Packer's reverent review of Patrick French's biography The World Is What It Is focuses entirely on Naipaul's love life, and that's pretty depressing for England too. Still, when I turn to Geoffrey Wheatcroft's fascinating review of Piers Brandon's The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997 I have to pause at the title's suggested comparison to Edward Gibbon's Rome. Rome fell because it was besieged, starved and invaded. The British Empire has dissolved in the age of national self-determination, but London has not been besieged, starved or invaded. Still, if V. S. Naipaul is the greatest English novelist of the past half century, they may be doing worse than I thought.
Today's Book Review serves up some good fiction coverage, including lively praise for Antonio Lobo Antunes's What Can I Do When Everything's On Fire? by Will Blythe, author of To Hate Like This is To Be Happy Forever. Is everybody creating titles like Miranda July now? This is the only foreign novel under review today, but Stacey D'Erasmo treats Carolyn Chute's militia-strewn deep Maine as a foreign country in her review of The School of Heart's Content Road, which seems to match Chute's intent in this story about an alternative communal settlement in the Maine woods, "decidedly suspicious of the United States government, Nafta and public schooling ... very prepared for a global emergency". D'Erasmo is quite pleased by this book, and her excitement is absolutely infectious. The article is accompanied by what must be one of the best author photos ever taken, though clearly this gun-wielding couple is posing for the camera. I'm going to read this book.
Deb Olin Unferth's Vacation doesn't fare as well in the hands of Madison Smartt Bell ("Unferth's characters are so abstract that no one would weep over their fates. This makes plausibility almost beside the point, and the sense of contrivance perhaps even an asset.").
I like Matt Weiland's endpaper about "The Chicagoan", a midwestern New Yorker wannabe magazine now remembered in a book called The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age. The book costs $65, so I won't be buying it, but I will certainly sit down and have a good time with it in a Barnes and Noble or Borders aisle shortly.
I don't have much background in science books, but I also like Steve Jones's review of The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies by Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson, a book with an arresting thesis:
Holldobler and Wilson's central conceit is that a colony is a single animal raised to a higher level. Each insect is a cell, its castes are organs, its queens are its genitals, the wasps that sting me are an equivalent of an immune system. In the same way, the foragers are eyes and ears, and the colony's rules of development determine its shape and size. The hive has no brain, but the iron laws of co-operation give the impression of planning.
This captures my interest,and in fact reminds me of some observations I came up with myself after reading Carl Jung during our past election season. I'm just not sure that human societies are completely different from insect societies in this regard, though of course we like to believe that we are.
John Ruskin was the most influential art critic in mid- to late-19th century England. Influenced by Romanticism, widely read during the Victorian and Edwardian ages, he published books about art (the voluminous Modern Painters), architecture (The Stones of Venice, The Seven Lamps of Architecture) and many other subjects. In total he published over 250 works. He influenced Tolstoy, Marcel Proust (who translated some of his works into French), and Mahatma Gandhi, among many and varied literary and political figures.
Today, Ruskin’s works are largely out of print or available in abridged versions only. However, one of his most enduring, and perhaps his best, books is still available: Unto This Last, not a book of criticism but rather a series of four essays on social theory. The name comes from the Parable of the Vineyard in the New Testament, where Christ says “take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last even as unto thee.”
Ruskin was deeply concerned about the plight of the working class of his time, who suffered under the harsh conditions of the Industrial Revolution. The classic writers of Political Economy, as the study of economics was known at the time, had published influential works on free-market capitalism. Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations outlined the importance of the division of labor. J.S. Mill and David Ricardo published definitive works on Political Economy. The political economists theorized that economies were governed by laws of nature -- the law of supply and demand, and the law of self interest -- which could not be regulated by governments. The regrettable but inevitable side effect of these economic laws was that a certain amount of the population was destined to be poor. The role of government for the political economists was to set conditions favorable to the laws of self interest and supply and demand. The poor, on the other hand, were to be regulated by population control.
Ruskin found the ideas of these political economists abhorrent. He wrote the essays that comprise Unto This Last as a rebuttal in particular to J.S. Mill’s The Principals of Political Economy, the dominant argument for laissez-faire capitalism during Ruskin’s time. Ruskin published the essays as a series in a new magazine, “Cornhill”, which was edited by the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. Public reaction to the works was so negative that Thackeray had to limit Ruskin to only four essays. Ruskin, although a political conservative and an advocate of the free-market, was labelled a socialist and worse. He assembled the four essays into a book and arranged for its publication. Sales started slow at first but began to climb towards the end of the century. Unto This Last would eventually become one of his most widely read works.
