Sunday, August 31, 2008

How do you write?

I'm sure I've discussed this before, but I've had an interesting experience. I have always used a computer for writing, and before I had computers I used a typewriter. I've never handwritten anything, principally because my handwriting is atrocious and I am a much faster typist than I am a hand-writer. I've always said my hand can't keep up with my brain and I lose the thread of what I'm trying to say.

However, for reasons too complex (and boring) to relate, I recently found myself in a position with no computer and I had to hand write a story because it was in my head and it needed to come out. This is the best thing I've ever written, by a long way. It's in a different class. I read it and that's immediately obvious. And I wrote it long hand, which I've always said stifled creativity. But there's a rhythm to this writing which I rarely accomplish, and it's undoubtedly more creative than anything I've done before.

The reason has to be that I just wrote, wrote, wrote. I did around 6000 words in a sitting, which is normally beyond me, because I have a habit, however much I try to stop myself, of going back and tinkering. Here, I didn't, and yet it still reads more polished than anything I've done before.

Worth thinking about. We often have assumptions about ourselves that turn out to be false. I will definitely be trying the long hand technique again.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (2)

Netherland is another novel using the events of 9/11 as a backdrop. We are still waiting for the great 9/11 novel, and it is saddening how many so far have been nothing more than ordinary domestic dramas given a sheen of importance by the artificial hook of those momentous events. Early in Netherland, the narrator says, of his relationship with his wife: ‘A banal state of affairs, yes – but our problems were banal, the stuff of women’s magazines.’ This, as I say, describes many 9/11 novels, with their focus on banality. But Netherland proves to be a different kind of story altogether and, while it isn’t the great 9/11 novel, it is still a good novel.

One of the curious things about current events since 9/11, with the now-hated (but then-supported) war in Iraq, and war in Afghanistan and the focus on the axis of evil, is that people feel politicised but do nothing about it. Compare that to the sixties, where a combination of causes – civil rights, Vietnam, gay rights, drugs etc – led to the counter-culture.

At one point in Netherland, the narrator writes:

For those under the age of forty-five it seemed that world events had finally contrived a meaningful test of their capacity for conscientious political thought. Many of my acquaintances, I realised, had passed the last decade or two in a state of intellectual and physical yearning for such a moment.

And yet, the narrator himself is resolutely apolitical. He sees both sides of the argument – pro-Bush and anti-Bush, and will not come down on one side or the other. His wife, Rachel, is more politicised, taking part in an anti-war demonstration, but that, too, is instructive. What happened to those anti-war demonstrations? They simply petered out. What demonstrations are taking place today, at a time when the public opinion is even more anti-war than it was at the time of the invasion. There is a long passage in Netherland about Rachel attending the demo:
She told me first about the huge anti-war rally that had taken in place in London two days before and how Jake [their son] had carried a NOT IN MY NAME placard. Next she told me, in the tone of a person discussing a grocery list, that she had definitely decided not to return to the United States [where Hans remains; the have split up], at least not until before the end of the Bush administration or any successor administration similarly intent on a military and economic domination of the world. It was no longer a question of physical security, she said, although that of course remained a factor. It was a question, rather, of not exposing Jake to an upbringing in an ‘ideologically diseased’ country, as she put it, a ‘mentally ill, sick, unreal’ country whose masses and leaders suffered from extraordinary and self-righteous delusions about the United States, the world, and indeed, thanks to the influence of the fanatical Evangelical Christian movement, the universe, delusions that had the effect of exempting the United States from the very rules of civilised and lawful and rational behaviour it so mercilessly sought to enforce on others. She stated, growing more and more upset, that we were at a crossroads, that a great power had ‘drifted into wrongdoing’, that her conscience permitted no other conclusion.

I think this is a fascinating observation. Rachel’s concern is not to expose her son to the ‘ideologically diseased’ US, which is ‘mentally sick’ and ‘unreal’ (a clear reference to Zizek there, I think). Is that not an extraordinarily self-centred way of approaching political debate?: she is saying ‘I will keep my family away from that evil’, rather than saying, as people did in the sixties, ‘this is evil and I will fight it’. I think, in this little episode, O’Neill has captured a significant truth about current moral and political attitudes in the US and the UK.

