Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Philip Roth - Everyman

Everyman, Philip Roth’s 2006 novella, is a meditation on life and death. It takes its name from the ghastly fifteenth century allegories in which a man is told by Death to prepare for judgement day. One by one his friends desert him, along with his wealth and his health and his strength and his beauty. Finally, he is alone before the almighty with only the sum of the good deeds he has done throughout his life to stand beside him as he awaits the final judgement. Such are the ways the Churches use guilt and fear to rein us in.

Roth is having none of that. His main character, an unnamed man, is approaching death – indeed we start with his funeral – but while this is indeed a novella about atonement, it is a very human atonement and it is peopled by real human beings, in all their frail, failing discomfiture. Religion, for this man, ‘was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t stand the complete unadultness – the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers.’

Instead of that, then, we have a study of character, and particularly of character shaped by death and the fear of death and the mourning for it. Death stalks these pages. (Indeed, possibly too much: at one point, he discovers the death of one former colleague, the terminal cancer of another and the suicide attempt of a third, all in the same morning, and later we have two members of his art class dying of cancer ‘within a week’ of one another. Pathos can easily become bathos.) But, those examples aside, death here is a powerful adversary. We are told: ‘Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.’ And we, the readers, are placed centre stage for each enactment of this massacre, uncomfortably, unavoidably complicit.

‘Worry about oblivion when you’re seventy-five!’ the man tells us on page 32. He can swim across the bay. He is at the height of his powers. He has no need to worry. ‘The remote future will be time enough to anguish over the ultimate catastrophe!’ he tells us. And that is how humans live their lives, day-by-day, trying to deny the curse that is uniquely humanity’s, that we are burdened by foreknowledge of our own deaths. And so it is that, by page 161 we find, ‘It was time to worry about oblivion. It was the remote future.’

The character in this novella is a flawed individual (naturally, since he is an ‘everyman’) who has been married three times, only once to a woman he loved, and has three children, only one of whom matters to him. The novel catalogues his illnesses, from the trivial hernia for which he is treated as a child, to the series of increasingly complex problems which meant that, in later life, ‘not a year went by when he wasn’t hospitalized’ and, ‘now eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story.’

His story is told through his eyes and through the eyes of his family. There is the ‘incomparable’ Phoebe, his second wife, and their daughter, the ‘incorruptible’ and ‘miraculous’ Nancy. There are his sons, Randy and Lonny, the younger of the two, who, standing by his father’s graveside, ‘was overcome with a feeling for his father that wasn’t antagonism but that his antagonism denied him the means to release.’ There is Merete, the third wife, a Danish model twenty years younger than him who is ‘basically an absence and not a presence.’ And there is his brother Howie, six years older, but indestructibly fit, in contrast to the increasing frailties of the younger man.

Roth doesn’t deal in black and whites. The man is neither good nor bad. The true loves in his life were his second wife, Phoebe, and their daughter, Nancy, but he deserted them both to live with the feckless Merete. Their break-up is painful, and relayed in detail. We are assured that he loved his older brother, a ‘very good man’ who had been the ‘one solid thing throughout his life’ but, as illness and fear overtook him, we are told, ‘He hated Howie because of his robust good health.’ Later, he describes his sons as ‘You wicked bastards! You sulky fuckers! You condemning little shits!’

All of this could come across as unpleasantly self-pitying, but Roth is clever in the way he fleshes out the character, who at one stage calls himself a ‘cunthound’, a superbly violent demolition of his own ego, and any self-pity is immediately dissipated by the depth of his self-loathing. As his catalogue of illness unfolds, and as he becomes ‘a decidely lonelier, less confident man’ we are made to confront, with him, the nature of death. And, of course, we don’t – we cannot – approach it with equanimity. There is little honour in the way we sidle towards it. A woman weeps uncontrollably at the two funerals of the art class cancer sufferers and her husband asks the man why he thinks she is doing so. “Because life’s most disturbing intensity is death,’ the man replies. No, says the husband. “She’s like that all the time… She’s like that because she isn’t eighteen anymore.”

It is a truth, uncomfortable though it may be, that all grief is felt through the prism of our own mortality. When we mourn, we mourn for ourselves, too. All we can do, suggests Roth, is try our best and, at the end, come to an accommodation with ourselves. This is what Nietzsche was trying to tell us a hundred years ago, but we are slow learners. There is no day of judgement. Atonement is not a matter for the sky gods, but for oneself and one’s own. In a moving scene at the end of the novella, the man stands at the graves of his parents and speaks to them:

“I’m seventy-one. Your boy is seventy-one.” “Good. You lived,” his mother replied and his father said, “Look back and atone for what you can atone for, and make the best of what you have left.”

It is that final statement that is so important. Make the best of what’s left, because what is done is done. Nietzsche pointed out one of the great tragedies of humanity:

The will cannot will backwards; that it cannot break time and time’s desire – that is the will’s most lonely affliction.

