mean by heart and why is it the worst pain, (or misfortune as the translator, interestingly, has chosen to give it in English).

Despite all this, I am strangely protective of Proust's legacy. Thus, when I read in the New York Times recently the claim that David Foster Wallace had been the first writer to observe reality and note it down in intense detail, I couldn't help feeling that Proust was being pushed out of his rightful place:

Here is one of the great Wallace innovations: the revelatory power of freakishly thorough noticing, of corralling and controlling detail. Most great prose writers make the real world seem realer — it’s why we read great prose writers. But Wallace does something weirder, something more astounding: Even when you’re not reading him, he trains you to study the real world through the lens of his prose. 

I think to an extent it may have been Proust's intention and purpose to help the reader towards a more intense observation of their own existence and thus the title of literary innovator in this respect belongs to him. Sadly, he was also inclined to an overblown windy romanticism, a sentimentality that I cannot warm to - yet, at least. The concept of In Search of Lost Time was, of course, hugely original - although being original is not necessarily always a positive; if a trail has not been blazed, it might be because others have rejected it as dull or a dead end. I am not yet convinced that the execution of the concept was successful, but I will keep trying. Perhaps I should call my next post on the subject, "In search of enjoyment in the Search for Lost Time".