In the annals of acidic reviewing, nothing beats Truman Capote’s flip dismissal of Jack Kerouac’s work: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Still, the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs magazine does not do too badly when it comes to Thermonuclear Monarchy by Elaine Scarry, Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value at Harvard. Snip:
“This curious book addresses what Scarry describes as the incompatibility of nuclear weapons and democracy. But her knowledge of nuclear matters is superficial, and she says very little about the weapons, other than to draw attention to their awfulness and to the fragile, illegitimate, and dangerous structures that govern their possession and potential use.”
By the way, here’s now Gore Vidal dissed Truman Capote: “He’s a full-fledged housewife from Kansas with all the prejudices.”Tweet
Alex O’Connell in the Times said it was “a heavyweight masterpiece”, but in the Observer Julie Myerson wrote that she was bored by it, calling it “a Harry Potter tribute novel”. On one hand, Kamila Shamsie in the Guardian called it an “astonishing” achievement, but on the other, the Sunday Times‘ Peter Kemp wrote: “No amount of straining for high-flown uplift can disguise the fact that The Goldfinch is a turkey.”
So is latest Donna Tartt worth reading? Well, those who are lonely, or who are outsiders, or who love the paintings of the Dutch Masters, will find much in the 771 pages to comfort them. But above all, for boys who love their mothers, living or dead, there’s a lot to ponder. Snippet:
“How was it possible to miss someone as much as I missed my mother? I missed her so much I wanted to die: a hard, physical longing, like a craving for air underwater. Lying awake, I tried to recall all my best memories of her — to freeze her in my mind so that I wouldn’t forget here — but instead of birthdays and happy times I kept remembering things like how a few days before she was killed she stopped me halfway out the door to pick a thread off my school jacket. For some reason, it was one of the clearest memories I had of her: her knitted eyebrows, the precise gesture of her reaching out to me, everything. Several times too — drifting uneasily between dreaming and sleep — I sat up suddenly in bed at the sound of her voice speaking clearly in my head, remarks she might conceivably have made at some point but that I didn’t actually remember, things like Throw me an apple, would you? and I wonder if this buttons up the front or the back? and This sofa is in a terrible state of disreputableness.”
“It was a fairy-tale world, child-like and funny. Boughs of trees adorned with thick pillows, so fluffy someone must have plumped them up; the ground a series of humps and mounds, beneath which slinking underbrush or outcrops of rock lay hidden; a landscape of crouching, cowering gnomes in droll disguises — it was comic to […]
In 1993, Samuel Huntington put the cat among the international relations pigeons with an article in Foreign Affairs magazine titled speculatively “The Clash of Civilizations?” He expanded it to book length and it was published in 1996 as The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. The book was immediately condemned by the multi-cultural complex because of its staunch defence of Western values, but its stock rose significantly after 9/11 as people woke up to the reality that the new, anti-Western barbarians were already at the gates.
Huntington makes a number of recommendations to save Western civilization, including restraining “the development of the conventional and unconventional military power of Islamic and Sinic countries.” But he also urges the West “to accept Russia as the core state of Orthodoxy and a major regional power with legitimate interests in the security of its southern borders.” When it comes to today’s politics, it’s worth examining how Huntington stacks up two decades after his initial analysis, especially regarding Russia.
In chapter 7, which deals with “Core States, Concentric Circles and Civilizational Order”, he looks at “Russia and its Near Abroad” and lays out several scenarios for Ukraine, “a cleft country, with two different cultures.” Its “civilizational fault line between the West and Orthodoxy runs through its heart and has done so for centuries” says Huntington and he suggests that “Ukraine could split into two separate entities, the eastern of which could merge with Russia.” He also quotes a Russian general as saying, “Ukraine or rather Eastern Ukraine will come back in five, ten or fifteen years. Western Ukraine can go to hell!” This leads him to conclude: “Such a rump Uniate and Western-oriented Ukraine, however, would only be viable if it had strong and effective Western support. Such support, is, in turn likely to be forthcoming only if relations between the West and Russia deteriorated seriously and came to resemble those of the Cold War.”
And here we are 2014, where relations between the West and Russia have deteriorated seriously and talk of a new Cold War fills the air. Huntington rewards reading.Tweet
On Being Blue by William H. Gass was first published in 1976, the year when the Apple Computer Company was formed, the Ramones released their first album and Agatha Christie died. Now, it’s being republished by NYRB Classics, with an introduction by Michael Gorras, and here’s a snippet from his appreciation of the amazing flexibility of the English language in the hands of Gass:
“Say it. Go ahead, stand before the mirror, look at your mouth, and say it. Blue. See how you pucker up, your lips opening with the consonants into a kiss, and then that final exhalation of vowels? Blue. The word looks like what it is, a syllable blown out into the air, and with the sound and the sight of saying it as one. You blew blue, though let’s pause a while before getting on to that, and try it out in the other languages you might claim to know. Bleu. But it’s just not the same, your lips don’t purse as much, the eu cuts the syllable short where the ue prolongs it, sustaining it like a piano’s pedal. Blau — that doesn’t work either, and the ow makes the mouth open too far. It’s not quite a howl, it’s a touch too soft for that, and yet it’s a blowsy sound, and untidy. As for azzurro or azul, well, those suggest something else entirely.”