Atonement is only possible in one’s own mind, as a personal act. Time cannot be recreated. The man’s treatment of Phoebe cannot be changed. He cannot undo the damage he did to her and Nancy by leaving them for Merete. Nor is there time to discover love of his sons. He has done what he has done. “There’s no remaking reality,” is his repeated stricture to his daughter and, at the start of the novel, standing by his grave, she repeats his words to him. As the novella unfolds, both the truth and the lie of those words becomes clear. The past remains, but atonement is possible, in the shape of memory.

As he leaves the cemetery, he gives some money to the gravedigger, who he knows will soon dig his own grave. He tells him: “My father always said, ‘It’s best to give while your hand is still warm.”’ And with that one act of warmth the man finds redemption.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Updike on the early sixties

In an interesting interview with Peter Conrad in the Guardian at the weekend, John Updike makes the following observation:

Politics was really far from central to people's lives in the early Sixties; it was all about the discovery of the private life.

It's funny how our collective memory or image of the sixties has changed over the years, so that now we think of it as a decade of protest and poltiical activism. It was, later on, for sure, but is Updike right about the pre-1963 era? Was it really about the discovery of the private life?

It's an interesting point because my thinking about the current American scene and American literature is that it is all about the private and that the public is only ever seen through the prism of self-interest. I've always thought this was the antithesis of the sixties experience. Updike is suggesting it owes its roots to that period.

Philip Roth on labels

In an interview with a Danish journalist translated and printed in the Guardian a couple of years back, Philip Roth was asked about being perceived as an American-Jewish writer. He replied:

It's not a question that interests me. I know exactly what it means to be Jewish, and it's really not interesting. I'm an American. You can't talk about this without walking straight out into horrible cliches that say nothing about human beings. America is first and foremost ... it's my language. And identity labels have nothing to do with how anyone actually experiences life... I don't accept that I write Jewish-American fiction. I don't buy that nonsense about black literature or feminist literature. Those are labels made up to strengthen some political agenda.

We have a tendency to need to put labels on people. I've always tried to avoid them, so I can understand Roth's irritation.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Updike on Huck Finn

As [Jane] Smiley could have foreseen, a host of professors and critics, mostly male, rose to defend Huck, already under heavy siege from black parents and school authorities offended by the book’s anarchic spirit and liberal employment of the word “nigger.” Yet it is impossible, at least for this reader, to dip into the first half of the book without being seduced by the informal beauty of the boy narrator’s voice and the natural, easy density of the realism. Religion, in Huck’s mouth, melts to a joke, and nature, heedless and carefree, takes over the canvas. America has never looked as broad, fresh, and majestic as the Mississippi does from Huck and Jim’s raft. No wonder Hemingway, who was always looking for the secret of keeping prose honest, went overboard.

Huck Finn is a marvellous book. Short-sighted and foolish people see it as racist because they cannot see beyond its use of language or attempt to understand its message. Those who seek to ban it on grounds of racism do a great disservice to the important humanist struggle for decency and equality.

And, on religion, Updike - an essentially religious man - captures precisely the pomposity-pricking nature of Huck's take on matters religious.

The future of faith

This is John Updike, writing at the time of the millennium:

As the year 2000 draws close, faith in America hangs on. The Christian right, with abortion and school prayer as its flagship issues, remains a vocal and intimidating political force, capable of getting evolution labelled a mere theory in Kansas, though not yet capable of legislating all the morality it thinks the nation needs. Our President, a proclaimed sorry sinner, speaks the language of the Bible Belt with a native accent.

We're in interesting times. Sarah Palin may, in time, come to be seen as the moment when the religious right flexed its muscles one last time and found nothing happened. Or maybe not. It's too early to say for sure. Nonetheless, it feels like there is a change in the air.

Nico's voice

There's been a lot about Nico in the press recently, because it's 20 years since her death. It's one of my greatest regrets that I had the chance to see her live once, at Aberdeen University, and didn't take it. She had an extraordinary voice and she was, by all accounts, an extraordinary woman. This description, by Alan Wise, is probably the best:

She was a pretty unusual person — a disaster, but also some kind of angel.

That is a great line. You read something like that and you want to write the story.

This is her singing a Dylan song:

Friday, October 24, 2008

The young man digests everything

From Art is in danger, a dadaist manifesto by George Grosz, 1925, showing that there's nothing new under the sun...

Formal revolution lost its shock effect a long time ago. The modern citizen digests everything; only the money chests are vulnerable. Today's young merchant is not like his counterpart in Gustav Freytag's times: ice-cold, aloof, he hangs the most radicial things in his apartment.... Nothing said about professional mission, obligations of wealth; cool, objective to the point of dullness, sceptical, without illusions, avaricious, he understand only his merchandise, for everything else - including the fields of philosophy, ethics, arts - for all culture, there are specialists who determine the fashion, which is then accepted at face value. Even the formal revolutionaries and 'wanderers into the void' do fairly well, for, underneath, they are related to those gentlemen, and have, despite all their apparent discrepancies, the same indifferent, arrogant view of life.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Flannery O'Connor - The Violent bear it away

The title of The Violent bear it away comes from the Rheims-Douay translation of the Bible, Matthew 11:12. The version is important because its sense is different from most translations of this text. It is an enigmatic sentence, open to widely differing interpretations, some suggesting that this violence – in and/or to Heaven – is undesirable, some that it is desirable, some that it isn’t violence at all but rather a cherished prize, and some suggesting it is passive, some active. The particular version used by O’Connor is suggestive that heaven can only be attained by force, and more than that, by violence against one’s self. What O’Connor seems to mean by it in this novel is that violence is a means of delivering spiritual awakening, of finding one’s mission in life and one’s place with God. And if that truly is O’Connor’s belief, then it is a worldview that is utterly repellent. As, indeed, is this novel, despite being brilliantly written and containing a prose so pure and perfect it is dazzling.