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (1)

It’s very difficult to get a handle on Netherland, so much so that it must be deliberate. It’s running theme is playing cricket in the US (yet the dustjacket features an iceskater, a sport which doesn’t feature at all in the book. Cricket is not an American sport, of course, and those who play it are all outsiders, immigrants from the West Indies, India and the other cricket playing countries. The main character and narrator is a Dutch man (the Netherlands is also a big cricketing nation) who lived in England and married an English woman but moved to New York. Another outsider. He lives in the Chelsea Hotel because their own place was uninhabitable after 9/11, giving more rootlessness. The Chelsea Hotel is also home to a rich cavalcade of odd characters, including the Angel, who wears wings which become progressively grubbier, mirroring his slow mental and social decline.

And it is told in a bewildering stream-of-consciousness style, with flashbacks inside flashbacks inside flashbacks, and the main narrative strands – the MC’s marital breakdown and relationship with the enigmatic Chuck (along with largely unexplained reminiscences about The Hague and the MC’s mother) – intermingled in a seemingly random form.

Disconnection seems to be the theme of the novel. When his wife and son leave him to go back to England, Hans discovers cricket, which is a vibrant underworld, or Netherworld, in uptown New York. This takes him back to his childhood and allows him to assess and re-assess his life through the prism of experience. Any decent American novel is going to tackle the American Dream, and that is what Netherland is all about. It is peopled by dreamers – Hans, in particular, a man seemingly lacking any sense of duty, but also the array of minor characters and, of course, Chuck, the arch schemer and dreamer who proposes to build a magnificent cricket stadium in a rundown area of New York which will attract international cricket fixtures.

Alas, though, America is a country in crisis in the early twenty-first century. As a nation, its dream appears to be on hold, with doubt and anxiety becoming new national traits. There is a seamier side to the American dream, and in Netherworld this is represented by Chuck, who, as the story unfolds, becomes a darker and more enigmatic character. In the end, the nature of his vocation is spelled out in graphic detail, and his mysterious death, which opens the novel and is the hook around which Hans’ reminiscences hangs, becomes more explicable.

Does it work? This is on the longlist for the Booker, and I expect it will make the shortlist too. Is it a good book?

There are a few problems with it. Firstly, as I’ve already alluded to, the timeframe is so convoluted it becomes dizzying. There is one section where the main character is with the Angel character on a roof during a power black out. This reminds him of an episode from his childhood and we are given two pages of catching fish in Holland. In the middle of this flashback to childhood we are taken forward to a flashback to when his wife fell in love with him. Then we were taken back to the childhood flashback. Then, for a short paragraph, forward to the wife again. And then we were returned to the Angel on the roof. And all of this, remember, in a story which is built as a reminiscence about Chuck. In the end, it all feels too messy. It is the second novel I’ve read recently with manic time shifts (the other is Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter) and in this case it definitely impedes enjoyment.

Secondly, the characterisation causes difficulties. I don’t agree with commentators who suggest characters have to be likeable, but I do think that at least one of them has to have at least one redeeming feature. And I’m not sure anyone here does. The main character is fickle and feckless. The wife is hectoring. Chuck is alternately an impossible dreamer and a violent gangster. In the end, you have to ask ‘do I care about any of these people?’ And, in this case, the answer is no.

Finally, and the least of the problems, but it is still a problem, is the language. I have seen O’Neill’s language compared to John Banville, and while that is unfair and he is nowhere near as poor a writer as Banville, there is still a touch of Banvillitis about the writing. Some writers just need to understand the meaning of restraint. For example, there is a beautiful passage where the main character describes his growing disenchantment with America, which includes the phrase ‘the inverted obscurity of the afternoon’. I’m sorry, but that is meaningless. It sounds lovely, but it means nothing, and it has the effect of spoiling some beautiful writing either side of it. My writing tutor always talked of ‘killing your babies’ – going through your writing and excising those phrases that you love but that stick out and get in the way of the flow of the story. Writers like Banville, conversely, are in thrall to their babies, and I feel that O’Neill could uesfully learn to kill a few of his.

But overall, this is a good novel. It says some interesting things about modern culture and what it is to live in America at the moment, at a time when the dream is becoming soured but which – as proved by the responses to 9/11 and the huge electric black-out, has not been destroyed. There is hope, but you have to work for it.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Metafiction (2)

Though not really about metfiction at all, this time.

