Van Gogh in Kent: the inspiration he took forward from his days in England

Van Gogh brings us so much happiness, although much of his life was tormented. He suffered like so many artists from the difficulty of finding a place in society and thus of keeping himself alive. In his early adult years in England however he showed all the qualities that would sustain a foreshortened lifetime. His love of nature,  the alternating comfort and discomfort of religious belief, the dignity and harshness of physical work, and quality of human love etched themselves into his creative soul.

Before he moved to Kent, Vincent aged 23, had worked in London for the art dealers Goupil et fils, where he had a family introduction. The job as a salesman didn’t suit him and he didn’t handle customers well. But he knew English and that landed him a teaching job in Ramsgate, unpaid but with board and lodging. He arrived in that lovely old port on England’s south east coast, from Holland, on 17 April 1876 and wrote to his brother Theo four days later from his new surroundings. [Letter 078, of 21 April 1876] You can see the Blue Plaque today on No 6 Royal Road, from where he drew the view. The tall, classic English Victorian mansion stood on a slight rise in the residential middle-class heart of the town and looked down to the cliff and the sea beyond. Vincent’s parents back in Neunen in Holland hoped this would be the foundation of a successful new career path for their difficult son.

In the Ramsgate sketch you can immediately see how lyrical was his perception of the created world. The curving sweep of the empty road is almost loving, with the vertical street lamps drawing in attention to the centre of the composition. In later work these verticals will often be trees, especially cypress trees, or spires, or towers, or factory chimneys.

But it’s even more in the letters of that spring and early summer of 1876 that Vincent’s sense of artistic form and his early palette are already evident.

Here he is writing to Theo on 31 May 1876:

Have I already written to you about the storm I saw recently? The sea was yellowish, especially close to the beach: a streak of light on the horizon, and above this, tremendously huge dark grey clouds from which one saw the rain coming down in slanting streaks…

This was the palette for a couple of early paintings that will stand out as landmarks in his career: The Potato-Eaters (1885) and Boots with Laces (1886).

Looking inland and back again to the sea, Vincent went on:

On the right, fields of young green wheat, and, in the distance, the town with its towers, mills, slate roofs and houses …I also saw the sea last Sunday night, everything was dark grey, but day was beginning to break on the horizon…In the distance the light of the lighthouse, the guardship etc.

From this paragraph written when he was 22 a whole series of later paintings seems to emerge, from Outskirts of Paris (1886), with its start-up factories and smokestacks to Wheatfield with Crows ( 1890) in the south of France.

That same night I looked out of the window of my room onto the roofs of the houses one sees from there and the tops of the elms, dark against the night sky. Above those roofs, one single star, but a nice big friendly one. And I thought of us all… and the words and feeling came to me: ‘Keep me from being a son that causeth shame…Thou art love, beareth all things.

He might have been looking up at another future canvas, Starry Night (1889).

The young teacher mused:

Many a boy will never forget the view from that window. You should have seen it this week, when we had rainy days, especially in the twilight when the street-lamps are being lit and their light is reflected in the wet street.

The Kent letters were sketches in words. Their themes include roads, and all kinds of sources of light, and the starry night, and things that are broken or faded or as he will say ‘things over which life has passed’. One day he’ll linger over blousy sunflowers in a vase, beyond what common judgement would say was their ‘best’. In Ramsgate he homed in on a broken floor.

Another extraordinary place is the room with the rotten floor, where there are only six basins at which they wash themselves, with only a feeble light falling onto the washstand through a window with broken panes. It’s quite a melancholy sight, to be sure. How I’d like to spend or have spent a winter with them, to know what it’s like.

I want to dwell on his lifelong painterly fondness for broken, decaying things (and which he would pass on to future artists, right up to Anselm Kiefer in our own day.) Van Gogh would emphasize something about the materiality of objects which it seemed no one had noticed before, namely, that they didn’t need to be perfect to have meaning. The murky light of Mr Stokes’s school washrooms was indeed hardly a testament to beauty and happiness, but then nor were the factories where the weavers he would encounter in a few years’ time would work in miserable light. In the future too there would be many sketches and paintings of derelict property.

If he taught his pupils anything, we might hope van Gogh  taught them this praise-filled attentiveness. His father was a Protestant pastor and surely he acquired this devotion in childhood. The Ramsgate letters have a warm and open sympathy for the world as he finds it. Existence is friendly. Despite the evidence of suffering, hinted at through material decrepitude, there is a divine mover at work.

Here he is describing a walk with those pupils:

Now let me tell you about a walk we took yesterday. It was to an inlet in the sea, and the road to it led through the fields of young wheat and along hedgerows of hawthorn etc. When we got there we had on our left a high, steep wall of sand and stone, as high as a two-storey house, on top of which stood old, gnarled hawthorn bushes. Their black or grey lichen-covered stems and branches had all been bent to the same side by the wind, also a few elder bushes. The ground we walked on was completely covered with large grey stones, chalk and shells. To the right the sea, as calm as a pond, reflecting the delicate grey sky where the sun was setting. It was ebb tide and the water was very low.

[from a letter of 28 April 1876]

Yet Vincent couldn’t conform to the moral code, or, in the end, accept the literal belief of his father, and that was his agony. The troubles in his nature moved him on from Ramsgate after only two months.

Still what we can see was what a great painter of himself he was, already in words that mingled the faith he had been taught with the feelings he thought were true for him:

Although I have not been trained for the church, perhaps my past life of travelling, living in various countries, associating with a variety of people, rich and poor, religious and not religious, working at a variety of jobs, days of manual labour between days of office work, perhaps also my speaking various languages will compensate in part for my lack of formal training. But what I should prefer to give as my reason for commending myself to you…is…the Love of God and humankind.

[Letter of 17 June, 1876 to Theo]

The text was intended as his CV for his next job, but it was more a fragment of spiritual autobiography than a job application. He talks about how manual labour demands his attention; how a Christian faith sustains him, even as he spends his time wandering here and there. There is a dynamism in the writing which expresses a restlessness of soul, and that dynamism will one day appear in the painting too. Not yet a painter, he keeps on the move and writes letters. The walk from Ramsgate to London, at three miles an hour, via the dockyards at Chatham, with a few hours’ sleep under the hedgerows, is, in its way, at least to us readers, an epiphany.

London, the largest city in Europe, was overwhelming. Vincent’s sense was that cities, with their troublesome industry and new, often uncomfortable and distressing ways of bringing people together, needed meaning bestowed upon them.  It was as if they needed divine blessing and this was something his art, or, for the time being, his eye, translated into words, could provide. He would feel it first with London and then with Paris:

Many a worker in a factory or shop has had a remarkable, pure, pious youth. But city life often takes away “the early dew of morning”, yet the yearning for the “old, old story” remains, the bottom of one’s heart remains the bottom of one’s heart.’ Follows a reference to George Eliot describing in one of her books the life of the factory workers and calling it ‘God’s Kingdom upon Earth.

[letter of 12 May 1876]

The young van Gogh may have been, as his sister Anna said, ‘groggy with piety’, but that would be his art’s great gain, as he captured some of the pains of industrialization.

After Ramsgate he went to teach in Isleworth, on the southwest edge of London today, beside the Thames. But then his parents recalled him to Holland at the end of the year, anxious that his life was not on track. What followed  were difficult years of moving about the Low Countries, sketching and finally painting. His interest in manual labour led him to stay a year with the miners in the then coal-mining district of the Borinage, in Belgium, from 1879-1880. He took up a ‘position’, as he called it, though it was hardly that, as a lay preacher who cared for the sick and hungry and poor.

The palette and the preoccupations of these years, as I have argued in my book A Shoe Story Van Gogh, the Philosophers and the West, were fully incorporated in the 1886 painting A Pair of Shoes, aka Boots with Laces. This painting can be seen as itself a kind of self-portrait, matching the self-description in the Ramsgate letter of June 1876. In it we find the walking that was his daily practice, the boots he walked in, the suffering of the miners, the Christian interest in light and the transcendence of suffering, and the yellow and black palette of the storm. Even as the dim Dutch palette, the fondness for grey that he several times expressed in the Ramsgate letters, prepares to give way to the bright palette  he discovers the south of France, all his main themes seem to be condensed in the colourways of this 1886 canvas. He will paint more shoes and more roads in the few years he has left, from brighter, drier resting-places in the south of France. But he never forgot the Borinage, he wrote, and we might feel he never forgot grey, damp Ramsgate either.

On his sympathy with the labouring class, we need to remember that Van Gogh was born in 1853 into a world which Marx decried as immiserated by capitalism. The same vista of pain, squalor and exploitation horrified Engels, in his 1844 study of working-class London and Manchester.  The painter too noticed the spread of the industrial landscape and working-class distress, and tried to redeem them with art and faith. Like Marx he felt the nineteenth century was so strained by progress it was likely to go out with a big bang. This is in one of the later letters. Anthony Blunt once said that van Gogh was a founder member of a school of true working-class art.