This is the first time I have read Flannery O’Connor, but it is clear that we are in Cormac McCarthy territory here, and that the Old Ham owes a huge debt to O’Connor, who died in 1964. The Violent bear it away is a religious allegory full of the mysticism and Biblical resonances, and of course the freaks and ghouls that haunt McCarthy’s world, although thankfully O’Connor’s prose is far superior because of its restraint.

It is a story of prophets and baptism, of the struggle that is (apparently) inside us all between the love of God and the love of man. It tells the story of three generations: a mad prophet who dies early in the novel, plus his nephew, Rayber, who has shunned his uncle’s extreme views, and his great-nephew, Tarwater, who lives alone with the old man in the wilderness and whom the old man is training to also become a prophet. There is also an important fourth character, Bishop, the slow-witted son of Rayber, but it is Tarwater who is the main character of the novel, and it is his journey, unwilling but inevitable, that forms the basis of O’Connor’s bitter message.

The story begins with the death of the old man, and his insistence, before he dies, that Tarwater must ensure he is properly buried and that there is a cross over his grave. At this point, however, Tarwater first begins to hear the voices that are initially described as those of a ‘stranger’ but which gradually through the course of the novel become the ‘friend’. Incidentally, Whitt identifies correspondence from O’Connor in which she declares she ‘certainly’ intended Tarwater’s friend to be ‘the Devil’.[1] On two occasions in the novel, these voices take physical form: first in the form of Meeks, who seeks to take advantage of Tarwater; and then, more horrifically, in the guise of the ‘lavender man’, who we will examine in more detail later.

At this early stage in the novel, suddenly freed from the influence of his great-uncle, and under the sway of his new ‘friend’, Tarwater is sceptical. He does not obey his great-uncle’s wishes that he be buried and given a cross, but instead sets fire to the house, supposing (wrongly, as it turns out) that he is thus cremating him. He then seeks out his uncle, Rayber, who has long since abandoned the old man as a madman. At this stage one might consider that reason is prevailing, but Tarwater, as his name suggests, is a boy in whom there is constant conflict. Doubts remain. Throughout the novel there is a brooding tension over whether Tarwater will obey the old man’s third stricture – that he should baptize Rayber’s dim-witted son, Bishop. This conflict remains throughout the novel a striking symbol of Tarwater’s internal struggle between the path of God and the road of man.

Given that, ultimately, it is the view of the old man that prevails, one must assume this is what O’Connor wished to promote in the novel. It’s worth looking at him in more detail, then. ‘“The world was made for the dead,”’ he tells Tarwater and us, and we are later told that: ‘He was a one-notion man. Jesus. Jesus this and Jesus that.’

His relationship with Tarwater is complex. A stylistic tic, in the early part of the novel when they are the only characters, is the use of repetition. Sometimes facts are reported first, then we are given the same events as dialogue a couple of pages later. On other occasions events are simply reported twice, in almost identical terms. This gives a sense of the claustrophobia of their situation and, as you are reading, it seems as though the message this is conveying is one of an abuse of power: this is brainwashing. Nonetheless, the old man justifies himself. He tells Tarwater: ‘“I saved you to be free, your own self!”’ But in the next breath he adds:

“and not a piece of information inside [Rayber’s] head! If you were living with him, you’d be information right now, you’d be inside his head, and what’s furthermore,” he said,”you’d be going to school.

The word ‘information’ is instructive, as is the warning of being sent to school, where he would be merely ‘one of the herd.’ The message is clear: learning is dangerous. There is only one word, the word of the prophet which is, in turn, the word of God. And it must not be questioned. Again, from reading the early stages of the novel, one’s sympathy would not be with the old man. And yet, as the novel reaches its terrible climax, the tragedy is that, ultimately, the author agrees with the old man and this preposterous notion, and she manipulates her characters to make it so.

One of the key exchanges in the novel comes between the old man and his nephew, Rayber. Rayber is symbolic, in this novel, of detached man, someone who has fallen out of love and grace with God. In O’Connor’s terms he is living a life of absurdity and pointlessness because his existence is not rooted in God’s. He is, of course, merely a cipher. As a character he is the weakest in the novel because he is not allowed by his author to develop. His one fine speech comes in an exchange with the old man which begins:

“You’re too blind to see what you did to me. A child can’t defend himself. Children are cursed with believing. You pushed me out of the real world and I stayed out of it until I didn’t know which was which. You infected me with your idiot hopes, your foolish violence.”