I'm currently reading Douglas Kennedy's State of the union, which is actually a seriously gripping read. I've read 370 pages in the past couple of evenings.

However, I was talking about metafiction before, and how eventually it loses impact, largely, I think, because it lacks a human connection. And I wondered whether, forty years after the metafiction mini-boom in the 60s, we might find writers having to move back to more traditional forms in order to convey drama/emotion/character.

Perhaps so, and if so I don't much mind. However, reading the Kennedy, the early stages were very good, the characters set up very neatly (if a tad tellily, especially the mother). We had an interesting MC who was riddled by fear of the unknown, which stopped her fulfilling her potential and meant she was going to end up with the safe but dull doctor.

And then into the story came the classic 1960s radical, with long hair, good looks, command of the Marxist bullshit etc. As soon as you read it you think - she's gonna fuck him.

And, of course, she does.

And this is a really good book. As it progresses it gets better and better, and the character development is fascinating and believable. But it is built on this paper-thin premise which is so obvious it makes you groan out loud. Does it matter? This isn't my usual reading fare, so perhaps I'm just bringing the wrong eye to bear on it. But it struck me as interesting, immediately after I discussed the failings of metafiction. This seems to offer the mirror failings of the traditional narrative structure: too bloody obvious.

It's tough, this writing lark...

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


I'm a big fan of Paul Auster, always have been, although for a while I've been conscious of the law of diminishing returns. This quote from the New York Times review of his latest novel is interesting:
The intent is not camp, nor is it parody. It is an act of disbelief in traditional fictional values. The trouble is that the disbelief is getting to be as old as the values. With “Man in the Dark,” Mr. Auster’s literary collider has lost its subatomic energies; the result is wan as well as scattered.

I guess this is the problem with anything experimental, as Auster's metafiction is. Eventually, the experiment has to either lead somewhere or stop. We've had metafiction for forty years (and more) from Auster, Barthelme, Barth, Pynchon et al. They've broken down the barriers. But is there anything beyond? Or do you, in the end, have to return to traditional storytelling in order to tell a story?

I haven't read the new Auster yet but I shall. But not, this time, because it's Auster or because it's metafiction, but because it is another example of the way post 9/11 fiction appears to be going in the US: there seem to be two camps, either domestic dramas or apocalypse. Auster gives us America at war with itself. What a gloomy bunch American writers have become...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Belief systems

Michael Freeden on democracy:

All belief systems, even the most rationally inclined, contain components based on extra-rational preferences. It is quite plausible to view our attachment to democracy as a question of sentiment as much as of intellect. To be specific, the notion of democracy contains instrumentally rational preferences for certain decision-making processes (by comparing them to others in terms of outcomes, for instance), but it also contains non- or pre-rational preferences for weighting all individuals equally, based on cultural predilections and on social myths, not merely on moral considerations.

It's an interesting point, the equality of all individuals. Mill, of course, warned of the tyranny of the masses, and Nietzsche was condemnatory on the point. And yet, has a better system of dispensing power been created?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The start of hope

Albert Camus, quoted in Olivier Todd's biography:
Refusing to make a final choice between the USSR and America, Camus asked those present at the meeting to imagine a third possible route: “Don’t you believe that we are all responsible for the absence of values and if we are descended from Nietzsche and nihilism [as Malraux and Camus would have it] or historical realism [as Sartre and Koestler stated], if we publicly say we were wrong and that moral values exist, and henceforth we shall do what we must to establish and illustrate them, don’t you think that would be the start of hope?”

It feels to me that we are further away than ever from Camus's third way of moral values as a means of glueing society. While I wouldn't take an absolutist view on morality, as that leads you down a troubled road towards a Saviour, I see the form of non-interventionist relativism which is prevalent today as weak and cowardly. We have a moral code in our society and yet we shy away from defending it against those who are hostile to it because we do not wish to offend their sensibilities. By trying to accommodate their interpretation of morality we compromise our own. And every time that happens we are diminished.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


This word, the most succinct in the world, according to the Guinness Book of Records, could actually sum up a whole bunch of stories that I've just written. It apparently means a look shared by two people where each wishes that the other will initiate something that both desire but which neither one wants to start.