Why should we read Ruskin today? He writes with a flowery, sometimes difficult style, often tending toward purple prose in his description of art. But when you get used to his style, his writing is forceful and in fact beautiful. Still, even once we accept and begin to enjoy his style, why do we want to read a nineteenth century critic who went up against political economy? Global free-market capitalism has won the argument hands down. Or has it?
In Unto this Last, Ruskin set out to define wealth, and then to show that wealth can only be acquired under certain moral conditions, such as honesty and justice. The first essay, titled “The Roots of Honor”, outlines the problems existing in the relations between the employer and the employed, and states that the employer must deal honorably with his employees. Ruskin then proposes one of his most controversial ideas: work should be paid at an equal rate for a given job. He says:
The natural and right system respecting all labour is, that it should be paid at a fixed rate, but the good workman employed and the bad workman unemployed.
This means that two workmen, one more able or reliable than the other, cannot be played against one another to reduce the final price of the work. In that case, one worker will be paid less than the fair price, the other will not work. More just, according to Ruskin, is to pay the superior worker the going rate for the job. The inferior worker will still not work. Why is this more just? In the first scenario, both workers suffer. But in Ruskin’s scenario, the worker awarded the job is paid a just wage and is happy. The other worker is unemployed, but the total effect of the transaction is better than the first scenario. What is Ruskin’s solution for the inferior worker who is unemployed? First, all workers are to be educated, at the expense of the state, so that they have, in theory, the same skill sets. Second, government should set up manufactories, which would supplement the goods produced by the private sector, and provide jobs for those workers who have lost out on bids for jobs. The government would assure the quality of the work. As for honourable dealings with workers, Ruskin states that a master of a manufactory “as he would treat his son, he is bound always to treat everyone of his men.”
The second essay is titled “The Veins of Wealth”. Here Ruskin attempts to define wealth and to offer an alternative to the ideals of Political Economy, which he bills as the science of getting rich. Ruskin points out that under the political economist’s system, getting rich is always at the expense of someone else:
... the art of making yourself rich, in the ordinary mercantile economist’s sense, is therefore equally and necessarily the art of keeping your neighbour poor.
Ruskin then provides some simple illustrations that show that the accumulation of riches on the part of one member of a small society to the detriment of the others has the effect of diminishing the wealth of the society as a whole. Wealth is therefore a matter of justice:
The whole question, respecting not only the advantage, but even the quality of national wealth, resolves itself finally into one of abstract justice.
Wealth, according to Ruskin, is not accumulated material goods, but “power over men”, specifically power over men’s labor. Raw materials, even gold, are worthless without the labor required to extract them from nature. Wealth, to be just, has to be accumulated under moral conditions. And since wealth is power over men, Ruskin proposes:
... the noble and the more in number are over whom it [ the state ] has the power, the greater the wealth.
Perhaps is may even appear, after some consideration, that the persons themselves are the wealth.
National wealth is not built by a system of a few individuals getting rich at the expense of the many, but by the equitable sharing of riches among the greatest amount of citizens, and the bringing up of as many citizens as possible to the highest level possible in terms of education and intellect. Individual riches, as proposed by the political economists, are not beneficial to society as a whole, while just and honourable wealth is a benefit to all.
The third essay, “Qui Judicatis Terram” (“Who Judge on Earth”) deals with the idea of justice. To Ruskin, justice or injustice are inherent in all human economic transactions. Injustice in payment, in trade, in purchasing, puts the power exerted by wealth into one man’s hands, to the extreme detriment of the others in the transaction. But if the transaction is just, it has this effect:
The universal and constant action of justice […] is therefore to diminish the power of wealth, in the hands of one individual, over masses of men, and distribute it through a chain of men.
Ruskin then makes the statement wherein we see the result of just payment:
But the sufficient or just payment, distributed through a descending series of offices or grades of labour, gives each subordinated person fair and sufficient means of rising in the social scale, if he chooses to use them; and thus not only diminishes the immediate power of wealth, but removes the worse disabilities of poverty.
In other words, when men are treated and paid justly, we go from a society where the rich get richer and the poor poorer to a society where everyone has a chance to rise in economic status.
