Sunday, August 14, 2016

Timur Vermes – ‘Look Who’s Back’

Conditions here were similar to those in the Weimar era, after my release from prison. Here, too, I needed to begin from the very bottom, with the difference that the influence and mores of the effete bourgeoisie had eaten more deeply into the proletariat – in order to establish a certain level of trust Uncle Wolf had to attire himself in the sheep’s clothing of the bourgeoisie even more so than in the past. And in the mornings, as I partook of my müsli and orange juice with linseeds, I could palpably sense an acknowledgement of my past achievements in the looks people afforded me. I was just debating whether to get up and fetch another apple when I heard the Valkyries galloping on their steeds. With a confident movement I had seen performed by a number of young businessmen, I brought out the telephone and raised it to my ear.
        ‘Hitler!’ I said in a commendably discreet voice.
Hitler’s ringtone made me laugh several times, and it may be the best joke here, in this light comedy about the man who brought about the Second World War and the Holocaust. In case you don’t know, the idea is that Hitler finds himself alive, lying in the street, aged 56, in modern-day Berlin. He didn’t shoot himself in April 1945; instead, he time-travelled to 2011. Because it’s impossible that he can actually be Hitler, people assume that he is an actor with an uncanny resemblance (possibly assisted by plastic surgery) who never comes out of character. He attracts the attention of production company Flashlight, who give him a slot on a TV show hosted by Ali Gagmez, apparently based on Ali G, although it doesn’t quite sound like it from his material: ‘Gagmez introduced a few film snippets in which he appeared as a Pole or a Turk and translated their various shortcomings into stage routines’. Ali G was never so straightforward, surely? In any case, Hitler calls Gagmez’s bluff in the speech which follows:
My fellow Germans!
What I,
what we
have just seen
in numerous routines,
is perfectly true.
It is true
that the Turk has no creative genius
and nor
will he ever have.
Gagmez is furious that Hitler agrees with his portrayal of Turks, and takes showrunner Madame Bellini to task: ‘You said he’d disagree with me. He’d get all uptight about Turks on the telly and that sort of shit!’ It’s an interesting moment. For Gagmez’s, it’s OK to portray Turks as inferior, or to dress up as Hitler and demand that they be taken off the air, but for Hitler to interpret what he’s doing as critical (which it is) and agree with it is not OK at all. He’s one of the few people to get caught out like this: more often the joke is that people get to the brink of agreeing with Hitler, have a think, and back away from it.

Look Who’s Back is much more about the present than the past: it’s a satire on the way we live now, from the ubiquity and amplification of everything that was already famous before the internet (hence Hitler is the ultimate, ahem, Trump card – and I’m reminded that Trump was Patrick Bateman’s hero, way back when), to the dangerous slippages in meaning which can occur when everything is mediated through algorithms based on popularity. Content may be king online, but what about the content of that content? Hitler embarrasses Gagmez and shows him up as a bigot, which translates to huge numbers of hits on YouTube. The more hits it gets, the more the public is invested in it being satire, because otherwise they would be supporting Hitler’s far-right views for real. Is watching a video the same as endorsing it? Not for an individual. But for 10,000 people? 100,000? 1,000,000?* That has to mean something, and nobody has to say what it is. More slippage.

Of course, there was slippage in the Nazi era too, which is reflected in another running joke here: ‘We’re all agreed that the Jews are no laughing matter,’ says Madame Bellini, warning Hitler not to take things too far. His response: ‘“You’re absolutely right,” I concurred, almost relieved. At last here was someone who knew what she was talking about.’ She believes he agrees with her, and vice versa – but he knows not to be too specific about his views in this area, just as during the Second World War the extermination programme was not made public, though its rationale was. Hitler’s most significant encounter in the book is with Holger Apfel, then the leader of the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). I don’t know if the libel laws are different in Germany, or whether the calculation was that any publicity attendant on pursuing them would be counter-productive in this case (‘NPD SUES HITLER’ headlines and so forth), but he doesn’t come off well, babbling about disputing the legitimacy of treaties in response to a question about Lebensraum, and here, on race:
        ‘Where,’ I said icily, ‘in your “brochures” is there any mention of the racial idea? The idea of German blood and racial purity?’ […]
        ‘O.K. then. Having a German passport doesn’t make you a German; you’re German by birth, that’s what it says in our—’
        ‘A true German does not wriggle around in legal formulations; he talks straight! The racial idea is the fundament for the preservation of the German Volk. If this is not impressed on the Volk time and again, in fifty years we will no longer have an army, but a bunch of layabouts like the Habsburg Empire.’
The rules are different now. Leaders of extreme parties can’t claim racial purity as a goal, precisely because of the Holocaust. They have to frame their argument in economic terms. But then, that’s what everyone else does too.