It's only a wonder than the word is from Tierra del Fuego and not Scotland. It describes perfectly the Calvinist Scots mindset.

The point of writers?

Don DeLillo (or, rather, the character Bill Gray in a DeLillo novel, Mao II):
“Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids of human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.”

This, of course, echoes the famous Philip Roth quote (from 1961) about reality constantly outdoing the imaginations of writers. But it also says something about the impoverishment of literature today. Mao II was written in 1991. The situation is even worse now: the bomb-makers have discovered new ways to make their work more ghastly, while the writers have apparently abdicated any responsibility for reflecting (and leading) the culture of the times.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Hammershoi at the Royal Academy

The Hammershoi exhibition was every bit as good as I had hoped. These emotive little paintings not only evoke a time that has long gone, but they seem to come from the artist himself, to show us a little bit of what it was to be Vilhelm Hammershoi.

Technically, he was a very fine draughtsman and an excellent painter. He was clearly an individualist and free-thinker, beholden to no group or fashion. He took from other painters and movements what he thought was useful, ignored the rest. For example, he ignored the Danish Golden Age, and he eschewed impressionism, which was then at its zenith, calling it ‘silly’, and yet there are clear traces of impressionist thinking in his work, in the striking placement of the props – with furniture, even people being cropped and central images not taking a literally central place in the paintings. Such things would have been inconceivable before the impressionism movement because they would have suggested poor technique.

And in an early series of paintings of a small white house his style is so impressionistic it verges on expressionistic. There is something of Cezanne in the first of the series, The Farm, which appears at first glance to be only a series of horizontal coloured stripes but is actually the white house in its landscape, bounded by sky. This, of course, was an early work, and the true Hammershoi style was yet to emerge.

That developed quickly, however. He was a great admirer of the Dutch interiors of Vermeer, and there is certainly a feeling of calmness and stillness which can be found in Vermeer and de Hooch and the type. His work is also as striking as de Hooch for its multiple scenes and for the opening of doors and windows into other realities, leaving the viewer to wonder what is happening beyond the painting. He captures women in enigmatic moments, and it is for the viewer to decide what has happened or is about to happen. This, too, is something he shares with the Dutch masters, and it can also be found much later in Edward Hopper – this feeling that there are important moments, either having just happened or about to begin.

And this is a striking thing about Hammershoi: there are resonances of other painters in his work. Some of this is deliberate, as in Woman reading a letter, for example, which, is an inversion of Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter; and with Woman Reading in Sunlight, 1900, which could be Whistler’s Mother from a different angle. And sometimes his influence comes to bear on later artists. The most striking of these is probably Hopper, for whom emptiness is almost a physical presence. Apart from the old-fashioned furniture, Hammershoi’s Sunshine in the drawing room III, with its square of sunlight, could easily be mistaken for a Hopper.

But there is nothing safe about these paintings. It would be easy to dismiss them as small, safe. They are anything but. And they could be thought of as reactionary. Perhaps they are, but Hammershoi exposes the facile nature of the dialectic that reactionary equals unadventurous. Yes, he is a reactionary painter, but he is still exploring, questioning, making the reader think. For example, Hammershoi is constantly playing with the viewer’s perception. Things are seldom as they seem. One of the most striking paintings is [], which at first glance appears a typical Hammershoi piece. But the more you study it the more unsettling it becomes. The table is completely wrong. The piano has no back legs. None of these are mistakes because, as I’ve said, he was a fine draughtsman. They are clearly deliberate. Hammershoi is making us think. What is going on? An uneasiness presents itself.

This, it seems to me, may be a mirror of the artist himself. It is always dangerous, at this remove, to play psychologist and try to understand the mind of a man nearly one hundred years dead, but viewing his art as a life’s work it is impossible not to be struck by the way he returns, time and again, to the same material but in subtlely changing ways. From painting to painting the change is barely discernible, but compare a late work with an early one and the tone and mode is different. The colours – always muted and grey – have grown darker, more sullen. The emptiness seems more lonely. The people feel more isolated.