This may be true. I will name some of the painters of the working class whom he inspires in a moment. Yet it must be said van Gogh lacks all political sense. He is sympathetic to individuals because he is solitary himself and has time to notice and care for them. His little groups of people are not organised by an idea of class solidarity. They occur  in restaurants or cafes or brothels or in small groups collaborating for work or leaving church.

In fact his own life was difficult because his relationship to other human beings was so oblique.

It was something Vincent felt already in the Ramsgate year about himself:

If there should be no human being that you can love enough, love the town in which you dwell…I love Paris and London, though I am a child of the pinewoods and of the beach at Ramsgate.

[Letter to Theo, autumn 1876 ]

Think of the deserted Ramsgate street he sketched. When he paints workers and labourers they are more isolated one from another than bonded. In Paris he’ll notice people strolling in the park. They will be solitary individuals or distant pairs and clusters, fond but remote objects for the painter to reach.

He arrived in Paris at the mid-point of his career.  At first the painting  Outskirts of Paris seems no great distance from the Vincent we first found sketching in Ramsgate. But  Road with Cypress and Star and Starry Night take us into a new realm. He began to translate old themes into spectacular colour and into biomorphic forms that bordered on the delirious.

Before illness descended on him he could see a kind of romance in industrialization which for me points forward to the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich. While painting Russian villages at the turn into the twentieth century Malevich found the same poignancy there arising out of the muted conflict between permanence and change, nature and industry, that Van Gogh had done in his experience of the Lowlands, and rural northern France, twenty and forty years earlier. Malevich’s 1928 Haymaking has the hallmarks of a homage to the earlier painter. It’s not quite the same van Gogh who  inspires twentieth-century English social painters like L.S. Lowry and Norman Cornish. But it’s another role for him, with one foot in modernism and another in realism, with a northern palette and a one closer to the Mediterranean, that van Gogh can also inspire, as if directly from Ramsgate,   Lowry’s Returning from Work (1929) and Cornish’s Two Miners on Pit Road (1980s?).

Vincent always loved houses. We can capture yet one more span of his career if we set alongside each other his sketch of Royal Crescent in Ramsgate, from 1876, with his famous oil painting of The Yellow House in Arles of 1888.  Though this last is best-known to us pastel- coloured against a deep blue sky there is an extraordinary unity between the little Ramsgate drawing  and a pen and ink sketch of his Arles home. Not finding human objects for his affections, Vincent directs his love towards towns, and houses, and roads, and the way of things. That’s where the kindliness of his street scenes comes from, and it’s how he comes to shape the townscape with affection, always emphasizing the uniqueness of the houses and their living, ongoing quality. The buildings are as if ready to grow and adapt and lean and sympathize. This is the urban counterpart to the passionate reciprocity of his feelings that he derived from nature.

Illness intensified his feelings for buildings and street scenes and nature beyond realism. By coincidence a van Gogh groggy with colour burst upon the scene of European painting just as other painters opened up new pathways. The Fauves in France and the Cubo-Futurists in Russia and the spectacular German Expressionists can therefore seem like his immediate descendants, and many of them, especially in Germany, derived great inspiration his work.

Alexej von Jawlensky, Dark Blue Turban (Helene with Dark Blue Turban), 1910,

This article was originally given as a talk to the Canterbury Festival on October 22, 2015. It was a lovely occasion, in a great and historic city.

Posted in A Shoe Story, Art History, Van Gogh in England | Tagged , , ,

Naipaul’s Journey into Darkness

In V.S. Naipaul’s novel In a Free State the intensity of his descriptions of landscape, and of the forcefield of competing human existences, is staggering. Has there been a better winner of the Booker Prize, the best-known and most lucrative annual award for fiction in English, since this formally innovative work won in 1971?  Apparently at the time some of the judges had to be persuaded that ‘a novel with two supporting narratives’ was a novel at all, but perhaps that really was the moment we moved on from what Saul Bellow called the ‘tinkling teacup’ kind of fiction beloved in England.

Naipaul’s supporting narratives are, like the central story, also journeys, and they help to open and close that core venture with glimpses of other travellers in other parts of the world. A tramp is bullied on a ferry to Piraeus. Ragged and dirty Egyptian children, when they beg from tourists in Luxor, are driven away by a man with a whip. A moral point lingers in both tales but then dissipates, as the narrator, only ever a spectator, moves on. In fact there are four such narratives, only tales two and three are longer and more complete. Both follow on the brief account of cruel and petty hostility on board ship, and both take up the theme of the outsider at greater length. In Washington a man of Indian origin frees himself from a state of spiritual slavery by marrying a local woman, but the problem in his soul, of where to belong, and how to achieve being ‘One Among Many’ with dignity, is not solved. ‘Tell Me Who to Kill’ is narrated by a protagonist whose sanity, probably already threatened, is fatally worsened by his life in London as an immigrant. Clothes in all these cases are soiled, as people without money or means, or proper homes, live grimy existences, those lives occasionally relieved by bursts of good fortune or whimsical, extravagant spending. The links with the main narrative are occasionally more powerfully signalled in the imagery, as when the tramp on the Greek ferry is baited ‘like in a tiger-hunt’ in India. Meanwhile the range of nationalities – German, Lebanese, Egyptian, English, Indian, American, Mexican, Caribbean, Italian – contributes to a definition of the human that remains forever out of reach. ‘In cafés, shabbier than I remembered, Greek and Lebanese businessmen in suits read the local French and English newspapers and talked with sullen excitement about the deals that might be made in Rhodesian tobacco, now that it was outlawed.’ This is just one among innumerable Naipaul sentences that if you extract it from whichever narrative seems like a story in its own right, albeit one we will never be told, as its morally elusive content reaches back into the novel that is just now drawing to a close, while simultaneously leading it to its end, which only by chance happens in Cairo. ‘Seventeen months later these men, or men like them were to know total defeat in the desert; and news photographs taken from helicopters flying down low were to show them lost, trying to walk back home, casting long shadows on the sand.’ In every case the binding thread winds its oblique course, and the detail is arresting.

Bobby and Linda, two people previously barely acquainted, drive ‘home’ across an unnamed African state, recently independent from Britain. It is now in the throws of a coup. The story mesmerizes in the same way the shorter narratives do, and, like every sentence Naipaul writes, is part of a mosaic. The parts fit together by analogy and the resulting picture at once finished and unfinishable. More pieces, more anecdotes, related to this and that, can always be added. Here is a human-inhabited jigsaw in which the sky and the earth and the ways of men just go on and on.

The brutal physicality, the stink of others, is a Naipaul preoccupation, even when he is in polite society. That has something to do, in Bobby and Linda’s case, with the African heat, and the discomfort of a long intimate car journey on uneven roads, and the rush of adrenalin as dangers come and go. Perhaps his gay dislike of her imperfect womanliness, coupled with suppressed memories of his own phsyical degradation in tentative advances to lovers, also plays its part. Another preoccupation is the blight of race, perpetually real, not to be airbrushed from the human picture, and life-threatening, obliquely in racist 1950s London, but now directly in tribal Africa.

In this story, as in all of Naipaul, culture is truly pathetic, the result of people wanting to bring a little dignity, and pride and order into their lives, or use their cultural inheritance to cover up the want of those essential goods, because actual lives are discontinuous and starved of affection and unfulfilled.

The threat of regression hovers heavy in the air, presses against the windscreen, lurks even when the landscape is beautiful. Everyone knows the threat is there, and that it is also a political threat in a land newly independent from its colonial masters, torn between the authority of president and king. The expatriates, sensitive to the whirr of helicopters, used to roadblocks, can still persuade themselves nothing is untoward. They have their traditions and defences from the old country.  They have their stone buildings. They drive imported cars. Such solidities help to hold them psychologically together, except that cars have to be serviced, and compounds called ‘home’ may have to be defended.

Being far from home, if home means anything, is the major Naipaulean theme. It mingles with the secret disappointments of friendship and marriage. In pursuit of the idea of home lives take shape, but that very shape is like a mirage that once appeared in younger days, and has now dissolved. Mirage is another of his ideas. It tends to mean exclusion from love, that is, little for the heart and not much in the way of genital satisfaction either.

‘At last they were at the foot of the cliff and on the floor of the valley. The sun was getting high; the land was scrub and open; it became warm in the car. Linda rolled down her window a crack. At the other side of the valley the escarpment was blurred; colour there was insubstantial, like an illusion of light and distance. They were headed for that escarpment for the high plateau; and the road before them was straight.’ That’s factual description, and perhaps the landscape ought to be enticing; but it’s oppressive, in terms of its light and heat and dust, and even its straight lines. Every now and again human figures  move into the edge of the picture, and out again, the extraordinary geometry of the African landscape forming a backdrop to the crudeness and the unexpectedness of human conflict. For Naipaul we’re in a world of untutored minds, of cruelty and brutality, to which the remaining colonialists, with their lingering manners and traditions and education, but also their character flaws, perhaps above all their extraordinary self-deception, or just a feeling they don’t actually have anywhere else to go, are vulnerable.