The fourth and final essay, “Ad Valorem” (“According to Value”) attempts to define value, wealth, price, and production in terms different than those proposed by the political economists. Value, in Ruskin’s terms, is that which leads to or supports life. Wealth is defined as “the possession of useful articles which we can use.” Mere possession or accumulation of objects is not wealth. Price is defined: “the quantity of labour given by the person desiring it [an object for sale], in order to obtain possession of it.” It should be pointed out that in industrialized societies, this labor is generally measured in money, not in kind. Finally, production is tied to consumption:
Production does not consist in things laboriously made, but in things serviceably consumable, and the question for the nation is not how much labour it employs, but how much life it produces. For as consumption is the end and the aim of production, so life is the end and aim of consumption.
Ruskin then sums up his economic philosophy as follows:
THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.
Pretty words, you say. Attractive ideas. But didn’t we agree earlier that global free-market capitalism has won? We in the U.S. have embraced the philosophy of Ruskin’s nemeses, the political economists, and have gone along with the idea that supply and demand and self interest should and will drive the economy, and that life under this system is good.
In what Ruskin called exchange, the trading of goods and services such that the goods are bought at the cheapest price and sold at the dearest, there is a winner and a loser. If the rich CEO of a corporation succeeds in driving down the wages of his workers in a labor negotiation, the CEO and the corporation wins, the workers lose. It is a zero-sum game. You might argue that the workers are lucky to still have a job, but they have lost nevertheless. Rather than “rising in the social scale”, as in Ruskin’s idea of a just economic transaction, they are sliding back. With constant inflation, a slide back, even a small one, is bad. The fact is that the United States is becoming a nation where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Let’s take the example of a company driving down wages by sending jobs offshore. This is a classic example of what Ruskin calls the unjust employer. The unjust employer bids two workers against each other until the pay for the job is reduced to its lowest terms. The man who does the job is ill-paid, and the other man is unemployed. The case of offshoring has an even more unjust effect. The workers in Asia and India, by reason of their economic situation, are so cheap that no bidding is necessary. The job automatically goes to the offshore worker, and the U.S. worker is unemployed. What if the U.S. worker were given the opportunity to bid against the Asian worker, to meet his competitor’s price, and secure the job? He would lose money, because the amount that he would be paid, that of the Asian worker, would be insufficient to cover his costs.
I submit that it is worthwhile to read Ruskin, because he foresaw the problems of free-market capitalism well ahead of his time, problems that are now becoming glaringly apparent. Since he foresaw the problems, perhaps we can apply his solutions to our current economy. The just wage is a particularly good place to start.
Ruskin was concerned with the wages of workers in factories. Some economists are already talking about an “hourglass economy” in the U.S., with a large number of highly paid executives and professionals at the top, a large number of low paid workers at the bottom, and the middle class occupying the thin portion in between. This is a disturbing trend for the U.S., which has traditionally prided itself on a large and prosperous middle class. Unbridled free-market capitalism may thus achieve its ends to the detriment of the many and the benefit of a few.
What can we do? Here is where “we the people” need government. As Ruskin argued, the government needs to reign in the capitalist economy, because nothing else can. The die-hard capitalists say that the market will resolve everything, but in fact it won’t. Capitalism left to its own devices is having devastatingly negative side effects: the creation of greenhouse gases, the steady erosion of wages, and the depletion of natural resources, to mention a few. Up until recently, the United States government had done a fairly good job in keeping capitalism in check, and protecting the citizenry from its excesses. The “trust busting” of Theodore Roosevelt, the New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt, and the creation of the EPA to limit pollution are examples where the government has stepped in to curb unrestrained capitalism for the benefit of the nation as a whole. Lately, the U. S. government has caved in to the interests of the corporations, but if things get back on track, the government can, for example, place a tax on jobs that are sent offshore. The tax would slow down the rate of offshoring, and the money collected could be used to re-train those workers who were unemployed due to their jobs leaving the U.S., or otherwise help them find new employment.
Ruskin, in his later years, actually used his own money to implement some of his ideas. He founded the Guild of Saint George, an organization whose members would run businesses that paid just wages and treated workers fairly, and donated 7000 pounds and a tithe of his income to it. Ruskin argued that factories should be run by water power rather than steam, as he was concerned with the ill effects of burning coal. His efforts influenced Pre-Raphaelite artist and critic William Morris, who helped found the Arts and Crafts movement, a forerunner of the socialist movement in Britain.
Perhaps our current so-called leaders would do well to read John Ruskin's too-often-ignored book of essays Unto This Last.