And there is a paradox in his work here. There is an almost photographic quality to the paintings: the precision with which he reproduces the interior scenes is remarkable, most notably in Interior, Frederiksberg Alle, 1900, which is beautifully detailed. But, nonetheless, Hammershoi makes us aware that it is NOT a photograph. He deliberately gives his work an opacity which marks it as a painting; and, of course, there are the deliberate mistakes which abound in his work. It seems to me that he was a very cerebral artist, very serious about his profession.

I do have a thing about an artist’s final works, because I feel that so often they act as a summary of his aims and a statement of how he feels he has achieved them. Hopper’s Two Comedians, for example, made me cry because I thought it was the gentlest, kindest, most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, a simple, direct statement that ‘my work is done, I am taking my bow and taking my leave’. When I read that Hammershoi’s final work was the only one he did in 1915 I was expecting the same sense of completeness. Yes, indeed, it is a striking work, and there is definitely a poignancy there, but it did feel slightly staged to me. The empty chair felt a touch contrived.

No, the real painting that captures his final mood is one he painted in 1911. This was breathtakingly moving, and it made me feel unutterably sad. It is another interior, like so many, with his wife standing in the background staring at the viewer. As I say, a typical Hammershoi scene, and yet this one has a different feel to it. His wife, the beautiful, hopeful young woman we saw in a portrait from 18[], is now old and tired and worn. She stares at us blankly.( Strangely, the exhibition catalogue suggests that in this painting she looks more happy than normal, and suggests this is a ‘hopeful’ picture: I can only disagree.) The scene is dark and sombre (and yet, paradoxically, more coloured than many of his works.). There is an air of finality about this painting, and also, more importantly, a feeling of pathos. I view this painting and I cannot help but feel that it is symbolic of the artist’s mood, that he felt, at the end, defeated. This may be fancy on my part, but I feel it very strongly. It is a beautiful, mournful painting.

And it sums up a quiet, thoughtful, thoroughly moving exhibition.

[I haven't been able to find online copies of most of the paintings I refer to, so I'll scan them when I get a chance and add them here later.]

Ronnie Drew 1934-2008

Ronnie Drew has died. What an extraordinary voice he had, and what talent. The Dubliners have come to be thought of as a joke band, not taken seriously. Time will change that view. They were pivotal in the shift in Irish music in the 60s and 70s from the old showbands to the modern folk revival.

And, what's more, they were tremendous fun.

Friday, August 15, 2008


Off this weekend to the Hammershoi exhibition at the Royal Academy, which I'm really looking forward to. He was Danish, and although it's a bit of a nationalistic cliche, there is definitely something Scandinavian about his work, the solitude and the silence of it. It puts me in mind of late Hopper - all those empty rooms and windows out into a world that's carrying on regardless. Space, and what is happening in that space. By coincidence, the story I'm writing at the moment, a long one, around 12k, I think, is focused almost entirely on the space around the story, what's happening because it isn't happening, what's said by not being said. Disconnection again, since all my stories are about that. And that is very much the mood I get from these Hammershoi paintings, and I expect (hope) that seeing them in the flesh will amplify that.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Camus' Men of Terror

More from Albert Camus:

Our epoch is one that, having pushed nihilism to its extreme conclusions, has accepted suicide. This can be verified in the facility with which it accepts murder, or justifies murder... Men of Terror have promoted suicide’s value until the final result, which is legitimized murder, or collective suicide.

Here, he was referring to some of the state-sponsored terrorism which already, in 1946, he could discern in the USSR. But this quote, eerily prescient, could easily relate to today's climate of fear and the 'clash of civilizations'.

Camus' Clash of civilisations

I came across this fascinating quote from Albert Camus in the biography of him by Olivier Todd. The current use of 'clash of civilizations' makes it all the more resonant:

For those who feel solidarity with the world’s destiny, the clash of civilizations has something anquishing about it. I have made that anguish my own at the same time that I wished to play my role. ... One must choose between action and contemplation.

Plus ca change...

Freedom of expression

I was going to paraphrase this press release from Article 19, but it says it all perfectly, so I shall just copy it here:

The government is imposing new restrictions on the right of former diplomats to
freedom of speech. They will now be required to pledge that they will never
publish any information relating to their experiences in the Diplomatic Service.
These restrictions are excessively strict and will reduce the public’s right to
access important information regarding foreign affairs.