Naipaul’s theme is the the heartache, the disorientation, the grasping for elusive values – of people caught in between, though they are not, in themselves, especially nice people, not especially worthy of our moral attention, with their pettiness and vanity.

It’s a lesson in high art, how he achieves the objectivity he does. We’ve no doubt the world is like that, heavy, even cluttered with people and objects, moving here and there, not unlike, even in the towns of England, the ‘Africans who had come in from the forest and had used the awkward, angular objects they had found, walls, windows, furniture, to re-create the shelter of the round forest hut… In fact this resort had been created by people who thought they had come to Africa to stay, and looked in a resort for a version of things of home: a park, a pier, a waterside promenade. Now…the resort no longer had a function.’ Naipaul’s editor at his British publishing house Andre Deutsch remembered how often he would tell her he was a damaged man. But his writerly genius was to get the damage out there, through structural and thematic analogy, so no reader need be confined within his rickety soul. Analogy and a few similes, but no memorable metaphors and especially no use of symbol, means that the narratives, resolutely un-transcendent, just travel on, in ever widening circles, not perhaps meaning anything, just like the lives of those caught up in them. Across the landscapes, natural and human, people communicate in variants of language, in pidgin, putting names to people and things that strike others as bizarre-sounding, or frightening, or clumsy or ridiculous.

There’s an evident squaring up to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in this great book. Naipaul has Bobby dismiss it as a bad book, and has Linda agree. But that’s just patter, a bit of leftover society banter, between them. ‘You’ve been reading too much Conrad. I hate that book, don’t you?’ (p.160, Picador edition) Linda and Bobby are not thinking. Or perhaps Bobby is being evasive. They don’t know what Naipaul and we know, that this is the grandest comparison that could be made in the whole of modern literature in English, on behalf of In a Free State, that it resembles Heart of Darkness. If you read the Naipaul first you have to return to the Conrad, and vice versa, to see how the world has moved on. Both are stories of the white man in colonial Africa. Both show how the vast presence of that brooding country forces its visitors on to a moral journey which is soul-destroying and unintelligible. Both stories, of 1899 and 1971, use the institutions of London and the consumer goods of Europe as near-memory and a moral axis. But there’s nothing in the way of boxes of spilled rivets, or abandoned English books and magazines, or a bottle of German Riesling, can find its proper function in these alien environments caught between past and future. Here are primeval worlds not susceptible to any Western idea of progress. The ‘natives’ are superstitious, the visitors ethically astray and time doesn’t matter and there is no God.

Naipaul wrote an essay ‘On Conradian Darkness’ in 1974, in the novel’s wake.

And I found that Conrad—sixty years before, in the time of a great peace—had been everywhere before me. Not as a man with a cause, but a man offering, as in Nostromo, a vision of the world’s half-made societies as places which continuously made and unmade themselves, where there was no goal, and where always “something inherent in the necessities of successful action…carried with in the moral degradation of the idea.” Dismal, but deeply felt: a kind of truth and half a consolation.

The critic Martin Seymour-Smith pinpointed almost fifty years ago, as his unique weakness, the ‘lack of an affirmative message’ in Naipaul. One way to interpret that remark might be, on rereading Heart of Darkness, to note how the seaman who tells it, Marlow, hangs on to moral hope by lying to the fiance of the dead Mr Kurtz. Not horror but love, said Conrad, must prevail. And yet he said it none too strongly, none too convincingly – a matter of two lines in a book of a hundred pages — and Naipaul couldn’t manage it all: not in his fiction and perhaps not in his life either. Naipaul had comedic talent, and descriptive genius, and a deeply unsatisfactory, deeply honest moral intensity which found nothing to attach itself to in actual human behaviour, nor any lasting compensation in nature. Naipaul was the quintessential moral struggler, almost without poetry for the heart, but the creator of the most magnificent and true sentences. Quite marvellous.



Posted in Anyone's Game - my latest novel, english literature, Girl in a Garden- my first novel, novels, Who are you?, Writing | Tagged , , , , ,

Armando Iannucci The Death of Stalin: how do you make comedy out of tragedy?

Armando Iannucci’s film The Death of Stalin (2017) graced The New York Times’ best-of-the-year list last December for good reason. It raised the question of how you treat comically a story of moral depravity on a vast scale. It reminded me of that daring venture, Roberto Benigni’s film La vita e bella (Life is Beautiful, 1997). How could a director make light of the Holocaust? Any such aesthetic enterprise must come with an ethical warning. Makers and critics alike are likely to feel vertigo at the inadequacy of language. Yet if you accept that classical tragedy, at least, is a matter of talking heads, whereas comedy focuses on the full-length man or woman then perhaps criticism can get a toehold on ventures like Benigni’s and Iannucci’s. They were different from each other, of course, and I’ll mostly be talking about Iannucci here.

We humans are all more vulnerable captured standing there with our physical affectations and defects. In a head-only shot we’re likely to be more dignified and give the impression of ethical reflectiveness, but in the taller view our drooping shoulders and receding chins, or our mounds of insentient blubber, spilling forth as fraught obscenities on lascivious lips, give us away. I’m thinking in the latter case of the magnificent actor Simon Russell Beale playing Beria in  The Death of Stalin, and, as a study in weakness, Jeffrey Tambor playing fellow Politburo member Georgy Malenkov.

One way into the comedy of that savage Soviet situation may have been the idea of the puppet show: funny for children but menacing ever since Heinrich von Kleist wrote his famous essay on it in 1810. The Soviet system reduced men to puppets. Actually our present-day bureaucracies do much the same, if we’re not careful. Some of the funniest moments in Iannucci’s film substitute contemporary evasiveness, glib patter, scatological jokes and boardroom manipulation for whatever crude dialogue passed, in the year 1953, between bitter rivals.

The way Stalin’s henchmen change their loyalties and their views with diabolic lightness and grace is terribly well done by Ianucci. Michael Palin’s Vyacheslav Molotov is a half-brained zealot but also a leopard who can change his spots in an instant, while all the while presenting himself as a loving husband and an affable friend.We just have to laugh bitterly at the way human beings are.

La vita e bella took a different root to make us smile with tears in our eyes because it was from the most tender first-person point of view. It was about wanting to hide the most appalling cruelty and keep life magical for a young child. The Death of Stalin by contrast was a snapshot of an inhumane, decrepid, corrupt culture which was laughable from the start because it didn’t recognize itself. There were no mirrors in those grandiose Moscow palaces, only flags and portraits, gilded trinkets and hollow baubles. The self-aggrandizing propaganda was as ridiculous as it was obscene, drawing the eyes of the people and the apparatchiks themselves away from the basement cells where men were being tortured and shot and women and children raped. They knew what was happening but persuaded themselves it was normal life, and not even grim, just a jokey Soviet version of what Hannah Arendt meant by banal evil. Even half-knowledge, that sly creeping up of truth on bare flesh, like one of Dostoevsky’s insects, a token of all that is metaphysically abject, never really creeps up on them. That is the real content of Ianucci’s ‘comedy’, leaving us with a film that can’t be taken seriously enough.

I usually write about writers and artists who are no longer with us. I had to remind myself I could actually ask the very much still vital Ianucci a burning question, namely did some of his inspiration not come from a long article that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on March 4, 2016? One act of googling later, however, and I realised how difficult it is to get through to the stars. Celebrities might just as well be astral, for all that we can reach them. But seriously, Armando, if you ever get to read this, I can’t see how Sheila Fitzpatrick’s On Stalin’s Team (Princeton, NJ, 2015) and Rosemary Sullivan’s Stalin’s Daughter The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva (4th Estate, 2015), as reviewed by Rachel Polonsky, cannot have given you the idea. Polonsky quotes Fitzpatrick as saying that ‘there was a book to write about Soviet high politics that put political science models aside and focused on individuals and their interactions.’ Here directly was the full-length, character-driven approach being recommended to the dramatist, who would know he could use his material in quite a different way from the historian. Fitzpatrick by the way, for so long regarded as a maverick by historians of Russia, is but now justly admired for having a rare capacity to get to the heart of the matter.

,Just one more quote from Polonsky on Fitzpatrick’s method then: ‘She traces the co-operation over three decades of the more or less constant group of men around Stalin…together they collectivized Soviet agriculture, purged the Bolshevik Party, unleashed mass terror on whole sections of the population (including their own friends and family members…For years their family and social lives were intertwined in Kremlin apartments and bucolic dachas outside Moscow; they danced, played and drank together in ritual occasions that became ever more grotesque as Stalin’s loneliness and paranoia intensified…’ I don’t know whether that would work as the legendary one-sentence pitch to a Hollywood mogul or a global publisher. But what an opening for a master dramatist on screen!

