Monday, 3 March 2014

The Power of the Word

In an interesting interview with Hanif Kureishi on  Radio Three's Arts and Ideas programme, Philip Dodd, who has an annoying voice but is admirably determined, tries to pin Kureishi down about what he believes in:

'So there is only language?' he asks Kureishi. 

'Fraid so, mate, yeah,' Kureishi replies 

'So when a bomb goes off, nobody is killed; it's just a way of talking about people being killed?'

'No, I didn't say that, no, that wouldn't be the case at all. But the way we would think about that, the value of a person's life - if there was a bomb went off and it killed Hitler, for instance, there would be a different view on that to if it killed, let's say, an innocent child.'

'So it's all relative?' 

'Well, it's all in language is what we want to say, and that's what's interesting about human life – how malleable it is, not how stonelike, let's say, it is.' Kureishi answers, somewhat mystifyingly.

Dodd unable to leave it alone,goes on to ask, 'So you're not going to die, other than the way you think about dying?' and then half answers himself by adding, 'Your body's getting older. There's nothing we can do about it. Language won't do anything for us.'

'Oh it will,' Kureishi assures him. 'It's the only thing that cures us. It's the only thing that has any meaning. It's the only thing that lasts.'

'So architecture doesn't last, painting doesn't last?' Dodd responds. 'Come on, all these things last. There is always a danger, I've noticed with you recently, that the only fundamental belief you have is in language.'

'I think that's because I'm British,' Kureishi tells him then. 'I was thinking the other day about this: I was somewhere or other and someone was asking me – they were talking about British national identity and I was thinking, well, what is it, is it the Queen, is it the Beatles, is it that? And I thought - well, I thought about Chaucer, I thought about Shakespeare, I thought about the English language, I thought about poetry, and I thought that's what I think about when I think about Britain, actually, it's the writing that's come out of these islands, and the writers and actually the history of the imagination of Britain, actually.'

And up to that point I'd been willing to go along with Kureishi, happy to entertain the view that perhaps language might truly be the fundamental thing to believe in. But, to assert that Britain's national identity resides in its literature, you must surely believe that the majority of the nation's citizens take a keen interest in - or at least are aware of - this heritage of theirs, supposedly so central to their being. 

Sadly, the evidence for this is not that easy to find. Leaving aside the impression left by groups of young Britons on cross channel ferries or stag and hen weekends in Budapest, (national identity and mannerless inebriation would be closely associated on the evidence available there), a trip to Bournemouth a year or two ago comes to mind. 

I was interested to go there because of the town's connection with Thomas Hardy. Such naivety - I feel embarrassed just thinking about it. Admittedly, we did eventually find a graffitied story board that mentioned the writer. It stood amid litter and no-one glanced at it as they barged their way back to the multi-storey carpark, bags groaning with tat from the usual assortment of high street chain stores. 

I suppose I once put a similar kind of faith to that Kureishi has put into Britain and its language and literature as an expression of its national identity into Russia and the Russians. My faith was, in parallel with his, based on my love of the Russian language, plus Russia's writers and its wonderful literature.

While I will never regret having read Pushkin in Russian, or Tolstoy or Chekhov, or even Aksenov - (although, and this is a confession I should probably keep to myself, so appalling is it, I never could warm to Turgenev, shame, shame, shame) - the events of the past few days, (and indeed the behaviour of Russia and Russians as I've observed them ever since 1989), have revealed how utterly hollow is any belief that language and literature have anything to do with Russian national identity. 

Language or tanks? Which to believe in? A faith in language, a belief that somehow literature influences anything, is thoroughly undermined by what is happening under Putin. It doesn't matter how good your turn of phrase is, there is no way to view what is happening as anything but wretched and way beyond the influence of anything as civilised as language. Language has been trumped by Putin's resort to primitive brute force. Auden, alas, had it right, not Kureishi


  1. The status of English as a world language, not to say the fact that there are prominent novelists writing in English and with names such as Kureishi and Ishiguro, has at least something to do with the United Kingdom's sometime military power, and the United States' succession to that power. In any case, given the lack of enthusiasm for conscription, it seems to me unlikely that Russian sentiment in general is as nationalist as Putin's.

    As for Turgenev, and American friend long resident in Russia said that she didn't care for him: she found him too French. It occurred to me that that may be why Ford Maddox Ford so admired him.

    1. One of my university lecturers, a brilliant but terribly scornful man, worshipped Turgenev (since retiring from scholarly life, he's even written a book about him, I see:

      and made one feel like a dolt if one didn't respond with equal fervour (actually, his teaching method largely consisted of making us feel like dolts, presumably so we would try harder next time in order not to feel like dolts, or possibly because he simply felt superior to the entire world, particularly his students [he was very funny too, it should be said, but I often felt uncomfortable about being in the position of being invited to laugh dismissively at the inadequacy of others]. Anyway, it has crossed my mind sometimes to wonder whether, had I been introduced to Turgenev under less stressful circumstances, I might have enjoyed him.