The new rules are formed out of a desire to escape the controversy and criticism
created by the published memoirs of some former British ambassadors such as Sir
Christopher Meyer and Craig Murray. The critical and sensitive information present
in their published memoirs regarding the Iraq War and British-American policy in
Uzbekistan respectively caused embarrassment for the British Foreign Office.

It is understandable, and indeed valid under international law, that the
government should wish to monitor the media activities of former diplomats with
respect to the release of information that could be a threat to national security
or public order. However, the complete banning of diplomats from publishing any
material goes beyond this aim.

The House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee in its report
Mandarins Unpeeled: Memoirs and Commentary by Former Ministers and Civil Servants,
which was published on 5 August, has called these new restrictions “excessively
wide-ranging and oppressive.” The committee concludes in its report:

“We do not accept that the government of the day is best placed to judge
whether it is in the public interest for particular information to be
published. This does not seem consistent with the principle of freedom of

“The approach taken to judging public interest in publication of memoirs
should be consistent with the approach taken to judging public interest in
disclosure of information under the Freedom of Information Act. By passing
that Act, the Government has accepted the principle that it cannot be the
Government which is the ultimate arbiter of whether it is in the public
interest for a particular piece of information to be published. It is
indefensible to deny that principle in the specific circumstances of
political memoirs.”

ARTICLE 19 supports the committee’s conclusions and calls on the UK authorities to
abandon the new rules and demonstrate their commitment to their international
obligations regarding the right to freedom of expression and the right of

Monday, August 11, 2008

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks

Cloudsplitter is a remarkable novel, notable for two superb characterisations – the narrator, Owen Brown, and his father, the infamous John Brown of Harpers Ferry fame. It takes the form of a series of reminiscences from an ageing (ultimately dying) Owen, to a researcher who came to visit him in his hermitage in the mountains of California to ask him about his father. Through these reminiscences, Owen seeks to understand both his father and himself, and to come to some form of redemption.

The characterisation is extraordinary. Firstly, John Brown himself: he is one of the most contradictory, inexplicable men in American history, a man obsessively focused on the ending of slavery, to the extent where he turned to extreme violence as a means of forcing change. Fiercely religious, Brown lived an Old Testament existence, likening himself to Abraham and his son to Isaac, and ruling his family with iron discipline. And yet this man was a maze of contradictions: he devoted much of his time to failed attempts in business and property, as a result of which his family were constantly on the move, evading debtors, and yet his love for his family – most notably shown during the frequent deaths of his many children – was profound and genuine. He was a man of warmth who was capable of cold-blooded murder, a failed businessman who studied the arts of war, a simple man who could use oratory to inspire others to almost lunatic levels of devotion. He regarded most white liberals as weak and hypocritical – their espousal of abolitionist causes was not backed by action and they would, Brown was certain, never risk themselves for the sake of black men. That made them almost as despicable as the pro-slavers of the south. Brown’s was a world of absolutes.

It is unsurprising that such a contradictory man should be so difficult to pin down. Banks himself notes that in the 1960s he was a hero of the left, but by the 1980s:

he had become an emblem of the radical right, the malicious, the radical anti-abortionists and other kinds of homegrown terrorists. It seemed therefore that he was a figure for all time, in the United States at least.

Banks, of course, is using history as a prism through which to observe modern America. Racial conflict remains and John Brown, with his absolutist certainty, his espousal of violence as a justifiable means to an end, forces the impartial observer to take a stance. Banks notes that Brown: ‘stood upon that spot in American culture where the fractures of race and violence and religion all cross.’ These are the themes Banks has consistently addressed in his works, and in John Brown he has found the perfect vehicle for his exploration.

But this is not simply the story of John Brown. Banks himself describes it as ‘the story of a family’, and the Brown family are drawn in all their extraordinary depth and richness. The principal character, of course, is Owen, the narrator, and here, again, Banks demonstrates a depth of understanding of human nature that is extraordinary. Owen is every bit as complex as his father, and it is he, ultimately, who forces the Browns over the border of legitimate protest into murder and terrorism, ‘becoming terrible’, as he describes it. The whole novel is Owen’s attempt to reconcile the guilt he feels now, near death, with the anger and fervency which led him to the terrible acts at Pottawatomie, where the Browns hacked to death five innocent men in retribution for the pro-slavers’ sacking of the town of Lawrence.

