The Agonies of George Steiner

George Steiner, literary critic and polymath, has died aged 90. The problem Steiner he faced professionally in Britain and America, and particularly in English academia, was that his enormous breath of knowledge seemed somehow bogus. He achieved grudging recognition on the strength of his many books, but only held a fellowship, never a teaching post in Cambridge.

One way to understand Steiner is as a last remaining practitioner of the Frankfurt School. He shared an intellectual and cultural world with Adorno and Benjamin, with Habermas and with Thomas Mann, and like them he faced the problems which representatives of Kultur felt intensely in the German 1920s and 1930s: how could the gulf between the intellectual and the masses be bridged? How could apparently self-absorbed intellectuals absolve themselves when accused of neglecting social questions? How could they defend their canonical aesthetic standards from democratic attack?

Steiner sided with the high-minded. He declared himself to be a postman to the great writers and thinkers of the past. A century ago a German thinker of his persuasion would have used the word epigone. But it was not the shadow of great men but of Germany between the wars that lay over all he did. All his tortured literary and cultural appraisals somehow seem to reflect the crisis that industrialization, the technological transformation of daily life, and Germany’s awkward, violent transition to democracy bequeathed to a generation of intellectuals who then failed to deal with the upheaval adequately. It was a crisis in which, as the sociologist Max Weber saw it, capitalism reshaped the intellectual profession in Germany in a moment of moral shock. German learning had so long contented itself with creating a kind of secret Greekness at the heart of modern life. Weber’s famous 1917 lecture Wissenschaft als Beruf, familiarly known in English as ‘Learning as a Vocation’  but meaning something much more like ‘The Academic Profession’ pointed to the difficulty of choosing to be a university professor in an age, under capitalist pressure and emanating from the money-making model of American universities, of unavoidable specialization. This was the shock that American capitalism inflicted on Kultur at the turn of the twentieth century.

For as long as they were neo-Greeks, epigones indeed, but still in search of Truth, German Geisteswissenschaftler, men and a few women deeply versed in the humanities, didn’t think of themselves as isolated socially and politically.  Truth was a common, albeit esoteric concern, which required them to be its priests. Yet specialization of a peculiar lofty and abstract kind – always the caricature thrown at German learning — became, in embryo already in Weber’s generation, the major reason why German academics were blamed en masse for their neglect of the German polis under the Nazis. To be looking elsewhere, to regard politics as a second-order domain, was the hubris of the German intellectual class into which Steiner was born.

The Frankfurt School’s Adorno and Horkheimer spent the rest of their careers in exile imagining what high-minded form critical protest could take, without entirely giving in to democractic mass culture. Steiner gave in to it not at all. If capitalism forced the serious German seeker after knowledge to accept the new limitations of his profession, if the Nazi catastrophe required him morally to attend to all that had made it possible, Steiner still had, almost as a secret, the Goethean range and depth of the education, the Bildung, that made an earlier era glorious. One correlative for that range he found in the very notion of ‘comparative literature,’ essentially based on Goethe’s idea of Weltliteratur. In an article he published in The Times Literary Supplement in 1964,  he explained that that vision in turn was a response to the breadth and vitality of the European Enlightenment. ‘It affirms that languages live in persistent interaction…that it is absurd to regard any single national [literary] tradition as isolated or superior.’

Let me deviate here just for a moment and catch my breath. I was thirteen when Steiner wrote in praise of comparative literature. Five years later I had chosen it as my undergraduate degree, even though such a course didn’t officially exist. (In fact Steiner noted only two universities in the whole of the UK offered such a course at the time.) Steiner praised Edwin and Willa Muir for translating Kafka amongst others into English. I do believe that it was returning to Edwin Muir’s autobiography (1954) around the age of 30 put me back on the literary track after a short deviation into journalism.

But Steiner.

He could, quietly, by such means as Weltliteratur, and the deep interest he showed in translation, in After Babel (1975), sustain a little enchantment in a world from which the gods, or the one God, depending on whether you were Greek or Judaeo- Christian, had flown. That the gods had flown I was in no doubt as a doctoral student fifty years ago, thanks to Weber and the next German generation, and to Steiner himself. I wrote to him about the deus absconditus and the poetry of Paul Celan, that impossible answer in poetry to the German twentieth-century hubris. The answer was abrupt and not kind. People said Steiner was not an easy man. His relative lack of recognition encouraged his sense of superiority and the need to show it. Still I admired him so for dwelling on that question central to the metaphysics of morals, so very late, in our shared early 1970s. And for the rest of my writing life I’ve shared his frustration with a certain English narrowness and lack of interest in learning foreign languages. ‘What we need in England today is more openness, less of that grey climate of withdrawal, that retrenchment of feeling and imagination for which we have become internationally notorious.’ From the 1964 article again. Was he protecting himself from acusations of showing off his different skills, and breath, his Kultur, by writing ‘we’ here? Surely. He can’t have felt solidarity.