I watched the film again recently, in a nod to the NYT’s choice, and I loved the way it played up the Soviet Union’s rivalry with a 1930s United States of mobsters and gangsters. The accents were all the better for being more New York than Russian, with the exception of the anglophone Beale, like mid-century British novelist Anthony Powell’s odious Widmerpool in Dance to the Music of Time, but reinvented in the Kremlin. The episode around Stalin’s sudden death and the fight to be his successor is framed both ends with a Mozart recital by the pianist Maria Yudina. It’s a brilliant device. It reminds us of the pathos of Russian cultural highmindedness, as the beauty of classical music is celebrated against a background of routine state-sponsored carnage. For me it was a moment to both laugh and cry when the concert organizers had to resort to a little – fortunately harmless – coercion themselves to satisfy a whim of Stalin’s. The essence of Russian culture is  tragicomic. At a key point in the film the ‘Russian People’, at first held back from their great surge towards Moscow to mourn their dead leader, and then allowed, chaotically, to board trains, give Iannucci the chance to direct his own answer to Eisenstein’s October. The viewer registers a surge in the director’s heart-felt affection for the afflicted, childlike millions waving their red flags, the passion and the incoherence of it all, except as food for art.

I gulped at the wit of men used to guarding their speech against being overheard. This from a scene in the basement of Lubyanka prison: ‘Don’t worry about him. His ears are full of blood anyway.’ As ever more names are chosen for execution an alternative title might have been ‘New Lists- The Horror Movie’. When Red Army leader Marshal Zhukov (‘I fucked Hitler, I can fuck anyone’) appears half-way through as a Superman American comic book hero on the half-way decent, reformist Khrushchev’s side it’s a gorgeous moment. When Beria becomes ‘the pig for the pot’ it’s a moment of visceral satisfaction, though you have to wonder at the way his lately greedy flesh is rendered and the charred remains are shovelled into a truck.

The aesthetics of angels mixed with the pyjama-clad slapstick that Beale and Palin, and Steve Buscemi as as Khrushchev, and Jason Isaacs’ medal-breasted Zhukov, play so brilliantly are the heart of this comedy. But it is of course also the story of the tragedy of a nation. A tragic figure is certainly Andrea Riseborough’s Svetlana, daughter of the late man of steel. She’s like a mythical heroine lost in a maze of butchered feelings and suppressed fear but, in a modern touch, trying to appear sophisticated, grown-up and equal to the political deviants all around her.  No surprise then that The Death of Stalin was banned from being shown in present-day Russia, a country that still doesn’t dare properly look itself in the mirror.


Posted in Arc of Utopia - my latest book, Cold War, Film, Russia, Writing | Tagged , ,

The End of the Gift of Language?

Geoffrey Bennington, Professor of French Literature at Emory University, Atlanta

In November 2010 one of this country’s subtlest interpreters of French thought gave a lecture in the capital on Aristotle and his critics. Geoffrey Bennington’s rare London appearance was billed ‘Political Animals…’ but his actual topic was The Death of Aristotle’s Political Animal. I sat there wishing Derrida’s old friend and collaborator might just be plain wrong. There had to be a good argument against his drift. After all, if we lose our gift for rational language, what lesser way of deliberating on the useful and the just are we left with? And that was eight years ago, before we had a President of the United States whose political utterances are tweets!

When Aristotle defined us as political animals he meant we had the gift of reason, or language, the two translations of the Greek ‘Logos’. Christianity wrapped up the Aristotelian heritage with ‘In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was God.’ These post-God days, in political communication at least, we reckon the Word on its own will do fine. A dominant strain in French postmodernism however declined to agree.  Jacques Derrida and his friend Jean-Francois Lyotard, for instance, both of them now dead, were more inclined, like Eliot, to see words slipping all over the place, playing havoc with any real meaning in public life. They used the slipperiness of the post-divine word to present a huge obstacle to political talk. For Lyotard the politics he detested was pure rhetoric. For Derrida towards the end of his life the Logos – and with it politics – was like the human body subject to a collapse in its auto-immunity. It could be healthy, but lurking round the corner was always the will and the means to destroy itself.

Well they were prescient. And I think that’s a better explanation of the connection between Trumpian post-truth and postmodernism than that the likes of Derrida somehow inspired it. I published a letter, headlined ‘Postmodern Pangs’, in the Times Literary Supplement making this point on August 3, 2018. I was taking issue with what Michiko Kakutani had claimed a fortnight earlier.

Bennington’s analysis, as I suggested, made gloomy listening, with its evidence of a new style of anti-politics underway. In Washington, he said, they called it ‘the game of the game of politics’ and in Paris ‘la politique politicienne’. How do you translate a phrase meaning ‘political politics’? Well I know what it means. It means politics was/is disappearing up its own backside, so riddled is it with posturing and manoeuvering, by way of delivering half-truths.

For Lyotard, as for Bennington, the one chance of doing anything about the horrible debasement of politics in a wickedly gabby age was to undo Aristotle’s distinction between the political and other animals. If Logos was what enabled human beings to live in a polis, now it was evident humans used their gift so badly perhaps it was the time to rediscover reason and language ’s excluded other. Not Logos should be our topic then but phoné,  a matter of inarticulate crying or vociferating.

In his 1988 book The Inhuman Lyotard seems to have thought that to resist the inhumanity of globalism politics had to return to the primitive cry. The globalized, over-articulate world silences what we really feel. The task is to re-centre politics on what the silence covers.

Should we then welcome to the arrival of Munch’s ‘The Scream’ to the political forum? Or even Trump himself? I noted in 2010 that with the primitivist agenda twenty-first century politics threatened to become one vast nutty tea-party, dangerously populist.


All I can do, from the sidelines, is observe the rise of the value of illiteracy, in postmodern times.

The 1990s may yet go down in literary history as the decade which saw the rise of the ‘illiterate protagonist’ as a positive force ranged against the all-enveloping corruption of public language. Two novels raise the question of how we can possibly think truly morally about salient issues when political rhetoric is primed to lead us astray.

In Bernard Schlink’s The Reader (‘Der Vorleser’, 1995, in the German original) a lawyer discovered that his one time teenage lover, an illiterate older woman who used to have him to read great books to her out loud, had been a concentration camp guard. His job was to prosecute for crimes against humanity, but her case halted him in his tracks. Critics at the time objected that Schlink used her illiteracy to reduce the enormity of her crime. But buried in Schlink’s text were a handful of sentences which seemed to adumbrate exactly what the philosophers in favour of a return to the animal over the rational in politics, phoné over logos, were getting at.

The geological layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other than we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive. I understand this. Nevertheless I sometimes find it hard to bear.

For Schlink what was ‘absolutely present and alive’ was alone what was morally and politically true, beyond the rhetorical posturing. I take it that the point of his novel was, to borrow a phrase from Bennington, to counteract at least one instance of ‘the kinds of investment that political rhetoric attracts’.  Schlink didn’t just mean ‘Holocaust’ was an overworked word. He meant the moral reality it pointed to was no longer reliable. That’s why he had to write a novel, and not just a column. It’s terrible, of course, if what he is saying is true. But it’s even more of an indictment of the kind of society in which even the unspeakable is manipulated for partisan political gain.

If the fear of a totally mediatized (un-)reality was also hallmark of the postmodern French philosophy written in Schlink’s formative years, Philip Roth was no slouch in keeping up with European thinking. He only felt it had to be transformed by being threaded through everyday American life to make a satisfactory American novel.  And so he came to take up the theme of illiteracy in The Human Stain (2000). He tackled in in both major and minor keys.

The novel is the epic tale of humanist professor Coleman Silk, destroyed by unjust accusations that he used a pejorative word to describe black students. In the background to his undoing we hear of his saintly daughter Lisa, who has abandoned her career to teaching reading to children who can’t master it. She is desperate:

I have days when I think, Today was good, but most days I want to jump out the window. I struggle a lot as to whether this is the right program for me…I want to do it the right way and there is no right way – every kid is different and every kid is hopeless, and I’m supposed to go in there and make it all work…What do you do with a kid who can’t read? Think of it… (The Human Stain, Vintage paperback edition, 2001, p.58)

Here is a real, apparently insoluble, first-world political problem. I’ve suggested elsewhere that Roth’s forte was to realize some of the themes of modern European writing as real social problems in America, and here he seems to be doing just that.

But the major theme of The Human Stain unfolds when Silk, the cultivated academic who has built a career on the integrity of his work in the service of the logos, is ousted on a trumped-up charge of politically misspeaking. Lonely and banished, not unlike Oedipus the King, for crimes he is alleged to have committed, but over which he has no control, he has a passionate love affair with an illiterate cleaner at his old college, an establishment nicely named as ‘Athena’.

Silk’s lover is called Faunia Farley, and the truth of her condition is held out to us in contrast to the terrible falsehoods in which the politically correct and self-deceiving university has embroiled itself. When the narrator tells Silk’s story his sister exclaims:

Sounds from what you’ve told me that anything is possible in a college today. Sounds like the people there forgot what it is to teach. Sounds like what they do is something closer to buffoonery…What happened to Coleman with that word “spooks” is all a part of the same enormous failure. In my parents’ day and well into yours and mine, it used to be the person who fell short. Now it’s the discipline. Reading the classics is too difficult, therefore it’s the classics that are to blame. Today the student asserts his incapacity as a privilege. I can’t learn it so there is something wrong with it. (The Human Stain pp.328-331)

The university itself has fallen on its knees in deference to ignorance. (This in fact is the extraordinary dialectic informing the whole novel asking, from shifting viewpoints, what the value of literacy is.)