But it is Owen’s relationship with Lyman Epps, a black free man, which is at the heart of this book and which gives it a remarkable depth. Banks is enigmatic on the point of Owen’s sexuality – the historical record reveals nothing conclusive – but the open-ended way he deals with it is powerful. There is no doubt that Owen’s relationship with Lyman is intense and that Owen himself has difficulty understanding his feelings. They experience a ‘difficult intimacy’. He transfers those feelings to Owen’s wife and convinces himself that, in fact, he loves her, but this conviction is not steady and, ultimately, Owen admits that his attraction lies elsewhere. He writes:
I now knew, for instance, that my thwarted love for Susan [Lyman’s wife] was my love for Lyman gone all wrong, fatally corrupted by guilt and envy. I did not want to love her – I did not love her at all – so much as I wanted to neutralize my powerful feelings for Lyman. For they had frightened me: the were unnatural; they were the unavoidable consequence of a manly love finding itself locked inside a white man’s racialist guilt, of Abel’s sweet, brotherly trust betrayed by Cain’s murderous envy.

And this is where the novel gains its strength. For Owen, fervent abolitionist, the most ardent of his father’s supporters in the struggle to free the black man, cannot reconcile his love for Lyman with their respective skin colours. This man who takes such drastic action in the name of equality cannot overcome the fact of his whiteness and Lyman’s blackness. At one point, he writess: ‘But I was the man who had never been able to forget that Lyman, while he lived, was black.’ It is a physical fact and it comes between them. Banks does not offer glib answers because these are complex issues. (It is instructive to compare this with Maggie Gee’s The White Family, which actually covers remarkably similar emotional territory, and does so well, but without a fraction of Banks’ psychological understanding.) In the end, Owen’s self-loathing is part of what drives him to do what he does.

The book is rich in detail. At over 600 pages it creates and evokes a time long past with uncanny quality. There are terrible events – the Brown family lose their first mother and a number of the children in early childhood; Owen’s brother, Fred, castrates himself, tragedy surrounds them – and there is stomach-churning violence, particularly in the events at Pottawatomie. But these are anchored in the narrative and they help to create this cast of extraordinary characters, whose inhumanity is rooted paradoxically in the most profound humanity. This is no Cormac McCarthy shock-nonsense, no gnostic wallowing in anti-humanism. Where McCarthy invokes nihilism, Banks gives us humanity in all its flawed beauty.

An astounding book. Days after finishing it, questions are still rebounding in my head.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Watched a terrific film last night, Moliere, directed by Laurent Tirard in 2007. Very, very funny, with Fabrice Luchini, as M. Jourdain, particularly good. Only the French could do slapstick and make it work.

What I particularly liked was the understated acting. They just allowed the situation and the dialogue to do the work, with restrained gestures and expressions. You fear that if Hollywood were to remake this, it would have Robin Williams mugging it up in the M. Jourdain role, while the Moliere character has similarities to Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow, but without the hysterical overacting.

Great stuff, highly recommended.

Saturday, August 09, 2008


In that blog entry about Mark Steel (see below) I doubted his claim that the protest against the Iraq war was unprecedented in scale, and suggested Vietnam might have a greater claim to being the largest, longest, most effective protest. This is from the introduction to Long time gone: sixties America then and now, edited by Alexander Bloom:

[Martin Luther] King's opposition to the Vietnam War suggests the interrelationship of the [protest] movements. In the first years of the 1960s, Vietnam remained an issue off center [sic] stage, gaining attention only with a headline-grabbing event, such as the 1963 ritual suicide of a Buddhist monk who was protesting [against] the U.S.-backed Diem regime, or the military coup that overthrew Diem later that year. In 1965, however, when SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] called for a march on Washington to protest [against] the war, organizers were amazed when twenty-five thousand turned out. From that point on, regular protests occurred throughout the country, the number of demonstrators escalating along with the number of soliders in Southeast Asia. In 1968, five hundred thousand people turned out in the nation's capital for an anti-Vietnam War protest, with millions of others gathered in locales across the country.