In Errata An Examined Life (1997) Steiner, born in 1929, suggested that he had continued all his life to wrestle with the German academic quietism that manifested itself in the crucial inter-war years. It seems to me he worried he would have behaved similarly, had Hitler happened in his own time, which is extraordinary.

I’ve been looking, for the sake of my own sustained interest in Kultur, most recently in depth on the intellectual life of those years. I too, sharing with Steiner my deepest interests, have to wrestle with the tenability of Thomas Mann’s famous pronouncement in favour of the good Germany that went astray.

Let me quote chapter and verse from Errata (the title itself perhaps an echo of Mann’s reluctance to give up the old Kultur:

On p118 he offers the following self-analysis in Max Weber’s shadow;  ‘ These truths and arguments are irrefutable. They breathe the air of democracy. They are, at the same time, impertinent… to my credo and the options it imposes. Any attempt at serious thought, be it mathematical, scientific, metaphysical or formal, in the widest creative-poetic vein, is a vocation. It comes to possess one like an unbidden, often unwelcome summons. Pure thought…the libido sciendi which drive consciousness and reflection towards abstraction, towards aloneness and heresy, are cancers of the spirit…but cancers are non-negotiable…I have no leg to stand on if I try to apologise for the social cost of…grand opera in a context of slums and destitute hospitals…[but] it happens to be blindingly obvious to me that study, theological-philosophic argument, classical music, poetry, art, all that is ‘difficult because it is excellent’ (Spinoza…) are the excuse for life.’ Even that ‘blinding’ strikes me as a distant echo of the fate of the self-immolating intellectual of the German 1930s in Canetti’s novel Die Blendung (‘Auto-da-fe’ in English.) Moreover somewhere in this moment of self-definition Steiner seems to become his own fictional character, to be elaborated upon in an unwritten novel in the Canettian vein.  And so the concatinations, which are also tradition in a tortured, oblique form, go on.

Errata p156 finds Steiner ‘educated in a hypertrophied reverence for the classics…so characteristic of emancipated central european Judaism…It took too long…before I realised that the interactions between high and popular culture…had largely replaced the monumental pantheon.’ Exactly. It was German-Jewish intellectuals who upheld, and were most hurt, by the Kultur which Hitler in Germany and capitalism the world over together destroyed.  One of the good things they were able to achieve, in exile was to re-found Weltliteratur in the form of Comparative Literature. ‘Those who gave comparative studies their direction in the United States were men of a multilingual background who found refugre and acceptance in that open-hearted country.’ (TLS, March 12, 1964) Again the comparison was to the detriment of post-war England, on its long slide into insularity, populism and mediocrity, however much a handful of writers, critics, translators and publishers tried to slow the pace.

Steiner’s varied career pursued many of the problems that worried German philosophy in the year of his birth. He followed the question of interpersonal understanding from its unsatisfatory treatment in Kant and the neo-Kantians into its restatement in terms of language by Wittgenstein. Thrown into an Anglo-American commercialized version of the intellectual life, as Weber’s whole generation was, Steiner tried to assimilate its ways and tastes, while finding the style of the culture intensely alien. He was bound to become caught up in the inadequacies of translation. He was himself a token of that good German culture that Mann and Adorno and Horkheimer strugged to hold on to, or express in another form.

Steiner squirmed to find his probings of Celan and Canetti surrounded by advertisements for mackintoshes and soup when he wrote for The New Yorker. Not so much that he was precious but that so much more was at stake, namely ‘the certitude that in the face of a Homer, of a Goethe, of a Beethoven or a Rembrandt, the second-rate is precisely that…’ According to Errata p.157 it was also what his father believed, in tandem with ‘scepticism in regard to direct political action.’

Now this is what in his autobiography Steiner wanted to tell us, though it caused him agony to admit and risked only adding to the unpopularity of his high-mindedness and his foreignness. One can’t help being second, third, tenth-rate, but one can struggle against it. If there are generations out there who have never registered high culture’s early twentieth century objection to democracy’s downsides, and the commodification of everything, then this would now be a reason for reading Steiner, for he is a unique demonstration, within his own agonizings, of what has gone lost.