That is clear and impressive, but it is immediately followed by:

“I’m not always myself, I’m not al…” but he stopped. He wouldn’t admit what the old man knew. “There’s nothing wrong with me,” he said. “I’ve straightened the tangle you made. Straightened it by pure will power. I’ve made myself straight.”

“You see,” the old man said, “he admitted himself the seed was still in him.”

That seed is God, religion, the sacred word. What we are being told here is that even with Rayber, the man who has denied God, the seed remains inside him. It is his human frailty that is preventing him from allowing it to germinate. And now we come to the real symbolism of this novel. It is about God and man; Him and us; God with his prophet, and man, represented by the weak Rayber and his dim-witted offspring, a blank canvas who stands ‘dim and ancient, like a child who had been a child for centuries.’

Of course Rayber loves his son, loves humanity? Yes, O’Connor seems to grant him (and us) that. We are told: ‘[Rayber’s] pity encompassed all exploited children – himself when he was a child, Tarwater exploited by the old man, this child exploited by parents, Bishop exploited by the very fact he was alive.’ But O’Connor can’t help pointing out this poor man’s weaknesses. He is literally deaf in one ear, the result of having had it shot at close range by the old man. And just in case the reader is too slow to grasp the metaphorical meaning of that, a minor character later asks him: ‘“Are you deaf to the Lord’s Word?’

We are told that once he tried to drown his son. He explains to Tarwater that his inability to do so was ‘a failure of nerve’. But his love for his son remains absolute, and it is the love of mankind for mankind. It is a ‘terrifying love’ which he can control as long as Bishop remains with him, but if he were ever to lose him then ‘the whole world would become his idiot child.’

So, on one hand, we have mankind as mute, dim-witted, helpless bearers of love and their equally helpless, weak parents, involved in some form of dance of death, denying God even to the point of their annihilation. And on the other hand we have Tarwater, the boy marked out to be a prophet, the boy who carries the seed. It is to him we must look for the final message in the novel. For this novel is about redemption and salvation. Ironically, Tarwater thinks otherwise. He knows that the seed remains in his uncle. He tells him: ‘“It ain’t a thing you can do about it. It fell on bad ground but it fell in deep.”’ The uncle, he is saying, will not ultimately have free will. But he, Tarwater, will. ‘“With me,” he said proudly, “it fell on rock and the wind carried it away.”’

But it didn’t. Not in O’Connor’s world.

This tension reaches its inevitable conclusion when Tarwater, Rayber and Bishop have a day out and Tarwater takes the child for a boat trip. At this point the constant references to baptism, and to Tarwater’s duty to ensure that Bishop is properly baptized, reach a climax. And here the carefully arranged narrative starts to become utterly constricting, as O’Connor’s plot is wrapped ever tighter around her messianic theme. Tarwater, the central character, isn’t allowed the luxury of free thought, not in the end. Right at the start of the novel, when his great-uncle explains that the responsibility to baptize Rayber’s son will fall to him if he, the uncle, dies without having achieved it, Tarwater replies: ‘“Oh no it won’t be…He don’t mean for me to finish up your leavings. He has other things in mind for me.”’ But, of course, that is exactly what happens, because O’Connor is telling us that mankind has no free will.

Therefore, Tarwater does what is expected of him, but in the course of baptizing Bishop he drowns him. Is this killing an evil act? O’Connor is highly ambiguous on this point. It is never quite clear whether it was an accident or intentional. And yet, in an exchange immediately prior to the death, a hotel worker says to Tarwater: ‘“Whatever devil’s work you mean to do, don’t do it here.”’ So, clearly, we’re being directed towards this being deliberate, an evil act. Yet in the description of the baptism and drowning itself, we are told that ‘in a high raw voice the defeated boy cried out the words of baptism.’ Defeated is a very precise description. Classifying this as the crux of the novel, Whitt calls Tarwater ‘broken’ and suggests 'he has capitulated to a power he cannot understand. He has done the deed that the old man ordained him to do.'[2]

Violence thus resides in Tarwater, whether the drowning was intentional or not. Later, in a highly curious passage with the ‘lavender man’ who is the devil incarnate, Tarwater seems to admit the death was intentional, and it was the baptism that was an accident. Indeed, the baptism appears to affect him more than the death itself:

“I baptized him.”
“Huh?” the man said.
“It was an accident. I didn’t mean to…it didn’t mean nothing. You can’t be born again… I only meant to drown him,” the boy said. “You’re only born once. They were only some words that run ot of my mouth and spilled in the water.”

However, this act of violence is only the dress rehearsal for the real violence that is presaged by the book’s epigraph and title. That comes next. The lavender man picks up the fleeing Tarwater and plies him with ‘strange’ cigarettes and alcohol. He rapes him and leaves him naked and bound in a clearing in the woods. When he comes to, Tarwater, in a rage, burns the clearing, removing every vestige of what occurred. We are told: ‘He knew that he could not turn back now. He knew that his destiny forced him to a final revelation.’