* The trailer for the film has 1,422,074 hits at the moment.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Han Kang – ‘The Vegetarian’

The ebook edition of The Vegetarian has two covers: one which appears at first glance to be a tranquil image of flowers, but which contains hidden-in-plain-sight elements relating to the book’s concerns (a tongue, a steak, fingers, a fly, and – I think – a feeding tube). This cover is only visible within the book; the one you see online (and on the paperback) has a cleanly severed bird’s wing overlaid on a purple-veined salad leaf, which conveys something of the pain that Yeong-hye, the protagonist, relates to meat, including the damage done to her own veins over many months of intravenous feeding in hospital, and her identification with vegetation (‘I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch so I spread my legs; I spread them wide’). This is a book about pain, mental illness, anorexia; about constraints, within society, within relationships, within families; and it is a book about abuse of women by men. It is not really about the abuse of animals by meat-eaters, in much the same way that ‘The Metamorphosis’ is not a story about how badly people treat insects. Split into three sections, told from three perspectives (husband, brother-in-law, sister), we rarely hear from Yeong-hye herself, which makes sense as the story follows her descent into unknowability. Nevertheless, the pacing, which is the really stunning thing about this novel, follows a trajectory that mirrors her mental state, from withdrawal, through abandon, to collapse.

The section narrated by Mr Cheong, Yeong-hye’s husband, is almost a comedy of manners, in which rigid South Korean social rules are challenged by her refusal to eat meat, and the withdrawal from wifely duties which follows. They attend a dinner with Mr Cheong’s colleagues and boss, in which her social ineptitude (not wearing a bra, refusing to eat and barely speaking) is a serious embarrassment to him. He tries taking what he wants, raping her in a shockingly casual way, then eventually leaves when it becomes clear that she is not going to return to the role society expects and that he demands. This section is a very spare, pure narrative, following through the single idea that she has renounced meat, seeing where it leads. It’s like Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’, which takes the phrase ‘I would prefer not to’, and sees what happens.

The second section, ‘Mongolian Mark’, also unwinds from a single idea (that Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law finds that she has a blue Mongolian mark on her behind, and becomes obsessed with it), but it feels far less constricted by social rules – deliberately transgresses them, in fact. It’s interesting because you can interpret it differently depending on the third section, in which Yeong-hye sinks into mental illness. The brother-in-law, a video artist (who I don’t think is named) dreams of painting her body with flowers, centring on the Mongolian mark. The idea consumes him and he produces sketch after sketch of this, before finally approaching her to do it for real. She agrees, and he does make a beautiful video, before carrying the idea too far and trying to get her to have sex on camera with one of the other artists he shares a space with, who is similarly painted. It is the man who refuses, and the brother-in-law then (after a quick paint job) steps in… It’s all much stranger than the rape in section one, which is perfunctory and small-minded. The flower sex is deeply erotic and blurs all sorts of boundaries, but it is set up to be suspect: the brother-in-law is not only committing adultery with his wife’s sister, he is also neglecting his son, who he was supposed to be looking after on the night it happens. Yeong-hye is more herself during this section of the novel than before or afterwards, but she’s still a relatively blank presence, who is being taken advantage of by a family member. Which is what it all comes back to:
Yeong-hye had been the only victim of their father’s beatings. Such violence wouldn’t have bothered their brother Yeong-ho so much, a boy who went around doling out his own rough justice to the village children. As the eldest daughter, In-hye had been the one who took over from their exhausted mother and made a broth for her father to wash the liquor down, and so he’d always taken a certain care in his dealings with her. Only Yeong-hye, docile and naive, had been unable to deflect their father’s temper or put up any form of resistance.
If you want an explanation, that’s it. But the book doesn’t dwell on it, the point is more in the possibilities and restrictions of each situation: the conventional married couple’s home, the artist’s space, the psychiatric hospital. Behind the first two, male ego. Beyond all three, the mind, which, pushed sufficiently far, can let go its ballast and lift itself out of reach. Of course, losing your mind is not freedom (though losing your life certainly means an end to constraint), but In-hye, left behind in sanity, ends the book jealous of her poor sister:
She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Agatha Christie – ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ / John Bude – ‘The Cornish Coast Murder’ / Margery Allingham – ‘Sweet Danger’