On another level the name Faunia picks up the Dionysian theme that runs throughout The Human Stain. It is redolent of forces that, just as they undid the Apollonian Greek culture in Nietzsche’s judgement, substituted for its Aristotelian rationality the cry of the satyr. The narrator of the novel, early in his encounter with Silk, joins him in a satyric dance to show his sympathy.

But then it turns out that Faunia, who has suffered a life of abuse, has actually feigned illiteracy as a last-ditch political stand:

The illiteracy had been an act, something she decided her situation demanded. But why? A source of power? Her one and only source of power? But a power purchased at what price? Think about it. Afflicts herself with illiteracy too. Takes it on voluntarily. Not to infantilize herself, however, not to present herself as a dependent kid, but just the opposite: to spotlight the barbaric self befitting the world. Not rejecting learning as a stifling form of propriety but trumping learning by a knowledge that is stronger and prior. She has nothing against reading per se – it’s that pretending not to be able to feels right to her. It spices things up. She just cannot get enough of the toxins: of all that you are not supposed to be, to show, to say, to think but that you are and snow and say and think whether you like it or not. (The Human Stain, p.297)

To conceive a raging passion for this woman, in her plight, and in her last-ditch political cunning, is a matter of the humanist Coleman Silk’s final, utterly self-destructive, awakening to the possibilities of ill-literacy in the present age so destructive of the logos. Faunia is the phoné incarnate.

Literacy under threat then, even as we pay lip-service to it. ‘Community’, suggested Bennington, in his extraordinary London talk, was a word and a value similarly at risk. It’s another one of those terms we have to get around, if we are ever to get back to the real issue. Politics, in short, if it is to survive as a literate endeavour, has to overcome the destructive power of its own rhetoric. But how can it, when its means of expression are totally mediatized? Only dropouts and pilgrims, those who have been involved in politics and been disillusioned and hurt, and stigmatized, and scapegoated (as Coleman Silk was), seem likely to take up the task, wandering through the world self-blindfolded, abjuring the old language, self-undefended. As I write this I realize there’s even a line joining Silk, exile from the university, to ‘John the savage’ in Huxley’s Brave New World. John who is in the care of dissident Bernard Marx, ends up exiling himself to the unmodernized countryside, outside the totalitarian grip of the city.

But then that was another French postmodern theme: that, though political totalitarianism is no longer with us in the forms practised by Stalin and Hitler, we shouldn’t imagine there is not a new form of totalitarianism abroad, affecting our lives, and our judgement, in the total mediatization of language.

All this is expressed in extreme form: but that is what literature is for.



Posted in American literature, Britain Today, French intellectuals, novels, postmodernism, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The genius of The Human Stain

Would they have given Philip Roth a Pulitzer prize for such an indictment of the state of America as his great novel, The Human Stain, turned out to be? It wasn’t published until 2000 but maybe it was in gestation when Roth collected his award for American Pastoral (1997).

Pastoral, a patriotic epic, though hailed a masterpiece, is not my favourite Roth. It seemed to me to have a strange chronology, reaching back into the 1960s, when the small-town life of craftspeople and tradesmen still provided America with a moral focus, but otherwise to have the feel of ‘now’. Roth’s study of a middle-class daughter turned terrorist, against this good America, was a puzzled, negative meditation. Why? And why, in her father’s and in the narrator’s eyes, destroy her femininity, when she had been such a lovely little girl? From a writerly point of view I suspected then that Roth was melding old, unused material with a new idea and the two sources didn’t quite mesh to create a novel of the late 1990s.

Stain is quite different. I recently re-read it in tribute to Roth who died in May 2018. Setting aside one small quibble it strikes me as that one novel of his that will indeed be read in years to come. In 2011 the writer and feminist publisher Carmen Callil objected to Roth winning a lifetime Booker Prize. She thought him an inferior artist, unmade to last, though many thought, criticizing her, that she rejected him because of his attitude to women.  Either way her intervention seemed like just the kind of ideological partisanship Roth was satirizing in Stain.

Stain tells the story of the fate of Roth’s intellectual and culturally liberal but still male-dominated generation; essentially how that European-minded golden age of the 1950s/1960s, and which had such great hopes of a liberal America, came to an end; and it tells it magnificently.

Roth, born in 1933, from the outset wanted to write American literature informed by the Jewish-American community in which he grew up in New Jersey. But the influence of Thomas Mann, and of the Greek tragedians, was so strong, and was so much part of the culture of secular emancipation that came his way by virtue of family and education, that they had to become part of his work. The European influence was complex, pessimistic and Freudian. The writer Erica Wagner recently quoted Roth in an interview with her in 2009 as saying that the novelist as an artist must ‘not deny…the tormented human being’ but ‘allow for the chaos…otherwise you produce propaganda.’ Of course there were other literary influences, Jewish and Russian above all, but it was Mann and the Greeks who delivered the high-minded vitalist pessimism at work in the Stain.

My 2000 book on Freud

What is ‘The Human Stain’? It’s racism, to be sure: ‘the great American menace’ (The Human Stain, Vintage Books edition 2001, p.106) But it’s also ‘nothing to do with grace or salvation or redemption.  It’s in everyone. Indwelling. Inherent. Defining. The stain that is there before its mark. …the stain so intrinsic…that precedes disobedience… and perplexes all explanation and understanding. It’s why all the cleansing is a joke. A barbaric joke at that. The fantasy of purity is appalling. It’s insane. What is the quest to purify, if not more impurity?’ (p.242) Link that with the novel’s epigraph from Sophocles and you have the genesis of a plot in which America finds a scapegoat for its racist stain. Because of America’s obsession with purity, Athena College sets about finding it in a man of Roth’s generation, a man born in the same east coast state as Roth, Coleman Silk.

Silk is a Harvard-educated professor of classics and a humanist. He belongs to that generation which looked to its European-minded elders, like the literary critic Lionel Trilling and the art critic Meyer Schapiro, for its culturally inflected individualism. Of that secular religion of private intellectual responsibility Silk recalls: ‘Not the tyranny of the we and its we-talk and everything that the we wants to pile on your head. Never for him the tyranny of the we that is dying to suck you in, the coercive, inclusive, historical moral we with its insidious E pluribus unum. Neither the they of Woolworth’s nor the we of Howard [Howard college, c 1950, for black students only]. Instead the raw I with all its agility. Self-discovery – that was the punch to the labonz. Singularity. The passionate struggle for singularity. The singular animal. The sliding relationship with everything. Not static but sliding. Self-knowledge but concealed. What is as powerful as that?’ (p.108)

It’s not how most people understand individualism today, alas, bamboozled as they are by a kind of harmless neo-socialist communitarianism which sanctifies fitting in. But fifty years ago it meant something quite different and quite worth emulating. Roth makes its ancient philosophical value as self-scrutiny plain: self-scrutiny in the face of all markets and all fashions.  Moral and political fashions above all.

From his oeuvre as a whole we know one of Roth’s alter egos was an academic, and another was a writer, Nathan Zuckerman. Here in The Human Stain the two possible Roths come together again, individualists both. Zuckerman, we are told, writes Coleman Silk’s story. In fact Zuckerman’s involvement is the only quibble I have. It shows up the raw stitching of the novel in a way that Silk’s thrilling story does not. The polite outsider voice of the friend is forensic and detached, so much in contrast with Silk’s.  In narrative terms Zuckerman is just a means to tidy up the stray ends after Silk dies. He’s not a character but the author. Yet I can imagine Roth, described by Erica Wagner as lonely in his old age, insisted on including himself hardly disguised.  Feeling already like a visitor in a messy world approaching the millennium, he issued this last plea to America not to give in to its primeval desire ritually to punish and to purify, by force, any transgressor.

The scapegoat of course is an old Jewish theme, and the way Coleman Silk, having risen to the height of his profession, is overnight cast out of the community of Athena College for alleged racism, is a story of a mightily wronged black America, but also one heavily inflected with age-old Jewish woes. In fact Silk is Jewish through his father, though he has been able to conceal it, through a contraction of the family name (Silberzweig two generations earlier) and a fashion among secular Jews around the time of his birth not to circumcise their sons. But more important what he has also been able to conceal is that he is black. His mother, sister and brother are black. The Silks are a black family, not a Jewish family, but among them Coleman was born looking white. Nature made him such that he could create his cultural self as a white self, and so he did, and his success was vast.

So that when a college rival accuses him of racism towards the end of his stellar career it’s not just a matter of politically correct fashion seeking a public victim. It is a private, Sophoclean story of hubris and nemesis.