And this, incredibly, is the ultimate message of the novel. Through this act of wickedness, Tarwater is resolved with his God. Through violence he finds a spiritual awakening. He returns to the burned out house, to discover that a kindly Negro neighbour had, in fact, buried the old man. The hunger he has increasingly felt throughout the novel, without any means of satisfaction, is finally sated as, with the old man and a multitude of the dead, he is fed the bread of Christ. He is free to move on to the ‘fate that awaits him’.

And meanwhile, Rayber, the man who believes in man and not God, and is rewarded for that by having a retarded son who dies violently, is shown to be living a futile existence. This is the choice O’Connor leaves us with. As Whitt explains:

The Violent bear it away delivers two symbolic alternatives for the reader: choose the way of Tarwater, which is less choice than a violence racked upon its chosen, or the way of Rayber, the ultimate torture because it yields only nothing disguised as free will.

This strikes me as so perverse as to be close to evil. To suggest that man can find salvation and harmony through the violence of rape is profoundly disturbing. To suggest that the glory of heaven should be predicated on such violence is surely contrary to any sane understanding of the Christian religion. This book delivers a terrible and repulsive message, one which can only be understood as a deep loathing of humanity. To suppose that a deity would exact this sort of duty from his followers is to create a deity who is not worthy of an iota of humanity’s compassion or consideration.

[1] Margaret Earley Whitt. Understanding Flannery O’Connor. Columbia: University of South California Press, 1995, p. 95
[2] Ibid, p. 92

Monday, October 20, 2008

Gunter Grass and the past

A brief feature in today's Guardian on Gunter Grass's new volume of memoirs. It concludes with the following point:
His writing is often categorised as part of the Vergangenheitsbewältigung movement, or coming to terms with the past, but Grass said he's never used this word to describe what he does himself. "You can't come to terms with the past," he said. "The word [Vergangenheitsbewältigung] suggests you can come to terms with it, and I'm not of this opinion, l will never be ready for that."

I don't like to argue with the creator of my hero, Oskar, but I take the Nietzschean approach to this. I think it is essential to reconcile oneself with one's past. That doesn't mean accepting it, negating it, justifying it or downplaying it. It simply means understanding, acknowledging and moving on. This is really what Nietzsche was referring to when he talked of eternal return: mankind moving towards a state of grace where one isn't constantly replaying old battles, isn't consumed, like Rousseau, by feelings of ressentiment. Only when we do this can we develop as human beings. I agree with that approach. It's the only way to deal with history. And Oskar, I'm sure, pragmatist that he is, would agree with that, too.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Sot-weed factor - John Barth

This novel, written in 1960, is an extreme oddity. It is enormous, at over 750 pages, some of them in small, dense print and written in a faux archaic style. It is a satire, sending up the picaresque novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, like Tristram Shandy or Tom Jones, and it has a range of rascally characters, but it retains a warm heart and the reader certainly gets the impression that Barth loved writing this and had affection for his characters.

It fictionalises the real-life (but poorly chronicled) Ebenezer Cooke, author of "The Sotweed Factor, or A Voyage to Maryland, A Satyr" in 1708. Barth builds a ludicrous history around the man with which he explains how the poem came to be written. It is impossibly dense, in the way of the early picaresque novels, with dramatic twists and turns and outrageous ill-fortune, through all of which Ebenezer, the principal character floats with his innocence and innate goodness unharmed. He is, essentially, Candide re-born, and through his eyes we see the birth of America and the duplicity with which the settlers went about their business.

Stylistically, of course, this novel is highly mannered, and as many will find this a weakness as find it a strength. It's a matter of taste. Many will be deterred by the dense prose style, but it is extremely funny and despite its length the story zips along, the extraordinary plot twists keeping the interest levels high. This is a peculiar novel, which seems to exist on its own in the canon of American literature. There are nods to the metafiction and postmodernism which was directing American literature at the time, and of which Barth himself, of course, was a practitioner, but the novel treads its own ground. Time Magazine declared it one of the top 100 English-language novels since 1920, and one could certainly construct a strong argument for that.

The unadorned voice

I've been to a couple of gigs this week which showcase the best of English traditional music. Firstly, Bella Hardy and Chris Sherburn in a very small pub, giving a tremendous performance. Chris, of course, is a brilliant concertina player and one of the funniest guys on the scene. Bella has an extraordinary voice which works very well with Chris's playing, in much the way that Denny Bartley's used to, when they were together in Last Night's Fun. What I always loved about Denny was his syncopation, the way he weaved in and out of strict tempo, and Bella does exactly the same thing. She has an elastic view of rhythm and metre, and this is extremely refreshing in English traditional music, which has been too much dominated by the demands of folk dance and which has become, at times, too rigid. (A gross generalisation, naturally - think of Martin Carthy, for example - but in principle it's a fair point.)

So Bella sings her songs and she lets the story lead her. At times she almost speaks, with no adornment whatever, and her voice is delightfully pure. It's instructive to hear her sing and realise how, by doing apparently so little, she can derive so much emotional power. All those girls singing power ballads in what they think is a 'soul' music style could learn something here.