Posted in autobiography, Frankfurt School, German Literature, Literature in Translation, Things German, Who are you?, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Roger Scruton – A Personal Memoir

Roger Scruton – A Personal Memoir

Roger Scruton, the foremost English conservative of his generation, was a brilliant man who would have wished to be a genius. This tension, and ambition, which he felt fiercely, kept him writing and publishing to the end of a self-consciously grand life. His interests and skills were encyclopedically broad. When I first met him thirty-five years ago he was learning Arabic and teaching his neighbour’s children basic German. He played chess. In the kitchen he made his own harissa, and weekly batches of brown bread. If you discussed fiction with him – he published four or five novels and a volume of short stories —  you would uncover his lurking desire to follow in the footsteps of Joyce. I never saw him read a newspaper – and indeed on a couple of occasions heard him seem to suggest they were beneath the level expected of intellectual friends. But he was deeply engaged, around the time I first knew him, in saving the Lebanese Christians from the civil war in that country; and then of course he was active in helping the unfree peoples of Communist Eastern Europe, the Czechs above all, hold on to their culture and their capacity to resist. He learnt Czech to share that people’s fate. So where did he get his news, since he regarded television as a vice? Probably from the wireless, between classical music broadcasts on Radio 3. And then wherever. Reading news was, for him, I suspect, necessary but a mite undignified. It was rather the attitude he took to keeping fit, when once I found he had been out running.

Seriously ‘We all worried about that Communist other Europe,’ he said. Indeed. I was travelling for my book In the Communist Mirror when I met him to talk about that. For he was not only a writer and philosopher but an editor, later with his wife Sophie of the imprint they called the Claridge Press. He began, as I first knew him, with the journal The Salisbury Review. Like many of his enterprises, he expressed from my point of view such an extreme degree of anti-liberal feeling that it was just too much to swallow. He never propounded as much of a positive conservative political programme as he might have hoped. But The Salisbury Review rightly and uniquely championed the honesty of dismissed headmaster Ray Honeyford, a cause celebre of the 1980s when he accused multiculturalism of damaging British education. The Salisbury Review also gave a home to my report early in 1986 on how the impoverished Romanian capital Bucharest was existing under curfew and with breadlines starting at 2am, because of the policies of Communist Party leader Nicolai Ceausescu. Hailed as a maverick of the East Bloc, given an honorary knighthood in 1978 by Queen Elizabeth II (since revoked), Ceausescu was still too much a darling of the mainstream press for any Fleet St editor to want to publish what I as a first-hand witness had to say.

A grammar-school boy who won a scholarship to Cambridge, Roger in those days had a chip on his shoulder. I felt that I didn’t, which is why I noticed, although I had also  also benefited from that now outmoded, but otherwise over-maligned Eleven Plus exam which was a passport to a thorough academic state education. We were both examples of the dilemma Richard Hoggart mapped out in The Uses of Literacy, where learning cut us off from our origins. Still it surprised me to hear him speak of himself as of ‘the wrong social class’. For what, for heaven’s sake? But then he married Sophie Jeffreys, who gave him the love and reassurance he craved, and with her own pedigree made social recalibration possible.  I used to think of them fondly, in the fifteen years 1996-2011 when I had regular glimpses of their unaffected, generous and busy family life, as ‘my landowning friends’.

Though some eminent folk who should know better walked in the opposite direction whenever I mentioned his name, in the 1990s and 2000s, I don’t think Roger was snobbish or elitist in the way those words have become standard terms of abuse. Or rather, that was the point. When he wrote about truth, and art, and music, the point of his life as a writer and philosopher, on almost every occasion he polemicized against the Left. He despised the New Labour mania for dumbing down, as well he should. He admired ‘well-stocked minds’. On the other hand in Roger’s company it was difficult to make the grade, and easy all the more in minor matters to be made to feel foolish. My decision on how to deal with a fish recently eviscerated by a heron was a wrong one, as was my theory why the Times Literary Supplement had changed editors. We somehow agreed to differ in areas where I might plausibly be thought to have some real knowledge. I knew Russian and German and their literatures well, I had published books on food, and he somehow he formed the view that I was oenologically sound.