John Carey asserts that the English literary intelligentsia of this era made a conscious effort to segregate literary fiction from the newly literate (or semi-literate) mass culture produced by the late nineteenth century educational reforms to which many of the intelligentsia opposed. The Education Act of 1871 introduced universal elementary education in England. When a newspaper called the Daily Mail emerged in 1896 it carried the slogan 'The Busy Man's Paper' and announced its intention to 'give the public what it wants' This was in direct conflict to the belief that the public should be given what the intellectuals say they should be given. T.S. Eliot wrote in an essay:
There is no doubt that our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards...destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans.
The 1879 novel Immaturity by George Bernard Shaw was turned down by nearly every London publisher, and he concluded that the reason for its rejection was the newly adopted Education Act, which he proclaimed 'was producing readers who have never before bought books.'
Publishers of the time also did not want the 'excessively literary' George Eliot, but preferred the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde).
As populist newspapers like the Daily Mail prospered, European intellectual hostility to newspapers grew. In The Criterion in 1938, T.S Eliot declared that the effect of the daily newspapers on their readers was to 'affirm them as a complacent, prejudiced and unthinking mass'. Extensive campaigns against newspapers were abound. Critic F.R. Leavis wrote in Scrutiny of the mass media 'arousing the cheapest emotional responses,' declaring that 'Films, newspapers, publicity in all forms, commercially-catered fiction -- all offer satisfaction at the lowest level.' Evelyn Waugh satirised the new trend in popular culture in his novels Scoop and Vile Bodies.
To the highbrows of the time, it seemed that the masses were not fully alive. Many of the predominate literary icons of this period expressed clear hostility towards the explosive over-population of the third-world; and the triumph of hyperdemocracy and social power created by this newly created state. Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun's anti-democratic views are epitomized by his character Ivar Kareno, hero of the Kareno trilogy:
I believe in the born leader, the natural despot, the master, not the man who is chosen but the man who elects himself to be the ruler over the masses. I believe in and hope for one thing, and that is the return of the great terrorist, the living essence of human power, the Caesar.
Thomas Hardy wrote in 1887:
You may regard a throng of people as containing a certain small minority who have sensitive souls; these, and the aspects of these, being what is worth observing. So you divide them into the mentally unquickened, mechanical soulless; and the living, throbbing, suffering, vital, in other words into souls and machines, ether and clay.
D.H. Lawrence argues that only the elite truly live, while the proletariat merely survives:
Life is more vivid in the dandelion than in the green fern, or
than in the palm tree,
Life is more vivid in the snake than in the butterfly.
Life is more vivid in the wren than in the alligator...
Life is more vivid in me, than in the Mexican who drives the wagon for me.
Ezra Pound's complex Cantos are a good illustration of the fashion for obscurity in literature, a style that itself expressed contempt for the common man. In Pound's Cantos the multitudes and democratically elected leaders were a torrent of human excrement. The illustration of 'the great arse-hole' Pound contends, was a portrait of contemporary England.
A body of esoteric doctrine "defended from the herd" was adopted by a group of intellectuals who created a secret society called 'The Hermetic Students of the Golden Dawn' in 1890. This secret society fed the craving for power and distinction to soar the intellectual above the masses.
The contempt for the masses expressed by the literary icons of this period not only opposed universal education, but many also supported the ever-growing concept of eugenics as a means to control the overpopulation of inferior beings. Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection inadvertently led a new ethics most expressed in H. G. Wells' New Republic. Wells writes:
The new ethics will hold life to be a privilege and a responsibility, not a sort of night refuge for base spirits out of the void; and the alternative in right conduct between living fully, beautifully and efficiently will be to die. For a multitude of contemptible and silly creatures, fear driven and helpless and useless, unhappy or hatefully happy in the midst of squalor dishonor, feeble, ugly, inefficient, born of unrestrained lusts, and increasing and multiplying through the sheer incontinence and stupidity, the men of the New Republic will have little pity and less benevolence.
The entirety of John Carey's study is overwhelming, enlightening and extremely disturbing, especially as literary elitist tendencies may be an inevitable part of many intellectual communities, even today.
A self conscious 'movement' calling itself 'the Offbeat Generation' has been emerging in the blogosphere. This generation got its name from Brit-lit Andrew Gallix, founder and editor of 3:AM magazine, who has been described by underground writer, artist and activist Stewart Home as "the Breton of the post-punk generation, the Rimbaud of the Net, Beckett to my Joyce, and Trocchi to my Beckett."