But also she is quite unmannered. There is a bit of a trend in English folk music at the moment for young women to have these odd, cracked, ethereal voices. They're all essentially copying Jolie Holland and the Be Good Tanyas, and nothing wrong with that because they are superb acts, but it gets taken to extremes, and while, with Jolie or the Tanyas, you feel they sing like that because that's the way the words come out of their mouths and they could do no other, with some of the newer acts you feel they are straining too hard for that effect. Bella does absolutely none of that. Like Jolie, she just sings, and what comes out is what comes out. Lovely.

Secondly, the old trooper Martin Simpson. I read a review of his last album which really made me laugh, when it said his musicianship was superb but his voice needed work. Martin's been on the scene for nigh forty years, something which the reviewer may not have realised when he was handing out his advice as though he was speaking to some ingenue. Like Bella, Martin has a wonderful singing style, unadorned, simple, letting the words do the work, letting the song tell the story.

He is going back to America next month for the first time in five years, after having lived there for many years, and he resurrected quite a few pieces from his Righteousness and Humidity album. My partner prefers his British stuff, but I think the American material shows off his extraordinary guitar skills so I really enjoyed that. Another excellent gig. See him if you can.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

To every era its paranoia

This from an Arthur Hailey potboiler from 1960, In high places:

“There can no longer be any doubt,” the Prime Minister said, “of Russia’s immediate intention. If there were ever any doubt, events these past few months have surely dispelled it. Last week’s alliance between the Kremlin and Japan; before that, the Communist coups in India and Egypt and now the satellite regimes; our further concessions on Berlin; the Moscow-Peking axis with its threats to Australasia; the increase in missile bases aimed at North America – all these admit to only one equation. The Soviet programme of world domination is moving to its climax..."

Now, of course, we have a clash of civilisations. It's not the commies who are coming to get us, it's the Muslims. The trouble is, of course, that behind every paranoia there's a grain of truth. And the trouble with that as a result is that we can't ever trust one another. John Barth, in another novel from 1960, The Sot-Weed factor, has one character say dismissively to another:
“You infer the rest of mankind from yourself,” he chided. “Because you would not try farther to obstruct me if you were in his [the priest’s] position, you believe he would not either.

We are taught to be hard. (It's the Nietzschean way, after all.) And so we are, and we trust nobody. And so we invent our dangers, stoke our fears.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


Hans Arp wrote:
Losing interest in the slaughterhouses of [the first] world war, we turned to the Fine Arts. While the thunder of the batteries rumbled in the distance, we recited, we versified, we sang with all our soul.

It's difficult to know what to make of this. On the one hand, one can admire the artistic sentiment; on the other hand the blind indifference to the suffering of fellow humans is offensive. Art has a duty not only to reflect, but to lead culture. The Dadaists did not, they existed in their own bubble. What are today's artists saying and doing to shape our culture? At least the Dadaists knew what they were (and were not) doing.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Dorothy Rowe

Went to a talk by Dorothy Rowe, the psychologist last night, on religion and death, and fascinating stuff it was.

She mentioned at one stage the difference in types of depression suffered by catholics and protestants. Catholics, she said, tended to see themselves as isolated, and a godlike hand would swoop down and deliver them away from everything they knew into a darkness. Protestants, on the other hand, especially those of the Calvinist bent, tended to suffer from the effects of the cold, judgemental conscience, alway baying at them, telling them that however much they try, they are not good enough.

Exactly. I've never endured depression, for which I am thankful, but I know if I did it would be that latter one I would suffer. That hideous, judgemental Calvinist coldness, that essential statement that you are a failure and no matter how much you try you will be found wanting: it is the most depressing thing imaginable, and I am grateful that, as an atheist, I have been able to shake it off. But not completely. You can't. It's in there, it always will be. It is so ingrained in your early education, your upbringing, your whole social surroundings. It is a repulsive thing, relying on fear and intimidation and blind obedience.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Len Smith

There's a simply astonishing feature in the Guardian today on a soldier called Len Smith who fought in the First World War. He was an artist, and he worked in the trenches, making drawings of enemy lines and features to help the British attacks. These works, in any circumstance, are beautiful. In the circumstances in which this man must have created them they are nothing short of genius.

The Guardian has a number of the pictures. More info can be found here.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Kurt Vonnegut - Mother night


Mother night was Vonnegut’s third novel, published in 1961. It relates, in a split timeframe, the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American playwright who is married to a German actress and living in Germany at the time of the Nazi rise to power. He subsequently becomes a notorious propagandist in Goebbel’s Ministry, and can trace hundreds of examples of misinformation to his own industry. He hosts regular broadcasts to America, extolling the virtues of Nazism and denouncing, in every more vituperative (and ridiculous) terms, the evils of international Jewry. This, however, is a front to hide the fact he is operating as a US spy, a fact known to only three men (one of whom is FDR himself). The story is narrated by Campbell and it is made clear from the outset that he is in an Israeli prison awaiting trial for war crimes. What is not known is how he comes to be in this position. This is what unfolds in the novel.