“The ship’s surgeon was a spotty unshaven little man whose clothes, arrayed with smudges, drippings, and cigarette burns, were held about him by an extensive network of knotted string.” The Recognitions by William Gaddis.
While Michael Gorras pays tribute to the musical language of William Gass in his introduction to On Being Blue, Gass did something similar for William Gaddis in his introduction to The Recognitions: “I particularly like the double ts with which our pleasure begins, but perhaps you will prefer the ingenious use of the vowel i in the sentence with which it ends… or the play with d and c in the same section,” he wrote. Michael Robbins looks at “How perfectly strung-together words can delight the ear” in the Printers Row Journal.Tweet
On 10 May 1953, the old German city of Chemnitz was renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt (Karl Marx City) by its Communist rulers. On 21 June 1990, Marx was deposited in the dustbin of European history and Chemnitz was Chemnitz once more. The city is home to many attractions, including the Lessing & Kompanie bookshop. According to the German book trade magazine, Börsenblatt, the owner of Lessing & Kompanie, Klaus Kowalke, invested €3,500 in an all-day session with a professional photographer taking 1,700 snaps of 127 of his customers in the shop, with their favourite books. The result is a charming Tumblr.Tweet
J.M. Ledgard leads a double life. As a journalist, he covers East Africa for The Economist, but he’s also a novelist and the multitasking narrator of Submergence, James More, reflects Ledgard’s twofold career. Ostensibly, he’s a water engineer based in Nairobi, but that’s just a cover for his activities as a British intelligence agent. When we meet him, he’s been captured by a Somalian affiliate of al-Qaeda, which keeps moving him back and forth across the bleak African terrain, trying to hide from American drones while planning jihad. James is sustained in his suffering by the memory of a brief affair in a hotel on the French Atlantic coast with Danielle Flinders, a brilliant and carnal bio-mathematician, who studies the luminous creatures of the ocean floor. As James sinks deeper into the desolation of his captivity, Danielle prepares for a dive that will take her to the extreme depths of the Atlantic. Submergence mixes language, science, politics, geography and love in a superb story about deserts, oceans, desire and terror.
Saif, the leader of the jihadist group, constantly talks of martyrdom. At one point, he says, “I expect to die soon. I welcome it. I expect you’ll be killed too. That is why I want you to convert to Islam.”
“No,” James said, firmly.
This exchange is followed by a truly extraordinary lyrical passage:
“There was no chance he would convert. It was not just a question of Islam, it was the way life was constructed. A man lived his threescore years and ten, less than a whale, less than a roughy fish, and the only way to come to terms with his mortality was to partake in something that would outlive him: a field cleared of stones, a piece of jewellery, a monument, a machine. Every man was a loyalist for what he knew. Even tramps fought for the tramping life. Life was too short for him to renounce the English parish church, once Catholic, with their knights’ tombs, prayer cushions, flower arrangements, the brass lectern in the shape of an eagle. No, the quiet of those places — the ancient front door, the graveyard, the meadow, the damp — gave him a sense of belonging. He was loyal to them. It was too late to abandon the English canon, from Chaucer to Dickens, the first World War poets, Graham Greene typing through the smog and the drizzle… He had said it before: he was an intelligence officer who reached out, spoke Arabic, read widely, but if the Crusades were invoked — and Saif was invoking them — then he was a Crusader. If he had to die at the hands of fanatics, he wished to remain familiar and coherent to those whom he loved and who loved him.”
J.M. Ledgard has partaken in something that will outlive him and he’s to be congratulated for writing such honest and moving prose. If, in 2014, we are to suffer pain and loss, let us remain familiar and coherent to those whom we love and who love us.Tweet
Earlier this year, the German writer Wolfgang Herrndorf asked his friends if they knew someone who knew someone who could get him a revolver. He wasn’t planning to rob a bank or commit a crime of passion. Rather, he intended to fight cancer — his way. Before long, he was the owner of an unregistered .357 Smith & Wesson and he found it to be a thing of considerable beauty. “It possessed such a comprehensively calming effect that it’s unclear to me why the health insurance provider didn’t pay for it,” he wrote in his diary. On 26 August, he left his apartment in Berlin, strolled along the bank of the Hohenzollernkanal, found a seat, put the barrel of the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was 48.
Most modern German writing is unreadable. There’s no shortage of material, but it seems that the writers are more interested in whingeing about the “Kapitalismus” that has given them such an enviable standard of living, or they’re occupied with absurdities such as the Occupy movement, or they’re fomenting hatred of Amazon and Google and generally acting the Luddite when it comes to technological progress. All this is preferable to the hard work of writing. The result is an endless stream of turgid polemical tracts misleadingly labelled as novels and memoirs. Wolfgang Herrndorf was the honourable exception to this rule.