There are marvellous pages in this raging, capacious novel which hymn the value of Greek tragedy in teaching us how thin is the line between success and catastrophe; how apparently accidentally the course of a whole life can be made and unmade in a moment; how we can do nothing about what the gods have in store for us. Coleman Silk’s suppression of all those outer marks of racial distinctiveness that might have made him a victim of twentieth-century America is a paean to the individualist and secularist dream. His whole life long he seems to thrive on a secret which ought to make him vulnerable but over which he triumphs, out of the strength of character he has made his own. Add to that self a powerful educated charm, an athletic body, long-lashed green eyes. Coleman Silk, like the dream he embodied, had an almost infallible attractiveness.

Delphine Roux, a French academic making her career stateside, falls for him despite herself. She’s twenty-six to his seventy-one and in her creator’s view she’s so wedded to post-humanist deconstruction  that she can’t see where her true passions lie. Roth has some charitable fun speculating on her want of a good-enough man to match her soaring Parisian education, her Ph.D from Yale, her petite figure and fine dress sense. He seems to like her and she is perhaps the most likeable character in the book, from the pen of a writer who rightly doesn’t care whether we warm to his human inventions or not. Delphine’s crime against herself, and the gods, is to have become so confused about the values underlying her work that she falls for a stupid tale of victimhood. Silk, calling the register, wonders where two absent students are. They’ve never attended his class. He’s never seen them and knows nothing about them. He wonders out loud whether they are ghosts. Or, to use the word that kicks off the plot, spooks. When the absentees learn what they have been called they insist on an obscure meaning of spook to mean ‘black’ and with Roux’s help Silk is undone. Colleagues deny him as surely as Peter denied Christ. The cock crows, it turns out, whatever the religion.

Ousted, excluded, excommunicated, Silk wanders in his wounded state through what turn out to be the last two years of his life. You can almost picture him as Oedipus the King, driving through New Jersey. At the same time Roth invites us to picture him as Thomas Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach in his novella Death in Venice. In that multi-layered tale the Apollonian forces that have enabled Aschenbach the writer to shape his disciplined life, and to make of himself a paragon of morality, fall prey to their Dionysian counterweight. The personality of a resolute and moderate self-reflective man serving a vision of beautiful civilized order is engulfed by irresistible sexual passion. It was Nietzsche’s insistence in The Birth of Tragedy, despite the long German classical tradition of believing in the Greeks as noble and harmonious, that Dionysian frenzy underlay the Apollonian vision and barely kept it at bay.

Vintage cover of a German edition of Death in Venice

Think again then of the chaos that in 2009 Roth told Erica Wagner no writer worth his or her art should exclude from the human narrative. That other humanizing value, of chaos, is what Roth learned from Nietzsche and Freud and Mann. You have to acknowledge it. It is also our human existence. Silk engages in a two-year orgy of physical love with Faunia Farley, a college cleaner. It is most certainly a redeeming love they have for each other, though the choice doesn’t fit his college self at all. The cultural hallmark of Faunia, repeated over and over, is her illiteracy. I want to write about that lack of basic learning separately so I won’t dwell on it here. But in Stain illiteracy may be the punishment of the gods for the way America has re-formed itself since the Vietnam War. It has not acknowledged the chaos but hidden behind its monuments.

Political correctness over race, and patriotic lies covering the tragedy and the terrifying futility of defeat by the Vietcong, are intertwined in the Coleman/Faunia story as surely as their limbs are threaded together, and their ecstasy is the only antidote. She doesn’t care whether he’s white or black. He doesn’t care whether she’s a whore, whether she can’t read, whether she caused the death of her children in a fire. Faunia’s victimized life is almost impossible to lead, but, like Silk’s after his ousting,  its redeeming quality is it’s not a lie.

So Coleman Silk, Harvard educated professor of classics, joins the millions of victims of American society. ‘These are people whose fundamental feeling about life is that they have been fucked over unfairly right down the line.’ (p.80) Yet it’s a comparison that makes Silk almost land a punch on his ‘lilywhite’ lawyer, for it buries the tragedy in sententious moralizing.

Roth’s contempt is for an America driven by ‘what the Europeans unhistorically call American puritanism, that the likes of a Ronald Reagan call America’s core values…it’s not as though Marx or Freud or Darwin or Stalin or Hitler had never happened… it’s as though not even the most basic level of imaginative thought had been admitted into consciousness to cause the slightest disturbance. A century of destruction unlike any other in its extremity befalls and blights the human race…and here in America either it’s Faunia Farley or Monica Lewinsky!…This, in 1998, is the wickedness they have to put up with.’ (pp.153-54)

The distant background to the novel is the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, but that’s not what leaves Roth aghast.

Bill Clinton’s portrait by artist Nelson Shanks contains a shadow representing Lewinsky’s semen-stained dress

He surely was a difficult and not always likeable man, indelibly stained. His sometime Anglo-Jewish wife the actress Claire Bloom was evidently coy and submissive but did him no favours in portraying him as an egotistical misogynist in her memoir Leaving a Doll’s House (1996).

But this essay is not about a man but about a magnificent work of literature. I’ve talked about the potential historical resonance of The Human Stain in an America that even now is troubled by the perverted political uses of victimhood.  This novel exposes that manipulation of cultural values as emanating from the once liberal universities themselves.

As for the novel’s literary texture I can do no more than answer the accusation of my friend, the novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici, in What Ever Happened to Modernism? (2010), that Roth was ‘a false friend of modernism’ by quoting from Roth’s essay on his fellow great American writer Saul Bellow in 2000:

Now Bellow’s special appeal, and not just to me, is that in his characteristically American way he has managed brilliantly to close the gap between Thomas Mann and Damon Runyon, but that doesn’t minimize the scope of what, beginning with Augie March, he set out to do: to bring into play (into free play) the intellectual faculties that, in writers like Mann, Musil, and him, are no less engaged by the spectacle of life than by the mind’s imaginative component, to make rumination congruent with what is represented, to hoist the author’s thinking up from the depths to the narrative surface without sinking the narrative’s mimetic power, without the book’s superficially meditating on itself, without making a transparently ideological claim on the reader, and without imparting wisdom, as do Tamkin and King Dahfu [characters in Bellow’s novels Seize the Day and Henderson the Rain King respectively], flatly unproblematized. (Philip Roth ‘Saul Bellow’ in Shop Talk A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work (2001), p.149)

Now, not only is this a sentence, in English, of Mannian proportions. It seems to describe and almost physically to evoke, with that sustained metaphor of what must be dragged to the surface and interwoven with the unintellectual quotidian, the task Roth set himself as an American writer mindful of the most powerful European literary heritage. Writing ostensibly of Bellow in the year in which The Human Stain was published, and when his own great trilogy meditating on American life was complete, Roth seemingly got so carried away by his own literary passion that his description of it almost failed to cohere. I still have trouble with that ‘flatly unproblematized’ every time I read it. Yet I think  it refers to ‘making transparently ideological claims’ and therefore repeats the point Roth made in that 2009 interview, that the literary art cannot be a matter of propaganda but must let in the chaos from the nasty human depths. It is almost a sociological reading of Nietzsche and Freud and Thomas Mann, and a European modernist must see that as a deviation. It is a travesty for the European modernist literary product, in which the agony is formal, and a matter of individual consciousness, to be democratized into an American epic where the tensions are puritanical and racial. And yet one might say that in the year 2000 Roth re-embodied the Apollonian-Dionysian tension in a great novel for the first time in decades, and so enabled that tradition to live on, like the great-grandchild of one of Hitler’s long ago German exiles, like Mann himself, on the other side of the Atlantic.

Thomas Mann 1875-1955

Author Philip Roth sitting at typewriter seen through panes of window, at Yaddo artist’s retreat. (Photo by Bob Peterson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Posted in American literature, New York Intellectuals, novels, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

John Le Carré’s Legacy: Passion in Germany and the Maze of Betrayal

In possibly his last novel, A Legacy of Spies (2017) John le Carré, aged 86, has done what writers and artists long to do, not for their audiences but for the sake of their own soul. He’s found the perfect form to accommodate the contrary longings of a life he hopes has been well spent but may not be quite sure. A Legacy is a great read.  It sacrifices nothing of what le Carré has offered the reader since 1963, when The Spy who came in from the Cold  entranced millions worldwide. The Spy struck novelist Graham Greene as the greatest espionage story he had ever read. But what exactly is le Carré’s art, beyond the capacity to tell a great story? The trick he pulls off is to hint at something quieter and more satisfying called reality, just out of reach of those intricate plots that so entertain us. That’s how I see it. What nags away in the reader’s mind is the sense that the spy is ultimately deprived of reality’s satisfactions. The clandestine, secretly brutal profession is a scourge to the souls of damaged men and women leading scarred and diminished lives. All of them suffer a chain of new identities, compromised friendships and shifting addresses that never quite seem like home.