Campbell is a typically ambivalent Vonnegutian character. He states: ‘I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination.’ Although he is the narrator and main character, he is not, as is customary for Vonnegut, an easily likeable individual. He is, like all of us, full of contradictions, and it feels as though darkness is never far away. He tell us:

If I'd been born in Germany, I suppose I would have been a Nazi, bopping Jews and gypsies and Poles around, leaving boots sticking out of snowbanks, warming myself with my secretly virtuous insides.

In other words, Vonnegut is telling us, he is everyman. And what would you have done in the same position, reader?

Campbell rises to prominence in Nazi Germany despite not believing a word of the propoganda he produces. The only thing that seems genuinely to excite his interest is his love for his actress wife, Helga. Even his enlistment as an American spy by Frank Wirtanen is effected with the same degree of diffidence. He has no knowledge of what information he is transmitting, which he does through a carefully orchestrated combination of stammers and coughs and verbal tics which can be ‘translated’ by agents back home into messages. In an ironic twist, one of his last messages is that his own wife has died. This, however, proves to be a turning point. Campbell has lived a reasonably contented life until his wife’s disappearance and presumed death, after she visits the eastern front to entertain the troops and becoming embroiled in a Russian offensive. Thereafter, Campbell falls into a decline. He becomes a ‘death worshipper, as content as any narrow-minded religious nut anywhere.’ The war is being lost and he attempts flight as the Russians close in. He is captured by Lieutenant Bernard B. O’Hare but is rescued by his ‘Blue Fairy Godmother’, his spymster Wirtanen, and given passage back to America.

The novel intersperses modern day (ie 1961) events with Campbell’s wartime recollections. In the modern day he is living anonymously in New York (although even this attempt at secrecy is characterised by diffidence – he even uses his exact name) until he finds his identity revealed in the ‘White Christian Minuteman’ a ‘scabrous, illiterate, anti-Semitic, anti-Negro, anti-Catholic hate sheet’ produced by Reverend Dr. Lionel J.D. Jones, a xenophic, Hitler-loving anti-semite who believes that the orthodontics of blacks and Jews proves their inferiority and has connections to various, ludicrous right-wing organisations. From this moment, Campbell’s life begins to unravel.

Firstly, Jones visits Campbell, bringing with him Helga, the wife that Campbell had presumed dead. The couple soon rediscover their intimacy. Meanwhile, however, events are closing in around Campbell. Once his identity has been revealed, he is subject to a torrent of abuse and opprobrium from the newspapers and general public, who all believe him to be a traitor. Attempts are made to extradite him to Germany. His nemesis, O’Hare gets in touch. He then discovers that Helga is not, in fact, Helga, but her younger sister Resi, who had always loved him ‘even more than Helga’. Life becomes intolerable for Campbell. His friendly neighbour, Kraft, a Russian, plots with Jones and his right-wing conspirators and Resi, with whom Campbell is now reconciled, to secure Campbell’s escape to Mexico City. Campbell goes along with the idea, but once again his Blue Fairy Godmother intervenes, and warns him that Kraft and Resi are Russian spies and the Mexico City idea is a plot to kidnap him and take him to Moscow where he will be put on trial as an American imperialist spy.

However, rather than escape, Campbell, now reduced to despair, decides to go along with the plan anyway. He confronts Kraft and Resi, who convince him that, while they had indeed been Russian spies, they had not intended to return him to Moscow and were intent on double-crossing their spymasters. Before they can escape, the group are raided by the US authorities and Resi commits suicide. Wirtanen once more comes to Campbell’s rescue, but when he returns to his flat he is confronted, again, by O’Hare. O’Hare, however, is a pathetic figure and is easily bested by Campbell in a fight. At this point, Campbell sinks into utter despair and gives himself up to the Israeli authorities, to be taken and put on trial for the war crime of spreading propoganda.

While awaiting trial, he receives a letter from Wirtanen who breaks his cover and insists that he will, if requested, sign a sworn affidavit that Campbell was a secret agent acting on behalf of the Allies. Rather than celebrate, Campbell sees this as another failure and resolves, as the book ends, to commit suicide by hanging himself. This is, for all its bleakness and apparent hopelessness, an act, at least, of redemption. Campbell has reconciled himself to his past. Being Vonnegut, there are no glib and easy endings, and it is the more dramatic for that.

The story is an early run-through of what would become typical Vonnegut themes. The avowed theme of the book, stated upfront at the beginning, is: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." This shows itself throughout the entire novel, but is most powerfully expressed in a scene between Campbell and his German father-in-law, a low-level police chief, who tells Campbell:

All the ideas that I hold now, that make me unashamed of anything I have felt or done as a Nazi, come not from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler – but from you.

Campbell may have not believed a word of his propaganda, may have believed it to be utterly ridiculous, but that does not signify: others did, others believed and acted on that belief. That is what is dangerous.

Vonnegut is also warning us that that human beings are consistently poor at learning from their mistakes, both collectively and individually. Campbell and Jones’ chauffeur discuss the next war, when it will be ‘Japan’s turn to drop one [hydrogen bomb]. The rest of the colored folks gonna give them the honor of dropping the first one.’ When Campbell jokes, on Veterans’ Day, that maybe they’d declared war again, Helga believes him. ‘She thought it was possible.’ One of the most pathetic characters in the novel is O’Hare, who cannot let go of the past, and his need to finally capture Campbell. This is a classic example of Nietzschean ressentiment, someone eaten by a need to gain revenge, to that extent that he ends up a poor, drunken, shell of a man, so intent on revenge he confronts Campbell completely unarmed and without any plan as to what to do.