In truth, even if he was strangely defensive, he did do everything better than most of us. With his newspaper columns on just about everything, from wine to Czech philosophy to his cherished rural life, he simply excelled, in theory and in practice. My moment of respite was that we had horses in common. A quirk of my neither affluent nor university-educated background were the leftover aspirations of my middle-class mother, whose family had – nightmare of my childhood – mysteriously ‘lost’ its money. The riding habit came from there, and when my kind father on his modest salary struggled to pay for those costly lessons, I chipped in with funds from babysitting and working in a sweetshop. My faint advantage was that Roger was well into adulthood when he first got the equestrian bug. The habit for students and lecturers at Birkbeck College London was to retreat for a reading week to Cumberland Lodge, Windsor, and there was the chance to ride. It wasn’t the classiest start to a lifetime of foxhunting, but oh it became so grand, and so enviable, the way he had a string of lovely hunters stabled at the end of the drive. Some of the happiest moments of my middle life were spent galloping across Roger and Sophie’s land, courtesy of Sam or Barney’s bold stride and willingness to enter into human partnership. I don’t think any genuine rider can ever cease to be fascinated by that – even with evolution — barely explicable phenomenon, and give thanks for being part of it. Facts like that nourished Roger’s conservative existence, while they were the poetry of mine. We regarded them with something like religious awe. The philosophy we admired in common, German Idealism, Kantian aesthetics and almost anything that was not utilitarian, led him eventually to become a professor of theology.

He was my distant, generous landowning friend who I could see adopting many proteges, helping with their riding, their education and their study of philosophy. As a philosopher, after a period in the wilderness, in those 1980s and 90s when his anti-liberal attitudes were vilified, he held successive formal academic positions which eventually saw him enshrined in Oxford. But he never really belonged to Oxford or Cambridge, where he originally studied, and the benefits he bestowed on others came about more through personal contact than within the walls of the university. Others can say a great deal more about this than I can, so I’ll confine myself to what over the years I noticed, as a novelist.

I noticed the kind of aspects of his character that probably best belong in something calling itself fiction but actually based on moments in the author’s life that seem emphatically true. I remember the carefully arranged, leather-bound books on a side-table when we first met. I shouldn’t mistake him for anything but a savant. Of course I wouldn’t have dared. Later I remember hearing the story of how his lower-middle-class father, in frustration and envy at his son’s accomplishments, slammed the piano lid down on his teenaged fingers. Roger was defensive. ‘Now I don’t know what makes you think that’s so important.’ We quarrelled over Sigmund Freud too. But for me the piano lid incident explained that intense competitive drive on the part of this near-genius. It explained a desire to compete which I found comically irrelevant when he was in my humbler company. Moreover, he had told me the story himself.

To the extent that, because of his anti-liberal views, and his parvenu success, which his subtly trembling and deliberately slowed voice sought to convert into unique vocal gravitas, he went through two decades of being an outsider with regard to both the educational and the social establishment, he undoubtedly suffered. I think it was Sophie, above all, who helped him find a way back, or in, as belated recognition of his achievements followed. She soothed him, she made him better with people. Or when he was abrasive one simply spent the next few hours in her protective company. Meanwhile, after his knighthood in 2016, he became almost entirely angelic.

We shared an interest in Nietzsche. Indeed I really got to know him when he liked my Nietzsche in Turin, in 1996. It was the self-made person we both admired in Nietzsche, and the rebel. (The young, astonishingly handsome Roger resembled the existential actor-hero of the 1950s, James Dean, star of the film Rebel without a Cause.)  Live dangerously! said Nietzsche in a characteristic anti-bourgeois moment, and we took that to heart too. ‘You didn’t even lose a stirrup!’ he yelled, as we jumped a few fences across the land. I think he might have preferred that I did. Barney his old horse had become blind and tripped, landing me the heaviest fall of my life. I could have done with knowing this in advance. But Roger liked physical risk-taking. There was the night my husband and I had to follow this potential rally-driver home through the Wiltshire lanes. We risked death trying not to lose him, and he knew it. À bas health and safety!

Just so you don’t forget: he knew Latin and Greek and French well, and Italian too, as I found when, as the car engine started up, the tape deck resumed a reading in Italian of Dante’s Inferno. ‘Surely you recognize it, Lesley?’

We didn’t meet often, but he supported my various enterprises and read my books. I admired the grandeur he aimed for and achieved, and, like many, I’m sorry he’s gone.



Posted in Britain Today, British politics, Cold War, Current Affairs, Nietzsche in Turin, which I published in 1990, Who are you?, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

A giant step, but for whom?

I had the feeling this now passing year, 2019, that celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the American landing on the moon were underwhelming.  The BBC showed a  documentary by director Robert Stone which in its first two parts featured President John F Kennedy wanting to beat the Russians in the space race. I base my comments here on what that slow-moving film, rich in archive material, but without critical analysis from the present day, showed. The commentary by Sergei Khrushchev, son of then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, took the story to 1962, by which time Alan B. Shepherd had caught up with Yuri Gagarin by surviving the journey into space – the two great journeys from 1961 — and John Glenn had orbited the moon. In September 1963 Kennedy was dead and in 1964 Khrushchev was ousted as Soviet Communist Party General Secretary.  According to Sergei Krushchev the great humanitarian mission accompanying the scientific achievement was now over. As it happens I think Khrushchev junion was right (although perhaps for the wrong reason of trying to glorify his father). Since the mid-sixties our space age bequest has largely been the scientific advances it brought, some sought-after, some accidental. Think GPS, think MRI scans for a start. Meanwhile the humanist vision slipped quietly away.

