Thursday, October 28, 2010

Vote, vote, vote

Is it election day or something?

This is the campus where I'm spending the week. I've lost count of how many times I was asked if I'd voted or not. I have to say it's great to see such enthusiasm on a university campus. I don't remember it in my day back in the UK, and I doubt it would happen now either.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

American trains

America is massive. The more you spend time here the more that becomes apparent.

So why are trains so little used? I understand the American cult of the car, but even so, if ever there was a place designed for trains it has to be America. And, let's be honest, trains do have a long and somewhat inglorious history in the country. So why are they so little used now?

This is Austin's Amtrak station. Austin - population 600,000+. It has one line, and it doesn't seem to serve more than one passenger train a day. Tiny little branches serving populations of a few thousand have bigger stations than this in the UK.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee

The protagonist of J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg is none other than Fyodor Dostoevsky. He is already a famous writer, at the height of his success, but this is not a story of success. The Dostoevsky presented here is a human character beset by troubles. A gambler close to bankruptcy, he is drawn back to Petersburg from his home in Dresden, despite the threat of being caught by his various creditors, because of the death in mysterious circumstances of his stepson Pavel. We see a man in turmoil, struggling to manage his emotions or come to any understanding of the situation in which he has found himself. His time in Petersburg which, despite the danger of exposure, he keeps extending, is spent with four key characters: Anna Sergeyevna, the landlady with whom his son, and now Dostoevsky himself, has lodged; Anna’s Grushenka-like daughter, Matryona, at once ingenue and coquette; Maximov, the police commissar, bearing a resemblance to Porfiry Petrovich in Crime and Punishment as he probes Dostoevsky for details of Pavel’s life and beliefs; and the anarchist Nechaev, in whose organisation Pavel had become embroiled before his death.

Thus, it is clear that Coetzee is establishing a Dostoevskian drama around Dostoevsky. Each of the characters could have stepped out of one of his novels, including the great master himself, who is presented here as a conflation of Ivan, Mitya and Alyosha Karamazov, a good man tortured by his failings, whose instinctive reaction is to do good but whose weaknesses compromise his actions. Good, but weak; spiritual, but tempted: this could stand as a summary of Dostoevsky’s perception of man, and it is thus that he, himself, is presented here, the writer being used by Coetzee to give shape to his writing. It is a remarkably bold conceit, and Coetzee pulls it off. It is an extraordinary piece of fiction.

That is not to say it is an easy read. It is far from it. There is a relentless melancholy surrounding the drama that Dostoevsky himself would have admired. All that is missing, perhaps, is the anger of the Underground Man or Raskolnikov or Ivan Karamazov. That role could, perhaps, have been performed by the anarchist Nechaev, but he is the weakest of the ensemble here, a less palpably real human being than Anna or Maximov or the troubled Dostoevsky. He is the Underground Man before repulsion against himself has exerted its cancerous hold, or Raskolnikov before he first picks up the axe, and as such he feels unfinished, par-boiled, as though the radical political and social beliefs have been poured into him, but the psychological outcomes have not yet been fully explored. And so the novel progresses through a sea of regret and longing and unhappiness, following Dostoevsky’s wretched attempts to reconcile himself with his life.

In all this, of course, it is difficult to avoid the undercurrents of spirituality and societal change which also pulse through Dostoevsky’s oeuvre. There is a stifling sense of loneliness and disconnection surrounding his characters, caused partly by a society rupturing as it evolves into a new, secular, dehumanised era. The fullest articulation of Dostoevsky’s philosophical outlook is the Underground Man, in whom Dostoevsky invested all his disgust and distaste for the loss of spirituality that modernity was bringing. It is through him that we see Dostoevsky’s revulsion toward liberalism, secularism, socialism or social democracy. It is through him that we glimpse the horror that Dostoevsky foresaw in such a radical future. This is the point where Dostoevsky loses me, that juncture between the personal and the societal. His insight into the individual human psyche is profound, but the way that he uses this to inform a vision of society that is wracked and broken leaves me cold. His insistence on the suffering that is the lot of man is skewed by a spirituality that treasures transcendence to such an extent it brutalises any existence that comes before it. There is a wilful refusal to recognise beauty. That is demonstrated most clearly in Notes From Underground, Dostoevsky’s most unbalanced work, but it is evident throughout his oeuvre, and it is evident, too, in Coetzee’s recreation of a Dostoevskian world. There is much darkness, much pain, much that is cold and austere and untouchable. Warmth is banished. Life may sometimes be brutal, but living is not: the individual experience cannot stand as a projection of humanity.