It’s the referendum’s fault. I was reading a long, digressive novel about England in the 1830s when it happened, and felt so sickened by everything English that I switched to Proust instead. And then… I don’t know, a twitch upon the thread? These books are nothing if not English. It’s partly to do with Alistair Fitchett’s ‘beverage and a book’ photos on Facebook, which show some of the beautiful book covers modern editions of golden age detective fiction books are treated to (particularly by British Library Crime Classics) next to a tempting-looking cup of coffee. Dripping quietly into the consciousness. It’s partly S.’s enthusiasm too: we went to the Ironbridge Bookshop recently, which has the most amazing selection of old colour-coded Penguin paperbacks (pictured on their cover photo), and she declared her intention to one day have a library of these old crime books, like the one she remembers in her house aged 12, inherited from a great-aunt. It was M. who suggested Margery Allingham, whose detective novels, he said, have a bit more about them than detection, plus the unusual feature of a central character who ages for as long as the books continue, from 1929-65. We couldn’t think of another fictional character who does that.

The Cornish Coast Murder is the most conventional of these books, with a murder at the end of the opening chapter, a police investigation aided by an amateur-sleuth vicar (Reverend Dodd), which potters around methodically, making for an alarming sag in the middle of the book until inspiration strikes the vicar and things finally start moving (this is the kind of thing Conan Doyle inserted gangster novellas into his Sherlock Holmes novels to avoid). The opening chapter is nicely metafictional, with Dodd and his doctor friend Pendrill enthusing over detective fiction before a phone call interrupts their evening with the news that Dodd’s neighbour Julius Tregarthan has been shot. Shot in his own sitting room, through the French windows:
Three shots had starred the glass – one high up in the right-hand fixed window; one about six feet from the base of the door; and the third midway in the left-hand fixed window.
The curtains are open, though it is dark. Beyond the windows is a garden, a wall, a path, a 15-foot cliff and then the sea. Some gravel from the other side of the house lies under the windows. The only footprints found belong to Tregarthan’s niece, Ruth, going away from and then coming back to the house’s side door. Did she shoot him? Did her boyfriend, Ronald Hardy, seen in the vicinity at the time but now missing? Did the gardener, Cowper, creep along the wall from his room next to the sitting room and do it? This stuff goes on for too long, and it is not until Chapter 16 that anyone thinks to [SPOILER ALERT OF SORTS] relate the bullet holes in the wall to the holes in the glass, which rules out all of the theories which have been proposed up to that point. They definitely should have got Scotland Yard in. Also: the class-ism (servants are stupid), sexism and Christianity are all a bit stomach-turning.

By comparison, The Mysterious Affair at Styles is as light as a soufflé, and any stupidity is intentional:
‘Mr Hastings – you are always so kind, and you know such a lot.’ It struck me at this moment that Cynthia was really a very charming girl! Much more charming than Mary, who never said things of that kind.
Agatha Christie’s misdirection is on another level to John Bude’s, as one might expect, and involves Hastings blundering along drawing obviously incorrect conclusions from Poirot’s enigmatic pronouncements because one of the suspects for the poisoning of Mrs Inglethorp, John Cavendish, is his friend. The one thing you can guarantee is that the opposite conclusion to the one which Hastings draws is not going to be correct.