Home also says: "Leaving myself aside (although I don't really see why I should), there aren't many writers I'd rate higher than Gallix" And who wouldn't agree? This is from Gallix's 'Forty Tiddly Winks':
Others can just doze off as soon as their heads hit the pillow. Not Tim, though. He needed knocking out flat by dint of drinking himself into a stupor. Otherwise, he was condemned to toss and turn till dawn at the thought of Time's winged chariot hurrying near: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang you're dead.
Instinctively, Tim would tune into the hypnotic ticking of his wristwatch on the bedside table. Like a clock in a crocodile, it grew closer by the minute with the implacable inevitability of tragedy until the din became truly deafening. Now, he just knocks back another stiff one and waits for the effect to kick in. The clockodial starts melting, Dali-style. The ticking gradually fades into a tiny, tinny background backbeat. Soon it is drowned out by Pomme's sonorous snoring. Forty tiddly winks.
Another major author in the Offbeat scene, and possibly the most revered, is Tony O'Neill. His debut novel 'Digging the Vein' is an accurate portrait of the life of heroin addiction, with its superficial relationships and endless searches for drugs. This book supports the idea that 'addicts tend to befriend other addicts', and the constant activity of the protagonist reflects someone desperately attempting to avoid introspection.
Mathew Coleman is another "Offbeat Generation" player who predominately writes erotic fiction. Yet his erotic stories are emotionless, misogynist and often downright vulgar (though he may take this to be a compliment.) His stories are more interesting when not alluding to sex, and he shows more depth in his 'Rants, to Self':
My greatest challenge in life is to try and let go, to pull off the many masks that I wear and to try and be who I am, to not be afraid anymore. This is perhaps one of the hardest things to conquer -- the self.
Joseph Ridgwell, the only true 'East Ender' of the Offbeat bunch, writes engaging stories that are strikingly real and down to earth. His stories manage to be edgy without straining to be so. Ridgwell's stories take you down the dark alleys of the underground, as only someone who has quite literally 'lived first and wrote later'. You can find Ridgwell's stories on his blog.
Ben Myers is my personal favorite of the Offbeats. His debut novel "The Book of Fuck' is a pleasure to read, uproariously funny, story-driven, and remarkably sensitive for a book with such a hard-core title:
I locked up and left the flat dressed for war: knee length overcoat, beanie hat, scarf wrapped around my head PLO-style, hooded top and a couple of jumpers. I had decided that i wasn't going to allow a British winter to get me this year, I was going to hoist up the portcullis, pull up the drawbridge and close myself off to the world and its cruel elements. No chinks in the armour, it's all about layers.
Myers is a pugilist poet, novelist, biographer, and frequent journalist for The Guardian'. You can view his writings on his blog, Ben Myers, Man of Letters.
The Offbeats often delve into the unpleasant experiences of the lower middle to lower classes; engaging their characters in 'street smart' behavior that supports their struggles to survive. The stories are mostly commonplace and unheroic, the fate of the characters the necessary result of the controlling force of society. Drugs, poverty, alcoholism, alienation, anger and nonconformity are recurrent themes.
I recently asked Andrew Gallix a few questions about the Offbeats, beginning with the definition of the generation.
Andrew: Offbeat writers are nonconcomformers who (at least in their work) feel alienated from mainstream publishing, which is increasingly dominated by marketing people, and often draw inspiration from non-literary material. In some ways, it's a continuation of the post-punk Blank Generation writers. Some Offbeats also have an offbeat, experimental style, but that's certainly not the case of all of us. It's not a movement with a manifesto. All of the Offbeats write in very different styles. What brought us together was our hostility to mainstream publishing."
Jennifer: Is there a criteria for inclusion or exclusion?
Andrew: It's not a club, so in theory anybody can be an Offbeat writer. There is no criteria as such. There are webzines out there made by people we don't know who claim to be Offbeat publications, which is great because it means that the movement is growing. In fact, some people who were very dismissive, and even hostile, at first, are now blowing the trumpets for the Offbeats. The original Offbeats coalesced around 3:AM Magazine, and in particular the events we organised in London. We started 3:AM in 2000. By 2003, we started organizing readings and concerts: The future Offbeats started coming along, but didn't know one another. By 2006 I became aware of the fact that all of these people needed to be brought together. The first thing we needed was a name so I started speaking of the 'Offbeat generation'.
Jennifer:I have to wonder if it is not the writers who reject the mainstream, and alienate themselves from society through their writing, rather then being rejected and alienated by it. Should we compare this movement to the Naturalist/Realist movement? Why are these periods being repeated in modern literature?