In the wake of Kennedy’s assassination Lyndon Johnson, already deeply involved in the space project as Vice-President, held steady on the American side. The Apollo 11 expedition of July 1969, the event the 2019 anniversary has been celebrating, was conceived on his watch. The United Sates sent up a three-man team, two of whom walked on the distant silvery globe that hitherto only poets had gazed upon in awe. ‘This stark lonely world…[with] a beauty all of its own…[it’s very pretty out here,’ astronaut Neil Armstrong relayed to earth. Raising the star-spangled banner, he and fellow moonwalker Buzz Aldrin radioed back that ‘we came in peace for all mankind.’  The sentiment was echoed by President Richard Nixon on the ground: ‘All the people on earth are truly one’ and ‘the world has never been closer to unity’.  Cut to a documentary which director Al Reinart began in 1976 and finally released in 1989, Apollo 11 — for All Mankind, which has to be viewed alongside Stone’s.  Reinart’s narrator told us that ‘man had touched his destiny…and must continue to reach out.’ ‘It is time for man to break free of his provincial planet… and enter reality.’

Fifty years on we’ve lost a grip on that word ‘mankind’ and who would ever talk about humanity’s destiny, except in negative, planet-wrecking terms? In English there seems to be a gender issue with the very word. Even Queen Elizabeth II, who took Armstrong’s historic utterance — ‘one small step for a man, one giant stride for mankind’ — as the theme for her Christmas 2019 message, felt the need to add: ‘or, indeed, womankind.’ The literalness of objections to the ‘man’ in mankind is evidently irritating.  In, say, German — die Menschheit -or Russian — chelovechestvo the problem just isn’t there. The ‘man’ in question is a collective noun, like Mensch or chelovek. But we have the problem in English and we’re stuck with it, because language, not the existence of a silver orb in the sky presiding over our dark nights, dictates our reality.

In fact, however, there is an even greater difficulty with the concept ‘mankind’ and that applies whichever dictionary you use. The very desire for ‘unity’ that it expressed fifty years ago was central to the humanist rhetoric of the 1960s, on both sides of the Cold War. Post-1989 we talk differently. Unity now seems imperialist. Who is doing the unifying, after all, round what central point? Post-1989 we’re post-humanists, and diversity our goal. I’m not totally comfortable with this, but I’m describing what has happened in my lifetime.

Dame Onora O’Neill recently told a philosophy meeting in London that ‘what we really mean by diversity is fairness.’ Well yes and no. Why not use the word fairness then, if that is the ultimate goal of a progressive society? Lexicologically  the term diversity has two opposites. One indeed is unity, which suggests we’ve turned, in the West, volte-face, actually in as little as thirty years. The other antonym of diversity is uniformity. Now there’s the rub. It seems to me that the dropping out of the cultural picture of both unity and uniformity  are entailed when we idealize ‘diversity’ and that we should work harder to separate the two.  To call for diversity as fairness is to insist on equality in difference. That shouldn’t preclude unity, the unity of mankind.  But it does, because our insistence on equality in difference is suspcious of the uniformity once required by a dominant class or culture or ideology.

At heart the unity/diversity issue is the problem we have with the Enlightenment. Mankind as envisaged by Locke or Hume or Kant or Diderot was united in a quest for scientific knowledge and social progress in a cosmopolitan spirit. We worry today that this was a Western project, that it wasn’t socially and racially inclusive, and had very few women as its spokespeople.

A moonman returning home today after taking a university humanities degree on earth might therefore find the plaque that Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins left behind beside the lunar shores of the Sea of Tranquillity a strange relic, with its reference to ‘all mankind’.

Were the earthlings passing through an era of extreme optimism or extreme arrogance when they embarked on their lunar adventure?

Stream Part 1 of Stone’s Chasing the Moon and you will hear pundits of the day speculating: ‘I was thinking what a wonderful animal we are…’ ‘[We have reached] a new stage in the evolution of the species.’