Sweet Danger is a much stranger proposition. For example:
        Amanda regarded him coldly. ‘You admitted the car looked very well outside the house,’ she said with dignity. ‘You’re probably one of those people like Hal who don’t believe in appearances. But I do. Appearances matter an awful lot.’
        ‘Oh, rather,’ said Mr Campion. ‘I knew a man once who carried it to excess, though. His name was Gosling, you see, so he always dressed in grey and yellow, and occasionally wore a great false beak. People remembered his name, of course. But his wife didn’t like it. Of course, he had perfectly ordinary children – not eggs – and that was a blow to him. And finally he moved into a wooden house with just slats in front instead of windows, and you opened the front door with a pulley on the roof. It had a natty little letter box on the front gate with “The Coop” painted on it. Soon after, his wife left him and the Borough Council stepped in. But I see you don’t believe me.’
        ‘Oh, but I do,’ said Amanda. ‘I was his wife. Come and see the mill.’
Unlike The Cornish Coast Murder, Sweet Danger doesn’t hang about exploring things methodically. Unlike The Mysterious Affair at Styles there isn’t even a murder (yes!), only a fiendish conspiracy which Campion is out to foil, to do with the inheritance of an estate which is almost impossible to prove, and which Big Business (not the bull from Cold Comfort Farm, but ultra-rich Brett Savanake and his henchmen) are determined to cream off, defrauding the worthy, impoverished family. While the plot does rest on the old fashioned and conservative assumption that hereditary wealth and status must be preserved, it at least does so in an interesting way, and there is more than a whiff of asset stripping about Brett Savanake’s plans, which feels contemporary. As does the way in which Amanda Fitton and her two siblings make money from the mill which is the only part of their legacy remaining before Campion’s arrival. They use it to run a dynamo, and charge radio batteries for the neighbourhood. They also run their own electric car (‘electric brougham’ is how it is described, and such a thing did exist), which – then as now – has issues with range: ‘you can’t go more than five miles in it’. And… witchcraft. All within a plot with a smooth momentum which never even dreams of sagging, keeping the reader agreeably perplexed, not just at the mechanics of who might have done what, but at the porous boundaries that this particular detective novel has allowed itself. An unlocked-room mystery would seem to be the best kind.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Brian Sewell – ‘Outsider: Almost Always: Never Quite’

One somehow feels one ought to apologise for, or at least explain, a fondness for public figures with obviously upper class accents, and few accents – few demeanours – were quite as ostentatiously elevated as Brian Sewell’s. I was fond of him (or his on-screen persona), and sad to hear news of his death last year, aged 84; yet I never read him, and though I knew he was an opinionated and divisive figure, I never really knew what the opinions were. Except for one. In the mid-nineties, he appeared on a panel show on BBC 2 to discuss Picasso, around about the time of a Tate exhibition called Sculptor / Painter, which I’d decided to base an essay around for school. Another panellist made the mistake of pretending to apologise for putting words in Brian’s mouth, and he protested that he wouldn’t allow him to put anything in his mouth. Speaking for himself, he acknowledged that the first Cubist still life was an achievement of sorts, but was as nothing to the first still life. ‘Good point,’ I thought, and also: ‘Ha ha!’ How could any self-loathing / respecting sixteen-year-old resist such a combination of scurrilousness and (secular) righteousness?