His novel Tschick (English: Why We Took the Car) was published in mid-2010 and a year later Sand appeared. The two represented the most exciting and stylish German fiction of recent times. Tschick was published in 27 countries and one million copies were sold in Herrndorf’s homeland. Along with writing novels, Herrndorf posted regularly at his blog Arbeit und Struktur and it was there that the wider world learned of his battle with cancer. After three operations and bouts of radiation treatment and chemotherapy he decided that he’d had enough of modern medicine and requested the revolver. The book of his blog is now destined to be a posthumous bestseller.Tweet
Given South Africa’s resources, the late Nelson Mandela had the power to become an even greater tyrant than Robert Mugabe. Instead, Mandela decided to become a secular saint. We can only hope that all leaders would act as he did. In 1962, Nelson Mandela was transferred from Pretoria to the prison on Robben Island, remaining there for the next 18 years. This snippet is from his Long Walk To Freedom:
“June and July were the bleakest months on Robben Island. Winter was in the air, and the rains were just beginning. It never seemed to go above forty degrees Fahrenheit. Even in the sun, I shivered in my light khaki shirt. It was then that I first understood the cliché of feeling the cold in one’s bones. At noon we would break for lunch. That first week all we were given was soup, which stank horribly. In the afternoon, we were permitted to exercise for half an hour under strict supervision. We walked briskly around the courtyard in single file.
Robben Island had changed since I had been there for a fortnight’s stay in 1962. In 1962, there were few prisoners; the place seemed more like an experiment than a full-fledged prison. Two years later, Robben Island was without question the harshest, most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system. It was a hardship station not only for the prisoners but for the prison staff. Gone were the Coloured warders who had supplied cigarettes and sympathy. The warders were white and overwhelmingly Afrikaans-speaking, and they demanded a master-servant relationship. They ordered us to call them ‘baas,’ which we refused. The racial divide on Robben Island was absolute: there were no black warders, and no white prisoners.
From the first day, I had protested about being forced to wear short trousers. I demanded to see the head of the prison and made a list of complaints. The warders ignored my protests, but by the end of the second week, I found a pair of old khaki trousers unceremoniously dumped on the floor of my cell. No pin-striped three-piece suit has ever pleased me as much. But before putting them on I checked to see if my comrades had been issued trousers as well.
They had not, and I told the warder to take them back. I insisted that all African prisoners must have long trousers. The warder grumbled, ‘Mandela, you say you want long pants and then you don’t want them when we give them to you.’ The warder balked at touching trousers worn by a black man, and finally the commanding officer himself came to my cell to pick them up. ‘Very well, Mandela,’ he said, ‘you are going to have the same clothing as everyone else.’ I replied that if he was willing to give me long trousers, why couldn’t everyone else have them? He did not have an answer.”
In March 1960, Ian Fleming had dinner with John F. Kennedy at the White House. In his book, The Life of Ian Fleming, John Pearson notes: “During the dinner the talk largely concerned itself with the more arcane aspects of American politics and Fleming was attentive but subdued. But with coffee and the entrance of Castro into the conversation he intervened in his most engaging style. Cuba was already high on the headache list of Washington politicians, and another of those what’s to-be-done conversations got underway. Fleming laughed ironically and began to develop the theme that the United States was making altogether too much fuss about Castro — they were building him into a world figure, inflating him instead of deflating him. It would be perfectly simple to apply one or two ideas which would take all the steam out of the Cuban.” Kennedy asked him what would James Bond do about Fidel Castro. Fleming replied, “Ridicule, chiefly.”
In March 1961, Hugh Sidey wrote an article in Life Magazine on JFK’s top ten favourite books designed to show that the president was both well-read and in touch with popular taste. The only work of popular fiction on the list was From Russia With Love. Up until then, Bond had not sold well in the US, but by the end of 1961 Ian Fleming had become the largest-selling thriller writer in America.
“The great trains are going out all over Europe, one by one, but still, three times a week, the Orient Express thunders superbly over the 1,400 miles of glittering steel track between Istanbul and Paris. Under the arc-lights, the long-chassied German locomotive panted quietly with the laboured breath of a dragon dying of asthma. Each heavy breath seemed certain to be the last. Then came another.” Ian Fleming, From Russia With Love
Following a forced and painful interruption, we’re ready to recommence reading Solo, the new James Bond thriller by William Boyd. At the end of the first chapter, 007 is at the Café Picasso in Chelsea in London. He orders a glass of Valpolicella and a portion of lasagne. This is followed by another glass of wine and an espresso. Now, note what follows: “He threw down a pound note and some coins to cover his bill and a tip, stepped out into the King’s Road and hailed a taxi.” Given London prices today, William Boyd is dealing clearly with a distant past in Solo.
Here’s the cover of the fourth Ian Fleming 007 story, Diamonds are Forever, which was published in March 1956 in Britain by Jonathan Cape. The creator of the cover art is to be credited with making an effort to match the author’s attitude.
“Before a man’s forty, girls cost nothing. After that you have to pay money, or tell a story. Of the two, it’s the story that hurts most. Anyway I’m not forty yet.” Ian Fleming, Diamonds are Forever