But what we’ve ended up with is a ‘two cultures’ divide on the merits of the space race. Science has benefited enormously while the humanities have gone awry. There’s a good unexpected moment in Stone’s film where protesters objecting to Alan Shepherd’s 1961 venture arrive at Cape Canaveral (not yet renamed Cape Kennedy), some of them by horse and cart. Black activists calmly state their objection to a venture costing 2% of GDP, and to the very idea of expanding America’s hold on a wider universe when so much inequality remains — of human making — on earth. The idea of heading skywards to make a new start, leaving behind all the horrible consequences of human error, seemed to those visionary protesters morally quite wrong.

They were an almost inaudible voice fifty years ago, but as we see now, they have so changed our self-perception that the very idea of ‘mankind’ is hedged around with apologetic uncertainty.

Posted in Cold War, Current Affairs, Film, Philosophy and Philosophers, postmodernism, Writing | Tagged , ,

Le Carre’s Agent in a New Field

What a genius John Le Carre has for turning out highly readable and perfectly plotted novels! Now into his eighties with Agent Running in The Field he shows no signs of flagging. It’s true there’s something old bufferish about the first chapter. MI6 aka The Office man Nat is back in a Britain where no one has a surname any more. At his badminton club in south London, where he’s top of the league, newcomer Ed challenges this stuffy fellow, vaguely purporting to be a businessman, to a series of matches. I might have let it go there, but then Nat began to explain his ‘recruitment to the secret flag’ and once more I was hooked.

Le Carre’s oeuvre has alongside its formal literary merits, and its author’s love of many languages, and the nuances of idiom and intonation, four great preoccupations for me. One is his love of Germany. Read the early novels for loving evocations of small German towns and their ways, and read your way through classical German literature with George Smiley. Second comes Le Carre’s particularly lethal version of office politics. Every novelist needs to give us pages of routine, doors we regularly pass through, faces we know, and people we thought we knew until they did us down or vanished and he does it so well. Third is a fascination with Russia. The Cold War has been central to Le Carre’s life, as it has to mine. Around 1979 I wrote an article complaining that he didn’t know Russia very well: that it wasn’t just the big bad bogeyman as seen through Western eyes. But then who did know Russia, in those days? The latest novel contains a short passing tribute to a powerful and complex country, although one of whose political ways we should always be wary.

Fourth is a moral urgency. This is the feature of his work that’s sometimes hard to place. In narratives that turn on professional mendacity, manipulation and betrayal, no secret service agent is innocent. The greatest of German moral philosophers, perhaps of moral philosophers of all time, Immanuel Kant, said: use no other person as a means. Treat every person as an end in himself, herself. But this decency is impossible in Le Carre’s world. His spies let down their friends and lie to their partners. The last sentence of this latest tale runs, as if the author were making a lifetime confession to one such friend: ‘I had wanted to tell him I was a decent man, but it was too late.’

Step in the right kind of political views to make the right gesture. Those views are left liberal for Le Carre, despite the lingering cultural conservatism you might expect of an Englishman educated post-war to serve and belong to an elite, and who once taught German at Eton. Le Carre is incensed by the indecency and cruelty of Big Pharma, for which see The Constant Gardener.  He took up the deep ambiguities of other countries’ involvement in unhappy and unfair relations between Israel and Palestine in The Little Drummer Girl. The British establishment, though he abhores the hypocrisy and the lies, continues to fascinate him. He is deeply suspicious of the interests of big business, many of them lurking in that establishment. Through the Cold War it was basically on the right side, but now where does it stand? Le Carre feels Brexit, and those mechanisms of government supporting it, looking to strengthen ties with Donald Trump’s America and lessen them with Europe,  to be such a vicious cause, that he makes badminton-playing Ed, an agent frankly running amok in the field, a rare decent man who wants to rescue his country from this latest betrayal. This now is the cause to be fought for, even if it means passing information to unintended recipients. Even if it entails being almost a holy fool. Certainly a fool for love of a certain hope for one’s country. it has to be done, where there are judges who think Germany is still Nazi, and basically worse than Russia. Even if one has no hope of winning. Read the novel. I don’t want to spoil the plot.

I suppose that for all Le Carre’s lifetime, as mine, Britain has been in decline after its glorious but hard-won victory in the Second World War. An old Russia hand who has  been working abroad remarks to Nat: ‘First thing you notice every time you come home: nothing works, everything’s a lash-up. Same feeling we used to have in Moscow, if you remember, back in those days.’

I do remember and I can see it. The queues. The overstretched services. Urban grimness. Wrecked and distorted private lives. Miserable health.  I lived in Russia in 1978-79. I travelled from Leningrad to Novosibirsk, Moscow to Astrakhan before life outside the capital had a chance to change. There are similarities. The Soviet Union was ahead of us by fifty years, as well as fifty years behind.  Something of that cruel and chaotic mass society lay in waiting.