The narrative of The Master of Petersburg revolves around the death of Pavel. At first, Dostoevsky is told it was suicide, but Nechaev tells him it was state murder. Enquiring after Pavel’s possessions, Dostoevsky confronts the police commissar Maximov, who tells him that Pavel was involved with Nechaev’s anarchist sect and among his papers was a list of people who were to be assassinated. As Dostoevsky tries to unravel what happened, he is beset by memories of his stepson, by guilt over their relationship, by the anger towards him which is expressed in Pavel’s diaries. His relationships take diverging turns – he ends up in a ‘fiery’ liaison with the volatile Anna, and finds that he has been tricked by Nechaev. Even while making love to Anna, he is beset by erotic thoughts of her adolescent daughter, Matryona. Still, he seeks the truth about Pavel’s death because only through doing that can he find any sense of equanimity. All of this is finely – if grimly – told. It’s hardly an enjoyable read, but it remains gripping.

It jars only when Coetzee uses his narrative to ruminate on writers and writing. As the novel proceeds it increasingly turns on Dostoevsky the writer, and the process of writing, and the impact this can have. Coetzee, of course, has taken a distinctly post-modern turn in his later fiction, becoming a character in his own works, experiencing his own ur-reality, and perhaps the genesis of his ruminations on this can be seen in The Master of Petersburg. We have a writer – Coetzee – writing about a writer – Dostoevsky – writing about the impact of writing. For me, it intrudes into the main thrust of the narrative, becomes a side-issue which, through its distraction, weakens the impact of what Coetzee has attempted to portray.

The Master of Petersburg is a difficult novel. It probably requires multiple readings, although I would doubt that any but the most confirmed Coetzeeans would afford it such time. There is much to admire in a complex study of a complex man. I leave the book feeling no closer to a man who simultaneously fascinates and repels me.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Polly Toynbee and David Walker

The last of the literature festival sessions for me was last night's discussion with Polly Toynbee and David Walker on the verdict on New Labour's thirteen years in office. I have to say, this being a bit of a reactionary town, I was expecting more dissent from the audience, but in general there was a feeling that their record was more positive than negative. Polly's assessment was that, unlike Thatcher, whose true evil didn't manifest itself until her second term, the high point of the Labour government was their first term. That was when their most radical initiatives were introduced. After that, there seems to have been a muddle and confusion about their actions, with some fairly inexplicable things done in their name. Why, as a primary example, did they introduce more faith schools? That is possibly the one thing I find most unforgivable. And cutting the threshold for inheritance tax. And losing sight of the fact that constantly weighing the pig does not, in itself, help to fatten it up.

The truth is, though, that the Labour government of 1997-2010 will be remembered for Iraq. I supported the war at the time, and on balance I still think it was probably the right thing to do. But they lied to us. That overrides everything. Once trust is broken it cannot be mended.

Michele Roberts

Michele Roberts was the latest speaker at our literature festival, and a fascinating, if slightly low-key, event it was. What particularly struck me about her talk was when she discussed the need for a writer keep probing and probing to find out what the real story is about. Absolutely! My former tutor, the estimable Alex Keegan, always talks about finding a way past the sentinels, those defences built up by your subconscious to stop you from straying into territory that you have shut yourself off from. This isn't necessarily some deep, hidden trauma that you have repressed all your adult life (although it may be that), but simply an aspect of your life that you have never been able to reconcile. Any writer who is serious about writing will eventually rub up against these aspects, and once they do their writing will move onto a different plane. But it does require both perseverance and courage. You don't know what you're going to uncover...

Friday, October 08, 2010

Roy Hattersley

Went to a talk by former Labour deputy leader Roy Hattersley last night, and was extremely impressed. For 35 minutes he stood and talked eloquently on David Lloyd George, without notes of any sort, rattling through a fascinating history of the man in a wonderfully warm and engaging manner. The depth of his knowledge is remarkable, but so too is his ability to put it across in such an easy and engaging way. In the past I've given talks without notes, but never on a subject that required such detailed knowledge. I've always been able to just waffle for a bit if I lose my place and wait to recover it again. There was none of that with Roy. He just got up and rattled out his talk.

He then took half an hour of questions, and again the depth of his knowledge shone through. When I come to do a viva defence of my PhD, I know who I want to model myself on. If I can project such erudition and eloquence it'll be a cakewalk...

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Stealing Jonathan's glasses

Here's a somewhat unusual story. Apparently gatecrashers at the launch of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom stole his glasses from his face and tried to ransom them for £100,000. There has been a fear that Franzen is being shifted into superstar category, and this would seem to be proof that he has entered soap opera territory. It never happened to Mark Twain...