As with a lot of Vonnegut’s fiction, it looks backward to the Second World War but it is also entirely contemporary. For example, with the character of Lionel Jones, the ludicrous racist, Hitler-loving bigot, Vonnegut is drawing clear parallels between Nazism and the xenophobia exemplified by the Ku Klux Klan and the white supremacists who were still a malevolent force in the US in the late fifties and early sixties.

In a late, comic scene, Vonnegut has Campbell introducing Adolf Hitler to the Gettysburg Address. It is, according to Hitler, ‘a fine piece of propaganda’. Even the land of the free, Vonnegut is warning us, can have its articles of faith turned into something evil.

Mother night is in many ways a trial run for Slaughterhouse 5. The character of Campbell even appears in that later novel, and the Dresden bombings feature at the start of this novel. But it is the absurdity of mankind that is Vonnegut’s abiding theme, its intolerance and inability to love. As well as his principal moral - "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be’ – Vonnegut presents us with two further ones: ‘Make love when you can. It's good for you’ and ‘When you're dead, you're dead’. This trinity of thought makes up much of Vonnegut’s credo in this work and in his entire oeuvre. It’s very simple and yet, sadly, as he predicted, we don’t seem able to learn it.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Digital literacy

An interesting article in the New York Times on the use of video games to attract young people to reading. The article features writer PJ Haarsma, and begins:
You can’t just make a book anymore,” said Mr. Haarsma, a former advertising consultant. Pairing a video game with a novel for young readers, he added, “brings the book into their world, as opposed to going the other way around.

The idea is gaining ground. The article continues:
Mr. Haarsma is not the only one using video games to spark an interest in books. Increasingly, authors, teachers, librarians and publishers are embracing this fast-paced, image-laden world in the hope that the games will draw children to reading.

It is this sort of enlightened, experimental approach that is so necessary, and so difficult to find. Of course, if any libraries in the UK start experimenting with this sort of thing, the usual brigade of cretins will be out in force, saying that libraries are selling their soul and its easier to get videos or DVDs or computers or anything else tainted by the possibility of their being able to create enjoyment than the good old book. Libraries are about books, they'll say, and anything else smacks of a lack of seriousness. Meanwhile, in the US they are forging ahead. The article continues:
Spurred by arguments that video games also may teach a kind of digital literacy that is becoming as important as proficiency in print, libraries are hosting gaming tournaments, while schools are exploring how to incorporate video games in the classroom. In New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is supporting efforts to create a proposed public school that will use principles of game design like instant feedback and graphic imagery to promote learning.

What is at stake here is the future prospects of a new generation who do not think and do not learn in the way that previous generations have done. The next generation are being hindered by the current generation's inability to see beyond their own experience. Libraries and educationalists need to see the importance of this and act. Clearly, our American colleagues are already doing so, and there are, of course, pockets of excellence in the UK. But there are many more deserts of imagination being propagated by Chief Librarians and teachers who have, literally, lost the plot.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Contemplating bruises

Ted Hughes replying to Donald Hall, who though Sylvia Plath's Ariel was too sensational to be considered first-rate:

Whatever you say about them, you know they’re what every poet wishes he or she could do. When poems hit so hard, surely you ought to find reasons for their impact, not argue yourself out of your bruises.

That could be a summary of our times. We don't want to know any more.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Narration in music

Been listening to Planxty's The Little Drummer, which I've always loved. The lyrics and the story waver between ludicrous and reprehensible, and yet there is a mesmeric effect to the whole. It just flows so perfectly, a wonderful combination of Christy's voice and the intricate string work of Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine. It strikes me that this is truly storytelling and narration in music. To be able to get this sort of rhythm and propulsion in words - that must be the aspiration As soon as this song starts it begins to gallop and it never lets up until it finishes. There is nothing wasted, no longeurs, no unnecessary adornments, just pure music and pure storytelling. Something to aspire to.

Shocker of a haircut on Christy though.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Michael McGoldrick

Went to a terrific concert last night with Mike McGoldrick and his band. I’ve seen Mike play in lots of different guises over the years and he’s always great value – an immensely talented musician. Even so, I’ve often found it lacks variety. He rarely employs a singer and the flute/whistle based music can get repetitive.

But last night was marvellous. Of course, he’s a multi-instrumentalist, but even so last night was something else. At the start of the second half, for the first six tunes he played: uillean pipes, bouzouki, low whistle, flute and voice (yes, he actually sang, which I’ve never heard before), mandolin, wooden flute. I lost track after that. The result was a brilliant, varied set which just zapped along at a hell of a lick. And even Mike McGoldrick, master musician, had to admit defeat in the encore when he couldn’t keep up with the pace set by John Jo and Ed.

Not sure where else they're playing on the tour, but if you can, go along and see them. It’s a brilliant night out.