I would only add though that in Agent Running in the Field that this is a wealthy man talking, who, like many, though a dwindling number, of middle-class people, can buy his way out of the worst; and who has also forgotten about the basic freedoms in Britain, which are still intact. It’s a good country to live in, the way Soviet Russia never was.

Agent Running in the Field a complex novel then, the complexity visible the moment you begin to compare it with Le Carre’s work of a lifetime. It also has a remarkably slippery title. Who is doing the running? A senior figure who ‘runs’ agents in the field? Or a man running about wanting to do good but ultimately trapped in a space that only seems unbounded. That the title should be syntactically so loose may or may not be deliberate on the author’s part. Le Carre is also rich enough as a literary author  to invite critical reading between the lines.  


Posted in Britain Today, Cold War, novels, Writing | Tagged , , ,

A European View of Jeremy Corbyn

I don’t normally blog about politics but in the wake of the general election of December 2019 I can’t resist this. It’s the view of the liberal German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Boris Johnson couldn’t have had an easier opponent to beat, says commentator Stefan Cornelius. ‘The British had no choice’, he writes today, Friday 13 December, and it certainly felt like that.

‘Jeremy Corbyn actually guaranteed the Tory victory. He will enter the history of the Labour Party as a nightmare MP and Johnson must be eternally grateful to him. Corbyn’s mixture of authoritarian worker leadership with lots of chauvinism, nationalism and anti-semitism made the flesh creep of every voter from the enlightened middle.’
German readers can check out the original German here.

Stefan Cornelius, pictured on the website

Why is it no British commentator would dare describe in such true and powerful terms the Labour leader, still ungraciously hanging on to his position? I suspect we’re bamboozled into thinking that because he’s on the political left that must entail some moral virtue. There can’t be fundamental nastiness there, can there?

Of course the chauvinism and the nationalism have been part of Prime Minister Johnson’s spiel too. As a country the soon to be disunited United Kingdom is in a grave existential mess. Johnson, a wit and a brain, is a bit of a joker all the same, which means his concepts are flexible.

He has the grudging support of so many who find the populist rhetoric insufferable because he is pragmatic, and it’s one of those British things: we’re superficial but we’re pragmatic. We like role-playing and dressing up and being one of the tribe, but we distrust ideology.

Brexiteers make their feelings felt

Is it endearing?  I don’t think so. Everyone knows how the Conservatives got the old mining towns of the northeast to vote for them. They encouraged the belief that the EU, not the complexities of the post-industrial West, and the end of Empire, were to blame for the damage that global competition has done to the northeast in the last twenty years.

They forgot to mention the regeneration funds that the EU poured into other needy areas, like parts of Wales and Cornwall.

The Tories wisely kept Johnson’s unelected firebrand adviser out of public view in the last weeks before the poll.  I saw him on the Tube recently, beanie pulled down low over his eyes, yearning to be recognized. I’d like to hear Stefan Cornelius’s view of Dominic Cummings.

They also told Jacob Rees-Mogg, the daft Old Etonian fop who opined that the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire should have been quicker to think for themselves, and who last September branded as ‘a constitutional coup’ the judgement of the Supreme Court on Johnson’s strategic but wrongful suspension of parliament, to shut up and stay out of sight. He did. He’s a lapdog at heart.

So now we’re stuck with them, yes, Herr Cornelius, for lack of any alternative. Some decent senior figures in the party comes to mind: Tom Tugendhat, Tobias Ellwood. May they do good, while we mourn all the talent and commitment to public service that this terrible crisis has driven out of British public life: Dominic Grieve, Chuka Umunna, David Gauke and Anna Soubry among them.

And one last positive thought for the near future: Tory renegade Rory Stewart will stand as a candidate for the London mayorship next year. If he wins Boris will have a real opponent and one who, like Johnson himself in his time as mayor, will seem to be waiting in the wings for a future premiership opportunity.

Posted in 2019 election, Britain Today, British politics, Current Affairs, German press, Who are you? | Tagged , , , ,

Letter to Nietzsche

Edvard Munch: Nietzsche

The letter below was commissioned as part of an initiative this year to mark 175 years since the writer and philosopher, classicist and composer Friedrich Nietzsche was born in Röcken, in the German province of Saxony. The editors, Elmar Schenkel and Fayçal Hamouda asked ‘friends and enemies, admirers, therapists, sceptics, artists, writers and critics’ from every continent to contribute ‘poetic statements, political judgements, biographical observations, fictions and confessions’ to their volume which appeared, late in 2019, as 101 Briefe an Friedrich Nietzsche. This is the letter as I wrote it in English to a man who changed my life as a writer when I published Nietzsche in Turin in 1996.