Andrew: Well, I would partially disagree. Some Offbeats like Tony O'Neill are writing in a naturalist tradition, but others like HP Tinker, Tom McCarthy, Steven Hall, or dare I say me, certainly aren't. The Offbeat scene covers many genres and styles.
Jennifer: Why do you feel that the marketing departments are dictating what is being published?
Andrew: Publishing houses used to support authors simply because they were good or interesting; that's almost unheard of these days. More and more books are being published, but alot of them aren't worth publishing (one thinks of Ecclesiastes: "Of the making of books there is no end"!). More and more books are being published, but there's less and less choice in book stores.
Jennifer: If there is a large market out there of writers who want to read ( and buy) more literary type books, then why are the marketing departments not seeing this as reflected in sales?
Andrew: I think they are, when they're ready to take a risk. Tom McCarthy's extraordinary success is a good illustration of this. The good writers are not being drowned out by the dross; there's just more choice out there. If a band creates its own label and releases a record, everybody applauds their sense of enterprise; when a writer does the same, some people cry out "vanity publishing"! However, writing is not all about marketing and money. Or at least it shouldn't be.
I do sense some contradictions in Gallix's responses. He proclaims that there are less and less choices out there due to the increase in books being published that are basically just crap; and then he says good writers are not being driven out by the dross! With this in mind, I have to wonder why the Offbeats are "feeling alienated from mainstream publishing, which is increasingly dominated by marketing people, and often draw inspiration from non-literary material." Are good writers being published, but no one is buying? Or are the Offbeats just not adhering to golden rule of thumb of book publishing: you have to write stories that people want to read, not just stories that you want to write?
In photo above: Andrew Gallix and Travis Jeppesen eating sushi.
I've just seen a wonderful movie, The History Boys, based on a hit play by British comedian Alan Bennett about a likeable gang of characters in a British prep school. The smartest students in this idealistic working-class school yearn to be accepted at Oxbridge (Oxford or Cambridge University) rather than the more proletarian schools (Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol and Hull) that are their lot by class selection. This film follows their quest for one year.
The students' hero is an inspired History teacher, Hector. Hector is a marvel to look at and listen to, an obese, aging, bumbling apparition with a bowtie and an outlandish drooping belly, played by Richard Griffiths in a performance so good you may want to rewind the movie and watch it again as soon as it's finished, just to enjoy him some more.
History Boys is a performance-driven movie, but the storyline is rather sophisticated and complex. Hector is the best teacher any student ever had -- the excitement his charges feel for Latin and the Classics attest to this -- but he is also a serial pedophile with a known habit of gently touching his students while giving them rides on his motorcycle. The fact that his "crime" is a public secret among the faculty and student body adds richness to this story. Is it a crime, they wonder? He never takes his molestations far, and he only approaches students who expect and agree to it (they allow him this liberty, apparently out of appreciation for his teaching, even though most are not gay). Hector seems to have constructed an entire Platonic society, in all senses of the word, a modern agora. It takes an actor with the charm of Richard Griffiths (whose other roles have included Falstaff, as well as Harry Potter cameos) to make this fully believable, and he does.
I was most impressed by director Joe Wright's treatment of the book's first sequence, the chaotic and ultimately disastrous dinner party at the Tallis household. The film follows the book closely in these early scenes (the actress playing Briony Tallis even looks exactly like the girl on the paperback cover), but embellishes the story with lush photography and languid summery pacing. The younger actors aren't great (it actually is possible for a child actor to cry realistically; just watch Little Miss Sunshine), but the male and female romantic leads James McAvoy and Keira Knightley are quite good, and the sexual chemistry between them is palpable.
The Dunkirk battle scenes and London hospital scenes are captivating and well-intentioned, though they draw short of capturing the full wartime horror depicted by Ian McEwan in the book. The story's big finish is then completely blown off, inexcusably, by this film version. Vanessa Redgrave is fine enough, but what Hollywood lunkhead made the decision to replace that great family party with a cold, mechanical television interview? The family party ending certainly struck the better note. Still, every movie is allowed to make some mistakes, and overall I'll happily recommend Atonement to anybody who either has or has not read Ian McEwan's novel. Please let me know what you think if you've seen it.
2. On a far, far, far less refined front, the innovative comic writer Jonathan Ames is premiering a Showtime series, What's Not To Love? (based on this book and other writings).