David Nobbs

Another in the literature festival yesterday, this time to see David Nobbs, creator of the magnificent Reggie Perrin. He was tremendous value, very funny, and with a wicked sense of timing. He is a truly brilliant writer of comedies. I think, although I loved Reggie Perrin on television, his best novels are the Pratt ones. They are superb.

Ground-swallow-me-up time for the poor compere, who was doing his intro and blithely said to David Nobbs, "I think this is your first novel, is that right?"

"I think you'd better quit right now," David replied. "It's my seventeenth."


Monday, October 04, 2010

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

I’m reading The Brothers Karamazov at the moment and I’ve reached the point where there is discussion of Ivan’s dictum that nothing is unlawful. This is the natural conclusion one reaches when God has been despatched, because without God there is no virtue, and without virtue anything is permissible.

The lazy assumption that morality can only, ever, be approached from a theological perspective is trotted out time and again in order to keep man in his place. There is an illogicality to it, a contradiction. It rests on an underlying, hidden sense of superiority which reveals itself in the non-sequiteur that virtue can only be found in or through God. What it is actually saying is this: Because there is no God (although, of course there is, but these atheists don’t believe in him so let’s pretend to go along with their notion in order to destroy it) because there is no God man must be inherently incapable of doing good, because God (who we are pretending doesn’t exist but of course he does) is the only arbiter of goodness and if the atheists have destroyed God the only possible conclusion is that goodness isn’t achievable by man. So the argument that virtue is impossible because there is no God can only work if you approach it from the point of view that there is a God. If, however, you genuinely approach morality from the point of view of Godlessness, the putative link between God and goodness becomes meaningless and Dostoevsky’s argument becomes sophistry.

And so the question arises: is man capable of goodness? Can he exercise free will in the duty of the greater good? Clearly, we know that we are capable of spectacular failure – slavery, fascism, wars of greed (and God) et al – but failure, even repeated failure, does not mean that success is beyond us. We can be virtuous. We can be decent.

All of which leads us to Kurt Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut is what Cormac McCarthy could be if only he would shake off that Dostoevskian gloom-mongering which infests his writing. KV would have no time for the parade of prophets who people McCarthy’s fiction, warning us that ‘we’re all fucked’. Instead, he would find some ingenious way of despatching them to the oblivion that genuine Godlessness confers and concentrate, instead, on the people who really matter. People like Kilgore Trout.

That isn’t to say Vonnegut ignores issues of evil. How could you accuse the writer of Slaughterhouse 5 of that, after all? Nor is he some feeble-minded liberal who believes that if we all just tried a little harder to get along the world would be a lovely place. Again, Slaughterhouse 5 attests to the fatuity of that. It’s simply that he’s prepared to accept the possibility – let’s put it no higher than that – the possibility that we might turn out to be okay sorts of people. Like Kilgore Trout.

Kilgore Trout, KV’s alter-ego, is an ageing writer of science-fiction who is destined to become one of the most revered human beings in history. Synopses of various of his novels are interspersed through the narrative, most notably a work in which the Creator of the Universe reveals to the reader that he – the reader – is the sole possessor of free-will in the universe and that everyone and everything else is merely a robot coded to act in particular ways in order to provoke him and test his responses. Dwayne Hoover, a wealthy and successful midwestern Pontiac dealer in the middle of a spectacular mental breakdown, reads this novel and takes it as truth. His descent into insanity is thus greatly accelerated, to the detriment of all around him.

On this slender plot Vonnegut hangs his usual satirical analysis of the world, particularly contemporary America. He deals with racism, sexism, sex (not many respectable novels contain pictures of assholes and split beavers), greed and consumerism, the technological rush to advancement that is destroying our environment, God, man, stupidity, violence – the gamut basically. With drawings. I’m never entirely sure whether Vonnegut is an optimistic pessimist or a pessimistic optimist but, whichever, it is a stance that allows no certainties except, perhaps, this: the ingenuity of man means that, however aracadian the situation we find ourselves in, sooner or later we’re bound to find a way of screwing it up. But then, being ingenious, we’ll find a way of remedying it. But then, being ingenious, we’ll find a way... And so it goes.

And this dumb, unvirtuous circle is important, because it rests on that which Dostoevsky and his brooding crew cannot acknowledge: there is no need for a supernatural mediator of goodness and badness. We are perfectly capable of doing it all by ourselves.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Jim Crace on writing

Another session at the literature festival last night - this time Jim Crace, whose The Pesthouse is a fine post-apocalyptic novel. Jim was a very engaging speaker and fine reader of his own work. An excellent evening.