Vintage le Carré weaves pacy narrative and urgent dialogue together so artfully that he leaves over a sense of what a real life for each of them would be like, if they weren’t in danger. But they are. As much at the mercy of their own side as the enemy. As the author embroils them in the West’s underground hostilities over much of the twentieth century, British readers at least can paste le Carré’s characters into their own experience of the last half-century of history.  Were they ‘fighting’ for us? At what cost to themselves? Meanwhile the causes weren’t what they seemed, and were anyway betrayed.

For Le Carré’s men and a few women of covert action there are occasional glimpses of, if not happiness, then at least respite. But they can never secure it. Just the mere hint of a farm in Brittany and the time to attend to the needs of a delicate, introverted child, and we know this is a dream foregone, or half-lived, at best. When George Smiley is defeated he takes himself off for a week of coastal walking in Cornwall, and then never speaks of the pain again. We get, perhaps above all from landscape, signs of the peace of mind ringmaster Smiley and his acrobatic henchmen Peter Guillam, Alex Leamas and Jim Prideaux, would so relish in bucolic retirement, if only the treacheries of the Cold War, past and still present, would let them rest. What was it that stirred le Carré himself out of octogenarian relaxation, a couple of years ago, to remind us of the pain of the congested heart, sworn to secrecy and betrayal, in this perhaps final novel?We can only guess whether it’s the moral itch, or the narrative drive, or the desire to take a last bow in the limelight in exchange for a lifetime’s efforts as an entertainer. In fact, surely all three.

Alec Guiness as George Smiley in the BBC series Smiley’s People (1982)


A Legacy darts back through the decades to when a certain Operation Windfall went horribly wrong. With three deaths on his hands, Smiley was never the same again. He had recruited these agents and viewed them as his children. When tragedy struck he silently took himself from his opaque upmarket London address in Bywater Street, Chelsea, and powered his legs and opened his lungs walking by the sea. What was he to do with the realization that there was a leak on his own side at the highest level? Late late le Carré chose a brilliant point at which to re-enter his old old story of Smiley. And in that moment he offered us a little bit of reality. This was back in the days when upmarket Chelsea meant simply civilized and discreet, while no one could begrudge the chief a holiday in Cornwall. In the meantime,though Cornwall hasn’t changed that much, the  understated chic of 1950s-1970s Chelsea turns out to have provided a cover for almost anything.

Devoted le Carré readers remember how subsequently the traitor was unmasked; how he was arrested and how ultimately it was  Jim Prideaux dealt with the situation. I  can still hear the click of Haydon’s neck, after his quiet assassin slips inside the perimeter of an obscure detention centre for traitors of the highest order.  We meet Prideaux again in A Legacy, now playing a role in the life of a minor public school, plotting revenge for a ruined life from an old caravan in the grounds.

In le Carré’s world the good men and women would follow due process if they could trust it; but trust is a luxury. A bare handful of souls otherwise out of touch with each other assemble for one last campaign. That they trust each other has surely kept them from suicide.

Another Smiley, this time Gary Oldman in the 2011 film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Smiley always had an extra consolation in his love of German literature. Goethe’s lyric poetry consoled him the way his errant wife Anne never could. In truth they were always an odd match, the cerebral recluse and the worldly beauty, and there perhaps is a bit more reality to anchor us, for all marriages are strange in some way, and in the secrets of a marriage betrayed perhaps we can feel the pathos of the spy’s life. How did George and Anne get together in the first place, we wonder, unless it was one of those marriages born at an Oxford College, featuring brains for her and glamour for him. Yes, this is upper-class, educated England of a certain generation, and why not still, and it is entirely believable.

And Smiley’s nemesis Bill Haydon, played by Colin Firth

But it’s not Smiley’s own life, but the immeasurable power of his never really expressed grief, that features as the background to A Legacy of Spies. Front of stage are Peter Guillam and Alec Leamas, polyglot masters of the pan-European disguise, and the women they love and rescue; love and betray; or, finally, lead astray unwittingly. Both are handy with their fists, but their first weapon is charm. Liz Gold, the daughter of left-wing central

European Jewish refugees in England before the war, is looking for a politically meaningful life when a partnership with Leamas is engineered. Peter Guillam, and a German woman agent codenamed Tulip, have such a physicality about them that the operation that brings them together for one snatched night transforms what is left of their lives. Tulip, run by Leamas from Berlin to be seen to provide providing a rich harvest of intelligence, is the last victim Smiley and Guillam have to count on their conscience. For Operation Windfall was a fake, from start to finish, to try to trap the traitor.

In the context of le Carré’s oeuvre one striking feature – and strikingly successful device — of this late novel is its use of intertextuality. Guillam, obliged by the latest, supremely unsympathetic generation of the security services to cooperate or else, spends the best part of 250 pages reading through top secret memos filed half a century ago. The jejune new minders who have hauled Guillam out of francophone retirement require his daily presence at a once and future safe house. They want to know what Windfall was or wasn’t.

But what do we want? To know where the house is. That Victorian pile, complete with security-cleared housekeeper and corporately accounted-for cat, where Guillam turns up to order is located somewhere in central London. Again the cover story is so topographically gripping that it seems to me every reader is ready to risk tailing the untiring professional spy to find out where that house is, in ‘reality’, in upmarket, discreet, low-key London, and thus to feel the elusive unreality of the spy’s life.

Wherever it is in the London A-Z it’s hardly a safe place for Guillam, given the sullen distrust of the latest espionage generation towards their grandfathers, and the overt dislike the old men feel for the inhabitants of the garish new headquarters at Vauxhall, on the south bank of the Thames. All the more welcoming then, for the reader, is the bond of trust between Guillam and that austere housekeeper who knows her trade. Having practised it for half a century, she’s a match for the bullies she now serves.

Like many writers, le Carré’s early narrative was sumptuous in the wealth of its description of the places and the people and the institutions that framed his wonderful tales of betrayal. Like most writers, the detail grows less dense in the late work. But that thinning out of the narrative texture shows just what a great writer of fiction he is. Bedevilled at various stages of his career by moderate ill-wishers who wanted to confine him to the achievement of ‘genre writing’, le Carré has deliberately avoided any confrontation with literary prizes, not to be humiliated. I remember a publisher of mine telling me ten years ago that surely le Carré was not of the top category. I should have protested more.

What A Legacy reveals is the trope at the heart of le Carré, and that’s why his work is really worth reading. It’s a trope embedded in the most ancient of stories, as when Theseus leads Ariadne out of the Maze, rescuing her from the Minataur by trailing behind him a piece of string. Couple that then with the passion of Theseus as Ariadne’s lover. The transformation, the almost Nietzschean transvaluation of all values,that Guillam and ‘Tulip’ undergo in their single night together is so intense, that, despite less than half a page of description, it is the novel’s key passage.

Supposing you believed in love and trust, and found, as you entered your final years, that your life had been devoted to betraying them. You might reach for your writerly gift one more time, to spell it out: the problem of belonging, and identity, and of the Establishment, and of the group within a group, set in a political context dependent on the rhetoric of freedom and justice, in which you have to go on believing, although life to date hasn’t exactly shown them to be flourishing, even on the better side in the Cold War.

That I suspect is le Carré’s private legacy, along with a deep, deep knowledge of what made grey, remote and mysterious East Germany tick. It was never Russia he knew, but, as a linguist, and a secret commentator and connoisseur, the GDR.

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The Skripal Affair and the Problem of Russia


A few nights ago on the BBC the Russia expert Andrei Illarionov, once a Putin confederate and now at Washington’s Cato Institute, was asked about Britain’s best response to the latest attempt to murder Russian state enemies on British soil. He replied that Britain – and the West – should decide what they want Russia to be. Veteran journalist Anne McElvoy meanwhile reported in London’s Evening Standard that the British Embassy in Moscow these days was more like an outpost of BP (British Petroleum).

What have we got ourselves into, doing such close business with a country we know we can’t trust?

The West would like Russia to be a reliable partner but that’s just wishful thinking. Most recently in the Skripal affair Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson declared himself exasperated by Russia ‘tearing up the international rulebook’ on chemical weapons, a view endorsed by the US, France and Germany.

With the attempt to assassinate Colonel Skripal, a former spy, it’s the issue of trespass that offends, together with the indiscriminate threat to human life.On the other hand we’re never going to undo the prevailing Russian mentality which finds such action legitimate, so we need to understand it.

Consider the the historical tradition.