The first episode seems to aim for a Larry David/Sarah Silverman kind of vibe -- quirky through the roof, sexually outrageous -- and actually Jonathan Ames seems to have a good shot at following in Curb Your Enthusiasm's wake and finding an enthusiastic audience for this series. I won't judge the show based on the first episode (which involved a "mangina" and a boxing match) except to say that I didn't like it as much as Wake Up, Sir!. But the television screen presents Ames's unique rodent-like visage to memorable effect, and I have a feeling future episodes of this show will grow on me.
3. Ed Champion, easily one of the best litbloggers on this planet, is closing up shop. I trust that this is more of a rethinking than a retreat. I think it's a good idea to shake things up every once in a while, so I applaud Ed's resolve to seek his muse to the fullest here, and I eagerly await his next moves, whatever they turn out to be.
4. A revival of Harold Pinter's play The Homecoming, a tense, puzzling and deeply discomforting look at family and sexual politics, is getting rave reviews.
5. The first phase of the return of Action Poetry on LitKicks is about to begin! I'll be putting up a review of all the poems published on LitKicks in 2007 in the next couple of days. New poems will be accepted again shortly after New Years Day.
I'm always glad when the Nobel Prize winner turns out to be an author I've actually read (and this happens less often than I like to admit). I've only read one Doris Lessing novel, 1989's The Fifth Child, but the book has stuck with me all these years.
The Fifth Child is a fable about a happy family. They have one child and everything is great. They have another and everything is great. Then another, and another. Now they have four wonderful children, but as they prepare to welcome a fifth several members of the family begin to suffer from unexpected feelings of dread. Indeed, the new baby arrives looking strangely primitive, almost monstrous, and he doesn't seem to be tuned in to the same sense of joy and togetherness that the rest of the family thrives on.
The story veers towards the disturbing and the tragic, and Lessing's message seems clear: there is an invisible line between blessed happiness and self-indulgent over-happiness, and this line is all too easy to cross. There's also the slightest suggestion that the fifth child is not actually intrinsically different from the rest, but rather that the perfect family found itself unable to extend its love to yet another newcomer.
Agnes Grey tells the story of its eponymous heroine who becomes a governess for -- how do I put this gently? -- a family full of complete asshats. The kids she has to teach are horrible and the parents aren't better. Seriously? The little boy? Sociopath. Observe:
"I observed, on the grass about his garden, certain apparatus of sticks and cord, and asked what they were.Yeah, serial killer in training, that one.
'Traps for birds.'
'Why do you catch them?'
'Papa says they do harm.'
'And what do you do with them, when you catch them?'
'Different things. Sometimes I give them to our cat; sometimes I cut them in pieces with my penknife; but the next, I mean to roast alive.'
'And why do you mean to do such a horrible thing?'
'For two reasons; first, to see how long it will live -- and then, to see what it will taste like.'
'But don't you know it is extremely wicked to do such things? Remember, the birds can feel as well as you, and think, how would you like it yourself?'
'Oh, that's nothing! I'm not a bird, and I can't feel what I do to them.'
'But you will have to feel it sometime, Tom -- you have heard where wicked people go to when they die; and if you don't leave off torturing innocent birds, remember, you will have to go there, and suffer just what you have made them suffer.'
'Oh, pooh! I shan't. Papa knows how I treat them, and he never blames me for it; he says it's just what he used to do when he was a boy. Last Summer he gave me a nest full of young sparrows, and he saw me pulling off their legs and wings, and heads, and never said anything, except that they were nasty things, and I must not let them soil my trousers; and uncle Robson was there too, and he laughed, and said I was a fine boy.'"
Unlike the other two Bronte novels I've read, Agnes Grey is a completely different kind of book than either Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. In Agnes Grey realism is where it's at, and it's a wonderful little book (my copy, not counting end notes, clocks in at 195 pages -- yes!). Anne Bronte has an engaging, clean style, which is refreshing (especially after Emily Bronte -- that was So Very Dramatic), and it's really a shame that her work isn't as well-known as that of Charlotte and Emily, because she was very good. There's a lot I could say about the book, and I debated with myself about whether or not I was going to write something much longer and more involved, but in the end I decided to keep it simple so as not to ruin it for anyone who may want to read it. (Go for it!) In short, Bronte's handling of the issue of the stratification of social classes in Victorian England is straightforward (she drew on her own experience as a governess) and she manages to pack a lot of hope, longing, disappointment and optimism in her narrative without ever veering into the territory of melodrama, which I think is a sign of a writer who has a lot of control over her prose. It really is a beautiful book with one of the most honestly human characters I've encountered in awhile. In fact, this may be the Bronte book I like best, so it's a good way to wind up this round of Jamelah Reads The Classics.