Outsider is a linear biography which takes the reader through its subject’s childhood, school days, higher education, national service, higher education again and then career, in the order in which they happened. In doing this, and in leaving the Anthony Blunt exposé of 1979 to volume two, it does lose momentum a little from 1958 when Sewell joined Christie’s auction house to work on sales of drawings and paintings (researching, cataloguing, and sometimes searching for works to be sold – much of it drudgery compared to his academic career). He makes the point that he was defined by the institutions he attended: Haberdashers’ school, the army, the Courtauld Institute, and then Christie’s. Parallel narratives are sex and religion: there is lots of the former at school, and then a long period of celibacy tied in with an intention to join the Church, renounced with glee in the late chapter ‘Abandoning God’, in which his long-delayed (homo)sexual education is the point, rather than any theological niceties. He is raped in the army, and makes very little of it: ‘what had I lost? – not my virginity’. Of his army experience as a whole, he is enthusiastic:
for decades I believed that my two years of National Service had done me far more good than my three as an undergraduate, my eight at school and twenty on my knees in church. National Service revealed depths and darknesses in my soul that I was grudgingly glad to know were there; if I am now capable or making worthwhile moral judgements it is because I was for two brief years a soldier of sorts, not because I am an art historian, a lapsed Conservative, an agnostic Christian.
If this seems self-abnegating, there is another side to Brian which is proudly queer:
When, to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of our leaving school an old boy invited me to dine with a dozen or so of my contemporaries, they were all contented married fathers, whose prinked, perfumed and appalling wives spoke of nothing but their university ambitions for their brats, most of them at Haberdashers’. When conversation turned, by chance, to homosexuality, the condemnations of the husbands were as shrill and vituperative as those of their wives, and, the hypocrisy intolerable, in one of those hushed moments when mutual outrage has exhausted company, I heard myself say, my voice perhaps rather too intentionally audible, ‘There is not a man at this table with whom I did not have sex when we were boys,’ and left the house. It has always puzzled me that heterosexual men have the ability to haul down the shutters on their adolescent sexual experiences and utterly deny them; to me they were unforgettable adventures in revelation, instruction and self-knowledge, too important ever to be denied.
There is a lovely BBC interview on the subject of Outsider II, in which, when asked about his role in protecting Anthony Blunt in 1979 and the ensuing unpopularity, he says: ‘I’m not popular as a critic: it’s why the book is called Outsider’ (his voice approaching Joan Greenwood’s in its amused drawl). This volume ends before he becomes a critic, but the same downtrodden feeling pervades the Christie’s years (to 1966), in which he never quite gets to do the academically rigorous work which he feels would bolster the company’s reputation. There are many anecdotes about how bad Christie’s was as an auction house: the power struggles, the ignorant bosses, the poor handling of items for sale, the forgeries which should have been spotted. You could get a good work-based-drama out of this material. For example, Burne-Jones’ painting The Sleep of Arthur at Avalon, unframed, six metres by three, is hung like a tapestry for viewing (Brian’s idea) and collapses on top of Peter Chance, the Christie’s director, who then, ‘instead of standing still, he panicked, fought his way out of the belly of this whale’, leaving heaps of paint flaked on the floor. Brian and restorer Joan Seddon had only a few days to get it in shape for the sale, and were obliged to paint in sections which were unrestorable. 45 years later it came to the Tate for a year and Brian was ‘appalled by the crude quality of the irises, bluebells and forget-me-nots in which I had a hand’. Anyone else would probably have left that out of their autobiography, but for Sewell this is half the fun: he was a mischievous soul.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Claire Harman – ‘Charlotte Brontë: A Life’

Claire Harman’s new biography of Charlotte Brontë, published to coincide with its subject’s bicentenary, is unblinking and concise. It accentuates the awkward and the painful, making for a gripping but harrowing read that has the relentless downward trajectory of a Tess of the D’Urbervilles or a Breaking the Waves. Her version of Charlotte is small and plain, with missing teeth and an unconvincing hair-piece. She’s painfully shy, socially inept, and absolutely aware of it:
I flee the world because I do not have the qualities needed to shine in it. Vivacity, grace and liveliness I lack. The taciturn man is always a burden on society… hence he loves solitude because he is at ease in it, a base and contemptible motive that comes from selfishness and indolence. (p. 172, from an ‘essay – or story – called “Le But de la Vie” (“The Aim of Life”)’, written in Brussels in 1843)
She fights against this taciturnity as best she can with the written word, but an unbridgeable gap remains. She can’t achieve the closeness she wants with Constantine Heger or George Smith, so moulds their characters into those of M. Paul Emanuel and Dr John in Villette, her masterpiece, a book that shows the damage unrequited love can do like no other. In writing it, you’d have thought she’d have earned peace on earth, especially when she recognised in her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, feelings for her just as strong as hers had been for Heger:
one ordinarily so statue-like – thus trembling, stirred and overcome […] Mr. N is one of those who attach themselves to very few, whose sensations are close and deep – like an underground stream, running strong but in a narrow channel. (pp. 319-20)
As though in a particularly cruel fairy tale, Charlotte’s comeuppance for expressing her yearning so powerfully, was to die as a result of hyperemesis gravidarum, an ‘extreme reaction to the hormones of pregnancy’ (p. 346), within a year of their marriage.