He talked a fair bit about writing craft and made the observation that writing is about 'abandonment and control, at the same time'. He is, like me, very much of the 'don't plot, see what emerges' school of writing. And so there needs to be an element of abandon, seeing what comes out of the thinking and writing process. But there has to be some writerly control of it, otherwise it will become a sprawling mess. He compared it, in an image he kept apologising for, to being like watching a boy flying a kite on a windy day. You can admire the control that goes into managing that kite - or writing that book. But at the same time you have to appreciate that he is doing so in the face of forces he cannot hope to control. He can harness the wind for those few moments and create a moment of beauty, but the wind will howl on regardless. The writer's job is to harness the forces of living and consciousness and our hopes and fears, and use them to fashion something beautiful. It takes great skill.

Writing Those scenes

Also at the Louis de Bernieres talk (see below), a member of the audience asked him about the extreme brutality that appears in some of his books. He agreed that, especially earlier in his career, this seemed to be something he had to write about, the capacity of man for brutality against his fellow man.

There is one passage in Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord which has stayed with me ever since I read it. I've only read it once and I won't read it again. I've re-read the novel since, but had to skip that passage. It is the most traumatic piece of writing I've ever encountered (and remember, I've read Blood Meridian half a dozen times). It involves the death of the female lead in the most revolting circumstances, and it is described in forensic detail, no adjectives, no adverbs, no fancy description, just the cold facts. When I finished reading it I had to stop what I was doing, get up and walk about. I couldn't read on.

In his answer to the question, Louis mentioned that same passage, and clearly it had the same effect on him. After he wrote it, he said, he couldn't touch the novel for two weeks. The questioner, too, said that this was the passage she particularly meant when she asked the question. It is a remarkable piece of writing.

Louis de Bernieres on nationality

A couple of days ago I went to see Louis de Bernieres speaking at the start of our local literature festival (or literacy festival, as the local dignitary who did the official opening insisted, in illiterate fashion, on calling it). Louis has always been a favourite of mine, since the days when I was a stock librarian and at the same book selection meeting I picked up his first novel, The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts, the first translation of Haruki Murakami into English, A Wild Sheep Chase and Vladimir Voinovich's The Fur Hat. The best book selection meeting I ever attended.

Anyway, Louis was good value, though perhaps not as jolly as the last time I saw him speak, about ten years ago in Peterborough. He veers close to grumpy old man territory at times. But I was interested in what he said about nationality and nationalism and patriotism. He always felt British when he was younger, he said, as he saw little distinction between English people and Scots and Welsh. We've all been tempered by the same experiences. Now, however, he is increasingly feeling that the Scots and the Welsh are leaving the English behind. The Scots, in particular, he said somewhat tartly, 'seem to want to live off us, but not with us.'. That's perhaps overstating the case, but nonetheless there is something in it.

I am Scottish but I've lived in England a long time. Indeed, on the August Bank Holiday just past, I reached the moment where I've lived in England longer than I ever lived in Scotland. I still feel strongly Scottish, but I do not feel any different from English people. I was in Scotland a few weeks ago for the first time in a while and, listening in to some of the conversations around me, I was staggered by how often "the English" or "England" came up in conversation. I'm not just talking now and again - virtually every conversation I heard between Scottish people seemed to end up with a discussion of "the English". Why?

Scotland got devolution more than ten years ago. It has its own Parliament (a distinctly underwhelming building, I have to say, it looks like a glorified school assembly hall) and manages much of its own affairs. It also does extremely well in terms of finances, through the Barnett Formula, which means more is spent per head of Scottish population than on English or Welsh. It has its own vibrant culture (and compare that to the puny cultural identity that the English hang on to, terrified of their own customs and cultures). And yet they (we) can only define themselves in terms of not-Englishness. Devolution was meant to remove the chip on the shoulder. All it seems to have done is broadened and strengthened the shoulder, so an even bigger chip can be borne on it.

The Uncorrections

Here's an interesting cock-up. The printed version of Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's follow-up to The Corrections, is wrong. It was taken from a previous edit and contains hundreds of mistakes, mostly typographical, we're told, but some affecting characterisation. For a perfectionist like Franzen this must be close to calamity.

As it happens, I must have one of the affected copies, because I bought it the day it came out. The publishers are offering free exchange, including payment of postage, but I'm left wondering - which copy would I prefer to have, the final version or a rogue version? I suppose there's also the prospect of having a curiosity like those postage stamps that get printed with the Queen's head the wrong way round and become worth a fortune. That won't be the case with Freedom, I don't suppose, because we're talking about thousands of copies so there won't be much rarity value. It also feels somewhat philistine to be talking about the book in these terms rather than its literary merit. But nonetheless, I think I prefer the idea of having a slightly wrong version of the book, and so I'll probably keep it.