I'll be back with my list for the next round soon. (This time, it'll be 20th century classics I have managed to avoid up until now -- I seem to be stuck in the 18th and 19th centuries.) Stay tuned.
I've found a new novel to love, a slim volume called On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.
This is a psychological novel in the classic tradition, like Washington Square by Henry James or The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. McEwan walks us through the forbidden thoughts, logical formulas and (often) utter delusions that fill the minds of his characters, two forlorn young British virgins named Edward and Florence, as they approach each other in dread and excitement on their wedding night. They come together and blow apart in a cataclysm of fear that is, in McEwan's telling, terribly sad but also sweetly wistful.
I admire the tight focus of this small book, and I enjoy the warmly funny interludes with waiters and remembered family members as the nervous star-crossed lovers attempt (unsuccessfully) to avoid a spectacular disaster on their long-awaited night of love. I thought of Henry James and John Updike often as I turned these poignant pages, but mostly I felt the spectre of T. S. Eliot and his doppelganger J. Alfred Prufrock in every word of this book. On Chesil Beach is, in fact, almost a novelization of that great poem, though the era is transposed and the gender roles are different (here, the woman is much more frightened than the man). What reminds me most of Eliot's Prufrock is the concept of sexuality as a spiritual and psychological explosive, a cosmic trigger. Prufrock is a young virgin (I disagree with those who think Prufrock is middle-aged) who daydreams of sex and wonders if he could have the nerve:
to have squeezed the universe into a ball
Edward kisses his bride and:
As he looked into her eyes, he had an impression of toppling toward her in constant giddy motion. He felt trapped between the pressure of his excitement and the burden of his ignorance.
I'm not exactly sure why, but I'm fascinated by that conflation of sexual dread and existential wonder, that high-pitched keening yearning for the (impossible) ecstasy of contented togetherness, that drives both Eliot's poem and McEwan's novel.
T. S. Eliot liked to contrast the sexual anxieties of his characters with the political anxieties of his age, and Ian McEwan plays on the same equations here, making much of the Cold War/nuclear age furor that was the hottest global issue in the summer of 1962. McEwan maintains a stately pace throughout this book, introducing his themes and symbols in a neat sequence, one after another: an analysis of Florence's identification with classical music, a chronicle of Edward's parental trauma, a whole lot of gentle comedy involving unwanted plates of roast beef in the honeymoon suite. It's a delicious and simple story, though it will not appeal to anybody who doesn't like this kind of thing. If you can't stand Henry James and John Updike, there's no reason for you to even look at this book.
I had been treated to an early look at this book last year, but when I wrote that summary I had no idea how much I'd be impressed by the whole work. The only other McEwan book I've read is Atonement (which is rather similar to On Chesil Beach in its essential plot, though it has many more characters, not to mention the battle of Dunkirk), but I've just been told I need to discover Black Dogs, and I know I'll be reading much more from this quaintly classical but thoroughly modern writer very soon.
Fifteen years dead Larkin is still a looming presence so I will try and be terse. He writes with clarity and a determined ordinariness that does not exclude (and often underpins) the lyrical. He is always accessible, his language compact, though occasionally arcane. Fond of compound adjectives -- air-sharpened, rain-ceased, bone-riddled -- he shares this with Hardy, with whom he invites comparison though his sentiments are less gawky, what they have most in common a deep, unshiftable despair.
2. The Clarks of Cooperstown, a new book by Nicholas Fox Weber about a family of influential art collectors, has been getting lots of attention in the art world, though it seems the attention is unwelcome by those carrying on the Clark legacy. The book details an admirable long history of art patronage, but it also details some gay relationships in the family as well as a few interesting political associations. Word on the street is that parties close to the wealthy Clark family are leaning on major art institutions (including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is running a major exhibition from the Clark collection right now) to not stock Weber's new book, published by Alfred A. Knopf, in their museum bookshops. All of which just makes it sound like a book I'd really like to read. You can't buy it at the Met, but you can buy it here.
3. I said that nobody seemed to care about Soft Skull's sudden announcement that it was being folded into a larger publishing company, but it turns out many do care. Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash posted a thoughtful explanation of the changes on Soft Skull's blog. There should be no mistaking the fact that this sale is not an attempt at creative or financial synergy, but rather a necessary consequence of a major book distributor default several months ago. There is a positive angle here, though, in that the merger gives Nash control over Counterpoint Books as well as the future Soft Skull. Richard Nash publishing Gary Snyder? Looks like that's in the cards.