Harman sees Brontë as ‘essentially a poet of suffering’ (p. 227), which is true, but it is not the whole truth. The book divides into two around the deaths of Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë in 1848-9, events which robbed the world of a sequel to Wuthering Heights, and Charlotte of her first and best context. I’d thought there was a glimpse of this in Villette with the interplay between Polly, a young girl, and Graham (as Dr John is known early on), an older boy who teases her mercilessly and charmingly; but it turns out that the young Polly is modelled on one of Elizabeth Gaskell’s daughters. That interplay is one of my favourite parts of the novel: it seems as true and affectionate as anything Brontë wrote, and is nothing to do with pain at all – or even awkwardness. There is a perfect understanding between Graham and Polly which is outside society: they flee the world together and shine in their own little bubble. The Brontë siblings did the same – Branwell included until his addictions to opium and alcohol overtook him. Harman speculates about whether Charlotte too took opium, pointing to texts she composed while ostensibly teaching at Roe Head school, which were written with her eyes shut, as she tried to blot out her pupils and return to the ‘world beneath’ (p. 95) – the fantasy world of Angria. It sounds as though she wasn’t much of a teacher at that point.

Her father, Patrick, comes across a little like Josiah Crawley from Framley Parsonage and The Last Chronicle of Barset:
On one side, Patrick Brontë’s experience had encouraged him to think that anything was possible when natural abilities, hard work and the will of God combined; on the other, his meteoric rise had left him with many social anxieties intact and much of his innate conservatism strengthened. (p. 78)
A man with, if anything, fewer social skills than Crawley (who at least gets on with the poor), Patrick is a curious figure, mostly unsympathetic because of his lack of engagement with the outside world, and his tendency to neediness. One mustn’t be too hard on a man who survived his entire family (a wife and six children), but his attempts to re-marry and later to prevent Charlotte from doing so for fear of losing his carer were crass in the extreme. There is something of this naïvety in Charlotte’s inability to hold back in her letters to Constantine Heger, the married teacher with whom she fell in love in Brussels: her tone is abject, and heartbreaking, but how can she not have known that she was driving him away? Later, a much smaller demand for constancy likewise pushes George Smith, her publisher, towards indifference. You want to reach in and shake her: ‘Charlotte! Be cool!’ Easier said than done, though.

Harman is good on Brontë’s achievements, for instance the innovation of telling the first part of Jane Eyre from a child’s perspective, apparently the first novel to do so, and an influence on the second, David Copperfield (Dickens didn’t read Jane Eyre, but had an account of it from John Forster). Here, from a discussion of The Professor, she extrapolates a kind of general law of her fiction:
The convention of not answering back allows able women a scornful superiority, flashing out in looks, in suppression of comment, withheld speed; quellingly disdainful, devastatingly critical, but always held in check. This pent-up power, secretly triumphant because unrealised, is the incendiary device at the heart of Jane Eyre, and of all Charlotte Brontë’s works. And through its identification and her precise observation of it, she presented something completely revolutionary. (p. 202)
Villette innovated too:
Villette, forged from such personal and painful material, reached psychological depths never attempted in fiction before and became, unwittingly, a landmark in the depiction of states of mind and self-perception, a thoroughly, peculiarly and disturbingly Modernist novel. (p. 314)

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