As soon as there were Russian intellectuals with the education and courage to criticize the tsarist state, from around the time of the French Revolution, law was always the issue. A tiny, Westernized section of the population wanted a constitution that would lay down subjects’ rights and protect them from the arbitrariness of the tsars, not to mention the cruelly indifferent bureaucracy that administered their rule through the nineteenth century. The famous critics of tsarism from those days were either exiled in the east or allowed to escape abroad. The golden generation of Alexander Herzen, who published his anti-tsarist periodical The Bell from his base in London, and Lenin’s own generation, agitating from Switzerland, seem not to have been pursued by murderous thugs intent on silencing them, because, at the time, with poorer communications, it was enough that they were abroad. But I always remember the case of the less well-known Sergei Kravchinsky, a Ukrainian-born Populist who in 1878 assassinated a particularly odious general on a St Petersburg street before managing to flee and eventually settle in Britain. Taking the surname Stepniak he found a welcome among cultural friends of Russia and, witnessing the mostly slow and decorous progress of socialism in that country, with smartly turned out workers marching peacefully through the streets, fell in love with a country he found civilized, compared with what he had left behind. Stepniak was lionized in high society. George Bernard Shaw nicknamed him ’Steppy’ and admired him. Meanwhile his old country, where he had committed a capital crime, lay in wait. They didn’t kill him, but they arranged for an article to be published spelling out that bloody offence he couldn’t disown. We’ll never know if fear of being unmasked in his beloved Britain made up his mind, but Steppy walked in front of suburban London train soon after.

The Skripal story is less nuanced. It seems to be a straightforward attempt at the ultimate punishment for betraying the Russian state. And yet the most heinous feature of the present Moscow regime is the way it insists on killing all manner of its political opponents. It kills not only spies who betray its secrets and flee abroad, not only any Steppys who might still happen in this world, driven to violence out of desperation, but also internal critics who remain in the country and follow due political process. The list of courageous and tragic Russian state victims in the present century, from Galina Starovoitova, to Anna Politkovskaya, to Sergei Magnitsky and Boris Nemtsov, cynically murdered on Russian streets, is sickening and unending. Alexander Litvinenko, formerly of the KGB, was active as a British agent, when he was poisoned in London in 2006. But Nemtsov was a liberal politician while Politkovskaya was Putin’s greatest critic in Chechnya. We shouldn’t be tempted to confuse these different targets, although we can observe that the Russian tactics were the same whichever kind of victim was in the frame. The murders of Politkovskaya and Nemtsov were carefully staged to occlude evidence, and finally blamed on individuals who, if they were involved at all, most likely carried out orders. Colonel Skripal, whom it seems the Kremlin tried to kill in the British cathedral city of Salisbury last week, was a former spy. But his daughter Yulia was not. The attempt to kill her, and possibly the successful murder of her brother a couple of years ago, was meant as punishment to deter all those who dare defy Russian state authority. Any lives serve to deliver the message. Moreover the state can nominally be excluded as the perpetrator, in the latest case by use of a toxic substance difficult to trace to any administering hand.

Now it was the first, honest Russian response to the Salisbury incident, only hours after it happened, when a prominent Russian tv presenter announced: we don’t do traitors. Don’t betray Russia and not expect to die! That was the moment when, in a way, Russia owned up. We should have paid more attention.

For we ought to have learnt, by now, that official Russia is a strange communicator, given to oblique references and what used in Soviet times to be called ‘rejoinders’. The press then was full of shadow responses and vague clues to whatever concerned Russia’s reputation in the West. Kremlinology came to an ignominious end when it was blamed for not foreseeing the end of the Soviet Union. But what it had learned to do was read all the actual, interim communications that indicated Russia was talking to the West, even accepting responsibility, but always in its own indirect, defensive and peculiarly twisted way. Famously Soviet Russia used to criticize the United States for suffering from a ‘military psychosis’. All Soviet watchers knew, and marvelled at the fact, that it was actually talking about itself just as much; that it had this kind of self-knowledge, but shrugged it off, turning it into blame of the other. A minor instance of this mirror-image confusion of self and other happened just a few hours before I sat down to write this piece, when Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov accused Britain of a ‘boorish’ response to the present crisis. British Defence Minister Gavin Williamson’s unfortunate outburst telling Moscow to ‘shut up’ notwithstanding, we are not usually bad mannered in our diplomacy. Treacherous, slippery, whatever you want to call it, yes, but not ill-mannered, unlike the Russian side which has been shouty since Lenin. Everyone of a certain age remembers then President Khrushchev taking of his shoe at the UN and banging on the table. Knowing they are ‘boorish’ (an old-fashioned enough word, retained from former times), the strategy of the Russians is to turn it against their enemy. And with that, moreover, we’re reminded of another fact, namely that Russia can only define itself against the West, imitating the West while trying to outdo it in its own peculiar way. We need the Russians’ money, but they need our superior political, legal and civic arrangements, to map out an alternative twenty-first century achievement of their own. And so they respond to the suspicion that they have committed murder on British soil by not denying it, just warning other Russians not to invite the same retaliation. Start with absolute loyalty and civility might follow.

How strange a project this alternative Russian civilization is! The British Labour Party leadership – Jeremy Corbyn and his close allies — seems to think that the Russian Way might be, following on from its earlier attempt under the name of Communism, a viable project, worth equivocating over murder for. But not many in Britain, or elsewhere in the West, agree.

Official Russia’s insistence that it has to go its own way, according to its own standards, is nevertheless the reason why it attaches so much importance to the loyalty of its citizens, in exile or not. Russian patriotism has been sentimentalized as attachment to the Motherland for the last two centuries, but beneath the thin, occasionally poetic and sometimes nastily religiously gilded surface, it’s an oath of obedience which is imposed at birth, never sworn. It comes unchosen with Russian nationality. We saw a variation on that theme in the recent BBC tv drama McMafia, which, had it been better acted, might even have homed in on what I would call the Russian tragedy.

Back in real life, a certain Mrs Sobchak, wife of a once prominent Putin ally, possibly himself murdered, and the mother of the only candidate daring to oppose Putin in upcoming elections, said on camera of that tragedy recently, ‘It’s terrible to live in our country.’ The sentence is better in Russian. Zhit’ u nas strashno, she said and it immediately recalled for me the title of a famous long poem of the mid-nineteenth century by the writer and would-be social reformer Nikolai  Nekrasov. His title was ‘Komy v Rusi zhit’ khorosho?’  Who can live well in Russia? Or even, who enjoys living in Russia? The poem, with its generous sweep through all ranks and classes, suggested no one could. Perhaps not even the leader himself. Sobchak was Putin’s friend and he cried for him. But wasn’t it possible he also had something to do with his death?

Russia is a Motherland-to-itself, held together, made to exist, by loyalty rather than law. (This is the thesis of a book I wrote ten years ago, Motherland A Philosophical History of Russia.)And that is part of what makes it an Otherland to the most rest of the world. Many well-meaning people just wish it would go away. We don’t know what to do with a place that lives in a bubble of its own primitive ordering. No matter that now, compared with Soviet times, its borders are open, what the attempted and successful murders on British soil show is that those physical borders don’t matter any more. A Russian culpable in the eyes of his native state can always be reached.

We have to go on trying to understand that Motherland-to-itself, neverthelesss. It won’t do just to wish it away. My adviser, in extremis, is the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev whom Lenin forced out of Russia after the Revolution of 1917, on the undoubtedly right grounds that he, and seventy or so others like him, would never come round to the Bolshevik way of thinking. As Trotsky wrote in the press on the eve of those deportations in 1922, at least we gave them the choice.  Although the philosophers were spared – Berdyaev died of old age at his desk — the long arm of the Soviet Russian state did extend into the exiled and self-exiled community. The abduction of a white army general from a Paris street around 1931 was sufficiently scandalous for Vladimir Nabokov to turn it into a short story. But Berdyaev himself survived to publish books on the Russian mind in the same vein as he had been writing before his life in the old country was forcibly terminated. In them he said two things which have always stayed with me. One, in 1909, was to accuse the intelligentsia, of which he was also a member, of often being as extreme as the state they were critiquing, and in particular for not caring to distinguish between true and false (and thus between good and evil). The other observation, drawn from his country’s immediate history, was that Russia lurched ‘between the red and the black’ – between Communism and Fascism.

The only defence of Russia I can ever muster is its need for internal coherence. I do believe that the other side of the highly organized state, bound together by ruthlessly enforced loyalty, is anarchic indifference: total lawlessness, that would be, also within Russia itself. In the nominally highly regulated Soviet Union there was always an undercurrent of actual absence of law, which is why when I fictionalized it twenty years ago I called the country ‘Bezzakonia’, a country without law. In the post-Communist 1990s, under the drunkard Boris Yeltsin, the anarchy ripped through the substance of daily life. Chaos was the other formative experience for the Putin generation, alongside humiliation, as the economy disintegrated and Soviet institutions were mocked. So they, the neo-tsars, the post-Soviets, repressed the disorder and rediscovered their Russian pride. It’s that pride they once again have to offer the West, along with their mineral wealth and their financial heft.

So what do we do? Live with it? Wish it away? Tell it, like Mr Williamson, to shut up? At the very least we must cut down on the financial loopholes that have lured wealthy Russian businessmen, in and out of Putin’s favour, to London to keep their money safe by investing in British property. There will be other, less visible measures, but the obvious one is to be less greedy for Russian money, and ourselves take the financial hit, while modestly priding ourselves on our relative lawfulness.

Posted in Arc of Utopia - my latest book, Britain Today, Cold War, Current Affairs, Russia | Tagged , , , ,