The original cover of my 1996 book on Nietzsche. The aim was to get away from the stereotyped image of the moustachioed madman and show him as a more sympathetic figure. The old image crept back into later and foreign editions, alas.

Suffolk, England, May 15, 2019


Dear Friend,

I’ve been walking with you along this wild coast. Glaciers once flattened the lowlands here, as they did the gravelly uplands high above Sils Maria, where you used to walk. I joined you there many years ago and we talked, though you would have preferred to be alone.

You once said that man is an animal whose nature is unfinished. Who knows then what is to come for humanity? Your point exactly. It’s a frightening question for those of us looking back from the twenty-first century, and forwards, but I think you meant it joyfully: as much an invitation as an observation. Also you were being provocative. One of your chosen roles was to provoke a society, and a world, in which the vitality of Christianity had stagnated, and no one had the spiritual vision to respond to Darwin and say yes, we have evolved, but still we have a hand in our destiny. We can live well. Of course you called your last book Ecce Homo. Today, from my vantage point, this title reminds me of Primo Levi’s If This is a Man. Your errant Übermensch has wandered far in the century and more since you died. Today he stalks an abused planet. But, in your way you had hope. Post-Christian hope. That’s right. That’s what we need.

Der Mensch ist etwas, was überwunden werden muß. Many of us feel in middle life that we have tried, but no one else can see what we overcame. We’ve come so far along the path that the beginning is out of sight to all others. And yet what we have made ourselves, in an effort of self-overcoming, is what we are. We had hopes, and some of them paid off.

You helped me become what I am. I’m a writer who works with texts in the German language. A traveller. An inventor of my path. But let’s just say for the moment a writer. (I’m thinking how evasive you were yourself in Ecce Homo, as to who you were. You were of everything the greatest exemplar, but then always already moving on.) Everywhere I go today language has been simplified. Vocabularies have shrunk. Grammar has no muscle. People forever speak borrowed lines. The force of style is lost. Irony skipped over. Here I’m not going to ask you for guidance over what to do with the great sadness I feel. Rainer Maria Rilke, one of your descendants, another latecomer, knew best when he told a young poet: still, still, do not feel contempt. We have a great poem in English, written in your lifetime, by Matthew Arnold, that speaks of the flow tide of a great culture receding. Is that part of what we must go through to emerge stronger?

You felt contempt. You felt you had the powerful remnants of an entire complaisant church to clear away, so that humanity might take a new path into the future. Your message was liberation. Look what humanity can become. Look at how we could live on this planet, if we had the energy and the courage. Yes, yes. That’s right. But look at what we did become, in the meantime.

You were also able to laugh, at and with all of us. Your laughter is still good. In an age when people look for leaders and prophets – any age, that is – you were also right to undo your words as you went along. Like Penelope weaving, and unweaving, waiting for Odysseus to come home.

And you loved beauty.

By the way I’ve never understood what you meant by ‘eternal return’ if we’re supposed to be overcoming our weaknesses and looking to the future. Do you mean to suggest some vibrant, dialectical relation between our sense of futility and our willingness to try? That would be cruel.

Perhaps it was just an aspect of your anti-Christianity, that message of eternal non-delivery. Do you know there’s actually a famous academic who tried to work out what you meant mathematically? I agree. Such an approach to you is absurd.

I’m afraid you confirmed me as an outsider. That way I could understand your joys and fears. Still that was years ago, and fate and health and love have been kinder to me than they were to you. Give me time, Lou! You cried, when you had your one chance. I need time to get used to being with another human being again. I always remember your forlorn plea, that you might still take a wife, and how your jealous sister worked against you.

How dangerous you have been, and how inimitable! When we read you we have to remember how all that talk of self-overcoming and renewed strength could serve massive evil, even if in solitary individuals it could quietly strengthen their resolve to be this person, and not that; and to try to achieve their goals, and not lose heart.

Here on the wild North Sea coast, with the savage unfeeling grey waves churning beside me, the wet pebbles gleaming beneath my feet, and the brine-washed wrecks of trees creating fantastic antler-like forms against the blue sky, I like very much a new-old idea of you I read the other day. I mean new because it was freshly voiced; old because I had long ago taken from you an idea of personal ecology. It was the idea that we must save ourselves, and then the planet will be saved, and what was meant was we really must decide, with your help, the kind of animal we want to be.

Walk on, dear friend. Give each of us the encouragement we need.


Posted in German Literature, Nietzsche in Turin, Philosophy and Philosophers, Who are you?, Writing | Tagged , , ,

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.


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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.



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