Vietnam moved to center [sic] stage, with nationally televised congressional hearings, antidraft protests, draft-card burnings, public counseling about draft resistance for young men, opposition on campuses to the presence of military recruiters, and, finally, a direct antiwar challenge in 1968 within the Democratic Party to President Johnson's desire for renomination. First, Minnesota Senator Eugen McCarthy and, then, New York Senator Robert Kennedy announced their intention to seek the nomination on antiwar platforms. Two days before the Wisconsin primary, when it appeared LBJ was going down in defeat to McCarthy, the president suddenly withdrew from the race. Later that primary season, after winning in California, Robert Kennedy was shot and killed as he walked from the ballroom where he had just given his victory speech.

The war had brought down a president and set in motion the forces that would come together at the calamitous Democratic Convention in Chicago later that summer. There, before national television cameras, Chicago police tear-gassed and beat antiwar demonstrators in what an investigatory commission later termed a "police riot." Inside the convention hall, as the delegates smelled tear gas and heard the chanting of demonstrators, speakers from the platform berated the administration and the convention host, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, auccusing him of employing "Gestapo tactics."

Now, when the current antiwar demonstrators can point to direct, positive responses to their protests in the ways described above, I'll accept that their protest is "unprecedented." But what have we seen in the US primaries this year? Not a single candidate opposing the war. What political opposition is there in the UK? I think the LibDems are officially against it, but that scarcely signifies. There is undoubtedly sincere unease about this war, but there is about every war that's ever been waged. That doesn't translate into the sort of angry opposition there was to Vietnam. And with good reason. Vietnam was a stupid war.

However, I think the most interesting thing about this quote is the first sentence: the interrelationship of protest movements. That isn't happening now. Why is that? I've discussed this before, and it's what I'm going to do my PhD on: why was there a generalised counterculture in the 1960s, encompassing civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, later on women's and gay rights, basically a widespread unease about the direction in which society was heading?

The same unease can be seen today, particularly with regard to the environmental agenda, and yet this unease is not coalescing into a counterculture. We seem happy to moan, to have individual, thematic protests, but not to protest about society in general. I suppose the WTO protests could be regarded as the sort of thing I'm talking about, but frankly those were excuses for hooligans to go on the rampage, and had no comprehensible political point.

We've been living in a time of plenty, of course. It'll be interesting to see what the imminent downturn does to our state of acceptance. Maybe the revolution starts now...

Monday, August 04, 2008

Interested in writing?

If you are serious about improving as a writer, you may wish to consider this email, which I'm passing on here. It has already begun, but I've only just received the email. I spent three years in Alex Keegan's Bootcamp, and I can testify to its success. It taught me all I know about writing craft. It's hard work, but rewarding. I've got to finish my Masters portfolio this month, otherwise I'd consider taking part.

Alex Keegan's Boot Camp


BC is running an August Blast.

This involves "EXTREME" activity to get us through the hardest month for writers.

It involves members (and guests) committing/attempting to write EVERY day (at least SOMETHING)
and attempting to complete a flash or story or poem EVERY day for the whole of August.

A set of prompts will be posted every morning and twice every evening (see explanations elsewhere)
and Members/Guests should try and produce a flash or story a MINIMUM of once a day.<

The trick is to try to write THREE!

For the five Sundays there is also a STORY deadline 8PM Sunday.

The ideal participant would write a flash every day, some days more than one, AND manage a story each week

PLEASE don't bleat and say it cannot be done. We KNOW it can be done. We know that the quality of work
IMPROVES due to the pressure, the hectic nature, the "buzz".

Boot Campers and guests (Children in Need, Previous Blasts, East of the Web) have been responsible for hundreds
of publications and more than twenty first prizes in competitions, all from "impossible" blasts.

There is something in the very nature of suspending all and crashing forward, a sense of fear moves to one of liberation


CURRENT BOOT CAMPERS, FORMER BOOT CAMPERS AND STRANGERS/GUESTS ARE ALL WELCOME. There are a number of "AUGUST BLAST" forums. Apply here (no charge) and Alex will arrange access to the other forums.

We ask a few things

1. Commitment. If you aren't prepared to "give it a go" don't bother applying.

2. A sense of constructivity, in work, commitment, mutual motivation.

3. A willingness to ( briefly) critique flashes and critique stories (authors are anonymous) and NOT to respond when your own story is critiqued 4. NO Flames. I do not warn people. I simply delete them, IMMEDIATELY.

If you're interested, contact Alex in Boot Camp here.